It has been quite a long time since I have been here in this dark place. So long, that I can’t even remember what it feels like to live in the light. I have wanted to get out of here, or rather tried to get out of here. I couldn’t. It’s like the darkness keeps pulling me back, well, literally.
How was it that I ended up here? Oh, that’s right. We went camping, my friends and I. All was well. But then there was this storm when we were coming back. It was so dark. Only in the lightning flashes did we see anything. Before I knew it, I got separated. That’s when I found it. This old house. Where surely no one had lived for ages.
I did not have a good feeling about this. But neither did I have a good feeling about being outside. The thunder was so loud, it was like all hell was about to break loose. Well, at least let me dry off here, I thought. And after the storm dies, I could get out of here. So I stepped in.
The inside of the house was even darker than what it was outside. Pitch black, that’s what it was. The place was huge. It must have belonged to some powerful landlord some long time ago. The perfect place to give you the creeps. Oh well, I had not come to stay, I am here to actually get out of here, I thought. I did not know how wrong I was back then.
There was a window in the room. I sat by it looking outside, focusing on the little light there, trying to forget the darkness over here. I don’t think I was very successful. Somehow, I had this feeling that someone was here.
The storm went on and on, with no sign to stop. I thought maybe it would be a good idea to sleep over it. But in actuality it was futile. Sound sleep in a haunted house, anyone? After lying down for a while I saw the storm was calming down. I thought this was the perfect time. I need to get out of here.
That was when it all began. I went towards the door and tried to open it. For some reason it wouldn’t open. That’s not right, I thought. The door wasn’t that heavy when I came in, was it? I mean, it would open without any effort at all! But now, no matter how hard I pulled it wouldn’t budge. At one point of pulling, I broke the lock. Oh great! Now I am stuck in here!
Wait, calm down, Sam, I thought. Panicking will get me nowhere. I never solved anything by panic. But calm thinking gave me great ideas on countless occasions. Come on Sam, think! Oh, that’s right, the window! Old landlord mansions like these usually have windows the size of about half a man and this window was no exception. I could easily get out of here, silly me.
Just when I was about to climb out of the window, I fell someone pull my collar from my back. I fell to the ground. What the heck just happened, I thought. “You can’t get out of here that easy,” a woman’s voice said and then she started laughing like a hyena. Okay, now I am freaked out! I tried saying something but it got stuck on my throat! After a few tries, I mustered up my strength and said at the top of my voice “who’s there?” I got on my feet. The woman started again “I have been alone for so long! I won’t let you go away that easy.” “Go find someone else to screw around with. Leave me alone!” I sounded more freaked out than angry.
The door from the far left corner of the room started to open. I still couldn’t see it but I could hear it. At last the creaking from the door stopped and I could feel someone coming in. That was it. I was running out of all of my courage. I felt as if my heart would stop. I don’t remember what happened then. Maybe I passed out.
I don’t know when I woke up. What was I doing here? I couldn’t remember for a while. Then I remembered. I was going to get out of here. But there was this woman who wouldn’t let me. Is she gone now? Who cares! Got to get out of the window………………what? Hey, where is the window?
I looked around and finally got what was going on. I was not in the same room. I was lying on a bed. Surprisingly it was quite soft. And the room was quite brilliant with around ten to twelve candles shining. Did she carry me here? Or maybe I am somewhere else? No, it didn’t look like it. Perhaps I was somewhere deeper inside the mansion. Suddenly my eyes fell on a lantern.
My first thought, that lantern would get me out of here. I picked it up. I still had that strange feeling that someone was here. I went out of the room and started walking. One small problem, I thought. I don’t know the way out! Oh well, I just have to keep going straight. It always works!
Of course it could have worked if the hallway was straight. But it wasn’t. At one point I found the hallway going in two different directions. Oh well, let’s just take the left. And there were many more similar splits in the hallway. Never did I think that I had to do something like playing Amnesia* in real life! But it wasn’t totally like Amnesia. I mean there weren’t any monsters in here. At least, I haven’t seen any. And surprisingly, I couldn’t see a single bug! Old mansions like these should be crawling with them. Oh well, who cares! I should be happy that there aren’t.
All along the way I felt that someone was following me. I couldn’t see anyone behind me, nor did I hear any footsteps. It was just a feeling. I guess that’s what kept me going. How long have I been walking? I don’t know. But my legs started to hurt. What time is it? That’s when the thought hit me. I had a cell phone with me! Silly me! I could have just called someone and told them to rescue me!
But the cell phone screen made me more disappointed. There was no network. Of course there was no network! Who would expect network in a remote place like this! I sat down. Maybe in tiredness, or maybe in despair. I couldn’t really tell. My sanity was dropping fast and I felt as if the walls could come down on me any time.
Just then I heard that voice again “You can never get out of here at this rate. No, I don’t think you can ever get out of here.” She started laughing like a hyena again. I jumped up looking in the direction of the voice again. Strange! I couldn’t see anyone. I tried to scream, but in vain. I don’t know how long I could keep myself straight. My lantern was low on oil. I just realized that. I cleared up my voice and this time successfully said “Where the heck are you? Who are you? Why won’t you leave me alone?” She stopped laughing and said “I can’t do that! I won’t let you get out of here. I have been so lonely.”
My lantern finally went out. She started laughing again. I didn’t know what to do. I threw the lantern at the direction of the voice. It crashed somewhere onto the floor. I didn’t hit her, darn, I thought. That was it. My sanity finally dropped to zero. I passed out. Again.
I don’t know when I woke up later. But my head hurt like hell for some reason. I could not get up. I didn’t want to. I was on a bed again. It was so comfortable. It tried to drown me into a deep sea of sleep. I gave in.
I woke up again at god-knows-what o’clock. I thought of checking my cell phone. It was still with me. It showed 9 A.M. Only five percent of the battery left. No network. I understood that I couldn’t depend on my cell phone anymore. I found that I am in the same place, the same bed. The room had no window. It was dark but I could still see. I found a table next to the bed. It had some dishes, a glass, a candle stand with three candles and perhaps a jar or two on it. There was some food on the dish.
As I was trying to make out what was over there, the candles suddenly lit up altogether. “Breakfast is served!” the voice said again. I jumped up again but I was less freaked out than before. It was as if I was expecting that. “It’s you again! I am not eating this stuff! I am getting out of here.” I pushed the table aside and tried to run out of the room as fast as possible. But two steps from the bed and I was pulled back. I fell back on the bed.
“I was only being nice to you. It’s morning. You should be hungry by now. Can’t you be a little more grateful?” she said in a playful manner. I think I was getting used to it. I didn’t pass out anymore. But I remained pinned over there. Not moving an inch. I did not dare touch the food. I seriously could not trust someone I could not see.
“Come on, eat up! I have parata* and beef here! It’s really tasty!” a little playfulness in her voice. I slowly reached out for the parata in the dish. I slowly picked it up and threw it at the direction of the voice and shouted out “take that!” It just fell to the floor as if I threw it in the air. It truly did look like I threw it in the air. I could not for once see the woman not even in this light. Even though she sounds so close and I can ‘feel’ her presence here, I could not see her.
She sighed and said “what a good food wasted. You should not waste food, you know.” Who liked wasting food? Not me, I thought. But poisoned food isn’t food at all. I said “huh! You think I’ll believe you that easy! Who knows what you have done to that food!” my voice was shaking. I was still scared that she’d get angry and do something to me. She didn’t. Instead, she said “look, that food had nothing to make you sick. I made sure it’s extra tasty because if you don’t like this place, you won’t stay here.” “I am not staying here anyway, even for ten million bucks!” I had a clear hint of anger in my voice but still much less in comparison with the fear.
But in the days following my anger would slowly substitute the fear completely. I was convinced that she would not kill me but she would not let me get out of here either. I have tried time and again to get out, through the windows, sneaking out of the door but each time she pulled me back into the house. And she would serve me food all three times a day. She would even serve me tea in the mornings and evening. I refused the meals twice of the three times but that one time I had to have it. I have a human body after all. And the food was really good and it definitely did not have any poison. And in all of this time the invisible woman did not even hurt me. And likewise, I did not find a single bug here even though it was mostly dark with only candles and torches lighting some rooms up. Even the weather there remained gloomy all the time.
After three days like this, I started to ease up a bit. I no longer behaved angrily with her. That fourth day when she gave me breakfast I said “thanks!” I even tried to smile. I think she stood there with her mouth open for a while. I could only imagine since I could not see her because for a while she did not say anything.
I did so for two more consecutive days at every meal and even managed some real smiles the last few times. At last she said “you’re embarrassing me!” “But I just appreciated you! Isn’t that good?” I teased her. I heard her smiling shyly. “Is there anything else you need?” she asked me. “Well, yes but not now. I’ll tell you after my lunch is over.”
After lunch she asked “you said you needed something.” “Yes, I did,” I said. “I need to tell something to you.” I paused a little. From the awkward silence, I understood she was nervous. I took a deep breath and said “well, I really am thankful for your hospitality and how you worry about me and all.” I think I hear her smile a bit. “Well, what I wanted to know was why you are actually doing all this. I mean, it’s not like you know me very well”
I think she was really nervous at this point because she took a few seconds before she answered “well, I want you to stay with me. I am really lonely staying here all by myself. So, I actually wanted someone to stay with me, someone to talk to, someone to care for. That is why, I am doing all this. So that, you would like this place.” I could hear how her voice was shaking. I took a deep breath again and said “well, I did like it here. No one could hate your foods, they are so tasty! And the beds over here are so soft and comfortable! And there are no bugs here! The place is pretty dark but still, the good things here make up for it.” I think she smiled again.
“But you know, I can’t stay here,” I said. There was a pause for a while. I said again “because I bet my family is worried sick about me. My brother was supposed to come from Canada a few weeks ago. I wonder how he’d feel if the first thing he hears after coming back home is that I am missing. And my friends are probably worried too. So, you know, that’s why……………….” I did not finish the sentence. There was a pause again.
After a while she said in a sad voice “I understand. I guess I can’t force people to do something they don’t want now can I? If you really want to go, I won’t stop you anymore.” The door of the mansion opened behind me. I wondered if she was really letting me go. For a moment, I stayed still. At last I decided to walk towards that door. As I took my first step outside, I did not feel her getting close to me. I took a few more steps. This was for real, I thought. She is really letting me go. My long awaited freedom from this house is finally here. But why?
Why am I feeling like this? Why do I have this strong urge to back inside? After such a long time of trying to get out of here, now that I have the chance, I want to go back? I stood still there in dilemma. I looked back at the house again. And suddenly this thought came to my mind. Well, maybe she really needed me. Maybe, I could be the one to help her. Isn’t it human nature to help others in need? And I am a generous person. That’s what everyone keeps telling me. Maybe I should go back.
I turned back and stepped inside the house. “Maybe I should stay here for a few more days,” I said. I still felt her standing at the same spot. After a while she said “b-but you said that your family is worried about you. Your friends are worried about you. It’s not fair to make them wait anymore now, is it? Just go,” she screamed as if she is kicking me out of the house. “Oh come on,” I said. “I thought you would like it if I stayed. At least, you could be happy about it.” “Are you sure you’re not going?” she said after a while. “Yes, I am sure,” I said firmly. She said taking a deep breath “okay, if you absolutely want to stay here, then it’s okay,” she said shyly. I couldn’t help but notice the happiness in her voice. I smiled to myself.
In the days following, I got to know her better. For instance, up until then, I did not even know her name. So, one day when I wanted to call her I was a bit stuck. For a moment I tried to recall what her name was. And then suddenly I remembered that I never even asked her name! Going out to look for her was inconvenient because I could not see her and even though I could feel her presence when she was nearby, it was not a very strong feeling. So I called out “hey!” I heard no reply. I tried again “hey, you!” I still could not hear any reply. Neither did I feel her getting close. I hesitated for a bit and then called out again “hey! Invisible lady!” Suddenly I heard a voice from behind “who are you calling?” It was her.
“I was calling for you,” I said, embarrassed. “What! Seriously! Invisible lady! I have a name, you know!” she sounded a bit offended. “Yeah, I know. Sorry! I actually never asked your name.” She was silent for a while before saying “it’s Cynthia.” I said “oh! It is a nice name.” “Yeah, next time before calling for me, do remember to use my name,” she said. “Yeah, sure I’ll do that.” After a while she said again “hey! You know, I never asked your name either.” I could use this as a rightful opportunity to be equally offended, but I didn’t. I wasn’t feeling like it. I said “it’s Sam.” She said “you have a nice name too.”
Like this, the days went by. I didn’t really think about going back home. The more I stayed here, the more I liked it. This dark place, this ‘haunted’ house. And I became more and more attached to Cynthia. One day I asked her “say, can I ask you something?” She said as she collected firewood “go ahead!” She was always in a very good mood these days. I went on “well, I was actually wondering, why are you invisible? Are you like……some sort of…….ghost?”
She said after a slight pause “well, yeah, you could call me a ghost. I mean, wandering spirits are traditionally called ghosts, aren’t they?” I was surprised. I couldn’t believe it. She perfectly fitted the clichéd definition of ghost! “Now, don’t tell me that you died from an accident or something!” “No, but I did die in an unnatural way!” Oh boy, I thought! “Okay, now you are making me curious. What is it that happened to you? I mean, if you don’t mind telling me that is.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I have actually been meaning to tell this to you. Because you are the only one who chose to stay here.” “Wait, wait,” I interrupted. “There were more people who came here?” “Yes, many others have come here in these three hundred years that I stayed here.” “What! Okay, you know what? That’s too many surprises for one day.” “So, you don’t want to hear?” she sounded more concerned than demoralized. I said “no, no! Go on. Now that I’ve asked you, I will listen to all your stories. But what should we start with?” “Well, let’s go from oldest first.” I agreed.
“I used to be the daughter of a very rich landlord some three and a half centuries ago. You might think that I was pretty lucky. But I was not. From my birth to when I was ten years old, my parents, especially my father, used to be very upset. Until then I was their only child. They were upset because they had no heir to this huge land. When I was ten years old my brother was born and finally they could be at ease.
“Well, my parents never really beat me even in an era like that. And I was well fed. Every day there used to be very good foods. I had no lack of dresses at all. Some of the most expensive dresses in the entire town belonged to me. But somehow, it didn’t feel like it was because they loved me. Rather it was because they wanted to maintain their social status. Because every time we went to visit somewhere, we were strictly ordered to were those good looking dresses.
“I never had any real friends. All my friends used to do when we got together was talk about who had how many muslin* dresses. My so-called friends used to stick to me only because their parents ordered them to maintain a good relationship with the landlord’s daughter to maintain their social prestige. No one ever said anything bad about me, at least not to my face. Except for one. Salma. She was a maid who used to work at our house. She used to be just a year younger than me.
“One day while walking in the garden, I told a maid to pick up a rose for me. All the maids used to listen to every word I said without any protests. That day, the maid didn’t say anything to oppose me either but she hesitated. I told her ‘what? Go get me that rose. What’s wrong?’ She said ‘yes, I am going but…..’ she hesitated again. That’s when she passed. Salma. She said ‘roses have thorns, don’t you know? You can’t pick them up without scissors, you stupid.’ That was the first time anyone said that to me. I was offended. But somehow that made me happy. I realized, at least someone was being honest with me.
“Slowly we befriended each other. I used to talk to her every day. I never had that much fun talking to anyone else in my life. But then one day, my mother saw that and sent Salma away. She was concerned about my friendship with a mere maid. It would hamper their social prestige. That is why they had to stop it right then.
“After that when I was sixteen years old my parents got me married to the son of the landlord of this area. This very mansion we are in, used to be their mansion back then. My husband was twenty five when we got married. I thought maybe this is where I’ll find love. I kept hearing from people that marriage is when people find love. I was wrong. Nothing changed in the first four years of our marriage. After four years it did start to change but it changed for the worse.
“After four years, my father died from small pox. No doctors at that time could save him. After that, my husband showed his true form. He was a drunkard. Until my father died, he just held his horses in fear of him. He perhaps thought that he had to do it for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he did not have to do it. He did get drunk sometimes while father was alive but after my father died it just went straight off the hook.
“He used to get home drunk every night and used to beat me up for mostly no reason. Also, after my father died, he decided to take concubines since my father was the type of man who would never allow his son-in-law to let alone concubines, not even take a second wife. And that’s exactly what he did. He even decided to take a second wife.
“I just didn’t like the idea of his taking concubines and a second wife. So when I opposed him mildly, he would not only beat me up but also insult me. He would say that I am a good-for-nothing wife who couldn’t even cook. And then he would call me a slut for even talking to the menservants and what not. What’s worse, nobody even opposed him. If I tried to protest he’d just beat me up.
“I couldn’t take it anymore of this twisted man. I decided to escape the house and never come back. I went back to my family. At first, my family was concerned about their social prestige. I mean, the daughter of a landlord ran away from her husband’s house, isn’t that strange? Who knew what happened there but whatever happened there was definitely the girl’s fault in it. It could be that she had an illegal affair with someone else or worse, with one of the servants and the husband found out. So she ran away. Or if it was ‘simply’ because she couldn’t take the beating of the husband, then she wasn’t tolerant enough. After all, if you are a girl, you ought to tolerate much more than that.”
At this point, she laughed out hysterically. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t, really. After a while, she stopped and continued “anyway, as I was saying, after all that, my family let me stay there but they took initiative for this ‘holy’ relationship to continue. They called my husband and his family. Our family and their family sat together and discussed about how husbands can sometimes make mistakes and that wives are to tolerate it. And they criticized about how I have been so intolerant. And my family even agreed to that!
“But they did say that my husband was at fault at one point. They all said that my husband shouldn’t have taken concubines against my will. Anyway, at last, my husband agreed to not beat me without any ‘legal’ reason from then and that I should go back.
“I went back, hoping that things would be much better now. It didn’t. Instead he would beat me up even more especially because of my leaving his house. After all, I was not the only one who had her fair share of scandals.
“And then one day, perhaps three years after my father’s death, I had a fever and it would not heal no matter what. A doctor was called. He couldn’t do anything about it. After about a week of suffering, I finally died. And I became a ghost.” We both stayed silent for a while. I didn’t know what to say after all this. Maybe, this is why she forced me to stay in the house when I arrived. When she said she was lonely, she really meant it. And all I did was behave rudely with her, throw away the food she made with so much love and insult her incessantly. I felt awful.
“I am sorry,” my voice was shaking a bit. She smiled. “Why are you being sorry? It’s not your fault that my life turned out like this. It was the society back then that was to blame I guess.” We were silent again. After a while, I said “say, is that the reason why you used to force people to stay here?” “Well, yes. And that’s why, I gave them delicious food. But none of them really stayed till the end. They all wanted to leave so I let them go.
“And then there were some others who were greedy. When they saw that their perception of ghosts was wrong and that ghosts could be friendly too, they asked me if I knew of any treasure here or not. Some used to ask me directly, some indirectly. Some used to try to dig this place. Some of them left disgusted when I convinced them that there weren’t any treasure here. And the rest, I threw them out. Truth is no one really wanted to know how I became like this, except for you. You’re a kind person, you know that?” The compliment made me blush a little.
After a while I asked “so, how long will you stay a ghost like this?” “Well,” she said. “A person usually becomes a ghost when they die in an unnatural way and usually young. And also when he has some unfulfilled wish. When the wish becomes fulfilled, the person finally rests and his soul gets peace and finally leaves this world.” “So, your wish is for someone to stay by your side and cook for them and stuff?” I asked. “Sort of,” she replied.
It struck me that if that was she really wanted then maybe she should have been at peace a long time ago. Then why is she still wandering here. Maybe she’s worrying too much about me to be at rest? Or maybe because I never actually thanked her for what she did? No, that’s not true. I did thank her and those days I thanked her every day. Then why? Whatever be the reason, I declared rising up “Cynthia, so matter how hard it is, I will help you to get peace and then and only then shall I leave.” “Okay!” she said in a soft and happy tone.
In the following days, we got along better than ever. Gradually, I understood why there weren’t any bugs in the mansion. It is because she used to take care of this mansion every day and keep it clean and made sure there weren’t any bugs. The landlord she was married to at one point left the house and the ones who bought the house later also left the house eventually. It was because some of the people who lived in the house could feel a strange presence in this house and they left the house, terrified. Cynthia swore she did nothing to make them leave the house. I believed her.
I learnt from her later, ghosts can’t leave the place they died for too long. Eventually they have to come back. If they stay away for too long they felt a strange pull and they’d be back where they died again. Also, they could walk around and touch things they wanted but no one else could touch them even if the ghost wanted to.
And I got the answer to one more thing I wondered about. Which was where she got all the food from? She used go around and scavenge for food. Like going around and taking rice from people’s field. She usually used to take so little from them that it wouldn’t even matter. But when she took from thirty of forty famers, though the farmers never noticed it, the total amount used to be a whole lot. She used to collect the butter, flour or wheat the same way. Collecting all these, she used to cook herself. Of course, she failed miserably at first but three hundred years was a long time to make her a perfect cook. Also, she used to make rice from the paddy herself. She made herself a dheki* for the process. How did she make it herself? Again, three hundred years was more than enough for her.
I don’t know how many days went by this way. I never once thought of leaving. Partly because I promised her that I would help her get peace. There was another reason too. I was, in fact, slowly getting attached to her. Maybe, I started getting attached from even before I made that promise. The more I stayed around her, the more I wanted not to leave her. And then one day.
One day, she asked me “don’t you want to go back home? It’s already been too long you’ve stayed here.” “Nope! I still have an unfulfilled promise, remember?” “Yeah, but it’s not working somehow. You’ve been here for too long and you’ve done too much for me. Maybe it’s about time you got a life of your own. You are a young man. You need to find love. You need to get married.” After a little pause, I said “what if I say, I want to marry you.” There was a bit of silence. If she had a body, I bet her face would be as red as a tomato. That is what her voice indicated “well, that is not possible…” “Why not?” “Well…… it’s just not possible. Because, you know…..” She took a deep breath and said “because, I am a ghost.” “So?” “So……we won’t be able to make babies,” she finally spit it out.
I couldn’t say anything for a while. Then I said “well, does it matter?” “Of course it does.” Of course, what she said was absolutely rational. “But aren’t you supposed to marry the person you love? Isn’t marriage about bringing two people closer to each other? Isn’t it about two people becoming one? Babies come in the later part. So………” I took a deep breath. “So?” she asked, eagerness in her voice. I burst “So, babies or not, you are the person I love.” I think she let out a gasp at this point. “You are the one I want to be together with. I love the way you become shy when I tease you about random stuffs! I love the way you laugh even if it sounds like a hyena! And I love your cooking! That is why,” I gulped. “That is why, I want to marry you. And that is no joke.” Good job, Sam. You nailed it, I thought.
There was silence for a while but the silence lingered for way too long. Moments passed by and yet there was no reply. I said “Cynthia? Aren’t you going to say something?” No reply. I called out again “Cynthia?” No reply. I called out again “Cynthia, I want to marry you. Will you be here by my side forever?” Okay, this was getting bad. I could not even feel her presence nearby anymore either. Then it suddenly struck me.
What if she is gone? That’s right. What she really wanted was someone who would love her and someone who would want to be with her. And I just confessed my will to become that person. This is what she exactly needed to hear to be completely at peace. I was happy. She is finally at peace!
But all the more, I became sad. She was gone. I will never get to see her again. I never even got to see her when she was here. Expect that one time she showed me her painted picture. She indeed was very beautiful. That stupid husband of hers never realized what treasure he possessed.
And I’d never hear her sweet voice anymore. Neither would she cook those delicious foods. I’d never feel her presence again. I started breaking down, thinking all that. Just then, I felt something on my lips. It was definitely another pair of lips. After about a second, I felt it breaking away. I could feel her presence again. It was her voice “the answer is yes.”
*In case you did not know:
Amnesia: Reference to the video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Parata: A kind of food made of flour and baked in oil.
Muslin: A very smooth cloth usually worn by the rich or aristocratic people of the middle ages in the Indian sub continent. It is said that, it was so smooth that the cloth could be passed through a ring or could be folded into a match box. Synthetic muslin, though available these days, are not as smooth as that.
Dheki: A kind of age old machine, now less in use, used to husking rice from paddy.
Author’s Note: I know the concept could be a bit clichéd but the story is absolutely original. A constructive review will be much appreciated since it would help me go a long way, God willing. I will be back with The Burning Skies again soon. So if you like it, stay tuned.