|Creative Writing Competition 2012 India|
|SETTING||Old Palace OR Bungalow|
|THEME||And He/She Changed Forever|
Editor’s Choice: Short Story Haunted Castle
The grey air hid the dark tree trunks that towered to the sky and got lost among the clouds. The four friends had been climbing for over fourteen hours and not a soul had they seen during that time. They knew that it was soon going to be dark and the heavy clouds above then could burst open their bellies any moment now.
Bruised and bleeding, Sakina looked at her elbow which she had grazed against the rough stones when she had put out her arm to stop herself from falling headlong down the slope into the roaring river below. She pulled herself up the steep rock face that the other three seemed to be climbing. Her left arm hindered her and she moved sideways to counter her debility. A lone castle stood sentinel at the top; and that was where they were heading. Almost there, and yet so far! Just a few feet more. The wind blew strongly at such a height and threatened to blow the four of them clean off the sheer wall of rock like dry leaves on a summer day. They held on, in a vice-like grip, feeling for footholds and sliding their bodies across jutting out edges that sliced through their jackets at times.
Despite her injury, Sakina was the second to reach the top, of course, the other two had been after her to help her if she slid down. The four of them lay on their backs in the grassy undergrowth, looking up at the unbelievable sight. Trees and creepers made an entangled web that they would have to cut through, but right beyond that, in majestic, antiquated splendour, stood the most magnificent palace, in ruins of course – complete with domes and minarets. Was this the haven of Ravan? Or the den of smugglers? For nothing around could be seen that remotely resembled the remains of a village or town that might have been inhabited in the past.
Shravan and Ali had already got to their feet and were impatiently waiting for the two girls to revive.
“Come on, it’s going to be dark quite soon. I don’t want to enter an old haunted castle at night.”
That did it. Both the girls were up in a trice and Priyani swiftly tied her handkerchief around Sakina’s bleeding wound. They quietly made their way along the wooded path, the only sound heard was the swish of branches and leaves brushed aside and the rustle of dry leaves underfoot. It was uncanny, the way their laboured breathing was magnified in the silence; giving them a false notion of a pack of wild animals panting at their heels. After about half an hour they reached the imposing palace or what remained of one. Strangely, the forest on all sides was the only cover for the palace; and there was no boundary wall nor locked gate which stood in their way. There it stood, against the twilight sky – a dark, brooding structure of crumbling walls and narrow windows.
They made their way across the broken steps leading to a yawning gap in the wall. The massive door to its right was padlocked and though weathered to a pale colour and mildewed all over, its carvings were visible still. A shiver ran through them as they imagined the door opening on its rusted hinges and the liveried sentry which would have barred their way. But, now there was no one, though clearly the gap in the wall suggested some human occupation at some time in the past. A snake slithered in front of them and disappeared into the tall grasses in a corner.
“I am scared of snakes,” began Priyani, when three pairs of glaring eyes stopped her from saying anything more.
“Ssh! Don’t know who might be lurking here…let us be quiet, for God’s sake.”
They entered stealthily into a huge hall or what had been one. The high ceiling, with crumbling plaster and exposed bricks had groups of bats hanging upside down in the corners and a row of skylights along the eastern side were covered with the dust of a thousand ages. A skeletal framework of what looked to be a chandelier swung lopsidedly in the occasional gusts of wind blowing through the empty shell of a once-grand palace. Shravan sat down in a corner and began to take photographs.
“C’mon, let’s find a place to settle for the night, it doesn’t seem correct to move further at night,” said Ali and the girls nodded their heads half-heartedly though they would have rather gone on ahead than spend a night in such surroundings.
A flash from the camera lit some broken stairs in a corner of the huge hall. Ali made a rapid gesture and the others followed him up the steps.
“Look out, Ali!” Sakina was right behind him and had seen the jutting out iron hook that ominously loomed up in the dark and he ducked just in time. Shravan quickly took a few photographs of it, wondering what its purpose could have been.
Walking gingerly over the gaps, where an entire step was missing, they climbed the winding stairs until they reached a small room at the top. Looking around they could see that it had been in use some time back and there were even some pots and pans on a rough platform made by bricks. A string cot lay on its side by the wall and a narrow window on the other side held a makeshift curtain made with a threadbare piece of matting.
“A tramp, I suppose,” said Shravan nonchalantly, more to reassure the girls than anything else.
“I don’t care,” Sakina pulled at the cot and set it down before lying down on it. Her left arm hurt terribly and she was shivering.
Priyani touched her forehead and found it hot.
“She has to rest,” she said. “She’s burning with fever.”
Sakina needed water and Ali decided to look for some, while Shravan made things more comfortable for his friends. They would have to spend the night there, whether they liked it or not. Thank God, they had some biscuits and chocolate with them.
“Why don’t you go and get some twigs with Ali?” suggested Shravan and Priyani nodded her head.
She was not afraid any more, rather she was worried that her parents would have set out to look for her and Sakina. They had gone with the boys, thinking they would be back by the evening. They just had not been able to resist when the boys had planned a trip to the old palace on the outskirts of the city. Now, they were done for. If and when they were able to reach home safely, there would be hell to pay. She was so lost in her thoughts that she missed seeing a glaring gap in the staircase and almost fell through into the dark abyss below. Clutching a jutting piece of plaster she hung on with a piercing scream breaking the eerie silence. Ali came hurtling towards her and caught her in the nick of time before she could let go. Meanwhile, Shravan came out from the room above to help in the rescue. Priyani was shaking after the ordeal and was in no position to do anything.
“Will you girls stay put in one place?” he demanded as he pushed Priyani up the stairs and went with Ali to get twigs for the fire.
It was quite some time before the boys came back, with an armload of firewood, water from a little spring that they found a little way off and some guavas they had picked from a tree on the way. Ali was also wearing an oversized overcoat he had found near the spring and he promptly covered the sleeping Sakina with it. Soon they had a fire going and some water boiled and ready for drinking. Not a word had passed between the three and Sakina had merely mumbled and asked for water which was given to her.
Nibbling a big guava, Shravan was staring at his friend in amazement. Something inpalpable was in the air. Priyani looked from one to the other, aware that something had happened between them. A boys’ quarrel? A more serious issue? Clearly Shravan had something on his mind. Now he spoke.
“Ali, are you okay?”
“Of course, why?”
“Then, what happened to you when we were out?”
Ali looked at him quizzically, but did not say anything. A frown was knitting his brows and he clearly was feeling a bit uneasy. When he had been coming inside the palace after collecting the water, he had felt a surge of power within him that defied all understanding. He felt a stange unease still, though it was fast receding as minutes went by. He got up.
“Going to get us a few stick etc for self defence. Just in case we have some visitors.”
“Visitors, who?” Priyani’s voice betrayed her fear.
“Like wild animals….maybe even tramps,” Ali grinned and said.
Priyani was puzzled. What was happening? As soon as Ali had gone out of the room she countered Shravan.
“What did you mean when you asked Ali whether everything was okay? Did you see something outside?”
“Uhuh…nothing,” he mumbled. Then after a second, “Ali acted quite strangely after he drank he took the water.”
“Yes, as though he was a general or something…in an army.”
“Oh, he must have been playing the fool with you…ordering about, you mean?”
“No, you know Ali does not fool around. He’s too serious-minded. And not like he was ordering me about. As though he was spewing hatred.”
“Hatred?” Priyani was shocked.
“Yes, hatred for Indians. He started cursing the place, the people, saying all kinds of stuff, as though he was in another time and age.”
“What? What do you mean by another time and age? You mean like a general of the British army?”
A chill ran around the room, as though enveloping them with icy fingers. Shaking his head, Shravan tried to clear his mind. Had he imagined it? Maybe, he was too tired to think straight? Maybe, this old palace was getting at him? He shrugged.
“Let it be, Priyani. He seems alright now.”
“Hmm. Just hope there’s nothing spooky here. You stay here with us, just in case.” Priyani had been reading too many fantasy books and she felt drawn into their concepts for a second.
“Okay, just let me take a few snaps of this room before the evening light vanishes completely.”
He took position in the doorway and took several photographs of Priyani by the fireside, Sakina on the sagging cot, the thin rectangular evening sky framed through the narrow window and the broken down walls with ancients bits of tapestry sticking at places.
“Look at that! It’s a hunting scene for sure!” he exclaimed and Priyani came to stand beside him to look at what seemed clearly a magnificent scene, complete with red-coats on horseback and hunting dogs running ahead. A typical English countryside, even if there were huge pieces of the tapestry torn out.
“Seems to have been vandalised, no?” said Priyani.
“Yes, just look at that! I had almost missed this!”
They both looked at what Shravan was pointing at. It was a kind of a portrait made by a famous artist no doubt, but all that remained of it was the top of the gilded frame, with bits of canvas hanging to it like bedraggled bits of memory. Their eyes had passed over it, thinking it to be crumbling bits of plaster or maybe an odd curtain, and now that they tugged at it, it came away in their hands. They spread it out on the stone floor and were struck by the beauty of an English lady who stared at them unblinkingly through a mass of golden curls that fringed her forehead.
“Oh my God! This must be priceless,” exclaimed Priyani. “Just look at it, wish there was more to it though.”
They hunted on the floor, but there were no other pieces of the torn canvas anywhere.
“Seems the vandals could not reach so high, so the top portion remained stuck to the frame.”
“Shravan, just see this, the fire’s going out, fan it for a moment, will you?” Priyani bent to rub her toe which she had stubbed against a projecting stone.
Priyani looked up and saw what had arrested Shravan’s attention. Sitting up in regal splendour wearing the overcoat, was Sakina, her eyes blazing with fury. Shravan was rooted to the spot, seeing her in this state. Priyani took a step towards her, but stopped when she felt Shravan’s restraining hand on her shoulder. Sakina seemed to be in a delirium of some kind. Gone was her weakness or pain, she held aloft her left arm and pointed at the remains of the canvas on the floor. A rasping voice came from her which had an unmistakable ring of authority.
“How dare you touch my wife’s portrait? You scum! You good for nothings!”
Ali, who had just come in, froze at the doorway. He had just figured out what had happened to him when he had worn the overcoat earlier and what was happening to Sakina now. It was the overcoat. He had read somewhere that often the wearer of a garment left his or her aura in the discarded item of clothing and this could dominate another wearer of that garment and take over his whole persona. He had worn the overcoat for only a few moments, but clearly his thoughts had been governed by a power greater than his own. He identified it as the thoughts of an English soldier during the 1857 mutiny. The overcoat must have belonged to an English general who had taken refuge in this palace which had been looted by Indians during the mutiny.
“Take off the overcoat,” he whispered to Sakina now, coming to stand before her.
With a sweeping gesture, Sakina struck him and stood up. Her stature seemed to have gained inches with the overcoat and with the air of haughty authority she possessed.
A visibly shaken Priyani and Shravan helped Ali to sit up. Caught unawares, he had hit his head against the side of the cot.
“How dare you spoil our prized possessions! Haven’t you had enough? You think you will get away, you black natives!”
Sakina’s voice thundered in the environs, and reverberated through the old palace.
“Sakina!” Priyani tried to pin her down, but she seemed to be up against a strength that was infallible. Shravan and Ali too were desperate with worry, what could they do now? Sakina picked up the torn canvas and went to stand at the window. Her eyes had a faraway look and she seemed to have changed forever.
|Creative Writing Competition 2012 India|
|A Legacy Left Behind|
|Relevancy of chosen setting||20||18|
|Relevancy of chosen object||20||16|
|Significance of chosen theme||20||17|
|Selection and development of characters||10||7|
|Selection of time frame, description of place and environment||10||8|
|Plot of short story||10||7|
|Conflicts in short story||10||6|