Dennis felt like he was being tossed about like a rag doll on the rough waters of the choppy sea. He could hear the fearsome roars of the giant waves as they charged towards him, like a monster rising from the depths of sea, threatening to engulf him and drag him deeper down. His body felt like lead and no matter how hard he tried, he was unable to budge. It felt like his arms and legs had been tied down. The noise of rough sea drowned out just as quickly as it had started. From amongst the silence, his ears pricked up slightly as they recorded a series of hushed rhythmic, yet indistinct tones; tones that sounded like a chant. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt like they were sealed shut.
The chanting soon picked up the rhythm. He tried to open his eyes again. This time, they did. But everything looked hazy, as if he was viewing through a sheer black cloth tied over his eyes. As the chanting got louder, he tried once again, to get up. But his body refused. However a piercing scream from another part of the room jolted him. He turned his head towards his right. The scream sounded familiar, but he just couldn’t place it. As if on cue, the person screamed again. Dennis opened his mouth to yell out his brother’s name, but no voice came. He shifted his head to his right once again. In one corner of the room, amongst the shadows, he could see a person tied to what looked like two stone pillars, a short distance apart. As another scream erupted from the tied up figure, he realised with a shock, that it was his brother, Jose.
Shock quickly turned into a scared desperation as the vision slowly cleared and he took in the scene in front of him. His brother,who was fleeting in and out of consciousness, was naked, barring his underwear and had his arms and legs stretched and tied to the two pillars. He had his back turned to Dennis. There were no visible wounds on his body, yet there was a very distinct pool of blood on the floor below where he was tied. Confused, Dennis tried to yell out his brother’s name once again, but no sound emerged from his open mouth. It was then that he realised that his tongue was missing. Rather, it had been carefully removed with surgical precision. As the shock set in, he noticed a sudden movement behind one of the pillars.
The silhouette of a woman slowly came into focus. He couldn’t make out the features of her face, but the long tresses that cascaded over her shoulders and almost all the way to the floor was unmistakable. He couldn’t be sure, but she seemed to be clad in a blood-red saree and had a deep tanned skin. Dennis blinked rapidly, trying to clear the haziness that still clung to his eyes like a stubborn cloud trying to block the light of the moon. As the woman leaned in towards his brother, Jose let out another blood curdling scream. And almost instantly, he became still and almost lifeless. As Dennis watched numb with fear, the woman slowly walked out of the shadow, a spine-chilling smile etched on her scarred face. In her bloodied hands, she held the still beating heart of his brother.
As he desperately struggled against his restraints, the woman calmly made her way towards Dennis. Still clutching his brother’s heart, she continued to chant incoherently. As the chanting picked up the tempo, she suddenly picked up a knife from a table nearby and thrust it into his stomach.
An idyllic fishing village, Somewhere near Alappuzha, Kerala
His brother’s deep voice snapped him out of the nightmare that he’d just been in. Fifteen-year old Dennis, sat up on the wooden charpoy and rubbed his eyes. Unwittingly, his right-hand clutched the small steel crucifix that hung around his neck, held in place by a frayed piece of black string. As his fingers brushed against the cold, engraved form of their Lord, Dennis felt a shiver run through him. His tattered khaki shorts and off-white vest were drenched and clung to his skinny figure, causing the formation of tiny goosebumps. The monsoons were in full swing, and it had been raining non-stop for the past three days.
“Jose!” he exclaimed to his elder brother, getting up from the rickety bed, “I’m scared. I don’t think we should do this. I just had that nightmare again. It’s not a good omen."
Jose, tall, muscular and all of eighteen years, put his hand on Dennis’ left shoulder and shook his head.
“Stop being a wimp, D!” he said sharply as he ran his hand through his wet and wavy hair, “You’ve had the same nightmare for months now!” As he was about to continue, there was loud clap of thunder and he felt Dennis quiver slightly. Jose shook his head again. If he’d been given a choice, he’d had insisted that his younger brother not accompany him. But Salman bhai, who had made all the arrangements, had insisted that Dennis join in too. ‘There’ll be plenty of valuables to carry,' he’d said confidently, ‘so the more number of hands we have, the easier and quicker we can move it out’.
As the full moon peeked out from between the clouds, the water droplets on Jose’s bare torso glistened brightly, like little beads of pearls. “Don’t worry, little bro! Salman bhai and his friends will join us shortly. He’s just sending us in first, so we can scout the area and make sure it’s safe for them to join us. Plus we don’t want to draw much attention to ourselves. Just imagine the life we’ll have once we get our hands on those valuables. Bhai said the value of the stuff in there should be in crores of rupees. Instead of swimming in the sea and living in this little shack, we can live like kings! Now, why don’t you relax for a bit. I need to go get the directions to that shop that bhai mentioned.”
As his brother walked away, Dennis merely shook his head. The rain had reduced to a drizzle and wind to a cool breeze. His knew that his brother was blinded by the riches that had been promised, but Dennis trusted his instincts more than that ruffian, Salman. As the full moon reappeared and bathed the coastline in a bluish hue, he clutched the crucifix tighter.
‘This better be the last job that we do for that rogue’, he muttered as he stared out towards the village.
A few miles away from the coastline, is a tiny island, formed almost entirely of rocks. This island, which was no bigger than a small hill, was surrounded by an insurmountable rocky cliff; a giant palisade with curtains of solid, sharp rocks and jagged edges. In the middle of this island, stood a lone dilapidated two-storeyed house, with a tall stone tower that towered over it.
In some ways, the abandoned house looked like the miniature version of an old castle from a fairy tale novel, after a tornado had passed by. While the skeletal structure of the building was still intact, the exterior had tiles ripped away in places and green moss clung to the walls like a straggly beard. Perhaps, one of the strangest things about the house was the lack of a main door. There were two visible windows for the main house, both of which were boarded up. The only remaining window was at the top of the tower than stood tall beside the house; but even that had its glasses shattered, perhaps from the last attempt when a bunch of looters had tried to gain access to the house, almost two decades ago. Another peculiar thing about the house was there were no visible roads leading to this house or the island. The only way to get to this rocky island was via the sea, and as many who had tried to break-in could confirm, the rocky cliff was practically inaccessible.
The local village folklore was that the house was once owned by Ranasaya, a gypsy woman from Sri Lanka. Rumour had it that she had suddenly appeared on the coast, a Purnima (full moon) night. She'd arrived in a small vessel laden with some sort of exotic powder consisting of secret ingredients. It was a local fisherman who’d first spotted her and tried to help her ashore. Though she accepted his help, legend stated that she’d covered her head with the veil of her saree, refusing to reveal her face. As a token of gratitude for his help, she'd gifted him some of this powder, promising that it would cure any ailment. Curious to try it out, the fisherman had given some of it to his quadriplegic wife. After three days of continuous consumption, the story was that the wife started to walk.
The news about Ranasaya’s magical powder spread like wildfire and she soon became rich beyond imagination. As her popularity grew, so did the number of her enemies. It was said that Ranasaya had built the house on the rocky island in order to safeguard herself from attackers. It was also believed that after completion of the house, she had imprisoned the labourers in one of the towers and no one had seen them again. Subsequently, the families of the labourers initiated a complaint against her, and gradually Ranasaya’s popularity dwindled. The rumour mill soon became rife with stories about how she was actually witch of black magic and that her powder actually contained various parts of the human body, including flesh. Some even said that she was a cannibal.
As the villagers became increasingly agitated with Ranasaya, she would go for weeks, sometimes even months without making an appearance. Often, on dark stormy nights, the villagers would hear strange chantings originate from the top room of the tower, followed by occasional loud shrieks. The local law officers had even tried to investigate the sounds and events once. When asked for permission to investigate, it was said that Ranasaya had offered to cooperate if they could find a way into the house; however with no way to access the house, they’d been stuck.
Though it was not known when or how, but one Purnima night a few years later, Ranasaya had disappeared; just as suddenly as she had first appeared. The house had remained empty ever since. Some said that Ranasaya sacrificed herself. Others said that she was murdered by enemies who had somehow managed to gain access to the house. Over time, numerous attempts had been made by various people to break into the house, but everyone had failed. Some of the villagers had even spread rumours that every Purnima night, they’d spotted the silhouette of a woman with long cascading hair at the broken window of the tower.
As directed by Salman, they’d found an underground tunnel starting in the cellars of one of the oldest hardware stores in town. The tunnel, that stretched over a few kilometres, was damp, musty, and had big rats the size of tiny kittens running through them. After walking for the better part of an hour, they soon reached a door secured with a large wrought iron lock. Using the tools they’d gathered from the hardware store, Jose broke open the lock and climbed the stairs that led to the cellar of the old house.
As the shadowless blackness of the cellar greeted them, Jose pulled out a small flashlight. He switched it on, and as the powerful beam cut through the dark, there were a few scuttling noises, perhaps from rats that infested the cellar floor. Dust, untouched for years, lay over every visible surface like fresh snow on the garden and the stale scent of mildew filled the air, making breathing a laborious task. Covering their mouths with their free hands, Jose and Dennis slowly made their way towards the only visible door, their bare feet sending shivers up their spines as it touched the damp, stone floor.
Jose, who was leading them, slowly pushed the door. It shook a little, but did not budge. Using all his strength, he pushed again. This time, it made a loud creak, and slowly swung open. A strong draft of air rushed through the now open doorway, throwing him slightly off-balance. He held onto the door frame to steady himself. As Jose took the first step into the new room, he jerked suddenly and threw a few punches into the air. Dennis, who was coming up behind him, stopped as he saw his brother try to defend himself. He pulled out the flashlight he’d been given and shone it onto his brother’s face. Jose looked back at him sheepishly, and gestured towards the hallway. Cobwebs of every imaginable size covered entire room. Even through the criss cross of the webs, both of them almost simultaneously spotted the stairway on the extreme right of the room.
The stairway was twisted in a perfect spiral, like a slinky toy pulled from each end. A thick layer of undisturbed dust lay on each of the steps, and on the iron rail that served as bannister. Using the bottom-end of the flashlights and their bare hands, they managed to carve out a path to the staircase.
“Maybe we should wait for Salman and his friends.” said Dennis, trying to deter his over enthusiastic brother from rushing ahead. He’d been getting very unsettling vibes and a strange tingling sensation since they had set foot in the cellar.
“Don't start again, Dennis! They’ll be here shortly. Aren’t you curious to see what that ‘witch’ has been hiding here all these years?” stated Jose excitedly, as he placed his bare feet on the first step of the staircase.
He lingered for a moment, to check for a creak or a sign of rot, but they were none. The staircase seemed to be as solid as the day it was made. Gesturing his brother to follow him, Jose quickly skipped up the winding staircase, his bare feet disturbing the years of dust that had gathered on the steps. Dennis gulped loudly, and took a look around the hallway.
There were no windows. Or doors for that matter. The high ceiling was plain and had surprisingly remained intact all these years. A large, old-fashioned chandelier, parts of it cracked, hung from an almost invisible wooden beam that ran down the centre of the ceiling. Another strong draft of air sped down from one of the top floors, causing the chandelier to swing haphazardly, the small diamond encrusted crystal pieces on its frame playing a melancholic tune as they lightly bumped into each other. A loud thud from somewhere above, forced Dennis to turn around. At once, he clambered up the stairs and reached the landing of the first floor. The thud seemed to come from further up. Just as he was about to turn towards the stairs to continue upwards, his light from his torch fell on a large painting on the landing. It was of a woman with knee-length hair, clad in a blood-red saree. As the flashlight highlighted the scarred face of the woman, Dennis felt like he’d been punched in the gut; Ranasaya was the woman who’d haunted his nights for the past few months.
As he stepped back in shock, he felt something crash into the back of his skull. A sharp pain shot up from his lower back, all the way up to the back of his head, and then everything went blank.
Letting out a loud groan, Dennis tried to open his eyes. He was lying on the cold stone floor. He tried to sit up, but a strange and inexplicable pain shooting through his body, prevented him from doing so. Cautiously, he looked around his unfamiliar surroundings trying to ascertain where he was. As he identified the room, he gasped loudly; it was the very same one from his nightmare. Almost involuntarily, he tried to move his tongue. As his tongue caressed the contours of his teeth, he breathed a sigh of relief. This definitely wasn’t a nightmare.
However he seemed to be the sole occupant in the room. A sudden gust of wind rushed in from the lone broken window on the opposite side of the circular room. It was then that he realised that there was an array of small lit candles running along the length of one of the walls. As the breeze swept through, the flickering flames of the candle cast an ominous glow throughout the room.
A sudden loud shriek drew his attention away from the candles and the room. Dennis shivered; his spine and skin, both tingling because of the cool breeze and the fear that had started to creep in. Unwittingly, he raised his right hand to clasp the crucifix around his neck. It was missing! Almost instantly, he tried to get up, but the pain suddenly intensified and he felt the blackness start to engulf him again.
The last thing he saw before losing consciousness, was the knife that was protruding from his abdomen.
What he did not see, was the long-haired woman who slowly walked out of the shadows of the pillars, with a spine-chilling smile, etched on her scarred face. In her bloodied hands, she held the still beating heart of his brother
Image courtesy: http://www.morguefile.com/creative/Driscoll