Fire, Blood, and Ash

Pratik Bapat

Podar International School (Mumbai, India)

The wind was howling like a pack of wolves as Shantanu trudged along the gravel path. Shantanu just had a torn t-shirt, old half pants, and a long cloth as apparel while he struggled up the mountainous ghat between Topakarwadi and Samastipur.

Shantanu was a porter- someone who delivered goods between his village (Topkarwadi) and the town of Samastipur. His father and grandfather had done the same job and so had generations before them. Now, this mountainous path wasn’t a normal one, tales said that this path was infested with ghosts. Not all of the porters who went came back. In fact, his father had disappeared while taking a large consignment of herbs just a month ago and his elder brother who went searching for his old man didn’t return. While the porters got large plots of land in return for the work they did, it didn’t mean that they owned it. The village headman had warned Shantanu that if he wasn’t able to deliver the herbs and get money in return then his family would lose all the land they had. So the young lad had no choice but to depart for this difficult voyage to Samastipur.

Shantanu remembered that his father always carried a gun along with him on this route. A gun and a long knife were his father’s companions on every journey. However, he didn’t have any firearms as one gun and a knife had disappeared with his father and his brother had taken the second one. Shantanu only had a wooden stick with him and a locket for good luck. His grandfather, a man who had survived more than a thousand such journeys had warned him to always ensure the tiny lamp he had brought with him was blazing at all times.

It looked like it had rained a while ago and the ground was slippery, Shantanu had been treading very carefully. Suddenly the wind stopped howling, in fact, there was no wind at all, all there was, was an eerie silence. The trees were not swinging anymore; all sorts of moments had stopped.  Even the insects weren’t singing their other-worldly melodies. Shantanu started praying to god and ventured on. However his right leg slipped on the moss covered rock and Shantanu slipped, there was a sharp sound as his lamp broke and Shantanu fell down. He blinked a few times, groaned and then he saw something that would have scared the life out of someone, something that would have made the hair on one’s skin stand up erect. It was a girl, a white girl and when I say white it means her skin was white, her hair was as white as milk and her dress was white, yet transparent, it was shimmering, yet it looked like a crease- covered craft paper . She was a pretty girl; her eyes were the prettiest Shantanu had seen in the sixteen years of his life, her hair had beautiful curls, just like a waterfall. She would have looked pretty had a machete not been impounded on her chest and had her dress not been covered in scarlet blood.  

She caught Shantanu’s hand and pulled him up. Then she indicated they would be going northward on the hills and not follow the path that would have led Shantanu to Samastipur. Shantanu figured out that there was no alternative but to let her lead him as her grip was steely and strong, just like the grip of the claws of an animal. They trudged up the hills silently as the heavens thundered. Soon they neared a mansion that was as whitewashed as the girl, with vines growing on the walls. The girl pulled Shantanu up the steps and into the hall. There was a musty smell in the hall. It was furnished with age-old furniture, probably from the nineteenth century. Old sofas, a lamp, and an animal hide proudly displayed on hooks lay still- frozen in time. There were traces of blood on the wallpaper; something very bad had happened over here. The girl led Shantanu to the first floor, here the smell got even worse. It was a smell of rotting flesh, the smell you get when departed souls lie untouched for a long time. The girl opened a door and left Shantanu’s hand and indicated to him that he must enter the room. Shantanu contemplated running away but realized that it was futile. When he entered the room the smell got even worse, it was thick and unbearable, a hundred times worse than the stench in a sewer. Shantanu took a step and luckily, luckily gazed down before taking the second because below him lay a dead body- The corpse of a girl eerily similar to the ghost. It was rotting and rats had probably consumed parts of it but Shantanu could still recognize the dress and the machete that had ripped into her chest.

He continued to follow the girl. She opened a safe and said in a distant ghostly voice “this could be yours” pointing at piles of cash that lay in,” “it would make you a millionaire “she continued. “I don’t want it,” he said. “Repeat” the girl exclaimed. “I don’t want it” he repeated. The ghost seemed astonished and happy, she raised a brow. “I don’t want it because it’s not mine, you keep it” Shantanu repeated. “You’re the first in a century to reject such riches,” she said, “you’re an honest man – not poisoned by greed, you can go”. Suddenly she transformed into a beautiful teenager, the white dress was gone, and a rainbow-coloured skirt had now enveloped the girl’s corporeal features, “Thank you, you have freed me” she said. Shantanu nodded and walked down the steps, still shuddering and wondering how he had been so firm. As he went down, a stench, a million times worse than in the room filled his nostrils. He followed it to a small room and it became unbearable to the point that he stopped breathing till he almost choked himself. As he opened the door, a horror of massive proportions awaited him. About thirty rotting corpses were strewn around the room in various positions. His face contracted in horror as he gazed downwards, right in front of him lay the mangled corpse of his dad, still covered in blood. On his left lay his late brother, not even 25, slumped as if he had been shot. The world around Shantanu started to dance and he became dizzy. He almost fell down but regained his consciousness. Shantanu picked up his father’s gun and knife and somehow started walking towards the door when he saw the girl. His head filled with rage, a fiery rage that was enough to make him contemplate chopping her up into a thousand pieces. “Are you alive?” he asked the girl. “No, but I am neither dead nor am I a ghost, I will walk to the top of this mountain where the gods will liberate me, as of now I am alive in flesh but I must go to the mountaintop in time or I will be stuck over here till another man of your standards comes to this house.” “Why walk to the top, I will make it easier,” Shantanu said. He raised the gun and fired twice. She lay slumped in front of him- as dead as a nail.

“We cremate the dead” Shantanu said and went out. He removed a sodden matchstick box from the only pockets in his pants, checked if the bag of herbs was with him and then he set alight the matchstick and threw it on the house porch he then threw some more on all sides of the house till his matchbox was empty. Shantanu waited till the house was blazing, he then went down silently, heaving the bag of herbs towards Samastipur.