Somewhere across the river and enshrouded among the weeping willows and the swelling Oaks, lies the place which everybody knew but never dare visit. I had heard stories from my mother about how the people, who ventured too close, either out of sheer curiosity or because of their misplaced courage, often ended up flowing downstream in mutilated conditions and horror-struck expressions all across their whatever survived that could be called a face. The tradition of the horror tale was almost two centuries old. It was said, that this place was a haunt of witches, and the local priest had led the witch-hunt and burned alive three women who were supposed to be witches by certain village folks. After a year of so, strange things began happening on the ‘other side’, as it was named. Some men were lost and never found again. The animals dare not go near that haunting and horses would rush past that place during the daytime; and during the night would defy even the hardest of the whiplashes and not move an inch anywhere near it. The instructions were etched into the innocent minds so that they never even think of going there even if for some mischief.
As I grew old enough to be able to question certain things, I was met with scornful looks from the family and it landed me into trouble with the village elders. Once I got a nice beating from my mother for asking her – “Weren’t Witches people like us? Why burn them?”. She did not like that question and she thrashed me with a purpose to dissuade any further questioning. Witches were bad and they did bad things to people. They did not follow the path of the Lord set by the church and the priest and had to be killed…or rather roasted alive while the people looked on and felt unusual comfort in their harrowing cries for help and forgiveness. No…they were not to be forgiven, for the priest had them convinced that they were bad and needed to be put down as they had some secret covenant with Satan. The villagers will have to accept their plight and move on the with your daily lives with the blessings of the merciful Lord.
Something, inside me was never easy with all that stuff that people had to say about those women. I had a restless night and strange dreams during a certain time of the year, when I would wake up with breathing heavy and experiencing sharp pain in my hands. I never told this to anyone except my closest friend who knew this pretty well and was as puzzled as I was. We were young and restless and always looking for some adventure to satiate our longing for something out of the ordinary. One day, while idling around with friends on the ‘safe side’ of the river and skipping stones over the water surface, I looked over leisurely and beyond the tree line on the other side, I saw a figure standing motionless and staring right back at us. I stood frozen and despite all my wish to shout and call my friends, I was unable to utter a sound. I could see that it was some phantom of a woman and it seemed to close in on me as if moving in some other dimension. I was beginning to notice a face and then the hollow eyes with blood oozing out or them and that horrible burned and disfigured face that repulsed me to the core; and yet I could not move or look way. Then, with a sudden flash everything went white in front of my eyes and I lost consciousness perhaps.
I woke up, probably in three hours after that incidence, ducked in my bed at home with sheets all over me. My mother was sitting beside me and my best friend standing near the window and looking out. My father had gone for days now to do business in a city far away and won’t be returning for another week or so. I just wished he would come before my Seventeenth birthday, which was due next week. As, I tried to get up, my friend came rushing and tried to help me balance myself against the wall. “I knew you will wake up soon…you are a tough man!” He said and came rushing towards me. I looked at my mother and she looked back at me with that concern the mothers have for their children. “Young man, you are not eating properly. I always ask you to have your fill before you move out. Look what just happened today! No more going out before you get two or three pounds healthier.” She said in that stern but motherly tone. I just nodded in obedience and looked back at my friend. He was sitting on the edge of my bed and was balancing himself from falling over. “Come near…there is a lot of space. I don’t need a stable to lie down” I chuckled and moved aside a bit. “Mother, would you bring me something hot to eat? I am feeling so hungry right now…I could eat a large piece of ham cooked in whole lot of lard and with that savory rye bread…Mom…don’t keep your little prince hungry a minute longer or else I shall starve…” I made a sad face and acted as if I was dying. My mother hurried off to the kitchen and I found the time to talk to my friend.
“You know what I saw?” I looked at him with grave expression and letting loose all the dread that I was controlling till now with much effort. He drew near and listened attentively as if already expecting something dreadful.
“I saw a woman…standing on the other side…staring at us.” I shuddered as I said those words and saw the blood draining out from the face of my friend. There was this stretching moment of silent unease, as if our minds had hard time coming to terms with the context.
My friend started shivering involuntarily and his right hand clutched the edge of the bed as if to brace himself for what was to follow.