SHE-WOLF

Not very long ago, there lived a girl called Red, with her brother, Chad, and her mother, in a small house in a very small town situated near a dense forest. Notwithstanding the fact that her father had gone missing when she was still a baby and, therefore, she hardly remembered anything about him except what he had looked like, she was a happy girl who loved to spend her days helping others.

To all those who knew her, it was no great mystery why she had such a strange name – for she had a head of bright auburn hair that really looked quite red. In fact, the winter she was born, her father had given her a bright red poncho, which she had preserved safely as the only gift she had ever had from her father, who had gone missing shortly thereafter.

One winter morning, Red’s mother called her into the kitchen and handing her a basket, which contained some fresh fruits, a jar of home-made cookies and some bread, asked her to go and visit her ailing grandmother, who lived alone in a small house in another small town situated on the other side of the forest.

“Start early, keep to the main road and come back while there’s still daylight,” her mother cautioned her. For popular belief maintained that the forest was the home of the Big Bad Wolf, who prowled the length and breadth of it by day and by night, carrying people away in his ever-hungry jaws to their death. Over the years, countless people had gone missing while travelling through the forest, by day and by night; and their grieving family members whispered tales of the terror that lurked behind the trees, stalking his unwary, hapless victims and pouncing on them when they least expected it.

So Red put on the red muffler and gloves that her mother had woven for her the previous winter, as well as her red coat and a matching pair of boots, took the basket and getting on her bike, set out for her grandmother’s house, merry as a lark.

As she paddled away through the forest as fast as she could, she couldn’t help gaping in surprise at her surroundings. The snow was frequently cleared away in her town to keep the roads and lanes passable; in contrast, nature was at her wildest and most beautiful here – the trees and the ground were covered in snow, as far as the eye could see. There were perks to there being nobody around to clear away the snow in the forest, she thought to herself, smiling. She got down from her bike, and taking out her cell phone from her coat-pocket, started shooting a video of her surroundings.

She was thus employed when she first heard the sound. It was very faint – that of a twig breaking under some unseen weight – and she stood still for a few moments, waiting for it to be repeated and wondering whether her imagination was playing tricks with her. It happened that way sometimes; after hearing a tale of terror, every sound and every sight was wont to seem strange and make one jump out of one’s skin, at the slightest provocation. Maybe she was experiencing the same thing. It just might be a rabbit or a fox that had caused that sound, she reasoned with herself. But soon her ears happened to make out the sound of a strange, heavy breathing that seemed to come from all directions at once and to send shivers down the very trees around her. So, losing no time, she got on her bike and paddled away for dear life.

Now, it really was the Big Bad Wolf whose breathing Red had heard. He was trying to be discreet while following her through the dense undergrowth, awaiting the proper chance to pounce on her, but his advancing age and ever-expanding body made him grow heavier with time (the magic of the forest was such that every time he killed, he grew physically and so did the forest), making it impossible for him to move with his former stealth. He was so very hungry – he hadn’t killed anybody in a long, long time, for nobody ever came this way these days, not since that puny man so many years ago, the one who had tried to kill him – and now his prey had just been warned of his presence and had fled; it made him so angry that he wanted to tear the trees up by their roots, every last one of them. Yet he knew that anger was useless, and so, focused on his cunning instead. Soon he had a plan to lure his prey back to him.

When Red reached her grandmother’s house, quite out of breath, she knocked on the door and finding it open, went inside, expecting to find the old lady resting in her chair by the fireplace; but though she looked up and down the house, she couldn’t find her anywhere. So she went round to the backyard where all the firewood was stored, and it was here that she saw the crooked letters, etched in blood on the door, which read, “Granny is waiting in the forest, little girl!” The blood was fresh and drops of it could be seen leading away from the house towards the forest.

Now, in a like situation, any other girl would have tried to save her own life. But Red loved her grandmother too much to lose her to Big Bad Wolf. So, in spite of her fear that her grandmother was probably already beyond help, she grabbed the sturdiest shovel that she could find and followed the trail of blood to the Wolf’s lair. Here she found him waiting for her – a huge grey hairy presence that seemed to fill the forest. In front of him, carelessly laid across the huge stump of an oak-tree, was her grandmother, dead but still bleeding from her neck where the Wolf had sunk his teeth in, while carrying her away.

“Don’t you worry, little girl. She doesn’t feel pain anymore! As for you, don’t grieve, for you are just about to join her,” said the Wolf, and crouching, leapt towards Red with the intention of tearing her young and supple flesh off her bones and into shreds. At that very moment, without even pausing to think, Red, who was very adept in sports and therefore, had excellent reflexes, pointed the shovel at the Wolf’s throat and thrust it up at him just as he pounced on her with the full force of his massive weight aiding him. The impact was such that Red was sent crashing into the undergrowth behind her as the Wolf’s head flew high into the air, and moments later, both the head and the body of the beast landed squarely at the spot where she had been standing only moments before, with a tremendous thud. Then, before her eyes, the head and body of the Wolf transformed into the head and body of a human – her long-lost father in fact – before turning into dust.

It was late in the evening when Red finally returned home, covered in blood and dirt from her adventure and from having buried her grandmother in the forest, and badly shocked to boot. Her mother and Chad positively panicked when they saw her until she assured them that she was unhurt and told them of her adventure. They were especially hurt and troubled, in equal measures, to hear about her father, and when at night they went to bed with agonised hearts, Red had a very strange dream.

She dreamed that her father was speaking to her, as he lay dying. “Whatever have you done, child? You’ve made the same mistake that I made so many years ago. You know nothing about the dangerous magic of the forest. The Big Bad Wolf is a cursed brute; he can never die. He lives on in his killer…” A shiver ran down Red’s spine as she seemed to hear her father say these words to her in her sleep, and her heart was gripped by a strange fear. Soon she woke up with a growing feeling of intense discomfort. It felt as if something weird was happening inside her body, and no matter how hard she tried to ignore it and go back to sleep, the discomfort continued to mount, until Red was forced to leave her bed. Then, as she switched on the light to grab a glass of water from the table, her eyes caught her reflection in the mirror and she stared at it in abject horror – her body was covered with a thick coat of red fur and her face and limbs were slowly changing into those of a wolf, the earlier discomfort fast changing into an ever-increasing agony, as the very bones in her body began to bend, break and distort into a terrifying new shape, before her own eyes. The inside of her head seemed fit to burst as her skull began to adjust itself into a new shape, and her eyes seemed as if they were being drawn back into her head while her nose and jaws elongated to match a wolf’s snout. As she tried to fight the agony building inside her head by trying to clasp it between her hands, which no longer resembled human hands but the paws of a beast, the long and sharp claws dug into her now-hairy snout, causing blood to spurt from the wounds left behind. And when she screamed in horror, the sound that came out was very like the howl of a gigantic wolf in beastly pain.

As the sound of the howl reverberated through the house and the town as well, every living soul around jumped out of his skin in horrified wonder, even while sleeping. As the people sat shaking in their beds in terror, and still later, started to come out of their houses in ones and twos, looking for the source of the sound, Chad and his mother jumped out of their beds and ran pell-mell towards Red’s room upstairs; but when they reached there, they found the sturdy wooden door fastened from the inside, and strange sounds – the heavy breathing of a massive creature and a sound that seemed very like the sound of bones breaking under pressure – coming from beyond. As they started to beat upon the door like crazy, calling Red’s name and asking her to open the door, inside the room, Red – who, by now, had completely transformed into a wolf, her huge new hairy body filling the room, so much so that it seemed as if she was going to burst out of it at any moment – started to feel very angry and disoriented at the noise outside and the continuous ringing of her cell phone inside, as her mother and Chad tried to call her again and again in desperation, while her mouth started to water at the smell of human flesh and blood so near her. For a few moments, greed and distress fought tooth and nail to gain control over her, until at last distress won, when, at the sound of Chad shoving and kicking at the door to break in, Red was driven so crazy that she struck at the door with a massive paw, sending both Chad and the heavy door, along with that part of the wall, flying through the opposite wall into the room beyond. Just before losing consciousness, Chad saw a huge red hairy snout and a pair of huge eyes, burning red-hot, emerge from the wreck.

As Red shoved her head through the wreck, trying to frighten the humans away, a ravenous hunger assailed her senses and she stuck out her huge pink tongue and licked her mother’s body – inert with shock – hungrily, while her teeth ached to bite into the warm flesh. But Red still had a little bit of humanity left in her, and so, summoning that last bit with all her might, she pushed her mother out of harm’s way with her warm snout, and then, turning, clawed her way through the outer wall of the house, leaped down to the ground with a huge thud, so that the ground shook beneath her weight and the dust rose around her in a massive cloud, and bounded away through the familiar streets, past the gaping, terrified people, into the green darkness of the forest. And that is how the reign of the She-Wolf began.

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HYACINTHS

She had just returned from the funeral, and she was still thinking about the wreath of hyacinths she had placed inside his coffin, in respect of the last wish he had expressed. Hyacinths had been his favorite flower. She had heard him say so often enough; so she wasn’t really surprised when he had expressed his intention of being buried with them, just before he died. Now, the scent of the flowers still clung to her fingers, as did the feel of them, and she missed him more than ever. Yet she couldn’t cry; she wouldn’t cry, because he had, before dying, placed his ring in her hand, with the promise that his soul would find hers, that she wouldn’t have to wait too long to become one with him. And so, she planned to wait, till his soul found her.

The day passed in a daze, for his last words “my soul will find yours” kept reverberating in her thoughts. And at night, when she finally went to bed, the smell of hyacinths still clung to her fingers. As she looked out of the window, for just a fleeting moment, she thought that she could see him standing in the garden, looking up at her with his usual smile, in his usual way, until she suddenly remembered that he was no more. So she closed the window, and tried to sleep, and while she slept, she dreamed of hyacinths…

Next morning, when she failed to make an appearance at her usual time, and repeated attempts to wake her up proved futile, her parents had the servants break open the door of her room, only to find her lying dead in her bed, an expression of peace, quite unlike the haggard expression that she had worn for weeks, ever since he had been taken ill, showing on her now-cold face. The doctor, when he had finished examining her body, pronounced her as “having died due to some unknown cause”. But her parents ever-after maintained that she had died of a broken heart; that they had seen death written across her face, ever since he had been taken ill…

****

Years had passed since the family that had last lived in the house, had left it after the sudden death of the daughter of the house. And having remained untenanted for a long, long time, the house had fallen into disrepair, and the gardens had grown wild and out of proportion, with hyacinths having practically claimed the territory. They were simply everywhere. So that, when the new tenants came to live in the house, they were faced with the formidable prospect of repairing the damages in the house, as well as getting rid of the surplus hyacinths. When finally the place had been put in order again, and the family came to live in the house, those few that remained of the neighbours of old, held their breath in surprise, when they saw the daughter of the family; for she looked remarkably like the one that had lived in the house so many years ago; only this one was lovelier. To those who knew all about the other one, this was like history repeating itself. And they were all overcome by a secret sadness, which they couldn’t really understand.

And so the new family started living in the house, which was once again filled with laughter and songs and life, after ages of reigning silence. Then, one day, the daughter, while looking through the contents of the drawers of an old bureau, found a ring lying in a corner of a drawer, on which was inscribed “my soul will find yours”. She turned the pretty little thing over in her hands a few times, and then went bounding downstairs to show it to her mother. She already had her hand on the door-knocker, when a little voice from somewhere seemed to scream in her ears, “Don’t.” She stopped in her tracks in surprise, as she seemed to feel a strange sense take control of her thoughts, that filled her with a sense of foreboding; that if she showed the ring to anybody, what was about to happen would not happen, and that, would be a grave loss to her. So she went back to her room and hid the ring under her pillow instead. That evening, when she was out in the garden taking a stroll, she suddenly came across a divine-looking youngman, whom she had never seen before, leaning against the furthest door of the garden, with a bunch of hyacinths in his hand. When she went forward with the intention to ask him who he was and what he was doing there, he came out of the gloom he was standing in, raised his hat to her and silently handed her the flowers. She looked into his face for a long moment, and she seemed to know him; only she couldn’t remember where she might have seen him. In that moment, she seemed to hear the words “my soul will find yours”, as if he had whispered them into her ears. And then, suddenly, he was gone. She wasn’t really surprised; so she calmly went back to the house, assured that she would see him again. And at night, before she fell asleep, she toyed with the ring for sometime. And as she slept, she dreamed. She dreamed that her young man was standing in front of her, holding out a bunch of hyacinths to her. As she reached out her fingers and touched them, the hyacinths seemed to come alive suddenly, filling her with horror, and as she stood there, gaping at the young man with eyes wide with horror, trying to ask for his help, but not being able to, as she couldn’t find her voice,twining around her fingers, and reaching up fast across her hand, enveloping it, and then, reaching still higher, seeming to spread out and grow across her body, suffocating her with their scent…

Next morning, the parents found their daughter, lying dead in bed, with a sprig of dried hyacinths clutched to her breast by her right hand, and her left hand clutching a pretty ring, on which were inscribed the words, “my soul will find yours”; and what was stranger, the entire room, from the ceiling to the floor, every inch of it, seemed to have become horribly overgrown with dead hyacinths overnight; yet, there was a strong smell of hyacinths everywhere…

Hyacinth_flower_close-up_aka

RED: A FAIRY TALE RETOLD

red

Not very long ago, there lived a girl called Red, with her brother, Chad, and her mother, in a small house in a very small town situated near a dense forest. Notwithstanding the fact that her father had gone missing when she was still a baby and, therefore, she hardly remembered anything about him except what he had looked like, she was a happy girl who loved to spend her days helping others.

To all those who knew her, it was no great mystery why she had such a strange name – for she had a head of bright auburn hair that really looked quite red. In fact, the winter she was born, her father had given her a bright red poncho, which she had preserved safely as the only gift she had ever had from her father, who had gone missing shortly thereafter.

One winter morning, Red’s mother called her into the kitchen and handing her a basket, which contained some fresh fruits, a jar of home-made cookies and some bread, asked her to go and visit her ailing grandmother who lived alone in a small house in another small town situated on the other side of the forest.

“Start early, keep to the main road and come back while there’s still daylight,” her mother cautioned her. For popular belief had it that the forest was the home of the Big Bad Wolf, who prowled the length and breadth of it by day and by night, carrying people away in his ever-hungry jaws to their death.

So Red put on the red muffler and gloves that her mother had woven for her the previous winter, as well as her red coat and a matching pair of boots, took the basket and getting on her bike, went off, merry as a lark.

As she paddled away through the forest as fast as she could, she couldn’t help gaping in surprise at her surroundings. The snow was frequently cleared away in her town to keep the roads and lanes passable; in contrast, nature was at her wildest and most beautiful here – the trees and the ground were covered in snow, as far as the eye could see. There were perks to there being nobody around to clear away the snow in the forest, she thought to herself, smiling. She got down from her bike, and taking out her cell phone from her coat-pocket, started shooting a video of her surroundings.

She was thus employed when she first heard the sound. It was very faint – that of a twig breaking under some unseen weight – and she stood still for a few moments, waiting for it to be repeated and wondering whether her imagination was playing tricks with her. But soon her ears happened to make out the sound of a strange, heavy breathing that seemed to come from all directions at once. So, losing no time, she got on her bike and paddled away for dear life.

Now, it really was the Big Bad Wolf whose breathing Red had heard. He was trying to be discreet while following her through the dense undergrowth, awaiting the proper chance to pounce on her, but his advancing age and ever-expanding body made him grow heavier with time (the magic of the forest was such that every time he killed, he grew physically and so did the forest), making it impossible for him to move with his former stealth. He was so hungry – he hadn’t killed anybody in a long, long time, for nobody ever came this way these days, not since that puny man so many years ago, the one who had tried to kill him – and now his prey had just been warned of his presence and had fled; it made him so angry that he wanted to tear the trees up by their roots, every last one of them. Yet he knew that anger was useless, and so, focused on his cunning instead. Soon he had a plan to lure his prey back to him.

When Red reached her grandmother’s house, quite out of breath, she knocked on the door and finding it open, went inside, expecting to find the old lady resting in her chair by the fireplace; but though she looked up and down the house, she couldn’t find her anywhere. So she went round to the backyard where all the firewood was stored, and it was here that she saw the crooked letters, written in blood on the door, which read, “Granny is waiting in the forest, little girl!” The blood was fresh and drops of it could be seen leading away from the house towards the forest.

Now, in a like situation, any other girl would have tried to save her own life. But Red loved her grandmother too much to lose her to Big Bad Wolf. So she grabbed the sturdiest shovel that she could find and followed the trail of blood to the Wolf’s lair. Here she found him waiting for her – a huge grey hairy presence that seemed to fill the forest. In front of him, clumsily laid across the huge stump of an oak-tree, was her grandmother, dead but still bleeding from her neck where the Wolf had sunk his teeth in while carrying her away.

“Don’t you worry, little girl. She doesn’t feel pain anymore. As for you, don’t grieve, for you are just about to join her,” said the Wolf and, crouching, leapt towards Red. At that very moment, without even pausing to think, Red, who had excellent reflexes, pointed the shovel at the Wolf’s throat and thrust it up at him just as he pounced on her. The impact was such that Red was sent crashing into the undergrowth behind her as the Wolf’s head flew into the air, and moments later, both the head and body of the beast landed squarely at the spot where she had been standing only moments before, with a heavy thud. Then, before her eyes, the head and body of the Wolf transformed into the head and body of a human – her long-lost father in fact – before turning into dust.

It was late in the evening when Red finally returned home, covered in blood and dirt from her adventure and from having buried her grandmother in the forest. Her mother and Chad positively panicked when they saw her until she assured them that she was unhurt and told them of her adventure. They were especially troubled to hear about her father and when at night they went to bed with troubled hearts, Red had a strange dream.

She dreamed that her father was speaking to her, as he lay dying. “What’ve you done, child? You don’t know the magic of the forest. The Big Bad Wolf can never die. He lives on in his killer…” A shiver ran down Red’s spine as she seemed to hear these words in her sleep and soon she woke up with a growing feeling of discomfort. Then, as she switched on the light to grab a glass of water from the table, her eyes caught her reflection in the mirror and she stared at it in horror – her body was covered with a thick coat of grey fur and her face and limbs were slowly changing into those of a wolf, before her own eyes. When she screamed in horror, the sound that came out was very like a howl, and her mother and Chad came bursting in at the door and stood there, staring at her in horror.

Chad soon recovered his senses, however. As he came towards Red, his hands extended, an overpowering hunger seemed to fill her being, so much so that she just wanted to tear these two people apart with her teeth, limb from limb. Yet, with all the self-restraint that she could muster, she forced herself to turn away from them towards the window, and with a wail of dismay, that sounded like a terrified growl, she crashed through the window into the garden below and ran off into the darkness and the fog, in the direction of the forest.

Chad, too, descended through the broken window after her and following closely at her heels, reached the border of the forest, and as Red scampered away deeper into the forest, crashing through the vegetation and trying not to howl in pain as her transformation continued, he cried after her, “Red, don’t be afraid. Nobody will ever know what happened today. We’ll have a story ready for the neighbours by morning. Just take care of yourself. We can get through this together and we will. We’ll find a way. Just remember that we love you and are always here for you.” As his cry faded away into the surrounding darkness, Chad stood there waiting for an answer, but not a growl, nor even the faint sound of a twig breaking under pressure, was heard in response.

****

“This story is written as part of A Winter in Storyland contest on Tell-A-Tale – Bringing stories back into lives.”

ANASTASIA

PROLOGUE

Many, many years ago, in a little known village in India, named Jhilpaar, there lived an old doll-maker, with his pretty, devoted daughter, Dulari. They lived some distance away from the village, at the very edge of a dense forest that surrounded it, in the ruins of an ancient, underground passage. While the old doll-maker was busy night and day, making pretty little dolls that stood around ten inches tall, it was his daughter who did all the work, besides taking care of every single need of her father. For the doll-maker’s fame as a master craftsman had spread so far across all the neighbouring villages and still farther, that even the king and his family, who lived in the old castle on the hill, miles and miles away from the village of Jhilpaar, had become his regular customers. So he had no time for anything or anybody other than his precious dolls.

Dulari, however, did all the household chores and the work outside without any complaint. She never even complained about her father’s indifference towards her. For years, her life had followed the same unwavering pattern and she couldn’t recollect a time when she had not acted as her father’s guardian angel. She had no memories of her mother either. She had heard from her father that she had lost her mother as an infant; and in answer to her other questions, he had given her a doll – a doll that he had crafted in the perfect image of her mother. So her only amusement, in the course of her busy days, was to look at the doll and wonder what their life might have been like, had her mother been alive. And whenever she touched the doll while cleaning it and washing its dress, she would look into its eyes – very sad, but alive – and miss her mother.

The old doll-maker and his daughter might have continued with their lives in the same fashion for many more years, had a complication not surfaced in the form of a young sipahi, one of the trusted royal guards. One afternoon, when Dulari was at the village well, fetching water, a soldier sporting the garb of a royal guard, rode into the village and up to the women fetching water at the village well and asked for directions to the doll-maker’s place. Now, royal guards coming in search of the doll-maker, was no spectacle in this village. The women immediately pointed to Dulari, who offered to show him the way to her house.

On the way home, Dulari and the young sipahi, who called himself Ramlal, fell talking and he told her a few stories of battles and ambushes that he had been in and the girl felt a growing curiosity about the world outside the village, a world she had never known and would, possibly, never ever get to know. On the other hand, Ramlal was as much intrigued by the girl’s beauty and manners as by her curiosity – he had never before come across such a sympathetic listener. Soon they were at the doll-maker’s, and after asking him to sit on a log of wood that served as a stool, and calling out to her father, she went inside to resume her day’s work. That evening, unlike on other occasions when the royal guards came back later to take back packages for the king, Ramlal didn’t leave; he had to stay till the next morning when the doll-maker would hand him a special package to take back to the king. So, late in the evening, Dulari, after having finished her chores, sat at the mouth of the passage, listening, while Ramlal, pacing to and fro, continued with his stories. It was already quite late in the night, when they both nearly jumped out of their skins, hearing the shout of the old man, who had stormed outside to see what the matter was, having finally missed his supper for once. As a guilt-ridden Dulari scampered away to fetch her father his long-awaited meal, chastising herself for this criminal negligence, the doll-maker glared at the soldier for a few moments – a glare so terrifying, that Ramlal’s blood flowed ice-cold in his veins for those few moments – before going back to his work.

The next morning, Ramlal left early, just as soon as the package had been delivered to him, without saying goodbye to his young friend. That day and in the days that followed, Dulari missed him in a strange way, and wondered whether he would ever come back, because she, somehow, could not shake off the feeling that his hasty departure had been the result of something that her father had said or done. For she had also lately become aware of a change in her father’s attitude towards her; whether it was a jealous possessiveness or simply suspicion, she didn’t quite know, but she had a feeling that something sinister lurked behind it, whatever it was, and so she had grown to fear him – a feeling she had never before associated with her father.

Almost a fortnight later, one afternoon, when Dulari was washing clothes at the well, Ramlal again came to see her. When she asked whether he was running an errand for the king again, he answered that it was his day off and that he had come there only to see her again. So, all the while that Dulari washed and cleaned, he sat beside her and they talked. And before he started back for home, late in the afternoon, he made her a promise to come see her again on a certain day. And so, it came to pass that these two young people started to meet more frequently, in secret, and eventually realized their love for each-other. Some months later, they married secretly and took the vows of undying love and their happiness knew no bounds.

All this while, the old doll-maker had been watching his daughter closely, without her knowledge, and detecting the tiniest changes in his daughter’s behaviour. She suddenly seemed more alive, spent more time outdoors, burnt the chappattis while being lost in thought – in short, she had changed visibly over the last few months. And the old man’s face began to ominously darken each passing day, as he started to divine the reason for this change in his daughter.

One night, Dulari had a strange nightmare. She dreamed that as she slept, something small crept towards her through the darkness, up her bed of straws and finally started pacing across her chest. As it paced, it grew in size until it turned into a hazy image of her mother. As it grew in size, Dulari started having difficulty in breathing. It seemed to her as if her mother’s image was trying to warn her about something. It kept pointing towards the door, as if it wanted Dulari to wake up and go out into the full-moon night. Just as it seemed that Dulari was about to lose her senses, the weight on her chest suddenly lifted and she woke up from her nightmare, glad to be able to breathe freely again. She started to get up for a drink, and while pulling off the tattered old blanket off herself, she heard a tiny clunk, as if something tiny had fallen. She lost no time in lighting the little earthen lamp and as she looked around in its light, she was very unpleasantly surprised to find her doll lying on the floor, next to her bed. She couldn’t understand how the doll could have moved itself down the shelf, where she always placed it, and across the dark room and up her bed. Yet one look at the blanket showed her the tiny dirty footprints of the doll on it. For one moment, she thought of throwing away the doll or burning it and then she decided that that could wait; she first needed to go outside into the night and find out what was going on. So she extinguished the little lamp and went to see whether her father was still asleep. That was when she got the second shock that night. Her father was nowhere to be seen; his bed hadn’t been slept in. She couldn’t imagine where her father could have gone at that hour. So, with a terribly unpleasant feeling, that she was about to witness something horrible, washing over her, she made her way outside, where the first thing that caught her eye was a light in the forest. Having decided that the forest was her destination, she slowly and carefully picked her way through the forest, creeping past hedges and going around the thorn bushes, until she finally came upon the source of the light. It was a clearing in the forest; on one side, a small fire had been lit using twigs and dry branches, and beside the fire, nearly facing her, was her father, dressed in black, seated squarely under the light of the full moon, on what looked like a blackened human corpse. In front of him and a little to the side, a small group of people were kneeling, one of whom, a man, was bound tightly with ropes, with the others holding him. At a sign from the doll-maker, a woman cut the ropes and freed the man, who jumped up and made as if to fly at her father’s throat. Just then, without a blink, her father threw some powder at the man, while uttering something incoherent. Imagine the girl’s horror when she saw the man, who was in mid-air, fall upon the ground and start to shrink, amidst his own screams of horror and pain and the raucous, cruel laughter of the others, until at last, all that was left of him was a ten-inch doll. It took all her courage to keep from screaming out at this horrifying spectacle, a feat which she accomplished by neatly ramming her fist into her mouth and biting down on it. She lay like this in the dark undergrowth for a few moments, before she decided that she now knew enough about her father, the doll-maker -or should she call him the tantrik? – to understand that her immediate safety lay in running back home, as fast as her legs could carry her, before someone here discovered her presence. For she could well imagine what might happen to her, if she was discovered. So Dulari flew back home and got under her blanket once again, feigning sleep, while in her mind, she went through the horrors of the night, over and over again. When her father came back home at the crack of dawn, after completing his nightly rituals, and stealthily came up to the door of her room to check whether she was asleep, she stiffened under her covers.

The next morning, Dulari, shaken but determined, went about her daily chores as usual, making every effort to conceal her terrible knowledge from her monster of a father, the dabbler in the black arts. For in the course of the night, she had decided upon a course of action. In a fortnight’s time, her Ramlal would again come to meet her and she had decided that this time she would leave this place with him for good. So she went about doing the household work with her usual air of calm, while she kept her brain busy with planning her escape.

The next few days were the longest of Dulari’s life; on one hand, she battled to control her terror every time she came in close proximity of her father, while on the other, she couldn’t wait for the days to pass so she could escape with her husband and leave all this horror behind. She had decided that she didn’t want to take away anything but a container of water and her mother’s doll. For she now had reason to believe that the doll was only trying to save her. Also she couldn’t imagine leaving the last vestige of her mother behind.

After a long wait, the day finally came when Ramlal came to meet Dulari. It was the day of the amavasyaa, the day of the new moon. As soon as Ramlal arrived, Dulari gave him a short account of what had happened in his absence while Ramlal himself told her of the frightening stories that he had but recently heard about the doll-maker. So they together planned the final details of their escape, before Dulari, for the time being, went back to the doll-maker’s.

That evening, when the doll-maker was at his busiest, trying to complete all his work before the night commenced – for he had to perform a sacrificial ritual on this auspicious night, before a certain hour – Dulari stealthily peeked into his work-place before hurrying away to get ready for her journey. Then, hiding the bundle behind the voluminous folds of her dress, she told her father from the door that she was going out to gather firewood. The old doll-maker only grunted in reply. Soon after, the girl was tearing down the village road towards the other end of the village, where Ramlal was waiting with his horse. As soon as she arrived, Ramlal scooped her up onto his horse and the two tore away into the deepening darkness of the new-moon night, at a breakneck pace, as if the very devil was behind them.

Here, at the doll-maker’s, the night was already advanced when the old man realized, for the second time in his life, that his daughter hadn’t brought him his meal. So he hollered out her name a few times, before, getting up to see what the matter was, when his daughter didn’t answer his call. He first went to her room; no sign of her there. Then he went through the rest of the inhabited part of the old passage; still no sign of her. So he went outside and called out her name. No answering cry came back to him. Finally he started looking frantically for her, up every tree, behind every bush, combing through every inch of the dense forest, until, upon reaching the clearing in the forest, an evil spirit, one of his many minions, whispered into his ears the details of his daughter’s escape. The roar of rage that the doll-maker emitted, resounded across the forest and the entire village, waking up all the evil spirits who gathered around him to do his bidding.

The unhappy couple had long left the village behind and were tearing across a vast stretch of open ground, on the other side of which lay the fortified royal city, the darker outline of which could be dimly made out against the dark sky, when all of a sudden, the tantrik doll-maker appeared before them out of nowhere. The horse, letting out a neigh of abject terror, reared up on its hind legs, throwing the terrified riders off its back, before bounding away into the darkness. The old magician thundered, ” I am Birjapadd tantrik, disciple of the witch-prime Biraja and master of the black arts, who has control over the elements and spirits alike, and you two imbeciles thought that you could outrun me? Your naivety makes me want to laugh.” Their insides cringing with fear, Ramlal and Dulari helped each-other up with an outward show of courage, knowing their fate only too well. As the evil spirits, acting on their master’s orders, came towards them to bind them apart, Ramlal, in a vain effort to try and save themselves, unsheathed his sword from his kamarband and attacked the doll-maker. Without flinching an inch, without so much as batting an eyelid, the doll-maker, curving his bloodless lips in a cold, cruel smile, raised his hands and sprayed something on the advancing figure of Ramlal, while reciting something incohorent. Suddenly there was a blast and a green smoke obscured everything for a few moments, through which, however, Dulari could well hear Ramlal’s screams of agony. She dived blindly into the smoke, tears pouring down her face, looking for her husband, until she tripped on something small. In another moment, the smoke had cleared and she found herself looking in horror at the earthen doll that had been her husband. Her terror and sorrow were so deep that she forgot to scream; instead, she slowly turned to face her father. The doll-maker threatened her to come back to him, and it was then that she screamed at him, losing her reserve. “So is this what you had done to my mother, you monster? And all this time, you had been lying to me about how she had disappeared when she went to bathe in the river. What had she done to deserve such a fate? How long have you been doing this to helpless, harmless people like that man in the forest, the other night?” The doll-maker and his minions cackled like maniacs for some moments, before he proceeded to answer her question. “Oh! So you knew about me already and yet was foolish enough to think that you could run away from me and live to see the end of it? How very unfortunate! How very like your mother, who thought that she could save you by running away from me! She, like you, never imagined that I had the knowledge and speed of the elements and spirits under my command. You see, you are absolutely powerless against my knowledge of the dark arts. Submit and I might yet pardon you.” Furious on hearing this, Dulari rushed madly at her father, with the intent of finishing him off, only to be shoved away by something huge that came between them. What, then, was her surprise when she saw that it was nothing but a bloated, distorted image of her doll, which was trying hard to protect her from her father’s wrath. For a few fleeting moments, even the cruel face of the old doll-maker wore an expression of utter incredulity. Then, with one wave of his hand, he seemed to wipe away the expression of incredulity off his face, and with it the bloated image of the doll. “You were weak when alive, and you are weaker still in your present state. You know that you can’t save our daughter and yet you dare confront me! She is mine to do with as I wish,”  he thundered, looking at the doll that once again lay at Dulari’s feet. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he performed the same black magic on his daughter, turning her into yet another ten-inch-long earthen doll. Thereafter, he turned to his minions and ordered them away, before coming back for the three dolls that lay there helplessly, covered in soil. He gathered them up in his arms and went away into the night, never to be seen or heard of again.

*End of Prologue*