Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, First Prize, Angel Jajo

The Sacrifice

The ground was still wet from the heavy rain that lashed last night and the air reeked with earthy smell of decaying leaves. But, the grey misty morning didn’t dull the village youth and the elders to assemble at old Henry’s house. The time is eight in the evening, Henry’s 55 year old wife Mercy has been missing for three hours, he last saw her just after dawn when she woke up to relieve herself.

Without wasting much time the search party sharpen their tools and arrange their gears. They wore long trousers with the bottom tucked inside their camouflage boots, their head covered with a scarf and their wind-cheater jacket perched over their shoulder to protect them from the rain. As the group snake through the woods, the thick fog that has draped the village and the woods made their visibility difficult and they struggled through the slippery ground searching for Mercy. They search for her in the fields, the woods, among thick bushes and in the water, repeatedly calling out her name in intervals “Mercy” “Mercy”.

Few hours later, the men return from their search and gathered on the verandah. Looking anxious and worried they mumble among themselves before stomping their wet muddied boots and slapping off dirt from their pants as they enter Henry’s house to discuss their next move. After the discussion, the village headman said with uncertainty and little hope, “As agreed by everyone, I will go speak to Clara and hopefully come back with some information.” He then quickly leaves to meet Clara, the village psychic.

It is now quarter to two in the afternoon, the search party hurriedly rushes towards  the edge of the forest following the broken road which is frequented only by cattle. Using their sickle and knife they make their way through the overgrowth bushes to  go further into the forest,  passing through the thick trees to reach the flat ridge of the mountain. Upon reaching the ridge, the headman stood at the edge and said pointing towards the bottom of the slope, “That’s the stream, Clara told us to follow.” With a doubtful look the men inspected the terrain and before proceeding further they decided to take a short break to give rest to their tiring muscles. Stretching their legs they lie down on the damp grass letting out a deep exhale, relishing their momentary peace surrounded by overlapping misty mountains, very soon to be overwhelmed by its mystery and the journey they have to undertake.
Suddenly, one of the man waves his hand and shouts at his team, “Come and see this.”

The shout broke their rest and they walk hastily towards the clearing where the man was standing with one arm on his hip anxiously studying the ground. In the middle of a remote wilderness they found  deep skid marks running riot on the wet ground, its impact creating tiny puddles surrounded by trampled grass that haplessly hung to the bare earth. Holding closely to their tools, they slowly walk towards the slope following the skid marks. When they look down the steep they found the thorn bushes completely  flattened to the ground all the way to the bottom. And they could still sense the faint smell of the crushed leaves sluggishly floating in the air. Whichever wild beasts has fought here had wrecked the ground and it appeared like both had been dragged down with a mighty force after heavy wrestling.

Hoping to find a lead at the base they decided to trek downhill.  As they begin to descent the steep narrow and slippery path, the gusty wind roar in their ears and slap their face sweeping them off balance. The plants too violently sways as the wind pulled on their roots, leaving the men to cling firmly to their sturdy staff and continuing their descent only in between the winds.  Besides the unexpected time taken to  trek the slope, it also left them puzzled and worried to find that the trail of struggle has ended abruptly before reaching the bottom, without any sign of its victim.
At the base, the search party spread out in different direction and call out for her again, “Mercy” “Mercy” and after every call they listen for a voice or a sign, but their call died along with its echoes without an answer. Uncertain in this strange uninhabited forest with a woman missing and an indication of an unknown wild beast on the loose, they geared themselves with their knife, catapults and sharp pointed sticks.

Later, the party regrouped and divided themselves into two team and branches off on the opposite paths following the stream. With little time in their hand before dusk settles over the mountain, they intensify their search. With their boots crushing the grass and sinking into the wet ground, they quicken their pace flip flopping on the muddy water, searching for her in the bushes, in the water, above and underneath, in every hidden places they could lay their sight on.
Then, in no time, the queer whimper of the forest and the rumble of the flowing stream beneath their feet was ruptured by the sound of a loud whistle.

The search party heading towards the south has found Mercy. Her body was found with face down, lying beside the rocky stream surrounded by tall grasses. Only her face was submerged in the water and her grey hair floating like a white flame along with the clump of green moss. Her old boots were muddied but still intact, her torn petticoat covered her lower body till the knees and her sweater bore several holes with snagged woolen threads loosely hanging.

While one of them repeatedly blew the whistle until the other party were in sight, two men ran ahead and pulled her out from the water.  But when they turned her over, one of them shrieked in horror, threw her down and ran away. The other person too fell on the ground and froze. When the others saw her face, they too were horrified with what they see. Her wide hazy blue eyes sharply gazed at then and with her twisted neck, she maliciously grinned exposing her receding gums with plague infested teeth ready to gnaw whoever touches her. Her face froze with deep wrinkled grooves in her cheek and around her eyes. She looked like a wretched witch with a menacing smirk on her face.
One of them quickly threw his scarf over her face and they bundle her up with the sheet they had brought along. They cut down few trees and built a makeshift wooden stretcher to carry her body back to the village. The men took turns carrying the stretcher on their shoulder as they cut through the treacherous mountain where the evening sun rays forcefully penetrates through the dense foliage of trees. Its sparkles disappearing between the leaves as the darkness rises from the ground. The forest sounded different, their cold sweat trickles down and braids with the raindrops on their face and neck. They doesn’t know if the hot flush is from the pressure of the stretcher or from their own fear and  anguish. They could feel the malign force following them like the shadow of an unseen animal sneaking in the dark waiting to pounce on them. Wild animals terrorised them with screeches and growls protesting the invasion on their territory. And as fear envelopes them, the weight of the stretcher became heavier and heavier, bruising their shoulder. But they didn’t stop walking even for a moment, they carry on chanting prayers and calling out to the unknown “Allow us to take our sister home. Please don’t obstruct our path.”

Around seven in the evening, they finally reached the village corridor. With a sense of relief they blew their whistle one after the other. People ran out from their house to receive them when they enter the village. Even the dogs too greeted them with terrifying howl refusing to come close to their path.

When they reach her home, Mercy’s body was put on her bed and covered with the traditional red and black shawl. Fresh flowers, The Bible and her huge bamboo mug with straw were kept beside her. Unable to close her eyes, they tied a cloth to cover them but the smirk on her face they couldn’t remove. Yasmin cries her grief at the loss of her mother, Henry and his son too silently wept in the corner unable to comprehend the nature of her dead.

The church choir lead by the choirmaster sang beautiful hymns, to comfort the family and her soul as streams of friends and family come to pay their final respect. After midnight, when  the singing died, the family  went to sleep and the elders too went home to rest leaving only the youths to give company to the dead.

The youths were happy to have left alone, now they could spend quite time with their friends. Lovers holding hands in the dark, admirers impressing each other and friends catching up on usual things. Tonight, there were only few of them, others who were part of the search party had gone home to rest for they would be needed to dig the grave in the morning.

Around ten of them were in the kitchen preparing midnight snacks and tea. In a corner a couple of boys dozes off leaning on the wall, whose snores were calmed by the laughter of the girls. In the main house which is few meters away from the kitchen, there were thirteen of them in the room with the dead body. Without paying much attention to the dead lying next to them, they were engrossed in their own conversations and giggles.

So far, the night was peaceful and the monsoon has been kind. But as it falls deeper, the boys and girls in the room slowly slumbers. Few tried to stay awake drinking mugs of hot tea and for few, their love conversations. All of a sudden, a foreboding wind blows through the trees, shattering the deep peace with creaks and cracks of the tin roof and fierce rustling of the leaves.  With a shudder they rose from their sleep and before they could grasp the clamor, there came a loud scratching sound on the wooden walls, like an attack of an angry wild animal scampering behind the walls and wrestling with the plants. They looked at one other puzzled and afraid.
One of the boy said, “I guess it’s just the wind and the dogs must be playing outside.”
“Are you sure? Can you please go out and check?” a girl muttered.
Suppressing his fear he replied, “Yes. Sure.” and he left for the door alone.

After few seconds he came back relief, “I think the wind has stopped. Relax, it will be fine now.” The girls were together in one place, still confused and asking themselves who could have made such a dreadful sound and why. Their sleep were gone and they sat wide awake with an untold sense of fear. For a moment there was a calm, until a violent rain of tiny stones on the tin roof smashes down like a scattered glass. They yelp and leapt to their feet. This time it was not the wind and not the rain either. It was a sharp noise piercing their ear. And out of the darkness came a loud “THUD” on the floor. As they scream in fright, heavy footstep in the verandah stomped the wooden floor moving closer towards their room, the footsteps grew louder and louder rattling the wood and the roof. It then stops abruptly at their door. From the gap between the door and the floor they saw a huge shadow standing, waiting for the door to be open. A dead silence looms over the house, the wind has stopped – except for the wall clock that hauntingly ticks. They hold on to each other tight, profusely crying with their mouth covered so that their cries wont escape, then the shadow turned around stomping the floor rattling the woods again, and slowly disappears in the darkness. They fumbled with their rosary beads shaking and muttering prayers through  tears , “Our Father who art in heaven, halo be thy name,” “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you, Blessed are you……” . When the noise didn’t return, they ran towards the door, stumbling and crawling through the small door to rush outside.

The night was at its darkest with pitch silence when thirteen of them ran outside to the kitchen frightening the others who sleepily lie besides the hearth. Choking to their own tears they explain to their friends their terrifying ordeal and for the rest of the night, they spent huddling in the kitchen, leaving Mercy all alone in the room while the rest of the family sleeps peacefully at her son’s house below the garden.

When the dawn breaks, couple of boys went to meet the priest and the rest went to wake up the others to start digging the grave. Funeral service was held an hour early and at 9am, her body was taken to the cemetery for burial. The priest recites the last rite and the final song was sung as they lower the coffin into the grave. None breathe a word of their disturbing night.

Hi Clara”
“Who are you?”
“How could you not know when you have heard so much about me?”
“But what do you want from me?”
“You know, I had to take her out and I have to say, she was one hell of a tough woman. You should have seen her face when I dragged her down to the stream. Ha Ha Ha!!” he roars in laughter and from the black smoke came out a man’s face gazing fiercely into Clara’s eyes. With his fiery red eyes and gnarly teeth burning in flame he continues, “ Ahhhh!! And that’s how they found her.”

With an excited smirk he said, “You know what I want, I give you people a week.” Laughing hysterically he confesses, “ I’m already having lot of fun with you all.”
Clara woke up from a sharp shriek of a cat, “MEOWWWW”
“Who’s cat was that?” she jumped out of the bed screaming
Her frightened husband asked confusingly, “There is no cat. Why are you sweating?”
“I-I heard a cat shriek.” She stuttered
“Nightmare, huh??”
Clara tucked herself tightly in his arms and said, “Yes. Bad one.”
In the morning, Clara rush to see the village headman. She found him sitting alone at his front yard pensively sipping his morning tea. She quickly pick up her steps and walk towards him.

“Good morning Clara!!”
“Good morning” she replied nervously and took her seat next to him.
Staring blankly on the ground she said to him almost crying, “I saw him in my dream last night. He is back.”
His face went pale, his blurry eyes stifle the gloom as he slowly puts down his teacup and laments, “I reckon my worst nightmare is here.” He remembered his father telling him as a young boy, “Son, one day your day shall come when you have to fight him, but don’t be afraid.” This was 35 years ago, where twenty people died and half of the village livestock were wiped out.

During the time of their forefathers, many years before Christianity and civilization set foot in this place - they were fierce head hunters. A ritual practice to show power and to demand respect and fear  among the neighboring villages. To achieve this height of supremacy, their forefathers made a pact with the demon. In exchange of victory and wealth, they had to sacrifice a beautiful virgin girl; pure without any physical deformities and scars. But, when Christian missionaries came to this remote area, they were successful  in converting the people, which led them to give up their violent practice and thus, they stopped the sacrifice. Feeling betrayed, the demon comes to haunt the village with a vengeance, destroying everything on his way, misery and suffering accompanying his rage. Once in every generation, it has been a ritual for the demon to show his dominance.

At the emergency village council meeting, the village headman announce, “With a heavy heart I have to say, our old enemy is back and he has given us just one week to fulfill his demand.”
 The priest who was quietly listening from the beginning asked them, “For how long are we going to give in to his demands?” He pleaded, “ Please I beg of you all, let us pray deeper, let us keep our fast and hold mass prayers and have stronger faith in God.”
 The others were not too happy with his suggestion, one of the elders stood up and questioned the priest, “What if our prayers doesn’t work? We have already lost sister Mercy, now who will be next and how many? What about our livestock? Before you wake up in the morning all will be dead. Everything we have and own will be gone”
Another man added, “Father, we carry with us the curse of the demon, we can’t even flee from this place. You flee you die. Perhaps, if we stay back and agree to his demand we might have a better chance to be alive.”

So the next day, two young men set off travelling far across the mountain, in search of the girl who would save their life and of the villagers. They pose as travelers and visits the neighboring villages, gathering information and hatching plans on how to abduct the right person. On the third day, while walking through the woods to visit another village, they came across a young, beautiful girl drawing water from the pond. So charmed by her beauty, they decided to follow her. Her trail led them to her village. It was late afternoon when they entered her house asking for water and direction. Her family welcome them courteously and offered them not just water but food too.

Satisfied with what they saw and heard of the girl, they bid the family farewell. When night falls, they camped in the jungle not too far from the pond where they first saw the girl. Before the sun rises, they cleared their camp and hid among the trees; waiting for her. When they saw her approaching, one of them walk up to her and started a friendly conversation. In the meantime, the other boy came from behind and stuffed her mouth with a thick cloth. She struggles hard to free from their clutches but the boys were too strong for her and they tied both her hands. They walked  the whole day through the jungle avoiding the usual road, and when they were near their village they forced her to drink the water which was lace with sleeping pills. It was almost dark when they reach the village. A group of village elders waits for them in the makeshift tent, which was built to temporarily keep her to avoid speculation before the ceremony.

That night, the sky was clear and the new moon dangle low and large amid the sparkling stars. And in the stillness of the dark, a steady flow of light lit up the river path to the cave. Carrying wooden torches, old men and women from the village entered the cave and circled at the elevated rock, where on top lies the sedated girl, peacefully sleeping  with her long dark hair resting comfortably on her shoulder and her face glowing in the dim light. After a short meeting the men left her with the women folks for the ritual bathing and cleansing.

The women removed the white cloth covering and gently started undressing her, she wore a long red and white skirt, a V-neck  black t-shirt and a wooden rosary bead necklace. There were five women who bathe her. And, before the ritual of cleansing with perfumed oil, an old lady took a torch in one  hand to confirm the purity of the girl for one last time.

The old lady signal the others to spread the girl’s legs, she inserted her two fingers to examine her virginity and nodded with satisfaction. She then went down her legs, scanned her skin, her toes and her bones. She straightens her back, walk towards her upper body starting from her long beautiful hair, she caress the hair, smell and ran her fingers through them, all along admiring her smooth porcelain skin, her firm breast with pink nipples rising and falling softly as she breathes. “Tonight, will God be lucky or the demon?” she asked herself. She kept the wooden torch besides the slate and moved away, making way for the other women folks to start the cleansing.

As the women diligently rub the perfumed oil on her body, the girl let out a very soft sigh. But the women were so caught up with their duty they  fail to notice the sigh and carry on with what they were doing. As the sigh grew louder turning into a moan, the women looked at each other waiting for someone to explain or assure what they were assuming is wrong. The girl opened her eyes and tried to move her aching body – moaning deeply. The women folk stopped what they were doing and for a second stared at the girl with a surprise and nervous eyes. Before they could  understand what was happening, the girl clumsily jump to her feet, naked and in shock, she cried, “Who are you?” “What am I doing here?” A lady among them, tried to calm her by lending her the white cloth “Here, cover yourself.” The girl grabbed the cloth and the wooden torch and shouts at them, “Don’t you dare come close me,”

“We won’t hurt you,” a lady consoled her and tried to snatch the torch.
She swung the torch towards her and cried, “Who are you people?”
Hearing the cry, those people who were waiting outside rush in to ascertain what was happening.
Seeing the small crowd assembling around her, she swung the torch and screams, “I’m going to kill you all, I’m going to kill myself.” “Oh God, where am I?” and she broke into tears.
The old lady behind her gently said to her, “Please stop crying and listen to us. We won’t hurt you”
The girl didn’t listen to her and instead looked around for a place to escape.
The old lady stretched out her arms and continued,  “My child, please calm down and give me your torch.”

Ignoring the old lady’s request, the frightened girl let out a wail, “My God, please help me!!”
The old lady pleaded again, “Stop crying and let me explain, you have to listen to me.”
Feeling hapless and without paying attention to the old lady’s plea, she attacked the women standing few steps from her.
Just then, the old lady came from behind and pinned her to the ground and threw away the torch. The others joined her and took the girl to a corner. The old lady grab the headman by his arm and said, “We need to talk.”
“What happen?”
“Can’t you see what just happened?”
“Yes I did. She tried to run away.”
“Didn’t you notice the girl is deaf on one ear?”

“No, that can’t be possible. Please tell me, it isn’t true.” The headman, covers his head with both his hands, a flush of despair mask his face as tears rolls down his cheeks.
At the distance, the howling dogs took over the night, the priest stumbled and spilled the Eucharistic wine over his white cloak, and the girl’s miserable wail quietly died. 

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