Friday 15 September 2017

Short Story 2017 Featured Raghvendra Singh Rana

The Raven’s Experiment

A Foreword:
During the time I’ve spent on this earthen globe, I have witnessed the birth and the death of a race within a century’s time; seen the catastrophe nature has cast upon its species—but nature had yet to impress me.

She created a new species to destroy—something scholars of old liked to call, “Homo sapiens”; which I find quite ironic considering it means, “wise man.” From what I’ve seen, most of them are not very wise.
If I had to explain the human race in one word, it would be—“fickle.” My first thoughts of them were that they were all imprudent and knew nothing of the world around them—but I was genuinely surprised to find that they thrived off of their own mistakes and grew into something somewhat worth my while.

As time passed, those humans became boring. With transient centuries, the grip on man seemed to slip from nature’s grasp. They grew ever wiser. They conformed to the mold I had set for them—a species that grows so wise and powerful that they forget their own mortality.

It was 4:43 PM on a Sunday, on a train ride to a small, German town by the name of Elterlein. A young man with a shock of shoulder-length, curly, red hair sat back in his seat with a book in hand, an exasperated sigh passing between his thin, pale lips. The train ride had been harsh. An hour after the train had left the station just the night before, a snow storm threatened to blow the train onto its side. As soon as they had arrived at the next station, they were forced to stop for the night—or at least until the storm passed. A four-hour train ride turned into a twenty-four hour excursion.

The red-haired man—Riktor Cramm was his name—opened his book to the marked page and began where he had left off before he was so rudely interrupted. Why were there so many annoying children on the train? Fortunately, there was only about a half an hour left before they reached their destination.

He closed his book again and turned his gaze to the window. He was visiting his family to get away from school, yet he insisted upon bringing one of his text books. Riktor sighed and rested his chin on his palm. Dark gray and white streaks passed by him in a blur. The trees opened up to reveal a wide, snowy field, marked by neither animal nor man. In the distance, a city gleamed in the watery, afternoon light. Riktor noticed that the graveyard had been placed awfully close to the train tracks. He watched a group of people, clad in black, slowly disperse from around a rectangular hole in the frozen earth, their faces almost as dead and gray as the headstones around them. Above the hole perched a black crow, but as it grew nearer, it appeared larger and more human in shape. Riktor squinted at it, but as soon as it grew close enough to be seen clearly, it was whisked away behind the train. He turned in his seat to see it again. With a flutter, the black crow lifted itself from the graveyard and flapped out of view. With an irritated grunt, he returned to his book.

Riktor was a college student studying to become an Ophthalmologist. It was his final term before graduation. He decided to spend the last few days of Advent with his hometown family and friends, just in time to celebrate Heilgir Abend on the twenty-fourth of December. It had been two years since he had last seen his family—not that he missed them much.

The clacking of the train wheels against the rails squealed and slowed. Riktor glanced out the window to see the ever-familiar bridge stretch over an ever-familiar river and reach onward toward an ever-familiar, drowsy town. The train slid to a smooth halt, followed by a blast of steam. Riktor waited for another passenger to get up and leave before him, but seeing no one move from their seats, he stood, gathered his things, and bustled toward the doors.

A blast of biting, icy wind greeted him as he stepped out onto the platform. He wrinkled his nose and pulled his scarf higher around his neck and face. How he hated the cold. He would rather be back at the college sipping a nice cup of coffee and reading. But he was told by a professor to go home this year.

Riktor set off across the bridge at a brisk pace. Icicles glistened on the bottom of the railing. The snow beneath his feet had been trampled and dirtied by the many people walking on the bridge before him.

Elterlein had always been a quiet town. The buildings were small, blockish, and gray, with dark windows and sagging roofs. Snow blanketed the dismal streets. It gave the dreary city an abandoned appearance—not that it ever looked full and lively. The people of Elterlein preferred the warmth and comfort of their own homes. The holiday season was about the only season where citizens actually crawled from their cozy robes and blankets to go to church and spread holiday cheer. Riktor, on the other hand, was more like a scrooge. The cheeriness made him ill.

He sulked down alleyways and narrow, cobbled roads toward the home he had lived in since before he was born. It was a tiny place, but the fire within was warm and the food was warmer. Riktor stepped up to the faded, red door, rapped his knuckled hand against the chipping wood, and waited. His sister, Aili, answered the door.

“Riktor! Oh, what a pleasant surprise!” Her rosy cheeks blossomed with a wide, happy smile. She turned her head with a flick of bouncy, pale curls and leaned back into the house. “Mother! Riktor has come for the holidays!” Aili stepped out of the way to allow her brother inside.

Riktor gave a curt nod and hit the snow from his boots, then stepped in and began to take them off. The house hadn’t changed much since he last visited. The same, stained rug led from the entryway to the living room. The same sagging, brownish sofa sat against the far wall facing the window, which had an excellent view of the muddy streets and their neighbor’s lovely garden. The kitchen sat just behind the wall separating it from the living room. Straight across from the entryway was the dining area. The only thing that had changed about that was the position of the table. Instead of the short side facing the door, it had been turned around. It was partially set with the family’s fine china. A flight of wooden steps to Riktor’s left moved up and into the dark, dusty space that used to be his and his older brother’s room. Now it was used for storage, though that’s where Riktor would probably have to stay if he wanted to spend the night. His sister’s room was being occupied by her and her new husband.

As soon as Riktor had his shoes off and his coat hanging, Aili sprung back into her usual hyperness. “Would you like me to take your scarf, Riktor? It’s quite warm in here and it’d be a shame if you suffered from heatstroke right before dinner. I can put your bags upstairs.” She attempted to take them. Riktor moved them from her reach with a sharp scowl. She withdrew slightly, but it wasn’t long before her plump face brightened again. “All right, well, supper will be ready shortly. If you want to go upstairs, I’ve cleaned out your room a bit, but it’s still really crowded from all of father’s old—.”

Riktor raised a hand to Aili’s mouth, placing his slender, pale fingertips against her warm, pink lips.
She frowned and attempted to speak again. Riktor shushed her sharply. Once he was sure that she would not interrupt him, he said, “I’ll be staying at Pich’s tonight.”
Aili’s brow crunched down onto her hardening blue eyes. “Amsel Pich’s?”

“Precisely.” Riktor brushed nonexistent dust from his vest, his lips pursed and proper. His sister opened her wide mouth to speak again. She was going to warn him about Amsel—it was important too.

“Dinner is ready!” Came a soft, sing-song voice from the kitchen. Aili seemed to forget whatever snappish thing she was about to say and hurried toward the table. Riktor’s arrival had distracted her from setting out the silverware.

“Riktor, my sweet boy!” A thin, middle-aged woman with long, dirty-blond hair and piercing green eyes rushed toward him with a hot dish of casserole in one hand. She leaned up and pecked him on both cheeks, ignoring his grimace, and set the dish down so that she could embrace her son.
Riktor was hesitant to return the affectionate gesture. “Mother, I am not a child.”
The woman tsked. “Perhaps not, but you will always be my child.” She patted his bony cheek with a warm hand and delivered her casserole to the table. Riktor deposited his bags by the door and followed awkwardly. He seated himself at the far end of the table nearest to the kitchen. Everyone settled into their seats. Riktor glanced at the chair to his right, where his older brother usually sat, then threw a questioning look at Aili. 

“He said he couldn’t make it this year,” she replied.
Riktor wished he had used the same excuse. The house settled into a tense silence as everyone piled their dishes with food. Riktor, having always been a picky eater, took a spoonful of casserole and a pile of mashed potatoes. He kept them far away from one another on his plate.
His mother watched him pick at his meal with a pained expression. “How are your studies coming along, Riktor?” She lifted a bite of casserole to her lips.

Riktor hummed and grunted, lifting his shoulders in a sloppy shrug. He chewed his food at an agonizing pace before swallowing, taking a long drink of water, and sitting back. “Quite well. I’m at the top of my class.” His chest swelled.
Aili’s husband, a large, broad man with a bushy mustache and a shirt that seemed all too tight for his bulbous muscles, coughed loudly to hide his chuckle. His porous face turned a hearty shade of red. “Really, now?” 

Riktor’s look was sour. He dabbed his thin lips and then folded the napkin. “Yes.” He turned back toward his mother. “I cannot stay for long, mother. I have an exam upon my return and I’d like to have a week or two to study. Surely, you understand.” Their supper dragged on in silence. Riktor helped with the dishes when the time came, hugged his family for the final time that day, and headed out with his bag in hand and his overcoat draped over his arm.
It was nightfall when he stepped out into the street. The door closed behind him, bathing him in an eerie silence. Riktor slipped into his coat and set off down the road, comforted only by the crunch of the snow beneath his feet and the huff of his breath pluming around him. It felt as though he had only stayed at his mother’s for an hour, yet the whole town seemed to be fast asleep.
He ran a nervous hand through his hair, jerking his fingers through whenever he met a tangle. His eyes darted toward every little shadow that threatened to grab him. Surely Amsel’s was around here somewhere—what if he took a wrong street?
Riktor stopped. 

The cold, dry air pressed in around him, smothering him in its inky blackness. He shuddered. A cold breeze reached down behind his scarf and tickled the back of his neck. There was some kind of presence around him, but he couldn’t pinpoint what it was. The same, icy breeze reached the nape of his neck again, this time followed by the scrape of something cold, hard, and wet. His limbs wouldn’t budge. Each breath came in painful, labored pants. Riktor’s gaze flickered upon the window to his left. The glass was warped and dark, but he could just make out the large, hunched shape of a tattered cloak, seemingly floating upon the still, winter wind. The being had its hidden face pressed against him, its teeth grazing his spine.

Riktor turned and leapt back with a sharp wail, stumbling into the snow and cowering beneath his arms. He was prepared for the worst.

Riktor moved his arms. The streets were empty and cold, undisturbed by Riktor’s outburst. He stood and gathered his things, then hastily continued in the direction of his friend’s home. Although he tried his hardest to forget about what he saw, he couldn’t help but wonder. Surely that was a spirit—that was Death itself, I swear of it! He shook his head. Perhaps it was just my mother’s cooking, he thought. Or maybe it’s just the darkness. Yes, yes; I’ve always had issues with the dark, especially here. He wasn’t doing a very good job at convincing himself. The image of that black figure stuck in his mind like paste. 

Riktor scrambled up the front steps of Amsel’s flat. He didn’t even have to knock before the door swung open and the grim, pale face of Amsel Pich appeared inches from his own. Riktor wailed, “Amsel! You won’t believe what I just saw.”
Amsel’s expression did not change. He remained where he was in the doorway.
Riktor nervously fumbled with his hair. He had expected Amsel to let him in. “Amsel,” he stammered. “Might I come in?” 

Amsel stepped out of the way. Riktor gratefully paced into the warm apartment, shivering off any remaining cold and shedding his black overcoat. He hung it up on the coat rack beside the door and began to take off his boots. He heard the door close behind him. When Amsel made to walk past him, Riktor grabbed his arm, earning a jerk and a hiss of annoyance.
“A-Amsel,” Riktor said. “Are you all right? You seem—.”
“I was not expecting your company.” 

Riktor blinked. “I suppose I should have given you a fair warning. My apologies. I’ll only be staying for a day or two, so there’s no need to be—Amsel! Where are you going?” He marched after his childhood companion. Why was he acting so strange? Riktor caught him by the shoulder and turned him around. “I saw Death!” Riktor exclaimed. “Will you please be a chap and calm my aching nerves?” He began to tug at his hair again.
Amsel watched the curly, red strands fall from Riktor’s fingertips. His gaze darted to meet his companion’s. “You’re mad,” he stated.
“Mad! You think I’m mad?!” 

“You’re mad,” Amsel repeated. His dead, gray eyes flickered upon the slumped, yellowing sofa sitting in his dining area. “I expect you’ll be gone by tomorrow morning.” It wasn’t a question.
Riktor ceased his pulling. “Tomorrow morning? Why, that’s the final day of Advent. You can’t expect me to leave right then.” He watched Amsel scoot his bags out of the doorway with his foot. The friend Riktor had so dearly adored as a child was now a shadow of a man, with a gaunt, pale face, a bony frame, and hair as oily and black as a raven’s wing. 

“Tomorrow morning,” Amsel snapped. Something sinister flickered behind his dead gaze. Oh, how he loathed Riktor. He hated his handsome features; his silky, red hair; his tall, slim figure. He hated his nose, his ears—especially his eyes; those gorgeous green eyes. They reminded Amsel of the jade necklace his mother used to wear—the round one with a sharp, oculus-like design in the center. To Amsel, having emerald eyes and auburn hair was a rarity saved for crowned heads. He sulked into his room and closed the door. If only he could have what Riktor had—even if for a mere moment.
Riktor settled onto the sofa and pulled a throw over himself, grumbling with discomfort and inaudibly complaining about Amsel’s hospitality. “He’s always been like that though, hasn’t he?” he asked himself. “I could’ve sworn he was so much nicer as a child.” He closed his eyes, recalling a day long ago. 

It was spring. Riktor had just turned ten years old and had received a small, little paddle boat from his grandparents as a gift. Wanting to show Amsel, he rushed to his house with the little boat in tow, dragging it through the light powder of snow that blanketed the cobblestone. Amsel, amazed and envious of the gift, craved to try it out. Riktor was hesitant to share it, but he found himself racing down the streets after his friend, laughing and giggling along the way.
They tested it in the river. The water was slow and icy, so Amsel thought it was the best place to try it. Riktor gladly agreed. 

The rest of the memory was somewhat hard for him recall. He remembered something sharp hitting the back of his head and plunging into the icy depths, only for Amsel to drag him out moments later. The boy had told him that the ore somehow bounced out of the water and hit him in the head! When he fell in, Amsel dove in after him and dragged him to shore. Unfortunately, the boat had been lost downstream. 

Riktor had fallen asleep. He never thought much of that memory—nor most of the other memories he shared with Amsel, all of which involved Riktor getting hurt in some way.
His night was dreamless and dark. He woke early the next morning to a sharp pain in his chest. He shot up, panting and sweaty, gripping the area directly over his heart. When his fingers came away, they were coated with something slick and wet. It was too dim to tell what it was for sure. Riktor scrambled for a light, but when he found one, the substance on his hand was gone and he was in the same condition he was the night before. 

The same, eerie feeling from the night before washed over him—as if something was watching him. A shudder ran down his spine. Riktor paused. He did not feel the usual bounce of red curls. He did not hear the typical swish of auburn around him. He did not see the customary shades of ginger in the corners of his vision. Riktor lifted a hesitant hand to his scalp—and found a thick layer of stubble.
A wild shriek tore from his throat. Riktor vaulted off of the couch and scurried to the bathroom. It had to be a hallucination. Surely his senses were failing him. He flipped on the light and leaned far over the sink. A pale, gaunt face stared back at him, but it was not his own. 

Black, oily hair fell into dead, gray eyes. White skin was pulled taught over jutting features. The face before him twisted to the side, cracking and jolting as it turned to look at him upside-down. A wicked sneer mutated its features. The reek of death oozed from its gullet. Riktor gripped the mirror with a screech and tore it off of the wall. The creatures within the mirror squealed with him before Riktor threw it down and slammed his bare foot against its surface. It shattered.

A hundred of Riktor’s blood-drained face reflected back at him from the floor.
“It’ll grow back,” said a soft, lulling voice.
Riktor’s gaze shifted, as did the hundred pairs on the floor. Amsel was standing in the bathroom doorway, tangling and tying clumps of soft, auburn hair into his own mop of greasy black. In his other hand he clenched the blades of a tarnished pair of shears—so tightly that a thin line of blood ran between the creases of his palm and dripped onto the mirror shards that littered the tile.
“A-Amsel?” Riktor gulped and stepped back against the sink.

Amsel lumbered forward. A murky spark ignited within his eyes. “It’ll grow back!” He screamed, in a voice which was not his own. He slammed the shears into the wall, lodging them deep within the chipping plaster. While he struggled to wrench them out, Riktor darted past him and out the door. He didn’t even grab his boots. He could hear Amsel wailing behind him; hear his labored pants and the whistle of the shears clutched tightly in his palm.
Riktor screamed for someone to help him. He stopped and grasped at scarves and coats, moving from person to person. It only gave Amsel a chance to catch up. Why was no one helping him? He tore for the train tracks, blinded by fear and—!

Something sharp slammed into the back of his head. Riktor’s vision swam and he groaned, scrambling to find his balance—and then Amsel was on top of him, gouging at his face and throat with those nasty shears. Riktor howled and thrashed. The shears plunged downward. Pain exploded from his left eye and into his skull. He felt Amsel fall off of him, screaming and wailing.
Riktor was up again, tripping and sprawling in the snow, his vision tipping and swaying—dimming and darkening. The dead, gray sky now had a crimson veil—as crimson as his beloved hair. He felt the sharp coldness of snowy wood beneath his feet. He had made it to the bridge and was dashing madly toward the tracks.

The wind’s screech mixed with the roaring river beneath his feet. Riktor slapped his hands to his ears, his mouth agape in his final attempts to silence nature’s scream. The sound of a train’s whistle drowned out the slap of Amsel’s footsteps right behind him.

Riktor stumbled out onto the tracks, his head swiveling in the train’s direction. He would be saved from this awful place; he could go back to the college and continue his studies. He fell to his knees, his arms open wide. The train’s light bathed him and he closed his eyes. Then he was on the train again, lulled by the cry of the whistle and the churn of the wheels clacking against the tracks. Lulled into a false sense of hope.

The cold and inky darkness of Death embraced him.

An Afterword:
During the time I’ve spent in this rotten palace of man, I have heard the rattle of a last breath leave a fellow’s throat; seen the final fight a human gives before their soul leaves their physical being. If I had to explain the human race in one word, it would be—“fascinating.” My final thoughts of them are that they are all too pretentious and think they know everything of the world around them. After the spell I’ve wasted here, they were not as worth my time as I had originally thought.

With the passage of time, nature will come to take hold of man once again. As they grow into their title of “wise man”, they will continue to forget the lengths of their lives and give in to their own selfish desires. Humans can say that they do not fear death, but that does nothing to lengthen their mortality.

I always claim them in the end.

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