What Lies Beneath
What Lies Beneath
It was never a well conceptualized plan. Typical of their impulsive, immature natures, the prank was born on the spot, and with little malice at heart. Their easy going and casual approach towards life, conflicted harshly with that of the staid and conscientious Ravishankar, the small town boy of very few words and broken, vernacular English that embarrassed them in public. Oddly enough, it was they who needed him more than the other way round. Ravi needed nobody in particular, his sole aim in life was to earn and send home every month enough to provide for an impoverished family that waited, parched under the heavy drought and erratic harvest, hunger gnawing at their underfed bellies. His paycheck could fill their stomachs for more days in a month and that alone could suffice as his sole purpose of living. He went hungry more often than not, never borrowing from the other three who shared a room with him, or joining them in their quests of squandering away their monthly earnings within the first week, and living off their parents’ hand-outs for the rest of the month. A hungry body fuels a burning soul and his burnt bright with the flame of rising fast in the organization coupled with his brilliant mind already recognized by his superiors, he had finally been offered a much deserved promotion that day.
His three friends needed him for a party, and once they realized that this was not going to be granted, they hatched a plan to have their share of fun. The plan was simple- scare him just enough to ensure they retained their hold over him even though he would soon be at a higher designation, in a position to even command them if he so chose. They offered to take him to a pub, all expenses borne by them, and were flatly declined. Aware of his God fearing nature, they then offered to take him to a famous temple, a two hour drive away, where a person’s deepest and truest wishes were rumored to come true. Ravi had not visited a temple in the six months that he had been posted here, primarily due to the fact that he was neither aware of the places of worship nearby nor possessed any means of transport to reach there. Today was a day when he felt that gratitude was most due and he gratefully accepted their suggestion. The four of them bundled up into their Fortuner slightly earlier than the end of their shift at 4 pm. Ravi, who so far had been wary of these three hedonistic individuals, conscious of their upbringing and privileges, and maintained a steady distance emotionally and mentally from them, found himself opening his heart about his family, their hardships and his monetary situation to them because he finally felt that they were his true friends who cared about him and his future. And to be fair, the listeners were genuinely moved after listening to his tales of an impoverished existence, helplessness and misery. It was a world they could hardly even imagine, and as remote to their existence as the sentiment that drove this man to live solely for others, the lone breadwinner of a destitute family.
However they had come too far to turn back and they had to execute the plan, if only to see how and till what extent would Ravi endure it. A guy who has endured such hardships in his 22 years, should be able to come out unscathed from this experience and who knows, it may even instill in him the bravado and ruthlessness required in the current times to rise above common mortals, and succeed in life. So it was decided to abide by the plan. As they continued the drive, the evening got darker as they drove further into the secluded woods, the trees growing denser, the raucous cawing of various birds in the eerie silence of the forest. They looked for signs of fear or doubt in Ravi, but his clear face stayed calm, always believing in them, innocence lining his appearance. Probably that should have been the moment they should have turned back, if not for him, then at least for themselves, for they were beginning to feel the uncanny sensations of the vibes that filled this forest. This forest was not frequented by locals, especially seldom after dark, and those that dared were either not seen again, or spotted irretrievably changed. Die hard followers made it a point to visit the temple, but during daytime, and accompanied by a retinue. Tales of sightings, blood curdling screams, unexplained noises, missing people and many such mysterious incidents were reported in hushed whispers, but the supreme power of the deity in the isolated temple on the other side of the river drove many hopeful souls to risk their lives for the sake of fulfilment of their deepest desires, which were later indicated to have been realized.
Three among these friends had heard of these rumors and their trick revolved around inflicting this experience of the haunted forest on the one unsuspecting, albeit for a very short while. Soon they reached the river and disembarked from the car, the temple visible at a short distance, surprisingly too small in comparison to its relatively immense reputation, an almost dilapidated structure in white marble, a large bell in its front, swaying languidly in the breeze and sending light, tinkling sounds their way. While Ravi gazed at this temple wondering at what powers it held, the friends filled him up on the legend of the haunted forest, the river into where many crazed devotees had jumped to their death from this very spot, of birds and animals that died the instant their tongues touched these poisonous waters, of snakes and other reptiles that descended after dark and of unlucky people who were left stranded here overnight and were known to never again turn back to normalcy. He absorbed it all in as a superstitious yarn, woven in ignorance by largely illiterate and delusory villagers; however the tiny temple seemed to beckon to him, its supernatural powers dragging him towards it as if almost challenging him to enter it and unravel its darkest secrets. While he was so engrossed, he heard a sudden screech of tires and turning back, witnessed the sight of his other three friends back in the car waving out to him, laughing at him as they sped away.
It was almost dark now, as the realization hit him that he had been tricked, abandoned to his fate, as cruelly as he was used to in this miserable life. He was so accustomed to hiding his fears and insecurities from the world, that even now, in such a menacing circumstance, he was unable to feel the fright or horror of his situation. The fact that he would have to spend the night here, all alone, in this God forsaken place, crawling with poisonous, dangerous animals, struck him, and he waited to feel the dreadful anxiety or disgust towards his callous friends - emotions that never came.
As it suddenly grew darker, he became aware of the distant, grey fog that rushed rapidly towards him with a slow, whining sound coming from behind and gradually increasing in urgency which developed a cold, clammy feeling in his heart. He had to escape somehow, run, in the direction of the car, call out to his friends, beg them, implore them to save him somehow. But he could not move. He stood rooted to the spot, his legs frozen, his hand holding on to the railings of the bridge for support as he gripped hard to try and yank his feet off the ground. Involuntary screams filled with terror, pity and agony escaped his throat as he prayed to every God he ever worshipped, begging for deliverance. After what seemed like an eternity, he managed to move his legs. Turning violently away from the black fog, he blindly began to run, but trembled and fell face first on to the ground. The bells started clanging furiously and he attempted to shield his ears against the onslaught, the ominous shrill which was threatening to turn him deaf. A sudden ball of fire lighted up the skies, turning it crimson, as if a trident had been shot from the temple up to the gloomy clouds. His eyes could scarcely believe if it were a reality or a hallucination born out of extreme terror. And almost as if an answering his question, the vision cleared and he saw Her.
By now, the three friends had driven a short distance away and had reached the nearby village. Their plan initially was to let Ravi spend the night alone in the forest, but after the time they spent with him in the car, they could not bring themselves to drive away, and decided to turn back towards the forest. The path was too narrow and they drove on in search of a wider spot to turn their car but the darkness making it difficult to spot a broader stretch. Finally they located a T-section and swerved to turn when all of a sudden the blinding headlights of an oncoming truck flashed into their vision, and the driver, flustered and panic stricken accelerated to escape, jammed into a large rock, but had a narrow escape. Their sense of relief was soon cut short by the sound of low blast and loss of control on the vehicle and they stepped out to find the front tire deflated. By now, it was pretty dark and since they were stranded in the middle of nowhere, they debated the thought of abandoning Ravi and rushing on to the safety of their home. They spent a while fixing the flat, encumbered by the darkness and isolated surroundings, but were soon back up and functioning. They took a turn and decided to drive back to the forest and help their hapless friend.
Soon they entered the forest, trying to guess the route back to the riverside, fumbling through the pitch dark surroundings, the eerie silence broken by random shrill calls and unknown sounds. They finally spotted the outline of the temple, but to their wonder, it now glowed a bright and vivid orange, almost like a flame was being lit within, and they strained to see if there were any followers conducting any occult rituals, but not a soul was to be seen, or any sound to be heard. They followed the path towards the river in search of the spot where they had last seen Ravi, hoping he had not wandered deeper inside the forest or lost his way trying to find his way back to the village. They reached the place where they were sure they had last seen him, but could not see clearly enough now, so they parked the car and stepped out to look around, calling out to him. The rustle of the leaves in the dead silence disturbed the atmosphere and suddenly a series of screeches and loud wails rented the air, and they were almost too scared to continue ahead and turned back towards the car.
And that’s when they saw him, standing with his back to them, at the exact place where they had last seen him, staring out far ahead into the temple, which startled them, as merely a moment ago they had seen that the exact spot was vacant.
They called out his name, softly at first and then loudly, but he didn’t turn. He stood as if rooted to the spot, drawn by a magnetic spell towards that burning block of marble on the far side of the river. They ran towards him, holding him by the shoulders, shaking him out of his reverie, warning him, apologizing to him, trying to break him out of this stupor, but he stood transfixed, heedless of their cries, his eyes reflecting the flaming red of the temple. Eventually they stopped their hollering, and watched him, riveted by the fiery aura that surrounded him, his concentrated gaze staring far ahead. They looked down into the black river, not very far below, the moonless night not revealing its depths, but the waters on its surface signifying that it was anything but calm or shallow.
How many deranged, desperate souls were known to have willingly drowned in these waters, drawn towards its inviting calmness and promises of eternal peace?
They dragged their eyes away from the waters and turned back to him, right in time to see him turn his face towards them, slowly shaking himself free of the dark powers that held him captive, his eyes steady and unwavering looking blankly at them, devoid of any blame or anger as expected by them but merely sad and wretched as he suddenly jerked and held two of them by their wrists, dragging them towards him, his grip painful and surprisingly strong. They were too stunned to react for a while before they realized that he was trying to pull them towards and down into the river, the wild craze now manifested in his entire being. They held on to each other and the railings, resisting his overpowering strain and somehow freed themselves from his vicious grip and staggered back, lurching away from him. They waited warily, expecting him to charge forward towards them, but watched in horror as a savage smile spread across his face, baring his teeth as he shifted his balance and fell backwards into the cold, black waters, followed by a loud splash and inhuman screams.
None of them dared to move forward to peek where he had jumped. Instead, they turned back, fearing for their lives, sprinted madly towards their car, and drove back home with the same utter confusion and deadening of senses. Wordless, each of them escaped into the safe haven of their beds, knowing in their hearts, that sleep would evade them that night, and for several more to come.
They were mercifully wrong. Physically famished, emotionally drained and mentally traumatized. Sleep came crashing down on them as a welcome savior, which is why they did not hear the knock at first. The knocking steadily increased in intensity and they were all jolted out of their sleep at the same instant, disoriented glances thrown each other’s way. Finally mustering up their courage, they opened the door to see Ravi standing there, leaning against the wall, dazed and almost lifeless, water dripping from his clothes, as he wobbled slowly inside the house.
They had many questions, but none were forthcoming, so it was Ravi who turned to them and said, “I have spent many nights in my village, swimming in the cool waters to escape the heat of the night. This river was too shallow to quench my thirst. I swam my way to the temple and paid my respects to the all-powerful divinity that resides there. After all that’s what you wanted me to do, right?" Thus saying, he dropped onto the bed and fell asleep, while they watched over with disbelief, shock and dismay. They switched off the lights and tried to go back to sleep, each one trying to make sense of the outrageous night.
Suddenly, Ravi opened his eyes which were bloodshot red, and thought, "Tomorrow, I promise to show you what you helped me see. Like me, if you manage to escape the clutches of what lies beneath the calm surface, the rotten corpses and the dead bodies trying to latch on your bodies, you will be granted by the immense power by Her, the Goddess who fulfils every wish."
At day break, they stumbled out of their beds, unable to trust their memories of last night. Too disoriented to discuss, they rushed towards Ravi’s bed only to see him sleeping soundly, peacefullyvwhich made them unsure if this sight gladdened them or disturbed them even more. They got ready and went about their day, unable to focus on their jobs, watching him warily whenever they could, while he carried on his daily routine as if he was unaware or undaunted and all the while waiting for tonight to bask in Her vision again with the offerings he had promised.
Somewhere near the village, many gathered to witness a sight they had seen so often it failed to arouse any distress or fear - a body had washed up ashore. It was never noticed that it bore a striking and uncanny resemblance to Ravi.