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A Wraith When Ruffled
To all intents and purposes, it was a very regular trekking trip, as it was supposed to be. The events described below are wholly off the record.
Sometime on the second day of the expedition, we strayed away from the rest of the group. What we had been promised was a thrilling, extraordinary, once- in- a- lifetime experience, but walking in a somnolent herd around the snowy foothills, stopping once in a while to gaze admiringly at non- descript birds, fell starkly short of our idea of all the above. We were bored. At least, I was, and Ram, seeing his choice was between a possible ticking- off from the group captain in the indefinite future and certain harassment at the hands of my skulking and sarcasm all through the day, chose the lesser of the two evils. So we made our way.
If I had thought that surveying the monotony of the hills on our own would be more eventful than doing the same with a larger group, I was proved lamentably wrong. Worse, it soon began to dawn on me that we were lost. I realised it had dawned on Ram considerably earlier, sometime around the beginning of the incoherent whimpering I had testily cut short.
But when we found ourselves in a truly cloistral landscape within the hills, a valley filled with nothing but snow, surrounded by distant trees and mountains, the fact that we were marooned became plain. It seemed there was no fellow living soul for miles around us. Ram’s whimpering was growing worse now, and it was starting to get on to my nerves.
"Now listen here," I said tetchily, "Stop acting like a stranded goat. We'd be just fine if it wasn't for your demoralizing, defeatist outlook. Pull yourself together. We need to be getting out of here."
That was when the wind, perfectly languid until now, started to streak and dart around most menacingly. It was an effort for us to stay standing, knee- deep though we were in snow. And the howling was deafening- it was almost as if there was a voice behind it. There was- a terrible voice from behind us that chilled me to the bone: "I..." it said with rasping breaths, "... am... the.. ghost..."
As suddenly as it had started, the wind and the howling- its howling, I told myself, not, for goodness’ sake, a ghost’s- stopped, but something of its foulness lingered in the air.
"Did you hear"- Ram began.
"No. Not at all. Not one thing."
But my voice betrayed me.
"It came from behind us, didn't it?" he said.
Slowly, we turned, reduced by our tribulation to feckless, trembling masses of flesh and bones. We were all but frozen and our teeth made an involuntary clattering sound ominously similar to that of a rattlesnake’s tail, and the cold was not the sole cause.
Nothing. Relief. There was nothing behind us. Not the faintest trace of another earthly presence had tinctured the landscape. The wilderness was as it had been before- the trees stunted, the snow falling thickly, our surroundings desolate but soothingly phantom- free. So relieved were we, and so embarrassed by our exaggeratedly morbid imaginings, that we began to laugh. Too soon, as it turned out.
For just then, a furious, soul- shaking roar , like a sound from hell, despoiled the silent valley and sent through it echoing ripples of formidable, powerful, prurient antagonism.
“Who is it,” screamed a thunderous voice from all around us, “Who is it, who has so insolently dared to enter my vale without my permission?”
Then, suddenly, all the snowflakes in the valley around us began to draw close to one another. In no time they had fused together to form a huge mass, cohesive but of indistinct shape. Then the snowflakes vanished, leaving behind a diaphanous amoeboid form whose only features were four enormous eyes and one gigantic mouth. They were sufficient to leave us in a state of petrifaction. The specter hovered over us menacingly.
“Speak, putrid specimens of humanity. What are you called? Why are you here? Speak, if you treasure life.”
In general life, I had never nurtured the remotest belief in otherworldly spirits. I had always scoffed at stories of haunted houses and unidentified flying objects. I had always been a clever, logical little girl.
Now, uncontrovertibly faced with a ghost, I was sure I would be driven mad by my wits, and so wisely I decided to throw my logic to the winds and act according to the specifications of the present situation. I could perhaps pour over it with my intellect later, on some sunny day far away. And so, presently I decided I would talk to the ghost (whose existence I would otherwise have refused to acknowledge).
“I’m Anita, and he’s called Ram. We did not mean to disturb or distress or discommode you, sir, and we apologize if we have done so”-
“We’re lost,” Ram cried out piteously, “We somehow got left behind, took a different path from the rest of the group, and now we’ve landed up here and we have no idea of where to go. Please don’t eat us.” The idiot. We are all warned since early childhood that in the event of being lost, we are never to confide that fact to any sinister strangers we may find around us. Ghosts, while not exactly mentioned, must fall into the category of sinister strangers by default. But trust Ram to disregard every piece of sound advice and do the imprudent thing at the first chance.
The ghost scowled with its two pairs of eyebrows and, unsurprisingly, evinced no sympathy.
“Let me now introduce myself,” he thundered, “I am the Guardian Ghost of this ancient vale. I despise all things living and breathing, especially tiny, frivolous and foul creatures like you. I brook no interference from trespassers in my peaceful picturesque valley.”
“Very, very sorry, Your Greatness, sir,” I said, “We did not know. Oh, most- er- most noble spirit, what can we do to-?”
Cruel laughter resounded around us.
“Flattering a ghost?” he hollered contemptuously, his voice turning fierce and bitter, “Nothing you do or say can appease me. On your account have the winds of my vale been agitated for the first time in a hundred years, and for that you shall PAY.”
At this last word, which rang malignantly in the frosty air, the ghost dematerialized and the wilderness transformed. The specter cut a wide swath. The mountains all around us, which had been wrapped in thick layers of snow an instant earlier, now began to belch smoke and spurts of lava. They rose to the sky like dreadful fireworks and then landed on the valley floor, immediately melting the snow. It revealed a treacherous landscape cut by ravines and interspersed with abruptly rising sharp rocks and large, bottomless depressions. Soon, irregular, steaming streams of flaming lava began to flow down the steep cliffs of the mountains and into the valley.
We ran for our lives, but it was impossible to decide where to run to. Wherever we went, the rivers of lava seemed to follow us almost deliberately. Then the rocks from all the mountains began to roll down in a massive avalanche. We avoided train after train of rock, looking desperately for an exit from the valley. More spirits rose out of the streams and the rocks, all of them hurling fiery weapons at us. Then eagles- more eagles together than the most luxuriant imagination would allow for- swooped down on us breathing fire, their unforgiving talons catching the light of the flames all around.
Ram surprised me with his skills of improvisation. He let forth a terrific battle cry that made the eagles stop dead in their tracks for a minute, and then drew out his tennis racquet from his large backpack. He landed a few heavy blows on the approaching birds and kicked out at the nasty rocks with his feet.
Inspired, I did all I could to survive the onslaught of our monstrous quarries, kicking, dodging, once even hurling one of the smaller rocks at a group of eagles. All the while, I tried to look for a path along which we could escape.
Finally I found it. There was a narrow pass between two mountains which the ghost had evidently overlooked, as it was almost untouched by lava, eagles and ballistic rocks.
“Look there!” I screamed to Ram, “Passage! Run!”
He looked in the direction where I was pointing, nodded grimly and followed. We fled towards the pass with every last ounce of strength we could muster. The forces of destruction chased us relentlessly. Yet, when we reached the end of the pass, we had left them some small distance behind us.
This end of the pass, it seemed, was oblivious to the destruction being wrought not very far away. Two stout mountain donkeys were contentedly enjoying the idyllic sunset. Without thinking, I jumped on to one, gesturing to Ram that he must do the same. He followed suit. The vagaries of nature had rounded the corner.
The short- legged donkeys were surprisingly fast. No, they were incredibly fast, I realized as the wind began to whistle in my ears and the sounds of devastation became progressively fainter and fainter. They needed no direction, and we were in no position to give them any. All we wished to do was put several miles between ourselves and the terrible Guardian Ghost. The donkeys had a unique aura of intelligence and reassurance about them, and we let them take us wherever they would.
Soon, there was no sign of the ghost’s perpetrations around us. The donkeys began to slow down. And, implausibly but undeniably, we could see the lights of our camp ahead of us. The donkeys stopped some distance away from the camp, and we dismounted and admired the soothing lights for a while. Ram patted his donkey, and I hugged mine.
“You’re the nicest creatures in the whole world,” I told them earnestly.
The donkeys looked at me soberly.
“They actually knew the way here,” said Ram, “And they were oh- so- fast.”
The donkeys did something very strange. They rolled their eyes- four between the two of them- simultaneously in an unmistakable gesture of disdain. Then they vanished, and in their place appeared a fire- breathing eagle, then a rolling rock, then a stream of lava, and finally a large shapeless form, nearly transparent and wearing the same smug look as the donkeys.
The Guardian Ghost grunted, not unpleasantly. We were too bemused to speak.
“Of course I knew the way here,” he said boisterously, “I know every nook and cranny of these mountains. I’ve lived here longer than any human or ghost.”
Still we found ourselves incapable of speech. Then once again we were surrounded by rumbling laughter, alarming, sardonic, but far from cruel.
“I saw you two were lost. I thought I’d help you find your way back. But then it’s always tempting to have a few laughs too, don’t you know? I do enjoy the guardian ghost act. You should have looked at your faces.”
He laughed again; there was a pause.
“I am a lonely ghost, you see. It’s mostly only conifers and snow I have around me. So I like to get some kicks out of human company when I can. You’re a lot of fun as a species. Probably you’re feeling a bit harrowed at the moment, but later you’ll find it hilarious too.”
We said nothing. We just couldn’t. The specter turned and disappeared, but the laughter lingered in the air for a while.
When it had faded away, we began to make our thoughtful way back to the camp.
Wherever in the future a reference to spirits was made in any conversation, I would always find myself tongue- tied. My only conviction on the subject is that ghosts, whatever and wherever they are, - and if they actually do exist, which is improbable- have the most devilish sense of humor.