Neha found the Hole on her birthday.
Neha didn’t like birthdays. This alone set her apart from just about everyone in her class at school. Even her parents didn’t understand why she didn’t like birthdays.
“But, Neha,” they would say, “everyone likes birthdays. Why don’t you?”
“I’m not everyone,” Neha would mutter. “I’m me.”
She couldn’t explain to them that she wasn’t against birthdays, just didn’t like the forced jollity and the parties. Most especially she hated the parties. And she couldn’t explain that, because she was a girl who lived in her own mind, she’d rather be left alone to enjoy her imagination.
This birthday, Neha would be twelve years old. She was awkward for a twelve-year-old, too tall, too gawky, too plain, and interested in none of the things her classmates found so fascinating. The others didn’t like her. They didn’t dislike her either. They simply found her incomprehensible, and ignored her completely as far as possible. In past years, when her parents had thrown birthday parties for her, those of her classmates who had come had been as uncomfortable as she had felt, and they had left to a mutual sigh of relief.
Her parents never noticed the awkwardness. As far as they were concerned, her future was already fixed. She would study business management, learn how to network with people, and then marry someone of a social status of whom they could approve. Once that happened, they could sit back and consider their duty done. But they weren’t happy at all, because she was showing no signs of cooperating with their vision. She did what she wanted to, and that didn’t make them happy at all.
“You have to learn how to get along with people,” they’d tell her, over and over.
“Why?” Neha would ask, simply. “I don’t like them and they don’t like me.”
“That’s not the point,” her father would say. Her parents usually talked to her as a team, tossing the conversation back and forth between them like a ball. “You have to learn to get along with them. To...adjust.”
“Why?” Neha would reply, genuinely bewildered. “It’s not as though I’ll have to spend the rest of my life around them, will I?”
Her parents would always give up the argument in disgust.
Her teachers didn’t care for her too much either. “Far too lost in her own world,” they said during the PTA meetings. “Always daydreaming, even in class.” Though, since she still did well in the exams, Neha asked reasonably, how did it matter to anyone?
“Is it boys?” she’d heard her mother ask her father once, anxiously. “Is she thinking about boys?”
“She’s too young for that,” her father had replied soothingly. “Far too young for that sort of thing.”
Neha hadn’t been able to decide whether to feel amused or insulted. She didn’t daydream about boys. Her imagination carried her far beyond such mundane creatures as the opposite sex, to dark towers raised against a stormy sky, to alien worlds where ice-cliffs stretched to a blue horizon or red deserts baked under a green sun, and showed her other things, things that she couldn’t describe even to herself.
This year, Neha wouldn’t have to spend her birthday at home. Her Grandma – mom’s mom, whom she hadn’t seen since she was old enough to remember – had always been someone her parents preferred not to talk about in her presence. Once or twice they’d abruptly changed the subject once they’d become aware that she was listening. Her Grandma was odd, it appeared.
But Grandma was rich, she had gathered that much. Grandma was rich, old, and chronically ill. Grandma might even be dying, and she wanted to meet them all, including Neha.
So Neha and her parents took the train all the way across the country. They had to take the train because Grandma lived near a tiny place far from any airport, and it was much too far to drive. The train was very crowded, very slow, and very uncomfortable. Neha was heartily sick of it long before it pulled into the little station and her parents and she disembarked onto a platform empty but for a couple of sleeping dogs.
“So this is what the middle of nowhere looks like,” her father said, looking around. “I always wondered.”
“We’ll just take a cab,” her mother said optimistically. “It can’t be too far.”
“Haven’t you been here before?” Neha asked. “I mean, she’s your mom, so-“
“I told you,” her mother snapped, “that she moved just after I married your father. I haven’t ever seen this place.”
“You should pay attention when your mom says something,” her father agreed. “Really, Neha, I don’t know how many times I’ve told you...taxi!”
Grandma’s house was so far out of the little town that it was even more in the middle of “nowhere”, a sprawling old building set in a yard covered with yellow dust. The dust lay everywhere, turning even the leaves of the trees a dingy brownish hue, so that it seemed to Neha that if she broke open one of the leaves, she would find only the dust inside.
Her grandmother was small, though, and neat as though polished clean. She had to stand on tiptoe to kiss Neha, and then stood back and looked her up and down appraisingly.
“She’s tall, isn’t she?” she said at last. “Going to be taller than either of you, I’ll warrant.”
“She doesn’t eat enough,” her mother said defensively, as though it had been an accusation. “She’s too thin, that’s why she looks so tall.”
After they had changed out of their travel-stained clothes, Neha’s parents asked her to run away and play while they talked to Grandma, as though she were a little kid. She thought briefly of reading, but she only had two books in her bag, and one of them more than half-finished; and who knew how long they would be staying here? So she decided to have a look around first.
“Don’t go prying here and there,” her mother said, a distinct note of warning in her voice. Neha was reminded again that Grandma was supposed to be odd. “And don’t go too far.”
“Don’t worry,” Neha muttered. “There’s nowhere to go anyway.” She turned to go, and from the corner of her eye saw Grandma looking at her, with a look in the old lady’s eye so strange that she turned back quickly. But all she saw was Grandma looking at her with a bland smile.
“Go and enjoy yourself, dear,” she said. “Today’s your birthday, isn’t it?”
Neither Neha nor her parents had mentioned it, but then it wasn’t a family secret either. “Yes,” Neha confessed. “I’ll be twelve.”
“Happy birthday, Neha,” Grandma said. “It’s probably not very nice for you, being stuck so far away from your friends?”
“Oh, she has no friends,” her mother cut in. “She doesn’t mix with anyone. We’ve been telling her and telling her –“
Grandma was still looking at Neha, and again there was the sense of oddness in her eyes. “Have a good time,” she said, cutting off Neha’s mother in mid-spate, “and don’t be afraid of anything you might find. Remember that nothing can hurt you.” It seemed a weird thing to say, but everything about today was weird.
The sun beat down on the dusty yard when Neha finally made her escape. The dust still hung in the air like a tangible film. There were a few outbuildings, but they seemed as stuffy as the main house, and as uninviting. At the back of the house was a line of trees, and Neha went over towards them, hoping for some cool shade. But what she saw made her forget the shade at once.
On the other side of the trees was a pond. It wasn’t large, but its waters were covered with lilies, and dragonflies buzzed above it like tiny yellow and red helicopters. Neha walked along the bank, staring down at the plate-shaped leaves of the lilies, watching the ripples and splashes which might be fishes, or frogs, or maybe just the wind, which was finally picking up. It was fascinating, because she’d never seen a pond before.
She’d almost walked all the way round when she saw the hut.
It was a small place, only big enough to hold one small room, and tucked well into a clump of trees. It seemed an odd place to build a hut, so far away from the other buildings – and when she came closer she noticed that it was windowless and the one door was barred with a heavy plank of wood. For a moment, her hand on the plank, she hesitated, remembering her mother’s warnings. But her Grandma had told her she was free to go anywhere, so she finally lifted the plank off its supports and pushed open the door.
The room wasn’t dark. This was the first thing that struck her, because there were no windows and she’d expected darkness. The lights came from a cloud of tiny sparks that floated in the air like one of the swarms of gnats over the pond. As she came closer, they gathered round her, touching her face and arms, and she felt them tingling.
Behind her, the door of the hut swung shut in the wind, unnoticed. She would have ignored it, even if she had noticed it, because the Hole opened before her at that moment.
It was as though the darkness gathered itself together and twisted and ripped apart, rippling like a whirlpool. In the centre of the spinning darkness the lights whirled, thousands of little sparks gathering together until they formed a blazing funnel of light, drawing her in, pulling her into their centre, and though she had forgotten all about her grandmother’s admonition not to be afraid, she was far too fascinated to even think of drawing back.
She fell into the light. It spun around her, rushing, until she could see nothing but the light, until she was filled with it, until she felt herself part of the light, flooded with it down to the tips of her toes. There was no fear at all – she gasped with joy and wonder, wanting to embrace the light, to make it even more part of herself.
Slowly, reluctantly, the light began to recede. She could feel it drawing away from her, starting at her hands and feet and moving up her arms and legs, up her torso. She didn’t want the light to go – she wanted to hold on to it, but it left her inexorably, until only her eyes were still filled with it. And then it dimmed and was gone.
Neha gasped again, but with shock this time.
She stood on the rim of a vast valley, filled with a dark forest. Far away, on the other side, the land rose sharply in cliffs of sheer stone, higher and higher as though they would reach the sky. And at the very top, there soared the turrets and battlements of a tremendous fort, looking down grimly on the valley below. There was even a flag fluttering from a tower, yellow with a black design in the centre that she couldn’t quite make out. She felt eyes staring down at her from somewhere in that immense mass of stone and masonry, coldly appraising her, though she could see no one.
It was not a dream. She could feel the clammy cold around her, so different from the dry heat of her Grandma’s house; she could feel the stagnant air on her cheeks, the rock sharp through the thin soles of her sandals. When she stepped forwards slightly, her joints creaked a little, like those of an old woman.
She was seized by the arms so suddenly that she had no chance to react.
There were at least three of the men, one holding her by each arm, while the third grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back. This man leaned over her and grinned with yellow teeth, the vileness of his breath making her flinch, and said something to her.
She could not understand a word.
He repeated whatever it was he’d said, but still she couldn’t understand, and at last he seemed to realise it. Reluctantly, he let go of her hair and said something to the other two, who loosened their grip enough that she could turn enough to look at them.
They were dressed in conical metal helmets and armour that seemed to consist of interlinked chain, with swords at their hips and triangular shields hung over their shoulders. They looked absurdly like extras from some Hollywood film set in mediaeval Europe, and she almost expected to see someone tall and handsome, with flowing hair, draw up on a horse and begin heroically slashing away with a sword.
Of course no such thing happened. They still had a firm grip on her arms, and began pulling her down the slope towards the valley, in the direction of the fortress frowning down from the crag. The one who had spoken to her, and who was obviously the leader, went in front, and she could see, on his shield, the same yellow-and-black design as on the flag. The black was a winged serpent of some kind, and she felt even more as though she were in a bad Hollywood movie. But the gauntleted hands gripping her arms were real, and the stones that scraped her feet were real, and the thudding of her heart was all too real.
Soon they were down in the forest, and now they were dragging her, legs stumbling in an effort to keep up. She had lost one sandal, and she could see that the foot was bleeding, and leaving bloody prints at every step. And yet she remembered the admonition of her grandmother, and tried to fight down the panic that tore at her breast.
They stopped suddenly, and she saw the horses. There were three of them, surprisingly small, little more than ponies, waiting where they had been tied under a huge tree. The men looked at the ponies and looked at her, and talked to each other in their unknown language, and she had a strong feeling that they were discussing what to do with her. The leader said something then, curtly, and the man holding her right arm let go and walked towards the horses, while the other’s grip loosened slightly.
She moved as quickly as she could, dropping to one knee and twisting her arm out of the gauntleted grip, and was up and running, dodging under a clumsy grab, shouts of surprise behind her. But she was slow in her one sandal and bleeding foot, and they were chasing her. She could hear their thudding footsteps, their excited cries. There were three of them, they probably knew this forest, and they would catch her in a moment.
Dodging between the trees, she doubled back on her tracks, hoping to throw them off, and almost managed it. But one of them saw her and shouted, and they were after her again.
It was then that she saw the house. It was hidden deep in the shadows between the trees, the walls of dark mossy stone that matched the green of the forest so well that it was almost invisible. Neha would have run past it, unaware, but for a flash of something pale, waving in the corner of her vision. Still running, she turned her head.
Her Grandma stood in the door of the house, beckoning urgently.
For the moment, she was unobserved by her pursuers, and she sprinted for the door of the hut, diving past the older woman, who stood aside quickly and slammed the door behind her. Neha threw herself down on the floor and lay there, taking in great gulps of air. Her Grandma walked over and looked down at her appraisingly.
Only it wasn’t her Grandma. The woman standing above her was younger, less wrinkled, and taller, and her hair was only lightly sprinkled with silver instead of bone-white. But the resemblance was remarkable, especially around the eyes.
“Hello, Neha,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you at last.”
“You know who I am?” Neha asked in surprise.
“Oh yes,” the woman said. “I know a lot about you, though of course we haven’t met before. My name’s irrelevant. Let’s just say that someone known to both of us warned me that you’d be coming.”
Neha pushed herself up on her elbows. “Grandma?”
The woman ignored the question. “I watched you on the hill up there, and was wondering whether I should go up to you and bring you down here. But then the Baron’s soldiers came.”
“The Baron? Who’s the Baron?”
The older woman gestured with her chin in the general direction of the hills. “You saw the castle? The Baron lives there, and you wouldn’t want to meet him. I can absolutely assure you of that. So when they seized you...”
“You were watching? Then why didn’t you do something?” Neha was ashamed the moment the words left her lips. What could a tiny woman, past middle age, have hoped to do against three armoured men-a-arms?
The woman didn’t seem to be bothered by the question, though. “I had every faith that you would escape from them,” she said. “If you hadn’t got away, I’d have done something. But our...mutual acquaintance...had told me enough to give me a high opinion of your abilities, though you’re young. And I wasn’t wrong, was I? Here, get up and sit down here.”
“Please tell me what’s going on,” Neha said, sitting on the cushioned stool the woman had indicated. “Where am I, and what is all this? Why did those soldiers grab me?”
“Well, that’s rather a long story, child; and I daresay it will take you a long time to learn all of it. Let’s just say that our...mutual friend...intends you for great things in the years to come, and this is your first exposure.” She poured a glass of a pale green liquid and held it out to Neha. “Here,” she said. “Drink this.”
The liquid was slightly bitter but surprisingly refreshing. Neha swallowed it and looked up at the older woman. “Where,” she asked, “am I, exactly?”
“Inside this house,” the woman who would not give her name said, “we’re, as far as they’re concerned, nowhere.” She took the glass from Neha’s hand and filled it again. “They can’t enter, don’t worry. But out there – it’s a different world from the one you live in. You’ll understand in time.”
“How do I get back to my own?”
“You will, when the time comes. But don’t worry about that just now. Try and relax a little. Tell me about yourself.”
So Neha talked. She spoke of her parents and of the others at school, none of whom were even interested in trying to get to know her. She talked of her trip to her grandmother, and the way she had found the hut and what had happened there. Finally, when she came to the moment she was standing on the hillside, she looked up from the glass, which was empty again. “And you know the rest.”
The older woman was looking down at her with a very slight smile. “Yes,” she said. “You are the one, no mistake.”
For some reason this made Neha anxious, and she stood up quickly. “I’d like to go now,” she said.
The older woman inclined her head. “You’ll be back,” she said with quiet certainty. She went to the door and opened it, pointing. “Go right, and turn right again at the dead tree with the silver mark on the trunk. You’ll find what you want there.”
“Will I see you again?” Neha asked.
“I think that’s almost inevitable, don’t you?” The woman smiled slightly, again. “I’ll look forward to it.” Without a further word, she stepped back and closed the door.
The forest was quiet. There was not the slightest sound, not a breath of air. Neha looked around and turned to the right. A short walk further, and she came across a big old tree with no leaves on its branches and a white mark on its trunk.
She turned right again – and walked right into the leader of the soldiers who had caught her earlier.
Both of them were so surprised as to be struck motionless for a moment. And then the soldier yelled and lunged, tripped over a tree root and went sprawling. Neha jumped to the side and took off running.
Her breath was rasping in her throat, her blood roaring in her ears. She had lost all sense of direction, and was running blind now, without any idea if she would find herself running back towards the soldier. She didn’t even notice the lines of sparks that began to flash around her rushing feet, spreading quickly up along her body, until they enveloped her in a tunnel of light.
She emerged onto hard-packed sand, still running, and stumbled and fell. For a long moment, she lay prone on the ground, and then, with a convulsive movement, pushed herself up on her arms.
She was on a flat yellow plain, which stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Far away, a line of eroded hills thrust up from the flat immensity of sand and rock. The top of one of these hills was broken and angular, and she became aware that they were ruins she was looking at.
And then she realised where she was. Climbing slowly to her feet, she looked around. Yes, behind her was another line of the eroded hills. She was still in the valley, but aeons had passed by.
She was still wondering what to do when a cloud of dust appeared, in the distance but closing rapidly. Below it she could see tiny dots, which resolved themselves into horsemen, a line of horsemen galloping down the valley. She didn’t know if they were coming for her, but they couldn’t help but see her. Even as she thought this, the nearest of the horsemen turned his mount away from the others and made straight for her.
She could see him now, a compact figure on the back of his black horse, his dark blue robes covering him from head to foot, a fold of cloth masking his face. He was standing in his stirrups, leaning forward over the neck of the beast and urging it on, and she suddenly realised that he had no intention of stopping. He would either snatch her up on the gallop or run her down.
Kicking off the remaining sandal, she began to run to the side, knowing she was too late, that the horse was already veering towards her. She heard the thunder of its hooves and its heavy breathing over her own, and felt the vibration of it through the sand. Instinctively, knowing it was too late, she hurled herself down to the sand, rolling into a foetal ball as she fell...
She never hit the ground.
She was splashing, face down, in shallow water, a gentle current tugging at her limbs. Gasping for breath, she struggled to her feet and looked around.
She was standing in the shallows of a river so wide that the far bank was only a smudge on the horizon. Some distance away, the humps of a line of islands broke the surface, and though they were worn away almost to the water surface, she could guess what they were, or had been.
Something brushed against her legs, a big silver fish, swimming gracefully away through the current. She was still looking at it when there was a splash of oars on water behind her, and a wave struck her behind the knees and almost made her fall. Stumbling slightly, she turned around.
The boat was low and broad, its hull made of some kind of animal skin stretched over a framework of wood. The young man and woman in it were looking down at her with puzzlement, their dark features in identical expressions of surprise. They were both of a type, slim and small-boned, and dressed alike in skin tunics. They glanced at each other and down at her again, and the woman murmured something.
The man glanced at her and back at Neha, and motioned behind her. Turning, she saw that the bank was only a short distance away, a flat expanse of silver sand. Moving clumsily through the water, she waded for it. Parallel to her and a short distance away, the couple in the boat rowed shorewards as well. The man jumped out and helped draw up the boat on the sand.
Neha stood on the beach, soaking wet, and watched them as they unloaded the boat. They glanced over their shoulders and smiled at her while they were taking bunches of strange fruit, like purple peaches, and what looked like dried meat and laying them on the beach. When they were done, the woman came to her, took her by the hand and drew her gently down to where the man had spread out the food on a piece of animal skin.
Seen to from close up, they were obviously older than she’d first thought, probably in early middle age. Both had long hair, down to their shoulders, and despite their slim build the muscles bunched in their arms when they moved. Both had on ornaments, necklaces and armlets of tiny coloured stones strung together, and the woman’s ears were pierced for small bright red earrings like drops of blood. When they smiled, their teeth flashed bright in their dark faces.
It was only when she bit into the tartness of the first of the fruit that Neha realised how hungry she was. She ate as slowly as she could, but the man and the woman watched gravely, and pressed more of the food on her until she could eat no more. Then, as the man gathered up the remainder and stowed it back on the boat, the woman clucked over Neha’s cut and battered feet and spread an ointment over them from a small blue jar.
As the pain in her feet began to dissipate, Neha suddenly felt a desperate exhaustion slip over her. The constant exertion of the past hours made her feel immensely weary, and she leaned back against a convenient rock and closed her eyes. The last thing she saw was the woman looking at her, gravely, as she still massaged the girl’s legs and feet.
“Neha!” someone was shouting. “Ne-ha. Neha!”
Neha’s eyes snapped open. She was back in the tiny room, sitting down with her back to the wall, the sparks slowly dimming in the darkness and dying away. From not too far off she heard the shouting again, and recognised her mother’s voice.
Had she been dreaming? Had it all been a dream after all? There was no time to think of that just now.
“Neha!” Louder, and angry now. “Where on earth is that girl?”
Quickly, she pushed herself up and slipped out of the hut, not wanting for some reason to be found there by her mother. The woman was calling from the other side of the trees, her voice coming closer, and Neha slipped some distance further off before showing herself.
“There you are,” her mother said. “I’ve been calling and calling, and...what have you been doing with yourself?”
Surprised, Neha looked down at herself. Her dress was damp and stuck to her body, stained with mud and sand, and her feet were bare and streaked with traces of clotted blood.
“What happened to you?” her mother shouted. “Did you fall into the pond or...”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Neha snapped, most uncharacteristically, and walked past her towards the house without a look. “I’m all right.”
Grandma was standing at the door, waiting for her. She smiled, and Neha saw a gleam of approval in her eyes.”Had a good time, I suppose?” she asked.
“A good time?” Neha’s mother shrieked. “She disappears for hours, comes back filthy and barefoot, no knowing where she’s been all day, and all you have to ask is if she’s had a good time!”
“Well, why not?” Grandma retorted, her hand finding Neha’s and squeezing. “She deserves a good time on her birthday, at least.” Her small head titled back, looking up at the tall girl’s face. “You weren’t bored, I hope?” she asked, smiling. “Had an interesting time, did you?”
Neha felt her own lips stretch into a smile for the first time she could remember.
“Yes,” she said. “It was a very interesting time. I wasn’t bored at all.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011