Tuesday, 21 February 2012

House On The Hill

Note to reader: This story has a history. Way back when I was eight years old, my father (absolutely no raconteur) began telling me a horror story. It was about him and his friend Bimohit going on a hike and coming across a big house with a gate, through which a dog entered and came bolting out in panic terror. And that's where he was interrupted by something or other, and never picked up the story again.

Recently, I happened to think of that story, and decided to finish it. I don't think this is what my father intended, but then the interpretation is my own.



That night, after the last of the dishes had been cleared away and the rain had begun falling hard outside, the Storyteller finally began to talk.

He was an old man, one of those people who seem, somehow, always to have been old. He was fairly big, with a square face and a grizzled moustache, and if one thought about it one would have guessed that he must have been quite good-looking in his youth. But it was almost impossible to imagine that he had ever been young. Even the oldest of the others of our little gathering, who had known him the longest, said he had never looked any different than he did now.

Nobody knew for sure what he did for a living. He deflected all questions on that point with such casual ease that speculation ranged from him being a secret agent to a ganglord on the run, and from a porn film producer to an ex-dictator down on his luck. The truth was probably something so prosaic that it would have disappointed us bitterly had we known it, and he enjoyed the mask of mystery as much as we did.

What we did know about him, though, was that he was a master storyteller. More than anything it was these stories which gave him the aura of mystery that surrounded him like a visible aura. Not only were his tales entertaining in themselves, he had that rare and captivating gift of the true raconteur, of immersing his listeners in the story until they forgot that it was one. That is why we called him the Storyteller. He always insisted, though, that they weren’t stories – that they had all happened to him or to people whom he knew and could vouch for.

He came to our club only relatively infrequently, once or twice a month in the summers, and rarely if at all when the weather turned cold. He would sit in the corner, drinking a succession of cups of unsweetened black coffee, until dinnertime. And it was then that we had to look sharp, because unless we could provoke him into beginning a story by the time the meal was over, he’d go quietly away and we’d be left high and dry.

That night we’d almost despaired of his beginning a story. We had tried all the tricks, starting from carefully staged acrimonious arguments over the latest upsurge in international tensions, and when that had failed to evoke even an amused smile from him, had gone on to discuss in awed tones the narrative skills of a newly famous author of horror fiction, someone whose writing we’d been convinced he’d dislike. Even that had failed to provoke him into anything more than gazing meditatively into his awful coffee. Finally, with the food congealing on the plates before us, we’d fired our last shot, and begun telling stories ourselves, of things that we had allegedly seen. The effort was so pathetic that when my turn came around I didn’t even try.

It was probably because the rain began coming down hard just as we finished the meal that the Storyteller decided to stay back for a while. He always came to the club on foot – we had no idea where he lived, and whether he walked all the way here and back or took some kind of public transport, or perhaps had a car (or some more exotic vehicle) parked discreetly away in some alley nearby. But the rain was coming down in torrents and the thunder cracking overhead, and he probably had as much distaste as anyone else at the prospect of being caught out in that downpour.

“Bring me a brandy,” he said to the steward, “a brandy with hot water.” We let out a collective sigh of relief. A brandy was the cardinal sign that he’d begin a story; he’d nurse it till the end and then toss off what was left.

In reverent silence we watched as he rotated the glass between his palms, sniffed at the steam rising from it appreciatively, and sat back in his corner chair.       

“Nasty weather,” he said.

We agreed. “Very nasty.”

As though in agreement, a terrific clap of thunder made the windows rattle. The Storyteller cocked his head as if listening to the language of the storm.

“Mind you,” he said, “it isn’t the nastiest weather you could have. Not by a long chalk.”

“No,” I agreed. “There are typhoons and such, and...”

“I’m not talking about that,” he said sharply. “Nothing so – mundane – as that. It was of a different order altogether, up there inside the house on the hill.”

With a glance around to make sure our attention was completely fixated on him, he sipped at his brandy and began to talk.

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You never knew Bimohit (the Storyteller said). We had been friends from the time we were boys, and though our lives had taken different paths after school, we never really lost touch with one another. Every few months we’d find occasion to meet and go out together. Sometimes, if we were only free for an evening, we’d watch a movie and go out for dinner. If we had a few days free, we might go out for a hike.

Those hikes were more friendly contests than anything. Bimohit was a great walker, long-legged as a greyhound and slim as a whippet. Even though I’d always enjoyed walking, I found it difficult to keep up with him. But it was a point of honour with me, being bigger and stronger, that I didn’t lag behind at the end of the day.

Those days I lived in a small town, far away from here. You’d recognise the name if I told you, but you wouldn’t recognise the place if you went there now. It’s not a small town any longer, and just about everything’s changed. Everything, I suppose, but that house – the house on the hill.

That town is surrounded by hills. They’re rough and new, bare rock with patches of fir and juniper, and tiny little hamlets strung out along mountain paths. Tourists used to come from far off to hike in those hills. They still do, as far as I know, and the hiking trails are heavily travelled. All of them – except one.

That time that I’m talking about, Bimohit had come up from the plains for a long weekend. I’d known he was coming, and made sure I was free. We had time; we were planning to stay out for three days, leaving us a fourth to rest before Bimohit had to leave and I get back to work.

Bimohit arrived in the late evening, and after a night’s rest was already raring to go before I’d even got out of bed. I rushed through my preparations, we had a hasty breakfast, and left just after seven in the morning, when the sun was beginning to peep over the tops of the jagged hills. We’d already hiked most of the major trails, and wanted to try some of the least travelled ones, which were new to me as well. The one I’d had my eye on was steep and stony, and virtually no one went that way; in other words, just what we wanted.

The heel of one of my hiking boots was flapping loose, and we stopped at a local cobbler’s to repair it. While the man bent over the last, stitching the boot, Bimohit and I discussed among ourselves the route we’d take. Then we saw the cobbler staring up at us.

“That is not a good way,” he said. “Not-good things happen up there.”

Not-good things? Bimohit and I glanced at each other, amused. “What do you mean?” I asked the cobbler. “Do robbers lie in wait for travellers, or something?”

“Not robbers, no.” The man was clearly wishing he hadn’t spoken. “Just not a good way. Nobody goes that way. Other trails much better, sir.”

“Well, thanks,” I said. “But we’ve decided on this route, and we’re quite experienced hikers, so we’ll be all right.”

He muttered something under his breath and handed my boot back. He’d fixed it quite expertly, and wanted a remarkably small amount of money. We were soon out of there and walking up the street to the point where the trail began.

“Did you hear what he was muttering at the end?” Bimohit asked suddenly.

I shook my head. “I was trying on the boot. What was he saying?”

“Didn’t make much sense, really. Something about avoiding the big house.”

That didn’t make any sense to me either, so we put it out of our minds and bent forward as the slope steepened and we began the long slog up the hill.


By midday we knew it was going to be a tough hike, one of the toughest we’d ever been on. The path was so steep that it felt as though we’d need mountaineering equipment, and in such a bad state that we could well believe it was hardly ever used. More than once the loose gravel and pebbles went sliding away under our feet and we only saved ourselves from falling with difficulty. We were too busy even to appreciate the scenery around us.

“It’s got to be easier when we get to the top of this hill,” I said, with more hope than expectation. “It has to flatten out sooner or later. We can take a break then. Besides,” I added, “it’s going to start pelting down soon.”

This was true. Although the forecast had been for clear skies, the day had clouded over as we had worked our way up the hill, and thick grey rolls of nimbus lay overhead now, dark with the shadow of rain. We normally didn’t mind inclement weather, but the path we were on would be twice as treacherous with water sluicing down it.

“We ought to find some kind of shelter,” I said.

“That’s just because you’re lazy,” Bimohit said, but it was obvious he was feeling the strain, too. He hadn’t even tried to leave me in his dust. “You’re scared of getting wet.”

I didn’t reply, because the path had steepened abruptly, and I needed all my breath. Besides, the first drops of rain started coming down, at first a few random globules of water that spattered on the rocks, but quickening rapidly, the sting of the drops like bullets. We couldn’t even stop on that slope to drag our rainwear out of the rucksacks.

Fortunately, the slope ended only a short distance above us, in a stand of trees, and we managed to scramble up to the top fast enough to avoid the onset of the downpour. And there, beneath the trees, we saw something surprising.

The path, which had long since degenerated into a stony mountain track, suddenly flattened out and broadened into a gravel road large enough for a car to travel. On one side of the road there was a small round summerhouse, with a conical roof on pillars over a waist-high wall. We had no time to waste, because with a crash of falling water the deluge came down, and we just had time to rush for the summer house before we were soaked to the skin.

There was a low and narrow bench around the wall inside the summerhouse, and Bimohit and I squeezed ourselves on to it. It was a very narrow bench, though, so narrow as to be acutely uncomfortable. Also, the roof leaked just about everywhere, and rain blew in through the open upper portion of the summerhouse sides between the pillars, so we weren’t much less uncomfortable than we’d have been outside. Bimohit, saying his calves were hurting him, tried to knead them and nearly fell off on the rubbish-strewn floor.

“This is pretty awful,” I said, rummaging inside my rucksack for my raincoat. “Looks like it’s going to go on for a while, too.”

“Look,” Bimohit said, and touched my shoulder. “Look there.”

Straightening, I turned in the direction he was pointing, across and a short way down the gravel road. At first I didn’t understand what he meant, and then I saw a small white and black dog trotting along, head down and fur sodden.

“Wonder whom he belongs to,” Bimohit said. “Odd to find a dog way up here on the hill.”

“There must be people somewhere,” I told him. “This isn’t much of a road, but it’s in better shape than the track.” We watched the dog as it glanced briefly over its shoulder at us and then trotted on, until it suddenly turned to the side of the road and vanished.

“He went in there,” Bimohit said, “through the gates.” For the first time, I noticed the metal railings of a pair of tall gates between the trees. The space around them was fairly overgrown, so it was not surprising that I hadn’t seen them before. Beyond them, squinting through the foliage and the rain, I could make out the roof of what must have been a substantial mansion.

“That will be better shelter than this,” I said.

“Yeah,” Bimohit said. “I guess.” He didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic, but shouldered his bag and followed me out, head bent against the rain.

The path beyond the gates was overgrown, as though nobody used it any longer, and had not for a long time. The gates themselves were higher than we could reach, the railings surmounted by barbed spikes, their two halves secured by a latch and hook. I was examining this to see if it could be turned when there was a rush through the rain and the dog we’d seen earlier hurled itself at the gate, wriggled frantically through the gap between two railings, and raced off down the road, its tail tucked firmly between its legs. I caught a glimpse of its face as it passed me, and seldom have I seen such a mask of terror.

“Something scared him,” Bimohit observed, “so badly that he couldn’t even yelp.”

I remembered that he loved dogs, but I had other things to worry about just then. “Hold this side of the gate steady,” I instructed, and worked the latch off the hook with some difficulty. With a hard push, I managed to open the gate enough for us to squeeze through.

“What if the owner objects?” Bimohit asked.

“Doesn’t look like there is an owner in residence,” I answered. “If there is, we just tell him that we’re looking for shelter from the storm.”

“I don’t know...” Bimohit’s behaviour was so unlike his usual manner that I glanced at him sharply. He looked deeply unhappy, as if there was something on his mind.

“What’s troubling you?” I asked.

“It’s probably nothing,” he replied. “I was just remembering that cobbler of yours who told us to keep away from the big house.” He pointed at the mansion which had just come into view along the path. “I suppose this is the big house.”

It hulked above us, two stories high, dark brown walls surmounted by a dark green roof. The windows were covered by shutters, and the entire house had a closed-in, forbidding look. It had evidently once been surrounded by gardens, but they were just expanses of vegetation now.

“It’s big and ugly enough,” I said, “but I don’t fancy going back out in this rain, do you? Besides, do you really want to make your decisions based on what a cobbler said?”

“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted. “But there was the dog. He was terrified of something.”

“Have we seen anything to be frightened of?” I asked. “We need a place to rest and put up for the night, and I can’t think of anywhere else we might find.”

“The dog must have come from somewhere,” he said.

I shrugged. “Where? Do you really want to go wandering around in this looking for shelter when we have this place all ready?”

“Yeah, all right.” He was still hanging back reluctantly, so I went up to the front door to see if we could get in that way.

I soon found that wouldn’t be happening. The front door was shut with a huge iron lock, and though it was thick with rust it yielded not at all to my efforts. With a hacksaw or a hammer I could have forced it, I suppose, but we hadn’t brought anything of the sort with us. But I was reluctant to give up at this point, not only because I didn’t want to go back into the rain but because I felt that to do so somehow would validate the cobbler’s warning. “Let’s go round the side,” I said. “Maybe we’ll find a window open.”

It wasn’t really that big a house, and we’d soon made almost a complete circuit of it. All along the ground floor, the windows were shuttered and there was no apparent way we could enter. There was a back door, but it was firmly shut from the inside. On the off chance that there was a caretaker within, I hammered on it with my fist and then a stone, but nothing happened.

“There’s no way in,” Bimohit said, with unmistakable relief. “Let’s get going.”

“No, look,” I said, pointing. We’d come round the back and were walking along the wall on the far side. The shutters on one of the windows hung loose on one side, leaving an opening full of darkness.

I’ll confess that at that moment I had the strongest impulse to leave the house alone and go back to the summerhouse with Bimohit to wait out the rain. But there was the question of shelter for the night, and there was also the simple and compelling factor of pride. I don’t think Bimohit would have brought it up, but it would have hurt my own self-image if I’d stepped back at that point. Well, one lives and learns.

So I pushed at the shutter and it gave way suddenly and swung free with a crash against the wall, and the way inside lay open.

After that not even Bimohit made any difficulty about entering. Technically, of course, we were committing a crime, we didn’t think about that. First I pushed my rucksack in through the window, and then clambered up and into the room. Bimohit handed me his pack, and I helped pull him inside. He was rather shorter than me, and might have found it difficult otherwise.

Only after we were both inside did I look around the room. There wasn’t really much to see; it was small, unfurnished, and the floor was wet with water, some of which had blown in through the window and the rest dripped off our raincoats. On the far wall a door stood open.

“You got a torch?” I asked. Somehow, I hadn’t thought to bring one, probably as a result of the hurry in which I’d packed that morning. “We’ll probably need a torch.”

“Yes, I have one here.” He fished a small blue torch out of his bag, which threw a wavering pencil of light. “Sorry, but that’s all I have.”

“Can’t be helped,” I said. “It’s better than nothing.” We followed the torch beam through the far door and into a corridor, which ended in stairs leading up. With the slightest hesitation, for I hadn’t quite shaken off the curious feeling that had come on me at the sight of that open window, I started up the stairs, Bimohot following behind me. He was holding the torch, and its light wavered between my legs and threw strange shadows on the stairs. I felt like asking him to give it to me, but it was my blunder in not bringing my much larger and better flashlight, so I didn’t say anything.

I’d expected the stairs to end in another corridor, but instead it terminated in a landing with a single door, on the right. When I tried it, with a very slight squeak, it swung open.

It was a surprisingly large room, because the torch didn’t light up the far wall, but then it threw a weak little beam anyway. There was no furniture, and the floor was bare and made of something that looked faintly glossy, like black glass. Apart from a highlight here and there, it swallowed the torch beam completely.

“Must be some kind of marble,” I hazarded, poking at it with the toe of my boot. It wasn’t as smooth as it looked – it wasn’t slippery and it felt like a concrete floor to my foot. But I also realised another strange thing. “There’s no dust on this,” I added.

“What?” Bimohit’s voice sounded curiously muffled, though he was just behind me. “What did you say?”

“I said, it’s strange that there’s no dust.” I glanced over my shoulder at him, and there was another odd thing, something so odd that I was at a loss to explain it. “Bimohit,” I said, “just turn your torch back the way we came.”

I had to repeat it before he understood, and turned the beam of the torch back. As I’d thought, we couldn’t see the door through which we’d come, or even the wall, though we certainly hadn’t walked so far into the room that they were beyond even the torch’s feeble glow. I frowned, wondering whether to try and retrace our footsteps. But there didn’t seem a point to it; going back would only put us back on the landing.

We continued across the black glassy floor, the torch striking little rainbow-hued highlights from it, until I began to wonder just how large the room was. Surely it couldn’t still be going on? Were we walking round and round in circles in the middle of the floor, disoriented in the darkness? I said something of the sort to Bimohit, but he didn’t reply.

Suddenly, I began to feel that there was something in the room with us, in the darkness overhead. I could almost see it in my mind’s eye, hanging from the ceiling somewhere above us, like a gigantic bat, watching us through a picture made of sound. I could almost hear the rustling of its gigantic leathery wings, as it shook itself and prepared to drop on us in a swoop. For a moment, I almost froze in panic.

But that panic lasted just a moment, because Bimohit’s torch just then illuminated a wall. The sight of that wall served to drive the fear out of my mind as if it had never been. I almost laughed aloud at the thought that I’d been so spooked by a mere fancy. I must have made some sound, because Bimohit asked me what I was sniggering about. That was when I also realised that I could hear him clearly again. The curious muffling effect had vanished.

Following the wall, we soon came to a door. It looked to me like the door through which we had entered the room, open as we’d left it. But there was a faint light coming through it, as of daylight filtered through clouds and filthy glass, so it couldn’t have been that door; and in any case I had no desire to cross that glassy black floor again. So, with scarcely a backward glance past Bimohit into the darkness, I stepped through the door.

For an endless moment, I was sure I was falling.

There was no floor beneath me. I stood on a rocky shelf, barely twenty or thirty centimetres wide, over a drop that seemed to go on forever. Far below, a grey plain stretched into the hazy distance, under a dim sky weeping a dim leprous light. On that plain, things moved, humped shapes as dusty grey and indistinct as the dust in which they crawled. Even from our considerable elevation, I could see their blunt faces, which stared up at us without eyes, and their gaping toothless mouths, hungrily sucking; and I knew that they were enormous, larger than any creature I’d ever heard of, and that they were hungry, and waiting – waiting for us to fall.

At my shoulder, Bimohit cried out suddenly, with such fear in his voice that he nearly startled me into a fatal tumble. As I frantically windmilled my arms, trying to regain my balance, Bimohit grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me back. If not for that, I’d have taken a long, long dive down to that dusty grey plain, where the eyeless giants were waiting with their toothless, devouring mouths.

Bimohit’s pull on my shirt was so strong that we both fell backwards through the door we’d come through, into darkness. I hit my head on something, and was momentarily stunned. When I regained full control over my senses, Bimohit was kneeling over me, rubbing my hands and babbling hysterically.

“Did you see them, my God,” he was saying. “Did you see those things?”

“Of course,” I said, rubbing my head. “And you nearly made me fall down among them shouting out like that. Even though they didn’t have teeth...”

“What are you talking about?” he asked. “They were all around us, flying through the air, and their mouths were all teeth. They – one was just about to take your head off...”

I looked at him. In the light of the torch, once again the only illumination we had, his face glistened with sweat. “Tell me,” I said carefully, “just what it was that you saw.”

From what he told me, it was clear that we’d seen quite different things. From his account I got the idea of an eroded rocky desert, under a glaring white sky, in which things writhed and flew – things hard to see, with many wings and twisting bodies like snakes, their heads spiked with huge hooked teeth. One of these creatures had dropped on me, mouth open, when Bimohit had dragged me back. He’d not seen the abyssal plain and the grey things at all.

We stared at each other after I told him what I’d seen. I don’t know what he was thinking, and my own thoughts were hardly coherent at that point. Almost mechanically, I took the torch from him and shone it around us. I wasn’t even surprised to find we were crouched in a tiny cell, with walls of stone blocks crawling with moisture. The door we’d gone through and then fallen backwards through was just a solid wall; on another wall was a low opening like an arch, just about high enough to pass through hunched over.

Still holding the torch, I bent low and shone it through the aperture, turning it around. I saw a dirt floor, stretching as far as the weak little beam could reach, little glinting particles of quartz or mica shining in the light. I could not see a wall of any kind.

There was nothing, in any case, that we could do except crawl through that low opening into the space beyond, so that was what we did. The dirt was soft and wielding, not easy to walk through, and my feet sank in it up to the eyelets of my boots. Bimohit had not asked for his torch back, and I didn’t offer it to him. In fact, I believe that at that moment if he’d tried to take it from me I’d have fought him for it.

Little by little I realised that our surroundings weren’t quite dark; there was a faint reddish glow from somewhere which grew slowly stronger as we waded on through the dust. It was as if a vast red fire was burning over the horizon.

By then I no longer had any fear. The things I’d been through were so strange that fear didn’t even enter into it any longer. I’d gone numb.

Not so Bimohit. He stuck close to me as we walked through the dust, and I could feel him shivering. Maybe – if I’d taken time to introspect – I’d have felt sorry for him. After all, he hadn’t wanted to come in here. It was I who’d got us in. And there didn’t seem much prospect of us ever getting out.

By that point, too, I’d lost all idea of how much time had passed. We could have had been inside that house an hour, or a day. I hadn’t felt hungry or thirsty, but with all that was going on, hunger and thirst had become as redundant as fear. I was just trudging through the dust watching that red flickering glow in the sky. Once in a while I flicked on the torch, but there was nothing to see, so I turned it off to preserve what was left of the battery power. Once I focused the light back along the way we’d come, but there was nothing there either – not even our tracks in the dirt were visible.

After a while I realised that the dirt around us wasn’t bare any longer. There were things growing in it, hard to see in the red glow, but shaped like plantains, and about as high as a tall man. They crowded on all sides, so that Bimohit and I had to wend our way between them. The leaves were stiff, and when I touched one I felt the prick of tiny spines.

“Watch out for the plants,” I warned Bimohit.

“They’re growing taller,” he said. “Did you notice? It’s going to be a regular forest soon.”

This was true. The plants were much larger now, their leaves meeting overhead, leaving us more space since we didn’t have to keep dodging the leaves. Also, though the glow in the sky was much brighter, the leaves threw dark shadows over everything, so we were walking through a dark maroon gloom.

There was a sudden rustling in the air behind us and above the trees, and as I turned my head there was a blinding pink flash and a noise as though the sky was splitting in half. A moment later, with a patter like rain, liquid fire began to fall from the sky.

It came down in globules like red-hot molten metal, slashing through the leaves and igniting them as they fell. The fire ran in rivulets through the dirt, streaking past our boots, and the air itself seemed on fire.

I ran, I don’t know in which direction. I must have tried to scream, but opening my mouth seared my throat. My eyes seemed to shrink back in their sockets – I clenched them shut and still the flames were so bright that I could still see shadowy images, burning plants, falling fire, and Bimohit, like a melting  wax figure with fire pouring all over him.

Bent forward, trying to protect my head and shoulders with my upraised arms, I ran, until the fire above and beneath and all around me grew so hot and bright that I could no longer keep my senses, and, stumbling, I fell.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious. When I regained my senses I was lying on a thin mattress, staring up at a whitewashed ceiling. Daylight poured in through an open window – real daylight; I could see clouds floating in a blue sky. I sat up and looked around. The room was small, with a floor of wooden planks, and except for my mattress, unfurnished. The walls were whitewashed plaster, with a painting hanging opposite the window.

It seemed quite a pleasant room, amazingly normal, and I wondered how I had got there and where I was. My backpack was next to the mattress, but there was no sign of Bimohit, or of the blue torch, which I’d been clutching during my panic-stricken rush through the rain of fire. I got up and walked over to the window; looking through it, I saw only the tangled garden at the side of the house. It was the window through which we had entered.

I pulled on my bag and turned to look for the door, meaning to search for Bimohit – but there was no door. The room’s walls were solid except for the window, and there was nothing but the painting.

For some reason it was a while before I took a close look at the painting. It seemed very old, badly stained, the paint peeling off the canvas in little tags, and the glass was thick with dirt. At first sight it looked like a painting of a garden seen through trees, with a large house behind it. When I took a closer look, almost pressing my eyes against the glass, I saw there was someone at one of the windows of the house. I squinted and rubbed at the glass, trying to make out the features.

Ten seconds later I was outside the window, scrambling on hands and knees through the tangled grass and weeds. Nor did I stop running until I was out of the gate, and even then I kept going until I could no more, until I was staggering and finally passed out by the roadside.

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The Storyteller paused, and took another sip of brandy.

“What more is there to say? I was found by the road by a shepherd, one of the hill tribesmen from those parts. He helped me down to the town, where I lay ill for many days, and was delirious for much of the time.

“Even now I can see that figure in the painting – standing at the window, looking out. Even through the dirt and grime, despite the fading paint, I could make out the features. They were mine.

“But that was not the thing that sent me away in howling terror. It was the figure’s eyes – the eyes that should have been mine. They stared out of the painted face, and inside them was...nothing.

“Can you imagine nothing? Complete and utter blankness? You can’t. The mind can’t handle it. I can see it, even now, as though I was standing there in front of that painting; but I can’t describe it. It can’t be put into words.

“In the end I tried to go back. I had to find out what had happened – to see what was there in that house. But I couldn’t.”

“You couldn’t?” someone asked. “Was it because you were so ill?”

The Storyteller glanced at him. “It wasn’t that. I went up there, all the way. I found the house. But I literally couldn’t enter; the gate was latched again, as before, but I couldn’t force the latch open. I couldn’t climb the wall either. I don’t know if it was my mind rebelling against the idea of my entering that hell-house again. More likely than not it was.”

“What happened to your friend?” I asked. “To Bimohit?”

The Storyteller shook his head and sipped at his brandy. “I never saw Bimohit again. I have no idea what happened to him; perhaps he is still inside that house somewhere. Perhaps he died in the rain of fire. But he certainly didn’t make it out with me.”

I frowned. “But surely you had his address? You could have checked and...”

“Do you really think that hadn’t occurred to me?” The Storyteller smiled bitterly. “I looked for him everywhere. I went to his address in the city, and visited the company where he worked. I even went to our old hometown and tried to track down his family. But...”

“Yes?” I prompted when he paused for so long that it seemed he had decided not to go on.

“It was as though Bimohit had never existed.” The Storyteller looked round at us. “Nobody had ever heard of him. The flat where he’d lived, where I’d visited him more than once, was tenanted by someone else, who said she’d been living there for over two years. The company had never heard of him. His parents back in the hometown existed, all right – but they had only had one child, not two, and that child was not Bimohit.

“There are other weird things. I could find none of his things in my house after I’d got back from the hospital where the shepherd had put me. It was as if he’d never visited me. Nor could I find that blue torch of his anywhere, even though I was sure I’d had a death grip on it during the rain of fire.

“I checked through my old photographs. I’d had several with Bimohit, from back in our childhood and from some of our hiking trips. The photos existed, all right – but in all of them, I was now alone.”

There was a long silence. We all seemed reluctant to break it, and yet there was a question to be asked. In the end I asked it.

“Did you hear any other reports from people who’d been to the haunted house?”

“Haunted house?” The Storyteller frowned up from his brandy. “What haunted house? Who ever heard of a haunted house?”

“But surely – the house was haunted, wasn’t it?”

“Of course not – there are no such things as ghosts.” The Storyteller looked disappointed. “I thought you understood the two implications.

“I don’t know who built that house,” he went on, “or when. I didn’t try to find out. Nor do I know whether the, uh, circumstances in the house were present from the beginning or appeared later. I rather think it’s the latter – that some modification, some realignment, pushed things just a little bit over the edge, and all of a sudden, what was once a normal house turned into...that.

“I think that house is a gateway,” he said. “A gateway between worlds, if you want to put it that way, or between alternate realities. I think it primarily affects minds, though, not bodies – or else I could never have got out of there without being burned to a cinder.”

Rising from his seat, he tipped the last drops of his brandy down his throat. “The rain’s stopped,” he observed. “I’ll be getting along, then. Good night, gentlemen.”

“Wait!” I said. “You said two implications. Which was the second?”

The Storyteller paused in the act of pulling on his coat. “Think about it,” he said. “The world I lived in before I entered that house had Bimohit in it. He never drew breath in the world I live in now, the one we all live in. It follows, therefore, that it is not the same world.

“I keep thinking,” he said softly, “that somewhere, Bimohit lives on, in a world where I never existed; and that means that there are worlds in which you gentlemen never were, either; or where none of the things you hold dear ever existed. And all it might take for you to get there would be a trip through that accursed house.

“Or,” he added, “if I am right and a random chance triggered the changes that made the house what it was, what’s to say that it can’t happen again, somewhere else? What’s to say that, for instance, that because someone parked a car at a particular angle in the street outside, this door here isn’t right now a portal to an alternate reality?"

He smiled round at our stricken faces. “Thank you for a pleasant evening gentlemen,” he said, and went out into the night.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012  

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