He crept forward, feeling the sinuous body of grass brush against his arm. Above the dark heavens, a gibbous moon hung, serving as the only grim guide into this forsaken place.
Rightfully, the absence of light would have inhibited his camera any ability to capture images. Any photographer could point that out to him.
Even his eyes had trouble navigating the path that lay ahead, despite the fact that his pupils had been fully dilated. Shutter speed. Aperture. Rules of the third.
Those words echoed in his mind, remnants of a lecture so long ago. The application of such knowledge would have burdened a dilettante in the art of photography. But not him.
For the subject of his interest was one that dwelled in the between. The between. Thomas could now see the shack fronting him. In the dark, it loomed large and imposing, a massive fist trudging out of the ground. Around him, the wind moved with purposeful intensity, dancing about the haunted place like an ephemeral guest.
Thomas flexed his hand, trying to shrug away the cold that touched his trigger finger. Nestled within his palm was an unassuming camera (a Canon EOS).
He moved onwards in a crouching posture, attempting to make his form as insignificant as possible. Nearby, the trees creaked and groaned softly in the night, announcing the presence of an interloper among their midst.
Someone died there a long time ago, Master Yama said to him a few weeks back. Thomas stopped short at the entrance to the structure.
You can’t see it. Not yet. For the eyes of man was never meant to gaze into the world of the unliving, his cold, pragmatic voice floated towards him on memory wings.
Sometime back, the shack would have had a roof. Now only the frame remained to remind others of its past. Walls made out of wood enclosed the space from four corners, forming a rectangle.
Across the wooden surface, dark bluish spots ran like a leper’s wound, courtesy of the humid-loving fungus. Knuckles of shrooms protruded from the gaps in the walls.
If you want to capture the things that no one else has seen, then you must walk the path that no one else has walked, Master Yama’s voice returned. A cryptic whisper in the restless night.
Such is the way of the Okazumi, he rasped. Tobacco smoke had long ago robbed his voice of its natural cadence.
Thomas placed the camera on the ground and assumed a prone position. Under him, the soil felt cold and wet as a cadaver’s caress. He shivered and hugged himself, feeling so alone in this desolate place.
The trees above nodded like night sages, shaking loose leaves that cascaded down in a rustle. He steadied his hands and removed the camera from the ground, wiping the viewfinder with the hem of his shirt.
His mind’s eye returned to the antique shop where he found his most unlikely tutelage under the eccentric Japanese man. Under the lantern light, Master Yama's bald head glistened with ritual oil. Short of stature but of a strong, burly build. He wore an orange monk’s robe, cinched to his body by a yellow sash.
Thomas knelt on a cushion in the centre while Master Yama walked around him, reciting, “To make a Dead Lens, you must first imbue your device with the power of life.”
His voice, usually frail, was strangely powerful that night. He extended a hand and Thomas hesitantly placed the camera into his palm.
“Blood, the current from which life flows, is the undisputed symbol of life. Hence, its life-giving properties make for a fine conduit, to reach forth into the ether and establish that crucial bridge between the dead and the living.”
Master Yama, who was circling his apprentice stopped, then turned to regard him.
“You must submerge the lens in cat’s blood.”
“Cat’s blood?” Thomas spluttered. His face beheld an incredulous expression.
“Not just any cat,” he snarled.
“A black cat with white paws. Only that will do. Only that,” he said, turning the camera around in his hands, scrutinising its details minutely.
“Why the colour?”
“That knowledge is not mine.” Master Yama seemed to deflate as he admitted his ignorance.
“I don’t ask questions. I am aware that the method is tried and true. That alone is as good an answer as any,” he chastised. Thomas gulped at the rebuke.
The master continued, “And even then, blood is insufficient. The lens must dry in the night, under the profaned lights of the full moon.” His hand came up to a calendar at the table nearby and flipped it rapidly.
“This Friday will do just fine,” he advised, beckoning Thomas to come closer. Once the ritual was completed, the colour of the camera lens had transformed into an ember red hue. Thomas was astounded by the change. His body buzzed with excitement, for he couldn’t wait to try it out.
His mind promptly returned to the present, where that perfect opportunity was about to present itself. Now then, don the Dead Lens, and let the veil of the living and dead be lifted, Master Yama’s voice instructed.
Thomas raised the camera to his eyes and looked into the viewfinder eyepiece. A layer of faint ruby coloured his vision, lending a foreboding aura to the environment.
He looked upwards and saw a blood moon gazing down upon him with a baleful stare. In the surrounding, the voice of the jungle had been muted.
The denizens of the forest seemed to have retreated to a respectable distance, portending the occurrence of something dreadful. Suddenly, the noise of wood creaking came from ahead.
He panned the camera forward and stared, spellbound at the sudden change. Where the shack was previously roofless, now the roof had returned.
All traces of nature had been removed from the wooden walls. Fantastically, the Dead Lens had restored the structure to its original form. If that served to reduce the magnitude of the horror, then think again.
That creaking sound continued, originating from the ceiling. There the wooden beam groaned. Again...and again. The sound brought about by a heavy object that oscillates to the left and right, suspended by a thick rope.
Thomas’s eyes climbed to the top, and his jaw almost hit the ground. Suspended on the rafters, a feminine body swung like a grim pendulum. Coarse long hair curtained the face, hiding it from view. She wore a white dress that was caked with dirt and mud.
Another set of ropes hugged her from chest to back, pinioning her arms behind. Most grotesque was her feet which pointed downwards in a ballerina's tiptoe. The legs shivered and jerked the tyburn jig.
Master Yama’s voice returned to his mind, Don’t get its attention. Too late. Thomas drew a harsh breath and immediately recognised his folly. The rush of air was loud in this place.
The creature stopped its deathly dance and turned its body towards him. Horrid creaking sound accompanied its revolution. Reflexively, Thomas jammed his finger onto the shutter button, and that moment was captured. Success.
Get the hell out of there, Master Yama’s disembodied voice barked.
He needed no prompting. His reactions, however, could use some motivation. The rope that strung the female on the rafters evaporated into thin air, and she floated slowly down. Gently, her feet touched the ground in a soundless, graceful landing.
Pale hands with black fingernails came up to straighten her neck but to no avail. The very moment she removed her supportive hands, the broken neck immediately skewed to the side. Then a croaking sound came, originating from her destroyed vocal cord.
Fear, cold and steely, gripped Thomas’ body. The hamster within his mind turned frantically on an imaginary wheel, urging him to run. But he couldn’t.
His eye remained at the viewfinder eyepiece, watching as the apparition strode towards him on pale ivory legs. She raised both hands as if to invoke a killing curse, and the wind came, billowing the dress like diaphanous wings.
And suddenly the spell was broken. Panic translated into overdue action and Thomas wrenched himself from the camera. The hellish image dissipated and the shack returned to its original form.
However, calamity would not be so easily averted. An unmistakable chill had made residence in the air. If the night was previously serene, now it beheld terrible malice.
Fool, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, Master Yama’s voice chastised. Thomas turned to run, but he slipped on something in the dark.
His head thudded on a rock, and the impact stunned him. Stars and bright speckled spots exploded and popped in his dazed vision. The camera he held preciously in his hands had fallen to the ground, where it lay a few feet away.
Behind him, the wind shrieked and whooped like a chaperone from hell. Thomas’ fearful eyes noted the wet patches on the ground. Splat. Splat. It drew nearer to him. Another splat. Footprints?
The cat. Use the cat, his mentor’s voice returned, offering council in his hour of need. It was as if Master Yama was physically present here. Without further encouragement, Thomas reached back into his saddlebag and removed a package.
He undid the strings, and the wrapping fell off, revealing the body of a black cat. It stretched out, ramrod straight as a black furry ruler, rigor mortis having set on its limbs.
Tattooed along the length of its shaved body were Semitic runes of unknown origin. The symbols flared to life, giving off a hellish light that bathed the dead feline in an eldritch aura.
If you have unwittingly attracted the subject’s attention, draw it away with the substitute, Master Yama's voice reminded. Thomas drew his hands back and threw the cat into the swirling wind.
He watched with fear and wonder when the body did not fall to the ground. Instead, it jerked up in the air like a monstrous marionette, doing a gravity-defying dance. It was as if something invisible had taken hold over the poor cat.
Then the chomping sound came, followed by that terrible croak. First, the cat’s head disappeared. Its hind legs followed next, vanishing in a sick, crunching noise.
Suspended on thin air, the body continued to jiggle and jerk, losing more and more of its body parts. Bones break, and the sinew and flesh seemed to be funnelled into a point in the air where it disappeared with a slurping sound.
Now run! Thomas reached out for his camera, snagged it, and took off, never looking back. Behind him, the feast continued with lip-smacking relish.
He gathered speed, racing east where the forest would thin, giving way to the outskirts of a town. To the sides, trees and shadows blurred. They seemed to curl and stretch from their original position, waving dark fingers as he crossed.
An owl hooted derisively in the safety of the dark foliage, mocking the fool who so carelessly frolicked at death’s door. Breathless, he finally came to a stop after reaching a clearing in the forest. That was close.
Further down, he could see the road, barely discernible through the shrubs and dense undergrowth. Cars with their headlights on zoomed across the macadam, navigating cautiously through the darkness. Confidence returned when he saw that he wasn’t far off from civilisation.
Feeling a little safer, Thomas switched on the camera to examine the footage. If he had looked into the eyepiece, he would have noticed a female in a dirty white dress, sitting on a low branch alongside him.
Intertwined between her slender fingers were the entrails of a cat. Long black hair hid her bulging eyes and swollen purple lips, with a fat tongue that protruded from strangulation.
With her head cocked to the side, she uttered a croak to announce her presence.