The Temple of Ancient Whispers

Submitted into Contest #210 in response to: Write a story that includes someone saying, “We’re not alone.”... view prompt

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Mystery Horror Desi

The middle-aged lady hurriedly walked along the crowded market streets, passing through the strong scent of turmeric and chilies. The seven-year-old child, whom she had been dragging along, slowed down to look at the wooden doll hanging at the bazaar shop. The lady tugged at the child’s hand and dragged her with complete indifference towards the small cottage at the corner of the market. She walked towards the cottage with resolve, as if she had already been there before. The lady, excusing herself, pushed through the people gathered around the cottage. Many of them tapped the lady on the shoulder in a consoling way. As they both neared the hut, the old town elder was sitting in his chair beside the cottage door. He had a long mustache, a pearl white beard, and wrinkled gray eyes that lit up when he saw the lady.

He stood with a strength that was unexpected for his age and spoke in a calm voice, "Your sister is unwell. She insisted on seeing you. The local doctor says she might recover, but her health is fading. Offer her some kind words, dear." The lady silently nodded and the old man smiled at the child, “Is she your granddaughter? She looks very sweet; she reminds me of my youngest daughter,” said the old man, stroking the child’s head. The lady nodded again with a serious expression and, yanking the child, barged into the stone cottage.

The room was lit with oil lamps and smelled of strong medicinal oils and ointments, with the occasional tinge of soup from the kitchen. The small cottage was decorated with embroidered clothes and had a stone shelf filled with porcelain dolls and clay crockery in the corner. Next to the shelf, an old lady was sitting, partially reclined on pillows, on a straw cot.

The old lady’s wrinkles crumbled as she beamed upon seeing her sister and welcomed her with a warm smile. She pointed towards the worn-out wooden stool by her side and gestured for her sister to sit. The old lady then pinched the cheeks of the child beside her and kissed her fingers with love. The odor of menthol and incense filling the room was too strong for the old lady to see properly, yet she tried opening her eyes and began a conversation as her sister sat by her side, holding her hand.

“Finally you came! I was waiting for you all these days. How have you been, sister? Since that disagreement and fight, I had secretly longed to speak to you. We could have spoken for hours together just like old times. My ego didn’t let me all these days; only now, as I count my last days, do I see my fault. I’m really sorry. I've longed for your company, my dear," the old lady expressed, tears dribbling from her eyes, and holding her sister's hand firmly, determined not to let go this time.

“It’s okay. I’m here. Tell me what you want to tell,” said the sister in a monotone and with a blank expression.

"I wanted to tell you something before I forgot. I’m forgetting a lot of things these days. Before something happens to me, I wanted to tell you," said the old lady as she began coughing, and on cue, her sister pressed her hands tightly, and she replied in monotone, "Yes, tell me."

"Do you remember that ghost boy we saw near the jungle stairwell all those years ago?" asked the old lady, and her sister remained silent. "You forgot? Don’t you remember when we were kids and exploring the forest, and we found that jungle stairwell that our aunt had told us was cursed? And don’t you remember that we then peered into the well and saw that ghostly child crying at the bottom of that barren stairwell? Do you remember how fast we ran home that day? I can’t believe you forgot."

"Oh. I remember," said the sister in monotone, "the ghost boy; what of him?"

"I saw him again, sister! A few months ago, I think just a week before the light festival, someone knocked on our cottage door. I opened the door, and it was Kamala’s daughter. She was worried and sweating, so I asked her what had happened. Apparently, that evening, Kamala’s son had been playing with the kids near the forest, and after the games, the other kids noticed that he was missing. Kamala and many of the townsmen had searched for the child but couldn’t find him. As you know, I have spent all my life hunting for honey and berries in the forest, and I know the forest very well. So Kamala’s daughter asked for my help.

"I grabbed the torch and left for the forest immediately," said the old lady, pointing to the open back door of the house, which peered onto the dense tree line in the distance. "Many nights ago, I heard the forest officers talking about the frequent sightings of leopards. So as I went into the forest, I was initially worried and wondered if any leopards would have hurt the child. The townspeople, especially Rakkan and Mura, told me that the child was last seen near that eastern corner of the town—you know, the way to the river and marshes. Now I knew he couldn’t have gone to the mountainside because the bushes were dense there, and mostly he would have gone to the river shore. So I walked all the way towards the river while looking for any leopard footprints.

"I also wondered if the child might have gotten stuck in the marshes and was struggling to come out. So I called out Kannapa’s name, and I didn’t hear any response from the child. And unfortunately, it was getting darker at this point but not completely, and once I reached the river, I noticed some footprints there—a child’s footprints along the river shore. I realized that Kannapa had definitely come to the river and had walked along this way. So I followed his footprint, and it led me to the bridge. You remember that wooden swing bridge, right?"

The sister nodded in agreement, her eyes fixated on the old lady, and she listened intently. The old lady continued, "I realized that the child had crossed it and gone to the other side of the bank. By now it was almost pitch dark in the forest, and I began hearing the foxes cackling in the tree line. I gripped my torch and crossed the river to the other side. I couldn’t see the footprints clearly anymore; some were more deeply imprinted than others, so I followed the prints as far as they led me. I expected the child to have gone to the left, you know, towards that jungle stairwell, where we saw that apparition of that boy. But surprisingly, the footprints led me to the right, which didn't make sense; that path led back to the river, so I must have seen or heard the child on my way here, which I didn’t. But sister, I was wrong; the right path never led to the river, and as I followed the trail, I discovered something."

The sister’s eyes widened, and she leaned in to listen. By now, the child by her side had also begun to listen. "Kannapa’s footprint led me all the way to a temple! All these years, I have walked through that jungle, and that was the first time I saw that temple there. It was, however, in ruins, with massive collapsed pillars and ancient structures now devoured by nature. It was dark, and I couldn’t see many of the details of this temple, but since it was a full moon that night, I could see the outlines clearly. That’s when I heard it, sister! The voice.

It was Kannapa’s voice. It wasn’t a cry for help or sobbing; he was talking to someone. I also tried to keenly listen, but it was too soft to be heard clearly but too loud to be a whisper. Then the realization struck me: the voice was coming from inside the temple. Kannapa must've gotten lost in the forest, found this temple, and hid there. So I—"

The old lady coughed, and the child passed the clay cup of water to the old lady. Her sister sat there motionless, hearing every word intently. "Thank you, dear! What was I saying? Ah, yeah, so I went inside the ruins of the temple. Honestly, I was afraid that some dacoits might be hiding there and might attack me, or worse, that there might be leopards hiding there. I’m an old lady with only a burning torch; I wanted to go back and bring some of our men, but I also needed to rescue the child. So I went in. The tall temple tower was in ruins, but its massive, decaying wooden door was ajar. Inside the temple, there was a corridor of columns leading to the sanctum sanctorum. I walked up all the way to it, making the least noise, so that I wouldn’t alert any dacoits or leopards. The deeper I went into the temple, the louder that whisper got. The door to the sanctum was closed, and I carefully opened it."

"And what did you see?" asked the child beside her sister.

"At first, I didn’t see anything. The sanctum was an empty circular chamber, and there were lots of dust, leaves, and twigs lying inside it. There was moonlight streaming from above, and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness there, I saw it! The apparition of that ghostly boy—it was Kannapa! He was sitting in a corner and was rocking while whispering something to himself. He was that ghost kid we saw all those years ago. I was now freaking out, but I took a step to get closer, and that’s when he stopped and saw me. He rushed into my arms, sobbing. I immediately hugged him and asked him if he was alright. He didn’t answer, but I saw a strange fear in his eyes—not relief, but fear. He pointed up, tightened his grip around my hand, and asked me who those people were."

"I looked up, sister; you won’t believe me. I was at the bottom of that stairwell." The old lady’s eye widened as she looked up, remembering the event vividly. "The sanctum room didn’t have any ceiling; it instead had stairs spiraling all the way to the top like a well. I held my torch tightly and looked up at the sky. And I noticed at the top, along the rim of the well, were two girls looking down at me, one younger and one older. Two little girls were so uncannily similar to us that it felt like peering into the past. It felt like magic or some weird time travel. But something was off about it. I got goosebumps seeing it; even now as I’m telling you, I feel it," said the old lady, lifting her arm to show her sister the little hairs standing up on her arm. "I looked closely at the two girls standing at the top and realized it was us, but one of the girls was a younger you, and the other girl was… was not me, instead it was Lila."

"Lila?" asked the sister in a monotone, looking at the old lady, barely blinking.

"Yeah! Lila, our town elder's youngest daughter. Maybe you too forgot, but we both were the same age back then, and when we were eleven, she died from some unknown disease. I still remember her funeral; that was the first funeral I saw. You would have definitely seen her picture in the town leader’s house, in the living room by the window," reminded the old lady as she gripped her sister’s hand tightly.

"Yeah."

"I saw Lila and you looking down at me. It was surreal! It was like seeing a different past, maybe an alternate one. I was scared, and I picked up Kannapa in one hand, gripped the torch in my other hand, and ran back home. But that image of the two girls looking down at me still haunts me. After that day, strange things have been happening around me: regular nightmares, sleep paralysis, and indigestion. Recently, I began noticing that things in the house were moving on their own, like this jug here. I usually keep it on the kitchen counter, but the other day I found it outside the house. I’m sure I didn’t keep it there. Sometimes, the oil lamp goes out even when the windows are closed, and the food goes bad quickly. Also, I often hear light taps or knocks around the cottage at night. Sometimes I hear someone at night circling the cottage and tapping or scratching the wall; those nights are the scariest." The old lady lent both her hands and held her sister’s hand. "I think I am being haunted. I have been meaning to see Jugga, the postman’s wife. Could you fetch her for me? She has a lot of talismans and knows ways to ward off evil. I couldn’t meet her for a while; I should’ve asked her when I met her last year. I think I last met her at..."

Suddenly the old lady's face became pale; she quickly withdrew her hands, and her mouth twisted in horror as she finished her sentence, "I last met her at your funeral! You are not my sister. My sister died last year… Who are you?!"

The sister leaned in and said, "We’re not alone, sister," and then she slowly stood up with a blank expression and unblinking dark eyes, her pupils dilating completely. The old lady realized the child standing next to her was Lila! The child, too, stood beside her with a blank expression and unblinking eyes. In a soft monotone, the sister, or whatever it was, spoke, "You shouldn’t have left any traces behind for us to follow."

There was a loud clanking of utensils and a scream. Hearing the sounds, the people gathered outside barged in to check; some utensils had fallen down and oil lamps had gone out. But the people noticed that the straw cot was empty and the cottage was deserted. The old lady, her sister, and the child were all missing. The back door of the cottage creaked loudly with the chill winds from the distant tree line. The town elder walked to the back entrance and looked out onto the tree line with wonder and confusion on his face. From the depths of the tree line, he heard a whisper. It was too soft to be heard clearly and too loud to be a whisper. But it called him, soft yet undeniable—a calling from the depths. His feet began moving towards the tree line; he had to go because it was calling his name.

The old man descended the slope toward the distant tree line, and as he did, everyone joined him. They all heard the whisper, a calling from the depths of the temple. One by one, like a procession, the people of the town began marching toward the whisper. Men carrying the elderly, women carrying the children, and little girls carrying dolls walked toward the whisper. The markets emptied, the streets turned desolate, and the chatter and sounds of the town faded and died down. It was silent except for the distant cracking of twigs and the crumbling of crisp leaves. Everything remained where it was. After a while, even the crackling and rustling sounds died. The sun had set, the darkness of the night invaded the town, and the traveling winds whistled through the silent streets and windows. All of the townspeople followed the whisper and were swallowed into the forest, never to be seen again.

August 10, 2023 11:28

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