Short story: The Witch by Muddasir Ramzan
‘I believed, like everyone else, that the stories about wild creatures, particularly about Rantas and Wan-Mohneu, were only myths, created to scare children. Until I was lugged here.’
‘Would you like to share your story?’ Talib asked. ‘How did you reach here?’ asked Hamid, Talib’s master. They lowered their gazes, stealing the odd glance at the Wildman.
‘My name’s Bashir. It was sometime in the winter of 1998 or 1997, no, 1999. No! I don’t remember the exact date. I awoke in the middle of a night. My wife Laalie and my little son Aalim were fast asleep. I didn’t bother to wake them and went outside to check the cow. Snow fell heavily, making the trees arch. There was a thick white blanket of snow in my lawn.
‘I took my umbrella in one hand and lantern in another and went straight to the cowshed to check if the cow was fine – she was to give birth to her calf soon. She seemed fine, so I locked the cowshed and began walking back to my house, stopping a while to watch the whirling snow. What an amazing sight it was!
‘As I tried to shake off the snow from some trees, I heard a woman’s voice calling out my name. I thought it was Laalie and responded but recalled immediately that I had locked the main door of the house from outside. The voice wasn’t Laalie’s. Couldn’t be. I waited. The voice called out again. Afraid but excited, I looked around, trying to locate the voice as I walked towards the pomegranate tree. There was so much snow on the tree’s leaves and branches that the main branch had snapped and fallen on to the snow-covered ground. As I went closer, I saw what I thought was a woman dressed in white, looking at me. It was a mere illusion created by the snow, I told myself, but the lantern slipped from my trembling hands and the light went out. Was it an evil spirit or an apparition? Then, just as I began to run towards my house, which was only a few steps away, she called out, ‘Stop!’ My pounding heart, quivering legs and the deep snow made the few steps to my door seem like a thousand miles. With great effort, I managed to reach the steps and breathed deeply in relief. I had escaped her!
‘I was wrong. As soon as I tried to push open the main door, a huge hand grabbed my left shoulder; I struggled to free myself but it was no use. Even as I cried out, a hand capped my mouth and another clasped my head. I struggled; I even managed to kick the door but the powerful hands dragged me back. I could see her closely now. Her stench filled my nostrils. She had a hairy face, a huge, dirty, hairy body with heavy breasts and long nails. Her untidy hair fell over her shoulders. I noticed her feet last: they were turned backwards.
I was terrified. Rantas! She was exactly like the creature whose stories grandmother told me in my childhood, to distract me whenever I cried or wanted something that was not available. For some time, I thought she would eat me alive. I had lost all my strength and began to think she had cast a magic spell on me. Helplessly, I let her tie me to her back with her long hair. I could have cried or made some noise, asked for help, or at least struggled to escape.
‘Yes, carry on, what happened then?’ asked Talib, listening keenly to him. When the Wildman didn’t reply, the young man looked towards his ustaad.
‘It is clear she brought him to this cave then, isn’t it?’ Hamid remarked loudly, hoping to stir the Wildman from his thoughts.
‘No, not to this cave. I was half asleep on her back all the way. She walked fast and I couldn’t recognize the path. Later, when I opened my eyes, I wondered where I was; the place was dimly lit, I could see stones and some dry logs, lots of straw and some sand too. I walked a few steps, exploring the place. There was a wicked smell nearby; I had to cover my nose and mouth. I found myself standing upon a large carcass, surrounded by bones. I was frightened, much more than you two were when you first laid eyes on me. So this is it, I thought to myself. I am her food. I could see my death.’
‘Wasn’t she there?’ Talib inquired.
‘No, I didn’t see her there that time. I kept searching for a way to escape. But all I could see were little holes in the cave’s walls. It was the only source of light in that darkness. I whispered some verses of the Quran; tears rolled down from my eyes. I begged God to save me. What wrong have I done, Allah? How can you end my existence here? Is a grave, a proper funeral not in my fate? I prayed regularly to you, always tried to do good, never committed any grave sin and this is what you have in store for me? Do I really deserve this? What will happen to my family, my old father, my wife and son, my little sister and brother? You’re well aware of my condition. Save me!
‘Then I saw a big rock turning, and there she was! I kept reciting the Kalima – La Ilaha Illallah Mohammad–ur-Rasullullah. She entered and turned the rock again to close the cave. I said to myself – look at her, see her power, she can move mountains, and she may have eaten half the world already. You are just a tiny morsel for her! As she began to walk towards me, I could hear my pounding heart. I was watching my end; it was the first time I had felt so helpless. I begged her. With tears in my eyes, I requested her to leave me and not eat me. To my utter surprise, she laughed. It was a strange laughter. I can’t describe its musicality. “I won’t eat my husband,” she said and dropped some roots and herbs for me to eat. I froze. How could I be her husband? Had I heard right? Did she really say I was her husband? I felt completely broken. As I looked at her, all I could do was to think about my future. But when I found thinking was no escape, I switched to imagining things that always gave me pleasure and filled me with joy – my family, Laalie and Aalim, their love for me. When I came out of my trance, to my utter surprise, I saw Laalie in the cave, sitting close to me!’
The Wildman started sobbing. Hamid and Talib looked at each other, wondering how to respond. ‘Everything will be alright now. It is God’s will that we came to this side of the forest today,’ Hamid tried to console the wild man sitting before him, crying like a child yet terrifying in his appearance.
‘Yes, look around. Is there anything you think we would come here for? We were cutting some pines on the other side of the forest and he, my ustaad,’ the young lad pointed towards Hamid, ‘he suggested we should check this side. God has sent us here to save you.’
Bashir sighed, ‘I, and the world, count myself among the dead. Is God still there? I don’t believe in Him anymore!’
‘Tell us what happened then. How did your wife arrive there?’ asked Hamid.
‘I was puzzled to see her there, but when I spoke to her, she turned out to be the Rantas disguised as my wife. She confessed her love for me; she said she wanted me as her husband. It was strange when she told me about her desire to have a family with me. I was terrified, but slowly my fears began to fade away. Eventually, I learned to talk to her and it was easier to love her when she disguised herself as Laalie. But when I woke up in the morning and found myself on top of her real self, it was maddening. When I realised that I couldn’t escape the situation, I stopped thinking of it. Mystifying as it was, it was my reality. I had come to as a Wildman.’
After his long story, Bashir seemed strangely calm; his eyes bore into Talib’s.
‘Tell me, what’s the date today? I remember the names of days. In the early days of my captivity, I could regularly count the weeks, then I lost track of time. I can only guess the passing of many ages by now.’
Talib looked away from the wild man and at his mobile phone. ‘Wednesday. 20th July. 3:55 p.m.’
‘What! Are you serious? Is it 2017? Have I spent this much time here? I don’t believe it!
‘Yes, don’t you see yourself? You hardly look human. Come with us. Let’s go now! You’ll be a great surprise to your family and others.’
Bashir remained silent. After a pause, Talib again asked Bashir to go away with them, but the Wildman was quiet. When the young man pressed him for an answer, he replied in a harsh tone, ‘No, I can’t leave. I have three daughters here.’
‘What!’ Talib and Hamid exclaimed together. ‘How’s it possible? Where are they?’ Hamid asked.
‘It’s a long story. They have gone to get food. They only spend their nights in this cave. I’m usually alone here. It’s better for you to leave me here. You don’t know what they’d do to you if they saw you here.’
Talib suddenly got up and shouted, ‘How can you still want to live with them when you could easily escape with us?’
‘They’ll find us easily if I go away with you. I won’t endanger your lives. From these holes in the cave, I always look out for any human presence I might see. When I saw you coming, I was baffled, yet my joy knew no bounds.’ Tears coursed down his cheeks again. ‘I shouted to get your attention, but I can’t leave. I have to remain calm and stay inside this cave. You are very courageous, but please be careful. A long time ago, when my daughters were little and we were living in another cave, I watched three men with their long axes, just like yours, approach the cave. I called out to them and they came to help me, but when they peeped into the cave and saw me, they ran away screaming. Perhaps my looks frightened them for they didn’t even stop to look back. I know I give the impression of being more like a monster with my long dirty hair, my beard, nails and my evil smell… I bathed whenever water was available, which happened only a few times, mostly after Sari delivered her five babies.’
‘Her name’s Sari! Do witches have names too?’ Talib exclaimed.
‘Three daughters. What happened to the other two?’ Hamid asked.
‘We also had two sons, but they didn’t survive. She can’t have sons because her clan is cursed. She is the last fully-grown Rantas left in this forest.’
Hamid scratched his head and looked towards the younger man; Talib seemed lost in the tale, as if he had discovered the fountain of some secrets, or maybe Bashir had cast a magic charm on him. Even when Hamid moved closer to Talib and pointed to his watch, Talib continued to sit in a daze. ‘So are we going to stay here, in this cave?’ Hamid asked loudly, agitatedly.
‘Forgive me. I have so much to tell. Yes, you should leave now. I’m thankful to you. You are not ordinary humans,’ Bashir said.
‘We’ll come again for sure, don’t lose hope,’ Hamid said. ‘Bashir, where are you from? We’ll inform your family about you.’
‘No, I won’t tell you anything about me. And please don’t tell anyone else about me either. Go straight to your homes. Be careful.’
Before going away, Hamid and Talib gave Bashir a long axe.
As soon as they were away from the cave, Hamid turned towards Talib. ‘Why was he looking only at you, at your eyes? He was staring at you even as we left. I feel afraid. He seems dangerous. I think he liked you. What if he’s thinking about his daughters? And why wouldn’t he tell us about his home?’
‘Ustaad, don’t worry. The poor man lives in another world. He looks frightening, but his story melts my heart. I think we should come back with more men and save him.’
The two walked into the forest, searching for a path to take them back to their friends.
The group of woodcutters had been looking for their friends for many hours. Unable to find them, they gathered around a clump of trees and discussed the disappearance. They were nervous, frightened. They tried, again and again, to contact their friends but there was no network coverage. Then suddenly, one among them shouted, ‘There they are! Badass Baba Hamid and his little dog Talib. Come, we’ll screw you here.’ The men jumped with joy.
‘What should we tell them when they ask us where we were?’ Talib whispered to Hamid as they walked towards their group.
‘They are our own men. We aren’t supposed to hide anything from them. See how happy they are to see us. They must have been searching for us. There’s love in their anger.’ Hamid said.
As the group began to walk through the forest towards their residence, Habib-ul-Lah asked Hamid about their disappearance but before Hamid could answer, another in their group yelled from behind, ‘Why don’t you tell them what they’ve missed? Tell them what we did in their absence?’
‘You may have done something exciting but we too have something great to tell you.’ Talib said, his voice soft, pleasing.
‘After lunch, when you disappeared, Ustaad Habib-ul-Lah asked us to look for you,’ Aejaz, Hamid’s friend, said. ‘We searched the places you had been to but couldn’t find you. Anxiously, we came back to Ustaad. He gave us his gun. Akram, Sultan, Yousuf and I took our axes, a few other essential things and went to the unexplored side of the forest. We climbed the hill to see if we could catch a glimpse of you two from the top.
‘Instead, we saw a giant creature. “Rantas, Rantas!” Yousuf began to shout. We were frightened. We thought both of you might be dead. You know how daring Akram and Sultan are! We went to check if you were hiding somewhere nearby, or if she had eaten both of you. We moved slowly until we reached the place where she lay among the fallen trees. She had made a sort of bed for herself by joining the fallen branches and trunks and binding them with dry logs to make the bed-frame. The bed she’d layered with dry leaves.
‘Quietly, very carefully, we looked around for you; behind us, we could hear her snore. But as we were about to leave, Akram whispered something to Sultan and raised the gun he was carrying. The two of them walked silently towards her. The Rantas slept peacefully in the hot sun. Akram lit some small dry boughs and arranged them around the dry logs. Soon the leaves and logs caught fire. We hid behind the pines. The witch was still fast asleep but as the dry logs and leaves underneath and around her also caught fire, we heard her cries, loud and long.’
‘Oh God! You killed Sari!’ Talib exclaimed.
‘What? Who’s she?’
Then Hamid told them about their encounter with Bashir in the caves.
After listening to Hamid’s story, the group leader Habib-ul-Lah, known for his valour (he had chopped off the little finger of his left hand after a snake bite) told them about the legend of the Wildman (Wan-Mohneu) and his power to enchant women.
‘One evening, a young man came to me for help. His wife was in danger, he said, so my friend and I accompanied him. We saw his wife walking ahead of us, but when he called out to her, she didn’t respond. We thought they’d had a fight and that she was angry and had left her home. So we rushed towards her. That’s when we saw the Wildman. We were only a few steps away from the young woman. The Wildman walked a few feet ahead of her. It was clear that he had charmed her, for when we called out to her, asking her to come back, she didn’t answer but continued to follow the Wildman. When her husband urged her to stop, she replied, ‘Leave me. You are no one to me. I’m going to live with my real husband, or else I will die.’
The young man requested the Wan-Mohneu to leave her but he wouldn’t listen and continued to walk away with the woman. When we realized that she wouldn’t return, the young man shot her. We ran away when we saw the Wildman coming after us but the young man shot him too. After we’d escaped from there, the young man told us how she had been behaving strangely of late and had gone missing many times.’
Hamid mentioned that they didn’t fear the Wildman they met. He did not seem dangerous.
‘I am sure he is the Wan-Mohneu who recently abducted a tourist girl from France,’ Sultan said. ‘Haven’t you heard about that? It was the biggest news last month. She was skiing in the hills, and there he was. He cast his magic on her, and she willingly followed him into the dense forests. When some people saw her following the Wildman, they tried to save her but she vanished from their sight into the snow.’
Hamid looked at Talib. ‘He cannot be the same one,’ Talib said, looking equally shocked, ‘or he would not have spared us. This one was kind to us.’
Habib–ul–Lah patted Talib’s shoulder, ‘You’ve a lot to learn, son, just forget about that man. He may be expecting you again and maybe he has cast some magic on you. Tell your family about him. Be careful and strong, and never ever visit that cave again.’
The brave Habib-ul-Lah tied an amulet on Talib’s arm. ‘Keep this with you. Always.’ He said.
In the cave, Bashir sits lost in reverie. He thinks about his journey from being a God-fearing man to turning into a brutal Wildman. These are his sins, he thinks, and they have affected his family. In the past, he used to think about them all the time, of every possible scenario that could have happened to them. In the beginning of his captivity he was almost obsessed with the thoughts of his family; later, he dreamt about them. In one dream he saw his father marry Laalie to his younger brother Sajad, but Aalim didn’t like his uncle as his new father. In another dream, he saw them living happily with Sajad. In the beginning he often had hallucinations about his family crying – the nightmare about how, after his father’s death, Sajad became the sole owner of their property and banished Laalie. When Laalie, along with Aalim, decided to stay with her brothers, her brothers too ill-treated them. In his rage, Aalim killed Sajad in a scuffle and was put into jail. After a few days, Sajad’s wife killed Laalie. These thoughts saddened him.
Some thoughts recur. No one knows what really happened to his family after Bashir became a Wildman. Perhaps they believed Bashir was dead; perhaps Laalie married someone else and is happy. He often thinks about Aalim – his smiling face, his dream to be a rich man, his calling him father; he wonders if he misses his father.
He comes out of his reverie when his daughters enter the cave. Late at night, when Sari is still away, he tries to inquire about her but his daughters aren’t bothered. They think of him as their man, their husband, of their mother as their competitor. Sari’s dream – to have a family like everyone else – has only remained confined to a dream.
Perhaps Sari has left him for their daughters. He feels as if he has lost his world again. It embarrasses him to think about sleeping with his own daughters. He remembers how Sari slaughtered the woman whom he, by his magic, had made his sex-slave. He couldn’t forget the foreigner and how she was brutally killed and devoured by his daughters when they caught him making love to her. He remembers well his promise to Sari that he wouldn’t lure any woman again when she tried to snatch away the magical power she’d given him.
Am I a Wildman? Yes, I am. But who has turned me into this? You God! Isn’t it you? I am an old man now. That young man will rejuvenate my life, he’s my hope. His youth is ideal for my daughters. This will be my dying gift to them.
We have to wait and see if his last prayer is granted to him or if Habib-ul–Lah’s amulet will keep Talib safe.
Muddasir Ramzan is a Ph.D. candidate at the Aligarh Muslim University (Department of English). He regularly writes blogs for the Muslim Institute, London. His short stories, flash fiction, poems, reviews and interview have appeared in various international journals including the Critical Muslim (UK). He can be reached at muddasirramzan[at]gmail[dot]com.