Alex and I had been walking aimlessly since the past three hours. “I’m really tired, Peter! Let’s rest for a while. My legs are giving way,” Alex sighed. We had come for a trek to Martin Hill with a team of five. We expected to have a great time but our foolhardy bravery of walking alone into the dense forest at night cost us to lose our way back to the lodge. A flashlight, a watch and a bottle of water were all that we had with us.
“Let me have a sip,” begged Alex.
“No, we don’t have much water with us and who knows for how long we might be stranded here. Control your thirst!” I barked.
After walking for a while, we came across a huge banyan tree with branches like distorted limbs with claws reaching out towards us. The monstrous tree towered over us, casting a shadow pool at our feet. Alex sat down under the tree with a thud. “What a relief! I’m exhausted,” he exclaimed. As I slowly sat down on the ground, I felt as if we were being watched by someone. A look at the numerous holes in the tree trunk made me feel as if the tree was staring at its uninvited guests.
“Let’s find a better place. This place looks spooky,” I said.
“Give me a break, Peter,” said Alex. He went off to take a nap. It was past midnight. Suddenly, a cool breeze blew past my ears. I was shaken by the sudden flight of an owl from one of the many overgrown branches of the horrific tree.
The eeriness of the place was taking hold of me. Only my heavy breaths broke the silence. All of a sudden, I heard the howling of a pack of wolves coming from the other end of the cutting. I could hear the chatter of macaque monkeys and bats screeching. It felt as if the jungle was coming to life!
Leaving Alex asleep, I switched on my flashlight to look around for a way out of there. After a minute or two of an unfruitful search, my gaze fell upon an old, withered, wooden signboard. I rubbed the dust off it to see what it read: ‘The Animal Point’.
While I wondered what it meant, I was frightened by a sudden tap on my right shoulder. Keeping my fingers crossed, I turned around to discover it was Alex. But something was wrong with him. He was not looking at me. He was staring at the ground. He spoke in a deep and unfamiliar tone. “Let’s keep walking, Peter. I don’t like this place.” I readily agreed and we started walking. I noticed that Alex had suddenly stopped talking. Neither did he complain of thirst nor did he look anxious about finding a way back. He had suddenly developed a strange character which worried me but I chose not to question it.
After walking for a while, I heard the hoots of an owl. We were standing under a tree and I noticed the owl sitting on a branch and staring at us with its big, shining eyes. I looked around. To my surprise, I saw the same wooden signboard again: ‘The Animal Point’.
“We’re back at same place!” I exclaimed. Is this place a labyrinth, I wondered.
“Keep walking,” he said with a blunt expression. I didn’t say a word.
I collected some pebbles. As we started walking, I dropped them on the way to make sure that we didn’t tread on the same path back to ‘The Animal Point’. But whichever path we took, it always led us back to the spooky tree. We were exhausted and decided to rest under the tree until our friends at the lodge came to our rescue. Alex asked me to rest while he went to collect wood to build a campfire. I leaned against the tree trunk and fell fast asleep.
Suddenly, I felt something long and rough crawling over my body. I woke up and looked around but Alex hadn’t returned. I called out, “Alex! Alex!” Nobody answered. I wanted to get up, but what I saw then haunts me even today. My legs and hands were tied up with the thick roots of the tree! I was terrified. The more I moved, the more the roots tightened their grip on me. It was a haunted tree. The roots wrapped themselves around my torso and tightened their grip on me. The tree was killing me! I wished Alex was there to help me. I kept calling for him but no answer came. Suddenly, the ground turned into quicksand. To my horror, the roots started to pull me down into the ground. The roots started to wrap themselves around my neck. I gasped for air. All the good moments of my life started running through my mind. But then a familiar cry struck my eardrums… “Alex! Peter! Where are you?” It was my trekking team. I knew that I had one final chance to survive. I filled my lungs with all the air I could and screamed, “Help me!” I lost all the strength I had and fell unconscious.
After that terrible incident, all I remember is waking up to see my friends around me as I lay on the ground. The trekking guide asked, “Why did you two go roaming about in the forest all by yourself? You should have informed me.”
Before I could put up an explanation, Jason threw another question at me, “While you lay unconscious, you were muttering about some haunted tree and you being killed by it. What happened? You were pretty alright when we found you.”
“I was being throttled by a tree. It was dragging me down under the earth. It nearly killed me!” I exclaimed.
“Stop hallucinating,” said Jason. I jumped up and turned around to show them the haunted tree but to my utter surprise there was nothing. The tree had vanished into thin air!
“It was right here. Ask Alex, he was there with me,” I said, emphatically.
“But where is he?” asked Rhea.
“Hasn’t he returned?” I asked.
“No, where did he go?” asked a worried Jason. Alex was Jason’s cousin. The tension was natural.
“Alex went to collect firewood for…” A sudden bark by Bruno, Rhea’s pet Dalmatian interrupted me. It kept barking until Rhea released it. The dog started sniffing the ground like a detective looking for clues. It went to the higher ground where once stood the haunted tree and started barking loudly as if it had discovered something. We quickly went there but found nothing on the ground. But Bruno wouldn’t stop; he kept barking and sniffing the ground.
A glance at the trekking guide made me suspicious. He was sweating profusely and hadn’t spoken a word since I had told them about the tree.
“What are you hiding from us?” I shouted.
“Hmmm… listen, whatever Peter has told us about the tree is true. There have been three such incidents at Martin Hill of a tree trying to kill a person who sleeps under it. We have been trying to hide it from the authorities to avoid legal proceedings which might disrupt tourism here. But things are turning ugly now,” the guide said with a sigh.
“I was right! It wasn’t a dream,” I exclaimed.
The guide bent down and drew an ‘X’ on the ground with a broken twig.
“Jason, let’s get the spades from the lodge. We’ll start digging at this spot,” said the guide.
“But first tell me where my cousin is!” shouted a furious Jason.
“Do as I say. I don’t want to argue. We will find him,” said the guide in a firm tone.
Jason and the guide went running towards the lodge. It was five by my watch. The sun was rising; an orange hue had covered the sky, its rays spread throughout the jungle, lighting even its densest corners. They were back within a few minutes. Jason threw me a spade. The guide, Jason and I started digging the ground. After an hour of continuous digging, my spade struck something hard. Jason started digging faster.
The raucous cry of a peacock made me turn my head for a moment and in that instant, Jason made a strange sound. I quickly looked at him. His eyes were bulging. He was visibly trembling. To my horror, there lay at our feet, covered in dust, lying flat on his back with his mouth, legs and hands wrapped around by roots of a tree, Alex — lifeless, dead!
Rhea and Jason broke into a cry. Jason had lost his dear cousin forever.
All of a sudden, a gentle tap on my left shoulder made me turn around. I witnessed something which nobody would believe. It sent a chill down my spine.
Alex stood there and said with a smile on his face, “So, they have found us at last.”