Announcing the Winners of
Tales from the Quarantine
"The Birth" by Arindam Bhattacharjee
What was his name? You may ask. But this was before names. This was when the world was seen as either me or them, no second person. But a story needs a name for the protagonist. Let’s call him the priest.
Right now, our not-so-alpha priest was hiding in a cave-ish hole just outside the settlement of his tribe. He was bleeding from his hands and his back and although he doesn’t know it, his femur is fractured from the fight he had with the leader. His instinct told him that the leader was weaker now but his ego overestimated his own abilities. Even during the fight, he saw the leader’s hands flinch multiple times, but the hit was still enough to steal the glory away from this rebellious subject. But the priest was a curious creature. He knew something was up. His Neanderthal brain knew that the hands have ruled the tribe for too long. Unconsciously, he rubbed the area behind his ears. It felt he was concealing the biggest weapon, bigger than even the bone stick of the leader, right there. From his hole, the back part of the river was near. He went into the water and washed himself. The other members of his tribe has always been amused by this fascination of his. To them, getting wet was an occupational hazard. But the priest went to the water as if he missed it. As if it’s a toy of a child. Even on the days he didn’t go hunting, he’d leap into the water and get soaked. But today, he also fished. As he was not welcome to the communal dinner of the tribe. After you’ve attacked the leader, it takes a long time even for these primitives to forget your atrocities.
The wait, though, was shorter than he expected. The leader died the next day, his partner soon followed. But before she died, she shouted on top of her lungs to gather more than a hundred of her tribesmen in front of their enclaved cave. But language was limited in those days to communicate hunting and demanding shares of the hunt. Those one-syllable words were not enough for her to convey the ache she was feeling in her heart. The burn that was flowing through her bloodstream was about to make her the hunted one. Still she tried, knowing full well that the rule of the world was that the victim would stay quiet. The spectators of this scene saw her screams gradually weaken but before it was completely gone, they noticed their leader’s body at the back of the cave and rushed towards it ignoring the lady. Even in death, she was a sidekick.
By the time they threw the body of the leader through the backside of the hill, they were too exhausted to go for hunt. The leader was a big man (or whatever equivalent of man they were) and it took four of them to drag his body atop the hill and ultimately throw it on the east side jungle. It didn’t help that his body was extremely sweaty for some unknown reason. He will be free food to the sabre-tooths tonight. Ironic, they would’ve thought, if they knew what irony was. They came back to the caves covered in sweat and chose the successor among themselves pretty unanimously. Death came so swiftly to their guardian it made them dazed. They went to bed that night with an occupied mind and an empty stomach.
Yet, death was not done with them. The stick of the leader, which was actually a bone of a dead mammoth they once hunted, didn’t suit the successor for long. He was one of the four men who conducted the last rituals of the leader. When they went hunting the next day, his first day as the new commander-in-chief, he already felt nervous. The stick slipped from his hand while attacking a boar. Fortunately, his subjects took care of it quite easily. He also didn’t give it much thought, rubbed his sweaty palms in his chest and shouted to assert dominance, probably over his own mind. The hunt continued but it was disrupted again. One of them suddenly slipped from a tree branch and died. This was not unforeseen but it was so rare to see a mature member of the hunting group to suddenly fall like this that it shocked them. They rushed towards their leader to let him know of the incident, when they realised a similar fate was met by the successor as well. Silently, they came back to the caves. Carrying all the food gathered and the bodies of their comrades. The children were happy to see the food. They will not go to their beds hungry tonight. For the rest of the group, the proximity of so many deaths made them anxious. They didn’t ask for explanations, they didn’t know that explanations can be asked of natural things such as death. But a vague pattern hid in their foggy consciousness which they could almost reach but can never exactly pinpoint.
The priest was unaware of these incidents. His life was going pretty uneventful in his isolation. For almost four days he was alone. Not that it bothered him much. He was strong enough for small hunts by himself and seclusion protected him from the judging eyes he gets while bathing for fun. He was in the middle of one of his water sports when he spotted the one of his tribesman for the first time after many days. Something told him his time to return is near.
The follower has just returned from the cliff tossing the freshly dead kin. He was sad, not because of the death of his close tribesmen but at the prospect of his own demise. He knew all of them were doomed and this thought made him restless. To find peace, he got away from the herd and came near the backside of the river. He was aloof, a dangerous luxury in their life and almost seemed to pay the price. He suddenly got kicked in the back and he was so unprepared that he completely lost balance and fell into the water. This broke his drowsiness and he looked up at his attacker to see the priest who came down to the river to duel. But he was mistaken. The priest didn’t seem to be interested in a duel at all. Only every time he tried to come off the river the priest would overpower him and push him into water. This kept on happening till the sundown. He was panting and gasping by then. Suddenly the priest stood on a side, gave him enough room to escape and curiously looked over him as if he’s fascinated by something. The follower didn’t care to find out the reason. He took the chance and flung towards their caves as fast as he can. He knew revenge would come soon.
But when he reached the caves he saw with horror the drama that was already going on there. Both the men that carried today’s dead to the cliff with him were gathered at the central arena. Both of them shivering excessively. The spectators of this inevitable looked at him curiously, as if to understand why he wasn’t joining them. When he didn’t show up, they almost thought he was already dead, met the same fate sooner. But here he was, himself astonished by the fact that why he was alive at all.
Suddenly it clicked him. He was alive because maybe the priest did something to him. Everyone that went to the cliff died within next sunset, everyone except him. He knew where he broke the pattern, he knew what had to be done. He quickly grabbed the stick of the leader, something that was changing owner everyday now, and ran towards the backwaters. That’s the only way he knew how to show appreciation.
The priest didn’t accept the stick till he threw it to the water. Then he jumped into the river and cleaned it thoroughly. The follower joined him. He rinsed the follower with almost a ritualistic fashion. Now he could see through the future. He knew how to become the saviour of the whole tribe. He’ll rinse them in this water. The whole tribe would be purified. Of course, not the whole tribe. He can’t save those who’ve already started the shivering. No, those unfortunates will meet the treatment of the stick. The rest will follow him, like they always do. His immense joy of achievement came out as a shout “Raaaaa...” while he held the stick up in the air. The follower imitated “Raaa” not fully sure if it’ll please the new lord. It did.
The priest thanked the virus for this knighthood. Only in his mind, because he didn’t know better, he thanked God and with that... God was born.
"The Soul" by Neel Shah
The birthday party was at a Chinese restaurant. Vishnu’s friends were surprised to see the boy who had spent his entire life in a village eating noodles with chopsticks faster than they could with their forks. His go-to explanation for all such feats was that he had looked it up on the internet. For this reason, he was glad for the internet’s existence- he had a harder time explaining how he knew a German apple pie recipe to his Jewish family in the US, during WWII.
Of course he wasn’t called Vishnu back then, her name was Taylor. He didn’t remember much about Taylor since she was one of his shorter lives. Just a year after he took Taylor’s mind and body, she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Before risking sleeping on her deathbed she transferred himself to the mind and body of his son and cared for his ailing mother. (It was impossible for him to get pronouns right when thinking of himself/herself in third person. He decided to stick with ‘it’. It pitied anyone who would write about it in third person, and it pitied the would-be readers even more.)
It thought that it could avoid personal pronouns altogether if it had a name. That was odd- wasn’t his name Vishnu, what everyone knew him by for 10 years? Deep down he knew it wasn’t. He was named Vishnu by people who didn’t understand who he (it) was. But recently he had thought of a better word- something more fundamental to his identity than a name. He started calling itself the Soul. The Soul didn’t think it was the entity postulated to be the basis of consciousness by Jainism and Budhhism. For one, it had never experienced reincarnation to the best of its knowledge, since reincarnation requires death, and death itself was an unnatural concept to it.
The Soul had lived, not just centuries ago when it witnessed the Industrial Revolution, not just millenia ago when it witnessed the beginning of civilization, but ever since 4 billion years ago, when all it knew was water, when life started on the planet. Another difference with the common interpretation of the ‘soul’ was that in most religions, every living thing has a ‘soul’ of its own. The Soul had so far seen no other being like itself. Yet another difference - the Soul had the capacity to change its host body at will, it wasn’t bound by physical means of life and death.
All it needed to do was to look at someone, hear their voice or touch them, and ‘concentrate’ on their presence. It would then leave its current body and be the master of the other person’s body, their memories and all their decisions. It would inherit the memories of the previous host, but not their emotions- its emotions were influenced by the new host, as if they were inseparable from the mind and body. As for the previous host, they would just act like a normal person with their life experiences would. Until recently, the Soul was clueless about where the ‘original’ consciousness of its host resides during its takeover of the host, and whether the ‘restored’ consciousness is the same as it was before the Soul took over.
The Soul had learnt some lessons from assimilating thousands of human lives. It knew the kind of people to prefer to live in and the kind to avoid occupying. It, naturally, liked to live a happy person’s life. It had lived in a lot of children. Whenever the kid became old enough to prepare for entrance exams, it would realize it’s getting depressed and take refuge in another younger kid in the neighbourhood. But it would not grow up with the new kid either- it desired a drastic change in location. It would keep transferring to a chain of nearby people, travelling faster than a pandemic but not spreading like one, till it ended up in a new city. Even if it kept forgetting things all the time, it was too boring to have the same mother-tongue for more than two decades. Having lived for countless millenia, it was extremely easy to get bored. In fact, the Soul’s extreme hatred for boredom was how it cleverly proved something about itself- it had separate feelings of its own, feelings that could never have been acquired from any of its host’s minds. For example, the Soul hated boredom even more than a prisoner in solitary confinement for years- as it had verified when it happened to possess one out of curiosity.
That prisoner’s name was Amar. When the Soul took his mind and body, it knew that he was in a cell in Port Blair. He was suffering this fate because of being part of the independence movement in India from the British rule. How he ended up here didn’t matter anymore, he thought. But though the past was meaningless, so was the present. Every day was like every other. Everything was done because it was meant to be done, not because he wanted it. He ate because he was meant to live, he was given labour because he was supposed to make use of life. He knew that in some other cells there were people he considered friends, but the thought of sneaking up and talking to them didn’t entertain him. That would probably lead to unhelpful conclusions: either the friend would be as helpless as him and they’d realize that none of them can give hope to the other, or, even worse, he’d discover that the friend hadn’t been thinking of him inside his own cell- he cared less about Amar than Amar cared about him. While that hadn’t always been a bad thing for the Soul, as Amar, he knew that he preferred to live alone in a cell rather than meet other people and discover that he was alone not by his physical confinement, but because no one felt the way he did, or had the time or desire to remember or understand him. Finally, he got so bored that he thought of stopping this unending cycle the only way he could- by committing suicide.
That was the most surprising thought that he had had in about 4 billion years. Whenever the Soul thought about Amar, he could never explain how, when it wanted to stop living Amar’s life, its first thought was to kill himself rather than simply transferring itself to another host- the warden who served Amar food was the easiest target. That was indeed what it ended up doing- as the warden James, he was relieved to be having a life at least several times better than those Indian criminals who dared to oppose the Crown. But, having been Amar in his past life, James also knew that the British were cruel oppressors who had no right over India and their rule must end. The Soul was often driven insane when it contained past lives with with radically different beliefs. It knew that it wouldn’t stay sane in James for long and soon transferred itself to someone on a ship sailing back to India. Later, it came to know that James had gone a bit insane after it left him and had been transferred to someplace else. This strengthened one of its suspicions.
The Soul’s suspicion was that it had driven James insane, James’ emotions weren’t responsible for his insanity. It had bombarded him with Amar’s memories of a completely different side of the world he was used to, and though he wouldn’t retain any of them when the Soul left him, he was damaged by the powerful confusion caused due to two incompatible ideologies coexisting in the same mind. So, the Soul had two competing hypotheses: The first was that the people it occupied controlled the Soul’s actions- e.g. a happy temperament would make the Soul happy. The second was the opposite- which the Soul now knew was true to some extent, that the Soul controlled the lives of the people it occupied, it made them more than a single human.
The Soul thus had a brilliant idea. If it decided to do something new- to make a difference in the world, it could work with a perspective that no single human could. It could master vastly different fields. It could make a dictator as kind as a monk. It would be backed by experience of millenia. The only remaining question was that the Soul didn’t know what it wanted. Some of its past lives wanted to become presidents, some scientists, some soldiers. Anything it could achieve wouldn’t seem worthwhile to some part of it and might drive it insane due to that part not agreeing with it. Thus, the Soul was waiting for something so noble that all its myriad lives would be proud to accomplish it. Something that would make everyone happy without exception. It remains to be known whether it ever found it, went insane, or is still searching.
"The Knight and the Rogue" by Gautam Hegde
The year was 1192 AD. The third crusade raged on in the Levant, where modern day Syria lies. The crusaders, as the Christian nations called themselves, fought to free their holy city, Jerusalem, from Muslim hands. In Europe, the crusades were seen as heroic and holy wars. Bards spoke of brave knights, defending Christianity against the forces of evil, despite great peril. Boys as young as fifteen were inspired by these tales, and many dreamt of fighting in the holy land, winning glory for themselves. This is the story of one such boy, named Edd, a young and naïve boy from a simple baker’s family from London, who found himself in the army of King Richard I of England in the deserts of the Levant.
Edd waited impatiently in formation. Today was going to be his first battle. His first real fight. However, it wasn’t fear that made Edd jittery. It was eagerness. For their unit was going to be led by Sir Roland, the most renowned knight in England.
Soon, Edd heard the galloping of horses in the distance. Figures appeared on the horizon. Edd could make out nearly two dozen men on horseback approaching them fast. They ride gallantly. Edd thought to himself. As they came closer, Edd observed that the man in the centre stood out from the rest. His gilded plate armour shone in the sunlight, a longsword was buckled to his hip, a shield tied to his back. He wore a flowing white cape, with the Holy Cross embroidered in its centre. He was a most dashing man; his hair was bright golden and his clean-shaven face bore an elegant and regal look. So, this is a knight……a holy knight. Richard thought to himself, awestruck.
“Sir Roland!” Drake, their unit commander, exclaimed, as the horses came to a stop a few feet from the unit. “It is an honour to fight alongside a man of your virtue! God has been kind to us.”
“You are too kind, Drake” Sir Roland replied. His voice had an air of nobility to it. “Is this the unit I am expected to lead today?” Sir Roland asked Drake. Drake nodded.
Sir Roland trotted his horse ahead, facing the soldiers directly.
“My fellow Christians! Men of good faith!” Sir Roland yelled, raising his sword high. “We have struggled for months now! We have fought valiantly!” he continued, enthusiastically. “Aye!” The crowd cheered.
“Under the leadership of our great king, we have taken the city of Acre! This is just one step in a long journey. We will continue to fight, until the holy land lies in our hands once more.” Roland proclaimed.
The crowd raised their spears and yelled “Aye, Sir!” Edd himself was cheering the loudest. For a boy who grew up baking bread in the day, but fighting cloth dragons with wooden swords at night, fighting alongside a knight, fighting for virtue, was a dream come true.
After addressing the unit, Sir Roland turned his horse to face the men behind him. Now that they were up-close, Edd could make out that they bore a stark contrast to Sir Roland. They were lightly armoured, wearing what looked like rags, bore unkempt beards on their faces, and carried large poleaxes behind their backs. The look on their faces was not that of a noble hero, but a hardened warrior, ready to pulverize the enemy when the need would arise. Edd admitted that they looked quite frightening. He would not want to be on their opposing side.
“These men are former rogues, brought from England. They have sinned grievously in the past. As repentance they will fight with us to reclaim the holy land.” Roland said. That explains it. They couldn’t possibly be knights, Edd thought to himself. The men looked like they lacked the basic discipline of a good soldier, forget the chivalry of a knight. Why would his majesty send such men to fight alongside us? Edd wondered. These men looked like they could strangle a baby if paid enough to do so. The rogues glared at the soldiers silently.
“This may be your first battle in the holy land. Some of you may fear for your lives. Worry not, my good men! For our cause is just, and the lord is on our side. You are protected by the light, and I promise you, we will emerge victorious!” Sir Roland roared. The crowd cheered, once again raising their spears. “All hail Sir Roland, knight of England!” one soldier yelled. Roland smiled.
“My good sir, Drake! Let us march!” Roland exclaimed.
The unit marched forward for nearly the entire day, halting only for food. Finally, an hour before midnight, they stopped.
“Sir Roland, we are nearing our target!” Drake yelled. “Ah, that is good,” Roland replied. They halted, and Sir Roland and Drake walked ahead, and turned back to address the soldiers. Edd felt a combination of excitement and fear bubble within him.
“Men! Prepare for battle.” Drake bellowed. “Our objective is to advance on a nearby village belonging to the Sultanate! They have stockpiled a large amount of grain. We intend to take it in order to feed our forces.”
Edd frowned. This was not the kind of mission he expected to be given. Looking around, it seemed a few others around him also were having similar thoughts. “We are attacking peasants?” One soldier asked. Sir Roland looked at him. “You are attacking unbelievers, boy. Soldiers, nobles, peasants, kings, they are all the same.” He said haughtily. Edd was aghast. “We are attacking innocent commoners?” Edd questioned, greatly troubled by this new turn of events.
Roland turned towards him. “None of them are innocent, boy. These people are unholy savages. They refuse to accept the mercy of the one true lord. They banned us good Christians from pilgrimaging to our Holy City. They all deserve death”
Roland declared, with a tone of finality. “If any man has any qualms, he may desert this army now. But beware, King Richard does not take kindly to deserters.” Roland continued.
The whispers in the unit died down. This is not right, Edd thought to himself. He had imagined this crusade to be a holy endeavor. Instead, he was tasked with spilling the blood of innocents.
After about half an hour, they reached the village. They had slowed down their pace and marched in darkness, so as to not alert the villagers. “On the count of three” Drake whispered. “One…two…three!”
Drake blew his horn. Sir Roland reared his horse. With a loud neigh, his horse started galloping towards the village. “Advance, soldiers!” Drake hollered, as he lit a torch, and threw it towards the nearest house, which caught fire. The inhabitants came out screaming, clearly taken aback, muttering in a language Edd couldn’t understand.
The soldiers advanced, and started rampaging through the village. It all happened so fast, what happened next was merely a blur to Edd. Many of the villagers were unarmed, and offered little resistance. Spears ran through their guts, spilling blood everywhere. Buildings all around Edd started to alight. All he could hear was screams in a foreign language, and the mad shouting of his fellow soldiers.
This is not a battle…this is a massacre! Edd looked around him. He had to put a stop to this. I need to find Sir Roland. I have to tell him it's enough. As luck would have it, he saw a plated figure enter what appeared to be the most luxurious house in the village. Edd sprinted in pursuit.
He sprang the door open. “Sir Roland! Stop!” Edd exclaimed. Sir Roland held a bloody sword in one hand, and what appeared to be a broken gold necklace in another. His armor was splattered with blood. On his side lay a body of a middle-aged man. A girl, who could only be his daughter, was crouching in the corner. One of the rogues was beside him, with his poleaxe in his hand. Sir Roland turned. His face was fuming. “What? Have you lost it boy?” He snapped.
“Sir Roland…they can put up no fight. We can ask them to surrender. Let the killing end.” Edd begged, with tears in his eyes. “This…this is slaughter.”
The rogue looked at him, surprised. Roland gave Edd a look of utter incredulity. “Boy… have you gone soft in the head? This is war. People die in war.”
Suddenly, Edd heard the girl scream from behind Sir Roland, and saw a hand smash a vase over Sir Roland’s head. However, the glass vase had no effect on the steel helmet. Sir Roland had a shocked expression on his face. He turned, his face twisting. Edd looked at the girl. She looked the same age as Edd. “You heathen bitch….” Roland snarled.
He threw his sword, and grabbed the girl with his gauntlets. “You hit me? You, a stupid girl, hit me, a knight?” He yelled. “You aren’t escaping from me now. I’ll show you what a real man can do….” Roland whispered darkly, as he began to tear off the girl’s dress.
Edd went cold. In that moment, it all came crashing down. The heroic image of a knight, the code of chivalry…were torn in an instant in that moment. He dropped his spear, unsheathed his dagger….and drove it in Sir Roland’s neck from the back. Sir Roland gasped. His mouth was ajar for a moment.
Edd stumbled backward. What have I done? He shivered, speechless in front of Sir Roland, who fell to the ground.
Next to him, the girl was equally frightened. She looked at Edd, though her eyes did not express gratitude. It is fear…. they are scared of me.
Edd looked at his own dagger, and threw it, more out of fright than disgust. The rogue looked at him. “First kill? “The rogue asked dryly. Edd did not reply.
The girl quickly got up and ran out of the house, screaming things which Edd did not understand.
“He wasn’t supposed to kill them…Knights protect the innocent.” Edd finally said, his voice croaking.
The rogue grunted. “Virtuous warrior they say. How does one become one virtuous if one’s job is to kill, will forever escape me.”
Edd stayed silent. “You have family? Back at home?” The rogue asked him, plucking the knife out of Sir Roland’s neck.
“Yes. I have a mother and younger sister, my father died of the flu last year.”
The rogue nodded. “You are needed then. You have someone you care for, back at home. You should be grateful boy, not all of us have that privilege. Some of us don’t have much to live for.” He said, eyeing the knife.
The rogue continued. “You know it is odd. Sometimes we fight for kings, sometimes we fight for invisible men in the sky. Yet all the times, the ones who die, are the ones who asked for nothing more than three square meals a day, and a loving family.” He almost seemed to find it amusing.
Edd heard footsteps. The rogue yelled and slashed at Edd’s arm. Edd, staggered, and fell to his knees. He clutched his arm. It was a light cut, but he could feel the warm blood from his arm.
Drake and four other soldiers stumbled in. He looked at Sir Roland’s corpse, and his mouth fell open.
“What happened here?” Drake snarled. Edd was grabbing his arm, still bleeding.
Before Edd could even open his mouth, the rogue spoke. “I killed your knight. He tried to steal a woman I set on eyes on first.” He said, in a completely calm and almost nonchalant voice.
“You wretched traitor!” Drake screamed, aghast. “Men, slay him!”
And just like that, the four soldiers sunk their spears into the rogue. Edd gasped.
Drake took a look at Edd. “Well fought boy…. The battle is over. We have won.”
Edd looked at him, still shaken thanks to the events that just occurred.
“If this is victory, sir…I’d rather lose” he finally spoke.
Drake grunted. “Be careful what you wish for boy…the lord is listening.”
Edd stood up. He looked around him. A former knight lay on the floor, blood oozing out of his neck. A rogue lay next to him, with spears impaling him. So, this is war…
It had no glory in it. No honor. No sense of justice, or pride filled Edd. No tale is worth this bloodshed. From that day onwards Edd knew the truth. Knight’s weren’t always noble. Rogues weren’t all treacherous. It wasn’t the sultanate or unbelievers who were evil. The true villain was war. Violence. Greed. Lust. These were the real devils that plagued mankind. And a hero… was anyone who could conquer them.