This story is by Eva Saunderson and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Where Two Rivers Meet. by Eva Saunderson
From the moment she touched down at Brussels International Airport, Alicia could not shed the eerie feeling of déjà vu – I’ve been here before; everything looks so familiar. The thoughts kept running through her mind, no matter how she tried to distract herself, so she gave up and tried to nap. The nine-hour flight between Windhoek and Frankfurt had taken its toll. However, as hard as she tried, she just could not sleep. The excitement in anticipation of her 6-month stay in Ghent as an au pair got the better of her and on top of that, she was nervous about catching the connecting flight to Belgium as this was her first trip abroad. Africa had been her only home for all her life.
While waiting in immigration for permission to proceed to the arrivals section, something peculiar happened which caused Alicia to rethink. A woman with a distinctive Flemish appearance examined her with a satisfied expression. “I knew you would come.”
“What? Alicia jerked her eyes wide.
“You are the chosen one.” A pleased cat-like expression pulled at the woman’s mouth. Walking away from Alicia, the stranger tossed a wave over her shoulder vanishing through a pivot door.
Alisha’s heart pounded. She is probably mistaking me for someone else. Alicia brushed the strange interaction aside. She would not allow some silly superstition to spoil her long-anticipated adventure, she promised herself.
As they drove from the airport to Ghent, an odd feeling of nostalgia and inexplicable sadness nestled in Alicia’s heart. The old-worldly architecture was new, but it somehow felt familiar.
“A franc for your thoughts” interrupted her landlord.
Alicia was pulled back to reality. She realized that she should get a grip on herself unless she wanted to create an impression of an uncivilized African girl who did not know any manners. Therefore, she shrugged off the spooky thoughts once again and tried to make a decent conversation with her landlord, Peter, and his teenage daughter, Lydia. They entertained her with tales about the history of Belgium and the beautiful, culture-rich city of Ghent (a.k.a the city where two rivers meet).
“You have to visit the famous Gravensteen castle – that is if you are not afraid of ghosts”, giggled Lydia just as they entered the driveway of her new home.
Alicia settled into her new environment sooner than expected. She went on various excursions to surrounding cities and towns such as Bruges, Antwerp, Brussels, and Knokke. Public transport was a breeze and cycling was always an option.
Time was fast running out and Alicia’s list of desired places to visit was growing shorter. She had visited various castles and cathedrals, but there was still one specific place remaining – the Gravensteen with its distinctive gothic architecture. She knew that she had to be fit if she wanted to attempt the 480 steps of the much-talked-about castle. However, the pleasant prospect of a panoramic view of the entire city was too enticing to miss. Strangely, every time she glanced in the castle’s direction, it seemed as if someone was beckoning her to come closer. Must be my imagination – the macabre history of the place and all the scary stories must have affected me Alicia reassured herself repeatedly.
Soon it was time for the annual Ghent Festival and Alicia was enjoying herself among the young people of Belgium. She was having the time of her life at a music concert, when a strange, but somehow familiar-looking girl approached her out of the blue and shouted above the music, “She is waiting for you!”
“Who?” Alicia shouted back.
“Don’t forget to take the scarf along”, she yelled and disappeared mysteriously into the crowd.
Scarf? The only scarf which Alicia usually carried with her was the silk scarf that she inherited from her late grandmother which was apparently passed down to her by her great-grandmother – an heirloom from her grandmother who came to the southern point of Africa during the Dutch settlement in the Cape. Where is she supposed to go with the scarf and who is waiting for her? Alicia wondered with an unsettling fear gnawing at her heart.
The Sunday after the festivities, Alicia decided to finally go visit Gravensteen. She was fit as a fiddle by now from all the hiking and cycling of the past months. As she stepped off the bus, she stared in the direction of the infamous castle and a feeling of creepy excited anticipation surged through her body but then – her throat went dry… GOOSEBUMPS! The mysterious girl in the window was beckoning her to come closer – only this time it seemed much more realistic. Some unearthly power was drawing her towards the entrance.
Alicia held on tightly to her blue scarf with the ditsy flower pattern as she approached the staircase leading to the top but an inexplicably bizarre voice in her head compelled her to visit the torture museum on the ground floor first. Alicia had read about all the weird and violent practices that were carried out here during medieval times, such as people being boiled alive, but it did not prepare her for the macabre and heart-wrenching scenes she was about to encounter. The apparent cruelty and inhumanity of what these people had to endure, engulfed her with waves of nausea and horror.
A debilitating fear took hold of Alicia. Her first reaction was to run out of here and into the sunlight in the hope of these atrocities being obliterated from her mind, but then she remembered the stairs… “I can’t leave without going up there…” she murmured.
From the corner of her eye, she observed a woman in ancient attire playing on a harp. Icy chills ran down her spine. She widened her strides and wiped her sweaty palms on Grandma’s scarf. “Too late to turn back now” she gasped as she ascended the steps. The whining of the harp faded away gradually as she started counting the steps “one, two, three…”.
At step number 366 Alicia was already breathing heavily. She stopped and turned to look back at the narrow winding stairs only to lock eyes with a familiar-looking girl in retro clothing. “You finally came”, she said with a raspy giggle.
“Who are you?” Alicia managed to voice her bewilderment from a throat congested by fear. She nervously grabbed her scarf and noticed with horror that her new companion had a replica of it around her neck – just in reversed colors – yellow with ditsy blue flowers.
“I am Evette. You are my reincarnation, and I must ensure that the ancestral scarf is returned to its rightful place before the turn of the century. Blood had flown because your wayward great grandma eloped to Africa and failed to honor the ancient tradition.” Alicia, numb and at a loss for words was looking for a way to escape –either past the weird figure in front of her or upwards – only about a hundred steps more – she contemplated.
“No, you have to come with me” Evette could obviously read her mind.
“Why?” Alicia was not keen on this “friendship”.
“You must witness what I had to suffer in order for you to be free” Terror was devouring Alicia as Evette scampered downstairs.
Hesitantly Alicia followed. She trembled like a reed. In the torture chamber, the harp was playing an even sadder tune this time and the wailing sounds from the dungeons below merged with it in horrendous lament. Alicia’s blood curdled and her screams stalled on her parched tongue. A sickly stench of boiled meat infused the air. Evette’s baleful grin added to the agony. “Don’t worry – it will soon be over.”
“Do I have a choice?” Alicia’s inside was churning with distress.
“Not really” came the sarcastic reply – “you were destined for this moment” and with that, Evette swiftly pulled Alicia’s scarf off and swopped it with hers in one sleek almost imperceptible movement.
Alicia could hear the blood hissing in her ears as her terrified eyes were involuntarily fixed on the ghostly girl positioning herself on the guillotine. Before she could blink, the blade was lowered as if by an invisible hand, and the ghastly sound of a head being severed from a body reverberated through the building…
When Alicia finally managed to move her legs again, she sprinted out of the castle at the speed of an African gazelle with the wretched whining of the harp and the woeful wailing of the prisoners in the dungeon still ringing in her ears.
Back in the bus, Alicia peeped out of the window and saw her scarf floating in the wind until it settled neatly against one of the flagpoles on top of the Gravensteen. She let out a sigh of relief and looked to her left. A girl with an enigmatic, yet familiar face was staring at her and stuttered, “you… look… like… you have just seen a ghost!”