The clacking of her boots filled the otherwise silent atmosphere. Lady Katrina was wearing a long black gown with a tail that swept the coarse floor, her strikingly blonde hair cascading down her shoulders and falling on her petite waist. Ever so often, she would turn around to make sure we were following her. She had a torch light in her hand and she’d sway it around from time to time, her facial features standing out in the bright light. Her lips were painted bloody red and her eyes lined with a pitch-black kohl, and yet our coven stayed closer to her in fear of something nobody could yet explain.
Her hand grazed the musty and dingy walls as she moved past them. Lady Katrina accepted all the stories hidden there, invited them in, cherished them. You wouldn’t expect someone to be so graceful in such a grim place otherwise. She hummed her way through the alley, cackling once in a while, trying to undress the eerie feeling everyone was clad in. She was undeniably the sort of a person you wouldn’t want to associate yourself with but in that moment she had a warmth around her while everyone else had their teeth chattering. She belonged there– we didn’t.
Aeons after we first stepped into the place, we arrived at the destination. Lady Katrina stopped right before the arch, pointed to her right and half a dozen faces followed the movement. She stood there firmly and asked everyone to step inside the room.
Footsteps echoed in the tiny space as the room was engulfed with heavy breathing. Her boots thumped on the stairs when she walked in and stopped at the dome of the entrance. A shade of blue coloured her pale face as she choked back a sob. She wouldn’t step further inside, she said, it made her cry out in anguish. So instead of stewing in her own gloom, she asked us to hold hands while she began narrating a chilling tale.
‘There was once a seamstress who lived in the vaults. Her clients were the elite in the uncultured colony of the homeless and the criminals. She fixed the gowns and laces of the thriving brothel prostitutes. The money wasn’t enough. She barely scraped enough for a stale piece of bread and a pint of beer after spending most of her earnings on sewing equipments. But down under the Edinburgh south bridge, there were rare ways to get by. The murky stone vaults housed the homeless, the sick and the excommunicated. It was home to crushed dreams, painful cries and ignored crime. But she was there to survive out of her abilities. She was there to make it out of the life she was condemned to after the death of her father.
She’d walk down from brothel to brothel- fixing gowns for cheap, unbothered by the cluttered filth. One morning she was up and running down the familiar pathway again, a gown cradled in her arms as she made her way to her room in one of the vaults. Her brunette curls formed a veil on her face and her long locks bounced off her neck as she sped her way to her sewing machine. She turned a curve, ran past a bustling brothel and quickened her pace. Once she was face to face with her room, she stopped in her tracks and breathed in greedily to calm down her lungs. She wiped the collecting sweat on her forehead with her palm and climbed the stairs up to the vault.
She had barely made it past the dome of the entrance when she heard his whistle. She turned around to find a man standing against the doorway. He whistled again and smirked as he glanced at her from head to toe, as if devouring her body through his eyes. He had a bottle in his hand with a dirty brown liquid sloshing in it. He gulped the contents down and thrashed the bottle against the cobbled floor, immediately bringing his attention back to her. He was reeking of alcohol and sex and she frowned in annoyance. Before she could turn around in her heel and avoid him, he spoke in a slurred voice, “How much for a night, darling?”
Red-hot anger flashed on her face momentarily. With clenched teeth she said, “I don’t serve in the brothel.” The man jerked forward, swaying in his intoxicated state. His shabby coat flailed around him as he eyed his prey. He attempted to speak again, “I have the money. I can pay as much as you want.” He reached out and grabbed her arm.
Her face soured at the action and she immediately jerked her arm away. With gritted teeth she said, “I’m not for sale!” Her voice rumbled through the alley and soon there were people crowding to watch the scene unfold.
The man noticed people around them and grew impatient. Refusing her rejection, he threw himself at her, his hand painfully clutching her jaw. That’s when she decided that she had had enough. She tugged her jaw away from his filthy hand and pushed him with as much force as she could. The result of which was the man tripping on the staircase and falling on the gritty floor.
The vaults burst in an uproar of laughter as the crowd started pointing and sneering at him. The seamstress looked around in fear. She never meant to attract the amount of attention that she had. She eyed the man wearily. He looked at her with murder in his eyes and in the next moment, he was scrambling to get up and launch himself at her. Anticipating his advances, she backed into her room but he was too quick for her.
He zoomed at her, his face purple with anger and his jaw set. He grabbed her by her hair and mercilessly dragged her to the corner of the room, not paying any heed to her as she thrashed around in his vice-like grip. She kept shrieking, “Get away from me, you insolent bastard!” He didn’t stop, not until he had her shaking body cornered on the cold floor. He looked at her tear-stricken face contemptuously and spit out, “This is what you get for humiliating me, you wench!”
His hand came crashing down on her face, smacking her head to the wall with the blow of it and she let out a blood-curdling cry. People had started gathering at the entrance but nobody dared say a word against the horrific scene in front of them. Mothers veiled their children from the cruelty in front of their eyes and young women turned away with muffled sobs. It was one of those days. Blatant crime was rampant in the vaults and people had learnt how to keep away from the mess. But people liked to watch because humans are tricky. They take pleasure in other’s pain and the people of the vaults had to make do with bloody entertainment.
She sobbed wildly as he forced her head down with one hand and started fiddling with the buttons on her blouse. She thrashed her hands around, kicked at him and screamed till her throat ran dry. He saw nothing but his anger projected in his actions. His mind was clouded with revenge. He tore at her blouse and turned her face towards the crowd as his hands defiled her. She pleaded for help but nobody came forward. Men looked at her, lust dripping from their eyes. Women thanked that they were spared for the day. She screamed and screamed till her face turned red, her eyes flooded and her wails turned mute.
“Whores like you need to be put to place.” He kept repeating in between his thrusts. She kept scratching at his face, arms, legs, back and wherever else her hands would reach. She tried to push him away, her nails bloody and her fingers numb. But he kept her helpless body trapped beneath his form. She fought till the very end and screamed for help even when no sound escaped her mouth. Her lifeless eyes scanned the crowd, beseeching for someone to come forward and pull him away.
She writhed beneath him till her body gave away. Her hands fell by her side as she lay there, feeble and punished. When he was done scavenging his revenge from her, he let go of her face and stood up. He towered over her dilapidated condition, celebrating his hunt with a demonic laugh. He pulled his pants up, spat at her bare, bruising legs and made to leave the scene. But something in his rotten mind stopped him and he turned around. He went back to his position, a wicked grin taking over his fiendish face. He leaned over her and turned her colourless face towards himself. Her eyes were barren, pupils touching the roof of her eyes. He thought about how dead she looked and that’s when it clicked. Degrading her body, putting her to place, and humiliating her existence wasn’t enough. How dare she deny him of his carnal needs? How dare she talk back? How dare she resist his touch? This wasn’t punishment enough.
He reached inside his coat to retrieve a pocket knife. He wiped it on his coat, once, twice. It wasn’t sharp enough but he had to make do with it. He put the edge against the pale skin of her neck. He applied a bit of pressure on it and made a small scratch at the base of her throat to check if it impaled her. Tiny red droplets formed where the knife had traced her skin. Something akin to lust glistened in his eyes as he placed the knife below her ear and dragged the pierced edge across her neck and to the other ear. Blood oozed out angrily and she choked. Her body convulsed and fear washed over her eyes momentarily before she bled to death.’
Lady Katrina finished with a catch in her throat. My sobs resounded within the seven of us. I couldn’t take it all in. Standing at the very corner, I somehow felt it. The anger, the fear, the humiliation, the shame, the degradation. My entire body was reacting in a way I had never expected it to. I was shaking, too wrecked to control myself. Something was suffocating me, twisting my insides, unravelling them and twisting them again like an unsolved puzzle. Was it empathy? I didn’t know. Maybe I was so cold and stifled because I was so receptive to the horrendous crimes that had taken place at the very place I was standing a couple centuries ago. All I knew was that I needed to escape and breathe fresh air. My lungs were crying out in despair.
Everyone had been so immersed in the story that Mathew hadn’t realised what I was going through. He reached out and held my hands close to his, rubbing them in an effort to bring some warmth to them. I smiled at him through my tears and he wiped them away with my scarf.
Lady Katrina looked at my state and announced, “I think we should exit now.” She took my hand in hers, cold and rough, and encouraged me to follow her. And so Matthew and I stepped out the vaults with her. The door shut behind us with a loud thud that soothed my heart more than scaring it. I breathed in a comfortable amount of air and felt Mathew lighten up too. I hugged him for a reason unknown to me. All I knew was, it was the first time I didn’t feel subjugated since the moment I had stepped into the vaults. I didn’t feel light-headed anymore. I didn’t feel the surge of unexplained emotions. My teeth weren’t chattering like they did before.
I turned around to thank Lady Katrina for her kindness but noticed something else instead.
Darkness. Gloomy and suffocating.
I couldn’t even see Mathew anymore but I could feel his erratic breath in my ear.
With shaking hands, I fished for my phone and shone it on the door.
In the eerie atmosphere, I could only make out dust and spiderwebs. The silence was resounding. I reached for the lock on the door of the vaults. The dilapidated and rusty chains on the lock felt heavy on my hand and creaked in a way that made my bone chill once again.
There wasn't a single sign of life around us.
It was like I had left the land of the dead back in there, with the seamstress.