Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Short Story: Never Alone

The farmer displayed the vibrant energy of a young cheetah confident of its ability to run, to hunt and to win. Every stride purposeful.

Only his shifty eyes belied the true nature of his boundless energy. Paranoid and restless.

Long after the sun had set, the farmer continued ploughing his fields. His straight path illuminated feebly by the lamp that he held above his hand. The oxen may have pondered why the master spent so much time on the fields. Hours after the sun had set and the other farmers had returned to their homes, they continued their work. And when the farmer finally left the fields, it was not out of fatigue. In recent days, he had seemed full of life, untiring. To an onlooker he gave the impression of a man possessed by a mission. A sprinter running towards the finish line. Oblivious to the strain of the race, conscious only of the finish line and of the other racers striving hard to prevent him meeting his moment of triumph.

He left the oxen a fresh bale of straw to chew over the night and poured fresh water into their drinking trough. As he was akin to doing, he ran his palm gently over their forehead. He rubbed their long, curving horns, dimmed the lamp hung in the shed and left towards his home.

The path home, through a forest was neither long enough to be tiring and mundane, not short enough that it pass without notice. It was a warm night and the moon shone brightly but couldn’t always penetrate the overhead canopy formed by the tall, thick trees. The owls kept him company, their sounds orchestrating with the rustle of the leaves, what could sound to the imaginative, ominous whispers in the darkness. But, until recent days, the farmer had not been very imaginative.

The farmer felt the stirrings of a gentle and cold breeze as he steeped into the forest. It was out of place on a warm summer night. He had grown scared of walking through the forest in the nights. Had he been sensible, he would have stopped walking through it alone. But bravado overrode sense. How could he explain he was scared of the dark, whispering grove? Perhaps he should have run through the stretch and allowed his panting breath to drown the other sounds. But the walk was neither long nor short, and he could never have run through it. The trees began their rustling whispers. The owls awoke to greet him. Every now and then the farmer would shiver as the cold breeze slipped over his back and past his bare neck. Like some icy fingers beginning a slow and seductive grip around his neck. He jerked his neck in an attempt to shake off the gentle pressure he felt. He broke into a sweat. Nervously he looked behind him, only to see a few leaves rolling away in the breeze. Every step of the way he felt eyes staring down at him. Red, bloody eyes, eyes that never shut but searched for victim, after victim, after victim. To the farmer, every inch of the forest was part of a force, mysterious and surreal, aligned against him. He no longer mocked tales of the supernatural- of demons and ghosts. At their very mention, he would close his eyes and make a slight bow - his attempt to make peace with the forces of the afterworld.

But it seemed the forces would not let him be. And amid the mocking forest he felt impending doom and he broke down. Tears flowing profusely down his cheek, he hastened his steps only to approach the densest part of the forest. Where the thick foliage kept out every light from the heavens above.

His body shook convulsively and his sobs grew louder. And from afar came the wolves response-a mournful, lonely, betrayed howl. The howls punctuated the howl with erie hoots which sounded like bhoot ! bhoot ! (ghost). The farmers turban fell of his head. He did not miss it till he reached his home. And he never saw it again.

He continued sobbing even as he left the forest. Stopping to wipe his eyes only when he ran across the children playing at the edge of the village. ‘Pranam chacha’, (hello uncle) they said. He did not reply but continued his fast, paranoid walk. As he stepped into his house, he looked out to the forest. The breeze he had felt had not come out beyond the edge of the forest. He could see the leaves continuing rolling at the forests edge. Reminding him that whatever it was in the forest that waited for him, it would be waiting for him the next evening as well.

The children had continued playing even after sunset. A radio receiver had been installed in the village and a small electricity bulb on the porch illuminated the receiving station. The little bulb allowed the children to play on. Now, it wasn’t darkness but hassled mothers and sisters that dragged them away from their play.

As the farmer hurried by, the children stopped to greet him.

In the momentary distraction, one of the children missed the ball thrown at him. The ball rolled away to the edge of the forest where a few dry leaves were rolling in the cold gentle breeze. The breeze that had accompanied the farmer, but would not venture beyond the egde.

The young boy started after the ball but slowed down as he saw it head into the forest. Panic gripped stronger at him with every step forward he took. ‘Arrey, what are you waiting for. Go on and get the ball dummy’, scolded the children from behind. Away from the security of his group, the child fought hard to take steps forward one at a time. And fought harder the urge to turn back and run home.

The forest was no longer the friend he had been taught it was. To him it held dark secrets. Secrets of powerful spirits that would harm him and punish him. At the edge of the forest, he saw the ball no more than ten steps ahead of him. From the inside, the forest saw him at its edge, crouched as though ready to pounce on it. The child however only knew fear and his effort to keep it suppressed inside him. With a sudden dash he rushed to the ball, picked it up and flung it back to his group.

Even as he felt the urine trickle down his leg. He felt the forest closing around him. He felt a cold breeze wrapping itself around him and wanting to drag him into deeper into the jungle. The owls chanted bhoot bhoot, the leaves rustled. And the boy, wailing, frightened, ran back…….harder and harder….he ran past his friends……his wet trouser leg clinging to his leg…..he ran home. He ran up the steps to the rooftop where he knew his mother would be cooking. ‘Mother’, he wailed….and ran to hide himself behind her. Sobbing uncontrollably, scared, like he had escaped from the jaws of death.

The young girl was used to balancing three pots of water gracefully on her head. One other pot would be balanced on her waist and held firmly by her elbow. She had perfected her walk over some years and was proud of her sure and steady gait.

The river flowed gently not far from the village. It was a short walk across the forest which she made every morning before the sun rose. Her early walk gave mother enough time to bathe and prepare food for the day. The girl helped her mother with the cooking though she did not enjoy it very much. And then headed to school, which, against her mother’s wishes she had attended for six years now.

The forest had always been her friend. She had sung to it, danced around its trees, picked its berries and called out to the birds that nested in its branches.

That friendship had gone.

She dreaded passing through it now. And in recent weeks, she had spilt her pots regularly.
Each time she stepped into the forest she felt she had to force her way through a thick and cold wall. She could not tell if the wall was inside her or outside, but it took so much effort. In the forest, she found the songs dried up in her mind. Her feet no longer danced but clumsily searched the floor for grip. The berries tasted bitter when she found any……and it was only the owls in the darkness of the very early hours called out around her - bhoot bhoot .

When she came to the edge, she found herself unable to step out. As if held back by unseen hands. Often she had looked back in fear, but could see no one. And then she would break down in a flood of tears, shut her eyes and push herself out of the dark woods.

When she had refused to return a few days back, she was unable to explain the reason for her fear. Her mother forced her to her task accusing her of becoming lazy. The thought that she would return the next day kept her sad and uneasy all day long.

It did not take long for the woman to understand the changes around her.
Her husband, daughter and son were changed. The son, the light of her life, always gay and chatty, was quiet, scared and nervous. She cajoled him, coaxed him, made his favourite delicacies, but could not get him to say what was wrong. He would only point to the forest and say he was scared of the beings inside. She tried telling him there was the God of the forest to protect them all, but he would not believe. She tried to walk with him through the forest one evening, but he would not listen.

Her daughter, her pride and love was withering away. She dreamt a very good marriage for her girl, she knew with her looks and charm, the girl could choose for herself the finest groom. She had herself taught her to cook, tend to the cattle and keep the house clean. She had seen her little girl blossom into a fine young woman. And suddenly the blossom was withering away.

She wouldn’t say anything either. But the mother and daughter argued frequently about going through the forest to bring water. And that was the only indication the mother had. She looked to the forest perplexed. The forest had always protected them. Often, after finishing her chores, she walked through the forest and was soothed by its shade, its wild blossoms and fruit. And above all by the solitude and the quiet rest it gave her as she sat under the trees listening to the birds. She knew the villagers frequented the forest often. The forest was their friend.

And unfortunately, she was seeing less and less of her husband. He told her he was working towards a bumper harvest and when she visited him in the noon, carrying him his lunch, she saw him hard at work. She was proud of him. His sullenness at home she blamed on the extra work he was putting in that was bound to leave him tired. She did her best to soothe him and give him his rest. She had told him of her worry about the children. He showed no reaction and believed it was part of growing up. ‘We all go through this’, he said. When she mentioned their fear of the forest, he had said that was silly imagination at work. He had immediately turned over and fallen asleep. Though she did feel him wake in the middle of the night and walk about restlessly.

Some time later, concerned, the woman approached the village priest for his advice. Bowing before him with folded hands she asked to speak with him. The priest sat with her in the temple courtyard and listened to her problem.

‘Daughter’, he said gently, ‘ I know your family. Your husband and children are fine strong people. And it makes me sad to hear about the state of your children. It may be no trivial matter that suddenly disturbs such beautiful people.’

Then he said:

‘How do you walk home, alone and on a silent path ?
When the leaves rustle, do your feet move faster?
Do you rush to find your home or stop to hear your breath?
Do you hear a voice telling you to believe the spirits follow ?
Or do you slow down and look to heaven?

For it is only in silence do you hear your heart speak.’

‘We all hear that voice’, he continued, ‘and in the absence of good judgement, it is only our conscience that keeps us in check.

As we age, we realise that the conscience is our own private matter. It cannot speak out. Without our own support, it is helpless. So we begin to ignore it.’

‘But children’, he added,’ are innocent and do not disregard their conscience thus. On the other hand, they are curious and are easily tempted down the forbidden path. Then, their conscience punishes them more severly than any adult would consider necessary. They do tend to be slaves to their conscience. For all we know your little boy may have stolen a glass of milk. Don’t worry yourself, it is only his conscience that torments him so.’

The woman walked back home relieved, but still unsure of what to do. She felt tired. A while back her young sister had died tragically when she was run over by a train while collecting flowers growing on the track. She was recovering from the pain of the tragedy…….and now this.

The next day the woman asked her daughter to stop going to the forest. That helped bring back some cheer on her girl’s face. Then she asked her son to stop going into the forest and tell the other children that she had forbidden him. That satisfied the little boy. His courage could not be questioned if he was simply obeying his mother’s orders. She was gentle with them and indulged them. In small ways she opened herself to them. The daughter was allowed a little make up on special evenings. The boy was given more cream in his milk. If it was only a small transgression, she sincerely wanted them to come clean and feel better.

It was the only way their lives would return to normal.

She also began to pay more attention to her husband. She hoped the harvest would be plentiful, then her husband to could take a break and relax. He was working harder and harder but seemed more sullen with each day. Whenever she remarked about his sullenness, he would say ‘wait till the harvest. This one will be bountiful and we will have enough for the girl’s dowry.’ And she dutifully waited.

And slowly life returned to normal.

The children laughed and played as before, the forest was not spoken of and the priest’s words , never understood, were forgotten. Though they never revealed their small transgressions, it did not matter any more. The mother spent much of her time lending a helping hand to the farmer. He appreciated it. Summer had turned to monsoon. The monsoon, plentiful brought cheer to all the farmers. Harvest approached and the farmer worked harder than ever to collect his grain. It was a race against time. What ripe grain he could not collect, rodents would.

On the final day of harvest, the mother decided to take her children to the farm to see the result of their father’s work. It was symbolical to her, the end of a season and with the harvest, she knew the past would be well forgotten.

The children did not look happy with the suggestion. They tried hard to remember the fear they had felt and protest, but the memories were distant. . And the thought of their mother walking them through the forest dispelled any lingering doubts. Indeed their strength lasted beyond the edge of the forest though they hung close to their mother.

The darkness of the canopy brought forward dusk. The forest you could say was undecided on how to greet the three. Neither birds nor owl, but tiny insects that hummed. It was turning chilly without icy breeze. Nothing cordial, yet nothing to suggest that the forest forbade their intrusion. ‘Your father will be very happy to see you’, said the mother. ‘He works so hard you know’, she said. In her excitement she described what the fields looked like and how little seedlings sprouted. She described how she spent time making the scarecrow. She described the colors of the field ripe with grain. And before she could describe how the field would look again, her son said ‘that’s where I asked masi (aunty) to wait.’

The mother stopped her speech to ask ‘when ? where ?’. It was a while since she had thought of her sister and she was surprised to hear her son speak about her. She guessed it was many months back that her son was referring to and out of curiosity she stopped to see where her son had pointed.

The boy did not speak but looked at his feet as he walked on, he had not heard the question.

‘When did you see her ?’, asked his mother again.

‘There’, said the boy, pointing to a small clearing through the trees. ‘You had gone to your mother’s home then for a few days. Just before masi died. I asked her to go there.

The mother slowed down her walk. She was not aware of this episode. It did not strike her as suspicious in any way, she was only curious. Why had her son asked his aunt to go to the middle of the forest ? Was it some hide and seek game they had been playing ? ‘Were you playing hide and seek ?’, she asked. She smiled as she said this, remembering how fond her children were of their young aunt.

‘No’, said the boy, suddenly bursting into a loud wail, ‘but papa said he wanted to play. We sent her here and she died. We must have killed her. It must be our fault.’ The child sobbed uncontrollably. His mother froze. Her head spun wildly. Her daughter held the little boy close to her. He sobbed continuously into her waist as the girl too broke down. The children cried for an aunt they loved and an aunt they were the last people to see. Her body was found near the railway tracks. Her last journey was from the forest where the children sent her to the railway tracks where her fate took her.

The mother dragged her feet and the children to the fields. She saw the land, bare. In the shed, their harvest well stocked. Doubt and disbelief hounded her every step. Overcome by emotion, her breathing was strained. She exerted to keep her composure. The three called out to the farmer, but he was not around. The other farmers had seen him finish work and walk away. They had not had the time from their work to speak with him that morning. The three returned home silently. The forest alive with the sound of birds and the trees swaying in gentle breeze, welcomed them. The children left to play with their friends, while the mother waited to speak to the farmer.

As the sun set on the village that evening, the villagers brought the farmer’s body back to the house.

He had been found run over on the railway tracks.

His wife woman continued to show no emotion.

But when she heard one of the villagers suggest that the farmer had gone to the tracks to pick flowers, she spat and cursed viciously.

‘Swine’, she said, ‘what better can I expect from the men of this village ?’

A few days later, the woman and the children visited the temple priest again. Taking his blessings, they left the village forever.

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