THE WELL ON THE HILL

images W

The sound seemed distant, yet near.

A rhythmic, low sound – mingling with the sound of crickets and the breeze – and constantly pulsating in the depth of the night.

He walked to the window of his flat on the second floor and looked out. Beyond the boundary wall of the apartment building, lay a park. Adjacent to the park, was a large enclosed plot in semi-wilderness. The sound seemed to be coming from this plot.

It was a strangely soothing sound; like the sound made by winches on old-fashioned wells, when they were worked to draw water from the well.

As he stood at the window, listening; his eyes fell on the security guard – the Nepali, Thapa – sitting at his usual place. After a thought, he came out of his flat and went down to where the security guard was sitting.

The guard got up as he approached.

“Can you hear, from that direction, any sound resembling that of water being drawn from a well,” he smilingly asked the guard pointing in the direction of the semi-wild plot.

The guard listened intently for a while; then shook his head in the negative.

–2–

Next day, on his morning walk; he worked his way to the plot from where he had heard the sound in the night. There were no approach roads to it and he had to cross a number of plots – where building constructions were going on – to reach it.

It seemed to be a large plot, enclosed by a boundary wall broken in a number of places. The space inside resembled a mini jungle; thickly covered by bushes, trees and shrubs. He found a spot where the boundary wall was broken. Two women were cutting grass near it.

As he was entering the plot, one of the women called out, “There are snakes in there sahib. We have just seen a big, old Cobra.”

He smiled and nodded; and went inside.

Carefully he worked his way to the spot from where he had thought the sound had come last night.

At first, he did not see anything. But as he searched; he saw it – a small, dilapidated well hidden by thick shrubs. He walked up to it.

It was a monsoon month. The day was still young. The air was heavy with the damp pungent smell of the earth and the greenery around. Butterflies flitted around in the soft breeze.

As he stood there, looking at the old broken well; a strangely soothing, yet desolate, feeling enveloped him. He cleared out a small space at the edge of the broken well and sat down.

He sat there for a long time, his reverie finally broken by the sound of a heavy vehicle starting up in one of the construction plots nearby.

Slowly he got up and left.

In the afternoon, on an impulse, he went out and bought a small bunch of flowers. He made his way to the old, broken well – this time no one was around – and placed the flowers on the ground near the well.

After about a month, he left to join his special unit in the Army. But while he was there; he heard that sound – as when the winch is worked to draw water from old-fashioned wells – often in the dead of the night and, frequently, he would walk up to the old, broken well and sit there; drawn by that strangely soothing, yet desolate, feeling surrounding the well.

–3–

He scanned the hillside through his night vision binoculars. Nothing suspicious could be seen.

Scattered around him, as per his instructions, were the men from his special strike unit. The target lay in the valley ahead.

The valley was too narrow and the surrounding hillsides too close. An ideal place for any ambush, he thought.

It was time to go in to hit the target. Everything seemed to be in clear.

Yet he delayed.

From time to time, his second-in-command looked at him but said nothing.

There was a sense of uneasiness in him; making him delay.

And as he waited; suddenly, he heard it, again; – the sound made by the working of the winch on a well. It seemed to be coming from a number of spots on the hillsides.

He listened intently. There was no mistaking it. The sound was the same.

He turned around to his second-in-command and asked in a low whisper, “Do you hear any unusual sound from the hillsides ahead?”

The second-in-command took his time listening.

“No Sir”, he replied in an undertone.

But the sound was there, same as he had heard it before – pulsating rhythmically in the night, mingling with the other night sounds.

He took his decision and gave the command to withdraw. His men looked puzzled but no one said anything.

As he withdrew with his men, the message came from the base.

“WITHDRAW IMMEDIATELY. ENEMY ALERT AND SITTING IN AMBUSH ON THE HILLSIDES.”

He had the message shared with his men.

Back at the base, he asked his men if any of them had heard anything unusual on the hillsides that enclosed the target valley.

No one had.

–4–

Next day he met the mission commander.

“You know something interesting? Those buggers have cleared out from the area and they seem to have done it in great hurry”, the mission commander started.

“We have it from our source that they got spooked badly in the night by some strange sound and being highly superstitious; they have cleared the area in a jiffy,” the commander continued.

“Any information as to what kind of sound it was Sir?”, he asked.

The senior officer stroked his chin, “The sound seemed to be that when water is drawn from old-style wells and it seemed to be coming from all over the hillsides. At least this is what as per information given by our source.”

Both of them were quiet.

“Strange that none of you heard any such sound,” the other man then remarked.

He did not say anything.

In his mind’s eye, he saw that old broken well, hidden by shrubs, and wondered when next, if ever again, he would hear that sound…..

–x–

Advertisements

THE THIN LINE

images TL 1

On the road ahead, he saw nothing but a building haze and dense trees on either side.  It was still early evening, but the growing mist or fog,  whatever it was, had considerably reduced visibility.

He switched on the headlights – and then, the fog lamps.

Driving was becoming increasingly tedious.  Not only was visibility bad; but the road was also narrow and twisting.

And then, a slow drizzle started, which made it worse.

The haze had come quickly and unexpectedly.

He had planned to pass through, but realized that he would have to find a place to stop at, and find it quickly.

He remembered the place and took care to locate the turn when he came to it.  An even narrower road, more uneven and broken, branched off to the left.  He took this turn and after driving for another fifteen to twenty minutes, came to a wooden gate on his left.

He stopped the vehicle and got out to open the gate.  After putting the vehicle inside, he carefully closed the gate and drove up the path.

The tyres crunched the gravel.

There were grass lawns and flower beds on either side of the path; well lit by a number of lamp posts.  Up ahead, there was an open portico herding a cheerful looking ambling cottage.

He drove up to the portico, stopped the vehicle and got out.

Flowerpots lay all around.  A wide door, painted white, framed the entrance to the cottage.

As he was in the act of walking up to this door, – it opened and a man came out, looking vaguely familiar.

“Hello, good evening,” he addressed the man who had come out, “the mist came down suddenly thick and heavy and I had to stop.  Is it all right if I park my vehicle near your house for the night?”

The man crossed his arms across his chest.  He was tall, somewhere in his mid-fifties.  He was wearing a light-coloured tweed jacket, dark trousers with a silk scarf knotted at his throat.  He looked distinguished.

“Of course, I would be sleeping inside the vehicle,” he added.

The man continued to look at him and then gave an imperceptible nod.  “Come on inside”, he said quietly with a smile.

Inside, it was warm and cheerful, almost like home.

The host was courteous with a demeanour which was infectiously relaxing.  He was shown a washroom and, after he had finished, found himself in a comfortable sofa in the front room.

The conversation was routine.  It came out that the house belonged to the host and that he had been living there for a number of years.

Sitting in the sofa, he found himself feeling pleasantly tired and must have nodded off; for the host suddenly insisted that he should take his dinner and then retire for the night.  He mumbled a polite refusal, but the host was insistent.

After dinner, he was shown to a small bedroom, – again warm and cheerful.

From the window of this bedroom, he could see the night outside – dark and cold.
“Thank you, it’s a cold night outside.”

The host was in the act of leaving the room, but hearing this, he paused and turned around. He smiled, “No need to say thanks. Just a thin wall from the night outside.” Then he turned and went away after wishing him good night.

He stood near the bed, alone in the neatly furnished room – slightly uneasy. The parting remark of the host, as also the host himself, seemed vaguely familiar.

But he was tired and quickly fell asleep.

He wasn’t sure what woke him up.
Suddenly, he was awake.
It was quiet.
The house was peaceful.

He lay in the bed, then looked at the window. Curtains were drawn across it, but not fully, and the night outside was visible from a slight gap between the drawn curtains.

On an impulse, he got up and looked outside – and instantly froze.

A number of persons were moving outside. But there was no sound. Only one or two lamp posts were burning now and it was dark – so dark that it made the figures look like silhouettes.

But then, there was no sound. They moved in total silence, randomly, like shadows and he found himself holding his breath.

It was a dream like sequence outside; peculiarly soothing.

He sank down on his knees, his chin resting on the window sill.
He didn’t know exactly when he fell asleep again. The cold woke him up and he stumbled to his feet with a start. Hastily he peered outside – but there was nothing out there – just the fog hanging heavy and dimming the one or two lamp posts that were still alight.

He looked at his watch. It was nearly morning now. He tidied himself up, put on his shoes and then, treading slowly, came out of his room.

The house had an empty feeling. Slowly and carefully he made his way around. The place had a different look now – though still quiet, but as if empty – without anyone living there.

He stood in the front room, looking around; and as he did so, it grew to be morning. He parted the curtains and let in the morning light. Somehow, he was reluctant to switch on the electric lights.

A book lay open on a side table. He picked it up.

Two lines, heavily underscored, caught his eye.

It read, “The line between the good and the evil is thin, surprisingly thin. Both are compellingly driven, and therefore so much more close than we think.”

He turned to the title of the book and looked at the name of the author.

He put down the book.

He came out of the Cottage, closing the front white door carefully.

To the side of the wooden door, which he had somehow not noticed in the night, hung a wooden placard which gave the information that the author of the book that he had picked up a while ago had lived in this house – and the place had been converted into a memorial house after the author’s death.

As he walked away, idly he wondered why he had not recognized himself the other night – for the name of the author was his.

Was it because of the thin line in between………………

CRISS CROSS

He stood in the open doorway. Outside it was brilliantly moonlit. He stood watching. A breeze had sprung up and he felt its coolness on his face.

He closed the door and stepped out. On an impulse, he found himself looking up. The sky was clear. There were tufts of clouds here and there and the moon was shining full and bright.

He walked out to the path in front of the house which climbed up on the hill. He didn’t have an idea as to the exact time but guessed that it was past midnight.

The night was quiet. The path wound up the hill; shaded ocassionally by trees. He strolled up this path; lazily kicking a pebble now and then.

There, when he turned the corner, he saw the figure – sitting, it looked like, on some high boulder or fence next to the path.

He was a little intrigued by the presence of this figure at such late hour in the night. He increased his pace a little; interested now. As he came close; he saw that it was a child – wearing some kind of a large cloak or coat which made it look larger than it was.

When he came closer; the child lifted his face. It was an extraordinarily pale face which seemed to be filled by the deep dark eyes of the child. The child sat quietly and in many ways, it was eerie. It didn’t affect him, however, even though he noticed the eeriness.

“Hey kid, what are you doing here,” he called out to the child.

The child didn’t answer but kept looking at him.

“Not the time for you to be alone pal”, he said, looking at the child closely.

For a second, the child’s face seemed to blossom and distend; but when he looked again, there the kid sat looking at him silently.

“Uh, ok, no joking, tell me your house and I’ll take you back. Not safe here,” he gestured coming further close.

A smell, as if of dry fallen leaves, came from the child.

Their eyes locked. He felt a deep abyss somewhere. He jerked his eyes away.

The child lifted his hand and pointed. He turned back to look at where the child was pointing. On the sea, beneath the hill, some distance away, a light blinked.

He turned aside, so that he would keep the child within his view as also watch the distant gleam. Slowly he could make out what looked like a small motor boat heading towards the shore. The moonlight glinted off its shining hull as he watched the boat.

Suddenly he lost interest in the kid and found himself walking down to the shore. The boat was already there; anchored close to the shore when he reached it. But there was no one around.

As he stood watching the boat; he became conscious of a movement on the sands behind him. He turned – to see the same kid with a scruffy looking dog beside him.

He picked up a broken twig lying at his feet and threw it for the dog. In a few moments, the dog was bounding up to him with the twig in his mouth. He looked at the dog and smiled.

Then he felt apprehensive and quickly looked up. The kid was no longer there. Instead stood a large indiscriminate figure; quiet but menacing.

He sighed. He turned as if to walk away; but suddenly came around facing the large figure. There was a snarl on his face and his mouth opened wolf like. With a cry of unholy joy; he sprang at the figure and brought it down to the ground. But the figure shook itself free and with a leap was running up the hill. He sat looking at the running figure till it disappeared in the shadows of the hill.

The boat was still there. But there was no dog. Neither could he see the child. He lay down on the sand; tasting the salty wind on his lips.

He found the night growing darker and looked up to see clouds much more than there were earlier. Somewhere in the hill behind, he heard a sound; a long wailing sound.

In a blitz, he was up; racing to the hill path where he had met the child.

It was much darker now. But he could still see that there appeared to be a figure; in fact two figures – sitting at the same place where the child had sat earlier.

He slowed down, and as he did so; the dog bounded up in front of him and merged with the figures.

He went up to them. A kind of mist was building up; or so it seemed to him.

He went nearer; walking slowly and quietly. He reached out and touched the misty outline and it was like the feel of dust upon his fingers.

He sat down before them, head bowed; while the misty outline slowly faded away in the darkness.

There was the boat down at the shore waiting for him and there lay the open door of his house where he could go back and rest. Or he could go back to the cemetery and lie down with them; his son, their pet dog and the driver who had crashed their car.

He would decide for he had time. The night was not over yet and there was plenty yet left to criss-cross.

 

 

 

 

April 12/13, 2010 Sanjay Kumar Singh