A NIGHT ON THE ROAD

It was a strong sturdy vehicle. Its headlights pierced the darkness ahead as the vehicle steadily moved on.

The vehicle was empty except the driver.

The night was quiet. The fields on either side of the road were bathed in moonlight. No other vehicle had been met with for quite sometime now.

The road ahead was broken and he slowed the vehicle; pulling it to the side to avoid the rougher patches. The night wind drifted in and the headlights cut through the fields as the vehicle angled across the road negotiating the broken surface.

On an impulse he stopped and pulled down the window to his right while keeping the engine on. The headlights looked strange and isolated in the night. He switched the engine off; keeping only the parking lights on.

The cool breeze played upon his face and bare forearms. He sat quietly looking at the fields on either side. Slowly as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the landscape. Much of the fields were bare, lit by the moonlight. Clumps of trees stood in pooled shadows.

He looked long at the shadows; then shook his head and looked away.

Opening the door, he got out and went around to the back of the vehicle. He stood looking down the road. Nothing was to be seen. He went back to the front of the vehicle. The road ahead, after some distance, was lost in darkness.

The usual night sounds were missing. It was quiet and empty; except for the occasional drift of wind brushing across his face.

He walked around in an aimless manner; his shoes crunching the surface underneath. Of a sudden, he realized he had walked a considerable distance up the road. On turning, he saw the shadow of his vehicle; the moonlight glancing off its metallic grillwork. Under the open sky, it stood perched on the nook of the road, somber and silhouetted.

He looked up at the sky, watching the full pale moon.

Then he walked back quickly to the vehicle; got in and turned the ignition on. The engine revved in; its measured confident sound assuring him. He switched on the headlights and moved ahead.

The road was isolated and he increased the speed.

He felt it now. About 20-30 minutes further on it should be.

Thoughts meandered in his head. The image of a late winter afternoon came again and again; when, as a child, he sat reading a book alone in the secluded, tree shaded rear balcony of his home.

He sensed it nearer now.

As the road straightened out, he saw it.

In the desolate bareness, it sat; a small roadside eating place on the right side of the road about 500m ahead.

Though it was late in the night – 12.45 exactly as he looked at his luminous dial – the place appeared quietly alive.

On both sides of this place, the road was bare; except for a single tree whose spreading branches lay a little to the back and side of it. A glow of yellow light tingled in front of it; possibly that of a lantern.

It was a low structure. He could make out bare fields on either side; barren and uncovered. Yet as he looked more closely, the vehicle nearer now; he could make out, after about 50m behind this eating place, a dark shadowy patch stretching behind in the distance and lost in the night; as if made by dense clump of trees.

He was upon this place now. Slowing down, he looked in the rear view mirror. The moonlit road was silent behind. He crossed over to the right side of the road.

It was a small place. Not too long. In front of it, the bare earth had been packed down and on it some small round tables and chairs lay. The end further away from him was in shadows. At the nearer end, a large lantern hung illuminating the front where the tables and chairs lay.

He eased the vehicle over to the far end; parking it on the side of the road in the darkness.

He sat in the vehicle, watching the place. In the corner where the lantern lay, some food utensils were sitting on a counter and, separated by a distance, a coal fire was glowing. There didn’t seem to be anyone around.

As he watched, the shadows behind the counter, where the utensils lay, seemed to shift as if someone was moving behind it.

He opened the door and got out; shutting it behind him.

He moved across to the front of the place. As he did so, the darkened corner seemed to come alive with a presence.

He walked to where the lantern hung and stood standing in front of the counter, facing the shadows.

Out of the shadows emerged a figure. A thin old man.

“Would there be still anything to eat?” he asked the old man.

The old man nodded and pointed to a table in front.

He went to the table standing on the packed bare earth; illuminated by the lantern and pulled out a chair. He checked for dirt on the chair and, surprisingly, found none, either on the chair or the table.

He sat down with his back facing the vehicle.

The thin old man walked across to his table and put down an empty glass and a jug of water. Then he went back and got busy getting the food ready.

The man from the vehicle for a while watched him. Then his eyes shifted to his left and he studied the shadows in the other half of the place which had come alive as he had crossed it.

He could make out nothing in the shadows but there was presence, or presences there. Shifting presences, which seemed to grow even as he watched. But he saw nothing.

The old man was walking towards him and set the food before him.

The smell was good and the food wholesome looking.

He started eating. The old man came out with further servings. Everything was normal; except that once when he lifted his eyes to ask for something, his eyes locked suddenly with that of the old man.

An abyss opened somewhere; dark and fathomless.

He breathed easy and deep. The old man abruptly turned away.

He called for tea and sat sipping it; turning once to check his vehicle.

The man behind the counter, as he stood handling the utensils, no longer looked thin. Somehow his face and frame was fuller now and a kind of shadow seemed to fall over his face concealing his eyes.

The shadowed corner to his front and left was fully alive now; as if trying to touch him.

He let everything go in his mind and soul and stood up stretching like a wolf. He opened his mouth deep as he did so, as if in a yawn, but no sound came and the teeth bared in a snarl.

From the darkened patch behind the place, as if from the thick grove of trees, started a wail, soft low and sweet at first; then lifting and building in a strange howling melancholy.

He leapt down the bare fields at the back of the place and started running towards the grove of shadowed trees. As he did so, he felt a multitude of teeming mass surge down pursuing him.

He ran, leaping and twisting and then abruptly turned. The surging seething mass stopped; a fury reaching out to him from it. He threw his head back and laughed; a deep cascading laugh which spread out in the darkness.

Then he walked towards the seething mass; smiling as he did so. The black shadows stood their ground and at the last moment, pulled back and receded. He stood still.

Then in deliberate steps and manner; he turned back and entered the darkened grove.

Someone or something hit him then. He could not see what or who. It was a stunning blow and he lay on the ground, trying to recoup.

He willed the pain to the back of his mind and climbed to his feet.

The air was oppressive and he was having difficulty breathing. All round him, the darkness seemed suffused with a dark cold fury.

He wet his lips. From nowhere, the image came again, of himself as a child, sitting in the late winter afternoon in the rear balcony with sound of birds around and noise of his mother calling out to someone in the house behind.

He started singing. A song, whose words he loved and the melody of which caressed his mind whenever he heard it. The song came easily and naturally and he moved ahead in the darkness, singing softly.

The cold dark pantheon around him grew till it was all total darkness and he could see nothing.

But the song was on his lips and he moved singing it. In small steps, feeling the ground, he walked, as he had walked when he held his mother’s hand as a child, and moved forward.

The lifting darkness watched; then erupted in fury.

Dark writhing tentacles of shadows seethed; seeking to hold him by the throat. Surging wails and moans filled the night.

He walked, still softly singing. He let it come out which lay inside; desolate empty barrenness.

His emptiness stretched as it was inside him. Now and then he stumbled; but corrected himself.

The seething fury touched and engulfed him.

He felt himself growing numb and infinitely tired.

But his emptiness around him kept growing and abruptly the dark swirling, seething, snarling mass moved as if in a cataclysmic frenzy; lifted itself from him and vanished.

He turned back and looked at the road. It was all dark now. There was no lantern light anymore. The eating place was still there but emanated lifelessness and silence.

The still of the night was broken by a phone ringing. His cell phone; left behind in the vehicle.

Stumbling he ran towards the road; hastily opened the door and lifted his cell phone.

“The child is still breathing and they say there is hope”, the voice at the other end told him.

He breathed deeply and put the phone down on the seat.

After a while, the phone went silent; as was the night outside.

—–0—–

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THE WELL ON THE HILL

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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–