|The picture on the salon wall|
They were deserters of some sort, but what were they deserting, my brick-addled brain cannot fathom. Of course age too has taken a toll on my memory. But I remember, that when Big Man Adam's daughter Kukushka stumbled upon an exposed root, and had to be taken aside to check if her toe nail had clipped, Big Man Adam saw the lake behind me. And that is when I was born. I imagine that I should say I was conceived then, for as the aged trees lovingly told me, Big Man Adam had decided in that moment to end his journey and build a home where he stood.
My genesis took a long solitary period of time, in which Big Man Adam aided by his daughter, raised me from ground up, bit by bit, one cabin at a time. I had a humble beginning. A wavering roof made of a bedsheet - supported by four frail twigs - constituted my whole being. But as the unwavering labour of Big Man Adam fed me zealously for years, I was born, a stout and sturdy house with thick wooden walls. When wind blew through my abundant doors and windows I could smell whole of the forest in it, and in bargain it took away my flavour to the forest.
The father and daughter were a hard-working set of people. Kukushka had set up a small garden at the back, where they would get their meagre provisions for food. She toiled in garden and worked on a cloth with a fine needle. Her father, he went to the out of house on his mule once a week, for simple trades and came back the same evening. He went down to the lake for fish sometimes. Usually he just taught her to read and write and cook, and tended the garden with her.
She was a dainty creature. A songbird. When she sang, her lovely tones penetrated deep within my being and it seemed that my very timbers and stones came alive with it. My foundations wished to get up on its rickety feet and swoon around. And if I had sinews like those humans and beasts, I might have too.
The father and daughter lived here through five winters. At the end of fifth year, a band of dirty dishevelled men arrived and in a day, they undid what the father and the daughter had done in years. At the very steps of this house, they culled Big Man Adam like a chicken and after rampaging in the house for food, they found Kukushka and took her away. She shouted and fainted. None of them ever came back.
I was left here, wooden and still, for the first time in my life, contemplating the meaning of solitude. Dust settled, and vines crept up along my limbs and walls. There was no one to halter the invasion of moss and dank that then took hold of me. In parts, some wild fauna made home in my internals, but they did not have the impeccable sense of cleanliness and unrelenting perseverance of Kukushka to take care of me like she did.
I lose sense of time after that. One year, maybe many, or perhaps decades later, humans came to these woods again.
They were a husband and wife, a youthful couple. They had no business being in this isolated woods, but I believe, they too were seeking solace in isolation. They cleaned me up, and cut the weeds and vines as best they could manage. The garden was the toughest piece of work, where it seemed that nature had drawn a masterpiece of chaos when given free reign.
The young man put in a bit of stone at the periphery and made a small fence about the garden. Then he made a shed for their goats, and for the poultry. Then, with their simple fair, they made me part of their silent life.
With them another woman came. Old and unsightly. In contrast to the man and wife, she looked just like an old banyan compared to a young sapling. She was thick around the waist. But she was much too agile for her years. They called her Granny.
I never learned the names of the couple, for they never called each other by their names, and neither did Granny. In fact, as I remember, in all the duration that the family lived here, I never heard the young man or his wife speak. They conversed with gestures of eyes and hands. Only Granny spoke, and that too sparingly. She took care of the young wife, when she grew thick around the waist suddenly.
Then I had believed that the old woman felt a sense of obligation to a likewise fat woman - however young she might be. When less than a year later, a crimson lump tumbled out of her and began to cry, the young wife became thin again. The woods told me later, that the lump was actually a progeny of the couple, just like a bird lays eggs which hatch into chicks. I had seen lizard and fowl eggs, but they were smooth. The human egg was horrible, red and brown, it looked like the colour of earth on the day Big Man Adam was killed on my steps.
I think I was prejudiced against the child from the beginning. He was loud, and he always kept scratching me in odd places with sharp objects. He teased all the living things that he found anywhere, the snakes, crickets, earthworms, all of them, and they cursed him heavily. But with time, and the passing of the old woman, he grew solemn.
He used to watch in peace the rare rain that fell, sitting on the wooden porch, with his knees pressed close to his chest. He also made some marks in a paper by his side, and then read them silently to himself. The silence that the young couple had brought with them, infected him too, and I began to miss his riotous laughter and his mischievous stints.
His father spoke to him sometimes, when his mother had taken to bed ill. She did not survive for long, and if it were possible, the silence of the family grew deeper. Except the metallic clang of cooking pots and wood splintering under an axe, there rarely came a sound among the woods. I could even hear their hearts beat, a regular rhythm devoid of emotion and musical uncertainty that the young wife had, and Kukushka before her.
A world without women, is really no world.
What happened to them? Here, my memory fails me. I had taken to slumber, while the man and his son inhabited me. I cared not for their routines and motions, and never noticed when, leaving me to my fate, they faded into oblivion.
I slept unhindered.
Then came the renegades of war.
I cannot remember how long it was that I had been alone, and to be honest, the renegades weren't a welcome company either. They were a desperate and weak lot. Their filthiness reminded me of the cursed bandits who took Kukushka away. But with the mean and hunted look that they carried with them, they stood in contrast with the raucous arrogance of those pillagers.
They wore tattered clothes, which under the dirt and grime looked the same to me. Their shirts had some rusty metallic bits attached on shoulder and chest. And they wore high boots that reached their knees. The woods say they were soldiers. The men might have been. But the two women and five children did not look like soldiers to me.
They did not live long here. In fact, their lives here could only amount to a fleeting moment in the long span of life that I had lived. The coming of the renegades was a omen though. It was barely a week or perhaps ten days later, when they were dragged out through the door.
Of the five men of the company, only two went out regularly. The rest stayed back to guard the women and children. They lived in constant fear, a dread of discovery. They never cooked anything. They ate whatever came out of the saddlebags of the two men returning, which was mostly salted meat and stale bread. It was evident that they could not survive on those meagre rations. If they would only preen the garden and plant some vegetables, they would have been able to have a decent meal for dinner every evening within two months' time. And their was plenty fish in the lake too. That was nature's bounty!
But wooden as I was, I could not communicate this to them. And anyway, humans are supposed to be intelligent. If they saw the remains of the garden, and did nothing to make food from it, I fail to see what intelligence this lot possessed. I never imagined they might have had a reason.
But it became clear before long.
When the Colonel and his men came, accompanied by sound of hooves and drums and flintlocks, they brought with them the storm. And what a portentous storm it was! I might have known that such fury of nature is felt only before the world turns upside down. My little wooded world gradually turned and turned until all recognition of the place itself was washed away in mud and shit.
Unfazed by the pouring rain and the crackling sky, the Colonel's men laid a siege upon me. The renegades did not dare come out, nor attempt to run. They were doomed the moment they had fallen asleep in the night, for the general's men had them surrounded before sunrise. I felt sorry for the children. Malnourished - almost starved to death - and now death stared right in their faces, coming much sooner than the circumstances had promised.
After the storm ceased, the Colonel ordered his men to open fire. Had their guns blazed that day, they would have left me an open grave of three men, two women and five underfed children - a mausoleum shot to shreds and without the name of its residents. And that would have been the ignominious end of my short life.
But fate had ordained otherwise. I was to bear witness to more horrors than I had yet seen, and the penance for being built a house in that age was not to be cut short by their rifles that day. Their gunpowder, having been drenched in the rain, did not ignite. That did not deter the Colonel though. He sent his men in, and they dragged the flaccid deserters out of the house.
They built a simple platform, on which the Colonel sat with a chair and table and read them their death warrants.
On the tall oak tree by the decrepit garden, they selected a low branch, and threw a rope over it. They dug a shallow hole directly underneath. Then one by one, they hung the men and women, their children watching the brutal due process of law, without understanding any of it. They were ineptly covered from the scene of death by a soldier who stood before them watching with interest.
The exhibition was lent a stifling sense of macabre by the dying men and women when, loosened by the noose tightening around their necks, their bowels emptied under them. I heard the snapping of neck, and the splashing sound of shit hitting the hole in the ground below them. I heard the sobs of children, barely above whispers. I heard in the bickering of the soldiers, their reluctance to go on with the hanging after the first man, and I heard the stone-willed voice of the Colonel which left to them nothing but to go on.
When the guilty had been hanged, the soldiers removed them and took them down to the lake. They came back without them, and filled the hole with earth. The Colonel in the meantime, had been inspecting the surroundings, unconcerned about the children.
He came to my doorstep, entered and crossing the corridor, came to the window there from where you could see the lake in that time. He stood there all the while, watching the soldiers bury the men and women in a common grave.
Then only did I notice the sense of melancholy that had swept over him. He looked upwards at the sky and seeing that the rain was imminent, he made some marks in a paper. I was filled with disgust, for the lump of red earth - that solemn child of the dumb young wife - had come back to me, and he had turned the earth from blood to faeces.
He waited for his men to come back, and upon their return, he announced unceremoniously, "There will be a town here."
If I had known what a despicable invention a town was, I would have crumbled then and there, at the feet of the Colonel. My ignorance prolonged my disgraced existence. I had grown into a hermit by this time. I resisted their attempts to restore me. I shed wood and termites all over the place, and swayed at night under the wind, uttering a ghastly moan which I had known to scare the humans. But my limited ingenuity failed to halt them.
They took out the old timber, and brought stone from a quarry. They took the roof away too, and fixed it with red tiles. The garden, they restored, and laid a concrete fencing around it, which covered me as well, and in the fencing they put an iron gate.
All these additions remained alien to me. I was born in the woods, from the woods, and never took to the brittleness of stone. They were not a part of me. Even the stone that they put in my walls, replacing the timber there, stood out as an appendage at best.
The Colonel brought his family in time. The trees surrounding were felled by dozens, and the forest cleared. More old men and women came, with their families, and built those ugly stone cottages all around the place. I saw the renegades' children toiling there as farmhands once or twice. Then the cattle came, and after them, all mean and sundry started arriving. Stone-masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, shepherds, fishermen, butchers, who ever smelled it, came after it. It was the whiff of opportunity, the Colonel told his daughter one day.
The Colonel's family was small. A daughter and a son. They built a school somewhere around here. And a church. The framed photograph of me on the wall of the salon was put up by them. It is faded now, but when it was first put, it was magnificent. It had that old-world charm about it, which I was losing gradually. The Colonel's children lived long, and so did their own children. And with each generation, the world around me ripened into a hideous place.
My mind was in a whirl. I did not know where the trees went, where the dirt went, the weeds and the worms, the termites, the snakes and the frogs of rain, I misplaced them all. I wondered if they ever existed anywhere outside my imagination.
Someone discovered the coal deposits near the lake. That brought in the miners. The ramparts put by them snatched from me the company of the lake too. From crimson blood and brown stool, the earth was now the black from dust of coal-miners feet. I knew somewhere about then, that this was the march of progress. I dreaded to think of the colours to come in my life.
But what followed were the lively colours - rouge and mauve - of the gangs of strumpets and clowns and puppeteers of the bawdy theatres. I missed the introduction of moonshine to the neighbourhood. That was the completion of the circle. From redundancy of their education, inactivity of alcohol, vanity of church, to the obscenity of the artists, I had seen the whole lecherous march, and wished for an apocalypse every passing moment with every creak of my being.
Now, whenever it rains, it falls on my concrete beams, and I feel nothing. The splatter of rain on my wooden spine used to rejuvenate me. With stone, it doesn't bother. I feel sullied forever. And afterwards, the ground does not smell of geosmin any longer, for the dirt path had been paved in asphalt. The garden that the sweet songbird Kukushka laid ages past, now has a shed built upon it, in which iron tools rust and tin roof inflames under the heat of sun.
Tomorrow when they take me down, they will move the rubble and lay here the heavy iron rails for the steam engines which tread upon them without remorse. The blur of the steam settling upon the country side will obliterate all colours from here. It will be death for me, finally, and I will be most grateful.
I wonder though if anybody will cherish me in their memory. I know it is vain and much like humans to hope that you will be kept alive in memories, but some twisted part of me wishes to be remembered. Yet I fear that the rubble that will collate after my death, will take my story to everywhere it will spread, and I will die a thousand times over in its retelling. Somehow, it seems more honourable to die once and forever. Anonymity will be peaceful.
I never found out what happened to her though. I should have liked to hear her song once more.