By Enakshi Ghosh
The distant shouts petrified him. He started running heedlessly, thrusting himself into the bushes, tripping over the rocks, throwing his arms in frenzied terror. The voices drew nearer. He was no longer the master of his limbs. It was as if some formless dread was hurling and squeezing and tossing his body. Gasping for breath, he could barely haul his feeble body into the thorny brambles when the voices, concomitant with muffled footsteps, whispered death into his ears. He clung to his bag.
He loathed everything. He cursed the woods for donning such beguiling green when just a few thousand paces away, homes were being burnt to ashes, heads were being smashed to pulp. The footsteps now manifested themselves in a united, rhythmic chorus. They seemed chipper, happy to have gotten themselves yet another prey. “Those bastards,” he squealed. His brows twitched in pain and his aching legs would shrug off their burden any moment. Everything would be over. He tried in vain to brush aside these thoughts with a wave of his trembling hand. He looked back, but his blurred vision would only allow a glimpse of murky phantoms clad in rags. He pressed the bag to his chest.
“Hey! Stop right there.” A thundering voice crudely jolted him. Shaking all over, he trotted his way behind a tree. His throat was parched and his chapped lips were bleeding. The giant trunk next to his eyes seemed to be swirling in a delirious, circular motion. He feared that he was drifting off. “This is bad,” he whimpered, rubbing his eyes frantically.
“Let me go,” He froze. It was not his voice but he could tell from the weepy note that it was someone like him. “Let me go”, this time the stranger broke into slam-bang sobs. A fleeting moment of deafening silence flew by, followed by a loud metallic whack and a heavy thud.
“Take things. Take things.” He heard some men say.
Raising himself with some difficulty, he started running helter-skelter, his bag still held against his chest.
“There’s another one. There’s another one. There’s another guy who just hit feet. I just heard footsteps.”, a shrill voice cried out. The distant voices seemed to be racing toward him.
“Dammit! It must be the boots. ”, he thought.
The footsteps rushed toward him. His legs were smarting from what seemed to be a perpetual run.
“ I must not do away with the bag. Only it can sustain me if I escape”, he said to himself. He had to cross the woods. What if it was the same everywhere? What was he to do? He couldn’t drag his feet any longer. All he wanted was to drift into a siesta in his cozy room. What might have happened to his house, he wondered. It might stink of burning wood, burning flesh, festering flesh. He shuddered as the faces of his kids materialized before him. “They are safe”, he mumbled, as if to console himself. But suddenly the words from the distant past came rushing to him. “No one will be safe.”, someone had said so many years ago, with a gentle sigh and a twisted snigger.
He leaned on a tree to keep himself upright. They were approaching fast. He could feel the breath of those ghosts on his hands, his face, his shoulders. He could see them…. stealthily, slowly and then suddenly pouncing upon him with a predator’s rapacity.
“There will be such a time and it will arrive sooner than later”, Go away …..Go away, he muttered. Why were such memories flooding him when both the present and the future forged to become a vast uncertainty stretched across his conscious and subconscious mind?
He couldn’t run anymore.
“The homeless will not squirrel away bricks… they will raze the mansions…..”
“When the time comes, the hungry will not look for food anymore, they will search for flesh…..”
“Fuck off!” he bellowed, afraid as he was, not of the reality, but of the realization of reality. “My bag, my ba…”, his voice trailed off.
His father would let loose those nihilistic tirades in the nutty afternoons, swaying his feet to and fro. This was many moons ago when their floor was an ordinary one when water used to drip from their roof.
A shudder suddenly ran through his body and he fell face down on the ground. Unable to get up, he let out low moans. He gently stroked the velvet strap of his bag, with an air of austerity typical of a dying person caressing a bottle of failed drugs. He breathed heavily.
He could hardly raise his supine body when he was dazed to find an onlooker. She was about ten, the same age as his son’s. She had the same misty eyes. But her limbs looked so fragile, her bones revealing themselves from underneath her grimy, shriveled skin. The rag she wore was tainted with blood, muck, filth, and goodness knows what. There was a knife in her hand.
The man struggled to get up. She looked as afraid as he did. She sucked her thumb, in that same childish manner. Unable to understand the man’s mumbles, she advanced towards him with the knife swaying to the whims of her loosened grip. He was trying to get up but he couldn’t. She tightened her grip around the weapon as she came closer to the man. He buried his face into his hands with a sigh, glad to know that he would be stabbed and not hacked to death.
“What’s there in your bag?”, the girl asked.
It was far from what he expected. “Money. A lot of it. You can keep it all.”
The girl slowly came forward and snatched the bag from his weak grip. She opened the zip only to find thousands of notes jammed in each pocket. She became restless and dug out the rest of the contents. Two bars of cheese and a bottle of water. She dropped her knife out of wonder.
“Did you spot anyone out there? Come running to me as soon as you do.” A nearby voice startled both of them.
“There’s no one here. I’m coming”, the girl shouted. She gulped down some of the water from the bottle, hurriedly thrust a bar of cheese in her pocket, and threw the other at the man. She stared at him and flashed a wide grin before disappearing behind the shrubs.
After lying there for minutes that seemed no less than eternity, he painfully raised himself and drank the rest of the water and started limping his way. He realized that he had forgotten his bag and the girl had forgotten her knife too, as he slogged through the dense foliage with the other bar of cheese in his hand.