It’s quiet. But thankfully, not too quiet – not like in one of those movies. It’s the kind of quiet where you can actually hear your own thoughts. Thankfully on this occasion, they weren’t too introspective, and I was able to enjoy the stillness. I’m sitting here on the third day of my trip to Kahna, and nothing has happened. Meeting my aunt and uncle, who I hadn’t seen since I was 6, was not as exciting as my parents made it out to be.
Now in my twenties, they feel like strangers from another world. Since most of my family moved out of this village when I was young, they’ve left their relatives behind in the past they no longer wanted for themselves. ‘Stubborn,’ as my father would describe his brother, my uncle chose to stay here and continue life the way their ancestors had – away from some of the comforts I’d become used to. It’s hot here too – but it’s different to the heat at home in the city where it’s so crowded it almost sits above you; as if it’s so congested, the heat can’t even find space in the bustle. Here it settles around you, heavy, making you wade through it.
There is no one here. All the small houses look the same. It feels like time is a loop here, an inescapable prison of repetition. The kind that trains the mind not to want for anything more outside of the known, the regular.
Sitting on my small bed, even the weathered walls seem to be sweating in the heat—the small cracks gasping like gills on a fish out of water.
Looking out of a small window, I can see the tree line beyond the small collection of crops at the rear of the house. It’s so dense that if you stepped through, you would disappear from view. I remember the stories our uncle used to tell, his ‘histories’ as he used to call them. Tales of a tribe long lost who kept to the old ways of connection to the land. As a child, they seemed like ghost stories, of eyes peering through the trees, small spots breaking the darkness.
My uncle always said people in the village believed these tribal men were still out there, somewhere, living quietly in the forest’s dark corners, watching them at night. Just stories, though, I’m sure, told in a place with nothing but memories of a time of activity. There must only be animals out there – that would explain what I thought I saw the other day anyway. It was late afternoon, and whilst picking in the garden, I caught a shape out of the corner of my eye, just beyond the trees. As I tried to find it again, it disappeared. At the time, I swore it looked human, but it couldn’t be… Now I think – I know – it must have been an animal or perhaps one of the villagers. There are meant to be a few tigers in the nearby forest, at least that’s what my uncle said anyway. I’ve hardly seen any people since arriving, but I feel like I’m being watched – under eyes with a weight, eyes beyond the trees. Is there anything out there…
Later that day, we sat and ate the evening meal in the usual silence. My mind kept going back to the trees – what did I see? What was out there? Lost in my questions, I didn’t notice my aunt standing over me, offering a hand to collect my half-eaten meal.
“Sorry,” I said as I handed her my plate sheepishly. A look of mild disapproval occupied her face; meals weren’t a luxury here and ought to be finished. She handed the plate to my uncle, and I watched her exit to the room. My uncle didn’t look up and continued to eat.
“Uncle,” I asked nervously, knowing I was breaking the conventional silence.
“Yes, Nikhil?” He replied, not losing focus on his food.
“Do you remember the stories you used to tell us when we were children?”
“Your histories of the forest, do you remember those?” These words were quieter than my earlier questions. My uncle finally stopped eating and sat still for a moment as if suddenly burdened by the weight of my innocent question.
“They were just stories. We don’t go into the trees. It’s not safe outside the village. There are many tigers beyond the trees, not safe,” He finally said, meeting my eyes with his. He held my gaze for a moment before continuing to eat. Unsatisfied, I got up and went to my bed in the back corner of the house.
The room was dark, with a thin beam of light coming through the small window from the full moon. I layed on my bed, checked my watch, and closed my eyes, preparing to sleep.
A few hours later, I awoke sweating. I opened my eyes and noticed it was still dark. The silence was deafening in this village, particularly at night. I sat up for a moment and looked at the light square of moonlight on the floor coming through the window. As I stared, half asleep, something moved through the square, causing it to disappear for a second. I jumped up with a gasp and froze. The silence grew louder. After a second that felt like an hour, I dared to move. I peered around the edge of the window to look outside and saw a man standing with his back to the house, facing the trees. He didn’t look like one of the villagers. He was perfectly bald, and as if he could feel my gaze, he turned, and his dark eyes found mine. Panicked, I ducked back under the window out of sight, the image of the man’s face seared into my mind’s eye; his sharp features, the dark eyes, the piercings – one in each ear, one in his forehead. He wasn’t one of the villagers.
I took a deep breath, placed my shaking hands on the edge of the window, and raised my head quickly for a second look. Nothing. Nothing but the same wall of trees, the same shadows – but the man was gone. My eyes darted in the dark, searching for the figure I’d locked eyes with just a second earlier. My curiosity overcame me, and my body seemed to move independently from my mind. I found myself climbing out the window and walking towards the tree line. I placed each foot carefully on the ground, trying to control my breath. I could hear my heart beating in my ears like a battle drum. I got closer to the trees, but the mysterious man was nowhere to be seen. I was now a step from the tree line, staring into the infinite dark. The forest was so dense that not even light was welcome to breach its borders. I extended a hand towards one of the trees slowly, preparing to enter the forest. As my fingertips touched the bark of a tree, a large hand emerged from the darkness, grabbed my wrist with an iron grip, and pulled me beyond the threshold. My body followed, and in the blackness, I felt my knees fall to what must have been the forest floor with a thud, then everything went dark.
I woke slowly, and I felt warmth on my face. My eyes rolled around lazily, vaguely registering my surroundings until they landed and fixed on a shape in front of me. It was the man from the trees. My mind suddenly became alert as I quickly realised I was not in the village anymore, but in a cool, dark cave, illuminated by a small fire. The strange man sat opposite me, staring through me with his piercing eyes. In my hurried glances, I noticed some strange cololoured shapes, but I couldn’t focus on them as I gingerly tried to get to my feet and make an exit. Where was the exit?
“Sit down, Nikhil”
I froze on the spot. I looked at the man, sat on the cave floor, with the same piercing, dark eyes. He sat perfectly still for a moment before making a small gesture for me to retake my seat. I sat slowly, nervously, trying to regather my wits. My heart continued to pound loudly in my ears.
“How do you know my name?” I asked finally, looking at the fire, unable to hold his stare.
“I know many things. I have watched, for it has been my place to watch”. He said. Eyes still fixed on me. He sat still and strong, like a stone.
“Have you been watching me? Why did you bring me here?”
“I have watched; now it is my place to speak. You have been brought here to listen. Don’t be afraid,” He said, softening his voice slightly. His eyes finally relented, glancing to his side. Sitting there in the dirt was a single, small black stone – perhaps it was a seed. He picked it up gently between his fingers, mouthed something, and peered at it for a moment before tossing it into the fire. The flames roared for a second then settled once more. The small black object disappeared, and he took a deep breath, concluding the strange ritual.
“That really doesn’t answer my question.”
“I am a strange man in a cave Nikhil, would you expect me to answer your questions plainly?” The smallest corner of his mouth raised slightly. “Look around you. Look at the walls. Tell me what you see?”
I did as I was instructed and examined the coloured blurs I’d noticed earlier. Vivid characters and scenes of colour were carved into the walls and roof of the cave. Illuminated by the half-light of the fire, the deep carvings seemed darker and more sinister. A gentle breeze caused the fire to flicker, making the shadows dance along the walls and seemingly bring the characters to life.
“Cave Paintings?” I answered, not entirely sure what I was looking at.
“History. The history of my people who once lived in this forest”. He looked away.
“I am the last; there is no one left except me and the drawings on these walls. Our history would have died with me, but I have been watching your village, and I have chosen you. Tonight I will share my history with you, and you will listen. You are welcome.” He gave another half-smile.
“I didn’t say thank you…”
The man stood up, ignoring my comment and making his way to one of the carvings on the wall. He traced his finger along one of the engraved images.
“Many years ago, we thrived in this forest. We lived in peace amongst the animals and trees for hundreds of years. Unlike the people of today, the animals were our friends, and the trees our gods. We were one with nature, and nature was one with us”. He traced a finger along the characters as he spoke.
“Why did you kidnap me?” I insisted.
“Shouldn’t you be writing this down?” He replied without turning to face me.
“Why me? Take me back to the village, now!”
“You are with the sole survivor of an ancient tribe that could talk to animals and open a gateway to another dimension, and you’re concerned about a village?” He smiled once more.
“Another dimension?” I quizzed, forgetting momentarily that I had, in fact, been kidnapped.
“Listen and write” He gestured to a pencil and a small stack of paper on the floor. “If you record my history, I share with you the secret of my people; I will let you go.”
“And take me back to my village?” I pressed.
“I will take you back to your village. Now, listen and write.”
The man walked to a back corner of the cave, where the carvings seemed to begin.
“My people were born of this earth, and we worshipped it accordingly. It gave us our life, and we thank it for that. We once lived peacefully throughout this forest, undiscovered by the outside world. Our connection to this forest is deep. So, as the modern world spread and reduced our home, we too, disappeared with it.” His voice softened, and his shoulders slumped slightly as if suddenly burdened by the weight of his words.
“What happened?” I asked, seeing the strange man differently.
“This forest was once filled with beautiful trees. Among the most sacred to us, were the Saj and Mahua trees and the flame of the forest.” He gestured to three of the largest carvings on the wall. Tracing their intricate design, the sadness that weighed on his shoulders now filled his once piercing eyes.
“In the early days, we worshipped these trees. When the rains came, we would grow and flourish with them. They sustained us. When fires came, we would perish with them. When the wind and storms came, they sheltered us. As we fed off them and prayed to them, our spirit became connected to theirs. It soon became a tradition that our children would bond with one of these trees by planting a seed on their day of birth. They would grow together and whither together. It was their responsibility to care for their tree as it would care for them, and if the tree would die, they too would die. Our spirit was tied to our tree, as its spirit was tied to ours. In this way, we lived in harmony with the forest and all its inhabitants.”
Suddenly I was reminded of my uncle’s warnings.
“Aren’t there tigers in this forest?” I asked.
“Yes. This place is as much a home for them as it is for us. We had many encounters with them as we shared our home with them, we learned to communicate with them, and we came to an unspoken agreement that we should stay in one part of the forest and they in another. We never had any troubles with the tigers from there”. As he shared this story, he had stopped in front of a section of the cave with tigers and men carved into the wall. He tenderly traced one tiger in particular, as if the touch of his finger would bring back the memory of a friend. He paused for a moment, and silence filled the cave. I dared not speak, for I still didn’t quite understand this strange man and whether his story was real. I studied his face, the hardened features now softer. His eyes showed grief, carried alone as he, unlike his ancestors, had no one to pass it down to. He had been left behind by those he loved to wander in their home among the ghosts and trees. He breathed and closed his eyes.
“What happened to the rest of your people?” I asked softly.
“We always kept our distance from Humans…”
“They sort a life we were not made for.” Made? “They sort a life outside of the forest. The irony of humanity is that they destroy what sustains them and revere what destroys them. Their villages grew, as did their hunger for more. They began to consume our home to build their own. Trees were felled, our animal brothers and sisters stolen. As the trees were taken, my people began to disappear too. In a bid to survive, we became desperate. Using our knowledge of the forest and the elements to search for a means of survival. This forest is full of many mysteries, Nikhil, many paths, and doorways that lead to nowhere. Some, however, lead to other places”.
He was now reaching the end of the carvings. The final scene had a large circle with small lines drawn to indicate light coming from its center. Figures were facing the circle, almost lining up as if to step into it. To move through it. The circle was a doorway. Was this cave the door way?
I suddenly became very aware of my surroundings once more. The man’s face had resumed its usual sharpness once more, and the fire, although unchanged, seemed colder. I looked at the man once more as he continued his story.
“As we searched for ways of escape, we came across many dark secrets in this forest. Our investigations became more and more dangerous, but we didn’t stop. Our home was disappearing; our people were dying. So many paths proved fruitless until this cave. You see, this cave is a gateway. A gateway to another dimension.”
“Where?” I sat forward, hanging on the words of this strange man.
“We don’t know until we reach it. The few survivors of my people have travelled there, and I am the sole caretaker of our home. My time has come to leave this place. Now that you have recorded our history, I can be with them once more. Your people have taken our home, but we have found a new one -“
“Where is this place? How do you get there?” I stood, dropping the paper. “You said you would take me back to the village!”.
“It may be too late for that now, Nikhil,” He replied, peering out of the mouth of the cave.
I followed his lead and noticed it was still dark outside. I’d been here for hours; surely the sun should be coming up?
“Where have you taken me? Where am I?” I took another step towards the man. He didn’t turn to face me. Instead, he began to walk towards the entrance of the cave. I glanced at the fire; it was smaller now and disappearing rapidly. I looked up, and the man had proceeded closer to the cave’s entrance. I followed him.
“Where are you going? Where does this doorway lead?” My voice was raised now.
“My seed has been replanted. My spirit has completed the journey”. He turned slowly to face me, those once piercing eyes now glistening.
“Thank you, Nikhil,” he smiled, a large smile, exposing browned teeth.
Seeing something new in his eyes, I took another step toward him. I extended my arm, but as I did, his knees seemed to buckle, and his once stone body began to crumble to the floor. I leaped forward, attempting to grab him, but as my hands reached him, they simply passed through the air. A strong gust of wind howled through the mouth of the cave, and the fire roared for a moment before extinguishing completely. Then the wind stopped, the cave became silent and dark except for the moonlight that trickled in through its entrance. I was alone. The strange man was nowhere to be seen.
I looked around, I called out to him, but my calls simply echoed into the void. Where was I? How would I get back to my Aunt and Uncle? He managed to get home, but how could I?
I was alone. It was quiet.