In the hours spanning late morning and noon, the sun shone down like a living fire from a sky the colour of burnished steel, and the winds blew the yellow dust until the leaves of the trees, the stones on the path, the very air were tinged with the same yellow.
Unless one had to, one did not go out during the noon.
It was evening when the old man went up the path towards the checkpoint. It was still hot, but the heat was no longer killing, and the sinking sun had turned the dust laden sky a deep and startling orange. In the east, dusk was advancing like dark purple smoke rolling over the land, filling every dip and hollow.
In terms of age, he was not very old, but the life he led had turned him physically old far beyond his years. He leaned on a stick, and at every step the dust puffed up around his feet. His face was dark and creased and his white hair was crinkly, but his clothes were as clean as he could manage to keep them, for all that they were patched and faded almost to colourlessness. He had been tall but was so no longer; and it was because he had almost no subcutaneous fat left that his muscles showed through his skin like cords as he moved.
He did not go alone, naturally. One never did go to the checkpoint alone, even in the direst emergency. He merely led the way. His three grandchildren, the three eldest, followed, and also two others from the neighbourhood. All, except he, carried plastic jerry cans. They walked in single file, picking their way among the stones on the path. Some were very big, and a couple were boulders the size of small houses. It was no accident that they were there. They had been deliberately placed on the path as obstacles against the pick-up trucks the others, those over the ridge, used. The boulders ensured anyone coming over from the other side would have to walk.
The checkpoint was on the top of the ridge, where the path began its descent to the valley where water still flowed. It was a rude affair of wood and barbed wire, with sandbags haphazardly piled on both sides, and a few crude huts where the guards sheltered from the heat of the sun. When it had used to rain, they would have sheltered from rain, too; but there was no rain any more, of course.
As they climbed up to the checkpoint two of the guards came out and stood looking down at them. The old man tried to make out their features, but at this distance all he saw were yellowish uniforms and dark faces. He hoped they were people who had checked him through before. If so, it was likely they wouldn’t make too much trouble.
But of course they weren’t. They were new ones, he saw and his heart sank. They weren’t just new ones, they were new and young. These two looked to be barely in their teens; which was worse than ever. The young ones were the worst, full of aggression and dying to show off their power over those like him. He would have preferred veterans any day, but the older ones were almost never to be seen nowadays. And the young ones who came seemed to be replaced more and more frequently and each batch was younger than the last.
Once, that might have suggested good news to the old man. It might have suggested that the other side’s war was not going well, and liberation might be at hand. But there was no real “other side” any longer; and whoever else might come could not be any better, or behave any differently, from the two boys now before him.
They were even younger than he had thought; one, the younger, looked prepubescent, maybe as young as nine or ten. They wore the yellow-green uniform with sandals instead of boots, and both were missing buttons from their shirts. Neither had any badges or other form of insignia. It did not matter. Everyone knew who they were.
They grunted and waved their guns as the old man and his grandchildren came up. That was one thing that never changed; they might have torn uniforms that probably passed through a hundred owners’ hands before they got them, they might lack proper shoes, they might get just one meal a day, but they always got guns and ammunition in plentiful supply. It had long since stopped surprising the old man. It was just another fact of life now. The other side lacked for everything but weaponry, ammunition, pick-up trucks, and fuel to run them.
“We came for water,” the old man explained to them.
Maybe they didn’t even speak the language. Certainly, neither showed any sign of understanding. The old man looked hopefully beyond them, but there was no sign of movement, no superior officer he could appeal to. He sighed.
“Water,” he said, gesturing at the jerry cans. “Water. From there,” and he pointed down at the valley. They looked at each other, said something he did not understand, and the older one held out a hand. The old man took out his card – greasy now, frayed at the margins and much folded over the years, and handled as seldom as possible – and showed it to them. He did not actually give them the card; he held it in front of them so they could read it without touching it. If they – accidentally or deliberately – destroyed it, he could never get another. No one issued them any more.
The boy did not insist on taking it. He looked at it blankly, then looked back at the old man and said something more. The old man was almost convinced now that the boy could not read. This would not be surprising. There were no schools any more, and while the old man had made sure his grandchildren learnt how to read and write, most of their generation were also illiterate. In the old man’s youth, the old people had been the illiterate ones. Now the situation was reversed.
All they ever learned was how to handle weapons and to kill.
The boy said what ever it was again, more insistently, and held out his hand again. He was not looking at the card. He wanted something else. Most likely, some bribe, which meant, in turn, something to eat. They were provided weapons, but their own food supplies, he knew, were poor at best. And these two were very young.
But the old man had nothing edible to offer.
“See,” he said, handing out all he had that might suffice as a bribe, an old ring which shone dully in the evening light. “Take this. I swear I’ll bring you something to eat tomorrow.” The ring had once been his wedding ring. It meant nothing to him now, was worth nothing in value or sentiment, but he had liked wearing it. It had been a memento of better times.
Behind the boy he could see the muddy river running through the valley, already shrouded in shadow. He could see no one round it. Most times there would have been numerous people on the banks, gathering water, even though washing clothes and bathing in it had been forbidden long ago to prevent complete pollution. Today, there was nobody.
In his youth that river had filled half the valley and he had gone swimming in it many times. Now it was a trickle and going for water was a major undertaking, fraught with man-made danger.
The boy struck his hand and knocked the ring away. It fell off somewhere to the right, but the old man did not try to look for it, because the boy was yelling at him and unslinging his rifle. Obviously, they were not going to get any water tonight.
Quietly, with slow movements which did not threaten, he turned round and led the children back.
The two young sentries stood there and watched them go. Their faces were blank.
The men had come back from the fields where they tried to scratch some kind of living, and some of them had gone out again, armed with mattocks and baskets. They had found a termite nest.
This was not the sort of country where the great termite mounds that the old man had once read about in school dotted the landscape. Had it been such country, the termites would have been dug out and eaten long ago. The local termites were coy, preferring subterranean tunnels to grandiose architecture, but even they had to send out winged swarms in the breeding season. They had adapted enough that their swarms were no longer released only after rain as they had been once. This was how they had been discovered. The men had marked the position of the nest and were going to dig the colony out. A colony of termites was no mean source of protein.
Had the old man’s son been still alive, he would have been out with the rest, mattock in hand, cutting through the iron hard earth and gathering the worker and soldier termites as they came rushing out. If they persevered and were lucky, they could find the queen herself, a huge immobile sac of eggs, imprisoned by her size in her cell deep within the labyrinth. They would dig her out and often eat her raw, right there, squabbling over who should get the biggest piece. But termite colonies were rare now, and large colonies still rarer, and queens rarest of all, because no one had the energy to dig that long and that diligently.
Once, the people would have scorned to eat termites. That was for the nomads of the desert, they told themselves. But the animals on the range, the bush pigs and antelope, were long gone, the cows and donkeys and sheep had long been slaughtered, and the only other source of protein were the hardy little goats that they kept, stunted by malnutrition to the size of terrier dogs, and chickens likewise dwarfed and tough as the stones they pecked over.
The old man did not himself go out with the termite expedition. Since the previous evening, when he had returned disappointed from the checkpoint, he had felt weak and unwell, and had not ventured far from his hut. His grandchildren had gone with another man in the early morning and come back with enough water to keep them going till tomorrow. That was enough; it was all anyone could expect.
His hut was almost as old as he himself was. It was made of sun-dried mud bricks, cemented by soft mud used as mortar and then allowed to dry, and more mud had been daubed over and smoothed as it had dried. It was as strong as concrete. No one built like that any more. No one could, even if they wanted to, build like that any more. There was no water for it. Nor were there trees any more, except for stunted, twisted caricatures of the tall trees of his youth, surviving solely on account of their uselessness for any constructive purpose and so passing on their genes to future generations. So there was no new wood.
Nowadays most of the huts were built of slabs of stone, cut out of the ground with manual labour and piled on top of each other, held in place by their own weight. In order not to damage the structural integrity, there were no windows, just a doorway with (if the owner possessed one, and as long as it lasted) an old wooden door. That, and the beams holding up the roof and supporting the walls, would be used again and again as the huts were rebuilt.
The old man sat in his doorway and looked out on what used to be fields and even orchards not many years ago. Now all he could see was earth dried and cracked into diamonds and rectangles and other geometrical designs, and here and there a clump of grass or bush that had turned khaki with dust and desiccation. The water the people used and re-used for baths and washing was carefully saved and poured into patches of that destroyed soil to coax some form of edible vegetation from it. Not even the stumps of the trees were left; they had been dug out as firewood. The old man had no hope of ever seeing trees grow again. Most of the children and some of the younger men and women had no idea what a big tree was.
His daughter-in-law came into the room. He did not acknowledge her or turn his head to look at her. He had no liking for her. While his son had lived, he had tolerated her for his sake; and now that he was dead, he no longer felt any need to show any false affection. She was very pretty, or had been, he knew; but he had always felt in his bones that she was not a good woman.
“Old man,” she began. She called him “old man” like everyone else. He had long lost the use of his name, and “old man” had become an honorific. “Old man, I shall be going away tonight.”
“Going where?” he asked without turning his head.
“Away.” She seemed a little diffident, her harsh tones moderated for once. He thought she was looking down as she spoke, studying the bare, dusty floor. He did not turn to check. “They’re saying if you can get past the check-points then you can get to the city, and in the city there is still work and food. I can’t stay here and die slowly any more. I’m still young, I still have a life to live. I’m going.”
“You? Alone?” He knew the answer.
“No, not alone…there is this man I know. He’s going. He asked me to go along, it will be less risky for two than one alone.” She paused, and seemed to soak up his unspoken thoughts from the air. “All right,” she cried suddenly. “I’m going to be his lover, and so what? I’m already sleeping with him, it’s not going to make any difference. Except that,” she continued bitterly, “when he gives me a loaf of millet bread or a haunch of mutton I can eat it myself, after this, instead of bringing it here to share out among you all.”
“And what of the children?” asked the old man, quietly.
“What about them?” She seemed to be beside herself. “They are yours already, they don’t pay me the slightest heed. You keep them and do what you want with them. I’m off.” Without looking back, she plunged past him and rushed up the village path.
The old man watched her go.
Late one evening a few days later, the old man sat in his front room darning his shirt, while the grandchildren were already sleeping in the back room. Thread had to be brought in from the city, which was a long way off and difficult to reach, and was accordingly, like all imports, prohibitively expensive. So, like the rest of the village, he had learned to make do with the twisted threads of goat hair the women made. They served well enough.
He worked by the guttering light of an old lamp, fuelled by some of the kerosene they had bartered for with the previous lot of guards at the checkpoint up the ridge. The light was low, not really sufficient for his eyes, but turning it up would use up too much kerosene. He had only noticed the rip just now; he could not let it wait till morning, because in the morning he was going up the ridge again for water.
When the knock came, it was so soft he almost did not hear it at first. It came again, more insistently, and then the door opened even as he began to ask who it was.
The man was broad and remarkably well muscled. He had long, braided hair and small eyes in a round fleshy face. He was tall enough to have to duck as he entered.
“Greetings,” he said in the old man’s language. He was a native speaker of the language; it showed in his inflections, but the old man was positive he had never seen him before. In the lamplight, he looked lethally dangerous.
The old man nodded. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“It’s known that you have a gun. We need that gun.”
There was no point in lying. “Yes, I have a gun,” the old man said. “But who are you, and why do you want it? And what use is it going to be to you?”
“We’re of the freedom movement,” the man said. “You can call me Captain if you want to call me anything. We need the gun for the freedom movement. Now, hand it over, please.”
“What freedom movement?” asked the old man. “I don’t know you.” It was not a wholly truthful statement. He had been hearing whispers about an armed movement for weeks, that was recruiting members and gathering strength, but he had not believed it. “Freedom from whom?”
‘Captain’ stared at him with obvious amazement on his face. “Freedom from them, of course,” he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the ridge. “From your little friends up there. Don’t tell me you don’t want freedom from them.”
“And for that you want my gun? I don’t know what whoever told you about my gun said to you. My gun is only a single barrelled shotgun, and so old its stock’s tied together with wire. I haven’t fired it in longer than I can remember. It hasn’t got any shells anyway.”
“It does not matter. We want your gun.”
“It’s not going to help you. They have automatic weapons, rifles and machine guns. What use is my shotgun going to be against them?”
‘Captain’ sighed, and leaned over the table and the lamp. “Listen, old man,” he said, and in his voice it did not sound like an honorific. “I don’t want any talk from you. All I want is your gun. Either you give it to me or I break you in half and go get it myself. I don’t want to hurt you, because of the children, but if need be I will.”
The door opened again. This one was shorter and thinner, and much fairer. His features had an almost Arab look and he sported a short beard. “What’s the delay, Captain?” he asked. He had a strong accent.
“The old man won’t part with his gun. I was just going to beat it out of him.”
“No, Captain,” the newcomer said, and he had authority in his voice. “Let me talk to him.” He turned to the old man. “Now, can you explain to me why you don’t want to give us the gun? You don’t use it, it’s of no use to you whatever. If you needed it, we would never have asked it of you.”
“I was just explaining that you can’t use it against soldiers armed with machine guns.”
“That’s not your concern,” said the newcomer, softly. His accent was so strong the old man had to strain to understand. “We might have other uses for your gun than a Banzai charge up the hill. And don’t worry, we can fix it and find ammunition for it, if that is another objection you’re going to raise. But that’s not the real reason, is it? You’re an intelligent man. I’ve heard tell of you. They look up to you as virtually the actual village chief. You’re too intelligent to believe that these reasons you’ve been talking about are genuine. So, just for the sake of satisfying my curiosity, tell me what your actual problem is.”
“All right,” said the old man. “Your colleague here said yours was a freedom movement. But freedom from what?”
“Freedom from those over the ridge there,” said the Arab looking man. “Freedom from those who keep you from water. Freedom from those who keep you starving. I thought it would have been obvious.”
“Ah,” said the old man. “Good. Now tell me why you think that you can give us freedom from them – and why now.”
‘Captain’ had stood aside, but was still fidgeting impatiently. He was, though, no more than part of the room’s furnishings now. All that mattered in the room was the verbal duel between the old man and the Arab.
“Because,” said the latter, “things are bad with them these days. Their war is going badly. They can’t find enough warm bodies to fill their ranks. They’re beginning to starve – they have water, but no one to till their fields. They are so overstretched that a few hard blows and they’ll crumble like dried clay. And never forget that they threw the people off the land and took their water from them. All the movement wants is to restore the peoples’ rights.”
“Fine,” said the old man. “So you look on them as the enemy?”
“Of course they are the enemy.”
“But from what you’ve been telling me they are not the enemy. They’re victims too, worse off than we. Because all we have to fear is death from disease or maybe, if the times get especially bad, starvation, but it hasn’t happened yet. No one is shooting at us. We are not in danger of total destruction.”
“You will be, if they decide they must have what you have for their own survival. Do you think they would hesitate to take it all from you?”
“All right,” said the old man, “assuming you’re right, then what? Suppose you throw them out. Then what happens? Do you think the people can have unchallenged control over the water again? Won’t some other armed gang step in to try and take the water over?”
“Of course they will. That’s why the freedom movement will have to guard the people and the water.”
“Good. So what you’re telling me is that your freedom movement will have to recruit from our young men, and maybe women as well, and arm them and train them to take care of our water supplies?”
“That is exactly what I am telling you. So?’
“Listen to me. I’ve lived in this area virtually my entire life. I can tell you something. That river’s drying up. Every year the water flows less and less. Every year more and more of the river bed is exposed. And I’m sure there is nothing unique about that river. So I can assume that every river and other water body in the region, if not around the world, is drying up. Am I right?” he did not wait for the other man’s reaction. “So, you can’t just take charge of the river over the hill and sit at ease. You’ll soon enough have to attack other groups for their water supply, or other groups will attack you for yours. Next thing you know, you have a full blown war on your hands and you will be taking our boys from their mothers’ breasts and putting them in uniform, and then you’ll be starving and overstretched and about to crumble, just the same as those poor sods over the hill there.”
The Arab looking man smiled. “And what would you suggest? What approach would you take?”
“Negotiate,” said the old man. “Ask them to provide us security, and we do the agriculture for them. We supply their needs, and they ours. Let them allow us free access to water, and they never need be hungry so long as the water lasts. That’s the only way that makes sense.”
“You really don’t know them, do you now?” The man’s Semitic features bore a look almost of wonder. “You live in constant contact with them but you don’t know them? They only understand violence. They would rather cut your throat than trade with you, even if trade would benefit them far more. Try to negotiate on those lines, and they would wipe you out of existence. And they would say it was eliminating a dangerous threat.”
“Be that as it may,” said the old man, “I can’t possibly support your making us into a mirror image of them. It would be just another little warlord regime at constant combat.”
“And that’s why you won’t give us your gun?”
“And that is why I shall not give you my gun.”
“You don’t have to worry, old man. We won’t repeat their mistakes. In any case, you don’t have a choice in the matter. Just give us the gun, and tell yourself we forced you to give it to us. That way you can salve your conscience. So hand it over.”
The old man sighed. He got up and walked into the inner room, treading as silently as he could for the sake of the sleeping children. The gun was in the far corner, wrapped in rags for protection from the dust. He picked it up, rags and all, and the stock thudded against the bed. The little noise roused his grand-daughter. She moaned slightly and opened her eyes. The old man shushed her gently and took the gun back to the front room. ‘Captain’ was the only one there. The Arab looking man had gone. ‘Captain’ unwrapped the old shotgun, examined it quickly and professionally, nodded and turned to go. “The movement thanks you,” he said over his shoulder as he left.
The old man blew out the lamp and sat down at the table, sewing forgotten. His knees were trembling violently. He sat there for a very long time.
Night becomes dawn, and dawn gives way to morning. One morning the old man was talking with his grandchildren. They did not have anything to do that day; the previous evening they had gone for water, and someone had given them the entrails of a slaughtered chicken. They had enough millet bread, too, since the village council had long since begun pooling resources and sharing them out as the only means of assuring survival. The old man was too old, and the children too young, for work in the fields. So the old man was sitting with them and trying to explain things as they had been.
He was still surprised at how the children had accepted their mother’s desertion and moved on. He had told them the truth, more or less. They had not blinked. Truth to tell, he sometimes thought, the mother had had a point. They did not care for her.
Once, he told them, there had been a lot of water, and there had been more food. Water had fallen from the sky, he said, from clouds like the little ones that floated high overhead sometimes. This was something none of the three children remembered seeing.
There were three grandchildren, two boys and a girl. The girl was the most serious minded of the lot, the two boys more intelligent but more easily distracted. The oldest had gathered the bitter red berries that grew at this time of year, and crushed them to make a dark red paste. He had also collected goat urine and allowed it to evaporate till only the deep yellow pigment was left. He was mixing the pigments in clay to create coloured pastes. He intended to use this to paint. The old man watched him as he talked.
“And it was because of all the smoke,” he was explaining, “that the climate change and the rivers dried up and the clouds, the real clouds, stopped coming. It was because of the smoke. All the people and their factories and their cars and their aeroplanes. It was because of them.”
“But now there are no planes and no factories,” said the girl.
“Well,” said the old man, “we don’t know. We don’t get any news from anywhere any more. They probably still exist in some form. But I don’t think they’re the same as before now.”
“But then why do the clouds not come then?” asked the girl. “If the smoke is gone then the clouds should come again.”
“Maybe,” said the old man, “maybe the clouds will come. But it may be that the world has been too badly damaged and they will never come.”
The older boy jumped up. “There,” he said in satisfaction. “All ready. Come, we’ll paint that old flat rock I showed you. We’ll paint a sunrise.” He trotted out, the other two eager at his heels, all talk of clouds and climate and smoke already forgotten.
The old man sat where he was. He looked out at the sun-blasted fields and thought of the time when they had soaked up the silver raindrops and the trees had stood tall and their leaves had gleamed, washed clean, after the rain. He looked out at a dust devil whirling over the dun coloured land.
Maybe, he thought, maybe if we can just be children again, and if we can believe hard enough, it isn’t too late, and maybe someday there will be trees growing again, and maybe someday the clouds will come.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2007/12