Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Plateau and the Stars


Don’t camp up on the plateau,” the woman at the village shop told me, as she put my purchases into a large brown paper packet.

I looked at her, surprised. “Why not? It seems a good spot to camp.”

She shrugged and looked away, her pretty face expressionless. “It’s just not...good. That’s all.”

“She’s right,” the other man waiting in the shop said. “Nobody ever goes up to the plateau, not at night.”

“Can you tell me why not?” I asked. “Wild animals? Bandits?”

“No wild animals except jackals, no,” the man said. “And no bandits either, of course.”

“I’ve never heard of bandits all my life,” the woman agreed, counting my money and still not looking at me.

“Then could you please tell me why I shouldn’t camp up there?”

The two of them exchanged glances. “Some people,” he said, reluctantly, “say they’ve...seen something. Especially when the moon’s new. And today’s a new moon.”

“Seen what?”

He shrugged. “One person says one thing. Another person says another. Who’s to know what the truth is?”

“Well, thanks for the food,” I said, picking up the packet and stuffing it into my rucksack. “I’ll see you tomorrow on the way back.”

The woman raised a hand. “You can camp here in the village, if you want. There’s space to put up your tent, or you can just ask someone to take you in for the night.”

I nodded and smiled. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll take my chances.” In truth, I hadn’t come so far to pitch my tent in the village, and as for asking someone to put me up for the night, that wasn’t even something I was willing to consider. Besides, I knew these people of the highlands still harboured a lot of resentment for we of the plain, whom they considered alien conquerors. If I stayed in the village during the night, I might end up being robbed, or worse.

“You’re taking your life in your hands,” they’d told me back in the university, “going alone among the hill tribes. They still live in the eighteenth century in their heads up there.”

“They wouldn’t dare,” I’d laughed. “Primitives or not, they’re still subject to the law of the land.” I was sure I’d be all right, and so far I hadn’t seen anything to change my mind.

Still, I wasn’t stupid, and I wasn’t scared of “seeing things” either. Also, the sun was about to set, the shadows were getting longer, and I had to get up to the plateau and find a place to camp before dark. So I raised a hand in farewell and left the shop. I didn’t look back, but I could feel the eyes of the two of them on me all the way, and I didn’t doubt that they would be talking about me.

I felt a faint curiosity about what they’d be saying.

In the last golden sunlight of the day, the rocks of the plateau looked smudged, the shadows that dappled them violet and purple. It was still quite hot, but I could already feel the incipient chill of the night. It would be cold on the plateau, and I’d need a fire.

By the time I had found a good place to set up camp, the sun had long since set and it was almost too dark to see. But though the plateau was arid as a desert, there was plenty of dry scrub, enough for me to build up a fire, and by its light I pitched my tent and got ready for the night.

Later, after I’d eaten, as I sat looking up at the stars beside the fire, I thought about how far I was here from the city, much more than the mere physical distance. Back there, the streets would be crowded now, the malls and restaurants expecting the usual Saturday night upsurge of business, the police on the lookout for drunk drivers and drug peddlers in the night clubs. If one looked up into the sky, one couldn’t even see a single star through the blaze of lights.

Somewhere, far away but clear in the night air, a jackal called. That, too, was something that one would never hear in the city, where all anyone would ever hear was the endless noise of traffic and people talking. I listened to the jackal and watched the stars, and thought I’d soon crawl into my tent and go to sleep.

And yet I did not feel like sleeping. It wasn’t the novelty of camping out, because I’d been doing that for days now. I found myself thinking about the people in the village below the slope. How did they spend their evenings? Did they even have a life in the evenings, in a little place like that? Was the woman I’d talked to, perhaps, in the arms of her lover now, or was she spending the dark hours alone?

I hoped, obscurely, that she had a lover. She was a very pretty woman.

That got me thinking of how the man and she had both tried to stop me camping up here on the plateau. Perhaps they’d wanted to harm me, though I’d thought it was unlikely. More it was part superstition and part the desire to scare the man from the big city.

Perhaps, I thought, they had a right to be resentful of people like me, so much richer and better educated than they were. But it wasn’t as though I’d chosen to be born in the city, and of the wrong ethnic origin as well.

Maybe when I went back in the morning, I’d drop back into the shop and tell them that I had spent a nice night up here, and that there was nothing to fear. Maybe they’d feel able to come out here sometimes, and watch the great glittering stars while listening to the call of jackals. Or maybe they wouldn’t believe me.

I shrugged to myself. It didn’t really matter whether they believed me or not. Meanwhile I’d enjoy the silence.

As I thought this, I realised that I could hear something. It wasn’t the jackals, who had stopped calling, but something else, a noise that I could not identify. It sounded like a crowd muttering in the distance.

It grew louder as I listened, and there was no doubt about it – it was growing louder and clearer, and quite definitely the noise of a crowd. At first I thought it was the village, which had got together to either forcibly drag me down from the plateau or maybe lynch me right here. But the noise was coming from the other direction, from out on the plateau.

And it grew louder still. It did not sound like the noise of other crowds I’d heard, though. There were shrill cries, and what sounded like harsh orders, barked out, and among them there were other noises – the squeak of a badly oiled wheel, the creaking of harnesses, and once, quite unmistakably, the lowing of a bullock.

It sounded like an army on the march.

And yet I could see nothing. In the starlight, the plateau looked bare as far as I could see.

A gust of breeze blew smoke from the fire into my face. Blinking, wiping my smarting eyes, I walked a little way from the flames, with my back to them.

And now I could see that the plateau was no longer lit just by starlight. There was a ruddy glow, as by a thousand torches, and in its light I could see the army coming. I stood where I was and watched them come.

Onward they came, nearer and nearer. By now I could see the torches themselves, their light flickering on the soldiers’ conical helmets, reflected off their leather armour, the tips of their spears and the brass fittings of their muskets. Bullocks strained forward in their traces as they towed the long cannon, their muzzles pointing backward, the iron-bound wheels of the gun carriages crushing the stones to powder. And in between, here and there, the tall silhouettes of war elephants rose above the mass like moving hills.

Closer they came, and closer. Now, I could see individual faces, black eyes peering under the brims of the helmets, beards pouring out over breastplates. They did not look at me, though the vanguard was only a few paces away, and I knew that they couldn’t see me. I was not there to them.

I took a couple of steps nearer. The first soldiers were passing me now, almost close enough to touch, but I could not feel the vibration of their steps in the ground. Nor could I feel the heat of their torches, and the dust of the plateau did not lift from their boots and from the hooves of their oxen.

Then I knew it was not a real army, at least not something real in the here and now. And as I stood watching, the main force passed, the cannon and war elephants, the ranks of infantry marching past, disappearing in the light cast by my fire. And now before me was another column, and this one filled with other noises, wailing cries and the crack of whips.

It was the column of the captives. And they were many. It must have been a successful campaign.

I stood where I was and watched them come.

The first prisoners were men, some of them still dressed in the garb of warriors, the remnants of their light armour stained with dried blood and caked with dust. There were others, weatherbeaten peasants in little more than rags, and here and there a few softer-looking merchants in richer clothes. They looked stoically at the ground, or sobbed piteously, as they passed me by.

And then it was the turn of the women and children. By now, I’d realised that they must be coming, but it was still a shock when the first of them arrived. They had been roped together, children separated from their mothers, and their cries rose above the rest of the noise like a litany of despair. There were only a few guards, and they strode up and down, occasionally shouting and raising their whips threateningly.

Then – just opposite me – it happened. I saw the ropes slip from the wrists of a woman. I’d been watching her for some time. There was something curiously familiar about her slight form, the way she turned her head to look at the guards, and I’d been half-expecting her to try and make a break if she could. Even so, when it came, it was a surprise.

She came running right at me, up along the line, head down and arms and legs working, her feet silent on the ground. The nearest guard was quite far away, and for the moment had not seen her. Then there was a startled shout, she turned monetarily to look over her shoulder, her foot caught in the hem of her dress, and she fell in a heap, right at my feet.

I would have bent to catch hold of her, to pick her up and put her behind me, where she would perhaps be safe. But I could not move at all, not even to reach out my fingers to touch her hair.

And the guard was coming, running heavily, his boots flashing in the light of the torches. He reached the woman just as she’d struggled to her knees, and reached for her with one big hand. I couldn’t see his face, because he had his back to the line of torches, but I could feel his excitement and his anger. He said something, quick and guttural, his hand twisting in her dress and dragging her to her feet.

And then she turned and struck at him with a stone she’d been holding in her fist.

It was a blow as quick and graceful as a striking snake, and in other circumstances might have been as deadly. All it did here was bounce harmlessly off his helmet, leaving a smear of dirt on the metal. And it infuriated him, of course.

I saw him raise the whip and bring it down again, once, twice, a third time. And though she raised an arm to ward off the blows, she kept fighting, kicking at his boots, and still trying to strike at him with that stone. They fought together, so close to me that I might have felt their breath.

I think he would have killed her then, and I think that was what she wanted. But other guards had arrived by then, three of them, and they pulled the first one back. The woman was on the ground, her head hanging between her shoulders, her dress torn from her back and the exposed skin welling with blood from the whips. But she still tried to fight, weakly, when two of the guards caught her by the arms and dragged her away.

For an instant she looked back at me, and the light of a torch one of the guards carried fell on her face.

It was the woman in the shop, the woman who had told me not to camp up on the plateau. Through the dirt and blood on her face, through the tears, there was no mistaking her. And the guard, the one who had first come after her, in the light of the torch I saw his face, too.

Then they had dragged her back to the column, and marched away, to whatever fate awaited her. I did not know it, but I could guess.

And, suddenly, I could move again, but I had no desire to.

And as I stood there I wondered why I had come back to this place, this long forgotten battlefield, when I didn’t have to; why, when there was nothing to see here and no research to do that I couldn’t have done at my computer at the university, I’d come here, after all.

The history we’d been taught, the one I’d been researching, said it had been a clean campaign, that the armies had treated the defeated honourably. We weren’t like the others, the ones who took slaves and displaced entire populations in the course of victor’s justice.

I saw again that woman’s face, and I knew I would go back tomorrow, but not to the University. I could no longer research history, the history we’d been taught. Not after this. And especially not after seeing the guard’s face.

I knew that face well enough. I saw it in the mirror every day.

The army was gone. The night was dark and still, and when I looked back, my fire had burned down to embers. I must have been standing there for quite a long time.

In the distance a jackal called, like a mocking voice.

Head down, I walked back to the tent, and though it was cold, it was not the reason I was shivering all the way.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

1 comment:

  1. "The history we’d been taught, the one I’d been researching, said it had been a clean campaign, that the armies had treated the defeated honourably. We weren’t like the others, the ones who took slaves and displaced entire populations in the course of victor’s justice."

    Reality is a hard thing to accept for many. All are told fairy stories. The stories are lies. As you have well demonstrated.


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