On the Path on Hulu, the little white flowers push through the earth in spring; little flowers with petals powdery as moth wings, which paint passers-by’s feet with silver and violet.
In spring, bees hum over the Path on Hulu, and butterflies flap by on huge gauzy multicoloured wings, creatures so vast and so insubstantial that one might imagine they were a dream.
In spring, the breezes blow gently over the Path on Hulu, and they bring the fragrances of the forests in the valleys below, and the slopes above – the perfumes of wildflowers, the aroma of resin, the clear fresh tang of mountain air. The breeze brings noises too, the cry of a wild bird, the rustling of leaves, and, sometimes, even the distant noises of Lunahar, though it is over the hills and far away.
On the Path on Hulu, spring does not last long. It gives way soon enough to summer, and the earth parches hard as brick. The flowers wilt and die, and the only insects on the wing are clouds of tiny buzzing, stinging flies. When the wind blows, it brings only dust, and the sky overhead is a bowl of silvery fire.
And then it is that the rains come to Hulu. Over the mountains the clouds gather in towers, pillars holding up the sky; white shading to grey and black at the base with the shadows of the tons and tons of vapour piled up above. Then it is that the lightning comes, in jagged fingers reaching down to lick the land. Once the lightning comes, the rain will not be far behind, and then nobody but the foolhardy and the desperate tread the Path on Hulu.
The rain was coming down in a solid mass when the donkey and I came up from the valley towards the Path on Hulu. It was only mid-afternoon, but so dark that but for the constant flashes of lightning it might have been night. All the way up the slope, the water washed away pebbles and earth underfoot, so that the donkey had to tack his way back and forth up the path to keep his footing.
I did not try to control the donkey. He and I had been together a very long time. I trusted him to know what he was doing as well as I did.
Neither the donkey nor I was foolhardy. But we were desperate, because we were in a race against time, and on the Path on Hulu in the rain this was not a good thing to be.
It could not be helped. My kind of work takes me to unexpected places, at unexpected times, and I’d had to go down in the valley to collect something that would not wait. It was in the leather bag on the side of the donkey’s saddle, the bag which was still far from filled.
I was on my way to fill it again.
I bent over the donkey’s neck, letting the raindrops shatter on my shoulders and the back of my head as we came on to the Path. It was, of course, not the first time I’d trod the Path on Hulu; each journey of mine, wherever I go, whenever I go, brings me here in the end.
Far behind me, across the hills, lay mighty Lunahar, where so much of my business lay, and to which I must return by tonight; but for now I would have to make my way across the Path on Hulu, in the lightning and the rain.
On the Path on Hulu, there are always side tracks leading away between the trees, which appear and vanish as the curtain of rain parts momentarily. We have come along many of these tracks, my donkey and I; someday we will tread them all. Perhaps new tracks will appear by then, and old ones fade away.
I saw the way I had to go, and my donkey – perhaps feeling the touch of my knee, hardly consciously applied, or knowing by his own long understanding of our work – turned to the side and began walking uphill. The track was narrow and overgrown, unlike some of the ones which were broad and well-travelled; it was not a track that had much known human feet, or ever would.
The rain ceased for a moment, completely, and I saw my destination ahead; a hut in a small clearing, a hut made of dried grass and branches tied together, something temporary, which was never going to last. And I could feel it waiting, dreading my arrival, but also eager.
I swung myself off the donkey’s back and walked to the hut. Set into the far wall was a small door, but it hung open. What lay inside was not at danger from thieves. It was waiting for me.
I knocked anyway, for one must; it is not for me to enter unless I am certain that I have work to do. And from the darkness within I heard a single noise, which could be a sob or a word. I knocked again, and this time there was no doubt what it was.
“Come,” the voice said.
I entered. Though the inside of the hut was dark, I could see clearly enough. The girl was very young, but that I had known already from the hut; it was not a place that had time to form, a place that would ever grow old. All she wore was nightshadow, which covered her from neck to knees. She lay on a pile of branches, her shoulders propped against the wall, her hands clasped together under her breasts. In her hands there was the thing I had come here to get, a thing of dim light that pulsed red and gold, orange and white, and then red again.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispered. But her eyes were huge and terrified. “You have come to take it away, haven’t you?”
“If you want me to,” I said. I stood next to her bed of branches, looking down at her. The thing that glowed was flickering now, brighter and dimmer. I could reach out to take it, but I made no move. She had to give it to me herself.
She looked for a moment as though she would hand it up at once, and get it over with, but still clutched it to her bosom. “I didn’t want to, at first” she said. “I thought it was going to be different, this time. I thought it would turn out all right. But it never does, does it? Life, love, when you look at it, it never lasts. They say one can do what one wants, one can dance on air, but when one tries one falls, and the ground is cold and hard. And after a while it’s just not worth trying again. You understand why I did it, don’t you?”
“I can’t say anything about that,” I told her. “I just some at the end, to collect. But you have to give it to me, of your own will.”
“I will,” she whispered. “In a moment. Just give me a moment more.”
I saw myself through her eyes, then, the hulking figure in the battered leather outfit, the hooded head, the face which showed no emotion, which was capable of showing no emotion. I knew she was terrified, and that if I reassured her, she would give the thing up to me, and be happy to let it go.
Instead, I shook my head. “No,” I said, my voice as emotionless as my face. “I’ve got to go. If you want to give it to me, you must do it now, without a moment’s delay.”
For an instant, I thought I’d miscalculated, that she would give it to me after all, and that gave me a nudge of what might have been sorrow and regret. But then she sat up, clutching the light to her, tighter than before. It steadied, glowing brighter, burning the nightshadows away. She got up, off the bed, uncaring for her nudity, sudden defiance in her eyes. “And if I don’t?”
“If you don’t, I’ll go away.” I paused. “Well?”
“Then go,” she said, clutching the thing that now blazed as bright as the sun. “I won’t give it to you.”
“Oh, you will.” I tell her what we both know is true. “But it will be when I come again, when this half-made hut of yours is a house, with a proper track leading to it. I’ll come when you’re ready.”
“I’ll never be ready,” she said, following me to the door of the hut. “Never, do you hear me? Never.”
I didn’t bother to answer her. The donkey waited outside. He snuffled at my hand.
It had begin raining again.
On the Path on Hulu, the rain falls in torrents and washes away the pebbles and the earth, and tracks leading away appear and disappear like magic. The tracks I follow lead me to places I do not always think of, places whose names I do not want to remember, but where I do the same thing each time, take the little flickering lights, the lights which glow dim and wink out when their owners offer them to me.
Each time I do it, and each time something within me wants to wink out too, but of course I can’t. I have work to do, work that will not wait.
I am as old as the stars, as old as time, and I will endure till time and stars are no more, and then, perhaps, my own light will wink out, and then I can rest. Or maybe, even then, I will go on. Even when the night is eternal, I may still go on, a shape of darkness among the corpses of the stars.
And once, just once, in a long time, it gives me a little hint of pleasure to not take something that is mine by right, to hold off, to let it burn a while longer, a flame against the coming of the night.
On the Path on Hulu, the rain crashes down on my face, and mixes with my tears; and not even the donkey knows whether the tears are of sorrow or of joy.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016