Far away, in the heart of the Forest of Everywhen, is a ruined temple, so old that it has not even a name. The gods who dwelt in that temple are dead, and have been for so long that even their memories have disappeared with a million million dawns.
Not far from that temple is a great, sluggish river, whose waters are brown as mud and sleepy as the crocodiles that bask on its banks, with open jaws. And in the middle of the river, like a gigantic crocodile itself, is an island of bare rock, around which the waters reluctantly part and meet again.
At the very middle of this island, there is a low hill; and at the top of this hill, there is something that waits, patiently, for the day those forgotten, dead gods will come alive again.
It was many years ago that I came to the temple, and then I was not looking for it. I was lost in the jungle, and wandering until I found the river; and then I followed the river, hoping it would lead me out.
The great crocodiles that lay on the banks with gaping jaws watched me go by, but did not attempt to follow; and the huge insects that hung on the air on gauzy wings turned bulbous red eyes towards me, but barely moved so that they did not touch me as I passed. And the mud underfoot was thick and gluey, and concealed broken pieces of wood and stones sharp as knives, so that I felt them even through my boots.
The hours passed, and I saw that the forest pressed in ever more closely, as though it were eager to force me into the turbid brown flow, so that I was compelled to tread at the edge of the water, by the very jaws of the slumbering crocodiles. But though my feet brushed their leprous snouts, they did not attempt to bite me, only looked through their slitted black pupils, as though they knew secrets that I could not. I thought this strange, but I passed on.
And then I came to the place where the river parted, and there was the temple, a tumbled pile of ruin; and among its stones, dull and glittering, I saw what I had come to the forest to seek.
And the jewels lay scattered in the weeds and grass that grew among the stones, but there was none to behold them but me, and none to gather them but me. And no sooner had I drawn close to gather them up then I saw that the day was done, and the shadows fast growing. Then, loud in the forest, I heard snarling and growling noises, as of great and savage beasts searching for prey.
I would have run into the ruined temple, but I saw red glowing eyes therein, among the broken walls, and thought of something waiting for me there. And to my other side was then only the river, which was thick and turbid and slow, and the island that lay in the middle, like a great sleeping crocodile.
And I saw that the river was slow and shallow, and that perhaps I might wade across to the island, if only the crocodiles would let me pass; and the crocodiles still lay on the banks, watching me with open mouths and somnolent eyes.
So I stepped into the water, and it rose, up to my waist and to my chest, and then to my neck, but no further; and so I waded to the island. Once on the island I climbed up the spine of it to the hill atop, in case the crocodiles should come ashore in the darkness. And there, sitting on the very top of the hill, was the thing that sat and watched the temple.
And when I saw it, I knew that it had sat there for longer than grains of mud on the banks of the river, and that in all this time it had not moved or spoken. But it turned its head towards me, and its hollow eyes; and from its lipless mouth dropped words into the gathering night.
“It is time,” it said, and its voice was cold and remote as the wind between the stars. “It is time that you should arrive.”
“What do you do here?” I asked it. “And why do you say that it is time I should arrive?”
“I watch for the dead gods to return to the temple,” it said. “They are dead, but they will return, or new gods will come in their place. Until then, there is a watch on the temple, and I have been the Watchman. But it is time, and you are here. And now that you have arrived, you will stay.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I will go back across the river when the morning comes, and gather up the jewels, until not one is left; and then I shall find my way out of this forest, and back to the world of men.”
The thing shook its head, and its breath rustled like autumn leaves. “You will not leave until someone else comes, to set you free. And by the time that happens, jewels will mean nothing to you.” And there was a breath of wind, dark as the night itself, dark as the gulfs of eternity; and when it had passed, the thing had gone.
And I am the Watchman. Atop this hill I sit, and I watch the temple; and creatures roar in the forest, but I do not look for them. And the crocodiles come, and they crawl along the shore, and look up to me, in fear or in worship, and perhaps they offer me prayers; but I do not heed them. And the stars wheel round the bowl of the sky; and flickering meteors glow their brief lives overhead, as though they were the gods returning, the old gods, the dead gods, or the heirs they send after them. But the gods do not come.
I am the Watchman. And some day the sun will grow hot and burn the world, and boil away the river, and make the forest a plain of glass; but it will not touch the temple. And then the sun too will die, to a cinder, and there will only be the cold and the eternal dark.
And, unless it is time, and someone has come to set me free before then, I will still be here, and I will watch on.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017