Oh, Jegal, Jegal. My heart sings your name. Jegal, my love, I can hardly bear to be a moment away from you.
I know it isn’t really far away. If I turn to look down the slope, I can see our cottage, down below. Not so long ago, it would have been my cottage, mine alone – and now it’s ours. And if you would only accept it, it would be yours, all yours. No, it is not far away, but even a moment away from you pulls at my heart as though with claws. The only thing that makes my work here bearable is the anticipation of being with you again.
My hands scrabble among the bushes, gathering berries with unwonted clumsiness. Once, they’d have flickered from twig to twig, deftly avoiding the thorns; but now my haste makes me clumsy, and the red of crushed berries on my skin mixes with the smeared red of my blood.
No matter, my love. A few drops of blood are nothing compared to the torrents that gush through my veins, singing of you, only you.
I know it isn’t much of a cottage. It never was much of a cottage, even when my silly and clumsy hands weren’t all that were trying to keep it in some kind of repair, as it is now. Oh, I know what you would say – that my hands were beautiful and wonderful – but I know the truth. I have tried my best with them, and the result shows clearly in the cottage now.
It was my father who built it, when we fled from our home in the city – that city which is now cinder and stone. I have been told the tale often enough to have almost seen it with my own eyes. We fled, my parents and I, leaving everything we’d owned behind, as howling mobs stormed through the streets and the flames rose in the sky. We had fled until we could flee no more, until my mother collapsed in spasms of agony that threatened to tear her apart, until I pushed my way into the world from between her bloodstained thighs.
My father, that gentle teacher and poet who had never even put up a shelf in his life, had to make a shelter for us, for clearly we could go no further until my mother was able to travel. And so he piled stone on stone, and pushed mud in between them, as he’d read; and for a roof he gathered wood and leaves and grass, and made a thatch. It did not then matter, for it was only a temporary shelter, until my mother could travel again.
But time passed, and the year grew from spring to summer towards winter, and my mother was no better. And so my father had to build up the walls thicker, and get more wood, and thatch, and make it a proper place to winter a sick woman and a baby. And so the winter passed, and the next year, and he built up the crude shelter, learning from his mistakes. It never was a great cottage, but by the second winter it was a cottage, and not just a hovel and shelter from the howling winter winds.
And the year after that my mother died.
I could show you her grave, my love, but I think it would distress you, and I would tear out my own heart rather than give you a moment of sorrow. My mother died, and with her something died, I think, in my father. I don’t, of course, remember anything from that time, but as I grew older I never saw him without a shadow in his eyes. Even as he sat on that rock there, watching me run through the grass, he would never laugh. The most I could ever coax out of him was a moment’s smile.
Of course we went no further. You can well understand, can’t you, that my father did not wish to leave the spot where his wife had died? Besides, it is a good spot, my love; safe and protected, as you yourself have found. No enemies will ever follow us here.
Oh, my father did not intend that we should stay here forever. When I was old enough, he told me often, when my feet itched to walk to new lands, we would move on. We would go where it was safe and there was no war or turmoil. And sometimes he would lead me by the hand and we would climb to the tops of these peaks, and look out on to the plain. And sometimes we would see the smoke of burning towns in the distance; and after a while my father would sigh deeply, and lead me back down again.
And so the years passed, and I grew towards womanhood. And as I did, my father, imperceptibly, grew old too, though neither of us spoke of it. For all he and I acknowledged, every day we spent here would be the last; tomorrow, things would be better, and we’d leave in the morning.
And one day, quite simply and without a fuss, he died.
His grave is here, too, beside that of my mother. It is not so well dug, for though I did the best I could I could not even equal my father’s efforts, and in these few years it has almost merged back into the soil again. I could show it to you, but I will not, for fear that those lovely dark eyes of yours would brim over with sorrow. As I have told you so many times, I wish you no sorrow.
After my father died, I stayed here. I had no wish to go further. This valley, these hills, were all I knew, and from what my father had told me I understood that the world outside was ugly as the pillars of smoke rising from the dun-brown plains. I would spend my life alone here, reading the few books my father had salvaged, I decided; and I would only need my own company, which was fine with me, because I was the only one I had left.
I hadn’t met you then; I had no idea then of the stupendous power of love.
I still remember the instant when I first laid eyes on you; I will always remember it. The previous night the sky over the plain had glowed red where it showed above the mountains, and when I went out in the morning, I saw smoke drifting over the peaks. So, for the first time after my father died, I had drawn on my thick boots and clambered up the rocky slopes towards the peaks, from where I might look down on the plain.
I never got there.
I remember hearing you before I saw you. You were gasping, exhausted, drawing in air like a wounded animal chased by hunters. And you were wounded and chased by hunters, though I did not know it yet.
I saw the hunters first; early morning sunlight glittering on spear blades and helmets. I did not know who they were, and I did not need to know. My father had told me enough about spears and helmets to make sure I would stay away from them both.
So I crouched behind a rock, hoping they would not look up and see me, hoping they would not come further and find the cottage, hoping your gasping for air would not carry to them. Oh, my love, I hated and feared your gasping for breath then! I wished it would be silenced, so I would not have to listen to it anymore.
It was when they’d turned away that I saw you. You were pulling yourself along the slope, your blood painting the rock, dripping from your poor abraded fingers. I waited where I was, watching you crawl closer, until I found that you had no spear or helmet and thus might be safe to approach. It was only when I came up to you that I realised that the blood was not only from your fingers, and only later did I find the wound in your side.
By then, though, I’d already fallen hopelessly, endlessly in love.
My darling, Jegal. Do you realise, can you ever realise, how I had been until I met you? I had never even seen a man but my father; and not a human being except him and my mother, who had died before I was old enough to remember. And here you were, helpless and hurt, for me to take care of; how could I not have fallen in love?
You know as well as I do how I carried you back home, and how I nursed you; day and night I sat beside you, tending your wound, feeding you, putting wet cloths on your head as you burned with fever. It was in your fevered muttering that I first learnt your name, and I repeated it to myself a hundred times, a thousand.
And slowly, my love, slowly, the fever went, the wound stopped bleeding, and one day you were healed at last. And we both knew then – you did not have to tell me – that you were with me to stay, that you would never leave.
My heart stopped when you looked at me. Even now, when your eyes fall on me, the breath catches in my throat and my heart misses a beat.
By that time it was winter and the stones were splitting with the cold, and I held you through the long nights. I had, of course, never touched a man that way before. I had hardly known the touch of another human being at all; my father could barely bring himself to touch me when I was sick; I reminded him too much of my mother. By the time spring came around at last, my love, I could barely let you out of my sight, even for a moment. I grudged the hours of sleep that took me from you.
I spoke to you and you listened. I had to teach myself to speak again, almost; but you did not mind. You were not like my father; no matter how much I chattered to you, no matter what I talked about, not once did you tell me to be silent. Not once, for a single moment, did you refuse to listen to me.
And through all the winter you smiled. You were not a moment without smiling. I would wake up in the morning and you were smiling at me; your smile was the last thing I would see before the dark tides of sleep bore me away every night.
And so the days grew longer and warmer, and for the first time in all the years since my father’s death I felt free to laugh and chatter to you, and glory in your smile. I told myself it would never end, and I was almost right. But one day they came.
They came looking for you, the men with the spears and the shining helmets. It was you they wanted, though I do not know why. They had spent the long and weary winter searching for you, but they hadn’t found you anywhere they looked. So they were looking for you where they hadn’t looked before.
I persuaded them that they would have to look elsewhere. They were not happy, but they were in a hurry, and they did not tarry long; besides, they seemed frightened for some reason. Perhaps they thought I was a witch; perhaps they had something else to be afraid of. I stood on the slope, here, watching them leave. By the time I saw the last of them, they were almost fleeing. And then I went down to you, and held you in my arms, and murmured words of comfort to you.
The berries are gathered. It is getting cold again; the days are getting shorter. I think I will get some wood now, before going down to the cottage, so that we can have a fire tonight. I would like to have a fire as I sit by you.
In a while now, I will go down to the cottage, where you wait for me, with your never ending smile. I shall put the berries in your mouth, so the juice dribbles down your jaw; and I shall draw the blankets around your shoulders, so that your poor bones don’t catch a chill.
And I shall sit beside you on the bed while the fire burns, holding you to me and chattering of the day; and if I should look towards you, I know I will see your smile.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017