The Caretaker


Vinu came up to the cinema booking counter. Gasping for breath, he requested ” 2 tickets please“. It was the fifth day the new movie was playing at the theatre. Reji at the cash counter asked him “All alone today?” to which he replied ” she is not keeping well“. Reji gave the change back but before he could ask why two tickets, Vinu had vanished into the crowd.

A few days back while coming from the weekly market hosted by the neighboring town, Vinu was getting worried as he still had 2 long miles to cover before he could reach the fields where his village was. It was getting slightly dark although the rising moon seemingly bigger than usual, heralding a full moon night comforted him. The next 15 to 20 minutes would be treacherous, he thought. He was also thirsty and cursed himself for not carrying a bottle of water on him. He had heard a few stories from the villagers about these woods and they came to him now, he hurried almost breaking into a run. This was the place where robbers used to trouble weary travelers and the poor villagers who went this way to the weekly market. In the morning, he had gone with Hari and Shyam, but they had returned back early, he had said he would be right behind them, but had lost a lot of time in the market loitering around all the stalls making those several item purchases which was asked of him.

What is the hurry comrade, are you afraid of the darkness or is it that you are carrying something valuable that you don’t want to share with us?” came a whispering voice at close quarters. Very soon a hand on his shoulder and a knife placed on the other prompted him to turn slowly. There were two of them with handkerchiefs tied around their mouth. “You are a good lad. Let us relieve you of the burden that you have carried so far safely to us. Now will you run across the fields to your home where your people would be worrying about you. Tell them your goods were stolen here and they will believe you, since this is not the first time it has happened“.

Vinu, of 15 years although a brave lad, started crying. How could he face those who had given money to his volunteering for small purchases on the eve of the festival. Dinakar his wealthy neighbor had gifted him 50 extra rupees for bringing his ordered goods. How he and Vimla, his childhood friend had planned to see the new movie that would be shown in the theatre with this prize money. Now as he walked alone crying thinking about his impending loss of face on his arrival back home, he hated going home and decided to stay put in the woods. The fear of the woods and the thieves had vanished. How one fear, the fear of facing them all had become the primary one and banished all others out of his mind.

What if he loitered around and found the robbers den and recover his goods if they had let their guard down. It was not only easy but risky too if they saw him or sensed his motive. A second meeting would turn out to be a sour one and mighty unpleasant. “What can I do alone against the might of two grown up thieves. Who knows if there are more of them in the den. Oh if there was some goodness in the forest let it come now to help me out“, he cried out to no one in particular but hoping that someone in the dark woods might take pity on him.

What are you doing here at this time of the hour. Don’t you know that I frequent this path on the new moon day and why are you crying“. The harsh tone suddenly changed soft. Vinu looked up to see a goddess form standing in front of him. “Who are you?”, in all innocence, he asked. “No I am not that
which you are thinking. I can assume any form I wish and to you I would look like how you see me now. I am the caretaker of the woods here. I see that no harm comes to it and no one disturbs the sanctity of these good old trees. Now can you tell me your story that made you cry
?”

Vinu recounted all that he had experienced in the last hour and how his hopes of seeing the movie with his earned money seemed to have dashed to the ground. “Don’t worry about the movie now whatever it is. Let me handle your case. How do you want your goods back. Do you want to smoke them out or drown them all“. “No, no.. Nothing of that, just let us go and get my goods and if they see us, can you frighten them out of your magic prowess which I assume you must have“, he paused looking at her.

The smiling spirit said, “So be it. Let your imagination run wild but keep holding my hand firmly so that no harm comes to you. At the forest shrine at the outskirts, a lot of your villagers had come to me with complaints for the past few months. Some of them have given me small presents and promised
more if I can get rid of these gang of thieves”
.

They walked hand in hand and at every step Vinu kept looking at the face of the forest caretaker who had appeared to him as a goddess and also to assure himself that every moment of it was real. When the caretaker of the place walks with you why should one fear. The spirit said to him. “I will give all
what you lost, what will you give me in return”. “I will, I will…” nothing came to his head all the more because he wanted to gift something valuable in return. Lost for words, he put a question back. “Ask
me. What do you want me to give and if I am blessed , I surely will?
“. “You truly are blessed little one, or else why would the wonder of time make us cross each other’s paths today. I will ask my gift when I have helped you with the return of your goods. Come on now, and as we walk, tell me all about the village, the villagers, the theatre and the movie that you intend to see”. Vinu though tired went on rattling everything he knew like a tourist guide that made even the spirit sigh and whisper, “How I wish to be a part of your sweet little village“.

They had come to a clearing in the forest where a few trees had met the axe and logs were arranged in a circle with a small fire lit at the center. The gang of four now were resting and one or two wandering off to sleep. “There it is! my sack of good things. Let me go and get it”. But the spirit
holding on to him said they will walk together into the ring. As they walked into the ring, there was everything that would warrant a fight. One of them noticed the lone Vinu and started laughing at which the other got up and started towards the boy with a stick. “Unless he gets a sound beating,
he will not remember to go home
“. Vinu at the sight of the stick thought of running away but the forest spirit invisible to others held on to his hand and whispered to him that he would not be harmed. 

All of a sudden, a pack of wild dogs descended on to the place and started fighting with each other barking ferociously at the party of thieves who didn’t know how to contain the animals who had come uninvited. They beat a hasty retreat with the pack close on their heels. “I don’t think they
would come back here for a few days or so, and then I would deal them in my own way”.
Vinu, all smiles, tired and famished thanked her when she picked a bunch of fruits from a tree which he ate in no time sitting on the ground. “Now pick up your sack and let me come with you till the outskirts in case you fall into another situation. Why don’t you come with me to the village, stay with us and enjoy the festivities? I will also take you to the Cinema and we can watch the new movie”. She smiled, “Good lad, I have a lot of work here, but yes, whenever you go to your theatre for the movie, have a seat beside you for me, so that we can watch it together. And make me a promise, you wouldn’t tell anyone what happened here and about me helping you”. Both of them hand in hand walked across the tall mighty trees spread out like a procession and the moon light so very bright peeped into the dense foliage lighting up their path to the fields. All the way back, Vinu was telling the spirit how glad he was to get out of the forest that night without any injuries, thanked her at the perimeter of the fields where she stood still, till his diminutive figure vanished into one of the houses.

When Vinu arrived that night, half of the village was awake looking out for his arrival and how glad they were to see him walking back across the fields, especially Hari and Shyam who had arrived earlier without him and subjected to a lot of scolding from the elders for not taking care of the boy on the way back. Heaping blessings on the boy and a lot of thanksgiving to the forest deity, they all retired to their houses. The next day, a lot of people came back for their goods and were glad to see him having picked the finest at best rates. But towards the evening, he developed high fever and was in bed for a few days, though now and then few came to enquire about his wellbeing especially Vimla.

After 4 days into the festival, the fifth day he went to Vimla’s house wanting to ask her out to see the new movie which had run for four days and might disappear on the seventh day. But it seemed he had passed on his fever to her and she was not all in a position to accompany him that day or the next. A sad Vinu, ambled across to the theatre all alone. At that point he remembered what the forest goddess had told him, she will come and sit beside him if he had a vacant seat reserved for her. With a rush of happiness coming back, he ran to the cinema and bought tickets for both of them.

The cinema hall was always packed during the Navratri festival, as most of the villagers was seeing it many times over; he hurried across the hall searching for the seats, as his eyes was getting adjusted to the darkness. He seated himself and waited for her. Within a few minutes, he sensed her hand in his, her typical fragrance but couldn’t see her because of the darkness. “So you came, just as you promised!“. “Yes, I never break my promise“, she replied in a sad way. The movie started immediately and Vinu was all eyes and ears into the movie and enjoyed it thoroughly. As the movie ended, he looked at the forest spirit, she was almost invisible, though he knew she was there. “Why cannot I see you now?” “You will, whenever our paths cross next time, but for now, you will have to content with my presence“. They walked out hand in hand just as they had walked through the woods. Vinu was silent, he had broken his part of the promise as he had confided to Vimla about the encounter in the woods. She bade him a whisper of a goodbye with Vinu hoping that they would meet in the near future, the dense woods willing…

 

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