By: Abu Siddik
The shack was rickety. It stood at the far end of the forest of Khairbari. The yard was covered with long grass and wild weeds. An old watchman, lean, pale, wizened, greasily bearded lived there. For how long nobody knew.
Tourists came from far and near and admired the caged animals and birds—lions, tigers, bears, deer, parrots, peacocks, elephants, gharials, etc. Children shrieked in joy and parents flushed in exuberance. They came for joy and the caged birds and animals made them joyous. They were too refined to look at the hoary trees trellised with wild climbers or at the sailing clouds in the sea blue sky. And they hardly found the hut by the forest fringe. The watchman cooked, ate and slept unknown for years. His days were drowsy and nights wary.
But all days were not same. If one died in the surrounding, he would have to break his routine and attend the funeral. Only that day he washed himself and wallowed for hours in the pond he was in charge of. While bathing he looked at the trailing clouds and the soughing trees of the forest and heard the moaning of the winds. He splashed, swam, and when got tired crooned dolefully for an hour. The birds then ceased singing and fox squeaking.
One Sunday a timber merchant was surveying the trees of the forest. A tender he got to cut the old trees and clean and beautify the forest. He somehow came to the end of the forest and saw the old man, almost naked, dozing off by the ridges of the pond.
“Father!” the merchant addressed tenderly.
The old man got a jolt hearing such a soothing call in this wilderness. First time in his life he heard such a loved voice.
“Who are you, my son?” queried the old watchman. A lone vulture was hovering in the cloudless sky and the watchman got scared. He smelt something ominous in the air.
“A honey-man. I search beehives and if I found one I break it and fill my pitcher,” the big man, pompously clothed, ass mouthed, ruddy, aged fifty or so, calmly claimed and chuckled.
“There is no beehive at my hut,” timidly he retorted.
“But they are in plenty in the forest. Don’t get panicky! I do no harm to my harmless father! Oh! How nice your pond is! Fish are scuttling in the rippling waves. Here and there wild flowers bloom! You have a true taste, father, and I praise it!”
“Why are you calling me father, father? I have no son,” the watchman countered loathingly.
“Why are you so erratic? I call you father for your age. We must respect our aged parents,” the merchant cunningly protested.
“Call your father, father. That’ll make me happy. I’m an old man guarding this pond and I fear your long nails,” plainly put the watchman.
“Your pond is beautiful!” The Argus-eyed lumber merchant sweetly put while mapping the area including the hut and the yard.
“It’s not mine. I’m a watchman and I watch it,” bluntly the old man put. “But who’re you? Have you lost your way? I have not seen such a fine man for years! You are an eye drop to my sore eyes!” he began to brush his eyes.
“A honey man, as I’ve said” the man gloatingly repeated and closely surveyed the pond and its boundary.
“But I’m no bee keeper. I have some fishes? Do you like them?”
“Yes, they are awesome!” the tradesman commended and measured with cold eyes the length and breadth of the water body and calculated its worth in his mind, “If I buy and keep it for two years, money will be multiplied. In bank it will take a decade! Moreover, I cannot keep all eggs in a basket. It’s an asset, man.”
“Where is the owner?” merrily he asked.
“In the town. Why?”
“You are too good father! I praise your rarity! Nothing to worry, I shall meet the man and salute him for his rare taste! The pond is lovely, charming I must say!”
“Me beaten, my boy! I have no son, no daughter. Married long ago and I lost my girl soon one night. High fever! There was no doctor at our village then. Whole night she writhed in pain and at dawn she died. Bad luck! Had I a son like you!” he gasped for breath and his eyes turned moist.
“Take my hand. I’m your son!” the merchant readily spread his long chiselled hand.
The watchman sobbed and hoarsely assured, “Come next Sunday. 10 a.m. My master will surely meet you. Leave that on me. You call me father! What more can I expect from God at this age? God is merciful! He is too kind! Don’t worry. Go home and come in the next week at exact hour. My master is a busy man, but I can manage. So my son, keep in mind, next Sunday, 10.a.m.”
“I’ll soon come back father. I must keep word,” the lumber man grinned and strode away while scaling the tall trees of the forest.
Abu is a writer, residing in Berhampore, Murshidabad, India. He works as Assistant Professor. He has contributed to various e-journals and anthologies. He has also published five books.