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Our vanished town

  • Published at 12:42 pm June 1st, 2019
Mountains

Fiction

(Translated by Rifat Munim)


We can see the mountain from our city. 

French Ultramarine mountain range.

It looks blue because it is too distant.

How far?

Eight kilometers. 


Crossing the river one can travel the distance on foot. Or one can hire a rickshaw. When we set out to go there, we just walk. We see a magic happening while we walk—the blue mountain turns green all of a sudden. Viridian green. But it is barely noticeable. At least we could never notice. Not when we were kids, nor after we grew up. We choose not to notice. How can one live without some magic?

There is this program called “Secrets of Magic” on TV. We do not watch it. No one does in our city. No one watches how to master the techniques of magic; we want to remain bewildered with the magic happening right in front of our eyes. 

How does the mountain’s blue turn green? Is there any yellow hue concealed somewhere on those mountains? Yellow hue, when mixed with blue, turns green, so we have learnt from school textbooks. Those who are well versed in art also mix yellow with blue to create green hue. They paint. It is they who at some point must have implanted in us the idea that there is some yellow hue on every mountain. Childish thought! Yet we determine to climb up the mountain to find the yellow hue. But what a shame! All of the mountains are within the boundary of another country, not ours. If we try to climb up without passport and visa the border guards may as well shoot us dead. They can be spotted from the borderline on the valley—the border guards. They keep their watch brandishing heavy rifles. None of us has passport or visa. Nor do we require them. We do not usually venture out leaving our enchanting town. Maybe the yellow hue on the ranges is just a childish thought yet we want to know if our town could really be seen from the mountaintop. Not by day but at night. Does our city look like a town of fireflies?

Everything has been going quite well except one day when something troubling happens. One man from the town visits the valley below. He returns with a piece of rock. He says he’s found it in a bird’s nest. The nest, he says, was lying on the valley; perhaps it fell from one of the trees standing along the edge above. What a strange story! We examine the small rock. Due to the full moon, the color of the rock appears deep blue. Cobalt blue. Then it appears purple. Then it turns high risk red. This rock is retrieved from a bird’s nest! We rejoice: “This is amazing! Magic rock!”

We utter these words with wonderment. 

On full moon nights in our town, lampposts on the streets are stripped of electricity connection. Full moon nights in Aswin, Hemanta (Bengali month and season, respectively). The moon grows powerful as the night progresses. Some of us stroll through the whole night. We spot something moving vaguely when the night is winding up yet not quite—during a time like that. His obscure face now becomes clear. Running off out of breath. Yesterday this man collected a magic rock from the valley below. Why is he running like crazy now? What’s happened to him? 

“The rock has ruptured and spread out!”

That’s all he said while he ran off. Where to? No one from the town has seen him ever again. We now recall him and express our grief for his disappearance. No one else has ever disappeared from our town like this before. Even when someone said things as weird as this man has. The rock has ruptured! It has spread out! What does that even mean? Is a piece of rock like an egg? When that morning we’re thinking about all this, one of us gives a scream: ‘Hey-y-y-y-y!’

A frightened scream.

What’s happened?

We too see and are frightened. The mountain ranges have disappeared! They are hidden from view at times due to masses of cloud or heavy mist, but that’s a different thing altogether. It is a sunny morning and the sky is clear and blue—no cloud or mist. Villages on the other side of the river are green. They look even greener due to the sun. Behind the green stand knolls of mist—enormous chunks of mist concealing the ranges. But then it soon becomes clear that they are not knolls of mist either. Then what are they?

The blind man, the most learned historian of the town, comments, “Tree groves! Forest! The forest has returned!”

“The forest has returned!”

“Yes. History tells us that this area was deeply forested even 270 years ago. This river used to be forceful.”

“This river of ours?”

“Yes, this river was very forceful. On both sides of the river lay deep forest. There were hippos and leopards. And flying squirrels.”

“Flying squirrels!”

“Squirrels that can fly.”

Okay. We get that. But what does he mean when he says the “forest has returned?” Where has it returned from? Did the forest take off to visit some place? 

“No, not at all. They cleared the forest to grow crops and settle. That’s why they burnt the forest down. After all this time, the forest has now returned.”

There is a huge collection of history books in the blind man’s room. They are all over the place—on the book shelves, on the bed, on the table and even on the chair. My eyes catch sight of the cover page of a brick-size book. It shows an image that looks exactly like the magic rock!

“What is this rock on the cover?”

“This is not magic rock; this is codex—ancient manuscript,” says the blind man. How does he figure out? Is his vision all right then? We choose not to ask him such questions; we just express our surprise, “Codex! Meaning ancient manuscript?”

“Manuscript written in a code language. This one dates back to the 15th century. It was first discovered three hundred years ago from the ruins of a pyramid in Mexico. Meaning of the language is yet to be deciphered.”

“Where is it now?”

“At the Smithsonian Museum of History.”

“Where is it?”

“In the United States.”

“Where is that?”

“In the Unites States!”

“I got it. But how far away is it? Can we travel there on foot?”

“You might as well. Eight thousand two hundred and thirty one miles. Thirteen thousand two hundred and forty-seven kilometers. If you want to travel there on foot it will take you one hundred and eleven days. But you cannot enter the country without passport and visa. And getting US visa is indeed difficult.”

“We will never go to the US. We do not want to go anywhere leaving this town of ours.”

“Even if the forest returns to this city?”

“What? What? In that case, we’ll just live in the forest.”

“Well said. I too will live in the forest.”

“We’re saying that we have actually seen this codex thing.”

“What? Where?”

“In our town.”

“What-t-t-t-t?”

We rush to where the man lives. But he’s left. The rock has ruptured and spread out but were we able to comprehend anything at all? The magic rock, or the codex is nowhere to be found inside the man’s house. Maybe nowhere in the world. It has ruptured; it has spread out; it has brought along a forest that existed two hundred and seventy years ago. Or so it seems to us. Does it mean that the codex language was somehow decoded by some secret mantra or magic trick and then it spread out through the air? Maybe that’s it. What else could it be? We cannot think of anything else. We cannot be sure about it, though. We are only sure that the forest is returning. It has become clearer with time. Those are not knolls of mist; blocking the ranges stand insanely tall trees in the forest.

After noon we decide to ply across the river and see with our own eyes what’s actually happening over there. At the ghat we find only one ferry boat. On the prow is painted an image of an eye. All confused, one of us gets back to the town while three of us board the eye-painted boat. In Aswin, the river has small waves. The waves glint orange under the orange sun. Orange waves in an orange river. Vermilion orange. 

We feel like a bunch of fools after stepping on the bank. We barely need to cross the river as the forest is just about to encroach upon the bank and take up more. Villages inhabited by men and women for nearly two hundred and seventy years have disappeared all of a sudden. You see forest wherever you look. Giant trees. One going higher than the other. Thick, intimate. And all those sounds arising out of them. Kub kub! Tick tick! Yak yak! —birds tweeting, animals calling. Are we to enter this forest? Are we insane? We surely will die in there. Let’s head back to the city. We board the boat and feel like a bunch of fools once again. The image of an eye is there on the prow but who is this boatman rowing by? Is this the same man as the one who has rowed us across just now? No way!

“Squirrels!” one of us whispers.

“What?” asked another one.

“Flying squirrels! See!”

We behold. Two flying squirrels. They fly deeper into the forest. But the ancient boatman does not look as surprised. He just says, “This forest was caught up inside the rock of a codex.”

“What? What? What did you say?”

“What did I say? I said it will be auspicious for you if go on the other side of the river.”

“That was not you.”

“Then who said this?”

“You did … you did …”

None of us can recall what the boatman actually said. We freeze in fear as we look at the waves in the river. Which river is this? Is this our river? Why are there so many vortexes in the river? And so many whirlpools? It does not look orange anymore even under the orange sun; it looks otherworldly, deep black. Then we take a glimpse of our town. Is that our town? Or is that a forest? Though blind, our learned historian is quite a seer. What he said has come true. The forest that existed two hundred seventy years ago has returned even to our enchanted town. Our town, in fact, has vanished. Are we getting back to the town? Or to the forest?

Then we look at our attires and what are these? What are we wearing and when did we slip in these? Did people put on clothes like these two hundred seventy years ago? Are we people from that era, that time? Do we live in the forest?

Let’s first cross the vortex-filled river!


Dhrubo Esh is a fiction writer and a book cover artist. 

Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune