Sunday, 30 December 2012

Tigers & Nomads

Tigers and nomads. They were going no place, quickly. Someone says something offhand about tigers and nomads, a crude laugh splits the air, and E. opens his mouth to ask about it but then the train lurches forward. The wheels start to turn and the smoke rises from the chimney in white vapourous billows. The town disappears, not really being a town it disappears in a single breath, one partial turn of the track as the forest closes in. Walls of trees, the darkness of green hillsides while a hawk rides the thermals on the lip of the valley and E. leans his head against the window, despite the chill and the fact that only the upper parts of it are clean enough to see through. He watches the hawk, and then it too is gone.

He thinks about tigers. And yet he doesn’t see any. Miles pass, the forests rise thick and hedge them in, and nothing but the silence and their own conversation emerge to disturb the journey. He’d settle for a wolf, but there is no sign of the beasts either.

“I thought you said there were tigers here?”

“What? Not any more, I don’t think. Not for a long time, but there were tigers here once. They prowled the forests eating up people - before the wolves took over. Honey harvesters, foresters, tea pickers - they all lived in mortal fear of them.” Aisha drags deeply on her cigarette and flicks ash into the aisle. “Fresh tracks found near a stream or a well was enough to clear out whole villages.”

“What happened?” But E. knows. Deep down or even on the surface, he knows what always happens, happened. People get their revenge on the wild for its wildness, sooner or later, even if it was always lopsided, a pogrom inflicted for a scratch.

“They hired some nomads out of the Waste. An old tribe, one of the last, still herding sheep and murdering each other over mares and the best dried up bits of grazing. They came in with these rifles and bows - bows and arrows! Can you believe that?” Aisha shook her head. She clearly didn’t, but she continued with the story as she lit another cigarette, the smoke rising up and then being whipped out of the window by the passing air. “Packs of dogs - well, more like barely tame wolves, bred from the ravenous beasts of the steppe. They hunted the tigers up and down the valleys for months, years, atop their shaggy ponies, it’s said. They lost a lot of nomads and ponies and wolf-dogs of course, but in the end, there were a few of them left and not a single tiger. Then they took their payment in gold, and stole what they weren’t given, even some of the village women, packed up their ill-tempered shitty ponies and left. Pissed back off to the Waste to do who knows what with it all. Didn’t take their mongrels either, and they interbred with the native wolves of the forest to ill effect, who ever since they say, have had no fear of men. The nomads, they never came back, but then neither did the tigers. I expect they’re both all dead by now, anyway.”

There is a loud bang and clatter from the roof and we all jump. Except Aisha. She just puts down her cigarette and pulls a long barreled gun out from under her jacket.

“Stay here. Away from the windows,” she says. “It might be tigers or nomads.” She doesn’t smile.

E. thinks she’s joking, but then she might not be. Aisha is not always a trustworthy narrator he’s come to know. Perhaps the story about the nomads is just that: a story; and somewhere in the forest there are still tigers. Or the other way around. So he watches her, and sees how she holds her weapon in no casual manner.

She goes to the door between the carriages, listens but there aren’t any more sounds to be heard except for the normal clattering and wheezing of the train and the conductor doesn’t appear. E. takes this as a good sign. Or perhaps it's a bad one? The one other traveler who is in the same carriage as we are, some sort of commercial salesman with his portmanteau stuffed full of samples, doesn’t appear to have even woken up. He goes on snoring, a bit of his mustache fluttering at the edge of his mouth, eyes invisible asleep or awake, under the brim of his hat.

Moments go by along with the scenery. The forests are gone and the tea plantations give way to ugly hills scalped of their timber and bleeding orange mud down their blank faces. Aisha puts away her pistol and returns to her seat. She sighs. In the bright light which falls like mortars among the dead hills it is hard to imagine anything ever living here: wolves, tigers, nomads, or villagers.

“I doubt there were ever either tigers or nomads in these valleys,” she says, her eyes reading E.’s own thoughts so precisely that he jumps a little in his seat as her gaze fastens on him. “The people here are known to be terrible liars. Like the Uzbeks say: ‘In the desert there's a man among those dying of thirst selling tickets to the next mirage; and there's always a queue.’ People will believe any nonsense these days.”

She lights another cigarette and blows clouds of blue smoke across the carriage. The sleeper, if he’s a local, but E. seems to recall he got on before they reached the forest and its valleys, while they were passing through the lonely outskirts of the City of A., sees him in his memory in fact, struggling with his heavy bag up the steps with the smell of the city clinging to his coat, doesn’t wake up and contradict her.

“Still, it’s a good story. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a tiger,” E. says, wistfully even, but no one hears him now over the noise of the train.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Desert Wolves

After they watch the last of the rockets disperse in an orange blaze smeared like a false dawn on the horizon, they climb down the sand dunes. Their footsteps produce a susurrus, sliding this way and that. Several times they stop to empty out the grains from their socks and shoes.

While they are doing so, at one of their many halts near the bottom of a red dusted ravine, there is a sound of something moving atop it, causing little spills of sand to roll down from the crest. Tiny streams that sprinkle the shoulders of their jackets as the listen.

They turn and scan the line of the sky as it presses against the dune but they can make out nothing except for the stars. Any light from the rockets is long gone.

“A fox?” says E..

“Perhaps,” replies the other, as he wipes his face with one hand and grimaces, feeling the grit his fingers leave behind, “better than if it was a wolf,” he says with a laugh.

“A wolf?” repeats E. “What would a wolf be doing out here in the desert? Watching Mughal rockets?”

The other man laughs again, but with less ease. “There are wolves in the desert,” he cautions, “Truly, not like there are in the forests, but a few have been seen.” He shakes his head, “Not like in the forest where they are many.”

“Are there many? Still?” E. is skeptical. He’s seen the old faded pelts that are hung in the market, moth-eaten whole heads lolling in death. Paws that haven’t known movement and the chase for decades if not centuries.

“Yes, they’ve never been hunted to decimation like they were on the steppes - not for a long time. And even then, they were like fleas it is said, so thick that the khans couldn’t kill them quick enough, and who lost an army of horsemen in trying. Now - who knows?” His friend shrugs, round shoulders rising and falling in the starlight. “But I used to have to travel east. Sometimes west. In both directions the train runs first south and then turns along the edge of the mountains where the steppe becomes level and there are no sand storms to bury the tracks. Well, in all directions the forest is total, until one reaches the mountains themselves, of course. And amid the trees, the tracks have been laid out straight and go on for miles and miles. Hard to imagine how busy the foresters once were. Or how many were lost to the wolves.”

“Better than to raiders from the steppes, though,” E. says.

“Yes, better than bandits, but there are wolves aplenty. I’ve seen them myself, loping alongside the train for mile after mile,” says the smaller man with an involuntarily shake. “Their eyes are yellow. And at night, it’s all you can see! Or that’s what you think anyway, when you peer outside your window having been awoken, or God help you - should the train be forced off onto a siding to let another train pass, or to remove a downed tree - and of those their are many, as many or more than the wolves, to be cleared from the tracks. Or simply to let the engines rest for they are old trains mostly, and the distance is great. It is then that you see them, eyes like rush lights or djinn staring into the coaches from out the forest.”

“Why would they follow the train?” asks E.. He looks at the smaller man with his skeptical expression plain on his face as both crane their necks trying to listen to yet another outbreak of nocturnal scrambling from somewhere above them. “I’d have expected them to stay clear of all that. They’re shy creatures really, and I can’t imagine why you would think they’d actually follow a train. I would say that’s just your imagination. Fireflies perhaps, or sparks from the funnel.”

“Ah, well you see, when the line was first laid, it was principally for carrying passengers of a particular sort: convicts and prisoners from the Great War. And convicts and prisoners, especially when wounded or suffering from disease as they always are, contracted after if not before they are herded first into unsanitary camps and later into even less spacious and less sanitary quarters - if that is possible - when they are forced onto the narrow carriages like famished cattle - tend to die either of disease, malnutrition, heat, or cold, depending on the season, or from trying to escape. In such conditions, I can imagine many even murder each other.”

The commercial traveler falls silent. The noise of whatever animal or person it was atop the dune that neither can catch sight of but which both hear, fades away. In the darkness E. says nothing.

With a slight hitch to his voice, the other continues: “And considering how difficult conditions are on the trains, and how far it is to the next station - in fact, there are none, only the distant destinations on both fronts, between which there is only the wilderness on one side with its trees and its wolves and the nearby inhospitable mountains - and the desert and the steppe on the other side - so bodies, you see, can’t be kept and they are thrown over the sides, sometimes without even stopping the train in fact, or less frequently, a captive may manage to escape, slip away into the forest, wounded or hale. Either way, the wolves are waiting. Endless and hungry and they make short work of anyone. So that’s why it is said that they still follow the train even though it doesn’t carry convicts anymore. And why should it? Nowadays they take care of these things locally. Any city will do, especially a provincial capital. The camps are all empty, why go to the work of fighting a war to gain captives when men and women will sell themselves for a pittance and work in the factories and in the mines until they drop from exhaustion and can be carted away at no expense to the manufacturer by their loved ones? Why build camps indeed, when the secret police can simply come to your own rooms and drag you out into the street should they feel like it and someone pass them your name?”

The man shook his head again, looking either frightened by his own words or simply embarrassed, and then as the two men keep walking, one in silence the other jolting suddenly as if from a waking sleep a few moments later, and starting back up again, “Perhaps you don’t believe me. But no one gets off the train when it stops, except for the engineers and even then only under armed guard and none wander so far from the tracks that they can not be sighted through the barrel of a rifle as they clear away any branches or debris. Because the wolves are waiting, and they’d not give you a pass if you did. Not a man or a women, not even a soldier would likely stand a chance if they went too far and let the trees surround them. What wolf would pause or even recognize the difference between free persons and convicts? Would the meat taste any different?”

“No,” says E. having grown tired of the conversation but unable to admit his disinterest, “I believe it would taste exactly the same. But still I don’t believe you about the wolves following the trains. That was long ago after all. How many years do individual wolves live? Surely they can’t still be the same ones?”

“Perhaps,” admits the traveler whose eyes E. can’t see and which are still scanning the blind crests of the dunes around them as the land slowly rises. “But at night you can hear their howling close by and if you peer between the trees which go on and on forever into the darkness it seems from your window, all you can see is their yellow eyes. Wolves have children, that’s all that I’m willing to say. Perhaps, they teach them to follow the train. As wolves of a different type instruct each other in the city.”

“Yes,” laughs E. and at the loud suddenness of it something crashes away from the tip of the rolling hill of sand, sending small avalanches slipping down and leaving both men feeling chilled even though the night is warm. “Perhaps they do,” whispers E and with his hand on his belt knife now the pair hurry their steps, feeling the dark and the unseen possibilities of the desert opening wide all around them, as impenetrable as any tree-covered landscape, and ready to swallow them. “And some children are wolves. That’s more likely. Some urchins crawled out here like us two, to watch the rockets explode. I don’t doubt it.”

Now it is the other man’s turn to look unconvinced, and together they trudge slowly along the wadi, each lost in their own private determinations, towards the brightly lit city of A..