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.

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