(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
Sometimes strange things happen.
afternoon, and the shadows already beginning to lengthen, when they came down
into the valley. They scrambled down the steep slope between the trees,
cautiously, feeling for footholds on the treacherous wet earth. The noise of
the rushing water was so loud that Lin was afraid it would drown out the sounds
of pursuit, though by rights they should, he knew, have thrown off any pursuers
long ago. The fear was natural. This was not their country; the land was not
familiar. In their way of life, the unfamiliar was always dangerous.
It was not so
much a valley they were in as a cleft cut into the earth by the torrent roaring
by below them, swollen high by a season of rain. The trees on the opposite
slope looked close enough to touch.
There were only
three of them, and they had been running since the previous night. There had
been two others, but somewhere in the darkness they had become separated and
might be anywhere by now. They might be on their way back already, under guard
of the soldiers, or they might be lying dead like all the others in the camp.
Lin's mind flashed an image of the camp leader, as Lin had last seen him, his
face half torn away by a bullet. Involuntarily, he shuddered.
Up ahead, Bobby
raised a hand, signalling a stop. He was the group leader. Lin shivered as a
little stream of moisture trickled down his neck. Rainwater still dripped from
trees though the sky was clear and it had not rained for several hours.
Bobby turned to
face them. His dark face was shiny with the same mixture of sweat and water
that stained their uniforms a green so dark it was almost black. The fanatical
look that Lin always mistrusted had not left his eyes. He hefted the M16, the
only weapon they had between them, on his shoulder.
down there a bit," he said, pointing down to the river. "Then weíll
It was not easy
to reach the water. The river had gouged deep into the earth, and the high
banks were choked with dense undergrowth. Finally they found a place where the
water had eroded a shallow semicircular bite out of the bank on their side.
Here it eddied, almost calmly, and there was even a little pebbled beach. Here
they washed briefly, and then thoughts turned to food. None of them had eaten
since the previous evening. Nor had they anything on them that was edible. Lin
was so hungry that even the screaming of his exhausted leg muscles had ceased
making an impression.
could catch some fish," the third of the group, Mon, suggested.
"There ought to be some here." He took off his boots and waded into
the water with the red cotton towel he had been wearing around his neck like a
scarf. Bobby joined him and they scooped the towel out of the water between
them, and something wriggling and silvery was suddenly on the beach next to
Linís hand. He stared at it with fascination.
it," said Mon urgently. "Donít let it get into the water."
Linís hand moved
involuntarily and he picked up a small rock and swung clumsily at the
unfortunate fish. It took several blows before the creature stopped moving. By
then another was already writhing on the shore.
This way they
got several fish. They then moved under the cover of the trees and with great
difficulty managed to construct a small fire. The fish they roasted
inefficiently and insufficiently on the embers, but while waiting Linís stomach
was already clenching with hunger. For the first time in hours, he said
something to take his mind off his hunger pangs.
know when I tell you," said Bobby. He looked at Lin with undisguised
contempt. "Why, are you thinking of staying here?"
are as done as theyíre going to get," said Mon quickly. He was short and
wiry, with a thin sharp nose and a perpetually worried expression. "Letís
eat and then get going."
They started off
again immediately after the meal, lingering just long enough to stamp out the
remains of the reluctant fire. Bobby set as fast a pace as possible, given the
terrain and their exhaustion. They worked their way up slope and further down
the valley. As they went, the valley broadened and flattened out a little, but
the forest was as thick as ever and at first there was no sign of habitation.
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