The Ghosts Of Memory
May 17, 2019
Some stories have brilliant plots but are poorly written, some are the other way around. The best kinds, however, are those which have stunning writing and an engrossing plot at the same time. And a good plot doesn’t always have to have twists and turns or loud bangs and noises; it can be a simple story that just pulls on our heartstrings. This short fiction is just that- the simple story of a boy tormented by his memories while on a solo trek. It’s got beautiful descriptions and evocative language, and a story that nearly brought us to tears.
The big wooden door clicked shut and the cold mountain air bit his nostrils as he left the warmth of the house. He pulled his cap lower to cover his ears and tightened the straps of his backpack. Dawn was breaking. Back in the day, he and his friends would run around this place protected by little but their school jerseys, but he never remembered it being this cold.
No. they would never have been out this early, they would be tucked in bed—warm and drowsy under a country quilt that smelt heavily of cotton, pine and sunshine.
He started down the road. Any minute now, he would hear the whistle from the dak gaadi, the mail train, which brought letters, supplies and newspapers to his town. He blew a cloud of vapour into his freezing hands and rubbed them together, just like the locals did. He thrust his hands, now somewhat comfortable, as deep into his jeans pockets as they would go. There, nestled by his thighs, they stayed warm. A locomotive horn boomed somewhere, making his heart jump. As the echo died away, he heard the drone of the diesel railway engine as it came through tunnel 23, its headlight flashing through the trees across the misty valley.
A diesel engine. He stopped for a moment and tried to retrieve memories from a distant time. He remembered being in bed, half awake, his dark room punctuated by the light of the orange embers in the fireplace and the luminous digits of the alarm clock on his study table. The shrill whistle of a steam engine would sound in the distance. Moments later, his mother would open his door, spilling yellow light into his dream world of heroes, villains and beasts. She would place a tall glass of milk on his study table and try to rouse him. If he wasn’t out of bed the second time she came to check on him, she would uncover his feet—a violation of his cotton cocoon that would shock him wide awake. He remembered choking on the cream that formed at the top of the glass of milk.
Wait—yes, it used to be a whistle—a whistle from a steam engine.
He continued walking and the sky started to lighten. He reached the railway station— a century-old stone and wood affair, with a massive brass bell hanging from a stout cast-iron column. A single bulb lit up the ticket counter. The concrete platform was the only sign of modernity.
He caught sight of his reflection in the glass cover of the notice board. He saw a tired man—a cap sat tight over his head, covering the tops of his ears with little wisps of salt and pepper hair peeking out from under its edge. The three days of stubble told a tale of neglect and indifference, while the deep lines bore mute witness to sorrow and worry. His glassy pupils just looked dead.
He walked silently through the station, crossed the tracks, and headed down a narrow path into the familiar pine forest. The sky had started to turn pink on the horizon and the sun’s orange crown was peeking over the mountains. The trees were coming to life. Somewhere above him, a woodpecker was at work, like a diligent postmaster tapping out a telegram in Morse code. The shrill notes of a Himalayan whistling thrush echoed through the valley. It had gotten warmer and he was no longer exhaling puffs of vapour.
The path pushed lower into the valley, its red earth littered with pebbles. He came across a fallen pine tree— its trunk picked clean of the bark that the locals used as kindling for their bukharis. He sat on the trunk to catch his breath.
He remembered this hillside. He and his schoolmates would chase each other here. The grass and the soft earth would protect them against injury from their frequent falls. Their chattering, name-calling, swearing, fighting and crying seemed to still echo in the valley. Long forgotten nicknames, slurs and singsong taunts clanged in his head like a tambourine.
The sound of the thrush broke his trance. The still orange sun rested delicately on the peak of “Pepper Top”—a green hill capped by a stark black rock. Suddenly, the entire valley was bathed in a golden glow, and the landscape turned from a dull sepia dawn to a technicolour dream. He closed his eyes and faced the sun. The rays warmed his cheeks and seemed to seep into his soul. A faint smile broke out on his lips. He could have been seven again, competing with the other boys for the slivers of warm sunlight that slipped into their frigid classroom.
He opened his eyes, but Pepper Top was now obscured by the brilliant morning sun.
The path snaked down the hillside, deeper into the valley. His step now had a bounce and his pace was brisk as he marched along. In a while, the sound of flowing water rose above the quiet rustling of the pine forest. The path took a sharp turn and dropped steeply to a rocky expanse of about a hundred feet across. Carefully balancing himself on the stones, he walked on. A little ahead, bordered by mossy boulders, flowed a stream.
He stood transfixed for a few moments, squinting at the water that reflected needles of hot sunlight into his face. He took off his backpack and set it down between two large rocks. He looked downstream, where the stream turned sharply away. Across the rocks from him, his path resumed— but the stream that he had intended to cross seemed deeper and more turbulent than he remembered it to be. It was 8.15 AM—he had been walking for a little over three hours. He unzipped his jacket and lingered for about an hour before deciding to follow the brook downstream instead.
The rocky streambed was treacherous to walk upon. He moved cautiously, testing each boulder before he put his entire weight on it. He slipped frequently—once getting his foot wedged in a narrow space between two rocks. It took him the better part of a minute to extract his skinned shin from the crevice. He rolled up his jeans and watched the little droplets of blood form on the broken skin. This was a far cry from the little boy hopping from rock to rock.
The pain snapped him back to reality. The time since he left the house seemed to have been a dream. What the hell was he doing here? He looked around. The features were familiar but it had been years since he had been down here. What had made him choose this alternate path? Had some unseen hands drawn him this way? Had the ghosts of memory beckoned? His mind went blank. He put on the backpack and advanced— but now no longer testing his steps on the boulders, but jumping from one to the next with the reckless abandon of a ten-year-old. Clouds began to gather. He felt relieved, as they would take the bite out of the mid-day sun.
An hour later, the stream tumbled over a 20-foot cliff into a small oval pool. He smiled. He had spent hours playing here as a child. The fact that it was so far from the paths and well hidden in a ravine dissuaded all but the most determined kids from coming here. He slid down a gritty path by the side of the cliff to land on the gravel beach beside the pool. Tiny crabs and frogs scattered towards shelter.
The sight seemed to hurl him back in time. His gang of six would race aggressively to be the first in the water. There would be swearing, pushing, occasionally even a fistfight if two of them jumped onto the same rock. Their voices seemed to echo in the ravine. Six boys skinny-dipping in a mountain pool, far from the schoolteacher’s cane or their parent’s lectures. They would lie bare-chested in the sun, smoking cigarettes and reading adult literature that made little sense but must have been important because of the way the older boys hid and protected them.
The sun was higher now. He lay on the gravel using his backpack as a pillow, vaguely aware of a throbbing in his leg muscles. The sound of the stream was relaxing, it seemed to block out everything else, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Then he heard a giggle. The ghosts of memory.
“Come on darling, the water is so nice and cold!” her wet hair had clung to her forehead and drops of water glistened on her dark skin like diamonds on chocolate. “Oh come on, you told me that you used to skinny dip with your friends in this place!” her head was tilted sideways in mock disapproval.
His face twisted in pain and a knot of anguish built in his throat. He pressed his hands over his ears and the world went silent.
The boys—where were they now? Ruminating in little paddocks of domesticity in cities far away.
Sheetal? She’d left him.
What remained? A cold, bitter man tormented by memories.
He had thought this trip would be difficult, but it was actually torturing.
He put on his backpack and started off again. His detour along the riverbank meant that he would have to take the harder route, an almost vertical climb to Pepper Top.
He climbed out of the ravine and started up the hillside. He hadn’t anticipated the exertion and was breathless within moments. After a while of slow, wheezing progress, he came to a familiar stretch of flat meadow. The lichen-crusted surface of a rock peeked above the lush green grass. He sat on it ate some biscuits—it was the first thing he ate since having left home in the morning.
Sheetal and he had picnicked here once. He remembered spreading a thick cotton durrie on the grass and setting out a light meal of jam sandwiches and super-sweetened tea. She had walked barefoot in the grass and then flopped down on the durrie, and spent hours engrossed in a book. She had fallen in love with the hills here.
The memories returned with greater viciousness than ever. He saw a vivid image of her lying there—her long, curly hair, lustrous dark skin, eyes highlighted by eyeliner and the chunky jewellery that clinked with every move she made. Her laughter rang in his ears.
There was a knot in his throat. The sooner he got this over with, the better.
The clouds darkened as he started off on the last stretch to Pepper Top. It started to drizzle and a mist crept up from the valley. Visibility dropped, and the path became treacherous.
The grass gave way to black stone. Just a little more. On a mossy rock, wet from the rain, his foot slipped. He twisted and fell, his hip and shoulder making contact with the rock. He lay still, moaning in pain. A few minutes later he rolled over and rose unsteadily to his feet. His clothes were drenched by now. His skinned shin was burning and pain shot down his left leg.
He limped to the summit of Pepper Top. He had climbed here with Sheetal in happier days. He had been ready to give up but had been pushed on by her persistence. The same dogged persistence with which she had fought the cancer that had spread rapidly through her body.
He took off the backpack and drew a copper urn from it. He unwound the cloth that covered its mouth. The rainwater mixed with his tears, and his grief poured out in sharp hisses, culminating in an agonized moan that lifted to a scream. He screamed again, halted just by the knot in his throat and the heavy weight that lay on his chest. It was just like all those nights, him alone in his grief, missing her warmth and the assuring caress of her breath.
“Why did you leave me?”
No one heard him, just like the nights he asked the same question.
He knelt on the rock and emptied the urn over the steep edge. The ashes swirled in the wind which carried them out over the valley, depositing them in a grey pall over the rocks below. The drops from the drizzle punched holes in the sheet of ash and washed it away in minutes.
That night in the hospital she had taken his hand.
“You’ll take me home, na?”
“You have to take me home. To the pine forest, the hidden pool, to Pepper Top.”
“We’ll go together. You just get better.”
“I’m getting better, sweetheart, I can feel it. The pain will soon be gone.”
She drifted off to sleep and never woke up.
Ajit is a fraud investigator, book hoarder, and innovation geek perpetually searching for le mot juste. His non-fiction pieces can be found on LinkedIn and Medium; his short stories and three incomplete novels are hidden away on his computer.
You can read his stories, here.