Old Man of the Forest
“They can’t really see us, you know.”
“Yes,” the wrinkled creature replied with the infinite calm of advanced age. “I’ve known that forever. Only the truly worthy can spot us for what we are, and even then they can’t really understand what they see. They all think they see me.” Hanuman laughed, and his features, so severe when he was at war, showed the marks of too much laughter: tiny lines, fine creases in the leathery skin. “Can you imagine if it were truly me they were seeing? Even when I was young, I couldn’t have been in all those places at once!”
“They believe in you. Maybe if you talked to them, something could be done to bring us from our exile.”
“We are not in exile, my young friend. We are privileged to observe without being seen, judge without being evaluated. Only when the language of the gods is spoken once more on Earth shall the vanara race speak to humanity again. They are not worthy of us at present.”
The younger vanara seemed on the verge of rebellion. Frustration oozed from every pore and was visible in every movement. “That isn’t fair. They don’t even know who we are. They think we’re just monkeys, animals.”
Hanuman sighed. The young were never swayed by his wisdom, but it never hurt to try to impart it; after all, they wouldn’t be young forever. “They do not know we’re still here. Is it their fault that they cannot see us as we truly are, cannot interpret our actions as we wish them to? No. The gods have decreed that it be so, and we must serve the gods in this as we do in everything. Humans may be blind, but they are not ungrateful. See how their temples hold idols to us, they even worship members of our race.”
“They worship you, old one,” the young woman spat. “There is nothing for the rest of us, no glory to be gained at all. And if what you say is true, then the gods will return before we have a chance to gain immortality.”
“What do you think you can do? We no longer live in the age of heroes. Gods walk the world no longer.”
“I will find my path to immortality, even if you are unwilling to help me on my way.”
She turned and left, half-walking, half-swinging through the branches, the traditional vanara mode of locomotion.
Hanuman was left shaking his head gently. Over the years, many of the conversations he’d had with his descendants had ended this way, but at least he knew that he could generally trust in their good judgment, and not have to worry about their bringing too many problems onto his head.
Besides, humans were accustomed to seeing them as monkeys, and monkeys were supposed to be funny, and near-intelligent. She shouldn’t do too much damage.
Harshini fumed. The Old Man would never understand her. Though every vanara ever born heard of the exploits of Hanuman, and knew that the only reason Rama had managed to survive his battle with the demon was because of their help, she had trouble believing it had ever happened. It was impossible that that old tyrant would ever have felt the need for adventure, and even if he’d been young at some long forgotten moment, it was inconceivable that he’d ever have let himself be swayed by hot-blooded impulses.
No, he’d probably presided over a treaty meeting or something, boring and stuffy, and time had embellished the details, turning a diplomatic session with no action whatsoever into a poetic saga worthy of the gods.
Well, she would show him that a vanara could take part in heroic deeds but, most of all, she would show him that there was no need for them to continue living in their self-imposed exile. The legends said that, once, vanara had lived in palaces in the forest and had met the city-dwellers on even terms. They would do so again, but humanity first had to be made to see them for what they were.
The nearest human village was a small, nameless collection of huts and shacks just at the bottom of Hanuman’s mountain. The huts were just high enough on the slopes to avoid damage from the annual flooding, and some of them were practically buried in the foliage. Harshini was able to approach unobserved, near enough that the acrid reek of human filled the air.
Finally, Harshini took a deep breath and walked, upright and regal, onto the main path between the houses. She tried, by force of will, to communicate that an intelligent being resided under the spell that kept the humans from seeing her as she was.
But the people ignored her, going about their business as they always did. One of them kicked out at her half-heartedly, obviously not intending to hit her, but wanting to clear the path ahead of him. She tried to look into the man’s eyes, but he moved on, oblivious that he’d been selected as an ambassador between two great peoples.
Harshini shrugged and kept walking; if the man’s burden, whatever it had been, was more important than creating understanding between humans and vanara, then he would be the one to regret it, not her. And she certainly wouldn’t beg for his attention.
The next person she encountered was useless for her purposes: a child of about seven, rail thin, with huge brown eyes and skin so dark as to be nearly black. She shrugged past, looking for someone with a little more authority.
The waif, of course, followed her.
“Go away,” she said, turning quickly. “I’m here on the most important of business.” She knew that humans could understand none of what she said, but experience with the young of her own tribe had made it abundantly clear that children could understand a tone, even if the words themselves were beyond them.
However, it soon became apparent that she’d gotten a defective child. She’d taken a few more steps toward the cluster of houses nearest the river when she realized that the little boy was still following her, eyes just as wide as before, and with the beginnings of a smile. She picked up her pace and came to a tiny square formed in the hollow between a group of houses. It wasn’t much to look at – even the modern vanara who could boast no palaces had better meeting places than this – but years of watching the humans from the forest had shown her that this was where all the important events in the village happened.
The square was empty, save for one old blind woman sitting in a ray of sunlight in the corner furthest from the river. Wrinkled like a prune, she seemed oblivious to the fact that she wasn’t alone, and even more so to the dictates of common sense, which would have kept her to the shade on such a hot and humid morning.
Harshini paused in the square for a moment, trying to decide what to do next. It certainly wasn’t the type of reception she’d been planning on, but then again, she had to admit – now that she was alone – that the whole quest had been driven more by anger and the rush to leave the Old Man’s presence than by any sort of forethought. She would push forward, even if it meant moving on to a different village. In fact, that was just what she would do. There was another cluster of huts just around a bend in the river, less than an hour’s walk away. She would find what she sought there.
Satisfied, Harshini set her shoulders and, being very careful not to stoop or succumb to the temptation of using her forelimbs for walking, she strode proudly towards the river, intent on using the path along the bank to reach her destination. Adding insult to injury, even the little boy seemed to lose interest in her at this point and wandered off on some mission of his own.
But, when she passed the final house, she found the path blocked. A young woman, no more than sixteen or nineteen – it was difficult to tell the age of humans with any accuracy – stood dead-center on the path, facing away from the village. The half-saree she wore was a clue that she might be a little younger than she looked, but again, Harshini found herself unable to age the girl with any precision. But she would rather have died than admit that maybe, just maybe, she was out of her depth not just in this, but in the whole undertaking.
She strode up behind the girl, making no effort to hide her approach. The girl jumped visibly and turned suddenly. Her posture made it obvious to any creature of the forest that she was ready to flee, but Harshini wasn’t what she was afraid of, because the girl relaxed when she saw the vanara.
“Oh, hello, little one,” the girl said.
Harshini’s heart nearly burst from her chest. Could this one possibly see her for what she truly was? Was that why she spoke? “Good morning,” the vanara replied, solemnly holding out one forepaw, hoping the woman would understand the gesture. The girl took it, but dashed any hopes with her next phrase.
“Aren’t you cute? Sometimes I wish I could live like you do, in the jungle, doing whatever you please, without a care in the world.”
The girl could have been the little boy’s sister, with the same dark skin and large brown eyes. But then again, Harshini admitted to herself that all humans looked alike to her. Yet another thing Hanuman would have pointed at to show her that she was too inexperienced to do anything.
But even an inexperienced vanara knew that when a human dropped water from her eyes, it was a sign of sadness. “What is wrong?” Harshini asked. She knew that humans, even this human who’d seemed to see the truth, couldn’t understand a word any vanara said, and heard only the mindless chittering of tree apes, but maybe by an earnest effort of will, the spell could be broken.
But the girl just turned and walked a few paces further down the path, away from the village, making convulsive sobbing sounds while her shoulders moved up and down. The girl seemed to have forgotten that she was holding Harshini’s hand, and the vanara followed her. The sadness that afflicted this one must have been powerful indeed.
Coincidence was on Harshini’s side that day, because the girl decided to unburden herself. “I wish I’d never even set eyes on that dirty tradesman’s boy. Then I could have married my Abhayaprada and no one would have complained. But now all I hear is that a fisherman’s boy is not good enough for me. Hah! Fishing has been good enough for our family forever, but suddenly, at the prospect of someone moving up a tiny bit in the world, we remember that not everyone is equal.”
She sniveled a bit while Harshini considered the stories she’d heard of humans. From what she knew, the girl should be delighted at the possibility of marrying above her station. Many of the tales both from these people in the south and the people of the mountains who lived north of the forest and looked a little different told how every girl-human wanted nothing more than to marry above herself. But asking questions would have been worse than useless, so Harshini settled herself on the grass to listen. Off in the distance, the river bubbled to itself, but the vanara’s sense of urgency had subsided. She decided that there was no need to go all the way to the next village. This girl seemed on the verge of understanding that the vanara were more than they seemed.
“But my parents…” the girl paused for a few moments to snivel, to dry her nose on the sleeve of her choli. “My parents have set the misri for today. It is my old grandfather’s birthday, and who knows what those merchants find it auspicious for. Probably the anniversary of fleecing some poor villager and driving his family to starvation. I won’t be there! I won’t be at my own misri. Let them see whether that’s an auspicious start. My mother should have known that giving me my ring so I could give it to that little monster was a mistake.”
The girl pulled a ring out of a fold in her stole. It was a small thing that glittered in the sunlight, a trinket that would have kept vanara girls fascinated all month; human girls probably didn’t even know how lucky they were.
“I should throw it into the river,” the girl said. Harshini, alarmed at the potential loss of such a treasure, pulled her arm back. The girl hardly resisted, and smiled. “You’re right. This is half the wealth of my family, and I shouldn’t discard it so lightly, even if it means my doom.” Then she looked at Harshini and patted her head. “Look at me, talking to a monkey this way, as if you knew what you were doing instead of just playing. Well, come along if you wish. It’s not much good running away if I only walk this far.”
The girl replaced the ring and set off down the path, forcing Harshini to hurry and even use her forelimbs for added purchase on the ground, hoping the girl wouldn’t turn around and see her.
The sun climbed higher as they walked.
Time seemed to pass more slowly as they followed the bank downstream. The warm sun beat onto them, and the humidity seemed a live thing, clinging in a way that it never did in the cool, leafy shadows of the forest. Long before they reached the next village, Harshini was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, as if in a dream.
She lifted a foot, dropped it, lifted another, and put that one back on the ground. Every third step or so, she would lower her right forepaw and use it to propel herself a little more.
So absorbed was she in this task that she almost failed to realize when the girl who’d been leading the way suddenly disappeared.
There had been no warning other than the rustle of reeds that grew between the stream and the bank, and then a slight yelp as a dark, half-naked figure swept in, pulled the girl off her feet and onto his shoulders and ran off again. A splash told Harshini that the assailant had carried her into the river.
She followed, pushing aside the reeds, only to see a man with a black mustache looking back at her as he poled a boat into the current while keeping the girl subdued with his legs. In moments, man, girl and boat disappeared around a bend.
Harshini stood by the bank, panting in the sun and paralyzed with fear. What could she do?
The answer came to her with crushing finality: nothing. Even if she ran back to the village, the villagers would simply laugh at her, calling her a monkey and, eventually chasing her off with brooms and possibly even stones. She sat down on the path, beating her fist against the ground in frustration.
An unexpected glint caught her eye. Lying in the path, forgotten in the struggle, was a small band of yellow metal. The ring. It had obviously been thrown clear when the girl was taken, and Harshini picked it up and studied it. She felt the weight of it in her hand, and knew that it was a treasure the likes of which hadn’t been seen among her people since the time of her grandmother’s grandmother.
But with a pang, Harshini realized that she couldn’t keep the ring. It belonged to the girl on that boat, blind as she was to the true nature of the creatures that lived in the forest deeps, and needed to be returned. In fact, perhaps it might be the key to saving the girl’s life – for though the young vanara might know little of the ways of humans, she was wise enough to know that the girl had been taken against her will, and would be found in or near the next village.
But which way to go? Harshini’s hands were little match for the cunning knots and locks that humans placed on their dwellings, but she still almost ran off downstream, to attempt a rescue, or to attempt to trade the ring for the girl herself. But the image of Hanuman, chiding her for foolhardiness, came to her, unbidden. She knew that to rush off without thought was to invite catastrophe – and worse, to struggle in vain.
She turned back towards the village she’d come from. The long minutes that they’d covered to get there now stretched out eternally on the way back, the distance never seeming to end despite the fact that she was running twice as fast, using all four legs for speed.
Finally, the cluster of wooden huts came into view, and she rushed headlong into the central square to find the village out in force and a shouting match in progress.
“If the girl isn’t here at noon, there will be no wedding,” a large woman with lighter skin and a heavily made-up face was shouting. “I knew that boy would only bring shame to us by marrying beneath himself.”
The boy in question was standing beside, and slightly behind his mother, pouting lips showing no expression that Harshini could read. The upturned lips and half-smile said he was enjoying the spectacle, but the situation demanded that he be angry or frightened. She cursed her inexperience once again.
A young man burst into the circle, heading straight towards the groom, but was restrained by the strong arm of one of the villagers. “You! You took her. You knew she didn’t want to marry you, so you took her anyway.” He kept screaming words at the other man, words Harshini had never heard before, but which caused the groom’s family to murmur darkly.
“Hush now, Abhayaprada,” a second woman said in soft tones. “We must not waste time now. We must find her.”
And into this cauldron of recriminations, Harshini walked. “I know where she is,” the vanara said.
No one looked her way. They were too intent on glaring at each other. Besides, she knew they couldn’t understand a word she was saying. They were only human.
She would have to think of something else.
One of the problems, possibly the biggest one, was that the humans were all much taller than she was. This meant that even if she jumped around, she could only put herself level with their eyes for tiny fractions of time. If she could find somewhere to stand, she might make them pay attention long enough to show them the ring.
The log sections that served as benches were all occupied by old humans, and long experience had taught Harshini that tugging on a hand would only get her kicked. And then she saw the little boy, the same one that had followed her on her first pass through the village.
He wasn’t paying any attention to her either, but at least his eyes were level with Harshini’s own. She strode quickly, erect, to where he stood and tugged on his nose, which captured his attention immediately.
“Ow,” he yelped.
“Oh, be quiet, it was just a tiny pull,” she said. He looked on uncomprehending, so she sighed and placed the ring in front of his face, where he couldn’t help but see it.
The little boy’s first reaction was to try to look around the vanara’s hand, to see what interesting turns the adults’ argument had taken, but as Harshini thrust the metal band insistently into his line of sight, an expression of confusion crossed the boy’s face, followed shortly by a look of astonishment.
“Mama!” he cried, taking the proffered ring out of her unresisting hand, “Mama, look!” He ran to the distraught mother.
Harshini had a moment of satisfaction when she realized that the missing girl actually was the little boy’s sister, but that moment was short-lived, as all eyes turned on her, as if expecting her to tell them all. She stood straight and said. “She’s been kidnapped. I’m sure it was a man from the next village. I can show you where it happened.”
The villagers were quite clearly unable to understand. They milled about in confusion, some prodding her, others going back to arguing among themselves. None of them followed up with any questions. “I can show you,” she said.
But when the girl’s mother took two steps toward her and said: “Where did you get this?” Harshini knew it was a lost cause.
Instead of answering, she swept the ring out of the mother’s hand and, passing between a sea of legs, ran down the path with half the village in pursuit. She was surprised at how quickly they forgot about the girl to chase her with cries of: “Stop the monkey!” and “Come back here, you little thief!”
Once again, Harshini set her dignity aside for the sake of speed. Using all four limbs, she propelled herself along the riverside path just fast enough to stay a couple of steps ahead of the group, led by the enthusiastic little boy. She certainly didn’t want to lose them.
When she reached the place where the girl had been kidnapped, she laid the ring on the ground and stood aside. The villagers piled around it, but there were many fewer than in the meeting. Of the groom’s family, there was no sign, but the other youth, Abhayaprada, was there, panting in his exertion. He picked up the ring and turned on the vanara.
“Where is she? Where is my love?” he asked.
An older man, who, by the look of him could have been the youth’s father, was looking around, studying the damaged vegetation beside the river. “I think she’s been taken onto a boat,” the man said after a moment. “Look, you can see where someone dragged something heavy into the river. Look at the footsteps.”
“Are you saying she’s been kidnapped?”
The older man nodded grimly. “And I think I know who did it.” The man looked at the girl’s mother, sadly, it seemed. “I don’t think the merchant’s son will want to marry your daughter now, even if we can prove that her honor is intact,” he said.
The woman looked around. “I wouldn’t want her to marry someone who wouldn’t move a finger to recover her, anyhow. But if there are doubts about her honor, I doubt anyone will ever want her.” The dam burst then and the tears the woman had been holding back flowed freely.
The older man looked down the path where Abhayaprada was already disappearing in the direction of the next village and smiled gently. “I don’t think you will have to worry about that. I really don’t.”
The villagers moved down the path en masse, ignoring Harshini once again.
“So they got the girl back, shaken, but not overly damaged. I hear the wedding is going to be in less than one moon.”
Hanuman smiled at her. “That was a truly great deed. You should be proud of yourself.”
“You aren’t angry that I disobeyed you?”
“Of course not. You did enormous good. Your praises will be sung far and wide.”
“Please don’t make fun of me. The villagers I helped were insignificant. Even the village doesn’t warrant a name.”
Hanuman just gave her an enigmatic, irritating look. “Perhaps. Or perhaps not so much. And how did they thank you afterwards?”
Harshini felt the blood rush to her face. “They called me a thieving monkey and ran me off with sticks. You were right; there is no way to get humanity and vanara back together. Far from seeing great deeds by a noble race, they see mischief by vermin.”
The Old Man of the Forest chuckled. “Again, perhaps. Give the story a few hundred years. In my experience, these things get better and better with each retelling.”
And he walked off, leaving Harshini’s head full of questions that she knew the infuriating old fool would never answer.
I am an Argentine writer with over a hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages, and am a winner in the National Space Society’s “Return to Luna” Contest and the Marooned Award for Flash Fiction in 2008. My fiction has appeared in the Texas STAAR English Test cycle, a Bundoran Press anthology, The Rose & Thorn, Albedo One, The Best of Every Day Fiction and others.
Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book, an ebook novella entitled Branch was published by Wolfsinger Press in March 2014. He also published two reprint collections, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011, Dark Quest Books). The Curse of El Bastardo (2010) is a short fantasy novel. His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com, and blog is located at http://bondo-ba.livejournal.com/ . In addition to this, he is the editor-in-chief of the popular blog site classicallyeducated.wordpress.com.