Alone Stands the Acacia
By Skand Gupta
The Airaverth desert, a harsh and treacherous place where life is hard and death comes easy. For years I stood watch over its denizens along with my brothers. Now they are gone and I stand alone. All around me swirls the sea of sand, ever shifting, never still. I am the only constant, the guide to a caravan astray, the refuge of a lizard hunted, a home to many, God to a few. The desert washes over my roots. Buried deep within her bosom, I can feel the very twitch of a spider’s legs as it prepares itself to pounce upon a beetle; the shallow breathing of a snake lying in wait for said spider and the lone Agama keeping watch over them. Life in this desert flows from me. I maintain balance; I provide and I take away. The local Banjara tribes will tell you many stories about me. They speak of secrets buried within my roots, they pray to me for sustenance and for protection. But a desert is a harsh place and we all need each other if we are to survive.
For centuries weary travellers have taken shelter under my canopy. Mostly these are nomads crossing the desert and I take no notice of them. But there was something different about the three men who dismounted from their camels that day. Maybe it was the way they moved, a certain wariness in their steps, or maybe it was their palpitating hearts. In hindsight it was probably those contraptions men call shovels. It’s a strange thing to carry in a desert. Things akin to those had been the bane of my kind for centuries. Even now I hear the echo of the fallen in pain. I shuddered and my branches twitched, shaking a few leaves loose. The men were too busy talking among themselves and took no notice.
“Wonder of wonders”, said the yellow turbaned one, “That Banjara dog was right. A tree, right in the middle of nowhere."
“Absolutely wondrous, Sardar”, croaked the green turbaned man, giving a shifty smile which revealed his crooked and broken teeth. “You can always depend on Rahim to give you profitable news.” He had the strangest habit of rubbing his hands together as does a fly.
“We don’t know if it is so”, said the third man. He was tall with eyes which kept scanning the horizon. “A storm brews in the west”, said he. This one was perceptive.
“Holkar is right”, said the one they called Sardar. He was a powerfully built man. “But we cannot do anything. The Ramal only works when the sun is at the apogee in the sky. Which means we have a couple of hours to kill before us.”
“Like we killed that Banjara”, cackled Rahim. Man, by his very nature, is crazy but this one seemed positively deranged.
As the day entered the last few minutes of the second quarter, Holkar took out a device from the folds of his robes, which he then placed on the sand, the hive-like mirror shard on it facing north. This, I presumed, was the Ramal. As the sun reached its zenith in the sky, its rays fell on the mirror, breaking into two on the other side. Sardar rolled out a chart with multitude of symbols on it. With my rudimentary knowledge of human rituals and their toys, it seemed to me they were trying to pinpoint the location of something buried under the sand. My assumption was validated a minute later when Holkar and Rahim, the latter squeaking with delight, whipped out their shovels and started digging near my one dead root. The silent cries of the earth went unheard, unheard only by the humans. Her pain radiated through the sand striking pangs of anxiety and fear in all the desert inhabitants. As the shovels struck deeper, her anguish pulsated through my roots and veins, shaking me to my core. Thandav, the rattlesnake, who often took shelter in my branches felt the disturbance and looked at the trespassers below, hissing with annoyance. The humans took no notice.
It would be common sense to assume that creatures as developed as them, with more threads of connections running through their brains than I have leaves on me would be more vigilant, more compassionate. But it would seem this very boon has been their undoing.
My momentary reverie was broken by Rahim swearing loudly.
“Skulls. Human skulls”, he repeated, fear clawing at his heart. I could feel it oozing from him, infecting the air.
“Poor bastards probably died of thirst”, said Holkar, “Or maybe the victims of a robbed caravan.”
“Keep digging,” ordered Sardar, “they are dead and couldn’t care less how they are so.”
An hour later, the men came upon a wooden chest. They hauled it out, hearts beating furiously, pulse galloping, and in the case of Rahim, shivering. The lock was broken and the lid snapped open to reveal the riches inside. Rahim went mad with excitement. He was shaking all over as he picked up a thick gold chain and admired it with his greedy eyes. Even the usually stoic Holkar seemed thrilled.
“Behold the treasure of Malik Kafur,” announced Sardar. All three of them huddled around it like vultures around a corpse. The air became thick with their pungent feelings, greed and avarice swirling and rising out like smoke.
I noticed Holkar and Rahim looking at Sardar out of the corner of their eyes. I had seen that look countless times before in the desert. It never bodes well. They were sizing up the larger man, who ignorant to his surroundings was too busy inspecting the famed Eikosihedra gem. His life was forfeit to the pair of jackals he had brought along. Holkar slowly shifted his weight from one leg to another. A spider going for the scorpion. Yet even now, Sardar was oblivious to the subtle changes, the rising tension around him. He was drunk on the riches around him. From up above Thandav noticed the proceedings with anticipation. He recognised a hunt when he saw one. Even I, indifferent to most things, could feel the proverbial knot growing in my stomach. It happened in an instant, one moment they were chattering among themselves, the next an unspoken signal passed between Holkar and Rahim and the former pounced on Sardar, strangling him with the thick gold chain. Thandav hissed in glee. At this crucial juncture, Rahim who had thrown in his lot with Holkar suddenly started vacillating. I could see his calculating eyes dart from one man to the next, his crafty mind weighing his options. As life started to ebb out of the larger man, I felt the churning emotions inside Rahim pushing him to change an erstwhile decision. He stabbed the wrong shoulder, that of Holkar throwing him off- balance.
“Treacherous scum-”, was all he could manage before the large kukri of Sardar plunged into his heart and he moved no more.
“Water,” said the Sardar coughing like a man with consumption.
“Rahim has eaten your salt Sardar. He is as loyal as a dog,” said he rubbing his hands. “Unlike Holkar. I will never cross you Sardar, on my life I swear,” he continued licking his lips.
“Stop yammering and fetch me some water.”
Rahim unhooked one of the goatskin bags from the camel and brought it to Sardar who gulped it down like a fish out of water.
“The water tastes strange,” remarked Sardar. But it seemed to have soothed his throat. Rahim sat near him, on his haunches, a figure of supplication. He was rewarded with a tight slap from Sardar.
“You dog. You two had planned all along to kill me so that you could take the treasure all for yourselves.”
“I- I- never-“, stammered the pathetic little man.
“Don’t you lie,” shouted Sardar, his eyes aglow with rage.
“I-I- would have-No-” Coherent words eluded Rahim.
“I should kill you,” he said brandishing his formidable kukri.
“I did- did not-" Rahim stuttered, “It was his plan. His. I was afraid of him. I am a coward. I would never kill you,” he finally seemed to have found his voice back.
“I don’t know why you saved my life. But it was not out of loyalty.” Sardar said, taking another gulp from the goatskin. He kicked Rahim who mewled and curled into a ball.
He took a step towards the box which had been lying unattended in all this hullaballoo. At that moment, the world seemed to spin, his gut churned and he stumbled.
“What’s happening to me?” He mumbled before he saw Rahim looking at him. Realization dawned on him. “You did not help me. You helped yourself,” he whispered. The goatskin fell down from his hands. The stopper flew open and the last drops of poisoned water trickled out of it as did his life.
Rahim laughed like a maniac. He jumped and danced around the dead bodies, like a child, giggling and shrieking. It was a strange and grotesque sight to behold and one not oft seen. “The treasure is all mine,” he repeated again and again. He started unloading sacks from the camels.
I realized it was now time to finish this dense macabre. I willed my way into Thandav’s mind and the rattlesnake slithered down slowly. The man never noticed, he never heard the rattle as Thandav bared his fangs....
I am the protector, I give and I take away. But the desert is a harsh and unforgiving place and we need each other if we are to survive. The Banjaras know this. They know while I sustain all life in the desert, the desert is not enough to sustain me. Each year, they offer me a sacrifice, vessels of sin, irredeemable and a burden on earth. Lured by the prospect of riches not theirs, these lost souls travel this barren land to come to me. While they lived, these three men spread pain. Now in death, they offer me life.
The desert is ever- changing and another storm brews in the far horizon. The sands will shift. The camels will be gone. The bodies and treasure shall return to their rightful place, in the lap of Mother Earth and they shall never have existed.
Once more, alone shall stand the acacia.