They stood like trees in the middle of the grasslands: large, white, blind trees. Four legs, and a head, but starched white, and no eyes. There weren’t very many of them around, but, their long heads dangling on their long necks, they’d start tossing them around almost at the same time, just slightly out of loop. Arranged in a row, but a little skewed, they resembled a maze asking you to enter.
We had been at the ramparts for nearly two months now. Hammers in hand, we had made our way through five such doors: giant mahogany entrances progressively leading onto the inner courtyards. We’d passed at least four marble fountains, each providing a clue as to who the inhabitants had once been.
We never lingered on the details. But we’d be lying if we said that it didn’t break us a wee little bit every time we took the blows to them. They crumbled into so many odd pieces, each etched with a part of their strange anatomies.
“Yeah, that’ll be the last of them, if I’m countin’ right”, said Gruy, wiping off sweat. “All the other ones had only four of ’em too.”
“What do you think they mean?”, I said, hoping for something in the way of a detailed reply.
Gruy was a good man, but he was not one for talk. “Who cares anyway”, he said, moving on to the next door, in the midst of the dust hanging in the air. “Strange people who don’t live here no more. Haven’t been seen for ages.”
“But aren’t you curious?”, I asked, hoping I hadn’t used up all of his patience just yet.
“Curious?”, he sneered, theatrically. “What did curiosity ever get us, boy? Did it help you get your dying wife bread, when the plague hit? Did it get you on good terms with those who gave us these”, he held the hammer up, “and asked us to go roamin’ the country, searchin’ for these castles?” He spat on the ground furiously. “Curiosity got us nowhere, and it’ll get us nowhere. If you are gonna ask more questions, you might as well be askin’ them blind buggers at the back.”
I wasn’t one to give up. He was a good man, Gruy was, and I knew he was an old softie at heart. All his family had been hammerheads, but he had that old strain of the storyteller in him. It was dying with time, true, but you sensed it teetering on the edge of his expression. And you swooped right after.
“You suppose they were wardens?”
“Of these…beasts. They did find more strange critters in the rest of the castles, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, loads. Killed every last one of ’em.”
“Purging the land of the old ways. Legend has it”, he sat down on the patch of grass in front of the next door, “legend has it that they were men, just like you and me, who came to this land before we did, but they studied it.”
Something kindled in me like dry wood.
“Yeah. With their graphs and charts and strange machines. Went up and down and recorded events. Where the land had cracked, what beasts, where they made their homes. How old. That kind of stuff.”
“And then”, his voice trailed off. “Well, some say they disappeared. Vanished. Didn’t have no children.”
Outside, the tossing of the heads had increased in their fervency. They almost seemed like they were panicking. A wind has sprung up from nowhere, and if they were trees, their leaves would be swaying to and fro now, violently, greeting the coming storm.
The coming storm…I looked at the small, gray dwellings lining the mountains in the distance. Like so many ants, but dull, uninspired concrete slums turning a painting into a lifeless realm. Here and there, the old castles stood up, remnants of a distant time, soon to be taken down.
“Boy”, Gruy called. I had drifted off in my head. “Boy, you come here now. Enough with the stories. We need to get these done by tonight. Look, sun’s almost down.”
“I’m coming”, I said, listlessly. I’d seen paintings of the courtyards in old books these strange people had left behind, on display in the so called museums we had. The beasts had been all free, roaming around as if it was their home, curious and flattered at the visitors, who were no where to be seen.
In fact, no one knew what they’d looked like. They’d hidden their traces everywhere they’d gone.
Gruy was standing in front of the door, waiting. “I know this is dull, hard work, boy, but orders are orders, and work is rare here anyway”, he said to me, a hairy arm on my shoulder, comforting. “I had questions too, when I’d started out. Roughly your age, in another parta’ the land. Why did they have to kill them beasts? Could have done with a bit more color. Variety.”
“Chin up, old man”, he continued. “If my calculations are correct, right through this one is the main castle entrance. We’ll start on that tomorra’.”
We took to the wall with the same gruff determination that we’d had for the rest. “Just be glad they din’ ask us to do away with these blind, dumb beasts”, he screamed, in between all the commotion of regular blows. “I’ve grown quite fond of ’em, in my own way.”
The wall came crashing down, easily enough. And sure as rain, there stood the main building of the Castle. But we weren’t nearly as thrilled with the discovery as we’d imagined we’d be.
Right in front of it was a blind one, giant, towering, neck wrapped around a tower fondly, like a dog guarding his master’s home.
© Arnab Chakraborty, 2015