Orphaned Once Again- Abu Siddik

Bio: Abu Siddik is a writer residing in Berhampore, Murshidabad, India, where he is an Assistant Professor. He has contributed to various e-journals and anthologies, and has also published three books. Website: www.abusiddik.com

“Who is there?” asked a stranger, gasping for a breath, in a nasal voice from a thicket at the outskirts of the forest.
“It’s me, the watchman of the cemetery. But who is the devil at this evil hour?” shrilly riposted the old watchman. “Uh…the winds rage and the clouds burst. The lightning blinds eyes. Boughs bend to the hedges, and the devil is after me, uh….”
An aged, rickety bearded man, shabbily clothed, scurried through the nettles and pleaded with folded hands, “Pardon me, sir! O, the howling winds, raving clouds!  Have pity on the orphan, sir! I’ve lost my way in the wilderness.”
“Eh!  Who are you?” agitatedly asked the watchman while twitching his slackened cheeks.
 “An orphan who has lost his way in the storm,” repeated the stranger in the same nasal voice. He looked harrowed.
“No orphanage here, man!” gibed the old caretaker and next he indulgently assured, “But don’t worry, friend. You are at home! Feel cool in my cozy corner. Moreover, I’m a keeper of a friendly home, an acre of burial ground. Cheer up, friend! Welcome to an untrammelled patch of long grass and scented weeds.”
The watchman took the stranger to his crooked hut. The stranger bent and entered the shack and stealthily scanned the gloomy corners. The hovel was empty. A hurricane was furtively flickering at one corner. There was no furniture or utensils, and no traces of living. Strange!
Both sat on a sack on the floor and smoked. Rain pitter-pattered on the tin roof. Outside it was dark and winds groaned and moaned. The forest flashed with lightning.
“So, friend, how did you lose your parents?” soberly asked the watchman while placing a pinch of snuff into his nostrils.
The stranger coughed, waved his hands in front of his face and grudged, “Who says I have lost my parents. O, heavens! They are hale and hearty! They run a chicken farm with the aid of a local boy and make money in all seasons. O foul-mouthed, evil-eyed old haggard! God saves your nasty soul!”
“But you say you are an orphan,” feebly protested the watchman with a baffled look.
“So I am!” claimed the stranger with animation. His face flushed and eyes gleamed.
 “How?” the watchman plainly asked and argued, “An orphan is a child whose parents are dead. Am I wrong?”
“Am I a child?” the stranger quizzically asked and thoughtfully stroked his grey, short beard.
“No, you are almost close to the grave!” solemnly said the watchman.
“My words you borrow,” plainly put the stranger and then demanded, “touch me and say a mere truth. Perhaps you are afraid of pure truths which God prescribes. Why do you waste your life juggling with man-made words? Pooh!” He looked irritated and casually asked for another smoke.
“Stop babbling at my sacred yard!” blared the watchman. “Do you think I am a fool? Once I was a gentleman, polished and perfumed, serving men of power and pomp in big houses. But because of fate, I am destined to watch a graveyard now.” His voice choked as his eyes moistened.
“I don’t differ,” nodded the stranger and poorly protested, “I only claim that orphans need not be only fatherless or motherless. At my age a widower is an orphan!  My parents are fine with their farm. But my heart, my love, my life reached heaven yesteryear.” He looked ashen and extremely weak. His eyes were teary. He hopelessly flung the dead butt of the biri (a common and cheap smoke among peasants and working class people of Bengal) to a corner and asked again for a smoke.
“Get out of my hut,” the watchman yelled in fury, “who is an orphan, you or me? Eh… if you are an orphan, triply I’m so! My parents are dead, wife is dead, and my children drove me out of my house. The village headman showed mercy and kept me to guard this damned yard. And here in this cheerless maze a lone sulking soul is stinking!  How many years? Have you any idea?” boomed the watchman contemptuously and he looked fiery.
A silence followed.
As the winds ceased, the rains also slowed. The sky was still overcast. Frogs croaked nearby, fireflies danced over the shrubbery and yonder beetles shrilly sang without an end. A skulk of foxes squeaked somewhere in the forest.
“But, brother, don’t mourn for your loss. It’s normal,” the watchman broke his silence and sought to palliate the stranger’s pain, “or in another way, there is nothing to grieve. And in God’s world nobody is an orphan.  At our age we can’t marry again! So keep quiet and coolly pass the rest of your days. Moreover, here waits our welcoming home. It’s luxurious, fenced with long grass and fragrant flowers. There is also the shade of overhanging yew trees.”
“Are you a priest or a watchman?” huskily asked the stranger and darted the dead butt and inspected the dim hut again. “Not even a bronze glass or a plate or a stack of logs!” he muttered and moaned.
“Are you parched?” the watchman affectionately asked.
“No,” the stranger curtly said.
For a minute nobody spoke further.
The rains again began to patter on the tin. Suddenly a torch flashed nearby and a man whistled. The stranger sprang to his feet and hastily ran towards the forest.
“Hey, where are you parting at this ruffled hour? Hey! Ahoy! Don’t move.” The watchman gawkily followed the stranger skirting the soggy weeds with his stick. His legs were unsteady.
“Ruffled night is our friend, man. Keep watching your home. Again we meet if God wishes!” the stranger shouted from a distance and speedily receded into the forest.
The watchman panted and fumbled for his way. The wick of his sooty lantern abruptly died.  He smelt evil in the dark.
 He lay sleepless the entire night.  A thousand vicious thoughts crowded his restless soul. When cocks crowed in the village, he hobbled to the yard. And one by one he checked the graves.
Yes, his fear came true! The nubile girl who hanged herself a week ago was dug out of her grave.
In the afternoon the headman called an urgent meeting with the villagers. A decision was unanimously taken. The poor watchman was readily dismissed.
He became orphaned once again.

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