Barga

Just a year after my father’s demise, his face, or to say the image of him, started corroding from my memory. Now, after almost a decade, the only memories I’ve left of him are the stories he used to tell every time my brother Nivin and I had a fight. And the times he took us to the woods, as soon as it started drizzling, to hunt for the monitor lizards.

‘Never attempt to catch this guy from up front,’ he used to say, skinning the animal. ‘If it manages to clasp its teeth around your leg, either one of you must die before it would release its grip.’

My father was a man full of fascinating stories. In summer nights, we used to sleep on the veranda to escape the heat and my father would take us from the mysteries of treasure pots to the fables of misty ghosts through the legends of forest–dwellers. Like a perennial stream, until he died, he had never run out of stories. Often, when he repeated a story, I used to point it out and he would narrate the same story in a different but a compelling way. The only problem with his tales was the moral he tried to attach to them as an epilogue. For instance, at the end of his tales about the lizards, he used to say: ‘Hold on to what you love with as much rigor as that lizard.’

I was so captivated by his stories that after my mother’s death, I started accompanying him to the fields and helping him with his chores as he went on narrating his stories one after the other. In that way, I hung around him for most of his life while my brother squirmed at us and roamed about with the goons he called friends.

One day, Nivin approached me as I was assembling the cart. ‘Why don’t you join us, Njani?’ he said. ‘What good it’ll do you loitering around with the old man?’

‘Leave about good for a second. What bad has come out of it that you’re so bothered?’

‘I think it’s high time you hang out with the people your age.’

‘What’s your problem, eh?’

‘Everyone thinks you’re a sissy. Even my friends say that you’re a baby who’s reluctant to get off from his father’s lap. They’re saying it to my face, Njani. It’s ruining my repute.’

‘Now I understand you. That’s what this is all about, then?’

He stormed out of the house stomping and cursing. After that incident, he refused to talk to me for a couple of years after which he grew up and started helping my father in the fields.

Speaking of my brother, the only similarity Nivin and I shared was a birthmark on our thighs. He always hated the fact that we were twins and I came out of my mother first — or at least that’s what the witcher woman told my father. So my father considered me the elder one, to Nivin’s distaste, even though he looked older and taller and thought he was wiser than me.

So he preferred calling me by my name instead of Anna which used to upset my father a great deal. Whenever he heard my brother calling me Njani, he would lose his calm and thrash him with a tamarind stem until my mother interfered. A few times she too couldn’t stop him but would fall prey to his angst.

Growing up, I observed this in several other twins — the younger one of them always looks elder. I tried to convey this to Nivin many times but his head was as thick as his skin.

 

One day, we were fighting for the deer meat. Nivin wanted a stew made out of it while I preferred roasting it on coals. My father then intervened and narrated this story, I think, to gross us out. He began:

‘Like me, my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers, everyone had only sons as their progeny. Except for my brother who had two daughters — both of them were still-born. Some villagers considered it a boon on our lineage while some, a very few of them, deemed it to be a curse.

‘It was said that one of my grandmothers wanted a girl-child and prayed the mountain gods for years together but it looked like they weren’t kind to her prayers. Still not deterred, in her fifties, she adopted a girl from her distant relatives despite the resistance from both sides of the family. Even though such a thing called adoption was unprecedented in our village up until then, somehow she managed to get her husband’s and the birth mother’s approval.

‘They looked after the baby with their life. The husband brought crabs from the fields, tied a wire to their claws so that the baby could walk them like a dog. When the baby got tired of playing, they fried the crabs on coals and ate their meat. The woman never left her side and was said to have taken the baby along even when she had to pass water. Together, they did everything they could do to keep the baby happy.

‘When the baby was five, the husband brought home a wounded crane from his farm so that the baby could play with it. To his joy, the baby got excited, as soon as it saw the crane, ran to the bird jumping, and started playing with it. The old man, contented on watching the baby’s mirth, went for his daily dose of toddy. The old woman was busy preparing sticks for her cooking while the baby was left alone with the crane in the veranda. The crane might have mistaken the baby’s eyes which were moving rapidly for fish or god-knows-what and tried to have a bite. The old woman heard shrills and rushed to the baby to find her eyes — both of them — gouged out by the crane. An eye was strewn on the floor soaked in blood and the crane was picking at it with its beak. And the other one was dangling on her milky cheeks now turned bloody by the optic nerve. Howling, the woman kicked the bird with all her might. The bird bugled and would have flown away but for its wound.’

There was a strange custom in our village. If anyone’s on the verge of dying or unsure of survival, they rotate a live black hen around their head. They believed that if the hen dies, the person lives and if the bird lives, the person dies. In this case, my father told us, instead of wasting a hen, they thought they could use the culprit crane. It died immediately, but to their shock, the baby died after two days.

 

Our village priest used to run a school in his backyard, taking in kids under three years and teaching them to write and read until they were of ten years. The only reason my father sent us there was that the priest charged neither money nor grain for his services. Those were the times when the closest thing we’d had to a slate was a fistful of sand filled in a brick stencil and we had to use our forefingers to write on it. Our initial excitement, with which we had rushed to the school, had worn out after an hour into the writing practice. Not a single pupil went home that day without bleeding fingers.

It was worse in my case. While my brother’s skin had just a shear, my fingernail came off entirely leaving me in agony for over a month. My father scampered to the school the next day and abused the priest with such a harsh tongue that it compelled the poor fellow to provide finger caps made of cloth from then on. Even after that consolation, my father was hesitant to send me back. But somehow Nivin convinced our mother and continued his classes nonetheless. Two years into Nivin’s education, the priest died in a farming accident — he was unloading his cart of rice bags when they fell on him — and the school was closed, for, as it turned out, his sons and daughters were as ignorant as the village folks.

It’s a fact that everyone has love-and-hate relation with their families. But as for me, I had nothing but love for my father and reserved the antithetical for Nivin. At thirteen, he could carry a plow to the field all by himself while I couldn’t even lift it off the ground. Even though we were married to the girls from the same house, Nivin managed to garner more dowry than me. To add to my vacillations, he made it a custom to remind me of my setbacks from time to time. Like when he used to go to school and boast about it, saying that he would grow up to be a learned man while I would turn a ruffian. For quite some time, I tried to bottle my angst and stopped talking to him altogether when I couldn’t take it anymore.

One day as I was leaving for the weekly market, my father called for me.

‘Njani, why don’t you call for your brother so that we could have a chat?’ he said snuffing his naswar.

I remained silent, upon which he replied: ‘Is there something wrong between you both?’

I shrugged my shoulders. He continued nonetheless: ‘Do you care for a story, Njani?’

‘This isn’t the time, Bapu,’ I began, ‘I am leaving for the market — ’

‘Sit down,’ he cut me off and began his story before I could even sit.

‘The relation between my father and his brother, my uncle, was worse than the two of youse. It was worse than enmity, you can say. Whenever there was an occasion in the family, dealing with these brothers was a more daunting task to our relatives than making preparations for the event, for inviting one would upset the other. In functions they both had to attend, they cursed at each other, forgetting and foregoing their dignity. I saw them both swearing to kill one another and describe in detail how horridly one would kill the other.  Want to know the reason for their hatred?

‘My grandfather had no property besides his agricultural land. So, on his deathbed, he distributed it equally between the brothers, and passed away. Everything was calm until the start of the cropping season.  No one in the family knew then there was a storm in store for them — a storm which would last two decades. My uncle accused my father of encroachment on his land. To be honest, my father did no such thing. So, the family stood behind him and my uncle went to the village heads.

‘My father being a sincere man, and they knowing it, the village heads denied to call for a meeting at first. Not dejected, my uncle bribed some of them and made them call my father for the meeting. It went on for a month and my uncle, to bear the expenses of the village heads, had to sell a part of his land. And at the end of it, they decreed that my father was not guilty and there was no such encroachment as accused.

‘Unable to digest the truth and defeat, my uncle, who had a bad taste for them, next sought the help of a revenue officer who lodged a complaint against my father. The case went on for years in the mandal court all the while my uncle’s family starved. His wife died of cholera so he married again and that woman eloped with some bloke just after a year. His children died malnourished while my uncle was busy in the mandal. My dad worked hard on his field, managed his duties and did everything at his disposal to increase the produce on the crop every year. My father was relieved of the case not until you were born, and the verdict was in his favor. As to my uncle, no one knows what happened to him. Some say he committed suicide. Others say they’ve seen him begging in the Barangaon city. We’ve never been there so we don’t know the amount of truth in that news.’

As he completed his story, I looked at him puzzled as to why he narrated it to me.

‘I know how you feel about your brother.’

I opened my mouth but he waved his hand to dismiss my trial of protest. ‘I’m thinking of transferring the land to both of you, this year. You’re old and ready enough, I think. And let me say you this. We don’t worship mythical heroes or gods in our village, Njani. All that we villagers, look upon as success is the highest amount of produce on a crop in a season. I think you can beat your brother at that, don’t you?’

I nodded half-heartedly.

‘And take this as my advice. Never waste your money on pleasures. Do you know the reason they respect me in the village?’

I shook my head.

‘My father, dying, gave me half an acre of land. I bought out the surrounding lands of it and augmented it into two acres. I can say with a bit of pride that I was the only one who managed to do that in my generation. No matter how weak and feeble you are in your childhood, how insecure you are about your strengths, people will forget them once you’re successful in their eyes. That’s the reason, in folklore, heroes are said to have been born with golden armor and wicked people are said to have been born killing their mothers.’

 

My old man died a year after we’d had that conversation. As promised, he gave both of us an acre of land. And thus began my trials to shellac my brother. The first year, I tried every trick in the book to produce more grain than Nivin. I spent most of my days in the field, took my meals there and drank water from the stream flowing nearby and slept in the meadows for the fear of wild boars.

But all in vain, for at the end of the season, Nivin had managed to turn out the same amount of grain as I. To be upright, he managed a bagful excess, but he donated it to the local deity. So, in a way, we were on the same level in terms of yield.

I worked harder the next year but again it was Nivin who had the upper hand. I would’ve gone mad if not for my wife, who blessed me with a boy snatching away my distress. The year after that, Nivin’s grain weighed two times more than mine. It was then that my wife told me: ‘I think your brother’s cheating you.’

How?, I wondered.

‘He might be stealing from your heaps of grain. Otherwise, think of it, how can he produce more than you without working as hard as you? Listen to me and appoint someone to guard the crop at nights.’

I took heed and selected her brother for the watch-guard.  But he reported every morning that there was no such foul play as we feared. Yet I paid him to guard for the entire season. This time Nivin produced the highest grain in the village and people began talking about him.  I was so upset that I couldn’t eat food for a week.

Just when everything was going downhill, there came a stranger in our village. He built a shack for himself on the river bank. The entire village took him for a sorcerer and dreaded running into him. People chided when someone brought up his topic, but talk they did of him nonetheless. They were even reluctant, my wife told me one evening, to go to the river to bathe.

Intrigued, I decided to pay a visit to this enigmatic person and went to the river one fine morning. The shack was empty except for a bed and some earthly pots blackened by soot. From the window, I could see the man standing in the river and folding his hands at the rising sun. Sunlight glinted in the drops of water falling from his palms. The wind made his long jet black hair dance to its tune. The scenery was so serene that for a second I forgot all my woes and wanted to join him in the water. He came in as he completed his respects and I took a good look at him. He had broad shoulders, a divine face and looked no more than forty.

After a brief introduction, we began talking, and before I could realize, we talked into the nick of the night. I left unwillingly but returned the next day first thing in the morning. I connoted all my problems to him and he said he would help me. All that I had to do was to believe in his god and pray to Him seven times a day. I did it with unperturbed conviction for a month when he gave me a root wrapped in a leaf. ‘Dip this in your blood and throw it in your field,’ he advised and I abided. Surprisingly, that season, my production increased and was equal to that of Nivin. That cleared any doubts I had had for my friend. And from then on, I started blindly following his words.

The main reason I have trusted him was he never asked for money, grain or a favor. One time when I offered him money, he shook his head smiling and said: ‘I’m here to help you, Njani. And I’m not a man of apprehensions, mind you. When I need a help from you, I’ll definitely ask for it. You can be sure of it.’

The next year, Nivin, had a heavy loss and had to sell a part of his land to clear his debts. I was overjoyed on hearing this but soon it morphed into pity for my brother. I asked him to seek my friend’s help but he was, as always, resistant to counsel.

Even my produce hit an all-time low one season. When I sought for my friend’s aid, he introduced his brother, who looked just like him but only younger. He guided me to change my name by adding a consonant to it. So I changed it to Njanni but there was no change in my produce.

I confronted the brothers seething with anger, when they said in unison: ‘Give us a last chance.’ I did and they asked me to remove a room in my house. I went along with their whims despite my wife’s rebuffs. But at the end of the year, I got the highest grain not only in the village but the entire mandal. As per the custom, the villagers made me a member of the grain board, awarded me two quintals of wheat and gold-coated tiger claws. Somehow the villagers got a whiff of my secret and one by one they thronged to the shack. I never saw the shack empty again. My friend got so occupied with the villagers that I had to send a note asking for a rendezvous which he rejected.

After a month, as I sobered from my success, my friend paid a visit to my house along with his brother and a village head in tow. ‘As for the services we rendered, Njani, we want to charge you a fee,’ he said standing in my veranda. ‘Even though it won’t be sufficed, I would like to have your acre of land.’

Before I could utter a word, he continued: ‘As for my brother, he would have the grain you produced this year.’

I was knocked out of my wits and words failed me. My wife rushed out of the house and started shouting at the edge of her voice, hurling curses at the trinity. Soon, the whole village was standing in our veranda with pricked ears and piqued interests. My friend jotted down the conversations I had with him over the years; only he called them dealings. I was partly relieved that he didn’t reveal my feelings towards my brother. Not one soul spoke up in my defense and it was pretty evident that they were all under his spell. Thus, I was robbed off my land, grain and dignity. The next day my wife left me along with my sons.

A few sympathizers dropped in on their way to the fields the next day to say that they would stand by me. Together we went to the river bank, in hopes of demanding justice, but there was no sign of a shack. Apparently the brothers were wanderers and had left for another village in search of a different friend. On enquiry, I got to know that they sold my land to the village head that was with them on that fateful day.

To my surprise my brother came for my rescue and was ready to give me a part of his land. I didn’t want to live at someone’s mercy, least of all his. So I started working as a laborer in my own field. I waited for my day. After all, my father used to say, every dog has its day. It came after two years, on my trip to a nearby hamlet, where I heard people talking about two brothers with powers in hushed tones. But by the time I had reached them, they had fled. So, I had set out on an expedition asking the wayfarers if they’d seen two identical people in saffron clothes.  I lived on wild berries, stream water and slept on the tree branches. I begged, robbed and threatened the travelers for food.

When I had run out of money, I started working in a roadside inn where my friends, on one of their escapades, chanced upon me. They tried their best to slip but I was too slick, by then, for them to escape. I bid a goodbye to my inn-mates and directed my friends to a groove.

‘I know you are cheats. But tell me this,’ I asked them at knife-point. ‘Do you people really have powers?’

‘Would you be standing there threatening us if so?’

‘Then how did you increase my produce every year?’

‘Who told you it increased?  It was just higher than everyone else’s.’

 

As Njani was busy writing his story, a young man in saffron clothes entered his room silently. ‘Swami,’ he bowed down, ‘the other masters are waiting for you.’

‘In a minute,’ Njani said, closing his book, and went for his friends but only after donning a saffron shawl around his shoulders and a smile across his face.

Featured image: “The City of Masulipatam,” 1672, from Columbia University

“Bear Knob” by Will Levington Comfort and Zamin Ki Dost

Will Levington Comfort became a war correspondent after serving in the Spanish-American War, paving the way to a career as an adventure writer. Willimina Leonora Armstrong, under the pen name Zamin Ki Dost, wrote poems and stories about India after spending time there as a medical missionary at the end of the 19th century. The paralyzed Armstrong penned her stories with the help of Comfort. Their short story “Bear Knob” depicts two rangers in an Indian forest investigating a supposedly dangerous family of bears.

Published on January 10, 1920

 

Carver, the young Englishman of the forest reserve, whose experience with the deadly karait has been told, was returned by his department to the mountain station above Carlin’s bungalow near Murree. He was given a native deputy, who occupied Beattie’s little cabin across the summit. Carver was rather slow rounding-to after the tragedy and had been permitted for several weeks to remain below for weekends at the Deal bungalow. Skag’s work among the wild animals had become intensely interesting to him. It had been the wedge of their acquaintance on the top rock that first day when they discussed the little venomed one together. The Englishman had never particularly developed his latent knowledge of animal lore, but unquestionably had a way with the little creatures which fascinated the American more than any hunter’s prowess. Skag walked up the path one early morning and joined Carver at the karait’s rock before it was warmed in the sun.

“The little beggars took themselves off after Beattie and their mother had it out together,” Carver explained.

He spoke lightly enough, but the death of his senior officer had dug into the very center of his vitality, so that it was almost a miracle that he fully regained his faculties again. Even now he had a way of looking off into the distance when left alone too long that had warned Carlin of his need for companionship. So Skag stood by closely but unobtrusively, joining him up at the station at least one day in the midweek.

“And you haven’t seen the baby karaits since the mother left them?” he was saying.

“Not a wiggle.”

“And what about the rest of the outfit?”

“You mean her mate?” Carver asked.

“Yes.”

“Never was here,” Carver remarked. “Away on foreign business. Off and on for eighteen months I saw her. Twice she hatched a handful of little blue eggs, and presently you’d see the young fiends following her round. She would open her throat for them to leap into if I went too near. But I never saw their father:”

For a long time, the two men looked away across the valley to the slopes of the great mountain that commanded the eye from almost any position in Murree and vicinity. The midslopes were mainly a tight weave of green, broken by occasional great forest trees. The crags began farther toward the summit.

Carver spoke:

“If you watch long enough you will see bear — black bear — in that big brown patch where the grade is easy.”

He pointed across the valley to a spot on the great mountain slightly below their present eminence. The easy grade that he spoke of was like a big knob on the mountain side.

Its upper surface looked as if it had been burned or trampled recently.

Skag settled himself comfortably, as if to say his fault was rarely in not looking long enough for an object, but Carver observed that it was his experience that the bears only appeared afternoons.

“How far is it over there to the knob?” the American asked.

“Nine or ten miles airline.”

“And the paths?”

“We keep them open after a fashion. I’m supposed to ride over there once a fortnight.”

“A full day’s ride?” Skag questioned.

“Yes, and another to get back,” Carver replied.

“You say a horse can handle himself up and beyond the bear knob?”

The other nodded.

“I’m expecting a horse in a few days. Ian Deal has an Arab he wants me to use. We’re staying in Murree three months longer. I never really got acquainted with bears — even in captivity.”

Carver relished the possibility of an excursion and set himself to prevent Skag’s interest suffering from neglect.

“That knob has been the summer place for one family of bears for a generation, according to the natives. They say that the old sire is losing his morals — that the mother can’t live with him in cub time. For three or four seasons, the natives say, there have been two young in the family — then presently one is missing. The old girl has managed to raise only one for three seasons.”

“Does the male destroy the other one?”

“Evidence circumstantial.” Carver said whimsically. “I’m telling you how it looks to the natives and from this distance across the valley. I’m their nearest white neighbor, you understand.”

“The mother must have her work pretty well cut out to save one cub, if the old one is really ugly.”

“A native young man studying for the Christian ministry informed me seriously that the father bear was an unnatural parent. We really need to look into the matter.”

They watched the distant knob for a long time as they talked without a movement being noted there. Skag started down the path toward Murree, saying: “A real investigation calls for a close-up anyway. But tell me, could one use a dog on a trip like this?”

“An objectionable dog,” Carver answered. “Certainly not Nels.”

“Why?”

“No dog would stand a show with a full-grown black bear of the Hills. I’d hate to see a man-dog like Nels hugged to death by a cub-killer.”

Among the various things to ride on the face of the earth, Skag had tried many. He had done real camel service — days of travel from dawn to dusk, days that forgot themselves in more days. You don’t know what a camel is from a ride or two. Everything in a man, even the structure of his being, hates and cries out against the camel-thing in a period between the first few sittings, while the novelty lasts, and the real adjustment which requires weeks of caravan life. A man has to be born again, at least to be made over on the outside, to strike the rhythm for a long caravan stretch. The camel smell dies out from sheer familiarity; camel sounds cease to be heard because they have worn the delicacy off the eardrum through repetition. A sort of soft insanity takes the body and mind of a white man before he is camel-broke. Nothing in reason could ever give to the lurch or parry the pitch of the camel stride.

And Skag had been present on a racing elephant. It is hard to urge the usual captive hathi up into his real speed, but in certain cases it can be done. Gunpath Rao had actually run with Skag in his howdah. It had taken the marvelous young prince of the Hurdah stockades nearly twenty-four hours to get his gears to high speed, but in that final rousing the result was so fast that anything but an elephant or a locomotive would have left the ground for more than safety intervals. The tendency is markedly to rise in velocity like that.

Days with the circus had not permitted Skag to miss many experiences in the way of sitting creatures even partially designed to carry men and boys — mules, llamas, zebras, even a boy-loving old bull moose. And yet one of the real external joys of his life was to step into the saddle of the black Arab Ian Deal had sent.

In that first half hour in the mountains he knew what riding really meant. The Arab squared his shoulders when warmed to full trot on a straight stretch of road, arched his neck and folded up and under his front hoofs with a rhythm and power that filled the man with exultation and broke a seal somewhere in his chest, letting in more life.

Three or four miles away on the rolling roads he had a clearer sense than ever before what life meant — the joy of it — of what life might be made, and the great pulsing zest of physical well-being. The heat and magnetism surged up to him from under the saddle and from the mane and shoulders. It was like the dance. He knew that the mount loved it as he did and was changing great drafts of cool mountain air into bridled action but unbridled joy.

“I have ridden always,” he told Carlin as he came out from the bath a little later — “ridden many mounts not half so bad, but I never quite knew what a horse could be until today. Why, Carlin, I couldn’t let the groom take care of him when we came in. I had to rub him down myself, and this Arab prince seemed aware that it was a privilege.”

She sat down, not laughing aloud, but smiling as if trying to hold him in his present joy and not break in upon further words.

He was riding with Carver along the narrow, tangled, winding paths on the way up toward bear knob. They carried blanket rolls, saddlebags well stocked and grain for a sparse three days’ feeding. The grade was easier than it appeared from the lesser summit across the valley. There were aisles between the great deodars where the shade was so dense that there was little or no small growth below. They would halt from the sheer joy of the silence and say nothing to each other, after the manner of men; halt in that cathedral dimness until the spell was broken by a bird song, every vibration of every note clear as an etching. In one of these colonnades of majestic trees Carver stopped at length.

“There’s no better place for a camp than this,” he said. “The bear knob is directly above. We can’t leave the horses any nearer their premises.”

“You spoke of a spring,” Skag said.

“Just a little ahead in a tangle of vines. We’re near enough with the horses. You see, the bears come down to drink.”

They picketed, then did some steep bits of climbing among the crags to reach the knob. That which had looked like a tiny kitchen garden from across the valley was now before their eyes, a sunburned, semi-open stretch of several acres. Rock was very close to the surface, many boulders jutting through. Trees were sparse and low because of the shallow soil. Thickets and berry bushes skirted the edges of the open area, and among the great rock piles in the center were many possibilities for natural dens.

After three hours in a screened thicket that commanded the main surface of the knob, Carver slowly reached for his right ankle and drew it out from under him, using both hands. He placed the long leg straight on the ground in front and went after the other. With pained face he waited for the blood to flow into the sleeping members. Then he drew out his watch and held it to Skag, pointing with impressive finger at the hours that had passed.

Skag smiled. The sunlight was in and through him. His eyelids were lowered a trifle sleepily, but that hardly expressed the look of them. The eyes themselves were different — their look somehow out of physical focus, the pupil dilated slightly, as if centered upon a film or shadow too faint for the optic nerve quite to delineate. Carver had changed his position twenty times; Skag not more than once an hour. Moreover, he had not been conscious of strain, and Carver was exhausted.

“You can have ’em,” he whispered monotonously. “Why, I’d rather have a stroll down on the mountainside than a whole pageant of bears! I’d rather have a cigarette than a three-ringed circus of assorted bears. Also I need tea — strong, red, unboiled tea, made of soft spring water — more than any essential knowledge or revelation about High Hill bears.”

Skag held his smile. The other slid himself back out of sight.

Creatures of the wild move in mysterious ways. It was past midafternoon and fully an hour after Carver left before the den of rocks gave forth any life. There was a moment when a certain shadowed entrance was empty, and the next it was filled. There was a field of sun glare between Skag’s eyes and the blotch of shadow which had become darker and was now taking form.

The old dame was standing there. Skag’s mind must have rejected the image at first because of the long waiting. But certainly she was standing there now in thin faded coat and full late-summer fatness. Then she sat. It was easy for her. She quietly rolled back like a rag doll with a head of cotton stuffing and a body which concealed a billiard ball. She didn’t even rock, but the little chap had to roll over and shake himself to be sure he was all out of the den after squeezing past her in the doorway.

There was an interval in silence while the cub further tried himself out in front and his mother with folded hands surveyed the remains of the day. Then suddenly she was bowled over from behind — completely sprawled and walked on — and now standing in front of her and towering over her son was Himself. Life was very real and blithe to Skag, watching in the thicket not more than seventy yards away.

In the next two hours the two grown bears fed from the fringes of thicket on the knob. There were berries and bark and various podded seeds, which is garden truck for the big slow-feeding hibernators — hours of sniffing and threshing and pawing over to make a meal. Meanwhile the baby had no such trouble. He was warm fed before emerging from the den. This was still his mother’s affair anyway. All the shift he had to make for himself was in the spirit of exploration and discovery. He found the world enticing from all angles and hadn’t any particular use for alarm. That was left to the elders also.

He became infested with briers and squealed for his mother to come. She combed and carded him patiently enough until he did it again. Then she stood him on his head and thumped. Presently he sat down on his elbows and pawed into a decayed log. When he was tired with one little padded mit he tried the other. It was some distance from Skag’s screen, but the man now sensed what the end would be.

Red ants! They were doubtless swarming over the little chap before his absorption was broken. It would take some time for them to penetrate his inner coat, but penetrating is what red ants do best.

The little bear sat up and screwed his head round as if listening to himself. Then he stretched high on all claws looking back at different angles. The red ants had penetrated. They were connecting with pure tender cub meat at the roots of a thousand hairs. One small son became so intensely occupied with himself that for a moment he forgot to make sounds. Never before in all his interesting life had so many things been the matter with him at once. He got a sort of head spin working and out of the dusty shine of it. Skag presently heard his screams.

At this point, the mother bear crossed the knob.

Moreover, she came with purpose. She appeared to interpret the trouble from the nature of the screams. Past doubt she knew that log.

There are heroic treatments for Himalayan red ants. A gas tank is good, or a leap from a pier. Not having these at hand, the mother first of all broke the head spin and snatched the small one from the ant city and environs. Then she puddled and pestled him for many minutes in deep dust and took him to her heart.

“Carlin would appreciate that,” Skag muttered softly, letting out a long breath.

A mother bear walks through the wilderness with her cub.
(Illustration by Charles Livingston Bull)

Now Himself was walking round his mate as she mended and mothered the grief of the cub. From a distance he appeared actually concerned and attentive, but Skag had seen him emerge from the den over her body — she taking the count after his wallop from behind. Also, he had not put out of mind the bad record concerning this parent which Carver had taken from the natives — the missing cubs and the gossip that involved extended estrangements between him and his mistress. Yet she seemed to hold no grudge against him now nor any alarm.

This mystery deepened. She plumped the infant down and went about her feeding. The little chap grieved a bit, finding himself alone, and scratched himself resentfully from various rests. But presently the broad sun-bright world took him again and he set out for a long walk — this time straight in Skag’s direction.

He couldn’t have been more than three months old. He was very black and round and perfect — still a soft one, in baby teeth and baby fuzz — so perfectly healthy that neither dirt nor grief could long adhere. He merely took the essence of his adventures, shedding the bumps and messes with a kind of winged ease — the plan of the universe being for joy, as he read it. Every passing wind fluffed and groomed him. Only occasionally, he stopped to scratch, trying a new method.

On he came in increasing delight in himself, alternating two and four feet, and very friendly with the ground. And now his figure was lost in the bushes not forty feet away from Skag’s screen. The man’s eyes were called presently across the knob to where one of the large bears was standing, head and shoulders above the small growth on that side. The great head moved slowly round, plainly searching the open for the little one. This was the old male evincing sudden concern for the cub.

Slowly and one-pointedly he crossed the area more or less in the small steps of the straying one. The point to Skag just now was how near the old one would come to him before finding the cub. Across the knob he saw the mother bear rise to her haunches. She could not have missed the purpose of her lord. Apparently she approved of it, for she dropped down and quietly resumed her feeding.

This to Skag was extraordinary, but he was by no means so occupied in the tension of the predicament as not to take a good look at the sire as he approached. Large, rotund, but with beaming countenance, as utterly far from anything malignant in appearance as a sun-bear toy. There was something of the aspect of an old doctor about him, one who had done so many good things for people for so many years as actually to have forgotten any other way to live.

The baby bear was very close, and his father might be expected to sense an intrusion before he reached the cub. Skag held himself quietly in hand, not moving a muscle, putting away the panic impulses of the mind one after another. The big bear halted at the edge of the thicket, sniffed, his manner changing to a sort of puzzled concern, but not in the least aggressive. There were low sounds in his throat, but far from growls. His son heard them, but this hedged-thicket life was quite as absorbing as outside. He was not in the least minded to go without force. The other sniffed querulously and plunged in. There was a squeal, but not from pain; rather the plaint of one dragged away from delightful activity. The two emerged together into the area side by side, crossing toward the mother, still quietly feeding across the knob.

Skag saw the gleam of firelight as he entered the darkness under the deodars. Carver had supper ready and the horses were feeding in grain bags.

“That’s a much-maligned old male,” Skag muttered a second time. “I’m not saying he’s above having wicked spells now and then, but he doesn’t look the part. Nothing meat-fed about his eyes.”

“He has a season’s work mapped out to undo his reputation with the natives,” Carver said.

“I’m far from sure he’s what they think,” Skag added quietly.

“But you say he knocked the madam down when he cared to come out.”

“Yes, and stepped on her. But I’ve been thinking that might be mere household usage in the High Hills. She didn’t hold it against him. I’m far from sure he’s a cub killer. He crossed the knob to collect the straying youngster and the mother went unconcernedly on with her feeding on the far side. Moreover, the cub himself isn’t afraid of his father.”

There was little sleep that night. There were sounds from the spring not to be interpreted. Skag had felt it necessary to tie the Arab short lest he burn himself on a long tether. He had been well grained since he could not pick any feed in the night, but he shivered as he stood, not with cold but with restlessness. Carver intimated that there were disadvantages about using a drawing-room mount for field work, but Skag surprised him by turning the Arab loose altogether.

Now the black one came even closer to their fire, instead of straying, and Skag felt the sweat of fear upon him. Carver was inclined to regard him as a bit oversensitive from prolonged and perfect stable care, but Skag knew something strange was in the air. He tried to listen with the same keen apprehension that the stallion did; tried to get the meaning from the winds that brought a troubling message to the keener nostrils of his mount.

The next morning, Skag minutely examined the spring. It was too leafy and tangled for him to discover any secrets, and where the water flowed under the vines all but the pebbles had been washed away. In the afternoon he went with Carver to the screen, but a second time the Englishman used up his inclination to wait before the bears appeared. Skag had had two hours of his sort of quiet sport and was more than ever convinced of the beneficence of the old male, when he thought he heard a shot and cry from someone far below. The bears were across the area and it was safe for him to leave.

Camp was strange even at a distance. The afternoon was still luminous, though the sun had gone down behind the big mountain. He missed the horses from under their tree. Carver did not answer his call. The Arab’s halter shank was broken at the knot and the long tether of Carver’s beast was gone, picket and all. Ashes and embers of the fire, now cold, had been threshed over the camp. There was blood upon the ground. All the play was gone from the still upper spaces; the clutch of grim finality was at Skag’s heart. Was it Carver? Was it the Arab?

Chilled and bewildered, Skag followed the spattered trail down the slopes, knowing he would not have far to go, because of the extent of the black-red waste upon the stones. And now queerly enough a certain pale hopeless look recurred to him from Carver’s face. It was a haunting sense of secret failure which Skag had never analyzed before, but it roved unmistakably now like a ghost before his eyes — the face of a man whose luck has been bad so long that he has come to expect no better. Skag wondered coldly why Carver’s hidden weakness came to him now. This wasn’t man blood. There was too much of it, if no other reason.

And now he saw the hump on the ground — a sudden revelation in the shadowed green. The strange laxity of a body in death always causes a start. It touched familiarly some inner sense quicker than the registration of the eye. The flanks were lying toward him. It was Carver’s pony — the head pulled forward to the knees. The throat was slashed open, the shoulders torn on each side, the spine laid open above the kidneys. The picture of what had occurred unfolded to Skag. The throat had been opened at the first stroke. That had happened above at the camp. The pony had broken loose and raced down slope until he fell.

The thing had come with him. The thing had not fed, unless a blood drinker. Perhaps it had been frightened away by Carver after the kill was made. And Carver had doubtless followed the Arab.

Now Skag’s eyes as he stood in intense silence caught a sudden speckled brightness above and to the right of the camp near the spring. It was a flash of mysterious gold light in the shadow — hardly like a body, but sinister in effect. Skag stood a moment longer, but saw nothing. Then with utmost stealth he made his way back along the ugly trail to the camp and above, circling round to a position above the spring, keeping covered in thicket but clear of the low-branched trees.

The bears had come down to the water. Skag was certainly puzzled at this moment. That gold flash in the shadow had nothing to do with bears. He saw the two broad black backs in the darkening green where the water washed the stones. He stared that way for several seconds trying to locate the cub. Then the old bears lifted their heads to peer over the thickets. They were looking for the cub too. The mother grunted impatiently. Skag could tell it was she by the waistline.

Now the two little curved front paws appeared, going somewhere, from the thick tangle round the spring to the open under the deodars toward camp. He had explored the thicket by the spring and found it tiresome. He approved of the broad dim aisles before him. Possibly there were enticing flavors in the air from the remains of the man camp. The mother grunted loudly again, but this only quickened the call abroad. Skag wasn’t in the mood for this sort of thing. The bears might go back to the knob as soon as they liked this once. The man wanted Carver — word from Carver and the Arab, and the meaning of the thin gold flash in the shadows.

Right then he got it — an apparition in gold and brown — a huge cat thing from the thicket below the spring, sleuthing the baby bear. This was Skag’s first look at the jaguar in India, as hard to find as the planet Mercury with the naked eye, the most secret and skulking of the great cats. Now the vile head moved roundly as he watched and stalked the cub — in a sort of half circle on a swivel that caught — all the bloodthirst and hate and secrecy of the jungle in the movement — lemon-green eyes of that cold which is on the other side of death, and writhing lips. The jaguar was mad and careless. He had failed to kill the night before. He had made a day kill just now and been driven away.

Skag suddenly loved that baby bear like the child of an old neighbor. The little chap was making straight for the man camp and one of its parents at least was still back at the spring. Skag had a pistol, but it is characteristic that his fingers reached first for a stone.

His movement to throw — and only the hand was visible — was caught by the cat before the stone left his fingers. The stone went wide. To the surprise of Skag, the beast crouched and held his place. Now the baby bear turned and there was a bleating cry from the red mouth — utterly startled and hopeless. The big cat was flattened to spring — the ears rubbed back, the whole figure seemingly fanned in a great wind.

Just at this instant Skag stood up. For a second time he broke the concentration of the killer that faced him fifty yards away.

And then the roar. That in itself was a revelation from the animal world. It was short. It was low as a grunt and yet held that impossible pitch, ripping forth as if bringing the heart of the mountain with it.

Skag’s standing up that instant had held the jaguar’s eyes long enough to give the great male bear advantage for his charge — a vast hurling forth from the thicket. The jaguar, caught too abruptly to run, turned, but did not rise — hugging the ground like a reptile, his body in a half curve like a scimitar. He reeled over on his back as the bear took and folded him in. And now the old sire screamed with pain. It was like taking to his chest two hundred pounds of molten metal — metal that must be crushed cold and very quickly before it burned too deep. To Skag from the distance it seemed that the bear was insanely threshing himself upon the ground. When he rose at last the gold-brown shadowy thing dropped from him and lay soft and stretched.

Skag’s eyes hurt from straining through the shadows. The mother went to her lord and helped to cleanse his wounds, taking his huge head in one paw and pressing it against her neck as she washed the hideous slash across his face. For many minutes she worked, the little chap coming close and watching with a dutiful attitude altogether strange. Night intervened before Skag heard the three pass the spring on their way up to the knob.

Skag meant only to pause at camp long enough to build a fire. It might possibly help Carver in, but the young Englishman’s hail was heard as the first smoke rose.

They looked at each other for a moment, silenced by so much to say.

“Your Arab is doubtless running yet,” Carver remarked. “No chance to come up with him, so I hurried in.”

He sank down, dropping his head on a saddle roll. His voice was very weary as he went on:

“It was strange — just staged to get a man’s nerve,” he muttered. “Why, Hantee, the thing couldn’t have looked dirtier. I was on the slope coming down to camp from your screen just as the jaguar dropped from a tree branch to my pony’s back. Both horses broke loose and the big cat rode my pony down the mountain. That’s the ghastly unforgettable part — to be ridden by that thing until he fell.”

“I saw that it must have been like that,” Skag answered, remembering the roweled shoulders and back. “And then you fired? “

“Just one shot, altogether out of range, as the beast stood over the fallen pony. He vanished. There was nothing to do after that but go after the Arab.”

“That’s a bad cat,” Skag muttered. “Possibly watched us all night from one of these trees. Yes, it was his taint in the air that disrupted the mount.”

Carter shivered, vetoing any idea of supper.

No, you wouldn’t be able to bring the Arab back here,” Skag added. “Not with blood on the ground and that thing lying below.”

“What thing — you mean the pony?” Carver asked wearily.

“No, the cub killer,” Skag said.

“Is — is the old father bear lying down there?”

“No, and the father bear is not the cub killer, but a most natural and estimable parent. I mean that bad cat you shot at. You spoiled his gorge from the pony and he went after the cub bear just a few minutes ago. Bear family was down to the spring, you see.”

“Carver,” Skag added, “there never was a straighter or quicker finish for a yellow cat, but I think I’ll feel better inside the head when that bear roar dies out — the roar when he charged — and the picture that followed.”

They had to wait for daylight to descend the mountain. The Arab had not gone back to Murree, but met them on open ground a half mile down the path — used up a bit, but not seriously harmed.

“I think he would have come in to camp,” Skag said, “except for the taint in the air.”

Carver did not answer, and Skag added with a smile: “I’m sorry about that brave little beast of yours, but for the rest — it’s been a rich two days.”

First page of the story, "Bear Knob"
Read “Bear Knob” by Will Levington Comfort and Zamin Ki Dost from the January 10, 1920, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Illustrations by Charles Livingston Bull

A Meeting with Mahatma Gandhi

Journalist Edgar Snow was searching for words with the appropriate gravity to describe the weight of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi on the people of India. Snow was at Birla House the night Gandhi was shot, and the reporter had spoken to the revolutionary many times over the years about nonviolence, religion, socialism, and governance. In his 1948 account, “The Message of Gandhi,” Snow explains the masses of followers that congregated at the Mahatma’s funeral: “There was a mirror in the Mahatma in which everyone could see the best in himself, and when the mirror broke, it seemed that the thing in oneself might be fled forever.”

 

Gandhi’s quotations, as reported by Edgar Snow:

 

“There are no pariahs in society. Whether they are millionaires or paupers, the two are sores of the same disease.”

 

“I think I have made a small contribution to the world: I have demonstrated that ahimsa [nonviolence] and Satyagraha [soul force or noncooperation] are more than ethical principles. They can achieve practical results.”

 

“There is no greater religion than truth.”

 

“For me, means and ends are practically identical. We cannot attain right ends by way of falsehoods.”

 

“Politics divorced from religion have absolutely no meaning for me.”

 

“Strictly speaking, all amassing or hoarding of wealth above and beyond one’s legitimate requirements is theft. There would be no occasion for theft, and therefore no thieves, if there were wise regulations of wealth and absolute social justice.”

 

 

Article page
Read “The Message of Gandhi” by Edgar Snow from the March 27, 1948 issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured Image: Alamy