The Winds of Kirtipur



Sambandh Bhattarai

They say towards the end of November and before the advent of October, in those twilight days, when the grain has been threshed and the harvest feast eaten, when the land is left bare of its bounty and only golden straws are left behind in the sun; a peculiar wind blows through the hills of Kirtipur. I do not know where I heard it or who I heard it from, but I know I have heard it because I have remembered it.

They say that you can notice the wind among other currents by its peculiar smell. It is like the smell of peppermint but subtler and sweeter. If winds could sing, this wind did. They say that this wind can only find you at your lonesome. They say that if you follow this wind, you may not return. And those who return are never the same.

I found this wind. And this is how it happened.

It was the twenty-ninth of October. I woke up late, around nine. I rarely slept that late, and only did when I had many dreams. I did this time, and as I opened my eyes to my mother’s voice calling for me to arise, all those dreams danced in my brain, numerous ones coming forward and then dipping backward over and over again until it felt like I was looking at several layers of pictures at the same time under the light of a projector until they all dipped back into the hoary recess of my psyche and vanished from my memory altogether. Except there was one image that endured against the dissolution, that one which my waking mind believed to have been ubiquitous in all the dreams I had seen: a robin redbreast. I do not know what circumstance the robin was in all those dreams. Was it flying? Was it perched upon a branch or a wire? Was it chirping or silent as a mouse? The only thing I remembered was the scarlet colour of its breast.

Before I could contemplate about the robin any longer, my mother called my name again, and so I got up and forgot about the bird-like countless dreams I had before.

I opened the drapes. The sun was blazing outside with the intensity of a high-voltage electric bulb. The alchemical light turned the leaves golden, and they simmered in the chilly wind like glitter. I thought to myself that there was never a bright day such as this day, as I went away from the light-washed window to do my morning duties.

My mother scolded me for my tardiness, arguing that I was going to miss the warm sun when winter would be in full swing. I drank a mug of warm water while she talked about the hills and how beautiful it looked with the farmers collecting their grains and having a feast beside the grain. She insisted that I visit the place and see the attractions and I obliged, half because I wanted to repent of my late rising and half because that particular morning held a curious sway over me.

That sway intensified as I exited my house when a wind blew against me. It was a wind I had never felt before. It held the smell akin to peppermint yet I hadn’t come across a single shrub of it in my neighbourhood. The smell though was subtler than the sharp spicy fragrance of the plant, instead, it was more subtle and more rounded and a little whiff of it made my lungs fill full of it.

I felt the sunlight misty in my eyes and felt the urge to see the field grow in my limbs. I climbed the little dirt road and saw the banks of the hills quickly approach in my view. I jumped over the ditch and the bank, and the hills lay before me as my mother described it to me. The standing grain was long cut and collected and only the little straws were left behind. However, I could nowhere see a single heap of grain or the ones who had gathered them. The hills were devoid of a single man or woman. It was so very quiet, with only the wind rustling through the straws and whistling in my ear. It had been a long time since I had gone there. Months. I had stopped coming when the grain started to grow taller, for I heard from an old grandmother that tigers roamed through the fields when the stalks were taller than them. While she did say that there had not been a tiger attack forever, I, being of a faint heart, did not want to risk being the first ever in a long time. This was the first time in many days I had stepped foot there on the hills.

I went around looking to see if I had failed to catch a glimpse of some soul I might have missed, and also because I found the hills very pretty to look at. I was straining my eyes to look at distant slopes to see if there were people there when a sudden heavy sound behind me made me jump. My mind immediately went with the worst thing it could think of that had come upon me, that being a tiger. I whipped around, hands half-raised with a pending on my tongue, but I found instead a girl.

She was smiling as if she knew me, but I had never seen her before. I could not have forgotten her—could not have forgotten those eyes. Greenish yellow. I had never seen such eyes before.

She looked at me up and down and her smile widened.

“Hello,” I said, trying to act like I had not nearly jumped five meters in the air out of fright a while ago. I failed.

“What’s your name?” she asked and started to circle me with her hands behind her. I spun around keeping her in sight in almost a trance-like state. There was a boldness in me which previously I had never shown with any other girl in my life.

“Ratan,” I said, keeping my eyes on her. “What is yours?”

She laughed. It delighted me. It was another kind of wind in my ears, a caressing, beguiling one. Just then another wind blew suddenly from down the valley which made me feel like it would take me off my feet. Then there was a great rustling of leaves and it washed all over the field. It had also come from down the valley like the wind. And as I looked, far into the distance below, I saw a lustrous green forest, though I did not remember at the time that there was no such forest there but only a sweep of tiny groves.

But it had not been the only change around me. The hills now looked different. The little dirt paths peppered throughout the landscape were gone. The buildings of the Tribhuvan University on the right were missing as well. The sun was atop, blazing.

I looked back at the girl when I found her left arm had snaked around my right and fell back to gazing into her peculiar eyes. She showed me her teeth, incisors, and canines white as snow.

“Have you been to the forest down below?” she asked. I nodded no. “Come, I will take you there. It is a beautiful place.” And before I could answer, she firmly pulled me into a trot.

“Do you live there?” I found myself asking.

“Yes, I do,” she said. “With my sisters. You will find them pleasing. They are very beautiful. More beautiful than me.” Her eyes looked into mine. “Do you find me beautiful?”

“Yes,” I said, giving a nervous laugh. “Indeed you are.”

“I am glad,” she said but she looked more amused.

Soon, the forest was before us. It was colossal. Just from a glance, it could have spanned kilometres all over the terrain and maybe even covered the span of all Kirtipur. It was dense and there was a strong waft of soil and herbs permeating from the trees. It engulfed me as we crossed the edge.

I felt distant. It was like I was watching myself enter into the woodland. It was a strange woodland, the colours looked blemished, the green of the leaves, the brown of the bark, and even the yellow of the sun peeling through unseen canopies. The undergrass swallowed my feet up to my ankles. There was not a sound in there. Though I should have been closer to Balkhu, there was not a single hum of an engine of a bus, and the forest which should have housed a hundred different critters from cicadas to grasshoppers to crickets, the air was still as a stone. If it weren’t for the little sound my feet made against the forest floor, I would have believed that time didn’t exist in that ominous place.

But then there was a sound. High above the treetops where my eyes could not penetrate, from there came a sharp, tiny ‘cheep.’ I stopped, bringing the girl to a halt with me. I felt like I was back inside my own flesh. I blinked. I didn’t know if I had all through this time.  The girl looked at me, and she looked quite strange now. Something about her features felt elusive. I could not focus on her. She looked straight at me but she also hid from me. The emotion on her face was caught somewhere between surprise and severity. I thought she gave me a withering glare, almost indignant that I had stopped and stopped her as well. But before I could speak something, the wind from before blew into the forest, but it didn’t rustle a single leaf. I was again looking at myself from far away, and the girl was back to smiling and pretty as she was with her wonderful eyes and the crescent curve of her mouth showing her ivory white teeth. I was pulled again, and I complied like before but this time, that small ‘cheep’ was reverberating inside my skull, almost like an alarm clock keeping me from falling completely asleep, but you could not turn it off because you would have to get up from the bed, and the dream was too sweet to break, and so you would be in a limbo of semi-wakefulness until you would decide to tear yourself from the bed to switch off the clock but by then it would be too late.

And so I was semi-awake as I was being led by this strange girl, and while I protested not against her leading me, I started then to find the whole business utterly off. The first thing that came to me was that this forest which I was venturing into should not exist. There was no such forest at all but a grove of trees. I should still be walking over a swatch of tilled fields and not stepping through glades and roots. The second thing, and far more eerie and sinister was that I was following a total stranger to Lord knew where. Who was this woman and how easily she had made me come with her and how blindly I had followed her, still was following her. Something became clear in my head then. Like one who figures out he is dreaming inside a dream, I had come to the horrifying realization that I was not in full control of what I was doing. My body was being controlled, or more accurately, my mind had been hypnotized. But while the dreamer would immediately wake up with that understanding, this insight brought no freedom for me. I was still following her, helpless to resist and afraid to dissent. My mind went back to a moment ago when I had stopped at my own volition at the sound and the glare she had given me. It was not only severe, it was murderous. I was deadly afraid of this strange girl. Something inhuman was about her manner, her poise, her eyes, her laugh, her smile, and her teeth. So I followed meekly, trying not to betray that I had broken out of whatever spell I was under for fear of what she would do to me upon finding it out. And yet, the dread grew in my soul, though my body was numb to its cries.

“We are getting closer now,” she said. “They cannot wait to meet you.”

I refrained from speaking lest panic was clear in my voice. Up ahead, the trees started to clear and the grass under my feet thinned. A building came into view which I rightly guessed was a temple from the prominent dome and topped with a finial of a flaming sun. Upon the frieze, there were carvings of tigers on the prowl in the forest. On a closer inspection, I would vaguely gather the shape of a figure underneath the paw of one of the beasts, and it might have been my fear acting upon me or it might have been so, but I believed the shape to be that of a man splayed on the ground.

“My sisters don’t seem to be here at the moment,” she said. “Wait here and I will fetch them.”

I obeyed. It was the only thing I could do. She was gone from the clearing into another part of the jungle, and I stood there in front of the temple like a sentry, so still that even birds might have built a nest upon the top of my head. Then, I heard the chirp. Something loosened in me and I turned my head to the canopies again. It was the robin. It was hovering over me and looking down at me. I tried to speak and say something, but I was still mesmerized. It descended and perched itself upon my shoulder. Something slacked in my mind. I blinked and looked at it. Then, suddenly it spread its wings apart and made a sharp sound, and I instinctively closed my eyes. Immediately after, I felt a searing pain under the skin of my eye. I screamed and jumped. The robin had pecked me. I jumped and covered my face. The robin had already flown away from my shoulder and was again hovering above me. I looked at it and shouted, angry and in pain, “What are you doing?”

I stopped, realization hitting me. I was free! I moved my arms, and they moved. I moved my legs, and they moved. Even my mind was clear. But my elation did not last long. I heard the robin chirping again and I found it perched now on the doorframe of the temple, pecking down at the closed door.

I gently moved towards the door, afraid that my footsteps might be heard by the girl. Then, I remembered my shout of pain and throwing caution to the wind, I ambled to the entrance and pushed the door open. A caustic odour washed against me. I felt my nose seize up in pain. But what I saw inside made me forget the smell altogether.

At first, the room was oppressively dark, but when the light shone in, it revealed the most profane sight I had ever seen. I cannot and do not want to disclose the full contents of the chamber, for just trying to remember it makes my throat seize up and my eyes water from the most potent of nausea. It was an atrocity. But I will reveal this much: the temple was a place of human sacrifice for human skulls were lined around a high mound which was shrouded by a thick cloak dyed red with human blood, and the dried blood was cracked all over the surface. Whatever ‘deity’ was worshiped there I did not figure out, and neither did I want to.

I stumbled away from the building, tripping over my feet with hands clasped over my mouth to stop the vomit which had risen to my throat. But I had no time to gather my bearings. A small thumping sound was reverberating on the ground from the direction of the temple. Even though I loathed it, I looked back inside the temple and I saw the shroud rhythmically flaring as if the mound underneath was beating like a heart with layers of dried-up blood falling like powder upon the white bones, and vanishing upon the sanguine floor. Then there came the sound of heavy footfalls and rustling of leaves. The wind started blowing.

“Stay where you are,” came a horrific, garbled voice. My spine seized up, and my feet were heavy as stone, as the mesmerism started to take hold of me. However, there pierced the chirp of the robin again and I found myself in control of myself again. The robin still chirping flew towards a direction low to the ground, and I immediately knew that I was to follow her.

I dashed after her, dodging bark and branch and root, trying to keep up with my saviour. I was completely helpless myself for I did not know the way back and coming inside the forest I had spotted no landmark as far as I was conscious under the domination of the girl except the profane temple she had brought me to what I correctly assume now was to sacrifice me. Speaking of the temple, a tremendous beastly roar came from its direction. It resembled remotely the very voice that had commanded me to tarry and must have been the footfalls I had heard. Whatever it was, it had found me absent from the place and was not happy about it. I wondered about the girl who had brought me into this mess. Had she summoned that beast to kill me? Is that what she called her ‘sister’? How many else had she sacrificed in the temple before me?

I shuddered to think how close I came to being killed. If I had tarried a little longer, the beast would have come upon me, and my skull would have been resting at the feet of the mound and my blood drying up on the cloth. But I was not out of danger yet for I heard the footfalls again far away behind me but rapidly gaining on me nonetheless. I ran with all my might. My heart beat like a drum inside my chest. Fear gripped me so viciously that I did not feel even a little bit tired, though sweat was pouring down my face and into my eyes and stinging them, and I was hacking and coughing up a storm.

Though I ran like a madman, the sound of the footfalls kept getting louder and louder. A shadow fell upon my eyes. At first, I thought my heart had given out, and I was about to faint, but it was an actual shadow that was above me. I looked up and to my great surprise and horror, a huge feline had bounded over me and landed in front of me. I stopped in my tracks at the sight of it. It was unmistakably a tiger. Meanwhile, the footfalls behind me grew closer still making me realize that there was another tiger in this forest. Even more, if the girl was not lying about her ‘sisters.’ If I had not fainted before, I nearly did when the tiger turned towards me. Its face was that of the girl! Though whiskered and furred and fangs to boot, the lineament was that of a woman’s, and the eyes—greenish yellow, but no longer deceptively playful, but full of malice and hatred.

“What are you?” I asked.

She ignored my question. “How did you escape my power?”

At that moment, I noticed that the robin was nowhere to be seen. I felt utterly doomed. There was no way I was going to outrun this demon and she knew this for she gave an ear-splitting smile. It was disturbing to see a human face stretch that far to show gleaming white fangs and human teeth all meshed together with each other for if I focused on the human features for a moment, the feline character would overtake, and if I focused on the latter, the human elements would creep out creating a ghastly kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria. Neither could I hope to climb a tree fast enough to escape, and even then I believed I would not be safe if it would climb after me.

The tiger woman took a step forward, leisurely crouched, and purred. Her tail behind her swung in anticipation. She was about to pounce on me the second I would move.

But before any of us could move, a bright red flash swooped down from the corner of my eye. It went straight for the tiger’s human head, and I saw the woman’s face contort in an image of utter agony, after which she let out a sky-piercing shriek. She fell upon her back and writhed, with her paws covering the face of her face. When I saw the robin fly up from the frenzied body beneath, I knew what had happened when I saw her beak laced with a sheen of blood. She had dived to my rescue, stabbing the demon right in her eye with her beak.

The robin chirped again and flew ahead and I ran after her. The terrible screams continued and a little later I heard her roar, “Catch him. He is about to reach the edge.”

The words were both a nightmare and music to my ears. The other tiger must have come across her injured ‘sister’, and she would soon be bounding after me. But I was so close to escape if what the demon said was true. The forest fence was close. I would be out of this mad place. My legs felt like lead. My breath was hoarse and fading. When I had stopped earlier, my fatigue had caught up to me, and I could not muster the same vigor I had tapped before. But the robin kept chirping ahead of me. Her chirps kept me from despair. Every time she chirped, I pulled my arms a little stronger, and my legs a little faster. When I heard the terrifying footfalls behind me again, I did not stop or panic. I ducked under branches, cut my way across large trees, and leaped across small holes, not stopping for a moment.

A violent wind came into the forests, battering me from all around. It was as if it was trying to stop me as if trying to make me trip. It felt like it had a life of its own, and I felt the hint of mesmerism in the air. But the robin’s voice kept it at bay, and she was unaffected by the wind. The place was desperate to capture me, but my hope of escape quadrupled because I saw the trees start to thin and the wind moaning more and more about me.

The edge was there a leap away. Behind me, I felt the hot breath of the beast. I gave one last push and I was out. The wind disappeared immediately. The breath behind me vanished. My foot slipped and I fell violently to the floor, and if not for the lush grass beneath me, I would have skilled all of my profile. I stayed there face down for I don’t know how long, feeling like my heart would explode, finding myself suffocated no matter how much air I would intake, my feet and arms trembling and twitching with exhaustion. But slowly my body settled down and I sat up and looked back to the forest. It was gone. Only a few groves were trees instead of the vast, consuming woods. I looked around and all was familiar again. The little dirt paths were there, the buildings of the university loomed in the distance, and the sun was no longer in midday and no longer blazed that strange way it did before. I was back.

I stood up and made my trudge back home. All the time, I looked for the robin without whom I would have surely died, but she was nowhere to be seen. I shouted a heartfelt thanks to her hoping she might have heard me.

When I came home, I found out I was only gone for an hour. My mother was not happy with my appearance. The grass on which I had slid had dyed my clothes a dark green, and as I took off my dirtied clothes, I found four long tears upon the back of my shirt. I touched my back, and there was no blood. If my mother was angry then, she was furious now.

I never found the wind again. Many Novembers and Octobers passed but never did a morning come with such blazing sun and such seducing wind. I have not told my adventure to anybody less they believe I am a teller of tall tales or I have lost my mind. Sometimes I wonder if my adventure was true, or if it was a delusion I had that day due to some conditions of weather or some fault in my brain. But I was rest assured of my doubts for I heard, two weeks after I had come home, from the grandmother who ran a tea shop above the slope of our house, that there had been a tiger sighting.

“Three of them, in fact,” she told me. “A jogger was taking a morning walk around four in the morning below the university grounds when he came upon three tigers on the road. Poor fellow was frightened to his core and stood there thinking, ‘My time has come,’ but then he heard other footsteps behind him. Other morning joggers were coming as well, and maybe hearing them approach the tigers slunk away. The jogger ran back to them and nearly fainted in their arms. Later on, when his wits returned, he relayed the tale. He told them about their giant bodies, paws, and heads, especially their green golden eyes, and that one of them could have been blind because it always had an eye closed.”

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