The Old Mother
By: Tejaswinee Roychowdhury

I remember what she said to me before she left me at the doorstep of the village head. "Do not speak of this. Providence is not for everyone. And the people who come back, attracted by your words, their blood will be on your hands. You don't want that, do you?"

"No," I whispered.

I was fourteen and terrified. Of course, I did not want that. So, I kept my word and I told the village head, and later my mother, that we had met with a drowning accident and that I had barely survived. It took me close to twenty years, but I returned to the Sunderbans looking for her, deep within the mangroves and the ravines on the pretext of studying the fauna.

"Doctor, those men are wearing masks on the back of their heads," says Archie in a low voice. It had taken me a while but his Scottish accent had grown on me, and I knew when not to interrupt my rather talkative research assistant. "It's like they have a face on the back of their heads; coloured and everything. They've even got eyebrows, sideburns, and moustaches."

"Well, they are meant to confuse the tigers –"

"Where are our masks then?"

"Relax, we're safe. The boatmen have weapons," I laugh. But a shiver runs down my spine as soon as I utter the word 'weapons'.

Weapons. Custom-made double barrel .458 Winchester magnum calibre rifles. It was asinine of my folks to set foot in that direction. And had I known then what I know now, I would have stopped them. But unlike most girls my age, I was inseparable from my father. So, I tagged along. There were four men – my father; my uncle Bidhu; Indranath uncle, their friend; and his nineteen year old son, Tathagata. Besides, I hadn't realised until sundown when we were already deep in the mangrove forests that the party was actually a hunting party. Apparently, there had been reports that two tigers had developed a taste for human flesh, and the hunting party had arrived as saviours to the locals, to protect their way of life in the ever-raging battle between man and nature.

Our houseboat was smaller, unlike the one tourists availed because we needed to go deep where tourists weren't allowed. But it had to be a houseboat because nobody was sure how long it would be until my father and his brother tracked the two tigers. Indranath uncle was a better shot than uncle Bidhu. So, I wondered why Tathagata was there.

"Learning the ropes," he replied.

"So, you want to be a hunter when you grow up?"

He raised an eyebrow and smirked. "I'm already a grown-up, kid! And I'm also a hunter. Just haven't hunted tigers before."

"Huh." I judged him but Tathagata was a handsome fellow. "What did you hunt then?"

"Goose, mostly. And a grizzly."

I rather liked bears ever since I had read Mowgli. "Why? What did the bear ever do to you?"

Tathagata stared at me for a couple of seconds. "You don't approve. Oh my, does your father know," he mocked.

My jaw hardened and I did not answer; I looked out of the window. It was true. I did not approve of hunting, and my father did not know. Truth is I had no idea whether my father would be offended or disappointed if he did find out. He had dedicated his life to keeping up the family name; generations of Chaudharis were known for their expertise in hunting. I imagined my father discovering his own daughter to be the black sheep, and I did not want to think about it anymore. That is when I thought I saw a movement.

I peered into the viridian forests just above the dark waters. The moon reflected off the tiny waves and ripples. I was not sure what movement I had seen; I hoped the tigers were not involved.

"You hear that?"

I looked at Tathagata. He was standing, his face alert. "No, but it smells strange." I held my breath and listened intently. "I don't hear anything," I said.

"Exactly. It's too quiet."

"Does that mean the tigers are nearby?"

"No. It doesn't go quiet if big cats are nearby. This is something else. Come with me, and stay close."

I followed Tathagata out to the deck of the houseboat; and the reason I am recounting this now, frame by frame, is because back then I was not prepared for what happened next, but this time I better be.

Uncle Bidhu's horrified eyes were bulging out of their sockets while some sadistic psychopath took the time to prop up his contorted body on some sort of a bamboo cross a few feet away from the houseboat. His chest bore a hole the size of my fist; and I could see the moonlit water on the other side. What was alarming was the fact that we hadn't heard anything at all; not a scream, not a splash in the water, no footsteps, no yelling.

I wanted to scream, but I fell on my knees and retched on the wood. Tathagata put his hand on my shoulder. "We need to find the others," he panted. "I went looking around for your father and mine. They're not on the houseboat, and neither are Abdul and Raman, the boatmen." I didn't respond. He tugged on my shoulder and lifted me on my feet. I noticed that he had armed himself with two rifles. The two of us climbed to the upper deck; we had to run and the houseboat was the only way we could.

Tathagata manoeuvred it through the ravines. "If we can get to Godkhali, we will find help," he kept saying, as if reassuring himself more than reassuring me.

"You're lost," I said after a while. "We're lost."

"No… no, we're not. I think I remember the way we came." There was panic in his voice.

"Snigdha?"

"Dad? Oh my God, dad!"

Tathagata lunged at me and pinned me to the floor. "That's not your father," he whispered.

"You're out of your mind," I yelled and elbowed him in the face. "Dad! Dad! I'm here on the upper deck, from whe-mmmh-mmmmmh!" I bit his sweaty palm but he wouldn't let go. This time I elbowed him in the chest. He grunted but held on to me.

"Stop, just stop," he pleaded. "Listen to me, I lied earlier. I found them all. And that's not your father!"

But as soon as I saw him, I stopped fidgeting. We both did. Tathagata was right. Whatever that thing was had my father's face, his body, his voice, and perhaps even his memories, but it wasn't him; it couldn't be. It staggered toward us, a similar hole in its chest like the one we saw on uncle Bidhu.

"Snigdha," it said again in my father's strained voice. "Come to me." It stretched its hand out towards us.

"As soon as I let go of you, jump into the water and swim towards the forest," whispered Tathagata. "I'll hold it off."

"No, no… come with me," I whispered back.

"I… I'll find you, and I'll join you, I promise. Now, go!"

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tathagata grab a rifle just before I dived into the water. And then I heard a gunshot, and another, and another. I grabbed the roots of the mangrove trees and made my way to the land. My eyes darted back to the houseboat.

It looked like the forest had come alive. The roots of the mangroves were in the air, flailing around like tentacles of a giant octopus. One of the roots went through a man, rendering him motionless. The roots dragged him into the water as if he was a toy.

My heart beating faintly, I slumped onto the ground. The most terrifying part was that it was as if someone had clicked on a mute button and had I not looked when I did, I would have held out hope for Tathagata. I was certain I was next. The forest wanted to kill us all, and it wouldn't let me leave. I understood why; we had come to take lives that belonged to the forest. I didn't have trouble believing in forces beyond human understanding. So, all I did was sit there, waiting for the forest to take me as well; but it did not because she found me.

I have tried to understand Burima through these years. She called herself that – 'Burima'; Bengali for 'Old Mother'. I am here because have a theory, I am desperate, and I need answers.

It is getting darker. Archie rants about the 'funny smell' of the forests and he looks around wide-eyed hoping to catch glimpses of tigers, crocodiles, deer, and wild boars. I smell it too; it's familiar. Perhaps I am a fool dragging myself and Archie here, but we aren't hunters. I hope she sees that and spares us all.

THE END

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