The Forest Never Forgets




A forest guard's account of the final case of his life that made him retire from his job.
Reading time: 23 minutes.


The Forest Never Forgets

XTales.net



1
The year was 1993. I listened to the downpour on the shed of the local administration office of my district's forest department as I waited for the Forest Officer who, like usual, was late and going to be later because of the heavy rain. Everything looked grey and discoloured. A gloom covered the village. There was no sound except for the rain on the shed. I sat thinking, in a dark hallway with no lights because of the power cut due to the rain.

I remembered my last few weeks as the newly appointed Forest Guard here and it gave me a strange feeling. I had been a forest guard for three decades. All my colleagues got promoted, one even got retired and I was still doing this job. In those thirty years, I had seen some unsettling things that kept me awake at night, or I should say days because that’s when I used to sleep. Maybe that was it, I had become a nocturnal creature. Maybe that’s why I never got married. I had seen things that made me dead inside. Things like massacred dead bodies of people who got lost in the forest, sometimes I couldn’t even believe my eyes, couldn’t believe that an animal could’ve done that. Sometimes, I would find just the belongings covered in blood, other times, just blood. I had seen so much death that nothing scared me anymore which made my job easier but when I was sitting in the office, waiting for my senior, thinking about my last few weeks, it sent a chill through my body. I didn’t want to admit but I was scared.

I was scared because something had happened, something that had never happened in the past thirty years of my life as a forest guard. For a minute, I had thought that I was going to die but something, that lived in the forest, had saved me. It all had started about a month ago when I was just transferred to this village.

2
I had been to this village for only a week. My job was to protect the reserved sanctuary up in the mountains from any poaching, or cutting of the trees. No one had been assigned here for the past nine years but there had been a rise in illegal hunting recently and that’s why I was assigned the job. It wasn’t an easy one even though I was given a cabin in the woods. My first day was all spent cleaning the cabin because no one else would do it. I found some old stuff that must have belonged to the previous guard who was posted here. I also found a book which I was going to throw away at first because I had a radio with me and honestly, I wasn't a reader but I kept it.

My routine was to sleep all day so I could stay up all night, patrol the area assigned to me once or twice during the night. I used to listen to the radio to kill the time but I found out that my cabin was so deep in the forest I couldn't get the signal so I would light up the lantern and read the book when I wasn’t patrolling.

My first week on the job went well considering everything. It hadn’t started raining yet but the next week, when the monsoon arrived, I was soaked up almost every morning by the end of my shift. Some nights, I thought I could stall the patrolling for some time but I knew that it wouldn’t stop raining for the night so I did it anyway. The thing was that all the perpetrators would wait for such an opportunity. The rain and thunder would cover any noise they’d make during their illegal activities and my absence would make it even easier for them so I had to be more attentive than usual. That’s when it all started.

One night, I was reading my book like usual, in my cabin. It hadn’t started raining but I dreaded that it would soon and even though I wanted to finish my first round before it did, a part of me, an honest one, persuaded me to wait for the rain to start because that’s when it was more necessary to guard the forest. Another thing was that I was really into the book I was reading. Nothing gives an adrenaline rush like reading a horror book, in a cabin deep in the forest, in the middle of the night. That was the only adventure left in my life because I had grown numb to everything else. I was sitting in the wooden chair submerged in the story forgetting everything else when I heard it.



 

3
A voice. Faint, soft, and hollow as if it was coming from far away. At first, I thought I had mistaken some random noise for a female evoking but then I heard it again. It sounded like a girl, not more than twenty, calling a name. The voice became a little louder and clearer to understand. I concluded that she headed towards me. I put down the book and picked up the lantern and my service rifle but before I could walk out, I heard a knock on the door.

I quickly dashed to the door, with the lantern in my hand and the rifle on my shoulder, opened it and looked at the girl standing before me. Her face radiated fear and concern. I, on the other hand, was angry and annoyed.

“Who are you?” I barked. “What are you doing here in the middle of the night?”

“Guard sir, please help me,” she spoke in a trembling and fearful voice while she looked around.

“What happened?”

“I was just shepherding my herd back into the shed when my pet lamb got loose and ran away into the forest.”

“Your lamb? Are you crazy? What do I look like to you? Am I here to look for your stupid lamb?”

“Guard sir, please. Don’t say no. He gets very scared and there are wild animals in there. Please, sir, I would've gone to look myself but it's dark and I'm scared,” she spoke non-stop. She did not stop looking around as if she was hoping her lamb would come back and then she started crying. “He’s only a week old,” she mumbled.

I looked at her scared and concerned face, covered in tears. She wore a traditional ghaghra and a blouse like the young females of the village wore. She didn’t look more than twenty. If I had ever gotten married, she could’ve easily been my daughter’s age. I sighed. I wanted to help her but the chances were that her lamb had already become some animal’s dinner. “Okay, stop crying,” I said. “I’ll look for your lamb, you go home.”

She wiped her face and took a few seconds before saying, “No, Let me come with you.”

“Don’t be an idiot, I can’t take you with me. You go home and I’ll find your lamb.”

“No, he gets very scared, he won’t come to anyone else but me. Please guard sir, let me come, I’m begging,” she said folding her hands.

I cursed under my breath. “Fine,” I said. “But you have to follow my every order.”

“Okay, guard sir.”

“Stay behind me and stay close. Don’t start wandering around on your own.”

I held the lantern up and started walking on my usual patrolling route. She followed. There was nothing in the entire universe except two persons walking in the darkness, guided by the tiny blanket of orange light, accompanied by nothing but dead silence. It was fortunate that it hadn’t started raining yet. I was walking while looking for any sign of her lamb. It would be easier to spot him, I thought but the next second, she started shouting his name.

“Keep it quiet, girl,” I growled. “There’s not only your lamb in this forest but other wild animals too.”

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “But he won’t come otherwise. We would never find him like this.”

“Would you prefer a fox found you before you find your lamb?”

She didn’t say anything immediately because she had spotted something in the dark. She started running towards it. “There he is,” she finally screamed with joy.

“Don’t leave the pathway,” I barked following her. “What did I tell you?” I was running behind her which was already very difficult because of the lantern and the rifle and on top of that, the ground had been soaked up so much due to the continuous rain that it was muddy everywhere. My shoes dug three inches into the mud with every step I took. Within thirty seconds, she disappeared out of my sight. I cursed again, out loud this time. Now I had a girl lost in the woods.

I dragged myself among the arrays of tall oak trees and muddy ground. There was no sign of her or her lamb. I looked everywhere. I was tired, breathless, and angry. The only sane thing I could do was to go back to my cabin and have a cup of tea. I thought I’d look for the girl in the morning and headed back but the thing was I had forgotten the way. I wandered around for a minute and then luckily I found my footsteps dug into the mud. I thanked the monsoon as I traced my way back.

I had only been walking for a minute when I heard something. Faint voices. I looked in the direction of those voices with hope. I couldn’t see anything. I walked a little closer, holding my lantern as high as I could. “Hey, girl, you there?” I asked.

Suddenly a lot of things happened. I heard multiple voices gasp and then an arrow whizzed past my ear as someone shouted, "NO!" My heart jumped, I ducked down and heard heavy footsteps running away. It took me a full minute to comprehend what had just happened and then it made sense to me.

They must have been those hunters whose recent activities had caused my transfer here. They were either hunting or cutting the trees. This spot was far away from my patrolling route. If it hadn’t been for that girl’s lamb, I would’ve never found them. My ear was still ringing. One of them had tried to shoot me. It was lucky that they missed. I stayed there for another minute and then I traced my footsteps back to the pathway and came back to my cabin.

The next day I alerted other guards who were assigned neighbouring areas of the forest. I went back into the forest to look for the girl but with no help. I couldn't even find the way because the rain had cleared away all the footsteps so I came back. Later in the evening I went into the village but came back without any information about the girl because I didn’t even know her name. I just hoped that the girl had found her lamb and went back.

A few weeks passed by and I didn’t encounter any hunters nor did I hear anything about a girl gone missing so it helped me settle my nerves and my disturbed mind but then came the night that changed my life forever.

The monsoon was on its peak the night it all happened. I was about to finish the book I was reading, must've been the last few chapters. It had stopped raining a few minutes ago and I still had to do my second round of the night. I was about to turn another page as I stopped midway and listened to a voice that had just fallen into my ears. The same voice but this time it was calling—me.

“Guard sir! Guard sir!”

I tried to get up and dash to the door but before I could do it, there was a loud banging on the door. I threw the book aside and jumped across my cabin. As I opened the door, I saw the girl.

“Guard sir,” she said.

“Good heavens! You! Where had you run off to that night? You got me worried sick!” I bellowed angrily but I was relieved to see her alive. "What is it now? Did you lose your lamb again?"

“I did. But it’s okay, I found him,” she replied as she ducked and picked up what looked like a small ball of cotton. It was an adorable lamb. I got why she was so upset that night. If I ever had a lamb as that and I lost it, I had gone insane too.

“What is it then? Lost his mother now?” I only pretended to be angry.

“No, guard sir, when I was looking for him in the forest—”

“YOU WENT INTO THE FOREST BY YOURSELF?” I shouted more out of my concern for her than anger. “HAVE YOU GONE COMPLETELY CRAZY?”

She shivered and stopped talking. I couldn’t tell if she did it because of my scolding or the breeze that made her hair wave in the air and made her lamb curl up into an even smaller ball.

“Why didn’t you come to me?” I asked trying to soften my voice.

“I thought—” she stammered, “I thought you’d be—you’d be mad.”

“Well, I am mad! Now, what is it? What did you want to tell me?"

“When I was looking for him, I—I saw some people in there.”

I suddenly got alerted. I quickly grabbed my rifle but left the lantern this time. Instead, I picked up my handheld transceiver and alerted the neighbouring guards too. As I stepped out of my cabin with urgency in my nerves, I asked the girl, “Can you point me in their direction dear?”

She nodded and pointed towards the darker part of the forest.

“Thanks, kid, I’m sorry I yelled at you, what’s your name?”

“Chhaya,” she replied.

“Great job Chhaya, now you go to your home okay and don't lose your lamb this time. Go.”

She held her lamb tighter in her arms and ran away as I turned, braced myself and entered the dark forest.

I walked quietly without making any noise, it was even more difficult with puddles and mud everywhere but this wasn’t my first time. I had done it several times in my career. I was not alone all of those times but I just needed to wait for backup whenever that was the case. So when I heard some distant voices, I turned my transceiver off and moved forward sneakily.

There were two of them. They had shot an animal. It laid at their feet as they both stood a few feet away from each other packing their gear. They were leaving. I had to do something. I had to stall them so I did which I had rarely done in my life. I stepped out, pointed my rifle towards them and cocked it.

“Don’t move! Hands in the air!”

They both jerked their heads and bodies towards me and as they saw the rifle they threw their arms straight up.

“You bloody—” I went on to curse them, badly. Every bad word I knew, I spit it out. “What do you think? Huh? That you’ll get to do whatever you want on a government reserved sanctuary and nothing will happen to you?”

One of them tried to move his hand.

“DON’T YOU DARE!” I barked. “I won’t hesitate to shoot and wipe you rascals off this planet. I won’t even need a good reason. The only story to go out would be the one I’d tell. So don’t—”

I couldn’t finish. A blinding pain spread through my head. The rifle fell out of my hands and I crumbled to the wet ground. It’s was already very difficult to see because of the dark, the pain made it impossible. The only reasonable thing I could asses was that there were three of them, maybe more and they had sneaked up behind me and hit me in the head.

As I laid on the ground groaning in pain, I saw one of them pick up my rifle and point it towards me. It was all blurry and dark, I couldn't see his face. I just heard myself praying in my head and as if someone had answered, the man pulled the trigger and my government-issued, thirty-year-old rifle jammed. That was my only chance. I, ignoring my pain, mustered all my strength, grabbed the rifle, pointed it away and tried to pull myself up but the man was very strong. He pushed me back down and tried to jerk the rifle from my hand and that's when that government-issued crap went off, thankfully, only grazing my elbow.

I cried and let go of the rifle. The man then cocked it again and aimed at me but he didn’t pull the trigger. I couldn’t see but I felt another presence. Maybe they did too. I re-focused my eyes and saw the man looking at someone over me. I couldn't see who it was but for all the time my eyes were focused, I saw nothing else but horror on his face. He looked as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, as if the person in front of him shouldn’t have been there. I felt the temperature of the surroundings drop below freezing point and I heard what sounded like a growl of a wild animal, or worse.

That's all my fifty-year-old body could take. Slowly, darkness crept into my eyes, the voices faded away and I passed out but not before I caught a glimpse of that person’s shoes. They looked just like mine. I thanked god. Other guards had arrived, I was saved and then I saw just one more thing, something small and snowy, everything was still a blur but it looked like a ball of cotton jumping up and down as if...

4
There was a knock on the door of the administration office. I snapped back into the present. The rain had already stopped but the powers weren’t back yet. I looked at the door as someone came in. It was not my senior officer but his driver Bahadur.

“Namaste guard sir,” he said upon looking at me.

“Uh—Bahadur? Is sir here?”

“Oh no, he is not coming to the office today. That’s why he has sent me to fetch you. This is an important matter, you said?"

“Yes, very.”

“Then, please sir, come with me.”

I followed him to the car. Though it had stopped raining the sky was still dark and covered with rumbling heavy clouds. Everything still looked grey and discoloured. I got in the back seat as he got in the driver’s seat, fired up the engine and steered to the highway.

My senior officer lived in a bungalow in the nearby town. It was about twenty minutes drive from the village. The rain had made the roads slippery so Bahadur drove rather slowly. I concluded that it wouldn’t be less than thirty-forty minutes before we reached there so I looked outside the car window at the forest zoom past me.

I had met the senior officer twice before. First, right before my posting to the village and second right after that night, when I had woken up in the hospital the next day.

He had come to visit me and also to congratulate me on stopping those hunters single-handedly. He informed me that I had been promoted and I’d be rewarded by the President himself on Republic Day.

I couldn't understand. I explained to him that I didn't comprehend them single-handedly, that I had had help from other guards but he should’ve known that. Instead, he was confused to hear that.

“What are you saying? The other guards didn’t get to your cabin until at least half an hour later where they found you, all bloodied and passed out,” he said. He was not very tall. He looked fat but that was just because of his paunch. His eyes always looked tired behind those rectangular rimless glasses.

“My cabin? I passed out in the forest where it all happened.”

“Oh, yes, the other guards found the sight and the massacred bodies of those two hunters.”

“And you thought I’d done that?” I asked.

“No, no we assumed you had knocked them down and got back to your cabin to call for help but passed out and some animals mangled the bodies which you had left behind.”

“No, no—” I went on to tell him what had happened, or at least what I thought had happened.

By the end of it, he was intrigued. “But that changes nothing, we’ll look for the third one who you said was there,” he said. “You did a great job. And that girl too. I’m going to recommend both of you for the highest award for bravery. Find her and bring her to the office next Monday, will you? I want to congratulate her personally.” He then wished me to get well soon and left.

Today was Monday. I waited in his office at first and now I was going to his house, alone. I had no idea how I was going to explain everything to him. More importantly, I hadn’t understood it myself. Whatever I tried, whatever I said to myself, whatever I made myself believe, my thoughts seemed to have come to the same conclusion, an impossible one.

The car stopped in front of his house. Bahadur got out and opened the door for me. I wouldn’t have let him do it but I didn’t know how they opened so on my way in I handed him some cash, he bowed and thanked me.

I entered my officer's study. A lady whose face was covered brought me some tea and snack in a tray. I didn't touch them. I couldn't eat, not before I could let out what I had come here to say.

About five minutes later, the officer entered the study. He was still in his nightclothes. The moment he saw me his eyes glimmered. “Hey, the brave and the fearless, how are you now?” he asked.

“Good. I was discharged from the hospital two days ago.”

“Great, great. Wait, where is that girl? You didn’t bring her with you?”

“Yes, about that. I need to tell you something.”

“Go ahead.”

I wasn’t waiting for his permission. I couldn’t speak because I didn’t know how to. “Uh—I went into the village to look for that girl. I had gone once before but back then I didn’t know her name.”

“But this time you did.”

“Yes, and I asked for her and—and...”

“What?” he asked.

I had to say it so I did. "There is no girl with such name in the village."

“So she’s not from the village. Not a big deal. We’ll find her. She must live down the valley. Why do you look so pale?”

“Uh—the people of the village told me something and—uh—I—I need to ask you if it’s true.”

“What are you talking about?” he stared at me, without blinking.

After a second of silence and staring, I asked, “What happened to the previous guard, the one who was posted before me?”

“That was nine years ago,” he replied. “I wasn’t even here back then. I would need to look in the records. Why do you ask? What did the villagers tell you?”

I swallowed. “Um—they told me that—”

I couldn’t go on. The air in the room felt heavy. Saying it would mean that I had believed it, had believed in something I never did before. “They told me that there used to be a girl named Chhaya. She went missing nine years ago.”

Nothing but silence followed. My senior officer looked out the window, blinked a few many times very fast. He was trying to wrap his head around what I had just said, what it meant. He sat down on a chair, poured himself a glass of water from the table. As he drank the water, I prepared myself for what I was going to say next.

“She had a pet lamb that ran into the forest, she was chasing it. Her parents informed the guard, who went looking for her.”

The officer looked at me. He knew what I was going to say next so I didn’t. There was no need. The horror on his face was evident that he knew exactly what I meant to say.

“I—I—uh—how—how is this—even,” he couldn’t speak.

“I understand how you feel,” I said. “I have been feeling the same ever since I have returned from the village. The more I think about it, the more it scares me. Now that I remember, I had a feeling from the start that there was something different, something unnatural about her.”

“What—what do you—what do you mean?”

“She was unnaturally fast,” I began, “I remember when I would hear her voice it would seem like it was coming from far away, but the next second, she would knock on the door. I remember the first night.” As I said it, I felt like I was sent once again to that night, as if I was living it again. “She had run away into the forest, no one could find their way back safely. Even I couldn’t find my way back, luckily it was muddy so I found my footsteps, but then again and I should’ve noticed it that night but I didn’t.” A shiver ran through my body as I said, “There were only my footsteps, not hers.”

I waited for a few seconds while we both stared into nothingness and then, I continued, “And then there is the night it all happened. It had stopped raining just a few minutes before she appeared at my cabin and she was dry as hell. Not a single drop of rainwater on her. Her damn hair flew in the wind. It was impossible to reach my cabin from the village in mere minutes. I couldn't notice it. I was distracted. Though I had asked her to go home I don't think she ever left. I remember when I was on the ground, bleeding, I was in pain and I couldn’t see a thing but I had a glimpse of her lamb. And then there was the guard who I thought was one of the other guards. I think—I think it was him who saved me. He brought me to my cabin to save me from the animals and now that I think about it, I don't think it was any wild animal that mangled their bodies.”

We sat in complete silence for a while. Nobody spoke. I re-lived that night. I remembered all that I had seen. All those glimpses, noises, and feelings played again and again in my mind and then I remembered something. A look. The hunter who had my own rifle aimed at me had a look of horror on his face when he had seen the old guard. I jumped from my spot.

“There’s something else,” I said.

“What?”

“Those hunters knew that guard. They recognised him.”

“What? I don’t un—”

“I don’t either and that’s why we need to find that third hunter who escaped. Only he can tell us the whole truth.”

“I don’t see how but okay, I have already alerted the department. We are working with the police and the rangers. We’ll get him. You need some rest. Honestly, I do too.”

“Yeah, you are probably, right,” I replied. I could have killed for some more days off from duty.

“Let me call Bahadur, he will arrange your stay with him. I don’t think you should go back to the cabin just yet.”

“Thank you but that’s alright. I will find a place in the village.”

I left soon after that. My senior officer insisted I stayed in town but I didn't. I wanted to go back to my cabin. I needed to understand all that had happened to me in the last month. I did, in fact, go back to my cabin. I stayed there night after night, wide awake, waiting for someone or something but nothing happened, nobody came, no call, no voices and nobody knocked on the door. Not until a week later.



 

5
Two days after my visit to my senior’s house, he called me again. They had apprehended the third hunter. He was hiding in a cave deeper in the forest. They said he was so scared when they found him that he didn’t even want to come out. He had been hiding there since that night. He had seen something that terrified him to his core. It took them hours to calm him down. They brought him to the police station, kept him in the lockup for a night, fed him and when finally he could speak, he revealed the truth.

He had been working with those hunters for a couple of years. Usually, after a successful trade, they would celebrate, drink until they would pass out but before that, in their moments of sheer vulnerability, they would sometimes gloat about their glorious achievements. How they one time escaped from the law enforcement, how they managed to stay hidden from patrol guards with dozens of dead animals on their back, or how they disarmed a guard who was trying to stop them from raping a young girl lost in the forest, how they shot him with his own rifle, or how they buried all three of them, the guard, the girl and a pet lamb in the forest.

They had to avoid hunting in the forest for some time after that. They never returned until only about a month ago. The authorities tried to persuade him to take them to the spot where the hunters had buried them but he didn't want to go back into the forest. No matter how much they insisted. They even promised to give him immunity but nothing helped. He was scared to his very soul. When they asked him what he was so scared of, then he told them what had gone down that night.

They had been coming to the forest every other night or so but they never succeeded to catch even a small animal. Every night, they would feel like someone headed their way. They would hear footsteps or heavy breathing. They would sometimes feel as if someone was watching them. One night they had almost succeeded but then they were interrupted by the forest guard—me. They rarely ever returned after that night when one of them had almost shot me but one night they all got drunk and decided to go one more time. It was the same night.

They had finally got a good hunt but as they were about to leave, I, the forest guard had appeared to confront them. The newly joined hunter had sneaked up behind me and hit me with a log. They were about to shoot, another guard, with his own rifle when suddenly, out of the darkness, the old guard had appeared. The new hunter couldn’t recognise him but the old ones did and it terrified them.

The new hunter then described how the old guard tore their bodies apart with his bare hands and a young girl joined in playing with their carcasses, a tiny snowy lamb played around jumping and kicking as he watched, fear-struck and paralysed. After the old guard was done, he grabbed the unconscious guard—me and left. He stayed there all night, shivering like a lamb. Finally, when he could move, he ran and ran until he found shelter in the cave and stayed there for days and nights, without food or water until the rangers found him.

The guards and the rangers had been looking for the buried bodies based on the information they had collected from the hunter. I was called the day they found them. The sight was not very far from where Chhaya had disappeared the first night, it could even have been the exact same spot, I couldn’t tell. They exhumed the bodies. I saw them do it.

When I stood there watching the bodies being exhumed, my senior officer came to me and said, “It’s because of you we could do this. Because of you, some parents’ misery will end, a wife will get some closure. It’s because of you we found what was forgotten.”

“It’s not me,” I replied. I had been thinking about it too. “It’s the forest. It is hiding so many secrets buried within. Men are stupid who think those secrets will never be revealed, that they are forgotten but the forest never forgets.”

I had seen everything in those thirty years of my life as a forest guard but nothing made me think that I had had enough of it. Nothing made me ask my seniors for retirement instead of a promotion. Nothing had made me change this way.

6
It was my last night in the cabin. The next morning, I had to go down to the administration office in the village where they had planned a farewell party for me. I was sitting in the wooden chair, finishing the book. I didn't have to go out on patrol tonight, it was my last night, I was just going to take some rest, trying to keep the recent events out of my mind. I turned the last page and sure enough, I heard it.

The bleating of a lamb. Faint at first, then louder. I, with light speed, dashed to the door and opened it. I looked down at the ground and there it was. A small ball of cotton with tiny legs and a mouth, jumping and kicking the air, baaing. I stepped outside, sat down, reached towards him.

“Baadal?” I called him by his name for the first time.

He stroked my palm with his tiny head and then ran away towards the forest. I looked at the front uneven row of the oak trees. A faint glow illuminated the area. I saw the lamb ran towards it and then a silhouette appeared in the glow. It looked like a young girl. The lamb ran towards her and she picked it up.

I too stood up and looked as another silhouette appeared behind the girl. An old man. The dark figures stood there for a minute. I kept looking at them. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke and then those figures turned and disappeared, not into the darkness but into the light. They became one with it.

I stood there for another minute and then I too, went into the cabin, but with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face.





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