My fingertips feel the soft, damp touch of the moss, spread in clusters across the weathering brick walls. The moisture-laden southerly winds are trapped by the mountains in the west, raining down on us for most of the year. Everything is perpetually damp, clad in grey.
When you’ve lived here for long, it’s easy to want to end up just about anywhere else – a place with more sunshine, if it’s a choice I could make. I always dreamt of being along the coast, with soft sand under my feet, and the ocean ahead, as far as my eyes could see. And I did. For a short while I found a place with more sunshine and soft sand under my feet.
Today though, I’m back at a withering house with sloping roofs, on an island nestled among trees with drooping leaves. The sound of the river flowing, gently rushing past the rocks formed the background score to our life, and which for years hummed me to sleep. I take a last look, then walk away from it. A narrow path, strewn with boulders and debris, a reminder of flooding in the preceding years that never goes away, gradually draws you into the forest.
Twenty years ago, it caught someone’s attention that the earth was sinking below our feet. An article appeared somewhere. Not much later, another town in another state along another river gave way. It caught the residents off guard. In the chaos that ensued, no one thought of us again. Year after year, another patch of land was giving way to the river caving in day by day. I don’t know when the first families were evacuated, as the houses on the frontline were washed away.
The floor of the forest is strewn with shed leaves, shrubs, and grasses, an occasional branch cracks under my weight; something slithers to safety. The moss creeps and settles over the sky-high trunks of ancient trees. A mist sets in, making it harder to see the canopy, making it a grey darker than most days. I rest on the outstretched roots for a bit. In the quiet settling in, the sound in my mind is of laughter – of four giggly girls as eight tiny, outstretched arms wrap tightly around the tree, a hollock. I feel the moss against my cheek, my forearms, my knees.
Four became three. Few years later there remained no reason to hug the tree. Life got in the way, as they say. Everyone was stuck in a system that asked too much of them. Making a living, building a marriage, getting through school – we were just trying to make it through every day. We were looking ahead, outwards, even away. What an insignificant gesture anyway, to go hug something that won’t hug you in return. Or was it the most meaningful of all?
One of the girls, as was common for people my age, moved away from the sleepy river town; and its problems ceased to be mine. More like a pot filled to the brim that loses capacity to hold more, than something being swept under a rug. Maybe a sleepy town was always at the back of my mind, but there were also more pressing concerns ahead. I was trying to make something of myself. No matter how many miles you leave behind, sometimes the town catches up with you, finds a way. I was trying to find a way too. I wasn’t the only one changing though, the world around me was changing too.
Something was shifting in the men and women around me. Increasingly often, the headlines would catch my eye -A country was at a war that would be described as the worst of the age, another was struggling to feed its people in the face of the enduring drought, made worse by what the papers called ‘climate change’. Closer to home was a war of its own – who belonged to whom, and who belonged where? But the tough questions were soon brushed to the back of our heads.
Somewhere on another continent, in a city far away, on the 24th of January, a clock chimed at midnight, indicating we had run out of time.
Much like what I saw around me, I was falling apart at the seams. How stupid, to think I could separate myself from it all. That any of us would do better than the other if taken apart. Increasingly, I was neither here nor there – neither for nor anti, neither disruptive nor tame, neither ours nor their; just trying to get by. Like the lichen growing on rocks, only described in negatives. Neither fungi, nor plant. Trying to resemble, but not moss. How would you see it? As belonging to none, or a little bit of all?
And for whose sake were the distinctions made? How far did they help us understand, and then simply isolate? The distinctions of us and them. Looking back, I, like a lot of others, would ask if we could’ve done more. Before we fell apart, what we could’ve changed.
How does one answer that?
I don’t have the words I don’t have the words I don’t have the words.
I’m on the forest floor again. The image of those rare mornings, when the first rays of sunlight made their way through trees, is etched in my mind. Somehow today the memory eludes me. Komorebi, I learnt, was the word for it. It is Japanese, I think. I love discovering words for feelings which I thought made no sense. Evidence that someone else felt before, what I feel today.
The river breached the embankment so rapidly one monsoon night, most of us hardly had time to collect ourselves, let alone scramble for things of value. What is a thing of value anyway?
I’ve never seen a town come together as it did then. Someone looking in from the outside would wonder what held us back from leaving earlier. No matter what your relation to it is, home is not an easy place to leave. The town scrambled for ways to keep what was theirs, and before them of generations born and raised there – having lived in these very forests, along this very river, in the same landscape. We were fighting a losing battle, without losing hope to stay.
What is of value? People – the hands we can hold and help us find a way, possessions – the ones that count are the ones we’re willing to share, kindness – that which hugs a tree, not knowing or caring for its name, because who couldn’t do with a hug every day?
In the coming year, throngs of people would come to visit the site of destruction, when like the other town in the other state at another time, ours too gave way. For a river town that never went on the map for anything, we have a tragedy to our name. That is, until another caught people’s eye. We weren’t short on misfortunes in the years that came ahead. A child would look at a hill collapse into the road, cutting the village’s access to their supplies; somewhere a current would carry a bridge away, a fire would take everything in its wake. I won’t be around to see it though. The giggly girls in the forest, a family along the riverbank, me – we’re not there. An abandoned classroom sits by the river, collapsed under its own weight. The neighbours don’t knock on our door for an early morning shared cup of tea, since we’ve all gone our way. The story of this town comes to an end.
Today I wonder if the moss missed the laughter, remembered the touch, the last time the bunch of us took that way. I don’t know if trees remember, but if they did, what would they say? Would they say we learnt to hold each other with love, but we learnt a little too late? Did they witness that even with odds stacked against us, we tried, that we cared. A Dr. Zemmar recently found that in our last moments, life might actually flash before our eyes. What does that mean for each of us? I don’t know yet.
I feel a tender warmth on my skin. Intricate patterns of shadows and light begin to form at my feet. A gentle wind rustles the leaves. There it is, sunlight through the trees.