Sunday, September 08, 2013

The axe

His shoulders stung with each swing of the axe.. and sweat trickled down his brow.
He could feel his shirt sticking to his back as the summer sun rose up to warm the day.

He loved the smell of burning firewood and the feel of wet mud on his bare foot. But the chores were difficult and physically painful. Nevertheless, he maintained the pace and went on with the task of chopping up the pieces of firewood. He secretly hoped that all this work would make him fit for some good work up the river in the winter when work is short. She wouldn't appreciate these thoughts, but he didn't care anymore what she thought.

He wasn't a servant. He was just someone who passed by everyday and seeing the plight in which she was, wanted to help. He remembered asking her if she can use some help and soon he was helping her on many chores while she chatted about how hard her life was. She never asked much about him and he was silently glad that she didn't ask any difficult questions about him. So he used to gladly listen to her tales, nod his head and go on with the chores in a rhythm. Once in a while, he too gave some advices based on what little he knew and hoped it helped her.

She was not from around there, but was living alone in the same hut for years together. He hadn't noticed her until a year ago when he came over to this side of the swamp searching for Rodger's lost puppy. He didn't ask her much about past life and she too was happy to not talk about the same.

But by now he knew a lot about her and was constantly thinking of things she used to tell him while his muscles automatically were in rhythmic motion. He loved keeping his mind busy in thousands of thoughts while his body toiled away. It kept him out of boredom or exhaustion and he rarely notices the time pass by. She would have to force him to stop and take a break. That is when he would break out of his trance like motions. He was never in a hurry or frenzy. He took his sweet time to chop the pieces of wood neatly in one powerful swing. But it had a rhythm that he didn't break for hours together and it was like a song or pattern in his mind, running infinitely.

It was only a week ago that she started having visitors. Visitors, he guessed by the voices he heard, who were mostly from outside the valley. They talked about businesses and music tours. He remembered that she once told him about her time as a singer in some big town far outside the valley. She always spoke of those days with a gleeful smile and then quickly return to the present, only to spit on the mud. She never told him how she got here or why and he never asked, though he often wondered about it. He just knows she was someone very popular and she would now be happy only if her younger days were to return to her.

One day he heard one of the guests recite a couplet which fetched him an applause from the crowd. It seemed that there were at least a dozen people out there feasting on the food she served. He figured out that these were important people and she was trying to coax them into bringing her back her days of glory. There were more poems and verses recited that day. He heard all of them and smirked at the silly ones and smiled at the good ones, while his hands were continuously at work. The poems were a welcome break to his monotonous chores and it was almost turning into a punishment as he didn't enjoy her stories much anymore as they always had the same feel.

For days together, these poems used to play around in his mind as he worked on the firewood. He imagined himself composing better lines, or singing for a crowd of dignitaries. He loved creating new meanings out of the various words he heard. He knew that he could write better ones and even recited a few to her one day. She just nodded after he finished and immediately started talking about how one of the visitors had promised her a chance to recite one if she could write. She was terribly bad at it and wanted help from him. So he recited his poem again asked her if she could learn it by heart and try it out. She was reluctant at first, as if his works were not worth presenting to a class crowd. But as she had no other options, she agreed.

He heard his poem being recited on the next visit and he was happy to hear the applause and comments from various unknown voices. His was jubilant and wanted to write more. That night he managed to write some more and he recited them to her the next day. She seemed indifferent and used to give curt nods when he asked her how his works were. Anyway he continued writing as he seemed to like it and he continued reciting them to her.

The summer was almost ending and he knew he wouldn't be coming along for long. His muscles were strong, writing fluid, mind active, but his heart was heavy. That day he saw she had put up elaborate decorations and on enquiring she informed that an elaborate show was being put up for the visitors. She asked him to not work on the chores and instead watch her perform. She asked him to stay out of the visitor's area though. He didn't mind as long as he managed to watch her. There was a crowd of about a dozen, none of whom he recognized. They were dressed like noblemen and artists. So he kept his distance, lest they get upset.

The curtains opened up and there she stood, in pretty clothes. In spite of her age, she looked charming and soon she was enacting the lines of one of his poems. Obviously, she had put some work into it to turn a poem into a song or a drama. He didn't know what a drama was anyway. But it was fascinating to watch and soothing to the ear as well. He could see that most of the visitors too were enjoying it. He was glad that his work was actually being enjoyed by so many learned men.

The show ended with a heavy round of applause and soon people were jingling their glasses and making merry. He heard someone say that she was sure to be a hit in the towns outside the valley and that they would have to reach there in a month or so to make use of the pleasant climate. He started wondering if he could find some interesting work in these towns. A couple of months ago, he would have laughed at this idea. But now things had changed. He has changed. The lanky dull boy had turned into a muscular man who could write beautiful poems as well as he could cut down any tree. But should he ask her if he can accompany her? She anyway hadn't spoken to him for days together, and didn't seem to be interested in involving him in these matters.

But again, if he were to somehow go along, what would he become? One among the likes of those who thronged her place today? They didn't seem fit for anything other than drinking wine,dining and watching a good show. Its true they had a way with their words, but it didn't seem enough. A man has to have the ability to earn his decent bread by his muscles, and not words. That's what his father had taught him.

His mind was in a turmoil and he stood there by the oak tree for a long time, even as the last of the visitors left the hut. He didn't notice anybody. The evening was turning cold and the leaves were falling already. He watched one particular leaf making circles and being taken around all over the yard, back and forth by the howling winds. The long shadow of the oak hid his. He felt blood rushing to his legs and he suddenly jerked himself into motion and walked off, carrying the heavy axe on his shoulders, its blade blunt..

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