Fernando had stopped by the old well that winter evening and stood there, staring at his own reflection. He did this every day and for no apparent reason. Only that day, the setting sun had painted the sky with an orange hue. There was a nip in the wind. The bulbuls had settled for the night amidst the Guava tree growing nearby. Darkness was setting in.
“What are you doing there!” he heard someone shout from a distance.
Startled, he turned around to see an indistinct figure. As the figure approached the well, Fernando could see that it was an old man who had wrapped himself with a thick woolen blanket. He walked with a limp in his right leg and carried a cane.
“Young boys like you should not be here this late in the evening. You better get going” he said.
“Nothing, Bora, I was just looking at the calm waters of the well” replied Fernando.
Bora was from the same village as Fernando and used to guard the paddy fields at night from the wild pigs during winter. In summers, he did odd jobs at the village. It was one such summer that Bora injured his leg. Fernando and a bunch of kids had cajoled him to climb up a coconut tree and get tender coconut but Bora lost his footing and came crashing down. The village did not have a doctor and the local bone setter had twisted Bora’s leg back into its place. He obviously did not do a good job of it. With age, this incident had faded in Bora's mind but the limp remained.
“You seem to want get into trouble always” exclaimed Bora, recognizing it was little Fernando.
“Have you not heard about the Bears and Tigers that roam this forest?” he said.
“You must not be here after dark, now run along” he added.
Indeed, Fernando had heard about the dangerous Tigers and Bears, from the wood gatherers but he had never believed them.
“Alright, alright, no need to get excited” he replied and began to walk homewards.
On his way home, he stopped occasionally upon hearing a faint rustle of leaves, only to see a Pitta settling for the night. He knew the bird because the village boys had once managed to bring one down with a catapult. Many years later, he had seen one alive and recognized it by the distinct ‘Peeee-Pewwww’ song, which confirmed its presence even in the dark.
Back home, his mother was busy patting ‘Rotti’ and baking them on an upturned earthen pot. His village was remote and did not have electricity. Everything had to be done with the wood stove. The kerosene lamp was spewing out soot along with light on the wall.
“Why are you so late?”
“Did you stop by the well again you stupid boy?”
“Care to enlighten me with the wisdom that dawned on you by doing so?” asked his mother with a hint of sarcasm.
Fernando remained quiet.
He nibbled on the dry Rotti, drank a glass of buttermilk and rolled out a mat in the verandah. He sat there leaning against a pillar, looking up at the clear sky. It was full moon and the cold wind was pleasing and just like that, he fell asleep. His mother came over, covered him with a woolen blanket, dimmed the kerosene lamp on the wall and called it a night as well.
Fernando was like that. He was a quiet boy who seldom spoke. He roamed around, rather dazed and his classmates always made fun of him. He was however, wise enough to take it all in his stride. He stopped by the well for some other reason.
It was the well that was built by his mother’s father. It was a deep one with a spiral staircase made of thick laterite stones that were common around his little village in the foot hills of the Sahyadri. The well used to be popular among boys who would dive into it and swim. Except Fernando. He was reluctant to get into the water. May be stopped there to contemplate on why he was the only one who did not know to swim; perhaps he found solitude in the calm surface of the water.
School, he had found to be terribly boring. His village life, dull. His childhood, lonely.
The next morning, he was back in school. The only thing he looked forward to in school was Mr. Rajanagams geography class. People knew him as ‘RN’. He was from the plains above the hills and always wore a black coat with a black velvet hat. He got trained in English by an Englishman in a convent but never got the hang off the confusing language. He would stress words when he shouldn’t and forgot to stress them when he should have. The kids always had a good laugh when he said ‘Uranus’, much to his chagrin for he did not know why they laughed hysterically when he simply named a planet before Neptune. The students would also mistake his abbreviated name of ‘RN’ for the currency of Japan! That their knowledge of the globe was so bad that they could not tell Jamaica from Japan was another matter.
When RN was not teaching, he would be sitting in the dilapidated staff room peering over maps. Fernando had seen maps before. His father had once got one home many years ago. It was because the police found a map in his father’s possession and sentenced him to death by hanging. Fernando had looked keenly at it and was mesmerized by the lines and squiggles. He was old enough now to know the squiggles were outlines of countries. The horizontal and vertical lines were latitudes and longitudes. He knew making maps was a difficult task but they were useful. Fernando had a wonderful spatial memory mainly because he often wandering around aimlessly around the village.
That evening, after school, Fernando mustered enough courage to walk into the staff room and talk to RN.
“Sir, can you teach me how to make a map” he asked politely
“What do you want to make a map of? Of your godforsaken village?”
“A village in which half the people have either died of malaria or have left the place in the fear of ferocious Tigers?” RN added, mockingly.
Fernando knew about the dreaded malaria very well. His young brother had died of delirious fevers not long ago. He also knew that because people either died or left his village, the school did not have a quorum and was shut; which was why he had to come to this school, many miles away.
“But sir, I know the trails in and around our village. May be a map will help the hunters to get rid of the Tigers which scare our last remaining villagers” replied Fernando.
“Alright, that does seem like a good idea but I like to see your village first” said RN.
“I have also heard that you people get delicious jackfruit in the forest, I’d very much like to taste it once” he added.
On the following Saturday afternoon, they both began to walk back from school. On the way, Fernando stopped at the well and stood there again, staring at his own reflection. RN stared at the water too and was tempted swim. Swimming came naturally to RN. He had heard about the ‘English Channel’ and wanted to set a record by swimming across.
Undressing to his loincloth, RN dived in. Neither of them was aware of the danger that was lurking behind. Fernando stood there, looking at RN swim like a fish. Suddenly, he caught sight of something in the corner of his eye. Along the edge of the forest, he saw a crouched figure. At first, he thought it was the hot winter sun playing tricks on his mind. Then he saw something twitch. It was the black tip of a Tiger’s tail! It was less than 50 yards away and the beast was ready to pounce on Fernando.
He thought he will reach the village if he ran quickly. But then, RN would be left in his loincloth and the Tiger could get him if he got out. Before he knew it, the Tiger sprung at him.
Tiger! Tiger! Fernando screamed and blacked out.
Fernando woke up coughing water. He lay on Bora’s lap with his mother in tears and RN peering at him. A smile dawned upon everybody.
“What happened?” mumbled Fernando.
“Nothing son, Nothing. We must thank the gods for you are alive!” he exclaimed. Fernando’s mother went off to the kitchen to get warm milk mixed with crushed turmeric and fried Jackfruit.
The only person who knew what had happened was Fernando and he did not remember a thing!
Rajanagam only saw Fernando jump into the water and had saved him from drowning. Soon after Fernando dived into the well, RN had hauled him up the stairs to find Bora running towards the well. Bora had heard the screams and knew Fernando was in some trouble. Only the previous evening, a Tiger had attacked one of Bora’s only two cattle. The Tiger was unsuccessful and Bora knew it was lurking around. Hence, he had built a hide atop a tree and sat there.
Bora and RN lifted Fernando, got him home and managed to revive him.
The dreadful Tiger was soon taken care of by hunters who dug pits and set baits along particular trails marked out by Fernando on a map. The Tiger fell into a pit and was sold off to a circus in some distant land in Europe. Perhaps Portugal or was it France?
As for Fernando, one can never be sure if it was the Tiger or the fear of water that made him unconscious that fateful Saturday afternoon. It is most likely the Tiger but thanks to the beast, Fernando now jumps into the same old well and swims like a fish. He does so every evening without fear or a care in the world.
A short piece of fiction by Seshadri K S. 2nd February 2018