|By Newton D'souza, USA [ Published Date: November 26, 2005 ]|
A church bell tolled in the distance. But the time stood till. It was this mixed feeling -- of confronting acceptance and rejection in hurtful synchrony. I closed the letter with uneven folds and a grasshopper hurried at the far end of the lawn. All these years, space and time had hardened just like the old stone quarry. Now, it yielded, cracked slowly from within, thundered in menace and fell crushingly into countless gravel.
The letter was from Cathy.
The traces of her juvenile imagination still lurked behind those lines, as if she smiled when she wrote. I scribbled a brief reply. When finished, I paused, changed my mind, crossed off the current address and replaced it with the old. ‘To the Quarry,’’ I addressed. The place where I once stood complete. Clasping her little hands and watching the distant greens in childhood laughter.
In a peculiar way, it was that lure of the valley and the call of the quarry that connected me to Cathy. The quarry was ancient, its bosom empty. Like an antique in the garden city of Bangalore. Once a forbearing granite hillock, now a vacant gorge. Down below, the occasional rain filled in puddles. Creating textures of earth and water. Of irregular patches of yellow and green. Washerwomen from the nearby village came here from their thatched houses in the early morning to wash clothes, bathe and catch up with old time gossip. Little children often ran naked, chasing butterflies and collecting caterpillar cocoons. These pencil-sized people who possessed inscrutable voices. Voices that echoed and lingered.
And up above, We the Masters. A birds-eye view at our disposal. A perverse power to command the setting at our will. Yet, we were just a bunch of confined kids at the mercy of austere nuns.
They say childhood years are those of freedom and joy, and so, why schools look like prisons is incomprehensible to me. The very first day, it was as if my dad suddenly disowned me, left me in the cages with icy birds (the penguin-like nuns), who made me read and write for some unknown reason. Gradually, the thrill of the quarry surpassed the sense of confinement. From my home, to Deepak’s and Cathy’s, all the way to school, its visions haunted, even as we discussed what our moms had placed in our lunch boxes, or collected crow-feathers for Chimpy.
...Fun or frolic, gloom or grief, everything started and ended at the quarry...
Chimpy was our pet grasshopper who grazed the lawn right next to the school library. This three-storyd building enshrouded the quarry deceptively. From the vantage point of the playground, and the height of our infant eyes, glimpses of it shone fleetingly. Closer, the quarry rose like a hidden giant. During play hours, we, the not-so-playful-type kids, in secret meetings, stood in that crammed little space and watched the events unfolding, of fairies and magic monsters and animated bed-time stories.
Once, when Deepak attempted to demonstrate the length of his urine-stream, he leaned too much and tripped off the cliff. Fearing the worst, the school had declared a holiday, and the parent-teacher’s meeting decided to wall the berm permanently. Luckily for Deepak, he survived the ordeal; yet, the lure of the valley was hard for us to resist. Childhood temptation compelled. The mischievous thought of boring through the mud wall, while standing guard to the nosy Sister Pinto. Fifteen days of play hours spent in painstaking labor (which involved using spoons that we brought along in our lunch boxes). Finally a dime-sized hole, followed by a fist-fight over viewing rights, unresolved, until a game of hopskotch decided who should go first. That viewing hole, a kaleidoscope of sorts, an experience of wonderment, a joy forever; much more fun than the full vista seen before.
But forever hardly is.
Like a great white ghost that prowled the quarry, it devoured me whole. The transfer of my dad’s job carried me to Mangalore, which my dad described then as a town where you get a lot of fish when you see a halo around the moon. I did see the halo. I ate a lot of fish. When the novelty wore off the guilt of not being able to say good-bye to Cathy compelled me to write to her in a sparrow-legged handwriting. On the cover, I wrote, ‘To Cathy, Near Quarry, St. Clare primary’ and dropped it in the red box. I hoped and prayed that Uncle Shyam, the mailman, would come back with a fitful response.
Uncle Shyam never came, and when he did finally, it was many years later when he came to deliver an acceptance letter for a university. The only consolation was that it took me back to the city. The decision to go to St. Clare and then to stroll through the once familiar pathways was quite refreshing.
That dime-sized hole. That self-made cocoon which invented non-existent themes.
The hole through which Deepak saw the phantom cop chasing a black-eyed monster or when Cathy’s bedtime stories found new meaning with the people in the quarry; when she talked about the Red Riding Hood washing clothes, and three little pigs running naked and catching butterflies. In one amusing story session, Cathy had emoted how the Seven Dwarfs pee’d on one side of the valley, while the unassuming washerwomen bathed on the other. It was so funny that we giggled all the way to the math period and were reprimanded by the Sr. Pinto for indiscipline.
As little children ran around with green scarves, reality struck and here it was. Cathy was gone for nearly fifteen years now and even if I found her, perhaps it would not be the same again. As I walked past the playground, the school building looked the same, although a lot had changed in its surrounds. The lawn was now occupied by another building. I wondered whether Chimpy migrated to the quarry and nested with all those crow-feathers we presented. The old mud wall was missing, and along with it, the dime-sized hole. Instead, stood a weathered brick wall (perhaps a consequence of another parent-teacher meeting). Struggling to climb the wall, I sat on its ledge, freed my legs against the cliff and contemplated.
The valley looked much smaller now. Sloppy houses crept on it, and the once distant greens had given way to beaten trails. Power cables criss-crossed the valley in hostility. The scream of the washerwomen had long died amidst the bustle of slow-moving traffic. Nodding my head in disenchantment at the absence of the old vision, I recollected the day when Deepak and I hurled pebbles in boyish contests or another day when I had called names to someone in the valley, resulting in a barrage of obscenities from his friends.
Fun or frolic, gloom or grief, everything started and ended at the quarry. Like the tragic December noon when the fantasies took a break. The day when Cathy’s little brother lay in rest, a victim of an unpronounceable disease. When the hourglass trickled. When the valley hovered with clouds of quietness. Until the time Cathy’s face lit up in a hitherto unknown intensity. Her brother’s apparition in the quarry -- one that she described as a 'shining light waving amongst the trumpets of angels.' That entire day and for days afterwards, Deepak and I, succumbing to human generosity, reluctantly leased the dime-sized hole to Cathy. Whispering to her brother in strange languages she kept us on the edge, through the ampleness of her supple lips and the profundity of her shimmering iris - as if she belonged there. It was a time when in my childhood infatuation I wondered whether Cathy and I could be friends forever.
As I stood at the inquiry teller in the school office, wanting to know where Cathy lived, I was asked to be seated. The coy attender told me that all the records were confidential and she had a lot of reason to suspect what a strange guy wanted to do with the details of a grown-up girl. I departed unfulfilled, and my later attempts to trace Cathy were in such vain that my hope took ill. Yet, the call of the quarry haunted me - one of sheer anticipation, coupled with a fear of losing the cherished. So I kept my mind and heart open.
Analog to digital. Time drifted
A time when I could chat with some ‘nobody’ in a hallowed place in Lithuania, while unable to find someone in my own backyard. Search continued, mindless. Someone told me ‘ask Jeeves.’ Jeeves did not answer me, but an alumni web-page did. For when I kept browsing, the St. Clare database showed up, the fuzzy list of twelve names did not show Cathy’s. Then in a sudden jolt, she appeared. precariously. The full name: Francis, Margaret Catherine. Holy bytes! A moment where I had felt literally ‘connected.’ A moment when I evoked papal authority to canonize two deserving people: Bill Gates and Bill Clinton.
The euphoria, however, like everything else, was transitory. The link was held private and the e-mail was not accessible. Here I was, answering the call of the quarry and choking miserably at its doorstep. It was as if my hope was dying after a long-drawn illness. Finally, when the fingers found the strength of words, I wrote a brief grievance in the message board and signed-off with the hints of all I remembered; Cathy’s green scarf, the old crow-feathers and the dime-sized hole.
One day the call of the quarry came.
Cathy had written back. Not wanting to adulterate the occasion or the value of its contents, I took a print-out, and raced away to relish it in the privacy of my backyard. She had written of her old thrills and new trysts and wondered how someone could remember her after twenty long years. I absorbed every word of it and thus it ended, ‘..thanks for the letter, Sam. I was gratified that you still remember me. Personally, I had forgotten all about the quarry and it was refreshing to read your letter. I’ll make sure that I mention your memories to all my old friends, including Deepak, whom I married last month. Please wish me luck.’
The call of the quarry had come. Enduring through time and space. From the depths of its empty bosom and the end of a fatal chase.
Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust. Harbinger of a new beginning.