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We had to go and check out a certain part of the dense forest that envelopes the southern part of Seven Hills. The routine thing: charting the area, feeling the loss of the trees which would have to be slaughtered, and finally deciding whether or not the woods have an area where the clearing would be worth it. The routine job, my routine job. Yeah, I know. So of course I went.
We started early that morning, a bright Saturday morning. I’m not a morning person and conversation ticks me off, so the only consolation was that the other two persons with me, Peter and Jack, were mono-syllable speakers. I remained alone in my surly cocoon, missing my morning newspaper and the other simple joys of a simple bachelor condo in the town.
We drove into the woods and the first sight of the canopy of leaves shining golden in the morning sun both lifted and depressed my mood. The beauty of the old gnarled trees never fails to touch me; it always seems like the trees are trying to confide me with the stories and tales of all they have seen through the decades, stories hidden in the rings in their trunks. But they also remind me that I’m the murderer – the one who’ll ensure their death, silence their stories and prevent their witnessing things anymore. It pays well to be a company’s pet architect, but hurts a lot too.
We got out of the SUV and did a bit of poking around. Peter and Jack were warming up to the task, their conversation lengthening into multiple words. They left me alone for multiple reasons – the fact that I was their senior, that I’ve got an impressive career history, and my reputation that my surliness vanishes faster if left alone. With an exchange of very few words, we determined which directions to cover and then split up.
I lumbered towards the west, taking in the woods. This was a very preliminary check; in fact we were kind of sizing up the area and were going to come again formally with the team consisting of the rest of the engineers and architects, the usual. So I was half immersed in my duties, with the other half of my brain noting the occasional ape or the tell-tale flapping of a bird’s wings. Trees, woods, wilderness, they always drew me like a snake is drawn by the charmer’s flute. It has always been this way; every picnic, every outing when there would be any wilderness nearby, I would get mesmerised. I was the famous dazed-by-the-woods David.
The soft yet clear sound of water hitting pebbles drew me and soon I reached a small clearing with a stream flowing merrily. The water was so clear that you could see the smooth, round pebbles at the bottom. The dazed-by-the-woods part of my brain admired the morning sun getting reflected in the stream, making it look like a stream of molten gold; the trained engineer noted that the water problem for the industry could be easily solved. This location was good. I took out my map and pin-pointed the place I was standing on. I decided to check both sides of the stream to decide which place would be perfect.
I trekked upstream and the woods got thicker and the terrain rougher. Constructing anything over here would mean cutting down more trees, and more levelling of the ground. Roads would be impossible; more trees, more levelling, more expenditure. I cared more about the trees part, but the communication and expenditure part was going to figure in my report. I followed the little spring downstream. It was getting hotter now; the sun was now more or less overhead. The trees provided enough shade, but summers are never too comfortable in Seven Hills. I crouched and splashed my face with cool stream water before taking a few gulps. Of course I had bottles in my backpack, but then what are pretty fresh water streams in forests for?
Trekking upstream was totally the opposite of what I’d seen downstream. The more I went ahead, the land progressively got smoother. The trees were further spaced apart. I reminded myself to regularly take down some notes as I got lost in the wild scene. And then I hit the clearing.
It was totally sudden; one moment I was walking slowly among the huge trees, the next moment I had stepped into a meadow.
Calling the meadow huge would be an understatement. It was enormous. The whole area was covered be tall wild bushes and shrubs reaching up to my waist – and I’m a tall man, mind you. The stream was on the left; the bubbling sound clear in this open area. I jotted down in my notebook: Probably found the perfect place. Very few trees would have to be sacrificed; the whole compound could be snugly fitted in the clearing while trees would have to be cut only for the necessary roads. The stream was totally close. The place was perfect.
I would have missed the house if I hadn’t taken a total survey of the clearing. From where I’d entered the meadow it was completely hidden by a natural piling of rocks and boulders. As I ambled in the meadow, a very unexpected something caught my eye – a shingled roof, partially visible from where I stood then. I hurried along to investigate.
It was a house – single storeyed – nestled among the rocks. The boulders formed a natural fence behind the house since the house faced away from, not towards, the meadow. The little house was surrounded on the remaining three sides by a little picket fence, maybe once painted white, but now falling apart in places and totally discoloured. I stepped over the collapsed gate and walked through what must once have been a garden. The rose bushes had grown wild and obtrusive, the grasses out of control. The house was enveloped by vines – completely and absolutely, looking so natural and perfect in the wild that it looked as if it had grown right along with the rest. It was the perfect place for Sleeping Beauty to lie waiting. I shook my head at the ridiculous thought.
The door was stiff under my hand, dust sliding off the knob, but ultimately it opened with a creak. It opened into what appeared to be the sitting room. The floor, the furniture, everything was covered by inches of dust. The fireplace was a tiny crude one in one corner of the room, with two frames standing on the mantelpiece covered by years of dust. I walked in, my shoes leaving clear prints wherever I stepped, and blew over the glass of the frames to have a clear look. They were pictures. One showed a woman with haunting blue eyes and an enigmatic smile. The other was of the woman holding a baby, leaning onto a man, both smiling at the camera.
I looked around the room, but there were no other pictures. Everything was in order in the room; firewood in the fireplace, the couches and the armchairs placed invitingly around it. It looked ready for use – once you got rid of all the dust. I poked around in the house. There was a bedroom with a comfortable bed and multiple cupboard and dressers, showing good taste. I peered through one of the broken window panes and gasped; the view was better than what I had expected, showing the trees and the boulders from a beautiful vantage point. There weren’t any pictures on the shelves or on the wall, and I didn’t feel like invading those cupboards, so I stepped into the next room.
It was clearly a child’s, the baby in the picture. There was a crib in the corner, and the room was strewn with toys. It looked as if someone had just left the room. As if the room was just waiting for the baby to come back. In fact I would have totally believed that the baby had just stopped playing with these toys and was hiding around somewhere, had not the floor, the toys, the crib, everything been covered by layers of dust. I looked around and saw a single frame hanging on the wall; I wiped the dust off and saw that it was of a newborn baby in the crib. I looked around the room again. It looked so sad, so lonely, almost as if waiting for the baby to come back, that I shivered and got out. I knew I was poking around over here because of the dazed-by-the-woods part of my brain and my practical side was shouting over the delay. I checked my watch and finding that it was about time that we all met, I picked my way out of the house.
There was no cellular reception in the area so we had agreed to meet near the SUV at noon, so I was already panting by the time I reached there as I dashed through the trees to make it in time. Peter and Jack could professionally decide my mood wasn’t foul anymore and soon we launched into a detailed exchange about the different parts of the woods we had investigated over lunch. Both of them agreed my meadow was more fitting for the industry and thus after finishing eating they followed me as I led the way to show off my discovery.
Both Peter and Jack nodded in approval at the clearing.
“No need to clear much.” Peter observed.
“The ground is almost clear,” I said, “So we’d have to do weeding more than cutting. We have water source right on the spot. Everything is almost ready.” Both nodded in agreement.
“Except…” In brief I explained to them about the deserted house.
“We’ll have to bring it down if we are going to construct over here. We’ll have to see who owns it and stuff.”
“We can check it out.” Jack muttered.
I led both of them round the boulders to the little house. Peter walked right into the house followed by Jack, all business. I brought the rear. In a matter of minutes the dressers had been searched thoroughly and the papers rifled and the case solved. The house belonged to a Gilbert Zachrias and had been abandoned about twenty five years ago. There weren’t many papers there, just enough for us to determine the owner’s name, and a few bills and receipts, the latest dated 20th August 1985, enabling us to estimate when they left the place. We sat on the dusty floor and bunched the papers together. Then we noted down all we had noticed and observed and decided that we’d done all we could do. As we walked out of the bedroom I happened to look into the playroom beside it and froze.
“Yo David, you comin’?” Peter asked from the main door.
“I’ll be right behind you. Go on.”
Peter shrugged and Jack followed him out of the house as I slowly entered into the child’s room. The last time I’d been here, the room had been messy and the toys were strewn all around. Now they all were arranged perfectly on the shelves, as if someone had just tidied them up. Except that there were no extra foot prints save mine from the last visit, and the toys were still covered by thick, undisturbed dust.
I felt cold and tried to shrug my disquiet away. I decided I had been imagining it the last time, that the room had been organised and I had made up the mess in my mind. I cast a last glance around the room and quickly walked out. In this process I registered another door right in front of me, one I hadn’t noticed before. I gently pushed the door open and took a double take when I saw what I saw. While the rest of the house was layered with inches of dust, this room, the kitchen, was spotless. It was so clean that the floors and walls were almost gleaming. The cupboards and shelves were lined with empty jars, all clean. Even the deepest corner of the cupboard was free of cobwebs. I stared in wonder – was this a magical house? I was a skeptic, but every cynical skeptic has moments of doubts. But I chastised myself for indulging in such silly thoughts again and entered into the kitchen.
The counter was spotless and gleaming, and empty except for a very simple, old stove. Even the iron stove was rust-free and shining. Maybe it was because it was the only thing on the counter, or maybe I was being over-inquisitive and curious, I peered under the stove, lifting it up. Underneath was a small notebook, with a dirty, faded leather cover. I picked it up and then glanced at my watch; I was going to be late. So I shoved the notebook into my backpack before heading out of the house.
We drove to the office to drop off our reports. We were going to have to detail our discoveries to Boss on Monday, so I left Peter looking up the Zachriases and readying the data while I decided to call it a day. Being the senior in the team had its own perks.
I drove to my tiny condo, my bubble of comfort and dashed into the shower. I came out fresh and rejuvenated, now comfortable with the fact that I had been forced to leave my bed earlier than usual. I started the coffee machine and grabbed a mug of steaming coffee before crashing into the couch and switching on the TV. I flipped through the channels, frowning over the programs. The sports channels had somehow disappeared, the other channels advertising slimming machines and beauty products. The single movie channel offered by my crappy service provider was showing a badly dubbed Japanese martial arts movie with Chinese subtitles. I turned it off and flung the remote control away. I browsed through my limited collection of books, but I had already read them all multiple times and didn’t feel like re-perusing them one once again. I rummaged through my backpack and stopped when I saw the old leather notebook and thought, why not?
It was a diary, maintained Mariah Stone Zachrias.
I read on. The entries in the diary were not regular; sometimes there were entries from continuous days, and some were spaced weeks apart. But it was clear to deduce from the diary that Mariah Zachrias, the woman with the eerily haunting eyes in the picture, was sick and advised by the doctor to stay in a clear, isolated space. She doted on her child and loved and was loved by her husband. Gilbert worked in a workshop in the town, while Mariah left behind in the woods, took care of her son, her cat and her flowers with lavish affection.
After the last entry Mariah began to worry that her son was soon going to need company, would have to go to school. Her diary entries now mentioned arguments with her husband about moving into the town and Gilbert didn’t agree because of her fragile health. I noticed that the writings were not smooth anymore, they expressed her anxiety and worries. Mariah Zachrias obsessed over her son.
There wasn’t any more writing in the diary. I checked, believe me. But I was already breathing harshly by the time I reached the end. The coincidence was too much. I called Father Alberto for confirmation even after checking the records. The pineapple juice. I stopped thinking, shut the diary close and went to bed.
I woke up early the next morning, an unprecedented event on a Sunday, and the restlessness from the previous night gripped me again. I tried to stop until I lost and gave up, finally driving to the woods. It took me a while to find the meadow. For a while I was sure I had made the whole thing up. But that wouldn’t explain the diary in my backpack. Finally I stepped into the clearing and my misgivings gave away to relief. I made my way round the boulders to the forlorn little house.
Everything was just the way we had left it. I walked up to the mantelpiece and stared at the woman with the eerie blue eyes and realised this time why they were so disquieting; the shade of blue was highly unusual – and identical to mine. I picked up the other picture and stared at the baby. I couldn’t make out much; it was a tiny thing and it’s features indistinct. But I examined the man in the picture and realised that his hair was just as brown as the baby’s – and mine. I suppressed the sharp pang of pain that shot through me and walked into the kitchen, and stood staring. On the gleaming counter right beside the stove, stood a bottle of my favourite pineapple juice. I glanced around, but nothing else seemed different. I settled down on the floor beside the counter and took a swig from the bottle, thinking, remembering.
I had been brought up in a missionary orphanage. Father Alberto had found me floating in the river in July 1985 and had rushed me to the hospital. I had barely survived from the hypothermia, according to the reports. From then I had been brought up in the orphanage, encouraged in whatever I wanted, provided scholarships when I did well; in short, supporting me till I got my job. Father Alberto was still my mentor. I wasn’t unhappy in the orphanage, but which child doesn’t wish to know his parents, his birthday, or even his name? Because I had been rechristened since I had been found without any identification. But now I knew when my birthday was. I am David Artbuthnot, but I knew now I was John Zachrias once.
I don’t know when I fell asleep; all I know is suddenly I opened my eyes and realised that I was sitting in a dark kitchen holding an empty juice bottle. I stumbled out of the room and out of the house, hurrying to find my car before some beast found me in the dark forest. Before I vanished into the forest, I looked back towards the house for a parting glance. The moon hung low in the sky, right behind the house, making it a shadow against the moon’s pallor. And on the porch of the little house, thrown into stark relief against the moon, was the silhouette of a woman. But when I blinked to look again, it was gone.
Peter had dug up all information regarding the Zachriases when I entered into the office the next day. Gilbert Zachrias was a workman in Starkman Welding. Family: Wife, Mariah died in November 1985 and child, John in July 1985. Gilbert himself died in 1988. No traceable relative or family. The path was clear, no obstructions to demolish the house. I gobbled up the data, and debated internally whether or not to argue on the ‘no family’ part, but held my tongue. Boss grunted and nodded at our reports, and our team set off for the formal investigation. I was back into my surly mode; I didn’t want to lose my history right after I found it. I didn’t want the house where I’d spent the first months of my life with my parents to be transformed into rubble.
But ultimately it didn’t matter. When we reached the meadow and the whole team expressed its approval, Peter, Jack and I led the way to show them the house. But when we reached there, the house wasn’t standing anymore. There was nothing but a heap of rubble in the wild garden.
“Bloody hell, was there any earthquake we didn’t know about?” Peter muttered under his breath.
“Didn’t you say the house was standing?” One of the architects asked.
“Yeah, it was when we’d checked it out earlier.” Peter replied and Jack nodded. “Wonder what happened.”
I stepped into the garden and over the rubble and looked at what had been kept over there.
“Maybe its wait was over.” I said.
Over the rubble a few things were assembled neatly. A bottle of my favourite pineapple juice, three pictures which I recognised as the ones from the mantelpiece and the wall in the baby’s room. And a tattered leather clad notebook, the one which I had recovered from under the stove, the one which I could have sworn had been in my backpack last night. I flipped through it and saw an entry at the end. I would have said I hadn’t noticed it before, but I knew it hadn’t been there before. Besides, the date settled the matter. And it was in the same loopy handwriting which had filled the rest of the diary.