Jim Wungramyao Kasom: The Search
That morning when Noah's mother brought tea to his room, he was gone. His blanket and sheet were ruffled in a messy mound which was unusual of him. He was immaculate by nature and his bed was always neatly made. It was such little things that made his mom believe he would be able to look after himself, when he was sent away to Shillong after finishing high school. She checked his room for the second time, when he didn't come home for lunch. Sometimes he would set off early to run his father's pheasant trap-line or to plough the field but there was no sign of leaving in the room. Nothing in the room had stirred out of sleep. The rifle was hung on the wall like a décor piece and his jungle boots were neatly set on a shoe rack. The grey pajamas and vest he had worn that night lay clumped on the mud floor; vacated – as if he had vanished in a magic trick.
Noah had always been a jovial child and though a little reserved, he got along fine with everyone. But Noah’s mother could think of only one place in the village he would visit for no reason. It made her realize his loneliness. She had not thought of him that way. There were college going young men in the village but his closest friend was Ayung, a few years senior to him and a school dropout. He had taken up full reign of running the family from his aging father as if carrying the family's name was the most plausible thing one could do. Like most men in the village, Ayung had been away for two days plowing the field, after a Sunday rest.
Noah's mother sent two of Noah’s younger brothers to the family terrace paddy field with a lunch pack – light and convenient enough to feed the birds; uncertain of finding him famished. Her husband decided to run the trap-line. Around midday they returned, futile and spent.
She summoned her own fears and her ambivalence had her mind torn between the real world and Noah’s dreams. Noah had started having nightmares a fortnight ago, a few days after he came back home for summer break. He had been visited by a damsel – a lissome figure; too flawless to be human. It didn't seem like a nightmare at first but Noah apprised his mother after he felt the visits were more real than dreams. He had found himself under the Champak tree at the courtyard, brazen cold and sometimes wet from the rain. The scent of yellow Champak flowers stayed on his mind and made him sick.
“What does she want?” asked his mom.
“Nothing I guess,” Noah said.
“What do you talk about?” she asked, trying hard to hide the alarm in her voice. A woman's mind can be best known by another woman, she told him. The girl's persistence bothered her.
“That's the strangest thing. I don't remember anything, except that we talked like we have known each other for a long time and the next morning my mind goes blank as if a curtain has come down and I can't see through, though it felt familiar,” he said, trying to be reasonable with his intonation, even though his explanation was insane.
“Whatever this is, it cannot a good thing. You must stop dreaming about her,” she said more as a matter of statement than suggestion.
“I don't know how to stop her,” he said his voice breaking.
That night his father bolted the door from outside and the visit was interrupted temporarily but it also affirmed Noah's fear that the visits were real and not just in his dreams. The thought of his somnambulant outings; his body detached from his will disturbed him. Every time he found himself under the Champak tree, he came back inside a stranger to himself, more distant from reality.
Noah's father convened a meeting with a few of his relatives. They concurred to comb the forest and criers were sent out to call back men from their paddy fields. Monsoon was upon them and villagers were slogging and laboring in the mud for rice planting. It was a busy season and some of these paddy fields were two hours walk from home. To avoid the unnecessary hassle of walking back and forth they built thatch huts and took up temporary residence until the rice planting season was over. By evening the Village Authority mobilized a search party consisting of some hundred men and dispatched them in eight groups. Soon it had become a village affair and the gravity of the situation had gripped in like darkness descending that June evening.
The village was surrounded by forest on all sides and it was impossible to know which way he might have gone. It had rained that night and there were footprints on the mud in front of the house but the heavy rain had washed them away, leaving nothing more than smudgy spoors. Noah's parents shared his outings to two of Noah's paternal uncles Awo Raihao and Awo Yuishi, the local Pastor and the God woman named Ahaola who had an esoteric knowledge about the spirit world. She was a stocky woman who walked barefoot and had a hurrying gait, each step full of purpose. Her visits were portent signs of deaths and misfortunes and even the sight of her was revolting to some villagers. But some believed that she was Godsend – a final warning from God to make things right.
The forest air was laden with the smell of earth and enchanted by songs of cicadas. Blankets of fog appeared and disappeared like forest spirit, making the searchers’ task more challenging. The search party carefully foraged into the forest, each group led by an elderly man; lest young men went astray. They believed young men could be more easily deceived.
She imagined Noah stumbling – deranged and starkly naked in the woods without purpose or reason; when a person so young should be full of it. She thought she knew everything that was to know about him. He was her baby and his life drew from her for over nine months. She felt closeness no one could have felt, and yet when she tried to think of his face, the distance widened as if he was drowning into a sea of uncertainty. One part of her wanted to look into his soul and see everything. The other part was afraid to know more than she already knew.
At night, it rained as if the sky was torn and couldn't be mended. There were always interpretations for anything uncommon, even rain. The last time it rained for six days incessantly, the local news on radio broadcasted without hesitation that the rain was a repercussion of the death of an old goddess in Imphal. Simply because a local priest, a maipa, said so. There was no meteorological explanation of the generous monsoon that flooded Imphal for the first time in nine years. But to the village elders the signs were ominous and more often than not such foreboding ends with the loss of human lives. The sky opened and refused to close.
Ahaola who had gone to the Church to pray at dawn that morning said she saw a woman approaching but couldn't believe anyone would have gone out at that hour. It was an uncommon hour and though she could see a flicker of light on the eastern mountains; it was still too dark to be able to recognize anything clearly. She stopped to greet the approaching figure but there was no response. She thought it was strange and when she turned back the figure was gone – just like that in a matter of seconds. She had chastised her poor sight for seeing things that weren't there but she said it had become clearer.
That night, hushed talks in every kitchen, under the dim lantern lights were of Noah's disappearance. There were enough premonitions for the villagers to assume that Noah had been spirited away. While some believed he must have been left stranded in the darkness just like Reisang, who was stopped in the middle of the road while travelling back to the village from Ukhrul. Darkness swooped in and he couldn't see the road anymore. He was not a smoker and he had no light on him. He managed to climb up a tree and shouted at the top of his voice. When the villagers found him, he was still on the tree with no sign of panic or of being disarranged. The village had no electricity and at night darkness was pure and blinding. Occasionally lighting scythes across the sky like big intruding eyes. On a night like that the villager burrowed inside their bed after an early dinner as if the darkness would hurt them.
Womenfolk who had gathered at Noah's house to prepare food for the next day search party were appalled by the situation.
“I wouldn't be surprised if this was a case of Kharukasang,” said a newly married woman, “Who knows what people can do nowadays? I wouldn't trust any food given by strangers. There are people who would do anything to get the person they want. I have heard of love potions that can turn a person crazy in love.”
“It's not just the food; there are more. I heard in Shillong they can cast a spell on you. They don't have to make you eat anything. If they have your hair or anything that belongs to you they could do it. Scary isn’t it?” said another. These assumptions were parried off by some women folk who were not willing to settle down on a conclusion because they thought it was simply rude to talk about such matters, especially in front of the suffering family. The conversation went on like a sail tossing upon big waves without any direction.
It was a busy night with relatives and well-wishers enshrouding the house as if they were forming a protective spell. The fireplace – the most sacred place in the house – was occupied by the elders. Such events were not uncommon in this part of the land. There were strange occurrences that couldn't be fathomed; sickness where the doctors have neither a clue nor a remedy. In such cases they talked throughout the night as if it would dissuade the pain, the loss. These things are not tangible nor can it be seen. It can only be conceived inside one’s mind. They lived with so many mysteries every day and learned to deal with the questions without the answers.
In a couple of days Noah's disappearance was soon transmuted to folklore. People would talk for many years to come, especially when there were talks around a fire. The disappearance was more difficult to take in, because Noah was a decent young man, with no ill words transpired against him from anyone. He was not exactly handsome but he had the look of innocence and his round eyes and full forehead were pleasant to look upon. He didn't do badly in school and when he spoke he had an aura of ingenuity beyond his years.
They found him naked sitting on top of a thick rock outcrop, as if he was taking in the morning sun. There was calmness about him like he was in the midst of a sacred ritual. It was a place the searchers had passed several times without any sightings. On the fifth morning they were led to the place by frantic dog barks. Some young men went there hoping to pick up an animal trail. He was mute and disoriented and looked like a relict animal, withdrawn to himself and unable to reason. They watched him from a distance afraid to move in, until Ayung came and shoved him in a blanket so that his father wouldn't have to see the naked scarred body. He didn’t try to run. Rather he looked relieved to have been found. At home he was massaged with mustard oil and hands warmed by the fire. It seeped into him and life returned to his skin.
Noah didn’t speak for a couple of days and slept through like a baby except during meals. His father laid a mat on the kitchen floor and slept by his side. He felt as if he was fighting a battle against unseen, indomitable force but he was not willing to give in even though if it meant he had to keep watch throughout the night. When Noah was well rested he began to wander out of the house and sat with his back against the sun, basking in its warmth to life itself. He was living life in shreds like someone else’s jigsaw.
Almost a week later Noah was found missing again. His father had not slept properly for days and had fallen into a deep slumber. He woke up when his wife entered the kitchen to build the morning fire. The spot where Noah had slept was cold. They dressed themselves up and at an impulse, packed some food and warm clothes, and left for the place where he was first found. They found Noah mumbling to himself, seated on a rock. All they could see was a shell. It was not the person they knew. But they still could see through it; the soul hidden somewhere beneath. Villagers were certain it was the forest fairy that had taken Noah’s sanity.
On the day he disappeared, he remembered being with the beautiful lady and she took him to her place. It was a beautiful house, more of a mansion. They had many servants and animals walked up to the porch as if they were friendly neighbors. He was fed like a king and served all kinds of delicacies. At that Ahaola took Noah’s hands in her palms and examined the cuts and stains on his fingers and nails and made a smug face. “It is natural of people taken by forest spirit to scavenge on the forest floor. He must have been eating barks and worms but in his eyes he was seeing different things,” she said to Noah’s parents.
At the first light next day, he was sent away to Imphal at a relative’s place. It took some persuading but he gave in and was taken to see a doctor at RIIMS. His unwanted outings stopped altogether. Whether it was the change of place or the medication that did good to him was difficult to ascertain. The doctor was adamant that it was schizophrenia that had turned up on some pages of this young man’s life and caused havoc. But in the village the story grew in proportions and possibilities even after the whole episode was over. On nights when the darkness was as black as blindness they could hear the wailing sound of a lady looking for her lost lover.