“Yaaaahooooo!” Beni called out to his friends. It was their secret call. The one he had learned from his grandfather. Very wise, the old fellow was, Beni thought. But other men in the village used to poke fun at the wise old man. 'When grandpa spoke, those men snickered' Beni remembered with faint anger.
Grandpa used to tell Beni many wonderful tales. Beni remembered only some of them. It has been two roundtrips of the first sun, and countless many of the second one since grandpa died. 'I should have listened to him more carefully', Beni thought. In those two roundtrips Beni had grown about six fingers taller. These roundtrips, some called them years, but grandpa had told Beni that a real year is something very different. It had nothing to do with these two suns and their wobbly trips around this little planet. A year, Beni's grandpa had said, is the time a mythical blue planet takes to make a trip around a single sun, which is far more brighter than these two suns combined. "What a preposterous idea!" everybody had exclaimed.
His friends too laughed at him when Beni told them these things he had heard from his grandpa. Then he stopped enlightening them and just concentrated on playing. The kids in the village had much time to play around. Menfolk left homes early in search of food (if you could call them slimy wriggly green things food!), when the first sun appeared on horizon and they returned when it dipped to touch the other horizon. The second smaller sun followed its own unpredictable schedule. Grandpa was about to discover some rule about that unpredictable schedule, but then he died. Nobody was waiting with bated breath for his discovery anyway.
It was a hard life and it was the only one they had known since anybody cared to remember. Women remained in the house, cleaning last day's catch that their men had brought in and preparing it for cooking. Those slimy slithery green things were very hard to clean and cook. But they were the only food available. Men had to dig them up with great effort. Again Beni remembered his grandpa telling him a story about some great mistake. Nobody had believed him when he said that before the mistake, people lived in grand structures actually built by other people and ate many delicious things, not these slimy slithery wriggly ones dug up from hell. How could his grandpa know such things for sure? Nobody else's grandfather had told them any such tales, ever!
Beni himself had asked grandpa that same question once when they were alone. The old man had smiled through his muddled eyes at Beni and had said, "My own grand father had told me these tales. I remember only few of them. But they are enough for me to believe in what I say."
Beni looked up at the caves. None of his friends had come out of their caves yet. He shouted once more, with full steam this time, "Yooo Yaaahoooo". He smiled inwardly when he remembered his grandpa telling him that this was a name people wrote many times in their browsers, in some forgotten era. Though grandpa tried, Beni could never grasp what a 'browser' meant. The old fellow might have been going senile, after all.
This time Beni's call was answered with many shrieks of yaahooo. The kids descended from their caves sliding down ropes made from roots of dead trees. All trees were dead trees. Nobody had ever seen a single green tree as of yet. The kids gathered together in a bunch and they proceeded to their playground, merrily hopping on one foot and then the other. The playground itself was a big ditch. So big that it could take many many breaths to run across it. They had never bothered to count the exact number of breaths needed to travel across the ditch, for a simple reason. Nobody could count that high.
They started playing their favourite game. Some kid gathered six stones and placed them three at one end of the ditch and three at the other. Beni picked some pebbles and gathered them in a pile near the three stones at one end of the ditch. Then he took the first turn to throw six pebbles at Karu, his best friend who was standing at the other end.
Karu would have to catch the pebble and throw it as far away as he could, and then start running to the other end of ditch. If he could reach those three stones before some other kid could pick up the pebble and throw it back to Beni, he would win. Kirkut, they called this game.
After a while, the kids were tired and bored as usual and they stopped playing. "Let's us go and see what is there beyond this ditch" Karu suggested. There was a hush. Elders in the village had strictly prohibited the kids to wander beyond the ditch. Beni sensed his leadership of the gang being put to question and he stood up. "Let us go. Not far, just climb up the other side of this ditch and see what is there. Come on, and nobody speaks a word about this to your moms and pops, right?"
Reluctantly they all agreed. Beni was the first to climb out of the ditch and he pulled Karu up behind him. They all stood there. Squinting their anxious eyes, trying to see. But there was nothing to see. Just endless stretch of burnt brown land. No hills not even dead trees. Whole land was lying flat and very still, like his grandpa when he had died, Beni thought. The kids were unnerved. They had expected to see something interesting. Zami the little one was first to panick, "Let's go back. My Mom says there are ghosts out there." At the mention of ghosts, all of them took a step back and turned to retreat. But Beni stood still, "Wait, I see something. There, can you see it Karu?"
Karu had also turned back but at Beni's words he hesitated, "What? I see nothing. Let's go back." But Beni said with conviction, "There, I just saw a glint of something. Wait, all of you. Come on Karu, let's go and see what it is." Karu went ahead with Beni's idea only because he didn't want to be called a coward. Rest of the children stood in awe as Beni and Karu walked carefully, one step at a time, pausing and looking left and right before taking next step. When they arrived at the spot indicated by Beni, he kneeled down and began removing loose dirt with his bare hands. Karu was afraid to be there. He just stood nervously stealing glances all around him.
Beni's shriek shook him. "Look what I have found?" Beni was calling, holding some strange contraption in his hand. It looked really strange but Karu did not waste time marveling at its strangeness. He was glad that Beni had found what he wanted and now it was time to head home. "Okay, now let's leave before them ghosts arrive here," he said and started running back to the ditch. Beni followed him, his prize grasped firmly in his closed fist.
They all scurried down into the ditch and there they paused to think about Beni's find. "Show me, show me" the kids gathered around Beni and tried to touch the thing. But he held his arm high up, beyond their reach and shouted them down. Then he opened his fist and let them have their first glimpse of the strangest thing they had seen yet. All kids were watching the black thing in Beni's hand with utter disbelief. Beni wiped it clean with his shirt sleeve and held it up.
The thing was black but still it glinted in the bright light of the first sun. It was small enough to fit in Beni's palm. It was oblong, with rounded corners. It had... what? a window? Yes, that's what it had. Near the top end. And there were strange things like small white rounded pebbles stuck to its front. And the weird thing about those white pebbles was some figures written over them. Each pebble had a different figure engraved on its face. They had not seen anything like this before. Beni looked at them figures and tried to wipe them. But they wouldn't go away.
Beni remembered his grandpa telling him something about counting and numbers but he too could not decipher the meaning of these strange figures engraved on the white pebbles. His mother occasionally etched lines on the cave wall with burnt wood pieces. It was to keep record of the catch his father brought home every day. One vertical line for one of those green slimy things. But his father could never bring more than four or five 'slimies' on any day. So five short vertical lines was the maximum Beni could count. But this contraption had more pebbles. He counted them all, touching each one with a finger. Five fingers of right hand and then five of the left hand were required to touch those white pebbles. Then there were some other pebbles too, differently coloured. And while touching them, he discovered that they all could be pressed and would bounce back, without coming off the black oblong thing.
As he encountered difficulty in counting, Beni turned the thing over and looked at its back. There were no pebbles here, he was glad to notice. The back was smooth to touch and there was some kind of lid. He pried the lid open and something fell out of the contraption. It was a smaller whitish oblong thing and much thinner. He put it back inside and closed the lid back. Now he turned the contraption in his hand and looked at its bottom. There were some holes. One rounded and one like a slit, very small.
What is that stick, he wondered? At the top end of the strange thing, a short stubby black stick was protruding up. It was half a finger long. What the contraption is? His grandpa had never told him about this. But he remembered a ritual. A ritual that whole village participated in, once every roundtrip of the first sun.
All dwellers of the village would come out of their caves and gather in a circle. No hunting for the green slimies on that day. Then the elders would pick stones in their palms and putting it to their ears, would wail loudly in a singsong voice. They believed their words would reach distant shores, where gods resided. Beni had always found that ritual very funny indeed. He decided to try it with this strange contraption. The thing looked perfectly made for just such a ritual.
He arranged all children in a circle around him and knelt down in their midst. He took the contraption in his left hand and put it to his left ear, the stick pointing skyward. Then Beni started wailing, shouting those cries he had heard the elders shout, holding stones to their ears.
Beni was shouting the words, not caring a least bit about their meanings, as the ritual demanded. All his friends were clapping and laughing heartily as he continued his performance in perfect imitation of the village elders, "hal hel hellooo, hal hel hellooo, hal hel hellooo.... Can you here me? hal hel hellooo nine one two ... hal hel hellooo..."
Nobody answered his calls. But that was expected. It was a ritual, after all.
(c) Rajendra Pradhan