There was once a small village on the edge of a small island. The inhabitants of this little village were a joyous bunch; never bickering, never resentful, and in all respects, always harmonious. The village chief tended over the major decisions concerning the village: agriculture, housing and community were his three major concerns. Along with his motley crew of village elders, he ruled over this tiny village with unerring authority.
The villagers lived happily. In the day, the men would work the fields or fish in the calm ocean while the women tended to housework and childrearing. The children would chase after anything they could, the chickens, pigs, each other. They imagined fierce scenes of epic battles and ran about with imaginary swords and shields, reciting the favourite battle cries their fathers had taught them. Once a week on Wednesday, the entire village would congregate in front of the chief’s hut in the evening, where a large bonfire would be created and the villagers would engage in song and dance. The drummers beat the drums with zest. Dirt would be kicked up as drinks were passed around, but this didn’t perturb the villagers in the least; they loved the routine, and lived to get lost in the unrelenting rhythm and exhausting footwork of their traditional dance.
The Chief would sit on the verandah of his hut, and look at the silhouette of his people as the fire flickered to the rhythm of the drums. He was proud of the harmony they had achieved; for he knew that not all the villages on the island enjoyed similar peace.
Perhaps the only thing he held dearer than his own village was his precious daughter. She was the only semblance of family he knew, for his wife died while giving birth to her. The entire village went into mourning on that misty morning seventeen years ago, as the chief held his fragile newborn in his hands and wept uncontrollably over the body of his dead wife.
After all the time had past, the fragile newborn grew up to be a beautiful young woman. She began to have a reputation among the boys in the village. Unable to escape the heat of adolescence, it was not a question of whether they’d fall for her, but when they’d fall for her and to what extent would they profess their love. The chief was fully aware of such advances, and warned her daughter to keep to herself and choose her acquaintances wisely. She slowly discovered the power of her beauty as more boys came to her doorstep, and regarded herself too precious for a mere commoner to pursue. She shut herself up in her room and immersed in her favourite hobby of painting and drawing, only leaving her private space when she absolutely needed to.
One day, the chief found out over breakfast that there was a gaping hole on his roof where sunlight leaked in and illuminated the living area. It added an uncomfortable glare to the everyday. Worst, if it were to rain (which it did on a daily basis) there would be a severe leakage which would flood the hut. He immediately called for one of his trusted villagers to fix the hole in the roof, an old repairman who had decades of experience with such matters.
“Sorry, but tell the chief that I am sick today,” the repairman told the messenger. “My son, on the other hand, is very experienced at such matters as well. I have taught him the technicalities of repair work since he was a boy. Bring him instead, and he will render your roof good as new.”
And so the messenger brought the repairman’s son back to the Chief’s hut, and with a bamboo ladder, he immediately set about his work.
The boy was eighteen years old, and had a strong build and was tall enough that he only needed to ascend to the second rung of the ladder. He reached up with hammer and nail, with a few panels of wood at his disposal. He set about fixing the roof, one tedious nail at a time.
The Chief’s daughter could not concentrate on her painting. There was a soft hammering sound coming from outside her room, and she found that it drove her mad with its consistency and subtle aggression. She tried to continue with her work at first, but her patience soon ran thin. She walked out her room to discover the source of the sound.
It was hard to say who noticed whom first, but when the boy saw her, he almost fell off the ladder. He held on to the ceiling with upturned palms to maintain his balance. He had seen her from afar on rare occasions, but this close proximity was something entirely new to him. She was truly a beauty, and he had not prepared himself for such a sight. Her hair caught some of the light leaking from the ceiling, refracting it into brilliant shades of black and brown. She had oval shaped eyes that tilted downwards, that gave her eyes the tinge of undecipherable sadness. He turned his head casually and nodded at her, not giving away the true state of how he felt.
She walked up to him, and asked him, “I’m trying to do my artwork inside, is there any way you can reduce the volume in which you go about your work? It is highly distracting and prevents me from creating good art.”
Not knowing what to say, he simply replied, “but mam, this is the nature of repair work. There is no shortcut to it, the loud noise of the hammer to the nail fastens the nail firmly into place. Without the noise, the nail cannot go in, and your roof will not be restored. Water and sunlight will continue leaking in.”
For a moment after, boy and girl looked at each other, a moment that hung in time like white linen on a clothesline. “Fine,” she retorted, “you’d better make a good job out of this, alright? I don’t want to be distracted for nothing.”
He remained silent as she trudged back to her room. Strangely, he noticed that she did not close the door behind her this time. From where he stood, he could see her sitting behind her desk, busily applying brilliant brushstrokes to the vacant sheet of paper on her desk. He did not know why she left the door open despite the noise, but knew for sure that he had to come back again to see her.
Clumsily, he shuffled his ladder a few steps to the right. Making sure that no one was looking, he used the back of his hammer and removed three nails from another part of the ceiling. Keeping these nails in his pocket, he dismounted the ladder, and called for the messenger. In all accounts, the roof had been repaired. The messenger handed him some cash from the Chief and the boy shuffled back to his father. The work was done — or so they thought.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the boy was called back again. Another part of the chief’s roof was (unsurprisingly) left with a gaping hole. He walked up to the hut with a bounce in his step, and went about fixing the ceiling with unrivalled passion.
“Why are you here again?” Asked the Chief’s daughter, “weren’t you here just a few days ago?” She had stepped out of her room again, much to the boy’s delight.
“The roof needs fixing, there’s no two ways about it. I have to be here if not sunlight and water will leak through the roof,” he replied in an almost mechanical fashion.
“That’s what you said the last time,” she pouted.
“Well, there’s nothing more I can say, is there?” He added, “My role is simple, I climb up this bamboo ladder and I fix your roof. You go into your room and continue with your paintings. As long as the roof fails you, I’ll be here and as long as you have ideas in your head, you’ll continue painting. There’s really no two ways about it, is there?”
“I guess not. Anyway, don’t rush this time, alright? And be careful. You need to make sure the roof doesn’t fail my father again.” She walked back, and like the last time, left the door open as she sat at her desk to continue her work. She might have even looked up at him once or twice, though he was sure he was imagining things. It was an unusual habit of hers that kept him in complete askance.
After the repair work was done, he shuffled over to another part of the ceiling and removed three more nails from the woodwork. He needed to find out more about her.
She walked up to him again on his third visit.
“How do you stand this?” She asked.
She sighed. “How do you stand fixing this roof all the time? How come you never once complain about it being too tiring, or find it a poor use of your time?”
He thought this over for a while. “I’ve never thought of this as a waste of time. It’s just my role. It’s my role to stand on this flimsy bamboo ladder and fix your roof. I think we’ve established that before.”
“But don’t you get tired of it?”
“Nope. I don’t think so. My father has taught me this skill since young and I’ve learnt to love this job. It’s hard to explain to you. Your entire life has been devoted to something entirely different. How would you ever know where I’m coming from? All I can say is, the only thing you have to be concerned about is your own happiness. You can only be in a position to make others happy if you are happy with yourself. That’s what I tell myself before every job.”
Now it was her turn to think his words over. “How did you know that I wasn’t happy?”
“Huh? Did I ever mention that?” He was taken aback.
“You know it,” she said as a matter of fact. “You just do. You know that this routine I manage; staying in the house, immersing myself in what I want people to believe is art…you know that this, too, gets tiring.”
“I honestly didn’t think of it that way,” he replied. It was true. He didn’t.
“That’s funny,” she retorted, “I thought you knew all along that I wasn’t truly happy here.”
The next time he visited, the chief became suspicious. He spoke directly to the boy. “If the roof spoils again, I want your father to come. I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but the roof is breaking as we speak. I don’t need small patchworks anymore if that’s the case. I need your father’s experience to fix this problem once and for all.”
The fact that he may never have the chance to see the Chief’s daughter again saddened him, and his repair work was sloppier this time. The hammer frequently slipped off the nail head and he had trouble aligning the path of each nail.
The job took much longer this time. Though the door was open, she didn’t leave her room the entire time, and his occasional glances at her direction did nothing to stir her steady countenance. She continued looking down at her desk, applying generous brushstrokes to her work.
She did leave her room eventually.
“Leave the ladder there,” she motioned to him just before he left. “I’ll stow it away for you. You’ve done a great job, now go home and rest.” And with that, any hope of removing more nails were dashed. Not that it would have made a difference. His father was coming down the next time. He stepped down the creaky ladder, and left promptly, wordlessly, leaving not a trace of himself behind.
Two remarkable things happened over the next few days. Firstly, the old repairman got the news that a large section of the roof over the Chief’s hut had collapsed. This was startling news to his son, for he did not remember tampering with such large sections of the ceiling, and that he remembered the general structure of the ceiling to be more than able to hold its own weight. He didn’t wonder any further, though, when his father asked him to follow along for the repair work.
This was followed almost immediately by devastating news. There had been border clashes between theirs and a neighbouring state over an elevated plateau on the southern ridges. There was no initial use for the plateau, but precious minerals had been found by wandering villagers from the neighbouring state. Initially, there were friendly talks to share the haul, but before anything was resolved, a foreign soldier patrolling the area shot a local villager to death as he was illegally sifting through the land. Large questions about the other states’ agenda was soon raised, and tensions increased. All this led to one outcome: the state was recruiting young men to buff up on its defences. Trucks rolled into the village square and men in military uniform stepped up to the chief’s hut to deliver the bad news.
“What will happen to them? Will they return back safely?” He asked, head to the ground in genuine shock.
“There is no saying if they will. The tensions are at a boiling point now with the other state. They are recruiting from the villages as well, and we have no choice but to follow suit. These are orders from the city, and you know how it goes. No one can argue with the guys in the city.”
“But who will catch the fish, who will plow the land, and who will raise the livestock after all these men are gone? We’ve had generations of peace and you’re just going to take it all away in a matter of days?” The Chief was at a loss by now.
“There is nothing we can do about this. Just make sure that every able bodied male between the ages of eighteen and forty will be ready to leave when we come back next week. There is nothing more we have for you.”
The men left as quickly as they came.
Having just turned eighteen a few months ago, the repairman’s son wasn’t spared from this cruel turn of events.
“Don’t you want to rest today, son?” Asked the repairman. “Tough days lie ahead.”
“It’s ok, I’ll help you out this time.”
The repairman looked at his son, a close look of introspective scrutiny. It was amazing how much he had grown, his arms well-defined and scruffy hair spilling down his forehead. He suddenly felt a pang of guilt. He should have noticed his son more when he still had the time. He should have stopped by his room to ask him how it was at the village classrooms or in the sweltering fields.
“Follow me, son. Let’s make a good job out of this.”
He soon discovered that she wasn’t at home. Her door was left open but there was no trace of her the whole time. He held on to the hope that she would appear, tapping his ankle from behind and asking him about his day. She didn’t. He merely stood there as his father directed him to hammer the nails into the appropriate spots. Even the chief was there, but he could not ask him anything to do with his daughter. It would be too suspicious.
Nail after nail was painstakingly hammered into the wooden frame, and with every strike, the feeling of numb despondency grew within his chest. It caused his stomach to clench up, and before long he felt weak in the knees. He felt a pang of guilt all at once, for wasn’t his father looking up at him as well? Was his presence not more than a girl that he had only talked to a few times? He forced the thought of her out of his mind, his efforts condensing into a wane smile that barely stirred his cheekbones.
There would be one last ceremony before the departure of the men. On the warm Wednesday night before the trucks came to take them away, the entire village gathered in front of the chief’s hut for a farewell ceremony of sorts. The drums were beating, and the men drank excessively, wanting to drown any worries they had as they held their loved ones close to them. The repairman’s son, however, sat alone. His friends tried to get him to dance around the fire but he had no such desire to. There were questions that were left unresolved, and he did not want to forget these questions. His father would glance over at him occasionally, but after a few drinks he no longer had the energy to worry about his son. There was too much sadness within his heart to acknowledge that his only son was going to enlist.
The repairman’s son felt a tap on his shoulder. It was one of the chief’s servants. The servant handed him a folded up note, and immediately scurried off into the crowd. Holding the thin, yellowing paper on his fingertips, he opened it to reveal the contents:
Meet at the back door of my house, now.
When the repairman turned back to look at his son, there was a vacant seat where he used to be. He looked into the dancing crowd and smiled, downing the contents of his cup.
She was waiting for him at the back door. She wore a light blue dress that appeared illuminated in the dense moonlight, yet it was everything else about her that made his heart skip a quick beat. He walked up to her silently, and was standing beside her in the space of a few steps. He knew not what to say.
“Let’s take a walk,” she suggested, breaking the silence.
And so they walked quietly under the gaze of the moon, out onto the open road then into the stirring paddy fields. The crops brushed against the both their sides as they manoeuvred through the narrow path. There was the constant buzz of crickets in the air, and clingy moisture stuck to their skin. Deeper in they walked.
“How have the last few days been?” He ventured. The silence was becoming unbearable.
“I should be asking you that,” she started. “But yes, the last few days haven’t been very good. I’ve been worried.”
“Worried? What do you have to worry about?”
“It’s not about what I’m worried about, it’s a matter of who I’m worried about.”
It took him awhile to understand the meaning of her words, but his chain of thought was unspooled when she suddenly stopped walking when they reached a small clearing. He halted as well, and they now stood beside each other.
She looked at him in earnest. “Take care of yourself out there.”
“Thank you.” He could barely contain himself, but just managed to.
She continued, “I should thank you. Thank you for being someone I could talk to. People like you are hard to come by, and I never thought I could talk to anyone like this. My father has devoted his entire life warning me against ever sharing my life with anyone.”
“Aren’t you sick of that?”
“I never thought of it as something to dread. But…” She paused for a while. “But when I talked to you it made me realize just how lonely I was. It’s strange isn’t it? Talking to someone made me feel lonely.”
Not knowing whether she was complimenting him or not, he chose to remain silent. He did not want this to end. If only he could dissolve into the moonlight and just observe this moment from a distance for all eternity.
“The moment my mom died giving birth to me, I’ve felt like it was my fate to feel this lonely. My dad could never fully compensate for her absence, yet tried so hard. Being protective of me was all he knew, and I just took part in his designs without knowing how much hurt it had caused me.”
“Well, in that sense your father cared a whole lot for you,” he ventured, “It may have had the wrong outcomes, but you know for sure that someone cared. My father was always too busy running around the village all day that I grew up not talking much to him. He was there, but never present. Does that make sense? I had to make my way around the world by myself, without him asking too much of me.”
“Which one of us do you think is better off?” She asked. “I’ve got a sense that we’ve both been pretty messed up by our upbringing.”
“I wouldn’t like to think that. I’m sure my father had his reasons for being away so much. Making money through sheer labour is hard work. I’ve begun to discover that the day I started fixing the roof of your house.”
She smiled sheepishly to the ground. “Perhaps our shortcomings cannot be fully attributed to the side-effects of our upbringings.”
“Probably not,” he replied, and feeling more at ease now, reached out to hold her hand. However, she sensed this motion and quickly hid her hands behind her back.
He looked up at her, mildly hurt.
“Let’s just enjoy this moment with each other.” She sat down in the small clearing, and he did the same.
They sat there in silence for the longest time, both looking up at the source of the moonlight, both secretly hoping for this moment to last longer than it possibly could. The silver orb hung saliently in the sky, a reminder that time will move on through demarcated cycles whether or not one wishes otherwise.
With the waxing and waning of the moon, months passed, followed by years. The repairman’s son went off to defend his state, and found himself posted to the unit for border patrol. It was through sheer luck and instinct that he managed to stay alive. There were instances where he had to fight, others where he had to flee. The border skirmishes were fierce, and there were times where he watched his friends die in front of his eyes.
Worst was the fact that he had blood on his hands. A village boy from the neighbouring state once ran to him with a machete in hand. Barely in his teens, there was a look of bloodlust in his eyes, a look that signaled his intent to hack at any exposed flesh. He had no choice but to fire his rifle, and watched as bone fragments flew out from the boys kneecap in a spray of blood. The boy let out the most primal scream before passing out immediately from the pain. He knew the boy would never be able to walk again, but just left him in the bushes.
The experiences compounded, one more gruesome than the next. It was in his lowest moments that he thought of her, thought of the things she had told him during the last night, but most of all thought of the things she had yet to tell him. These were the things he would long to hear the moment he was back. It was ultimately this blind faith that kept him fighting deep within the jungles.
* * *
Three years passed. Three years of tireless patrolling and numerous near death experiences kept him rooted to the world. His purpose as a soldier, a defender of the land was left branded on his skin, the scar healing over and left deeply imprinted in his mind. He didn’t know just how much he had changed, but knew for sure that he would never be the same again. When he was hungry he longed for food and when thirsty he longed for water. Those weren’t the lowest points. The lowest points were the moments right after he ate or drank, when he was physically satiated but felt so emotionally drained. He missed his father, and cried for his mother. His heart would sink for no particular reason, yet for every possible reason. He missed her, and cried for her. He missed all that there was to miss of a life he feared he would never get back, a life he knew nothing of anymore. It was sheer torture, but no one would ever know of it.
The conflict ended as abruptly as it began. The soldiers returned all their weapons into the back of a huge truck one day, and were told to all board a separate vehicle. Somebody spread the message that they were going home. He chose not to believe anything, but started to accept this fact when the truck drove for hours, past all the border patrols and back into his own state.
The smell of mud filled his lungs, and the sounds of children playing, pigs rolling about and of the occasional crow of a rooster lingered on the peripheries. No matter what life chooses to bring you through, there are a few outstanding subtleties that will always serve as the reminder of a time long past. Your senses pick up on them like an itch of an amputated limb. It was then that he understood the true meaning of nostalgia, and it was then that it finally hit him, that this may just be the end. He closed his eyes and took in the smells and sounds once more, and like many of the men on the truck, began to weep freely. He was home.
Father and son reunited, and both marveled at how the other had changed so much. There was a freshness that was absent in the son, the tendencies one would associate with youth siphoned out by harsh experiences. The father’s head was awash with white hair, and his wrinkles had taken hold of his entire facial form like a slowly tightening handshake. His was a portrait of a man burdened by worries. Father and son talked for what seemed like the first time in their lives. One talked about his trials while the other of his worries. Both spoke of immense regret, and both shed tears about their sleepless nights. Both were irrevocably grateful at seeing the other again, yet immediately apologetic for not realising earlier, just how much they had needed each other. Hardship has its own way of reallocating such sentiments where it is needed the most.
“What about her? Where is she?” The son asked his father.
“Her?” He echoed.
“The chief’s daughter. Where is she? Is she still here?” He was suddenly reminded of their last conversation again. Three years had passed without him meaning for it.
“I think you should go to the chief’s house. You’ll want to hear it from the chief himself,” intoned the father solemnly.
The repairman’s son had no time for false hopes or lingering questions, and so quickly made his way to the chiefs’ hut on that short notice.
From a distance, the house looked the same as he had last recalled, but upon closer inspection, he noticed how poorly maintained it had been. There were cracks on the walls and cobwebs on every imaginable corner where wall met ceiling. The paint on the wooden panels had started to peel off, and the entire prospect of entering such a changed space scared him. The door opened before he had a chance to knock.
It was the village chief.
“Welcome back,” he said weakly. His smile was a wane one. There was a drink in his hand. It was probably alcoholic.
“I came to ask about…” his resolve tapered off like the end of a mixed tape.
“There’s nothing left to fix, if that’s what you’re asking,” said the chief as a matter of fact. “There’s something you’ll need to know, and I think I would be the best one to tell you about it.”
“Where is she?” Came the words. Courageous on the outset, but part of him knew that it was an empty question.
“Come in, and we’ll talk about it.”
Both of them walked into an empty house, dusty with months, or even years of neglect. He pulled a chair to a small, rickety table and placed it opposite the chief. Both men sat down in silence. Sunlight streamed in through a miniscule hole in the roof. Both men tried their best to ignore it.
“Where is she?” He repeated. “I’ve been wanting to know this for three years now. Spare me the rhetoric.”
It was the chief’s turn to speak. “We went through terrible times here. I’ll say that first as the backdrop to the entire story I’m about to tell you. It was terrible. There were frequent raids, and our resources were scarce. There was no longer any trade between states, and so we all had to become self-sufficient. Each villager helped the other out and somehow we made it through together. Troops would sometimes march in and demand for food, and we’d have to give them some of our share every time. We had to. Who knows what they would have done to the women if we hadn’t? Who knows what worst atrocities would have been committed?”
The repairman’s son stayed silent, listening intently.
“And so years passed like that. As you can see from the condition of this house, our efforts were focused more on agriculture and sustenance rather than basic maintenance and housekeeping. That was how bad it was. I kept her in her room the whole time, and made sure she was protected from everything that could have happened. Raids passed, hungry nights, terrified children. We went through all of it; yet the whole time my main concern was her. I believed that by keeping her indoors, that I was keeping her safe.
“A few weeks ago, she escaped. She simply disappeared and for a few days, no one could find her. I immediately set up a search party, but because all the young men were gone it wasn’t a very effective one. We searched the surrounding area of the village, but she was nowhere to be found.
“It was only on the fifth day that we saw her again, but not in the way we expected. She was paraded into the village with a group of soldiers, and in the middle of the crowd I saw her, weeping and in the arms of a man. She looked weak with grief and I immediately ran up to her, only to have five weapons pointed at me with alarming immediacy. It was soon that I learned that the man was not just any man, but the prince of the neighbouring state. I was told how he had found her stumbling through the jungles during his routine survey of the land, how she had walked for four days until she was near the borders.
“I immediately demanded that she be returned to us, but that was when the prince delivered an ultimatum. He gave us two options. We could choose for him to return her. But as soon as they did the soldiers would burn down the entire village and rape the women. His second option was simpler: he wanted her hand in marriage, and needed my blessing for this ritual to be fulfilled.”
The repairman’s son put his face in his hands.
“I know what you’re thinking, that I’m a cowardly man, that I would rather give her up for this idea of peace. But what choice did I have? I loved her too much, and perhaps that was the ultimate price I had to pay. A love so strong should never be allowed to exist.” He took a large sip from his drink. It had a strong stinging scent, and was definitely alcoholic. “I don’t know. I didn’t want it to end that way, but I thought of all the women and children, the old, defenseless men. I couldn’t put them through all that destruction, and I couldn’t weigh up her worth and decide it was more than the well being of the entire village. In my heart I would have just run away with her, but in my mind I knew I owed a life to my people.”
“So you gave him your blessing,” accused the repairman’s son. His fist was clenched so tight the blood drained from it.
“Yes, I did. And there was one last condition the Prince offered to me: that if he could have my daughter, that he would withdraw his troops from our area so that all our men could return home.”
“How could you have just believed him like that?” The repairman’s son was livid by now. “She’s your damn daughter! No father should just give her daughter away on mere promises.”
The chief took a deep breath. “Ah, but you see, aren’t you in front of me now, and are we not having this conversation in the comfort of our village? Even if you managed to survive the next few months or years of fighting, you would have come back to a burned down village, shallow graves and horrible stories. What kind of life would that be? There is a time to let go dear boy, and I urge you to treasure what you have left of your life.”
He looked up at the chief, and then at the ground. His words were firm and undeniable.
“And by the way,” the chief continued, “have you talked to your dad? He has missed you every day since you departed.”
“Yes I have. We haven’t talked as much in our entire lives.”
“That’s great. Then you’d be ready for this. Follow me.”
The chief stood up, and led the repairman’s son to his daughter’s room.
He had never been in the room before, but remembered looking at her from where he stood, looking tenderly at her artwork as she applied measured brushstrokes. It brought back a stab of pain.
“I want you to look into the drawer,” the chief spoke.
He stepped forward and leaned over the table. Hands trembling, he reached for the knob and tugged at it.
What he saw at first confused him. There was a pile of paper, and on top was a painting of a soldier in uniform, sitting comfortably under a huge banyan tree. The soldier held a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. That was when he understood. Impeccable brushstrokes imprinted the background of a brilliant sunset. There were a few more paintings under that, the next one of two people under the moonlight in a large paddy field. There was a girl in a light blue dress whom he presumed was herself, and a boy sitting beside her, a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. The moonlight painted their faces, faces of quiet contemplation. Again, he understood. The last three paintings were undoubtedly portraits of him, a boy on a ladder, reaching up to fix the ceiling, standing comfortably on the second rung. From her vantage point this was the exact view of him. His heart elevated and sank all at once, it was a feeling that was impossible to describe.
Sifting through further, he felt something sharp underneath the last painting of himself, and removed the rest of the artwork altogether and put it at one side.
At the bottom of the drawer, he discovered, lay a bed of rusted nails.