He had traveled halfway through the forest, when, suddenly, the light of the moon vanished as though someone had simply switched it off. A patch of cloud had obscured the moon, though some light was still streaming down from the cloud’s edge. The branches that appeared to hang limply before, now looked like so many snakes dangling from the trees, twisting and turning impatiently. Gusting wind whistled and hissed through the trees, knocking them violently against each other. Being inside a relatively dense part of the forest, he was safe from the direct assault of the wind. But this didn’t stop his clothes from fluttering about. Where had this cloud and this wind suddenly appeared from, and the wind gradually picked up? “Oh, I was so deep in my thoughts that I failed to notice the growing intensity of the wind. But even if I had noticed it, could I have stopped the storm or the cloud from concealing the moon?” As he watched, even the last trace of light vanished. Pitch darkness swept over everything. “Shall I turn back to that other village? But it would be about as far away now as my own.” Just to be sure, he pounded his heel on the trail. It was still there, under his feet. “I must keep walking, regardless of how far I can go. If I lose the trail, I’ll sit down and lean against a tree to pass the night. In the morning I’ll find my way home.” He kept going, even though his feet slowed down. Every ten or fifteen paces he tapped with his heels to confirm that he was still on the trail. He had walked quite far when suddenly his whole body collided with what seemed like a wall. The entire front of his body—mouth, nose, forehead, eyes, neck, chest, stomach, legs—was badly injured. The jolt sent him whirling down to the ground, half unconscious, as if felled by a torrent of nasty blows administered in the ring by a powerful opponent. He lay in that condition for a while collecting his wits. At last he managed to raise himself up on his right elbow and tried to look around. There was nothing but darkness. No stars, no moon, not even the sky, nothing around him but earth—hard, solid, and very much there. He was sitting right on the trail. “So what is this on the trail then? Most likely, a big pile of assorted, dry branches from acacia and shisham, and other pieces of wood, hacked off by axes and dumped here together. And I ran straight into it.” He passed his hand over his face. It became wet. “Blood? No, it must be sweat.” His whole body had been perspiring lightly. He opened his eyes as wide as he could and brought his hand close trying to see more clearly. It was impossible to tell in the darkness whether it was blood or sweat. He felt something salty inside his mouth. “Perspiration is salty too, isn’t it?” But now his tongue undoubtedly tasted blood. He rounded his mouth, filled it with as much blood as it could hold at one go and spat it out. For a moment the inside of his mouth felt completely clean, but the very next moment the taste of blood crept up on his tongue. His whole face was hurting, and so were his eyes, but it was hard to know where all he had sustained injuries, or how serious those injuries were. Maybe the tissues of his eyes had also been injured because when he pressed on his eyes he felt the same heavy, dull pain that he felt elsewhere on his body. “Who in the world stores wood right in the middle of a trail? It is a trail, after all, and should be kept clear of obstructions. Is it then not the trail, the trail that I’ve been thinking of all along, but merely a track that the lumberjacks working in the forest have turned into a trail by tramping over it repeatedly? God only knows precisely where I strayed off the main path and got onto this track. Under my feet it seemed just as firm as the main trail. As far as my heel could tell, it hadn’t erred. It couldn’t have done any more, could it have? But now, where’s the pile of wood—in back of me or in front?”
He forgot all about his bundle and started to move faster. Another trail appeared, then another, and then still another. “What’s going on? A moment ago I was having difficulty finding even one, and now a whole slew of them have materialized.”
Again his head knocked against something facing him. He groped about with his hand. It was a pile of wood gathered from the forest. He stood up. “Is this the earlier pile or a new one? There doesn’t appear to be any difference—a high wall of the same kind of sharp, spiked wood gathered together. If it is a second pile, it’s got to be either to the left or the right of the first one, or possibly behind it or even in front of it. Or, perhaps like the trails, it’s one of many. From which direction have I gotten here? Probably from the right.” He turned that way. His whole body was shaking and his clothes and face were drenched in blood. His breath was coming fast and hard. He took a few steps. “No, I got here from where my back is now.” He lunged in that direction. “No, no, from the left.” He quickly turned that way. His forehead struck hard against a thick branch that was hanging down toward the ground. The loud bang echoed in his head. The first question that came to his mind as he recovered from the impact was “What trap am I caught in? The forest has hemmed me in. My ears are splitting from its riotous laughter. It’s not going to let me go. I have to flee.” And he did, straight ahead, in the direction he was facing, bumping into trees and getting tossed around like a ball being passed between players in a circle who were loath to let it slip away. At last he collapsed onto the ground. In the morning, by the time the sun rose, his whole body had been covered by black ants, and it was impossible to identify the man who had been killed during the night.
Ikramullah (b. 1939) has been writing Urdu fiction for well over half a century. He has published many collections of short stories and novellas and, more recently, a novel. Penguin will publish a translation of two of his novellas in January 2015 under the title ‘Regret’.
Faruq Hassan taught English at Dawson College, Montreal. He is a published Urdu poet, critic and translator. With Khalid Hassan he co-edited ‘Versions of Truth: Urdu Short Stories from Pakistan’ (Vikas 1983). His last published work before his death (2011) was a book of poems by the celebrated Turkish poet Nazim Hikmat , which he translated from English.
Muhammad Umar Memon is Professor Emeritus of Urdu literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a critic, short-story writer, and has translated and edited half a dozen anthologies of Urdu fictional writing.