This happened about six months ago and Iâ€™ve often kept myself from writing about it. But here is it, anyhow. On an autumn evening, I was coming back from my stroll when I ran into her in the forest. She was standing under an old Deodar tree, as if waiting for someone. As I approached I noticed she was not carrying much, but an old bundle of clothes. Her dress had a certain charm to it other than the fact that it seemed heavily out of place and time. Considering the imminent darkness, I decided to play gentleman and walked over to her.
â€œAh evening, Miss. Is there anything you’d like help with?â€ I asked. As I waited for her to answer I quickly noticed she wasn’t wearing any footwear and she had the deepest green eyes I had ever seen. She slowly turned to acknowledge my presence and merely looked through me as if I wasn’t even there.
â€œCan you hear the music — can you? It’s all over in the hills tonight.â€
I simply listened as she spoke those words. Her voice wasn’t less than music itself. It sounded like a lone bell ringing some where far away on the hills. It reminded me of a melody my grandmother used to sing while lulling me to sleep. Of course that was long ago and I was almost 63 now. â€œI’m afraid, I don’t hear anythingâ€, I said.
By now she had aroused my curiosity well enough. If her appearance hadn’t amused me, her words had captured my fantasy and begun to mesmerize me.
â€œWhat makes you to be out here at this desolate hour? Is there somewhere you wish to go?â€ I asked her again, trying to make some sense out of the whole affair.
â€œI’m waiting for a friend of mine. He had promised to meet me here after the play. I will be all right, but how kind of you to be concernedâ€, she murmured softly.
After the play? I wondered if she was an artist â€“ thus accounting for her attire, which had struck me from the start.
She kept looking through the dense forest while the shades of darkness began to fall. At times I tried to follow her gaze only to find wild mountain flowers staring back at me. It seemed as if the forest itself was clueless. It hadnâ€™t occurred to me until then that a woman could be as brave to be out in the forest at that hour.
Mind you, I have never considered myself to be a meek fellow, but I would rather stay indoors and work on my book than be out at such a dark hour.
She kept quiet for a while and then she spoke again. Again that voice â€“ as if someone was ringing bells on a hilltop, beckoning for someone â€“ someone lost in time.
â€œI donâ€™t expect anything, but do me a favor before you head on your way, kind Sirâ€, she said. I asked how could I be of any assistance. It seemed the least I could do for a lady in such an hour of need and desperation.
â€œDo stop by the theater on your way and inquire about Ameen. He is whom I have been waiting for, and it troubles me to think if something should happen to him.â€
That really struck a chord in my heart, for in all of my 37 years in this town, I had never before heard of a theater being there. But I convinced her that I would surely check.
Before leaving, I asked her again if she would be all right by herself and even offered her to accompany me back to town. She gently turned it down saying that she would rather wait for Ameen lest he comes looking and finds her gone. With that assurance, I left here there.
As I was leaving, I nodded and she gave me the most enthralling smile I have ever seen. Her eyes seemed like a deep green ocean full of eternal waters. I broke off the gaze and set out to find the theater. It was almost half way when I realized I had not asked her name. But it was too late for that.
I have never walked as briskly as I did that night. It was almost 11 when I reached town. Old man Qasimâ€™s teashop was still open and I was glad to see that.
He knows almost everyone and everything about the town. His family has spent almost 4 generations in town and one could rarely doubt what he knows. They say that people in the hills never age â€“ they just grow with the mountains. At 79, Qasim was as swift as any 21 year old.
â€œSay, Mister, isnâ€™t it late for you to be out. I assume you have finally finished your novel and I can look forward to recovering my unpaid billsâ€, he yelled out as I walked over to him.
â€œIâ€™m afraid you are not that luckyâ€, I answered him meekly.
â€œRather I need to ask you something very important.â€
This ignited his curiosity and before he could comment any further, I explained about the girl I had met in the forest. I barely kept my breath as I spurted everything out. He listened attentively and offered me tea when I was done. Qasimâ€™s tea â€“ hot and sweet with lots of milk.
â€œThank you, Qasim, but there is a lady waiting in the forest, and I must find that theaterâ€, I said, turning down his offer of tea gently. By then few more people had gathered, mostly in their 70s. Qasimâ€™s teashop was the only place where they could meet without any boundaries of time and subject. Sometimes I would look down from my window and still find them chatting at late hours of the night.
â€œIt seems our author friend has met Maya tonightâ€, Qasim said loudly, as if addressing a rally. There were few gasps and soon enough people were discussing amongst themselves, as if I had been to a site of murder. Without paying any attention, I requested Qasim if he could tell me about the theater. I felt a sense of urgency to find Ameen.
â€œIâ€™m afraid, my friend, but you have just come across Maya as we all know herâ€, Qasim said in an authoritative manner.
So that was her name â€“ Maya. Indeed the name matched her enchanting persona and those deep green eyes. How could I forget those eyes? Just then, I realized Qasim was trying to say something. I broke my trance and listened to him carefully.
â€œListen, dear author. Everyone has met Maya at one time or the other. Even my grandfather met her once while coming back from the hills.â€ His last comment really shook me and I could feel the hair on my arms starting to stand up. Qasim continuedâ€¦
â€œShe was a local girl who disappeared about 150 years ago, as some people would tell you. Her husband, Ameen was a local actor. He was captured by some goons as he was coming back from a play one night. They later killed him for a tiny sum of money. The theater you are looking for has been gone for more than a century. The site still remains bearing the marks of what once was.â€
By now I was starting to lose my mind. The whole thing didnâ€™t really make any sense to me. I was still concerned about Maya who was waiting for Ameen out in the forest. Qasim spoke againâ€¦
â€œIt is said that Maya was so deeply shocked by Ameenâ€™s disappearance â€“ she went mute for several days. No one heard her talk and then one day she vanished in thin air. All efforts to find her were in vain. Some people believed that she plunged herself into the valley to be with Ameen â€“ never again to be separated.â€
No one spoke for a while. Qasim was surely troubled or so it seemed to me. I did not know what to say. I just sat there when some truckers arrived and Qasim took to his duties yet again â€“ making tea for people who passed through the hills. I ambled back home quite disturbed and even thought about going back to the forest to find Maya. But then I shunned the thought altogether.
Since then, I have often passed by that Deodar tree where she stood waiting for Ameen that night. Sometimes I convince myself of seeing a glimpse of her.
You may not believe me, but as I was passing through the forest last night, I saw her again. There she was in her long rural dress under the same Deodar tree. She didnâ€™t notice me and kept staring in one direction. Perhaps she was still waiting for Ameen.
I will never really find out the truth about Maya. But sometimes, I think of that dark autumn night when I met her — And her words start to play back in my mind, over and over again.
â€œCan you hear the music, can you? Itâ€™s all over in the hills tonightâ€¦â€
17 October 2004