Elia was going down to the well when her father called. “Look at this.”
Elia turned. Her father had been digging a drainage ditch down from the potato field. It was hard work, and Elia had asked to help, but her father had said it wasn’t a job for a girl. He’d been digging for a week now and it wasn’t half complete yet. “Father?”
“Yes, come here.” Her father was squatting by the side of the ditch, poking at something with the tip of his spade. “Have a look.”
Elia put down the bucket and bent over her father’s shoulder. There was something smooth sticking out of the red earth at the side of the ditch. As her father poked it, a large clod of mud fell away from it, revealing a curve of metal. And, underneath, something that was the colour of old ivory.
“What is it?” Elia asked.
Her father said nothing for a minute or two. He kept scraping away with the tip of his spade and more earth fell away. Now Elia could see it too, the eye sockets filled with soil and the yellow teeth.
“Wait.” Elia’s father pushed the spade into the earth above the thing and levered. A large chunk fell away and now they could see more of the thing, the corroded metal helmet and the brown line of the jawbone.
“It’s a skeleton,” Elia said, awed. “A real skeleton.”
“Yes, he must have been a soldier back in the war.” Elia’s father poked at the soil which had fallen into the ditch and the spade came up with something metallic. Buttons, with scraps of rotting cloth still sticking to them. “Those are off his uniform.”
Her father glanced at her. “You’ve heard old Minthang talk about it. When the Japanese were here.”
“Oh.” Elia blinked. “But that was ever so long ago.”
“And so is this skeleton.” Elia’s father poked at something in the earth wall, and levered out a long, rusted piece of metal. “This was his rifle, I’ll bet. And here...”
Elia began to climb down into the ditch for a closer look, but her father glanced sharply at her bare feet. “No, it’s not safe for you down here. Go get the water for your mother, and then...” he thought for a moment. “Go to the chief’s house, and tell him. Tell old Minthang, too. If he can come all the way up here, he’ll want to have a look.”
Sighing, Elia turned away to the bucket. The interesting stuff was all over, she thought.
“He must have been Japanese.” Old Minthang wiped spittle from his jaw. His voice was shaking, even more than his usual old man’s quaver. “They wore helmets like that.”
Elia looked at him with surprise. The old man was shaking all over. His knees were trembling, as was his arm and even his head. Nobody else seemed to remark on it, but they were all crowding around the ditch.
Strictly speaking, Elia shouldn’t have been there at all. If her father had seen her he’d certainly have sent her away to the house. But Elia was interested. Even if she couldn’t see what was going on, at least she could hear what they were all saying. And now she was interested in what was happening to Minthang.
“You said there was fighting near here,” Jomte, the chief’s son, said. “Uncle Minthang?”
“Yes, yes,” Mnthang mumbled. “Half the village was burned. Leaning heavily on his bamboo staff, he lifted a trembling arm, but Elia couldn’t see what he was pointing at. “Over there, that’s where they had set up their camp. The Japanese. They were shooting this way, towards the village. The English were coming the other side. I saw people getting killed. But nobody knew who killed them. The Japanese and the English, they were shooting through the village from both sides.”
“What’s that in the mud?” someone asked. “His knife?”
Mintang went on as if the man hadn’t spoken. “The chief at that time, it was Linboi, I remember my father had been talking about leaving the village before the fighting started. But Linboi, he had told us that the English never could lose a battle, he said they could conquer the world. So nobody left. And then the village was destroyed and many people killed. But not Linboi. Nothing happened to him.” Minthang spat, or it might have been that the saliva simply ran over his jaw. “His house wasn’t even hit by a single bullet.”
“Well, that kind of thing happens.” Elia recognised her father’s voice. “You shouldn’t worry about it.”
“But then the English went away, and the Japanese...” Minthang’s voice trailed off. “The Japanese...”
“What’s wrong?” At last, someone noticed that Minthang was swaying. Jomte wrapped his arms round the old man’s shoulders. “Are you all right?”
“Get him back to his house,” someone said. People gathered around Minthang and began helping him back towards the village, and Elia’s father saw her at once.
“What are you doing here?” he snapped. “Go back home. This isn’t for you.”
“What are you going to do with the skeleton?” Elia’s mother asked her father.
Elia put down the book she was supposed to be reading and listened. They were in the next room, but the door was open and she could hear clearly enough.
“The chief says he’ll send Jomte down to the town to tell the police, but when they’ll come back I don’t know. In the meantime we’re digging out the bones and putting them in a sack.”
“A sack?” Elia’s mother’s voice rose. “You aren’t bringing it in here.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve left it behind the shed.” Her father hesitated. “I hope Elia’s all right?”
“Yes, why shouldn’t she be? Do you think she’d be scared of ghosts or something?”
“I wasn’t really thinking at first, and let her see the skeleton. It isn’t the kind of thing for a young girl.”
“And it’s all right for you?” Elia’s mother’s voice was rising, and she brought it down with an effort. “All you men, coming to gawk around the poor thing’s body, as if it’s a circus. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
“Here, hold on. Just now you were saying that you don’t want it in here.”
“That’s different. And if it isn’t the kind of thing Elia should have seen, what about the old man? I saw him being taken down to the village and he could hardly walk.”
“Well, he had a shock, you see. He had bad memories, from the war.” Elia’s father’s voice dropped to a whisper, but she could still hear him. “He’s mumbling about things the Japanese did after the battle, before they retreated a couple of days later. The way they treated the villagers – it was pretty vile.”
“I don’t want to hear it!” Elia’s mother snapped. “There’s enough sickening things happening without talking about what occurred seventy years ago. That poor thing out there had a family too.”
“Quiet,” Elia’s father said. “It doesn’t matter, the police will take the body and hand it to the government. They’ll send it back to Japan, I suppose.”
“Where is Japan? Far off?”
“I don’t know where it is. Maybe as far as England, people say. Far. Elia might know.”
“I wonder if there will be anybody who might remember him,” Elia’s mother said.
That evening, after dinner, Elia slipped out and walked to the shed. From here she could see the ditch, like a wound in the earth, and the trampled place where the people had gathered. It all looked very quiet and peaceful, as it had looked all her life, and she couldn’t imagine that there had been men fighting and dying right in her father’s potato field. She picked up a clod of soil and crumbled it, letting the dirt slip through her fingers.
There was a sack leaning against the wall, a shapeless lump in the darkness. Elia touched it with a fingertip. There were hard things inside, bone or metal she couldn’t tell.
“I’m glad you were found,” she whispered. “It must have been lonely, staying under the earth alone for so many years.”
A meteor streaked through the sky. She watched it till it vanished.
“My mother wanted to know where Japan was,” she said. “My father didn’t know. I do, though. I’ve seen photos, in my school books. It looks like a nice place. Green forests and bright cities. You must have missed it when you came to the war, didn’t you? Were you homesick?” She touched the sack again, running her fingertips over it, the rounded bumps and sharp edges. “It must have been terrible,” she told the sack. “The war. You were probably terrified, weren’t you? Maybe being killed was a relief. You were out of it.”
“Elia!” she heard her mother call. “Where are you?”
“Maybe your family was waiting for you to come back,” Elia said. “Maybe you had a sister like me. Did you have a sister? Perhaps she’s still waiting, hoping you’ll come home someday.”
“You’ll be going home,” Elia whispered. “That is something, isn’t it?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013