Fiction: The Settlement

15 November, 2021

 

It was claimed to be the tallest and oldest tree in the world, now partially burnt, with strange branches that sprouted in all directions, from what appeared to look like seven crafted platforms, each one rising out of the other. The leaves of the uppermost level seamed to melt into the sky.

 

Tariq Mehmood

 

She was secure in the storeroom of the first settlement that had sprung up on top of Hill 21. The room had no windows and the door was locked from the outside.

“I have a few questions for you,” I said to her, but again she gave the same answer, “What animal are you?”

Every now and then she banged on the door and screamed. A guttural scream, which had changed over the past few hours, from one filled with fear to a beastly groan.

Like everyone from the Settlement, I too was hated by the people of her village, which was outside the security parameter. These were squalid places, full of dark alleys with stubborn inhabitants who refused to move on with the times. In villages like these, it was always the same: old men stopped whatever they were doing and stared coldly at us when our patrols went past; young women, looked at us and spat on the ground, and you had to have your eyes in the back of your head out here, especially when schools finished. You never could be sure which of the vicious bastards would lob a rock at you.

I wasn’t much liked in the Settlement either. Not only had I come from the city to conduct the enquiry, but I was on the darker shade of skin color to be a proper one of these zealots, all of whom had travelled thousands of miles to live in ultramodern houses, inside a barbed wired enclosure.

“I should have shot her when she came screaming towards the check-post. It was a clear shot,” Private K said. “I don’t know why I hesitated. That’s all it took for them to catch up to her, drag her down, throw her in the van and bring her into the Settlement.”

He was on guard in front of the storeroom.

“Sometimes it is very difficult,” I reassured him. He was in his early 20s but looked much younger, especially with his short hair and round glasses. “Did you see who set the tree alight?”

“I was detailed to protect them when they went to pray there, that’s all,” Private K ignored my question.

 “Who set the tree on fire?” I repeated.

He looked away from me, shook his head and said, “I just saw her standing in the lower branches first. There were other soldiers from my unit, but she spat at me again and again. Once she pointed up in the tree and said, ‘Beloved, so long as there is breath in my body, no one will step in your place,’ And then she spat at me again and I brought her down.”

I thought for a while, imagining the scene. The woman in the tree, a tree with which I was familiar. It had fist-sized frayed brown leaves, and its trunk was split into two enormous parts, which resembled a human figure leaning down on one knee, with the other leg going around it.  It was claimed to be the tallest and oldest tree in the world, now partially burnt, with strange branches that sprouted in all directions, from what appeared to look like seven crafted platforms, each one rising out of the other. The leaves of the uppermost level seemed to melt into the sky.

My mobile vibrated and brought me back to the job at hand. I received some CCTV photographs. One showed the woman running towards the communal open-air swimming pool. Another showed frightened swimmers scrambling out. Another showed her being wrenched out of the water by two men. One showed her kicking one of the men.

I went into the living room to continue with my investigation. The room had a carved wooden bear dangling from the ceiling.

S., my next interviewee was sitting at a table, her hands wrapped around a cup of tea, which was placed next to her Settlement-issue pistol. She had shoulder-length brown hair, and sharp blue eyes.

As soon as I entered, she looked up at me and said, “I want you to know how I deeply appreciate your investigation.” Her voice was charged with emotion. “I am eternally grateful for the fact that the tree survived.”

I nodded.

She continued, “I mean what has that tree not seen?”

“Who do you think actually set it on fire?” I asked.

She sighed, “I have long argued that the only way to save the tree is to bring it into the protective jurisdiction of the Settlement. If this had been done, then there would be no need for your investigation and all this waste of time and resources.”

I wasn’t making much progress with S. and said, “That will be all for today, but I may come back to you.”

She pushed the cup away from her and stood up crying, “I am deeply disturbed by the way those men held her and did what they did to her inside the Settlement.”

“Indeed,” I concurred and then asked out of curiosity, “Surely you saw her running around in the playground, why didn’t you apprehend her?”

“I was off duty at the time and was far more concerned about my daughter, who was terrified,” S. replied calmly. She spoke with a stiff upper lip. She had warm brown eyes and a broad smile. She continued, “I had heard on the radio that a terrorist was running amok inside the Settlement. It was 3:15 pm. I was on my way back here when my car cut out. I was about three kilometers away from the edge of the village, it’s a notorious part of the road, hidden between two hills, where stone throwers often target us, but thank god, the car started, and I managed to get here.”

S. left and I finally managed to get to B. and D., the main witnesses. They came into the room a few minutes later.

B. was a thin man, with long hennaed hair tied into a bun at the back of his head.

“A bit of straight talking would help,” I said to B. “This investigation has dragged on already.”

He looked at D., who scratched his tattooed neck and smirked.

“This is not a laughing matter,” I said. “The tree is protected…”

“I was about to shoot her when she fell into the pool,” D. said running a finger through one of the curls of his hair dangling by the side of his face, “but as I am the pool keeper, it would have meant a lot of cleaning.”

“Is it wrong to assume, that as you two were the only ones by the tree, one of you, or both of you set it on fire…”

He forgets he is not in the jungle anymore,” B. laughed, tapping D. on the shoulder

I didn’t rise to the bait and kept quiet.

D. added, “The tree is sitting on the temple of our ancestors.”

“She could have set fire to the tree and then climbed it, for all we know,” B. said.

“According to the report, there was no hint of petrol on her clothing or…” I changed the line of enquiry and asked, “Why were two of her fingers broken?”

“They can use them as weapons,” D. said touching a fresh scar on his forehead.

I dismissed them with a wave of my hand. They stood up and left.

I finished writing my notes and was about to leave when S. came back. She was flustered.

“As a woman, I am really disturbed by what happened here. She is a woman, after all,” she said. “I mean, when wolves get the taste for human flesh, they can never stop wanting it, can they?”

“No, I suppose not,” I replied and went to the storeroom to check on the prisoner.

S. followed me.

“Who opened the door?” I asked pointing to the storeroom. The door was ajar.

“I did,” Private K replied.

“Why?”

“She would not stop asking?”

“What?”

“’What animal are you?’” he replied. His arms dangled by his side. His weapon was leaning against the wall. “And I know why she asked me this and why she spat at me.”

“Stand to attention, Private!” I ordered.

He didn’t and said, “She knows who I am, I am sure of it.”

“Stand to attention, Soldier!”

He raised his head, picked up his weapon and obeyed.

“Where is she now?” I asked.

‘Still inside?” he replied.

I tuned my ear towards the storeroom. There was a rustle of leaves, and a moment later she stepped out. Matted earthy brown hair covered her face. Her open hands raised skywards.

By the time I unclipped my pistol holder, S. had shot her in the stomach. The captive fell down a few feet from Private K., first on her left knee, then the right slid behind her, all the while muttering something unintelligible. She threw her head back, her hair flicked off her face. Her blazing eyes stared unblinkingly at me, and then she smiled.

 

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