Gold Plumes on Daoodhi Hills

Mandira Pattnaik

Story image for Gold Plumes on Daoodhi Hills by Mandira Pattnaik

L illie isn’t sure what grows, though her brothers plant the ochre, capsule-shaped seeds, in neat rows of twos and threes. The seeds have tiny bird plumes on their supple bodies when they emerge from the soil. The siblings watch the whiteness of mum’s face when she discovers the saplings, the way she uproots them, cycles down the path to dispose of them, looking over her shoulder at every bend to make sure no one’s following her.

Last week, after a trek to the Daoodhi hills with Joji, who is Mum’s distant cousin, Lillie discovered the discarded saplings in the shadow of a boulder, all wilted. Their plumes must’ve been carried away to the town across the hills, or blown under the cacti bushes strewn around the bareness. There are hardly any trees here. Lorries like Joji’s ply on the highway slithering below, relentlessly carrying away poplar, teak, and sandalwood logs.

Joji said the boulder is an ancient yogi who sits meditating, waiting for the wandering mythical sage to break his curse, return him to human. Then he laughed at the weirdness of his own story, saying he’d like to meet the yogi, ask him how he sits that long.

Later, recalling that trek, Lillie thinks she isn’t particularly amused by the yogi story. She can only think of the saplings, relieved to have finally discovered where Mum dumped them. She barely can sleep at night wondering what they’d grow into if they had a chance, and how to source more seeds, for the seeds Dad left them are all lost.

Orbit-sml ><

A troubled night, in which the phone rang several times causing everyone to wake-up, and Mum had begun screaming in shock because of the news conveyed from the other end. The next morning is a hazy concoction of grief and ginger-cake. The fragrance of the bake, still wafting from the oven, is heavy. Ginger made to ease into the dry cake mix for days, before setting the cake-mix in the mold. The craft of generations.

Joji’s girlfriend has been informed; she’ll join from Singapore. Someone will go to pick her up after she travels two hours in the slow suburban train from the airport. Ill-luck she has to come at all, she once called this back-of-beyond place “trashy”.

Lillie can’t bear to piece it all together. According to Mum, the yogi rose, hurtled down the hill slope right upon Joji’s log-laden lorry as it passed below. Why? What if it had been Mum cycling then, as she always does?

Lillie’s brothers, Foel and Sundar, huddle in their bedroom. Sundar wants to go to town one of these days, look for the seeds, or at least identical ones. They debate if the supermarket there would stock the right ones. Pity Dad never told them the seeds’ name, or why they should grow them.

Lillie is shocked they aren’t discussing Joji or why he had to die.

She’s thinking of going to the place where the boulder had been.

Orbit-sml ><

W hen she returns, her brothers are quick to doubt. “You sure?”

“Cent per cent. The seeds were under it.”

“And the boulder?”

“Just so.” Like it had never moved, never rolled down the hill to kill Joji.

“Really?” Foel isn’t convinced.

Sundar jumps off his bed. “You got the seeds, of course?”

“Ha! No!” Lillie tells a lie whenever she must. Just so to feel superior to the boys. And she humors herself that boys are such fools.

“Don’t believe this!” Foel says resignedly, finally dismisses his sister.

Lillie has the seeds, just a handful of them. The ochre color caught her eye. She discovered them near the boulder, like brushed under it, but only almost so.

Lillie thinks they were revealed because the yogi boulder had returned to his spot, but not exactly so.

The seeds are in her skirt pocket. But she’ll not show them. Not yet.

“I think you got them,” says Sundar. “Show, I say!”

“No!”

“Show! Now!”

“No!” Lillie is adamant. She runs away and hides behind the water-tank in the courtyard. The boys snap at each other, like angry birds, because they can’t decide if Lillie is being truthful.

Mum, wary of the sibling fights, enters the room, and they hush up.

Orbit-sml ><

L illie has chosen her spot carefully. This time it would not be anywhere near home, but on the ashen slopes of the once evergreen Daoodhi Hills. It’d be difficult to trek or cycle all the way to look after them alone, but she’s convinced she must.

Dad, I must, mustn’t I? she mutters on her way back.

She’s planted a neat row, under the shade of a dune, and just about concealed by a huge ant-hill. She waters them every day on the way to school. Treks on Sundays to be with them, like little babies she must nurse to health.

The plants are due now, and she awaits what color plumes they’ll have.

Orbit-sml ><

S undar throws tiny pebbles from their rooftop at the neighborhood girls playing in the courtyard. Their tribes have lived in these forest areas since the kings ruled, married within the community, never left the place. Then came the miners from outside—the gora sahibs. They mined, carried away bauxite, other minerals, made money. Nobody was concerned how hollow the hills would become. Then came the Mumbai men who terrorized the tribals, cut the native trees for their precious wood. Cut the native men who stood in their way.

Sundar was old enough when Dad died. He realized how drought had hit them, how Dad was fighting against the mafia, how hard he worked. Sundar wants to forget those days. He wants to be rich, drive a car, be gone from here.

Sundar hopes Savi in the courtyard will notice the nuisance, notice him. He wants her to be angry, so she will rush up the stairs to get into an argument with him. Then he can tell her his real feelings.

Savi skips on the parallel lines drawn with a stick on the dirt. She squeaks: one, four, six, back. She pays no attention to Sundar.

I’ll ask Lillie to talk to her, Sundar thinks. But Lillie can never be found these days. He wonders where she escapes. Perhaps she’s found someone more interesting than Kapil, her last boyfriend.

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T he summer is bridging the gap between spring and fall. The days are long enough to go up the Daoodhi Hills after dinner.

The sporophytes are florescent green. Tomorrow, Lillie hopes, she’ll get to see the plumes.

Orbit-sml ><

A fter Joji, three more truckers have died by the yogi boulder crashing upon them. The fragmented boulder cleared each time. Crushed vehicle and logs carried away. Yet, every time, Lillie discovers the yogi boulder back where it was; returned to order.

After the last incident, the dozen or so remaining trees are spared, none dares to cut them. Lorry drivers have called a transport-strike. The cut logs spilled from the flattened trailer stay abandoned at the foot of the hills.

Orbit-sml ><

“W hy didn’t you tell us, Lillie?”

“I just wanted to let them grow. Live. If we talked—if Mum got wind of it—”

Sundar, Savi, and Foel stand in a semi-circle around Lillie. Lillie kneels. The row of just-emerged plants sway in the light breeze.

The leaves will soon be transformed into bird-wings, layered and light like plumes. But they are leaves now, as on a central stalk, prominent midrib, distinct veins crisscrossing the lamina. The leaves nod, and whisper to each other, like a community of kindergarten children. They giggle and raise a racket.

Minutes late, they unfurl like prayer flags. All four of them watch in stunned silence.

When they turn into feathers, Lillie checks the color excitedly: golden!

Sundar, Savi and Foel cheer and clap. Then they kneel to take a closer look. The gentle air causes the plumes to fall off, and they are brushed towards the anthill.

O, look!” Foel shouts.

They gape as the plumes gather, shape themselves into fledglings. The young birds flap their wings—once, twice. Little goldfinches. They peck at each other as though in greeting, then fly away in hard-earned freedom.

The gazes of the friends follow only the birds’ flight, in deep awe.

Orbit-sml ><

O ne week later, on the Tuesday before her fifteenth birthday, Lillie returns to find a new set of seeds planted. Not really planted, but dropped in a neat row next to the old one. The older plants are her height now, grown into young plants, hoping to be trees someday.

Orbit-sml ><

“I told you not to, and still—” Mum raises her hand, the blow sure to land on Foel, if it had not been abandoned, because Sundar falls at her feet.

“The seeds are a curse. Mataji—your grandmother—she warned me. Your Dad was killed the day he brought them home—murdered by the sandalwood smugglers.” Mum shouts. Agony in her voice making it shake.

“Mum! “Foel blurts. “It’s Lillie. She did it.”

“Lillie?”

Lillie does not hide from it. She advances a few steps and stands directly in front of her mother, locking eyes with her. “Yes—yes, me! Mum, I beg of you!”

Their home at the edge of the hills is enveloped in a verdant green now. All hues of green mingling in the backdrop.

You, Lillie?”

“It was only the first time, Mum! The goldfinches drop the seeds now! Not I, I did it only once.”

Mum drops on the chair.

“There are hundreds of goldfinches now, Mum! From the ones that first grew out of the seeds I planted. Their leaves grew into birds. Now the birds bring in their own seeds that grow into bird trees—goldfinch trees! The birds sow them, so the hills grow green again, like… like it was. So we have rains.”

Mum gapes and listens. Her face is of one who is emerging from a state of daze and into the realms of wondrous discovery.

“I see them flap and fly, together! Such a lovely sight—the gold sitting on the branches, against the green leaves.”

“And the yogi? Are you sure he…” Sundar throws the question at Lillie.

“Yes, yes, he always returned. He punished those people who traded in our trees. And it’s the meditating yogi protecting the trees. He will not let someone like Dad die again trying to save the Daoodhi Hills.”

Mum glances from one boy to the other. Then her eyes rest on Lillie, before spilling with tears. “Joji!” Mum lets out a scream. “Joji, I told you not to, even if the contractor insisted. Why did you not listen to me?”

Mum looks to the heavens and it begins to rain.

Orbit-sml ><

O n the slopes of the Daoodhi Hills, the teal limbs of the trees embrace each other and dance in cadence to the monsoon rhythms.

Soon, the goldfinches will swoop down again, and come to be in their midst, cooing to celebrate the return of their habitat.

Orbit-lrg

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Mandira Pattnaik

Author image of Mandira Pattnaik Mandira Pattnaik writes on subjects of identity, climate crisis and displacement. Her publications include 150 magazines across 15 countries in print and online including LampLight, Orca, Psychopomp and Passages North. She is also on the masthead of Reckon Review and Trampset. Read more about her at http://mandirapattnaik.com/.

© Mandira Pattnaik 2022 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: nandhukumar, jplenio, and VictoryRock.

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