Landi Kotal, Balochistan, 1898.
Colonel Sir Robert Warburton could not quite think of an explanation for what the gardener was doing; at least not one that would be appropriate to present to the British Indian Army. He was hoping that an inspection of the Khyber Rifles would take place soon, and when it finally happened he didn’t want any gardeners performing strange rituals in trees. It was imperative that the unit made a strong impression.
He stood on the stone path in the middle of the Officer’s Yard, one hand resting heavily on his cane and the other stroking his curled moustache, observing the struggling gardener closely.
The young man was now drawing a long length of chain from the ground. He slung it over his shoulder and looked up past the large beech tree. His brown kameez was dark with perspiration. Outside the fort the brown mountains rose and fell, bounding along the warm sky. It was an unusually hot August.
The gardener grabbed onto a thick branch and hoisted himself up. He began to pass the chain through the many limbs of the tree, threading them back and forth with purpose. He gave the chain one last tug and threw the loose end to the ground, jumping behind it with a soft thud.
Colonel Warburton cleared his throat. “Bhagwan!” he yelled in Pashto. “Sa kaye ta?”
The gardener turned immediately, straightening his back into a stiff vertical line. “Salam Kernel,” he said. “Za wana shlawam.”
Chaining the tree down are you? Well I can already see that. Saying it out loud isn’t going to help me understand why.
He raised his right hand questioningly. “Khu pa sa waja?” he asked.
“Aafiser Sadozai rata wayili di,” the reply came back.
Officer Sadozai told you? Well that wasn’t an explanation either.
He resisted the urge to ask any more questions. He feared it might turn into that silly game which the sepoys played with young children; where they answered every question the child had with the word why. He knew how that game ended, with someone invoking the name of the almighty.
“Because God wills it.”
He tapped his cane on the stone pathway and held it neatly in the air. “Tashakur,” he said.
The gardener returned his thanks with a deferential smile. He was a good lad, that gardener. He had a talent for growing peaches.
Colonel Warburton walked down the pathway and up the stone steps, straight into the entrance hall of Officer’s Mess, his cane tapping lightly on the marble floor. He stopped the first sepoy that he saw.
“Dilta Officer Sadozai gazul,” he said.
The sepoy froze, then gave his uniform a quick tug, pulling it neatly beneath his brown cummerbund. He held his hand up in a sloppy salute and rushed out into the main hall, hoping that no one was in trouble.
Colonel Warburton pulled up a frail wooden chair. He sat down, resting his cane between his thighs. There was a time when he would have reprimanded that sepoy for having a sloppy attire. There was a time when he would have noticed ten things wrong with his salute and rectified them all before lunch. But what was the point of that now?
He peered into the Officer’s Mess, observing the sepoys running around the fading green benches. He could smell the food being brought in. It was another hot meal of chopan kabob and naan. He stared at the familiar stacks of metallic plates on the green benches.
He’d been the Commanding Officer here for twenty years now. That was twenty years of solidifying relationships with the local tribes. Twenty years of building the Khyber Rifles from the ground up. Twenty years of maintaining a tenuous peace. What would happen when he was gone?
He’d been putting in requests for an appropriate British officer to train under him for years now. Each time he’d been ignored. What did they think? That they could just send up some fresh Jack-Dandy and expect him to become a successful Commanding Officer overnight? This wasn’t Delhi or Kolkata. This wasn’t some metropolitan city. This was the Frontier. To command respect here the CO had to speak the language, to know the culture, to understand the context; and that took time. There was only one option left now. The next Commanding Officer would have to come from the force, and he would have to be Indian.
Officer Sadozai walked in from the main hall, dressed smartly in his paramilitary uniform. He stopped a few feet short of Colonel Warburton and clipped his heels. “You want to see me Kernel,” he said in a Pashto accent.
Colonel Warburton stood up, pushing the chair away as if were an apparition which had suddenly appeared beneath him. He gripped his silver cane, looking Officer Sadozai squarely in the eyes. “Yes,” he said slowly, remembering why he had called him in the first place. “I want to know why you ordered the gardener to chain the tree in the front yard.”
Officer Sadozai gave him an uncertain look. “Was an order from Officer Squid sir.”
“To chain the tree?”
“And why was that order given?”
“He arrested it sir.”
“He arrested the tree sir. Last night.”
Colonel Warburton brushed his hand over his chin and brought it down to his chest, running it over the many medals pinned to his uniform.
“Officer Sadozai,” he bellowed. “Would you be able to inform me as per the reason for which this arrest took place?”
“Yes sir,” Officer Sadozai said quickly. “Officer Squid said the tree was moving.”
“Moving?” Colonel Warburton asked. “What’s wrong with that? Trees move all the time. They move in the breeze don’t they?”
“No sir,” Officer Sadozai shook his head violently. “Not like that sir. Officer Squid said the tree was moving to him, like this!” He held his hand up, contorted it and then brought it towards his face slowly, widening his eyes throughout the duration of the strange motion.
Colonel Warburton regarded the man standing in front of him closely. Sadozai was a good officer. He trained hard, he had exemplary strategic thinking and he was too damn intelligent a man to lie about something like this. The only explanation was that he was telling the truth.
“Was Squid drunk?” he asked matter of factly.
“Maybe sir,” Officer Sadozai said and then paused. “But maybe not.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was under the influence sir. Maybe it was alcohol… but maybe it was something else…”
Colonel Warburton stared at him blankly, awaiting further clarification. Officer Sadozai reluctantly continued to speak. “I was not there sir, so I cannot say, but the sepoys say it was a strange night. They were outside at the fire. There was no wind, no clouds either, and still they swear they heard screams of children coming from far over the mountains.”
“And what does this have to do with Officer Squid?” Colonel Warburton asked impatiently.
Officer Sadozai arched his shoulders, as if he were trying to brace himself for what he was about to say. “Again, I was not there sir, so I cannot be sure. But some sepoys said that maybe the tree did move. They say that it was possessed, that there was jadoo in the air that night.” He stopped, forcing himself to look his Commanding Officer straight in the eyes. “They think the tree was trying to scare him into the mountains sir. To send him to the children.” Colonel Warburton rubbed his eyes. He’d been born in the mountains. He’d lived in the Frontier since he was a child, and he’d never, in all those years, come across any screaming mountain children, or moving trees in the dead of night.
He looked back at Officer Sadozai blankly. What could one possibly say to that? The unit had always been infatuated with supernatural tales, and he’d never understood why. Perhaps their fixation came from living in the isolated fort so near to the mountain pass. Perhaps it was just another way to make life less dull.
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about this incident Officer Sadozai?” he asked.
“Yes sir. Officer Squid tried to shoot the tree with his rifle sir.”
Colonel Warburton tensed. He gripped the head of his cane firmly. “And what happened?”
“There was an argument sir. Some of the sepoys wanted to take his rifle away. Others said the tree was so big he couldn’t miss. In the end he just arrested it.”
“The tree may have been rather big, Officer Sadozai,” Colonel Warburton said, “But a drunk is a rather bad shot, don’t you agree? Where is Officer Squid right now?”
“In the bunks sir,” Officer Sadozai said. “He didn’t sleep well.”
“Thank you. Now go tell the gardener to take down the chains.”
“Yes sir.” Officer Sadozai clipped his heels smartly and marched out of the Officer’s Mess.
Colonel Warburton watched him go before proceeding towards the back door. He stepped into the warm air and made a straight line through the garden towards the bunks.
The last thing he needed was to have an unbalanced British Officer going out with a loose rifle and shooting trees, or worse–mistaking a young child for a faerie. That would derail everything. They needed to set the standard, to prove that they belonged here, to prove that they were committed.
Officer James Squid would have to go.
Colonel Warburton gave three loud raps on the wooden door and waited for a response. Then he walked in.
In the corner of Officer Squid’s bed the sheets were folded up into a neat pile. On top lay a small note. He picked it up, examining it carefully. It was written neatly, in blue ink and a small cursive font.
Commanding Officer Sir Colonel Robert Warburton,
I regret to inform you that I have deserted the Khyber Rifles.
The events of last night have convinced me that this place is plagued with misfortune. The campaign which started last October was not an anomaly. Such unease will continue. We should not be be here.
I will be making my way through the mountains back to England. Respectfully, I suggest you do the same.
A tree which wishes to move by its own will, cannot be held down by any chains.
Deserted Officer James Squid
Colonel Warburton held the note between his two fingers. He bent down and placed it back on the bed. Good riddance, he thought.
As he lifted his gaze, he looked out of the window. From his vantage point he could clearly see the gardner taking down the chains from the tree under the watchful eye of Officer Sadozai.
He smiled. He wondered how he would be remembered.
He was the first Commanding Officer of the Khyber Rifles. Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire. The half Afghan, half English Commander who had saved a beech tree from imprisonment.