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“Although the old town lacked infrastructure, it is still treasured for its abundant natural resources. Khagar’s leaders wanted to utilize the forest land for the development of infrastructure and convert it into a smart town. However, the people of Nakchu opposed the cutting of trees and held protests at the town centre to save the forest.” 

“News channels are abuzz again,” Sahadev muttered. 

“If we don’t sell wood tomorrow, then we have nothing to feed our families.” Hira pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Don’t worry, we will look for another job at the town centre.” Hira and Sahadev made a living by selling wood.

Nakchu was an old town situated along the banks of the Dakini river and surrounded by the renowned untamed forest that was true to its name: thriving, limitless, radiant, lush; bundled branches hung from a few trees; an array of lilac flowers bloomed year-round in a sprinkled fashion, and home to a variety of animals and birds. 

“I am going to the untamed forest tomorrow to collect wood.” 

Sahadev cocked an eyebrow, “don’t give me that look.” 

“Listen, there is a tree inside that forest, which is not ordinary; it’s quite powerful.” 

Hira flashed his palm at him, “you know I don’t believe in all this gobbledygook.”

“You know nothing. No one has ever come back alive from that forest.”

“Are you coming with me or not?” 

Sahadev shook his head and walked away. 

“Alright, I shall go alone and become rich.” 

***

Next morning: 

Kusum, Hira’s wife, tried to dissuade her stubborn husband from cutting trees and going to the forest as he sharpened his axe.

“Find another job instead of selling wood.”

“Wifey, a rich merchant has offered me a lumpsum for some tree’s wood in that forest. This will help end our poverty.”

Kusum stared at him with wide eyes and smack palmed against her forehead. 

“It’s the Exalted tree!”

“Whatever!”

Clasping her hands over her head, she turned her face away as her trust shattered. She fiddled with her wedding ring as pearls of fear, anguish, and disappointment trickled down her face. 

“Drop this idea. No one ever returned from that forest.” 

“Shut up!” He yelled and strode out with his sparkling axe.

***

A cacophony of various sounds of the forest habitants echoed. Hira paced faster into the woods and after a couple of hours, he stumbled at the crossroad, wondering about the correct direction; “left or right?”

He then took out a crumbled piece of paper. 

“Ahh, let me check this.” 

Hira then took a left turn and followed a narrow path. Silent creepers covered the rough tree barks. The sun broke through the cracks lighting up the brown muddy path that was encrusted by fallen leaves, twigs, moss, pine needles, pine cones, acorns, and wildflowers. 

Hira’s jaws dropped and eyes widened at the sight of a tree that stood in the centre of a million grassy wands with a bark so patterned as if carved by its rain-born flash rivers; stretching up, as if so proud to stand there under the sun in any weather; roots hung from its branches and coiling vines dangled from every part of the tree; with a hodgepodge of flowers that added supernatural elements to this majestic tree. 

He thought, ‘indeed, this looks like one mighty, powerful tree’; but it didn’t deter him. 

“Oh, this is going to take a long time,” grumbled Hira as he pulled his axe out. 

With all his might, he barbed at the centre of the bark with his axe when a thunderous roar echoed through the forest that sent the birds flying away, the trees quivering violently, and the terrified animals running helter-skelter. A bright light flashed illuminating the entire forest. Hira squeezed his eyes unable to look at the bright light, his breathing turned irregular and his axe fell from his trembling hands. Something gripped him securely; he couldn’t move. He opened his eyes and shuddered on seeing the greenish-brown roots coiled tightly around him and the greyish-brown face that cracked from the bark. 

“How dare you?” A croaky, disembodied voice erupted and Hira felt a rising tide of fear from his head to toe.

“You foolish human, do you know who am I?” 

Hira wobbled and within a flash, his bones cracked, he choked and felt circumscribed into a cylindrical dark hole. He stared into the darkness. Pain sheeted through him with terrible intensity.

“You will be fine in a few minutes,” a rumbling voice came from a man who seemed to appear from nowhere wearing a glittering green crown and had a greenish-brown skin tone. His eyes too were green. 

Hira couldn’t see who it was but he screamed, “Can you…can you see or hear me? Something is happening to me, I can’t feel my legs and arms, please save me.”

“Save you? I am the exalted tree, out and free! You will stay here forever.” 

The tree-man spoke stretching out his arms and legs, twisting his back, and thereby taking a proper human form.

“Please forgive me. I beg you; my family needs me.”

“This untamed forest is your family and that tree is your body now.”

The air around the forest was cold and still.

“Weren’t you warned a couple of times? You were greedy and selfish.”

“I will never harm any tree.” Hira sobbed as his human face now completely vanished and he took over the tree form. The roots shuffled back in. The leaves rustled. 

“This is my curse which no one can revoke. Wait for the day until someone stabs you, thy soul then can attain salvation; until then live as a tree.” 

Watery sap seeped from 2 orifices that resembled the tree’s eyes.

The tree-man smirked as he walked away from his home, “nobody will ever lay his dirty hands on my family ever again.” Hevowed to protect his home and promised the forest habitants to return one day.


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