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Excerpts from "The Crystal Cave"

By Arup Kumar Dutta; Illustrations by Pulak Biswas; Published by National Book Trust, India.

Early next day, after their morning meal, Thenyak and Changun were off on their quest.

They had little difficulty slipping away unnoticed from the village. Loku, the most important of Nocte festivals, was just three days away. The villagers were too busy preparing for it to have eyes for them.

Both had bamboo tubes strapped to their backs. This was Changun’s idea. They could carry drinking water in them on their way up. If they found the salt-spring, they could fill the tubes with salt water as proof.

Thenyak also carried a Dao, or a broad-bladed knife.

, Stories for kids: 58_3.jpg On reaching the river, they filled the tubes with water. Then they began their climb, following the well-defined tracks of the dry spring-bed.

A thin curtain of mist draped the mountain. As the sun rose higher, it gradually lifted. However, the undergrowth was layered with morning dew. This made the ground slippery and footholds difficult to obtain. Their ascent, therefore, was slow.

The slope had been gentle till they crossed the paddy fields. But now it rose up steeply. Progress became even slower. But neither Thenyak nor Changun thought of turning back. They continued their ascent, pausing occasionally to catch their breath, or to glaze with childish glee at some exotic orchid or some unfamiliar form.

Thenyak and Changun were children of the mountains. The steep climb may have exhausted others, but not them. Nor were they afraid of the dangers within the jungles.

, Stories for kids: 58_4.jpg Because they lived close to nature, they knew that most of these dangers were imaginary. Large predators, for instance, preferred to slink away at the sound or smell of human approach. Same was the case with snakes. Unless one accidentally disturbed a creature of the wild, startling it into attacking, one could always move about in safety.

But one needed to be on the alert. That was why Thenyak’s eyes constantly probed the ground ahead as they climbed.

Because they were moving over a well-laid, sparsely vegetated track, their passage had been relatively easy. So far they had met with only one obstacle – a large python which was curled around the low branch of tree.

Thenyak had thumped the ground repeatedly with his Dao. The python had raised its blunt, hammer-like head, flicked out its forked tongue, and slid away to a higher branch.

Fifteen minutes later they resumed their upward journey. They climbed for another fifty-sixty meters, and all of a sudden stumbled into a clearing.

A tiny patch of open flat-land, set like a miniature plateau on the mountainside! Neither grass nor shrubs grew upon this clearing. The bare earth underneath their feet was smoke-grey clay.

Hundreds of hoof marks were visible on the ground. The children could see the pug-marks of wild cats too, as also the deeper imprints of elephant feet.

"I know what it is!" Changun cried out. "It is a natural salt-lick!"

Thenyak nodded. Such salt-licks were to be found in many places within the jungles. Wild animals came to lick the earth for salt. This took care of the salt requirement of their bodies. While the earth that was consumed acted as a purgative.

Even as they stood watching, a solitary barking deer entered the salt-lick from the surrounding jungle. The deer was about to start licking the earth when it caught the whiff of an alien smell. Its head jerked upright. For one brief instant it looked straight at the children. Then it bolted towards the cover of the jungle.

Thenyak and Changun burst out laughing.

The salt-spring furrow ran through the centre of the clearing, dividing it into two equal halves. But the furrow did not continue up the mountain. The children could see a hollow on the mountainside on the opposite edge of the clearing. The furrow seemed to disappear into that hollow.

Their hearts thumping with excitement. Thenyak and Changun raced towards the hollow

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[Stories for kids]
By Arup Kumar Dutta; Illustrations by Pulak Biswas; Published by National Book Trust, India.


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