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Excerpts from ‘The Crystal Cave’

“Yuk!” exclaimed Thenyak. “It tastes awful!” Changun said nothing. But her screwed up features told all!

“Don’t like it, do you?” said Grandma Kamlong with a toothless grin. “But watch now.”

Using the ladle, she scooped up a little salt from a wooden bowl and put it into the broth. She sang a Nocte ballad as she stirred, smiling mysteriously all the while.

This was what made Grandma Kamlong such great fun! She could put life and mystery into the most trivial chore!

Excerpts from “The Crystal Cave” [Illustrations by Pulak Biswas]

She was the oldest person in the village – even older than their Lowang, or Nocte tribal chief. Her slate-black skin was creased and wrinkled like a wilted leaf in autumn. Her hair was white as quicklime. Her eyes were small and bright and beady as a bird’s.

No one in the village could tell how old she was. She must have been in her early eighties, though in the adoring eyes of the village youngsters she appeared to be a thousand years old!

“Magic, isn’t it?” Grandma Kamlong said. “The broth was tasteless before. But now it is delicious. What caused this miracle?”

“Salt!” the children yelled out in a laughing chorus.

“Our village lacked nothing in the past,” continued Grandma Kamlong. “We grew millet and paddy in our fields. The jungles gave us shrubs, ferns and fruits. Our young men went hunting for meat. And, most important, we had salt.”

“Did we make our own salt, grandma?” Changun asked surprised.

“Yes, we did. A salt-spring used to flow by our village. We built shallow troughs and filled them with salt-water. The sun dried away the water, leaving grains of salt in the troughs.”

The children’s eyes grew round with wonder.

“Must’ve been an awful lot of salt, grandma.” Thenyak commented.

“Oh, yes. Much more than what our village required. Our menfolk stuffed the surplus into hollow bamboo tubes and took it to the plains each winter. They bartered the salt for clothes, beads and other necessities.”

“But there’s no salt-spring now,” Changun said. “No longer do our elders make salt.”

Grandma Kamlong sighed with regret.

“Are you thinking of climbing up this mountain?” Changun cried out.

“Certainly, I am! Don’t you remember what grandma told us? If we can bring the salt-spring back, prosperity would come to our village.”

“No,” said Changun firmly. “We can’t do that. Even if the salt-spring can be brought back, it’s up to our elders to do so.”

“Oh, don’t be a spoil-sport!” cried Thenyak. “We’ll simply climb up a bit…find out what caused the spring to stop flowing, that’s all. There’s no need to tell our parents right now. They’ll never allow us to go.”

Changun said nothing. Turning on her heels, she began climbing the path towards the village.

“Oh, please, Changun!” Thenyak, hurrying behind her, wailed. “If we can bring the salt-spring back, we’ll be treated like…like warrior-heroes of the past!”

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.

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.

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.

First published by National Book Trust, India.