The Little Folk from the Hills
A Story by HOWARD FAST
THIS thing happened to me in an old, old land, where I had been riding forever with a tech sergeant, a staff sergeant and 2,000 pounds of United States mail. The train stopped every six miles or so, and each time there was no real certainty that it would ever start again. We were at Agra or Lucknow or Patna or some place like that; it doesn't matter very much, and one town looks like another in such a land. When we rolled into a town to stay for an hour or six hours or maybe all night, a bearer in a green and red and white uniform, with a great piled white turban topped by a splendid feather, more imposing than a Coldstream Guard on dress parade, leaped onto the running board outside of our compartment and said, "Tea, sahib?" or "Tray, sahib?"
Whether he said tea or tray depended upon what arrangements we had made with the same kind of person ten or fifty miles back. The time of day had nothing to do with it. In that sun-kissed land which the British had civilized, it was always tea-time, in the middle of the night and at dawn, too, and if the man with the turban said, "Tea, sahib?" he had the tray on his hand, a juggler, acrobat and waiter rolled up together, but he never missed, and he always knew if there was a dirty empty tray in the compartment.
We talked a lot about it, about this amazing piece of organization in an essentially unorganized land. In the compartment behind us, two English officers were riding, and I even talked to them about it. One was a subaltern, as they say, and the other was a colonel.
"Never thought about it," the colonel said. "I don't see why you chaps should be so disturbed."
"It's like a game," I explained. "When you got nothing else to talk about."
"You might ask the station commissioner next place we stop."
"That's too easy. Then we got nothing to talk about."
The two Englishmen were very nice and very pleasant. Every now and then I'd spend a couple of hours in their compartment. They had a few bottles of Scotch and gin, and they made you feel that nothing made them happier than for you to be drinking their liquor. But they didn't understand our ways or our methods of thought. The older one, for instance, the colonel, had been in India for thirty years, but it never occurred to him to question how, over a system of maybe a thousand towns and villages, they kept track of those tea trays. It impressed us as organization, perhaps the best piece of organization in the entire theatre, but they weren't impressed that way by organization.
The tech sergeant and the staff sergeant didn't like the Englishmen and weren't convinced by what I said about their being nice.
"Limeys are nice," the staff sergeant admitted. "They crap on you with niceness."
"Everything nice," the tech sergeant said. "They live nice. They fight a war nice. They cut your throat nice."
"If they're so damned nice, why don't you ask them if this rattler has a schedule?"
"They say shedule," the tech sergeant said.
"I asked them. They think maybe it had a schedule, but not in wartime."
"Like the train from Laredo to Mexico City - you add thirty-two hours to the schedule and then chop it up. But you got to be an Einstein to figure it out."
"Did you ask them about the bloody tea trays?"
"They don't know. They suggested I ask the station commissioner next place we stop."
"Isn't that just like a Limey?" the staff sergeant asked.
"Well, they seem interested now. That's the way they are - it takes a little time for them to get interested in something. I'm going to have tea with them and we're going to talk about it some more."
I HAD tea with them and was in their compartment when we pulled into the station where it happened. I really liked them because they talked so pleasantly about small things. When they asked you a question they didn't really expect any sort of a serious answer; they knew how to talk about things and make conversation. The colonel said he liked Bengal because the hunting was good, but when he learned that I didn't hunt or care anything about it, he sort of apologized. They never said anything that could hurt your feelings. But in a way it put you at a disadvantage.
If you said that the folk were poor, they agreed. "Bloody poor," and with sympathy, speaking of the people with respect and consideration, not as GI's would have spoken about them. The subaltern, who was twenty or twenty-two, had a blonde mustache and pink cheeks, and a gentle sweetness that was never disturbed by anything around him. Not by the filth, the misery, the hunger, the heat, the bodies of famine victims along the right of way being eaten by vultures as we watched; not even in Lucknow, where they had three or four hundred dead British soldiers laid out under an awning, plague victims - such a sweetness was all over him, a part of him, that he was nice to the two sergeants, even though they were enlisted personnel. The tech sergeant, commenting on that, said he was a swish.
"A what?" I had asked.
"A swish - a loop."
"A queen, he means," the staff sergeant said. "A rosebud, a pansy."
"He's a gentleman, that's all."
"And who says a loop can't have nice manners?"
But he wasn't that, I said to myself on this day, just a nice young fellow. We were slowing down from what was our usual lightning-like sixteen miles an hour to come into a station, and the subaltern thought it was Crumar, but said so apologetically with a deprecating smile.
"I try to memorize the stations."
"Too many of them," the colonel said.
I thought that someone must know them, the conductor or somebody. "Or time-tables," I said.
"A bloody waste of time," the colonel thought.
And anyway, the stations are all the same. In the north there are deserts and in the south there are rice fields, but always a wooden platform with the three tanks of water, one for Hindu soldiers, one for Moslem soldiers and one for British soldiers. Always the food venders, when there is food, the water venders, the soft-drink venders. Always the crowds, the endless stream of people going somewhere or coming from somewhere. Wrapped in white, clean white and dirty white, men in white and women in white, they mill around the stations. They come early; they bring their food; the smell of curry fills the air, and they wait and wait. When the train comes in, they make a rush for it, stuff themselves into the compartments, hang onto the running boards. They did it this time, but with a new element, for there were a hundred or so little people, dark and naked, carrying spears and little leather shields, and bows and arrows too, making a great rush for the train, but a rush that had in it a tired note of hopelessness that you saw at the first glance.
"I'll be damned," the colonel said.
The subaltern smiled gently as the train guards interposed themselves and firmly pushed the little people back.
"WOOLIES," the colonel said. "And where do you suppose they come from?" He was more moved than the subaltern, who merely remarked, "You would think they'd put some clothes onto them."
"Why?" I asked.
"You know - decent, and all that."
The train guards were neither cruel nor hard; they were simply firm. They pushed the little people away, and the little folk had not much heart in it and gave it up rather easily.
I got out of the compartment and went back to the mail. "In this country," the tech sergeant said, "anything can happen. Jesus God, anything can happen. It could rain balls."
"What do the Limeys say?" the staff sergeant asked.
"They say they shouldn't be undressed."
"So they hocked their clothes. I'm going over to look." We locked up the mail, and the three of us went over together.
"What about the train?" asked the tech sergeant. "How long does she sit here?"
We guessed one and two and three hours, but in any case this was not something you could pass by without seeing. Alongside the station, there was a broad field of sun-baked clay and a little parched grass. It was out in the center of this field that the little people had made their encampment and built small stick fires and raised a few hide leantos. There they were, a hundred or a hundred and fifty of them, a whole people, a tribe, a village, a folk, as some would say, with their old and their young, their graybeards, their infants and their children.
They were small people; none of the men were more than five feet in height; the women were like large dolls and the children were like small, fragile dolls. The men and women were tired and hopeless looking, but the tiny children were like other children, even laughing just a little. In color they were a deep yellow-brown, and their eyes made you think of Chinese, but they were not Chinese and they were not anything else that had ever been itemized, catalogued or studied. They wore no clothes, except for a shred of G-string on the men and sometimes a bit of leather on the women, yet they had no consciousness or knowledge of nakedness; you could see that. Also, the stone age was ahead of them. Their spears were sticks of wood with fire-hardened tips. Their bows were toy bows, and their arrows had neither tips nor feathers. Their shields were pieces of dry, untanned hide, and their cooking pots were moulded crudely from clay. They had no footgear whatsoever, but walked barefoot, and there was just a trace of hair on the faces of the men.
I had never seen such people before. Neither had the staff sergeant; neither had the tech sergeant. They were out of the dawn of man; with each other they were gentle and loving and caressing; they fondled each other; they put their arms around each other; they comforted each other. And they were very hungry; their pots were empty, and they were terribly, terribly hungry. Their bones stood out and their flesh had dried away. Even in that hungry land, they were more hungry than just the hungry, and soon they would die because of the hunger.
We walked among them and their large, soft brown eyes followed us. We stopped by a woman with bare, flat, dry breasts, and the tech sergeant pointed to the baby she held in her arms and said, "Jesus God, that kid has been dead a long time. That kid has been dead so long it stinks."
"Who are they?" I wanted to know. "What are they? And where are they from?"
"You stink after four hours in this heat," the staff sergeant said.
"Now I've seen everything."
"Sure you've seen everything. Wherever you are, you see everything. You got a broad Arkansas perspective. The first time you seen a necktie, you seen everything."
The tech sergeant went back to the train and got some rations and some candy we had there. We opened the cans and took the paper off the chocolate, but at first the people wouldn't eat. We had to persuade them to eat, and then they gave it to the children, and the men and women wept and chattered in their strange tongue while the children ate. We spoke to some bearers, some station people, and some of the people who were standing around, but no one knew who they were, or what they were, or where they were from.
THEN the train whistle blew, which meant that some time in the neighborhood of five minutes or an hour the train would start. We walked back, and when we got to our compartment, there in front of it were the two British officers talking to a civilian; and the colonel said to me, "Rum lot, aren't they?"
"Why do you call them woolies?"
"Got to call them something, don't you know," the pink-checked subaltern smiled. "No one really knows who they are or what they are. Can't talk their language and they can't talk ours. Damned shame. They're from up in the hills somewhere and they must have had a hard time of it with famine and all that, and I suppose a rumor reached them about a train being something which takes you from one place where there's no food to another place where there is food, so here they are." He added as an afterthought, "They've been trying to board every train for six days now."
The civilian's name was Johnson, and he was the local commissioner or something. The colonel introduced him to me, but not to the two sergeants.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"What can one do?" Johnson said. "They can't ride the train without tickets, and if they could, where would they ride to? Food is tight. They're not properly the concern of my district in any case."
Then he walked off with the colonel, toward their compartment in the car behind ours. The subaltern lingered. Embarrassed and apologetic, he said something to the effect of their not lasting very long. "Bloody shame and all that, but they are on their last legs. It solves a problem for the poor beggars."
"What do you mean?" the tech sergeant asked.
"He means, you horse's ass, that they'll starve to death in a few days," the staff sergeant said quietly; and then, just as quietly, but deliberately, he said to the subaltern, "You, my friend, are a dirty second-rate son of a bitch - an upstanding pile of crap, if you follow me."
The boy's pink flushed to red; he stiffened, he stared at the two enlisted men, muttered something, "Oh, I say," or something of that sort, stared at them a moment or two longer, then turned on his heel and walked away. The train began to move, and we ran for our compartment. The tech sergeant seated himself sadly on a mail-sack and started to whistle "Don't Fence Me In." The staff sergeant went to the toilet bowl where he kept a cake of ice and a few cans of tomato juice, and proceeded to open one of the cans.
"What in hell did you do that for?" I asked him finally.
"No more tea? No more nice people to talk to?"
"You hate, but you never hate with your brains. That was just a nice dumb kid."
"You want some tomato juice?"
"Sure. I'll pretend it's a martini."
"What are you so pissed-off about?" the tech sergeant asked me.
"Nothing - nothing, but what a righteous, clean-limbed race of people we are. Oh, my God, how righteous!"
"To hell with him," said the staff sergeant. "He's got no more nice people to talk to."