June, 1996. Forest near Village Lang.
A tall, lean man stood beneath a tree, looking up at it with hard, grey eyes. His hair was plastered to his forehead and he was sweating profusely. He had rolled back the sleeves of his neat, white shirt and stood barefoot.
The heat was scorching, with the sun shining directly overhead. His feet now had blisters on them, his only relief coming from the fact that he was standing on grass and not on sand. It could have been worse. The man took out a handkerchief from the pocket of his light brown trousers, and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Then with another deep breath, he launched himself at the tree.
He kept one leg on the lowest branch, trying to keep steady as he held onto the bark. Then winding one leg around the bark, he tried to grasp onto the branch overhead. The branch beneath him clacked, then broke. He was quick to wrap his other leg around the bark too. He couldn’t repeat the mistake he had made the last time. Before, he had fallen on his butt because of it. This time though, another unexpected force attacked him.
It wasn’t easy to keep hugging the trunk of a tree without any support from below. Gravity played its game, and he landed back on his ass anyway.
“Damn!” He cursed out loud.
Simon Hunter had not estimated correctly again.
This was the first time he had failed at anything thirty times straight.
Simon Hunter got up, dusted his pants, looked around to make sure no one was nearby and began to grab onto a branch once more.
Just then, he heard a slight rustling of leaves.
His heart leapt to his throat. The dreadful idea of the Chairman of the Hunter Corporation being caught in such a filthy state fixated in his head, and he turned around rapidly. The place was a forest on the outskirts of the Village Lang. And as far as he knew, nobody entered too deep into this area, because the vegetation was quite heavy, and the forest wasn’t consisting of many edible or commercial trees.
Could it be a wild animal?
He watched as a bunch of bushes in front of him quivered. He frowned. He had been informed of no wild animals being here in this forest too. What was it then?
Impatient, he called out loud, “Come forth! Or I’ll approach you myself!”
Well… even if it was another person, Simon was sure he could easily deal with the rat. The Chairman was ready to face a spying shepherd of some sort. He was taken aback at who he saw though. What came out of the bushes was…
A small girl dropped out of the shrubs almost immediately after Simon had said the threatening words. She stood rooted to the spot, near the bushes, her eyes fixed on the grass below. Simon was surprised.
What was a child doing so far off from the village?
The girl was rather small, someone barely four or five years old. She looked like one of the villagers, she was dressed in a cheap brown frock. She had the weirdest hair colour, a brown that resembled the colour of mud. And she stood before the Chairman, twiddling with her thumbs.
Simon understood she had been watching him.
That was embarrassing for him, but she was so small, the girl was barely a threat. Clearing his throat, Simon Hunter said, “What are you doing so far away from the village?” His voice was stern. The girl looked up at him immediately, and worry flashed across her features. She had a tiny face, but rather beautiful eyes. They were a striking green.
The girl pressed her lips, and then looked at the giant man. She trembled all over, but then she spoke hesitantly, “I-I’m sorry.”
The Chairman’s frown deepened at that.
“For what?” His voice was still firm.
The girl looked like she was ready to cry now.
He saw her clench her fists determinedly though, and she breathed in harshly, before visibly mustering her courage and saying, “F-For l-looking. I s-saw you, sir, c-climbing the tree.”
Oh. So she had seen. Was she spying for someone?
“Why are you here?” The Chairman asked tonelessly.
The girl shivered under his glare, but stammered, “I-I h-had a fight.”
“T-The village boys.”
Simon assessed the kid, and decided she was telling the truth. The girl indeed looked like she had cried. So nodding curtly, he turned around and said dismissively, “Go back. And not a word to anyone on what you saw. Or I’ll throw you to the bottom of the sea.”
The girl paled at the threat, and her throat clenched. Her eyes welled, and she was about to turn around and run away, when she saw Simon Hunter go at the tree again. She stopped in her tracks, as the scary man tried to grab onto another frail branch.
He was going to fall again! Her reaction was instant.
“N-Not that one!” she said, in the loudest voice that she could manage, “P-Please hold on to the branch on your right!”
Simon looked at the child, just when the branch below him clacked again. It broke, but he took the girl’s advice and held the branch to his right instinctively. This time, even though the branch below broke, Simon Hunter did not fall down. He dangled oddly from the tree, but landed on his feet once he let go. The child breathed a sigh of relief, whereas Simon was struck. She was about to turn around and run away, when he called out, “Wait!”
The girl stopped.
Amazed, the Chairman approached her with soft steps. His feet were ready to bleed at this point, but he ignored the pain. He was stunned by the performance of the child.
The girl slowly turned to look at him, and matched the much older man’s eyes.
Simon looked at the kid.
“You know how to climb a tree?” His tone was much softer this time. The girl stared back at the man, then nodded slightly. His voice wasn’t scary anymore.
“What am I doing wrong then?”
The girl pressed her lips again, gazed at Simon, and then at the tree. Softly, she mumbled, “Y-You’re stepping on light branches.”
“But they’re the strongest ones within my reach.”
Simon’s answer was obvious.
The girl watched him nervously.
“Don’t stand on the branch, s-sir. Try the trunk. It’s split.”
The answer took Chairman Hunter by surprise and he looked back at the tree. Indeed, it was split from the centre, and had deep grooves drawn in the trunk. He didn’t wait for the child to finish. Launching himself at the tree again, he held onto the trunk, and tried to support his toe against the grooves.
The girl ran worriedly behind him.
“The weak branch,” she instructed hurriedly, “On your left, s-sir. Hold it, and then put your feet in the splits of the trunk to –“
Simon frowned at the girl, but followed what she said. Several times, he felt like a fool for taking orders from a child, but when he had successfully climbed at least a meter of the tree, he sat on one of the branches which the girl assured him was strong. Then he looked down at the tree in awe.
Three hours, he had been trying to do what this kid had helped him with in three minutes.
The child looked visibly relieved when she saw the man seated safely too.
Simon Hunter’s lips curled unexpectedly. Very slowly, he smiled.
“Child,” he called out from above, “What’s your name?”
The girl looked at the man worriedly, then twiddled her thumbs again. After a second of thought, she mumbled in a small, barely audible voice,
The Chairman nodded.
One hour, twenty four minutes later.
Simon Hunter leaned against the trunk of the tree, breathing heavily. He had his hands placed neatly behind his back, his eyes were closed, his face upturned towards the sky. Beads of sweat covered his forehead, and his body was almost limp with exhaustion. His clothes were crumpled and ragged.
Miya stood a few steps away from him, watching the older man with bright eyes. Despite herself, she was smiling. “You did it,” she said to him happily. The man’s own lips curled into a half smirk at the words.
Impossible as the words were for someone like him, Simon didn’t mind saying them to the child.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
The Chairman opened his eyes and looked sideways. Miya’s smile had broadened, almost reaching up to her ears when she nodded cheerfully. Simon chuckled.
It had taken him an hour and twenty four minutes exact to feat the task. Well… it had taken him only an hour, to be honest. He was pretty sure the twenty four minutes had been used up by the girl in trying to convince him to let her help directly. Initially, he had almost fallen off from ten feet of the tree’s height, and the girl… Miya, had nearly screamed her gut out in fear. She had then fallen into a relentless plea to let her show him how it was done.
Simon Hunter had taken her innocent request as the girl stepping on his pride.
And yet, when he dangled and missed his footing three more times, he had reluctantly agreed. This, and the girl had looked like she would cry. Now that, he couldn’t handle.
He couldn’t even handle it when that brat Jimmy whimpered. It was too annoying.
“But, sir, you’ll fall down!” Miya had shouted, looking up at him tearfully, while Simon Hunter had tried to step onto another frail branch, “Let me show you how it’s done, please!”
Too exhausted, the Chairman had agreed.
Once the kid had given him a demonstration though, he had been able to follow suit in the next two tries too. In fact, he had been astounded by how agilely the girl herself had leapt and bound, and then disappeared amongst the leaves. He had been left stunned.
Climbing trees was such a useful art to master!
Miya stared solemnly at Simon Hunter, the smile never leaving her face. Her expression did falter though, when her eyes fell on his feet. They were bleeding. Rapidly looking up at the Chairman, she instructed again, “Sir, there’s a pond nearby. Come quick, wash your feet!” She was still in her teaching mode.
Albeit Simon felt even stranger taking further orders, but he was also amused to no end. It was entertaining, how the girl seemed to have forgotten all her fear of him. She talked to him with familiarity now, ease even, and had zero hesitation in leading the way to the pond.
Even Jimmy didn’t adapt to him that soon.
Simon followed her steps, simply because he did think water would bring some relief to his aching feet. Not to mention, when the ground scraped against his soles, it made them bleed further. And now that the ordeal of the climbing was over, he could actually feel the sharp pain more intensely. In fact, his mind concentrated only on it.
The pond was nearby.
It was deeper into the forest, and was surrounded by a bunch of majestic trees, so the intense sunlight hadn’t done much to heat up the water. Simon Hunter awkwardly stood near the water, and began to wash off the blood and dirt. All the while, Miya was in deep contemplation. When the Chairman was almost done, the girl was frowning.
“Where do you live, sir?” she asked.
The question surprised Senior Hunter, and while he washed his face, he gave the girl a sideward glance.
“Far away,” he told her mechanically, “Why do you ask?”
“I haven’t seen you here before.”
The girl must be familiar with all of the people from Village Lang. How many could the small, non-existent village have anyway? He had never even seen the name of this village appear in the country’s map. And he knew the map by heart.
Simon smiled politely at the girl, but made no response. She wasn’t done though.
“Why are you learning to climb, sir?” she asked again.
This time, Simon sighed.
“Girl,” he told her in his most patient voice, “I am glad you helped. But don’t ask me so many questions.”
Miya immediately shut up. She did however notice the Chairman wince in pain when he had washed off his feet and tried to walk again. The pain must have been intense, because the older man looked at his legs angrily, and then resorted to leaning against the nearest tree once more. Miya hesitated this time, but she asked nevertheless, “Sir… could you please sit down?”
Simon glanced at the girl wearily, his face steeling. Hadn’t he just told her not to ask him for anything? But he couldn’t be too hard on her, because right now he owed her one. And she was just asking him to sit. Not to mention, his feet were killing him anyway.
Wordlessly, the Chairman sat under the tree, his head still leaning against the bark, his legs sprawled out.
Strangely, it felt relieving.
He closed his eyes and breathed heavily. Just then though, he felt a poke. Instantly, he cried out, “Ow!”
His eyes shot open, and he looked at the girl with a frown. Miya was hugging her own knees while she sat near his left foot, and poked at a cut. The older man was ready to holler, when the child took him by surprise once again.
She ripped off the hem of her frock expertly, and then tore it into two. Then without another word, she began to wrap one part of the cloth around his foot.
The Chairman felt like someone had knocked the soul out of his body. The man’s reaction was instant, as he withdrew his feet and rapidly stood up. His face was the expression of horror. “What are you doing?!” he almost yelled.
It was Miya’s turn to frown.
Wasn’t it obvious?
She looked at the piece of cloth, and then at Simon Hunter. Then cocking her head to one side, she said, “Wrapping up your feet. If you put a cloth around it, it hurts less. I got a thorn stuck in my leg once, and Granny Kai wrapped it too. I could walk later.”
Albeit the girl’s act and words were in perfect coherence, Simon Hunter looked at her doubtfully. When he saw the sincerity, and the utmost confusion in her eyes, he slid back to the ground again, feeling like a fool.
Listlessly, he stretched out his hand and asked her to hand over the cloth. He wrapped it around his feet himself, as Miya watched him do it with hawk eyes. Once it was done, Simon sized up the kid, feeling strangely tired and done. It was a rather impossible situation he was in, lying under a tree in the middle of nowhere, with a five year old staring at his legs in inspection.
Who would believe he was the Chairman of Hunter Corporation, in this unsightly state?
He watched the too small girl tiredly, listened to the quietly rustling leaves, felt the immense heat of the sun. Then he said in a whisper, “I’m looking for my wife.”
Miya looked up at him in confusion.
“You asked why I was learning to climb a tree.”
Miya was frowning again. “Looking for your wife on a tree?” her words were queer, “How?”
The impossibility of the situation struck Simon Hunter once again, and despite himself, he ended up chuckling deeply.
“It’s complicated,” he shrugged.
“What’s complicated? I don’t know what that means.”
“Complicated means… something difficult to understand.”
“Because it is.”
“I will understand if you explained.”
“You’re too young.”
Yes, and that was big.
Simon chuckled at her response again, and then looked at the girl strangely.
“You are?” he asked in doubt.
Miya struggled for a reply. Then twiddling her thumbs for the umpteenth time, she mumbled, “I’ll turn five in September.”
“Twenty sixth of September.”
“And can you count up to twenty six?”
“I can count up to hundred!”
The older man chuckled again.
The girl sat before him, still hugging her knees and staring at him directly in the face. An odd emotion tucked at Simon’s chest. He looked at Miya’s small face, and noticed the sweat and tear stains that had dried up on her skin. Sighing, and feeling like an incredibly old man, he said, “Wash your face, child. You must be tired too.”
Miya blinked at his words, then hurriedly rushed back to the pond to follow orders. When she returned, she looked refreshed, and that made the Chairman relax too. Oddly enough, he wanted to make conversation. So when she seated herself before him again, he asked, “And why do you know how to climb trees? Aren’t you a bit too small?”
That warranted another indignant, “I am five!” from the girl.
Simon half laughed, and then rolled his eyes, muttering a “Yes, yes.”
“I love apples,” Miya then declared sincerely, “And I climb up trees to pluck them.”
“Apples… hm. Really?”
“Well, at least someone likes them. Jimmy hates apples.”
“But Granny Kai says eating apples every day makes you strong!”
“Yeah… No wonder the boy is weak as hell.”
The Chairman eyed the child as she nodded, a faint smile on his lips. He never liked talking. And he almost never voluntarily made conversation. He most definitely didn’t get along with kids, that was for sure. But this child’s company, he found engaging. Distracting, at the very least.
Silence passed, before he remembered something and spoke up again.
She looked up at him, “Hm?”
“Why did you fight with the boys at your village?”
At once, the girl’s face lost its expression. Her eyes flickered with fear, and brimmed with tears again. She trembled, and yet fixed her gaze on the Chairman’s cold, grey eyes. Somehow, her body quivered. Chairman Hunter’s own gaze turned sombre.
He looked at Miya sharply, willing her to speak. And even though his eyes were hard and seemed to pierce through her, the child could somehow trust them. Simon too could read her face like the back of his hand, it had confusion, anger and dread written over it – all at once.
“T-They keep h-hitting me,” she said after a long pause.
“T-They say I’m a witch.”
“M-My mum hit me once, and said I was a witch. They saw it.”
“Does nobody help you?”
“I don’t have friends.”
Simon Hunter frowned.
Wild behaviour was common amongst rustics, and it was none of his business, but this particular child he couldn’t leave alone. He owed her one anyhow. So to dig just a little deeper, Simon Hunter asked, “And why don’t you have friends?”
“Nobody talks to me.”
Before Simon could shoot a ‘Why’ though, the girl was hit with an idea. The tremble in her body lost its intensity, and she looked at the Chairman with huge, expectant eyes.
“Will you be my friend?” she blurted out.
Simon Hunter was taken by surprise.
He sized the small girl again, took in the utmost sincerity in her eyes.
It hit him right then.
He had been talking with this girl for at least fifteen minutes now. That was more time than he had ever spent with Jimmy! Immediately, an idea flashed in his head. His wife’s face waltzed before his eyes, and her words, “It’s a girl,” echoed in his brain. Without much thought, he blurted out, “Call me father!”
“Try calling me father, girl!”
Simon’s voice had urgency in it, and Miya though thoroughly confused, couldn’t help but blurt a meek “father”, under the Chairman’s strong yet commanding glare.
“Be a bit more sincere, Miya!” he complained, at which Miya cried out a louder and firmer, “Father!” at him.
The Chairman was struck.
He looked at the girl, and then at his own hands. His face paled, and then somehow, he shivered. His voice was in hysteria, when he mumbled, “I-It feels right.”
Miya didn’t understand, but she was suddenly afraid. The older man was acting very strangely!
Meanwhile Simon sprang up on his legs. He winced in pain, but it was nothing compared to the wild shiver that ran through him, making his entire body shudder. He looked down at the crouching girl.
“Get up!” he called out at once. Then picking up a pebble from the ground, he hurled it at a nearby tree. Miya, who had hurriedly got up, gasped.
The pebble had disappeared amongst the leaves, but from the same place, an apple fell.
The Chairman was still trembling, but his eyes gleamed with excitement now. He looked down at the small girl, and said, “I don’t know if we can be friends, kid. I too don’t have friends. But I will teach you how to deal with those boys. Or bribe them, at least.”
With that, he picked up another pebble and flung it at the tree again.
Another apple hit the ground.
The Chairman made another perfect hit, and looked at Miya, who was rooted on the spot, her mouth open wide. He smirked.
“My aim never misses its mark,” he said proudly, “And from now on, yours won’t too.”
With that, he handed over a pebble to the girl.At least now, he wouldn’t be owing her a favor.