The cabin in the woods was spotlessly clean. It had always been that way, ever since the day it was built. The clean aroma of the stew wafted out of the kitchen chimney and was lost in the trees somewhere in the distance.
Cleanliness was her passion, her mission, her life. She had adopted it in early childhood, a reactive response to the filth that had been rampant in her home. Filth that her crippled-from- birth younger brother usually lay neglected in, filth that spewed from her father’s lips when he came home drunk each night, filth she knew her mother was involved in every evening after sundown.
That life had never been hers. Her sanctuary lay in the fresh pinewood scent and primeval cleanliness of the forest that lay just beyond the village. At sixteen she had met the hunter, who had taken her as cleanly as she had made it clear that she wanted him, and with him she had left for her new life, making a clean break with the past.
They had assembled the cabin log by log, revelling in their almost unspoken camaraderie. A simple existence, by no means easy living, but clean and uncomplicated. Sow, tend, reap; hunt, clean, cook, carve, eat; wake, sleep; toil, take walks in the woods, make love, feel alive.
Like most idyllic existences, it had to end someday.
He had always aspired to hunt the great boar that lived deep in the forest – and the first real encounter with the beast was his last. When he brought the carcass home, the feast was great, but so was the wound in his leg from the vicious tusks. Though she cleaned it with the utmost care and diligence, it turned septic, then gangrenous, and then he died. There one week, gone clean the next. Only a crude marker for his grave and a week’s worth of pork stew for posterity.
She buried him in the yard and took stock of her memories. Cleanliness was the one friend she still had.
She washed the vegetables with a vigour as was never before, scrubbed the cucumbers until they shone. Peeled the potatoes and gouged out the spots in motion that was a work of dynamic art. Wiped eggshells clean with a soft muslin cloth. Even rinsed bananas in the burbling brook that bustled by the back of her barn. Bathed four times a day, ticked off when even a minute late by the ticking of a tyrannical internal clock.
She had never had had to hunt herself, so the early days after his passing were difficult. But her visions of him were vivid, and she learned fast. The rabbits at first, sitting ducks and then deer, then birds on the wing – after a while the pleasure was in the kill, no, the cleaning after, and the taste of home-cooked flesh roasted on a clean, home-built fire.
Then, one day, she saw the great boar. Perhaps the son of the one that had taken her man, perhaps its brother, but no matter that, except that she wanted it over her spit. And just as the other had buried its tusk in the shin of the man and eventually buried him, this one fought to the end and she brought it home, barely alive but delirious in her conquest. The stew sustained her, brought succour, kept the spirit alive.
The stew lasted a fortnight, but she was still in no shape to go out and hunt again. So it was back to the kitchen garden and the fruits off the trees, with at most the occasional chicken for variety, while she longed for a change in diet.
Out in the world she had left so willingly, a great war was raging. Terrified refugees migrated in hordes. Some lost their group and lost their way. One of these was a little girl, on the threshold of maidenhood, fresh as a forest flower.
Scared out of her wits, she was startled to stumble into a clearing in which stood a shining cottage. A lean limping lady in a spotless smock came out and gently led her in by the hand, bathed her, scrubbed her unmindful of protests until she was squeaky clean, fed her a sublime stew, put her to bed early in the evening and put her to sleep, oh, a few hours later that night.
The stew had never tasted this delicious before…
Dr Anjan Ray
Dr Anjan Ray is the Director of the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum at Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India, a premier research institute in the oil and gas sector. He was a visiting lecturer at the Xaviers Institute of Communication, Mumbai and a founder-member of the Indian Society of Cosmetic Chemists.