Parched Earth


        Suddenly, the lights went out.

        A low murmur went round the house like the buzzing of many mosquitoes. Maybe it was because there were mosquitoes outside where Adam sat, watching his niece following a white butterfly. He shook his head vigorously, waved his hands and then finally stood up.

        – Another thing, he thought grimly, to add to the list of things which don’t happen there.

        “C’mon Saba, go inside,” he said hastily, sensing another question. “It’s getting dark.”

        “Why is a butterfly called a butterfly?” she asked, edging further into the shrubbery.

        “I don’t know. Now go in.”

        “You don’t know?”

        “No,” he said sarcastically, “I haven’t done ‘butterflyology.’ ”

        She giggled and he lost his temper, “What am I? An encyclopaedia?”

        He strode off, leaving her staring at him, stopped abruptly in mid-giggle, lips slightly parted. A cool breeze met him as he turned a corner and his irritation lessened. Plucking his damp shirt away from his back, he leaned against the wall. Dry bits of plaster rained down. It was then that he felt a movement behind him. The curtains in his mother’s room were closed. Too tightly closed. The irritable feeling was back.

        Well, soon he would be free. – Free from this tomb of a house. No mosquitoes, no …

        “Adam!”

        The reverie was broken. “Coming.” He scowled. “Humph, Adam,” he muttered, copying his stepsister’s way of calling his name, stretching the first ‘a’ to breaking point, a style learnt from their mother.

         The name had troubled him for as long as he could remember. From taunts about Eve, to jibes at his mother’s broken marriages, he had faced it all. The fact that he looked more like a ‘gora’ and a scrawny one at that didn’t help either.

         –   Well, Adam Hunter, three hours till 10.00 P.M, then off you go…

        “Thanks for watching over Saba. I couldn’t find the guard,” came Sara’s voice out of the darkness. Her face appeared as she lit the candle she was holding. “Dinner’s ready,” she continued.

          “I don’t…”

          “We thought you should…”

          “You thought, I didn’t,” he said shortly, climbing stairs. “Ow! Who put this
suitcase here?”

          “We thought…”

          “Stop thinking for me, ok? Now let me…”

          “Unhh!!”

          Adam turned sharply. Masked figures stood in the shadowy doorway. One gagged Sara while another took away the candle. Several guns were pointing at Adam. He hesitated. If he could just reach his room… he knew his mobile was on his bed…

          The familiar shuffling sound entered his ears like a bullet. His mother was moving forward, oblivious to the tense surroundings. He wanted to take advantage of the distraction, but his legs wouldn’t obey. She was in the room now, holding a rosary and muttering incessantly. A man pushed her roughly into a chair.

          “Come down.” The curt order wasn’t one to be taken lightly. He obeyed. His captor held him firmly. The henna dyed beard protruding beneath his mask looked oddly unreal. “Where’s the little girl?” he asked in a low growl.

          Panic swept over Adam. They knew about Saba. But where was she? He felt Sara stiffen and said, “She’s gone out.”

          Red beard considered this. “Alright woman,” he said finally, “Where’s everything?”

          “Somewhere,” said Adam’s mother carelessly and resumed her muttering.

          “Fine,” said red beard. He prodded Adam. “Come, we’re going on a tour of this ruin.”

          The words stung Adam. – This ruin? I should like to see where he lives.

          When the men had finished searching it, Sara’s bedroom resembled a battlefield of toys and her late husband’s memorabilia. He seethed silently. – It’ll take her ages to clear up!

          A locked box was the only promising find. That too was broken then tossed away in disgust. Colourful fragments showered down. Adam looked closely, his eyes widening in disbelief. They were cards given to him by Sara, which he had torn and thrown away. His brain reeled. – All these years, and she’s never said a word!

          The men were clearly getting impatient. They prowled around Adam’s cupboards and his lifeline – the computer -, while he edged towards the bed, felt around and trembled. The mobile wasn’t there! Before he could confirm this, he was ordered downstairs. A few men were noisily having dinner at the table. – Our dinner, he thought angrily.

         Further off, his mother was sitting with her feet up, staring into space. Sara’s face was hidden in her hands. His anger changed to dread at the thought of Saba.

          “We got the money from the suitcase,” said one man.

          – The flight! He looked at his watch. It was 8.30 P.M. Instantly it was wrested away and he was being dragged along to his mother’s room. Adam felt a surge of hatred. It was the only memento of his father.

          “Missed that,” said red beard grinning.

          The men were swiftly emptying drawers and shelves. Soon, the floor was littered with yellowing papers, clothes and albums.

          “Here’s something,” said one man peering inside the cupboard. Out came a teddy bear. “The old woman still plays with toys,” he sneered.

          Adam’s throat constricted… A much younger version of himself stood before him. “I don’t play with toys,” said the vision haughtily. The facial expressions told another story… he would never accept anything from this man who had taken his father’s place… He became aware of laughter. It jarred his nerves.

          “Give it here!” he bellowed.

          “You like toys too?”

          Adam lunged, taking them by surprise. Shots rang out. Strong hands were throttling him. He could smell perfume. Perhaps a bottle had broken. His mother was pleading. There were more shots and he was falling… falling…

          He had frozen. Why couldn’t he move? A face was drifting above him. “Ammi?” he mouthed.

          “Its me, Sara. Don’t move.”

          “What happened?” he asked groggily.

          “ You’re in hospital,” she answered, massaging his temples. “The bullets hit your legs. You’re lucky that bear saved your face, or the glass…” she shivered. “The police arrested everyone including  our guard.”

          “Why?”

          “He was their informer. And guess what! Saba called the police from your mobile. She had hidden inside… imagine, the washing machine while you were outside. Ah, there’s my darling!” said Sara beaming.

          Adam found his voice again. “The… the bear?”

          His mother slowly looked up. Her thin face, so like and unlike Sara’s oval one had attained an even more pallid look in the garish tube lights of the hospital room. “I treasure it,” she said simply, “And it holds my treasures.”

          “What…”

          “I keep all the cash and jewellery inside it.”

          He had barely digested this startling information when Saba came up. “I got you a present,” she said breathlessly.

          It was the wing of an orange butterfly. Adam felt oddly touched.

          “Where did you find it?” he asked.

          “The flower beds,” she replied, evidently pleased with her discovery.

          “It’s good you found it, or it would have decomposed,” said Sara, smiling encouragingly.

          Saba stroked off the dirt, “ I think the white ones are better,” she said.

          Adam looked around. His mother had closed her eyes, but Sara was watching them curiously. He drew Saba close.

          “Saba, the colours are just there to distinguish them. Whether its white or not, its still a butterfly. One of a kind. Just like us.”

          “Like us?”

          “Yes.”

          A sob made him look up. His mother was crying, but there was a smile on her lips.

 *

           It was this smile that he was thinking about now, three months later, as he pushed back the chair on which she used to sit. He couldn’t possibly take her place! – The warped alignment of her lips must have been a result of crying and smiling at the same time, he told himself.  She understood, Sara didn’t. She knew I would go some day, even if I didn’t go just then.

           She hadn’t asked any questions six months ago when he had said he wanted to go for higher studies. – That was different, he mused, but the quiet resignation to my wish this time…? His request for a visit to Shaista khala in England was definitely unusual, though his excuse was believable; he wanted a change of scene after his long and painful recuperation from the bullet wounds in his legs. Yet, he was sure that if her death had not occurred two weeks after this conversation about his intended visit to Shaista khala, he might never have gone.

          –  Ammi was ill and Sara could not have taken care of her by herself, he thought. But the fact remained. She had not said a word. Even Sara taking the cue from her, had remained unusually silent and so she was now; silent and watchful. Strangely enough, this didn’t irritate him. If anything, it was reassuring.

           Everyone has to die one day, he thought, looking at the chair.

          His gaze shifted to the two happy faces in the photograph he was holding. “Everyone,” he murmured and then put it hastily in his pocket as he heard Sara approach.

          “Did you say something?” asked Sara placing his coffee on the table while glancing at the chair, which she had earlier pulled out for him.

          “Hmm? No, no. Nothing,” he replied. “Where’s Saba?”

          “Outside, I expect. She’s hoping it will rain again,” said Sara, moving towards the kitchen to make tea.

          Adam shifted slightly and his mug wobbled. It was filled to the brim with bubbles, which made the coffee look lighter than it really was. And now, the bubbles were breaking. Slowly at first, then more steadily. He picked up his spoon and began to systematically break them one by one, an old habit he could never get rid of.

          “Don’t play with your food!”

          Startled, he stared at the chair. A second later he realized that it was Sara admonishing Saba through the window, who was trying to juggle sweets, which kept falling in the mud. Nevertheless, he put away his spoon.

          Sara sat down on the chair at which Adam was still staring and made her tea. Once again, he was struck by the resemblance between her and their mother. He had noticed this first in the hospital and now he realized why. – It isn’t really the face, he thought, their very gestures are identical.

          “Something wrong with the coffee?” asked Sara anxiously seeing his intent look.

          “No, its excellent.”

           Sara relaxed perceptibly. They sipped in silence while Adam’s eyes took in the changes in the house décor, a sure proof of Sara’s comfortable income as a Marketing Executive. She had taken up the job soon after their mother’s death and when Adam went on his trip, she was more worried about Saba coming back
from summer school to an empty house, than their finances. Consequently, pastel shades ruled the once drab interior, while outside the attempt by August rains to destroy the newly planted borders had been successfully thwarted by the
ingenuity of the maali who had sloped the garden. And now, Adam, who sat facing the window, could see rivulets running around the tufts of grass, finally collecting in the driveway. This water was just deep enough to cause a satisfying ‘splosh’ when stones were thrown in. Saba certainly seemed satisfied.

          “It’s raining!” said Sara abruptly.

          “Drizzling,” corrected Adam.

          “You’re right,” she agreed, then after a short pause asked hesitantly, “How was your trip?”

          “Good,” he answered, not meeting her eyes. The photograph weighed terribly on his mind. “I met my… I met Michael Hunter,” he added.

          Sara’s face held an arrested expression. Her eyes willed him to go on.

          “Not for long,” he continued. “I was talking to Shaista khala when the doorbell rang and he walked in. I guess they’ve been in touch. Well, impossible not to, since they‘re in the same office, but anyway, she told him I was in town and he came over for a while.”

          “A while?” goaded Sara.

          “Hmm. There wasn’t much to talk about. He asked me what I was doing. I asked him about his job. That’s all.”

          “Did you meet your father again?”

          “No,” he said, smiling crookedly.

          “How come Shaista khala didn’t tell us before?” wondered Sara, a furrow forming between her brows.

          “Well…” began Adam awkwardly, “She told me six months ago.”

          Sara’s lips formed a long ‘Oh.’

          “That’s when you first wanted to go for higher studies!” she shot back, leaving the spoon with which she had been fidgeting.

          Adam winced. “Yes,” he mumbled. “Shaista khala didn’t want me to tell you… or Ammi, but I think Ammi understood.”

          Sara didn’t reply. She was walking to the window, presumably to watch Saba jumping in the puddles outside, her shoulders rigid.

          He left the room silently, leaving his coffee unfinished and crept upstairs. The door to Sara’s bedroom was open. He pondered if this was what he had been waiting for, then decided against it.

          His own room was pretty much as he had left it. The yellow dustbin in the corner being the only addition. – This intruder has made the room look bland, he thought.  Absently he strolled over to the window, looking down at the same view as that seen from the dining room. Saba’s shrieks of delight floated up to him quite clearly through the closed shutters on which large raindrops were hammering so hard they had formed an almost opaque sheet. Still, he believed he could almost see the bubbles forming and breaking in the murky water outside. – Just like coffee. The froth at the top and the scum below. “But that’s the real thing!” his brain snapped back.

          “That’s the real thing,” he repeated and as if in a trance, walked up to the dustbin and deposited the photograph neatly in it, before realizing what he had done.

           For a few moments he stood looking at the two faces he had thought about so much during the past few days. One, as familiar to him as his own, the other, barely so. Even at this distance he could make out the scrawl at the base of the card which framed the photograph: Michael Hunter and Paula Hunter, on their first wedding anniversary.

          – She’ll see it, he reassured himself, and she’ll understand.

          Purposefully he went out of the room and down the stairs. It had been a long time since he had been drenched in the rain.

Ahmad, K. B. (2004) I belong. A collection of short stories. The British Council. Connecting Futures.

Copyright: Kiran Bashir Ahmad. Parched Earth 2004

Collection copyright: The British Council 2004

N.B: A song that really syncs with the theme of my story is Aaliyah’s Journey to the Past http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDbvjqRuMTA&feature=related Listen carefully, and you’ll find echoes of Anastasia in Adam’s longing for the lost part of his self – his father – one of the themes of the story.

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