These were uncertain times, as far as she could tell. Her mind's eye remembered happier ones, of bright sunlight, smiling schoolgirls and a carefree existence. Those were better times. Back then, she had a family. A home. And her vision. All three were taken in one fell swoop of an air strike. She was outside the gate when the family went with the house. It was a blazing impact of red, orange, grey, tearing through the house and its occupants.
The blast knocked her off her feet, in a moment that was as sudden as it was slow. She twisted in a tumbling somersault over the streets where she played. The rubble and glass of her childhood home were flung with her, gleaming under sunlight's quiet gaze. It dimmed when her head hit something concrete before vanishing completely with her consciousness.
That was the last memory that registered within. Like a film reel abruptly cut short.
In a make-shift hospital, she received news, good and bad. Naturally opting for the bad news first, she learned, distraught, that she would never see again. The good news was that her younger brother had survived. He had been away at the time of the 'incident'. It provided little comfort. But comfort it did.
Her little brother seemed to become a man overnight. He felt taller and stronger when her fingers reached out for him. She clutched his shoulder, desperate, afraid, disoriented when they left the hospital.
‘Are we going home?’ she asked him, voice shaking from the cold.
‘There is no home to go to,’ he said curtly. There followed that cursed silence, made more indefinite over crunching gravel and shattered pavements.
They began living in a dilapidated house with just a small roof and one wall intact. He 'arranged' for some perforated canopy, he told his sister, when it had, in fact, been stolen from a neighbouring ghetto. It did little to protect from nighttime's howling winds, but shielded from a stranger's glance when she needed to attend to herself. These private tasks required the aid of her brother and it shamed her.
There was little difference between her sleep and waking. It was an abyss-like darkness either way. Only in dreams could she see fleeting sights of colourful blurs. And dream she did, of better times.
But often, her blindness undid her during airstrikes, when the ground, the spare wall and the sky itself quaked at the onslaught of a terrible destruction. She trembled like a leaf and her brother kept her steady. But she did not know if he was rigid from fear or anger. They held each other through the bombings and gun shots.
His hands were rough from hard labour. The adolescent face grew its first stubble. His voice was broken but she did not hear it often. For her brother grew grave and silent. He never explained how he procured scraps of food and tattered rags to clean her. She never complained how hungry or unclean she did feel, despite his best efforts. Perhaps he gave her his share too. His cheeks felt sunken lately. She was a burden to him and said so, only to receive a tongue-lashing from him.
That night, she cried herself to sleep. He could not hear her over the cacophony of crashes and sirens. It was cold, marking the onset of an oppressive winter. The next morning he awoke, calm and determined.
‘I have work to do,’ he said. ‘Rest assured, it can see us through winter.’
‘What kind of work?’ she asked.
‘Don't go, I'm afraid.’
Footsteps stomped over crumbled stone and past the rustling canopy. She knew he was gone. And the well of darkness she was trapped in heightened the sickening anxiety. Nightfall worsened it.
The approaching footfalls did not soothe her either. They belonged to weightier bodies. She tensed and groped for something to defend herself with. Terrible stories had been told and retold of the inevitable fate that befell a lonely woman.
‘Greetings, sister,’ said a husky voice and she immediately placed him. He had been her brother's classmate.
‘Where is he?’ she said, her voice dropping to a whisper.
‘A terrible tragedy, sister. But a noble cause.’
‘Where is he?’
Her voice cracked like a whip in the echoing darkness.
‘We will take you to him.’
Her heart thudded in her ears, her blood rebelled in her veins as she was led over the treacherous route of littered buildings to a roaring jeep. There was that pungency of diesel and unwashed men that swept over her as she boarded. Never would her parents, if alive, have allowed her to venture thus. But then, those were better times.
His emaciated frame lay on a rough, twine carpet. She felt it with her fingers. Then his ribs. The bullet wound between them. Crusted, damp and raw. Touched those hollow cheeks. It was indeed him. She lay beside him, shivering. Her hand entwined with his and she thought of the first time she held it.
As an infant, his fist had fitted easily into hers. And she never did have big hands. It made her weep. Profusely, inconsolably, till she crumpled like all the ruined structures of her city, with the will to live slipping between her fingers like drops of water. Heart-broken, she fainted.
She was revived later and was consoled by two of the seven men in the room. The voices assured her of appropriate funeral rites, but did not seek to answer the question uppermost in her mind.
‘What had my brother set out to do?’ she asked.
‘To retaliate, sister. Against those who caused our loved ones grief.’
She hugged her knees to her chest.
‘There was a bomb to be planted – ’ said a meeker voice. The classmate quickly hushed him.
Again, a long silence.
‘What about this bomb?’ she asked.
‘It was meant to be placed near a refugee camp. Their refugee camp. Your brother was shot, but managed to escape... even though the task at hand lies unfinished.’
She nibbled on a sharp edge of a dirty, broken nail. The blood pumped in warm resonance inside her ears. Her toes curled, making sandy trails in their retreat on the floor.
‘What if...’ She took a deep breath. ‘What if someone was to enter the camp?’
‘There is not enough time to plant the bomb and leave,’ said one of the men.
‘What if... someone went with the bomb?’
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘They would never suspect a blind woman...’
The leader of the group gave an approving nod. The desperate and hopeless were the easiest to recruit.
The guide sat at the steering wheel, a brown cigarette dangling from his lips. A renegade to both the warring communities. He tired of the violence, having been an active participant in its midst. Now, he worked for the government, ferrying journalists from cheap hotels to refugee camps and back. Like a ping pong ball. He sat next to one in his desert jeep. White man. Not BBC, but some such organisation. With a camera as big as a child soldier's gun.
Same principle. Aim and shoot.
After a while, they sat together on the jeep's bonnet, outside the gate of the refugee camp. ‘How long have you been doing this?’ asked the photojournalist as he squinted through his view-finder.
‘Almost as long as the war itself,’ replied the guide.
They had it all wrong, the news agencies. If they mingled with the locals, they would know better. Both sides of the story. But how often did that happen?
‘There they come,’ said the foreigner, slipping off the bonnet and towards the approaching refugees. His gait was predatory. The guide kept his pearls of wisdom to himself.
She joined the crowd of 'others'. The men had dressed her in their attire and tied a symbol of their religion upon her wrist. She loathed its feel and the presence of those people around her.
The bomb was hard and heavy against her tender chest, hidden away under the layers of loose clothing. It would be over soon. And better this way. Dying the way her family did. But taking the enemy with her.
She suppressed the objecting voices welling inside her. Unsuccessfully. Was she a killer? Would her family have approved? Her stomach contorted and bile rose to her throat. She was afraid to answer. Few took notice of her visually impaired plight, trapped as they were in their private sorrows.
A helping hand did extend to her when she tripped over her garments. ‘Much thanks, grandfather,’ she said, running her fingers over his veined hand.
‘Where is your family, child?’
He had a voice that was grainy with age and hoarse with dried phlegm.
‘They were killed... in a blast.’
‘So was mine,’ croaked the old man and she listened carefully. ‘All I have left is my grandson.’
‘Is he with you now?’
‘Aye, child, in the arm that does not hold you.’
‘He does not speak.’
‘ He is ill, very ill. Trenches are no place for a little boy.’
She reached for the small body against the old man's shoulder. The child's fist fit into hers. Perfectly, like pieces of a jigzaw puzzle. His pulse was indeed very weak. To remain untreated would lead to death.
Let it, she thought and dropped his lifeless arm from her grip. May they all die. Her venom did not convince her, though. It was beginning to ebb.
‘God only knows why His children suffer,’ remarked the old man.
‘The children cause suffering to each other. There is no god,’ she said.
‘There is one and one alone,’ said the old man with forceful vehemence. ‘He transcends religion and this madness.’
‘He forgets the children that live in this madness. That is no god. For there is none!’
‘No, alas, child! His workings may be unknown but His presence is not.’
‘And what good did god do to you with your broken homes and lost families?’
‘He made us story tellers. So that the world would know of suffering.’
‘I did not volunteer for suffering.’
‘None do, which makes the tale more compelling.’
‘Story-telling is futile. History has ways of repeating itself.’
‘And also of reminding,’ said the old man.
His breath whistled through his nose. She sighed. What good came from any of this? They all suffered.
‘You are a good man,’ she said. ‘You speak of hope where none exists.’
‘Someone has to,’ he rasped. ‘It is when you keep hope and God alive that they exist.’
She disagreed, but silently.
‘You seem tired,’ she said. ‘Set your grandchild down and rest awhile.’
‘He may not have a while. No, I must keep walking.’
Natural instinct preceded her more sinister intention. ‘Let me hold him,’ she said. ‘That way, you will not be left behind.’
He did not even have the breath to thank her. The burden exchanged shoulders and she took great care to keep the boy away from the trigger. He felt hot from fever, welts and pus. Her own two feet were scalded with daytime's heat. Sand, like golden centipedes, scattered and scorched her soles with each step.
Have mercy, she found herself imploring. If not on me, but on this child.
They felt the same against her body. Small, vulnerable and curled. Her brother had had the same thatch of short, spiky hair. Blindness lent her objectivity. Memory added a hazy setting of a hospital's white walls and green curtains. A long night, a glimmering dawn and a bundled sibling.
She showed him the hospital walls, the corridors and the view from windows. Both were innocent with untainted conscience. Rejoicing the headiness of better times. She would have liked to study further. To make a name for herself. To help others.
‘I can see the camp,’ said the old man.
‘Would you hold the boy now?’ said the girl.
The old man must have been surprised at her abrupt request but complied.
‘How close are we to the camp?’ she asked.
‘Around sixty paces.’
‘What is on either side of the crowd?’
‘There is barren land all around.’
‘Listen closely, grandfather.’ Her voice was grim. ‘Once you enter the camp, do not look back. Keep walking . Ensure that the boy is taken care of.’
‘Why are you talking- ?’
‘May God protect you,’ she said in the dialect of her holy scriptures. Upon hearing her words, the old man stilled with fear.
‘You are not one of us-’ he began.
‘But I am a child of god,’ she said. ‘Your words, grandfather!’
She nudged her way out of the crowd. The old man was prodded on by the weary lot, though his gaze remained transfixed. Her old scarf fluttered in the wind as she finally broke away from the stream of people. No more, she thought, of those futile deaths.
One of the guards at the gate noticed and called out to her. She did not listen, but measured in paces the distance of the blast radius. Her finger was on the trigger. The wind carried its own sound. There was no one in immediate vicinity. Save for the guard catching up with her.
Defiance fuelled the pace. Resignation pressed the trigger. Peace bestowed that smile. The blast took it apart. Its impact shot through the air. A portion of the ground caved in. A sound that stilled their world.
‘Holy shit!’ cried the photojournalist and tripped over. His guide was already on the ground, militant training kicking in instantly. A vertical column of smoke rose in the distance. The refugees rushed into a stampede like panicked cattle. Bullets fired in the air would have only added to the chaos. The guide managed to drag the journalist out of harm's way.
‘Camera's fine, thank God!’
He raced to the sight of the blast, ignoring the guide's protesting cries of minefields and greater caution. Finally, he caught up with the enthusiastic youth.
‘God help us,’ he said, and muttered a prayer for both victims.
‘Her bomb must have detonated early,’ said the journalist.
‘No,’ said the guide, weakly. ‘She came with the crowd. I saw.’
She was trying to save them.
But the journalist was not listening. His agency was the first to report about the carnage. Others followed in their wake, to report about a suicide bomber thwarted by a brave soldier.
They descended in jeeps, vans and helicopters like ravenous vultures. The old man lodged his fingers through the chain-fenced enclosure of the camp and watched his God's children, baffled. He turned away when his grandson called out to him from the stretcher.
‘What is happening?’ he croaked in the old man's ear.
‘I don't know, child.’ He looked back at those flashing lights and equipment. ‘I don't know.’
The guide sat on the bonnet of his jeep, chin resting in cupped hands. There were many more of his lot beside him in similar vehicles. Some of them were former militants too. He knew them by face. They exchanged acknowledging glances and mournful sighs as they watched the foreigners flurry relentlessly with their set-up.
Theirs was a land at siege, a country at war. And that was how the world would know them. They had no voices, no right to them, so they sat resigned on their bonnets, thinking wistful thoughts.
Repeatedly and achingly too, of better times.
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