This morning, when I had gone to find water, Umm Maryam informed me that she had seen my son.
“He was at the Salahuddin Market,” Umm Maryam said. “He was with some others.”
I looked down at her where she crouched next to the broken pipe opposite the hardware shop, a bottle held under it to catch the trickle. I felt fear rise, metallic, in my mouth. Salahuddin Market was only three streets from where the front line was, from what we’d heard.
My mouth moved, as though by itself. “When did you see him?” I asked. “What did he say?”
“Yesterday.” Umm Maryam tilted the old cola bottle to catch a few more drops, carefully set it down, and picked up another. I felt like screaming at her but fought down the impulse with an effort. Screaming would not help. Maybe she was waiting for me to scream. “Yesterday, at noon,” she said slowly and deliberately. “I’d gone to see if there was any food going. There were rumours.”
I had heard the rumours, and dismissed them. I’d have thought Umm Maryam would have, too. It didn’t matter, anyway. “What was he doing, my son? You saw him? You’re sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” Umm Maryam glanced up at me, a slight frown on her face. She was a widow, like me, and the same age as me. But she was very beautiful, and had left her veil off because there were no men around, something I had not dared. At that moment I hated her for her beauty and her boldness, like all the other women who waited for water did. But she said she had seen my son. “It was Farid, sure enough. It’s not as though I don’t remember what he looks like.”
Her words hit me like a blow as I remembered the last time I’d seen Farid. That had been the night the men had come for him.
“We want him,” they had said. “The Movement needs him.”
I’d tried to stop them. I’d begged and then I’d cried on my knees. They’d stared at me and then they’d laughed. “When the Movement had been protecting you, and feeding you, you didn’t refuse its aid. But now when you’re asked to give back what you owe, you’re crying? You should be ashamed of yourself.” And they’d kicked me till I fell on the floor, looking up at them, those big bearded men with guns who looked much larger from ground level.
“I’ll go,” Farid had said then, in a whisper. His eyes had been huge, holes of darkness and fear in his white bloodless face. The first wisps of fluff on his cheeks had merely shown how absurdly young he was. “I’ll go, Ummi.”
One of the men with guns had helped me up. He had a broad scarred face, and was one of those who hadn’t cursed and kicked me. “It won’t be that bad,” he’d said. “You’ll be a martyr’s mother, and that means you’ll have a place reserved for you in Jannat when the time comes.”
I’d said nothing more. Farid had said nothing more. They had taken him out. From the window, which I hadn’t boarded up yet then like everyone else, I’d watched him pushed into line with a few other boys in the street. They’d been marched off into the night.
That had been long ago. How long? Weeks? Two months? Somehow I was horrified that I couldn’t remember. I must try to remember, but not now, not here, standing over Umm Maryam and waiting for my turn. “Did you talk to him? What did he say?”
Umm Maryam shrugged and finally finished filling her last bottle of water. “Talk to him? He wasn’t alone. You think I could talk to him?”
“But he was all right?” I had to restrain myself from clutching her arm as she got to her feet. “He didn’t seem hurt or anything?”
“No,” Umm Maryam said. “He looked all right. He was...”
Someone shoved me in the back. “If you’re going to get water,” the woman, whoever it was, snapped, “get it. We’re waiting our turn.”
I crouched to fill the bottle. The water had slowed from a trickle to a drip. By the time I’d filled half the bottle, to the increasingly impatient shouts of the waiting women, Umm Maryam was long gone.
I woke that night to the sound of thunder.
I’d spent hours looking for Umm Maryam, but found her nowhere. Her house was abandoned, the door missing, the roof fallen in. I’d not been able to find anyone who had seen her either. She must be somewhere in the warren of buildings around – perhaps behind the wall I was passing at that moment – but there was no way of telling.
Would she be there tomorrow at the water pipe? Could I wait that long?
By noon I’d decided to go to Salahuddin Market to see for myself. But where in the market? It was huge, a maze of buildings and stalls around a maze of alleys, tangled in knots around each other. A woman could look for her son for days there and not find him, and that was in peacetime, and assuming he wanted to be found.
The thought had brought another terrifying one in its wake. Did Farid even want to be found? Could he really, if he’d been in the city all this time, not have found a way to come to me even for a brief visit?
I’d fought down the fear, and decided that I would go to Salahuddin Market and see for myself. I’d have to walk, of course, since the remnants of public transport had broken down long ago. But it wasn’t that far. I could get there in a couple of hours, if I hurried.
I’d only gone two streets before I’d been stopped by a roadblock.
“Where are you going?” the picket leader had asked. “This road is closed.”
I’d looked past him at the roadblock. It had filled the street to chest level, concrete slabs ripped up from pavements, chunks of smashed walls, and polythene sacks overflowing with rubble. On top two boys were gingerly stringing barbed wire.
“Well?” the picket leader had demanded. “I asked you a question.”
I’d peered up at the boys, hoping that one of them was Farid, but one was surely too young, and the other was far too tall. Besides, he was obviously left handed, unlike my son. Still, I’d tried to get a look at their faces, until the picket leader had waved his hand in my face.
“I live in the next street,” I’d replied. “I need to go home.”
The picket leader had been very young too, and strikingly handsome. Or, rather, he might have been strikingly handsome without the mottled brown uniform and the ugly ammunition vest draped over his chest and shoulders. A boy that age should be romancing girls and worrying about exams, not interrogating women twice his age beside a pile of stones.
“Can’t do that, Auntie,” he’d replied. “This district is a combat zone now. The enemy are getting closer.” Something enormous had blown up then, the explosion so violent that I had felt the street vibrate through the worn soles of my shoes. The boys on the roadblock had both flinched, and one had come sliding off. “See?” the young man had said. “Go away, Auntie, this isn’t the place for you.” He’d hesitated a moment, this boy, and then leaned close to murmur in my ear. “You’re lucky you can’t go through, Auntie, believe me. The people living that side, they aren’t allowed to leave. They’re going to be martyred along with the brothers fighting there.”
I’d tried another street, but there had been a roadblock there too, and men with machine guns who had waved me away before I’d got close. And as I’d turned back homewards I’d seen more of them, hammering holes in the walls of houses to use as sniper nests and observation points, and stretching plastic sheets and tarpaulin overhead to hide the streets from drones and aeroplanes. They threw the streets into shadow, as though it was twilight even at high noon.
And now, in the middle of the night, I’d been woken by the thunderstorm. The flashes of lightning seemed right outside my windows, gleaming through every chink. The walls vibrated and trembled like a child with the ague.
It was absurdly long before I realised that it was not a thunderstorm. And then I could only climb off the bed and roll under it, my arms around my head, the cold concrete against my cheek, feeling the earth heave and jolt with each shell that was falling.
Between blasts I heard screaming, impossibly loud screaming, not far away. Surely screaming like that could come from no human throat. Surely this screaming would fill the universe, echo in the ears of all the powerful men, sitting in their offices in green, peaceful countries half a world away, men who made those bombs and shells and sent them off to be dropped on us, to make a person scream and scream –
There was a terrific blast, so loud that I felt the air sucked out of my chest. The screaming stopped abruptly. Silence fell for a while, followed by the distant noises of rushing feet and cries.
Dimly, I heard myself gabbling. “I’ll go and find Umm Maryam,” I kept saying. “I’ll make her tell me where in Salahuddin Market she saw Farid. I’ll make her tell me. She will. She will.”
I think I kept gabbling that for hours. Then, somehow, I fell asleep.
Nobody would be talking to Umm Maryam ever again.
The women had come to get water during the night, and had been lined up next to the broken pipe, when the last bomb had fallen. Probably, none of them had wanted to run, because that would have meant giving up their places, and they’d all died as they’d stood, in a row. Umm Maryam’s corpse had been flung almost all the way to the hardware store’s twisted shutters, as though even in death the others had not wanted to have anything to do with her. The water pipe, incredibly, had survived intact, and people were already filling bottles and cans at it, stepping over the bodies as though they were not there. I joined them and filled my bottles as well.
What else, I thought despairingly, could I do?
There were people in the corridors of the building when I came home. Most of them had been forced out of their own homes from the barrage of the night, and they huddled in the passage, with whatever they could carry with them, not talking. Their faces were covered with white concrete dust, their clothes splattered with clotted blood, and, crouching in total silence, they looked as though they’d all sat down and died. None of them looked at me as I squeezed past and in through my door.
There was just a little food left, that I’d been keeping for weeks – a couple of handfuls of dried millets, little better than grass seeds. I put them to soak in the water I’d managed to get, and sat down on my bed. Almost immediately there was a knock on the door.
“Wait,” I called, and hid the pan under the bed. At one time I’d have offered a visitor anything I was eating. At one time I’d have invited people to lunch. That time was long gone. “Wait, I’m coming.”
It was Bushra, whom I’d known for years. She was carrying a large bag. “Can I stay here?” she said as soon as she’d come in. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but I have nowhere to go.”
“Were you bombed?” I asked stupidly. “Is that why you’re here?”
“Bombed? No.” Bushra was a large woman, with a round face that had once been fleshy. Now she was stooped and her cheeks were fallen in with near-starvation, like everyone else’s. But her voice was still booming, like the big woman she had been. “They’ve taken my house. They said they needed it for a strongpoint, and gave me fifteen minutes to get out.” I didn’t need to ask who they might be. “The last I saw, they were smashing holes in my walls and filling my old fridge and steel cupboard with earth and rubble. To stop bullets, they said.” She dropped the bag on the floor and suddenly began to cry. “You won’t tell me to go, will you? I don’t have anywhere to go. Don’t chase me away.”
I looked at her aghast, watching her dry-eyed sobbing. She had too little water in her to waste on tears, like all of us. “I won’t tell you to go,” I said. “I won’t. Please don’t think I will. But the food – I don’t have...”
“I have a little.” She scrabbled in her bag. “The men gave me some flat bread, in compensation for the house, they said. Look, here, you can have it all.”
“No, no, keep it for later.” I did not know whom to feel ashamed for, her degradation or the fact that the very mention of the bread had brought an agonised twist of hunger in my gut. She had flat bread, and I a handful of millets soaking in water, which I had no fuel to cook... “Keep it for when we really need it. Here, look, sit on the bed. Take your shoes off, rest your feet.”
“Thanks. Allah will reward...” Bushra broke off. “No, of course not. Allah has turned His back on us all.”
I didn’t reply. When you hear the absolute, unvarnished truth, there is nothing to say.
Somewhere not far away, a giant began clapping rhythmically.
I listened to it for a while and tried to tell myself that it was not the sound of mortar bombs, falling.
The war is here. It is at the door.
The bombs have been falling outside all night and through the morning. The streets are full of shattered masonry, the air full of dust. There is no point going for water – the entire street outside the hardware store, water pipe and all, are buried under a landslide of broken bricks and concrete. Umm Maryam and the other bodies are somewhere down there, given the burial the living among us could not give them.
I am alone. The people crowding the passages have gone. Bushra has gone too, disappeared during the night. At some point, when I had been lying under the bed with my hands over my ears and the taste of blood from my bitten lips in my mouth, she had taken her bag and walked away.
I had never seen any of her bread. Somehow, that fills me with anger. I should have taken all the bread and eaten it there, before her eyes, I think. She said she had nowhere else to go!
The people are gone, but the men are here. A large black flag hangs from a window across the street. I can see a few of the men, crouched on the corner, looking at something I can’t see. One of them steps out, fires a few shots, and steps back again. Apparently he’s hit something, because they all shout the taqbir.
I feel as though I am in a parallel universe to the one I have always known. How can anyone shout to Allah in the middle of this devastation, thinking He wills it and wants it so? How is it possible?
I want to go back indoors, but at the same time I don’t want to. Indoors I will feel trapped in a box, waiting for a bomb to send it all crashing down on my head. Here, outside, I may be disembowelled by shrapnel or ripped to pieces by bullets, but at least I can see what is going on.
This is how it will end, I think. This is how it will end, all over the world, when the tide of civilisation ebbs. Women will stand, terrified, on street corners, watching men murder each other, waiting to be killed in turn. Women will see their sons torn from their bosoms and sent –
I spin round, swaying, almost falling. Three of the men have come up behind me. Two of them I don’t know, but the third...
“Ummi,” Farid says. He’s taller than when I saw him last, surely, broader, his arms and legs thick with muscle under his jacket. The wispy beard curls around his jaw and on his cheeks. “Ummi. Are you all right?”
I can only nod. My eyes and face refuse to do what my brain screams at them to do, to cry, to smile. My mouth opens, the tongue in it thick as a log of wood. “Come in,” I say. “Come in, quickly.”
Farid shakes his head. “Sorry, Ummi, I have no time.” Something roars by overhead, setting the polythene and tarpaulin sheets flapping. We all look up, instinctively, but there’s, of course, nothing to be seen. “We have no time,” Farid says.
“Just for a minute,” I say urgently. It is suddenly vital that I get him into the house. If he’s in there I can get him to throw away that heavy green and brown jacket, that rifle, that thick, bulky ammunition vest with the wires...my eyes fall on the vest and the wires and my heart seems to stop.
Farid sees where my eyes are and smiles slightly. “Yes, Ummi,” he says gently. “I’m on an ittishadi mission – I’m going to sacrifice myself now. Don’t worry about it.”
I open and close my mouth. No words come.
“It won’t be for long, Ummi.” He reaches out and touches me. His hand is rough with callus, not like the baby soft skin of the boy I had given birth to, whom I’d brought up and held close to me for so many years. “You’ll be with me soon. That lot over there, the enemies of Allah, they kill everyone they find, man, woman, or child.”
“Abu Abdallah,” one of the other men says impatiently. “We have to go.”
“Don’t cry, Ummi,” Farid says. I had not known I was crying. “Here, give me a smile. Just one smile.”
I don’t know what my mouth does. Maybe it smiles, maybe it grimaces, but whatever it does seems to make him happy. I raise my hand to touch him, but he’s already stepping past me, turning away.
“It’ll only be a short time till we’re together, Ummi,” he calls over his shoulder.
My son walks away from me, towards the crouching men at the corner, and my heart and blood and flesh scream and scream soundlessly, come back, come back.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017