Wednesday 28 September 2011

It Happened One Day

Ahmed saw the plane come down. He saw it slant down through the air, one wing askew, like a wounded bird, and he watched it fall on Auntie Arifa’s house with a crash of shattered masonry and twisted metal. He saw a huge puff of dust rise from the house like a blooming flower. Then, at last, he began running.

Ahmed was between nine and ten. He didn’t know his exact age, of course; nobody in the village had ever heard of birth records. He was short and thin and had a huge mop of black hair which his mother trimmed unevenly with blunt scissors. When he ran, the hair bounced.

By the time he had reached the house the dust had just begun to settle. People had already begun gathering. There wasn’t that much left of the building, but fortunately it was the grain shed out back, and not the main house. Ahmed walked up to the smashed aeroplane, full of curiosity.

“Stand back, boy,” someone called. “It might catch fire.”

Ahmed ignored him. In reality, he didn’t even hear the man. He was too busy looking up at the broken silver bird to think about other things.

“Let him be,” someone was saying to the first man. “That’s Halima’s mad son. You can’t do a thing with him.”

Ahmed ignored him too. The plane had broken open like a split toy. The pointed nose was jammed into the earth, the tail section had broken off entirely and filled the courtyard in a tangle of wires and metal so hot he could feel the heat from where he was, and the dust was still thick in the air. He looked up at the wing which was draped upside-down over what was left of the roof. The tip of it hung just low enough for him to be able to touch, if he stood on tiptoe. All along the underside of it were objects that looked a bit like blunt eggs with shiny brown noses.

“Get back,” someone else was shouting, but not to him. They were shouting at the other children. “It’s not safe. Get back.”

Ahmed came back towards the nose of the plane. The cockpit hung above him, upside down, like a shining silver teardrop. He could see the body of the pilot hanging in its harness. The corpse was so encased in straps and flying suit and helmet that it didn’t look like a human being. It looked like something out of a magazine he had once seen, with pictures of people who had gone into space. Although he tried, he couldn’t see the face at all.

When he finally came back to the street just about the entire village was there. Most of those present had decided the plane wasn’t going to catch fire after all. They came closer to examine the wreckage. Auntie Arifa was there, sitting down, and was still shaking a bit. Some of the other women were giving her water to drink. Auntie Arifa wasn’t in her burqa. Her face was very pale. Her mouth worked, mumbling.

Ahmed watched the people gather. As usual, he watched everything but never spoke. He almost never said anything, and this was why everyone called him crazy. Ahmed didn’t mind being called crazy. What they called him didn’t matter.

He felt a light touch on his shoulder. It was his sister, Samina, who was fourteen and considered very beautiful. She was his only surviving sibling. The other two had died in the same bombing that had killed his father. Their mother had gone to Kabul three days ago because of the dispute over the farm, and had not yet returned. “Are you all right, Ahmed?” she asked. He nodded slightly.

He saw Najib and some other young men drive up in an ancient Toyota truck with broken headlights and a cracked windscreen. Najib was one of the most handsome of the young men of the village, and one of the most boastful. People said he was always trying too hard to impress the girls. Now he jumped out of the truck, brandishing a rifle. His friends were also armed, like him. They spilled out of the bed of the pickup, whooping.

“We shot it down,” Najib said. He shook his rifle and fired it in the air. The noise made a flat crack, like a punctuation mark. “We shot at it, and it fell.”

“Don’t be a fool, Najib,” one of the villagers said. It was old Uncle Hassan, who had only one eye. “It had some kind of engine failure or something. You didn’t shoot it down with your pop-gun.”

Najib rounded on him furiously but checked himself when he saw who had spoken. Hassan was not someone to be contradicted openly. He had lost his eye as a mujahid fighting in the anti-Soviet jihad. “I know what I know,” Najib contented himself with saying, and fired in the air again. “We shot it and it fell.”

“Stop firing and dancing around with those guns, you idiots,” three or four of the villagers spoke together. “They will be here any minute and they’ll bomb us all if they see you doing that.”

Najib was full of baffled fury. Ahmed could see the look in his eyes. He looked around desperately and noticed Samina. “What are you doing here without covering your face, you little slut? Go home right now.”

Samina said nothing. Her hand tightened on Ahmed’s shoulder, otherwise there might have been no reaction at all. Najib advanced on her, a hand raised. “Go home, I said.”

“Since when do you give orders here, Najib?” Samina asked. “Did you join the Taliban, or something?”

“How’s that your concern? You go home or I’ll slap the cheek out of you.” He leaned towards her. He was breathing quickly and angrily. “I don’t want to beat a woman, but you’re forcing me.”

“Why don’t you join the Taliban then?” Samina asked. “If you want to fight, I’m sure they’d be glad to have you.”

“For the last time...” Najib swung his hand back. “You get back home and cover your face. Hussy.”

Ahmed stepped between his sister and the young man. His dark eyes stared up at the pale handsome face with its short beard. Najib looked at him, and hesitated. He had a healthy fear of madness.

“I’ll take care of you later,” he muttered, and walked back to his friends. Hassan and the other villagers had talked them into putting away their guns. The dust had now settled completely and the broken plane looked like a knife blade thrust up at the sky.

“So they can fall after all,” some of the men were saying. “They can die, as well.”

“I wonder what kind of man he was, the pilot,” someone else said. “I suppose they have wives and children too.”

“So long as they don’t kill us in revenge for him, I don’t see it matters.”

“They’ll be along here later, and if they think it was the Taliban who did it, there will be hell to pay.”

“There will be hell to pay anyway, with the likes of him around,” the first man said, jerking a thumb at Najib, who pretended not to hear.

“We should go away,” Samina said. “You know how they might bomb us any moment. You know what happened to Father and the others.” They both looked up at the sky.

“Mustafa!” someone screamed. It was Auntie Arifa, who had suddenly realised her son was missing. “Mustafa! He was playing behind the barn!”

She ran to the broken wall and began trying to pull at it with her hands. A few of the villagers, and then more, began to help her. A few men went to fetch tools. Auntie Arifa kept screaming.

“I wonder,” Samina said, “why people do the things they do.” She pulled at Ahmed’s arm. “Let’s go home,” she said.

Ahmed hesitated. He looked at the broken plane and remembered how it had fallen like a bird that had been hurt. He looked at the crowd tearing at the smashed building. He looked around at the dry brown hills and the bowl of blue sky above.

“Mustafa!” Aunt Arifa screamed. “Mustafa!” They had just found him.

“You youngsters get out of here,” old Hassan said to Ahmed, Samina and to some of the other children. “There’s nothing for you to see.”

“Let’s go, Ahmed,” said Samina. “Let’s go before I have to hit you.”

“They kill,” Hassan said to no one in particular. “Even when they don’t intend to, they kill.”

They passed Najib. He was talking to his friends and waving his hands around. “I tell you we shot it down,” he was saying.

All the way home, they could hear Aunt Arifa wailing.

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