There was no need to move out of the hut at that time of the night. But Abu did. He held to his stick and supported himself on his right foot as he opened the door to look outside. It was a pale night.
He could see the stars and the constellations, some of them hidden behind clouds hanging like a canopy. He had forgotten the number of such October nights that he had seen in his life. But this one was different.
It was an expectant night, almost mysterious in its candor. Why it looked so pale, Abu wondered for a moment, before he completed his stroll. By the time he returned it was about to be dawn.
Khartom was about to begin a new day.
His animals were still sleeping in the makeshift hut he had built with poles and mud. The brier around it made the divide between his tenement and their small kingdom. The neighbourhood was their grazing ground although it had nothing that could suffice their hunger or the thirst.
Hunger, Abu had noticed, waned in the winter and he only prayed for an early winter this time.
Liak, the ox, had not been keeping well. He was running high temperatures. He had not been taking anything for three days.
There was little left for him though; after what the rest of the animals fought out over.
Every morning around this hour Abu thought about his two sons for a brief moment. That was all he remembered about them during the day. He remembered their faces as they were the last time he had seen them leaving his house about two years back. After that he had not heard from them. But news about them reached him in bits and pieces. He had chosen to ignore most of all that he had heard.
He had prayed to Allah to have mercy.
When the first light was visible Halim had already taken his first sip of the hot tea. He looked out of his glass window and he could see the yellow sun behind the dark houses. It was rising slowly, as if stealthily, coping with the exhaustion and the drowsiness of the environs. Halim had a busy day that had yielded little result. He had started out early the previous day to reach Salijkhand, from where he got his supplies of grains. It used to be three hundred pounds per week even a couple of months back.
Now it was down to a couple of hundred. The prices had zoomed. The Russian supplies had waned, supplies from Pakistan had become erratic.
Anything went as long as it could be consumed.
By man or by animals.
He looked out to see the vast stretches of barren earth that reached up to the mountains. The shrubs and brier made up for the absence of green. At this time of the day he used to see smoke coming from chimneys.
Even there was absence of smoke.
All this was less disturbing. What made him shiver was the talk he had overheard during his visit to Salijkhand.
The Americans were almost ready to retaliate. The Sixth Fleet had arrived.
The market was at the center of the town. Even otherwise all roads would have reached there. People came barefooted mostly, some on their animals.
There were a few who came on their convertible. They stayed for a shorter time than the rest. They did their business inside the shops.
The others waited outside, only to be told later that the grains had not come.
The men raised their voices; their beards that had grown long in the last five years, jerked and waved, the fists came down on many things that lay.
There were questions aplenty. No answers.
The armed men watched with caution. At times they intervened to disperse the crowd. But they appeared to do it with reluctance. They listened at every spoken word as if they wanted to memorize it to be reproduced later. Some of them looked pale themselves, having eaten rationed food for months.
Their leader, who wore a green turban, had a long beard that had become grayish. It came not only from the age but also from the ruggedness of all round life that he had gone through. Baktiar, as he was called had come from Kabul.
“There is no need to panic, we’ve some news”, he tried to console the demonstrators.
“Nine trucks have left Khalij, that should take us through the next week.”
That appeared to appease no one. The other news that had reached them was not encouraging at all.
U.S. bombing at Kabul had cut off virtually all roads to Khartom. The bombing was expected to intensify in the next few days.
Abu had been quietly sitting at the corner with his small bag listening to the repartee. His mind kept on seeking the answers in its own way. He had also started to disbelieve many things that were told. But he hoped that his friend would save his animals. He looked at the crowd and wandered when it would disperse and he would be left alone to deal with his friend.
Halim also waited for the crowd to move out so that he could talk to Abu, his old friend. He had been repeating since the morning that his store was empty but no one paid any heed to it. He had already given the last few buckets to the guards and in return arranged for the trip to the East. That is what he wanted to tell Abu waiting for the things to quieten a bit.
Abu looked at the rifles and the bullets and the long swords that hung by the sides of these new guards of the homeland. He knew not what these people stood for but he was certain that they were quite harmless even a few years back. The change took place when his sons had left him.
“We are leaving for Kabul,” his sons had told him and they did not look back to him. They had not looked back to their playing fields and their animals. They had not looked back to many things that they had loved. They started for the mountains on bare foot with the bayonets on their shoulders.
Abu remembered their boots hitting the hard ground in rhythmic progression.
That was the time when the schools were closed and the women stayed back. And he was left alone with the animals.
He picked up his bag and slowly moved towards Halim’s shop. Baktiar and his entourage were about to leave when suddenly a man came running towards the crowd. He was having difficulty to talk. But with a lot of effort he blurted out a few words, “The Americans have bombed Kabul and Omar has fled,” is what he could complete.
The guards took him and dragged him to the outer courtyard and within minutes the crowd left.
Abu went inside Halim’s shop and waited. He folded his hands and prayed.
Halim closed the shutters and helped him to a seat. Then he took his bag inside and came out with a load of animal food he had saved for him.
He whispered to Abu, “This war will destroy everything Abu, would you come with me? I am leaving tomorrow.”
Abu didn’t expect this at all. He kept quiet.
“You’ve to decide now Abu, there’s no time. I’ve arranged everything.”
Abu could not utter a word. He kept on thinking about Liak.
He had seen the trucks leaving and the dust filling up the heights of the horizon. They were in large numbers and the movement had been brisk at the wee hours of dawn. He could see the faces of the children and the veiled women holding them close as if they were about to be separated by some mysterious force of nature. They held to each other in an imagery that Abu could never forget. And it remained inside him like a still photograph while the environs assumed the ruggedness of the day with no signs of life around.
Abu had gone once to the animal quarters and he had seen the little remnants of a modest meal lying on the buckets.
Liak was still very ill.
Abu had himself not eaten much and was feeling very weak. He filled his glass with water from the earthen pot and drank it slowly.
That was the time he heard the sound of the approaching engines. And then the shattering sound of breaking glass.
He wanted to run where the animals were sleeping, but he could not. He was stopped by the dust and the stormy sound of splinters and mortar. But he kept moving. By the time he reached the brick wall of their dwelling he heard the explosions that shattered his eardrum. He heard no more.
The animals ran into the fields when he last saw them and he saw no more.
The party started a bit late with an august announcement.
It was about the bombing at Khartom, which killed about a thousand civilians. It had something to do with a faulty signal and later a human error about a judgment.
But all this died down with the announcement and the jubilation after that as the CEO took the podium.
“Lockheed has created history with the new contract of an excess of $200 billion for the next forty years with the federal government for the supply of……..
“Let us celebrate this day……”