Short Story: Echoes in Darkness

echoes
Photo by Insha Muzafar

In this fictitious short story, Shabir Ahmad Mir tells the uneasy story of an unnamed narrator who is a victim-turned-perpetrator.

 

In the summer of 2016, I was struck blind.

I was in my room near the window. Watching boys pelting stones on the ‘forces’. And ‘forces’ firing at boys. There was such a fascination to this horror - two snakes hissing at each other; one with scales of khaki with pits of black here and there and other, a motley of every hue and color - grey, blue, green, white. Now the motley snake would hiss and strike, gaining ground, pushing back the khaki snake. And then the khaki snake would strike back with shining fangs bared, the motley snake retreating; regrouping and coiling to spring again.

I stood there, by the window, hypnotized. The stone pelters! The sang-baaz! There is such a fascination with this horror - Boys in Jeans against Men in uniforms. Boys with stones and Men with guns. Boys who don’t have permission to be angry. And Men who must do their duty. Boys who throw stones and Men who must shoot back. Not bullets this time. But pellets - hundreds of them rushing out from each shotgun in a single burst like hungry vultures who no longer wait for death but peck at whatever they can - arms, shoulders, cheeks, chests, eyes, thighs… Flesh. Pink. Living. Breathing.

One of the stone-pelters runs upfront and tears his shirt in anger. To provoke. To invoke. Fear that has danced with him every day, is now boring. He knows its every step; every turn. He knows it is hollow within. He knows how to defy it. All it takes is to look it in the eye. Or eyes.

Suddenly two sharp eyes from the khaki snake shoot towards me. They see me. They see me alright. Two sharp, piercing eyes. Rattle. Hiss. And it strikes. The snake does. Not with the ‘Thak thak’ of bullets or with the ‘kaboosh’ of a tear-gas canister; not even with the ‘dhadaak’ of a grenade: it strikes with the rattle of a ‘shrrrrrr’. The shrrrrr of a shotgun; the pellets bursting through my glass pane and the venom of the burning metal poured all over my face. Into my eyes.

And the darkness seeps in.


Eight months and eleven surgeries later, I am in my room again. Maybe by the same window, I do not know. I cannot know. The glass pane must have been replaced by now. The surgeries have failed. As have the entreaties of my mother to every saint that she knew of or was told about in these eight months. Though they assured her - the doctors and the saints - that they will do the best they can. And I think this is the best they could do; me in my room trying to listen to the colors and shades of the day outside.

That is if it is a day at all.
It could be night as well.
There is no way to tell. The dog's bark at night and cicadas chirp (probably). But dogs bark and cicadas chirp during the day too; when it is silent outside. Terrifyingly silent. I remember how cicadas looked like - a misshapen lump of resin on the trees. The veins in their outstretched wings like filigree on the gossamer when the light fell on them. Or was it something else - the veins and wings in the light?

I grab my hair and pull it. Trying to peel off the scalp and open up my skull and vent out all that is building up there. It is all getting so confusing. I start to play my secret little game. I call it 5 things (earlier it was 15 things, then 10 things and now 5 things). I have been playing it for the last 5 or 6 months.

5 flowers:


Roses - red and lustful.

Pansies - violet and petite.

Daffodils - yellow and delicate.

Marigolds - yellow and overflowing.

Sunflowers - yellow and burning.

and,

5 faces:

Firdous - the fair one.

Imtiyaz - the horse.

Sabia- waterfall.


Burhan... Burhan! ...? What did Burhan look like?!

I hate it, this game. So much.

I play once more.

I now call it 3 things.

3 colours:


Red - eyes of a serpent.


Black - Black. BLACK. B L A C K.  

I think I was always blind. The things I remember are the memories of my dreams that I used to have. I have tried to think about it all these days. I am not sure if I ever saw anything. The things I remember are just my fantasies. I have never seen them at all. I have never seen anything at all. Maybe I never was at all; just a dark void in a dark universe.


Outside the bird’s chirp. Whenever they do, I listen intently. They have so much to tell. And it has taken me time to understand them but I do now. In the dark alleys of my black labyrinth, I have run after them. Day-night after day-night. They speak to me now. Said one of them to another (or maybe to itself), “See here he is, the blind one. He has broken the yoke of time. He is just like us now; he can fly across time.”

***

I was born in winter; the harshest of them all. So cold and freezing that men walked with icicles hanging from their beards. Not everyone could survive such winter. You had to let the chill pass into your veins or set your blood on fire. Only those two kinds survived. My father did not survive. He could not; his blood was warm. Just warm; not hot or cold; neither frozen nor burning. And it oozed vulgarly through ugly holes from his body on a cold, shivering night at the crossroad besides a dozen other warm-blooded- hole-ridden-nail-plucked-blue-black-butted-broken-teethed-piss-smelling shepherds that had gone to mountains with their flocks of sheep and goats and were bought back as warm-blooded-hole-ridden-nail-plucked-blue-black-butted-broken-teethed-piss-smelling bodies of militants. Or rebels. Or terrorists. Everyone had a different name for them. Everyone had a different name for my father.

My father’s body had to be thawed before he could be buried for the first time.

The second time his body was buried it smelt so bad that the photographers vomited.

The third time they photographed him professionally from all angles. And father posed for them - his toothless skull grinning and his ribcage shiny.

After that, they left him alone in his grave, though his grinning photograph would appear at odd times in the newspapers - three days before Eid. On the very first day of spring. On sudden, random anniversaries. And at odd places as well - In the front page, bold and in full color; in the middle black and white pages below the photo of mangled bus lifted from a gorge; somewhere in the corner, dull and distorted besides the advertisement of tour operator promising heaven.

Mother, for most of the time, sat in a corner, sharp tears climbing out of her eyes and scratching all the way down her face leaving behind dirty trails like tires of military trucks that drag themselves through obstinate fresh snow.

I, for most of the time, remained angry. Angry over my father who only appeared grinning in newspapers. Angry over my mother with dirt marks on her face. Angry with everyone else who was not me. Angry over being me, of all the other people that I could have been.

Angry over the chill that refused to thaw from my bones.

I, for the most of the time, burnt holes in my nights with cigarettes borrowed from Burhan. Burhan who one day returned with an Ak-47 slung from his shoulder. “I could not take it anymore”, he said. “How could I?” “Why should I!”

Burhan who was the best batsman of our team.

Burhan.

Burhan!

Burhan?

Where is Burhan? they asked me in the dead of night. “You should know. You must know.” They kept asking me in the truck as my mother trailed behind like the wisp of smoke from a dying candle.

“Burhan? Ashfaaq? Umar? Afzal?” they kept asking us in the dark cell. Me and Firdous the fair one. Firdous with big brown eyes and long brown hair. Firdous kaczur who made strange noises when the men visited him in the night. Men wearing nothing but jackboots. Men who caught me looking at them one night. They stripped me and asked me that night, “Who enjoys it more - Us or him?” I said I did not know. I swear I don’t know. How can I?!

“Only one way to find out then.”

And then he entered me from behind, the one with the curled mustache. To find out. I resisted with all the fibers of my being but he had 6 hands. The monster had. He pinned me down and had his fill. All 6 hands of his. At each thrust, my breasts grew. Bigger and saggier. And when he was done another came. He entered me from the front. I cried for help. I cried out as loud as I could. Someone. Anyone.

Then I remembered there was nobody at home. They had been called away; every one of them - young, adult, old males; they had all been called away. It was a crackdown. Hadn’t someone cried his throat hoarse from the loudspeaker of the Masjid. The obnoxious loud voice still boomed in my head- “ATTENTION. ALL THE MALE RESIDENTS OF HUSH-MUSHPORA ARE TO ASSEMBLE IN THE YARD OF GOVERNMENT HIGH SCHOOL. THIS IS A CRACK-DOWN. I REPEAT THIS IS A CRACKDOWN. ALL MALES-YOUNG, ADULT, OLD ASSEMBLE IN THE SCHOOL WITH THEIR IDENTITY CARDS.”

That is how a search operation is carried out. Isn’t it? Door to door. With only females inside. And suspects.

So I stopped crying and listened to the cries of others instead.

There was a cry in each house on that night.
In the morning the sun rose and people went to work.
I was told to come back at night. I must or a virgin will die every morning. I must come back every night and tell a story - a tale, a gossip, a rumour, anything will do.

So I come back.

Each night.

With a story.

The first night I tell them about Imtiyaz.


Next day three Imtiyazs’ disappeared.


The second night I tell them about what might have happened at Hamid’s shop.

Next day Hamid’s shop was closed.

The third night I tell them about the noises I heard from my neighbor’s.


Next day my neighbor’s house was razed.


The fourth night I had nothing to say so I make up a story about some distant relative whom I did not like particularly.

I never heard from that relative again.


The fifth night I remained silent.


It was a long night.

The sixth night I told them I cannot take it anymore; I do not have stories enough for one thousand nights and one.

They laughed. And sang.

I cried.

They drank and sang.

 I kept on crying.

They kept on drinking and singing. And by morning I too was drinking and singing. And I started to roam the streets with them. We moved through alleys as a snake slithers on a hot summer afternoon. There are demons out there and we must be alert. Must be ready with a raised hood. There is always someone out there- Burhan, Ashfaq, Firdous, Hamid, Insha, Sabia, Yawar- one must beware.

Why only the other day we struck two dozens of them! Two dozen Imtiyazs, Firdouses, Hamids, Inshas, Sabias, Yawars, Afaaqs, Umars, Ashfaaqs. But there are hundreds of them. On the streets. All of them angry. All of them born in anger. All of them have grown up on anger: on black despair and red rage. No night has ever bought them respite. No night has ever sung a lullaby for them; instead, the night has always been black. Black like the deep dark bowels of a crocodile with its jaws wide open; eager to claim its share of the orgy. What and who it will claim? Nobody knows. But it will. It sure will; as has the black night before it and the blacker night before that.

If only they could sleep. Not a heaving, breathing, dreamful sleep but a cold insensate one. Asleep like death that would drive away all the wails and sirens from their heads! All the nightmares from their eyes! All the rotting stench from their mouth!

But no, that won’t be. They will just have to pass weary minute after weary, black minute on the red rosary of angst, waiting for the night to be over. Waiting for dawn to come and set them free from the tyranny of night. But the dawn is just a wound through which a sticky redness oozes across the horizon. The redness that they will find by the noon squirting from helpless veins into dirty chaotic puddles at the desolate market squares, trampled over by stained jackboots. The redness that they must get used to as it is the red that they have to breathe throughout the day. They will vomit it. They will choke on it. They will swallow it. But no matter what they do, they cannot get rid off it. The redness is their skin. They cannot scratch it off with their nails or chew it away with their teeth.

They are powerless.

They are helpless.

They are miserable.

They raise their eyes up to the heaven wondering if someone is looking back at them.

The answer is redder.

As was the answer day before and the day before that. All red.

At dusk, the red wound is shifted to the west. Night comes but brings no respite. Again. The red of the day is replaced by black of the night.

They are perpetually bound to the orgy of red and black.

Till one day something snaps within. And they crumble all the misery, all the helplessness, all the angst, all the despair into a stone. They make lists of the stones in their angry hands. They throw them, the fists, the stones - in their simmering rage onto us. 

But we are ready. We always are: in our jackboots and fatigues. With red eyes and black guns. We are always ready for them.

We always are.

I always am.

As I am now: on this bend in the street. Where they pelt stones. I look up and see him: burhan-imtiyaz-firdous-umar-sabia-asfaaq.

Rattle. Hiss. And I fire at him. The gun in my hand recoils not with the ‘Thak thak’ of bullets or with the ‘kaboosh’ of a tear-gas canister; not even with the ‘dhadaak’ of a grenade: it recoils with the rattle of a ‘shrrrrrr’. The shrrrrr of a shotgun; the pellets bursting through the glass pane.

And the darkness seeps in.♦



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