The Wandering Falcon
Author: Jamil Ahmad
1. The Sins of the Mother
In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, is a military outpost manned by about two score soldiers.
Lonely, as all such posts are, this one is particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against each other, and no water other than a trickle among some salt-encrusted boulders which also dries out occasionally, manifesting a degree of hostility.
Nature has not remained content merely at this. In this land, she has also created the dreaded bad-e-sad-o-bist-roz, the wind of a hundred and twenty days. This wind rages almost continuously during the four winter months, blowing clouds of alkali-laden dust and sand so thick that men can barely breathe or open their eyes when they happen to get caught in it.
It was but natural that some men would lose their minds after too long an exposure to such desolation and loneliness. In the course of time, therefore, a practice developed of not letting any soldier stay at this post for two years running so that none had to face the ravages of the storm for more than one hundred and twenty days.
It was during one of these quiet spells that the man and woman came across this post hidden in the folds of the hills. The wind had been blowing with savage fury for three days and had its force not suddenly abated, they would have missed the post altogether and with it the only source of water for miles around. Indeed, they had steeled themselves to travel on during the approaching night when the impenetrable curtain of dust and sand seemed to lift and reveal the fort with its unhappy-looking date trees.
The soldiers, who had remained huddled behind closed shutters while the wind blew, had come out into the open as soon as the sky cleared. Sick and dispirited after three days and nights in darkened, airless and fetid-smelling rooms, they were walking about, busy cleaning themselves and drawing in gulps of fresh air. They had to make the most of this brief respite before the wind started again.
Some of the men noticed the two figures and their camel as they topped the rise and moved slowly and hesitantly towards the fort. Both were staggering as they approached. The woman's clothes, originally black, as those of the man, were grey with dust and sand, lines of caked mud standing out sharply where sweat had soaked into the folds. Even the small mirrors lovingly stitched as decorations into the woman's dress and the man's cap seemed faded and lacklustre.
The woman was covered from head to foot in garments but, on drawing closer, her head covering slipped and exposed her face to the watching soldiers. She made an ineffectual gesture to push it up again, but appeared too weary to really care and spent all her remaining energy walking step after step towards the group of men.
When the veil slipped from the woman's face, most of the soldiers turned their heads away, but those who did not saw that she was hardly more than a child. If her companion's looks did not, the sight of her red-rimmed swollen eyes, her matted hair and the unearthly expression on her face told the story clearly.
The man motioned the woman to stop and walked up, by himself, to the subedar commanding the fort. He kept a frenzied grip on the barrel of an old and rusty gun that he carried across his shoulders. He had no time to waste over any triviality.
'Water,' his hoarse voice said from between cracked and bleeding lips, 'our water is finished, spare us some water.' The subedar pointed wordlessly towards a half-empty bucket from which the soldiers had been drinking. The man lifted the bucket and drew back towards the woman who was now huddled on the ground.
He cradled her head in the crook of his arm, wet the end of her shawl in the bucket and squeezed some drops of water on to her face. Tenderly, and feeling no shame at so many eyes watching him, he wiped her face with the wet cloth as she lay in his arms.
A young soldier snickered but immediately fell silent as the baleful eyes of his commander and his companions turned on him.
After he had cleansed her face, the Baluch cupped his right hand and splashed driblets of water on to her lips. As she sensed water, she started sucking his hand and fingers like a small animal. All of a sudden, she lunged towards the bucket, plunged her head into it and drank with long gasping sounds until she choked. The man then patiently pushed her away, drank some of the water himself and carried the bucket up to the camel, which finished whatever was left in a single gulp.
He brought the empty bucket back to the group of soldiers, set it down and stood there, silent and unmoving.
At last the subedar spoke. 'We have given you water. Do you wish for anything else?'
A struggle seemed to be going on within the man and after a while, very reluctantly, he looked back at the subedar. 'Yes, I wish for refuge for the two of us. We are Siahpads from Killa Kurd on the run from her people. We have travelled for three days in the storm and any further travel will surely . . .'
'Refuge,' interrupted the subedar brusquely, 'I cannot offer. I know your laws well and neither I nor any man of mine shall come between a man and the law of his tribe.'
He repeated, 'Refuge we cannot give you.'
The man bit his lips with the pain that roiled within him. He had diminished himself by seeking refuge. He had compromised his honour by offering to live as a hamsaya, in the shadow of another human being. He turned as if to move, but realized that he had no choice but to humble himself further.
He once again faced the subedar. 'I accept the reply,' he said. 'I shall not seek refuge of you. Can I have food and shelter for a few days?'
'That we shall give you.' The subedar hastened to atone for his earlier severity. 'Shelter is yours for the asking. For as long as you wish it, for as long as you want to stay.'
There was a long line of rooms some distance away from the fort. These had been hastily constructed during the First World War when the strength of this fort had, for a short period of time, increased almost a hundredfold. Sand had started collecting against the walls as soon as the construction was raised. Slowly and steadily, it had risen and with no one to clear it, had reached roof level after a few years. With the passage of time, most of the walls and roofs caved in under its crumbling pressure. Now, nearly fifty years after the initial construction, mounds of sand occupied these rooms. However, there still remained a few that had not yet collapsed.
It was in one of these rooms that Gul Bibi and her lover were provided their shelter. For a few days, the couple hardly stirred outside their one small room. The only signs of life were the opening and closing of shutters as the wind died or strengthened or when food was taken to the hut by the soldiers. Some time after the food had been left at the doorstep, the door would open furtively and the platter would be dragged in, to be pushed outside a while later.
As days passed, the couple appeared to gather more courage. They would occasionally leave the door open while the man stepped outside to look after his camel. Then one day the woman too came out to make a broom out of some thorn shrubs for sweeping the room. After a few days of inactivity, the man, of his own volition, started fetching water for the troops on his camel. He would load up the animal with water skins and visit the springs twice a day. Once he brought to the fort, as a gift, a few baskets, which the girl had woven out of date palm leaves. 'They are to keep your bread in,' he explained to the soldiers. And this is the pattern life followed as time rolled by. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months.
Winter gave way to summer. Some soldiers left as their period of duty ended. Others arrived to serve their turn at this outpost.
With each change—even the most minor—the couple appeared to withdraw into themselves for a while. They hardly ventured outside, and none of the shutters would open. Then, after some time, they would cautiously emerge and slowly adjust to the change. In this state, they reminded the soldiers of small, frightened desert lizards which rush frantically into their burrows at the slightest sign of danger.
As each party of soldiers left, some would try to leave behind for the couple anything they could spare out of their meagre possessions. A pair of partly worn-out shoes, a mended bed sheet, some aluminium utensils. These they would tie into a parcel and place at the doorstep of the hut before the army truck drove them away, back to the headquarters. Then the soldiers started taking up a collection on every payday and insisted on handing it over to the man for fetching their water. He had refused the money the first time, but as the soldiers appeared to get upset at this rebuff, he forced himself to accept the payment without expressing his gratitude in words. With no discernible expression on his face, he would take the proffered money, stuff it into a pocket of his tattered waistcoat and walk away. Indeed, there were times when his look of infinite patience, aloofness and lack of expression made some new arrivals among the soldiers feel uneasy. But as time passed, each new group would accept him though they failed to breach the barrier he had drawn around himself.
The real change came with the birth of their child.
The soldiers had become accustomed to the same collection of drab buildings with their sullen and frustrated dwellers, each begrudging the days wasted at this bleak outpost and desperately longing for a return to more habitable places, to the sights and sounds of crowded bazaars, the smell of water and vegetation, the feel of clean, freshly laundered clothes and the banter and sally in the shops. But with news of the birth, the air of resentfulness and bitterness, which seemed permanently to envelop this post, appeared to lighten.
To most of the soldiers, there was sheer wonder in the wizened looks of the infant with his black locks of hair, as he was carried around by the mother. The baby's thin, plaintive cries brought back memories of their own families whom they had not seen for years.
With the birth of their son, the couple too seemed to shed their fears. Indeed, they appeared to be relieved finally of their worries and tensions.
As soon as the season of sandstorms was over, the woman wove an awning out of desert scrub and rigged it over the door to provide protection from the strong sun during the coming summer months. She mixed some clay and water and coated the room, the floor and the door front with it.
She did more than that. She made a low wall about six inches high and enclosed an area the size of two beds in front of their room. She also made a gate into this small courtyard of hers—a gate with two small towers each topped with a small round knob. After completing it, she stood proudly waiting for her man to return in the evening to see her handiwork.
She had to wait for a long time because his camel had wandered away while grazing. When he finally returned, he looked at her work for a long time before speaking. 'My love, take away the towers, there is something about them I do not like.'
She stood still for a while and then as the meaning sank into her, she rushed frantically towards them and crumbled them back into clay.
Subedar followed subedar as each year ended and a new one began. Indeed, the couple measured the passage of time by the change of subedars. When the sixth one arrived, they realized that the boy was five years old.
A sprightly and active child he was too. Fed on army rations, he looked older than his years. He spent his days inventing games of his own and playing them by himself or skipping from boulder to boulder, following the soldiers on their patrols. By the evening, he was generally tired and would creep into his mother's lap and sleep for a while before they started the meal.
One evening, when the man returned with water from the springs, the boy was still asleep in his mother's lap.
She turned as if to get up but the man stopped her with a gesture. 'Stay for a while, I like looking at you. There is an air of peace around you.'
'I wonder what his life shall be when he grows up. What would you like him to be?' he looked at the woman.
She thought for a while. 'Let him be a camel herder, handsome and gentle as his father,' the woman murmured.
'And fall in love with the sardar's daughter, his master's wife,' the man countered.
'And carry her away,' continued the woman.
'Into misery and sorrow and terror,' flung back the man.
'Don't ever repeat this. You must never talk thus,' she whispered.
The sleeping boy suddenly opened his dark eyes and said laughingly, 'I have been listening to you and I shall tell you what I will be. I shall be a chief, I shall have horses and camels. I shall feast your friends and defy your enemies wherever they be.'
Gently the woman pushed the boy away from her lap and started getting the evening meal ready.
One winter morning, while the couple were sitting in front of their hut, a camel rider suddenly appeared and rode his camel straight up to the fort. His arrival was so unexpected that it left them no time to hide. So they remained sitting impassively while the man finished his business and rode away without casting a glance in their direction. Nevertheless, as soon as the stranger rode over the crest, the couple gathered the child, who had been playing in the dust of the courtyard, and moved inside the hut as though its chilly interior suddenly offered more warmth than the sun outside.
A little later, the subedar walked up to the hut and called the man outside. He wasted no time on preliminaries.
'That rider who has just left the fort was a Siahpad.' The subedar told him. 'He was asking questions about you. You know what that means?'
The man nodded dumbly.
'If you wish to leave,' continued the subedar, 'collect some food from the canteen. The men have packed a bag for you. If God wills, we shall meet again one day.'
The couple departed on their camel at early dusk, the man sitting in the middle with the boy perched in front and the woman behind him. Once again the old familiar smell of fear was in his nostrils. The woman had asked no questions. She packed and dressed quickly, first putting warm clothes on both herself and the boy, and then making a light load of the few things which they needed to carry for their journey. The rest of her possessions, those collected over the past years, she neatly arranged in a pile in one corner of the room.
Her man had brought the camel around to the doorstep and made it kneel. He had cleaned his gun and it was back on his shoulders. As she stepped out to mount the camel, she cast a quick backward glance inside the room, her glance briefly touching the firmly packed clay floor, the date palm mats she had woven over the years and the dying embers in the fireplace. Her expression remained as calm and serene as if she had been prepared for this journey for a long time.
The lone camel followed the lightly strung telegraph line for about twenty miles before the man decided to strike eastwards into the broken country.
They tried to use their knowledge and wits to the full. They varied their pace, changed direction frequently and also the time of travel. They never spent more than the very minimum time possible at any waterhole. When they rested, they chose the most secluded spot and even there, they would pile up scrub and thorn brush to hide them and their camel.
They saw no signs of their pursuers and after five days the woman became a little sanguine. 'Perhaps the stranger was not a Siahpad. Perhaps we were not recognized,' she remarked hopefully. 'Perhaps he kept the news to himself.
Perhaps they did not chase us. Perhaps they have lost us,' she chanted.
'No,' the man said, 'they are after us. I feel it in the air.'
The man was right. On the morning of the sixth day, as the couple were filling the water skin at a waterhole, they saw their pursuers top the horizon.
It was still early morning when the desert air is unsullied by the eddies of sand and the whirling of dust devils. The party was a considerable distance away but there could be no mistaking who they were. The woman's husband and her father were riding their camels a short distance in front of the main body of men.
The man called Gul Bibi close to him. He placed his hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. 'There is no escape for any of us. There was never any escape. You know what I have to do now?'
'Yes,' she replied. 'I know. We have talked about this day many times. But I am afraid, my love.'
'Do not be frightened,' spoke the man. 'I shall follow you. I shall follow you soon.' The woman walked away a few paces and stood there with her back towards the man. Suddenly, she spoke out again. 'Do not kill the boy. They might spare him. I am ready.'
The man shot her in the back while she was still speaking. He then reloaded his gun and looked reflectively at the boy who stared back at him with unblinking eyes. With a shrug the man turned away, walked up to the kneeling camel and shot it dead. He then stood together with the boy waiting for the pursuers to reach him.
The party rode up to the waterhole and dismounted. The old man was in the lead. He glanced at the sprawled body of his daughter and looked at her lover.
'Who is the boy?' he asked. His voice was cold and without emotion. The voice of a stranger. The inky black folds of the headgear hid half his face, but the eyes were the old familiar eyes which each man of the tribe knew. Eyes that could show anger, hatred, love, laughter, fondness and humour more vividly than anyone else. Now they showed nothing.
'Who is the boy?' the sardar asked again, his voice remaining flat, not even showing impatience.
'Your daughter's son,' replied the man.
The boy stood shivering as the two men talked about him. He was nervously fingering a small silver amulet which hung around his neck on a grey-coloured string.
The husband of the dead woman approached. 'Whose son is he?' he growled. 'Yours or mine?' The lover did not reply but his eyes again met those of the old man. 'He is her son,' he repeated pointing to the huddled boy. 'That silver amulet is hers. She must have placed it around his neck before her death. Do you not recognize the amulet? She always said you gave it to her to ward off evil spirits.'
The old man said nothing, but picked up a stone. His companions did likewise. The lover stood still as the first shower of stones hit him. He started bleeding from the wounds on his face and temples. There was another shower of stones and yet another, before he fell.
At first, he lay half sitting and half sprawling. Then he lay with only his elbow supporting him. Finally, that small gesture of pride too failed him and he lay stretched on the ground, his clothes darkened with blood and small rivulets of it running across his back staining the ground. The hail of stones continued with the circle of men moving closer and closer. The agony ended only with death, the bones broken and the head crushed beyond recognition.
After they had killed the lover, the offended husband turned to his companions.
'Now we start with the boy.' The boy who had been standing next to the dead camel heard this and started whimpering.
'No,' admonished the old man, 'the boy's death is not necessary. We shall leave him as we found him.'
Some of the other men murmured their agreement. 'Yes, let him stay as he is,' they agreed. 'The sardar is right.'
The party dragged the bodies a short distance away and entombed them separately in two towers made out of the sun-blackened stones which lay scattered in profusion all around the waterhole. They used mud and water to plaster the towers so that their work might endure and provide testimony, to all who cared, about the way in which the Siahpad avenged insults. The old man took no part in the burial but walked about by himself. He did, however, interrupt his walking for a while and stood at the spot where the bodies had lain.
As soon as the men had finished, they mounted their camels and rode away. After travelling but a short distance, the father of the dead woman suddenly reined in his camel.
'I should have brought the boy,' the older man said, shading his eyes with his hand and staring in the direction of the waterhole.
'Death would be best for the likes of him,' burst out the son-in-law. 'The whelp has bad blood in him.'
'Half of his blood is my blood. The blood of the chiefs of this tribe. What mean you by bad blood?'
'I still say what I said before,' answered back the husband. 'He has bad blood. Nothing good shall come out of him.'
The sardar moved his camel up to the other man's as the rest watched him. He looked around. 'Let me tell you all now,' he shouted. 'My daughter sinned. She sinned against the laws of God and those of our tribe. But hear this also. There was no sin in her when she was born, nor when she grew up, nor when she was married. She was driven to sin only because I did not marry her to a man.'
He pointed a shaking finger at his son-in-law. 'You know well enough what I say,' he thundered, his emotions suddenly bursting out. 'Marry another woman, marry as often as you like. Every one of them shall be driven to sin, for reasons you are aware of.'
At this insult, shouted in his face before the men of his tribe, the face of the other man darkened with rage.
'You should not have said such things, old man, even if you be our chief,' he shouted as he drew his sword quickly and slashed at Gul Bibi's father. Once, twice, thrice he swiped and the old man was already dead as he slid down in small jerks like a broken doll from the saddle to the ground.
With his death, the party scattered. The men did not wait to bury their chief's body in a proper grave but left it covered under a thin layer of sand, hoping the approaching sandstorm would bury it deeper. Whether fearful of the evil they had seen or afraid of being involved in another feud, or maybe weary of each other's company, they just rode away hurriedly.
At the waterhole, the boy had stopped shivering after the party departed. He had overcome his fear and was sitting between the two towers playing with some stones and quartz crystals. At first he had tried to prise some stones away from the towers, but they were too tightly wedged together and his fingers made no impression on them.
As the sun rose higher, he sat quietly watching the clouds of sandgrouse which appeared in the sky. Flight after flight alighted at the edge of the waterhole, dipping their beaks in the water and flying away back into the sun. Their peculiar chuckling calls and the whirring of countless wings provided him some diversion from the horror he had just witnessed.
Then he was completely alone. The thousands of birds, which had kept him company for a while, had disappeared. With nothing to keep him occupied, he became aware of his thirst and hunger. He tried to resist it for a while, but as the pangs grew sharper, he finally walked over to the camel and opened the bag containing food. He ate a little, drank some water and then lay down squeezed against the dead camel as the sandstorm approached.