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Alone Together.

Nilofer looked closely at the tomatoes--so plump and red. They looked abnormally healthy. Yet she longed for Anar (pomegranates), pomegranates so big that they would not fit in her small hand. But Anar appeared infrequently on the grocery shelves. And when they did, they were not the right size nor the right price.

Bullet holes. There would be bullet holes all over the place, she imagined. Perhaps even on the walls of the little mosque in their grandparents' village. Nilofer shuddered involuntarily.

Her sister, Nadira, had taken refuge with her daughters, Sanaa and Nihaan, in their ancestral village. It hadn't been a good idea. Why hadn't Nadira waited; stayed back in Kabul, which had turned out to be relatively safe? But Nadira had not have known that Kabul would be safe. The information coming through had been so contradictory and confusing.

Picking up a tomato, Nilofer put it gingerly in her basket. She had the idea that it might explode in her hand, eject a jet of juice landing god knows where. It could hit the old lady beside her as she contemplated the abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, carrots, zucchini and potatoes. How embarrassing it would be to have the woman's delicate, lilac blouse all splattered! And it would be Nilofer's fault.

Anything could happen, anytime--Nadira's exact words as they came over the crackling phone line. Anything could happen, anytime; anywhere.

Things had not gone well for Nadira in Kabul. Her husband had gone to India to work and kept postponing sending for Nadira and the girls. Her parents-in-law were sympathetic, but how could she stay with them indefinitely? So, she had chosen to go and live with their mother.

Nilofer knew that if she had continued to live in Afghanistan she too would have headed across mist-filled valleys to the village at the foot of the mountain where they had spent so many summers as children. It was so barren that mountain, a mountain of ash it was called. Yet it was green and flat at the base, with enough groundwater for wells and farms.

This was where their mother had retreated after their father's premature death from a heart attack. His family too hailed from there, though he was brought up by his uncle in Kabul. Nilofer's mother had gone to live with her father-in-law, mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law, not very far from her own mother's house. By then Nadia was married and Nilofer had stayed behind with an aunt and uncle in Kabul to finish college.

There was a long line at the cash. As Nilofer waited, her thoughts took her back once again.

Soon after reaching their grandmother's house, Nilofer and Nadira would run off, trailed by a servant girl not that much older than themselves. They would climb trees, make mud pies and pick wild flowers. In the heat of the afternoon, they sat by the little stream, under the sparse shade of a walnut or wild peach tree, dangling their legs in the deliciously icy water. Sometimes they would bring Sophia--rubbery, blonde and blue eyed. They enjoyed stripping and bathing her in the stream. It wasn't as if they could take a dip; it was too cold. And they weren't allowed. But Sophia was impervious to the cold and to conventions. After the bath, Nilofer would proffer her handkerchief and Nadira would dry Sophia off, tunelessly singing a lullaby.

Shy village boys--goat herders--would pass by. Smiling sweetly, they would say, "As-salam-aleikum." So gentle! Nothing at all like the boys on their street in Kabul.

The visits had petered out when they became teenagers and their loyalties shifted to their friends. They had to study harder in secondary school and their father was busier than ever. Only their mother still went every year, staying no longer than a week or ten days, coming back with bags of pesta (pistachios), bodom (almonds), angoor (grapes), ar-ka'ni (melons), alo-balo (cherries), and of course Anar.

"You should have come, I tell you. You should have come," their mother would say each time. They would stay with her for a while, while she recounted all that had happened in the village, munching on the fruits and nuts, then slowly drift away.

The bus finally appeared and Nilofer climbed in. Juggling her grocery bags, she managed to deposit her ticket in the till.

Anything, anytime, anywhere. Those three words belonged together, didn't they? Alone they were just straws in the wind, inconsequential; together, they were forceful.

Nilofer had played those words in her head, over and over, as she sat drinking tea in the tiny balcony of their 9th floor apartment, looking deep into her cup, mist rising in the valley. Ahead, she could see an unending stream of cars making their way along the Don Valley Parkway. Her sister's voice came to her loud and clear, without any static. It was as if Nadira was sitting right there with her in Toronto, sipping tea. Anything could happen, anytime, anywhere. Nadira had not said anywhere, but Nilofer heard Nadira say that, in her head.

Nadira primed the stove and inhaled deeply. She waited for this moment every day, when the smell of kerosene suffused her, mist rising in the valley. There was just her breath and the fumes in harmonious unison. They went together like snow on a mountaintop; pebbles on a riverbed. The bond intensified when a noisy, purple flame with streaks of white, sprung around the ring in the stove, burning steadily. Nadira enjoyed the flame as well, strong and dependable. On cold days she warmed her hands over it.

How she hated using a kerosene stove in Kabul. She had to use it sometimes, when the lights suddenly went out. Here in the village most people did not have a kerosene stove, using instead dung cakes in their mud-baked hearths. Why had she hated it so, she wondered. Why had she expected that lights would come on at the flick of a switch, water flow from a tap? That there would a plethora of vegetables, fruit and meat to choose from at the market?

Her ideas had been crazy, she realized now, as she wiped her hands, and put on a pot of water to make tea. Ideas that had made her unhappy in Kabul, and made her unhappy later, in her early days in the village.

But that was all over. She lived without such thoughts. She worked a water pump twice a day to fill buckets of water. Once a week, she walked to the stone house converted into an administrative centre in the next street, to get rations-flour, a little rice, oil, salt, sugar, a few dried up potatoes, a couple of shrivelled onions. And every afternoon, she home-schooled Sanaa.

Nadira had found some old school books--hers and Nilofer's--in an antique trunk. It was made of dark-hued wood, beautifully embossed with beaten copper--a relic from another era.

Teaching Sanaa was as pleasurable as inhaling kerosene fumes. Sanaa was a serious student, attentive and quick at her lessons.

Some evenings, her mother's friends gathered in their courtyard to gossip and talk. There was more freedom to be had in a house with a man who wasn't quite all there. Her mother's father-in-law and mother-in-law had died and one of the brothers'-in-law had gone to Pakistan, taking his wife and children along. Only the mentally handicapped brother-in-law remained, closed off in his own world.

Watching her mother presiding over the gatherings, wearing the air of a highborn lady, made Nadira smile. In her youth, her mother had been a beauty. Nadira sat enthralled as the women mixed family stories, history and legend, birthing an animated, collective theatre. They even captured the attention of restless little Sanaa.

Once in a way, Nadira's grandmother joined them. She was a frail old woman who walked haltingly, but her eyes were still young. She did not talk much, but sometimes she sang in a cracked, high voice that echoed in Nadia's consciousness all through the following day.

Nilofer let herself quietly into the apartment. She did not want to disturb Abdul, who was sleeping off his night shift. He worked as a security guard at a warehouse not far from where they lived.

She placed her grocery bag on the table, then glanced at the large, glossy, framed photograph on the mantelpiece. Black and White. The photograph was her touchstone, because there they were--four heads crowded together--Nilofer, Nadira, Sanaa and Nihaan--all pretty, all young, all smiling. Every time she looked at it, it was as if seeing it for first time. Sometimes she had to go to it and run her fingers over the cool glass, assuring herself that the miraculous image was real.

Then her stomach dropped. The tomato in her bag split open and spilled its juice, painting a crooked arc that marked the white wall of the room from end to end.

Nihaan skipped playfully across a field. Suddenly the ground caved under her and streams of dry, sandy earth shot into the air, mist rising in the valley. When the dust cleared, Nihaan was nowhere in sight. But the flaming red arc remained--a unicoloured rainbow joining two ends of the Earth. Anything could happen anytime, anywhere. Anything. Suddenly Nilofer knew what she had to do. She had to get them out of there. She had resisted; even thinking that she and Abdul would return home someday. But that hope had been extinguished by the phone call, when Nadira told her about the landmine.

She would get Nadira and Sanaa out of there. It was tough in Canada, very tough indeed, but at least Sanaa would grow up to be an adult.

Nilofer started unpacking the groceries, putting them purposefully away.
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Title Annotation:Short Fiction
Author:Gokhale, Veena
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Mar 22, 2019
Previous Article:The Letter of Jeremiah.
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