Fall was bleeding all around me. Maple leaves were strewn across the path like crumpled paper, waiting to sink back into the Earth. I dug out the coins from my right jean pocket at the coffee shop stacked below my apartment and walked back home with a scorching hazelnut latte and a blushed-tongue.
My head was dizzy. My mind was resignedly weightless like it had chosen to exile itself into numbing eternity. Too long. I’d stayed away too long. I had to go back. These thoughts dug into me like shards of glass in an open wound. I wailed like a feline having her skin peeled off. I tore at my hair. CN tower glistened through my apartment as if mocking me for the darkness in my life. My shoulders quaked as the back of my fingers flew up unwittingly, wiping away tears and dried lipstick in one go.
That was a week ago. Today I walk in the tortuous valley of Swat, my beige backpack in tow, a tired army of maple trees greeting me on this palpitating flesh of the planet. Being the owner of a magazine has its perks. No one asks me why I just took a month off from work. Most will think I’m having an early forty’s crisis. I certainly look the part. Shriveled pony-tail, under-eye circles like a post-drone attack site, and inconceivable disdain at every breathing entity around me. So I am here again after ten years. After the floods swallowed this land like a hungry python several months ago. And before that Swat’s hostile and furious guests were apocalyptic Earthquakes and barbaric Talibans. It’s strange that I am trying to find pieces of myself in a city that has still to find itself.
Swat in 2005, the first time I stepped foot here, was like a story-book fairly land. The details are eerily trapped in my mind. A mind that usually can’t remember what I wore to work the day before. But my mind knows Swat. It can’t forget anything. Thick, green blankets covered the sleeping giants; too high and mighty to bother with surrounding life. The roads like flying dragons raced along the wondrous Swat river to an endless finish line. Ancient trees that had the world’s secrets safely etched in their wooden creases, lined the valley, joined together in solemn prayer. Lively shops and restaurants, stacked sideways, like friends exchanging silly secrets. There was unsaid joy, bursting innocence and a humbling acceptance to the entire place. Abstract signboards claiming they had the best ‘Kahva’ were sprawled across the road. I had heard many good things about the honeyed golden elixir.
I parked my rickety jeep nearby a tea shop and went inside with my camera intact. Nat Geo wanted a special feature on this hidden Switzerland in Pakistan. I had buoyantly agreed. A break from a recent breakup and Toronto’s chill was calling. Even if Swat was not exactly a part of Pakistan I was too familiar with, it had seemed like a good challenge at the time. A thin bearded fellow with a white cap was bent over a line of chipped and stained flowery cups. While pouring tea from a burnt pot he gave me a forced smile that revealed his few, but straight teeth. Behind him, blue painted walls with torn posters of political candidates stared at me.
The noisy river outside almost drowned out the music on a resuscitating tape recorder placed on a charpoy near the stove. I asked what the girl was singing in Pushto. “My beauty has killed half of the village and the other half will be killed soon,” translated the man in Urdu with a shy embarrassed smile. A girl entered the shop and walked towards the old man. She was dressed in a shalwar kameez from which faded pink played hide and seek. Almost like her striking green eyes that gave off shades of brown in the sunlight peaking through the shop’s window . “Salam little girl. What’s your name?”. I was never much for small talk but today I felt different. The girl wasn’t as surprised to see a woman wearing jeans as she was at being spoken to. She didn’t respond and continued to stare.
Ameera was her name. Her uncle, the tea shop owner had told me after she left. The second time I noticed her was a few days later when she sneaked into my jeep and took out some camera equipment. She was busy turning it upside down when I snuck up on her. She dropped everything and just stood there, with a well of tears. I asked her if she meant to steal. She just moved her head from side to side. I shooed her away, a characteristic trait that always engulfed me during work hours. From that day on, she followed me around by foot. Everywhere I went, she was there. One time she even hid inside one of my colleagues trucks and popped up at our photography site, far out in the Mahodand lake, with stretches of water encased possessively by hovering mountains. The lake was like a sea of melted crystals of potion, made for the fairies to swim in. The sky admiring its kingdom in the lake’s reflection.
That had been an extraordinary day. Ameera had smiled for the first time. Her mole on her the cheek that slid into her dimple every time she smiled. We didn’t talk and mostly she listened while I bossed around my crew or sneaked out to smoke a cigarette. That ecstatic crater made me forget what I was doing. I’d almost felt a motherly instinct but then I scared it away with my shrill voice: “Don’t you have anything better to do Amina? Go home!” She’d never go home. Not until I was done for the day. In those three months, I got terribly used to having her around.
And then the Earthquakes in the Northern areas came. Mother Earth spit up, cracked and slapped angrily at the serene beauty of the country. We were told to head to safer areas before the magnitude. of destruction swam its way to Swat. We could already feel the quakes and tremors Ameera’s uncle came running to me. His thin hands with protruded veins shook like dry branched on a windy day. “Have you seen Ameera?!” His frightful eyes pierced through my face. “I told her to stay home so I could find a safe place to escape”, he continued. I could have strangled him. The next few days were spent searching the voracious waters of Kalaam or cringing at the thought of an innocent hand peaking through fallen pieces of concrete and wood. The waters raged on. And so did our search. I kept in touch with her family over the years, clinging on, dreaming of a miracle, but nothing turned up. I couldn’t make myself go back. Her memory, the magic of the valley, it all haunted me.
This time it was my eyes that were flooding. I tried hiding behind my cup, as I poured the tea in my mouth. I stared outside, at the sunlit dusty road. Shadows of people and creaky buildings cast strange shapes on the road. The snow-peaked mountains stood behind tall and strong, like guardians of the valley. Why didn’t they take care of her? Why didn’t I keep her safe? A small hand touched my cheek. It was the angry girl. She smiled and revealed a dimple. That tiny bump was enough to keep my hope alive. I had to try one more time.
To be continued…
Read Part-2: https://inkriched.com/tag/kalaam/
footnote: I combined the prompts of writing 101; day 2 and day 4 for this short story. I went to Kalaam many years back with my college friends, before the disastrous floods of 2010. Its beauty and magic is unreal, even with years of destruction. So I tried to show some of it in this short-fiction story.