Presumed dead, a man returns from war to find that his wife and daughter have moved on with their lives in this short story by Batool Heydari.
He called, but nobody answered. He tried the number again and again. He then kept calling the whole day, but all he could hear was the sound of the phone ringing. He could not remember the last time she stayed out of the house for this long. He speculated. Maybe Khurshid is ill. Maybe something has caused her to stop her answering the phone.
Someone finally answered at around nine in the evening. He could not breathe when he heard her say “hello.”
When he was a student in Kabul, and engaged to Alia, he would call her and wait silently for her to initiate the conversation. He had wanted to hear her heartbeat. He would repeat this routine, call but never speak first. Alia had learnt this, and so instead of saying “hello,” she would giggle and ask, “Suleiman, is that you?”
The woman on the phone did not giggle. She asked tauntingly if he had stomach cramps that were stopping him from talking. Tears dried in his eyes. He could not remember Alia answering so harshly.
He remembered that they had a regular ghost caller for some time. They would call, but then keep silent. Suleiman swore at them on a few occasions, but it had proven futile and he failed to break the silence. Alia was of the opinion that no profanity must ever be spoken, even if the caller called a hundred times and uttered nothing.
This time, she had not cursed. She had said “Do you have stomach cramps?” When the call disconnected, he redialled the number. His hands were not shaking this time. He was pressing the numbers hard.
The woman on the phone said “hello” loudly. After taking a deep breath, he asked,
“Is Alia there?”
He realised that the woman could not have been Alia. She stretched the word hello, said it loudly, and Alia never did either.
He sighed in relief when the woman said,
“No, you have dialled the wrong number.”
But as soon as he put the phone down, he asked himself if this could be true. No––there was no way he had dialled the wrong number. He felt confident in this. He rang again and, this time, spoke with the woman articulately. He introduced himself as a distant relation of Alia’s who had come from one of the provinces to speak with her about something important.
When the woman felt comfortable, and decided it was not a nuisance call, she explained that they had bought the house from a family three years earlier. He asked the name of the family and the woman replied:
“Akbari. Zargham Akbari.”
Leaving no doubt, she confirmed further,
She could not have known that the caller at the other end of the phone was about to faint. She continued talking to “Alia’s distant relative,” explaining that she did not know exactly where the family lived, but that she knew that they lived in Chawk-e Gul-ha, a posh neighborhood.
Suleiman swallowed his saliva and asked the woman if she was certain that Engineer Akbari’s wife’s name was Alia. The woman confirmed, laughing, and mentioned Alia’s older daughter, Khurshid.
“A wonderful girl,” she said. “I wanted her to be my daughter-in-law, but fate disagreed. She was going to university, and my son did not want a wife who went to university.”
Suleiman started to sweat profusely when he heard the woman sigh and say, “What has the world come to? The daughters of the martyred are going to university...”
He could not understand. He asked, with difficulty, “The martyr’s daughter? What martyr?”
The woman, who was enjoying having found someone to speak to, continued, “What kind of family member are you if you are unaware of this, dear brother?” she said.
He tried to find an explanation, but the woman interrupted before he needed to: “I don’t know much. Her neighbors said that she is a martyr’s daughter. That her mother lost her husband and, two years later, married one of her husband’s comrades, an architect. God has now graced her with another child. When we bought the house, she had just given birth. A beautiful boy called Suleiman.”
He could not breathe. He murmured, “Suleiman.” Then he disconnected the call.
Flabbergasted, he stared at the photo in his hand. He could not believe that his wife had remarried. That little Khurshid was a university student. That he was thought to have been martyred. That his friend, Zargham, was now Alia’s husband. That they named their son after him. He felt a pain in his throat and pressed his lips together.
The next day, he got out of bed and opened the window. It had been six years since he was captured. He picked up the water jug and drank from it directly. Water spilling on his chest as he gulped. He poured the remainder on his head before going back to bed. He wished he had held his tongue back then—that he had never spoken to Zargham about his wife, never described her to him. He ran his fingers through his greying hair. He was pleased he hadn’t visited the house yet––all the neighbours would have recognized him. He closed his eyes, a lump in his throat. He then stood and stared at the phone. He dialled the number again and the same screeching woman answered.
“Why did you hang up, brother?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “I called Ms Sabri, one of the Akbaris’ old neighbors, to tell her that their relative had called. She didn’t know where exactly they were living. Just that they live in Chawk Gulha, as I told you. But she did say that Alia goes to the martyrs’ graveyard, the unnamed martyrs’ graveyard on the hill, on Fridays.”
“An old lady used to live with them. Do you know what happened—” The woman interrupted: “Are you talking about Bi Bi Jaan? She was ill when I was their neighbour. She could not speak. The neighbours used to say she had suffered a stroke when she learnt of her son’s martyrdom. The poor lady passed away a year later.”
The woman hung up once she was done talking. Suleiman leaned on an object near him and started crying loudly.
It was morning when he opened his eyes.
On Thursday he went to the city for a walk. He went to all the places he had visited with Alia and Khurshid. To relive the good old memories, he sat where they had sat as a family.
In the evening, he went to have his beard shaved. He felt ticklish when the barber ran clippers over the twisted hair on his neck. He remembered Alia telling him after their engagement that she did not want him to shave his beard, because a woman’s beauty lies in her long hair and a man’s beauty and masculinity lies in his beard and mustache. He saw a sparkle in Alia’s eyes when he grew a beard for the first time. She would compliment him, telling him that the beard suited him and that he looked like an angel.
He remembered Alia painting. She was working on a painting of angels in those days; they were all men with long hair. His reminders to Alia that there are also female angels fell on deaf ears. When the painting was complete, she wrapped it and gave it to him as a gift.
Suleiman’s beard was now shaven. All that was left was his mustache. He touched it. When the barber asked repeatedly if he should shave the mustache too, Suleiman looked up and asked, “Do you think a mustache suits me?” The barber removed the cape, tapped him on his back and said, “A man without a mustache is not a real man.” Suleiman laughed, and got up from the chair to look at the mirror. He could not recognize himself.
He left early the next morning for the cemetery. The security office was closed. A few hours had passed. He was now lying under a willow tree with his small bag under his head, gazing at the branches hanging down. He had searched widely to find this tree.
And now he had no choice but to look for the unnamed martyrs’ graveyard himself. Despite searching extensively, he could not find his name, and so he waited for the office to open.
When the attendant arrived, Suleiman gave him the name and surname. The attendant said that they had wanted to allocate this Suleiman a plot for burial in the martyrs’ area, but that his daughter had refused, insisting that he be listed as missing. So he had no headstone. “She comes here every Friday––alone or with her mother. They come here first and then they visit the graves of other martyrs. She comes to my office, too. She asks if anyone has inquired about her father. She always asks this question. There is no shortage of families who are anxious about the news of their missing loved ones, so, for their comfort, we give them the bones of something, dressed as the remains of a soldier who has been missing for years.”
Suleiman’s hands were cold, and he was breathless. He closed his eyes and thanked the man, before leaving to find his own grave, or perhaps himself. A cold breeze swept between the thick willow leaves. He found his way back to its hanging branches.
He sat there, hugging his legs close to his chest, with his chin resting on his kneecaps. The sun had risen to remove the morning shadows over the graves. The smell of rain, the smoke from the burning wild rue seed, and the occasional sound of prayer engulfed the air. People were slowly gathering around him. He remembered the day they had brought Khurshid home from the hospital. Bi Bi Jaan had looked dejected when she learned it was a baby girl. Suleiman, however, was overjoyed. He pressed her to his chest and asked Alia what she had named her. Alia just shook her head. He then kissed the baby girl on the face and said, “I will give her a name myself. She will be her father’s Khurshid, her father’s sun.”
When Khurshid grew up, they would read poems so loudly that Alia would be forced to tell them off. They would hold hands and walk around the pool surrounded by vases in the garden. “Khurshid Khanum, rise and shine. Say hello to your dad, Khurshid Khanum,” Suleiman would sing.
He stood still where he was standing. He felt his heartbeat slow down. He could not believe his eyes. It was her––Alia, Suleiman’s own Alia. He could not swallow. He kept blinking in disbelief. Then, he collected himself. “You finally came,” he thought. It was Alia, accompanied by a girl her size, wearing a headscarf and smiling. She was walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Alia. “It is them. It must be them, Alia and her father’s Khurshid Khanum,” he said to himself.
He hid behind the tree trunk, holding the bag to his face to avoid being recognized. “She has grown into a lady,” he told himself.
Khurshid took something out of her bag––a packet of dates. Her hair was visible under her green headscarf. She was offering the votive dates to the passersby. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Alia. She reminded him of her mother when they had first met.
Khurshid stopped suddenly as if someone had called her name. A man and a small boy were approaching her. Alia took the little boy from the man’s arms. Zargham had grown older, into a man, as he would say. His hair had turned gray.
Suleiman was heartbroken and panting. Alia followed the man. Khurshid left, too. Suleiman felt as if he was disintegrating. He fell to the ground. He buried his face in the soft soil under the willow tree and cried loudly. He filled his fists with soil and screamed. He wanted to stop breathing there and then. He wanted his heart to stop pumping blood through his veins. A flood of tears was washing his eyes, rolling down his clean-shaven, wrinkled face. He knelt, lifted his head, and hit it against the ground, over and over. He could not lose them.
His knees were wet from his tears. Alia had left. Zargham and the little boy were gone. Someone who looked like Alia seemed to be walking toward the attendant’s office. The wind was blowing her skirt. How fast she was walking. It must be Khurshid. She must have a question for the attendant––the same old question.
Suleiman stood right there. He picked up his bag, clenched his fists, and headed toward the attendant’s room. His steps were slow and his legs shaky. He felt as if he was dragging them behind him. Khurshid was standing. The man in the office was on the phone. Khurshid had not yet asked the question. Suleiman was still standing there, wondering whether he could lose her or not. Tears had washed his entire face. He could not lose Khurshid, and did not want to. He walked fast and steadily now, edging closer to the girl. He was right behind her, breathing slowly. The attendant ended his call and looked up. The girl asked the attendant, “Excuse me, uncle, has anyone come to ask about my father’s grave?” As he began to answer the girl, his gaze remained fixed on Suleiman.
“Khurshid Khanum, Rise and Shine” © 2020 by Batool Heydari. Translation © 2020 by Parwana Fayyaz. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.