(Tree image - from my drawing series)
THE WEST WIND curved the branches of an old oak tree. This is what the women called the tainted tree. Howling, it swept the open fields and whispered a thousand times as it touched the old oak leaves and eventually brushed Marjan’s long hair.
Wrapped letters red, black and white tied with colourful fabrics hung from every brunch.
Marjan approached the tree cautiously. She knew this was the place of the un-dead. Here, dead girls with crushed dreams took pity on the living.
“Someone whispered my name?
No- she was alone” she reassured herself.
“I must do this. Azar said it works. I must be brave and do this. Love makes you brave. I must prove my love by being brave” she thought.
Her foot stumbled. She almost tripped. It looked like a goat’s bone fixed in the ground.
She was fifteen and her older friend Azar had dared her to hang her wish on the tree. She was in love.
In love for six month, three days and five hours.
She felt someone touch the back of her head.
Turned- but no one was there.
Hands shaking but tied the letter hard.
Her secret words were now safe in the letter.
Azar had said pour black ink on the letter. No one could then read it.
And then she ran. Ran across the field like a rabid dog had chased her.
On her way home she saw Grandpa Babu walking towards her.
“Child where you’ve been?” he said.
“Didn’t I tell you not to go on the field on your own?”
Marjan said nothing.
Babu had his prayer book wrapped in a cloth with him and asked her to take it home.
Marjan’s heart was thumping through her pulsating eardrums.
Since his accident Babu looked older. He was still strong. He would till the soil for a solid eight hours and not break sweat.
When Marjan was five he would lift her like a feather then kiss her rosy cheeks and tease her with his white beard.
He once stood so tall, Babu then the village chieftain.
A great rider, but galloping with his beloved horse Attash (fire) they fell into a bear trap. Attash broke a leg and seeing her in pain he shot her blank in the forehead. That was many years ago. Nan told Marjan these stories everyday.
This was before Marjan’s parents died. It was then that Mullah Omar the local Taliban beast became the new chief and people started to live in fear.
Babu’s face creased like an old shoe every time he saw that man.
Exhausted, Marjan went to her room and rested her head on a pillow. Azar came in and stroked her hair and song her a lullaby:
She hides all her love,
she has it all wrapped up
if the wind blows,
it rocks and falls down
Sing my morning bird
Cry that I’m in love
Sing let my love know
I wait here and sigh
When Azar heard the front door she left.
Marjan was feeling strange. Since a week or two food had a different smell and taste. Her stomach had swollen. She was sick in the morning went to sleep and had these strange dreams: -
“She stood amongst the crowd. A woman was half buried in the ground and men through sharp rocks at her. Omar was standing in front. The rocks did not stop and bounced off her torn blood soaked limbs. She could not stop screaming and Marjan was standing right behind her and could not see her face.
Then Marjan was inside a house. Three men were dragging a woman into that house. The woman screamed but her mouth was covered. Her cloths were torn, and she trembled. Marjan screamed as loud as she could but no sound was coming out. She saw villagers gathering and the men running away and the woman naked on a bed.”
She woke up and she was covered with sweat. Ran for the bathroom and Nan saw her throwing up.
Nan came over and made her a glass of lemon-honey.
“Why you’re pale child?” she asked.
Rubbed her belly and her face became grim.
“What you’ve done child?” she asked.
“Tell Nan everything. For your sake, tell me. What you’ve done?”
Marjan did not say anything.
“Tell me. Who is he? Who did this?” Nan asked.
Marjan was trembling but silent.
Later Babu returned home. It was getting dark and the sky turned pastel orange. He washed his hands and went to do his prayer.
Nan went and spoke to him. They were in a room for an hour. Nan crying and begging Babu, but for what Marjan did not know.
Babu came to see Marjan. Rage made his eyes gleam. His face looked vicious like a wolf. He slapped Marjan. Nan tried to intervene but he threw her to the side like cotton.
“Who’ve touched you girl?” he said.
“Talk. Who’d done this?”
He pointed at Nan and said: “Fine girl you raised woman! She ended up a little whore just like her Ma”.
Marjan’s mouth was bleeding.
“Fine have it your way. Shame on you. Shame.” He said. Left the room.
Nan was sobbing.
“Just tell us who he is.” Nan pleaded.
Babu came back a moment later. He wore his long coat, concealed a short spade then put a veil on Marjan and said: “right you’re coming with me.”
Nan was slapping her head and pulling her cheeks, but not knowing what to do and how to stop Babu.
She grabbed Babu’s leg and he dragged her across the courtyard. He had locked Marjan’s wrist in his big hand and the two left the house.
Nan wanted to get help but couldn’t. It was too disgraceful. Too unspeakable.
She was screaming into her handkerchief and sobbing.
Babu held on to Marjan’s hand tight and dragged her up to the tainted tree then stopped. She did not resist.
“I’ll burn in hell if I let Omar stone another of my girls to death, cut the throat and watch her die. This is for your own good girl. It is less painful this way.” he said.
Then he dropped the spade, pulled his revolver and trembling aimed at Marjan’s forehead shaking.
He just stood there aiming and shaking.
The teardrop on the side of Babu’s cheek and the white of his eyes shined in the dark. There he stood frozen but shaking, still pointing the muzzle.
The wind hissed through the hung letters, tearing them off the branches.
A black paper stuck on his coat and flew across the field.
“Say your prayer and ask God for forgiveness Child” Babu said.
“Repeat after me.”
“In the name of God the merciful”.
“I give witness that there is one God, and that God is”.
“Say it. I said say it. If you want to save your soul.”
“I give witness that…”.
Marjan just looked at him with tearful eyes.
The wind howled. Tearing more papers. The ground was covered with it.
“Say it. I said say it. God is…” he insisted.
The papers in a whirlwind twisted, flickered and took the shape of a faceless woman.
Babu stood there with his mouth shivering. He shot a bullet and it flaked the bark of the tree. The sound echoed in the field. The crows flew their nest.
The aberration spoke with many voices. The sound of many women like hearing a waterfall.
“I’m Sarah. I’m Jasmine. I’m Ghisoo. I’m Azar your daughter. Paa”
“You’d stood watched, men tore me-limbs with rocks” the voices whispered.
“Leeeeave-my daughter alone-lone-lone-lone”. Her shout echoed.
Babu fell to the ground and cried out: “Ain't it enough you tormented me when you live? …
Did’ you not feel that it was my flesh they tore? My flesh and blood? Did’ you not see me die with you girl?” he said.
He sobbed and prostrated, dropping his gun.
The papers flew and disappeared in the dark.
A week later Taliban men came looking for a girl that had become tainted.
The neighbours had listened and word had gone round.
Omar entered his archenemy’s house with a gloat and expecting to find Babu in fear. Babu’s house was empty. Rumour had it they spent a night in Chakab and then crossing the border took refuge in Iran. There was no sign of the respected ex-chieftain who lived in that village for seventy-five years. One day he was there. The next vanished.