Olive Branch

By Mehreen Ahmed

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This story was originally published in the author’s short story collection, Moirae, and has been republished here with her permission

“I want to be with babu. You’ve reached in nadir of that river,” Tahu lamented in Nalia’s mother’s house in the village one day.

“Those pills? Do they not work? You’ve been on them for many days now,” commented Nalia.

“I see him. I hear his voice. He comes and goes through my room like a shadow, accusing me of casting him into the river. But he was blue, blue as stonefish spikes. He just didn’t breathe; pills don’t work; one blue and white or pink, oh! I don’t know. At least he has stopped beating me now; oh! How he beat me every single night in drunkenness; yes, for money and to sleep with him.”

Tahu sat on the front-yard of Nalia’s mother’s house with her legs stretched out and entwined at the feet. She looked not at Nalia or her mother but out into oblivion.

“That night of the big storm, I came home from work. There he was sitting on the bed drunk. I was pregnant with babu. He asked to see my purse I did not give it to him. I was tired. Oh, so tired from a whole day of stitches in the factory that it gave me stitches in my tummy.”

Tahu stopped and took a deep breath. Nalia’s mother made some tea on the small wood stove in the front-yard. The flimsy aluminum kettle hissed, as it blew out some vapours. Nalia brought two little cups made of clay and set them down on the floor of the yard on the sitting mat where they talked. Nalia’s mother poured out three cups of tea already made in the kettle with fresh cow’s milk and molasses. Nalia handed a cup to her and took one for herself. A shiny big raven came from nowhere and sat on the cane fence under the over-extended branches of the mango grove. Holding the cup of tea in one hand, Nalia stood up and tried to get rid of the raven.

“Pills not working. Then when I didn’t give him the purse, he slapped me hard on the face, so hard that I fell down. I howled with pain. Yes. I did.”

Tahu shook her head, her gaze transfixed on the floor, as though she were talking to nobody else but to herself. She wore a long garb of black checks. She couldn’t care less if it covered her bosom. Parts of it slipped off her shoulder. Her hair was undone. Nalia took a comb and put it to work gently pushing its teeth all the way to those roots, and down to her black knotted hair ends. She untangled the knots slightly running her fingers through. The tea was getting cold.

“C’mon finish your tea, now,” said Nalia’s mother.

“I need to go home. I’ll take the evening boat. He stopped beating me for a while, after I lost babu,” Tahu said picking up her tea. “Babu was doing well, and then one day he just breathed no more. I ran like crazy to the doctor, they said he was gone. Gone. Yes, never to see babu again. Never. I brought him to the bank of the River Murma and took a boat. Storm loomed in the sky, the boat twirled around on the big waves; there was darkness everywhere. So frightening. I couldn’t care less. I tried, tried to wake him up in my lap, offered him milk, but he slept the sleep of a lifetime. And in that moment of panic, I started to cry and lowered him to the foaming waves; gave him to Murma. Murma will take care of him, right? I know, he told me, he smiled. Babu. Babu. Where’s babu? Bring Babu!”

Tahu’s eyes popped out large, as she wailed and her shrieks reached the limitlessness of the sky. Raven flew away nervously and Nalia with her mother continued to gape at her in despair. Helplessness was one thing but what just happened now was boundless misery.

Yet, Nalia’s wheel of fortune kept turning. In our random fate-ridden existence, every one supposedly had a fair go. She had saved a fair bit of money from her job working as a domestic helper. There was a deathly shadow in that house too; but she decided to give the money to her mother to buy another milk cow in the village. Courage had never left her side, even at her lowest. As they sat there with Tahu, Nalia’s father rushed in.

“What’s wrong?”asked Nalia’s mother frantically.

“Something’s happened next door.”

“What? Is Pintu’s father in trouble? Is Pintu in trouble again?”

“I don’t know but Miah is on his way to the police station.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“He said to me in a small voice that police had been asked by the regime to investigate Pintu’s case in the village.”

“What for? Hasn’t enough happened already?”

“I don’t know.”

Tahu raised herself suddenly, and said she wanted to nap. Nalia took her to the room and made her a bed on the floor, with a patched up sheet looking like seven colours of the rainbow. Tahu lay down, stricken with grief. Nalia embraced her tenderly and kissed her oily disheveled hair. Tahu smiled and lay down closing her eyes, whispering almost chanting; „Babu says, come come mama come to me. He stretches his arms. Little arms. Baby fingers, stretch them as far as they would go. Babu is leaving. Wait, wait for me. Don’t go just yet Babu. No no no...medicine don’t work...the city. He remarried...”

Nalia left her to her half-formed thoughts, as she came out to sit with her parents.

“Miah was interrogated by the police. They asked him if he knew where his nephew was on the night of the murder.”

“What did he say?”

“That he was asleep. I believe the people from the autocratic party killed him. That nephew had made many enemies you see. That’s why they killed him and made Pintu the scapegoat. Police, the head magistrate, everyone is in on it. That’s what I think.”

“Mmm. Will they find the killer? Pintu will not be able to return until then. Police will throw him in jail,” sighed Nalia’s mother.

“Anyway, my dear wife, give me some tea,”

“In a while, rice is nearly done; I’m also going to fry some salted fish Nalia brought from the city.”

Overall the family looked much healthier for Nalia’s earnings. All she needed now was clemency from the village elders for Tahu. It was an ironical situation. She needed their sympathy, not rebuke.

“Mohammad has become a Jesuit and changed his name to MD, hasn’t he? Don’t give me the phone when he calls.” Nalia’s father said. “I raised him like my own.”

Nalia stood by listening away. She jumped in that very moment saying,

“He should stay wherever he is father. They might kill him, if he tried to come.”

“Who would?” asked Nalia’s mother.

“Oh, don’t be so naive, mother. Jesuit or no Jesuit, if he’s happy, then let him be. It’s not our place to judge.”

“No? Where would he be today if I hadn’t found him crawling at the ferry stop?”

“I don’t know. It’s his life. You have given him a loving home father; fed him when even we didn’t have enough to eat ourselves. Let it go. You’ve done your bit.”

Nalia’s father kept quiet. Her mother put the rice down on the paved floor with boiled potatoes and some home grown fresh spinach in it that she had plucked earlier from the small, vegetable patch by the house. She made another cup of tea for father.

“You’re probably right. I won’t mull over it anymore. Certainly won’t give the wicked farmer the sadistic joy of losing him; the hard slog that the bastard was going to put him through.”

“Anyway, wake Tahu up. Lunch is nearly ready,” said Nalia’s mother.

It was beginning to get late in the afternoon. On the edge of the earth, the sun slowly diminished. An unexpected calmness dropped in the atmosphere. In one short life, this drama would end. And that would be the end of it all; those, who suffered the worst, were the ones most deluded by the notion that this life was forever. Oh, how calm? How peacefully the River Murma flowed today? A mere twitter of a bird in the heavy groves, the shepherd’s distant tune caught in the flute wafted through the air. There appeared to be no grimy crimes threatening such delightful sensations of undulated serenity. The night forest illuminated by fireflies everywhere. Lights sparkled, as they flew ubiquitous around the slim, tall trees and the heavy bushes of the blue forest.

Tahu woke up. She said she was hungry. Sleep made her feel so much better. She needed to be back to the village away from that horrible monster of a husband who beat her; enjoy the tranquillity of the River Murma, to be closer to her Babu. Babu needed her to be alive, so he could make his regular visitations, so she would see her baby smiles that emerged a hundred times on the mouth of his un-toothed gum. As they sat down to eat, there was sound of a motorbike revving up just outside the hut.

“Nalia’s father, do you want to check who that might be?” asked her mother.

He stood up and walked to the fence. Two men on a motorbike had come to talk business with him. Nalia, Tahu and her mother stayed indoors and listened pale-faced as he argued with the men.

“Either join us, our resistance party, or you pay heavily,” they threatened.

“Resistance party? I’m not into politics. I don’t want to be a part of what you do.

“And what do you think we do?”

“I don’t know; killing, looting, and rallying, all in a day’s work.”

“Is that what you think?

And then heavy sounds of punching followed by a terrified bawl.

“Aww, Oh God! Oh! My nose, nose. I’m done. These men have killed me.”

“We haven’t even started yet,” they scorned. “We’ll come back next month, make sure you’ve ten thousand ready for us. Or else, we’ll knock the living day lights out of you.”

“Please, I’m a poor man. There’s no money. We go hungry most of the time. How can we pay what you demand?”

“We don’t want to know. We will be back in a month’s time. Keep the money ready.”

They got back on the motorbike and disappeared along the dirt path. Nalia’s father appeared in a moment with a frightening nose bleed. He flopped down on the mat and held his head down supporting it on his palms. Surely, they were the wealthy farmer’s men. Indeed they were his hit-men. Mohammad had to leave to become a refugee, because of them. Because he had borrowed 50,000 gold coins from the richest farmer in the village. Not with the intentions to milk him, but he needed the money to bail out his sister Nalia’s husband from jail. Now the farmer wanted to put him through unpaid hard labour. He knew Mohammad would never be able to repay.

“Oh, good God. Nalia, bring the pitcher of water from that corner and give him a wash.”

Nalia and Tahu dabbed his nose with a damp cloth.

This was a common occurrence in the village. People came regularly to recruit apolitical and peaceful village folks to join demonstrations and rallies. Make them do all the dirty work. They were tormented and threatened into subjugation. Like a great domino falling, those who felt unsafe and could find passage took the risk of leaving the village showing up in another part of the world. Terrible crimes against, men, women and children were being committed in the name of resistance, against an autocratic regime to save “democracy”. Now that was an irony. Nalia’s father frowned. He couldn’t think anymore. Nalia suggested, sell the milk cow. Their only source of sustenance came from selling milk in the market. This had to happen this very moment? When things were beginning to look up?

“They will be back. This is what has happened to Miah too, before his nephew was killed. These thugs came back, again and again for more gold coins until they milked him dry,” he sighed and spoke meekly.

“Wasn’t it enough that his nephew got killed? Well, you can’t stay here,” Nalia declared.

“Where could we go?”

“I’ll think of something.”

“What? What will you think of? There’s nothing remaining besides death.”

“No. It doesn’t have to end like that. You’re coming to the city with me.”

“Are you out of your mind? What would I do there?”

“Whatever; pull people carriages; live in a slum.”

None of her parents quite warmed up to the idea of being dispossessed in this manner. But then what else could they do? Anything was better than dying in the hands of these extortionists. Mohammad would have been either worked to death or killed by now by the rich farmer and his powerful party men if he had stayed here. In a moment, the situation changed. What seemed like a peaceful afternoon, turned dramatically to this. These were changeable circumstances, which swung wildly like a busted clock pendulum.

“Shall we eat? I must seek help. Nalia, has Mohammad called yet? Mundip. The human traffickers,” Nalia’s father thought aloud.

Raven came back with a big caw and swooped down, to pick up some salted fish off one of the plates with his pointed, black beak. The rice went cold. Steadily, with fish at the tip of the long beak, he frisked about and sat down on the fence. ‘Caw, caw’ he ate it fast, seemed to say ‘you’re in a losing battle, join’em, leave’em, there’s no escape. It was an existential crisis, howled the chorus of Sophocles of Oedipus Rex. What act of hubris was this? No more or less than what Oedipus had committed? Naught a Rex by a long shot, but Nalia’s father succumbed to this ill-fate just the same.

Nalia’s mother set out the plates again and gave each some food. Tahu must go home to her aunt next door. She, who raised her, after Tahu’s mother had passed away in the last, great storm. Tahu left them. There wasn’t a single family in the Lost Winds, except for the influential, which enjoyed some peace here. Each had their own burden of woes, transpiring in their own way into classic tragedy. The graver a situation became, however, the more people’s fates hung in the balance, and the more astute they became. Shingdi was a far cry, the ideal world that was out of reach. They learned to survive on the edge dodging bullets, and lying with confidence. In a way, they erected a wall of deception to give them protection; a kind of immunity behind which the underprivileged hid. Somehow, the lies of the less fortunate were deemed as more horrifying in the eyes of the law than corporate bullying or political transgression.

In the cover of darkness, Nalia and her family set off and disappeared, with their two milk cows. A month later, when those two terrorists came back to extort money, they found that the house had become a property of that wealthy and powerful farmer that who acquired it as a trade off to Mohammad’s debt of fifty-thousand coins. That was a real bargain, because the land itself would have cost over two hundred thousand. With the house, it would have been much more. Undoubtedly, those two hired assassins were the wealthy farmer’s men.

One evening, Tahu sat by the River Murma, talking and smiling to her baby. The world thought she had become completely mad. However, they could not see what she saw in her madness, as she rambled on. She told her baby that she wondered where Nalia went, without so much as a word, ‘she simply disappeared into thin air babu; no letter; no phone calls; no nothing.’ And then she smiled sweetly looking over the river as though the apparition stood on the contours of the sparkled water and smiled back. ‘She is? You think she is well? Whatever happened to those two milk-cows? Oh. My God. Now that’s clever. She took advantage of their vulnerability? Their daughter was quite dead, wasn’t she?’

Nalia was able to negotiate with her employer and his wife into taking her parents in and to make a cow-shed for the cows. They sold fresh milk, a rarity in the city of Grosnii, to every house hold that they could possibly reach through Nalia’s employer. In return, they supplied free milk to them, a trade off for a nice bedroom in their big house.

The apparition seemed to be telling her all this and Tahu was seen laughing her head off, still looking towards the River Murma. She stretched her hand and brought it close to her chest in a gesture of hugging and then protruding her mouth towards emptiness in the way of kissing. The village boys who saw her called her insane, but she sure had a method in her madness, which only she and her baby understood. They communicated every day. She would leave her house, at his beck and call. ‘Nalia, if I find those men I shall most certainly kill them and throw their bodies in the River Murma. No one will know it was me, because I don’t exist for most people. My insanity will be my alibi and my defence Nalia. I swear I would kill them next time I saw them. This much I owed you my dear friend. Babu and I would do this together. We will put a curse on them, as I did on that brute husband of mine. Where was he now? Do you know anything about him? He must be dead. Cold dead by now for certain. Wail. I wail Nalia, I know not why, I’ll be one with Babu soon. We’re one in spirit as close as one possibly can be with the dead. Dead? Who said, he’s dead. He’s just as alive as anyone else. You will see Nalia how those two die. You will read it in the papers one day. What do you care? You never even bothered to tell me where you were. Babu knows best and he told me. Wait until I finish the job at hand. We would have so much fun killing those two. They deserved nothing better; God knows they didn’t.’

About the same time, Nalia felt a strange tug in her heart too, as she sat in the cow shed milking the cows. ‘Tahu, I now milk the cow everyday; your black locks must be spread out on the silver River Murma when you bathe in it; do you think about me too? Look for me? All those times we spent together. Tahu, your husband was found dead in the corner of the alley. There was a fire and he was too drunk to run; he died from smoke inhalation. Fool, I’ve been such a fool. I didn’t get in touch with you.’

Surely enough, the newspapers in the city read that two people on a motorbike were driving past the River Murma at dusk one day. They fell into a trap of a fishing net thrown out from the blue. The net ensnared the men, and dragged them off the stalling motorbike while they were still alive; and then straight into the water at high mid-day tide. All this happened pretty fast, before they could escape; the bodies slowly sunk into the depths of the river. Such was the sorrowful fates of these two blokes. A convoluted contraption was pulled up the next day, as cold as fish laid over night on the virgin snow.

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Mehreen Ahmed

is an internationally acclaimed author. Her books, The Pacifist, is "Drunken Druid The Editors' Choice for June 2018", and Jacaranda Blues,"The Best of Novels for 2017 - Family Novels of the Year" by Novel Writing Festival. Her flash fiction, "The Portrait" chosen to be broadcast by Immortal Works, Flash Fiction Friday, 2018.