Fiction • Mahreen Sohail
Two months ago, our mother was admitted to the Noor Hospital for People Who Need Organs and New Teeth. My sister and I had just finished donating blood and were in the parking lot of the hospital, both of us sitting in our car with the doors open, taking great gulping breaths of fresh air to restore our energy. Around us, paramedics leaped out of screaming ambulances and tried stretching soldiers back to life. A young man in a blue kameez and a red sash leaned over a stretcher, his cheeks like small hard tumors in his face. He gently admonished the soldier, This is selfish, guy, pull yourself together, while his friend stood next to him taking quick, worried puffs from a joint.
A man walked up to us as we exhaled once and together, our heads between our knees. Sisters, he said, you look tired. We closed the doors against him and started to reverse out of there. When we were mid-way home we rolled down the windows and started talking about the special hatred we’d developed for little children. We agreed that they made us angrier than they’d ever made us before because now we saw them for what they really were (useless).
My sister and I determinedly refused to acknowledge the kids living on our street. They held balls, bats, dolls, chalk, twigs, badminton racquets, little clods of dirt, prams of younger siblings, the corners of their mothers' clothes, their own arms and legs (one or the other). They looked torn and used up, unspooling on the streets. Their parents orbited terraces above them, one eye on the children, the other on God knows what. Raheel Sb, next door, was a retired major and fancied himself a catcher of spies in these times of war. When he walked on his terrace, he also kept his binoculars trained on the homeless uncle sitting cross-legged outside the general store. The store was famous for deep-frying its potato wedges and serving them up in oiled scraps of newspaper. When we drove back from the hospital that day, the sun was going down and the street we lived in smelled stale and salty, probably from the fries. Mosquitoes the size of our fists flew in the air and splattered themselves against our windshield. Raheel Sb pointed his binoculars at us once and then moved them away.
The man in the parking lot was back when we visited our mother in the hospital a week later. Our kameezes stuck to us because of the heat. I had just donated my hair; my sister had sacrificed a finger. There is a way for you to contribute to the war effort without giving of yourself quite so literally, he said, assuming that we were donating to the soldiers. Despite feeling out of sorts because of the sudden dearth of young men in the country, we ignored him. We recognized a line when we heard one. Driving home, we looked at how the women walking on the sides of the road clutched their clothes closer to their bodies in a way that was both extremely modest and very attractive to the boys growing up in the area (who had their pick now that their older brothers were dead or soon to be dead).
The third time we drove out to see our mother we could not stand it. We did not even go inside the hospital. Our hair lapped at our chins. While we were sitting there, the man came to our car window and asked us to come with him. The wind picked up and tunneled inside our car and tried getting into our eyes. The hospital’s walls disappeared against our lashes. Perhaps two or four more people had died inside—hopefully and God Forbid though, not our mother. The man had a small moustache, so dark it almost looked blue, and small, bright brown eyes. He was wearing a white linen vest and a light black blazer. His name was Rafi and he needed us, he said. We are done being needed, we told him. It felt good to say it out loud. The hospital came back into focus. Not like that, he replied. You girls have egos!
We were so embarrassed by the immodesty of our thinking that we didn’t say anything when he got into the back seat of our car. A man with such small hands cannot be harmful, we tried telling each other telepathically, with our backs straight against our seats and my sister’s knuckles tight around the car’s steering wheel. We were right; he didn’t pull out guns and simply directed us around corners and down narrow alleys. Eventually we turned into a road far away from anywhere we had ever driven. One side of this road was lined by a high concrete wall that went on for quite a while. The other looked out into rows and rows of great oak trees. We parked before a small metallic gate which appeared to be the only entrance into the walled area. Rafi banged the inside of his palm flat against the metal and yelled, Oi!
We heard someone scratching behind the door. A head appeared over the top of the wall, a messy little boy, his face swollen and confused, as if he had just been beaten up, or asleep. He dropped out of sight again. We heard someone drawing back bolts.
The gate opened and we were led into a large field, grassy in patches. There were hundreds of little boys and girls inside. Large men wearing bright purple stood in the four corners of the walled area holding black rifles. The youngest of the children is three, Rafi told us proudly, the oldest is ten. Next to the gate was a raised wooden platform. Rafi also pointed out the large black speakers, one in each corner. Of course we had heard that they were picking up homeless children and training them for the cause in hideaways all over the country. But the children were not in Technicolor the way they had been in our heads. They were feral and dusty. The girls wore brown frocks that came down to their feet. The boys wore long brown robes.
Someone had taken a branch and gouged out lines in the grass so the field was divided into five identical looking squares. Each square holds forty children, Rafi said. In the distance, we saw a man in purple take aim and shoot a small girl who had been crying loudly. The air cracked and she fell to the ground like a mannequin. The children around her paused for a second and then backed away like performers in a circus, young and taut. They seemed full of rage as if directly feeding on the heat from the sun. One girl elbowed a gap-toothed little boy in the stomach. The toy grenade he had been playing with went flying. He lunged at her face with open hands until her lips started to bleed. My sister and I were only small-scale sinners. Like when the paramedics laid our mother out in the ambulance, and instead of feeling scared we were annoyed. When she screamed it was a long, shining sound that soared straight to the roof of our skulls.
Rafi climbed onto the wooden platform. The men in purple began to walk away. Rafi picked up a mega phone and spoke into it, his voice echoing around the field. He said, The ants are here—this directed at the children and accompanied by a short, flat wink at us. At first we thought we were the ants and glanced, insulted, down at our clothes as if we were late and poorly grown, but then we noticed that the roar of the children was directed at the re-entering men who were now holding big gray buckets as they walked back onto the field.
We start them off small, Rafi explained to us. Yesterday it was lady bugs followed by sedated squirrels. Today it’s ants and kittens. We move on to the Human Enemy next week. The men grimaced as they pulled buckets in through the gate. The ants—fire ants, we noticed admirably—climbed over the handles of the buckets and bit their hands. The children ran to the men. They overturned the buckets and the ground crawled orange. It shook from so many small feet jumping in the air. Their stamping drummed into our heads like a song. We sweated with fear and heat. When all the ants were dead, the children continued scooping them into their hands. They tried to crush them into a fine red powder. It’s protein, we heard one small boy woozily tell a girl who could only have been his sister. He had welts the size of boulders on his arms and legs.
We left for home when the children began to breathe normally again. We told Rafi we would be back tomorrow, perhaps in the evening. We are not ready yet, we said, implying, we later realized, that we would be ready soon.
At the hospital the next day our mother asked us about our lives and we told her about what we had seen. She laughed and called us her silly dolls. The secret made us feel happy and bloated, as if our insides finally matched our outsides. A nurse came in to help with the daily exercises. She lifted our mother’s arms and legs carefully, one by one, as if she was a banana leaf and the hospital was inspecting her for holes.
Outside our mother’s room, we noticed a little girl in the corridor. In our defense, she looked very bored. She must have been six. My sister bent down to her level and asked for her name and she told us it was Asya. We hadn’t spoken to any children in months. We exchanged looks and asked Asya if she wanted to come with us for a ride while she waited, and she said yes, very shyly, her thumb and forefinger playing with a blue bead. In the parking lot, she squinted against the late evening sun and in the car she put her head out of the back window while we drove. Her hair fluttered against her face and she screamed into the wind to tell us that her brother had been sick forever. We felt very bad for her and almost turned back. But children are shaped by the shape of their country. In the long term, we consoled ourselves, we weren’t really doing any harm.
Asya was frightened and unsmiling by the time we led her into the ground. Someone had turned the stadium lights on. Rafi’s smile was too huge, his teeth like cracked white bones in his mouth. He held out his hand to the little girl, and she took it. We noticed she kept the hand with the beads clutched into a fist.
She began to cry when Rafi urged her—nicely, to his credit—to join the children in the center square. We begged him to wait for just a little while. He seemed resigned as he nodded. The sooner the better he warned, and we agreed in principle. We led Asya to the center block and sat with her on the grass, asked her to show us her beads, though she did not. The children were busy with a kitten activity. The men in the field kept re-entering through the metal gate holding pink, furless bodies that looked like rats. A four year old grabbed at one of the small animals a man set by her feet and held it up to her face. Its small paws wound in the air and it let out short, sharp cries. The girl scrunched up her face in concentration and tightened her grip around the kitten’s neck. Rafi’s moustache hair waving in apology. Some children found pieces of rope left over from previous exercises and fashioned nooses. One boy with a dark mole at the place where his eyebrow ended crushed a kitten with his foot so it lay splashed against the grass like a dark red clot. They continued like this until the sound of crying faded from the air.
We sat with Asya while all of this was happening until someone cut off the area’s electricity and the field plunged into darkness. One of the men started a small fire in our square and some of the children wrapped themselves around its edges. A few children, who were farther away, edged closer to the fire. We saw a boy look both ways and cross the line that led from his block into ours before he was shot by a purple man.
Asya was the only one wearing a yellow dress, and the other children looked at her, ravenous. One little boy tried to rip it off so we punched him in his face. She began to cry again, and we got a little tired of her. Look, we said, trying to get her to smile. We hopped on one leg and then another, waved our hands around her face, stuck our fingers in our mouths and pulled them into wide grins. Some of the other children copied us. Mosquitoes hummed in the air and we heard planes approaching in the distance. The heat from the fire burned into our skin.
Panicking, we did the dance our mother had taught us when we were children. We spun as gracefully as we could. The children began to form lines behind us, straining their eyes to see, stumbling and laughing as they tried to keep up in the dark. Rafi watched from what seemed like far away, perhaps too tired to move closer, perhaps too slow to realize what was happening. Asya stopped crying and used her nails to dig out a small hole in the ground. She put her beads in it carefully before standing to join us. The night smelled like jasmine and grass. I should not have to string these scenes up in front of you like this to help you understand that the word loss has a weight that cannot be borne. We saw two children begin to kiss each other like adults by the fire and strained to ignore our hearts, finally beginning to beat, large and fearful, in our mouths.
Mahreen Sohail received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. A 2014 Charles Pick South Asia Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia, she lives in Pakistan.
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