The war ate the 14-year-olds. Such were the days, when young boys wielded swords and died on these dusts. Politicians, drunk in the revelry of power and greed, sent more and more elderly and the young to join the army to fight senseless battles in the name of the King. Not knowing whose wars they fought, these soldiers were the perfect cannon fodder for wars which took place some many moons ago, under the hot suns and rising sands of the desert Gulaag.

This desert, the Gulaag, was vast and dry. Hard to spot an oasis anywhere near it. Primarily, it was an empty space made up of rippled sand dunes and sporadic barrel cacti. Somehow, kings thought this arid land, the Gulaag, was ideal for battles.

At a time like this, a baby boy was born. His name was Hajji. His mother named him alone because his father was taken by the imperial force long before his birth. He grew up with his mother on a land like this without much opulence and certainly no opportunity. This small town, in eastern Gulaag, where the mother Andherson lived, was on the border between two warring kingdoms.

The wars far from over, the godforsaken Gulaag couldn’t be appeased any time soon. Royal armies fed on the vulnerable, as did their sinful paymasters. This ever-hungry beast; no number of humans, camels, or horses was enough to satisfy the bottomless gut of this stunning desert.

Hajji’s mother, Jainab, had no other place to go. This was where she must stay, on this little patch of land her husband had left for her. Her fate tied up with the Gulaag. But she lived in constant fear, like every other mother of the land, afraid that the army would come after their sons. Hajji had just turned twelve. Jainab surveilled him around the clock and kept him close. Sometimes she’d send him to tend the sheep far out into the desert.

Today, in the first light of morning, Hajji took off. Before the sun rose, he took his flock from the shed at the back of their mud house and headed towards the Gulaag. At those quietest moments, the army slept at these hours. He walked nearly a quarter of a mile into the desert when he saw a great number of tents strewn across. Soldiers rested in those tents from a long night’s shift, the Gulaag at their feet like a sleeping giant. Hajji walked over the placid sands ahead of his herd. Then he heard a small cry beyond one of the rippled dunes. Hajji stopped. It was a feeble cry, almost a whimper. It didn’t sound like a human voice. He began to follow the sound. It was a human voice. There was a boy here about his age, crawling over sand slides. He appeared wounded and famished. Many cuts and bruises beset his little body. Hajji ran over and sat down by his side.

“Are you hurt?” Hajji asked.

The boy looked at him wide-eyed and nodded.

“Who did this to you?” Hajji asked again.

“Enemy,” he said. “Water, water, may I have some?”

Hajji looked around. Through serendipity, he found some prickly pears by the dunes. Under and over the sand he searched for something sharp. He found one; a flat pebble.

“Hang in there, okay?”

Hajji cut some pulp with the sharp edge of the pebble. Then he took the prickles out carefully. He pouched the pulp into the corner of his long shirt, he asked the wounded boy to open his mouth. Hajji squeezed the pulp. Droplets filtered through straight into the boy’s mouth.

“I’ll have to piggyback you home with me if I can’t find a camel. Too dangerous to steal from them, the army there,” Hajji told the boy.

Too weak from his wounds, the boy said nothing. He waited for whatever arrangements Hajji could make. Hajji walked across the wide dune to look for a camel. Near the tents, he found one. The beast of the desert stood aloof, tied to a tent’s hook. When Hajji peeked through one of the tent’s openings, his eyes fell on several men sleeping too close for comfort. Some of them were child warriors. They slept huddled together, dead to the world. Hajji walked behind a tent. He saw a few guards drowning in sleep. He walked past them unnoticed and went up to the camel. He hid behind its hind legs. Then he moved his lithe body between the camel’s four lanky legs. At a snail’s pace, he got to the hook, where the camel was tied with a rope. He untied it and got the camel off the hook. He held it by its rein and brought it over. It was serendipitous that the army slept heavily.

Jainab sat on the threshold of her house. Hajji was late coming home. She boiled some chickpeas over a clay stove. “Where is my boy today? I hope soldiers haven’t kidnapped him!” A shiver ran right through her spine at the thought. This brought her memory back to when her husband lived with her. Some were happy memories, others not, all of them unforgettable.

 

This was where she had met him; not here, in this house, but someplace else on the Gulaag. She had been travelling with her nomadic tribe for days on end. When the evening fell, the cavalcade stopped to camp in the middle of nowhere. They anchored their tents into the sand. A cold blast blew. They lit a fire. Men and women sat around it. A man played a moon song on his fiddle. Others rose to perform a dance. The mesmerising song and the fire dance caused a moonlight slide on the open desert. The moon poured out its lights. They gushed like a silver stream of frozen waterfall. Floodlights touched the dunes.

There he was, a stranger. Only the heavens knew where he came from. He was a lad of twenty; she, barely eighteen. They sat across the desert fire. She thought of him as a rare breed. She gazed at him in the campfire. Caught off-guard in an enchantment, she couldn’t take her eyes off him, as one couldn’t if struck by a host of blue butterflies resting on the trunk of a giant kapok in the sun.

He had smiled and she shot him a shy glance. After that, they both knew there were no retreats. At midnight, when the tribe went to bed, she came out to wait under a starry sky. He was there. His long shadow loomed on the calm sand by the pile of the dying wood. She saw the shadow move, towering over her. He held her hand and pulled her towards him away from the stationary cavalcade. They stumbled on the sand and rolled over, one on top of the other in the glow of satin silver: the moon, the stars, before all the constellations.

The next day, when the sun rose over the dunes, gleaming in sparkled gold, he walked over to Jainab’s father with a marriage proposal. Jainab’s father liked him too, but he had questions. Where was he from? What did he do? He said he was a farmer. Jainab didn’t care what he did or where he lived. She was just happy to be with him. A wedding soon ensued and it took place in the desert. The man gave Jainab a gold coin and the short ceremony concluded in presence of the tribe.

That night, there was a feast in the open-air desert with wild dances and songs of the heart. On a sea of sand, an island of small fire burned. The women cooked up a storm. But there was another storm. A sand storm was unleashed towards the late night. It blew up russet particles everywhere, darkening the world to blindness. Everyone took cover within their own tents. While people lay low, only the stoic camels stood their ground. A new tent was set up for the newlyweds.

The storm yielded. It took some time. People came out of their tents. They sat down in the same place and began to sing again; songs of the heart under the desert moon. The newlyweds remained indoors. The night passed and a new sun rose. Time to move on. Jainab and her man packed their luggage, ready to say farewell to the tribe. There were no tears of separation. This was the nomadic way. Tears were unnecessary, because on life’s resolute journey, people were bound to meet again.

His name was Hashimuddin. As they set off, Jainab looked at him and softly asked where they were going. He told her they were going east. There was a desert tavern along the way, if she needed to rest. She said she was okay. Uncertainty didn’t bother her. That was a part of her nomadic upbringing. In the evening, they arrived at the destination; a mellowed sun, hurled over to the other end. Jainab could see a border between this kingdom and that; the enemy territory, with whom they were perpetually at war. Along the border, she also saw a big patch of greenery and a row of red mud houses. Hashimuddin veered the camel towards one and pulled its reins to a stop in the front of his house. He helped Jainab to get off.

Later in the day, after Jainab and Hashimuddin departed, the tribe sat around for a while. They were enjoying a cup of tea and making preparations to get the cavalcade back on the road. In a minute, they heard horses. The Gulaag was a hostile place. Sporadic wars broke out in a blink. Not surprisingly, a situation emerged out of the blue. The tribe found themselves amidst a volatile army, who held them captive at razor’s edge. Sharp blades pierced their hearts and slashed their necks like butchered chickens. The gold sand dunes turned scarlet with slain heads scattered all over, the cavalcade in anarchy. Their camels were taken. Children and women became spoils of war to be turned into murderous soldiers and sex slaves overnight.

Hashimuddin and Jainab escaped all this just by a few hours. They were on the edge of the eastern Gulaag when this happened, where cries couldn’t be heard. Jainab reached her new home safely, feeling warm, in love with her husband and without any knowledge of the massacre.

Such horrendous breakouts were common. It appeared this was some divine selection cut out for the people of this land alone. Religion, morality, philosophy, or any known wisdom proved to be futile. A place riddled with greed, corruption, and a complete disregard for any life, human or animal.

 

Jainab’s son was still not home. It was evening. She sat by the fire she had kindled to cook a meal. She looked out and saw blurry outlines across the space through a mirage; she continued to look earnestly. Gradually, they became more defined, small but clearer, after the mirage had lifted. She stood up in excitement: it was her son, Hajji. But Hajji was not alone. There was a camel and body laying over it. She rushed out into the open to meet them.

 

Just then, her thoughts bended; the day when the soldiers had come to take Hashimuddin. That morning, the sun streamed low through the cracks of the mud house windows. Hashimuddin and Jainab, deep in embrace on the threshold of the door. She was on her way to the kitchen. Hashimuddin held her back. He grabbed her right arm and pulled her towards his chest.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Oh those sweet, sweet words hummed music to her ears. “To make breakfast.”

“No. I have to tie you to my long shirt to stop you running away.”

She laughed. Hashim gazed at her beautiful smile. “If you keep smiling like that now, I will never be able to let you go,” he whispered, kissing her henna-fragrant hair and losing his face in its mass.

She laughed again and Hashim pulled her into his chest, between his broad muscular shoulders.

“C’mon, you have to let me go sometime.”

“And do you think it’s fair to ask me to let you go? Hmm?” he asked.

“Gosh, you’re crazy, you know that?”

”Am I crazy? If you say so, then I am. Completely nuts, because  I’m in love with you, my pretty one,” he said huskily.

Jainab could smell the hukkah in his breath as he whispered. “Oh, I could never, ever let you go.” Then he pressed all of her softness against his strong muscles. She lay on his chest like a rag-doll. She let him kiss her, caress her. She kissed him back; a million love hearts soared within her. Her high laughter jingled a crescendo note. Hashimuddin, her blue butterfly, was a rarity. Who had crossed her path on an evening of munificence? Her romance bloomed like an open sunflower in the wilderness.

Then a few days on, she realised that she was with child. She hadn’t told him yet. She didn’t have to, because her soft blushes and smiles revealed the secrets of her heart. She resided in the reverie of her own coloured world. As each day went by, Hashim watched her across the courtyard and wondered. Then one day, she took a bath and stood on the doorway of the red mud house, where Hashim could see her. Her wet hair cascaded down to her waist. Hashim couldn’t resist. He walked over and picked her up. A tremor ran right through her.

“What’s up? Why do you look so radiant?” he asked.

“Do you want to know? Do you really, really want to know?” she smiled.

“The shy smiles. The sidelong glances, You’re doing it again,” he said.

“What? What am I doing?”

“Making me crazy again, to fall head over heels in love with you.”

He held her narrow waist, lifted her up so he could look into her kohl-black eyes. At this moment, his pretty Jainab was the dark-kohl enchantress.

“You’re going to be a daddy soon,” she said gently, and lowered her blushing face.

“Whaaat? Oh dear God, when did you find out?”

He didn’t even wait for an answer, but carried her straight into the rooms and lay her down on the bed. She looked at him. Sparkles danced in her black eyes. He closed his eyes and kissed her forehead first; he took each piece of her body like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, one at a time, savouring, lingering, locking his wet lips into hers, then unlocking them soundingly, smooching to move on to her neck and down.

She felt euphoric. She had a vision. She saw millions of blue butterflies pasted on a tree trunk in the depths of the Amazon. A noise broke her spell. She heard hooves near her doorstep. They came closer. They were the army. The soldiers barged into the house through the flimsy door. The army of death wielded sharp swords. Hashim had already seen them first through the window. He picked her up and said, “Run, run to the neighbours.”

“What? What about you? Aren’t you coming too?”

“No, God willing, I’ll see you again one day. No goodbyes. Run along now.”

Fear paralysed her senses. She shook like a petrified rabbit at midnight before bright lights on a mountain pass. Hashim continued to scream as he backed off from her. She hid there on the outside, nailed to the wall. She heard scuffles inside the room. Then the noises of the hooves faded away. She saw them across the desert, Hashim’s back on a horse. He had been taken. That was the last of it. The end of her blue butterfly, which flew into the dusk in a flicker of a flutter.

 

Hajji and this other boy were much closer. But a dust rose and covered them. The obedient herd was right behind. Jainab ran towards them. She fell on the shifty sands and waited.

 

Her baby, Hajji, came at the stroke of midnight. He was born nine months after her husband had been taken. Neighbours assisted in the delivery. Her neighbours were like brothers and sisters to her, who tilled her land and helped her with everything. They sold her chickpeas in the market and brought money home to Jainab. Jainab paid them their dues. The day they took Hashim, other men in the neighbourhood were out to the market. They found Hashim at home and they took him. It was her fault that her kohl beauty, this dark spell kept him indoors. She blamed no one but herself in futile pursuit. For twelve years now, Hashim had been missing.

 

She was a nervous wreck just from this wait. Hajji and his companion were home at last. He ran to her and picked her up. She kissed and hugged him.

“Oh! What’s this? Why were you so late? I thought they’d taken you,” she said exasperated.

“No, but I found someone on the edge of the Gulaag. He’s a wounded child soldier.”

“Right. Let’s bring him in, then, shall we?”

Both Jainab and Hajji walked up to the animal and slid the boy off the camel’s back. They carried him into the house, just the way Hashimuddin had carried her as a bride over the threshold of the mud house. The boy had many injuries, she noted, as she laid him down in bed. It was a huge task fixing his wounds. He was a cog in their home, another mouth to feed. But her motherly instincts egged her on to nurse him and to protect this child. Nearly all night, Jainab knelt before him and rubbed off his blood with a loincloth soaked in warm water. His wounds were deep. She applied herbal medicines and put a bandage across his arms and waist. Towards dawn, the boy opened his eyes and asked for water. Hajji ran out to the closest well into the desert through the backdoor and brought back a jar of water. Jainab poured some into the boy’s dry lips. She dressed the wounds and thought that this would take some time to recover.

Jainab got up to brew some tea and breakfast in the kitchen. She made falafel. She asked Hajji to come outside. Hajji’s eyes were bloodshot from sleep deprivation. She gave him red tea in a glass and some falafel with dry dates on a platter.

“These are really nice,” he said. “I have been so hungry and tired since last night. I don’t think I can tend the sheep today.”

“That’s okay. You don’t need to go anywhere. After breakfast, go sleep with the boy. Do you know his name?” Jainab asked.

“No, he was too weak to talk. I was lucky to even bring him home. I don’t even know if he’s a friend or an enemy.”

“Don’t worry about that. It’s not our place to judge the wounded. We’ll do our best to heal him so he can go back to his parents. You took great risks stealing that camel from the soldiers’ camp, though. Where was the herd?”

“Oh! They were around, chewing cactus flowers,” Hajji said with a smile and rose to go into his room.

Jainab had just finished in the kitchen when she heard the familiar sounds of the hooves again. The horses were back, which meant the soldiers must be back too, to take someone. She rushed into the room and carried the boy, asking Hajji to come with her. She went through the backdoor into the desert, straight to the well. She put Hajji in one bucket and the boy in another. The long-roped buckets were knotted up on a pole over the well. Hajji had a few tricks up his sleeves, too. With his nimble fingers, he tied two more tight knots to make a shorter rope for buckets to fall but remain afloat just above the water. She lowered the buckets into the well and saw the men looking for them inside the house, anyone, someone. She slipped behind the well and sat there stuck to its side like a fallen wallflower, not daring to even breathe. Hajji sat quietly in the tad darkness of the well with the other boy.

First off, the men went into the shed. Her neighbour had left piles of shearer’s sheepskin a couple of weeks ago. They took a pitchfork and poked at the edge of the shearer’s pile. They even forked some out of the depths into the corner of the pile. The men gazed at the well, but thought nothing of it. After a while, they left.

That was an ingenious plan, thought Jainab, letting out a sigh of relief. When she came out of hiding, she saw hoof marks on the sand’s outbound trail. She stood and rolled the children back up. They were sweating from fear and the heat. The dust rose from the horses’ gallops and caused irritation in their throats. “The dust should settle down soon,” she told them as she brought them inside. She lay them down on the kilim, spread out on the floor. Then she grabbed a hand fan to fan them until Hajji fell sleep. The wounded boy opened his eyes to take a slit-look at her. After that, he lost consciousness. Jainab sprinkled water on his little pale face, and he opened his eyes again for a second. He smiled, then went back to sleep. Increasingly tired from it all, Jainab lay down by her children. Her lids pressed down.

Like an hourglass, the sands slid as time passed, and it was nearly seven days since Hajji brought the boy home. On the morning of the seventh day, she woke up next to Hajji and the boy. By now, the boy showed clear signs of improvement. He curled up in bed and ate for the first time in seven days, and didn’t feel hot or cold. The hooves had not returned just yet. They left them in peace today, to fight another day. The boys sat together outside on the yard, drinking red hot tea which Jainab poured out of a vaporous kettle. She placed it back on the hot clay stove. A neighbour pushed in through the doors.

“I came for my wool,” he said.

“Sure, pick them up from the shed,” she said.

“Who is this?” he asked, looking at the new boy.

“Oh! This is Hajji’s cousin, come here to spend a few days with us.”

“I didn’t know you had any relatives left.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Didn’t your tribe get wiped out on the Gulaag some twelve years ago?”

“Did they? What are you saying?” she asked.

“Twelve years have passed and you didn’t know?”

“Know what? Why would you think it’s us?”

“Because I was there, at your wedding.”

“What? And it took you twelve years to tell me this?” she was shocked.

“Well, you know how it is. The day the army butchered your tribe, they took me. But I proved to be not much of a soldier at all. One dark night, when they lay drunk in the arms of women from your tribe, I took a camel and escaped. It took me days to get home, but when I did, I saw you with Hashimuddin in this house. I was afraid. I hid for many days and didn’t talk to anyone.”

“Stop! Please stop. Say no more!” Jainab began to cry.

Jainab didn’t know what had happened to her tribe. No news travelled thus far. In her heart, she cherished the idea that her tribe was safe somewhere within the four corners of the world. Back in the day, nomads always didn’t exchange news or meet for many years. But this, this distressing news turned her world inside out; she wished these ill tidings never reached her doors. She wished this quiet neighbour had remained so. Her grief rose like a dust cloud blowing in turmoil, these moments of unsettled thoughts and opaque visions and grief, which would settle down one day as surely as dust did. But it collected in a lump to corner her stricken heart.

As the days went by, Jainab grew paler. She took to bed. Hajji and the boy did what they could to revive her, but they failed. One day, the boy, now strong enough to move, suggested to Hajji, “Why don’t I go home and bring my parents here so they could take care of your mother?”

“What? Are you crazy? The army will take you back if they find you,” Hajji said.

“Well, I’ll just have to take my chances. If we don’t take care of your mother, she will die,” he said. “I shall go at night, under the cover of darkness.”

“Where do you even live?” Hajji asked.

“Just across the border. However, I am from the enemy camp, so you know. But we are brothers now, so it doesn’t matter. You’ve saved me, Hajji.”

Hajji kept quiet. “Can you go alone? Because I can’t leave my mother like this in her present condition. I wish that neighbour had never opened his mouth.”

“I know. I also wish that he hadn’t,” the boy said.

“It’s good, though, that mum told him you were my cousin,” Hajji said.

The boy nodded. “Your mum’s really good; she tried to protect me in case he turned out to be a dobber.”

“Yeah, she’s good,” Hajji agreed.

“Okay, then, I’ll set out tonight and bring my father back.”

“You don’t need to because our neighbours will help my mother get better,” suggested Hajji.

“Still, I need to go now. I miss my father and my mother. And the border is just here; I can even see it.”

“Well, okay then, if you want to go, then go. I hope I won’t see you on the Gulaag again.”

“I hope not.”

That night, Hajji and the boy sneaked out. They ran over the decibel, dense sands; their little footsteps impressed on them. Hajji took him as far as the border. The boys hugged each other and kissed on the cheeks. And just when the boy turned to go, they saw men marching straight towards them. They ambushed them under their naked sword, which glimmered in the moonlight. The desert air reeked of blood and sweat. The boys began to tremble from the suddenness of it all. They didn’t even get a chance to run. They began to cry. It didn’t matter whether these were foes or friends. At the end of the day, all became decomposed bodies dumped on Gulaag’s tail-road just the same.

Jainab, delirious from grief, called out, “Hajji! Hajji!” But Hajji was nowhere. She forced herself to get out of bed to search for him. Then she saw the nearly gone little footprints on the sand in the direction of the border. Jainab feared the worst. She dragged herself to her quiet neighbour’s house and knocked on the door. She told him about the footprints on the sand.

“If the army has taken them, then I may have an idea where they may have taken them.”

“Can you help, brother? As you know, I have no one in this world except Hajji.”

“I know, sister, Jainab. I am sorry I have brought you such bad news. But I thought in twelve years that you must have heard something, If I had known…”

“These past twelve years have passed like a dream. I don’t even think I saw the risings of the moon or the settings of the sun. My days have been long, as have been my nights. Now I’m really afraid.”

“Please, do not worry. Although I have never had enough courage to face up to the army, I must own up to you, for putting you through this. I am not bad, but I’m also not brave.”

Jainab had to leave. She went back to her house while her quiet neighbour figured out what to do. He knew soldiers’ behaviour like the back of his hand. He knew exactly what they did and when. All he had to do was muster the courage. Towards late night, he set out in the direction of the nearly-fading footprints. With some measure of precision, these footprints led to army tents tethered along the western border. He proceeded with caution. He even stumbled a few times on the sand. His breathing short and shallow, he approached the army tents. As he drew closer, he heard the obnoxious clamour of drunkenness. In the quiet of the night, such sounds only meant they were rapt in sordid pleasure. Stealthily, he continued on his tract to look for the boys. On the southern point, suppressed cries wafted through the air. He opened a tent and found the boys, perched up on tenterhooks. They didn’t see him at first. In the dying torch, he walked towards them and whispered, “I am your Uncle Abdallah, your neighbour, I’ve come to save you.”

The boys went very quiet for some time. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Then Hajji said, “I saw them put a sword there in the corner.”

“Is that Hajji?” Abdallah asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m here too,” whispered the other boy.

“What’s your name, boy?” Abdallah asked.

“Hussain.”

“Okay, I’m going to unhook you both and get you out of here, okay?”

Then they heard someone cough outside the tent. Abdallah hid away in a dark corner. A man peeked through and saw the boys’ straight faces. He went away. Abdallah crawled towards the boys and brought them down on the floor. The suspension caused them trepidation. They sat on the floor to catch their breath and then tiptoed to the egress. Once they were out, they ran in the opposite direction. The sands slowed them down and served almost as an impediment. But resilience saved them in the end. They crossed the border into the next kingdom.

Hajji’s enemy kingdom was Hussain’s homeland. The sun was now up. But Hussain couldn’t remember the way to his village. He knew a name: Kundi. They stopped by and asked for directions to get to Kundi. It took them another full day. By the time they arrived there, they were famished. They found a tea stall on the outskirts of a lush village. The three sat down to eat breakfast. An errand boy served them a platter of yoghurt sauce with dried fruits, falafel, wild chickpea salad, flat breads, and fried eggs. They could see Kundi from here. The manager of the restaurant had his back towards them. He grabbed a glass of piping hot red tea and turned around. Hussain saw him first. He screamed, “Father, father.”

The man heard Hussain and ran towards him. Abdallah now saw him, too, and a chill ran through him.

“Hashimuddin?” he cried out.

“Who’s that?” the man asked and came running to pick up his Hussain. “My name is Hassan Karemi, not Hashimuddin?”

“But that’s impossible. I was at your wedding. I am your neighbour. I saw you and sister Jainab together all the time before our army took you,” Abdallah had to say.

“Shush! Speak softly,” he looked around timidly, then said in a whisper. “What are you saying? Anyway, you brought my son back. I would like to welcome you to my house as my guest tonight.”

This was extraordinary. In his wildest dreams, Abdallah couldn’t think of this. He accepted the invitation. He had to find out more for sister Jainab. This betrayal he couldn’t condone. Hashimuddin living a dual life under a different name with a wife present.

At night, a party was held at Hashimuddin’s place. Among many others, there were his in-laws: his father and uncles-in-law, the entire clan. Abdallah sat down with the father-in-law. They exchanged greetings, then talksturned to politics and war. He told Abdallah how Hussain was abducted while playing with friends. Abdallah asked,      “How did you meet Hussain’s father?”

“Oh! That? Another long story. We found him on the edge of the Gulaag, left to die. He was unconscious and wounded. My brother was passing through one midnight. He found him under the lantern and brought him home. We revived him. But he couldn’t remember anything. He was as good as dead. After six months, when he was well again, he started to go out but was very weak. He still walks with a limp. He is only fit to do desk work. The army lost interest in him, but they took his son instead. We’re grateful to you for bringing him back. We need to be careful next time.”

Abdallah didn’t say much after that, but he watched Hajji playing with the kid. Technically, they were in the enemy camp, but surprisingly, no one asked where they were from. The party ended. Everyone went to bed. At daybreak, Abdallah woke up. He saw the white crack of light run through the sky. When he came out, he saw Hashimuddin at the gate. They exchanged looks.

“What my father-in-law told you is incorrect. My memory of Jainab has always been intact. My name is not Hashimuddin but Hassan Karemi. As much as I wanted to tell Jainab the truth, I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell her that I was from across the border, Kundi, the enemy land, because I feared I would lose her. Here, I could not tell them about Jainab because of severe punishments for marrying an enemy,” he stopped. “If I had told them the entire truth, I would be hanging from the tall spikes by now, like many in the market square,” he asked after a pause. “My Jainab was with child. Have you seen the child?”

“Yes, little Hajji there? That’s him, your little boy. Why do you not leave, leave now with us? People leave all the time, no?” Abdallah asked.

“They do. War is crazy. It does crazy things to people. I do believe that my in-laws would send an army after me if I left. There’s Hussain now as well as Hajji, my two boys. The hunt for me would go on. They’ll take my sons,” he said. “Where could I hide them on the open Gulaag?” Anyhow, to go back to my story, when I got better, my in-laws forced me into this marriage to their daughter, a girl whom no man would have because of her scarred face from fire burns. They have already shackled me, made me a prisoner of their whim. They reminded me of how I owed them my life.”

“That’s utter rubbish. You could’ve tried to leave. Did you at least try? Your sons can be taken any time, regardlessly?” Abdallah persisted.

“No, I couldn’t. They kept a close watch. This place is full of spies. No one trusts anyone.”

“What do you want me to tell sister Jainab, then?”

“It’s complicated. The war is upon us. Hussain here, Hajji over in the enemy land, a life in fragments. Jainab my love, magic…all this… a mirage,” he murmured.

Hashimuddin went up to Hajji and picked him up. He gave him a tight hug and a kiss. He gave them a camel to cross the formidable border and saw them gradually reduced to a dot, an apparition along the far side of the horizon. The days of the hummingbirds and the blue butterflies were numbered; lost to the cold war, were the fire-dances and the full moon songs.