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The Ink Bridge
By Neil Grant
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Neil Grant
All rights reserved.
OMED NOORI WAS FROM BAMIYAN and had always known the two statues. They were carved into the mountain and had once borne the faces of his people, the Hazara – eyes like badam kernels, the soft, high cheekbones. They had stood for over fifteen hundred years and had seen the coming and going of many invaders who hacked at the stone and plaster with swords as they passed. The Taliban were just another annoyance.
Omed shifted so he could get a better look. If he was seen, he would be shot and left as a warning to others. The Talibs were boring holes – in the ragged stone feet, in the rock behind the heels, up higher in the long folds of stone clothes. The men, local Hazara pressed into the dangerous work, swarmed like bees, slipping in little parcels of poison, hanging on ropes tied round their waists, spinning down, chins grazing the pebbled rock. There was Tahir, the father of Hamidullah and Zohra. And the baker, Sadiq, whose family were killed in their beds.
The Talibs lounged in the niches and doorways, and in the gloom of the ancient caves with the paintings of flying gods. They picked at their teeth with their fingernails and aimed their rifles at the men on the ropes. Omed had seen them in the chaikhanas, the small teashops in the main bazaar, with their greasy turbans marking the walls, sucking at glasses of tea through small, hard sweets. They would get boys to dance for them and they would smoke hashish and opium. They were not as pious as they pretended to be.
The statues stood as they always had, silently taking in the broad sweep of hills and the broken bricks of town, waiting like mutes about to taste a stick. Years before, tourists would come from America and Germany to stare at the Stone People. Omed and his friends would offer themselves as guides, pulling them by their sleeves up the narrow staircase that led behind behind the statues. At the top the foreigners would point and click at Bamiyan – the fields of vetch and wheat, the tall poplars that lined the streams, the blue minaret of the mosque that was a bright eye among the dusty buildings. Above everything rose the snow- covered mountains of the Koh-e Baba range; heroic saints with their long white beards.
He would take the money he earned home to his mother and the words – bitte, danke schon, please, thank you – he would present to his father.
But as the troubles grew worse, the tourists had stopped coming, and the river of their ideas and language, the pebbles of money, had ceased. The Talib had closed Omed's school, leaving only the madrassas with their endless teachings of the Qur'an.
Now there was nothing to do but eat the dust and wind, so Omed and Zakir had come here to the feet of the Stone People to find out what the whole town was talking about.
Each Talib, with a beard longer than a fist, was bent over fuses. Their fingers moved quickly, twisting and pushing tapers, occasionally wrapping the loose ends of their black turbans back into place. They were absorbed in the work of God. They had cleared the poor people who lived in the surrounding caves, shouting that they would remove the abominations from the mountain side.
Omed could see one of the cave people, Anwar, rolling wire between the charges. Anwar lived alone between the great statues. He had a goat, and a roll of old carpet on which to sleep. Although he was not very old, his beard was greying and he had a habit of chewing on the loose end of his turban so it was always soggy.
In the mornings, after he had fed the animals and swept the yard, Omed would squat beside Anwar as he washed from an old pink watering can, rubbing the freezing water over his face and neck, blowing his nose into his hand. Anwar would brush his teeth with his forefinger and then his thumb before taking a long look out at the valley.
Omed would come for the soft flat bread Anwar cooked in an oven dug into the ground in front of his cave. Anwar would slap an oval of dough against its wall and pick out the sparks that clung to his eyebrows and beard. The bread was the best Omed had ever tasted. The stories he listened to out of politeness.
* * *
'The two statues are called Salsal and Shahmama, the father and mother.' Anwar passed Omed a slab of bread, hot from the oven. Omed tossed it from one hand to the other to cool and then took a bite. It tasted of smoke and wheat, the breath of harvest.
Anwar continued, 'The father's face was once made of wood and covered with gold so it shone like the sun. Such was its brilliance that it was covered with a cloth. The father's eyes were made of rubies, the caves behind them, lit with fires. In the evenings men would chant behind the mask and the cloth would be removed. Salsal's eyes would pierce the whole valley with their light.'
The bread was good and Omed wanted more, but he could see that Anwar had only made two and was about to eat the second. Anwar rose off his haunches. 'Come, we will go inside where it is warmer.' He swung the blue curtain aside and they went into his cave. On the back wall were the remains of an old painting. Omed touched the curve of lips in the lamp glow, feeling the soft plastered surface next to the rough rock. The soul had been removed from this one with a quick blow from a hammer. Anwar poured tea from his battered kettle into two glasses.
'They will kill them you know,' said Anwar.
'The Taliban will kill Salsal and Shahmama.'
'Because they are like us.'
* * *
One of the men looked up from his work and over to where Omed and Zakir hid. 'Go, you Hazara dogs!' he shouted, and threw a handful of rubble in their direction. They ducked behind the stone wall, hoping that he wouldn't follow with a stick or a foot. Or a bullet.
The Taliban twisted the wires and connected them to the plunger. Omed pointed to one stern-looking man and whispered in his friend's ear, 'That Talib has a face like your mother.' The man had a long scar that had conquered his nose and lip, tearing them sideways. His single eyebrow was so thick it collapsed on his eyes.
Zakir punched his arm. 'He looks more like your sister.' Zakir lied – Leyli was beautiful and Omed knew how she and Zakir looked at each other.
Omed wrestled him to the ground, but Zakir was stronger, always stronger, and soon had him pinned.
'Surrender,' Zakir said as he looked down on him, his long fringe dangling above Omed.
'Never!' shouted Omed and with a grunt tried to push his friend away. Then the ground shook once, twice, and Zakir slumped onto him. Omed felt slices open on the back of his hands and pieces chip from his scalp. Stones drove into the ground around them and when they finished falling, dust coursed over them like bitter fog. He coughed, fighting for air, pushing his face into Zakir's shoulder to filter out the fine powder.
Eventually, Omed pushed Zakir off and rose to his knees. He felt the back of his head and looked at his moist fingers where blood and dust had mingled to a brown sludge.
It reminded him of the day the Talib shot his father. The bullet had passed through his back and disappeared. Like magic. He had fallen on his face, his nose breaking on a grindstone. Omed had been fourteen. The ground in their yard quickly sipped most of the blood, leaving only a dark stain that the chickens kept pecking no matter how often he beat them with a stick.
Omed smeared his own blood between finger and thumb. 'Zakir,' he croaked. The world was dim, muffled. He coughed and spat up a dirty lump. 'Zakir.' He crawled over and shook him.
'Zakir. It's over. The Stone People are gone. Zakir?' The words were strange echoes inside him.
He rolled Zakir over.
The rock was the size of a hand held flat and was shaped like the head of a spear. One edge reminded him of a seashell he had once seen in the bazaar, sharp and serrated. It had broken through his skull, neatly, allowing in flies.
Omed shook his friend, but he was as limp as a newly slaughtered goat. His tongue slipped from between his lips, followed by a rivulet of black fluid, too dark to be blood, too dark. No. No! Omed gripped his own head. Everything burned. He grabbed his friend against his chest. He shook him. Wake up ... wake up ... wake up.
He got to his feet. It was a dream, he knew it. It was a dream and in it he was invincible and terrible and fearless. He climbed over the wall, the piles of fallen stone, shouting at the Talib, calling them pigs, and worse. There was blood in his eyes, behind his brow, in his ears. His temples felt thin.
They looked up from their business – slapping each other on the back, congratulating, pointing with their feet to the fallen gods. Then they turned with curiosity to the screaming boy.
Omed ran at them, the stone in his hand; the same stone that had removed his friend. He brought it above his head as he came, shouting. And for a moment he saw the fear in their eyes and felt the power of it. Their mouths stretched like wire. Muscles on their necks shivering.
He struck the first on the bridge of the nose and felt the bone collapse. With the second, he pulled the stone up in an arc, tearing soft cheek muscle. He bit the face of a third. Then it was only a hazy mess of screaming, stabbing, kicking, spitting, hair and flesh and earthy blood in his throat and the clouds whirling. But when the power left him, five Talib remained.
He spat at them again as they held him into the dirt. He spat and yelled in Pashto, bad words that his father had never allowed. He could hear them muttering about punishment until the tall one with the scar took over.
To Omed it was only a whisper, like wind stripping out winter trees.
The blade was curved and as long as the thighbone of a sheep. It was chipped but sharp, he noticed that as it came closer. That and the metal glint, the patches of rust blooming, the brass hilt turning to green.
His tongue, hold his tongue.
He felt the fingers enter. He tasted steel and gunpowder, and the smell from when the man had toileted and not washed. Omed withdrew his tongue deep inside, but they punched him hard so he lost his breath. And the man drew his tongue out like a worm. As he did, the one with the scar went to work with his knife, carving under with the tip. He felt his tongue break free of its harness, loll on the floor of his mouth. Blood drained into his throat. He drank it, tasting iron and anger. Then he fell heavily into dreams.
* * *
He had gone to Darya Ajdahar – the Valley of the Dragon – with Anwar. It was the year his father had been killed and he had needed to escape his house and its mud-walled compound. That awful stain.
They had climbed onto the roof of a battered bus, swatting flies and hunkering down among the rough bags and bunches of chickens. The Grandfather of Mountains – the Koh-e Baba – was dusted in snow so it looked like the soft lining of a cow's stomach. But the sun was a gold platter on the tablecloth of sky. Omed breathed the cool air, forgot, remembered, ate a chunk of Anwar's good bread.
When they reached Darya Ajdahar, they climbed down from the bus and walked slowly up the dusty slope. Anwar made sure he and Omed stayed between the coloured stones that showed the safe path between the landmines. The back of the Dragon was long, blocking the valley, its snout facing towards Bamiyan.
Omed's father had told him the story, as it had been told to him, and to his father further back into the past, under the bowing roof of their old house.
The Dragon had been the scourge of Bamiyan with its violent, bloodthirsty rages. It had held the valleys to ransom until the King had agreed to offer up food and camels, and a young girl, as a sacrifice each day.
Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, had stood before it as it breathed acres of fire. And with a circle of his sword, Zulfiqar, the rolls of flame became tulips that dropped to the ground at Ali's feet. The Dragon was much maddened by this impudence and reared its terrible head, screaming in anger until the bedrock of the valley shook and the sky boiled with clouds. But Ali stood his ground, and when the Dragon slumped in exhaustion, he thrust with Zulfiqar and sheared the animal down its back. With that act, Islam had triumphed among the people of the valley.
As Omed and Anwar climbed higher the rock turned white.
'We are at the Dragon's head,' said Anwar. 'See, these are its tears. And look here, its blood.'
Omed placed his hand on the cool rock, touched the tears, touched the blood. He brought it to his lips where it tingled, slightly salty.
'Come, we must go higher.'
They climbed again until they were on the Dragon's broad back, where the sword of Ali had cut the mighty beast in two. Mist puckered the edges of the sky. The mountains dragged it around them like a cloak.
Anwar grabbed Omed's head, pushing it to the gap in the rock, the Dragon's mortal wound. 'Here, listen,' he whispered.
And Omed heard it then. A soft moaning from deep within the beast. A long mournful dirge, something more awful, more heartfelt than a wail. It was the sound of sorrow, of emptiness, of loss.
Anwar had been embarrassed by the boy's tears. He had pressed a cheek of bread into Omed's palm and retreated to the nearby shrine to pay respect to Hazrat Ali. Omed looked at the bread, then at the darkening sky and his friend circling the stone and mud shrine. He slowly touched the bread to his lips and slipped it into the Dragon's wound.
* * *
Omed came to his senses in the room he shared with his brothers. His mother was sitting beside his bed ripping a sheet and sponging blood from his chin and clothes.
'Oh, Omed, what have you done? First your father and now you. Is there no end to this? How heavy is my misfortune, Omed?'
Omed tried to answer, to comfort her, but there was too much pain.
'What must we do now? When you are gone there will be no one to protect us from the Taliban. Is this our family curse?' Her fingers worked the cloth, tearing it into long strips, dabbing at the blood.
His sister Leyli came into the room, a jug of water in one hand, their two-year old brother Liaquat on her hip. She had wet stains on her cheeks. He reached for her hand, pleading with his eyes. It will be all right, Leyli. I will take care of all of you. Liaquat looked down at him and smiled. 'Om-om,' he said, reaching down with his small, sticky fingers to Omed's. But Leyli pulled him away and left the room. The rags that served as curtains swept inside on the light breeze and he could hear the shouts of their neighbours. How long had he been asleep? How had he got here? Had the Talib finished their sport with him?
It was then that Wasim ran in. This brother was two years younger and his mother's favourite. Sometimes it caused them to fight, this unfairness within the family. Wasim always said that Omed had been his father's jewel. How lucky I am, to be the favourite of a dead man, Omed thought.
Wasim's face was red and streaked with sweat and dust. His chest heaved as he spoke. 'They are coming, Omed. They found where we live and are seeking revenge.'
Omed swung his legs off the low bed but, as the blood leapt into his head, he almost fell to the floor. He grasped the low table and willed himself up.
Wasim pulled at his shirt. 'Quick, Omed, we must go.'
He made for the door, the world swinging madly, light dancing off the walls. He felt his mother's fine-boned hand on his shoulder. How his father had loved those hands, sung their praises as they swept and sewed and cooked and caressed them all. In the end what did it matter, all those loves, when they could be taken so quickly?
'Omed, my son,' she whispered in his ear. 'I knew it would come to this. I was cursed for my happiness. When those around me saw such hardship, I felt only joy. And now it is my burden to know only sorrow. But you, my strong young son. You are young enough. You can escape. Take this money.'
She pushed the notes into his hand. He knew this money and where it was kept. It was to guard against hard times. In years gone by, his father would pull out the loose brick in the wall and pack the notes behind it.
Omed shook his head and pushed the money away. This would end his family.
'Omed, you must take this. Without it you will die here. As a mother I cannot allow it. You must live for all of us. Is it your duty now, Omed. You are the eldest, it is your responsibility.'
But this was not a responsibility that Omed wanted. The blood of his whole family on his hands, on this dirty pile of money and the torn reminder of his tongue.
'They are coming!' shouted Wasim. He could hear the jeeps and howling dogs and the rattle of Kalashnikovs.
'Take it!' screamed his mother and her face was so twisted by despair that he grabbed the money and turned towards the door. He stopped to give her a final kiss, but Wasim pulled him by the arm.
'They will kill you,' he hissed.
In front of the small window of their house, Leyli held Liaquat. Her dark eyes pierced Omed's for a moment. Liaquat began to cry and she hugged him close. She pursed her lips and with a jerk of her head bade Omed to go.
They hid until dark in the bombed-out chaikhana where Bollywood movies were once played on an old television. Now there was only the smell of rat piss and piles of rubble. All afternoon they waited, hot and scared, shrinking inside a cave formed by a broken poster board and a fractured slab of concrete. Omed could hear shots from the area of the mosque, near where his family lived. The muezzin was silent.
Excerpted from The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant. Copyright © 2012 Neil Grant. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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