By Zain Saeed
The Artist’s Whimsy
The booms usually came before the sirens, so some people thought it okay to steal the sirens from the mosques and sell them for grain. It made sense. They weren’t really helping anybody. The booms were from missiles and the sirens were meant to warn us of the drones, but all they could do was drown out people’s screams, so maybe not completely useless. I stole the last siren they put up, sold it for twenty packs of Marlboro Red that I didn’t really get the chance to smoke because I lived in a village called Doga Madakhel in the mountains and now I am dead.
The Other Side is slightly calmer, promise.
It was 3 a.m. on the morning of the 16th of July, 2014, when I was woken up by what I thought was random screaming. Had I not stolen the siren the day before I would’ve stayed in bed and probably died in my sleep; explosions stopped waking me up a long time ago. I heaved myself off the bed and drew the curtains aside. A missile had fallen a few hundred meters away from home – there was fire and everything, now the screams kind of made sense.
Our village was made up of thirty two mud-brick houses and a bit of terraced farming land on the mountain to our west. There was a mosque—an ancient square brick room with a new minaret we’d made from trees that had fallen in a landslide a couple of years ago—where all of us prayed. There was also a little stream that ran along the length of the village through which melted ice flowed in the summer. That water made for absolutely magnificent chai when boiled in a metal pot.
I came out of the house as others did the same, all in different states of sleepiness, all shielding their eyes from the sun that seemed to have accidentally risen out of the ground in the middle of the village.
Haroon, my neighbor, was standing outside his house and lighting a cigarette. He used to live in a neighboring village before it was flattened a few weeks ago; then he came here and did life all over again. We caught each other’s eye and shrugged.
I walked slowly towards what I soon realized had been our mosque and felt a strange wave of relief because I’d taken the siren out yesterday; what a waste it would’ve been. The mosque was burning furiously and the heat coming off it was insane.
Neither of us could get very close to it, so we stood there, arms crossed, and watched the fire run its course. It wasn’t that difficult, really, because whoever had been screaming had now stopped, and there was silence and calm and the warmth of fire.
Fifteen years ago, when all of this started —albeit for different reasons—and the bombs were dropped by men in planes and not machines, when I was not aware of the word “America” and its connotations, Ammi told me that my uncles—Chachu, Mamu, Taoo—had all died because an artist who lived thousands of miles away loved to draw the sky at night. He would go onto his roof every night when it was clear and sketch the shapes the stars made against the black vastness above. He made pigeons and ladders and books and Arabic words and everything.
One night he went up onto his roof and looked up at the sky as usual. It was littered with stardust. He traced a leaf in the sky with his fingers and began to sketch on his notepad. When he looked up again he saw that there was a leaf-shaped black line in the sky amongst all the stars. Confused, thinking he was imagining things, he lifted his index finger and began to trace another shape; a cat, complete with whiskers.
As soon as he covered the first star with his finger, however, it fell. It broke from the sky and plummeted to earth; a blue and orange streak burning against the black. The artist watched as it fell and fell, got bigger and bigger until he heard a loud bang and saw a hill far away catch fire. It burned all night long. He had never felt more exhilarated. He came back every night after that to draw and make the stars fall. When news started to arrive that people like Mamu and Chachu had been killed by the stars he did not stop, because it was art and necessary and something he’d waited for all his life. He mattered now; all he had to do was lift up a finger and they’d back off, pleading.
“If you ever see him, tell him to please stop because stars hurt,” Ammi used to say every time she told me this story, every time someone died.
I never found the fucker. Looks like no one else did either.
Everyone in the village was now out of their homes waiting for the fire to go down, hoping no one had been praying in the mosque at this time of night. We’d formed a circle of sorts around the impact site. I considered lighting one of the Marlboros but decided to hold on to it for slightly happier times.
“God, they bombed Shawwal just yesterday,” exclaimed Haroon, standing next to me.
“Really? Damn. Was someone wanted there?” I asked.
“Not that I know of.”
“Yeah didn’t think so. Nothing else got hit did it?”
We looked around. The trees around the mosque had all already gone through the tedious process of catching fire and turning black. The fire hadn’t spread to any of the houses. The ground around the mosque was also charred.
“No, it looks okay,” I answered, “going to have to build another masjid though.”
“Well there’s plenty of empty houses about. Even more now, actually,” he said with a nod to the wreckage.
People had started to bring in buckets full of spring water in a smooth, almost rehearsed
conveyor-belt fashion, one after another. It took about an hour for the flames to die out. That was when the people who were smoking put out their cigarettes, the people who’d been eating bread stuffed the last of it into their mouths, those that were talking stopped talking, and all of us moved in to see if we could find any bodies.
In twenty minutes we’d found six who’d apparently been praying through the night. I asked them after I died what they were praying for: two had been praying for children, one for a job, and three of them for everyone’s safety—we laughed. Irony was actually funnier in death.
When we’d pulled the bodies out of the rubble—I say bodies out of respect to them, they were anything but—we all stood around and offered prayers for their salvation, hoping the Other Side would be kinder to them than this side had been. I secretly put in a “find that fucker” request and snickered because I was sure Ammi, wherever she was, had already found the artist and given him a substantial piece of her mind.
“There’s a ring on this hand,” Shams said.
“There’s a pink piece of cloth stuck to this…whatever this is,” Safia said as she held up whatever it was.
We smiled and shook our heads affectionately for Lala who’d apparently died wearing that godforsaken pink kurta he’d picked up in Islamabad.
“There’s some marble tiling that looks like it survived. Looks strong enough. We could use this. Help me pull this out,” Haroon said as he climbed atop the rubble.
“Oh God these are Shafiq’s shoes,” said another voice.
We were kneeling on the ground, trying to sort out who was who, when we heard the artist’s finger begin to move for a second time that night. It was a slight swish, nothing dramatic, almost like someone whispering beautiful things.
Haroon and I looked at each other and shrugged, again. Then we looked up at the sky.
It wasn’t too far from being a star, actually. It was a glowing orange and blue and white, looked so pretty against the black sky I found myself thanking God it wasn’t day time or I wouldn’t have been able to see it in all its beauty. It was moving quite fast but it didn’t stop me thinking what would happen if I took one step to the side and if it’d go into the ground and miss me completely, like in a cartoon.
I’m not quite sure if my life flashed before my eyes or if what I saw was the present in slow-motion: fire approaching, people screaming, a huge whooshing–the usual, except this time I was closer to everything. I could see the shape of the missile as it fell; it looked like something made to fuck, but approached a bit too fast for anybody’s good.
I wondered if it was one of ours.
After that it was pure light and kind of hot.
No one living was left, lots of empty houses. By morning it had all stopped smoking, too, and it looked like we’d only gone back in time a bit, as if my ancestors were about to show up any second and discover a slightly burnt piece of land, shrug, and begin building a mosque.
As we later found out from the wreckage, the missile had actually been one of ours. It was meant to hurt less than an American one or so the others were saying as we walked around our houses, considering if haunting them would be worth it. I found myself wishing the artist were real because then all of this would make so much more sense. I wasn’t the only one; we all found ourselves wanting answers.
So we the dead decided to walk to the next big village—miles away, where they had newspapers—to find out what had happened and then move on to wherever Chachu and Mamu and Ammi and Taoo and Baba and everybody else before us had gone. In spite of all that had happened I found myself feeling quite excited about the prospect of seeing everybody again. I wondered if they sold Marlboro Reds in heaven or wherever we were going to end up. I have to admit it sounds like more of a hell thing, they might make me give up smoking in heaven.
When we got to Datta Khel the next day we scanned the thoroughfare for signs of an evening paper. An elderly man sat outside his house reading one with a cup of chai in his hands. I have never felt, and probably never will feel, even in death, as wretched as I did then after realizing that I would never again feel the sweetness of chai on my tongue.
All of us stood behind him, each clamoring for space, trying to catch a glimpse of an aerial shot of our village, maybe our names. It was there on page three.
Our village had been mentioned by name, along with the phrase “eight militant deaths”. We read the headline and looked around at each other, all of us counting under our breaths. We were twenty three, and as for militant, we had owned three slingshots between us, and a water gun. We scanned the date. It was right, July 16, 2014. We scanned the rest of the article hoping for some other details, but it was just two short paragraphs that never explained our militant background.
Disappointed, we moved away from the old man and left him to drink his tea. I whispered in his ear to savor each and every last drop of it, lest he see a falling star up close any time soon.
That night we sat in a circle to decide which of us would pass on; there could be only eight. We decided on four from the first strike on the mosque and four from the second one. I wasn’t picked, and neither was Haroon. The chosen eight got up, shrugged at us, and walked away to God knows where.
Now we’re stranded here, to forever walk burnt pieces of land because nobody believes that we’re dead, because the fuckers hadn’t bothered to look hard enough.
Zain was born and raised in Pakistan and is currently studying linguistics in Freiburg, Germany. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Bahamut Journal. FLAPPERHOUSE, Cheap Pop, Cease, Cows and others. He sometimes tweets at @linguistictrain. Sometimes.
Art: “Abandoned Silk Mill” by Michelle Johnsen
Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers.