“Coming, mother!” I pick up the rusty bucket and hurry over to the wood fire, the water sloshing about onto the ground. The cloudless sky hums and buzzes as unmanned drones roar across the vast expanse of barren blue and brown, towards the American military base nearby. I don’t even glance up, I’m so used to them. The hawks and the pigeons are frightened, though. Earlier, wild hawks would perch on the broken, tiled roof of our sun-baked, mud-brick house. But the hawks have gone now.
The dirty brown water sloshes about in the can now bubbling merrily over the fire. My mother has cleaned and picked the chicken we killed yesterday for today’s lunch. My father is a trades,an. He trades in domesticated sheep and poultry. Our house always smells of animals- a sort of dry, earthy, brown smell. To me, it’s the smell of comfort. My grandfather was gunned down in the village square, months ago, by those Americans- or so the leader of the rebels told us when he came by last week. He wanted me to join the jihad now raging across our broken country, but my father refused. I don’t think he liked that very much. He said those blasphemous pigs had drunk the blood of many of our brothers. But I met the Americans in the market once. They smiled at me and one of them gave me a strange sweet- something round stuck on top of a plastic stick. It tasted nice. He didn’t seem a bit bloodthirsty, in spite of the big gun slung across his shoulders. I don’t know what to think.
My mother puts the chicken in the boiling water. I bend down to put some more sticks in the fire.
That’s when the first bullet hits my mother.
I don’t even have time to scream. She lies there, bleeding from her chest, transfixed in shock, as a shower of bullets throws up another dust storm all over the courtyard. I dive to protect my mother’s corpse and suddenly the sky is swarming with the black drones. Several tiles from the roof crash down to the ground when the first bombs are dropped. The air is filled with screams of the dying and the fleeing, but on my mother’s face is a very peaceful smile. Bullets swirl around me like wool-dust around a sheared sheep. Panic in my head, tears on my face, I dive inside the house.
Only faint echoes reverberate through the warm, empty, silent house. The smell wraps around me and holds me upright- barely, as I cry, cry like the bullet pierced my heart, like I am the one who is dead. Through the burning, unfamiliar tears I do not even hear the tell-tale click of a gun being cocked behind me.
The warmth of the room is leaching away and I crash to the ground, blinded by dust and tears and my mother’s blood when a thunderclap booms, filling the room with light and sound and terror and the piercing, choking smell of gunpowder. My eyes fly open- and it’s an American! The soldier stands in front of me, in full battle gear, looking down at me through pitiless green eyes. Terrified, I clamber backs and bump into a soft something. I look down, and it’s the rebel leader! He had been standing behind me- planning to kill me? Why?! His gun is still held in his hand and his eyes stare up at the ceiling. He is holding a black cloth in his hand- the rebel’s mark for a traitor. But who had he betrayed? Had we betrayed someone? Had I?
Suddenly, everything goes black.
“Comin’ through- give way, fellas, comin’ through!”
A mass of images and sound. Concerned faces, loud voices, peering green eyes, a soft pat on the head. A sharp smell of medicine. Clinking metallic wheels which run so fast and smooth that I’m flying, flying in a dream, the harsh white lights above me fading in and out of focus. Someone gives me something to drink and my throat is as dry as sand on a summer noon, so I drink. But I can’t swallow. A lump of grief and fear chokes the throat. I want to cry, so I do. I want to curl up and never talk again, never speak again. I cuddle up to someone soft- me! At twelve years old! But I do and they hold me- singing to me, talking to me. That someone’s green eyes are the focus of my new, untreaded, unknown world, now that my old world has been cracked open like an eggshell.
Those green eyes laugh and crinkle at me as I now stand on the steps of Harvard University, clutching my degree in Political Science tightly. Her name is Margaret, but I call her New Mother.
New Mother lost her son, Ben, when he was twelve years old. The soldier in her never cried, but the mother in her was broken beyond repair. She returned to the brown- to the barren dust of the battlefield as a doctor, the only place she could hide in. One day, during a gunbattle with the rebels, she found a young boy who had just lost his mother, and in him she saw her old Ben- her new Suleiman. And finally, after four years, New Mother began to heal- and so did I.
I stand at the airport, waiting for my flight to Kabul. New Mother’s green eyes are unusually bright, but she says nothing, just gives me a gentle kiss on the cheek. I am heading back to the dust- to the vast brown and blue expanse I left behind, where my mother, and my father too as I found out later, died. I will work there for the betterment of children like me, caught up in the dust storm of war. Who knows, I may find another Suleiman there. And I will bring him back and New Mother and I will help him heal.
New Mother never cries- but my own eyes are a little blurred as the plane takes off. Perhaps that is why, when the tiny screen in front of me flickers on to show the route the plane will take, I can’t see the boundaries of the different-coloured countries on the map. All I see is one big blob of blurred colours which transcend beyond boundaries to help each other heal.