A tense strain of fright cut across the old man’s thought.
The girls had set off for the meadows that lay across the brook just after 5O’clock. Tiny beads of sweat formed on Nabir kak’s brown brow. He had become crinkled in forehead since his wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer, last autumn. Nabir kak shifted his peasant’s cap a bit and looked at the westward sky. It was high summer and the cherry had ripened. The farmer in him was worried about bush Robins and ringed Parakeets that often bore through the cherry ball, maroon as monks, till the juice spilled. Birds have no sense of the human entitlement to the fruit. In their bird-brains they think that nature is free.
Nabir Kak turned to his son, Gulzar.
—Call your sister? They should be back by now. It is almost 7O’clock.
—I’ve got no credits in my phone, kaka.
—Go to Asad’s shop and buy some balance. And Call them.
—They have a phone on them. Can they not call? Irresponsible females.
—Without credits the cell phone is a plastic brick. Do they have credits?
—Who knows? I’ll go in five minutes.
Aliya and Nelam were gone for nearly two and a half hours now. They went to the snuff-colored fields each week. The family had a few plots across the little brook that separated the petite straw-thatched homes from the agricultural zone of the hamlet and they grew cherry, corn and cucumber on it. Aliya was Nabir Kak’s only daughter and Nelam was Gulzar’s wife. The sisters-in-law would hopingly walk to the plots located less than a kilometer away from their home in the village, called Gilas-gam. The girls usually carried wicker baskets with them to carry home any pluckable cucumbers. They wore polka-dotted summer Pherans.
Gulzar bought credits worth Rs 20 from Asad, the shopkeeper. Asad, like Gulzar, had been to the school but dropped out after ‘Matric’. Lack of resources often compelled village children to give up studies after the tenth grade. Some would voluntarily choose to be sophomores for life because either studies didn’t excite them much or they preferred to help their folks tend to the cattle or till in the fields. Gulzar and his father, marginal grangers, labored in the summer months to grow cherry and rice. Asad was not landed. He built a little shop with hay stack and mud and sold cell phone talk time, cigarettes, snuff powder, soap and lanterns.
Gulzar rang his wife up.
—The phone is ringing.
—The girl is dumb; she doesn’t even know when her cell phone is trilling.
—It is ringing but she is not taking the call.
—Have you taught her how to use it?
—Kaka, she knows. She is 25.
—25 — my foot.
—May be she has just lost it.
—They could be looking for the lost phone. Go and get them home.
Gulzar started out at😯’clock. Furious with his wife, for she was elder to Aliya by five full years, he decided to call her on carpet when he gets hold of her. What was the need to go to the orchards of Gilas-gam since the girls were aware of father’s plans to pluck the fruit, the following Friday? Nelam was more outdoorsy, always on the look for a reason to step out of her straw-thatched home. Aliya usually found herself tagged along — to snigger all the way to the meadow and the orchard beyond. They would greet other women on way to the pastures, share girly gags and laugh some more. But they would always return in an hour and a half. Gulzar tried calling Nelam again. Her caller tune was a famous Hindi film song: ‘Teri Galiyon mein na rakhein ge kadam, aaj ke bad’ [Won’t step into your alleys, henceforth]. The song was not interrupted.
Nabir Kak spread his Pheran in the small undulating lawn of his home and stood facing west. Mecca. ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ [God’s Great] he mouthed silently. His face and arms still dripping with well-water he washed his face and arms with, a moist, mandatory Islamic detail before each prayer. A tiny waterdrop hung on his left eye-lash. From his heart Nabir kak slowly began to recite verses from the Quran with hands clutched on where his belly-button was, like an outlaw before a magistrate. His mind occupied by the safety of his daughter and daughter-in-law. Nabir kak planned to get Aliya married off next year. He had already asked another farmer, Mam koul, to buy his cherry trees for one year. Nabir kak knew he could raise the required money. Fathers in Kashmir don’t want to die before marrying off their daughters.
Nabir Kak’s feeble cancer stricken wife stepped out in the lawn after making the family dinner on the mud hearth. Zoon covered her head like Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus.
—Kori Kyazi aaye na. Khabar Khaere Tscha.
[Why did the girls not return? Hope everything is OK]
—Gulzar has gone out to look for them.
—Khudaya sharam haas rashe-zyak
[God, save their honor]
—They may have dropped the cell-phone somewhere; must be looking for it.
—Trath paye omun mobielan
[Damn the cell phones]
—Don’t be thick-headed. Don’t curse. Did you offer Namaz [Prayers]?
—Naa, bashi tala assus
[No, I was cooking]
—Go say your prayers. They are big girls. Won’t be lost.
Gulzar reached the brook in a little over fifteen minutes. Light had started to lose luster. Beetles and other night creatures were beginning to come alive. In the brook a ferrety rodent was seizing an apricot with its sharp teeth. The mouse was standing on hindquarters with its miniature feet in water. An elm tree with no nests on it grew nearby. Gulzar remembered having seen Nelam for the first time near the same tree, four years ago. The spot had a special meaning for him. He had met and wooed Nelam and handed over the first letter written in lovey-dovey Urdu, complete with four bleeding hearts — with an arrow stuck in each of them — sketched on corners, near the same elm tree, right next to the rivulet. In less than a heartbeat’s span he was on the other side.
Gulzar called their names out, repeatedly:
—Aliya, Aliya, Nelam, Nelam
No response barring the shrill chirping of a family of crickets on an evening walk. Worried he looked in the cucumber plot, in the corn plot. There was no trace of the girls. He continued to call Nelam’s phone. Won’t step into your alleys, the phoned chimed and chimed. She didn’t take the call. Gulzar ran to the cherry orchard nearby. He looked under all forty trees. No squelch.
A disorderly tumult near the edge of the cherry-smelling orchard turned out to be two robins agitating for a cherry seed. They darted into the next orchard as soon as Gulzar went near.
—Aliya, Aliya, Nelam, Nelam
Gul Sarpanch [the headman], Mam koul — the neighboring farmer, Rahim Joo, Ghulam Ahmad, Nazir master (all neighbors) and Asad, the local shopkeeper assembled in Nabir Kak’s home.
—This is a serious matter, we should quickly launch a search, Gul Sarpanch said.
—Isn’t it already dark? Nazir master, a teacher in the local school, sounded out.
—We will carry lanterns and look, Rahim Joo oberved.
—What do you say? Gul Sarpanch turned to Nabir kak, whose eyes were already wet.
—We will look for our girls, Nabir kak said in a rickety voice.
—Have you tried calling the phone again? Asad asked Gulzar.
—The phone is switched off now.
—I say we inform the police, Mam koul averred.
—Two policemen in a Thana [small police outpost] seven miles away, Asad said.
—They can’t tell a mule from a horse, Rahim Joo grimaced.
—Let us then begin the hunt. In the name of Nund-Rish saab [patron saint of Kashmiris, revered by Muslims and Hindus], Gul Sarpanch said with a bold face.
—Two groups. Six men each, Nazir master suggested.
—Inshallah [God willing] we will find them, hale and hearty, Ghulam Ahmad pronounced.
Women from the neighborhood descended to console the cancer stricken Zoon. They spoke about ghouls that lived beneath the elm trees and came out only at night. Sara, the toothless grandmother of Asad, narrated the tale of her mother who had been to the brook to fetch water at night, many many winters ago, when the rivulet used to be knee-deep (it was ankle-deep now). Sara’s mother had seen twelve elves (six light and six dark) crossing the brook. They wore green-scarves and made strange guttural noises. The old lady swore by the Book that the elves had hooves for feet and pointy ears and long noses. The light ones looked at her and smiled from a distance. The dark elves marched ahead. Sara’s mother didn’t ever go to the stream again.
The night sky twinkled with a flock of pin-point stars. Moon shone brightly. The men carried lanterns in their hands. Asad brought two lanterns from his shop. They looked in the meadow. They explored the old, abandoned Hindu Shiva temple in the outskirts of the village. A spring gushed from the place where the deity presided. The water flowed in the little canal of Gilas-gam. The group went to the same spots that Gulzar had reconnoitered earlier. They probed the brook. The cherry garden was scouted again. The robins had returned only to be alarmed by the sudden nocturnal human movement. The men with lanterns at night looked like adult fireflies in the bush, going in circles, looking for their eggs.
—Aliya, Aliya, Nelam, Nelam
Gulzar kept calling Nelam’s phone in the sunken hope of being answered. Suddenly someone noticed a form in Mam koul’s cucumber farm, some distance away from Nabir Kak’s plot. From a distance they could see an outline, like someone standing guard, face turned to the other side.
—Aliya, Aliya, Nelam, Nelam, the villagers hollered as they went closer.
The figure didn’t move. The villagers crept closer, holding hands tightly. Ghulam Ahmad whispered a small six-line mini-chapter from Quran. Soon they were facing the scarecrow. It was made of golden straw and wore an old torn polka-dotted Pheran.
Nabir Kak began to sob. Asad put his arm around Gulzar’s shoulder.
—Khudaya ha kar khaer [God will be kind]
The whole village was rummaged. The girls seemed to have evaporated in the mid-summer air. The search had been going on for more than four hours.
—Strange, very strange, Mam koul said.
—What shall we do now? Asad asked.
—Do you see someone coming this side, an exhausted Nazir master said, his gaze fixed to left.
—Don’t panic, Gul Sarpanch reassured the men.
An army patrol party bivouacking in a nearby camp approached the men. Gul Sarpanch stepped forward.
—Halt who goes there? the squad officer barked.
—Sir, we are from this village?
—What are you doing out, with these lanterns, at 1’Oclock in night?
—Sir, we are looking for two girls who have disappeared.
—Disappeared. What do you mean?
—Jinab [Sir] they are Nabir kak’s girls. They went to the fields at 5O’clock but didn’t return.
—Who is Nabir kak?
—Jinab, me, the old man came forward.
—Madar-chod [Mother fucker] where have you send them?
—Jinab, I didn’t send them anywhere. They went to collect vegetables but didn’t return.
—Listen, you silly villagers, this looks like a case of run-away girls. Go home and file a proper police complaint in the morning.
—Sir, they are our daughters. We are worried.
—Go home or we shoot.
The search party returned to Nabir Kak’s home. Womenfolk were still awake, sitting with Zoon. The men sat in the bigger room. Two lanterns lit the walls. No one spoke. The women knew that the search had yielded nothing. Zoon’s head-stole was damp. She made endless little pledges with God. She would send three fat sheep (all white and horned) to Nund-Rish’s astaan [shrine] in Chrar if Aliya and Neelam were safe. She knotted the ends of her stole, multiple times, as if the knots would stop harm coming the girls’ way. As minutes moseyed past, and hope tardily gave way to despair, she decided to make a final bargain with God. Sitting by Sara, whose mother had seen those green-clad elves all those years back, Zoon asked God to swap her life for her daughter and daughter-in-law’s. How long will a cancer patient live, anyway? She kept sending incantations to heaven: Spare my children, my Lord.
Gulzar finally broke the awkward silence that came as a lace of disquietude and despondency.
—I tried calling everyone. All the friends who have phones.
—What are they saying? someone asked.
—They don’t have a clue. They haven’t heard from them.
—We should try talking to the customer care of the service provider. May be they can give us the location, Nazeer master opined.
—What is a customer care? Rahim Joo asked.
—Asad talked to the customer care, Gulzar quipped, without bothering to look at Rahim Joo. They say they can’t help. We have to visit their office in Anantnag during office hours and submit an application in triplicate.
—They asked to also attach photocopies of the identity card of the person who has to be tracked down, Asad added.
The moon was jackknifed into two. Only one part was visible. If moonlight could be heard tonight she would be a soprano sobbing slowly in the May breeze. Villagers decided to stay over at Nabir Kak’s home out of sheer fellow feeling. Deep down they knew that something was amiss and the poor girls hadn’t simply evaporated into the cherry aroma. Real people aren’t swallowed up by cucumber farms either. Something ghoulish had happened beyond that stream. Zoon continued to snigger in the sureness that her daughter will come home running to hand over the cucumbers she had collected. They would then wash the cucumber and take out its frothy bitterness before eating it with rice and collard greens. Zoon awaited Nelam, her earrings smoothly jingle-jangling.
At 3o’clock in the night Rahim Joo’s wife made noon-chai [Salty tea] for everyone. The samovar was first taken to the room with men. Asad poured out tea for everyone. Nabir Kak was quiet, already in a mournful color. Ghulam Ahmad, whose son-in-law was a cop in Srinagar, suggested that police should be informed. Gul Sarpanch, realizing the gravity of situation, agreed. Nazeer master made the call to the police outpost. Someone groggy answered the phone with a contemptuous tune.
—so two girls missing.
—20 and 25
—Student and housewife
—5O’clock this evening
—How much cash did they carry?
—They didn’t carry any money.
—Did they wear gold?
—Nelam wore gold earrings.
—I’ve made the missing person report based on the details.
—Okay. So… [Sound of phone line disconnected]
—What did they say? Gulzar asked.
—He made a missing person report.
—They too may launch a man-hunt, Ghulam Ahmad said.
—He didn’t ask for their names, Nazir glumly said.
Morning Azaan [Muslim call for prayer] was called. A Spot-winged Tit in its nest on a rotting tree stump was alerted by the sonorous chant from the mosque. Nabir Kak and other men filed into the mosque to say the prayers. No one had slept. The fear of loss often makes you feel inadequate and insomniac. Before the prayers started there was a lot of talking in the mosque as most villagers came to know about the incident. Soon the clamor was replaced by a solitary voice, mellifluously reciting verses of the Holy Quran, which brought tears to many eyes. There was a melancholic cadence to it. There was no rhyme as to why the villagers wept but the sadness was almost infective.
[A year later]
The Rooster crows upon the corrugated pen, made of scrap. Hen clucks as Zoon walks around feebly with the help of a cane, feeding the bird. Out of one dozen light brown eggs in the wicker basket, the broody hen hatched only eight. The hen can hear chick-noise from inside the egg, and gently clucks to stimulate the little ones inside to break out. Eventually they do. The chicks cheep the whole day long.
The doctor has told Nabir kak and Gulzar that Zoon won’t live too long.
Aliya and Nelam are no more. Their bodies were found the next morning, last year. Aliya’s by the brook – near the same spot where the mouse nibbled at the apricot, its little feet submerged in slight water and Nelam’s by the elm. Indeed the places were searched that night. Five times. But magical things happen. And elm trees are excellent for coffin wood.