In the back of her head, Seema keeps whispering to herself. Today can be a little different from yesterday. She is carrying the big bowl of dough toward the tandoor house. The big dug hole in the middle of the room is accepting of anything that can fall in it. She lights the fire in the hole and throws in some more wood sticks. The fire is galloping; the surrounding walls of the tandoor are changing their colour to some red-copper bricks. She reaches those walls and drops herself fully inside the hole. All of a sudden, she feels calmness and purity beyond the screams she is used to. Her hands and feet have never felt this restful. They are swimming in the air, like the air, she is floating freely. Where am I going, without them? She throws the walls behind her and comes back to the oldest room, which is turned into a tandoor house. Half of the room is filled with magazines from the 1980s. She has got good use for them, making more fire. She is halfway finishing up baking the pile of flatbread that will feed some fifteen family members. She folds each flatbread in a half-moon, but her mind goes into the dying fire in the hole.
How beautiful it looked then.
How calmingly it screamed and burned then.
She finds solace in the fire through the memory of her mother. As a little girl, Seema congregated at her mother’s side in their tandoor house. Her mother often shed tears only when baking the bread. It was her alone time to express tears and blame it on the smokiness of the unseasoned woods. Seema has tried to surpass those emotions of depression and pure sadness. She had become a dreamer and learnt how to escape all things real next to the fire. The fire connected her to her home, to her base emotion, to her mother.
Until tomorrow, I can wait for our visit.
She repeats to herself, as she walks inside the big empty hall that opens the door to the other three separate rooms. She leaves the basket of freshly baked bread on the top of the kitchen counter.
At last, this place is empty. At last.
Today is the first time in forty days that she does not have to see the crying faces of woman after woman mourning Seema’s loss.
She pulls her chador over her head and starts walking outside the dust-covered yard.
But my daughters were innocent.
My daughters were pure.
I am their mother.
I testify to that.
And I know that.
She walks to the graveyard. She meets them there. Their burial site smells of fresh clay and soaked water. Seema sits next to their tombs, and instead of saying her prayers, she tells them how she felt flying in the fire and not feeling the pain.
But I had to come back to you two, I could never leave you being out here. All alone.
Seema lays her forehead on the ground. Needa and Sahar were only eleven and thirteen when Seema sent them to school one day and never saw them again. They were the only two girls, who were allowed to go to school in the family. And it was due to Seema’s insisting on allowing her daughters to attend the school. That day, when the clock ticked beyond 2.10 PM, Seema knew her daughters would never return home. In the evening, without Seema seeing them, their bodies were taken to the graveyard.
They still tell me you were hit by a car.
I do not believe them. They killed you. I know it.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, the day after the burial that Seema’s brother-in-law said that Needa and Sahar were run over by a car. Seema did not believe him. She never did. Asaam was the youngest of the four uncles to Needa and Sahar. He had to say what others told him or order to make Seema believe. Seema did not believe him or them.
I do not believe any of you. I want my daughters. Seema had demanded. But they had buried the girls without giving them proper burial washing.
A quick burial was possible only in a matter of honour-keeping. The mother-in-law had insisted.
Seema now lifts her forehead from their graves.
Only Allah and I know the sole truth.
This was a murder. This was a pure crime. And I will find the person who did this to you.
But Seema could not think of anyone killing her innocent daughters. The only enemy she could think of was the uncles, who opposed their education. But Seema could not think of it as a kind of animosity that would lead to murdering her little daughters.
If I only could see your wounds, I could tell.
Perhaps I could dig both of you out.
I know how holes can be dug and filled in again. I know it because of my tandoor.
Seema runs her ten fingers like claws on the surface of their tombs and starts pulling the mud as hard as she could. Trying to feel the mud clearing off bit by bit with every attack.
“May Allah brings you peace and solace, Madar Jan” she finally hears an old man’s voice. He is standing right behind her.
“They are gone before us, and we shall follow them.” The old man leaves her alone.
Only if I had gone before them. Seema silently says to herself. She stands on her weakened knees and starts walking back toward the yard. Her fingers are dripping mud. She cleanses them with a corner of her Chador. She still has not shed a tear.
Now isn’t the time.
Now isn’t the time.
Now isn’t the time. But one day I will find your murderer. She repeats to herself.
It is now 1.20 in the afternoon. The sun is burning bright on her head. The drying dust starts flying over the hilly landscapes of Kabul. Covering the mountains in an opaque veil.
Here again, the afternoon windy gale is coming soon.
We need to hurry.
She says it out loud, just as she used to tell Needa and Sahar. As if they are still walking on her sides. They used the corners of her mother’s chador to cover their eyes and mouth during the dust storms. Seema would take them to a taller wall until the storm subsided.
The lightness over her chador brings her back to reality. She finds herself all alone in the storm. So she lets go of her chador in the corners and walks through the dust. She tastes the mud in her mouth. Her eyes feel heavier and her breathing is congested.
If only the dust can tell the truth. I can even eat it all and digest it.
She leaves the dusty air behind and walks faster inside the house yard. In the yard, Asaam is drawing water from the well. As he sees Seema, he runs toward her. “You are all muddy again. I will help you with water to wash your face before they see you…” Seema sits quietly next to the well, as Asaam draws a rubbered bucket of water from the deep well. He pours it over Seema’s hands. “You were gone for three hours this time. They are going to beat you again.”
“I need more water,” Seema says as she runs her fingers on her forehead.
“And let them do what they always do, to kill my daughters and to beat me to death.”
She stands up and heads to her small room. It is a plain room with a few mattresses and pillows arranged adjacent to the walls. She drops a pillow flat and allows her head to fall on it. Needa and Sahar are joining her on the same pillows. Tell me how to find out the truth. Tell me how to be a mother again. Tell me how to be… She is fast asleep. She is awakened by a loud scream above her head.
“Didn’t I tell you not to go there again?
The neighbours are calling you crazy. You have no shame.”
His hands reach to her right arm, pull her and throw her hard to the ground. Her eyes travel to the clock on the wall, it is just 5 PM.
Not again, please. She implores silently. But he cannot hear her.
“I am your husband, and you do not listen to me.”
But you were not my daughters’ father.
That’s why you do not know what it means to lose them and try to find them. She says it silently.
“Say it out loud. Or I will make your screams reach the heavens. First, you killed my brother and now you want to kill me too. You miserable woman.” His feet are now hitting her in the sides and his hands pulling on the headscarf.
“Your brother died in combat in Helmand.
I did not kill him.” She said it so quietly that only she herself could hear herself.
“You are cursing me under your breath, I know it. You ungrateful crazy woman. You think you can get away with this. Ha. Let me show you, how you cannot make me become my brother…er.”
You will never become like him.
You are a monster. You killed my daughters.
And now you want to kill me too.
What did you do to them? Did you rape them?
Or did you sell them to other animal men to rape them?
She said it cautiously very slow and quietly.
“You miserable woman, stop cursing me. Say it out loud. What is it that you want to say.”
His beating never stops. Seema sees Asaam watching them from behind the window. She fixates her gaze on him.
He is a very expressionless man. She thinks to herself.
What if he also saw what happened to my daughters, just like this.
He must know something.
She does not feel the pain anymore. The only annoying sound is the thrashing sounds of his feet landing on her back. She is exhausted from being beaten.
And your monstrous face is telling me that you are getting tired too. Enough now. She says it to herself.
“If you do not stop this craziness. I will kill you one day, under my own feet.” The last blow ends with a deep sigh.
He leaves the room. The room is empty again. She awaits that Needa and Sahar might run toward her with their tears and hug their mother. She pulls her strength and sits up. Asaam is gone too. The darkness surrounds the yard. She is not allowed to go to the graveyard at this time of the day. Her entire body is aching. Here darkness is the enemy of my sleep. She says it to herself.
The husband comes back to the room. It is after dinner time. He is preparing for his sleep. Laying down on one of those laying mattresses on the opposite wall where Seema has remained motionless. He is fast asleep.
Asaam appears at the door, indicating to Seema to come out. Seema nods. She is as silent as the stars. Asaam walks inside and helps Seema to stand up. They both walk slowly outside the room.
“You should eat now. Needa and Sahar would want you to eat.” He hands her a plate of beans stew and some flatbread. He sits in the dark with Seema eating slowly.
“Why do not you stop him from hitting you? Why do not you say something? At least say something. Anything.”
“He will do what he wants to do. To beat me, so he can feel good. He will not stop.”
“But at least you can try to stop him. I know you have a lot to say. So say it.”
“Whatever I say, it will only trigger him.”
“So trigger him. But at least you say what you need to say. Remember you are the educated one here.”
“But your brother is not. He is an angry animal.”
“If you do not say what you have to say. You are the animal here.”
“Did you also watch my little daughters get beaten to death just like you kept watching me today?”
“What are you talking about. I asked you to stop my brother from beating you with words, not to play smart with me.”
“Well, you are the smart one. So I am being smart with you. Did you see him beat my daughters?”
“There is no point in me trying to help you.” Asaam leaves the room.
I know. He has seen something, otherwise, how could he know what would help me.
Is it because my little daughters did not scream out for help too?
He surely knows something of that nature. Oh, Needa and Sahar Janam! Madar sadeqeet.
I know I will find out one day. I will find out one day. But how?
The next day starts with the fire in the tandoor hole. Seema thinks she knows something today that she did not yesterday. Today is different from yesterday. She whispers to herself, as she carries the big bowl of dough into the tandoor room. She lits the fire inside. The smoky darkened walls of the tandoor lit up in dark copper colour. Now in that colour, there is an escape. She is trying to focus on how to get inside those walls. But she is trapped in her daughters’ silenced screams.
Needa and Sahar bacheem, Jani madar, aram bash.
My dearest Needa and Sahar, hash, be quiet. Be quiet.
I want to go inside now.
Seema tries her best to calm herself and her daughters down. But the fire rushes like sudden howls inside the tandoor. Nothing is calmer. Everything is escalating. The escalation brings Seema back to reality so soon and too quick. Her hands shiver as she dips her entire arm inside the tandoor to slap the dough sheet on the wall of the tandoor. The dough falls at the bottom of the tandoor. It is unreachable. The fire gallops it.
See what happens, when I cannot stop you, me and the fire from screaming.
It is only in silence, that I would go on my peaceful journey.
Seema looks around and finds Asaam standing at the open door of the tandoor. He seems to have been watching her for a long time.
“Are you done now? Talking to yourself, talking to the fire, talking to…the non-existence…whatever!..” He leaves the tandoor room.
Asaam is always watching. Always. Non-stop.
Without a break. I know what he knows.
But he is not telling me.
Seema slaps another stretched dough against the red-copper-coloured wall of the tandoor. This time, the dough sheet sits on the wall. Big blisters appear on the sheet and turn golden slowly. She snatches the bread out before it burns and replaces it with a fresh sheet.
Asaam! Asaam! How can I make him talk? She asks herself, as of asking her daughters and the fire. No one seems to have an answer for her.
He is young, I can make him talk not by talking to him, but by showing emotions.
Seema plans in her head now.
I will bring him to the tandoor room with me tomorrow.
She slaps the last dough sheet and starts cleaning around the tandoor.
He sure will talk then.
She skips going to her daughters’ graves today. She feels she has spent the entire day in their presence. She could not abandon them today. She remains inside her room all day, and when her husband comes home, he finds her inside. He sits on the mattress that he slept on last night. He points her to draw the curtains and come closer to him. He throws himself on top of her. Her head is quiet now. Her eyes go to the clock on the wall. It is 5.55 PM. She does not feel anything, except his moving body on hers. Seema looks toward the window. She can feel Asaam is once again standing right behind the window, trying to get a peek of the view.
But the curtains are heavy.
What if I left a slit open in between the curtains.
I should have allowed Asaam to watch us in this act too.
He is of the right age. He is turning nineteen now.
He must’ve seen such things before.
Seema keeps her thoughts to herself. The husband is satisfied now. He pushes her away and starts putting on his pants. “Go! Bring me dinner. Crazy woman.”
Go eat poison. You murderer. These are Seema’s unheard words. She nods.
As she walks in the hallway, Asaam appears with a bag of onions. He drops them on the ground and leaves the hall.
I knew he was watching us. I could smell the onions from behind the curtains.
Seema calls for Asaam. “What are these onions for?”
“You know better what to do with them!” he says with displeasure.
“Asaam jan, I need your help with tandoor tomorrow. I want you to clean its ground. The fire is choking inside. The bread tastes like smoke today. Did you taste it? And can you clean it please?”
“Is it necessary?”
“Okay then. I will be there.”
Today, it is not going to happen again. I will not go into the walls and seek freedom there. I am not calm. I should find out the truth from Asaam. Seema whispers herself as she walks inside the tandoor room. She finds Asaam waiting.
“I am going to jump inside now. You have to hand me the brush and dust collector.”
“There is no need for it today. It is very late. Let’s clean it right after baking the bread!” Seema is trying to keep Asaam in the room. Asaam can tell Seema is deeply disturbed. She lits the fire after dropping a pile of wood sticks into the hole.
“If you want to die. The well is deeper than the tandoor.”
“The well belongs to you. The tandoor is mine.”
She is trying not to cry. “And I am not going to die without finding an answer to how my daughters died.”
Seema is crying big tears now. “Tell me did you see them die. Tell me who did it?”
“No. I did not see them. Nor do I know who did it. Now stop crying and help me put down the fire in the tandoor. I can clean it for you.”
“The tandoor is fine. I am not. Tell me what you know. What happened to Needa and Sahar? Asaam, I swear to God, I have a feeling you know. So tell me, please. Tell me please…who”
The galloping fire is slowly conquering the blackening edges of the hole on the ground. Seema is restlessly adding more woods into it.
“Seema, zan Lala. Why do not you ask your husband?… Only if you dare. Right! As for me, I am in no position to know anything or say anything…”
“You are lying, Asaam. You know it, too. Were they hit by a car? Or were they murdered? Why didn’t they let me see their bodies…were you too involved in murdering them…”
“The fire is too strong. You should pay attention.” Seema isn’t yet convinced that Asaam is innocent. He is always watching. He must know at least something that she does not. Seema predicates Asaam’s worst fear. To watch her hurt herself.
Seema puts her right arm inside the fire. “Tell me Asaam. Or you will see me burn in this hell of fire. What happened to my little girls! What did you and your brothers do to them?”
Asaam knows Seema very well. She is not going to stop until she hears something more destructive.
“You know it better than anyone else in this house. Either you’ve forgotten, or you are deliberately denying it. You tell me. What happened to little Needa and Sahar. Speak! Why have you not spoken since then.”
Seema pulls her arm back. “I do not know. I do not remember. I have been here all this time. And so has the fire! Was it the fire? Tell me! Was it me?”
“Why tell you the truth when you know it yourself, just remember what happened…ha”
Asaam leaves the tandoor house at once.
Seema is left all alone. Her whispers crowd the tandoor house.
Was it the fire? Was it me? Was it this tandoor? Was it me and the tandoor?
She speaks loud enough only to hear herself back. There is no one else in the world to talk to her back, or at least tell her the truth. Not even Asaam. He is still standing outside the window of the tandoor house.