(This is post 4/100 in my #100days of writing challenge. Thanks to Eric Burke for this prompt)
My neighbor Khan visited our house to say that a pickup had arrived from Peshawar and he’d seen my grandfather stepping off the back of it. Khan had seen what looked like several crates of goods and grandfather was trading among the townsfolk. That was just before midday.
I fear he’ll be here soon.
I walked our small property along the river looking for any minor task to occupy me. Perhaps there were some weeds among the barley that little Zinia missed or maybe the dam on one of the rice paddies had a weakness for me to mend. I spent an hour compacting some dirt along the waterline even though it had no need for my care. Then I circled the property twice, trying not to notice the graves behind the house.
He arrived in the mid afternoon. I was sitting at the base of the mountain looking at my home, the river, and the town beyond trying to think up a lie to tell him. He arrived at our door with his burlap full of tools and a straw basket and then saw me up among the trees. His smile, usually worn haughtily on his weathered skin, seemed nervous and tired. I waved to him, conjuring my own mask of welcome.
“Grandfather! You’ve come so far. Come in and drink tea with your family!”
He circled in place and looked around for young Imran as I approached, peering alongside the house, up the hill behind me, and across the fields. We embraced and entered together.
“Malalai, great-grandfather is here. Please make us tea and we’ll welcome him.” My eldest daughter placed her needle and thread carefully on the tunic she was repairing. She stood to stoke the coals in the small stove.
There’s a cadence to welcoming a man into one’s home, a way to communicate respect and appreciation that requires much of the day and cannot be rushed. If I were a rich man I’d give every guest gold. As I am not, I drink and speak with all who enter. Grandfather Ali is a guest and he is our only family and he brings my daughters the only fruit they’ve ever touched. I owe him the greatest welcome I can give and I listen to him for as long as he wishes.
He ignored the girls and told me of his trading since his last visit. His journey east to the pines of Jammu and then to the silk farmers of Kashmir. His travels south to Islamabad and the markets there devoted to every kind of thing. Islamabad contains streets full of vendors who only sell tin nails. The next street over each man offers only glass bottles — each stall holding a different size and type. One neighborhood of the city is devoted solely to textiles and every kind of rug is sold by exactly one man and each man sells exactly one rug. Grandfather has told me these stories before and I endure his small lies.
After Islamabad was the long dusty road past brick factories and pink himalayan salt mines and cities built on land so flat you can see all around you. He travelled in buses with no windshields and in carts and in taxis and for days at a time he’d walk on foot. North to Peshawar and then through the winding, narrow trails of the Allai mountains hanging off the left side of a pickup bursting with men. The small dirt road would sometimes narrow so tightly that he’d look down and see only open air and then trees beneath him. And then, finally, to Pashto and his family.
“All these travels I take, again and then again, so that my family can grow up strong and healthy.” He always told us, when visiting twice a year, that the few coins he could offer us and the handful of Kashmiri prabhat peaches he gave were the best way for him to love his family. My father would have told him he was a liar and a cheat and a bastard. My father would have said grandfather saw sons as a mirror of himself and daughters as a waste of dowry money. I said nothing because he brought my children peaches.
We finished tea and he pulled his basket to his lap.
“Malalai,” I said, “wash our cups and serve yourself and Zinia some tea.”
“And Imran.” Grandfather said it ostensibly to his great-granddaughter but looked hard at me. “I want to see my strong young man!” He lifted his basket and stood in a single motion and was quickly out the door. “Imran!” He shouted. “Imran! Great-grandfather Ali is here!”
Malalai had frozen in place. Zinia looked between her sister and me with pleading eyes. “It’s okay,” I told them both. I patted Malalai’s hand and kissed Zinia on the top of her head. I followed grandfather. Zinia grabbed her sister’s hand in both of hers.
When my youngest child Imran died in the floods last year I lied to grandfather. I told him that Imran had been studying with an imam up the valley and was safe but couldn’t come home. Grandfather shortened his normal stay that time and left after only a few nights. The next time grandfather visited I lied again and said he was with some other young boys helping rebuild the great bridge to Batangi in the next valley over. Grandfather stayed only one night that time and then hitched a ride back south.
Malalai had seen it happen. The rain wasn’t unusual but no one in the village could remember a monsoon ever lasting a whole week. She said Imran was bounding down the switchbacks from town to the waters edge. He waved at his sister as he crossed the little stone bridge. She waved back and told us that he smiled at her even as the bridge dissolved and his body went under. She admits that she knows it’s not possible — that he surely must have screamed in pain and waved for help as the rocks shattered his little body and ground him apart in the water carrying him away from us. But she says that’s not what she saw. Zinia and I have never doubted her.
We made a grave for him right behind the house next to his mother. She was in a friend’s house when the big earthquake struck ten years prior. Imran had just been born. We pulled him from the wreckage, amazed and grateful to find him alive as we unwrapped him from his mother’s embrace. Somehow she had protected him with her body. The imam gave me my only comfort that day when he reminded me I could have lost them both.
There was nothing to put in Imran’s grave so little Zinia buried a pile of green river stones in the earth. Imran used to joke with her that he could see his twin brother in the river. He was certain it wasn’t just his reflection because the brother had bright green eyes and Imran knew his eyes were a rainbow of colors like the leaves on the trees. “Why do you think you have all those colors in your eyes?”, Zinia would ask. “Because I can see them, so I know they’re going in there,” he would tell her.
Grandfather was walking away from the house and shouting. “Imran, I brought you peaches! You’ll be big and strong like your great-grandfather Ali! Imran, come!” He would pause for seconds at a time between yells and point his good left ear in one direction or another. He turned and, ignoring me, began a wide circle around the house continuing to shout.
I sighed and, hesitating, walked the other way around the house. As I rounded the back I considered how to say it.
“I…” I started. “… Imran …” I couldn’t.
My grandfather stood completely still facing the grave. He said nothing.
“The floods,” I offered. “He…”
He turned to me, calmly, though I knew he was not calm.
“What have you done?” He asked, though it was not a question.
“When the bridge–”
“You’ve ruined me!” He turned the basked upside down and four peaches dropped to the ground. He jumped on them and then threw down the basket and smashed that as well. He crushed all of it underfoot as he screamed. The evening smelled of autumn moss and Malalai’s stove and then the sticky-sweet peach odor and the leather of his shoes mixed into the air.
“My only son’s only son has lost his son!” Grandfather laughed without humor. He rushed toward me and bunched the collar of my tunic in his fists. His dye-reddened beard flew up and down as he yelled into my face.
“The bridge went so quickly–” I tried to say anything. To have a word in our defense. In defense of the life we live, the struggle and the grief and the late nights where all three of us rock together on our bed and share stories of beautiful little Imran. I wanted to tell him anything real, anything true. Something to make Imran a real person. To make my daughters real people.
“You will remarry! You will give me sons!” The tip of his finger was pushing into my nose and I stepped backward. “You’ll find a young girl and you’ll give me as many sons as a king!” He backed away, looking at me and keeping his finger pointed. I heard him enter the house. The girls startled as he retrieved his burlap sack and left, using the new bridge to cross the river. In the next moment it was quiet.
Zinia and Malalai rushed to me as I entered and we all dropped to our knees. I held them and they held me.
“You won’t be seeing your great-grandfather again, my beloveds.” They held me tighter. “And I’m sorry to say I think you’ve both already had the last peach you’re going to have for some time.” My tears betrayed the steadiness of my voice.
“I won’t miss great-grandfather,” little Zinia said. She wrapped one arm around my neck and the other around and her sister’s. We each held both of the others in a tight weave so none of us could fall out.
“I miss Imran.”