HOMECOMING

I’m coming home, I’m coming home

Tell the world I’m coming home…

Idris used to sing those words a long time ago, in a voice that gradually approached a frog’s with each try. It was a strange time: his puberty- one where the evening news bustled with bits of death, so often that the bliss in our space felt unfair and I began to wonder when trouble would walk through our own doors. Occasionally, stories of terror- of burnings and bombings- made it past the walls and threatened that bliss. They got whispered around dinner tables and were bartered in marketplaces. There was talk of a neighbour who disappeared from the madrassah without a trace. Weeks later, mother came home with, how someone wandered too close to a shunned forest and stumbled on a satchel, a pair of boots or some other thing that could have been Neighbour’s. We liked Neighbour; polite, gentle Neighbour who probably lay headless somewhere; his flesh saving starving vultures at that moment. Father yelled for Idris and me, sat us under the Kandili tree in our compound, after school, and told us why the Almajiris are good children haunted by thoughts bad people put in their heads. “They will ruin the whole country if the government doesn’t get serious and put them in schools. Proper schools”, he said before following up with “Stay away from the little devils”.

How things have changed. How things would have changed. Idris would be taller now, enough to rub his two years’ older-brother-ness in my face, and his voice would have reached a point where it could no longer be suited to melodies like “I’m coming home”. The “frogging” would be complete.

I imagine him sitting next to me now. Instead, there is Binta. Unlike the rest of us, she is not wearing her hijab anymore. It lies in her laps, except when she is coughing and uses it to cover her mouth. Barring those bouts of coughs that intermittently grip her, she hasn’t made a sound since we clambered into the black SUV two hours ago. It is a wonder she is still alive. She must have been coughing for close to six months- that same relentless dry cough that drains her strength, and lays bare the veins in her neck like vines around a tree trunk.

Saki and Zeinab are the opposite, roaring in laughter every now and then as if we are returning from a picnic. It is such a contrast to the screaming girls in the creaking lorry, hurried toward uncertainty, the day we were taken.

The cool air of the car returns me to those first nights in the forest, when we crowded around one another and shivered by a fire just outside the tent; our mix of voices trying to outcry one another. Saki leaning against me and shivering; Zeinab limping along. She had twisted an ankle when she attempted escape. I do not think she put much thought into it before she started to run. There was nowhere to go. Trees spread out in all directions, and even wild beasts steered clear of our captors. We only knew of the animals’ presence by their distant cries and love songs. The men stood, sat on tree trunks or crouched on stones- disorderly in soldiers’ khaki shorts and bulletproof vests. Some wore guns, others bore machetes or swords. If there ever was pity in their eyes, it died before we met them. We didn’t need them to tell us, nothing would come of pleading, much less screaming.

But Zeinab ran anyway. She suddenly broke from the rest of us and leapt into the bushes, crashing into tree after tree. One of the men pursued. We could hear his boot thumping angrily and snapping twigs in his path. It was a moment with a tinge of hope. Perhaps Zeinab would escape; go tell someone that we had been taken from our beds and led into the middle of nowhere by militants. Terrorists. They would return with policemen and soldiers, to free us.

But Zeinab couldn’t have gone more than a few meters before that hope got shredded and incinerated, and the breeze carried the ashes to a place beyond reach. He caught up and struck her with such force that I couldn’t tell which stabbed my heart — the resounding blow or her piercing scream when she crashed. But we all felt the anger in his stride and knew he was going to kill her right there.

And so we waited with bated breaths for him to come out with his bloodied machete or her bullet-perforated corpse.

They soon reappeared between the trees; he, dragging her by the hem of her pinafore; she, struggling to grab the shrubs. It was a breath out of a dream- a fickle thing with no end or beginning. Sun rays dimmed in the horizon and our eyes rested on a frightened Zeinab. He let go when they were out, and the back of Zeinab’s head thudded on the ground.

He struck her with his gun once again, this time on the face. Before she could whimper in response, he raised and cocked it noisily.

Blam! The shot rang, coinciding with our shouts of terror and a whiff of smoke around Zeinab.

“Tsaya!”, he barked, arcing his gun up in the same breath. That was when I realized the shot had happened in my head.

Zeinab took a minute to stand, and another before she began to limp weakly toward us — defeat scrawled across her weepy face and scratched body. The man who caught her shifted from leg to leg; his blood reached a hundred degrees. He scooched his lips toward his nose in an expression of disgust, as he watched Zeinab labour under the weight of trepidation. We began to weep, in disorderly choreography. Perhaps the blow had a note of finality to it. Perhaps it was then it first dawned on us that we could not escape the guns, machetes and superior strength of our captors.

He glared at her for a minute, through bloodshot eyes and flared nostrils.

“If you run again, I shoot, Insha Allah. You hear?” He trembled with fury.

That same saucy Zeinab who, in the old days, used to swing her unformed hips to beats from invisible drums when she passed a gathering of boys; who couldn’t look the gun-wielding terror in the face in the forest, now sits in front of me on the ride home, swaddling little Abubakar, cracking jokes with Saki in-between suckling him.

How could she laugh? How could she when seventeen of us, in five carloads, are all that is left of over a hundred taken?

Let the rain wash away

All the pains of yesterday

Abubakar has Salaam’s pointy nose.

Salaam was our age but had grown used to the ways of men a little too soon. He wasn’t there that first night. Or maybe he was. None of us could remember much from that day anymore anyway. We remember tears and fears, distant voices barking orders, indistinct voices soothing others; pieces of hope scattered between Zeinab’s run and our countless quiet recitations of Koranic distress Duas. We remember how darkness swallowed us when none of these worked… but no faces. So if he was there that first night, we didn’t take note.

We began to suspect that Salaam had a thing for Zeinab when he started passing her extra pieces of meat wrapped in kola leaves. He didn’t carry a gun like the others. He bore a machete and a herder’s rod. His heavily pimpled face would gleam in the sun like a mirror as he sweated and chanted with the others in the clearing. Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!! The chants went on and on like a battle cry until it threw them into a frenzy. It became a thing on wings, with its own life; its own thoughts- the seal of God on Salaam’s right to take Zeinab, on Nadir’s right to Binta, Yussuf’s to Saki and Mohammed’s to me. Salaam was our age. Maybe that was why some mercy still lingered on his face, biding time until the mark of bullets from our rescuers took away that time…

“They are having welcome party for you at Government house”, the soldier in the front seat says, cutting off my trot on memory’s footsteps.

“All your family will come,” he adds

My family.

I know my kingdom awaits

And they’ve forgiven my mistakes

I take out the picture again. The one the doctor gave me yesterday at counselling.

There was Father, the two Hajias, my brothers and me. I remember the photograph used to hang, in a frame, in our sitting room. The frame’s bottom used to abut on the curtain so that when you pulled the curtain, it scratched on the wall and made a kissing sound. I wonder what is there now. The same frame with another photograph- one with a shapeless hole where I should have been? Another frame? Another curtain to replace that brownish one with its gloomy hue?

I felt a wave of loss when I told the doctor about them- my family. She is the first woman doctor I have met. She was pleasant too, smiling at me as if we had known each other for a long time.

“You miss them, don’t you?”

“Yes. I can’t wait to see them, especially Idris.”

“That’s your brother?”

“Yes. We have the same mother”

“Mahmood is our second Hajia’s son”, I added unprompted.

The doctor was quiet for a minute. She wrote something on the pad she was carrying and sipped from her drink for the first time that day.

“How do you think your return will change their lives? What will they have to unlearn or relearn now that you are back?”

It was my turn to be quiet. I had not thought about that. It’s been three years. Mahmood’s age would have doubled and Father would be retired. I had tried to keep my mother out of my mind. I know she would have cried her eyes out when I went missing, and would be happiest to see me return. But I’m not sure of what to say to her or even what to feel when I see her.

I wonder what our mothers will say of Zeinab’s son and of my growing belly, or what Father will do when I tell him I don’t want to have the baby.

Fear begins to edge out the joy of returning home to faces and places that used to be familiar- fears like how to face Halima’s mother. I doubt that my eyes have any tears left in them for her, whose daughter’s grave hovers before my eyes. Will she not think me callous when I tell her with a blank face that her daughter, who first experienced her bleeds when we got to the forest, had died of a fever while we watched?

Why do we get to come home anyway, when Amina and Rukayat still play wives to men three times their ages, in unknown places?

Abubakar is sleeping peacefully in Zeinab’s arms. He looks so much like Salaam. Pity. He will be a reminder of deaths and stories of deaths from a thousand sources. He is just a child but his eyes bring me sadness.

I turn toward Binta, the youngest of us. She clocked twelve, six days after we got to the forest. Binta has had a hard life. She lost her parents when she was two, and lived with her schoolteacher uncle. They say he is missing too. So while the rest of us got photographs of our families, she got someone from the government, a kind-looking woman who promised to take care of her. When the welcome party ends, she will leave with the stranger-woman.

“It’s going to be okay Insha Allah”, I whisper. Even as I say it, my fingers find buttons to fiddle on my shirt. My eyes caress the soldier’s neck for a while, before idling onto the untamed forests and old buildings that zoom past as our car speeds on.

I know things will never be normal anymore. Binta knows it too. She lays her head on my shoulder and begins to sob quietly. Saki and Zeinab are quiet now and have turned to look at us. Saki reaches and pats Binta on the neck. In this moment, a cord strings our hearts together, and it is as if we are little children once again. I catch the soldier’s gaze through the car mirror. He tries to smile but there is a ring of sadness around his eyes.

I don’t know if our car hit something or something hit it; whether one of us was wearing a bomb and detonated it; whether we fell off the bridge or into a ditch. I don’t know.

But I know we are dragged out of our seats. In an instant, I am tossed and turned, twisted and pulled. All at once. It is the suddenness of death that makes people cry; but when it happens gradually over three years, you don’t feel anymore. Instead, the impact, the blinding light and the darkness that follow, pull your lips toward the shape of a smile you didn’t plan. Something that means nothing. For saving you from fearful story endings, from perhapses and maybes, you are grateful to Death- that leveller who, like you, bears ill will against phony tomorrows. Now you know you’re going home.

We’re going home too

Tell the world we’re going home…

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