Bridge, Buddy, Blues: The Day Squirrel Departed
Last few days of traumatic events have unearthed the buried memories of the lived experiences making the mood melancholic in mountains.
Anisa crosses this bridge as rarely as possible. But mostly, she crosses it as she has no other choice. It’s any other bridge in the city — a mass of concrete with iron poles and flower pots hanging from them. They’ve now built flyovers around it. The hesitance to cross this bridge and take alternate routes is a compulsion. Every time Anisa crosses it, it stirs up the sight of slaughter.
Some 19 years ago, her squirrel had fallen to her death from the bridge. Anisa sees her buddy lying face down—black akin to a Van Gogh painting frozen in time—like she would just get up and time would start again.
But for now, her 16-year-old mind was holding her arm dragging her 34-year-old body across the bridge. Her feet resisting this pull as if carrying the cross of Jesus itself.
Squirrel, on the other side, turns her face partially away from Anisa and the glare of her golden stud creates the melting colours of a sunset on the bridge. And Anisa feels her feet moving.
The school auditorium was abuzz with a practice session for the annual day celebration. Anisa and her group of 7 musketeers were handling the event as always. Past week has been spent in bunking classes, chatting over teacups in the canteen and arranging for the function. The group would be the last to leave the school premises.
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Today was no different. Amidst giggles and gossip, the girls take the usual route to the city centre to board public transport to their homes. The walk filled with conversations about boys, and of course, the hurry to reach their tuition centres.
Even though it wasn’t an unusual group but its composition was a little different. It had the loud ones, the dominant ones, the tomboys and the shy timid ones. They all had been together for years, growing on and around each other.
Each one of them was with a unique characteristic—Anisa was the fighter, Seher the leader, Tabi and Rumi the nurturers of the group, Lubna the nerd, Saima the flamboyant and squirrel the quiet one.
Najwa, the squirrel, four-foot nine-inches was almost invisible and indistinguishable.
As the girls reach the city centre, Najwa stresses upon taking a different route than usual. All of them, in the middle of crossing a road, try to convince the little one to cross over with them and reach home as always. The insistence makes her share her anguish.
Najwa tells her buddies that there’s a boy who follows her from the bridge that she takes every day and she wants to avoid it. Anisa offers to walk her home with the others and take care of the problem. But the little girl doesn’t want a scene and would rather take the alternate bridge. After some deliberation, the girls agree on the plan.
As 6 of them cross the road to the other side, the squirrel goes straight towards the bridge. That was supposed to take her home faster and comfortably without the nuisance of the boy. Carefree steps lead the girls to the bus stop on the other side when a loud bang stops them dead in their tracks. Screaming birds flutter atop them.
Anisa and the girls look around and see people running to safety. A cloud of thick black smoke is in the sky a few meters away from them. Taking refuge in a lane with a crowd, the girls stay put till the elders in the crowd decide it’s safe to move out and fetch some transport home.
Anisa reaches home around 5 pm. Her mother and aunts look worried to death. She’s greeted with kisses and embraces. Before she can utter a word, she’s told that there had been a mine blast in the city centre and some civilians were in the casualties too.
The girl sits down to imagine the possibilities of this event and what could’ve happened. Amid these thoughts, the telephone neatly placed next to the red crown television rings. Anisa’s mother answers the phone, “Aa aa, yeki wini czhaayi, akh minute (Yes, yes, she just came home),” and hands over the phone to her.
It’s Najwa’s mother on the other side of the call. Squirrel, she’s told, is yet to be home.
Anisa feels a lump in her throat, “Su aasi kuni gharas czhamich, tuih ma heyiv stress aunty, thodi daer me aajayegi (She must’ve taken refuge in someone’s home out of fear. Please don’t worry, aunty. She’ll be home soon).” And the call is disconnected.
Anisa puts the receiver down and it rings again. Assuming it to be the same caller, she asks “Aagayi (Is she home)?”
The voice on the other side is of Tabi, “Hume Najwa ke ghar jaana hai, tu be pohench (We’ve to rush to Najwa’s home, you be there too).
Anisa turns to her mother, “Call the cab driver, we’ve to go to Hawal.”
Under the dark night, Anisa passes through a narrow lane in the vicinity of Hawal and enters the courtyard of a three-storey house made of red bricks and wooden planks. She could already smell the dread in the air.
Most control rooms in the city had been visited by family and friends for Najwa. The house is filled with people anticipating the worst. Anisa looks for Tabi and finds her in a corner of the drawing-room rubbing her palms, “She’s nowhere to be found. It’s already very late. Even four hours have passed since that blast. She should’ve been home by now.”
Anisa holds Tabi’s shivering hand in an effort to stop her mad rambling. “She may’ve taken shelter in someone’s home. You know how that little girl is—scaredy-cat. She must be waiting for the thing to be normal. She’ll be on her way soon.”
Anisa hears the words coming out of her mouth and realizes how soulless they felt.
Najwa’s uncle, meanwhile, comes in the room announcing that they’re going to visit the nearest police control room again. Some more bodies had been brought there from the blast site, he hushed the room with the remark.
He asks Najwa’s mother specifics of what his niece was wearing to school that day. Her aunt looking outside through the window turns around saying, “Temis tchu kanan legith topas yus mei outré loagmas (She’s wearing these new earrings I bought her recently).”
There had been an ear-piercing ceremony at Najwa’s house two weeks back. Her buddies had complained of not being invited as the squirrel was showing off her golden ear studs glistening on her tiny earlobes. Anisa had never seen her so happy. The small joys of a child that Najwa was at heart.
As the men leave for PCR, it’s 9 pm and the house has started wearing the shroud of death. The two girls in a corner could hear the thirst of the women in the room in their dry gasps. It’s the silence that takes the fear to an intimate space in these situations. The spell is broken by the ringing of the telephone in the corridor.
It’s 10:30 pm and the men are coming back with Najwa. Anisa remembers a wave of wails inundating the house and herself drowning in them.
A group of men pave way for four shoulders carrying a tiny body covered with a white shroud. Having looked for her all over the city through the evening, her uncle had finally found her.
She was lying in a dimly-lit mortuary of the nearest PCR on a cold stretcher, fully clad. The official identification given were the shoe in her left foot that of size five and the ear stud in her left ear that her aunt had given her. The shell had hit her on the right side of the face.
As the men enter the courtyard, Anisa remembers seeing Najwa clad in an all-black Abaya a few hours ago batting her tiny eyes at them while fighting her way through the argument of which bridge to take home.
Now, she was seeing her squirrel coming home clad in all white having chosen the bridge of death that fateful evening.
A honking car and a commotion of noises, Anisa finds herself again at the foot of the bridge in the middle of the city and she realizes she hadn’t moved for a while. She couldn’t feel her legs. She had gone out to buy some books from a bookshop in the city centre but while walking through the lanes of the market had slipped into a memory she thought she had buried 19 years.
She must’ve barely taken this bridge less than a dozen times in the last five years since she packed her bags for good from a far off foreign city to come home. She had read somewhere that you grow older home, the grave calls you, pulls you closer to its soil. Maybe it’s just a fictional saying and she was reading too much into her ‘homecoming’ or maybe it is true. A self-enforced exile often finds its way through its cowardice and makes you face the violent past you had left behind.
An insignificant fall in 2019 and a broken toe had landed Anisa in the Bone and Joint hospital of the city—the way to the hospital, through the bridge.
It’s not like she had forgotten her squirrel. How could she? She was her first death when Anisa could feel the clutches of grief squeezing her heart so much so that she had lost her senses and fainted.
She still only remembers Najwa’s Chaharum when six of them now were saying goodbye to a woman they knew to be the squirrel’s mother or a heap of bones burden by her flesh sitting in an attic ironing her daughter’s uniform.
What had happened in between is not even a blur. Just gaping holes in Anisa’s memory staring back at her like an abyss. What kind of trauma does that to a sixteen-year-old?
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Meher Qadri is a former staff writer at the Mountain Ink.