The Letter: A Short Story

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Nayeem Rather

As Sikandar Shah woke from his sleep in the early hours of that morning, he hastily went to courtyard of shrine for ablution. The moon was still high in the sky, surrounded by dark clouds which were about to lay its claws on it. The reflection of moon in pond water frightened him. He felt alone. He looked around at the devotees sleeping in the courtyard; their mouths wide open, like the hulking corpses in dark. They lay huddled together, perhaps for warmth. Some thought flashed across his mind. He retreated from the pond, entered the shrine and gazed with old eyes at the tomb of saint. Suddenly he knelt down at the feet of tomb. Tears trickled down from his eyes and prayers began in sobs.

“O Saint of Saints. Have mercy. We are helpless. Help us. We have nowhere to go. Give us shelter……”

After a while, he rose up, wiped his tears with Kameez and with two bloodshot eyes began searching the letter he had written a day before. Some thirty nine days ago, at a time when the dark clouds hanging in skies of Kashmir were reluctant to go, and the land below was greedily waiting with wide mouth for more and more blood and flesh, people with gnawing anxiety decided to seek help of the saint. One day people, generally white bearded, sat down in the shrine and decided after much pondering to pray for peace collectively.

“We are living in tough times, something has to be done” an old man suggested. “We have made God angry, that is why we suffer” observed another.

And the third old man said, “O brothers we should pray collectively and seek collective forgiveness. Let Allah give us peace”.

So the devotees came in, prayed, wept like children, knelt down at tomb and went away. At nights, the noises coming out of shrine made it appear as if bees were humming inside. Common men, fat sluggish women, blonde girls, white bearded old men, would be militants, orphan boys, street beggars, the teenager who was called motherfucker by a soldier, the long haired naked “Fanafilas”, turban headed mullah, the educated young men; all flocked round the shrine, sipping kehwa and often praying. Some would gaze intently at the people and some would just lie there. Many family men would rub their noses fanatically on the floor and later complained of itch in the nose while in bed with their wives. An errant young man would appear some day and would declare “Two more killed, seven civilians in bomb blasts,” that village burned down. People listened and at the end, sighed.

The “Fanafilas” would break into fits of laughter. Days passed, nights went on. The dark, ferocious clouds were still lingering on. One day people squatted in the courtyard, their eyes sunken and faces pale, constantly gazing at the black sky. They rose to their feet and in next moment gathered in front of Sikandar Shah. They called out together.

“O, Sikandar Shah Saint, don’t you listen to us. You are wise one to do something”. Sikandar Shah looked at them and spoke, “I can’t do anything. All we can do is to pray and weep. Rest is up to the Saint and Allah”. A silence fell in crowd; someone coughed, cleared his throat and said, “We will write a letter to saint to sign it”. He paused, cleared his throat once more and resumed, “Yes, a letter. We will write it. O Sikandar, write it”.

“Yes, a letter. Yes, a letter” reverberated in the air, like a gush of wind. Letter was written to the saint. If the saint signs it, we will be free and if not, then……” Sikandar Shah stopped, unable to utter a word. “Destruction is our destiny” he whispered which was barely heard.

“We will meet tomorrow in the morning and see what lies in our fate”. Sikandar Shah said at last. People retreated and began praying again. He hurriedly went outside and looked at the cloudy sky. The moon has succumbed to overpowering clouds and everything around wore a grey look. He looked at sleeping people. He went to water tank, performed ablution, drank water in a gulp and headed towards the tomb. He was alone. He looked at the wall and its ghastly frowning look made his heartbeat skip. He heard a flutter. His eyes followed the sound but he saw nothing. An urge to leave the room took hold of him. But in next instant, he found himself fumbling in his side pocket. He drew a match and lit a candle. Yellow light flickered in the room. He peered closely throughout the room and saw a silhouette of some bird near the letter. He drew nearer and saw that it was a pigeon.

The pigeon poked its head at the letter and next instant held the letter in its beak and took a flight. Sikandar Shah looked at it. The pigeon rounded the tomb seven times exactly and flung itself out of room into the air of dark morning. Sikandar Shah threw his arms into air and followed the bird. The bird was gone. He rubbed his hand, exasperated and cried out, wake up, O Lazy bastards! Wake up, we are done forever! O Wake up”. His cries disturbed the dreams of sleeping people. And slowly they opened their eyes, rubbed them and stood up. They rushed towards Sikandar Shah and enquired in one voice, “What happened, O wise Sikandar”?

“The letter is gone. Our fate hangs in the skies”.

“What? How? What are you saying” Sikandar?

Shah narrated everything. People with sunken faces sighed and sat down on the ground. They were all silent, gazing towards sky.

From east, the sky slowly turned pink and giant sun emerged from behind the mountains. People were still gazing towards the sky. The pigeon was nowhere. A group of crows flew over the shrine, followed by lovely sparrows. From a distance an unseen bird was whistling as if

mocking the devotees. The sun was battling with clouds to come out. Suddenly a pigeon flock appeared. Every muscle of devotees twisted and their eyes shone. But soon their countenance turned sullen as their ‘pigeon’ was nowhere. They sighed. After a while, a dark speck was flying alone. People were startled, they rose up. The speck drew near and turned into a pigeon with a letter in its beak. It came towards people. A cry rose and eyes shone.

Sikandar Shah stood up. The pigeon came down almost touching his head and then rose high. He waved his arms in vain. After a minute, the pigeon came back. People shouted, ‘‘Catch it, catch it. Don’t let him go”. But the pigeon started its flight once more but couldn’t. From the crowd, a small stone emerged which hit the pigeon and broke its head. The letter flung out of its beak and flutteringly descended down like the withered autumnal leaf. The pigeon fell to the barren ground and lay motionless. Innumerable pairs of eyes were watching the descending letter. Sikandar Shah lifted his arms in air and caught the letter. Everything was silent. The letter fell in Sikandar’s hands. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and began to look at the letter. People with curious eyes circled around him.

“What is written for us? Is it signed? Sikandar Shah looked at it. He was disappointed. It was a blank letter – just blank, nothing written on it.

Is it signed? People demanded once again. Sikandar Shah felt choked.

‘No,’ he cried, dropped the letter to the ground and went inside the tomb. He knelt down at the tomb, buried his face in hands and started weeping. The people outside became speechless and silently sat on the ground. Only the creaking sound of their bones was heard. They looked at the sky, rose one by one and passed unnoticed out of the shrine, until the courtyard became desolated – so desolated that only Sikandar Shah’s occasional sobs disturbed the air.

Author is an aspiring short story writer who recently completed graduation in English Literature from Kashmir University.

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