Story Contest 2017 #1 Results » Highly Commended Story - Awaiting Still
“Awaiting Still” by Anushree Sadhu, is the Highly Commended story in the senior category of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2017 which was organized by Kids World Fun.
Mount Zard-Kuh of the Zagros range stood like a quiet, dutiful Giant, as if guarding the inhabitants who lay asleep at its foot. The mount was a quiet place, with only the simple words and chores of the natives ever breaking its silence. The native village, seated in the vale too was a quiet, serene self as its surroundings. Life in this lap of nature, between its inception and end, had learnt to be peaceful amidst such tranquility.
However, at such a time of the year when days are the longest they can be and nights seem to fleet before they arrive, there was one soul who could not feel the calmness that pervaded life in this region at all times. In the warmth of the season, he was only at unease and out of such disquiet of the mind did this boy, in the middle of the night leave home in silence, not forever but only for the hour. He went out walking through the village till he reached the protecting Zard-Kuh and climbed up the beaten path which he knew only too well, for he was going to the place where he went every day to graze his herd of goats.
Ishmael, a young boy of fifteen and the goatherd of the village, climbed the hill till he reached the boulder and the grassy patch where he sat every day. Of all the fields, he liked this the best because from here, one could not only see the entire village but also the road which led to the nearest town, the vast stretch of the valley which Zard-Kuh overlooked, the narrow stream bordering the huts and further beyond, where sight becomes misty, the remaining mounts of the Zagros, standing in a half arc. He first sat down on the great boulder then finally reclined and heaved a sigh at the sight of the endless sky, where the sun of the day had been crumbled into a thousand stars and scattered all across.
To Ishmael the stars, the wind, the trees and the stream, all seemed restless, and unable to bear this wait any longer. Today, an entire year had passed since that momentous meeting. And lying under the blanket of the starry sky, Ishmael reminisced that day yet once again.
Ishmael unlike most other boys of his age was very fond of his task and loved the time that he spent on the hill, tending to the goats of the villagers. He would have the whole day to himself and that is how he liked to spend his time, in seclusion and contemplation. An old man of the village, Sheikh Ehtesham, who had once worked as an assistant in the town library had taught Ishmael to read and write when he was very young. He introduced him to the poets of the golden times and told him tales and legends of all ages. A few years ago, Ishmael’s father had given him the ancestral Ney, the shepherd’s flute, and it is these things that occupied his mind throughout the day. He would spend the time reading books he had borrowed from the old man, playing maqams on his Ney or strolling among his goats and singing of love and lovers.
The day that had remained with him ever after, he was on the hill with his herd like any other day. That day too he was seated on the boulder from where he could view the whole of his small world, playing one of his favorite maqams, Sarkuhi: on top of the mountains. It was still morning when he suddenly he noticed a trail of dust on the road from town, the trail was being created by a carriage. He stopped the music and gazed fascinatingly at whosoever was entering his world. As the carriage came closer, Ishmael could see its passenger, a young girl, and for a moment, as the carriage passed the site where he sat with his herd around and entering the village, he could see the girl’s face and their eyes met for the briefest second. In that second was hidden a forever. Ishmael saw the girl’s face from under the headscarf and found her to be most beautiful person he had ever seen. The image remained transfixed in front of his eyes long after the carriage had gone.
That day, the quiet village did suddenly liven up in excitement at the arrival, rather return of this girl, and Ishmael too was much intrigued by this girl, but unable to leave his goatherd he was compelled to stay. However, he, from that distance, continued to follow the carriage one of the corners of the settlement and stop at the widow’s house at the corner. The girl rushed out to modest hut an Ishmael saw no more of her with his eyes but his mind kept on remembering her face. The entire day Ishmael could see a number of people visiting the widow’s hut, some with gifts. The women hugged and kissed the girl in greetings, and after a long time could Ishmael recall what his mother had once said of the widow. The woman’s husband when alive, was a chauffeur in the town and the girl too lived in the town with her father, working as maid. Though, how she came to own a carriage was a mystery to Ishmael.
After some time, Ishmael stopped looking at the hut for it only pained him not to be able to see her again. Once again, he tried strolling though there were no songs on his lips, only an image transfixed in front of his eyes. By afternoon he was trying to play the Ney again seated atop the rock, yet again he found himself losing his thoughts.
“Salaam,” a voice from behind startled him. He looked around to see her standing not ten feet away from him. He was taken aback for it was not expected for a girl to meet a boy just like this. He slid down the rock to stand facing her, and greeted her too. Her clothes, he noticed, though consisting of the customary head-scarf and roopoosh had a distinct urban look to it. The head-scarf was quite colorful, unlike any that he had seen, and the knee length roopoosh was not as loose as is habitual. He dared not look up at her face though.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” asked the girl. Ishmael could not help but look at her this time, confused by this remark. He searched for a trace of familiarity and yet found none. Understanding his silence correctly, she said, “we met at Sheikh Ehtesham’s one day, a long time back.”
The girl looked at him hopefully when a distant evening came to Ishmael’s mind. An evening from not less than ten years ago, when a man and daughter had arrived during one of his lessons with the Sheikh. Ishmael remembered the Sheikh telling them of the legendary simorgh bird together. Something more came to his mind too, the story of the other legendary bird, “Huma”
The girl smiled in pleasure at this recollection, “And do you remember the story?”
He did. He remembered everything of that evening now. After the first story of the Simorgh, the Sheikh had told about the Huma bird, after whom this girl was named. The Huma was a legend, a bird that always flies in the skies, invisibly high and even a glimpse of this bird brought immense joy for life.
To Huma, Ishmael nodded, “And I also remember you did not want to leave for town that day.”
“And you convinced me to go by saying the next time I come, we’ll both go looking for that it in koh-i-qaf, the fairyland where it lives.” She said. Ishmael kept quiet at this. He looked into her eyes and was lost in her beauty, at the same time, was left wondering at how she managed to remember all about their brief meeting of so long ago. But his thoughts were interrupted when she said, “but that won’t be possible today. I have to leave now.”
“So soon?” Ishmael asked, suddenly squirming within. His moment’s ecstasy and wonder all vanished in face of this revelation. She was not to stay here, only pass through.
“The carriage has been lent to me by the lady at whose I work, she’s a generous lady but I can’t stay for long. I just wanted to meet my mother once” She said, “and meet you too.”
Ishmael’s heart throbbed at those last words, “I don’t want you to leave”
“I have to”, she said resignedly.
“When will you be back?”
Huma kept silent for a while. Then said in a diminishing voice, “it’ll be a while.”
“How long?” he asked yet again, though doubly fearful of the answer.
“I don’t know” she barely whispered.
“I will be waiting here” he said, for he knew that after this day he will forever wait for this girl.
“I will come back. I promise.”
And those were the last words she said before turning to leave.
Ishmael waited near the boulder till the carriage pulled out and stood there for one more glimpse of her. This time however, Huma looked at him for long till he was out of sight. At dusk, Ishmael took the herd back to the village, returning each goat to its respective owner. On reaching home, he overheard conversation between his mother and the neighbor,
“…yes, that is what her mother said, that the doctor’s family for whom she works will be moving to Azerbaijan and that she’ll go along with them too.” Said the neighbor, “she’s worked a long time for them after all, and they have taken good care of her too”
Ishmael stopped dead in his tracks and stood listening, “Azerbaijan?” his mother spoke, “but that’s another country entirely. But what of her mother? Won’t she ever come back?”
“She told her mother that she’ll come back but you know what these children are like, who knows if we’ll ever even see her again.”
“Ishmael, what happened?” his mother called out and suddenly realizing his immobility he walked on while his mother said that supper would be ready soon. Going inside, he only thought Azerbaijan… you never told me you’re going so far away.
For a second he felt so angry for feeling anything for this girl whom he did not know at all. He derided himself and just wanted to forget her forever, but then he remembered her promise. Could she have meant it? She had come to meet him after all.
After an hour, he decided that he will keep the word he gave at least, that he’ll be here, waiting for her. Somewhere he felt she’ll be true to her word and will return, and in that case, he should be there when she returns.
Ishmael lay under the sky still, wondering if his Huma would ever return. In the past few months, whenever he saw a trail of dust in the distant horizon he would pray for her, but till date his prayers had not been answered. Sometimes at moments of despair, he would remember the story and think that the bird never alights but only a glimpse can be caught. Perhaps he was asking too much from life, he had got two meetings with her after all, maybe that is all he is to get of the girl named after the bird of paradise. But every time he tried to let go he would remember her promise, and would live with hopes all anew.
The sky was getting paler with the break of day, and he had to go home. But then he saw in the horizon a trail of dust after a carriage, glowing like a light in the distance. The carriage was too far yet, but his hopes were alive, and he thought, could it be her?