SCENE: Three and a half miles across the border—Kohat-way.
Time: The edge of sunset. Single room, reached by a ladder from the ground. An Afghan woman, wrapped in a red cotton quilt, squats on the floor trimming a small kerosene lamp. Her husband, an elderly Afghan with a dyed beard, lies on a native cot, covered by a striped blue and white cloth. He is wounded in the knee and hip. A government rifle leans against the cot. Their son, aged twenty, kneels beside him, unfolding a letter. As the mother places the lighted lamp in a recess in the wall the son picks up the rifle and pushes the half-opened door home with the butt. The wife passes her husband a filled pipe of tobacco, blowing on the charcoal ball in the bowl.
SON [as he unfolds letter]. It is from France. His Regiment is still there.
FATHER. What does he say about the money?
SON [reading]. “I am made easy by the news that you are now receiving my pay-allotment regularly. You may depend upon its coming every month henceforward. I have also sent eleven rupees over and above the allotment. It is a gift toward the purchase of the machine needed in your business.”
FATHER [drawing a cheap nickel-plated revolver from his breast]. It is a good machine, and he is a good son. What else?
SON. He says: “You tell me our enemies have killed my uncle and my brother, beside wounding our father. I am very far away and can give no help whatever. It is a matter for great regret. Our enemies are now two lives to the good against us. We must take our revenge quickly. The responsibility, I suppose, is altogether on the head of my youngest brother.”
FATHER. But I am still good for sitting shots.
MOTHER [soothingly]. Ah! But he means to think over all the arrangements. Wounded men cannot think clearly till the fever is out of the wound.
SON [reading]. “My youngest brother said he would enlist after me when the harvest was gathered. That is now out of the question. Tell him he must attend to the work in hand.” That is true, I cannot enlist now. “Tell him not to wander about after the people who did the actual killing. They will probably have taken refuge on the government side of the border.” That is true too. It is exactly what they did. “Even up the account from the nearest household of our enemies. This will force the murderers for their honor’s sake to return and attend to their proper business, when — God willing — they can be added as a bonus. Take our revenge quickly.”
FATHER [stroking beard]. This is all wisdom. I have a man for a son. What else does he say, Akbar?
SON. He says: “I have a letter from Kohat telling me that a certain man of a family that we know is coming out here with a draft in order to settle with me for an account which he says I opened.”
MOTHER [quickly]. Would that be Gul Shere Khan — about that Peshawari girl?
SON. Perhaps. But Ahmed is not afraid. Listen! He says: “If that man or even his brothers wish to come to France after me I shall be very pleased. If, in fact, anyone wishes to kill me let them by all means come out. I am here present in the field of battle. I have placed my life on a tray. The people in our country who talk about killing are children. They have not seen the reality of things. We do not turn our heads when forty are killed at a breath. Men are swallowed up or blown apart here as one divides meat. When we are in the trenches there is no time to strike a blow on private account. When we are at rest in the villages one’s lust for killing has been satisfied. Two men joined us last month to look after a close friend of mine with whom they had a private account. They were great swashbucklers at first. They even volunteered to go into the trenches, though it was not their turn of duty. They expected their account could be settled during some battle. Since that turn of duty they have become quite meek. They had, till then, only seen men killed by ones and twos, half a mile separating them. This business was like flies on sugar. Have no fear for me, therefore, no matter who joins the Regiment. It needs a very fierce stomach to add anything to our government ration.”
MOTHER. He writes like a poet, my son. That is wonderful writing.
FATHER. All the young men write the same with regard to the war. It satisfies all desires. What else does he say?
SON [summarizing]. He says that he is well fed and has learned to drink the French coffee. He says there are two sorts of French tobacco — one yellow, one blue. The blue, he says, is the best. They are named for the papers they are wrapped in. He says on no account must we send him any opium or drugs, because the punishment is severe and the doctors are quick to discover. He desires to be sent to him some strong hair dye, of the sort that our father uses.
MOTHER [with a gesture]. Hair dye! He! He is a child. What’s he been doing?
SON. He says he wishes to win favor from his native officer, whose white hairs are showing and who has no dye. He says he will repay the cost and that no charges are made for the parcel. It must be very strong henna dye.
MOTHER [laughing]. It shall be. I will make it myself. A start it gave me to hear him ask for dyes! They are not due for another twenty years.
FATHER [fretfully]. Read it! Read it all as it is written, word for word. What else does he say?
SON. He speaks of the country of the French. Listen! He says: “This country is full of precious objects, such as grain, plows and implements, and sheep which lie about the fields by day with none to guard them. The French are a virtuous people and do not steal from each other. If a man merely approaches toward anything there are eyes watching him. To take a chicken is to loosen the tongues of fifty old women. I was warned on joining that the testimony of one such would outweigh the testimony of six honorable Pathans. It is true. Money and valuables are, therefore, left openly in houses. None dare even to look at them with a covetous eye. I have seen two hundred rupees’ worth of clothing hung up on a nail. None knew the owner, yet it remained till her return.”
MOTHER. That is the country for me! Dresses worth two hundred rupees hanging on nails! Princesses all they must be.
SON [continuing]. Listen to these fresh marvels. He says: “We reside in brick houses with painted walls of flowers and birds; we sit upon chairs covered with silks. We sleep on high beds that cost a hundred rupees each. There is glass in all the doors and windows; the abundance of iron and brass, pottery and copper kitchen utensils is not to be estimated. Every house is a palace of entertainment filled with clocks, lamps, candlesticks, gildings and images.”
FATHER. What a country! What a country! How much will he be able to bring back of it all?
SON. He says: “The inhabitants defend their possessions to the uttermost — even down to the value of half a chicken or a sheep’s kidney. They do not keep their money in their houses, but send it away on loan. They talk among themselves of loans and pledges and the gaining of money, just as we do. We Indian troops are esteemed and honored by all; by the children specially. These children wear no jewelry. Therefore, there are no murders committed for the sake of ornaments, except by the enemy. These children resemble small moons. They make mud figures in their play, of men and horses. He who can add figures of oxen, elephants and palanquins is highly praised. Do you remember when I used to make them?”
MOTHER. Do I remember? Am I a block of wood or an old churn? Go on, Akbar! What of my child?
SON. He says: “When the children are not in the school they are at work in the fields from their earliest years. They soon lose all fear of us soldiers, and drill us up and down the streets of the villages. The smallest salute on all occasions. They suffer little from sickness. The old women here are skillful in medicines. They dry the leaves of trees and give them for a drink against diseases. One old woman gave me a herb to chew for a worm in my tooth [toothache] which cured me in an hour.”
MOTHER. God reward that woman! I wonder what she used.
SON. He says: “She is my French mother.”
MOTHER. What-t! How many mothers has a man? But God reward her none the less. It must have been that old double tooth at the back on the left lower side, for I remember—
FATHER. Let it wait. It is cured now. What else does he write?
SON. He writes, making excuses for not having written. He says: “I have been so occupied and sent from one place to another that on several occasions I have missed the post. I know you must have experienced anxiety. But do not be displeased. Let my mother remember that I can only write when I have opportunity, and the only remedy for helplessness is patience.”
FATHER [groaning]. Ah! He has not yet been wounded, and he sets himself up for a physician.
MOTHER. He speaks wisely and beautifully. But what of his “French” mother — burn her!
SON. He says: “Moreover, this French mother of mine in France is displeased with me if I do not write to her about my welfare. My mother, like you, my French mother does all she can for my welfare. I cannot write sufficiently in praise of what she does for me. When I was in the village behind the trench, if, on any day, by reason of duty, I did not return till evening, she, herself, would come in search of me and lead me back to the house.
MOTHER. Aha! She knew! I wish I could have caught him by the other ear!
SON. He says: “And when I was sent away on duty to another village, and so could not find time to write either to you or to her, she came close to the place where I was, and where no one is permitted to come, and asked to see her boy. She brought with her a great parcel of things for me to eat. What more am I to say for the concern she has for my welfare?”
MOTHER. Fools all old women are! May God reward that Kafir woman for her kindness, and her children after her. . . . As though any orders could keep out a mother! Does he say what she resembles in the face?
SON. No. He goes on to speak more about the customs of the French. He says: “The new men who join us come believing they are in the country of the Rakshas [Demons]. They are told this by the ignorant on their departure. It is always cold here. Many clothes are worn. The sun is absent. The wet is present. Yet this France is a country created by Allah, and its people are manifestly a reasonable people, with reason for all they do. The windows of their houses are well barred. The doors are strong, with locks of a sort I have never before felt. Their dogs are faithful. They gather in and keep their kine and their asses and their hens under their hands at night. Their cattle graze and return at the proper hour in charge of the children. They prune their fruit trees as carefully as a barber attends to a man’s nostrils and ears. The old women spin, walking up and down. Scissors, needles, threads and buttons are exposed for sale on stalls in a market. They carry hens by the feet. Butchers sell dressed portions of fowls and sheep ready to be cooked. There is aniseed, coriander, and very good garlic.”
MOTHER. But all this — but all this is our own way —
SON. He says so. He says: “Seeing these things, the new men are relieved in their minds. Do not be anxious for me. These people precisely resemble all mankind. They are, however, idolaters. They do not speak to any of us about their religion. Their Imams (Priests) are old men of pious appearance, living in poverty. They go about their religious offices, even while the shells fall. Their God is called Bandir [Ban Dieu?]. There is also the Bibbee Miriam [the Virgin Mary]. She is worshiped on account of the intelligence and capacity of the women.”
FATHER. Hmm! Ah! This traveling about is bad for the young. Women are women — world over. What else, Akbar?
SON [reading]. “There are holy women in this country, dressed in black, who wear horns of white cloth on their heads. They, too, are without any sort of fear of death from the falling shells. I am acquainted with one such, who often commands me to carry vegetables from the market to the house which they inhabit. It is filled with the fatherless. She is very old, very highborn, and of irascible temper. All men call her Mother. The colonel himself salutes. Thus are all sorts mingled in this country of France.”
MOTHER. Ha! Well, at least that holy woman was well-born, but she is too free with her tongue. Go on!
SON. He says: “Through my skill with my rifle I have been made a sharpshooter. A special place is given to me to shoot at the enemy singly. This was old work to me. This country was flat and open at the beginning. In time it became all kandari-kauderi, cut up with trenches, sungars and byways in the earth. Their faces show well behind the loopholes of their sungars. The distance was less than three hundred yards. Great cunning was needed. Before they grew careful, I accounted for nine in five days. It is more difficult by night. They then send up fireballs which light all the ground. This is a good arrangement, but the expense would be too great for poor people.”
FATHER. He thinks of everything — everything! Even of the terrible cost for us poor people.
SON [reading]. “I attended the funeral of a certain French child. She was known to us all by the name of Marri, which is Miriam. She would openly claim the Regiment for her own regiment in the face of the colonel walking in the street. She was slain by a shell while grazing cattle. What remained was carried upon a litter precisely after our custom. There were no hired mourners. All mourners walked slowly behind the litter, the women with the men. It is not the custom to scream or beat the breast. They recite all prayers above the grave itself, for they reckon the burial ground to be holy. The prayers are recited by the Imam of the village. The grave is not bricked and there is no recess. They do not know that the Two Angels visit the dead. They say at the end, ‘Peace and Mercy be on you.’”
MOTHER. One sees as he writes. He would have made a great priest, this son of ours. So they pray over their dead, out yonder, those foreigners!
FATHER. Even a Kafir may pray, but — they are manifestly Kafirs or they would not pray in a graveyard. Go on!
SON. “When their prayers were done, our Havildar-Major, who is orthodox, recited the appropriate verse from the Koran, and cast a little mud into the grave. The Imam of the village then embraced him. I do not know if this is the custom. The French weep very little. The French women are small-handed and small-footed. They bear themselves in walking as though they were of birth and descent. They commune with themselves, walking up and down. Their lips move. This is on account of their dead. They are never abashed or at a loss for words. They forget nothing. Nothing either do they forgive.”
MOTHER. Good! Very good! That is the right honor.
SON. Listen! He says: “Each village keeps a written account of all that the enemy has done against it. If a life — a life, whether it be man or priest, or hostage, or woman, or babe. Every horn driven off; and every feather; all bricks and tiles broken, all things burned, and their price, are written in the account. The shames and the insults are also written. There is no price against them.”
FATHER. This is without flaw! This is a people! There is never any price for shame offered. And they write it all down. Marvelous!
SON. Yes. He says: “Each village keeps its own tally and all tallies go to the government to be filed. The whole of the country of France is in one great account against the enemy — for the loss, for the lives, and for the shames done. It has been kept from the first. The women keep it with the men. All French women read, write and cast accounts from youth. By this they are able to keep the great account against the enemy. I think that it is good that our girls should get schooling like this. Then we shall have no more confusion in our accounts. It is only to add up the sums lost and the lives. We should teach our girls. We are fools compared with these people.”
MOTHER. But a Pathani girl remembers without all this bookwork. Who of any decent descent ever forgot a debt? He must he sickening for illness to write thus.
FATHER. One should not forget. Yet we depend on songs and tales. It is more secure — certainly, it is more businesslike — that a written account should be kept. Since it is the men who must pay off the debt, why should not the women keep it?
MOTHER. They can keep tally on a stick or a distaff. It is unnecessary for a girl to scribble in books. They never come to good ends. They end by —
SON. Sometimes, my mother; sometimes. On the government side of the border women are taught to read and write, and cast accounts, and —
MOTHER [with intention]. Far be the day when such a one is brought to my house as a bride! For I say —
FATHER. No matter. What does he say about those French women?
SON. He says: “They are not divided in opinion as to which of their enemies shall be sought after first. They say: ‘Let us even the account every day and night out of the nearest assembly of the enemy, and when we have brought all the enemy into the right way of thinking we can demand the very people who did the shame and offenses. In the meantime let it be any life.’ This is good counsel for us in our account, oh, my mother.”
FATHER [after a pause]. True! True! It is good advice. Let it be any life. . . . Is that all?
SON. That is all. “Let it be any life.” And I think so too.
MOTHER. “Any life!” Even so! And then we can write to him quickly that we have taken our revenge quickly. [She reaches for her husband’s rifle, which she passes over to her son, who stretches his hand toward it, with a glance at his father.]
FATHER. On your head, Akbar, the account must lie — at least till I am better. Do you try tonight?
SON. Maybe! I wish we had the high-price illuminating fireballs he spoke of. [Half rises.]
MOTHER. Wait a little. There is the call for the Ishr [the evening prayer].
MUEZZIN [in the village mosque without, as the first stars show]. God is great! God is great! God is great! I bear witness, and so on.
[The family compose themselves for evening prayer.]
Featured image: “The people in our country who talk about killing are children. They have not seen the reality of things.” (Harvey Dunn / SEPS)
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