The war ate the 14-year-olds. Such were the days, when young boys wielded swords and died on these dusts. Politicians, drunk in the revelry of power and greed, sent more and more elderly and the young to join the army to fight senseless battles in the name of the King. Not knowing whose wars they fought, these soldiers were the perfect cannon fodder for wars which took place some many moons ago, under the hot suns and rising sands of the desert Gulaag.

This desert, the Gulaag, was vast and dry. Hard to spot an oasis anywhere near it. Primarily, it was an empty space made up of rippled sand dunes and sporadic barrel cacti. Somehow, kings thought this arid land, the Gulaag, was ideal for battles.

At a time like this, a baby boy was born. His name was Hajji. His mother named him alone because his father was taken by the imperial force long before his birth. He grew up with his mother on a land like this without much opulence and certainly no opportunity. This small town, in eastern Gulaag, where the mother andherson lived, was on the border between two warring kingdoms.

The wars far from over, the godforsaken Gulaag couldn’t be appeased any time soon. Royal armies fed on the vulnerable, as did their sinful paymasters. This ever-hungry beast; no number of humans, camels, or horses was enough to satisfy the bottomless gut of this stunning desert.

Hajji’s mother, Jainab, had no other place to go. This was where she must stay, on this little patch of land her husband had left for her. Her fate tied up with the Gulaag. But she lived in constant fear, like every other mother of the land, afraid that the army would come after their sons. Hajji had just turned twelve. Jainab surveilled him around the clock and kept him close. Sometimes she’d send him to tend the sheep far out into the desert.

Today, in the first light of morning, Hajji took off. Before the sun rose, he took his flock from the shed at the back of their mud house and headed towards the Gulaag. At those quietest moments, the army slept at these hours. He walked nearly a quarter of a mile into the desert when he saw a great number of tents strewn across. Soldiers rested in those tents from a long night’s shift, the Gulaag at their feet like a sleeping giant. Hajji walked over the placid sands ahead of his herd. Then he heard a small cry beyond one of the rippled dunes. Hajji stopped. It was a feeble cry, almost a whimper. It didn’t sound like a human voice. He began to follow the sound. It was a human voice. There was a boy here about his age, crawling over sand slides. He appeared wounded and famished. Many cuts and bruises beset his little body. Hajji ran over and sat down by his side.

“Are you hurt?” Hajji asked.

The boy looked at him wide-eyed and nodded.

“Who did this to you?” Hajji asked again.

“Enemy,” he said. “Water, water, may I have some?”

Hajji looked around. Through serendipity, he found some prickly pears by the dunes. Under and over the sand he searched for something sharp. He found one; a flat pebble.

“Hang in there, okay?”

Hajji cut some pulp with the sharp edge of the pebble. Then he took the prickles out carefully. The pulp pouched into the corner of his long shirt, he asked the wounded boy to open his mouth. Hajji squeezed the pulp. Droplets filtered through straight into the boy’s mouth.

“I’ll have to piggyback you home with me if I can’t find a camel. Too dangerous to steal from them, the army there,” Hajji told the boy.

Too weak from his wounds, the boy said nothing. He waited for whatever arrangements Hajji could make. Hajji walked across the wide dune to look for a camel. Near the tents, he found one. The beast of the desert stood aloof, tied to a tent’s hook. When Hajji peeked through one of the tent’s openings, his eyes fell on several men sleeping too close for comfort. Some of them were child warriors. They slept huddled together, dead to the world. Hajji walked behind a tent. He saw a few guards drowning in sleep. He walked past them unnoticed and went up to the camel. He hid behind its hind legs. Then he moved his lithe body between the camel’s four lanky legs. At a snail’s pace, he got to the hook, where the camel was tied with a rope. He untied it and got the camel off the hook. He held it by its rein and brought it over. It was serendipitous that the army slept heavily.

Jainab sat on the threshold of her house. Hajji was late coming home. She boiled some chickpeas over a clay stove. “Where is my boy today? I hope soldiers haven’t kidnapped him!” A shiver ran right through her spine at the thought. This brought her memory back to when her husband lived with her. Some were happy memories, others not, all of them unforgettable.


This was where she had met him; not here, in this house, but someplace else on the Gulaag. She had been travelling with her nomadic tribe for days on end. When the evening fell, the cavalcade stopped to camp in the middle of nowhere. They anchored their tents into the sand. A cold blast blew. They lit a fire. Men and women sat around it. A man played a moon song on his fiddle. Others rose to perform a dance. The mesmerising song and the fire dance caused a moonlight slide on the open desert. The moon poured out its lights. They gushed like a silver stream of frozen waterfall. Floodlights touched the dunes.

There he was, a stranger. Only the heavens knew where he came from. He was a lad of twenty; she, barely eighteen. They sat across the desert fire. She thought of him as a rare breed. She gazed at him in the campfire. Caught off-guard in an enchantment, she couldn’t take her eyes off him, as one couldn’t if struck by a host of blue butterflies resting on the trunk of a giant kapok in the sun.

He had smiled and she shot him a shy glance. After that, they both knew there were no retreats. At midnight, when the tribe went to bed, she came out to wait under a starry sky. He was there. His long shadow loomed on the calm sand by the pile of the dying wood. She saw the shadow move, towering over her. He held her hand and pulled her towards him away from the stationary cavalcade. They stumbled on the sand and rolled over, one on top of the other in the glow of satin silver: the moon, the stars, before all the constellations.

The next day, when the sun rose over the dunes, gleaming in sparkled gold, he walked over to Jainab’s father with a marriage proposal. Jainab’s father liked him too, but he had questions. Where was he from? What did he do? He said he was a farmer. Jainab didn’t care what he did or where he lived. She was just happy to be with him. A wedding soon ensued and it took place in the desert. The man gave Jainab a gold coin and the short ceremony concluded in presence of the tribe.

That night, there was a feast in the open-air desert with wild dances and songs of the heart. On a sea of sand, an island of small fire burned. The women cooked up a storm. But there was another storm. A sand storm was unleashed towards the late night. It blew up russet particles everywhere, darkening the world to blindness. Everyone took cover within their own tents. While people lay low, only the stoic camels stood their ground. A new tent was set up for the newlyweds.

The storm yielded. It took some time. People came out of their tents. They sat down in the same place and began to sing again; songs of the heart under the desert moon. The newlyweds remained indoors. The night passed and a new sun rose. Time to move on. Jainab and her man packed their luggage, ready to say farewell to the tribe. There were no tears of separation. This was the nomadic way. Tears were unnecessary, because on life’s resolute journey, people were bound to meet again.

His name was Hashimuddin. As they set off, Jainab looked at him and softly asked where they were going. He told her they were going east. There was a desert tavern along the way, if she needed to rest. She said she was okay. Uncertainty didn’t bother her. That was a part of her nomadic upbringing. In the evening, they arrived at the destination; a mellowed sun, hurled over to the other end. Jainab could see a border between this kingdom and that; the enemy territory, with whom they were perpetually at war. Along the border, she also saw a big patch of greenery and a row of red mud houses. Hashimuddin veered the camel towards one and pulled its reins to a stop in the front of his house. He helped Jainab to get off.

Later in the day, after Jainab and Hashimuddin departed, the tribe sat around for a while. They were enjoying a cup of tea and making preparations to get the cavalcade back on the road. In a minute, they heard horses. The Gulaag was a hostile place. Sporadic wars broke out in a blink. Not surprisingly, a situation emerged out of the blue. The tribe found themselves amidst a volatile army, who held them captive at razor’s edge. Sharp blades pierced their hearts and slashed their necks like butchered chickens. The gold sand dunes turned scarlet with slain heads scattered all over, the cavalcade in anarchy. Their camels were taken. Children and women became spoils of war to be turned into murderous soldiers and sex slaves overnight.

Hashimuddin and Jainab escaped all this just by a few hours. They were on the edge of the eastern Gulaag when this happened, where cries couldn’t be heard. Jainab reached her new home safely, feeling warm, in love with her husband and without any knowledge of the massacre.

Such horrendous breakouts were common. It appeared this was some divine selection cut out for the people of this land alone. Religion, morality, philosophy, or any known wisdom proved to be futile. A place riddled with greed, corruption, and a complete disregard for any life, human or animal.


Jainab’s son was still not home. It was evening. She sat by the fire she had kindled to cook a meal. She looked out and saw blurry outlines across the space through a mirage; she continued to look earnestly. Gradually, they became more defined, small but clearer, after the mirage had lifted. She stood up in excitement: it was her son, Hajji. But Hajji was not alone. There was a camel and body laying over it. She rushed out into the open to meet them.


Just then, her thoughts bended; the day when the soldiers had come to take Hashimuddin. That morning, the sun streamed low through the cracks of the mud house windows. Hashimuddin and Jainab, deep in embrace on the threshold of the door. She was on her way to the kitchen. Hashimuddin held her back. He grabbed her right arm and pulled her towards his chest.

“Where do you think you’re going?”
Oh those sweet, sweet words hummed music to her ears. “To make breakfast.”

“No. I have to tie you to my long shirt to stop you running away.”

She laughed. Hashim gazed at her beautiful smile. “If you keep smiling like that now, I will never be able to let you go,” he whispered, kissing her henna-fragrant hair and losing his face in its mass.

She laughed again and Hashim pulled her into his chest, between his broad muscular shoulders.

“C’mon, you have to let me go sometime.”

“And do you think it’s fair to ask me to let you go? Hmm?” he asked.

“Gosh, you’re crazy, you know that?”

”Am I crazy? If you say so, then I am. Completely nuts, because I’m in love with you, my pretty one,” he said huskily.

Jainab could smell the hukkah in his breath as he whispered. “Oh, I could never, ever let you go.” Then he pressed all of her softness against his strong muscles. She lay on his chest like a ragdoll. She let him kiss her, caress her. She kissed him back; a million love hearts soared within her. Her high laughter jingled a crescendo note. Hashimuddin, her blue butterfly, was a rarity. Who had crossed her path on an evening of munificence? Her romance bloomed like an open sunflower in the wilderness.

Then a few days on, she realised that she was with child. She hadn’t told him yet. She didn’t have to, because her soft blushes and smiles revealed the secrets of her heart. She resided in the reverie of her own coloured world. As each day went by, Hashim watched her across the courtyard and wondered. Then one day, she took a bath and stood on the doorway of the red mud house, where Hashim could see her. Her wet hair cascaded down to her waist. Hashim couldn’t resist. He walked over and picked her up. A tremor ran right through her.

“What’s up? Why do you look so radiant?” he asked.
“Do you want to know? Do you really, really want to know?” she smiled.

“The shy smiles. The sidelong glances, You’re doing it again,” he said.

“What? What am I doing?”

“Making me crazy again, to fall head over heels in love with you.”

He held her narrow waist, lifted her up so he could look into her kohl-black eyes. At this moment, his pretty Jainab was the dark-kohl enchantress.

“You’re going to be a daddy soon,” she said gently, and lowered her blushing face.

“Whaaat? Oh dear God, when did you find out?”

He didn’t even wait for an answer, but carried her straight into the rooms and lay her down on the bed. She looked at him. Sparkles danced in her black eyes. He closed his eyes and kissed her forehead first; he took each piece of her body like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, one at a time, savouring, lingering, locking his wet lips into hers, then unlocking them soundingly, smooching to move on to her neck and down.

She felt euphoric. She had a vision. She saw millions of blue butterflies pasted on a tree trunk in the depths of the Amazon. A noise broke her spell. She heard hooves near her doorstep. They came closer. They were the army. The soldiers barged into the house through the flimsy door. The army of death wielded sharp swords. Hashim had already seen them first through the window. He picked her up and said, “Run, run to the neighbours.”

“What? What about you? Aren’t you coming too?”

“No, God willing, I’ll see you again one day. No goodbyes. Run along now.”

Fear paralysed her senses. She shook like a petrified rabbit at midnight before bright lights on a mountain pass. Hashim continued to scream as he backed off from her. She hid there on the outside, nailed to the wall. She heard scuffles inside the room. Then the noises of the hooves faded away. She saw them across the desert, Hashim’s back on a horse. He had been taken. That was the last of it. The end of her blue butterfly, which flew into the dusk in a flicker of a flutter.


Hajji and this other boy were much closer. But a dust rose and covered them. The obedient herd was right behind. Jainab ran towards them. She fell on the shifty sands and waited.


Her baby, Hajji, came at the stroke of midnight. He was born nine months after her husband had been taken. Neighbours assisted in the delivery. Her neighbours were like brothers and sisters to her, who tilled her land and helped her with everything. They sold her chickpeas in the market and brought money home to Jainab. Jainab paid them their dues. The day they took Hashim, other men in the neighbourhood were out to the market. They found Hashim at home and they took him. It was her fault that her kohl beauty, this dark spell kept him indoors. She blamed no one but herself in futile pursuit. For twelve years now, Hashim had been missing.


For all installments of “Blue Butterflies,” click here.