She was a nervous wreck just from this wait. Hajji and his companion were home at last. He ran to her and picked her up. She kissed and hugged him.

“Oh! What’s this? Why were you so late? I thought they’d taken you,” she said exasperated.

“No, but I found someone on the edge of the Gulaag. He’s a wounded child soldier.”

“Right. Let’s bring him in, then, shall we?”

Both Jainab and Hajji walked up to the animal and slid the boy off the camel’s back. They carried him into the house, just the way Hashimuddin had carried her as a bride over the threshold of the mud house. The boy had many injuries, she noted, as she laid him down in bed. It was a huge task fixing his wounds. He was a cog in their home, another mouth to feed. But her motherly instincts egged her on to nurse him and to protect this child. Nearly all night, Jainab knelt before him and rubbed off his blood with a loincloth soaked in warm water. His wounds were deep. She applied herbal medicines and put a bandage across his arms and waist. Towards dawn, the boy opened his eyes and asked for water. Hajji ran out to the closest well into the desert through the backdoor and brought back a jar of water. Jainab poured some into the boy’s dry lips. She dressed the wounds and thought that this would take some time to recover.

Jainab got up to brew some tea and breakfast in the kitchen. She made falafel. She asked Hajji to come outside. Hajji’s eyes were bloodshot from sleep deprivation. She gave him red tea in a glass and some falafel with dry dates on a platter.

“These are really nice,” he said. “I have been so hungry and tired since last night. I don’t think I can tend the sheep today.”

“That’s okay. You don’t need to go anywhere. After breakfast, go sleep with the boy. Do you know his name?” Jainab asked.

“No, he was too weak to talk. I was lucky to even bring him home. I don’t even know if he’s a friend or an enemy.”

“Don’t worry about that. It’s not our place to judge the wounded. We’ll do our best to heal him so he can go back to his parents. You took great risks stealing that camel from the soldiers’ camp, though. Where was the herd?”

“Oh! They were around, chewing cactus flowers,” Hajji said with a smile and rose to go into his room.

Jainab had just finished in the kitchen when she heard the familiar sounds of the hooves again. The horses were back, which meant the soldiers must be back too, to take someone. She rushed into the room and carried the boy, asking Hajji to come with her. She went through the backdoor into the desert, straight to the well. She put Hajji in one bucket and the boy in another. The long-roped buckets were knotted up on a pole over the well. Hajji had a few tricks up his sleeves, too. With his nimble fingers, he tied two more tight knots to make a shorter rope for buckets to fall but remain afloat just above the water. She lowered the buckets into the well and saw the men looking for them inside the house, anyone, someone. She slipped behind the well and sat there stuck to its side like a fallen wallflower, not daring to even breathe. Hajji sat quietly in the tad darkness of the well with the other boy.

First off, the men went into the shed. Her neighbour had left piles of shearer’s sheepskin a couple of weeks ago. They took a pitchfork and poked at the edge of the shearer’s pile. They even forked some out of the depths into the corner of the pile. The men gazed at the well, but thought nothing of it. After a while, they left.

That was an ingenious plan, thought Jainab, letting out a sigh of relief. When she came out of hiding, she saw hoof marks on the sand’s outbound trail. She stood and rolled the children back up. They were sweating from fear and the heat. The dust rose from the horses’ gallops and caused irritation in their throats. “The dust should settle down soon,” she told them as she brought them inside. She lay them down on the kilim, spread out on the floor. Then she grabbed a hand fan to fan them until Hajji fell sleep. The wounded boy opened his eyes to take a slit-look at her. After that, he lost consciousness. Jainab sprinkled water on his little pale face, and he opened his eyes again for a second. He smiled, then went back to sleep. Increasingly tired from it all, Jainab lay down by her children. Her lids pressed down.

Like an hourglass, the sands slid as time passed, and it was nearly seven days since Hajji brought the boy home. On the morning of the seventh day, she woke up next to Hajji and the boy. By now, the boy showed clear signs of improvement. He curled up in bed and ate for the first time in seven days, and didn’t feel hot or cold. The hooves had not returned just yet. They left them in peace today, to fight another day. The boys sat together outside on the yard, drinking red hot tea which Jainab poured out of a vaporous kettle. She placed it back on the hot clay stove. A neighbour pushed in through the doors.

“I came for my wool,” he said.

“Sure, pick them up from the shed,” she said.

“Who is this?” he asked, looking at the new boy.

“Oh! This is Hajji’s cousin, come here to spend a few days with us.”

“I didn’t know you had any relatives left.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Didn’t your tribe get wiped out on the Gulaag some twelve years ago?”

“Did they? What are you saying?” she asked.

“Twelve years have passed and you didn’t know?”

“Know what? Why would you think it’s us?”

“Because I was there, at your wedding.”

“What? And it took you twelve years to tell me this?” she was shocked.

“Well, you know how it is. The day the army butchered your tribe, they took me. But I proved to be not much of a soldier at all. One dark night, when they lay drunk in the arms of women from your tribe, I took a camel and escaped. It took me days to get home, but when I did, I saw you with Hashimuddin in this house. I was afraid. I hid for many days and didn’t talk to anyone.”

“Stop! Please stop. Say no more!” Jainab began to cry.

Jainab didn’t know what had happened to her tribe. No news travelled thus far. In her heart, she cherished the idea that her tribe was safe somewhere within the four corners of the world. Back in the day, nomads always didn’t exchange news or meet for many years. But this, this distressing news turned her world inside out; she wished these ill tidings never reached her doors. She wished this quiet neighbour had remained so. Her grief rose like a dust cloud blowing in turmoil, these moments of unsettled thoughts and opaque visions and grief, which would settle down one day as surely as dust did. But it collected in a lump to corner her stricken heart.

As the days went by, Jainab grew paler. She took to bed. Hajji and the boy did what they could to revive her, but they failed. One day, the boy, now strong enough to move, suggested to Hajji, “Why don’t I go home and bring my parents here so they could take care of your mother?”

“What? Are you crazy? The army will take you back if they find you,” Hajji said.

“Well, I’ll just have to take my chances. If we don’t take care of your mother, she will die,” he said. “I shall go at night, under the cover of darkness.”

“Where do you even live?” Hajji asked.

“Just across the border. However, I am from the enemy camp, so you know. But we are brothers now, so it doesn’t matter. You’ve saved me, Hajji.”

Hajji kept quiet. “Can you go alone? Because I can’t leave my mother like this in her present condition. I wish that neighbour had never opened his mouth.”

“I know. I also wish that he hadn’t,” the boy said.

“It’s good, though, that mum told him you were my cousin,” Hajji said.

The boy nodded. “Your mum’s really good; she tried to protect me in case he turned out to be a dobber.”

“Yeah, she’s good,” Hajji agreed.

“Okay, then, I’ll set out tonight and bring my father back.”

“You don’t need to because our neighbours will help my mother get better,” suggested Hajji.

“Still, I need to go now. I miss my father and my mother. And the border is just here; I can even see it.”

“Well, okay then, if you want to go, then go. I hope I won’t see you on the Gulaag again.”

“I hope not.”

That night, Hajji and the boy sneaked out. They ran over the delible, dense sands; their little footsteps impressed on them. Hajji took him as far as the border. The boys hugged each other and kissed on the cheeks. And just when the boy turned to go, they saw men marching straight towards them. They ambushed them under their naked sword, which glimmered in the moonlight. The desert air reeked of blood and sweat. The boys began to tremble from the suddenness of it all. They didn’t even get a chance to run. They began to cry. It didn’t matter whether these were foes or friends. At the end of the day, all became decomposed bodies dumped on Gulaag’s tail-road just the same.

Jainab, delirious from grief, called out, “Hajji! Hajji!” But Hajji was nowhere. She forced herself to get out of bed to search for him. Then she saw the nearly gone little footprints on the sand in the direction of the border. Jainab feared the worst. She dragged herself to her quiet neighbour’s house and knocked on the door. She told him about the footprints on the sand.

“If the army has taken them, then I may have an idea where they may have taken them.”

“Can you help, brother? As you know, I have no one in this world except Hajji.”

“I know, sister, Jainab. I am sorry I have brought you such bad news. But I thought in twelve years that you must have heard something, If I had known…”

“These past twelve years have passed like a dream. I don’t even think I saw the risings of the moon or the settings of the sun. My days have been long, as have been my nights. Now I’m really afraid.”

“Please, do not worry. Although I have never had enough courage to face up to the army, I must own up to you, for putting you through this. I am not bad, but I’m also not brave.”

Jainab had to leave. She went back to her house while her quiet neighbour figured out what to do. He knew soldiers’ behaviour like the back of his hand. He knew exactly what they did and when. All he had to do was muster the courage. Towards late night, he set out in the direction of the nearly-fading footprints. With some measure of precision, these footprints led to army tents tethered along the western border. He proceeded with caution. He even stumbled a few times on the sand. His breathing short and shallow, he approached the army tents. As he drew closer, he heard the obnoxious clamour of drunkenness. In the quiet of the night, such sounds only meant they were rapt in sordid pleasure. Stealthily, he continued on his tract to look for the boys. On the southern point, suppressed cries wafted through the air. He opened a tent and found the boys, perched up on tenterhooks. They didn’t see him at first. In the dying torch, he walked towards them and whispered, “I am your Uncle Abdallah, your neighbour, I’ve come to save you.”

The boys went very quiet for some time. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Then Hajji said, “I saw them put a sword there in the corner.”

“Is that Hajji?” Abdallah asked.


“I’m here too,” whispered the other boy.

“What’s your name, boy?” Abdallah asked.


“Okay, I’m going to unhook you both and get you out of here, okay?”

Then they heard someone cough outside the tent. Abdallah hid away in a dark corner. A man peeked through and saw the boys’ straight faces. He went away. Abdallah crawled towards the boys and brought them down on the floor. The suspension caused them trepidation. They sat on the floor to catch their breath and then tiptoed to the egress. Once they were out, they ran in the opposite direction. The sands slowed them down and served almost as an impediment. But resilience saved them in the end. They crossed the border into the next kingdom.

Hajji’s enemy kingdom was Hussain’s homeland. The sun was now up. But Hussain couldn’t remember the way to his village. He knew a name: Kundi. They stopped by and asked for directions to get to Kundi. It took them another full day. By the time they arrived there, they were famished. They found a tea stall on the outskirts of a lush village. The three sat down to eat breakfast. An errand boy served them a platter of yoghurt sauce with dried fruits, falafel, wild chickpea salad, flat breads, and fried eggs. They could see Kundi from here. The manager of the restaurant had his back towards them. He grabbed a glass of piping hot red tea and turned around. Hussain saw him first. He screamed, “Father, father.”

The man heard Hussain and ran towards him. Abdallah now saw him, too, and a chill ran through him.

“Hashimuddin?” he cried out.

“Who’s that?” the man asked and came running to pick up his Hussain. “My name is Hassan Karemi, not Hashimuddin?”

“But that’s impossible. I was at your wedding. I am your neighbour. I saw you and sister Jainab together all the time before our army took you,” Abdallah had to say.

“Shush! Speak softly,” he looked around timidly, then said in a whisper. “What are you saying? Anyway, you brought my son back. I would like to welcome you to my house as my guest tonight.”

This was extraordinary. In his wildest dreams, Abdallah couldn’t think of this. He accepted the invitation. He had to find out more for sister Jainab. This betrayal he couldn’t condone. Hashimuddin living a dual life under a different name with a wife present.

At night, a party was held at Hashimuddin’s place. Among many others, there were his in-laws: his father and uncles-in-law, the entire clan. Abdallah sat down with the father-in-law. They exchanged greetings, then talksturned to politics and war. He told Abdallah how Hussain was abducted while playing with friends. Abdallah asked, “How did you meet Hussain’s father?”

“Oh! That? Another long story. We found him on the edge of the Gulaag, left to die. He was unconscious and wounded. My brother was passing through one midnight. He found him under the lantern and brought him home. We revived him. But he couldn’t remember anything. He was as good as dead. After six months, when he was well again, he started to go out but was very weak. He still walks with a limp. He is only fit to do desk work. The army lost interest in him, but they took his son instead. We’re grateful to you for bringing him back. We need to be careful next time.”

Abdallah didn’t say much after that, but he watched Hajji playing with the kid. Technically, they were in the enemy camp, but surprisingly, no one asked where they were from. The party ended. Everyone went to bed. At daybreak, Abdallah woke up. He saw the white crack of light run through the sky. When he came out, he saw Hashimuddin at the gate. They exchanged looks.

“What my father-in-law told you is incorrect. My memory of Jainab has always been intact. My name is not Hashimuddin but Hassan Karemi. As much as I wanted to tell Jainab the truth, I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell her that I was from across the border, Kundi, the enemy land, because I feared I would lose her. Here, I could not tell them about Jainab because of severe punishments for marrying an enemy,” he stopped. “If I had told them the entire truth, I would be hanging from the tall spikes by now, like many in the market square,” he asked after a pause. “My Jainab was with child. Have you seen the child?”

“Yes, little Hajji there? That’s him, your little boy. Why do you not leave, leave now with us? People leave all the time, no?” Abdallah asked.

“They do. War is crazy. It does crazy things to people. I do believe that my in-laws would send an army after me if I left. There’s Hussain now as well as Hajji, my two boys. The hunt for me would go on. They’ll take my sons,” he said. “Where could I hide them on the open Gulaag?” Anyhow, to go back to my story, when I got better, my in-laws forced me into this marriage to their daughter, a girl whom no man would have because of her scarred face from fire burns. They have already shackled me, made me a prisoner of their whim. They reminded me of how I owed them my life.”

“That’s rubbish. You could’ve tried to leave. Did you at least try? Your sons can be taken any time, regardless?” Abdallah persisted.

“No, I couldn’t. They kept a close watch. This place is full of spies. No one trusts anyone.”

“What do you want me to tell sister Jainab, then?”

“It’s complicated. The war is upon us. Hussain here, Hajji over in the enemy land, a life in fragments. Jainab my love, magic…all this… like a mirage, ” he murmured.

Hashimuddin went up to Hajji and picked him up. He gave him a tight hug and a kiss. He gave them a camel to cross the formidable border and saw them gradually reduced to a dot, an apparition along the far side of the horizon. The days of the hummingbirds and the blue butterflies were numbered. Also lost to the cold war were the fire-dances and the songs of the full moon.


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

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1