The crunch of dried leaves underfoot did little to alleviate the stifling silence that hung over the deserted village. Every step brought back memories of a day that lay forgotten by the world. A day that Safiyya could never forget.
Stopping at the front of her old house Safiyya slowly steps inside. She has to duck to get under the broken door, the top hinge gone. Taking a small step inside she pauses and looks hesitantly around. Broken furniture and trinkets line the hallway leading to the kitchen and bedrooms. The lounge room is a mess; the couch is now a skeleton, the cushions and fabric eaten away by rodents and bugs. Safiyya can remember a time where this house was filled with life and laughter, instead of the dismal sight in-front of her now. Taking a few more steps so that she is standing in the middle of the room Safiyya remembers the beginning of that fateful day.
‘Safi? Where’s Dad?’ Anisa sits on the couch next to her, playing with the edge of her dress. Raising her head she smiles, her new tooth poking out of her gum, eager to fill the gap left by the last one.
‘I don’t know habibti.’ In fact, Safiyya knows exactly where Dad is. She just doesn’t want to think about it. She doesn’t want to admit that the fences the men are setting up around the village is to keep the approaching enemy out. She doesn’t want to admit that there is going to be a fight; that someone might die. That Dad or Mother might die.
‘When’s he coming back?’
‘I don’t know habibti.’ Safiyya prays that he comes back in one piece. She prays that he comes back at all.
Standing by the chipped sink in the ruined kitchen Safiyya can remember the fear and the desperation she felt 10 years ago when her village was attacked. She’s not a child anymore though; she can handle the pain and loneliness… she thinks. Reaching out cautiously she strokes the sink’s surface, her fingers catching in the dents made by years of labour. Looking out of the window, the glass long gone, Safiyya remembers her horror as she watched her neighbour’s son be shot, his face filled with pain and child-like confusion forever etched into her dreams. Closing her eyes, she can’t help the familiar ache rising up through her chest as she thinks back to that event, unable to stop her memories taking control.
‘Mummy?’ Safiyya watches as her little sister tugs on their mother’s skirt, her long plait unravelling across her shoulders. ‘Mummy!’
Their mother glances down, her eyes briefly meeting Safiyya’s before they stop on Anisa. Safiyya can see the worry in them, the tiredness. Mother suddenly looks 40 with her wrinkles and grey hair but in reality she’s only 31. Time has not been kind on her mother, even as a child Safiyya can see that.
Something that sounds like thunder echoes outside and mother’s attention snaps away from Anisa and back to the window. Leaning over the sink Safiyya peers out. She spots a man she doesn’t recognise approaching the house. Yusuf from next door runs at him, trying to get him to go away. The man raises a long thin piece of wood and points it at Yusuf. Thunder booms again and Yusuf jerks. Safiyya doesn’t know if it is her screams or Yusuf that she hears.
Sitting down on the back door step Safiyya picks at the grass that has claimed the silent house as its own. She wishes she could go back in time to that day, tell everyone to run instead of trying to fight back. They wouldn’t have left anyway. It was more than their homes and belongings they were in danger of losing. It was the history of their land, of their people. People had lived here for centuries. No one would have run away. Not until they had lost everything. And lose everything they had.
She’s still screaming when Mother grabs her arm and pulls her away. Anisa is crying now, clinging to Mother’s legs. Safiyya tries to swallow her own tears, but she chokes. All she can see is Yusuf’s blood. She knew someone could die but she didn’t know it would be so horrible! Mother gathers Anisa up in her arms, even though she’s too big to be carried. Safiyya feels her grab her arm and pull her along. It feels like Mother is carrying her too, she can’t feel her toes or fingers. She’s cold, so cold…
Safiyya shivers, even though the day is warm and the sun is shining brightly. It was so long ago, yet it feels so real. Getting up she strokes the weathered timber of the door goodbye and starts down the path leading to the village centre. The stone pavers are cracked and overgrown with weeds; the gardens are wild and un-kept. Walking around the central pedestal Safiyya runs her thumb across the letters inscribed in the white-grey stone. The name of her village has nearly disappeared, suitable for a village no one remembers. The date the village was founded is gone, the stone crumbling underneath her fingertips. She feels a tear slip down from her cheek, splashing on the cold stone below as she remembers that this was the last place she saw her mother.
‘Safi, Nisa; stay here. Don’t make a sound and don’t move. I need to find your father.’ Safiyya doesn’t want her mother to go. She wants her to stay. Reaching out to stop her Safiyya’s fingers only touch air, Mother is already gone. The breeze blows softly and Safiyya feels the increasing chill dominate the air. Her mother’s voice is already a fading memory. Crouching down further Safiyya makes sure that both her and Anisa are hidden by the bushes and stone. She will stay here until either Mother or Dad comes to get them. The thunder of gunfire slows until only a few stray shots ring out. Then it stops. Safiyya shifts nervously, she wants Mother to come back. Anisa sobs quietly into Safiyya’s side, her fingers clutching her sister’s clothes tightly. Safiyya gently strokes Anisa’s back, the shaking in her fingers making it nearly impossible. Adjusting her weight onto her right leg Safiyya slowly straightens, just enough so that she can see over the side of the stone. The sight of a man brandishing a mean looking weapon makes her duck down again, pulling the branches closer to her and her sister. Clutching Anisa close to her Safiyya holds her breath. That’s the only thing that prevents her from crying out when Mother’s screams echo across the village centre.
The birds are quiet here now. They don’t sing. Everything is quiet. Death and history have claimed this place for their own. Safiyya doesn’t belong here anymore. No one that belongs in the realm of the living does. Slowly dragging her feet Safiyya listens to the grate of gravel and stone beneath her shoes. She needs to go. Turning her head from left to right Safiyya memorises every little detail of the abandoned village. The broken glass, the quiet buildings, the grass and weeds that are slowly dragging the village down into the earth; this was her home once. It isn’t now though. Walking past her old house Safiyya doesn’t look at it, knowing that she’ll cry if she does. The familiar prick of the eyelid is already there. She walks past her neighbour’s house, one of which is only a skeleton of what it used to be. Safiyya feels like a skeleton of what she used to be. She used to be happy and carefree; now she was stuck with these horrible, taunting memories that refused to let her go.
It’s been quiet for a long time. Safiyya’s knees ache from being crouched for so long. No one has come, she feels so alone. Anisa has fallen asleep, her head resting against Safiyya’s arm. She lost feeling in that arm ages ago. Where is everyone? She can’t stay here forever. The wind blows again and Safiyya shivers, trying to curl up even further. It’s night-time now, and it’s cold. Looking down at Anisa she slowly slides her sister off her arm. Anisa blinks blearily as she wakes up.
‘Mummy?’ She whispers. Safiyya feels tears pooling in her eyes again. Mother stopped screaming a long time ago. Safiyya wasn’t a dumb girl; she knew she wouldn’t see Mother again. Not alive anyway. But where was Dad? He had to come for them soon. What if he was gone too? What did they do then? She moves a little, her knees burning now. Anisa is crying, even she knew. They were alone. Safiyya can’t stand the pain any longer. She tries to stand up, hoping to get some feeling back into her fingers and maybe relieve some of the pain in her knees. Her body doesn’t work though, she trips over her own feet and falls down, sprawled across the stone pavers. No one shoots her but her arm is buzzing with cramps. She winces, tears running again. Her entire body hurts, it’s too much.
Approaching the village gate for the last time Safiyya spots her sister sitting on the fence. She has grown up now; she’s not the little girl this village remembers anymore. Neither of them are. Safiyya is a woman now and Anisa a beautiful young lady. Anisa doesn’t remember the village like it remembers her though. She doesn’t remember the day that changed their lives. Anisa doesn’t have to deal with nightmares filled with her mother’s screams. She doesn’t remember stumbling, still sore and half-numb, across their father’s body, lying in a pool of darkening blood. Safiyya doesn’t envy her though. Safiyya is grateful for her memories, even though they terrify her sometimes. She can remember her mother’s laugh and her father’s jokes. She can remember her village at its finest, even if she also has the memories of it at its saddest. Life isn’t without its sorrows, but it is the joy that make it worth living. Turning around Safiyya looks at her past one last time. For a moment she can see the village before that fateful day. She smiles gently, her eyes drifting closed so she doesn’t see the drab ruins that are left. Life goes on and people are forgotten. She won’t forget though.
‘Done?’ Anisa hops off the fence and pushes open the gate so her sister can pass through.
‘Yes.’ Safiyya nods before she starts walking down the hill towards their waiting car. ‘All done.’
‘So we won’t be coming back to this place?’ Anisa shivers, something in this place gave her the creeps. ‘You can forget about this?’
‘No.’ Safiyya responds quietly, barely loud enough for her sister to hear. ‘I won’t ever forget.’ Anisa looks somewhere between dismayed and confused but it doesn’t matter. She will understand one day. Whispers of the past rarely went unnoticed.
‘Safiyya! Anisa! Come on home, dinner’s ready.’ The girls can see Mother smiling from the front door, her Hijab and skirt fluttering in the breeze. Dad stands behind her, his bag from work hanging loosely from his hand. He drops it to the floor as Safiyya and Anisa run into his arms. Picking them up he spins in a circle, making them both laugh. Mother laughs as well as she closes the door gently. Dad slings the girls over his back, making them both squeal and cling to his shirt before placing them both on the floor. Anisa babbles something to Mother, her dimpled smile accenting her chubby baby cheeks. Safiyya takes her sister’s hand and runs to the kitchen for dinner. Their parents follow, secure in the faith that their family wouldn’t be torn apart by anything but death. Even then, memories of happiness were strong; they could last for lifetimes…