The smell of cinders and wet mud smothered man, as they moved on with their loaded cannons. The metals braced stains of red from a prefatory conflict, the hands carrying them were no less different. The nation witnessed heavy liability burdened upon delicate mitts. Everyday seemed to be the end, every minute meant counting of pulse, and every face was a reminder of not seeing them again. The land where we stood stern also spectated the fall of strength. The rains washed their muddied faces, while they merged with the earth itself, calling for victory.
Hafiz sat up. He looked around and noticed a faint cold breeze coming from the window left open. The lamp was dimly lit and played with his shadow on the walls. What is coming for him now? He pondered over his childhood when Ammi scolded him for playing with the big boys, after which he came back home with a few bruises and mud stains on his shirt. He smiled. At least he came back. Ammi sure did complain to Abba about his acts, but Abba knew his passion. He told him the story of how rough and pliable a human can become if exposed to the circumstances of his fate. Perhaps, Abba was right. The story seemed relevant. He had become the rough and tough guy his father dreamt of. But his parents never taught him if a man can be resilient and still have a heart.
Neither did Ammi nor Abba teach him to chase for what was worthy. In the chaos, there were times when fear flashed in his eyes. When he wanted to turn back and run. What if he couldn’t make his way back home? ‘Oh come on, soldier!’ His inner voice would control his posture. Being surrounded by bloodshed and chaos, one would always choose to fight to save himself, and if luck abides, his countrymen. He calmed himself. The first shot that went through the enemy’s chest, the spraying of blood all over the ground, made him cold.
Maybe he doesn’t have a home. But he was saving the home of thousands. Or maybe millions. So that nobody gets to chance upon the horror and nightmarish ambience. He was protecting, after all.
Hafiz was getting used to it. His life revolved around calibers, grenades, blood and fight. These were the things he knew as his home. At least he thought so. How would it matter if he asked for a separate happy-go-lucky life? This was all he had. And soon, just like everything else he will fade, probably for the best. He looked up. Standing at the window, he looked at the faraway horizon. How beautiful is it. Sleeping night away with the hope of a sunrise. If only someone could tell him what is it that he can hope for.
Murad walked into his room through the back door. Everything around was quiet. Dew drops had settled on the rail bar that guarded their camp, bright lights were flashing afar for unpredicted movements. Nothing new ever crossed their paths, except for occasional enemy ambushes.
“You don’t sleep?” His voice startled Hafiz. He had been lost in his thoughts for a while, and Murad couldn’t help but notice his distraction. It wasn’t pitch black anymore, the sky was faintly lighting up,
“Still patrolling?” asked Hafiz while he got up and shut the window. He didn’t expect to see Murad, so he picked up the box of cigarettes from his bed and offered him one. Murad noticed a slight nervousness in his friend. Without any further thoughts, his hands reached out and touched Hafiz’s palm. “You have a lighter?” The sudden warmth surprised him, but he quickly adjusted to its comfortable intensity.
“Here,” he flicked the wheel at once and along with a little spark, the fire glimmered at the edge that elegantly burnt the cigarette. It took one touch for Hafiz to realize that he could be gentle, that he had the right to close his eyes for once and not imagine the battlefield.
Breathing out a puff, Murad repeated his query. ‘What keeps you awake tonight?’ Hafiz looked at him, since he believed he successfully avoided his curiosity. “Just a few thoughts, nothing important.”
He kept his answer short. A smile appeared on Murad’s face. He got up and slowly walked towards him, handing him the cigarette. Hafiz noticed the butt was moist, tapped it slightly and took a drag. The ashes fell on the ground at brisk.
“Do you think about the kind of life we live?” The subtle silence in the room broke. Murad was staring at Hafiz, hoping to strike a conversation. “When do we even get the time to think about anything?” said Hafiz with a laugh. “Well, you know, in moments like these,” said Murad. Silence came back between the two again.
Hafiz didn’t know how to respond. He was on the edge to let go of everything that suffocated him, and he knew he was in denial. He wanted to run away, further and further from everything, yet he couldn’t do it. A tear fell from his eye. One thing war does is to shove the tears down your throat, no way must you appear weak. Murad had been observing him all along and without wasting a minute he quickly held him close in his embrace. “Cry my friend,” he said to Hafiz, “It’s cruel to not let yourself breathe.”
Hafiz sweat profusel during his meltdown. Unknowingly, his tears transformed into soft whimpers while he looked at the other side and covered his face with his hands. His body was hot, the sweat droplets left trails of wet stain on his shirt. Murad, sensing a little discomfort in him, quickly stood up and asked Hafiz to sit straight. Hafiz hesitated, as he took a while to regain his composure, but his exposure to vulnerability took control of his body. He was embarrassed, so he did what he was told.
Murad brought two mugs, a bottle of alcohol and served a drink. While handing over the mug to Hafiz, he said, “You should take off your shirt, it’s almost soaked.” He looked at Murad for a while, searching for a hidden context, but his face remained stiff. Hafiz sighed, turned around and took of his shirt.
His back bore scars from the times he had been to war. They looked like crevices, Murad noted. But it didn’t bear any innocence. Even if they did, one could not trace his past in it, as if beneath those wounds there was no human flesh. A bare back, with an unbearable amount of unnoticed stress. Hafiz picked up the mug and turned around, saw Murad staring at him and slightly looked away. He was feeling much better than previously, sweating considerably less and feeling light at heart. The last few sweat droplets seemed to evaporate from his chest.
As much as one would anticipate an awkwardness in the moment, none of it was felt either by Hafiz or Murad. The air between them felt cold and calm. Murad grabbed a towel from a nearby chair and gestured to him to take it. When Hafiz reaches out to take it, he gently withdraws his hand and in a tone of whisper says, “Wait. Let me help you.” The woods creaked underneath his boots as he walked up to Hafiz. He was standing still, no word in his mouth, just eyes scanning Murad’s face. Folding the towel, he gently dabs his back all the way to the line of his trousers. The scars seemed more prominent upon closer observation. “You’ve been through a lot,” comments Murad as he takes a moment to care for each of his scars, and traces it with his fingers.
Hafiz remained quiet for a while till he finally uttered, “You make these wounds feel like my own.” Murad stops and stares at the façade of this young man, his back facing the light and his face slightly illuminated. “I’ve always been told to be rough, to not feel anything that can break me. I thought I was already broken since I couldn’t feel anything.”
Murad fell into the silence that Hafiz had been. His heart felt empathy for this man, the blood in his body urged him to express it. He held his shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. Hafiz looked down. Without any word, Murad stepped closer, slipped his hands through Hafiz’s arms and held him close. His hands rested on his waist and his head on his shoulder.
All Hafiz could notice was how warm Murad felt against his skin, how his hands, despite constant toiling in battle grounds, loading and unloading ammo in guns still had the softness and warmth of a scarf. They were together like that for a couple of minutes, when Murad spoke.
“This is how all wars will end one day.”
“This is how wars are inflicted in my religion,” with a sigh, Hafiz closed his eyes.
“No religion can be greater than love, Hafiz.”
He couldn’t come up with any reply. Murad didn’t say anything further.
Few moments went by, Hafiz turned around and looked at Murad. There was a smile on his face. A smile Murad never saw before. Amidst their constant toil, both had seen enough of the world. From the struggle to fight to witnessing familiar blood assorted in soil, they had seen it all. And then, Hafiz flashed a smile at Murad. That little curve on his face unburdened years of his superseded sentiments.
“I should go,” muttered Murad. “Rest before you begin the day.”
The darkness had begun to fade. Hafiz sat on his chair. Cutting through the darkness in their camping territory, far away he could see the sky turning bright. And all he could think about was the moment that went by effortlessly. The thing about war is that amidst all the destruction, it witnesses the unspoken beauty of life which no one gets to see. And that is the cruel thing about war; it takes away the beauty no one cares for. He thought about the night with Murad, how he didn’t complain when he embraced him. The image of them together floated inside Hafiz’s memory.
There was a lot that he wanted to tell Murad. He felt like his confidante, he felt he could live life for a moment with him. But his urge to connect more was suppressed gradually when Murad was recruited for an assignment, which required him to travel to Army Training Command, in Shimla. When the news of his transfer arrived, Hafiz felt a slight pang in his heart. Why, he couldn’t decipher. When Murad came to bid him goodbye, his soul echoed the words he never thought existed in his vocabulary. “We may never see each other again,” Murad had said softly. Noticing the paleness in his eyes, he further remarked, “I’ll be there for you always. Till then, make me proud.” Hafiz didn’t cry that time, at this stranger whom he knew just by face, suddenly making a hole in his heart. He hugged Murad as he carefully checked his surroundings, the attention of other troopers. Holding his hand, he kept his head on Murad’s shoulder, planted a kiss on his uniform and walked away.
Murad did not look back.