Him and Her
With the sunrise and call for azan each morning, Alia set out with her milk pail. She didn’t walk four miles to the shepherd anymore.
Nobody knew her secret.
Maybe Iqbal did. He squabbled that she didn’t do his Maths homework anymore.
She went townwards, where a crystal river threaded beside her path, down the darkened mountainside. Orbs of faint light would begin to tear patches and glow through the dark of her hometown’s heavens.
She came on his street.
A knock on her teacher’s shuttered door let her slip inside, and her pail was poured to brink with the milk can kept inside.
Thus, she was free of her whereabouts for another hour.
Then he smiled or made a pun, if she looked too frightened.
As Alia hurtled from home, each morning, she felt like her pulse was threatening to burst through her chest. Her relief thawed the icy fear, only once she was inside. Once Alia saw his good humoured face, she could do it. Breathe out the danger.
Nobody knew about the studying either.
In this valley, it wouldn’t be allowed.
There was an outhouse in his backyard. A closet sized room, that smelled of books. One kerosene lamp hung down a wire. He would reach into his closet, fingers grasping through the stacks of books, and pull out her copy.
There was a rug too.
A rectangular table with peeling paint and an underside with scrawled curse words and symbols, from the boys he taught in evening. But for Alia, it was the closet that held the magic.
You see, it made candied almonds and nuts appear, whenever she was particularly good.
So they’d sit down and begin. When the sums got too hard, the laughter and jokes at each other’s expense helped.
By now, Alia was beginning to feel sorry for her little brother.
He frowned at her as he came home from school. Bone tired, scuffled uniform. She hadn’t been to school in six months.
‘Headmaster just kicked you out. You troubled everyone,’ said Iqbal.
‘Abbu was going to take me out anyway. He told me – they’ve begun looking for matches already. I think the the marriage’s in a year. He says his daughter is leaving him.’
‘What? Stop smiling like an idiot.’
‘He said, so he wants me all to himself for now.’
Iqbal snorted. ‘The books aren’t closed, though, are they? Abbu doesn’t know. You lying nerd – you still do sums for me.’
‘Your evening tuition master, doesn’t know either. I wonder who could tell him.’
‘Oh, terrible girl. I won’t say anything.’
A frown hit the back of Alia’s head as she went out.
Alia wished she could blurt. This giant secret expanded inside her, threatening to burst through her ribcage and come spooling out. She remembered then.
But he had warned her.
On the first day, he’d gently crouched down to his knees. Alia struggled to his warm, dark gaze for the first time. On his knees, wearing his jute coat, his voice quiet as a whisper.
Warning her what could happen.
The valley wouldn’t think he was helping her. It simply wouldn’t occur to people. There was but one thought for them to think about a man, hiding a twelve year girl, in his outhouse in the dark night.
‘But I – how can they ever think you’d hurt me?’
Alia had started crying.
‘Why did you start the stupid thing anyway? I don’t like-‘
‘Because you’re special, Alia. You answer questions my 12th graders can’t.’
He lightly ducked her head.
‘But I have the misfortune of spending so much time with you, more reasons occur.’
‘I want you to do what I couldn’t. You will get out of these walls, this town. Some university will accept you. Kashmir has nothing to give you.’
‘What if I get lost there?’
He eyed her.
She let out a scarfed giggle, with the strange talent children have finding humour in everything.
‘Now look here – I’d starve without your sweets.’
There was no shred of amusement in him. Serious eyes.
‘I’ll help you along, you nut. I’ll mail out a big instruction letter. Parcel full of dollars, books, and immigration papers. Don’t you worry about anything.’
‘With your picture?’
‘I want to see if you’re old and fat. And if your eyebrows are white. And if your daughter looks like me.’
Banter always helped with Maths.
Alia was beginning to calm down, set her palms next to her notebooks on the table.
‘I don’t know, if God will ever bless me with a daughter.’
‘But if he does, I know that she will be just like you.’
Alia burst out in laughter and blushed deep. She hoped it didn’t show just how much she liked that.
Time passed. Days of cloudless sunshine, cricket in the streets with Iqbal. Her milk pail. Changing routes, avoiding eyes. But Alia wasn’t afraid anymore. She felt like a kite riding currents under the summer sun.
Then one day, she returned home.
She found her brother looking tearful. Traitorous. Iqbal was trembling.
Abbu above him.
Rifling through his homework notebook, glaring at the volumes of sums Alia had completed. He turned to face her. The steel scale tapping the floor.
Alia couldn’t sleep that night.
Her skin stung. But the tears burnt through her pillowcase, hotter still, on her cheeks.
When she went back two days later, and her burqa’s wrist sleeve slipped.
The red pen stopped on the sums. The inflamed welts on her forearm glowed.
Alia carefully looked at him.
She saw his face darken, saw tears materialise.
Then for the first time, it happened.
Alia wrapped her arms around him.
She wished she could tell him everything then.
Brother, father, mother — he was the world to Alia. The empty spaces people had left in her life, had all flowed into him.
That’s when the first slam came outside the outhouse. And she closed her eyes, because she knew who had followed here.
‘Nazir, you bastard. Tell us where you’ve hid her.’
And he immediately flew to his feet.
Alia was hidden in the closet, warned not to make a sound. But she wanted to.
She wanted to shriek when the men came inside. Scream yet more, when the voice of Abbu sounded in the outhouse for the first time. His shadow threw itself across the fire of the kerosene lamp.
It sounded like death.
Like steel rods cracking on bones. The jute coat being torn off his arms. Warm blood sank into the carpet and pooled down to the gap in her closet.
The room sounded quiet and dark after a long time. Alia slipped out. Everyone was gone. Were they looking for her?
She opened the cupboard one last time to retrieve her notebook and her pail, and that was the moment she saw it. It was a white parcel.
And Alia closed her eyes, because now she knew it.
He was the sun, the gift of her life.
His radiance had touched her heart, and it would never leave.
I’m a 15 year old author, and a girl living in India. I’ve been published in two magazines (TeachersPlus, Golf Plus), an international ezine (Amazing Kids), and won a short story competition (Nature!). I’m also doing a course at Writers Bureau and lastly – this is my website: (medium.com/vandini)