It was Nur who first saw the writing on the wall. She had come down to the yard to throw the grain to the chickens, for their morning feed, and there it was, on the wall right opposite the gate. In huge letters, half a metre high, in dark red paint on the grey stone:
“GET OUT OR DIE. THIS IS YOUR ONLY WARNING. YOU ARE NOT WANTED HERE.”
Nur looked at it for a minute or two, the clucking chickens gathering round her feet, waiting for the grain. Then she turned away and went to get her mother.
Nur’s mother was mixing dough when her daughter burst through the kitchen door. “Mama,” she said, “come and see what they’ve written.”
Nur’s mother looked at her, and quietly washed her hands in the basin and came. Normally she’d have ignored her, or said she’d come later. But the look on Nur’s face wasn’t to be denied.
She stood staring at the writing too, and her shoulders slumped. Her face crumpled, and Nur watched with alarm as she suddenly became an old woman. “Nur,” she said quietly.
“Go and fetch your father. Tell him to come now.”
Nur took some time finding her father, who wasn’t in the back garden as usual at this time of day. She finally ran him to earth in the garage, with his head beneath the hood of the old car, which hadn’t run in years. He was poking around with a screwdriver and an old torch, and was annoyed when Nur came to him.
“Tell her I can’t come now,” he said, his voice filled with irritation. “Whatever it is, it’ll wait. I have to see if I can get this old heap running again.”
“Papa,” Nur said, “someone’s written something on the wall outside the gate. You need to see it.”
Nur’s father was a big man. When he straightened up from under the hood of the car he looked even bigger, and seemed to fill the little garage. He stared at her a moment, and then turned to go out, without even pausing to wipe his oil-stained hands. But before leaving the garage, he picked up a heavy wrench.
Nur’s Mama and her grandmother were both walking agitatedly back and forth before the gate when they arrived. The younger woman pointed at the wall and looked at her husband. “There.”
Nur’s Papa opened the gate and went to the wall. He touched one of the letters and studied his finger. “Still hasn’t dried,” he said. “They must’ve done this within the last hour or so.”
“Who?” his wife wailed. “Who has done it?”
He glanced at her over his shoulder. “Who do you think? Who around here is painting their roof red?”
They both looked down the road where Uncle Mihail’s house rose, just visible over the trees. “It can’t be him,” Nur’s Mama objected weakly. “He’s a friend.”
Her husband glared at her. “There are no friends,” he said. “Forget all this talk of friends. You saw what’s been happening up north.”
“Yes,” Nana spoke up, her chin wobbling. “On the TV last night, you saw what they were doing to our people? Breaking mosques and burning houses. Animals.”
“Mother.” Nur’s Mama said, “why don’t you go and sit down? This excitement can’t be good for your health. Nur, take your Nana back inside and sit with her.”
But Nana made no move to depart, so Nur stayed too. Papa glared at Mama. “I told you. I told you over and over, we have to protect ourselves, arm ourselves or leave. But you wouldn’t listen. Would you?”
“But who would have thought...” Mama’s voice broke. “They’ve always been our friends and neighbours, all of them. I met Masha just yesterday, and she smiled at me and we talked.”
“And just like that, you thought we were safe?” Papa’s voice was heavy with scorn. “I’ll grant you Masha’s harmless, poor stupid woman. But she’s hardly the one in charge. I wouldn’t trust Mihail as far as I could throw him.”
Nur remembered Papa and Uncle Mihail sharing a beer down in the town square last Sunday and laughing, but she didn’t say anything. Her mouth had gone dry and she felt as though a fist was slowly squeezing her stomach.
“What’s going to happen now?” Mama whispered.
“They’ll attack us tonight,” Papa said. “By tomorrow morning, for sure. It’s going to take at least till then before we get the car going. We’ll have to hold on till then.”
“Should we start out...on foot?”
“Are you daft? They’ll slaughter us on the open road. When we leave, we’re going to have to drive.” He paused a moment, stroking his thick moustache. “Go inside and call Mustafa and Khalil. Tell them what happened. Tell them to get here as fast as they can, with their families, and bring whatever weapons they can lay their hands on. Go, woman.” He glared at Nur. “And you go in with her. This isn’t something you should be involved with.”
“Mama,” Nur asked, as they walked back to the house, Nana trailing behind. “Why do they hate us?”
Mama shook her head. “I don’t know. Masha told me they would never harm us, that we’re their people, that whatever happened up north they’d see that we stayed safe. And now look at this.” Her eyes were deep black pools of liquid pain, and Nur looked away.
“Could you mix the dough while I get on the phone?” Mama asked when they entered the kitchen. “No school for you today, of course.”
Nur thought of school, and the idea of sharing the same classroom with Bisha and the others made her stomach turn over. They weren’t all that friendly at any time, not even Bisha, though he lived just down the street, and she’d always thought it was because she was so plain and stupid. But now for the first time she wondered if it was because she was what she was. It was an unnerving sensation. She imagined their eyes on her as she came into the classroom, and suddenly she saw herself as something different from themselves, something alien and strange.
“Nur?” Mama was saying. “Will you mix the dough, please?”
Nur nodded and bent over the mixing bowl. In the other room she could hear Mama talking on the phone, explaining. She tried to close her ears to it.
“Right,” Mama said, coming back into the kitchen. “Go and have a bath, and we’ll have breakfast.” Her voice held and unnaturally cheery tone. “Before you do, take Nana some tea in her room.”
“Mama,” Nur asked, “do you think it will be all right?”
“Why shouldn’t it?” Mama replied. Tears glistened in her eyes. “Your uncles are coming with their families and their guns, aren’t they?”
By mid-morning, Uncles Mustafa and Khalil had arrived, their small cars loaded down with their families and belongings. Uncle Khalil, Papa’s younger brother, had his shotgun poking out of one window of his vehicle. Uncle Mustafa was in his old army camouflage uniform and had a revolver at his hip. The three brothers held a meeting in front of the painted warning on the wall. Nur was too far to hear, but she watched them anxiously. They gestured a lot and frequently peered anxiously down the road at Uncle Mihail’s house and the others.
“We have to stick it out till the car’s repaired,” Papa said, coming back. “Khalil and Mustafa will help as much as they can. In the meantime, the rest of you go and find anything you can use as a weapon. Iron rods, machetes, anything.”
“Do you think that’s really necessary?” Mama protested. “After all, they have guns...”
“Listen,” Papa said in a hoarse whisper. “We saw a jeep load of men coming to Mihail’s just now. They were armed, all of them. Guns, choppers, everything.”
“You’ll scare Nur,” Mama said, looking quickly at her.
“She has as much a right to know as anyone else. You know what they did to girls her age up north?” There was a short but tense silence. “Get everything you can find. Everybody has to be ready to fight.”
Nur helped her mother and aunts look for weapons. Her cousins were all far too little to use anything anyway. She herself got a heavy iron rod, which left rust streaks on her hands, but which she found she could swing easily and hard. Mama got a machete.
“I hope I never have to use it,” she said sadly. “I’m not sure I could do it if I had to.” She glanced at Nur. “Except maybe if you were being threatened. Then maybe I could use it.”
This made Nur very uncomfortable, not the least because she wasn’t at all sure that she could use the iron rod if Mama were being threatened. The uncles had moved their cars so they partly blocked the gate, and anyone who came in would have to squeeze past one by one. Uncle Khali was standing guard with his revolver while Mustafa was helping Papa in the garage.
“Get everything packed that you want to take,” he said to Mama. “We’ll go as soon as the car’s ready. That brother of mine really should have kept it in running order.”
Nur looked at him and round the yard. Suddenly it was as though she were seeing it for the first time, and even the air looked strange. She wondered what would happen if they were attacked. Would she be killed? What would it feel like? Would it be Uncle Mihail, perhaps, who would kill her? Uncle Mihail had cradled her as a baby, and when she had been running around barefoot last month and got a splinter in her sole he’d taken it out with a needle. Would it be Uncle Mihail who would kill her, then? She felt an intense desire to get it over with, whatever was going to happen.
“Where would we go?” Mama asked. “All of you want to go, but where can we flee too, tell me?”
Khalil shrugged. “Across the border. Once across, there are camps for you all. As for us...”
“Mustafa and I will be back. We’ll join up with one of the fighting outfits and come back, to have our revenge.”
“Come and help me pack, Nur,” Mama said, sighing. “Then we have to make some lunch, I suppose.”
She had never sounded wearier and more afraid.
It was dusk when the gate squeaked open.
Nur had been set to watch over it, with her iron rod in hand, while her father and uncles had some biscuits and tea. Papa and Uncle Mustafa were optimistic that the car might be fixed before morning. If there wasn’t an attack during the night, they ought to be able to leave before dawn.
Nur was exhausted, so tired that she was swaying on her feet, so that she didn’t hear the gate squeaking until a shadow appeared before her. “Who’s there?” she asked, raising the rod halfway, her heart thudding in panic.
“Nur?’ It was Aunt Masha’s voice. “Is that you?”
Nur peered at her. It was Aunt Masha, and behind her, Bisha. The woman looked back at her.
“My,” she said, “how fierce you look. Could you go and fetch your Mama, please? We need to talk.”
“They told me not to move till they returned.”
“They?” Aunt Masha sighed. “I see. Just go and tell her, will you? It’s only Bisha and me, and we aren’t armed. You can see for yourself.”
Nur hesitated for a little longer before turning away. All the way to the house she kept looking back over her shoulder. But Masha and her son waited where she’d left them.
Mama was scraping plates into the outside refuse barrel near the kitchen door, an astonishingly ordinary part of her routine. She listened to Nur and glanced quickly inside the kitchen door. “I’ll be right back,” she called, and grabbed Nur by the arm. “Let’s go.”
“Hello, Fatma,” Aunt Masha said. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, Masha.” Mama looked at her. “What brings you here?”
“It’s about what’s going on...your in-laws gathering, with guns. My husband and his nephews, they’re nervous. And the villagers too.”
“But they’re...” Mama looked back at the house. “They said your men are gathering to attack us.”
“Attack you?” Not even Nur could miss the astonishment in Aunt Masha’s voice. “They’re scared that you’ll attack us.”
There was a brief silence. Some sort of night bird sounded far away.
“We have reason to be afraid,” Mama said. “The violence on TV, that’s bad enough. And then there was the other thing.”
“The threat on the wall,” Nur broke in. “It’s the first thing I saw this morning. Right on the wall there, opposite the gate.”
“Yes, about that,” Aunt Masha said. “Bisha?”
Bisha stepped forward, reluctance in every line of his figure. “I’m sorry.”
“He thought it would be a joke,” Masha explained. “He saw this sort of thing on TV, and thought it would be a great bit of fun.”
Nur and Mama looked at each other. Suddenly Nur noticed that Mama still had the scraper she’d been using in her hand, and that she was holding it so tightly that her knuckles shone white. With surprise, she found that she was holding her iron rod as tightly.
"We didn’t know about it till just now,” Aunt Masha explained. “We came to tell you what happened. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“You’ll always be safe with us,” Aunt Masha went on. “If anyone wants to hurt you, my husband told me to tell you, they’ll have to do it over his dead body.” She hesitated. “My man is a worthless layabout in some things, but when he says something like that, you can believe it.”
There was another silence, which went on and on.
“Masha,” Mama said. Her voice sounded unsteady. “Will you come in and have some tea?”
“I think we should like that very much indeed,” Aunt Masha replied.
And then suddenly Nur was crying, tears running down her face, and though they hugged her and told her it was all right she could not make herself stop.
But it was all right, because everyone else was crying too.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014