“Ayn nahn?” I yelled, shaking the man staring out the train window. “Iila ayn nahn dhahbwn?” He just gaped at me and returned to the wasted landscape hurtling past in a blur of steam and hot dust. The engine roared on at an awful pace, its furnaces humming with groans, its sulfurous fumes scorching bared faces and hands.
“Huh…?” I turned to a soldier next to me, seizing his lapel, hoping to rattle an answer out of him. He looked away as well, not even bothering to remove my hand. No one on this godforsaken sweltering hell-ride seemed to know where we were or where we were going.
The fans in their iron cages above sputtered out a blast of hot air, drying sweat in craggy rivulets along creases on worn faces. No soldier wore the same uniform: some were in khakis, some in torn battle fatigues, some in a camouflage pattern of deserts, others of jungles, but every face was covered in black headscarves through which blinked vacant eyes. “Are you from Artillery? Infantry?” I tried striking up a conversation with my sullen fellow inmates. “You’re from which regiment?”
“Where are we from – ayn nahn min?” I screamed into another man’s ear above the clackety-clack of iron wheels and the lurching coach. Holding fast onto a blood-soiled handrail above, he scratched his ear with a grimy free hand and slumped his head on his chest.
“Stop! Tawaqquf!” I shrieked, in a sudden panic now, my eyes burning in the yellow glare of the brimstone lamps above. “We’re nearing hell!” I begged the devil to stop the train and its godforsaken burden.
And stop it did – its wheels jamming with a shrill whistle that stopped our hearts. “Daeni ‘amr! Khatwa! Move,” I shouted – shouldering, elbowing, butting into the mass of smelly humanity entwined like moldy vines. I pushed and shoved but couldn’t move – we were packed like sardines in a crushed can. And more men seemed to have got on at the station, pressing us rearwards into people at the back. No one groaned, no one cared – I found it hard to find the floor with my feet – I’d been lifted a couple inches in the air with the surge. I gasped for breath, and could hear my heart thumping above all the infernal din.
It was then that I awoke, with an anguished cry, clothes wet with sweat, my hair standing high. I lay in the bed terrified, praying to be saved from the demon’s power and never to ride the hell-bound train again. I lay suffering for a while, not able to scratch the train out of my soul.
I realized I had to get back on the train again, and somehow get off it – else, I knew then, it would haunt me forever. I lay still, waiting for sleep to find me once more…
This time, I found myself closer to the toilets, and the open coach doors through which men leaned half out, some precariously balanced on the steps, their black headscarves fluttering like the lateen rig of a doomed dhow. I didn’t wait for the train to halt this time; I began to elbow my way through to the door right away. I was breathless by the time I reached the steps; the white blast of the desert wind howled in my ears, the hot sand grains tasted of dry gunpowder between my teeth, and the red cinder the sun had put out, seared the eyes. Shortly, as the train slowed and wobbled toward an oncoming station, I could see a vast flood of humanity surging to the edge of the platform: I knew I must jump off or be stuck forever in this tinderbox. So I leaped off, landing surefooted on the gravel lining the tracks, running alongside the train some way.
I followed the train on foot and stood at a distance on the platform watching a fearful tohubohu of men scrambling into the jam-packed coaches. Many fell on the tracks, many clung to the window rails – only to fall off some distance away and get crushed under the wheels as the train started, some clambered aboard the roof, and some were mangled under hobnailed boots.
“Who are these men?” I asked some soldiers – the sickly or indifferent ones who couldn’t bother getting on. They lay propped up against the station wall in the narrow shade, smoking cigarettes rolled out of newspapers, ignoring me. “Who are we? I repeated to the mute dregs of humanity. “Where does the train go?” An odd rascal shook his head, groaning. “Where does it come from?” They didn’t stir.
I moved on. One man had been following me with eyes that seemed animate. I kicked his heels. “Why do they want to be on the train?”
“For a change,” he shrugged, squinting up at me, not taking offense, not shifting his foot. “For somzing to do, berhabs. Do you have cigarettes, Akhi? Maybe they have a sbark of life…who knows what ails zem…what moves zem?”
I patted my jacket and found a crumpled Marlboro pack that I tossed at him. A faint smile flickered across his deadpan features. “Amriki, Habibi?”
“Naah – British.”
He took in my brownness, well preserved from the sun. “Brown Sahib,” he remarked. He laughed with the clatter of a skeleton, lit up and sucked long and hard, till his entire being was suffused a dark ashen with smoke. “Living has been worz it,” he remarked, twisting the cigarette in his fingers unbelievingly. “ – Allah be braised!”
“What are you doing so far from your home – Habibi?” he asked, warming himself at the tobacco fire in his soul.
“You will laugh,” I said, squatting down beside him in the cool shade, lighting up myself from my prize loot.
He glanced askance, wincing. “Go right ahead – make me laugh – I beg of you,” he said, covering with the sweep of his cigarette the debris of his body and gear scattered on the floor.
“Sorry,” I said, patting his hand. “But I… am in a dream.”
“Go on,” he grunted, able to stretch his legs in the lengthening shadows with the sun sinking behind us. “Aren’t we all?” He spoke with a thick guttural accent, but I seemed able to follow the dialect quite well – strange – for I’d never spoken the language before.
“A real dream,” I replied. “I was still stuck on the last train when I came awake. I reentered the dream, only to try and get off that black coughing hearse. Else, I figured I’d be on the devil’s railroad forever, following after his tabrets and pipes.”
“You can enter and exit dreams at will, ajnabi?” The soldier gripped my arm with fevered hands.
“I wouldn’t know that – this is the first time – but I guess I’ve no reason to return now. As soon as I wake up…I have a Sunday tomorrow…maybe take my daughter out angling if she wakes up early enough. You never know with teenagers these days… you don’t’ know what they’re up to.”
“Listen, ajnabi,” he started off with urgency, gripping my thigh, “ zen take me back with you – helb me!”
“I don’t know if I can do that – I’m in a dream…Habibi,” I said, sliding on my haunches away from him.
“We’re all trabbed here…in this hellhole. If you can’t take me now, zen for Allah’s sake, I imblore you to go back and find a way to get me out of here…blease,” he said, prostrate on the cool cement there, his hands folded in sniveling petition: a bald relic in torn battle fatigues.
I pried open his fingers curled around my ankle in a crushing grasp. “If I can find a way, I will surely come back for you.” I rose and walked away from him, him still clinging to my trousers’ bottoms. Suddenly, shots rang out, breaking the eerie stillness of dusk, sending fragments of mortar and loose stone on the wall above me flying about. I turned around and kicked the man dragging behind me viciously in the face, and ran. From the corner of my eyes I could see men dismounting from vehicles that had skidded to a halt across the tracks and firing at random into the mass of men sprawled on our platform. Sweat broke out on my nape as I sprinted to the edge of the station and dived behind a battered steam engine sitting in a clump of weeds. My head hit something metallic with a clang, and I saw a white flash before passing out.
When I came to, I sat up erect in panic, cocking an ear out for gunshots, but there weren’t any. The coarse grass beneath had become soft and wet with dew; but when I patted it down I became aware I was back in my bed, safe: the bed sheet was damp with my sweat like a warm wind had feathered with wet plumage my room. A huge relief swept over me as I realized I’d escaped the train.
I left the bed and walked over to the sink to splash water on my face; it looked terrible, battle-weary, straight out of a bad dream. My head ached, where it’d banged the ashpan on the side of the engine, my body was bruised and cramped from the punishment it’d received in the packed bogey, my trousers were bloodied and torn around the knees from the dive. I stepped back from the mirror, I looked down – I was still in my battle rig, soiled and frayed from the dream! My head began to spin – I was supposed to be in my Yo Gabba-Gabba footed pajamas, wasn’t I? I slapped myself, I pinched my nipples hard, nothing changed – no shape-shifting barghest cast away my soiled raiment. I rushed out; dawn, like a white-robed angel, had kissed the sleeping night stirring to a crimson blush. An awful quietness breathed in from the dewy street, like the cool desert breeze that blows in slowly in the mornings.
I had definitely escaped: I would find an explanation for my strange costume, and the curious disappearance of my prize printed pajamas. For the now, I had a rendezvous with the breams on Tooting Common Ponds.
Nancy, at Farlows, the fishing gear shop where I worked, had turned me down for a date over the weekend, yet again. That left me with no option but to drag my teenage daughter, all of thirteen tender years, to the lake early that Sunday morning.
“Why won’t you have me?” I’d often stolen up to her in the women’s accessories section where she kept inventory. “Is it the age?” She was already on the wrong side of the 20s – a ripe age to tend to my daughter and household – and I was just 45.
How could I tell her hers was a face that would never turn black? Hers were the hips that would bear me many issues. Hers the modesty like a pearl in its shell: in a world full of Kardashians, she was in the likeness of a Khadija. Hers the body I longed to gather unto myself like sheaves of corn, thresh it naked, sift it free from husks, grind her to a whiteness, knead her till she was pliant, and assign her to my fire so that she was the bread for a sacred feast.
She’d only shrugged the last time I’d trailed her; she’d moved on, tapping her pencil on the clipboard, tallying leaders and tippets, and lures and snippets.
“My intentions are most honorable. What more could you possibly want from a god-fearing, respectable, bread-winning man,” I’d asked?
“Really? Is that all you think a woman could want?” she’d laughed. That was a good sign, at least better than silent scorn.
“Name a thing – I am a man of means.”
She’d halted; sticking her pencil under the clip, she’d raised her pretty chin and looked me in the eye – hers were so blue, like the sea of the sky. “I don’t like your ways,” she’d said. “You’re mad all the time…like a…like a form of lemming prone to spontaneous combustion…you leave burning craters in your wake. Always trying to change people…and your ‘Grossly Misrepresented’ card. That towel on the head…the prayer beads – you’re always mumbling something and stealing to the back during work.”
“It’s for prayers…” I’d begun to protest, but she’d turned her back on me and left. “The Alarm of Doomsday,” a book that I’d given her as a gift, wasn’t well received perhaps. An embroidered headscarf and an ittar bottle should make her ice yield, I felt, as I walked back into the house.
I walked into my daughter’s room and was about to flick on the light when my finger paused. She lay so peacefully, so still under the quilt – she must be cold, for she’d completely covered herself from head to toe. I leaned against the doorpost and watched – I didn’t have the heart to wake one so young and fragile in deep sleep. Suddenly her computer screen blinked and beeped. I went over to switch it off before it disturbed my baby.
And then I saw the mail.
The sign at the end of the train station had read “Ar-Raqqa.” A black flag with Arabic lettering fluttered in a wind inspissate from scents of noxious sulfurs alight.
I had come way beyond the shunting yard, seeking directions from an odd civilian that I could find. A few miles up, when I’d crossed the checkpoints guarding the station, I left the tracks and entered the city, or what remained of it.
Rooks croaked above the appalling ruins; bones were left in the sun to dry. Empty and bleached skulls adorned the squares; lifeless bodies piled the streets, which bombs had let deep abysses open rive. To what end – those that quarried, chiseled, hewed, and laid stone upon stone, under the terrible fierce sun sweated and wrought in their day, till the high walls stood – I did not know. Whyfor they fashioned high wall, altar, and citadel, only to be swept away by this sorry doom? Only wild figs, self-begotten, held fast with knotted fingers to walls, even as perky lizards on sunbaked stones flickered and were gone.
I stood in the middle of a street, which had a sign painted on the wall announcing I’d arrived at the “Sisters Maqar,” where I was told the new migrant westerner womenfolk stayed.
“Go to zee end of zee town. Its streets are watered and swebt clean, zere are blue flowers in its windows and sounds of laughter – you can’t miss it. Go zere; may Allah (PBUH) be with you,” my friend from the previous dream had said as I left the station. He was still alive, with just a nasty gash on the cheek where I’d kicked him the last time.
When I’d removed the quilt from my daughter’s bed, she wasn’t there – just pillows piled to make it look like she was underneath.
A mail to her and two of her school friends from an Um Asmah, a Caliphate recruiter, had read: ” Welcome to a sedentary lifestyle led by responsibilities in the household, which is your divinely appointed right.”
That night, the girls had crossed into Syria from the Turkish border. In the last photograph they’d posted online, they seemed happy and carefree as they entered the land of savages. Savages that I’d not objected to, when revered as heroes by our young folk. And now they’d come calling at my own backyard, and that was my price to pay. I never thought I’d take the train ever again, but then I was left with no choice – it was God’s own doing.
My darling baby was here somewhere, behind these walls, and I had to get her back.
BIO: Nidhi lives near McLeodganj (abode of the Holy Dalai Lama) in the Dhauladhar mountain ranges with her husband. She attended American International School, Kabul, before moving to Delhi University for BA English Honors. When she has a bad dream she knows she’ll have a good story in the morning.
Her short work has appeared in Liquid Imagination Online, Flame Tree Publishing, Four Ties Lit Review, The Insignia Series, Inwood Indiana Press, Bards and Sages Publishing, So To Speak, Scarlet Leaf Review, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Mulberry Fork Review, tNY.Press, Fabula Argentea, Aerogram, Asvamegha, Fiction Magazines, Flash Fiction Press, FICTION on the WEB and elsewhere. She has also authored these fiction and nonfiction published titles: The Proof Diaries, Games Girls Play, The Benefit Season, Asa Di War, Japji Sahib, The Sikh Ardaas, and Bollywood.