This is excerpted from a short story that first appeared in The Aleph Review, Vol. 4 (2020).
After having wiped his brow several times, Ahmed was now letting the droplets of sweat trickle down the sides of either cheek and nose-tip. He wasn’t tired of cleaning the perspiration, but the ticklish slow crawl of the sweat was not irritating him anymore. Every once in a while, he would straighten his back by arching his spine and in doing so, also count how many times the vertebrae cracked. The average score was five cracks, sounding just like the pops a groundnut pod makes once it is split between the thumb and index finger.
Ahmed could no longer be identified as an immigrant. His sherry-brown eyes had become less striking with the darkening of his skin colour. That day, Ahmed had been piling the raw bricks inside the furnace. It had not yet been lit, but the large brick structure, underground, smelt of old coal smoke and cold ashes. The raw bricks had been brought to the kiln for baking. His mother, Zeba, and ten-year-old sister, Nishat, had been amongst the labourers who had kneaded freshly-dug soil with water, made manageable mounds out of them and then stuffed the brick moulds, turned them out one after the other and put them out to dry in the scorching sun for days before they were brought to the kiln.
The boys at the kiln had been committed to the job since daybreak, for the bricks were to be stacked properly so the heat would reach to them evenly and colour them equally on all sides. “Come out!” the supervisor had yelled out for the fourth time in the same hour since the sun had already lost its warm yellowness and had transcended into a mellow orangey shade, making it look like a brightly lit up coin in the middle of the horizon.
“Come out!” the gaps between the yells were getting shorter. The boys moved quicker, trying their best to stack the last pile nearest to the furnace that would be lit soon. Ahmed could hear the older labourers gather around the kiln, emptying sacks of coal that would be thrown inside the furnace.
“Now, you jackasses!”
Ahmed and the boys climbed out just after reassuring no brick was left behind, since any loss would be compensated from their weekly wage. That was not something Ahmed could afford. Each time the furnace was lit, they had to stack at least six hundred thousand bricks. “Aside!” the supervisor had yelled again as he poured a drum carrying a gallon of kerosene over the coals, rolled the drum aside and lit a matchstick. The small splinter of wood caught fire as soon as it was struck against the red phosphorus on the side of the matchbox. The supervisor stepped a little close to the furnace and threw the matchstick in and jumped back.
“Bhupppp!” the sound that came out of the furnace was loud and was followed with a huge flame, moving like a belly dancer, flickering and igniting sparks. It was done. The fire was made and bricks were cooking. They would bake for the next ten days and then Ahmed would pull them out after five more days, ensuring they had cooled down.
Ahmed sprinted off to his mother, Zeba who was trying to adjust to a new country. The social workers had sent her and a few like her from the border areas to the middle of the country, where the plains and city bustle was in deep contrast with the mountainous terrain she had always belonged to.
Zeba had been in the second trimester of her pregnancy with Ashi when she had gone with her mother-in-law to the closest dispensary for a checkup. She had left the kneaded dough for bread, so that it could rise just perfectly. The sabzi—translated as greenery, a spinach dip for the freshly-baked naans—was already in the clay pot, cooked properly. She had hoped to see her husband having returned from work and tell him the good news that the doctor had given to her: she was carrying a girl in her womb. Rustom, Zeba’s husband, had wanted a daughter, since Ahmed had fulfilled his desire for fathering a son. She had been ecstatic. She was still at the dispensary, wiping her torso clean from the sticky gel the doctor had applied on her lower belly to run an ultrasound. The blasts came one after the other. The doctor ran to hide under her desk, while a horrified Zeba sat up on the clinical bed, pulled her clothes close and held fast to her protruding stomach. Her mother-in-law came running inside, Ahmed in her arms.
“Yallah! Yallah!” the ladies were crying for help. They could hear wails after a while, but they were very distant. They were about two kilometres away from the site but the smoke that rose from their neighbourhood came gushing to them, as if telling them of the scene they had missed witnessing.
“Let’s go,” the old mother-in-law had to see her son, intact and alive.
“Don’t go now,” the doctor whimpered from under the table, “it is dangerous.”
“Go, go, go,” Ahmed was choking on the smoke and was crying. “Shush, shush,” the old lady had gotten several shots of adrenaline. She strode faster than a man and the very pregnant, bulbous Zeba was finding it hard to catch up. The baby, who had already been disturbed by the prodding and poking, was kicking with full force inside her. She kept walking as fast as she could, choking with the smoke, coughing, spitting and wiping her eyes clean. The site, when they reached, had been annihilated. There was no house left, not a wall erect, not one man standing on his own feet. There were faces; melted and disfigured as if they were made of plastic and had been held too close to a candle flame. Some were crying. Some were croaking out broken sighs in pain.
Sana Munir has authored two books of fiction, The Satanist: A Novel (2015) and Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018). She has also co-edited the anthology, The Stained Glass Window (2020), which is a collection of short stories from various academics, authors, journalists, TV celebrities and maiden writers, about the ongoing pandemic in Pakistan. Unfettered Wings is part of curriculum at COMSATS and UMT for students of English literature and academic papers have been written on her book in India and in Pakistan. Sana’s short form fiction has recently appeared in The Aleph Review, Vol. 4 (2020) and The Bridge, an anthology featuring academics. She writes regularly for The News on Sunday and for Urdu News. She is working on a novel currently.
About the featured artist: Zafar Iqbal is a visual artist from Bahawalnagar in Punjab, Pakistan, and studied at the National College of Arts, Lahore. He is interested in depicting human behaviour and the representation of individuals in society. For this piece, he says, “The famous phrase ‘the first impression is the last impression’ fails because sometimes we conceal our true persona just to not reveal the bitter reality about ourselves.”