By Tom Eck
As she lay in the shade, Zahra knew the end was near. The morning trek had been marked more by the time she crawled on the ground than she had walked on it. It was now the fifth day since the murderous tribesmen had abandoned them in the desert. They had seen no trace of humanity, except for the drug dealers or Taliban, whoever they were, and they had been far from humane. If they had not traveled up along a pathway through the mountains and over a summit, she would have believed that they were drifting off course, walking in circles.
Today, she could walk no farther. They had at least a hundred more miles through this forsaken land. The water was now gone and no springs had been sighted. It was no wonder no one traveled this route. Nature had beaten them, as it had done to so many others so many times before, and as it would continue to do. It was time to settle in and prepare to die. This shady spot was as good as anywhere. Everything was now in the hands of Allah.
She looked at Ali, 18 months old and only hours from death. Maryam, looking little better, glanced up at her mother’s troubled face and mumbled, “You said someone would come for us today.”
Stifling a scream, Zahra gazed at her daughter’s face and brushed her hand over the encrusted curls, once shining ebony, but now dulled by the dust grit of these last days. It was a far cry away from the lavish lifestyle of a few years back, now only a flickering specter of a distant past.
She took the faintly breathing Ali into her arms and clutched him. He did not move and was now so light she thought of him as a feather about to drift away forever.
Maryam spoke again, “Mommy, do you remember when you said that we would not die unless we wanted to?”
“I do, my little lamb.”
“Momma, man meekam biriram,” she whispered, weakly. “Mommy, I think … I want to die now.”
Zahra’s heart exploded. She could no longer endure the pain and the torment of watching her children perish. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably. No one came to comfort her.
She removed her hands from her puffy face and looked at her fading daughter’s eyes, now puzzled by her mother’s uncharacteristic show of sorrow.
“Let’s sleep, my little joonies,” she whispered. “When we wake up, someone will be here.”
No doubt it will be death, she thought, as she propped herself against the cold, hard rock, too weak to hurt, too weak to hate, too weak to care.
The search party had reached the point of no return. The gasoline gauges on each of the two Rovers read a quarter full. Most of the journey had been uphill, so they knew that the return would use less fuel. Still, even with the gasoline in the spare five gallon cans, they barely had enough to make it back.
“Nasser, we must turn back now,” Andali urged.
“No, we cannot stop. I know I will find them,” the old general replied in desperation.
Andali persisted, “If we don’t turn around, we will not have enough fuel to return.”
Nasser pondered. He was not about to give up, even if it meant that he remained in the desert by himself. A group of shepherds had told him of seeing at a great distance some people that seemed lost in the mountains – some men and a woman with two small children. It had to be Zahra.
“I have a solution,” Nasser said. “We will drive both vehicles until the tanks run out. Then we will fill one of the vehicles with petrol from the gas cans. That will be enough for us to all get back. Then we can come back for the other Rover.”
Andali looked skeptical, but finally relented, knowing that Nasser would accept no other alternative.
“Let us drive for another hour and see what we find,” Andali said.
Nasser did not reply, refusing to admit defeat, particularly when it came to the lives of his daughter and grandchildren.
Nasser’s irritation and desperation grew with each traveled foot and each passing minute. His mind flashed to a more gentle past, filled with the splendor and harmony that was the antithesis of the tragedy before him. It had been a time of great happiness and fulfillment in which Zahra had played a major role. She had been more than a dutiful daughter. She had shown immeasurable caring, loyalty and courage, more than any father could hope for; certainly more than he had a right to ask for.
He peered into the barrenness before him, a mélange of pink, cream and blue ridges drubbed into a dismal unforgiving dullness by the relentless sun and wind. He would not allow this enemy to take his daughter. He could no longer live with himself if she did not survive. Even now, he could not forgive himself for the pain she must have suffered. He would find her, or die in this emptiness, trying.
Abruptly, his silent self-examination ended.
“I think I see something over there in the shadows,” Nasser shouted to Andali.
“I don’t see a thing, Nasser.”
“Drive over those rocks to the right. I know I saw something.”
The evening shadows shaped the large boulders and imposing escarpments into dark tentacles strangling the dimming landscape, sequestering those who accepted their refuge. It was not until Nasser was fifty feet away that he recognized the shape as a dust-covered human body. Cautiously approaching the lifeless form, he jumped as the body bolted upright as if pulled by a puppeteer.
“Are you with Zahra Gilak?” Nasser asked in a hoarse, expectant voice.
The man said nothing at first, looking with glazed eyes at Nasser as if he were an apparition. Then he wearily raised an arm and gestured toward the crevice between two large rocks. As he approached, Nasser saw three forms, two small and one larger. They were covered with a blanket and motionless.
He broke into a run, calling, “Zahra! Zahra!” There was no movement. Trembling, he fell to his knees and removed the blanket. As he saw her pale, caked face he began to cry, “Zahra-joon, I am here! I am here!”
Her eyes slowly opened. She looked at him in disbelief and then in gratitude. “My babies need water and food,” she croaked in a barely audible voice. “Please hurry!”
Nasser rushed to the Range Rover and raced back with three oranges and a bottle of water. By the time he had returned, a barely conscious Maryam was stirring. He placed the opening of the bottle to her encrusted, split lips and dribbled some water into her mouth. She coughed but then swallowed. Her eyes still did not open. Nasser gave her a little more water as he sat her up on his lap. Zahra had peeled an orange and broke off a piece to put in Maryam’s mouth. She moaned in pain as the acidic juice bit her damaged lips. She then opened her eyes.
“Chew it, my little one,” Nasser urged. She smiled weakly and opened her mouth.
In the meantime, Zahra turned to Ali, still unconscious and barely breathing. As she put her ear to his chest, his little heart could scarcely be heard. He lay in her arms like a lifeless rag doll.
“He’s dying! Help him!” she cried to Nasser. The old man picked him up and held him in his still muscular arms while he wetted his finger and put it in Ali’s mouth. Ali did not respond. Nasser rocked him as Zahra and Maryam looked on in desperation.
“Ali, Ali, it’s Baba-jan. Everything will be alright,” Nasser whispered as his eyes moistened. He continued to put a wet finger in his mouth. Then he dribbled just a few drops past the powdery, cracked lips. Still, Ali did not respond. Nasser continued to rock him in one arm, startled at how light the infant was. Tearfully, he began to sing an old Persian tune:
Oh little one, oh little one
My little Ali-joon
Wake up and see the world now here
Wake up, please wake up soon
The sun sends out its greeting
And the moon and stars do, too
They promise you a happy life
A life for only you.
Zahra held Ali’s small, cold hand. Nothing.
“I think he died,” Maryam said with the insensitive honesty that fills a 3-year old child. Zahra muffled a groaning sob. Nasser continued to rock him. He kissed the forehead of the grandson he had never seen. “Such a waste of a little life,” he murmured. “Such a waste!”
Ali shuddered as if his soul had finally departed.
Then he opened his eyes, staring in confusion at this big man holding him. He turned toward his mother, now sobbing and sitting on a rock next to a vacuous-faced Maryam. Nasser gave him more water and a small piece of an orange slice. He devoured it almost without chewing. Another small piece and some more drips of water. A faint smile graced his pallid face.