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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
SHORT STORY

Manu was a healthy sixteen, to whom he would have been married two years ago but for the death, one after the other, of her grandmother then her mother. The wedding was now scheduled for after Eid; but where would he keep her, and how were they going to live? Manu was really different from all the other girls. She was tall and plump, and her hair was long and abundant. She was the opposite of the Sayeen's scrawny woman, whom his master had no doubt bought for a very low price. The Baji had such skimpy hair, when she made a braid, it looked like a rat's tail. And her eyes were small, her face dark.
Rahman managed the reconciliation, to everybody's satisfaction. The boy A RUDTIC TALEcould come back, but he must pay more attention to his duties, and if he wanted to play he could do so with the neighouring boys, as he used to do before, not with the young girls.
The only one to suffer from the arrangement was Nabbo, who missed the innocent frolics and games, but her elderly brother-in-law promised to send his grand-daughters over regularly every evening.
That fateful Tuesday Rahim had to go to another village, some distance away, to buy some rolls of urgently needed wire netting for the chicken coops. For two days it had been pouring, as the monsoon had set in. He had planned to set out at four in the morning and be back a little after dark, but the heavy downpour prevented his leaving till almost afternoon. It was obvious he would not be able to return the same day, and must stay the night with an obliging villager, or at a teashop.
He was worried about Nabbo. The woman had started expecting, but it was not that which caused him any anxiety. He was greatly troubled by the fact that she would be left alone with that wicked Barkat. Although the two kept their distance, he was not totally rid of his suspicions. He thought of leaving her at his brother's, but she had the cows to milk at dawn, and the other chores to do from early morning.
Rahman came to his rescue by offering to stay over in his house for the night. His sons and grandsons A RUDTIC TALEwould look after the womenfolk in his own home, and even his ten year old great grandson Muhammad was quite a man.
Nabbo was a little concerned when her husband set off in the still unceasing rain. The country lanes were most of them broken and pitted. Almost as soon as he started, the darkness abruptly fell. She felt uneasy in his absence. Harsh though he was, he had everything under control when he was there. No one had to worry.
Rahim had instructed Barkat to keep guard – although in that remote area there had been no crime within living memory – but he had orders not to come anywhere close to the courtyard, where Nabbu often pulled out her cot to enjoy the night air – though tonight she could do that only if it stopped raining.
Nabbo finished all her chores, even though she felt continually sick. Next time Rahim went to the village she would ask him to bring her some pickles, which, she remembered, her friends used to take during this phase. Or if she were to get the ingredients, she could get Rahman's wife's help to make them herself.
The smell of the cows nowadays was unbearable for her. Often she moved her cot into the courtyard outside. Tonight she pulled it out under the corrugated tin awning at the edge of the roof, because it was still raining. She doubted if Rahim would be able to make it to his destination tonight. Rahman's sons had heard that most of the roads were impassable. He would have to seek shelter somewhere. Or, if he had not gone too far, he might turn back and return home. She wished he would.
That, actually, was what Rahim was doing at that moment. He had found the culvert over the little canal washed away, and while he could have waded across himself, he did not think the donkey and the cart could make it. Single-handedly he could not push them across. It meant he had to go back. It was only a little way he had come.
Rahman ate his evening meal at his own house, although Rahim had invited him to come and eat at his home with Nabbo. He then prayed at the mosque, and returned to smoke a hookah with his son-in-law. It was therefore late when he made it to his brother's house.
He noticed that Nabbo had prepared his bed for him outside, near the fields. He was tired, and prepared to go to sleep, but decided to have a word with his young bhabi before turning in.
He moved to the courtyard, and saw the cot under the awning. And then he stood still.
On the large cot, Nabbo was lying down with a cotton sheet covering her to protect her from the mosquitoes. But she was not alone on the bed.
Quite unmistakably, under the same sheet, he saw the clear outline of a man. His head was resting on the wide pillow that Rahim used.
Rahman's seventy year old body went numb. So this was what was happening in his brother's absence. And this was how he, Rahman, had looked after his brother's honour and the family name. He had spent so much time in his own house that the two young people had probably assumed he was not coming over after all, and availed of their happy solitude in the house to get together illicitly.
He had let down his brother. He had brought shame and disgrace into the home.
It was true, as his own family said, that there was too much of an age difference between Rahim and his child wife. This is what Rahman and his family had feared right from the start. On two occasions Rahim had already had proof of his employee's ill intentions, and his wife's uncontrolled and unconcealed interest in him.
Rahim should not have left the two alone together, on the huge empty farm.
Well, no man was going to live to boast that he had destroyed the family honour. If he had not protected the sanctity of his brother's home, he would not let the filthy agent of the dishonour live to recount his shameful deed to the world.
It took Rahim just two minutes to dart silently to the tools shack and return with the chopping axe.
It took him just one minute to kill his sleeping brother.
Nabbo was again homeless.

To be continued...


 
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