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The silence of Najmalabad

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Giovanni Tornatore

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The silence of Najmalabad

by Keith Miller

A certain distance from Islamabad one comes to Najmalabad. Arriving by mule the journey may be a long day or three days, by foot the distance is even more uncertain. Najmalabad is a small city or a large town, depending upon who tells it, and has even been called a small town by some who come from further away. What is certain is that in the streets of Najmalabad there are still to be found roaming about chickens and goats, mules and turkeys, and, of course, cows. On the outskirts of this old town or city one can easily hear the women laughing as they wash clothes or look idly at the river, waxing melancholically on the beauty of the setting sun as it splashes upon the flowing water. The jokes of the children hardly disturb the men as they return from the fields and the looks of these field workers denote a seriousness that seems falsely transparent.

Among the women there are many who still make reference to the strange woman who came some time ago- some say long ago and some say quite recently. As to why they talk about her not even this they agree upon.

"Her sari", whispers one authoritatively. "Yes, her sari", seconds another, "what a beautiful tone of pink, like a virgin rose minutes after sunset", and she smiles to herself thinking of the color. "Pink!? It was closer to yellow. And I should know for I was the closest to her," responds another indignantly. "Yellow as only the sea can be when one has sailed for too many days." Then all offer their opinions, all contrary to the previous. "Burnt orange, as my daughter's sadness which she has carried since the death of her daughter." "No, no. It was more a delirious red, like that caused by those acrobats from Kajmir." "How silly! We all saw that it was a golden blue, azure I might say, with a depth akin to ones happiness on days that end too soon." But finally, none could agree.

The men say nothing about that strange woman. They are a tacit bunch. People from far away all know that if they get to Najmalabad they must talk to the women or the children because the men have long since lost the desire to talk. Their deep, dark skin and solemn eyes speak for them and they move their hands only to work, to eat and to love. Their women do not try to get words out of them for they have long since known it to be useless, and besides it hardly occurs to them that their husbands would have something to say which they do not say with nocturnal caresses, understanding glances and slow, gentle kisses.

It has been some uncertain time since she left but still the conversations of the women refer to her time and again. The children also talk of her but in a more mysterious way. Their games are peppered with gestures that only the inhabitants of Najmalabad would understand to be references to her. While playing games of hide and seek they let out a slow sussing sound and all smile as they realize that they have been found, and that in this case being found is a happy affair. When they climb the tallest tree on the edge of town they let drop a smile which hits the ground with a tingling sound or better yet hits whoever might be below, and all the children laugh while the child who felt the unsuspected smile hit him blushes proudly.

Alone at night, each in their own home, the men eat and then sit by the fire looking into it longingly and occasionally a smile comes to their moist, full lips. The men¹s hands are all similar and are thin and long but strong with protruding veins and somewhat stained fingernails. With the tips of these fingernails they smoke hand rolled cigarettes and listen as the mothers play with the children.

The children ask innocent questions and receive answers they accept without understanding and then run over to the silent man that is their father, thrusting a loving hug upon him, which is returned, of course, silently.

The men go to sleep first, and will wake first. Their midday meal is prepared while they sleep and they will take it as they leave in the morning without a noise. Once the man is asleep, the mother and children sit by the fire and talk of the little and big things that have happened since the night before, and all the nights before.

In one of the dimly lit houses a little boy without front teeth smiles as his mother sews.

"Mama, when she came did she say why?"

"No, she just came."

"And when she left?"

"No, she just left."

"But then she'll be back?"

"Well, that is a good question. You see, I am not really sure she has left at all. There are moments when I am sure she is right next to me. I can hear her splashing as I sit by the river and when I turn I find there is nothing there. But I still feel certain that she was there, only I didn't see her just then. But then there are other times when I am sure she has never been here at all.

"When I look in the eyes of your father on days when there has been too hot a sun and when the dusk has taken too long to come, I feel just as certain that she has never come because then I can't remember what she looked like. "When I ask my sister she tells me her eyes were almond shaped and brown but your auntie says they were soft and grey with only a deep hint of brown. I am almost certain they were round and penetrating, caressing with a yellow golden brown light in them.

"So maybe she will come back, maybe she will come back just because she has never been here and we all have wanted her to come so that we have invited her without realizing it. We have all invited a small part of her and between all of us she has felt the need to come. Such a need we have created that she can do nothing else but come."

The little boy smiled sadly as he thought of her and listened to the voice of his mother. When she had finished talking he looked into the fire and said nothing, as if in rehearsal for his becoming a man.