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  • Dr. Henana Berjes

No man's Land


We belonged in no man’s land.

No one wanted us home. The borders on each side were hostile to us. We had been pushed out, forced into exile and yet we weren’t unhappy.

Of course, we were broken, but we were proud of this heritage, of the power we wielded over this breakage, the control we held over this demolition, and the strength we revealed as bit by bit we were ripped apart by our circumstances.

We had left nothing to posterity, just this burning and scorching land where nothing grew. And the things that grew died manifold as if one death wasn’t enough for them, and yet we survived.

People on either side wondered how we did it and I have no answer. Perhaps it was through scarcity that we found a path into abundance. We rejoiced in this hopelessness that reeked of hope. Our children weren’t children anymore, but half-grown adults trapped inside sordid, sorry frames that resembled kids, but even then, they were happy.

Happiness doesn’t exist outside, we had finally learned, but in every quark of the body that has deciphered the art of tolerating sorrow. That is where happiness lies. That is where a strong tree bursts forth, and it can withstand the toughest storms.

And so, one day, the story I am about to tell you, happened. On that day, the sun beat as ferociously upon my back as it did every afternoon. I had but a loincloth on as I struggled and toiled on this barren earth, trying hard to find a place to put the seeds in. There were few of those left and whatever we grew was consumed with fiery hunger. We would eventually run out of food and everyone knew that.

Life slowly teaches acceptance.

And we were in the process of learning.

The older men were satisfied, for one, they had lived a life of fulfilment; the younger ones were oblivious of a certain fate but men like me, middle-aged, neither uncertain nor fulfilled, stood in the face of death with a tremble in their hands but fortitude in their demeanour.

And yet, we were happy.

So that day as I toiled, a crow flew overhead.

Birds without borders, I thought, though it was a rarity seeing a bird on this hot and seething afternoon for most birds flew over us in the morning or late evening.

Aren’t you scared? I wanted to ask.

Crows don’t understand the language but I thought he would.

In no man’s land, everyone understood language, for we seldom used it in the way people did.

The crow hopped onto my back that at this point had become hard as a rock.

‘Don’t you fear death?’ I asked.

The crow clambered on my head.

‘Where will you hop from here? Pluck my eyes maybe, but aren’t they already plucked? I have stopped seeing, for the future is dark,’


‘And yet you don’t seem to stop toiling. Doesn’t look like you are worried about your circumstances,’ The crow jested. ‘And I don’t want to pluck your eyes, rest assured,’

‘I am not worried, and why should I be? I can only see as far as today. I am thankful for my short-sightedness,’

‘Does that keep you happy?’

‘It keeps me from being sad and I guess that is the definition of happiness,’

‘Happiness is a sorry state,’ said the crow. He had started nibbling on my hair.

‘Why would you say that? And stop pecking at my hair,’

He stopped and hopped in front of me.

‘What do you see beyond happiness?’

‘I see nothing,’

‘Then it’s a sorry state,’

‘I don’t look beyond, I told you.’

‘There is nothing beyond it and even if you tried to see, you’d only find emptiness. And what would you do with that?’

‘I insist on being happy. I don’t care about tomorrow. And anyway, what are you doing here on this scorching sunny day?’

The crow looked me in the eyes and hopped to where I had kept the last few seeds.

Don’t you dare,’ I shooed at him?

‘I won’t, don’t worry, for I know what it means to you and as for me, I can fly off to better places,’

‘And I can’t…’

‘But you could try. You are going to die anyway, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I looked up at that moment. ‘You think we didn’t try, but we can’t climb over the walls, they are too high and we have a chance of being seen,’

‘There is a small opening that goes through the wall erected on both sides. You could pass through that in the dark of the night. I have flown over it many times. All you need is crawl one by one,’

‘But they will know us as soon as they see us.’

‘Die a quicker death then,’

‘Yes,’ I repeated.

‘You know something, you have given them too much power over yourselves and that is life’s biggest defeat,’

‘We have chosen to survive,’

‘How? These are the last few seeds and what if they don’t sprout? Just like the last time. I can get you more if you are contented staying here, ignorant in your short-lasting bliss and happy being oblivious to what could have been. Don’t you realise the quiddity of your situation? Choosing to stay when you have the option to walk away?’

‘At the cost of my life?’

‘Aren’t you already dead?’

‘I am responsible for my people’s safety,’

‘The children don’t know and the older ones won’t mind. Choose for yourself and those like you,’

They will be as confused as I am,’

‘At your age, yes, but be a child as you walk through the opening and once you are at the other side, think as an older man would,’

I understand,’ I finally said. ‘But can I trust you?’

‘Don’t, if you have any other option,’

‘Tonight, we cross over,’ I said throwing away the seeds far into the distance.

‘Good,’ the crow said as it flew away. ‘I will see you after sunset,’

That evening as we collected our things, there was heavy rainfall.

‘It has never rained so hard,’ One of the older men said.

‘This season we will have the finest crop,’ said another. ‘Why don’t we stay back?’

But it flooded. The rain didn’t stop and we couldn’t move out.

I knew the crow wouldn’t come.

‘Maybe we should wait another day,’ I told the people gathered around in hope and confusion.

I was happy in my acceptance before, but tonight, it hurt like hell!


*****








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