Neha Sharma was born in New Delhi and raised in South Korea, South India and Mumbai before she moved to the US. Neha's passions are writing, teaching, painting and traveling. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, NY and is currently working on her first book.



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The first time I heard something about Sopore was during my lunch break, before history class. It was a very hot and muggy day, the kind that prepared us well for the fast approaching monsoon. I was munching on a chutney cheese sandwich and taking a bite here and there from my friends' boxes, when Mina, a girl who was a year junior to me, approached me. Without saying hello she brought her face near mine and whispered, "I know Sopore, there are spirits who dress like trees and roam through the streets there. First you hear the sound of a thousand soldiers running through a field. Then suddenly they enter the earth below your feet and…BOOM. Within seconds you become dust and blow into Kashmir Valley. If you listen carefully you will hear the crying voices of the dead being swallowed by the valley. It is no ordinary cry, it is a wail from here," she pointed to the lower part of her throat and then made the sound, "…a-r-r-r-r-r-r-r."
My jaw hung open, I listened to her story like I was watching a horror film.
"And then?" I asked.
"Just be careful of the trees and the wind, you never know what they will bring," Mina said.

Moments later my eyes shifted to the droplets of sweat bulging out of her oily forehead. She drew her sweaty arm across her forehead and wiped it right off. I got a good look at her chubby face gripped by a tight black hijab and remembered why she wasn't my friend. I pursed my lips and blurted, "liar! You are so weird, get your head checked." My friends chimed in, telling Mina she was a weirdo. She left without saying anything else. But her words found a lodging somewhere in my heart or head, or some other place. I feared they would unexpectedly pop up again.

The bell rang and we strolled into class. Our boring history teacher marched in behind us. She had two enormous patches of sweat, one under each arm, clearly visible on her yellow blouse. She dabbed her forehead with the end of her sari and started writing on the board. I couldn't stop thinking about what Mina said. Maybe she was getting back at me for teasing her in the past, about how terrible she smelled. She did smell pretty bad though, not the regular sweat smell, it was a mix of what she ate oozing out as oil, and her regular sweat. I was being a friend by warning her that she would be lonely if she continued smelling like that. But she could be getting back at me for that.

I would not have bothered about any of this, and Sopore would have been of no consequence to my life had this terrible thing not happened the previous night. Mom, Papa and I were having pizza for dinner and talking about the bad neighborhood boys; well, I was doing most of the talking, when the phone suddenly rang. People usually didn't call our home that late, so it had to be urgent. Mom stopped eating and tried to figure out the nature of the call. She was always paranoid that a call that late meant somebody was sick, dead or injured. So when Papa said, "Yes Sir" on the phone, Mom got back to eating. I kept watching Papa though. I knew from past experience that sometimes phone calls such as these were about Papa's army head ordering him around. They do that; these army heads ordered Papa around like we ordered pizza.

When Papa came back to the table his face looked swollen with the words he had just chewed on the phone but not yet swallowed. I knew he had to tell us something. He picked his fork and knife at least three times each and sprinkled paprika on his pizza another couple of times.
"What was that about?" Mom asked.
"Unfortunately, we have lost one of our very able generals. He and his entire family died, in what we suspect was a car accident." Dad blurted.
"That's terrible Honey, did you know him well?"
"No, I met him once. He had a daughter who was Charu's age. I have been asked to take up his position in Sopore." Dad casually added that last line without looking up from his pizza slice.
"Sopore, in Kashmir?" Mom asked.
"Yes, but it's safe there now. And there are good schools for Charu too. The only problem is that we need to get there urgently. We have three days."
Mom clearly looked upset so that gave me a reason to be upset too. I told Papa I wouldn't go. I might have said it a few too many times and perhaps a little too loud because I was sent up to my room with my half eaten last slice of pizza in my hand.

So there were far more important things on my mind than my sweaty history teacher's lesson. Just then a piece of chalk hit my head.
"Charu, stand up." My history teacher yelled. She was rubbing the other piece between her fingers. Teachers have pretty good aims. She must have seen me looking outside the window and not at the map she had put up on the board.
"Take this and mark out the border of India Occupied Kashmir and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir."
I hate when teachers do that. I had no clue about the borders, but I went up anyway. I wondered whether my teacher knew I was being taken there and so was doing this lesson. Perhaps not, we had been heading north in our Indian states' education.
I knew Srinagar was in India, and a few more places close to Srinagar. So I started marking a zigzag line, until I spotted Sopore on the map. I wasn't sure if it was a part of India or Pakistan. It had to be India, so I drew a line that took Sopore in our country but very close to the border.
"Looks like you are on the side of the Pakistanis. You gave them a nice big chunk of Indian Kashmir." All my classmates found her comment very funny. They laughed while I turned to the board and watched the teacher redraw the border. I tried to find Sopore. Her brown felt pen struck it out.

She pulled out pictures of Kashmir after that to show us. It was very beautiful, green with vast mountains, but I was more interested in the images of the people. A small child dressed in colorful clothes, surrounded by vast green mountains. They didn't look very different from people in Delhi, except for their clothes. They were more colorful. Another image had five or six masked people dressed in green uniforms and seated in an open jeep. They casually held huge guns between their knees. I couldn't tell if they were terrorists or the army because they both carried equally tall guns. My teacher told us that that picture was old, now there was mostly peace in Kashmir. I didn't like the word 'mostly', either there was peace or war; there couldn't be 'mostly peace.' Anyway, I knew little about peace or war, but was afraid of guns.

The morning we left for Kashmir there was a massive grey cloud looming over our heads. In the next few hours all the pots and pans and open trashcans would be filled with water. If Papa wasn't taking us away I would have called my friends and we'd play in the first rain shower of the season. The clouds followed us all the way into Punjab, or that's when I fell asleep.

I woke up once at night when Papa pulled over at an open-air dhaba. The air was chilly so the dhaba lady placed a table for us next to the fire burning somewhere in the middle of the scattered chairs. Three or four big trucks were parked on the side with the truck drivers squatting around smoking bidis and sipping chai. A man and woman were busy cooking while a small boy served the truck drivers parked there. Papa and Mom ordered some ginger chai. The air was chillier, a sign that we were closer to the mountains up north.

It was early morning when we reached. I had slept almost the entire journey and woke up with a nasty pain in my stomach. We had climbed a very high peak. The last part of the climb was through a gate and into the driveway of our new house. Our new house stood old yet strong.
It looked like somebody else's house. That was the first feeling I got. By this point we had lived in so many different houses, but this one felt awkward. It would be better off as an image inside a horror book set two hundred years ago. Actually, it was perfect for just that. It was a red wood cottage with a slanted roof and vines that spread across the house like a massive green spider web. Under the roof was a tiny circular window. My eyes focused inside the window and I saw a small brown head, of what looked like a boy. He ran off.

"You know Charu," Papa said, "This cottage was built by a very famous French architect especially for a senior British officer's family." Papa always spoke with pride about the accomplishments of the goras, I never understood why.

While my eyes were studying the tiny, round window on the roof, the door of the cottage flung open. A skinny middle-aged man wearing a white dhoti and kurta jogged towards us. All the lines on his face seemed to gravitate downwards into a frown except his lips. He was smiling widely. I noticed the checked cloth across his shoulder and immediately realized that he was our servant.
"Shaabji," he cried, "myself Dukhi Ram. I take care this house."
I laughed hearing him speak. Not only was his English funny, but his name was Dukhi Ram, Dukhi as in sad and Ram, a god. Following behind him was a boy who looked about twelve, my age. The boy hid behind Dukhi Ram.
"My name is Sukhi Ram," the boy added.
I couldn't believe my ears. Who names their son 'happy'? I couldn't even imagine how the kids at school must tease the boy.
"Charu, stop it," mom grit her teeth and whispered, "that's very rude."
I stopped laughing, but Sukhi Ram glared at me like he was going to pounce. I scowled back. The boy resembled a mouse, with his tiny darkish face, small but round dark eyes, and hair that drooped towards his forehead but didn't quite reach there. I felt the urge to stamp the ground near him; maybe he would scamper to the garden and into his hole. But before I got a chance to put him in his place Papa was finished with the introductions. So we walked in and Dukhi Ram followed behind with our things. I turned to find the boy, but he had disappeared.

As usual, Papa didn't waste any time. He freshened up and got into his uniform. I noticed he carried his small gun with him. Strange, he never took it in Delhi.
"Papa, why are you taking that with you?" I asked.
"Go help your Mom unpack."
So I did that for a while. Then when I started getting restless and open up all the clothes in our suitcase, Mom said,
"Go down to the kitchen. Dukhi Ram said that he brought special cookies for you from the village bakery. Why don't you go get some? And bring some for me too."
I knew Mom just wanted to get rid of me, but I went for the treat anyway. As I approached the kitchen, I heard the sound of teeth chattering. There was nobody in the kitchen except me.
"Who's there?" I yelled. My voice echoed through the large kitchen.
"Who is over here? Come out!" I said, and scanned the kitchen cabinets, only to find Sukhi Ram coiled up in one corner of the kitchen cabinet, below the sink, and eating a packet of orange cream biscuits. He looked up at me as though I had a bat in my hand. I put my hands on my waist and snarled like Papa. But I couldn't quite imitate his anger.
"Why are you hiding here? Come on get out of here."
Sukhi immediately got up and without saying a word walked past me. There was a long mark on the back of his thigh spotted with fresh blood. He paused under the arch of the door and said,
"You must leave. They don't want you here."
"Who are 'they'? Say you don't want us here," I said and followed him.
"Charu, come on, who are you talking to?" Mom called out.
I picked up the jar of cookies on the kitchen counter and went back to Mom.
"He is so strange."
"Leave him alone. You have a bad habit of bothering yourself with servants. Did you get your biscuits?"
Mom was right, but I was curious about Sukhi. He was a strange boy. I wondered why he would sit inside a kitchen cabinet and eat, when the entire house was empty.
"These biscuits don't have any cream in them. I don't like them." I said while munching anyway. Mom didn't respond to my complaints.
"Sukhi must have eaten the biscuits that were supposed to be for me. That's why he was hiding in the cabinet," I thought. I was even more upset with him.

That afternoon, while Mom slept, I snuck outside to explore the mountains and hopefully find other kids my age to play with. The security guard was perched on the tall stool by the gate; his hands planted on top of his stick supported his head. He was snoring. I didn't want to wake him up and be bothered by questions, so I climbed over a part of the fence that was snubbed to the ground and landed inside a tall bush. I had to plod my way out, killing many plants as a result.

The air smelled of the earth with its belly full of rainwater. I knew that smell. This silence was unfamiliar though. A sense of place. I walked at least fifteen minutes before I heard the sound of girls laughing and playing, I followed the sounds and reached the banks of a lake. It may have been the same lake visible from my bedroom window.

As I drew closer I noticed five or six girls playing hopscotch on a bald spot by the river. They looked about my age but were dressed like women, in Kashmiri Salwaar kameez, colorful hijabs and thick silver jewelry that clung to the top of their heads like a crown. I was suddenly conscious of my shorts and T-shirt but that didn't stop me from trying to befriend them. They lifted the seam of the salwaar as they hopped on squares inscribed on the soil. One of the girls, with very sharp black eyes, whispered into another's ear when they saw me approaching. Within moments they paused their game.

"Can I play with you?" I said despite the discomfort. Only the youngest looking girl, in a pink hijab, reciprocated my smile, so I went up to her.
"My name is Charu," I said. She looked at me from head to toe and giggled.
"We know who you are," the sharp black-eyed girl replied in Urdu with an accent that I had heard only in some films.
"What do you know about me?"
The girl in the pink hijab seemed like a bystander, carefully watching everyone else.
"Isn't your father the officer here?" the sharp black-eyed girl asked.
Perhaps these girls knew Papa, or had heard from Sukhi that we were coming. Or maybe she thought I was the daughter of the old officer who Papa said lived here.
"Yes, you must know him."
"You want to play, right?" the elder looking girl said, "come here, I'll show you a game."
She grabbed my hands and pushed me into the lake. The water was like ice. I couldn't believe this happened.
"You all are going to be in trouble. I will tell my father!" Before I could say anything else the girls ran off. The sharp black-eyed girl turned back at me and said, "what do you think, your father is saving our lives?" Before she said anything further, the elder girl pulled her and they ran off. I struggled out of the freezing water and sat down exhausted. Not knowing what to do with my anger I picked up a big stone and threw it into the water.
"How dare you do that to me! You don't know who I am."

Nobody was listening and it obviously didn't matter who my father was, so I broke down into tears. Thick mud particles and twigs covered my body and even went into my underwear. I realized I had lost one shoe in the lake. So I took off the other one and tossed it far into the water. I stood up after a while and looked around to find the roof of my house. Either it was the trees or the dense clouds covering my house but I could not spot it in the vicinity. A cool breeze started to blow and the trees surrounding the lake swayed softly. For a moment, I thought I heard strange sounds, like the suppressed wails of children in the wind. But it couldn't be true.

Just then I heard a small voice call out. I leaped up.

"Chotti Memsaab?" The voice was louder this time. It was Sukhi standing in a spotless white kurta with a pile of dry wood in his hands. He called me 'Chotti Memsaab' with respect. Seeing a somewhat familiar face gave me courage to get up. I wanted to tell him what happened but something stopped me. He was my servant.
"Sukhi, take me home." I said and walked ahead of him.
He followed behind quietly and directed me when necessary.
Mom was in the kitchen when I reached home. Without saying a word I ran straight to my room, leaving droplets of water on the wood. The floor soaked the water like a red mud pot leaving only dark stains outside.

I cleaned up, washed my clothes and went down for dinner. I didn't tell Mom or Papa about the incident at the lake. I was too embarrassed to say anything. After all, nobody was stronger than Papa, and I was his daughter. I could not be bullied by a group of village girls. It happened once, but I would not let it happen again. Well, that's what I thought.

In reality, I turned into a mouse after that first afternoon in Sopore. I was a mouse who would jump at the smallest sound. Even the sound of silence frightened me. I became a mouse with a secret, the one who knew of the danger even in something delightful as cheese. For me that cheese was everywhere. I would run to pluck a fruit from the tree and be afraid of some kid jumping from the top or still worse throw a fruit on my head. It was embarrassing. So I stayed away from the trees, the flowers, the lake, the mountains and the people.

Mom was different though. Once Papa left for office her new friends came by to visit almost every day. They were two chubby women. I separated them as one who wore a lot of gold and the other who was growing out of all her saree blouses. She must have put on weight and was still in denial. The front hooks (button/hooks) struggled to hang onto the last bit of thread on the cloth. One finally popped. I watched it happen since I had nothing better to do. I watched Mom and her friends while pretending to read a history book. They always began talking in the same way with some silly talk. I waited to hear what it would be this time.

"In Delhi there was no problem, but here it takes days to make a bowl of yogurt." The broken button woman said.
"Oh, I use a woolen hat or muffler and cover the bowl." Mom said.
"Ah, that's a good idea. I will try that. So did you find a good servant? It's only been a few weeks since you came here, right?" The broken button woman asked.
"Servants are not too bad here. But best not to get a Muslim one. They can be very arrogant. I had this one servant who would suddenly stop cleaning and go outside to do his namaaz. When I told him, Bhaiya you can do that later too, he got very upset, left the dirty dishes in the sink and never returned." Gold garb blurted.
The women laughed while broken button added.
"I've seen in general the locals here are very touchy. You know, this one fruit walla in the market, I told him nicely to carry my bags home with me. He got so angry, he took all the fruits back."
The ladies laughed again. "I never went back. Even you don't go to him. He looks just like a terrorist."
"I think most people here look like terrorists. So angry, for little things they will take their God's name. I tell you, even the little children look like terrorists." Gold-garbed said.
"I am happy that your husband got posted here. Otherwise it was just Mrs. Roy and myself. It can get very lonely. So did you find a servant?" Broken button asked.
"Yes, my husband's office sent him. His son too, but the boy hardly works and never talks. I tell him to bring something from the market, he'll go but return only hours later. And he never answers to anything." Mom replied.
"Same servants were for the family living here before?" Broken buttons asked.
"Yes, they've been here for many years." Mom replied.
"Tragic story they had. I heard the daughter and wife were gang raped by soldiers and then set afire in their house. They say the boy saw it happen but he escaped." Broken buttons whispered.
"I heard something like that too. It's been a few years now. Many people here have similar stories. Even my servant's sister's family something like this happened. I feel sad for these people. But their religion is only like that, very violent, so bad things happen to them. I say, if you do good then god will protect you." Gold-garbed responded.
Then there was silence. I knew I would become the next cue for conversation.
"So Charu, you made friends here?" broken button broke the silence.
All three heads moved in my direction. I hated when Mom's friends bothered me, so I ignored the question.
"She's shy," broken buttons snickered.

They went on talking about other nonsense things like the size of Kashmiri fruits and vegetables. I went up to my room. Words have an odd effect on me; once they enter, I can't push them out. Now my mind was stuck on Sukhi and Dukhi Ram. Could it be possible that the two chubby women were correct, and that Sukhi saw it happen? But why would the soldiers do such a thing? They were there to protect the people. It may have been the terrorists; they look an awful lot like soldiers anyway.
By this point I had concluded that Sopore was full of bizarre people. Actually, it had some supernatural power to make people living there strange. The worst part was that that Papa was turning weird too. He spoke less, ate less, and drummed his fingers on the table more. On occasion I even saw him sit straight on his armchair, stare at the wall, and pull out his eyebrows with his thumb and index finger. And he noticed fewer things. Sometimes, when we walked around the village, I was certain I saw some people spit the ground and stare at us when we passed by. I saw some angry eyes, but Papa proceeded on nodding his head to those who saluted him.

The following Saturday, when Papa said we would go to the village market, I was part happy and part scared. Those girls by the lake were sure to be at the marketplace. And I was scared Papa might not notice those bullies. So I wore my sports cap, shorts and a loose T-shirt as a disguise. They would think I'm a boy. I had short hair too, and my oversized cap concealed half my face.

I was excited to visit the marketplace in my new attire. Mom said that people from nearby villages came to sell things here. I had decided to buy a Kashmiri dress with the colorful head thing that the girls here wore, and have some of that special pink sweet tea that Kashmiri people drank.

The walk to the marketplace was a crisscross mud path down the mountain. Clouds hung so low that I could break off a piece and carry it in my pocket. We passed by a herd of mountain goats comfortably standing on the slope, chewing on grass. There was a boy with the animals squatting on the slope like it was a straight road.

I knew we were approaching the marketplace when the sounds changed. Street vendors called customers, and voices of children laughing and playing could be heard. The market was spread across one long muddy street, with carts on either side. Some vendors who didn't have carts placed their items on cloth pieces on the ground. I looked around to find a food cart that served pink tea. Instead of the tea-cart, my eyes fell on the soldiers spread around the street holding big guns and looking all over. Some soldiers smoked bidis with one hand and casually held their guns in the other. I wanted to leave at the first sight of those large guns but Mom had just begun shopping.

The soldiers saluted Papa when we walked past them. He read the nameplate of one of the soldiers and asked about his family. The soldier answered with a smile, but he still held the gun like it was a sugarcane stick.
I was glad to be out of the house and see the village people. I hadn't seen such a crowd since we moved here. A group of children were laughing and playing behind a cart full of colorful hats shaped like little boats. The children were playing despite the soldiers with big guns all around. I tried to spot any familiar faces, particularly the girl with the sharp black eyes, but all these children were younger than the girls at the lake.
I stayed right behind Mom while she shuttled from one vendor to another bargaining down the prices by one or two rupees. I never understood why she bargained, but she seemed to thoroughly enjoy talking to the vendors. Marketplaces were the same for Mom even in Delhi; the vendors were like her brothers and sisters.

"You know Charu," Mom said as we approached another fruit stand, "Kashmiri apples are the best. Look how big and red they are. And they are so fresh." The vendor smiled at me, picked out a juicy looking red apple, wiped it vigorously with a cloth until it shined and handed it to me with both hands. He was wearing a colorful boat hat and curly grey hair peeped out from the sides. His face was shaped like the apples he sold, especially with his wide smile.

Mom and I left that fruit stand with two bags each and headed to the food stall at the end of the market. Papa was already there, sipping his tea. The crowd dwindled as we approached the end. While Mom ordered the food, I turned toward the street market and then looked at my apple. Just as I was about to take my first bite a big rock grazed my shoulder and fell into the puddle ahead of me. All three of us looked back. Nobody was behind us. Someone then called out,
"Get off our land, before they kill you all." Papa ran into the crowded market and randomly grabbed a young man in a long blue kurta and white Muslim cap.
"What did you say? How dare you" Papa said and smacked the man hard with his stick. The soldiers rallied around him. Some people took their children and fled away from the market. Others left their stands and either ran off or went toward the crowd. The whole market place quieted down. Mom and I were standing away from the scene. I could not see anything, only hear the yells coming from that direction of the man.
"Saabji, why are you beating me?" the man said between breaths.
"Next time you do something like this, I will gauge your eyes out."
I heard loud cries of pain and howling of dogs. The beating continued for what seemed like a very long time. I hugged Mom's waist and buried my head in her stomach. They were terrible screams. Mom patted my head. Her hand was calm but I could hear her heart beating fast.
Papa came out of the crowd soon after. His shoes were very dirty and one lace was open. He looked different. There was a sort of fierceness in his eyes that I could not look past. It was no longer Papa. So I looked down while I answered him and said I was okay. I was not hurt. Those hands had just hurt someone else; they could not comfort me. So I stayed behind Mom, from Papa.
"Let's leave," Papa said and seized my arm.

Still in shock, I turned around once more and spotted a familiar face in the crowd. Sukhi Ram stared in our direction. He must have seen all that happened. I kept turning back to catch a glimpse of the man in the blue kurta, instead I saw Sukhi again. His gaze was fixed on us.
When we got home that evening Papa locked himself in his room and stayed there till dinnertime. Mom stayed outside with me. I was glad Papa was not near. Not once had Papa raised his hand on me; I didn't think he was capable of beating someone so violently. Mom also looked upset. She didn't talk to me much. She sent Dukhi Ram home for the evening and took over the housework. She cleaned vigorously. That was when her mind was caught in another world.

Later that night, after Mom tucked me into bed, I stayed awake thinking about the man Papa beat. His screams replayed in my head. For one moment Mina's face came back to me, I saw her pointing to her throat and making that strange sound. It was a similar sound, the kind the man in the market made today. There was no way he was the one who threw the stone because the stone came from the opposite direction. I couldn't understand who wanted to hurt us; it may have been one of the girls from the lake hiding behind a tree. Then I remembered Sukhi in the crowd, he must have seen who actually threw the rock. I heard noises from downstairs. I carefully tiptoed out of bed and walked in the dark a few steps down. I tried to be quiet, but the wood creaked. As I drew closer to the living room I heard Mom's voice. She was crying and speaking loudly while Papa was quiet.

"You don't understand what you put our daughter through today. What do you think? You are her hero now? This was not needed!" Mom cried.
"It was necessary." Papa replied calmly.
"Why did someone throw a stone? Didn't you tell me this place was safe? This is not worth the danger. Today they threw a stone, tomorrow they may throw a bomb." Mom yelled.
"Do you expect me to leave the situation and escape like a coward?"
"So it's about your pride, not your daughter's or my safety. No, I don't expect you to leave, but I will take Charu and leave if you don't tell your department that you cannot live here anymore."
"If Charu was in danger I would arrange for you two to leave immediately. Trust me."
"Your pride will bring us all down. These people want their independence and they will go to any extent to get it. What happened to the officer who was posted here before you? You convinced me it was not a terrorist attack. How can I believe you now?"

Suddenly, I heard footsteps from the living room coming closer to the stairs and so I ran back into my room while Papa and Mom still argued. Pretending to be asleep, I covered my head with the blanket but when the sound came closer I peeped outside half expecting to see the blue kurta man Papa beat at the market, instead I saw Sukhi staring at me with his round eyes looking like two black marbles.

"I know you awake," Sukhi said.
At this time I was even afraid of a mouse like Sukhi Ram but when I saw how short and thin he was my fear vanished.
"I know about the market today. Who threw the stone was not the man. It was others. They very angry."
I listened intently to Sukhi.
"Who is this 'they' you keep talking about?"
"This land belongs to someone else."
"Belong to whom? Who are these people?" I asked.
"A man like you father stay here before. He also angry like you father. But their anger much more strong than that man and your father."
"Sukhi what do you mean?"
"Many years back this village was small, quiet village. Then people like your father come with guns and bombs and kill village people, burn houses and take land. They kill little boys and girls, man, woman, everybody and say they make peace here. Now those people are spirits who kill all in uniform who want to come into the village. Everybody in village know, so they afraid."
"No Sukhi, you don't know. My Papa is very strong. He even has a gun! He can catch anyone and put them in jail."
"Tell your father to leave before more bad things happen. I will leave now. Your father cannot win this fight. They more angry than you can imagine."
Sukhi Ram turned to leave and then stopped and spoke again.
"The man in the market is dead."

Hearing his words I felt numb on my back, like someone took a massive ball of ice and rubbed it slowly down my spine. Papa would never allow for the man to be killed. No, it wasn't true. Sukhi was lying. He had to be lying. Papa protected people; he could never kill someone. How could I possibly believe the words of an illiterate, ignorant village boy who believed in spirits? I was angry with Sukhi.
"Why should I believe you?"
Sukhi gave me one hard stare and said, "I was there when he took his last breath. He cried out the name of Allah and then died. He was innocent."

I gulped. I didn't want to believe Sukhi, but I had seen something in Papa's eyes that I had never seen before. He looked possessed when he came out of the crowd, like a spirit had gotten into him and forced him to kill. A sudden thought whizzed past my mind. It was an image of Papa in his green uniform, holding a tall gun loosely between his legs. His face wrapped in a long black cloth revealed eyes, those eyes I saw when he emerged from the crowd. Red. Monstrous. Truthful.

* * *

Papa and Mom were back to their normal selves within the next few days. They laughed and talked as usual about unimportant things. Was it possible that they had forgotten everything that had happened in the village market? Papa seemed more cheerful than he had been since we moved to Sopore. He even started taking Mom and me for long drives like he used to in Delhi. Papa, Mom and I would be alone in the car, listening to film songs and talking about stories about when I was younger. Papa remembered even such small details as the color of the dress I wore on my third birthday and the place they bought it from. I still listened to his animated stories, but in the middle of it suddenly an image of his face in the marketplace would return. I hated him in those moments. I hated those moments even more than I hated him. He looked like the same person but he was not the same person anymore.

There were times I wanted to tell Papa and Mom about these thoughts over dinner like I used to about everything else that bothered me. But the words wouldn't come out. I was afraid of what Papa would say or that he would get upset with me. The constant thought of Papa tormented me so much that I sometimes walked alone into the forest and returned after daybreak only because I wanted to be confronted and scolded by Mom or Papa. Then I could get angry and scream and tell them that I was upset with Papa. But it didn't work. Mom would simply have dinner ready for me when I returned and Papa assumed I made new friends.

"I told you that you'd like it here. Soon your school will start and you'll forget all about Delhi." Papa said. His words came across to me as insensitive.
"I don't like it here, I want to go back," I replied.
"Bring me a glass of water," he said to Mom and continued eating. He was not the same person anymore. Papa had changed.

Every morning I would wake up to the image of the marketplace and Papa's face after he beat the man and when he grabbed my shoulder and asked me whether I was okay. I started waking up in the middle of the night and think of the scene at the marketplace. Every morning I'd hope for those thoughts to only have been a bad dream, but the memory of it was stuck in my mind like a scary painting placed right in front of my bed. As the days went by, it became harder for me to get out of bed in the morning so I'd stay up in my room until noon.

Mom's three friends came by one day. I was still in my room as I normally was these days, but I heard their chatter from my window and looked down to find the two women. Broken button seemed to have put on more weight. She picked her sari and walked, talking very loudly. I could piece together some words and figured they were talking about servants again. Then I heard Mom as she greeted them and closed the door. After a while I heard my name being taken over and over again. I tiptoed out of my room to listen to their conversation.

"Maybe she just misses her friends in Delhi," gold-garb said.
"But we've already been here for more than a month, at her age she should have made new friends here. I don't know; Charu is very fast at making friends." Mom said.
"Don't worry about her. Once she starts school, she'll be fine." Broken-buttons said.
"I've never seen her like this. She's been going out by herself and coming home late sometimes, she sleeps so much, and barely talks, and she hasn't asked me to cook anything for her for days. And all this has been going on since that day we went to the market. I knew it would happen." Mom said and burst out crying.

I felt comforted by those words. Mom knew, now I could talk to her and tell her what sort of images and thoughts that have been tormenting me. I wanted to go down, bury my head in Mom's stomach and empty out my mind that was beginning to feel like a garden hose with the tap opened fully. I was ready to let out everything. I wanted to express everything and then things would be back to normal again. I felt a surge of joy bubble up from the pit of my stomach and fill up every corner of my body. I could talk to Mom and things would be normal again.

"Did you talk to Charu?" broken-button said.
"I don't know what to say to her. It was too much for that innocent child to witness. How can I possibly make her forget it?" Mom replied.
"Now she should know. She's an army officer's daughter; that too posted in a place like Sopore. What your husband did was for the safety of everyone. I have no compassion for these people, I tell you. They all deserve to be killed. Most of them are terrorists, if one innocent man is killed so what? They kill innocent people all the time. Your husband was right in what he did. Now they all become like cowardly chickens." Gold-garb glibly stated.
"How do I tell that to my daughter? She's only a child!" Mom yelled.
"Okay, anyway, it's getting late. We should get going. If you want I'll take you to the temple, it'll put your mind at ease. We can conduct a prayer service for Charu. I know a good priest." Gold-garb said.
"Take care of yourself. Worry doesn't help. Everything will be fine. He's her father after all. How long can she stay upset with family? I'll send some halva for Charu. I just made it this morning. Give that to her and tell her to forget what she saw. Children forget things very easily." broken-button said.
Mom didn't respond. So the women said goodbye and left.

I went downstairs hoping for Mom to tell me something that would make everything okay. I wanted to give her the heavy rock in my heart that was growing every moment and had already become bigger than me. She would know how to break it. I looked straight into her eyes. They were still foggy with the tears. I waited for her to hug me in the way she used to, completely, so I could bury myself in her warmth. She got up and said,
"I'm making baked dish today and brownies. Come help me in the kitchen, you can try the cake batter."

With that one line Mom crushed the little bit of hope I was beginning to feel. In an instance I felt completely alone. I didn't know what is it that I wanted to hear from her but I knew it was not this. She refused to accept my burden. I thought of telling her that she ought to acknowledge what had happened, that she and Papa could not just be normal and pretend that everything is fine. Papa murdered an innocent man and she said nothing. I almost blurted out, 'I hate you', but I couldn't. I wasn't angry with them anymore.

I helped Mom in the kitchen and did everything she told me to. I even patiently cut a cucumber all by myself. She talked a lot and told me stories about her childhood that I had never heard before. Then she allowed me to eat many spoons of cake batter before she gently pulled it from my hand to add the walnuts. I knew how she hated me digging into the brownie mix.

That night Papa brought back a box of nutties for me. I accepted them and started eating right before dinner. He didn't ask me to stop. Then while we were at the dinner-table Papa said,
"I spoke to that boarding school again. They are willing to accept Charu as a mid-semester student. Isn't that great news? They're making one exception for us. So Charu you can go there as soon as in a week."
Mom looked at me before she said anything. They knew how I hated the idea of a boarding school.
"We know it's been difficult for you over here. You'll make good friends over there." Mom said.
"Besides, the place is surrounded by mountains. You can go hiking as often as you like. It's only for a few years. When I finish from here we'll go back to Delhi."

I continued eating but my anger started growing with every word I heard. I wasn't prepared for this. I had to say something. I stopped eating, looked Mom right into the eyes and said.
"I hate you both. That man is an animal and you are a coward!" I couldn't believe my own words. I spoke them but immediately felt as though I took a plunge into a deep dark well. Mom slapped me. It was the first time that she had raised her hand on me.
"What do you think of yourself? You are not even a child anymore; you should be ashamed of yourself." She cried but hit me some more. It didn't hurt but I told her to stop. Papa had his hands folded on the table and watched everything without saying a word. I got up from my chair, threw the plates on the floor, pushed her aside and ran out of the door. My feet were bare but I didn't care. I jumped over the fence of our home and ran and ran. I kept running. It was a cold night and the moon was big. I hated the light.

I ran all the way to the top of the mountain. I wasn't' afraid. There I spotted a figure in a white kurta on top of the mountain curled up like a white cotton ball. I went nearer and realized it was Sukhi Ram facing the valley. His kurta swayed with the wind. He turned to me and then faced the mountain again.
"Can you hear the cries of the people in the valley? I hear them every night." Sukhi said.
I was furious enough to push that boy down the cliff for saying something so foolish and for telling me about the man in the market. I could not hear any cries of people. All I could hear was a hollow sound of wind passing through a concave tree bark and my heart beating wildly. I didn't say anything to Sukhi. He spoke again, it didn't even seem like he was talking to me. I was just there witnessing his monologue.

"How many stories the dead must have whispered to this valley when the wind brought them in?"

"Do you do this every night?" I finally asked.
"They come here everyday, they emerge from this valley and talk to me. They don't like it there and wish I had done something that day. So they would still be alive and we would be living together like we used to before. Things could be back to normal again."
I noticed fresh bulbs of blood on his bare legs. He was holding a knife in his hand. I took the knife and threw it into the valley. It hit a few rocks before disappearing. I felt better.
"You're strange," I said to Sukhi. I knew his story but couldn't understand how he still lived. I thought that if I had seen what he saw I would have drank poison. He still lived. I didn't see him as my servant anymore. Instead I admired him for going on living, despite his craziness.
I held his hand and we looked at the valley together. Strange objects flew around us and danced for a few moments before dropping into the dark valley. The mountains were two giant shadows on the backdrop of a moonlit night sky. I gazed down. A river cut through the mountain range like a silver thread. I felt like a part of me died and was carried into the valley by the wind.


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