It was just another day for us. We ran through the wheat fields, laughing and playing, him with his sling and me with my ball, running as quickly as our little legs could carry us back to the village before the sun went down. It was when we reached that I noticed that the evening air was different. The shadows may be playing tricks on my eyes but I could see a lot more movement than was usual. He turned to me, his eyes questioning if I knew something but I just shrugged. We parted ways at the fork separating the roads to our homes.
I was almost at my home when I turned to the direction of his house. His father stood at the entrance, scowling, and spoke rapidly from the looks of it. His mother stood silently by his side. He soon stopped and looked up to see me staring. He glared in a manner I have never before seen on his face and pushed him into the house. His mother noticed the little exchange and gave me a timid smile. I raised my hand and waved. She looked about almost as though she didn't want to be seen, then raised her hand in a wave, before rushing back inside. I remember thinking the whole ordeal was strange.
As I entered my home, I could hear the whispers of my parents conversations. “We can’t leave...”. I felt shocked to hear those words, but wanted to hear more so I stood still. “... It’s the law...” “... our country for centuries… All we’ve ever known… ” “... It’s dangerous to stay … many killed already… ” I only heard about it in school about people leaving town lately, but off late my parents had told me to stay home so I didn’t know what was happening. I was thinking about my parents conversation when I heard her cry. I almost missed it but my father’s voice trying to soothe her broke me out of my reverie. From the sounds of it, she had been holding it in for long. After a few minutes, she sniffled and seemed to move into the house. That’s when I decided to make my presence known.
My father looked up when he heard my footsteps, “Emani, when did you get back home?”
I pretended I hadn’t heard them speak, “Just now, Abbu. Salim and I were playing on the fields.”
I didn’t notice it then but looking back, I realised how his body stiffened when he heard his name. He let out a deep sigh and looked at me. He looked tired, more so today than usual. He gestured to me to come towards him. I walked up to him and sat on his lap. He smiled sadly and patted my head, “I have something to tell you, my sweet. Tonight, we will all be going on a long journey.”
I scrunched up my eyebrows, “What journey, Abbu?”
“To a new place,” he said placatingly, “It’s almost like here but there are more people like us.”
I was confused, “What do you mean like us? Aren’t we all the same people?”
He was quiet for a long time, before a slight smile grazed his lips. “That is true, princess, we are all the same. Forgive me, I misspoke.” He rested his cheek on my head, rocking me slightly, “Think of it like an adventure. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
I thought about it. “I guess so.” Then a thought struck me, “Can Salim come with us?”
His eyes were sad when they looked at me, “I’m afraid not. He must stay here. This is his home.”
I don’t know why. Maybe young as I was, my mind began to piece together what was really happening. “B-but, why not? I am coming with you. This is my home too!”
He ran his hand affectionately over my head. “That's the thing, my sweet. This is no longer our home.”
“Make sure the person on Bed #3 takes these medicines on time. And get me the scan results of Bed #27.” I scribbled furiously on the medical file and thrust the copies to the nurse standing beside me. She nodded and weaved with practiced steps down the halls. I just turned back to make my way down to sleeping rooms when another nurse caught hold of me.
“Doctor, we have a new emergency. The patient looks to be bleeding heavily and none of the other doctors on ER duty are available.” I could feel the pain of standing on my feet for the last nine hours but my sense of duty decided to make an appearance at that moment. I followed behind her to the Emergency Room, the chaos of it all muted in my tired mind. We stopped in front of a man bleeding heavily on the hospital bed.
“What do we have here?” I checked him for the source of the bleed. The heart machine beside his bed beeped like a death bell in my ears.
“Car accident. He seemed to have gotten the worst of it. What's worse, we’ve been trying to find his medical records but there’s none in our databases.”
I found the source and applied some pressure on it. “He has lost too much blood already, we will have to run any tests ourselves and try to patch him soon or this man won’t be alive for long. What did you say his name was?”
“They found a driver’s license. We can’t be sure if the person in the photo is him. It was a little unclear with all the blood. Here let me see,” she wiped off the surface of the license. “There, the name is Salim!”
I felt my blood run cold. It’s been nearly twenty years since my parents and I left the only home we’ve known in the cover of the dark but even now, after all these years, that name causes shivers in my spine.
Get a hold of yourself, Emani.
I shook off the memories and nodded. “Okay, here’s what you should do.”
It was a long shot but somehow we managed to stabilise him. Even so, I was worried he could slip into a worse state any time, so I checked up on him as often as I could. At least that’s what I told myself. He didn’t wake up for three days, however, and that justified my caution. On the fourth day, I was caught up on rounds when the nurse assigned to his case came up to me, “Doctor, the patient is awake now.”
I tried to keep my face as expressionless as possible as I made my way to his bed.
It’s not him. It’s just not possible. This is not his home.
He looked up at me upon hearing my footsteps, black curls lying in a mess around his face, his brown eyes with a startled look that slowly turned into realisation.
“E-Emani...” he whispered.
“E-Emani...” he whispered. It was then I knew I could pretend any longer. Even if he didn’t recognise me, I’d recognise those eyes anywhere in the world. And just like that, my anticipation turned to cold rage.
“Salim.” I said curtly. I picked up his chart and flipped through the pages, ignoring his confused stare.
He opened his lips to speak, “Emani, it-its me. Salim from your-”
I closed the file and then looked back at him, “Looks like the worst is over. You should be back on your feet in no time. I’ll let the nurses know about your medication. Follow through with them and you can get out of here in three days.”
Realisation came over his eyes. “You haven’t forgotten still.”
I looked at his eyes, fire blazing through my veins. “That’s where you are wrong, Salim. I have forgotten it for so long I don’t even know why we called that place our home. But, if you must know I have not forgiven.” I glared at him.
He was quiet, his face contorted like a wounded dog. I turned to walk out of the room when he finally spoke up. “I’m sorry for what they did.”
I scoffed, turning back to face him. “You think an apology will make it alright? That it can make up for driving us out of the only home my family has known for generations and annexing our lands? For what? Power? If you think that you are no different from your father.”
This time I did not stay to let him change my mind. I stormed out of the room and made my way to the washroom. I went into one of the cubicles and locked myself inside. I paced the small space as anger and longing warred within me. I tried to suppress all the memories of the evenings we spent playing in the golden fields of my childhood, a childhood I desperately tried to forget as my family and I tried to build a new future in this land. A land where we were unwelcome strangers, remnants of a war whose scars we represent to anyone who met us. It has been a long uphill battle, and forgetting was the only way we found the strength to keep going. But in my heart, I knew that I lied. I hadn’t forgotten.
I avoided him for the next few days after. Things were calmer around the hospital so I didn’t have to cross paths with him as often. When it became evident I had to go check up on him, I took a sick day and got one of my colleagues on his case. If all goes well, he would be out of here in no time and I could go back to the way my life was before.
One day, one of the nurses came up to me. “Hey doc, you remember that car accident fellow whose case you gave to Dr. Phelps? He just got discharged today and gave me this to pass on to you along with his thanks.” She handed me a small envelope and smiled conspiratorially, “Looks like he's taken quite a liking to you doc.”
I gave a small smile and shrugged, “I’m sure it’s nothing like that. Thanks for this anyways!”
I made my way to the changing rooms after that, my mind made up to dump it in the first trash I could find where nobody could see me do it. But as fate would have it, I felt like eyes were on me everywhere. I finally found myself alone and pulled the paper out of my pocket. Just as I was about to throw it away, something in me stopped my movement.
It’s just a piece of paper. Why let it have so much power over you?
Something about that thought made me enraged. It's just a piece of paper. I don’t have to hate it so much that I took all this precaution to dispose of it off. I don't know what drove me at that moment, but I simply made my way to my bag and slipped the envelope inside its secret pocket. I don’t really use it, so I guess I’ll just let it be there until I figure what to do with it.
It had been a couple of months until I heard of Salim’s name again. One day, my mother called me just as my shift was over. I grabbed my bag and was about to head out when the phone rang. I could sense from the hesitancy in her voice that whatever she intended to tell me was pretty serious.
“Emani, do you remember that boy Salim from when you were a kid?”
Twenty years go by without a reminder of that boy and in the span of a couple of months, I get reminded of him twice. What did I do to piss off the fates so badly?
My eyes quickly flickered to where the secret pocket was in my bag. “Yeah, I remember him. What about it, Ma?”
She waited for a bit before she spoke again. “Um-I just got news that he has passed away.”
The air was still, my mind still shocked from her words.
It-it can’t be. I saw him just a few months ago.
“He’s had cancer for a couple of years, and apparently the treatments stopped working a couple of months ago according to his doctors,” she told me softly. “I just talked to his mother-”
My attention was quickly grabbed. “You talked to his mother? The women whose husband was one of the reasons we were uprooted from her home? Have you lost your mind?!” I was breathing hard.
“Emani,” she started again softly, “we are victims whose suffering the world could see. That needn’t be the case for everybody. The sins of ones you are related to shouldn’t be your burden to carry.”
It felt like someone was choking me, “What are you trying to say, Ma?”
I could almost feel her sad smile, “he was just a boy when it happened himself. You shouldn’t blame him for his father’s deeds. His soul may not be able to cross over if you hold onto this misdirected hatred. You have to let it go.”
I don’t know how long she was talking, or when she said goodbye. I just sat there, her words running through my head. My eyes drifted back to the secret pocket and my hands lifted towards it. The paper envelope was crushed from being cramped into such a small space. I tore it open and pulled out the small piece of paper from within.
I don’t know if you will ever read this, but I hope that if you do, you could be patient with me and read till the end.
I am sorry.
I am sorry that I couldn’t stop what happened. That I couldn’t do something about it. That I wasn’t brave enough to find you when I grew up, to make up for all the things you lost because of my family. I know an apology can’t make up for all of it, but as much as I wish I could turn back time, I don’t have that power. But I do have the power to apologise and I hope you could read this enough number of times to find it in your heart to forgive me.
You may have forgotten but for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always imagined you beside me growing up. I guess that’s what happens with friendships you form so young and ones that lasted for so long. They just become a part of you. You weren’t there but the shadow of your presence alone made me want to be better to make up for everything you suffered because of my father.
To be honest, I didn’t know why I started writing this letter. But I guess I do now. I just wanted to say that even though our worlds have become poles apart, so much so you never want to see my face again (which might actually come true soon), our friendship will always be a cherished part of who I am. I just wanted to say thank you for giving me the only light in the darkness of my life. I am glad you are my friend.
I don’t know when, but the little spots of water on the paper before me told me I’ve been crying for some time. I tried to find my voice again but I just felt choked. It was then, with my shoulders shaking with unshed tears of years of friendship lost that I dared to speak the words unspoken in my head.
I am glad you were my friend too.