A few drops of starlight

Submitted into Contest #51 in response to: Write a story that begins and ends with someone looking up at the stars.... view prompt



My name is Ashraf and I was born under the constellation of Orion and its valiant, steady lights.

My village used to be one where sparkling diamond lights would light up summer evenings and draw out families to their terraces and courtyard. About a dozen or more unruly heads would run about, zigzagging around woven cots, sprinkled across the streets.

The menfolk would spill out into the streets, pondering over the mysteries of a minuscule cosmos, comprising of our village and 2 or 3 neighboring ones, at the most. My mother, aunts and a few other women would collect in the terrace, completing bits and pieces of housework, left by the end of the day.

On most days I would prefer running about the streets or hopscotching with my friends. I remember the older children always getting to decide the game we would play. That would make me want to grow up as quickly as possible, so that one day I could be the queen of my own tribe. Rarely, however, I would occupy a corner of our terrace, tired of the games being played by the other village children, both literal and metaphorical.

My elder brother, Amjad had never faced this dilemma of whether he should go out to play or not. I have always remembered him sitting cross-legged with a book on his lap, heavy glass spectacles sliding down his sloth-shaped nose. As a result, he was a huge favorite among the ladies of the house who saw him as a shy, introverted genius. The same evenings I had spent hiding behind scratchy bushes and rusty bicycles, he would sit on his cushioned throne on the terrace, among the women-folk, listening to their stories and information threads, lifelines of an even smaller world-one that started from the kitchen and ended with the backyard.

But as the evenings would fade away into sultry, dead nights, footsteps would troop back into their houses, all banter and laughter would flicker off and sleepy heads would lie down peacefully into rugs and mattresses, laid out under the starry sky. On our terrace, only two night-owls would stay awake, late into the night-my grandmother and me.

My most precious childhood memory, is one of crawling into the crook of her arm, eager to lose myself in the dreamy, cozy world of her stories. She would cradle me and sing songs or narrate stories, whatever struck her fancy. An iridiscent, mother-of-pearl moon would bathe her face in moonlight and I would slowly drift away into sleep, the high drama of dragons and warriors, beautiful princesses and powerful djinns, playing out against the backdrop of a million twinkling stars.

“Do the stars feel lonely up there, Daadi?” I had asked her once. “They are so far away from us.”

“Sometimes. That is why we have shooting stars, the ones that come down to visit us.”

I had bounced up on her frail, aging knees and she smacked me lightly across the arm. “Ashraf, when will you learn a little bit of grace? Someday, my knee will come crumbling down.”

I was too excited about the shooting stars to feel bad about the reprimand. For the next few weeks, I scoured the skies in search of one. Maybe there was something savage about the interest I took in seeing a star crash and burn, the thrill its untimely demise awoke in me. Perhaps I was just excited to see a new visitor dropping in from its heavenly abode. Back then, we did not distrust outsiders and had not yet shut our doors to the world.

I finally got to see a shooting star when I was 14 years old. A twilight sky was burning out with the last washes of pink, red and orange, dissolving into the darkness of a summer night. It was unusually quiet as news had approached of yet another border skirmish in a neighbouring village. My father, grandfather and uncles, were stiff and taught in their armchairs--the news thread bringing waves of silence, crashing on the shores of their usually buoyant conversation. My mother had cooped up all the children in our narrow kitchen and was helping her sisters-in-law in serving dinner. Amjad and I finished first and I started fidgeting. 

“Ammi, Ashraf is being a brat. She is not letting me study.” He was seventeen and the only boy who was not shunted out of the house along with the other men. I pulled his leg incessantly about this.

“You had promised to build me a telescope, to track Orion and see the craters in the moon.” I faithfully reminded him of his unfulfilled promise, knowing that it was none of his fault. When basic food and clothes were becoming scarce, I could hardly expect a lanky, bookish teenager to procure lenses for a telescope.

"If you want to see the stars so much, go to the terrace and hang yourself upside down from the clothesline." He shot back, fully expecting Ammi to take his side.

To his surprise and mine, one of my aunts, Bua, as we called her, hauled us up and shoved us outside the kitchen. “Don’t stay out for more than 10 minutes. And if you hear even the slightest noise, rush inside without any delay.” Ammi started to protest, but Bua calmed her down. “Kids will be kids, Ifra. Don’t worry, they will be back before we notice.”

I finally nagged Amjad into leaving his book behind and come upto the terrace, hoping that I could get him talking about the telescope again. No matter how much he irritated me, I was always in awe of his encyclopedic knowledge.

I was the first one to see it. A small, yellow orb of light burning with a fury and rage, I never thought those distant fairy lights could possess. We had been told that bombs make a lot of noise and break a lot of things. But there was no noise that night. Only a shooting star that came down to visit us. Only the sound of crying and wailing of mothers who would never see their children again and children who would grow up broken, from the inside out. Only the sound of muffled grief as half a village disappeared under nameless tombstones.

I remember running that night, running like my life depended on it. In the 5 years that followed, on many nights I can feel Amjad's fingers digging into my arm, my footsteps flailing and pounding on his trail. Waking up with a horrible burn in my eyes, I open them to scary, shape shifting monsters, ghastly beasts of smoke and shadow that now fill my world. Initially, when the light started going out of my eyes and the colors started seeping away, the fear of movement used to paralyze me more than my loss of vision. With time, I have learnt to measure out and map this world of mine, one shade of darkness at a time. Darting out of my bed, I fumble out towards Amjad's room. Then halfway through, it strikes me that he is sleeping in the backyard, under his grey tombstone.

I worry that he will be freezing outside during the harsh, brittle winter, so I ask my younger sister to come with me and place a blanket on him. It is 22 steps and a half from our home to the grave. The brick and mortar school building is much farther and I have to ask Shaheen, a neighbour to accompany me. She is my late best friend's younger sister, but we study in the same class. After the bombing, she would often land up at our house and the hospital to see how I was doing. I would find myself getting irritated at this nosy, whining voice that roamed about collecting death tolls and tallying the ratio of injured people. Over the years, I've realized, she is just trying to make sure she wasn't the only one to lose a loved one.

Our village school is empty on most days except when the village council drags up a teacher from the government school nearest to our village. Shaheen and I attend the first day when the teacher writes the syllabus on the board and make a list of books on the second. By the end of the week, news reaches us that the teacher had been seen cycling away at full speed to the nearest railway station.

Shaheen tries to tell me everything, but many noises go away unexplained, many scents confuse me and when it's snowing outside, I feel everything must be white. One day, when she was staying at my house before our exams, I brought her beside the window and asked her if she could see Orion. She told me she wasn’t interested in any village boy, and we should be focussing on our studies instead. I realized, even if I could bring her to look at the sky, there was no way I could make her see constellations.

Nowadays, the warm spring breeze doesn’t fill the streets with people and empty terraces wait with baited breath for disaster to alight on the people they shelter. 

“Apa, look, a shooting star!” My sister cries out to me one day. My heart leaps with joy before freezing with terror. 

“Run!” I scream and grab her arm, rushing towards the deeper blackness of the doorway. “Another bomb, bomb!” My howling, cracking voice echoes through stillness before footsteps start running around and the entire household dissolves in a frantic madness to save everyone from becoming cold pieces of stone in the cemetery. 

“No, Apa. It wasn’t a bomb. It was-” My sister’s baby voice drowns in the mayhem. As I am half-dragging her downstairs, my feet miss a step, my body falling through thin air and striking the hard floor. I spend the next few days, drifting in and out, Amjad's voice a comforting, faint echo. Waking up from the delirium, I hear my mother’s voice sobbing and gasping with a few hot tears trickling down my arm. 

“It was a shooting star, one that her grandmother taught her to see.” 

A sudden breeze, blowing across the salt water tracks down my cheek tells me that I am facing a window. Keeping my eyes closed tightly, I look up and imagine what it must have been to see a real shooting star.

My sky is black, but sometimes when I close my eyes, I can feel a few drops of starlight.

July 24, 2020 07:30

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Karen McDermott
12:48 Jul 30, 2020

Wow, this was a really powerful story. It went places I didn't expect. Compelling. You write very well and I'm keen to read what you come out with next :)


Ipshita Majumdar
08:57 Jul 31, 2020

Thanks, Karen! Keeping an eye out for your stories as well:)


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