Clash By Night
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
"And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."
- Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
The first shells of the evening barrage were hurtling by
overhead as I finished packing the bag and slung it over my shoulder. Tonight
the shells were landing in the middle distance, around the stadium. Theyíd been
shelling it a lot recently. Maybe their drones had noticed something worth
targeting, or maybe it was just for fun.
A lot of things these
days were so inexplicable that someone might as well be doing them just for
I came out of the flat
and walked towards the stairs at the end of the corridor. †There was, of
course, no power, but it didnít matter; enough of the dusk still filtered
through the broken window at the far end to show me where I was going. The
stairs would be darker, black as midnight, but I was used to them, too; I knew
where each step was, the broken places and the part where there was a hole at
the landing one flight down. I didnít think I would have to use the torch in my
"Are you going away?" a
voice said behind me.
I turned. It was the girl
from the next flat, the teenage daughter of the couple who owned it. Iíd
occasionally talked to her when weíd met in the passage or out in the street,
but I wasnít even sure of her name. Mara, Maya, or Mala, something like that. Her
hair was loose around her shoulders, her eyes dark holes in her pale triangular
face. She looked terrified.
"Youíre going away,
arenít you?" she repeated. She came out of her flat, leaving the door open, and
clutched my sleeve. "I heard there was a convoy coming tonight. Youíll go away
"Iím just sending
official documents." I held up the strap of the bag. "If the convoy gets
through, Iíll give this to a driver to take with him when they leave. Thatís
"Youíre just saying
that." A shell burst, closer than the rest, close enough to feel the explosion
through the floor. The girl shuddered as though the shell had shaken her, too.
"Take me with you. Take me away from here."
"Your parents..." I
"My parents wonít do
anything. They donít care. They think God will protect us and make everything
all right for everybody." She began to cry, the tears on her cheeks catching
the flashes of the shells exploding over the stadium. "Look..." She pulled up
her T shirt with both hands, exposing flat bare breasts surmounted by little
nipples like dried flower buds. "Iíll do anything if you take me with you. Iíll
sleep with you, give you my virginity. Iíll marry you if you want me to, do
whatever you want. Just take me along!"
"Iím not going anywhere,"
I replied. "Please, calm down. Iíll be back before morning, and Iíll see you
"Oh, no, you wonít," she
sobbed. "Even if youíre back, you wonít see me. Iíll be killed tonight, I know
it. Iíll die long before you get back."
I took my leave of her
with some difficulty. From the head of the stairs I saw her, still watching me
miserably. Her hands were twisting her T shirt, as though wringing out time
from it, drops measuring out the seconds and minutes of life she still had.
The thing was, she wasnít
even wrong. If the convoy got through, I was going to give the documents to a
driver to take back with him, but if I could find a way to get out, of course
Iíd go. Iíd be crazy to do otherwise.
And yet, hadnít there
been a moment when Iíd almost been tempted? Hadnít there been an instant when
Iíd thought to myself, why not take what she was offering? After all, we didnít
even know whether we would be alive this time tomorrow. It was a nasty thought,
and I turned my mind away from it.
If we got through the
night, I thought, it would be different. If we got through the night, weíd see.
The street was bouncing
slightly from the impact of the shells, but hadnít been hit, and probably
wouldnít be tonight. By now weíd all got to know where a particular barrage was
likely to hit, and which places would be spared. Sometimes, of course, we were
wrong, and then kids scrambling for a bucket or two of water or women waiting
in line for bread someone had managed to find flour enough to bake would be
blown to pieces. But it was a chance everyone had to take; weíd never survive
otherwise anyway, with the shelling that was like a routine, with barrages
every morning, noon and night.
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