Saturday, September 06, 2014

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO DIED

A version of this appeared in the World Literature Today in 2010. THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION. The story does not represent any moment that occurred during the real civil conflict in Nepal. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The little girl is a metaphor for all the innocent people who died in the crossfire. 

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO DIED
SUSHMA JOSHI

Major Krishna Basnet jerked his bitten hand back, as if stung. Tooth marks, where the seven-year old girl had bitten him, left dark indentations in the hollow between his thumb and forefinger.

The Major stared at the tear-stained face of the little girl. Then he spat into her defiant eyes. “You should have learnt to respect your elders, you bitch.”

  A cold moon glittered in the black sky. No wind stirred the leaves. The Major’s voice carried upwards, towards where Ambika lay, hiding. Ambika could hear and see everything from where she was—a recessed ledge of rock embedded in a cliff above the village. Respect, spat out from the Major’s throat, floated up with a strange resonance.

Ambika felt like a little girl below, held hostage by the Major with his gun on that brilliant moonlit night. How many times had she been told to respect her elders? The rage rose in her with the same uncontrollable force as when she had been a child.

She closed her eyes and remembered the moment, years ago, when she had fallen from a cliff, hunting for wild honey, and almost broken her neck. A little keyhole to death had opened up in her mind as she lay on the ground. Then she had heard sounds of the next world, the atonal moans echoing through red, cloudy vision, the sighs of terror and despair from unseen beings. That’s when she had known, on a visceral level, the certainty of death. Ambika felt her finger tighten on her trigger. “Perhaps I’ll die today,” she thought.

Ambika looked through her viewfinder. Major Krishna Basnet’s head looked like a black blob from where she lay, about twenty meters away. It would be easy to put a bullet through his back. Would paralyzing him for the rest of his life be more fitting than death? Ambika would die in the return volley of gunfire. But death would be worth the price to rid the earth of this torturer. As her finger tightened around her gun’s trigger, she was jerked out of her single-minded intention to kill the Major by a sound. Gita, her youngest cadre, sixteen, lay on the rocky ledge along with her. Gita shuddered as she breathed. This was her first battle. 

Ambika became aware of her five comrades—the clove-laden breath of Comrade Nepali, the warmth of an arm pressed close to hers, the huddle of bodies behind in the deep black corners. Shame took the place of the adrenaline that coursed through her body seconds ago. How could she have imagined putting her comrades in danger? Justice would have to wait. Ambika forced her tense finger to slacken.

As Ambika lowered her gun, a single shot rang out. Ambika could not have said whether the terrified scream of the little girl came before or after the gunshot. Or perhaps she screamed twice—once, seeing death hurtle towards her, and twice, when the bullet hit her between the eyes.

The gunshot, and the scream, appeared to richot around the enclosed valley where the small village nestled. A ghostly gunshot and a ghostly girl-scream magnified and echoed, then fragmented into a thousand pieces of broken sound. An eerie silence followed. Ambika put her forehead down on the cool limestone, and closed her eyes. She felt a wetness on her cheeks and realized she was crying.

* * *
 The little girl died one hour and thirty-two minutes after Ambika spied the soldiers running down to the village.

“They’re coming.” Ambika was terse as she looked through her binoculars. Blurry figures streaked downhill. They seem to carry heavy loads. The Royal Nepal Army, the guerillas had heard, now carried sophisticated weapons.

“How many?”

“Twenty-five soldiers. Maybe more.” Cold metal pressed around Ambika’s eyes as she strained to count.
“We have to…have to…kill them.” Gita, who’d joined the Maoist People’s War at the age of fifteen, was on the edge of hysteria.

“If you shoot now, you’ll reveal our location,” Ambika looked back and saw the young girl stand up. Her legs astride, she held her gun up, as if ready to shoot. “Sit,” Ambika commanded. Her voice was harsh, with the slightest hint of a tremble.

Comrade Nepali’s semi-automatic gun had served him well during Mangalsen battle. Ambika carried the same model. The two had killed a fair number of policemen with those two guns. But then the police in Mangalsen had just been armed with outdated .303 rifles. Today, it appeared, they would have to face a Royal Nepal Army force armed with sophisticated weapons. But what tipped the scales was the armament their comrades were carrying—the four new cadres, recent recruits, had homemade muskets. They had learnt to clean it, and shoot it, but the muskets did not fire well.

 “What do we do, comrade?” Fresh-faced, wide-eyed, Rama, the other female cadre, scared Ambika with her phlegmatic innocence. 

“I am ready to die.” Gita sounded combative. The command to sit infuriated her. With her childish face, and her red band she wore like a fashionable hair band, she was the youngest girl that Ambika had worked with. She appeared to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“Up!” Ambika commanded. She did not need to deal with a nervous breakdown right now—the single most useful thing her cadres could do was to hide themselves. The rocky ledge they had scoped out earlier, carved into the cliff, was their hideout. “Wait for us.” The two girls, frightened, ran. The two boys, eighteen, followed close behind. All of them had been recruited two months ago. This was their first battle. 

“Why did they send these raw recruits?” Comrade Nepali muttered. “They’re useless.” Last week, seven cadres, experienced fighters of the People’s Army, had headed up to meet them. They slept at a widow’s house. At three am, a low whistle awakened them. They didn’t need to hear the knock on the door to know that a cordon of soldiers surrounded the house. Blindfolded and handcuffed, they were taken in a black jeep. The soldiers took them to the army barracks of the district headquarters, Ambika was certain.

Ambika thought about her seven comrades, the ones with whom she had shared many battles, and felt an impotent grief. The three women were almost certain to face rape, and the men would be tortured. Some, or all, could be killed. The precious cache of guns, bullets and bombs, meant for this crucial battle, had been seized, and would be paraded to the cameras of TV journalists, for all the world to see.

A teacher from a Ramechap village had informed the police, they heard. The teacher was now strung up in a tree, dead. His tongue had been ripped out as a warning to others.

Ambika followed her cadres up the rocky cliff, pulling at roots and clinging vines to pull herself to the shallow, recessed ledge. The entry was narrow, but inside it was cavernous, with enough room for the five to stretch out. Ambika laid herself flat on the ground, and raised her binoculars, to her eyes. The warm, rich smell of harvest rose around her. She inhaled – drying stalks, the glorious smell of seeds thrashed on the ground in the fields below rose to her nostrils. In her binoculars, she saw the soldiers running downhill, getting closer to the village.

* * *
Flat on their stomachs inside a rocky shelf inside the limestone cliffs, out of eye line of the settlement below, the six guerillas waited. Ambika, at the very edge, her navel pushing into rough ground, had a clear view of the village. More than a dozen soldiers, weighted down with arms, arrived soon after. They bashed the wooden doors down with the butt of their rifles. The sharp barks of dogs, howling at the intruders, rose to a crescendo. A couple of bullets flew past, lodging themselves on the wood of a porch near a howling dog. The dog ran off, hiding its tail between its legs. 

The yellow beam of the soldiers’ flashlights lit up the smoky corners of the cottages. Faded lamp-black walls. Sooty rafters. An uncleared cobweb. Here was a young mother, hoping a pile of firewood would hide her. There an old and toothless man, a resigned look on his face, on his bed. A soldier seized the mother by her hair and shoved her, infant cradled in her arms, on the ground.

“Shoot anything that moves!” a voice commanded.

A dog, snarling, appeared from beneath a bed. A swift and well-aimed kick from a soldier’s boot sent it fleeing out of the door and across the yard.

“Shoot!”

“Yes, Major.” A short burst of gunfire. The dog fell, and started to whimper. There was the sound of another gunshot. The dog’s body twitched, then became still. A dark pool started to collect around the body.

This voice, with its polished and modulated edge, belonged to Major Krishna Basnet. The Major was now posted to Ramechap. Ambika raised her head to catch a good look at his face. This was the man she had come to kill. And now, because of an informer in Ramechap, her goal remained unfulfilled tonight.

The Major was handsome, with fine bone structure, and regal poise. He grew a thin black moustache above his lips. Ambika caught a glimpse of him as he moved towards the door. Even in the darkness, she saw his grace, his commanding presence.

A seven-year-old with a dirty face and a wispy pigtail, frightened by the sudden invasion of men, clutched her mother. The move annoyed the Major. He grabbed the little girl’s hair. He pulled her head back and forth. Her head lolled on her head like a broken doll. Over the child’s sobs, he asked: “Where are the terrorists? Speak, you bastards. Where are the terrorists?”

Ambika felt bound, as if she were inside an airless room with hands and feet tied. Comrade Nepali was still, as if he had stopped breathing. The two girls huddled in terrified comradeship. 

“We don’t know. We don’t know!” The mother pressed her palms in plea.

“Please, let my daughter go!” Major Basnet let go. The child’s face was smeared with snot. She sniffled and wiped it with the back of a dirty hand. The sniffling annoyed the Major—he found the child dirty and repulsive. The Major looked up and around the village—the darkness of the surroundings warned him guerillas, as ugly and as repulsive, were lying in wait to ambush him. The moon was bright and cold, but he couldn’t see anything. This sense of helplessness, which he had felt many times in the past few months, infuriated him.

The Major bent down, and picked out a rubber band with a rose from the child’s hair. He held it up to his nostrils, close his eyes, and inhaled with exaggerated enjoyment. “Ah, a beautiful rose,” the Major said. The child stared at him with a dirty, tear-smeared face, petrified.

The mother’s face, pleading for mercy, angered him. Is this how I look when I am afraid?, he wondered. The Major cocked his revolver, aimed at the center of the mother’s forehead, and squeezed the trigger. The mother’s brains splattered the red sari of an old woman behind. The old woman crumpled to the ground in a faint.

Nobody moved.

“Hatyara!” The child’s shrill accusation echoed across the valley. The Major was surprised, for an instance. He hadn’t expected this snot-smeared girl to know such a complicated word. A murderer? He considered this verdict for a brief instance, then grabbed the girl’s chin. “What did you call me?”

“Hatyara, hatyara, hatyara!” The girl, overcome with rage and grief, lunged forward and bit the Major’s hand.
* * *

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