Book excerpt

Under the Persimmon Tree

Suzanne Fisher Staples

Square Fish

Under the Persimmon Tree
NAJMAH Golestan Village, Kunduz Province, Northern Afghanistan October 20011The day begins like every day in the Kunduz Hills, following the rhythms of the sun and moon. Before first light--even before the first stars begin to fade--my mother tugs at my quilt."Get up, sleepy one," she says. "It's time to light the fire!" I feel as if I've just gone to sleep. How can it be time to begin another day so soon after the last one has ended?Mada-jan leans then over my older brother, Nur. To him she says, "Get up, sleepy one. It's time to get water so that I can make tea!"Nur grumbles, and the quilt rustles as he turnsover. But Mada-jan does what she always does when we try to ignore her: she yanks the quilt up from the bottom and tickles his bare feet with a piece of straw. The quilt makes a popping sound as Nur kicks out. But Mada-jan is quick to get out of the way--despite her belly, which is enormous with my unborn brother. I am sure it's a brother because my mother has been well and happy throughout her pregnancy. I have named my unborn brother Habib, which means "beloved friend." I know Habib will be my friend, unlike Nur, who teases me mercilessly.Before Nur goes out the door, he picks up the nearly empty water tin and flicks a few drops into my face. It's icy and chases away any thought I might have of sleeping a few minutes longer."If the rooster is up, so must the hen be up," he says, and his hand sloshes again in the water."Nur, stop playing!" Mada-jan says. "Najmah, get up!" She tugs at my quilt again. "After you fetch firewood you must feed this bukri," she says, motioning to the brand-new baby goat that stands on quivering, sticklike legs near the head of the cot where I sleep. She was born yesterday, and her mother won't feed her.I hold out my hand to the kid, who nuzzles the underside of my fingers, butting my palm with her nose. Then I throw back the quilt and reach for myshawl. The autumn morning air is chilly, and I savor the cool, knowing how hot it will be before noon."Baba-jan is already milking the goats, and when he gets back he'll want his breakfast," says Mada-jan, folding my quilt so that I can't change my mind and crawl back under its warmth. At the thought of the milk my father will bring, my stomach grumbles.Outside, Nur finds the pole and ties the ghee tins to either end of it with goat sinew. He hoists it to his shoulder and waits for me to walk with him to where the path leads down the hill to Baba Darya, the little stream at the bottom. Baba means "old man" as well as "father." We call it "Old Man River" because its thin ribbons twist together like the wisps of an elder's beard."I saw a leopard's pug marks in the dust here last night," Nur says, just as we reach the fork in the path that will take me to the woodpile and Nur to the Baba Darya. I hesitate where the two paths split."Nur!" Mada-jan says, her voice low with warning. Knowing Nur very well, she has stepped outside the door to listen. "Stop trying to scare her! Najmah, you know there are no leopards here. Now hurry, you two!" Still I hesitate."Really!" Nur whispers. "They were this big!" He holds his fist up so I can see it in the creeping light of the sunrise. "It must be a very large leopard."Then he turns his back and walks, humming, down the hill toward the Baba Darya, the tins bouncing from the ends of the pole across his shoulder.My heart hammers, and I want to run back to the house, but I know Mada-jan will be angry. I turn and run as fast as I can, all the way to the woodpile. There I spread my shawl on the ground and pile several armloads of wood on top. I feel a tingling along my spine the whole time. I think I see yellow eyes gleaming in the dark to the side of the woodpile. I'm sure I hear a low growl."Nur was only teasing," I mutter under my breath. "Nur was only teasing." But I really am convinced a large animal with long, pointed teeth is waiting to pounce on me. I am terribly afraid of leopards, although I have never seen one in my life. Mada-jan reminds me of this every time I complain that Nur has told me he's heard one roar. When the shawl holds as much wood as I can carry, I bind up its corners into a knot and heft the bundle onto my head, then hurry back up the path under the heavy load.Usually Mada-jan fetches the wood, leaving me to make naan inside our mud-brick house, because she knows I'm afraid. But Habib, who will arrive in just a few days, keeps her off-balance when she walks along the steep, narrow paths. My father worries thatshe'll tumble down to the bottom of the hill, and so he has asked me to put aside my fear to help my mother. I feel proud that I can do it, even though I am afraid.I sit outside the curtained front doorway and make a small pyramid of kindling inside the mud oven. Mada-jan brings out the basket that holds the pads of dough she's made and skewers each piece on a hook that she suspends through a hole in the top of the oven. The goat kid butts insistently at my shoulder, wanting to nurse. A few minutes later I hear Nur huffing under the weight of the water as he climbs the last few feet from the Baba Darya.And only a moment later Baba-jan comes whistling down the path that leads from the pens that hold our sheep and goats at the base of the foothills of the Hindu Kush. He carries a large pail of milk. The light is a pale green behind the snowy mountain peaks that hover over us, and a few morning stars still float there, waiting for the sun to send them on their way."We're going to have to take the sheep and goats farther up to feed," Baba-jan says, sitting down cross-legged in one fluid motion. "The hills are parched, and there isn't enough for them to eat." Usually the rains come in spring and summer, and the hills liecurled on themselves, soft and brilliant, like giants sleeping under a green carpet. Now they seem flatter, gray and misty with dust, just as they do in the dead of winter.But still our farm feeds us. Twice a week Nur and I make many trips carrying the ghee tins up and down the hill to the Baba Darya, which now moves slowly like a baba, too, since there is little water in it. We carry them to the plot where my father grows vegetables and fruit for the market, and flowers for my mother. Baba-jan carefully pours tin after tin of muddy water in a thin stream between the neat rows of apple, apricot, and almond trees.We shiver in our shawls as we sit on the dark red Turkoman rug outside the curtained front door of our house, eating gruel with goat's milk and bread and sweet green tea. As I eat, I dip my finger into a cup of milk and hold it out for the kid to suck at greedily. The sun rises, and Baba-jan asks Nur to come with him to the plot."You can look after the flock yourself, can't you, my little sugar beet?" Baba-jan asks me. His face is scored with lines from working in the hot sun and worrying about the parched crops and grazing lands. I don't want to say that I am afraid to go into the hills by myself, so I nod dumbly. "Good," he says. "Nur can carry water more quickly than you can, and Idon't want your mother up in the hills when the baby could come at any time."I want to tell him that I can carry as much water as Nur, who is not much bigger, and as quickly, too. I am tall, like Mada-jan, and strong like Baba-jan--Nur is thin like Mada-jan and short like Baba-jan. But I bite the inside of my cheek and say nothing.Mada-jan and I pick up the remains of the food and store it in baskets. We roll up the rug where we sat to eat and bring it inside. Full of milk, the kid curls into a little pile of fur and bone and sleeps just inside the doorway. After we have swept out the house--chickens scattering in a frenzy of angry clucks before our twig brooms--Mada-jan hugs me to her awkwardly, because Habib comes between us."You are a good and brave girl," she says, stroking my face. I don't feel brave, but I don't trust my voice to speak, and so I nod as I did to Baba-jan. Mada-jan tucks a sack of dried apricots and small sulaiman raisins and almonds into my pocket, smiling her gratitude even as she nudges me out the door. "I will look after your little bukri for you," she says. "She'll be fat by the time you return."I lead the sheep and goats up the path to the hills behind the village. Wooden clappers make gentle thunks and plinks against the insides of the bronze bells tied around their necks.We live simply but we have plenty to eat: apples, nuts, apricots, pomegranates, and persimmons from the orchard, vegetables from the garden plot, wheat for bread, eggs, goat's milk--and honey, too. For special occasions Baba-jan slaughters a goat. And the hills are peaceful, although Afghanistan has been at war since Baba-jan was a boy. The mujahideen control the northern part of Afghanistan, and they leave us alone. We give them wheat and vegetables because Baba-jan says they need help to keep the Pashtun talib out of Kunduz.Usually I spend my days tagging after Nur as we watch the animals graze among the hills. Every year during the hot season, when the sun burns the grass to the roots, we take the flock higher into the hills, so far up that eventually it is too far to come back, and we sleep there under the stars at night. Baba-jan taught us to find al-Qutb, the star that never moves, at the end of the handle of the water ladle. He told us that al-Qutb means "hub," like the hub of a wheel, and the other stars move around it. He knelt by my side and told me to make a fist, and then to point the second knuckle at the star."As long as you know the stars, you will never be lost," he said. The Koran says that Allah gave us the stars to be our guides. "Everything depends onthe stars. From them you can tell time and distance and you can find your way home." He told us many stories and showed us the shapes of animals and warriors and mythical beasts among the stars. Nur and I retell Baba-jan's star stories over and over again to pass the nights away from home. Baba-jan loves the stars so much that he named me Najmah, which means "star." He also gave Nur his name, which means "light," and we have learned to love the stars as much as Baba-jan loves them.This is the first time I've gone with the flock alone. Walking up the hill, I am still afraid, but with the sun shining I find it easier to believe there are no leopards in our hills.From the top of Koh-i-Dil, which overshadows our village of Golestan, people walking along the dirt tracks below look like insects. The donkeys, which carry rocks to repair the road in sack-lined baskets strapped across their backs, look like ants moving in a line.Although it's been dry for months that never seem to end, the sky holds a promise of rain. Gray clouds have rolled in over the hills to the west, and they dance across the sun. A cool breeze blows. I rest on a large rock, watching the sun and shade play over the sheep and goats, when I hear a rumbling from below.At first I think it's thunder. I walk to the other side of the hill, away from the village, and from there I see a line of pickup trucks--a dozen or more--snaking their way among the rocks and ruts in the dirt tracks far below.We do not often see automobiles and trucks. The mountain tracks are barely passable, except for camels and donkeys and horses, and people on foot. Our village is very far from a real metaled road such as the one that runs along the Kunduz River.But everyone recognizes the black Datsun trucks as the vehicles of the Taliban. Everyone is frightened of the Taliban and the heartless Pashtun talib who enforce their rules. We have heard how they lock the people of entire villages inside their houses and burn them to the ground and how they slaughter men like goats, slitting them open and leaving their blood to soak into the ground. There are lists of things that are forbidden by the Taliban: playing music, laughing out loud, keeping a bird to hear its song in the morning, putting pictures of beautiful scenes on the walls, reading books, flying kites. We have heard that women wearing henna on their fingertips have had their fingers chopped off.The Taliban have said the only thing people can do to enjoy themselves is to walk in the garden andsmell the flowers. But ever since the Taliban came to power five years ago, there has been drought. It's as if Allah has banished flowers to punish the Taliban for the evil things they do to people.I think of running down to warn the people of Golestan, but I'm not certain I can reach the village before the trucks. I turn to see that the sheep and goats are grazing peacefully below me, and decide in an instant. I half run, half tumble down the hill to the village.When I am within shouting distance, the trucks are within hearing, and Mada-jan stands in front of the purdah draped over the doorway, shaking out laundry and hanging things over the legs of our overturned cots to dry in the sun. Each morning we drag some of the cots outside to make room in the house. The little goat kid nudges against her skirt, looking for more milk. When she hears the trucks, she straightens her back and arranges her blue chadr so that it covers her face against the gaze of the men in the passing vehicles."Where is Baba-jan?" I shout, and she extends her arm toward the fields, the opposite direction from where the pickup trucks have come. The vehicles, which are battered and covered with dirt, grind their way through the dust toward our house. Each ofthem carries three or four men with guns in the back. Mada-jan watches them for a moment before ducking inside.I change direction and run toward our field below the curve of the hill, calling loudly for Baba-jan. Suddenly I think of another Taliban rule. Men must have beards that you can grab in your fist and still have the hair sticking out at the bottom. Baba-jan has little hair on his face, and although he wears a beard it is not very full or long.Just seconds after the men in the trucks reach our house, Baba-jan comes running up from the fields, bareheaded except for an embroidered cap. This, too, is against Taliban rules that say all men must wear turbans. The Pashtun talib wear green and brown Army jackets and huge black turbans, and all of them carry guns. The leader holds his rifle against his chest, which is crisscrossed with two leather belts filled with bullets.Baba-jan turns, extending his arm and laying his hand against Nur's chest to warn him to stay back. Nur resists, pushing his chest against Baba-jan's hand, and his eyes never leave the Pashtun leader. Baba-jan takes me by the shoulders then and turns me toward our house, giving me a gentle shove."Take care of your mother," he says. I don't grasp what his words mean, but I'm used to obeying,so I duck inside the purdah, where Mada-jan crouches, looking through the crack between the woven hanging and the doorframe. I join her, bending forward to peer over her head as Baba-jan greets the men in the trucks."Ah-salaam-aleikum," Baba-jan says, not giving the traditional friendly greeting, "mande nabash"--may you never be tired. The Pashtun talib leader ignores the slight and looks past Baba-jan at Nur."So your son wants to fight?" he says with a slow little grin. He doesn't return Baba-jan's greeting. Mada-jan sucks her breath in through her teeth."He's just a boy," Baba-jan says, standing between the man and Nur and holding his hands out to his sides with his palms open in a silent appeal. The Pashtun continues to stare at my brother and does not look at Baba-jan. His rudeness frightens me, for such behavior is an insult that cannot be ignored. This man has a gun, which Baba-jan does not. Then the man turns his back on Baba-jan, an even worse insult. But Baba-jan does not react. The Pashtun speaks to one of his men in Pashtu. The men spread out and Baba-jan turns to watch them."We want wheat and chickens and sugar," the leader says."I can give you some," Baba-jan answers. "But we have little since the drought ..." This is true andI hold my breath. I am afraid the talib leader will shoot him if we don't give them food."You had enough to give our enemies," says the talib leader, waving his gun in a menacing way. "You will give us more than you gave to them." Baba-jan does not reply. He no longer looks at the leader, but watches the other men, who are already searching for food.Some of the men carry woven bags filled with wheat and sugar from the lean-to at the back of our house. Mada-jan and I hear the metallic twang of the ghee tin as they lift it, still full of cooking oil, from the ground. We hear the clayey thunk of wooden lids as they're lifted from the tops of the earthenware jars where we keep salt and tea. We hear men curse and grunt as they dive for chickens that squawk and flap their wings to escape. I crouch and lean against Mada-jan, who puts her hand out through the curtain to gesture to Baba-jan. She makes little sounds in her throat as she tries to get his attention. She doesn't want him to resist because she's afraid they'll hurt him--they might even kill him.Then the purdah is whisked aside, and one of the black-turbaned Pashtun sticks his head inside. Mada-jan and I huddle together, and Mada-jan draws me underneath her chadr. But I see what the man does:he grabs up the little bukri and sticks it under his arm."No!" I shout, and Mada-jan holds me against her, keeping me from running after him. The bukri cries out in a bleating that sounds like a human baby, and I want to snatch her away from this human leopard.When the men have gathered the food we have stored in the baskets, sacks, and earthen jars in the lean-to, the leader turns and says to Baba-jan, "To repay us for having helped our enemy, you must come and fight with the Taliban.""No!" Mada-jan cries. She shoves aside the curtain and stands to run to Baba-jan, who turns toward her and holds up his hand, as if to say, "Stop!" He looks at her for a long moment."It will be all right," he says to her. This time it's my turn to hold on to Mada-jan with all my strength as she struggles to run to him."I will go," Baba-jan says, turning back to face the Pashtun talib without raising his voice."Your son, too," says the man. "He wants to fight, and we wouldn't want to disappoint him.""He's just a boy," Baba-jan says again, and the man raises the butt of his rifle as if to strike Baba-jan in the face.Baba-jan ducks and turns, and the blow hits his shoulder. He looks at Mada-jan for several seconds. Tears stream down her face, and she repeats over and over again, "You can't go. Please! What will become of us?""Whatever happens, stay here," Baba-jan says to her as they grab him and Nur roughly by the arms."Bring your guns," the leader says."I will come back," Baba-jan says, looking back over his shoulder at Mada-jan as they begin to drag Nur away. "Do you hear? Don't leave, no matter what!" The leader shoves Baba-jan so that he almost falls, and tells him to be quiet."Your guns!" the leader repeats and hammers Baba-jan's shoulder with the heel of his hand, knocking him off balance again."I have no guns," Baba-jan says, looking at the man directly. The Pashtun talib mutters something, and the men shove and drag Baba-jan and my brother toward the Datsun pickup trucks.Again Mada-jan tries to go to him, but I grab her by the arm. "We cannot stop them," I whisper. "They might hurt Baba-jan and Nur if we resist." I hold on to her with all my strength, and she throws back her head and wails.I hear the pickup trucks leave, but I am struggling with Mada-jan and cannot see them. I lead herto the cot in the corner of the room and pull her down onto it. She continues to wail, but her body goes limp, which frightens me more than if she were to go on struggling. She curls onto her side like an infant, and tucks her head under her wrists and remains that way.I go to the door and push aside the purdah. All I can see is the dust that billows in round brownish clouds as the trucks lumber away, dodging the holes in the dirt track.UNDER THE PERSIMMON TREE. Copyright © 2005 by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Map copyright © by Jeffrey Ward. Suzanne Fisher Staples, a former UPI correspondent, is the author of many acclaimed books for young readers, including Shiva's Fire, Dangerous Skies, and the Newbery Honor Book Shabanu. Her newest book, The House of Djinn, is being published by FSG in Spring 2008. She lives in Nicholson, Pennsylvania.