(Urdu afsana Ruf Ruf Raftan)
Translation by: Sonia Ahmed
Sitting on her hand loom, she was weaving some cloth eagerly. After some weaving, she gathered the rest of the yarn and took the cloth off of the loom. She caressed the cloth which had donned the shape of a beautiful shawl now. She had spent many a nights in preparing this almond colored shawl and had adorned it with celestial blue flowers in each corner. She was caressing this soft and elegant silk when she observed that her hand had gone pale due to continuous labor. Folding the shawl she glanced into the mirror on the wall. She swept aside the hair that had fallen on her enchanting doe-eyes. She noticed that her skin was soft and pale like the silk. Just then she heard footsteps and hid the shawl in a trunk that was seldom opened.
Surrounded by high hills and tall trees, it was a settlement of eight houses farther apart from each other. According to the underlying rough and narrow landscape, they had made houses for them where possible, some higher than the other. There was no electricity yet, and in the night when they arranged lights in their houses, it made a curvy line on the horizon. All the houses faced a stream that flowed about twenty meters down the hill from their houses. It was a part of some river and a few natural springs also fell into it, so it was always abundant with water. During the day, water gleamed under the sun while it added a mesmerizing music to the darkness of night. All the eight houses in the colony owned looms. Men had to travel forty miles to bring raw material from the town and women made it into yarns. Then they made them into wonderfully designed shawls, mufflers, caps, weskits, and even the socks to keep one warm in bed. That was how they earned their income. Although all this was sold for nothing in towns yet they used to get enough to buy basic provisions and some more raw materials. There weren’t many necessities of these far away people anyway. Their food was extremely simple, eating corn and millet. Every house had a couple of goats or a cow for milk. Men and women both were industrious. Preparing superior dresses for others, they spend all their lives in thick patched clothes. They were barefoot even in winter especially women because they wouldn’t have to travel much.
Facing the houses were tall trees till the stream below. Numerous crows had made their nests in the high branches. In the morning, everyone had to leave their beds early because of the noise they made. People had attributed many meanings to the ways they cawed. Lads and lasses led the sheep all day. Sometimes the boys would go up the houses to fly homemade kites with the special strings brought from town. On the other hand, as soon as a girl stepped into adolescence, she was confined to the house, limited to house chores or work on loon and her relation from the outside world was sort of cut off. She could sneak outside to play once or twice before she is caught for there were not many places to hide. Going towards the stream was restricted and there was a wall of continuous steep hills behind the houses that gave the impression of imprisonment.
The day was about to end when Khushbakht completed her work for the day. No sooner had she lied down to rest that old granny called her to report the articles made in the day. She would make her report daily about how many skeins of yarn were used and how many articles were made from them. Granny was very keen in accounts and everything was stored in her mind like a ledger. She had woven numerous dresses in her youth and was considered a master craftswoman in the hamlet . She had never made an error in accounts like noticing the wastage of yarn or estimating the number of things that can be made from the given yarn. Khushbakht was often scolded by her granny for wasting too much yarn. Theses rebukes became more severe after she lost an elegant men’s muffler just after finishing it.
There was a long mountain range behind the wall of the room where the handloom was placed. Sliding a stone from this wall, the girl had made a hole-like window. Whenever she got tired of weaving, she slid the stone and looked outside. There was nothing at all to see outside except the steep mountain, flushed from sunlight, deserted and barren, with no path for a person to walk along. Even then, to change her scene, she would peep outside like a captive enjoying some precious moments of freedom. One day, after completing an elegant men’s muffler, she wrapped it around her neck and slid the stone to see outside. Her eyes fell on a young man afar. With great effort, he was climbing upwards grabbing a few bumps in the rock. No doubt, he was coming toward her. Awe overcame her initial fear for there was no possibility of a person there. There was no path and even the shepherds could not reach there. Was he real or a mirage!
Slowly, he climbed nearer and his physique became clearer; tall, proportional body with prominent eyes, loosely curled hair and golden hue on his lips became visible. He reached the hole with much difficulty, panting and huffing. Seeing him so close, the girl was aghast. From his dress, he seemed to be of the same region but how did he reach there? The stranger had caught his breath by now but the girl’s breathing was so erratic it seemed to shake the walls. She was lost in his eyes. The boy extended his hand toward her and instead of moving back, she hung the muffler down the hole. Touching the soft beautiful muffler, he felt her semblance/aura. He jerked the muffler and it came loose off of her neck, drifting down the hill. Her heart stopped. Granny’s bloodshot eyes rolled in front of her. As the muffler disappeared from her sight, she looked at the boy in anger but there was no one there. As if there had been no one there ever!
Dusk was thickening. She kept looking across the window but could not understand. It must have taken him at least fifteen minutes to climb up but to disappear… a blink of an eye! She stepped on the back frame of the loom and hung almost half out of the hole lest the boy had fallen down but heard granny’s footsteps at the door. She jumped back and slid the hole shut. Granny knew about the window and had reprimanded her too but also considered it to be quite harmless.
In the night when granny calculated, there were three mufflers prepared while neither the fourth muffler nor its wool was there. The girl had nothing to say. She decided to keep the incident a secret and told that she was looking down the hole when a strong gust of wind blew the muffler out of her hand and disappeared down the hill. Granny chastised her harshly and warned her that someday that hole would ruin her life as well. Despite the tiredness, she kept visiting the loom room till late in the night. She slid the stone a couple of times as well but it were pitch dark outside. Rest of the night, the incident kept looming in front of her eyes.
The crows were exceptionally noisy the subsequent morning. A kite had tangled into the high branches of one of the trees in front of the window of loom room. The crows had raised hell, cawing desperately; flying away from it when it stuttered with wind and then returning back to attack it. When one crow cawed, many joined it from near and far and made such noise that even granny came out of the house. She contemplated for moments and warned the others that it was not a good omen. According to her experience, their restlessness was not just because of the kite. Their sounds told her of arrival of a guest or departure of a dear one. Just at that time, a skilled crow tore the kite to pieces and untangled it from the bushes. All the other crows praised him so ardently that it deafened the whole household.
The girl came into the room and unintentionally slid the stone to look outside but there was only sun and wilderness, though faint sounds of crows could be heard. She closed the window and got to work halfheartedly. That day her speed was very slow. Her hands were working lazily and yarn entangled with her thoughts repeatedly. Moreover, she slid the stone a thousand times but what could she see when there was nothing outside. Fed up she put her mind to work so she could do the expected amount of work with the given yarn and save herself from granny’s rebuke. Granny considered her a good artisan, an artist but also an enemy of yarn. How would granny know that daily some of the yarn was sneaked aside for the shawl that she was making with much love and dedication! Thinking of granny made her hands go fast and she finished her day’s work even before evening. She was considering sliding the stone to look outside when she felt some movement outside the stone. She went pale and got drenched in perspiration despite the freezing cold. She handed the day’s products to granny hurriedly and came near the stone. She slid it and there he was standing with the support of a sharp rock. She almost passed out to see him so close but composed herself and asked,
“You?… You!… Who are you and where were you? … I mean where you are from and how did you climb this difficult and bare hill, such steep wall…”
The boy listened to her attentively. He had a smile on his face and the golden hue of his moustache felt more broad and bright in the twilight. He just said,
“Can you bring me some water? I am very thirsty.”
Mindlessly she went up to the pitcher and brought a bowl of water to the window. He was still there, standing in the same manner. He gestured that he could not free his hands to drink. The girl hung half of her body out and touched the bowl to his lips. He sipped the water leisurely.
“Who are you? You don’t seem to be of this hamlet. Why have you come here, I mean how did you come here?” the girl asked coming back to her senses.
“Yes, you are right. I’ve come from a settlement beyond this hill but I come here often. I catch those squirrels that are abundant down there and their skin…”
“But there is no way up this hill, I know very well… but you… ”
“Yes, no one can dare climb up… but one day I saw the window open and I saw you weaving a beautiful shawl. I liked you as well as your shawl. I want to take you with that shawl to my hamlet…”
The girl had never heard such talk. This kind of thing was unheard of where she lived. She did not know what to say but suddenly she had been smitten by that boy. She was about to say something when she heard granny asking her why she was still in the room after finishing her work. She was so afraid of granny that she slid the window shut mechanically and ran out of the room.
That night was more torturous than the previous one. Previously, she had thought him to be a fragment of her imagination, but now she had seen him again. He had the muffler around his neck that she had herself given him. She had talked to him. He had drunk water from her hands; the empty bowl was still beside the window. She tossed and turned in bed and spent all the night thinking if he was a real human being or just her imagination because she had never seen a single person of the hamlet on that side of the window and everyone knew there was no path, no passageway to reach there. She also recalled granny’s assumption that the cawing of crows was indication of someone’s arrival.
With the arrival of dawn, she felt reluctant to go into the room where she had been weaving for the last five years. She went into the room silently and stared at the skeins of yarn that granny placed on the loom daily for the day’s work. She saw him in every skein of yarn. She felt sick and her head ached. For a moment she thought calling it a day with granny’s permission but then she remembered that she was going to finish weaving her secret shawl that day. She looked at the stone sheepishly many times but did not dare slide open it. Empty bowl from the last day was still there. She grabbed it and touched it to her lips like someone parched. She felt a strange joy and peace. She was gradually accepting that it was neither a dream nor her imagination but a reality. But then she again became dubious because just yesterday she had asked her father if there was a path or a passageway behind the wall of hill and he had glared her asking if she had ever seen anything there during the eighteen years of her life except crows. She fell silent. How could she tell him that the man was there, he had her muffler round his neck, he had drunk water from her hands and had liked her shawl too. She was in a dilemma. She hadn’t even started the work of the day yet. She felt she was going insane for that stranger. Recollection of the last day’s events made her heartbeats erratic. The loom room started to feel like a prison to her and instead of working she got up to look outside her secret window.
The crows were again cawing noisily. No one could tell what they had seen down the mountain from their abode in the high trees that they were constantly flying downwards and then returning to their branches and raising hell. The noise was so loud that even granny came out to look at what was troubling them. With distaste she stood outside the loom room and noticed certain restlessness in the movement of crows. A strange fear gripped her heart. She turned around to say something to her granddaughter but the loom was vacant. Skeins were untouched, the stone was at a side showing the aperture and the room was empty. She searched for her in the whole house but she was nowhere. Men of the house searched for her down to the stream without any trace. It was midday when on granny insistence, all the men tried to climb the steep hill at the back of the house. They made use of their sticks, ropes and spades and tried to reach the areas that had never been needed to invade. After three hours of struggle they reached near the window in the wall. There covered by an extremely beautiful silk shawl, the girl was lying on a broad stone with a broken water bowl in her hand. The muffler that had been blown away a year ago was lying by her and she had died due to falling from such a height.