Give it to her; she is your little sister. His parents would always say. Shaifar was tired of hearing it over and over again. You are their big brother, act like one. How would he know how to act like a big brother? He was just ten, pretty much a kid himself. Shaifar loved his parents and had loved their undivided attention to him before the twins came in their life. Pretty Zainab, a chubby baby girl had beautiful black wavy hair with sparkling eyes and Sabir was plump, blue eyed like Shaifar, naughty just like their sister. Shaifar had overnight been thrown a cloak of responsibility of being an elder brother to two naughty, tiresome twin siblings. He was not ready for it and he did not understand why his parents and relatives were all making a fuss about the twins. What was so great about them, anyway?
Shaifar was four years elder to the twins, a young lad with jet black hair, brown freckles and ocean blue eyes. He was medium built with protruding ears that heard more than was said. He saw things not with his eyes but with his too sensitive a heart, perceiving more than was necessary.
Ever since the birth of the twins, his father had taken an extreme fondness of Zainab pampering her with all sorts of gifts and treats while his mother looked after Sabir. Zainab was a happy baby, full of enthusiasm, laughter and wits. She was daring, playful and loved stalking him. He would play with her, tickle her, make her laugh when she was an infant but now her following him everywhere irritated him. Sabir was more of a sickly disposition. Their mother would always worry about him, where he was, what he was eating. She was, as it seemed to Shaifar possessed by Sabir.
What Shaifar did not understand was the age of his twins that demanded more attention from their parents. Instead he took them as rivals, a kind of threat to his parents love for him. It was not an abrupt feeling, it had gradually dawned on him, that he was no longer needed or desired by his parents, that he had been replaced.
At the dining table, when they sat on the floor around the dastarkhaan, mom would be feeding mashed rajma chawal to Sabir while Zainab ate from their father’s plate. Shaifar would be eating quietly, looking at them, hurt in his heart but not uttering a word. He felt invisible to them, like he was not family anymore. More than once it so happened that Shaifar would be playing with his Ice Cream van when Sabir would cry endlessly wanting the same musical van to play. Nafisa would plead Shaifar to give the toy to him but he would not give it up for him. He felt bad, indeed it was heartbreaking for him to see big tears rolling out on Sabir’s plump red cheeks and he would have given it to him sooner or later. But the moment Nafisa asked him to give it to him, his soft heart immediately turned to anger and he would get stubborn. His mother would then just snatch it from him to stop Sabir from crying. He would then go seek his father’s comfort, wanting to climb up his back, play with him. But Hamad would always be occupied by Zainab. He let Zainab climb on his back and gave her horse rides bending on his knees and hands, around the room in endless turns. It was times like these, when he felt abandoned by his parents, jealous of the twins who had taken his parents away from him. His heart mounted with anger for the twins.
One winter, Zainab was trying to climb back on her brother’s back. Shaifar was doing his homework; bend over his notebooks, cross legged, he sat on the floor. Irritated by her, he abruptly sat up straight with a jerk that made her fall off with a thud and she hurt her head. She started crying and Hamad stood up across the room and felt her head. A tiny bump had come on her head which hurt her. Without a second thought, Hamad slapped Shaifar on his face. Shaifar could not suppress his feelings this time. He felt wronged; he was hurt like never before. His father had hit him for the first time in his life. His temper got better of him and he started screaming at them.
‘I hate you, I hate you. You only love her. I am nobody to you. I mean nothing to you. Mom loves Sabir. You love her. You only love them.’ He was crying now. Nafisa tried to console him but he jerked off her arm. ‘I am nothing to you. You don’t love me anymore. Ever since they were born, you don’t pay attention to me. It’s like I am not even in the home. It’s like I am invisible to you, like I am not your son anymore. It is only them you love. It is always about Sabir and Zainab. Sabir! Zainab! I hate them, I hate them! I wish they were never born! I wish they would die!’ He cried, shouting every word, pained in his heart, angered by his parents’ indifference, he finally let it all out. Shaifar rushed to his room, locking the door against the confused overwhelmed emotional faces of his parents.
Hamad and Nafisa were shocked. They had been taken by surprise by this sudden outburst. They could not believe their ears, the words they had heard, coming from their son. They were shocked by his anger but at the same time taken aback by the pain in his words. His words were mean and harsh, but his eyes, his tears and his tone all spoke of his lingering hurt and pain. They had been oblivious to his misery that they had unknowingly inflicted upon their darling son.
After the incident his parents had sat him down and tried to clear the misunderstanding to him. But nothing would convince him of their undivided love for him. They worried about Shaifar but they left it to time. Time was the best healer of wounds. Children think all sorts of things, which they eventually laugh off as adults later, realizing how small their world had been.
They lived in a one storey wood house amidst the fruit orchards that they owned. Apples, Pears, Cherries and Apricots; their orchard was laden with these colorful aromatic fruits. Hamad would spend his days in tending to orchards, taking his fruits to the city and coming back while Nafeesa would stay home cooking for him and taking care of their children. Their village, Phalgaam, was unusually beautiful in spring with colored blossoms everywhere, the skies filled with the sweet songs of the birds and children happily playing in the fields. Summers were pleasant but the winters were harsh. However the magnificent snowfalls made up for its harshness when everything turned into a spellbinding white palatial lawn. However, this winter it had not snowed in Phalgaam. It had not rained even once the entire time. While the life went by smoothly in Phalgaam, the world around it was changing. The two countries sharing its border were preparing for a war.
One night Nafisa and Hamad woke up to a loud explosion that rattled the earth beneath them. Terrified they took the children and rushed out of their house thinking it was an earthquake. When they stepped out the sky was suffocated with thick smoke, a heavy smell descending upon them in the cold winter night. There were flames, cries, screams, explosions and grenades. It was an air strike. The village was being bombarded on every corner and the enemy was up in the sky. They took the children and sat them down under the majestic Chinar Tree across their house. It was huge and sheltering. They sat them there, three scared children who had no sense of what was happening around.
As Nafisa left them in the refuge of the Chinar, Sabir grabbed her arm. ‘Ammi, I am scared. Please don’t go.’ Zainab started crying hearing the gun shots. Shaifar asked his dad, ‘Baba, what is happening. What will we do?’ Hamad calmed the boy and asked him to stay there while they went back and got some stuff to move on. ‘No, baba, don’t go. Don’t leave us. We will die?’ Shaifar pleaded.
‘Shaifar, my son be brave. Wait here for us while we come back. Take care of your brother and sister. Stick close, stick together. Don’t let them go anywhere. Keep them with you. Don’t let go of their hand. We will come back in a minute’, Nafisa kissed her children on their heads. Hamad looked at Shaifar. ‘Be brave, my children. You are my pride. I love you. Be Strong.’
Shaifar sat under the Chinar with Zainab by his right leg, wrapping her arms around them, her head on his knees while Sabir sat beside him under his left arm. He had never felt this affectionate and protective of them before. It was in this one moment he felt closer to them, he felt his love overcoming his anger, all his pain and jealousy he had ever felt for them melted away. He felt warm in his heart and kissed each on their head, closing in on them with his arms. Suddenly, Shaifar felt a strong pull in his heart, his chest tightened like someone was trying to rip out his heart. In a second, he understood what hell had broken loose on them. A loud explosion tore the sky apart and next thing he saw was their beautiful house on fire. Within minutes, the wooden house was razed to dust.
Shaifar sat dumbstruck, terrified at what had happened. Unable to move. Unable to breathe. He did not know what he could do. He just sat there, tears rolling down his cheeks, silently, in shock. He knew he would never forget this night. He knew he would live with this sight. His house in flames, loud screams, gunshots and the dead silence that had followed.
There he was, sitting under the Chinar in his zebra striped sweater, blackened by smoke that had settled down on him. His tear washed face having made small stream paths on his dirty cheeks. With Zainab asleep on his right knee and Sabir curled up on his left thigh, he sat there motionless, lifeless. Orphaned and homeless. In a matter of one night. The sun had come up in the sky, bright and warm. But Shaifar knew, that winter had set itself in his heart and that no amount of sunshine could ever warm his cold heart again.
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