Where Cherries Grow

Tahir Mehmood

Her goats were grazing in a lush green pasture for a while now. Her house was not far away and she had come here to leave the goats in the pasture. It was a routine for her to leave the goats there, and return after a few hours to take them back. But today it was bit cloudy and she feared the rain. She decided to stay there and if it rained, to take the goats back home. Her small house was across the river that had a small wooden foot-bridge for movement across.  The pasture was covered with undulating tussocks of wild green grass, scanty bushes and flowers of various types. In fact, it was a bed of mountain stream that almost ran dry in the winter season with water flow restricted to a very narrow outlet. In extreme cold weather the frozen water made it an extension of a nearby small glacier. It was common for the village herders to take their goats and other cattle out for grazing. The men would cross the mountaintops to reach the small valleys on the other side and return after a few days. However, being alone she always preferred to stay near the home.   Her village was about half-a-day walking distance from the famous town of Gahkuch. She lived her childhood days in a small village of Yasin Valley, and then her old father married her to a soldier when she was still a playful girl in her adolescent years. In the early days of her marriage, they occasionally travelled to the town of Gupis, Gahkuch, Singul, Chatorkhand, Thawoos, Ghujalhti and Barja to meet their relatives. He once took her to the beautiful town of Hunza and twice to Gilgit. They stayed for a few nights at a relative’s house in Gilgit, and she still remembered that they also had gone to the cinema to watch a movie. She couldn’t forget for long how bitterly she had wept once the hero of the movie died while fighting the gangsters. The heroine of the movie wailed in the form of a song and she had joined her in bitter loud sobs. The soldier laughed at her innocence but she remained sad for many days. She did not understand then that the soldiers too have tender moments in life but they laugh it out. …………………….She saw the goats grazing peacefully and that relieved her from the anxiety of a continuous watch. Relaxed, a slight doze under a rock’s shade took her to a state of mind where thoughts, dreams and fantasies overlapped. She was sleeping and dreaming with open eyes. She missed her soldier who was not with her now for quite some time. She wanted to break the news to him that the elder goat he had bought from Phandar Valley, had given birth to ‘twins’ a month back; one was black and the other white, and they both were beautiful. She also remembered how much he loved to walk over the mountaintops and bring back beautiful stones. He usually returned late in the evening and handed over to her precious stones well-tied in a small cloth. It was his way of adorning her with gold and silver. Being a man from rocky and barren mountains, these stones were collected with great craft and courage, and were expression of his sheer love and devotion. Gripped in a state of blissful love, the next morning she would especially prepare his favourite dishes of goli and sharbat for breakfast. The memory train continued the fast journey, occasionally bringing a spontaneous smile to her beautiful face. She missed the beautiful spring mornings, when, just before the sunrise, they both used to go to the garden next to their home that was full of fruit trees. They always filled their palms with white cherry flowers and hurled them playfully at each other pretending those were stones. A flinch or scream by her would make him laugh aloud. Those moments were beautifully magical, the soft chaste white cherry flowers, white snow top mountain peaks that would turn golden with first rays of the rising sun, the cool river breeze, and clear blue sky. He would quickly make a garland of white cherry flowers for her, she would giggle and give him a smile, and rush back to the kitchen to fetch some dry apricots, walnuts and almonds to eat. They would keep walking, discussing the trees, fruits, goats, hens and his old father who had wished to go back to his old village in Yasin Valley. Life would have remained a blissful journey but her soldier was not with her for long.She would have gone too far in the dreamy row of thoughts but a light thunder of gathering clouds brought her back to the real world. She quickly got up to gather the goats that had gone too far and were now out of sight.……………………………She moved to the far corner of the pasture but found no trace of the goats. She guessed that they might have gone to the other side of the hill and started climbing the hillock. It was a steep climb and she felt exhausted by the time she made it to the top. There she saw a few goats climbing the next ridge line while a few were still grazing along the mountain stream in the small valley. Knowing her frail health, she felt helpless. Those moments of desperation added to her loneliness, and her heart wildly missed the soldier who had not returned home. When he was not with her, she felt how much was he a part of her living in these high mountains. He was not only the comfort of her heart but also silently provided the means of living. He would cut dry wood for her and store it for use in long winter nights; help her store Nasaloo, a dried meat in cold storage for use in chilling winter months once heaps of snow all over would almost limit the movement; in spring days he would channel the wild gushing mountain stream to water the fields and courtyard-garden; he would pluck cherries for her; help her dry apricots; and store piles of walnuts and almonds. She remembered how they together once prepared kailao, a garland of walnuts dipped in thick warm sauce of grapes to use in chilling winters. This summer when she was preparing the walnut garland and sewing the walnuts, she felt as if the needle had pierced her heart each time instead of the lifeless walnut. The joyful memories of their short lived companionship brought tears to her tired eyes. She painfully remembered the day when she saw her old father-in-law weeping bitterly. He had been quiet for a few weeks as news of the war in the mountains had spread all around. They did receive a lot of news about martyrdom of soldiers from the valley, but nothing about her soldier. She knew he had always loved to move from mountaintop to mountaintop and must have gone far away. He called himself a son of the mountains and loved to tread on them, talk to them and live on them for days without food and water. Then came the news that the war had ended yet there was no trace of this mountain man. The last news about him shared by the fellow wounded soldiers was that when surrounded by the enemy, he along with few others decided to charge the advancing enemy. He was wounded, bleeding profusely, yet unstoppable. A week after the war, the enemy had returned the dead bodies and there were no prisoners of war. But there was no clue of her soldier. She somewhat anticipated that the son of the mountains might be in their bosoms sleeping forever, but her pained heart always waited for him. In the following weeks, she witnessed growing numbers of the martyrs’ graves all over the valley with fluttering green flags. And one day, when her father-in-law wept bitterly, she got what it meant and also broke into ceaseless tears. He held her hand and took her to the courtyard-garden. There was a green flag hoisted with pride that was fluttering high. In fact, he had received the news of his martyrdom. The old man saluted the flag, and she followed. They both sat under the green flag for long and wept the tears of love in the memory of the fallen soldier.She felt a stream of warm briny tears on her cheeks and that brought her back to the mountaintop. She felt that the whole ambience had understood her loss and was shedding tears of grief with her. The small tributaries flowing from the bosom of silent glaciers appeared to her as unending streams of tears. These mountain peaks had stood silent for centuries but were not oblivious to the pangs and sorrows of life.  A heavy thundering rain had also started that compounded her worries to reach back home. ………………………..With great efforts she descended the steep hill. Gathering the scattered goats was another arduous task keeping in view her physical condition. It almost took two hours to move the goats along the stream bed towards home. The stream bed had become more slippery due to heavy rain and the flow of water had also started increasing. Finally, she reached a point where the goats had to cross the stream to reach back home. She saw that all the goats managed to do that silently, as they had probably understood her plight in this severe weather. But the ‘twin kids’ found it difficult to jump across the fast-flowing stream. The mother-goat looked helplessly towards her and bleated in a sharp voice. She understood her pain and caressed her. She assessed the task and felt it difficult to carry the kids and jump across the stream. But then there was no option to walk across the fast flowing stream with the fast rising water level. Sensing her indecisiveness, the mother-goat beseeched again. On this, she picked one kid and jumped. She reached to the other corner but fell down on a slippery stone with sharp edges. A severe pain hit her body, and she cried. The mother-goat also moaned as if sharing her pain, and then became silent as she lied there motionless for a while. She mustered all her courage and jumped to-and-fro and brought the second kid to the home bank. The mother-goat then followed. She along with the twins bleated again but this time probably these were the sounds of love and gratitude that were uttered. She wanted to hug back the three but the thundering rain was too scary to allow that. She limped all the way and it was almost dark when she reached home. Her father-in-law had already had his dinner, and was waiting for her. She handed over the goats to him, but brought the mother-goat and shivering twins to her room. She lit a fire in the wood-stove and the four of them sat around. Her whole body ached badly. A bit warmed up now, she looked at her bulging belly, and compassion ran through her whole body. Thoughtfully she smiled, ate a few dry pieces of apricot and walnut, and limped towards the bed. It didn’t take her long to enter into the peaceful valley of motherly sleep.Outside, an unusual heavy snowfall in summer had also started. ………………………………She was almost unconscious but cried due to severe pain in her belly. There was a downward movement in her belly and she sensed a semblance of remaining life. The pain grew more and more. In her dreamy vision she felt the presence of her soldier around her. He looked at her with familiar love and compassion; something that was wholesome and heavenly. He waved at her and called her with his favourite name, Cherry. The pain had hit its peak; she heard a cry of life, and unconsciously closed her eyes while folding ‘him’ inside a loving embrace. She laid there motionless, face drained of energy and as white as snow, and no sign of breathing.The thick heavy snowflakes were continuously falling outside. …………………. In that quiet morning when the snowfall had completely stopped, the old man could hear continuous loud bleats and cries of a newly born baby. He rushed to her room, and fully closed her half-shut eyes. The twin kids were caressing the baby while mother-goat was standing like a vigilant guardian.The old man in a fit of spontaneity and following the unstoppable force of passion, clenched the baby to his chest and rushed to the green flag in the garden. He raised the baby to the sky and looked towards the flag. His teary eyes saw the green flag smiling. He smiled back and slightly tossed the baby in the air.The surrounding mother-mountains shared the old man’s wide smile, too.…………………………..On that beautiful morning, the old man witnessed a unique phenomenon that had never happened in his whole life. All the cherry trees were full of red and black cherries on their branches, and despite heavy snowfall, none bhad succumbed to the fall.