By Rayhana Bayani
When Hosna Jan slightly raised her head and opened her eyelids, her eyes began to burn as they were filled with dust. She lowered her head and blinked a few times. Then she opened her eyes again. She saw nothing, only darkness. The smell of dust filled her nasal cavity. She felt intense pain. Her entire body ached. She heard vague sounds in the distance. She tried to move her hands and legs but couldn’t. She had fallen face first on the ground, and her frail body was buried under the weight of the debris. She screamed in agony, then lifted her head to scream louder, but her mouth filled with dust. She coughed and spat out the dirt from her mouth. She could feel a large, heavy mass of stone, brick, and earth pressing against her body. It felt like all her bones were broken and her entire body was covered in wounds. The pain was excruciating. She remembered hearing screams and cries as she ran toward the door of the room when the ceiling collapsed on her. How much time had passed since that moment? How long had she been unconscious? She didn’t know.
She coughed again. She thought, “I can’t even scream!” A lump formed in her throat, and her eyes filled with tears, which washed her eyes and relieved some of the burning sensation.
The faint, indistinct sound of male voices reached her, along with that of bricks, stones, and wood being shifted from her general area. She also heard the more distant sounds of wailing from women, men, and children. She took a deep breath and stopped crying, thinking, “Maybe they will rescue me.” Her heart warmed slightly at the thought. She knew that if she wanted to stay alive, she had to shout so they could hear and pull her out from under the rubble. She cleared her throat, keeping her head low to prevent it from refilling with dust. She shouted several times, using all her strength, then listened intently but the voices remained weak. No one moved closer.
“Where are my parents? Where are my brothers? Have they also been buried under the rubble?” she wondered. Her heart ached with grief. Suddenly, she remembered that her maternal uncle and his wife were supposed to arrive with Salim from Herat. They were bringing an engagement ring. Her mind was in turmoil. Once again, the lump in her throat returned, and she told herself, “Am I going to survive just to become a bride at 14?” Last night, her mother said, “You’re not a child anymore; you’re a 14-year-old girl. When I was your age, I already had a child.” Her friend Marwa was married off a week ago while another friend, Maliha, had been engaged for a few months. She remembered seeing Marwa with her husband, who was as old as her father – she wore a white flower chador that fluttered in the wind while he wore a white undershirt as they passed by the bridge on the way to their new home.
“What’s wrong with Salim?” her mother asked. “He’s young, he has a good job, he’s tall and good-looking …” Her father added, “Didn’t you wish to live in Herat?” She tearfully replied, “I did want to, but I wanted to be enrolled at Herat University.” Her father said, “The Taliban have banned girls from going to school. What’s our fault in this?”
She realized that the voices may be getting closer. She heard men clearing debris with shovels. The sounds of groaning and the cries of other wounded people reached her ears. Her tears flowed down her face and dripped onto the ground. She wanted to shout again, but she remembered that, in her bed last night, she had silently cried while wishing for death. Maybe her prayer had been answered. “What is the point of surviving? she again asked. “I will be married off anyway at an age that I do not want to get married.”
When she was in the sixth grade, her favorite teacher, Samira, didn’t come to school one day. Later, after the class heard that she was seriously ill, she and a few classmates went to visit her. While sitting by Samira’s bedside, she had taken her teacher’s hand and asked, “May I get buried under dust, dear teacher! Why did you get sick?” It was a saying her mother used when her brothers got sick or when they got hurt during play. Samira kindly replied, “God forbid! Don’t ever say that.”
Sometimes, she used to see Samira with her own little daughters on their way back from school. Now, those small girls are wearing chadors …
She began to feel cold. It could be the night. The voices were gradually diminishing. Perhaps they could not continue the search operation in the dark. She was growing weaker while her lips were parched and her pain was becoming more severe. She wondered if blood loss was contributing to her dizziness and nausea. She thought she was losing consciousness. Suddenly, she remembered the story of “The Little Match Girl,” the girl who saw beautiful and peaceful images on the wall by lighting matches in the final moments of her life. She wished she had a match …
She had read the story in the book she had received as a prize from teacher Samira. The cover of “Hans Christian Andersen’s Stories” was filled with colourful and beautiful illustrations, and in the middle was a painting of a girl sitting on the wings of a large blue bird. Inside, teacher Samira wrote in her beautiful handwriting, “For the worthy, hardworking, and beloved girl, Hosna Jan. I hope that in the future, you will succeed at Herat University and serve your homeland.” A smile appeared on her dry lips, and tears once again filled her eyes. She felt as though a match had been lit, and she could see the beautiful smiling face of teacher Samira in the darkness.
Rayhana Bayani is a short story writer and literary critic from Afghanistan.