When the twilight crept over our remote, small village after long, suffocating days of the summer, all kids of the neighbourhood drifted up to the vast square across the chief street. On the right side of it was the lone, white marble mosque, with a large, round dome, and four tall minarets on whose niches and alcoves lived a flight of pigeons. The setting sun reflected on their variedly coloured feathers as they wheeled about against the orange and yellow tinted clouds; blue black, ash-red, brown, white, bluish gray. We brought crumbs for them and they came down on the ground with a flutter of wings, gobbled down, and cooed. There was a game we played, to wait out the light. We betted each other to spot male pigeons from female ones. There are no external signs to tell, except that the males may look a bit fat and stupid, but this is no trustworthy clue. In breeding seasons it is different, though. By observing them long enough, we could make out the ones trying to mount and they would inarguably be the males as we knew from our experience of bird watching. On an electric pole in the back street of the mosque sat a hawk, brooding, looking out towards the pigeons. It seldom dared as the pigeons were robust, smart, and great flyers. But we could sense a lie and bogusness to their freedom, a kind of uneasiness in their existence.
When it was time for Maghrib prayers we stopped playing and betting over the pigeons, because at the slightest noise men going to the mosque would scold us and sometimes chase us with sticks. We would hide around until they had clambered up to the mosque. There was a blind, old man with a green patch over one eye who always wore a pair of mismatched slippers—red and green. He lingered on the steps, his hand an awning over the uncovered eye, and peered at us. We knew his dark mind suspected us of indecencies and his blind eye looked through the veneer of our innocuous game. It made us feel smutty and we moved off each other, guilty and shamefaced. At last he went inside, swearing under his breath, and it would be dark now and we started to play the blind man’s bluff.
I never liked to be ‘It’ in the game; blind, and at the mercy of naughty brats who jammed our path to make us slip and fall. They winched up skirts and tugged at hair. They dodged and pushed nastily. I tried not to be caught. I never teased or got touched by the flailing hands of ‘it’. And I was very cautious that no one should get to know my secret. But there was a mean, little boy with tiny wicked gleams in his eyes and a mocking smile on the upturned corners of his mouth who knew. One evening he hid behind me and as ‘It’ passed us he gave me a push into ‘its’ hands. They surrounded me and put a blindfold over me. The boy bent before me and peered up into my eyes. I wanted to spit on his face. He giggled excitedly and touched the space between my eyes and drew the cloth low over my nose. I could see nothing. Enraged, I resolved to teach him a lesson—to catch him.
I pretended to stand indecisively, but my mind was all in the direction of the mean boy. There was a flurry of activity as they pretended to run and hide. But I knew they stood spanning me in a crescent. Suddenly there was a real sound of running feet. Someone whispered hoarsely that men from the mosque had come to chase us. I crouched low on the ground, and felt the wind fan my cheeks as sticks switched in the air. I wanted to take off the blindfold. I heard a sly footstep near me, and my hands going up to untie the knot fell away to the sides. I gritted my teeth; the wicked boy had stayed behind to spy on me. I had to catch him. I tried to follow the shifty steps, my bare feet stumbling against a wooden log that I knew not to have been there. I stood up slowly. I think I had walked up to the extreme edge of the square and with the next step I tripped into the back street. Skin peeled off my kneecaps. I listened for the rustle of clothes. Out of a house garden wafted up a scented smell of jessemine. I knew that a small light would be coming out of the upper window of the next house. I believed he was behind me, waiting for me to take off the blindfold, so he could get me kicked out of the game. I called out, is anybody there? game over? No one answered. An eerie silence reigned over everywhere. The footsteps were receding into the near distance, into a side alley. I thought I should get back on the square, that they would be back there, but I was mad. I strayed further up. I came up against something hard, smooth and round. It was the electric pole. The hawk swooped down past me and winged my face. I shivered to the bone. I heard a door slam. He had disappeared into a doorway. I sauntered up after him. I pushed the door a little and it gave way. I was surprised at the persistency, the silence, the quiet of the boy. Suddenly I was very afraid and untied the blindfold. I was in a small shed with a dim light. My eyes darted into the expanse of darkness and I rubbed at them nervously. He was hidden somewhere in the shadows. There was a snippet of sound behind me. Startled, I turned around, and glimpsed the elusive feet. I started screaming.
Sobia Ali is an emerging writer from India. She holds an MA in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, The Indian Quarterly, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Gone Lawn, The Punch Magazine, trampset, Kitaab, ActiveMuse, Ombak Magazine, Literary Yard, and is forthcoming in Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel. Image: Jama Masjid, Delhi. Photo by Sourav Das (flickr)