My sister latched the door:
A tube of light through the pane
stunned the cement floor.
My kid brother and I sat
naked near a bucket,
a canister to scoop water
Lifebuoy soap on chipped saucer,
a cylindrical container poised on bricks,
faucet crudely soldered to hem.
Under the container,
nuggets glowed on a charcoal burner
heating up the water.
Let’s be clear about this: No
shower, no tub, no sink, no mirror,
only a hole in the floor
for draining waste bath water out to a gully.
To be fair to bathrooms he had known,
Father had named The Cube.
Dizzy and nauseous, heart faster,
beads of sweat on bony chest,
the more I breathed, the more I gasped,
wondering what was taking my sister
so long to scoop water from the bucket
and shower it on my head..
She dragged herself to the door
on tip-toe to reach the latch, fell back,
slowly rose, her fingers clawing the pane.
My kid brother collapsed
on the floor, his mouth an O.
Are we playing dead?
Charcoal, the Mother of All Coals,
Father later said, burns quickly
in airtight rooms, releases deadly gas.
You can’t see, smell, or taste it.
Inhaled, it displaces oxygen
we breathe to stay alive.
I remember only blurs: glass
shattering, treetops waving, sirens,
a cold mask on my face: breathing.
Farouk, older brother, waiting
his turn to bathe, sat on a small
crate outside the Cube, reading
why no waste water flowed
out to the open gully
in the courtyard. He bolted upstairs
to tell Father, who ran down
without touching the handrail,
broke the glass, unlatched the door,
dragged us all out, and sent Farouk
on his Hero bike to summon Red Cross.
My sister gradually grew
protective of me and my kid brother
who stopped sucking his thumb, after all.
Praised for his presence of mind,
Farouk promised but never gave me his comics
and never lets us forget his heroics.
Seeing her three angels in mortal poses,
Mother ripped her blouse,
pummeled her bosom.“ There is no god
but God, no god but God, no god”
The next day, my parents sacrificed
a lamb, gave meat to refugees
camped in Murree
near the Cease Fire Line,
after the first war over Kashmir.
Rafiq Kathwari is a guest writer at 3quarksdaily.