“My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.”
She pulled the door closed behind her and tiptoed out into the twilight. The earth was warm under her bare feet, despite it being almost midnight. The air, still and dry, was much cooler than it had been during the searing sun of the day. It continued to carry adequate heat for anyone who had a desire to be out here, under the stars, the whole night. Looking over her shoulder, there was no sign of visible life in the glassless window beside hers. But low voices told her they were talking, perhaps already preparing for sleep. Far away in the distance, tens of kilometres, perhaps hundreds, specks of red and orange lit the sky for an instant. No sound. Yet their meaning was clear. Stay away. Hurrying over to the corner of the fenced in plot, she bent down to check on the flowers. Moving her hand down the stem from the unopened head to the ground, they felt strong and firm. That was promising. She cupped each of the sleeping blooms with both hands and leant in to whisper to them, individually, “Dostet darum.”
“Flora, were you out in the night again?” Her father questioned her as soon as she entered the small living area in their home the next morning. How had he known?
“Did I leave footprints on mâdar’s clean floor?” Flora asked, guilt written all over her face.
“No,” her father, Gul, responded, eyeing her suspiciously. “You left the back door wide open!” His crow’s feet wrinkled at the top of his cheeks as he laughed, a deep rumbling chuckle that emanated from the depths of his belly.
“Oh no! But… ,” Flora began.
“It’s alright,” her father said, bringing the joke to end, so as to gently reassure her that she wasn’t in trouble. “There’s been something wrong with the door for a while. If it doesn’t hit the latch at just the right angle it falls open again. I’ll mend it today.”
“Sorry pedar. I didn’t know. I just wanted to make sure the flowers were OK.”
“I understand,” her father said, placing his weather-worn hand on her shoulder. “And were they?”
“Yes,” she smiled brightly. “They’re doing well and I think they might bloom in just a few days.”
“Good. Something to look forward to.” Gul stood up from the chair he had been sitting on beside the table and reached over to the counter beside the small cooker. “Mâdar left you some breakfast. Tandoori bread.” Flora’s nose caught a whiff of the homemade baking as he lifted the cloth covering the plate. It smelt warm and enticing.
“Would you like some green tea too?” her father offered.
As her mother walked into the kitchen, Flora, chomping on the bread, greeted her. “Mâdar, this bread is amazing,” she said, her mouth full of it and trying not to let too many crumbs drop from her lips.
“If you’re down early enough tomorrow, we can make some together,” her mother, Wafa, promised.
“What about me?” her husband asked.
“We’ve seen your baking skills. I think it’s probably best you stick to just eating the bread,” Wafa joked. Gul shrugged his shoulders and Flora had to close her lips tight to stop herself from laughing and spraying morsels of bread everywhere.
“See you tomorrow! Don’t forget we have a maths test!” Flora called out to her friend Tela as they parted at her front door.
Tela waved goodbye as she continued along the dry, dusty track to her own family’s home. “I won’t! I’m going to study hard tonight!”
Flora looked up briefly at the intense early spring sun, which was already boiling or baking everything beneath it. She always felt such awe at the omnipresence of the cloudless sky, currently the colour of the lapis lazuli that was mined not so far away. It reminded her that the much hotter days of spring and summer were on their way. And with them would come the beauty of the sun casting its shadows everywhere, and re-creating the world of trees, buildings and people around her in dark, detailless, flattened form. She should get her chalk out again, ready to trace outlines on the ground, one of her favourite pastimes, aside from reading and her plants.
She pushed open her wooden front door, noticing, not for the first time, the number of chips and cracks in it. It looked so distressed, yet had withstood the test of time, having been here since her grandparents and their parents before them had inhabited the home. Its imperfections told the stories of family activities dating back decades. Stepping into the cool, north facing, small front room, Flora was about to call out to say she was home. Her parents’ voices, audible from the other side of the doorless opening into the kitchen, caused her to remain silent.
“But how do we tell her?” Wafa asked her husband, an urgency in her voice. “She loves school.”
“I know,” Gul replied, gently, a hint of resignation in his voice. “But what choice do we have? She’ll be safest here and it’s going to happen anyway. Maybe not this week, but next.”
Flora, perturbed and confused by what she was hearing, ran through into the kitchen.
“Mâdar, pedar, what’s wrong? Why are you talking about school?”
Her parents spun around, shocked to realise she may have overheard some of their conversation.
“Flora, you’re home sweetheart. Did you have a good day?” Gul asked, trying to distract her.
“Yes,” she said, impatiently, “but what is going to happen anyway? Why will I be safest here?”
Gul looked at Wafa, and she returned his gaze, letting him know, soundlessly, that she believed their daughter deserved the truth. He gave her a small nod of acknowledgement.
“Darling, we think they are perhaps going to close your school next week. So, we’re going to teach you here, at home. I used to be a teacher, so I will be able to help with your studies. Won’t that be fun?”
Flora looked bemused. “Close my school? But why? Nobody said anything today.”
“I know,” Gul intervened. “But they probably will tomorrow. Some new people are going to be taking charge of our country and the teachers think it might be better for you to learn at home.”
“Which new people?” Flora enquired. “Don’t they know how much I like school?”
“I think they probably do.” Wafa spoke calmly, wanting to give her daughter as much information as possible without frightening her. “But for now, they’re arguing a little with other groups of people about how our country should be run. And we all want to make sure that our children don’t end up in the middle of any of the disagreements.”
Flora’s eyes looked over to her left, processing these facts. They seemed to make sense to her, as she knew that her parents were always trying to keep her safe. It seemed reasonable that other adults would want to do the same.
“What about Tela? Will I still be able to see her?”
Wafa looked relieved. “We’ll see, but I think that as she lives close by, yes, it may be possible.”
“When do I need to stop going?” Flora asked, frankly.
“We think it might be best if you stay home from tomorrow,” her mother explained. “It will be just a few days more before the school closes anyway.”
Flora’s face fell. Her friends, her teachers, she loved them all.
“Can’t I just go in tomorrow, to say goodbye to everyone?” she pleaded.
Her parents looked at each other. They couldn’t bear their daughter’s anguish.
“How about your mother accompanies you up the road tomorrow to see Tela, so you can let her know that you’re going to be at home, but we’re hoping you can still see her?” Gul suggested. He already knew that Tela’s father was planning to keep her home too. The two men had crossed paths on the way to the well and talked about the situation as they collected water for their families.
Flora mulled this over for a moment. Unsure as to whether further negotiation might result in her losing even this opportunity, she decided that seeing her best friend was more important than even a goodbye to her teachers and fellow students. She acquiesced, a little begrudgingly. “OK, but can we study together sometimes too? Tela and I like doing maths problems together.”
Her parents exchanged a look of sadness. “We’ll do our very best to make that happen,” her mother reassured her.
“So I think we’re going to be able to see each other. I just won’t be able to go to school.” Flora recounted the discussion with her parents, whilst the girls’ mothers sat together talking in the small kitchen area at the back of Tela’s home. Although only just past eight in the morning, already the heat was mounting and the women wiped sweat from their brows.
“My parents say I won’t be able to go to school either, after today,” Tela revealed. “Are we the only ones, do you think?”
“No,” Flora responded. “I believe my parents. If they say the schools will close, they will close. They just want to keep us safe.”
“It’s sad,” Tela mused. “I really love my classes. I hope I can learn enough maths at home to still be an engineer.”
“Mâdar is really good at maths. I’m sure she’ll be able to help if you have any problems. And we can study together. I asked especially.”
Tela looked excited. “Perhaps we can even eat together sometimes as well. Like at school!”
“I really hope so,” Flora agreed. “I’m going to miss everyone so much.”
“Flora, let’s head home now so that we can start your study. We don’t want you missing out on anything.” Wafa walked back into the room the two girls were in and towards the partially open door leading out onto the track that ran past both of their homes. “Tela, good luck today. Don’t worry. Flora will still be doing a test at home. She doesn’t get out of things that easily!” Tela and Flora giggled before giving each other a hug.
“Tell everyone I said goodbye!” Flora called back as she walked out of the door with her mother.
Late that night, after her parents had gone to bed, Flora lay awake staring at the two spots of loose mud on the wall opposite her bed. She had a funny feeling in her stomach. The same one she got when her parents told her one of her grandparents was sick. Unable to sleep, she decided to make her way out to their small holding, to check on her flowers.
The night air was cooler than usual at this time of year. Flora drew her shawl up over her head to keep her head warmer and pulled it around her shoulders, both to keep the crisp air out and for a little solace. Padding in her flip-flopped feet over to the corner her parents had designated her own, she bent down. She was sure the tulips looked a little longer in the stem, a little more bulbous in their now pinky green bud tonight. Convinced her tender words must be helping, she cupped each prospective bloom in between both of her palms and leant in to whisper to them, one at a time, “Dostet darum”, the words carrying on the humidity of her breath to imbue the flowers with care and affection.
“Well done, Flora! You have a natural way with language. This is just beautiful!” Wafa commended Flora on the piece of writing she had completed that morning about her hopes for the future.
“There’s not a single mistake here and the words you use, well, I’d expect them from somebody perhaps two, or even three, years older than you. All that reading pays off, you see?”
Flora smiled, happy to hear that her mother deemed her talented at one of the very things she most enjoyed. Her parents had taught her to read at an early age and it was now one of her passions. She read everything that came her way, on any topic, from the great literary writers of their country, to textbooks on history and geography and even discarded newspapers and magazines. Equally enamoured of maths, her mother, who had taught at a school in the city before having Flora and moving further out to the countryside, encouraged her love of both subjects, believing that humanities and sciences were essential for a holistic education and to enable the curiosity about the world that she wished her daughter to feel confident expressing.
“Thanks mâdar. Writing makes me happy. It’s like I can get lost in my thoughts for a little while. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about.”
“Well your hopes read beautifully. Padar and I are always so proud of you. Wanting to make a contribution to our community, our country, the whole world, that is a dream you must hold on it, for one day it will happen.”
“Will I be able to go back to school?” Flora asked, suddenly, throwing her mother a little. She’d assumed that now they were in a new routine, Flora might miss her old one a little less.
“I’m not sure right now,” her mother told her, honestly. “When this happened before it took some time for schools to open up again. But yes, eventually they did. I see no reason why that won’t occur this time as well.”
Flora felt better at being able to imagine a day when she would be around her teachers, her classroom and her school friends again. In the meantime, she had plenty to focus on. Her mother made her work just as hard as she had at school, and there was food to help prepare and her flowers to check on. The days seemed to disappear very quickly. Perhaps she would enjoy being able to spend time at home during the impending summer, which brought heat that made being outside by day unbearable at times. If the adults running her country could just reach an agreement, she might be back at school by the time the days started to turn colder and the winter winds picked up.
The distant sound of explosions didn’t wake her up at first. Deep in sleep, images of bright scarlet, tangerine, ivory and saffron yellow filled her thoughts, as she wandered through some place full of blossoming flowers, before coming to a market with stalls abundant in fresh and dried fruits. Grapes, pomegranates, melons, apricots, figs and raisins. As the explosions grew louder, she awoke, unsure for a few seconds whether she was still in her slumber or not. One particularly loud bang which seemed to shake the air around her, and even the earth below her head, made her sit abruptly upright, trembling. Getting to her feet she rushed to where her parents were sleeping next door and was surprised to find them awake when she arrived.
“Mâdar, what’s happening. What is that noise?” she asked, her voice shaky with nerves.
Her mother ushered her over to between her and her father and pulled her down into a hug. Allowing Flora to lay between them, she placed an arm over her and curled her own body up around her daughter’s, wanting to shield her in whatever way she could from what was making her fearful.
“Hush,” she whispered. “Some people are fighting, but not near here. Soon they will stop. We must get some sleep so that we can study some more in the morning.”
Studying wasn’t something Flora could even contemplate whilst her body seemed to be shivering involuntarily every few seconds. But with her mother’s warmth enveloping her, she left thoughts of it aside, managing at least to get a few more hours of sleep before morning.
As dawn brought the sun up over the horizon, Flora, who had been awake for a little while, and enjoying the cosy comfort of her mother’s body wrapped protectively around her own, slipped out from between her parents. She tiptoed out of the doorless opening, past her own tiny room, through the kitchen and eating area and pulled open the rear door of their home. The early sunlight shed favourable, plant-growing rays across the earth of the land within the small plot belonging to their home. Placing her hand above her brow to shield her eyes from the glare, Flora peered over and was amazed to see what looked to be a glint of colour in her own, precious, corner of the garden. She pulled her clothing up over her ankles, so that it did not trip her, and ran over to the tulips.
“Finally!” she whispered to herself, freeing her hands of clothing and clapping them together in elation. The beautiful buds on her tulips had overnight morphed from closed to beginning to open, pure yellow on their inner petals, their outside turning a deeper shade of reddish pink. She kneeled down, oblivious to the dirt now clinging to the bottom of her plain white dress and loose fitting pants. Enthralled with the new development in her own tiny corner of the plot, her village, the world, she tickled the inner tips of the awakening buds with her fingertips and once again told each of them, “Dostet darum”.
The explosions began to occur during the day. Infrequent at first, but then becoming more regular. Sometimes, whilst trying to work out the answer to a mathematical problem, cross legged on the floor, the sound of a loud blast would echo through the walls of their home, bringing about a physical eruption in Flora’s stomach which made her heave. Breathing heavily in an attempt to return her heartbeat to its normal rate, a strategy her mother had taught her to use, she waited until the sensation had passed, before looking back down at her piece of paper and half eaten pencil and trying to being the calculation again.
Explosions became commonplace. Alongside them there were other noises that disrupted the tranquility of their home, their life, in an unpredictable, anxiety-inducing manner. Her parents taught her to identify the noises, feeling that certainty about their cause would help combat some of the uncertainty surrounding their effect.
“Will people be hurt?” Flora dared to ask her father, quietly, one day, as she sipped tea with him early one morning.
“I’m afraid they will, yes,” her father answered, not wanting to keep the truth from her. “But nothing lasts forever. The sooner the people in charge of our country can reach a compromise, the better for all.”
Flora hung her head down and her eyes followed the swirls on the patterned rug that covered most of the floor. She often did the same thing as she tried to work out a difficult science question or when trying to remember a history fact. It helped relax her brain and made processing its activity seem much less effort.
Eventually, she looked back up at her father. “I’m sad that people are going to be hurt,” she confessed, her eyes, tear-filled, meeting his.
“Flora.” He moved over to sit beside her and placed his arm around her shoulders. “You are not going to get hurt, I promise you. Try and focus on your studies because it will help take your mind off of things.”
“Can I go and check on my flowers first?” she enquired, cautiously.
“I think it would be better if you check them at night-time for a little while,” he father replied, his eyes filled with love.
As darkness wrapped their home in a heat-retaining blanket of gossamer sky, Gul finally agreed that Flora could go out for a few minutes to inspect the progress of her flowers.
The solid earth beneath her feet gave her a feeling of stability that seemed lacking in her life in many ways now. In just a matter of days, the certainties every child deserves, of play, companionship with peers, daily routine, and above all safety, had escaped her life, like the tendrils of smoke from her mother’s cooking pot, swirling up and out of the window. Absorbed in imagining when some predictability, some sense of security, might return, she was beside her tulips before the effect of the warm sun of the day became apparent to her. The flowers, now each about twenty centimetres tall, had bloomed and opened wide. She gasped. Their beauty, set against the sapphire serenity of the late evening, devoid of external sounds, was enchanting. Each of them had become a bright golden star, as though the heavens had let fall some of their most precious gems to adorn her tiny corner of the world. Kneeling down, she touched a fingertip to the edge of one of the strong, sturdy petals. It felt cool and supportive. As though she could rest her whole hand there for a while if she chose. She sighed, casting her eyes towards the universe above her. A little bit of the dependability that had been eradicated, and whose return she had so longed for. Here, now, for her to spend time with whenever she felt scared and in need of a reminder of what peace felt like.
“Dostet darum,” she whispered. “Dostet darum”.
The following morning epitomised springtime for Flora. Delicate scents of cedar and pine from the sprinkling of trees beyond the border of the land belonging to their home spilled in through the windows as dawn woke the world up with a gentle, temperate hug.
Flora opened her eyes, wondering how soon it would be before the quiet of a new day was disrupted by the sound of what she now knew not to be peace.
“Did you sleep well?” her father asked her as she came into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes. She looked over to the place where her mother usually prepared bread in the morning. She could see no bag of flour.
Her father followed her gaze. “We had bread yesterday. How about a pomegranate or two instead? We can always have some more tomorrow.” He sounded upbeat, hopeful, transporting Flora’s concerns away with the motion of his words, to a place out of her reach.
Flora could feel saliva begin to fill her mouth. The rich, burgundy bitter sweet crunchiness of pomegranate seeds were something she had loved since she had been a baby. Her mother told her the story of when she had first grabbed some out of her father’s hand before she was even old enough to walk. Her giggle and dribble let them know that this was to be a favoured food.
“Yes, please!” Flora replied to her father, keenly.
He disappeared out into their small holding and re-emerged carrying three or four of the fruit with him. He gave her one along with a small knife. Sitting on the floor, she skilfully opened it and holding it up to her mouth, sucked some of the seeds straight out of it. She contorted her face in the way that always made her parents laugh, sweet pleasure mixed with just a hint of the sourness that some of the seeds proffered.
An enormous explosion sounded somewhere not far from them, the walls of the house shaking just slightly. Or was it their own momentary shudders that merely gave that impression?
“Are they getting nearer?” Flora asked.
“I think so.” Her father no longer offered up any guarantees. But his sincerity comforted her. “I don’t believe they’re interested in coming any nearer to us. So please don’t worry.” With his words, she felt her shoulders lower, having hunched them up almost imperceptibly.
“Now, what is your mother planning for you to study today?” he asked, perhaps a little too over eagerly.
And so the days passed, spring becoming summer, the daylight heat sometimes so unbearable no-one dared venture out for more than a few minutes until at least after dusk.
One night, as Flora walked across the now scorched earth at the back of their property, her flip flops feeling like heated slippers, she realised that the petals on one of the tulips had begun to shrivel up. The bright golden yellow bore patches of wrinkled brown where the sun had singed them. On another, further towards the back of the little patch of stars, the petals had already curled up completely, into the crisp, brittle consistency of slivers of dried Tandoori bread. The others remained in their star-shaped form, but seemed less solid to the touch, a few petals drooping under the weight of Flora’s fingertips alone. Her heart tightened at the thought that the cathartic flowers would soon be leaving her. Looking up at the sky, the moon appeared full, a pale blue patchy circle. Flora’s mother had taught her that the full moon could stir up emotions, good and bad. So she placed her hand on her chest and took a deep breath in, holding it for a few seconds before breathing out. Her mother had taught her this trick to let go of any feelings of anger or upset. And it worked. She had already been using it more regularly. She sensed she may need it a little more in the days to come, until different flowers bloomed and she could take sanctuary beside them in the night air to allay her fears. Stroking the remaining golden petals with her fingers, she looked up at the stars above her. Grateful to have these moments of solitude, to counteract the increasing noise and turbulence of each day, they gave her peace. And hope.
“Dostet darum,” she whispered softly. “Dostet darum.”