The snow pattered gently on the rooftop and inside the rickety house, a fire crackled with occasional spurts and hisses. Huzaifa stoked the fire with a twig every now and then but her beady eyes rested on the door in the hope of his arrival. Her porcelain like skin, sharp aquiline nose and piercing brown eyes were mostly masked by the veil but through the little gaps of the cloth, it was evident that she was a woman of striking beauty.
He was always unpredictable. He turned up when she least expected it, when she was least prepared. Each time, there was a change in him, in his persona as well as in physique. With each passing visit which had no pattern or predictable timing, there was an increase in the creases on his otherwise flawless face. The uncertainty of their future manifested itself in the form of a perpetually worried and wistful look. His beard lay untamed but it nevertheless gave a rugged appeal to the lanky man from the mountains.
They grew up together in a remote village in the snow clad mountains of Kashmir, forgotten by the rest of the country, hidden from the vagaries of Time. In their childhood, the snow clad valley was their playground; the trees and mountains were testimony to the years they had spent chasing each other amidst the wild flowers, nettled brambles, mountain goats and gentle peaks. No one knew the clandestine friendship that blossomed between Huzaifa and Aamir better than the pine trees which had sheltered them on many a winter nights.The streams and brooks knew their stories, the birds of the valley sang in harmony for the two youngsters as they grew up in the midst of uncertainty and volatility.
Aamir, on the other hand, had had a rough and wild upbringing, living the summer months on the mountains as a tour guide and decamping to the valley during the winter months to work on the orchards as a farm hand. His mother had died during the birth of his younger brother and his father was an alcoholic; ill-tempered and seldom sober. Aamir was the main bread earner for the family and education was never an option in his world. Yet, throughout the years, he listened with rapt attention when Huzaifa shared her knowledge with him, be it the history of India’s Independence, the geography of Himalayas or even the stories of Akbar and Birbal. Perhaps he too had an innate thirst for knowledge or perhaps it was the lilting melody of her voice and her animated expressions as she described what she had read that made him listen to her without batting an eyelid. Every afternoon, they met by the stream under the shade of the deodar, where she enlightened him about happenings around the world which she grasped by surreptitiously scanning the day’s newspaper while he processed them and pondered over the consequences.
Over the years, Huzaifa blossomed from the bright eyed school girl to a tall young woman known for her quiet demeanor and intelligence while Aamir transformed from the unkempt and untamed boy into a mysterious young man, known for his disarmingly good looks but with an aura of danger around him. Although there was a charm in him, his eyes couldn't mask the secrets that he withheld. The bleak winters that followed year after year had instilled a melancholic air to his countenance and he often spoke of the vagaries of living in a land in perpetually in turmoil and terror. His eyes often betrayed his loyalties and glinted the anger he suppressed within himself. Abandoned by his family, forsaken by society and existing on a meagre income, the sole oasis in his barren desert was Huzaifa. Rumors were rife in the town that he mingled with shady characters, his whereabouts were unknown for days together and when he arrived unannounced at her doorstep, it set tongues wagging in the neighborhood.
Over the gentle patter of the snow, a single sharp knock echoed through the room. Her invalid mother was asleep in the adjacent room while her father was at the store. Huzaifa froze for a moment and rushed towards the door. It was always the same, the single sharp knock; nothing more, nothing less. She struggled to contain her excitement; it was over a month since his last visit. His last visit had left her in a state of turmoil after he had questioned what was to become of them in the future. The parting embrace left her in no doubt that there was to be an answer and that too, very soon.
The door creaked noisily as she slid the latch to welcome her beloved one but she found herself pulled into the arms of a stranger. Three men dragged her out of the house and within moments she was sneaked into a car waiting at their doorstep. She was paralyzed with fear and her squeaks of terror were muffled by a cloth to gag her. The car revved up and winded down the lane and rushed through the silent streets before anybody could detect anything amiss. Through the mountain path, the car trudged along for what seemed like hours until they reached their destination.
Huzaifa stumbled out of the car and was led into an old bungalow. In the distance she could see that the building was guarded by numerous men armed with rifles and the desire to use them. Her pleas for an explanation were met by murderous glares by the men and she resigned herself to the worst. Her worst fears had come true, her suspicions were being confirmed and she knew that she must face the inevitable.
They walked through a dimly lit corridor until they approached an ornately decorated oak wood door guarded by an armed man. The men exchanged significant looks and slowly led her through the door. What she saw next was a heart wrenching sight and she blinked back the tears clouding her vision and choking her voice. Aamir lay on the ground, weak, emaciated and bare-chested revealing angry red whiplashes over his skin. His eyes were bloodshot, his face was bruised and blistered and he was in pain; he twitched and withered every now and then in agony.
Their eyes met. In the dank and dilapidated room realization dawned upon her as she continued to look vacantly into his eyes that sent out a plea for help. The answer to the questions that had nagged at the back of her mind was now crystal clear. The rumors that she had once dismissed with conviction were true beyond doubt.She looked questioningly, he bowed his head apologetically. She gave a minuscule nod in agreement and he shed a silent tear out of regret for the impending doom that awaited them. Her eyes searched into the depths of his; seeking his loyalty and he assured her through those unsaid words that he owed her his life.
The men began to speak, in angry voices, often shouting over each other to be heard. They accused him of betrayal and there was a price to pay for it. He had claimed to join their radical group, in support of a select group of militants and had been included in the inner fold of the sect until he developed cold feet and deserted them. And for his actions, there was a price to pay. They had discovered that Huzaifa was the one person closest to his heart and knew that she was the way to avenge the treachery. It was either his death or her suffering. The answer was obvious; neither saw the purpose in life without the other.
As a last savage act of cruelty, they handed her a mirror and she lifted her veil. He grimaced and looked away to hide the tears that burned through his cheeks and she smiled sadly at her reflection for the last time. She tried to imprint the memory of her face before the acid scalded the porcelain skin that he had thought would be eternal. She whimpered in pain and the men walked away since the deed was done. She writhed in agony while he embraced her through his calloused and blistered hands; they were finally united, in pain.