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He didn’t pause till he reached the comfort of his terrace: so wild was his terror. All was lost: his love, his chances, and his easy manner. The lengthening shadows of spires that fell on the roof skewered his flesh like the beaks of crows strung out on electric wires: crows that clawed and fluffed their rage up; crows charred black in the whiteness of the sun; crows with rakish eyes that cawed reproachfully out to him for his crimes; crows sent down by Allah scratching up the ground to show Adam how to hide his brother’s naked corpse.

Kemal couldn’t bear the rebuke anymore. He spread the evening Urdu newspaper on the roof and poured all the mincemeat over it. Then he laid back on his cot and let the crows sweep down and feast. As he dozed off into an uneasy slumber, the wheel of the sun, clasped in amber clouds, sloped and turned. The sun shook off the bright dust from its parting sheen and made way for the usurping moon. As darkness fell, the crows, not sated with mere cawing, swept into his dream.

“Why, are you not satisfied, that you pursue me thus,” Kemal asked. “What bad omen is this?”

“Strange that man should blame us for his dark deeds—that we forewarn the outcome of his evil designs.”

“Yet, I am innocent—yet, I’m blamed. Is there no justice?”

The hooded crow made a sound that seemed like laughter in derision. “Crows have a strong sense of justice, Kemal—the rules of natural law bestowed by Allah Himself. We have courts: for when a crow steals a young one’s food, do we not scratch his feathers out so that he’s as helpless as the little one; when one steals another’s nest, do we not tear the nest down and make the thief build another; when one steals the affections of another’s female, do we not flock upon the guilty and slash him with our beaks? And do we not then bury him? Crows have yielded unto the laws of Allah and reached the shores of safety—and so would you!” With that, the large raven flapped his wings and soared into the night in a wake of soot and singed feathers.


In the morning, his mind quite made up, Kemal bribed Paro, Fatima’s maid, to arrange for their rendezvous at the riverfront before dawn.

The next day, when Kemal reached the stone steps leading down to the river, he found Fatima already waiting under the large banyan tree, with an empty milk pitcher at her feet. The river flowed gently, a cool breeze blew in from the paddy fields, and the lazy smell of dewy grass hung in the thin mist. A crimson flower twirled in her fingers, tender and fresh as butter churned in earthen jars. She raised her veil briefly to smile, sending little butterfly wings fluttering against his face where the smile had touched him.

“Don’t raise your veil,” he said, “for the moon will be jealous. Do not show your hands, lest the wind makes them rough.”

She giggled, while little birds wheeled above like parasols, and the mango trees dripped flowers on the village road. “What is it that you bring now,” she asked, seeing that he led a fat goat by a rope.

“Here,” he said, “take it home and tie him to the gate before your house awakes.” He pressed the rope in her hands.

“But—what will Abba Jaan think,” she said, shrinking away. “Why are you doing this?”

“So that he doesn’t cancel the feast, Fatima, I cannot wait for another Eid to read the Nikah with you. Karim Chacha has arranged a handsome opening for me in a leather export house in Bombay. We’ll move out of here,” he pleaded, “to where there are no separate wells for Muslims. It’s a chance we must grab hold of.”

“What will Abba say?”

“You tell him the goat had strayed and found its way back on its own. He lacks the light in his eyes—he won’t tell the difference if you convince him.”

“Where did you come by the goat?”

“I bought it.” Grasping her hands, he confessed everything, including the strange dream he’d had of the crows.

“You bought it! It must have cost—what about the mahr, Kemal, the bridal money—do you still have it?”

Kemal shook his head and sank on the grass.

“So you spend our mahr on a goat, Kemal, why? Is your honor more important than our love? You care more for Abba Jaan’s feelings than mine? He will never give me away without dowry: you know that. I could sell my jewelry—he could find out later—but that won’t be enough…” she wailed, “Taawwudh—may Allah have mercy!”

“Have faith, dear Fatima. Allah ta’ala will show us the way—I…I will think of something,” he said, not having the foggiest notion what that thought might be.