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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 28 page 13

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When hunger pinched their own tummies, the truants remembered the date fruits in their pockets. They devoured them, washing them down with cool water from a nearby stream overhung by gigantic mulberry trees. Towards noon, they set off towards their homes. On the way they bumped into a few of their class fellows returning from school.

“The teacher was furious at you. Tomorrow he’ll tan your hide,” they cried, gesticulating wildly. They got malicious pleasure from the thought of the teacher spanking the two truants. Had it been possible for them at that moment they themselves would have dragged the truants off to the schoolmaster’s house.

Yahiya picked up his satchel from Haron’s house and sprinted home. When he reached home his mother already knew about his truancy and she would not let him touch his lunch. To avoid his father, he bolted for the street.

He wandered the streets, nervously waiting for dark.

Evening prayers had finished when like a wary cat he returned to his house. His father was dining on unleavened chapattis soaked in a spicy curry. Yahiya tried to sneak past when his father spotted him. The old man pushed his meal aside and flew at his son, thrashing him. When the beating session was over, his mother brought Yahiya water and asked him to wash his face but he kicked over the water pot. She asked him to move onto his charpoy cot but he sat glued to his place on the ground, sobbing. She brought him dinner on a platter but he would not eat.

Yahiya’s sobs subsided in bed. With his father his account had been settled but the fear of the schoolteacher lurked in his heart. In his mind Yahiya heard the swish of the flexile green cane that the teacher loved to land powerfully on truant students’ rear-ends.

Next morning Yahiya was in school and his eyes were locked on the cane propped against the teacher’s rickety chair. But it had slipped out of the teacher’s mind that Yahiya was absent yesterday.

In the afternoon the herds of cows were returning from the pastures. Yahiya and Haron plucked hairs from the tails of cows. They sat down in the street and twisted the tough hairs into loops to trap bulbuls.

On Sunday the boys set up the snares right on the date pulp bait they planted on the gnarly guava tree. When the bulbul is pecking at the soft date lollipop, there are chances that its leg, neck or wing will get entangled in the loop. The boys hid themselves in the droopy bushes and waited for the bulbuls to begin snacking on the sticky sweet. After a long wait, an unwary pair landed and started pecking at the date paste. The boys held their breath. Beads of sweat started forming on the tip of their noses. When the birds were gorged, the female flew away without a hitch but when her companion flapped its wings to fly, its right leg got entangled in a loop snare. The jolt sent it swinging upside down. A scream of terror escaped its beak while at the same time a slushy dropping hit the ground like a blob of toothpaste. The boys scrambled to get the bird free, while the bird screeched, flapped its wings, and bit at their hands. Haron carefully loosened the hair loop around its leg and had the bird in his fist. He could feel the wild pounding of its tiny heart. The boys were euphoric.

“I will keep this bulbul. Tomorrow we will catch another one and that will be yours,” Haron promised.

Haron pulled a cord from his pocket and asked Yahiya to hold the bulbul’s wings out of the way. Deftly he tied one end of the cord around the bird’s waist and saw to it that it was not too tight. He attached the other end to a small wooden rod. He tried to make the bird perch on the rod but the bird would not co-operate — it had stiffened its claws. Eventually, at last, the bird conceded defeat and curled its claws around the stick. It looked misshapen, exhausted and disoriented.

Yahiya looked at Haron’s bird with envy.

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