A Work in progress from the Shahrarah Garden Chronicles
Rumours of war have slowed down as the cold and bitter winter has wrapped Kabul in a thick coat of snow. Katsumi looks up to the pale orange light that flames from the Asmai Lighthouse and feels relieved that the makeshift dispensary there is provided with Aleppo soap, eucalyptus, balsam and Chinese green tea so the guards, mainly Kashmiri Lancers, can safely rest until the next shift. “Welcome in the Zemestan season” would joke Javaad Khan, his friend, born in some remote Srinagar valley and pleased enough with his position, assigned to the Bibi-Mahroo Garrison, where two lighthouses stand above Kabul city.
Sirius heads between the Asmai Height and the Pushta Lighthouse. Curfew will soon start. Katsumi steps down with his snowshoes and quietly treks through the icy Shahrarah Lane. How long lasts friendship when our world is devastated by cholera or plague epidemics, and grief? Lady Alexandrina, whom he’d met in Tehran, passed away as soon as she returned home to St. Petersburg, for her nineteenth birthday celebration. She was his first English teacher, taught him Latin and both shared a passion for Central Asian Herbarium books — dried plants and seeds they collected from Tashkent and Balkh when landslides or sand dunes have not yet fully submerged the fields, orchards and gardens — Katsumi recalls as he tries to cope with the fresh snow that caps his Bactrian camel wool shield.
The rum is warming up his mood. Katsumi couldn’t forget her pale sapphire eyes that brightened up her delicate face, her vivid passion for collecting and editing war veterans’ reports – “I will not teach you French!” she proudly said. At the Shahrarah literary lounge, she loved reading light verse poetry, the modern tales of Alexander Pushkin — and such strong beauty in her calligraphy strokes, first in Russian then in English: As long as there is one heart on Earth where I still live, my memory will not die he received as her farewell gift.
He shakes his head as to remove the fresh flakes that stick to his white silk face mask. Would poetry bring us some kind of relief? He learned a lot with Lady Alexandra too, when she lived in Kabul. She became his second, friendly English teacher, even if she had soon forgotten her cousin Alexandrina. Like the white, petrified Shahrarah trees lane, there is a silence that doesn’t need to be awoken, so Katsumi treks quietly.
The rum will lift up his mind, as Charles Masson promised. Was he too safely back in London? For the nine-month journey is full of unpleasant surprises, as Katsumi recalls Lady Alexandra that pointed out. Far from his British friends and the Thames he would never visit, Katsumi feels safe here in the upper valley of the Kabul River, safer than in any of the European cities. He looks to the bright sky, and silently thanks the tough quarantine that he and the Afghan doctors-in-chief teams have set up. Aldebaran is going to cross the Pushta Height. Katsumi then notices a snowy, soft blanket that wraps the foothills, the crowded worker dormitories and the tent shelters for shepherd communities. How many will be alive tomorrow?
Snow showers keep burying Kabul in a bitter silence, while the pervasive fragrance of balsam floods the Hanzalah sanatorium. Katsumi quietly moves in and out of rooms, patients are sleeping. “Kurimoto-jan, tea is served”, whispers the nurse-in-chief. Katsumi frowns his delicate eyebrows, smoothly shakes his long blue cotton dress and heads towards the study.
Carefully, he removes his grey latex face mask, the grey latex gloves, and then washes his large and pale hands with the Aleppo soap. The nurse brings the china cup of qehwa but Katsumi’s face doesn’t smile — by the way no one has ever seen him smile, except perhaps Lady Alexandrina. The nurse is one of the few who copes with his dead, calm, beardless face.
Katsumi’s skilled hands return empty the warm cup. It’s time for the monthly report, in English, as requested by the Colony Police station. Katsumi picks up his favourite slim brush and unrolls a blank, silky sheet of paper. As he writes, his brown eyebrows turn into thin moon bows:
Two hundred casualties of pneumonia — 30 from Bibi-Mahroo foothills, 80 from the Shahrarah Women hospital, including 50 infants, 30 from the Pushta Workers Dormitory… Silently the nurse leaves the quiet coroner alone in the fragrance of balsam now mixed with cardamom.