Sameen, after giving Grandfather some more water and a scrap of bread, shuffled about in the dirt looking for his shoes and schoolbook.
"What you doing mannugh?" Grandfather had rolled onto his side to watch the small boy turning over pieces of the rubble, searching wildly.
"Grandfather, I'm eight now, I am not a mannugh anymore." Sameen protested the use of that word, which meant baby, any chance he could. The truth was, when Grandfather used it, it was ok.
"I'm trying to find my shoes. Have you seen my book?"
"No, when did you-” Grandfather had tried to get up, but weakness and a coughing fit pushed him back down.
"It's ok, I will find it. You shouldn't try to get up." The young boy shuddered every time Grandfather coughed. Once, years ago, he had been a stout and powerful man. When he got that bullet in his lung, everything changed for him.
He dug the bullet out on his own, but even with the wound healed, he was never the same. Then, after Sameen's seventh birthday, Grandfather got the cough. As it continued now, Grandfather waved his hand at the young boy, as if to dismiss the concern like a bothersome gnat.
"I don't have to go to my lessons, Grandfather. I can stay here wi-"
Grandfather had shot straight up in bed, his cough only an echo in the bombed out house. His eyes were steel.
"You never, ever in your life, turn your back on your lessons. Not for me, or your father, or that silly girl, or anything else on Allah's own world."
His eyes and stern finger were set on Sameen, still and unshaking for the first time in years.
"Yes, Grandfather. I know, but you're..."
Grandfather gained color in his cheeks, glowing embers in what was otherwise a pile of cool white ash. He stood with much effort, but strangely dignified nonetheless.
"Mannugh, you listen to this old man now."
Sameen walked over to the old man and sat at his feet. Tears fell and moistened the man's dry cracked feet, as his grandson hadn't seen him so strong for such a long time.
"You are but a boy," Grandfather said softly. "You are my own flesh, and I need you to hear me on this. I will be gone soon, and your father also, a little while more. In this awful time, you will be made a man far sooner than you should."
As he spoke, the old man stroked the young boy's thick dark hair and gazed out through an empty window frame, at the smoking ruins of a village once teeming with joy and life.
"Lessons are more important than sick old men. They are more important than any of the people in our village, or anyone in any other place far off. You must never forsake your lessons if you want to be a greater man than your father or this useless old man speaking to you."
"I don't want to be greater than you, or father. Even if I desired this, it could never be so, Grandfather." Sameen had stopped crying and was gazing at the old man's scruffy face which always held so many answers. Softly, he added, "You are the greatest man Allah has ever breathed life into..."
Chuckling lightly, Grandfather looked down at his son's child, "You are already greater than I."
While he continued to chuckle, a tear fell from his eye onto Sameen's forehead. Grandfather wiped it away, and lifted the boy to his feet. Pointing over to a pile of stones that had once been a wall inside their home, Grandfather said, "See, there. That looks like a schoolbook to me."
The young boy looked from his grandfather to the book and back to the old man. He saw the glowing embers grow cold and the ashen veil fall over the old man's face once again. Though he bathed Grandfather every other day, the ashes of their ruined village had somehow burrowed into his skin and bones.
"Go now child. Go, take your book to your lessons and become a wise man." Grandfather slumped back to his mat in one fluid motion like water over rocks. "Leave an old man to his own lessons."
Sameen slowly rose and retrieved his book from atop the pile of stones. Holding it tightly to his chest, the boy looked about for his shoes.
"Did you leave your shoes at the river?" Grandfather was coughing again, but so softly it was plain to see he didn't even have the strength for that.
"Oh, um... you're probably right." Sameen's voice trailed off as he remembered being at the river with Zhia the night before.
The two friends had been fishing and playing in the wide shallow stream. There was more playing than fishing. As they splashed and chased each other in and out of the water, and up and down the banks, the explosions started again. Shells were being fired from over the hills onto the banks of the river.
The two young children raced out of the river, up the bank and back onto the narrow path home. They ran hard as the explosions chased. Zhia was small, and the food shortage had taken more of a toll on her, so she fell behind quickly.
Sameen, looking over his shoulder at the fiery balls engulfing the bridge they had just been playing near, noticed Zhia on her knees. She was trying to catch her breath, but fatigue and the thought of exploding like the bridge conspired to keep her gasping.
Without a thought, the young boy turned and raced back to his friend. He helped her to her feet, took her arm, and ran back toward the village all the while keeping in mind to run only as fast as she could keep with him.
"I'm too slow, Sammy! Zhia spoke each word on its own between gulps of air. "Let me sit here in the grass, I won't explode if Allah wills it."
"Don't talk nonsense," Sameen was scowling at her. "Don't talk at all, just run."
"But you can't-”
"Yes I can!" yelled the boy. With that, he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder like Father always used to with the sacks of grain from the fields.
Just after Sameen sighted the road leading into the village, the shelling stopped. He didn't slow his pace, though, and ran all the way to Zhia's house. Through the front door, which was just an opening in the stone walls, and to the back of the house he ran.
Finally, he realized where they were, and that the shelling had stopped, he put Zhia down. She frowned at him, slugged him in the shoulder, then wrapped her arms around him and began to laugh. Sameen joined in, and soon they were whooping and hollering with glee.
It wasn't long before darkness fell and Zhia's mother shooed the young boy home. It wasn't until finding his book the following morning that he realized the shoes were back on the riverside.