The Far Cry of Doves

My mother was always my best friend. We were so much alike, my mother and I: we had the same eyes, hazel like the color of warm nuts; the same hands, small and strong; the same laughter, the kind that makes anyone standing next to you start to laugh because it’s so infectious. My father used to say that if he heard one of us laughing in another room, he couldn’t tell which one of us it was. He said that we could have been twins, except that we had been born twenty years apart.

My mother always used to love the sound of birdsong in the morning, but her favorite was the far cry of doves. She would stop whatever she was doing, or if we were walking in a field, she would stand still and take me by the arm, tilting her head so that her ear was cocked in the direction of the gentle coos carried to us in the soughing wind. “Listen, Shahbano! Can you hear it? The doves, can you hear them? Aren’t they beautiful?”

I laughed at her, a grown woman, becoming rapturous at the sound of a few birds singing. There were birds with much more melodious voices: the koel, which sang in the summer, or the nightingale, whose song brought tears to many people’s eyes. But once the war started, the birds fell silent and the guns took their place.

At first we tried to carry on as normal. Mother insisted that I go to school anyway, because the days were too important to miss. “You need your education, Shahbano. This way you can become anything you want to be. A very great man, a scholar, once said: Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.

“If I go to school, will there be peace again, Mother?” I said, feeling very frightened, because the guns had been loud that night, waking us up from our sleep. We had to run downstairs and huddle under the staircase while the planes passed overhead, the gunfire crackling like thunder.

“My sweet, that is not in our hands. But if every child in our country goes to school, we may never have another war again. Do you know what is the greatest treasure anyone can ever possess in their lifetime?”

“No, Mother.”

“It is your education, Shahbano. No matter what happens to you in life, your education is the one thing they can’t take away from you. You may lose your house, your possessions, even your friends, but you will always have what you learnt, Now go on to school, my darling, and I will help you with your homework when you come back.”

And she kept her promise; we studied together under the light of a candle when they cut the electricity during the air-raids every night for months.

But then things became worse, and we were not allowed to go out of our houses because it was too dangerous. The troops had moved closer to the city and there was fighting on the streets; every day we received the terrible news that another friend had been killed in the war.  I had to give up my schooling and Mother taught me the whole day in the house.  She always managed to make our lessons fun, full of laughter and songs, so that the hours passed quickly, and Father said that he was proud of all that I was learning, how hard I worked.

But then things got even worse than that: Mother became ill.  She stayed up and coughed all night, and became thinner and thinner. Because of the war, there were no medicines to make her better, you see, so even if we had taken her to a hospital, it would have been of no use. I was so frightened for her; I slept in the same bed as she did at night with my head on her shoulder and my hand on her heart, to make sure that it was still beating in the morning when I woke up.  I fed her spoons of broth and wiped her brow when she had fever. I kept praying to God that a miracle would make my mother better.

One morning, my mother woke in the very early hours, just after dawn. “Listen, Shahbano! Can you hear?”

“What, Mother?” I said, alarmed, because I could hear nothing.

“The doves, Shahbano, the doves! The doves… they are singing so beautifully…”  And my mother smiled, listening to the doves singing to her as she breathed slow, long breaths, until no more breath came from her body.

The days were very long and bleak after my mother died. I wept for many days and felt as though my world had come to an end, because I had lost my best friend. My father tried to console me, but I felt that there was no point in anything. Still, I remembered my promise to my mother that I would value my education. I picked up my schoolbooks and continued to read and study, and every time I did so, I felt as though my mother was near me, looking over my shoulder.

And then, slowly, spring began to return to my country. The guns fell silent. The war was over. Things began to slowly go back to normal. We were allowed out of the house, and soon we could go back to school. I was able to meet other girls of my age, some of whom had lost their mothers, others their fathers, or brothers. I made new friends. We were like a new family that had to reform after the loss of our old ones. But I found that I was able to smile and laugh and play like everyone else, and that felt like a miracle.

One day when I was in school I read about a famous artist from Spain, called Pablo Picasso, who painted a beautiful painting of a dove, which was used as the symbol for a great peace conference in Paris in 1949. It was only then that I understood why my mother loved doves so much, and I wept tears of sorrow and joy when I looked at his painting of the dove, white as ice, against a dark blue sky.  I felt as though my heart had been replaced by a dove whose wings were beating hard inside my chest, trying to reach the sky, to freedom and peace. I realized that my mother had reached the sky when she died, and at last I was able to put her ghost behind me.

I have decided that I am going to go on in school and study hard, and one day I will go to university and become a doctor, so I can save people’s lives. I will build a hospital and make sure that nobody has to go without medicine. I will make it a hospital for mothers and children and I will name it after my mother.

And I will plant trees all around the hospital, and I will make sure that the doves always roost in the trees, so that whoever comes to my hospital will always be able to hear the far cry of doves.