In the Orchard, the Swallows

In the Orchard, the Swallows

by Peter Hobbs

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Overview

This tale of innocence and corruption in Pakistan is “a beautiful, often painful, journey of a young man’s doomed yearning for love” (The Guardian).

During a village wedding in Pakistan, a boy risks speaking to the beautiful daughter of a powerful local politician. As night falls, the two meet in his father’s orchard, inadvertently falling asleep as they wait for the light of dawn to reveal the orchard’s beauty, naive to the dangers posed by their innocent mistake. As first light approaches, and the girl’s father realizes the young couple’s mutual attraction, he has the boy sent to prison without explanation or the benefit of a trial. Fifteen years later, the boy—now a man—is released without a word. Bereft of family and weakened from years of abuse, he collapses on the side of the road and is taken in by a kindly scholar. As time passes, the man recovers enough to take daily walks to his father’s now abandoned orchard, where he last saw his young beloved among the trees, beneath soaring, fluttering swallows . . . In clear, crystalline prose, this novel reveals the ability of the human spirit to conquer the random cruelties of life, and how the power of love and hope, once known, can never truly be extinguished.

“Hobbs’ prose is spare, clean, and lyrical, giving In the Orchard, the Swallows a timeless feeling; however, the markers of the Afghan war and the changes in the landscape remind the reader that this story is very contemporary.”—Booklist

“A perfectly cut jewel of a book.”—The Financial Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609451837
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 02/04/2014
Pages: 137
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.46(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Peter Hobbs grew up in Cornwall and Yorkshire, England. His debut novel, The Short Day Dying, won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Whitebread First Novel Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His collection of short stories, I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train, was published in 2006.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE ORCHARD

It is cold, despite the woollen shawl I have borrowed from Abbas. Beneath its weight my flesh is too sparse, the skin stretched tightly over bones. I have been climbing for a long time — it was dark when I left — but I cannot walk quickly enough to get the heat to rise in my blood. My shivering grows violent and my teeth rattle uncontrollably, the sound echoing in my head. The cold causes my neck to ache and my jaw to stiffen.

The air, though, is blissful and clear. It brings the ragged mountains close, chisels their details finely to my eye. The peaks are yellow in the early sun. Later, the sunlight will climb down from the mountains and descend this road into the valley below, restoring the colours that were lost to the pale washed night.

This walk exhausts me still. I am close to staggering when I arrive, my legs almost gone beneath me. After all the years away they have not readjusted to the mountains, and I can feel every step of the climb still in them. My breath comes heavily.

In the rose dawn light I greet the trees. Trace with my eyes their untidy forms. I imagined them for so long, summoning them up in the darkness when they were lost to me, and each morning now it is an acute pleasure to return to them. They are in blossom, their branches arrayed in scarlet and white.

To one side, as I circle the orchard, is the corn field. The crop has begun to emerge from the earth, ragged lines of green forming against the dark soil. I wonder if it will grow as tall as I remember it. I move around the furthest edge of the trees, following the low stone border until I reach its end, beside the largest tree. Here, I will wait. I press my palm against its bark, then turn to rest my back against it as I ease to the ground. My sandals slide forwards, and the feel of the cold dust on my feet is extraordinary; it runs as smoothly as water over my skin. Among the folds of my shawl I find the paper bag I have brought, and I take some of yesterday's bread from it, nibbling slowly at its edge.

The birds have woken and there are swallows in the orchard, carving arcing paths between the trees. Below them a fine layer of mist clings to the ground. Pomegranates are hardy plants, and the trees are showing little damage from the winter frosts, though they are growing wild and have not been pruned for some time, or else the pruning has been done inexpertly. The trees are growing old, and the orchard has not been renewed as it should; no new cuttings have been taken and planted. Still, they grow vigorously. Sprouting roots have been left unchecked, blurring what were once carefully trained trees into the wild bushes they long to be. The fruit will suffer for it. If I had the tools I would be tempted to tend to them, but they are no longer my own trees to tend. It is better that I do not touch them.

From where I sit I am able to look down over the valley. Can follow the thread of the road, cutting down the mountainside along its dusty ridge. At its far end, not yet visible in the light, is the town, your old home. There, at least, the market will still be waking into life. Here, all is peaceful.

I gather my breath. I try to imagine the weakness in my legs bleeding out into the dirt, being replaced by some vitality which ekes from the tree into my back. I wait as long as I am able, until the sun has found the road above and the skyline begins to glow bright, the mountain-tops white and blinding. The light will reach me soon. But I cannot stay to see it. In a few moments, before the evidence of life begins to show in the small house through the trees, before the farmer comes to his orchard and finds me here, I will stand and brush the sand from my shalwar, stretch once again to ease the aches in my muscles and joints, and begin the slow journey home.

CHAPTER 2

ABBAS

I see I have written home, though the home I am staying in is not my own. It belongs to a man named Abbas. I am not sure how to describe him for you. He is not family, and yet I cannot call him my landlord, because I do not pay him any rent. If I said that he was my saviour, it would not be an exaggeration, but I will come to that story in time, and so for the moment I will simply say that he is my host.

His house is larger than the one I grew up in. It sits on the edge of a small village, some distance north and west of town, a few miles from the orchard. From the road it looks small, the simple sandy wall suggesting nothing more than a farmer's cottage. But the impression is deceptive, and the building is more extensive than it appears. Inside there are bedrooms for both Abbas and his daughter, Alifa. She is ten, the same age my youngest sister was when I last saw her, though it is clear I am some way yet from earning the right to be treated as a brother. I am patient in my efforts. There is a kitchen, and then beside that another small room which seems once to have been a larder, but which has been given over to me, a bed brought in and placed against the cool mud of the wall. And there is a study, its walls lined with books, its floor thick with overlapping carpets. Abbas spends much of the days there, when he is home, reading or writing. The house is filled with plants. Everywhere there are flashes of green. I can taste them in the air. The carpets and furniture throughout are simple, but clearly of a finer quality than I am accustomed to.

Behind the home is a walled garden, with a small terrace. There is a table, and two chairs, and beside them a tall electric fan, its green paint half given over to rust. I have not seen it in use, and do not think it has been working for some time, but it looks at home nonetheless, as though it has been forgotten, and in the process has gradually achieved the status of somehow belonging there, becoming its own ornament. But the garden, too, I will tell you about in time.

I remember waking here on my first day, lying on a charpoy, feeling the rough cords of the bed beneath my back softened by sheets. A doctor stood at my bedside. I did not know where I was. The walls of the strange larder seemed to slant in above me, though I realised later that it was just my dizziness. I felt a terrible weakness in my body, a buzzing in my arms and legs as though they were filled with insects. I was dressed in a shalwar kameez several sizes too large — though when Abbas tells the story, he has it that it was I who was several sizes too small.

He must have paid for the doctor to come, though he will not speak of the cost, when I ask him. The doctor listened briefly to my story and asked about my symptoms. I was so dehydrated I could hardly speak. When they tried to give me water my body would not keep it down. He left for me two plastic bottles of an oily, salted liquid to drink when I could. And he gave me pills, antibiotics, sour lozenges the size and shape of almonds. Even as it knew how much I needed them, my body tried to reject them, as it purged almost everything from it in those days. I wonder if there was something in me that did not want to return from illness. Something that preferred to remain latched closely to it, resigned to circle down into the darkness, to be consumed.

Before he left the doctor massaged my limbs, a tight circled grip travelling along them.

'It will help the circulation,' he said.

His hands fitted completely around my thin arms, my emaciated legs.

When he had gone Abbas came into the room, and I tried to stand, respectful before my elder, but I was not able to, and collapsed into darkness. That is all I remember of my first day here. I woke once more, and from the coolness knew that it was night. I drank some water, and finally kept down the doctor's pills, and then I slept. I slept for days, lost to monstrous, appalling dreams.

So I did not meet my host for a long time, and it was a full week before the fever subsided and my head cleared enough to properly speak with him. He came in through the door as I was trying to get out of bed, though my head and limbs swam with sickness. He must have heard me moving. He introduced himself, and I gave him my name.

'You mentioned many names in your sleep,' he said, with a smile. 'And not one of them your own.'

I wondered what I had said, of whom I had spoken. Did I say your name? I have kept it secret for so long. I tried to remember, but I knew nothing of the night that had gone. I tried again to rise.

'No,' he said. 'You must lie back. Rest a while. Here, there is water beside you.'

He approached, but saw me flinch in response, and stepped back. The instinct is not easily lost. Abbas must have seen that I did not trust him, and I wonder what he read in it then. Perhaps only confusion.

'I want to thank you,' I said, after I had taken some water. 'For your hospitality. But I have to go.'

'You are not at all well enough,' he said.

'I cannot stay,' I said, and flinched again as he came closer, but I was too weak to protest, and I allowed him to ease my shoulders against the bed once more. I have learned in the hardest manner possible to read the intentions of others, and I understood, finally, that he did not mean me harm.

'Of course you must,' he said. 'You will stay until you are stronger. You need far more rest than you have had. I cannot let you leave in such a state.'

And so I did not leave, and in the end I have stayed with him a long time. How fortunate I am to have found him! Or, it would be truer to say, how fortunate I was to have been found by him. I will not forget my good fortune, and I will repay him for his expenses, for the medical bills, as I will repay all of his kindnesses to me, as soon as I am able.

CHAPTER 3

HOMECOMING

The first time I came here it was not to visit the orchard, merely to return to what I thought was my home. I came one afternoon early in the year, perhaps three weeks after that first day with Abbas. He did not think me well enough to travel, but I was impatient to see my family, and I came as soon as I was able to walk. I did not walk the whole distance. Abbas helped me along as far as the end of the village, and we waited there for a car to come by. He flagged it down, and spoke for a moment to the driver, whom he seemed to know, then waved me over and opened the door for me. He sought reassurance several times that I knew where I was going, but of course I knew the way. He made me promise to return if I did not find what I was looking for. Before I left, he handed me a bottle of water for the journey.

The car took me most of the way up the hill, and when the driver indicated that this was as far as he was going, I stepped out, and walked the last stretch myself. I knew as soon as I arrived that my family was gone. There was the state of the orchard, for one thing: my father would not have allowed it to decline in this way. But I did not see that until later. No, it was something else, some change in the air as I approached. How do I explain it? There were few outward changes to the house, and yet the place had a feeling of unfamiliarity to it. I felt a small stone of panic in my stomach. I thought for a moment that it might just be the years I had been away, but something still made me hold back from approaching. I stood in the road and did not know what to do. In the years away, I had worn out every dream of homecoming, exhausted every fantasy of return. It was my home. Until now, it had not occurred to me that they might be gone. But I saw the house and knew at once that it was true.

I retreated a little way down the road. I found a place in the shade to sit. I cannot squat any more, my knee no longer bends as required. I waited, my head dipping towards my chest, my attention given over for a while to the rise and fall of nausea.

I waited a long time, more patient than I had imagined I would be. I sipped slowly from the water bottle Abbas had given me, until it was down to its last drops. Eventually a young man emerged from the door, a woman appearing behind him briefly. They spoke a short while. I did not know them. And then the man left. He did not go to the orchard, but struck out along the road. He walked quickly, as though he were late for something. He saw me, and stared a moment, but he did not come to greet me or ask me who I was. I stayed sitting, and I waited, I am not sure for what. To be welcomed home, returned from the dead. To be recognised, or to see someone I knew. My sisters, my mother, my father. I waited a long time.

I did not see my family. But some people I recognised. Vaguely, across the years. I stood, at one point, to greet a neighbour, a man my father had known. I had waited beside them once, many years ago, an impatient child while they talked. Yet as I took a step towards him, he changed instantly the angle of his path, turning his head from me, continuing on his way. He did not look back. A little later two women passed by, pulling up their veils as they went to cover their faces. They lowered their gazes to the floor. People kept their distance, and would not meet my eye. Only a group of children appeared, a little later, and watched, but they did not show the curiosity we would once have shown, and they did not approach. I felt terribly despondent after this encounter. It is a terrible thing to return home after so long and to be so unwelcome. I retreated from that place, defeated. I thought I was being shunned. I thought that my crimes had been remembered, that those ancient actions still held enough power to leave me an outcast.

Abbas does not think so. Having nowhere else to go, I retreated to his house. The bed was still made for me, and there was food in the kitchen. He sat with me while I ate. I was exhausted from the day, had overexerted myself. It was just rice with dal, but I could barely keep the food down. It seemed to stick in my throat, and my stomach recoiled from it.

I was very upset as I told him what had happened.

'Are you sure you were recognised?' he asked. 'Perhaps they did not look at you long enough to know you. You have been gone too many years and you must have changed greatly. Look how gaunt you are — like a refugee from the war. Your beard! And your paleness: you could be Tajik, or Uzbek, some wild-eyed young man come stumbling across the border. Things are not how they once were. Sometimes those men come, and it is better not to ask who they are, or where they have come from.'

The more time passes the more I am sure Abbas is right. I have begun to see the evidence. The war has changed everything. In my parents' time they would not have treated strangers in this way. They would have invited them in to rest, would have offered them chai and food, if they seemed hungry. It is melmastia, the hospitality our people are known for, the tradition that lives strongly in men such as Abbas. In the mountain passes, the border is fluid and unmarked, and is crossed at will by traders and smugglers, their goods piled high on trains of mules. There were the soldiers, too, who wandered over from Afghanistan for respite from the war, ageing mujahideen warriors who came and stood together in the marketplace, leaning on their rifles. Sometimes they brought fragments of lapis lazuli to sell, and dealers would come from Peshawar, or even Rawalpindi, to bargain over the stones. I remember they looked ancient, some of those soldiers, as old as my grandparents, as though they should be too old to trek in the mountains and fight.

'People are afraid of strangers now,' Abbas said.

'When you found me, I was a stranger, but you were not afraid.'

'I do not wish to damage your pride,' he said, 'but I must tell you, you were not particularly terrifying. Our only topic of discussion was which of our houses was closer, so that you might not die while we carried you there.'

While we talked, Alifa had lingered at the door, a little resentful, no doubt, that I had returned. She is a sweet child, but quite transparent, and given to moodiness. Even I could see that she was annoyed at ceasing to be the centre of attention again. And to have to give ground to such a broken figure, at that. She is used to having her father to herself. She came closer, and began to tug at her father's elbow, until finally, tiring of her attentions, he gestured her gently away.

'Where is her mother?' I asked.

'She died, two years ago.'

'I am so sorry,' I said.

He sighed. 'We had Alifa very late. We wanted more children, but she was ill for so long. It was not possible.'

He left the room briefly and returned from his study with a small framed photograph of his wife. I held the picture briefly before returning it respectfully to his hand.

'She is at peace,' he said.

We sat in silence a while until I felt I could speak.

'Forgive me, Abbas. I do not even know what you do.'

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "In the Orchard, the Swallows"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Peter Hobbs.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Hobbs writes with clarity and purity” — The Daily Telegraph
 
“Beautifully crafted, tender and very, very moving” — The Daily Mail
 
“The story is equally a testament to the endurance of love, loyalty and hope.” — The Independent
 
“This is simple yet breathtaking storytelling.” — The Globe and Mail
 
“A beautiful, often painful, journey of a young man's doomed yearning for love ... I immensely enjoyed this fine novel.” – The Guardian

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