Serenity Beckons by Mahesh Gopalan

Second place honours in the short story category, Mensa Canada 2017 Literary Contest

The relentless airstrikes during the summer of 2015 were considered, by several observers and pundits, to be the most ruthless since the commencement of hostilities. This particular bombardment however marked a new low by all moral standards, striking at the densely populated sections of Aleppo, flattening the concrete structures that once housed a thriving community that lived their prosaic lives, as generations before them had done.

A few hours after the dust had settled, the first responders were left with the agonizing task of locating survivors, a task now becoming all too frequent, sifting delicately amongst the rubble. Just when it appeared that no soul was fortunate enough to make it out of this calamity alive, the exhausted cries of a little girl raised their hopes and provided them enough reason to rummage through the rubble with renewed vigor. The cries in question belonged to four year old Alia, pulled out with a grotesquely contorted arm along with shrapnel lodged in both eyes, but fortunate to be a survivor. The fallen concrete blocks were not too forgiving to her parents and twin sister who lay motionless nearby, turning them into mere statistics in the bloody Syrian war.

The doctors that attended to her were immensely surprised she survived the ordeal, but in the same breath revealed their pessimism about the likelihood of her never being able to see again. That day was two years back.

In June of this year however, with the parched desert winds blowing across the dusty landscape, Amanda, the Red Cross worker from Canada was finalizing all the necessary papers to bring Alia and a few other similar orphans of circumstances, over to their new country. Alia’s radiant face couldn’t conceal the trepidation of her feelings on how her future would pan out. But with no place to call home or any immediate family around and peace elusive on the horizon, Syria had become a perilous predatory place for a young child.

The empty darkness, both literally and figuratively, was now part of Alia’s life. Nonetheless, her keen sense of hearing lets her envisage the world around her. She listened to the bits of conversations in a strange tongue, as Amanda called her family…

“…Mom’s gonna be home in a few days, Bud…I have your toy camel with me…”

“…We’ll drive down to Ottawa…You liked it there the last time, right?? This time the fireworks will be even grander…Do you know why??”

A few words from the other side…

“…Exactly…It’s a milestone!! A proud moment for our country…”

And then “Bud, I’m bringing along someone special to meet you…She’s six too and she’ll be a good friend to you…” Even though Alia could not quite comprehend what was being said, her instincts told her Amanda was feeling upbeat and excited; and by studying the tone of her voice was going to see that Alia would be too.
Early one afternoon a few days later, Alia let out a terrified scream when, without any forewarning, the four massive engines of the jet they were seated in, started thundering in synchronism. This day would mark her first experience of flight. In some ways to Alia it brought back chilling memories of the air campaigns raining death and destruction from the skies. Now as the aircraft took off, it was leaving behind the place she once called home and which was being transformed, not for the better, in real-time down below – the liberal Syria of millennia passing into the annals of history. She clutched Amanda’s warm hands and never let go till the journey ended, on the diametrically opposite side of the globe.

A multi-hued dawn was playing artist, splashing myriad colors on the eastern skies of Ottawa. It was the first day of a new month of July and Canada was waking up young and fresh, on its long awaited 150th birthday. The sleepy-eyed passengers were now being escorted out to begin their new lives, being greeted by member volunteers of the YMCA and Lifeline Syria. A pensive Alia, oblivious to the happenings around her, had very mixed feelings as she took in the surreal transformations a few hours of travel had manifested – the peace and positivity, the fresh clean crisp air, the warmth and friendliness, the goodwill of people towards strangers from a foreign land…Unquestionably to Alia, it seemed like she had descended into another magical world.

A cheerful volunteer placed the Red Maple leaved flag in her quivering hands. Alia may have lost her sense of sight, but like many she will soon realize, that this symbol of freedom would give her the vision to see the vast potential ahead of her – just as it had been proudly doing so, for countless fellow persecuted souls ahead of her, for the last 150 years exactly to this day.