I paused from digging for a gulp of air. It was dry and stale and a stranger to oxygen. The flame of the candle, giving light but devouring air, pale orange on its last desperate flicker, provided me with the company of shadows. I squatted and clenched my fists, straining to inhale. After eight uninterrupted hours of hoeing and picking, my hands had become claws, the skin cracked like old leather. I rubbed my burning eyes with the back of my hand and felt the energy drain from my body.
“Come on, Ismail,” I heard my friends urge from behind.
“You’re almost there. You can’t stop now. Soon you’ll be a
hero, for us and for all our families. Allah will be pleased.”
Their voices gave me a boost and my heart pounded with
adrenaline once more. I’d be their champion, perhaps even their leader, if I succeeded. A charge of renewed strength surged through me. I thrust the shovel upwards into the tunnel’s ceiling with all the might I had left. I scraped and dug and pulverised the earth, grunting like a wild dog.
Then, suddenly, a shaft of light pierced the darkness. It
beckoned like a prophet’s hand. I dug feverishly, kicking and punching the sand, oblivious to the rumbling and the cries of warning behind me. The ground above me opened up like in the folk tale my mother often read to me. A rush of fresh, life-giving air gushed into the tunnel. As I turned around in
triumph, awaiting my friends’ jubilant approach, expecting them to jump on top of me and smother me in squeezing embraces, like players of a football team after the winning goal had been scored, the earth shook briefly and I was alone.