A short fiction based on a true character.
| The candle glow against the wall. The sound of yarn scraping yarn, cutting her gnarled fingers. Emptiness and simplicity were her only friends. Glancing over to the flame, her eyes blurred. Her husband had been Kareem, " God is kind". He had been kind, but God was not, to this childless woman. The hours she spent at her loom, the day's she walked through the dusty, poplar-lined village, the hours she had climbed rocky hills were all spent thinking of how it would have been to have a child. A child would have brought life to this land; a child would never have allowed her to live in that dark and ruined house. A child would have beat back the village gossip of her barrenness. |
Why had God not blessed her? Hadn't she been kind? Loyal? Honest? Hard-working? What sin had she done that she deserve such a punishment?
The weaving stopped. There in front of her was a pattern of symmetrical brightness of every color and every shape imaginable.
She got up. Her crooked back hung over the loom. She hobbled over to the wood stove. She was tired of this life, waiting to die because there was nothing left to live for. Her husband had left this world and with him her hopes for children. The world had changed. The village children had grown up and left for cities beyond; some across mountains, some across seas. Those who were left embodied what had been. Night after night they sat outside their houses at dusk to find a breeze and a gossip from unknown sources.
Putting wood in the stove to boil water for tea, she wondered what she would eat. Na'an, yoghurt and dates. She had stopped cooking when there was no one left to cook for. After supper, in the dim candlelight, she glanced over at her creation. This was hers and hers alone, for the beauty of it came from what she had felt as a young girl with a straight back running through groves of fragrant rose bushes or almond trees in anticipation of who she was going to marry and how many children she would have. She smiled smugly; she couldn't sleep until the last stitch was woven. She carefully wove her initial on the side to leave her mark on the world. Satisfied with her accomplishment, she went over to the washbasin. She poured well water from the jug sparingly and began her routine ablutions before prayers. She slowly rolled her gnarled hands one over the other with the coolness of the water. She unbuttoned her cuff and rolled up her sleeves. She used her right hand to wash her withered face in a counterclockwise direction twice. She cupped the water into her hands and placing her cupped hand against her left elbow, let the water trickle down as she wiped from elbow to wrist, turning her arm slightly to make sure she covered all the area of her thin arms. Then she repeated the same mannered motion on her right arm. She put the basin down and washed her feet in the cool water, then dipped her hand and lifted the caught water up to the crown of her head and wiped down to her forehead. Now she was ready for her night prayers. She sat on her prayer carpet with a stool in front of her facing west, for even though she was already half bent over, arthritis in her legs and back prevented her from bowing her head all the way to the ground. She started her prayer with "In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Beneficent" and ended with "Allah Akbar, God is great, Ameen,ya Rabbe al Ameen." Her voice crackled, her mouth was dry, but her eyes were wet, "I do not want to sound unthankful, dear God, but why don't you let me die? There is nothing left for me here on this earth. Yet your ways are higher than my ways. I will wait on You. Bless Kareem's soul and all those souls who have left this world. Thank you for the strength to finish the rug. God willing it will fetch a good price. Ameen."
With great pain and creaking bones, she got up slowly by clutching the stool. She took the dripping candle over to her mattress and unrolled the cover. Once settled in bed, with labored breath she blew out the candle and welcomed the lulling darkness.
At the crack of dawn, she woke up suddenly to a rooster's crow. She felt something squirm beside her. In half slumbered stupor, she imagined it was Kareem nudging her gently to wake up for morning prayers and to boil the water for morning tea as she had done for the last 60 years since she had been married. She got up in faint shadows, lit the stove and put the kettle on, washed ritualistically and prayed her two rakats, counted 33 "suponallah" 33 "alhamdullilah" and 33 "Allah akbar" . She suddenly felt a strange presence. The dim light allowed no distinction, but she felt she was not alone. She went to extinguish the stove. She remembered she hadn't made her bed and hobbled over to make it. She took the quilt up and something crashed on the floor. "Who's there?" she shouted.
There on the floor where she had fallen on the carpet below was a little girl sleeping. She had brown hair that was so curly it spiraled into perfect ringlets, ivory white skin, blood red lips, dark perfectly-formed eyebrows and long lashes that seemed would make her eyes too heavy to open. The old woman woke the girl up and through the girl's sleepy and confused look, the old woman discerned she must have been about five years old.
"What's your name, little one?"
"What's your name, darling? You can answer; I won't hurt you?"
"Where are you from?" The girl glanced across the room, and the old woman followed her glance to where her prize rug had been the night before. "Oh! My carpet! Where is my carpet? Thieves have stolen my carpet!" She shrieked and would have become hysterical if she had not looked upon the comforting countenance of the lost girl in front of her whose large calf-like eyes seemed to assure the woman all would be fine.
The old woman took the child's pudgy fingers into her gnarled ones and stared at her simple but elegant dress: a pure white cotton blouse with embroidered pink flowers lining the sleeves and collar, the black skirt embroidered with every color, and a cotton scarf displaying all colors and shapes.
By this time the sleepy sun had made its bold entrance through her tiny window and warmed the hut's walls. The little girl seemed lethargic and melancholy.
"Oh poor dear. You must be hungry."
The old woman looked futilely into her cupboards, for she knew they were empty except for a small bottle of salt and imperfectly chiseled sugar cubes she had gotten for free from the mosque. She thought how could she go out and get bread for this child without taking her along. If the people in the village saw her, they might ask so many questions. But if she left the girl in the house, perhaps her thieving parents would return, and she would never get her rug back.
The old woman reached under her bed to grab her little pouch of change carefully so as to not reveal where she hid her money to the girl. She threw on her black chahdor over her head and stooping shoulders and put an embroidered shawl around the girl's body. She took the girl by the hand and went out the door, carefully locking it as she was unaccustomed to do. Nothing had ever been stolen in their village. Everyone knew each other better than themselves, and few strangers came through their remote village.
She walked with the girl by her side to the baker's.
"Salaam, sohb beher, Agha Khan."
"Sohbe shoma beher, Zeinab Khanum. Who's the little girl?"
Hesitating, she quickly fabricated a story, "She's my great niece from far away."
"Oh, I didn't know you had relatives from afar. Her dress is traditional. What tribe does she belong to?"
"I am an old woman and forget the name easily. It's somewhere along the border."
"I didn't know you had company recently."
"They were just passing through last night and left the child to rest with me."
"May your eyes be brightened by her company. Here is your bread. I am at your service, Khanum."
Taking the hot, soft na'an with one hand, and holding the girl's hand with the other, Zeinab walked over to the dairy. After greeting and explaining the girl's presence, Zeinab bought a slab of rich, salted butter and fresh milk. Consoling herself in spending extra money, Zeinab reckoned that little girls needed such things.
"Sohb beher, Agha Raheemkhan."
"Salaam aleykum and sohb beher to you Zeinab Khanum. Who is your little friend?"
"She's my great niece visiting from the faraway border. Her family came through last night and left the poor, exhausted darling her with me to rest."
"That's strange. I didn't hear of any visitors passing through last night."
"It was very late last night. Besides, they know this village and my house, so they didn't disturb anyone."
Just then the grocer bent down towards the girl, "What's your name, little angel?"
"Well she's shy and quiet, that's for sure," he deducted and related to Zeinab, "And I think it is strange that your late husband, God rest his soul, never mentioned you had relatives on the far border."
"It's a very distant line of my family whom I had almost forgotten about. Besides where would I get such a girl? Could I steal her, or did she just fall from heaven?" The two chuckled, but for Zeinab it was a forced grin to conceal her worry about the child's origin.
The grocer, knowing that providing for the child was out of Khanum Zeinab's means, presented her with honey and plum jam, all which had been made in their village.
"Merci, thank you, Agha," Zeinab reacted to the sweet gifts.
"It is my pleasure and I am forever at your service, Khanum."
As he said this, the little girl's eyes widened in wild fright as a deer's eyes would in front of a hunter. Zeinab thought it would be best to get back to the house. As she led the girl with delicacies laden in one hand, and opening the door with some difficulty, she finally led the girl into the dim adobe house. She recalled how she and her husband had built a grand two-storey house to raise children in, but that house had been destroyed in the great earthquake. After that time they figured they were never going to have children, so they built a modest two room abode on the ground floor. In her old age she was grateful for its simplicity.
Upon opening the door, Zeinab stepped in and cautiously looked around for any sign that the thieves had come back, either for more goods or for their girl. But the house was as it had always been, dark and silent.
Zeinab set her goods on a small wood table and went about lighting the fire to boil the milk. She stirred a spoonful of honey into the milk. Then taking it off the fire, she cooled it by pouring the hot milk back and forth, in and out of two ceramic cups. The girl stood quietly by Zeinab's side as the old woman spread the fresh butter over the warm na'an and proceeded to spread the sweet and sour cherry preserves on top. Zeinab thought it strange that the girl showed no signs of eagerness for the food. Not a sound came from the girl's mouth, no sign of impatience for the food. Zeinab set the bread in front of the girl.
"Befarmayid, please eat."
The girl looked at Zeinab with a far-off glaze. Zeinab picked up the cup of milk and put it to the girl's mouth. The milk spilled onto the girl's dress.
"My, don't you even know how to eat or drink?" Her questioned was answered with silence.
The old woman lifted the cup to her own lips to show the girl how to drink and then repeated the action by putting the cup up to the girl's lips again. The girl swallowed the warm sweet milk. A smile like the sunrise spread over the girl's countenance.
"Ah, you like it! They don't have this where you come from?"
Zeinab proceeded to show the girl how to chew and swallow the bread. The girl took a cautious bite and nibbled at the bread with the butter and jam running down her chin. Zeinab got up and took a handkerchief dabbed in water to clean the girl's sticky chin. They ate and drank slowly, each savouring every morsel for different reasons, one from lack of luxury and the other from lack of life. The little girl had just eaten a few small bites when she put the bread down and her eyes brightened toward the old woman who saw it as a sign of thanks and thought how sweet the girl was without the slightest bit of vice or avarice. "How could she be the daughter of thieves?," she thought to herself.
"What should we do now little angel? First we will clean the table and dishes, and then we will sweep the floor."
With this Zeinab got up and hobbled over to the wash basin to pour water on a cloth. The little girl toddled behind her watching every move. The old woman took the cups and saucers and put them into another smaller basin next to the wash basin which she had filled with a mixture of hot and cold water. She washed the dishes and placed them upon the shelf which housed her mismatched set of cups, saucers, plates, bowls and other silverware she had acquired over the ages.
It was already nine in the morning. The old woman thought whether she should report her missing carpet or the girl or not. She decided to wait, for waiting was a good Muslim virtue as mentioned in The Holy Quran.
She looked at the girl's clothes and thought she should make an extra set for her. She looked through her chests to find any used or unused fabric to make a dress out of. When she turned around to look at the girl again, she saw there was a wet puddle under the little girl's feet.
"Why, child, no one has taught you to use the toilet?"
Feeling the stress of the old woman's raised voice, tears streamed down the little girl's face, and she lifted her pudgy hand to feel their wetness with a puzzled look as if she had never fallen victim to tears before.
The old woman went over to the girl, bent down and kissed her tears, and wiped them with a tattered handkerchief.
"No need to cry little angel. I'm not mad at you," and as she said that, she felt her own tears welling up inside and a tightening of her throat. How long had it been since she had cried! She hadn't even cried at her husband's funeral. They were old, and it had been an expected event. At that moment she felt human with emotions that had lain dormant for many years. "Oh, what a giddy old fool," she thought,"She's probably my carpet theives' daughter; that's why she doesn't know or can't do anything."
She held the little girl for a moment until the crying stopped. She then rummaged in the chest for makeshift shorts for the girl to change into. She got a basin of water and scrubbed the spot where the girl had urinated with soapy water three times to cleanse the spot and make it clean enough to be prayed upon. After cleaning up, she got out her comb and combed the girl's hair back into soft, curly locks which had already become tangled and frizzy from the morning's events.
She went back to sewing shorts and a dress for the girl while continuing her conversation, "Oh these hands aren't what they used to be," showing the girl her coarse, gnarled fingers, "If only I were your age and knew what I know now."
Just then there was a bold knock at the door. Standing up slowly and hobbling over to the door, she cried "Who is it?"
"It's me Fatima Khanum. Sister Zeinab, why have you locked your door in such odd fashion today?"
As Zeinab opened the door, she had to tell her old friend part of her secret but not all of it, "I thought you were the thieves coming back for something!"
"Last night some thieves came and stole my beautiful handicraft, but I didn't report it."
"I was busy with my great niece."
"What a precious child. I didn't know you had a great niece. What's her name?"
"It's, um, it's.."
"You can't remember the child's name?"
"I'm an old woman, you mind. Let me think....it's Atiyeh, yes, Atiyeh, God's gift."
"Well, I think it's strange that her family just left their gift here in the middle of the night."
"They had some difficulties, and I found a chance to help. I don't mind watching her."
As the two women continued their lengthy conversations, the little girl fell asleep on the embroidered quilt on the bed in the center of the room. Zeinab noticed the sleeping child and both women exclaimed, "Bechareh, poor thing is exhausted."
The two women thought it best to let her sleep as they wanted to walk down to Agha Ahmed's cloth shop. She locked the door on the way out to keep the girl in and theives out. On their way they greeted the old men and women sitting outside their homes and under the shades of the trees hoping futilely to find wanderlust breezes. Agha Ahmed and his wife were also outside, and they were surprised by the announcement that Zeinab wanted to buy a small piece of material, preferably a flowery print of bright colors.
"Are you making a new prayer robe, Khanum?"
"She's making a dress for her great niece who's come from the far border," replied Fatima Khanum who, like the other village women, had the art of knowing others' events better than the person herself and could spread the story faster than the telegraph.
"May your eyes be brightened Zeinab Khanum. Here is the perfect material for you. If you don't have the money now, you can pay later."
"She can't pay much. Her carpet was stolen by thieves in the night."
"Thieves? I haven't heard of strangers in these parts."
"What if it wasn't the work of strangers?"
"God forbid Khanum that anyone in this village would do such a thing."
"Yes, God forbid, but the world has changed from when we were green."
"God have mercy upon us. Yes, it has changed for the worst I fear. But we must find out who did this horrible deed and duly punish him." With this last word, he showed the rich blue floral print to the two women who bargained on it, and having put it on credit, Agha Ahmed wrapped it in paper and handed it to Zeinab. Zeinab bid Fatima Khanum farewell as their abodes were on opposite sides of the town.
Zeinab went back along the same narrow, dusty path and greeted the same wrinkled brows of her neighbors. As she opened the creaky wooden door of her home, she saw that the child was still sleeping. She went over and measured the girl's height and started cutting her material when the child woke up. The child seemed more at home as she got up and helped herself to the morning's leftover bread. Zeinab got up to fetch her a bowl of lentil soup that had been simmering on the stove all day.
The girl consumed the bowl's contents and upon finishing went to wash her dish in the manner she had seen the Khanum do earlier. She went to the toilet as the Khanum had taught her, and washed her hands and arms and feet the way Khanum had also taught her. She came back to find Zeinab busy at making the dress.
Dusk settled; Zeinab was exhausted but extremely pleased with all she had accomplished in one day. She stopped sewing to light two candles. She showed Atiyeh how to make shadows flicker against the wall and used shadows to tell a story, one that her parents had told her night after night.
"All the animals in the forest met to decide who was the most beautiful and who was the ugliest. The bear came with his glossy fur and stood upright and claimed he was the most beautiful, but the consensus was that he was the strongest and furriest," she said as she put her two hands together to make a big bear. "The wolf came and said because of his sleek fur, he had to be the most beautiful, but the consensus was that he was the most feared." Zeinab switched from bear, to wolf, to deer. "A timid voice rang out from under the shaking leaves of the bush and a deer said 'With my spotted coat, I am the most beautiful,' but the animals agreed the deer was the most timid." With that Zeinab changed from deer to rabbit with two long ears, "I am the most beautiful with my fur as white as snow, pink nose and floppy ears,' but although they all agreed rabbit had the softest fur and was quite fast when chased, they didn't think she deserved the title of most beautiful. With that, they decided to first vote on who the ugliest was. The consensus was that the ugliest was a hairy caterpillar. This verdict made the caterpillar sad to the point of wrapping himself up in a cocoon, not to face the scorn of the other animals. The animals argued over who was the most beautiful day in and day out until one day while they were arguing, the cocoon in which the caterpillar had locked himself up into tore at the seams. All the animals bent down closer to have another look and when they did 'flap flap' a creature unlike the caterpillar flew towards the light, and as it did, it spread its wings so as the light shone the mixture of blue, orange and yellow colors of its wings." Zeinab had clasped her two hands together and made them look like the flapping wings of the butterfly. "And they all agreed that this new creature was far more beautiful than anything they had ever seen. So you see,my child, that nothing is ever as it seems. We should never make quick judgements. And until this day, the butterfly is shy just as its ancestor the caterpillar was, so it puts its wings together to keep you from seeing its beauty."
The girl seemed to be listening intently, and Zeinab, wondering if the girl was deaf and mute, got up and took a small bell from the cupboard. She rang it behind her back and the girl turned her head to the bell. Zeinab was elated that the girl could hear, for that meant the hope of learning to speak. Zeinab held the girl and lulled her to sleep with lullabies and stories of the past.
But those were only stories whose protagonists had long left this life.
"What day is it tomorrow," Zeinab said in the habit of talking to herself, "Joomeh, Friday. We must go to the mosque." With this, she got up to say her evening prayers, and in her personal prayers, her duas, she added, "Thank you God for the angel you have sent this way. Your ways are mightier and you allow good to come from evil as you allow day to come out of the night." She got up laboriously, for the day had been long and eventful. She locked the doors, tucked the girl into bed, got into bed on the other side, and blew out the candles with a plea for God to keep her safe the night through.
At the sound of the village crier announcing dawn, Zeinab rose from her bed quickly; so did the girl. Zeinab washed and said her morning prayers with the girl behind her, imitating her every move. The old woman lit the stove and put the kettle of water and a pan of milk to boil. Atiyeh got the bread, butter, jam as well as the spoons, cups and saucers from the middle shelf. The girl ate heartily on her own, and after breakfast Zeinab busied herself with the last stitches of the new dress while Atiyeh did the rest of the morning chores.
Zeinab was impressed and praised the girl, "Mashallah, little one. What a good helper you are! Bless you child."
At ten o'clock, as noon prayers were approaching, Zeinab pulled the big wash basin out from under her bed, and poured the boiled water in the basin. She went outside to the pump well in her small garden and pumped more water to add to the basin, so the child could have a good bath. After adjusting the temperature of the bath water, Zeinab helped he girl to get undressed, and she stood back a step in shock when she noticed the birthmark between the girl's bare shoulder blades. It looked like the Persian letter "ze" which looks like a comma with a dot above it. It was the same as the her initial she had woven into her carpet the night before last!
She put this discovery aside as a coincidence, and coaxed the girl into the bath with bubbles made from the bar of soap. The girl laughed without sound and allowed the old woman to scrub her soft skin. After the bath, Zeinab put the new clothes on the girl and combed her tresses. She completed the ensemble with the floral prayer robe on top her head but opening in the front. She put on her own prayer robe, took the girl's chubby fingers and walked out into the heat of the merciless sun. A light wind blew dust in their faces and they covered their faces with their prayer robes as they followed the sounds of the muezzin.
There were stares and whispers when they walked into the ladies' praying section of the mosque but the gossip stopped with the call to prayer from the prayer leader. Zeinab found an empty spot they could occupy, and Atiyeh followed her lead. After prayers Zeinab answered the buzz of questions with the same stories she had told the day before. Every woman wanted more information about the girl and the thieves, but Zeinab swore she had told them all that she knew. They were invited to lunch from several more determined gossipers who wanted more information from the original source, but Zeinab declined with the excuse that the girl was recovering from exhaustion and needed rest.
On the way home, the girl was delighted by the birds flying back and forth between the trees. Zeinab pointed to everything and said the word slowly in hopes that the child would learn to speak soon.
That day before sunset, Zeinab took the girl for a short walk up the mountains to show her the view of the village below. She had not hiked these hills in years, but the child's innocence had prompted her to show her all the beauty of this country and of the setting sun. The child gave her strength to climb. From the top, they could see the sun setting in the distance like a ball of fire sending hues of blue, orange and pink for endless miles of clear dusty skies. A wolf howled in the distance, and a strong wind blew the trees below in its same forced direction. Zeinab hoped the girl could stay until next spring to see the rose festival and the making of their village's famous rose water and rose oil. And she hoped the girl would be there for Nowruz. Zeinab decided she would buy the child a toy and lots of sweets, but she would have to weave a new carpet to help with this new expense. However, God would provide.
In the last flickers so sunlight, the two climbed down and went back to the house. Zeinab warmed the soup and showed the girl how to break pieces of bread into the bowl so as to soak up the broth of the soup. After this simple meal, Zeinab and Atiyeh said their evening prayers. Zeinab sent a special prayer for her husband's soul. She wished he had been there to see this girl. He would have liked her and would have taken the girl on his daily rounds of the farm and his circuit of friends; he would have kept sweets in the house for her. She readied for bed with a sense of peace in her heart. With the child, she felt complete. She felt a sense of duty and worth she hadn't felt in years. Before bed, she told Atiyeh about her husband.
He had been the son of a landlord, but he loved the land so much, he married her, the lowest of the peasants. In those days, the landlord would marry their sons to peasants or slaves to see if they could produce offspring; then they would marry them off to a noble woman once it was clear the man was virile. But her husband had not produced offspring, and he had told her that he didn't want to marry any one else. His happiness came from God and the land, not from children and wealth. One year on the most auspicious night of Ramadan, he died in his sleep, and the villagers that had been awake claimed they saw pure light of his soul rising up to the heavens till it became a new star.
Zeinab had talked so much, she hadn't noticed that the girl had fallen asleep wearing her new blue floral print dress. Zeinab put the blanket over her and kissed her good night. Zeinab herself felt tired but reminiscent, enjoying retelling her life's experiences. She climbed into bed, blew out the candle, and brought the quilt up to her chin, for there in the semi-desert it was as cold at night as it had been hot in the daytime.
The next day, no one saw Zeinab or the little girl buying bread in the village, so Agha Alikhan called upon Fatima Khanum to go check on them. The door was locked from the inside, but no one answered her loud inquiries. Fatema Khanum got the village men together, and they managed to open the door with force. They found that Zeinab Khanum had passed away peacefully in her sleep of natural causes. They started calling and looking for the girl, but were astonished to find on the bed next to the old woman a handwoven carpet of rich blue floral design with the Persian letter "ze" on it.