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“Nurse, hand me the scalpel.”

Mumtaz scowled, wiped her dripping brow and handed her brother the letter opener she stole from her Big Mama’s trunk of of important things.

“Why do you always get to be the doctor?”

It didn’t make sense and it certainly wasn’t fair that after stealing the letter opener and killing the gecko with her own hands, even being careful not to squish it’s vital organs, Shine got to be the surgeon.

“Don’t distract me, I’m concentrating.”

If her mother was around, she would say, “Because boys are not supposed to be sissy nurses.” and that would be the end of that conversation. Thankfully, her mother was away on some mysterious errand, wearing her best dress. Big Mama was at the hospital too and all the other less significant adults in the house were away. Her father brought over their cousin Shine after school on Friday evening so he could spend the weekend with them. Mumtaz and her older sister Nawty never understood why they had to play with Shine during the weekends. He was less their cousin and more their very distant cousin. Mumtaz didn’t verbally complain about him though, because only he was up to playing what she wanted to play, things Nawty would never indulge in. But that day, under the merciless scorch of the July afternoon sun, Mumtaz was losing her patience just standing around and being the nurse. Especially because Shine didn’t have the stealth or strength to wack a pillow at the wall to kill an unsuspecting gecko.

She heard Shine tsk.

“What?”

“It’s too small. The insides are too small. We should have caught a frog.”

“I told you we should have used one of Mama’s big safety pins!”

“Let’s catch a frog!”

He’d already let the letter opener fall to the ground, as he looked up at his sister from a squatting position, squinting at the harshness of the sun’s rays. He was the most ridiculous surgeon Mumtaz ever saw. When she accompanied her Big Mama at the hospital, she saw real surgeons, ladies and even gentlemen who took babies out of mothers. And when she asked if that man was a nurse, to which her Big Mama nonchalantly nodded her head, Mumtaz was elated with a wisdom she knew her own mother did not possess.

“No. It’s too hot. I’m going inside!”

As she made her way back into their small front yard she heard Shine yell, irritation and rejection in his voice.

“You’re so black anyway, the sun has already roasted you!”

Mumtaz ignored her stupid cousin brother. He thought that if he used the kind of insults that the adults used on her, he would seem superior. It never prickled Mumtaz because she was sure of how clueless he was. If she were less thirsty, maybe she would have yelled back.

“Go back to your own house! We don’t want you here! You are not our real brother!”

But those thoughts crumbled away in the dry heat when she entered their small home and saw the clay pot lidded with a stainless steel plate. She licked her lips thinking of how cool the water was in there.

“Nawty?”

Mumtaz thought her sister was inside the house, reading as she often does on the weekends. But their weekends have changed since Nawty turned thirteen. She started to accompany her mother on trips to heaven knows where. They returned late in the evening, somehow, just before Big Mama returned from the hospital. Mumtaz took big painful gulps of the cool water as she tried to imagine where Mama and Nawty could be off to all day. She was a little jealous too.

Her meditation was grossly interrupted by a painful jab around her mouth. Shine had pushed the steel cup towards her face to wake her from her concentration, thereby gracefully sending Mumtaz into a coughing fit while she flailed her arms in an attempt to smack her brother – cousin brother.

“What the hell is wrong with you!”

A question best left unanswered, she thought as she used the sleeve of her blouse to wipe her face. So she asked a more valid question.

“Why does Dada even bring you here? Don’t you have other brothers and sisters you can play with at the Kalubowila house?”

Shine took his own cup of water and sat down cross legged on the cool cement floor, with his back to the ageing wall. He knew the answer to her question. He’d recently overheard a conversation Mumtaz’s father had with his mother. Well, the woman he thought was his mother. His new mother, the one he learned about recently, the real one apparently, was currently off with his oldest sister, somewhere, heaven knows where. Shine really enjoyed coming over to play with Mumtaz and even more now, since he found out that they were real brother and sister. She was annoying but he got to be the boss of the all games, whereas at the Kalubowila house, he had many older brothers and sisters who took turns being the boss.

Still, he liked living in the Kalubowila house. It was big and he always got food to eat and tea with biscuits in the evenings. Here on Fuzzels Lane, food was constantly sparse and as much as he enjoyed nicking his sisters’ food right off their plates, his stomach was never completely full. Never full enough to take a long nap after lunch. Worse than that, he knew that the only real nice person in this house was Big Mama. He’d seen the scars and marks on Mumtaz’ face and arms. He knows that those are what happens to any child who is at this house on the unfortunate night that either Big Papa or Mumtaz’ father comes home drunk. He’d only overheard the stories from the mouths at the Kalubowila house but when he came over one Friday evening to Fuzzels Lane and saw the gash on Mumtaz’ neck and the glowing red lines on her skinny arms, his fears were confirmed. So every Sunday evening, even though he was a little sad, he was mostly relieved to be going back home to his first mother. The one who cares for him and feeds him. The one who has never pulled a belt on him.

“You should just stay in Kalubowila where you belong.”

Maybe she was right. He certainly didn’t want to belong in Fuzzels Lane even if Mumtaz’ parents were also his parents. What did it matter anymore, his sisters would never believe it. Mumtaz would roll around on the ground, clutching her ribs with laughter if he ever told her. He decided to change the subject.

“What time are Big Papa and your Dada coming back?”

He saw his sister retreat from herself. She stood up from sitting on the kitchen chair and slinked to her Big Mama’s tiny bed, where she felt safe from this question.

“How should I know?”

She turned away from him and started to pick at something on the cream colored bed sheet. Shine realized he asked the wrong question in an innocent attempt to argue about something else. The two of them knew and somehow didn’t know that they had far too much to hurt each other with even though they were only eleven and twelve years old.

Curve, color, repeat

 

Purple. That is what I think the color of ripples are. I don’t know what purple is the way people know what purple is, neither am I familiar with blue, as water is described.But if the ripple of water must have a color, it has to be purple.

I was born from the curse of denatured alcohol, completely blind. Mama has been put away for the knots in her mind. I was also put away for the very same knots many years ago. Since then, I have tried to stay afloat.

Water caresses the thickness of my skin. When I am submerged, the cold fluid embraces the tire rings of my belly, the miles of stretch marks starting from my ass to my well cushioned carpels and all of my chins. I have never seen what I look like, yet being in water is what it’s like to those who seek rewards in mirrors.

My reflection is a bright white. White reflects all colors is the word on the street. I curve into myself, fetal position and uncurl repeatedly, but very slowly. The curve of the curves on my bones will go on curving until I am infinite. There is no trajectory as light bounces off my vessels and veins, hairs and nails, all the colors, slowly and one by one. I am the disco ball in the salty ocean. And since I have no memory of a moon or a sun, I challenge them to match my brightness.

He and his loud friends called me an old walrus when we were all 12. So here I am, I came to the ocean. I met the tide and her waves, and now there is nothing else to hear.

The ocean rumbles and belches, just like I do.

Red.

The ocean gets nervous, starts to think in strong currents, the way I do when I’m alone, and when I’m not.

Orange.

The ocean shivers and shakes and dances to songs of the winds much like the way I can’t help but try to bend, blend, bend in.

Yellow.

The ocean has a bed that goes deeper and deeper and gets softer and softer to stand on. The recesses of my mind and the tunnels in my heart, they start like hot sand and end like cold silt. A little more refined, more knowing.

Green.

The ocean has a temperament that I feel I can match because nobody can see the way I see. They only see what they see.

Blue.

The ocean is fierce on the surface, but once my ears feel the pressure of water, the mighty sea and I sigh and sigh together. We celebrate joy and loss, the subtleties together.

Indigo.

The ocean is all that is there for the ocean. I am all I have too.

Violet.

Where is the purple? It’s somewhere between indigo and violet, somewhere far from sandy shores, miles under water, between my jiggly thighs, behind my hazy cornea, somewhere ensconced in safety. It is also loud and defiant, resonating from the hairs all over my body, making the water ripple. Small ripples first, then waves. Those ripples are purple. Only the blind can see that purple.

 

~fin~

 

A sheltered hibiscus

I wasn’t trying to be perturbed by his hairy, wide pot belly, or the dirt in his nails. The image only made me feel that way. I took shelter in his cramped shop from the rain. I thought then…

I should have stayed in the rain. 

The grey skies wept and wept that morning, and I had woken too late to catch the report on the radio. I had to rush. The interview wouldn’t wait for the rain. Until the text came in while I fidgeted on the bus.

Aisha, will have to meet you at 10am, the rain is holding me up

I exhaled relief as the congested bus jerked to a stop. I had time to dry off from running to the first bus stand, and maybe find a coffee stall, if anything was functioning on such a hazardous morning, that is. But the wolves in heaven growled, then huffed, then puffed. My dupatta wasn’t pinned to the kameez material on my shoulders. Nevermind the dupatta, I felt lighter than air, ready to be blown away. So I stepped into the shop, because it looked open for business.

Why did he have to look so menacing, hungry? Why was he sweating on such a windy, wet day? He watched me step in, I know he did. He smiled too, which made the acid in my empty stomach intensify.

“Ridiculous, isn’t it, this rain? “

I nodded fast and turned to face the road so he wouldn’t think I wanted to continue with small talk, or any kind of talk, or acknowledgment.

This probably isn’t a good idea. 

If I have my back turned to him, I wouldn’t see an attack coming. I wasn’t so not street savvy. I studied most of the time, inside my two bedroom house. Turning to the side, resting my left elbow on the glass counter, I decided, was the angle at which I would not be ferociously attacked by this shirtless, fat, bald man in his dusty blue sarong. They never wear anything underneath. I shudder. From the cold and other fears.

“You are drenched, daughter. Should I get you a cloth or a towel or something? “

The cheeriness in voice escaped me, so did the concern. I only heard a rasp. I am not his daughter. Why do middle aged people want to own you by titling you as family?

“No. “

He let me by myself, quietly for some time, and retreated to the back room.

Where he could storing some kind of weapon, or some kind of chemical…

He came back out with something long and red in his hand. No, orange.

“I noticed you don’t have an umbrella or a rain coat. This is my wife’s umbrella. Use it. “

I took it.

Say thank you Aisha. 

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, daughter. I woke up late today, opened up shop late too and I forgot to turn on the radio to listen to the weather report. These days come and go. Strange, uneven days. Don’t they.”

I nod, smiling. That’s when I get a look at what he has in the glass case of his shop. He’s a baker. His fingers are covered in a sticky film of dough, that’s what he smells like too. I wish he had a shirt on though. A wife beater, at least.

“I better get back to the kitchen. The rain will stop soon and customers will come in around lunch time. People get hungry for bread during the colder seasons. You take care now. ”

“I will bring the umbrella back. “

“You can if you want. I don’t think the wife will mind if you don’t though. “

I stayed a while, until the shower ceased. He wasn’t in the front to wish him a good day. I regret not smiling a little more, not doing a little something more to show my gratitude, because I never returned the umbrella. I hope his wife isn’t upset. She must have liked the hibiscus pattern on the rim. I do too.

 

 

 

Chugging chai

The chugging slowed and stopped with a last screech. The suited mustache on the opposite bench stood up to step off the carriage, so I took his seat by the window. The distressed leather was warm from his body, but the air outside chilled the metal window pane, stiffened the black hairs on my arm before I could secure my pashmina over my head and around my shoulders. I wasn’t going to leave the spot. The surest way to travel alone is to stare out through the window until your station arrives.

I wasn’t sure what station we were at and I didn’t bother to look, much less ask. And there was the nine year old shirtless boy, selling ginger chai and biskut along the cold damp platform. It was chilly and early enough for a saucer full, maybe two. I poked my head out, a few centimeters, my drowsy sleep deprived lids folding up, eyes on the chai boy. The chai boy? Chotu? I would buy his chai and ask him his name. Not that it mattered, we may never meet again.

The sleeping man on the bench opposite mine stirs and shifts, his right arm hanging out of the window as if in a sling. I panicked for a second. Will he shift again before the train starts to move? Am I supposed to wake him up now? I look around. Just he and I in this compartment. How do I wake him? I shuffle my dupatta nervously and squirm in my seat. My journey was going smoothly until then. I can’t let this man sleep like this. How can he stand the cold morning winds cutting his bare skin? How is he so soundly asleep? When I start to recall, he’d been asleep the entire time, ever since I got on board. Four hours exactly. I clear my throat, nervously. Not helpful. I drag my shoe on the floor board. Nothing. Is he dead? No, I see his chest rise and fall. His beard is a brilliant black, thick and unkempt. His arms slightly muscular, and I could tell his eyes were large and slightly bulging from the expanse of his eye lids. A sharp nose, even a bow shaped upper lip..and then I saw his clothes. Dirt on what could be a white shirt and worn out jeans. He was dressed the part, exhausted. I began to feel sorry for him. And then.

Akka, did you want some tea? Good tea, warm warm tea. Only 10 rupees one saucer. Akka, will you take?”

I awoke, my co passenger didn’t. The chai boy was here.

“What is your name?”

“Ha?”

He didn’t understand the question.

“What is your name?”

He grins.

“Spiderman, akka.”

I smile back.

“Ey Mr.Spiderman. Will you ask this aiya if he wants some chai too?”

He nods, smile unfaltering. Spiderman taps his fingernail on the side of the train carriage.

Aiya! Will you have tea?”

Nothing.

“Is he asleep, akka?”

“Yes.”

Spiderman taps him on the arm, finally, waking him up with these words.

“Oh aiya. It is not safe to ride a train like this. Your arm will get ripped off…haha!”

The sleeping stranger was awake now. He looked at the boy, annoyed and then at me. He has stunning eyes, masked by a scary frown. His features softened when he saw me, so I adjusted the pashmina and looked away. He stood up and exited the compartment.

“Two cups chai.”

Spiderman obliged, slightly amused by his morning so far. He gave me two saucers and skipped off to the next carriage. When the sleeping stranger returned from the rest room, looking like he’d washed his face, I handed him the saucer in my right hand.

“How much do I owe you?”

His voice was cracking to wake, like sunlight through the clouds.

“Nothing.”

Why couldn’t I look at him. My eyes couldn’t handle the weight of his? It wouldn’t have hurt to look at him when he spoke to me. Would it have? He should have gone back to sleep. I should have never bought him the tea. I could look at him when he wasn’t aware.

“Thank you.”

Quiet. The train picked up and started on it’s way again, both saucers of chai were emptied and nothing more was spoken.

Burning winds

farahfilasteen:

Sebastia near Nablus, Palestine

“Careful, Samaya. You will burn the naan if you let it sit too long. Flip it now!”

Samaya flipped the flat dough in the furnace obediently and sighed. Her ammi knew all too well, how impatient her oldest child was. What the twelve year old wouldn’t give to run off and join the boys racing their bicycles in the next community. Samaya never cared that her parents would never afford a brand new bicycle. Her friends would share theirs because Samaya was almost faster than the speediest of the juvenile lot.

“You shouldn’t be playing with boys anymore, Samaya. This is not the age for that.”

“You will bleed soon, you are taking a big risk by racing with them. You will understand my words when your body begins to change.”

“You think they are your friends now, but wait and see how they look at you, how they speak to you when you have breasts, when your hips show.”

“Your father disapproves, Samaya. He will be angry if he finds out you’ve been over there again. Your father disapproves. So does your grandmother.”

Ammi didn’t really want to say all those things to her daughter, so vibrant, competitive, adventurous, living the dreams she dreamed as she slept soundlessly. She didn’t want to take away the innocence of play time, the drive to run off, keep running, running. Teaching her how to mix and knead the dough, roll it out and put it on the flame, this was tradition. Samaya understood that too. But there was always times for making naan, it was made every single day. It wasn’t every evening that the boys took their cycles out. Samaya was angry at her father, she knew it was he who choreographed this. He and her grumpy grandmother who stayed in bed all day, never lifting a finger. Ammi was an angel. She only chastised Samaya as she ran off, never before. So Samaya sacrificed an evening of cold biting winds knocking the cotton dupatta off her head and ruffling her curls as she sped down hill, weaved around potholes and made hair pin turns.

The neighborhood gossips twittered about Samaya, fashioning her out to be a whore in the making, craving the company and attention of young boys at such a fertile age. Samaya and her ammi jaan knew they were lies, words for the hens to chew on, instead of paan. Only the truth hurt Samaya, however. These four boys had already begun to look at her through different eyes. Not because Samaya was changing, but because they were. Their shoulders broadened, their hips looked narrow, their voices deepened, the hair on their faces thickened, their hands turned rough as their touched lingered.

Of course they weren’t malignant, none of them.Their bodies were only morphing, puzzling their spirits, setting the stage for new discovery. Samaya made this day about recalculation. She can decide to oppose the wishes of the snarky old woman and her son, continue seeking the rush of racing on two wheels in the face of the setting sun. Or she could realize that these days will end, and at the end she wanted to have her own bicycle. If she were to acquire one by herself, with her own earnings, no one could take her joys away from her. Not the warble of society, not the furrows of her family, not even the sense of belonging in the adjacent neighborhood. She would have a choice. She could do both. Race the chill winds in the afternoon and then snuggle beside the furnace, breathing in the smell of butter spreading on the warm naan.

She looked at ammi. Her old eyes, older hands punching the ball of dough, pulling, rolling, balling some more. Samaya turned to the pile of freshly cooked bread, broke off a piece, blew onto it and leaned over to her mother, interrupting the process.

“What-“

Ammi took the food into her mouth, felt Samaya’s long fingers cover her hand and heard a voice full of assertion.

“Don’t worry ammi. It will not burn.”

Silver lining

Anu was very good at wearing her brand new set of payal (anklets). She wore them every day, everywhere, only taking them off when she waded in the dirty lake behind her slum home, and to clean herself under the rickety plastic shower head at the communal bath. She would wrap her jewels in her dirtier clothes, place them beneath her towel, and keep an eye on the small bundle as she scrubbed.

Anu could only feel the light bounce of silver payal against the skin of her skinny ankles when she ran to school, ran back home, ran in the streets, to the shops, ran after people in the temple grounds to sell lotus flowers, ran after her toddler siblings, ran in the rain, ran and ran for the faint tinkle of a small ghungroo(a silver,often bronze bell in the shape of a flower) close to the clasp of the payal.

Anu loved the contrast of silver against the darkness of her skin, her body language hinting at the novelty, thin and draped semi loosely, as she danced alone in the cramped living room of her home. No one was there when she decided to dance, her parents were at their respective work places, her brothers asleep. If one were to look, however, one would indefinitely be dancing along to the same jumble of tunes wafting over from the neighbors’ homes.

Anu sat, sometimes, on the warping wooden deck at the shore of the lake, singing her own songs, twisting her ankles and hitting them lightly against each other, iterating the monosyllabic note to soothe her nerves. Eventually, she lies on her back in silence, placing her feet up on the deck, only tapping occasionally, drifting off to where all she had to do was twirl, hop and skip to hear the tinkle, the daintiest tinkle.