Soul Adventures

Some of the mortar comes loose when Gezim sits down on the ledge of a dried-up water well in the courtyard of the Patriarchal Monastery of Peć. He pushes his sunglasses over his head to keep his brown, curly locks out of his eyes. With the roar of the clear water of the Peć Bistrica River not far away, he looks up and sees that the overhanging tree branches have already begun their deciduous duties.

A gust of wind sweeps down from the mountains behind the monastery, rustling the leaves on the lawn. Gezim zips up his black skiing jacket and silently thanks god for the invention of fleece inner lining. He rubs his hands over his thighs, interlocks his fingers to save some of the heat. Eyes watering from the cold air, he puts on his sunglasses again. The ledge cracks further, splitting the stone wall underneath Gezim’s seventy-five kilograms, but all he feels is the cold wind on his face, and all he hears is the howling wind that picks up and carries his girlfriend’s voice as she exits the monastery.

Majlinda and Gezim have been in an on-off relationship for almost two years, but things have been steady for at least five months now. She is a professional photographer on assignment in Kosovo for the Albanian magazine, Soul Adventures. When she asked Gezim if he would like to join her, he didn’t hesitate to request four years’ accrued annual leave at the IT company he manages in Tirana. They have been on the road for more than a month.

Majlinda exchanges a few pleasantries with a heavy-set monk, who is sweeping up autumn leaves into a pile on the paving near the front entrance. She points to the camera around her neck and explains what she is doing here, asks for permission to take a few photos of him going about his chores. The monk doesn’t like this idea: he shakes his head, puts the broom against the wall, and walks towards one of the church’s side entrances. His shadow looks like an extension of his long, black robes over the uneven paving stones. With his back to her, Majlinda takes the snap as he enters. She checks the image on the digital screen, looks over to where Gezim sits, and gives him the thumbs up: ‘great shot’.

Gezim points at his watch. “You have to meet the guide in half-an-hour. What’s his name again?”

“Aleks. Just a few more pics.”

“All right. Just a reminder – as you requested.”

“Thanks.” Majlinda is already down on one knee, pointing the lens upwards. She gets in a few shots of the cross on the highest dome against the crisp blue sky. The trees in yellows and oranges on the mountains behind the dark red exterior of the monastery create the perfect background. “Two minutes, honey. The light is perfect this time of the morning.”

“Okay. It’s your assignment.” Gezim zooms in on the map on his smartphone:

Kosovo

Peć District

City of Peć

Patriarchal Monastery of Peć (you are here)

Tourist Information Centre

Rugova Valley/Canyon

“There you are, you beauty,” he says to himself and runs a finger over the yellow line that is the M9, which will take them into the heart of the canyon. He closes the map and opens the photos folder.

Might as well go through these and delete all the duds. Majlinda’s two minutes could easily turn into twenty.

He opens the folder named Mirusha Park. The couple spent a few days there last week. The first few pictures are of them in a cave called the Great Church. Gezim flinches at the photo. His acne has flared up again over the last six weeks, and his face looks like a red lollipop compared to his girlfriend’s, whose only blemish is a Cindy Crawford-like beauty spot. Her hair is slightly lighter than his, but straight. She looks tiny next to his lanky frame, but then again, he is slightly over two metres tall.

Gezim decides to keep only the photos of Majlinda in the cave and the ones where his face is hidden – a dive off the cliffs into one of the karst lakes, and a few of the couple swimming or splashing about in some of the park’s numerous waterfalls.

“Hey, Gezim, look at this!”

Her boyfriend looks up and sees that a fairly strong whirlwind has picked up the pile of leaves near the entrance. Majlinda stands in the middle of the twirling debris, recording it. She lets out a shriek of excitement as the leaves whack against her khaki camouflage trousers and ski jacket. The wind picks up great speed and moves towards the side entrance, slowly dragging her with it.

“You might want to step out of it now, Maj. It’s quite strong.”

“No way. This is magic,” she replies.

Gezim watches as the whirling leaves close in, almost covering her. Concerned, he gets up and takes a few steps forward. The sudden shift of weight causes the well wall to give a final crack. It crumbles and collapses in on itself. Gezim doesn’t hear or see this; he is sprinting towards Majlinda whose initial shouts of fascination with the whirlwind has transmuted into cries of horror.

The dry leaf stems slash at any part of exposed skin. She lets go of the camera and holds up her hands in front of her face for protection. Within a second they, too, are covered in hundreds of tiny cuts.

“Maj!”

Drunk with confusion and dust clouding her vision, Majlinda reaches out with one hand in the direction she thinks Gezim’s voice is coming from.

“Maj, Maj, Maj.” Now the voice is behind her.

“Maj, Maj.” To her left.

“Maj.” From somewhere above.

She turns around, twists her ankle on a loose paving stone, and falls. She hits the ground face first at an awkward, sideways angle. Her vision doubles when Gezim picks her up holds and her in his arms. Over his shoulder, Majlinda sees the whirlwind moving across the lawn until it reaches the old well, its wall above the ground whole again. Here the leaves take on a female shape. Majlinda blinks. The wind dies down and scatters the leaves.

“Jesus. Are you all right?” Gezim asks. “You are hurt. Let’s get you to the car.”

Majlinda groans a response.

“Come.”

*

Gezim stands in front of Majlinda, who sits on the open tailgate of Soul Adventures’ SUV. She fidgets with the first-aid kit strap while he cleans up her face.

“There. Almost done.”

“It stings.”

“Good. It should.” He takes a clean ball of cotton wool and soaks it in rubbing alcohol.

“Ah!”

“Hold still. It’s the grazing where you hit the ground. That’s going to leave a mark.”

“Great.”

He applies some antiseptic cream and tapes a square piece of gauze over the wound. “Give me your hands.”

“I’ll do it on the way to the tourist centre. We’re late.”

Gezim takes a step back. “What was that back there?”

“That was me being a fool, Gezim. Don’t mess with nature. Lesson learned.” Her bottom lip trembles. Majlinda doesn’t want to mention the voices, and she certainly doesn’t want to talk about the leaf-shaped woman. Having been diagnosed as a schizophrenic shortly after her twenty-second birthday five years ago, treatment has been a long and painful road. “I need a moment. Turn the vehicle around. I’ll meet you at the gate.”

“What about your ankle? You’re limping.”

“I’m fine. Those anti-inflammatories are starting to kick in already.”

Gezim reaches into his pocket and takes out a granola bar. “Want some?”

“No, thanks.”

“Okay.”

She grabs a bottle of drinking water from the back of the truck and hobbles away, reaches inside her jacket and unzips one of the pockets. Double-checking that Gezim can’t see her, she takes out two red-and-black capsules and swallows them with a swig of water.

*

“Hi, Aleks. This Majlinda from Soul Adventures. I’m supposed to have met you twenty minutes ago … Yes, we’re fine. We had a minor incident. Yes, we’re on the way. Really? Oh. Seems to be one of those days, huh? Do you need a hand? Are you sure? Okay. Give me a call if something else comes up. Great. Thank you. See you at twelve.”

“What did he say?”

“He’ll be a couple of hours late – car trouble.”

“That works in our favour. Would you like a bite to eat?”

“Yes, I … erm—” Majlinda’s voice trails off. Her body grows cold with anxiety when she realises that she took her medication on an empty stomach. Not only that, she took it after taking the anti-inflammatories.

“Maj, Maj, Maj.”

She looks at Gezim who hasn’t spoken – he is still waiting for a response from her. It feels and sounds as if she is in the whirlwind again. The voices come from all directions.

“Maj, Maj, Maj.”

“Maj, Maj.”

“Maj!”

She snaps out of it. Gezim has one hand on her leg. “Maj, are you all right? Let’s get you to a doctor. You might be concussed.”

“No.” Too loud – a guilty ‘no’ because … They could take a blood sample or you’ll have to fill in some form and tell what medication you’re on and then Gezim will know that you’re a fucking schizo and leave you. Forever. “Sorry, I was just thinking about my mother.” A lie she’s told to so many different people since her diagnosis; a convenient lie – because nothing packs a punch like grief for a dead mother.

The look on Gezim’s face is one of sympathy. He nods slowly. “I understand. If you change your mind, there’s a clinic on the edge of town.”

“Maybe after we meet with the guide,” she replies. “I think I’m just exhausted.”

“There.” Gezim points to a sign over a small building next to a petrol station. “The Rugova Valley Steakhou—.”

Maj, Maj, Maj. Who is this fucking dickhead you’re going out with, heh? If he is so concerned about your health, then why the hell doesn’t he insist on taking you to the doctor.

“I’m starving,” Gezim says.

Starving? Starving! Are you fucking kidding me? Maj, this guy is a complete fuckup. And what was that shit at the monastery with the granola bar? Only a shrug of the shoulders and an ‘okay’ when you declined a piece. Really? It sounded to me like an ‘okay, more for me, motherfucker.’

“This is just what the doctor ordered.” Gezim pulls into the parking lot.

Ha! See? ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’ My fucking god. All he thinks about is himself and his stomach. Poor, poor boy. Get out of this relationship, and fast, Maj.

“Shut up!” Majlinda shouts.

It is fortunate that the parking area is almost vacant because Gezim gets a fright and jerks the steering wheel. He brakes hard and almost drives into two touring motorcycles near the entrance.

“What did I say?” Gezim asks, lips pallid.

Majlinda grabs her camera and rushes inside because she is embarrassed. Also, she thinks that if she eats soon enough, it will lessen the effects of medication on her psyche. Physically, she knows this is out of the question because the stomach cramps start when she pulls open the restaurant door.

Gezim parks up next to the bikes. He sits for a moment and drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “Jesus. It always starts like this,” he whispers to himself. “First, she gets annoyed at me for no reason, and she refuses to give me one. She stops speaking to me for days, weeks – ignores my calls, forces me to break up with her. A few weeks down the track she calls ‘I’m sorry.’ This time I’m not going to rush back to her and ask what’s wrong. I will ignore the situation until she is ready to speak.”

He gets out and hangs around outside a few minutes longer, to give Majlinda some time to settle down. He can feel her eyes on his back, but he doesn’t turn around. Usually he loses his temper in these situations – rushes into it like an angry bull towards a matador. Not this time. Let her think about it. Gezim hunches and inspects the bikes’ engines, takes a few pictures.

The motorcycle riders walk out of the restaurant as Gezim gets up. They are two women dressed in matching, white riding outfits with neon green lettering over their chests: I Ride for Jesus. Each of them is carrying a helmet in one hand – one black and one orange; both helmets are decorated with crosses and the words ‘Team Jesus’.

“Hey, are you Gezim?” one of them asks. “I’m Amanda. This is Beth. Do you speak English?” They are American.

“Yes. Hi. I’m Gezim. How do you know?”

“Better get in there,” Beth says. “We were just leaving when the girl you’re with ran past, clutching her stomach. Amanda went into the bathroom to check up on her, but she’s asking for you.”

“She is vomiting,” Amanda says. “And she looks pretty beat up,” she adds.

“Are you guys okay? Can we help in any way?” Beth asks.

Gezim doesn’t fail to recognise the suspicion in her voice. “Thank you for your concern,” he says. “Ride safely.”

“Yeah. Hey, do you know of the famous monastery is near here.”

“Sure. It’s down the road on your left.”

“Cool.”

The restaurant is empty, except for a waiter who’s polishing cutlery next to the serving bay. Gezim says hello and heads for the restroom. “I’ll be back.” The waiter nods and continues with his task.

Gezim knocks but doesn’t wait for a reply. Out of breath Majlinda is leaning on the counter. She has just rinsed her face. The yellow-stained gauze has come off and is on the side of the basin.

Gezim closes the tap and pulls out a handful of paper towels from the dispenser. “Here. Wipe your face.” His manner is brash. “You okay?”

Majlinda nods and looks at him. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me,” she lies.

He doesn’t acknowledge her apology. “You are concussed. Cancel your meeting with Aleks. You can meet with him later. We’re heading back into town. You need to see a doctor.”

“Okay. But you should eat something first,” she replies. “Believe it or not, I’m hungry, too.”

“Let’s go.”

Gezim orders a steak and fries, and Majlinda a sandwich. They don’t speak for several minutes before she raises her glass of water to break the ice. “To us.” Those two words disarm Gezim, who smiles and thinks, I think she’s really sorry. Perhaps this will work out in the end. He raises his can of Coke. “To love.”

Majlinda, who is still cramping up a little, is relieved that the voices are gone. But she knows that complacency is the enemy; she knows they will return. As long it’s not within the next couple of weeks. I love this man across from me.

She quickly texts Aleks and cancels their meeting. The reply is almost instant. “Aleks won’t be able to make it anyway, Gezim,” she says. “He will only get his car back tomorrow.”

“Everything works out in the end,” Gezim says. “We’ll go to the doctor and book into a nice hotel in town. I can do with a sauna. It’s on me.”

“Good idea. And no, it’s on Soul Adventures. Stuff these budget places we’ve been staying at. The magazine can afford to fork out a few extra bucks once in a while.” Majlinda exchanges her phone for her camera. “The article on Kosovo is going to be a cracker. Believe me.”

“I believe you.”

Majlinda is about to go through the photos of the monastery when the food arrives. The waiter trips over something and almost drops the plates. “Shit!” Then: “Apologies.”

“It’s okay.” Gezim leans across. “What’s that?”

The waiter picks up a black book. “Here.” He doesn’t hide his annoyance when he puts it on the table.

“That’s not ours,” Majlinda says.

“Then whose is it?”

“Hey, watch your tone,” Gezim says.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

Gezim doesn’t want to hear it: “It must belong to the bikers who just left.”

“Bikers?” the waiter asks.

“Yes, The bikers. Two women.”

“I didn’t see any bikers, Gezim,” Majlinda says.

“Amanda and Beth. The Americans. Amanda went to check up on you when you were sick in the bathroom.”

“No one checked up on me. I was alone until you came in.”

“Sir, you are our first customers today.” He decides not to pursue the matter. “Enjoy your meal.”

“What the fuck?”

“Gezim?”

“No, really, Majlinda. What the actual fuck? Are you in on the joke?”

Joke? Who are these American bikers?”

“We’re leaving,” Gezim announces. He takes out his wallet and throws some cash on the table. “Take your sandwich. I know where they are.”

“Who?”

“The bikers. They’re at the monastery.”

“Gezim, please.”

“You’re fucking with me.” Gezim grabs both Majlinda’s wrists. The menace in his eyes scares her.

“You’re hurting me.”

“You hurt me all the time, Majlinda. Let’s call this payback.”

“Gez—”

He pulls her closer and takes her sandwich with his free hand, shoves it into her mouth. “Shut the fuck up and get into the truck, Majlinda, before I lose my temper.”

*

“There. See?” Gezim points out the motorcycles parked on the lawn in front of the monastery. “Who’s crazy now?”

Majlinda doesn’t answer. She’s just read the inscription on the title page of the bible: To Maj. Always carry Him in your heart. Love, Amanda and Beth. She closes the book.

“Maj, Maj, Maj.”

“Maj, Maj.”

 “Maj.”

“Gezim, turn around. I have a bad feeling about this.”

“No.”

“Something terrible is going to happen, Gezim.” She opens the bible and holds it up for him to read the inscription. “Read it!”

“Okay. The Holy Bible. New International Version. Contains the Old Test—”

“Impossible.” Majlinda runs her fingers over the thin paper. “It was right there.”

“Ha! So, now you’re seeing things. I’m not falling for that one, Majlinda. You’re just afraid I’ll prove you wrong.” He pulls up the handbrake and gets out. “Come now, Maj. Don’t be shy.” He slams the door and walks around the front of the vehicle, opens the door and gestures for her to get out. “After you, Madam.”

“Your behaviour is nothing short of juvenile, Gezim.”

“You don’t have to worry about that for much longer, Majlinda. When we’re done here, we’re done. I’ve had it with your bullshit.”

“It was over when you grabbed me at the restaurant, Gezim.”

“Whatever. Come. Please.”

Majlinda hangs her camera around her neck and gets out. She limps behind Gezim, who picks up the pace when he spots the bikers near the well. They’re sitting on the ledge, Amanda sketching the monastery, and Beth having a cigarette.

“Hey, guys,” Beth says when she sees them. “How are you feeling, Maj. Maj? Maj?

Majlinda freezes. “Impossible. You?

“You know these people?” Gezim wants to know. He looks down at the bible in his hands and shakes his head. “Wow. The lengths you’ll go through to embarrass me.”

Amanda: Maj, Maj. Welcome. Finally we meet in the flesh.

Beth: Maj, Maj, Maj. We are here to help you.

Majlinda moves a couple of paces away from Gezim. To do what?

Amanda: To get rid of this dickhead. We’ve always helped you.

Beth: You’ve never done this on your own.

“You’re not real,” Majlinda says.

“Listen to yourself, Majlinda. You’re mental. They’re real, all right. Check this out.” Gezim throws the bible underarm to Beth, who catches it.

“See. There. Mystery solved.”

“Gezim, can I talk to you for a second?” Beth asks. She flicks the cigarette into the well. “You’re getting worked up.”

“Do you blame me?”

“Please give me a chance to at least explain what’s going on. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

“You’re right.” He gives Majlinda a scolding look, “I’ve lost the last two years of my life.” He follows Beth to the mulberry tree trunk a few metres away.

Ah, Majlinda thinks, Beth has always been the voice of reason.

“You got it, Maj,” Amanda says. “And I have always been the more emotional one. We can talk now. Gezim won’t be able to hear us.”

“What about me, then? Who am I?”

“You are a very complex and beautiful soul, Maj. But neither Beth nor I can even begin to unravel who you are. That is for you to discover.”

“Why are you and Beth a part of me?”

“As you know, your psychiatrist calls us auditory hallucinations, but that is not what we are anymore. The drugs you take are supposed to keep us away. It has had the opposite effect. All those times we didn’t disturb you? We were getting stronger.”

“This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why not? People who are mentally healthy can also have auditory hallucinations. How often do you see people talking to themselves?”

“Quite often, but that doesn’t mean they’re hearing voices.”

“And you know this for a fact?”

Majlinda takes a breath and lets that thought sink in. She watches where Gezim leans against the mulberry tree trunk, hypnotised by Beth’s deep and mournful voice. She talks to him in an invented language he cannot understand, yet he sometimes nods when Beth’s vocal tone rises, and when it sounds like she is angry and accusing him of something, he shakes his head.

Amanda continues: “We are a part of you just like Gezim over there has multiple parts. You are whole, and he is whole, but you still have to be made up from different parts. Take your camera, for example. Break the lens, and then what have you got? Throw away the memory card, and then what? Beth and I are only two tiny parts of you.”

“How did you come to … be?”

“See this old water well? The remains of a dead woman are at the bottom. She was murdered here.”

“The leaf woman?”

“Yes. Her real name is Aleks.”

Majlinda feels faint. Amanda takes the sketchbook off her lap and puts it on the ground. She holds out a hand for Majlinda to hold onto.

“Sit down, honey.”

Majlinda takes her hand, which is as cold as steel. She sits down. “Aleks? The guide? I’ve been conversing with a … with a spirit all this time?”

“Yes. From Day One when you were making arrangements from your office in Albania. It was Aleks who told you to visit the monastery in the first place.”

“What does she want?”

“She wants to leave this place. She’s been trapped in there for a few hundred years, and the only way is for her soul to leave the well is to trade places with someone. This morning she almost took Gezim, but he got up just in time to rush to your aid.”

“But I saw her shape outside the well.”

“She is everywhere at the monastery, but she cannot leave until someone else dies in the well. But to get back to your question regarding our existence, something powerful happened here this morning. Turn on your camera and watch the recording of the whirlwind.”

Majlinda finds the recording and presses PLAY. She flinches at the sound of her own voice: “Hey, Gezim, look at this!” The leaves twirl around her and she lets out a scream of enthusiasm. When the wind picks up, Gezim tells her to step out, but she refuses.

“Pause it,” Amanda instructs. “Okay. You can’t see it from this angle, but Gezim has gotten up. The water well wall he was sitting on just collapsed – Aleks almost had him. But now she’s pissed because you distracted Gezim. See what happens next. Play it.”

“But we’re sitting on the wall now.” There is concern in Majlinda’s voice. She looks over her shoulder into the darkness and shivers. She wants to get up, but Amanda puts a hand on hers.

“Just play it, hon. Aleks isn’t after you.”

On the recording the leaves that hit Majlinda across the face have merged into a dark shape, like thick, matted hair dripping with slime, its long and filthy fingernails clawing at Majlinda’s exposed skin.

“Jesus.”

“You can say that again. Aleks was one pissed off ghost.”

The video stops when Majlinda falls, the lens pointing in the direction of the well where ‘leaf woman’ took shape and the rubble started building itself up again.

“And that’s how we came to be,” Amanda says with a shrug. “I don’t know how. It was like a dream – suddenly Beth and I are having steaks and a Greek salad dressed in these ridiculous Jesus suits.”

“And Aleks communicated with you?”

“Yes.”

“Now what?” Majlinda asks.

“That is up to you, Majlinda. You can carry on the way you carry on, or you can push Gezim into the well.”

Majlinda’s phone vibrates in her pocket. She takes it out and reads the message from Aleks: “What happens at the monastery stays at the monastery.”

*

Two couples are exploring a cave on the edge of the Rugova Canyon. They have just had a swim in a natural pool formed by the Lumbardhi River a few kilometres into the valley. One of them, a young woman in her early twenties, is taking pictures with her phone when it vibrates.

“Shit,” she says.

“What is it?”

“It’s the guide from Gezim Adventures. He just messaged to say his car broke down. We have to meet him at the Patriarchal Monastery of Peć.”

 

The End

Aliah’s Alien

Out of the four people at the dinner table in the Loralai (Authentic Cuisine from Pakistan), it is Waseem who picks up on the micro-expression that flashes across Aliah’s face when her husband, Kashif, announces that she is pregnant. The change in expression was so fast, Waseem doubts she realised there was something there. But he saw it, and whatever it had been, it pierced his heart.

Kashif leans over and takes Aliah’s hand. “I love you,” he whispers. There are tears in both their eyes. He smiles and kisses her on the head. She turns away from him, exposing a white gold and emerald stud in her ear and a smaller, matching one in her nose. She looks down shyly and blushes.

There is a droning sound in Waseem’s ears as he watches, blankly, the colours of the floral and leaf embroidery on Aliah’s maroon banarsi shirt. The colours dance in the condensation on the jug of water. In his peripheral vision, she adjusts her dupatta over her chest and shoulders, the emerald green finishing of the silk reflected in Waseem’s eyes.

Is the child really Kashif’s, Aliah? And what if it is mine? We’ve only fucked twice, but still…

Now he wonders if he really did see a change in his lover’s face. Maybe it was just a trick the candlelight played on my eyes, he thinks. When Waseem gets the call seven months later at 4:18 on a Wednesday morning, he will know that what he saw on Aliah’s face was genuine.

Waseem uses his famous broad smile, teeth white and strong, as a diversion to get a sideways glance at his wife, Zakin, to see if she’s noticed anything in Aliah’s countenance. He can’t tell because Zakin’s eyes are bigger and darker than black olives, and she covers her mouth and nose in surprise at the news of the pregnancy. Zakin lets out a shrill shriek of jubilation that startles the other diners in the Loralai.

The waiter, a young pimple-faced white man, runs over from another table he is serving.  “Is everything all right?” he addresses Kashif in a Texas drawl, and then looks at Waseem.

“Typical sister-fucker, male-chauvinist pig,” Zakin curses in Urdu. “Why does he talk to the men only? Was it not I who yelped from joy? Can he not see that there are two women present?” She slams her hand hard on the table to drive her point across.

Resting her chin on one hand, her white gold wedding ring digging into her skin,  Aliah looks down into her stew and picks at a sliced carrot between the fatty chunks of lamb.

*

After dinner Kashif will hold the door for his wife of twelve years to get into his new BMW, which is subsidised by NASA; Aliah will click her tongue and slam the door shut, ripping the door handle from her husband’s grasp. She will use a fingernail to dig out a piece of lamb that got stuck between the gap in her front teeth, and flick it against the glove compartment, while he will take a moment to inspect the damage to his fingertips and take in a few lungs-full of polluted Washington DC air. He will also count to twenty as he walks around the back of the car. When he gets in, Kashif will sigh and give her a sad smile; Aliah will lose her shit and shout at him: “Why do you always insist on inviting those two when you have ‘good news’? Two weeks ago you took them to the theatre because you got a promotion. What? Are the four of us going to see Frozen on Ice next Sunday because you just had your beard trimmed?”

They will drive home in silence, Kashif with one hand on the steering wheel, stroking his thick moustache with the other. He will blame her foul mood on the pregnancy – the hormones, and he will promise himself that he will not get upset, that these sudden mood swings are to be expected; he will promise himself that he will be patient, and he will take care of his wife and the child in her womb no matter what obstacles are in his way. Kashif will smile at this because he will think of it as a test, just like his Christian friend at NASA, Eddie Jones always says: “All the hardships in life are the Lord Jesus’s way of making us stronger.”

And by Allah, if a boy from Balochistan in northeastern Pakistan can make it as an astrophysicist at NASA, then I can get through these nine months, Kashif will say to himself. Everything will be all right.

How wrong he will be.

When they get home, Aliah will storm up the stairs and slam the second-floor bedroom door of their apartment so hard, the handmade Moroccan arabic calligraphy vase (a wedding gift from Waseem and Zakin) will wobble from side-to-side a few times on its ceramic stand before smashing on the newly-laid blue and grey marble mosaic tiles in the foyer. Kashif will buzz the cleaning lady to clean up and reheat his doggy bag. He will drink glass after glass of Scotch from the plastic Sprite bottle he hides behind the detergents underneath the sink. Aliah will lock the bedroom door and ‘rearrange’ her wardrobe until 4:00 in the morning, and Kashif will fall asleep on the leather sofa, in his underpants and with a curry stain on his vest, in front of the TiVo.

*

Zakin shoos the waiter away and tells him in English: “Leave. You have spoiled this joyous occasion. Don’t expect a tip.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” His voice is as hard as the Kurnoo bread crust in the middle of the table.

Waseem breaks off a piece and dips it in his curry, raising his brow for Zakin to cool it. She ignores him and turns her attention back to the couple in front of her. “I am so happy for you,” she says in Urdu. “You have been trying and trying and trying. What was it? Ten years? And now, finally!”

“I am not pregnant,” Aliah says coldly. She gets up, wipes her mouth, and throws the napkin into her bowl of stew. “I have to go to the bathroom.” She picks up her turquoise leather handbag, throws it over her shoulder, and storms off.

“Shall I go with you, dear?” Zakin calls after her, but she doesn’t get an answer. Zakin looks back at Kashif, her eyes wider than before. “Is she all right?”

Kashif pushes his plate away. “I don’t know what’s going on. Aliah can be difficult, but this is beyond me. We went for the ultrasound. The doctor confirmed that she is three months’ pregnant.”

“Three months already. Why do you only tell us now?” Zakin is too loud again.

Waseem scratches the bald patch on his head out of frustration.

“Because, Zakin, I only found out two days ago,” Kashif replies.

Waseem leans forward. “Kashif, what is going on? You say she’s pregnant, she says she’s not.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Kashif sits back in his chair, immediately regretting those words. He adjusts his red necktie and dusts off something invisible on his dinner jacket sleeve.

“No, of course not—”

“Gentlemen,” Zakin interrupts, her speech all business-like. “I understand perfectly well what’s going on here. Female intuition tells me that, after trying for so long to be with child, the news must’ve been overwhelming. She kept it a secret for as long as she could – for as long as she felt comfortable with it, and then she told you, Kashif. And when the female body goes through such a drastic change—”

“Enough, Zakin. You’re making it up,” Waseem snaps, “We, too, are childless. You have no idea what you are talking about. Do not make this about you.”

“Sister-fucker! Excuse me, Kashif.” Zakin gets up and walks out of the restaurant.

“Shit!” Waseem holds his head in his hands. “I have to go,” he says through his teeth.

“Don’t bother. I’ll take a cab,” Zakin shouts over her shoulder, and then bumps into the Texan waiter who holds the door for her to exit the restaurant. “Asshole!”

The look on Waseem’s face says it is of no use, but he decides to go after her anyway. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Kashif. How much do I owe you for dinner?” He reaches for his wallet.

“No, please.” Kashif holds up both hands. “It’s on me. I invited you, and you barely had anything to eat. It’s all just a misunderstanding. These things happen. Go to your wife. She needs you.”

“Nothing would’ve happened had it only been you and I.”

“Perhaps.”

Waseem starts jogging after Zakin. “I’ll get the tip.” He slips the waiter a twenty dollar note on his way out. “Apologies.”

In the ladies’ room Aliah uses her red lipstick to write a message on the smoked-glass mirror:

THERE IS AN ALIEN INSIDE OF ME

*

Kashif wakes to the smell of tea, toast, and ripe mango. He sits up on the sofa and rubs his head. He had one Scotch too many. When he looks up, he sees Aliah, who is still dressed in pink pyjamas and a loose, white robe, walking towards him with the tray of food. She is barefoot, toenails newly-painted olive green.

Looks like my wife is back from the land of the dread, he says to himself.

“Sleep well?” she asks, leaning forward to put the tray down. Her Listerine breath stings his eyes.

“Not too bad.” A sore muscle in his lower back tells him he’s lying. “You?” He rubs his eyes and looks up at her.

“Why are you staring at my breasts, Kashif?” She folds her arms. “Do you like them all swollen up like this? If you want them bigger why don’t you just say so and pay for me to get a boob-job? It’s not as if this body belongs to me anymore, anyway.”

“What are you talking about, Aliah?” Kashif wonders if he is still asleep, if this is part of a nightmare. “What is the matter? Please, talk to me. Is it something I’ve done?”

“Ha! Is it something you’ve done? Of course it is, my beloved husband. Of course it is.”

“Then tell me what.”

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“Let’s see if you can figure it out within the next six months.”

“Why are you like this? Before last night we have not once quarrelled.”

She frowns. “So?”

“So, what?”

“Do you want me to go for the boob operation or not?”

“You’re impossible. I would never ask you to do something like that. You know this. What has gotten into you?”

“Pretending to rub your eyes while you have a tittie-browse. How mature,” she huffs. “God, you make me sick.”

Kashif loses his temper and jumps up. “I was not staring. Okay? I was not staring. You are my wife. I respect you. Why don’t you respect me?” He realises that he is standing too close to her, and that his finger in her face is not helping matters. Also, she might smell the whisky on his breath. He sinks back into the sofa. “I was sitting down, like I am now, and you were standing up. Where did you expect me to look?”

“Into my eyes, Kashif. Into my eyes.”

“What? Am I not allowed to appreciate the body of my wife?”

“So you were staring?”

“God.”

“And to answer your question: no, you will neither appreciate this body nor will you lay a hand on it. There is a child growing inside of me.”

“Oh, so now you are pregnant. Last night you weren’t. Can you just listen to yourself for a second, Aliah?”

“Can you just shut up and eat your toast? It will help for your hangover.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Do you want to know what is ridiculous? Do you want to know who I find ridiculous? You and Waseem and his stupid smile and his bozo wife, Zakin – the three of you gossiping behind my back at Loralai’s.”

“We weren’t gossiping.”

“Liar. I heard that big mouth Zakin go off on one again. I’ve had it with those two. I don’t want you to see them again, and I certainly don’t want them around my baby anymore.”

“Please, let us not do this, Aliah. Whatever I have done to deserve this, I apologise. Please. Forgive me. I need you and the baby.” He reaches out for her hand but she is already on her way to draw the blinds.

Goddamnit, Aliah.

“If you really want to know, I didn’t sleep much at all last night,” she says, “I …erm … rearranged my entire wardrobe. I think it’s time to get rid of a few things, seeing as how I’m going to be twice the size in a few months’ time. You know?” She sounds normal again, as if she’s truly inviting conversation.

Kashif now speaks in a calm voice, “Honey, you don’t have to give things away. I’m sure you’ll fit into your clothes after you’ve given birth.”

“Oh, what do you know?” She changes the subject in a low voice as she opens the blinds, “Lovely day for suicide.”

“What?”

“I said it’s a lovely day. Like paradise. Are you deaf?”

Kashif looks away in disgust. An evil thought crosses his mind: If we were in Pakistan right now, I would probably punish her. Dear God, how I would punish her. He picks up the cup of tea with a shaky hand and takes a sip, as if he can swallow the wickedness.

She sees the hatred in his eyes flaring up when she claps her hands for him to hurry up. He spills hot tea over his crotch.

“Ah!”

She smiles: “I have a few things to take care of today, so I would like for you to eat up and get ready for work ASAP. I need to take a shower before I go. There are two people living in this apartment, you know.”

Three. And you should rest. Where are you going, Aliah?”

No answer. “God knows why you bought an apartment with only one bathroom, Kashif. Dick move of the century. Go on, eat your breakfast and get out of here.”

“I’m not hungry.” Kashif walks upstairs to have a shower. He tries to masturbate to make himself feel better, but he can’t  get an erection. He lets the shampoo run into his eyes.

I will not let her see me cry.

How wrong he is.

Downstairs, Aliah picks up her phone and googles the contact number for the Georgetown Flea Market.

*

Within the next three months, things spiral out of control. It starts that afternoon when Kashif gets a phone call from Zakin (who received a tip-off from a friend of a friend) to ask him if he knows that Aliah is selling all of her clothes at the Georgetown Flea Market.

“Silk banarsis, Gagra cholis, dupattas, different styles of shalwar kameez – even shoes and jewelry,” Zakin announces in her usual, high-pitched voice, “All at a discount pri—”

Kashif hangs up. “Eddie, I have to leave. Something’s come up.”

“Everything all right, my brother-from-another-mother?” Jones asks.

“It’s my wife.”

“Go, man. Is she sick?”

CKind of, yes,”

“I’ll cover for you.”

“Thanks.”

Kashif cannot find parking for at least thirty minutes. When he eventually arrives at the market, everyone is packing up. Through the hustle and bustle he can’t find his wife. He asks a man who’s selling antique chess boards: “Excuse me, have you seen the woman who sells clothing here?”

“Yeah, man. She left about an hour ago. Made an absolute killing – everything sold out within two hours.”

*

Kashif is not surprised to find the bedroom door locked again. He knocks softly but doesn’t get a response.

“Aliah? Are you in there?”

“Where else would I be, Kashif?”

“At the Georgetown Flea Market, perhaps?”

Silence.

“What do you want?”

“Can I talk to you? Can’t we have a normal discussion? Please?”

“Not right now. I’m exhausted. The baby needs rest.”

“Have you eaten?”

“Good night, Kashif.”

He rests his head against the door. There’s no light coming from the bedroom – there’s no light because his wife has rolled up a damp bathing towel to plug the gap between door and floor. She stands naked by an open window, smoking cigarette after cigarette. If Kashif could see through the door, he would notice that the love of his life has covered her entire body in camo face paint, except for her lips; they are painted blood-red, and a single red rose is cello-taped over her vagina.

*

During the coming weeks Aliah walks around aimlessly in her pink pyjamas. She allows the cleaning lady in only to do the dishes, to tidy up Kashif’s mess around the sofa, and to iron his work clothes. Aliah does the rest of the chores to keep her mind occupied – to not think about the alien invader inside of her.

Fucking Kashif and Waseem. Putting their things inside of me, and now look at me. It feels like one of them’s never pulled it out, and it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger. How did I let this happen? Did they not realise the consequences? Now this thing inside of me has to come out of a hole this big. She forms a circle with her thumb and forefinger, holds it up into the light, and makes it smaller. And what about my little flower down there? It will be ruined for life!

She also tries taking up playing the oud again, but she can’t concentrate and the strings hurt her fingertips. She lives off instant noodles. When she hangs up the washing on the rooftop garden, she spends entire afternoons there, lying on her back and smoking twenty cigarettes, one after the other. Sometimes she stands against the mesh fencing and looks down at the people who look like ants. How easy it would be to get a pair wire cutters and make the jump, she thinks.

Kashif and Eddie Jones are in and out of Washington for work – New York, Cape Canaveral, Canada, France – which suits Kashif, whose promise to himself to be patient that night after dinner at the Loralai has gone to shit. If she doesn’t speak to me, I will not speak to her. He phones while he is away. Their conversations are dull and short:

“How are you feeling?”

“Good.”

“And the baby?”

“Good.”

“Are you eating well?”

“Yes. Are you crying Kashif?”

“No.”

“It sounds like you’re crying.”

“I’m not.”

“Okay. Good night.”

“….”

“Kashif?”

“Good night, Aliah.”

It is also during this time that Waseem starts texting again. Aliah snorts with laughter when she reads, ‘…maybe we should be honest and have this discussion with Kashif. It won’t be easy – he is my best friend, after all, but it’s eating me up inside.’

“Oh, now you want to talk? Fucking coward,” she whispers and destroys the SIM card.

In the first week during the sixth month of her pregnancy, the obstetrician calls Kashif.

“Have you changed clinics? Is everything okay at home?”

“No, Doctor. I would have informed you if we had.”

“Then why are you guys not keeping your appointments? Your wife keeps postponing. She has missed three out of four – the fourth one being today at 13:45.”

“We’ll be there.” Kashif checks the time – 11:30 – and drops the phone on the desk with a thud.

“You okay, buddy?” Jones asks.

“No. I have been an idiot for believing my wife’s lies. All the ultrasound pictures on the fridge – they’re not real. That is not our child. ‘It’s a boy’ she said a few weeks ago with tears in her eyes, and she hugged me for the first time in months. Kissed me on the cheek. But it was all an act – I bet she doesn’t even know the baby’s sex because she has been skipping her appointments. Idiot! Why didn’t I insist on going with her? She’s made these fake appointments on days you and I have been out of town. Why didn’t I just check with the clinic? Fuck! I cannot trust her anymore.”

“That’s rough.” Jones doesn’t know what else to say. His tunnel-visioned, Christian mind cannot understand why Aliah would behave this way. The words ‘ mental issues’ don’t exist in his vocabulary. You are either a Christian or you are not, and to Jones, his colleague’s wife’s behaviour is simply not the Christian way.

A baby is a gift from God – each of the four times Mindy was pregnant was a happy time. The church was supportive, and Mindy and I had made so many new friends during those times. Goddamn motherfucking Muslims. You can’t change the way they think. They get what they deserve.

“That’s a tough one, buddy,” he says and smiles inwardly while formulating his next sentences: “Do you think she could be seeing someone else? I mean, it sounds to me as if she’s hiding something.”

Jones doesn’t have to say ‘Do you think the child is yours?’ He is thrilled when the blood drains from Kashif’s face – Kashif, the man whose once-tidy, full head of hair has been going grey and thin over the last couple of months; his thick beard unkempt, the ingrown hairs causing angry sores over his throat; the drink taking him, his jowls drooping, and the skin going leathery under his eyes and over his hands. But Jones cannot read Kashif’s thoughts.

In his mind’s eye, Kashif is back in his village in northeastern Pakistan. He is on his knees, one hand on the back of Aliah’s neck, forcing her face into the shallow, muddy water of the river that passes by. He spits on his other hand, lifts her sari, and pushes into her. He feels around for the baby. ‘If you don’t want this baby, I will raise it myself.’

“I have to go,” Kashif says. He packs his briefcase and walks out of the office. When he presses the lift button to go down, Jones presses ‘send’ and forwards his ‘concerns’ about Kashif’s sub-standard work and drinking problem to their line manager.

It doesn’t matter. When Kashif said he had to go, he meant that he had no intention of returning.

*

“Hey, man! Leave her alone!” a bald onlooker shouts at Kashif from the fourth floor of the George Washington Apartments. The man is leaning out the window, shaking his fist. “Don’t make me come down there!” Other people on the pavement move out the way; it’s just another domestic, and they don’t want to get involved.

Kashif is dragging Aliah by the arm towards his car. She is barefoot, and the white robe (now off-white) has slipped over her shoulders. The top button of the pink pyjama top popped during the struggle to get her out of the bedroom and into the lift, and one of her breasts is hanging out. But Aliah is not struggling anymore – the instant noodles and cigarettes have done the damage.

“Let me go of my arm, Kashif. I will get in by myself.”

Kashif tightens his grip over her wrist that is as thin as his nine-iron shaft. “I don’t trust you,” he hisses and spits on the pavement. He forces her into the back seat and straps her in. As soon as he closes the door, she tries to open it, but he has already pressed the button on the key to activate Child Mode. He gets in and speeds off, checks the time on the dashboard – 13:25.

“Where are you taking me?”

“There is a bag on the floor. I bought you some new clothes, and there is some make up in the side pocket. Get dressed.” Kashif reaches into his suit jacket and takes out the ultrasound pictures, tosses them one-by-one over his shoulder. “A boy, huh?”

“Kashif … Kashif, Kashif … Kashif,” is all she gets out between her sobs. She wants to say:

‘I do not want this baby. I do not feel close to it. I want someone to cut me open and take it out, throw it in the river and feed the fish. I’m terrified of giving birth, and I do not understand why. I should be happy. We should be happy. But I don’t think I can go through with it. And I don’t even know if it is yours. Oh, Kashif, I just want it to end. I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry. There is something wrong with my mind – an evil stain that’s eating away at my being. This is not who I am. Help me. Kill me.’

She opens her mouth to speak, but Kashif cuts her off: “Not one more word out of you. I am sick of your lies.”

Aliah reaches into the bag to take out the clothes. There is a small plastic bag on top of her new sari. She opens it.

My passport?

“We’re going home, Aliah. You need help.”

*

“Waseem speaking.” The line is bad, “Hello? Brother!”

“Who is it?” Zakin wants to know. She leans over, picks up her smartphone, and checks the time. “Sister-fucker. It’s 04:18,” she groans. “Who is it, Waseem?”

“Sh. It’s Kashif. I can’t hear a thing.”

Zakin sits up in bed. “Kashif!”

“Shut up, Zakin! Hello, Kashif. Can you speak up? Huh?”

“What’s he saying?”

Waseem clicks his tongue and gets up. He goes into the bathroom, closes the lid, and sits down on the toilet. “Yes, I can hear you know now. How are you, old friend? Yes, we heard, we heard. Back home in the northeast. Good. Good. Zakin is Zakin, and I am fine. A girl? That’s wonderful news. Beautiful smile. Wonderful. One month already. A little underweight? Yes, yes, naturally – older women know all the tricks in the book when it comes to babies. It’s good that she’s helping Aliah. Gone?” Waseem stands up. He doesn’t know if he should laugh or cry. “Gone where? Hello? Kashif? Hello? Kashif!”

*

In the town of Loralai in the in the northeast of Balochistan Province in Pakistan, a person in rags walks the streets, begging for food. At the market a Good Samaritan breaks off a piece of Kurnoo crust, cuts off the bottom of an empty Sprite bottle, and fills it with lamb stew, shoos the beggar away. “Leave. You will spoil my sales. Don’t expect the same tomorrow.” The beggar smiles ‘thanks’, holds the piece of bread between broken teeth, and ties up filthy hair with a piece of string. The Good Samaritan covers his mouth in shock when he sees, through the slit in the beggar’s torn pyjama bottoms, the dried petals of a red rose cello-taped over her vagina.

 

The End

 

*tokophobia – the fear of giving birth

The Clan

Apprehension grows amongst the nomadic clanswomen for the outcome of the ritual that is taking place somewhere beyond the light of a blazing campfire. They sit in a circle, slurping soup from wooden bowls. Most of them are in various stages of pregnancy, except for the elder – the matriarch, who dishes up hot vegetable broth for dinner.

One of their members steps out of the darkness. She carries something the size of a leg of lamb that is wrapped in a bright red Persian rug. The others drop their wooden bowls and get up as one. The woman is pale and weak, but she holds her ground and absorbs the others’ stares, groans as she holds out the bundle. Her hands, arms, and bare feet are shiny with dark, gooey liquid that seeps through the hand-woven fabric. Her brown woollen skullcap quivers in the cold wind, and her multi-layered, blood-stained robes (once bright yellow and green) flap against her calves. The moon sneaks out from behind a thick cloudbank and illuminates the rich pasturage that fizzles over the lush mountains and plains behind her.

The rest of the clan, twenty-eight in total, gasps when the bundle twitches. The woman shrieks and almost drops it. Leaning forward on one knee, she clutches it tightly against her chest. The elder steps forward, arms outstretched. Her long, white braids are alive in the orange glow of the fire. In contrast, a few locks of black hair have come loose to frame the younger woman’s hard features. Her coal-black eyes show no emotion. She nods and hands the bundle to the matriarch, who walks away without saying a word. Only now does the younger woman break down and cry. She falls to her knees and wails into her bloody hands.

Twenty metres or so from the fire, a pack of shepherd dogs guard the clan’s simple, organic fabric tents. Sensing danger, their wet muzzles flicker in the moonlight as they growl and sniff. It isn’t long before their piercing howls muffle the woman’s sobs and echo through the valley beyond.

The elder enters her tent with the bundle under one arm. She inserts two fingers into her mouth and lets out a shrill whistle. The dogs yelp and quiet down.

The remaining twenty-seven encircle the woman who holds up a hand in defence, mouth twisted in a silent scream. The first river stone snaps her fingers and shatters her collar bone; the second crushes her cheekbone with such force, the eye pops out and sticks to the side of her head.

A few minutes later she is dead. Out-of-breath, the clanswomen sit down around the fire again. They pick up their bowls and dish up more soup. There are nervous smiles all around, but they don’t speak. They know that there’s a chance that one day it could be one of them.

The matriarch puts the bundle down and feels for the bicycle light next to her sheepskin mattress on the floor. She finds it and clips it onto a neon pink, elastic sweatband. Now she can inspect the newborn, who starts crying. She throws out the dirty rug for her dogs to rip to shreds.

He is heavy for a newborn. Good genes, she thinks.

Holding him up in both hands, the old woman brings him closer. There is dried blood around the puncture wound. The mother was supposed to stab through the heart. The elder brings him closer still, opens her mouth, and places her lips over the wound. She licks and sucks off the dried blood until only the small hole where the tip of the sacrificial blade punctured his skin is visible.

Strong blood. She smiles, lips and teeth stained rust red. Pity he will be dog food in the morning.

*

In Bölan, a small village situated in the valley ten kilometres from the nomads’ campsite, a carpet weaver known only as Jida drops her early dinner, a curry-filled roti. She can hear the dogs’ howling, and then the matriarch’s shrill whistle.

Hands shaking, Jida unclips the pin underneath her chin, takes off her headscarf, and hands it to the sixteen-year old apprentice, Shaqlin, who sits next to her on a grass mat in the weaving room. The adobe walls are covered in ancient tapestries, handed down from generation to generation. Jida refuses to sell these. In the corner of the room are the finished rugs that Hashim will pick up tomorrow for export – Hashim, the slimy businessman, who for the umpteenth time will offer Jida ‘the deal of a lifetime’ for the woven artworks in this room and in the rest of the two-bedroom dwelling.

The old woman’s fingers, hard-skinned and scarred from decades of weaving, stick out from the torn fingertips of her woollen gloves when she picks up her roti again. She takes a small bite, some of the curry filling falling from her lips into her lap. She turns her head to face the teenager, the flame of the paraffin lamp colouring in the whites of Jida’s eyes.

“What is it, Jida?” Shaqlin frowns and puts down her roti on a wooden plate. As usual, Jida takes her time before answering. The apprentice takes Jida’s scarf, folds it, and leaves it in her lap. Shaqlin’s head is shaven, and she wears a pair of khaki camouflage trousers and a black hoodie instead of the traditional layered skirts and headscarves.

Jida’s white hair is thinning by the day, the liver spots on her scalp spreading like the patterns on one of her famous rugs being woven, Shaqlin thinks.

“Shaqlin…” Jida whispers. Silence.

Answer me, woman! Shaqlin wants to shout. Jida’s habit of taking her time to speak has been frustrating the apprentice since the beginning of her correctional behavioural therapy. More frustrating though is that she still doesn’t agree with her parents’ decision to send her away, hundreds of kilometres north. Shaqlin has never hurt anyone; she helped around the house; she meditated (and still does); and she is a good student. “What’s wrong with listening to rock ‘n’ roll and smoking hashish? Our people have been smoking it for centuries,” she asked. “Don’t tell me it’s the way I look. I am unique. No one is the same. Look around you, people. Accept it, or be arseholes for the rest of eternity.” They put her on a bus that afternoon.

“They are here,” Jida finally says.

“Who, Jida?”

“The Clan.”

“The Clan? I thought the nomadic tribes in this part of the country disappeared years ago.”

“They did…” Jida pushes her plate away.

Shaqlin knows not to ask a follow-up question. It took her three years to realise that, as soon as Jida closes her eyes and folds her hands together under her chin, the old woman is about to tell a story. Shaqlin pours some hot tea as the carpet weaver continues: “Many moons ago the tribes’ nomadic lifestyle became impossible to endure. The weather changed for the worst and stayed like that for decades – cold you’ve never felt, Shaqlin; heat you cannot imagine. Disease was rampant and water scarce. Nearly half of them died. They settled down and started farming. For centuries before that these people shepherded and cultivated the hillsides, so they were very good at growing crops. The gods smiled upon them – though it is my belief the gods felt guilty for wiping out half of the tribespeople: once settled, weather conditions improved considerably.”

Shaqlin doesn’t blink. “What happened?”

“So the tribe was split into some sixty clans, spread out over the land. They settled near rivers and lakes where they flourished for just over two decades.”

“The way you ended that sentence sounds like something terrible happened to them, Jida. Did the weather change again?”

“No. As a tribe they had no identity to begin with – and remember; they spoke their own language and had their own customs and traditions. But they never belonged, is what I’m trying to say – and they never wanted to. No one bothered them, and they never bothered anyone. At one stage, the Ministry of Tourism used them as an advertisement for ecotourism, which brought in a lot of money in those days. When they became farmers, things changed dramatically.”

“Land disputes?”

“You’re on the right track, young one. The clans’ superior farming skills ensured they had a monopoly of the local markets: better quality food at better prices equals good business. The local farmers, on the other hand, demanded that the government raise the clans’ taxes, which the councils had already done. The locals became infuriated and protested. They accused the clans of stealing their land, and they accused the government of giving it away.”

“That’s crazy. You said the tribespeople had roamed the land unhindered for hundreds of years.”

Jida takes a sip of tea and is quiet for a moment before she speaks: “The protests spread quickly until it turned violent. Elections were coming up, and the government had no choice to act, or they would lose power.”

“How did the clans react?” Shaqlin anticipates Jida’s next move. The teenager reaches over and pushes the roti away just in time before the old woman puts her cup down on top of it.

“Of course most of the clans knew what was happening. They faced harassment on a daily basis. There are horror stories of lynch mob beatings and even murder. They couldn’t defend themselves as they were spread out – some living in remote areas and travelling for days to sell their produce. But here’s where it gets interesting: as a tribe, they used to use the double-fingered whistle for hunting and general long range communication. I wasn’t even born yet, but old Narim in the next village remembers it like yesterday—” A smile flickers over Jida’s mouth at the mention of Narim’s name. “—He told me the clans started whistling like birds. Day and night they relayed messages from one farming community to the next.”

“Amazing.”

“Every good story has a tragic ending, as my mother used to say.” Jida sighs and is quiet again.

Shaqlin sits up a little and stretches her long legs in front of her. Come on, old woman, what happened? She bites her tongue and watches Jida take another small bite of roti, chewing slowly. She swallows and takes another sip of tea.

“When the forces finally came to drive them from their farms, they found all the men tied up with their throats slit and their genitals mutilated.”

The apprentice puts a hand over her mouth. “And the women and children?”

“I cannot hear you, Shaqlin. It sounds like your tongue is stuck in your throat.”

Shaqlin takes her hand away. “What happened to the others?”

“The boys were murdered as well – infants, too.”

Shaqlin can taste the curry in her throat. “Who killed them, and what happened to the women?”

“I’ll get to that. First, let’s take a step back in time to when they were still a tribe. Their leader, the Khan, ruled with undisputed patriarchal authority. As you can imagine, typically the men hunted, and the women stayed in camp with the dogs, herded the sheep, worked the land, and looked after the children. But the women also kept busy with other things while the men were away, sometimes for days on end – things the women kept secret—”

There is a knock at the door.

“Don’t open it, Shaqlin. It’s late.”

“Jida, are you at home?” says a male voice.

Jida shakes her head. “What do you want, Hashim? We agreed you would pick up the rugs tomorrow.”

“Can I come in?”

“No, Hashim. No, you cannot. We’re having dinner.”

“Please. I’m cold. I travelled all day to get here. Can I at least have some hot tea? Whatever happened to neighbourly love?”

“You’re not my neighbour, Hashim. And the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Dahlia next door borrowed a soup bowl twenty years ago and never returned it. We haven’t spoken since.” Jida nods for Shaqlin to pour Hashim some tea. The old woman whispers: “Put on my scarf and don’t talk to that slime ball. I sense how he looks at you. He can wait outside until we’re done.”

“Yes, Jida.”

*

Shaqlin closes the bedroom door, helps Jida onto her mattress on the floor, and tucks the old woman into bed. The teen kneels, and they hold hands.

“What happened next?” Shaqlin asks.

“What do you mean?”

“You were telling me a story about the tribes. You said the women had secrets.”

“Oh, right. Yes. So … as you can imagine, tribal life was brutal, especially for the women. The patriarchy allowed the men to take what they wanted whenever they wanted, if you know what I mean. The men always ate first, for example. If they wanted to have sex, the women had no choice, and so on. But the women secretly rebelled. They developed their own poisons. Amongst these, Narim told me, forensic archaeologists and anthropologists have found traces of cicutoxin that are found in the most common poisonous plants.”

“Tribeswomen scientists. Fascinating.”

“Indeed. When the men came back from hunting, the women would add a very small amount to the food. The men ate first, and the women and children ate uncontaminated meals. The men started suffering from nausea and diarrhoea, and by the time they were successful farmers, the men had become skin and bone. They couldn’t hunt, and they certainly didn’t rape the women anymore.”

“Limp dicks.”

“Ha. You got it, child.”

“But when the locals demanded the clans be removed from their farms, you said the men used their whistling to send messages to the other clans.”

“You didn’t pay attention—”

Shaqlin can’t even begin to imagine how many times she’s heard that phrase during her apprenticeship at Jida’s.

“—I never said it had been the men who whistled. I said the clans – and by clans I meant the women. The men were long dead by then.”

Hashim knocks on the front door again. “Jida. I beg you. Please. Let me have the rugs and I’ll be on my way,” he says. “I have to go. I will pay you extra.”

Jida’s instructions are concise: “Shaqlin. Let him in. Business as usual. Don’t bargain. Take the money. Show him the door.”

“Yes, Jida.”

*

Shaqlin is refilling the paraffin lamp when Jida continues with the story: “When the authorities arrived, the women were long gone. The men had been dead for a few days already. Through their secret whistle-language, most of the women decided to meet up in the most remote part of the country. There.” Jida raises a hand from under the sheepskin blanket and points in the direction of the valley where the clanswomen made camp.

“Do you mean that was the first time they were together as a tribe again?”

“Most of them, yes. Some were still on the way, while others had decided to move into the cities to blend in. But their numbers had dwindled. History tells us there were no more than two or three hundred women and girls on that first night.”

“Why did the women execute their own sons? I mean, the husbands I can sort of understand – not that I agree with it, of course… But why the little ones?” Shaqlin wants to know.

“Rage ran deep in their hearts, Shaqlin. For centuries these women had to suppress their anger—”

“Like dormant volcanoes.”

“I couldn’t have said it better, child. Dormant volcanoes can take centuries to erupt again. When they do, it’s bound to be a violent affair; someone is bound to get hurt, or die. Having taken into account the physical and psychological abuse the women endured over the centuries, they started seeing themselves as superior.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look at any revolution, Shaqlin. When the weak rise up, it means that the ones in power are no longer required, no longer seen as the stronger. It doesn’t take long – it might have taken long to reach that point—”

“Like a dormant volcano waking up.”

“—like a dormant volcano waking up. And then there is quick and radical change.”

Shaqlin gets up and stretches her legs, rubs her knees. Jida closes her eyes. “Shall we call it a night, child?”

“No, please. Unless you want to sleep, Jida.”

“Child, at my age, the less I sleep the better. I don’t have much time left on this earth. Every waking moment is a blessing.”

Shaqlin nods. “So … this clan you’re talking about, the one that’s camping up there right now, is just a group of women?”

“Yes.”

“But you said their numbers are dwindling.”

“You didn’t pay attention, Shaqlin. I said their numbers had dwindled before they met again. That was years ago. Their numbers are estimated to have reached at least five or six thousand.”

“Up there? There are five thousand-odd women camping in the valley?”

“No, no, no. They have split up in different clans again. They’re all over, most of them not nomadic at all.”

“But how do their numbers grow if they don’t … you know…”

“Fuck?”

Shaqlin is shocked at Jida’s use of language. “Erm … yes … that.”

“Oh, they fuck all right. In fact, they fuck all the time. And they fuck hard.”

“Jida! What? How?”

“Do you really want me to explain how men and women fuck, Shaqlin? Didn’t your parents teach you anything?”

“Jida, please. I—”

“The clanswomen are masters at seducing men – not that it’s a hard thing to do. So every month when the time is right, the clanswomen go out to find the biggest and strongest men they can. And then they fuck and fuck and fuck. If they get pregnant, the women take care of each other, either as nomads or city folk, until the baby is born. If it is a girl, they keep it. If it is a boy…well…”

“They kill it,” Shaqlin finishes Jida’s sentence.

“Correct. But it is the mother that has to kill the baby. If she does so, she’s accepted back into the clan, and she has to try again.”

“Do any of them refuse to kill their own sons?”

“It happens. If that is the case, or if the mother fails to deliver a daughter after three attempts, the other women will see her as inferior and kill her.”

“My god. That’s taking it a bit far, isn’t it?”

The old woman shrugs. “Perhaps. But such is their custom.”

“Jida. How come I’ve never heard of these clans, or seen any of these women around in my town?”

“You won’t. They look like you and me. Young and old. Speak the same language, eat the same food. They don’t have any special markings or anything like that. They blend in perfectly.”

“I think I’m going to have nightmares tonight.”

“I have to sleep now, Shaqlin. An old woman can only stay awake for so long.”

“Good night, Jida.”

“Good night, child.”

*

The next morning, after a quick breakfast of bread and fruit, Jida asks Shaqlin to go to the next village, “Ask Narim for kork wool, not that cheap stuff he gave me last time. Quality is of utmost importance in my work. It is spring and he should be done shearing the sheep. If he isn’t, tell him I’m going to look for another supplier. And no bargaining – here’s the money. On your way back, pick up some dyer’s madder and oak apples next door at Dahlia’s. We’re running out of red and black. Tell her it’s for yourself – make something up because she’ll expect it’s for me, and therefore won’t give it to you. Say it’s for an assessment as part of your correctional behavioural therapy.”

“Yes, Jida.” Shaqlin adjusts her backpack straps and walks out of the weaving room. She pauses at the front door. “I didn’t have time to ask you last night, Jida: what are the clanswomen doing up there in the valley?”

“Nomad stuff, I take it – sheepherding, collecting herbs, hunting, and so on.”

“Oh.” Shaqlin can’t shake the feeling that something’s not quite right in the weaving room.

“Is there anything else, Shaqlin? It’s getting late. Get a move on. We have to finish one more rug today. Go now.”

The neighbouring village where Narim lives is some five kilometres north. Shaqlin catches her breath on top of the next hill, turns, and takes in the southern view of the valley. The clanswomen’s tents dots the lush green slopes, but it is too far away to make out any human shape or form. On the western slope the Bölan waterfall sparkles in the early morning rays that creep over the mountains.

Shaqlin takes another deep breath of fresh air and turns to go when a vicious growl freezes her in her tracks. A few metres in front of her stands a muscular dog. Its fur coat is the colour of newly laid concrete, long and matted; its muzzle is covered in blood; its incisors are short but sharp; and it smells like rancid meat. Shaqlin knows better than to chase it away or to make any sudden movements – the dog’s ears are raised and pinned forward, its threatening stance telling her it is ready to attack. The teen daren’t break eye contact with its hard stare. If I do that, he’ll know I’m scared. Dogs can smell fear a mile away.

An ear-piercing screech breaks the silence. The dog whines and cocks his head. Another whistle and the dog lunges and runs straight at Shaqlin who doesn’t have time to move. All she can do is bring up her arm in self-defence and let out a soft moan. The dog crashes into the side of her leg as it runs past and makes for the valley. Shaqlin loses her balance, steps onto a loose stone, and twists her ankle. She sits down heavily on her backside, the impact winding her. Arms flailing and legs kicking, she struggles for breath. She looks up at the blue sky that takes on the colour of one of Jida’s blood red rugs; the blotches that appear in Shaqlin’s vision look like some of Jida’s weaving patterns: animals, flowers, hunters, trees.

“Are you all right?” The voice comes from somewhere behind Shaqlin.

Shaqlin gets her breath back, but the words are stuck in her throat. She closes her eyes and swallows, takes off her backpack and tries to get up.

“Let me help you.”

The hand that grips Shaqlin’s is rough and calloused. The knuckles scarred; the nails filthy and chipped.

“I am Mina,” the woman says. She wears multi-layered green and yellow robes. On her head she has on a black fur skullcap. Her boots are handmade – leather and wool.

“Are you one of them?” Shaqlin asks.

“One of whom?” Mina frowns, but the slight upturn in the corners of her mouth gives away the fact that she knows exactly what the young girl is asking.

“One of the … the clanswomen.”

“I am. Yes. And who are you?”

“My name’s Shaqlin. I live in the village over there.” The teenager gulps when she sees the handle of a dagger of some sort sticking out from its leather sheath that hangs from a piece of rope tied to Mina’s waist.

“I was just on my way there. Do you know a carpet weaver named Jida?”

Shaqlin looks down at her shoes, doesn’t know what to say.

“Well, do you or don’t you?” Mina asks again. “I have an appointment with her.”

“You have an appointment with Jida?” Shaqlin wants to kick herself.

“So you do know her.”

“Sort of … yes,” Shaqlin lies, lips trembling.

“Take me to her.”

“I can’t. I don’t have time. I can give you directions.”

“I guess that will do,” Mina says.

*

“Jida! Jida! Narim is dead!” Shaqlin screams as she bursts through the door. “Jida! They slit his throat!”

For a moment Shaqlin thinks she might have run into someone else’s house. The weaving room is empty. The walls are bare except for the lines of dust that criss-cross where Jida’s family tapestries had been.

Shaqlin’s thoughts are muddled: Has that conniving bastard, Hashim, finally talked Jida into selling her precious heirlooms? Has he stolen them? Or was it Mina the clanswoman? Is Jida hurt? Oh, god. No.

“Jida!” Shaqlin enters the bedroom. “Oh, Jida.” Her legs go weak. She drops to her knees next to the old woman who lies on her back on the bed. Foam and blood cover the lower part of her face. Shaqlin doesn’t have to feel her pulse to know that she is dead. Her skin is ashen and cold. Shaqlin brings up the wrinkly hand and kisses it. She thinks Jida’s left wrist has also been slit. Through her tears it looks like there’s a deep cut exposing the bone. On closer inspection she sees that it is a red ribbon tied around the cold skin that holds a piece of paper in place.

Sobbing, she takes out the small note and unfolds it. The writing is shaky and some of the ink has smeared. Shaqlin has to squint to read it:

 

Shaqlin,

I never told you I was one of the clan. This is where I operate. I am one of those you cannot see. I had an affair with Narim. They found out. That’s why they are here. They let me write this note before I ingested the poison – because they knew you would come back. You are to be a replacement for one of their own they killed last night. Be strong. Have many girls. Keeping our numbers up is paramount.

Love,

Jida

 

A shrill whistle echoes through the house. A dog howls, and then all is quiet.

The End

Good times II

Clockwise: ladies’ fingers blooming, mango, coriander, edible flowers (‘dok care’ / ‘dok kae’). In the background (of the mangoes) is one of my fishponds (now dried up) – water used for irrigation. No need for fertilisers. This will fill up in the coming rainy season within about two months’ time, and then I will take out tilapia from one of the other ponds and release them here again. Fresh fish, fruit, and veg all year round. Don’t need much more than that, really.

good times 2

Good times

Clockwise: A cut-off Frangipani stem in banana leaf mulch (for some much-wanted bee attraction), shade created by the canopy to keep the weeds at bay and let on enough sunlight for the younger fruit trees, wild mushrooms (a good sign – the soil is changing), and pineapple (kitchen scraps – the tops of the fruits cut off and stuck in the soil).

random

Keeping your soil moist

I’ve just planted 20 lime trees in old cement drainpipes. A mix of pig manure, rice husk, and soil. With temperatures at 35 – 40 degrees Celcius, the soil dries out pretty quickly, so in order to conserve water, I usually cut down some young banana suckers and chop them up. Instead of watering 3 times a week, I water once. Also, the stalks and leaves are moist, and it takes a good few weeks for them to disintegrate, leaving behind essential organic matter for the young trees. And I’ll just keep doing this throughout. No need for expensive fertilisers.

The reason for cutting down the young suckers is, if you have a banana tree that’s already a couple of metres tall (and hasn’t flowered yet), and you have two sizable suckers on either side of the stem, it will ensure most of the nutrients will go to the three remaining trees; this means more and healthier fruit. Once you harvest the first bunch of bananas, cut down the old tree (Versatile Bananas) and recycle the stem and leaves.

Lime tree with cut up banana stalks and leaves

keep soil moist