Thursday, February 19, 2015

Unquenchable Fire A4

He was gone before she awoke – oh that easy habit of men to awake at need – and left her with sweeping the steps, the balcony and the rest. She set down and sorted through papers and bills. She cancelled her riding, since she was merely a rider, and not really a “horsewoman”, it was a luxury, not a skill. She also cancelled much else, because it would consume precious coinage.

There was a ring from the front, which signified a visitor. She looked up, she was not expecting any sort of. Wait. The help, Navid. She searched and remembered his last name as “Shaheen”.

She stood, went to the front and opened the door. And there, as bright as the new day reflecting off the rapidly melting snow, was a not quite thin, but very upright young man, with the kind of liquid features and visage that seems to mark the memory easily, but not specifically. He was easy to remember, but hard to recall.

Please accept my service and peace in the name of The God.” He proffered a scroll of introduction.


She laughed, so old fashioned. “Of course I know you. Come in.”

He smiled, and not in the awkward way she expected from someone who could not be much more than her 26 annae.

He brushed passed her, and walked to the kitchen, a kind of familiarity in his stride, he settled before the oven, and looked expectantly at it.

May I have some coffee?”


She smiled, took out the coffee, opened it, and counted 120 beans for two cups, half heartedly looking at the shapes of the beans, with their crease and roundness, it struck her differently some how. But she ground them up without hesitation, and made truly hot coffee, regardless that it used up more fuel that was good.

Navid the settled down, seeming very different from the glowering presence of the night before that had, inhabited her house and rocked back in the chair. He was more filled out than “lanky” would allow for, but still quite whip young. She could see that he barely needed to shave.

So, you have a problem.”


She explained at great length. He listened patiently, or mostly patiently, sometimes looking into her eyes, and sometimes at her generally, sometimes at the wall and sometimes at the window. But able to prompt for information, it was clear his mental attention did not wander.

At length, he spoke rather than interjected:

I can find you both the lawyer you need, and a source of funds. The first is safe, the second is not without risk.”


She looked at him.

He took out two small cards, both with names and addresses.

The first, is a young friend of mine, just confirmed to the law. But his uncle is on the court that hears the cases, and his cousin is the registrar. But you will have to visit the other first. He is a German, but will be able to come to an arrangement on funds.”


She took the cards, and examined both carefully. He had precise script, very flowing. After placing them in a small pouch she looked at him, just as light from the sun flooded through the south window. The world looked sharply different, and she knew her irises must have reduced down to ellipses, because the colors grew hard to distinguish.

And what will the money before.”

You’ve heard of the novel art of painting.” There was a faint trace of irony in his voice. They both knew why.

Yes.” She smiled and was almost excited.

He will want you to pose for him, without clothes.”

It would take her many years for her to admit that it was anything more than shock she felt, but it was a delicious shock. A kind of quivering at a cold touch of expectation, combined with trepidation, and of course, modesty.

I am not sure if I like such an arrangement.”

I have my reasons, he will pay you in German silver coins, which, unlike ours, are still quite fine. There will be no problems in their acceptance.”
She straightened up. “You think of an awful lot. What, what if he tries to take advantage of the circumstances.”

I will arrange for your safety. He is trustworthy – and – pointing absently in the direction of a wall hidden by a drapery – “the creator of that work that is above the china chest. He would no more dishonor your father’s patronage, than you would allow it.”
She was still not at equilibrium, but it was enough for the moment. She gathered up scrapes of dignity and put her best voice on it, of slight haughtiness combined with a soft coldness.

I am so glad Ibrahim sent you.”

Ibrahim? He was imprisoned days ago by the Talibeen. No, it was your father who sent me a letter asking me to help if you should be in need of help. It is the scroll I gave you.”
She opened it and read it carefully. It was all in order, in her father’s familiar meandering hand, except that it was dated two days after her father had died.

-

She allowed Navid to finish his coffee and immediately made a motion towards the front door with her arms, indicating it was time to leave; he raised a jaunty eyebrow, clearly not used to being dismissed so quickly, but he picked his frame up, and, at a graceful amble, made it to the door – looked directly into her eyes for a instant in a contact which was both fleeting and fixed in her memory from the moment it happened.

I have many things I must attend to.”

His nod and smile seemed to be wrapped in the same motion, and he made his pleasant farewells. Turning and walking down the steps that hugged the side of the building, and disappeared into the throng of the street – now moving in fits and starts as it navigated growing puddles and rivulets that had formed from the banks of now brownish snow.

She watched the entire way, finding an artistic appreciation in how he moved and in the shape of him as seen from behind, with his doctors tunic belted tightly around his waist, and his heavy boots forcing his legs to have a peculiar weight as they went down, even as they seemed to swing freely when in motion.

She closed the door and was about to head back to her papers, but, instead, she set all of the drapes to closed, giving a marvelous openness to the entire first floor. She did this on the pretense of a chore, as if it were a duty, her movements uninhabited by her thoughts. But then, after this was done, she turned towards the now illuminated section to the left of the front door, where there was a large series of lidded benches, where the china was stored, and above these their hung an oblong painting. It was the painting that Navid had mentioned, familiar to them both. It was a long landscape, overhung with large leaves run riot from tropical plants, which, in the middle third of the painting, had an aperture that looked out on to a mosque, low and heavy like a turtle, but with two graceful soaring minarets, which, like painter’s brushes set in their rack, pointed upwards with a slender neck that widened close to the top.

It was an object of fascination for most visitors, who had never seen such layers of paint, which gave the whole thing a weight which Kentauri painting, largely based on the Hellenic styles learned from the old city’s artisans, did not even attempt.

Her eyes flowed around it, and she saw, again, the birds hidden in the branches, the small mammal with saucer like eyes, and again renewed her self with the languid shapes of the voluptuous foliage. She looked in to the sky, with its early retreating dusk, and first suggestion of stars. She looked at the curve of the dome, which seemed to have a single highlight of a bright bronze, though from what light she did not know. She looked the minarets, and saw the suggestion of a window in one, and, as she always did, she walked closer to see that, indeed, there was something resting on its sill, though she had never been able to tell quite what. She had always imagined it was a sleeved arm, from someone leaning back on the sill, but looking inwards. Inwards to the mystery, and not outwards to the sky. She again, as she had often in the past, furrowed her brow, wondering why her image was so specific.

She had to shake herself to pull her eyes away from it, and set them back to work examining columns of figures and details of the business. Her desk seemed to reek of a dry air, and the wood, darkened with special oils, seemed, instead of comforting, arid as a desert. When downstairs there was a riot of color.

No, not downstairs, in a room, in a house, whose address, she had in her pouch. It was there that there was a world of colour, colour beyond what she had known and seen before. And mastered by a mysterious sorcerer of an art that was, indeed, a kind of magic.

-

She began to grow nibblingly hungry, and at first thought of cooking – a process that involved many steps, and time. And then of purchasing something from a street vendor, and then finally her mind settled on something else. She needed a maid, and she needed to hire one. It might take more time, but there was no delaying it. She could feel days slipping through her fingers, and she was about to embark on a course which would gobble up every instant of available time.

Thus a plan formed in her mind, to go look for a maid, down near the board there were both people to hire, and people to ask about them, and then eat. This, in turn, reminded her of public mourning. She was not, in itself, devoted to mourning, but she did desire to tell others that she was among those who had lost.

She realized this too, would take time, and the idea of “just cooking” began to have a chorus in its support. But then came the realization that she needed the ashes taken from the oven anyway, and restacking the wood. And hence, it was a choice of getting dirty, or reaching a sumptuous clean required of mourning. She, once it had been placed in these terms, chose to draw a bath, having filled the water heater on the roof among her morning chores, looked forward to warm water.

Luxuriating in the water, to which she had added scented oils, at first brought a deep relaxation. But then, as soon as she settled into the bath, instead of bringing a sated feeling of warmth, brought a sensation of emptiness. She had the peculiar feeling that her father would return, as Ibrahim – the ghost? – had returned.

She rejected this and chose a more material explanation. Ibrahim was reported dead, but had smuggled himself into the city to do what needed to be done, and had, probably, forged the letter to Navid – he father’s script was not difficult to manage, she thought, if someone set their mind to it. This, in turn, made her toy with getting a draft on his silver with a forged letter and using that to pay, rather than Navid’s suggestion. She looked down at her body, resting on the base of the tub, water flickering over her legs, and creating its own geography. She knew, in the abstract, that its lines and curves would be a continent, or at least an island, of desire for men. She could not help thinking what it would be like to have it, not merely looked at, but rendered on to paint, to be stared at and absorbed by yet other eyes beyond her own.

Again, abstractly, she considered that someday there would be a husband, and that he, of course, would gaze at her with want, and she even smiled as she thought about having a man want her. But this contrasted with the thought of having many mean want her picture. She could almost see in her mind a painting of her, draped in some exotic costume, reclining on a bed. She had heard there were such pictures. Or posed in some manner, turned away from the viewer, her shoulders forming a broad smooth curve across the canvas.

She sighed, stood, drained the water, and dried. While going through the ritual of preparing herself to be seen – which she had learned from her aunt not all that long ago, who had taken her aside, and sternly told her that it was time she stopped looking like a scrubbed corpse in public.

The movements were still not habitual, as much as she tried to consider what she should do, the need to pluck and paint and dab with precision overcame her ability to focus. Her only thought was a near giggle that the restrictions on women surgeons were foolish, since everyone committed surgery on her face every day.

Dressing was more perfunctory, she did not worship clothes. But as she slid the heavy black embroidered dress over her head, her father had insisted that it be made, she felt a kind of girdled comfort in it. It was like being on horseback in its own way, her own body extended by this external thing. Which was not merely a tool, like a pot or a pen, but, somehow, a magnification. She realized that part of this was visual, the dress padded out her hips and bust, making her seem more mature, but as much of it was simply the sensation, of being surrounded by the material, and thus somehow protected, and indeed, even armed.

Her leaving into the streets was difficult, she wore black riding boots, in defiance of mourning tradition, because the streets, cobbled though they were, were not fit for anything more delicate, The boots showed to the mid-calf beneath the dress. But she took a kind of perverse bride: it was appropriate to mourn those who died in war with their boots on, she thought of her father, and realized, no matter what, Kismet did not want him to die in bed.

She saw the square where the board was, the trees were now devoid of leaves, and as she entered it, and moved away from the houses with their balconies that overhung the street, there was a crisp openness to the sky, which was only lightly slurried with high, small, but dark clouds. Reaching the board found it crowded, there were many, like herself, in mourning dress, talking, looking at each other, and engaged in small activities such as embroidering and sewing. But the market place activity had returned. Which was as she hoped.

She looked to one side, where there were stone benches, and on them sat various women in old fashioned clothes, the kind which almost wrapped around the body, and which had scarves to cover their heads. Many were older. Some were quite young. She was not sure which would be better – experience or adaptability – her eye roamed across them. Finally she settled on one who was even younger than herself, and wearing clothes which were both more up to date in style, and worn thin from over use.

She went to the young woman, who spent as much time, looking down as looking up. And seemed in pain.

Shahzadeh made a very formal curtsey, and the young woman stood smoothly and replied in turn, with a slight turn of the hand that indicated that she too, had learned the older rituals. As Shahzadeh had expected, she was of good family, and probably had lost everything in the war.

"I would like you to know who I am, I am Shahzadeh Parand, and I am seeking someone to help me."

The young girl, her eyes dark and wide looked back, and said.

"I will come with you. I am Haifa, Haifa Ghalandar " And smiled back.

Shahzadeh knew the Ghalandar family. The mother and father had divorced acrimoniously, the mother returning to her people - in the wild lands of Gulistan, to the north. The father had died in the war sometime before. Obviously Haifa had not been as fortunate.

Haifa stood up, and followed, as Shahzadeh lead outwards, not to her home, but to a small restaurant that normally served out of doors, but today was serving on its roof. She lead Haifa to a table, sat down and waited, It would take time for a waitress - since men and women did not mingle alone - to arrive. Shahzadeh asked for one of her favorite things - a dish that consisted raw fish with green vegetables shredded finely, soaked in a creamy vinegar sauce and surrounded by a corn wrap. Marjan, not knowing until Shahzadeh nodded that she was not paying, ordered the same thing. The drank tea and munched quietly for some time.

Finally Haifa asked, as she pushed away long blonde ringlets that fell down beyond her shoulders, "What are my duties?"

Shahzadeh smiled. "I'm like you, I've lost everything." Haifa raised an eyebrow and started to protest, "We are going to be friends," Shahzadeh took Haifa's hand" and though I'm going to have you do chores and the like. I need someone. I'll tell you our little secret, when we get back to my house."

"But they will take everything, I was left with nothing, supposedly a ward and now almost..." Haifa stopped before she lost composure. "You must be very careful, my own story is quite a warning to others."

"You can tell me when we get home." And Shahzadeh casually attacked the rolled up food with a large bite, and munched. Sooh Haifa was happily eating as well, and though she meticulously followed the manners of eating with ones fingers, dipping them in the lemon water periodically, it was clear she had not eaten well in sometime.

When reaching Shahzadeh’s home, Haifa began a very curious look around. The drapes were not in place to divide the house – so what she saw was a square first floor, on her left were the coat and clothes racks, she noticed a mixture of clothes for both men and women, but noted how the woman’s cloths were all the same size, beyond that on the left were a series of shelves that represented a kind of storage place for dried foods and other basic bulk items, and beyond that, an iron spiral stair case which, instead of wrapping around a pole two curving sides, the railings, she noted, were not of iron alone, but were ornamented with brass.

She then turned right, and saw there the china cabinets, and a large double window that opened like a door, beside it on each side were small paintings, of what to her were an usual style, they had a kind of richness of – something, not the bright primary colours of the paintings she was used to, nor were they guilt in gold or silver. They were thicker and with a more, she hesitated to think “natural” style, but that is what she ended up thinking of them as. One was nothing more than a woman cutting fish at a wooden table, her dress sleeves rolled up, her hair pulled back. Her cheeks red from being out of doors, the fish laid in stacks. Just a common scene of a not particularly well off woman. That someone would paint this seemed odd to Haifa.

The second small painting was more reasonable, it was a very well set table, with pewter tabards and mugs, with wrought silver, and overflowing with round rich shapes of fruit. 

On one plate were fish, cut just as the other painting had them. The similarities in the dark hues, the highlighting, the sense of roundness in space made Haifa feel almost ill with being drawn into them, and yet fascinated. She walked towards them, and then, in the corner of the picture of the woman, she could see a door way – which at first she had assumed was the doorway out, and then saw the corner of the checkered tablecloth of the still life in it, and the curve of the tall central pewter wine tabard, with its oval stoppered top made of glass.

The paintings were by the same person. Interesting.

She then turned right because she saw out of the corner of her eye the large canvas over the wood and wicker china chests. If the two small paintings had puzzled her and confused her eye, this was dizzying, and produced in her a sense of vertigo – it was as if there were a giant window, of one piece of glass, and she were looking out on this whole landscape, of leaves, and a mosque and a particular time of day. She raised her eyebrows and turned to Shahzadeh – “Where were these from? They are… beyond anything.” But Haifa could only half turn to speak, her eyes still roaming across the canvas, falling now on the curve of the minaret, now on the leaves. It was as different style than the domestic painting, it was florid in its use of shape, and its brushstrokes were more visible, unlike the almost smooth surface of the smaller paintings, which seemed to be like glass.

The details called to Haifa’s eye, and she stepped towards the painting itself, each step bringing into view another level of detail. It was not so much realistic, as a vortex of a mind’s eye, that remembered, rather than depicted, the images. There were slight imbalances of proportion, and she noticed, before the mosque, a place where transgressors were hung by their heals, with a post and lintel construction, but it seemed, at first as if post were closer, and then the other. First the lintel seemed to come towards the viewer, and then away. She was now almost up against the painting, staring at this one aspect, no larger than her index finger.

It does that to me as well.”


Haifa startled. She had forgotten that Shahzadeh was even there.

-

The went to the kitchen area, which had a long narrow window, and to the left a series of cabinets, and counter space that flipped out of the wall and down, and then folded back upwards. And then to the left of this was a heavy block of stone, which is the oven. Set in the top were four round stones, which could be replaced by metal to form a stove top. Shahzadeh said, “one of our first tasks is to clean out the oven, and put more organization in the kitchen. I have been so entangled in the details of what needs to be done on paper, that I have forgotten I live in a house at all.”

Haifa nodded. “It is very kind of you to do this.”

Shahzadeh shook her head. “No kindness at all, I am, almost, alone in the world.”

They changed clothes to those more suited for scullery tasks, and then cleaned out the oven. It cloaked them both with dust and soot, that clung to the hair and skin, and formed a kind of carapace that cracked and felt like being a molting crab.

Shahzadeh looked at Haifa, her hair streaked with dust and grey. “We,” she paused, “need to get clean.”

Haifa looked at her clothes and hands, and was suddenly self conscious about herself, checking the legs of the puffy pantaloons she wore, and the black marks on her shirt – actually a shirt from Shahzadeh’s father.

There should be warm water from the roof. We can draw a bath.”


They marched up the stairs to the upper layer, with its higher ceiling and clutter of desk and hammock and clothes lain on dressing table – and in the corner, away from the stairs, a tiled tub, with blue figures painted on glazed white. It was luscious to behold, and Haifa’s skin ached to be clean, her nails were caked with dirt, and her feet tired and needing to be soothed.

She undid the shirt twisting the short rods of wood that were looped through twine – buttons were not generally the fashion among the Kentauri, instead preferring small hooks, so her hands fumbled once or twice.

Shahzadeh saw her discomfort and explained, “It’s Chishan style.” Then showed Haifa the motion that worked, which Haifa instantly duplicated. The trousers were a drawstring affair, around both waiste and ankles, The sound of their dropping on the floor was made Haifa’s skin breath again, and stretch with the anticipation of the warmish water and the scented soap. Removing the last of her undergarments, she arched one foot delicately over the tub and tested the water with her toe. She had not felt warm water in quite so long as to be a memory, and her muscles felt hard from the cold. Her uncle, her so called guardian, had been selling off the warm water from the heater in her father’s house, leaving her with none but what she could heat from the stove, which was little, since she had little money of any kind.

Shahzadeh pulled two sitting towels off of a rack, laid one before her, and tossed one to Haifa, who caught it at the same time she placed her foot all the way down and then almost gracefully, or perhaps like one of the old ritual dances, swung her other leg over the edge of the tub, and plunged it to mid calve in the water. Shahzadeh, not trying such an acrobatic feat, sat on the edge of the tub, and swung herself in . Haifa giggled, covering her mouth with her hand, the fingers hiding the tip of her nose.

You do that,” a peep of a giggle, “like you are mounting a horse.” Shahzadeh raise one corner of her mouth in a smile. And then thought. “Yes, horse riding is one thing I do well.” And resolved to recontinue the sessions of riding after she had money. She had settled her hips firmly down on the towel, and looked, first at Haifa’s eyes, which were still bright with mirth. But then, as people are wont to do, she began examining the other – girl? woman? – person.

What she saw was a face that came to a pointed chin, and had an smooth curve of the jaw to it. She was round eyed, and these were almost green in the fading afternoon light. Her hair was a cascade of burnished blonde looping curls, that reached very delicate shoulders. Haifa, was petite, and her skin the lightest shade of tea with milk that can be imagined. Her faither had been quite light, but her mother must have been fairer still. There was a clear curve of demarcation between Haifa’s face, tanned by exposure to the sun down just past her neck, and the flesh beneath. The face was taught, expectant. Clearly she needs to be put more at ease.

You have such lovely eyes, and hair – the colour is so unusual.”

Haifa ran her fingers through her hair. “It didn’t used to be this light, but I have been giving lessons, which I do out of doors. Lessons for dancing and deportment.”

Ah yes.” But the words were merely inserted so that she could examine the rest of Haifa’s figure. Shahzadeh noticed the lithe willowy form of her legs, the curve of the waist into trim hips, how firm the muscles of Haifa’s mid section were, and how her bosom was small and with nipples that seemed as perfect small roses. “What kind of dancing.”

The court kind, where the woman or man dances alone, and…”

I know it.” That would explain the shape of her legs, and how all of a piece her movements were. The arms were not thick, but one long line, thin and sinewy. It reminded Shahzadeh of a forbidden memory: in a scroll case her father kept a painting he had not framed, it was of such a nymph-like creature, her small chest exposed, her face turned away from the viewer revealing the most exquisite profile, and displaying, set against a background of trees, such a form. The painting had her feet just turning to roots, for she was chased by a man. Her father had told her there was an old story being depicted, but it was the shape, the elongation, of the woman that had been burned into her memory.

Haifa for her part did not feel any need to cover her examination of Shahzadeh, but allowed her eyes to measure the woman who was now her benefactor. What she saw was a round face, with cat’s eyes, and a nose set in a perfect line. Haifa was aware, all too aware, of the slight asymmetries of her own face, but saw none, or almost none, in Shahzadeh’s. There was also a calmness, a, well, regal would be too much, but yes, nobility, in the way she looked, seldom blinking, and with her mouth relaxed.

Haifa taught dancing, so examining the physicality of another was not a social grace, but a professional skill. She noted the roundness of Shazadeh’s bust, and the rich red oak colour of her skin, which was all of a single complexion. Unlike the faint mottling from acne that Haifa knew was across her own back. “I wish I had your skin.”

Shazadeh had that classic figure from the old illuminated manuscripts, with a rich bosom, and hips that flared outwards. Haifa noted the muscles and strength of Shahzadeh’s legs, they were a bit on the verge of being thick, but this was not a detraction, since her whole hour glass figure was given, thereby, a pedestal, or base.

And then Haifa’s eyes came to rest back on Shahzadeh’s. The two girls giggled, the two women went to wetting sponges and bathing,

Here, let me help with your back, it is so broken out. You must stay with me, if only to bathe.” Shahzadeh ran the edge between too firm and too soft in scrubbing the skin on Haifa’s back. From there no inch was left untouched by sponge and soap, nor left unrinsed by a second drawing of water.


It was, truly, one of the longest and most thorough cleanings each had ever either given or received.

By the end, night was chasing the last of the twilight blue from the sky.
Tomorrow we will retrieve your things, I can tell that your living circumstances are not satisfactory.”


Haifa raised one eyebrow.

You haven’t eaten, you haven’t bathed, you haven’t changed cloths in more than a day. That must mean…”

I’ll explain, but yes, since I am a ward, and my so called guardian has taken all of the money – there’s nothing.”

You promised me a story, we should set out chairs and have you tell it.





Unquenchable Fire A3

She awoke the next morning, across east the bay was lit, the sun was a florid orangish red, but was rapidly being covered over, it was as if an awning of light grey clouds was being slid across the sky. She saw something unfamiliar – she thought at first it was volcanic ash, which she knew from trips into the mountains, or perhaps one of the days where the swirling sulfur fell out of the air. But this was quite different, it drifted down, it floated, it hovered and then fell. In fact, it fell with ever greater speed and density.

She went out on to the balcony, and touched it – it was icy cold to the touch. She had been a little girl the last time she had seen – snow.

At that moment it was hitting the balcony and melting, but leaving behind a sheen of water with specks of ice in it. The wind began to blow more harshly. She shut out the outside, and went down stairs to fire up the oven, stacking it full of fuel and running the bellows. As she did this she continued to ponder her fate, and how, exactly, she was going to deal with the situation. Where to get the money from?

She was at a complete loss. It was not that she was not a practical person, she was studying mathematics and literature and business, and intended to take over, eventually, her father’s thriving trade in medical equipment and supplies. His own invention – a medical instrument for measuring the strength of the blood pumping – and his improvements to instruments for cutting the skin and muscle, were well thought of, and brought tremendous profits. She realized that it was his business no longer, that in 61 days there would be the reading of the will, and that she was now the owner of all of this, as soon as she could find a way to citizenship. The tears wanted to flow, but she gritted her teeth, put on a warmer, and then went to a lower cabinet where her father kept his coffee. 

She counted out 62 beans, ground them, and began making hot water to brew the coffee. In took sometime for it to get hot enough, but by that point the oven was letting off enough heat that she no longer felt desperately cold. She pulled all of the drapes across, which divided the downstairs into 9 separate rooms, to keep the heat in the small corner which was the kitchen .

There was a small window of glass that faced south, and at this point it was accumulating snow on the window sill. It was a off white color from the sulfur in it, but otherwise a kind of fine ornament. She looked south on the lower level of the town – she was on the last terrace of the Palm Quarter, which was somewhat above the basin in which the main town, with its canals and bridges. But it was enough to see the rooftops of most of the buildings until the harbor to the far south, and, if she peered around as far as she could, until the town center in the west. Thus, she thought of it as looking “down” on the rest of the city. The white was rapidly piling up, though still melting on the black shapes of the tubes of rubber which the sun warmed, and thus provided heated water.

This reminded her to draw off all of the water from the heater into the tank, as tepid as it would certainly be. This task occupied her for some time, as she had trouble with the valves and finally found the tools, selected a wooden mallet from among them, and managed to use it to tap the water open. There was a satisfying rushing sound, and she stood there, just listening to it, for how long she did not know. After that, she drew off some of the warm water, and began cleaning the kitchen – there were dishes from two days ago – and then as much else as she could reach. It was only when a ring from the front door came that she realized she had been doing all of this in her bed clothes. She rang the “wait” bell at the front, and went upstairs to change. She realized her damp cloths from before needed to be specially dried from the weather, but put off dealing with this until she could handle the problems of a visitor.

She decided to enforce that she was indisposed for the day by wearing house slippers. This was a rare thing, since almost all sociability occurred out of doors. But it was cold, snow, windy, nasty, and the entire town was in shock anyway. Some 100,000 people lived in Al-Quareshi or its immediate abutting villages, and it was a very dark day for many of them. She dreaded going down to the news boards for even more information, and then remembered her own promise to serve time among the widows.

She had reached the door, and opened it without checking who it was. There stood her cousin, dressed in a traveling cloak of strange design, with a heavy hood. It was, she finally realized, wool. It had a large metal clasp to hold it in place. He clearly wore some rather odd clothes under it, and heavy black boots. He looked refreshed, rather than cold, and swept in. Ibrahim was the son of her mother’s sister. The sister had died giving him life, and he, and his brother, had lived with her father ever since. They were also the idols of her young life, she longed to follow them, be with them, and be accepted by them in their sophisticated talk. For a long time they had ignored her, but, at a certain point, they allowed her in to their deliberations and secret world of adolescence. It did not occur to her until very recently, it was because she had started to mature, and lent their activities an air of respectability. They fed her love poems, and would instantly banish any that she found too bawdy or beneath notice. They tried out their introductions, and even dance steps with her. Learning gallantry – that new fashion acquired from the German lands – by teaching it to her.

He swept in, lifted her up. And proclaimed:

The God has brought me back to you. Though misfortune is the reason, bring me to the kitchen and let us be together!” It was an effusive bubbling, and he kissed her on both cheeks before setting her back down on her feet.


She took him by the hand, led him through the curtains and to the kitchen. He immediately smelled coffee, and looked at her. He raised an eyebrow, and she replied in kind.

Clearly you have matured more than just in body since I was last here.” Almost half an anna ago he had left. And yes, she thought, I am different.


She had only one cup of coffee made, but gave it to him, and he took only the barest of sips before handing it back to her.

My baggages are still on the ship. But we must first speak of darker things that will never be spoken of again.”


They drew to chairs into the kitchen, and as the snow stuck to the windows, and then day turned to dark, and his gaze on her hardened, his muscles tightened. There was a ripple in her chest and a quiver in her heart, she felt that he did not want to say what he was about to say.

-

At first she had an impulse to take the discussion to the divan, covered as it was with leather with its comfortable seats to set coffee or tea cups. It beckoned, to her, but the hard gaze from her interlocutor, and there was enough light coming from window to make where they were seem a fragile space which welcomed human presence, where the rest of the house came to feel with each passing moment to be a vast haunting place, like a cemetery or other forbidden place. Thus she looked at him, and leaned in from her chair, huddled around the fading warmth of her coffee cup.

He began, slowly, with a voice that seemed worn by talking, its edges filed, but not smoothed by fatigue.

I wish you to understand it should not have been like this. Much of what I have to say has been, hidden, from you.”

Was it my father’s wish?” It seemed difficult to believe that he would hide anything essential.

No, your father was opposed to the secrecy, but these are fragile times.” He paused. She could barely see his features, and thus did not really know whether he intended to go on or stop. She hesitated, heart sounding in her ears. He continued: “ There has been a more terrible defeat at Pradesh than even you will hear, though, because our small city took bears great losses, it will be known here as a weighty battle.” He again paused for longer than she was comfortable with.


This time, however she interrupted. “I have heard a story that we have left the war.”
That is not clear yet, but it is likely, and if we are wise, which we have not always been, it will be so. We will take payment in gold and silver in return for our accepting terms, if the reports I have are to be believed. But that is not the problem. It is not that we lost, it how we were beaten.”

And how was that.”

Our enemies used a weapon which is terrible in its aspect, far worse than any spear, shot, or even firearm. They used a poisonous gas, one which debilitates and kills. We know that they must have received great aid from others to create it. It not only ends our making war on the Vedic Kingdoms, but opens the possibility that they will take this weapon and use it to expand.”

So there is a fear over the land, and it is justified.”

But that is only the beginning.”

It seems enough.”

It is not. You do not know the past well enough, I who have seen the last of it still do not truly understand, your father fought in the Vedic Wars, he explained it as best he could.” 

In a sudden broad gesture, suited for the dark he waved his hand towards the front of the house. “South there is the Ocean Haram – the Ocean of Sanctuary. The sea forbidden to unbelievers. And once this was so, our armies swarmed across the borders and lands. Our ships and galleys brought Jihadeen to conquer, convert and subjugate. It is made into our culture.”

We were warriors once.” It was a phrase her father had used, like a ritual, to describe any behavior she had which surprised him, particularly one she picked up from other children or at the mosque.

Yes, but no more. There is to be a new way. We are to be merchants, manufacturers and mullahs. We are to be a new people. But we have the weight of the old government on us. A vizier who is a warlord by another name.”


She sipped more coffee, it burned down her throat, not from heat, but from a kind of grainy dryness. She was not familiar with the feeling, of coffee’s effect fading.

This is grand politics, and I am sure I should be interested. But what does it have to do with me.”

When the city is to heavy on the ground, there is an earthquake, when there is too much weight on a ship, it capsizes. Our land is set for many changes, and they will go on for some time. For now there are some who think that we are farther along than we are. They rush.”

And.”

Not all of the dead are dead at Pradesh. There was a second battle, one against our own people, to put down a revolt.”

Against the Vizier?”

The current Vizier is in a very precarious position, but no, against the established way. It was rootless, angry, and doomed. Al-Quareshi has its discontents, but not enough to rebel. There were many dead, many women and children.”


She drew breath in.

And still, I must ask as a poor woman child, what this is of mine.”

Do you not understand?” She could feel his look of slightly impatient explanation at this, and then he resumed: “You are about to be the inheritor of your father. He navigated the shoals of politics, for the old order grasps more and more of the profits of the land. Now that you own all that he owned, or will when you set affairs in order, you will too.”
My father did…”

“… business with the Germans, the Chishanese, the Veda, the Hellenikos, the Latins. And was watched all the time.”

He was a commander and a long serving member of the military.”

And he was a thinker, poet, surgeon, doctor, teacher and radical.”

Radical?”

You have no idea how differently your life has been from others.”

I know that the attitudes of our house were sometimes in appropriate to discuss outside.”
He stood and stretched, and did a small walk around the chair. And as he did.

More than this. And because of this, we are watched. People will be tried for merely breathing the wrong air, and deprived of their heads. There will be, for a time, open use of the secret police., the Talibeen.” She did not shudder, though many would, at the dread stories that were told of them.

And I will be watched?”

Soon, but not yet, after all, you are not of importance. But as soon as you announce that you are to assume citizenship. Yes.”

I will need help, and I have been offered. None.”


Here she tried to peer into the dark to get some sense of him.

I will send someone to you, he is young, but subtle, his name is Navid, and he is a surgeon, a student of your father’s.”


The name produced only a hazy recall of a rather silky face some annae before. He seemed, composed, with bright eyes, which, were unlike the cat’s eyes she saw each time she looked in the mirror.

For this I thank you.”


It seemed to reduce the conversation to quiet. And yet, there was an unbearable weight on it, and the silence was punctuated with the heavy glops of increasingly dense snow hitting the window.

It was she who could bear it no more.

Why have I received no help from my uncle?”

He is going to pretend to leave on business soon, but it will be long before he returns to your sight. He is fleeing to military command, where they will have trouble catching him.”

Why is this?”

They will think he knows what your father knew.”


It was her turn to break out of her hunch, and stretch. She yawned, and then stopped before it ceased.

What is that.”


There was a slow exhale.

I wish I knew. Probably little, which is worse than much.”

Surely such a mania would not grip us.”

It has gripped us for an age, the war in the Vedic lands was a mania, we had nothing to do with it.”

But The Faithful…”

Would have adapted. We are not the soldiers we once were, your father was of the last. He was a horseman, surgeon, tactician, planner. He trained every day of his boyhood for it. I less so, since at first I was destined for the mosque, or university.”


She almost laughed. “None of the young men I know or know of do that.”

It is neither good nor bad, it simply is. But it is not understood in the halls of power.”

And my uncle leaves, I become a citizen, and watch myself.” She began to get a little giddy. “Is that all.”

Traffic not in revolution, it is not yet in season.” He stood at this point.

Now I must return to my dwelling.”


She stood easily and stepped to him, putting her hand on his shoulder. “It is frightful out.”

He seemed to gaze at the window, at least his profile turned towards it.

You are right, more is about this night than man.”


He stood, turned towards her, and took her by the hand upstairs, where sleeping was. She had a hammock, and there was her father’s bed, which was an old fashioned kind with a tent than hung from the ceiling above it, and was in fact a hammock slung between two poles. The new beds were flat and sprung on a new innovation, the mattress. The sleeping on hammocks dated back to the first years of the faithful on Ishtar, to be ready for war.
He took the guest hammock near the glass doorways to the balcony, which is what he could easily see. She by default took her father’s place to sleep, and it was easy for her to fall into the ghostly darkness.

-