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Tuesday, October 25, 2017, 7 pm

Stories, Stories
The Mercury Cafe 
2199 California St.,
Denver, CO 

 

 

Finalist, F(r)iction Spring Short Story Contest, 2016

 

Aisha’s Daughters

            September in the Hindu Kush.  Sides of raw mutton hung like curtains in the vendors’ stalls.  Bare apple trees and gnarled mulberry bushes wound around in their brambled ways.  Fertile ground was sacred in this harsh land, where every tree was spoken for, watered, pruned, and harvested with care.  Scarecrows stood at attention on the piles of stones that separated small farm plots. Crows and jays ruled the days, and owls ruled the nights.

            Chanda Khan, Lia Chee, and I were an unlikely trio to emerge from the Peshawar bus.  I was a teacher trainer with an NGO; Lia, an American journalist, and Chanda, a young woman missing her left nostril.  We traveled without escort--no brother, no father, no son, no husband.

            My sister, Fiza, had found Chanda at the women’s shelter.  When she learned that I had accepted an assignment to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, she asked if I would take Chanda with me—to get her out of Lahore, where her father or brother might find her and finish the assault they had begun with her face. Against her father’s order, Chanda had gone into the Shahi Mohalla, Lahore’s red light district, to visit a childhood friend--a young dancer who had been teaching Chanda all the classic moves. I remember the urgency in Fiza’s voice, the way her eyes widened as she begged me, “She’s only seventeen, Baji. Please.”

            I was shocked by what had happened to this girl, but I did not like to get involved with these things.  There is misery everywhere.  What can one person do?  But Chanda Khan taught me that love, dancing and storytelling can cause the most cautious person to take risks.

            On the bus to Chitral I met Lia Chee. The last available seat was next to her.  Dressed in khaki trousers and wearing a red bandana tied around her neck, she looked like a Girl Scout. A bulge under her camp shirt suggested she had a fat moneybelt.  Lia talked non-stop all the way to Chitral, while she pressed a navy blue daypack between her knees.           

            “I am Chinese,” Lia had told me when we first introduced ourselves.  “From Singapore,” she said.  But during the ride, I found out that actually she was a Chinese-American from South Carolina.  “Who wants to be American in Taliban country?” she asked.

            In the back of the bus Chanda told Lia the story of the Shahi Mohalla. As I translated for her, she touched her fingertips to the bandage taped to the side of her face. Lia offered to let Chanda stay with her in Chitral at the Hilton, and in exchange, Chanda agreed to let Lia magazine’s publish her story. Over time I found out that Lia and I had more in common than I would have expected.

 

             We stepped off the bus and into the frosty air of Chitral, a remote town of twenty thousand souls.  Our breath clung to the bus’s windows like whispers of conversations left behind.  We were deep in Pathan country, where local culture defines life across western Pakistan and throughout Afghanistan.  There was an unfamiliar tang in my mouth that I later learned to recognize as gunpowder in the air.  Any excuse—a wedding, a birthday—and gunfire rang through the mountains.  The area had been notorious for arms dealing, supplying guns and missiles to cousins fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.  Everyone wanted automatic rifles stamped “Made in the U.S.A.”  Pistols and Kalashnikovs lay across the counters of the open bazaar, with boxes of shells stacked on the shelves behind the men in their woolen vests and flat hats.  A young boy with an AK-47 stood like a guard next to an open stall.   Guns were as common as bread.

            The men of Chitral lay their blankets on the cold ground for prayers.  The foreheads of the elderly were bruised from a lifetime of praising Allah. Some bought carrots, flour, and milk to carry in plastic shoppers to their mud-brick homes, where they handed the bags to their women.  The men wrapped themselves in woolen shawls and looked up to read the clouds.  At the bus depot Chanda and Lia loaded their parcels and backpacks into the trunk of a taxi, and we agreed to meet at the hotel in three days. 

            Two teachers from the local school met me at the station with their old Toyota and their driver.  They were eager to show me their school—one room with three walls where they offered classes to boys in the morning and to girls in the afternoon. They did not permit boys to attend unless their sisters could as well. When the girls turned ten, and began to observe purdah, the separation of females from public life, they became like puppies waiting, tied up in a courtyard.

The family’s modest wealth and the women’s determination had supported the school for the past three years. I would live in a teacher’s suite—one room and an outhouse-- in their family compound. I intended to stay for a year--if I could endure the strict rural life.

            The next morning I walked with Sabira to meet the other teachers and walk them to the compound. Through the open door of a makeshift madrassah I could see rows of young boys, sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth in their shawls, reciting the Q’ran.

            “They used to be our students, Sabira said.  “But the mullahs object to anything except education in the Q’ran.  Sabira opened her arms to the sky as she mimicked the mullahs.  “‘Geography, history, literature—these tempt young people away from God.’”

            At noon we washed and prayed before sitting outside my room in the sun-baked courtyard. We shared a pot of tea, a bowl of lentils, and bread.  “Everything here starts with the Q’ran,” said Sabira, pulling the bread apart with her fingers and dipping it into the warm lentils.

            It’s almost the Taliban here, I thought.  I was a secular Muslim and at this time--in the mid-1990s—I had never participated in a regular round of ablutions and prayer.  But, as part of the daily routine in Chitral, I became accustomed to it.  Over time, I believe it changed me. 

            “The Prophet  (Peace be unto him) lived a simple life, and was gentle to women,” Sabira continued.  She sighed.  “Oh, that he would return to remind these men how to treat women!”

            Tahira was the youngest of the three sisters, bright-eyed and chubby.  She told me about a girl whose father had forbidden her to return to the school. Tahira’s voice split as she spoke.             “She threw herself off the roof of her house and broke her neck,” Tahira recalled, her eyes fixed on a distant point.  “--and the next week another girl did exactly the same thing—died throwing herself off the roof of her house.”           

            “Easy enough for grown men to criticize a young girl—such an easy target,” said Asma, the oldest sister. Her voice was on fire and I recognized the burn.            The conversations of women when they are alone are the same everywhere.  In all the places I have taught-- cities, seashores and deserts, and now in the northern mountains—it’s all the same.  Women’s dissatisfaction is the cough that won’t go away. 

            I saw an old man hobbling through the courtyard gate.  He wore a long white coat and lungi and the Pathan hat.  He had the orange henna beard of a Hajji.  He neither looked at us nor walked near us, as he padded across the courtyard and disappeared into a mud-brick room.  A scraggly red dog slipped in the door behind him.

            “Our grandfather, Aga Ji,” Sabira said, nodding in his direction.  “He does not speak to women outside of the family, so he won’t come over here as long as you are with us.  Nothing personal to you, but he will stay away.  It’s just his way.”

            “But how will that work if we take meals together?” I asked.

            “We eat before or after the men, so it is no problem.  We will hardly notice him come or go. He takes care of it himself.  He waters and prunes a few poplars for one of the landlords, then spends the day at the mosque and the teahouse. He lives in his own world--he and his dog.”

 

            On Monday it was sunny.  I pulled on my boots and walked along the muddy road to meet Lia and Chanda. I looked up to face Tirich Mir, the baby toe of the northern mountains, the 25,000-foot wall of sheer rock and ice that stood at the gate of the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, and the Himalayas.  It was awesome to behold, impossible to climb, an enchanted place, as if the mountains were the only beings who knew the way things are and the way they always have been:  the Hindu Kush, ancient Hindu Killer, was The Historian who recorded everything and forgot nothing; the Karakoram Range, black rock, was The Geologist of a petrified future; and, The Philosophers were the Himalayas, the field of snow, where the One Mind abides.   I admit I trembled in their shadow. 

            I knew that Tirich Mir was no protector. Soon it would be October when the mountain would offer no hospitality and the winter winds would blow whiteness around, covering the known world. Twice a week a plane flew to Chitral from Peshawar, the inaccessible city only a thought away from the lost horizon. I heard a falcon shriek and suddenly it swooped down, still high above me in its endless search for rodents and water.

            The Chitral Hilton was surrounded by a brick wall with glass shards embedded along the top.  Fiery red bushes framed a shallow pool where hundreds of floating candles were lit at twilight. Sparrows flew cheerily through the open lobby.   Small groups of businessmen as well as trekkers and guides clustered around the enormous lobby.   Embroidered wall hangings depicted local battles—against the Mongols, against the British, even a new one depicting a snowy mortar attack against Russians.  Elephant blood ran beet red against the untouchable snow of the Khyber Pass. I saw Lia and Chanda sitting on the terrace.  Chanda was wearing a lavender shalwar kameez, the loose pants and overshirts traditionally worn by both men and women in Pakistan. Her gold necklaces gleamed in the sunlight. A string of seed pearls was attached to her hair on one side of her head under a gold-trimmed dupatta.  The other end of the string of pearls was attached to a small bandage where the side of her nose used to be. The bandage was covered with gold glitter.  I was speechless at her transformation from a wounded bird of a girl into this elegant woman. In the glow of her face and the flash of her bangles, Chanda Khan was the acclaimed Pathan beauty revealed.

            I shook my head in disbelief.

            “She has finally found out who she is, and she will be nothing else.  ” said Lia, clearly enjoying my reaction.   “I’m pretty brassy, but I wish I had her pluck.  I mean, look at that girl.”

            Chanda nudged Lia with her elbow.

            “She can’t wait for me to tell you,” Lia announced, laughing. “Chanda got a job!”

            “Dancer!” Chanda said in English.  “No nose!”  She pointed to her bandage.  Chanda and Lia’s laughter infected me, too, and we giggled like schoolgirls.

            “Stop!” Lia pleaded, trying to catch her breath, “I’ll wet my shalwar.”  And we laughed some more.  When we saw the waiter bringing ice cream, we regained our composure.  “It’s too wonderful!  And I get to tell the world her story.” 

            “Tell me first!” I begged.  And while Chanda enjoyed the attention she was attracting from the hotel guests, Lia told me about the previous three days.

            “First, we did a little shopping,” Lia said.  “My magazine, Nature and Nurture, did some extra “nurturing,” shall we say, and bought Chanda several fabulous dance costumes.  Classical.  Tasteful. Perfect for her audition.”

            “Audition?” I asked.

            “Yes.  We took a taxi into the backwaters of Chitral, where the artists hang out—the woodworkers, weavers, potters.  There we found--in Chitral of all places, “Aisha’s Daughters.”   

Named for the Prophet’s youngest wife, a warrior and political leader, Aisha’s Daughters was a traveling theater company, they told me, that was in need of a classical dancer. Mostly young women, and a few men, they performed skits, dances, comedy routines—even puppet shows—all about the relations between men and women—about dowries, street harassment, marriages to the Q’ran, honor killings.  Some women were married, and their husbands worked with them.  The other men pretended to be brothers of the single women, so that no one bothered them.  They planned to stay in Chitral until the snow fell. 

            “Then Chanda will be safe.  She will move with them to Sargodha and on down the valley,” said Lia.  “She danced for them like an angel. Her movements were silkier than the clothes she is wearing.  No ankle bracelets, no razzle-dazzle, no seduction, no rupees in the belt.  Just dancing-- lonely, glorious, solemn, proud.  Really, it broke my heart to watch her.”

            “But what about her--you know,” I said, whispering, tapping my nose.

            “They ate it up!” said Lia.  “They presented the story of her attack, and her sliced nose, as the truth unveiled:  ‘This is what happens behind the veil, behind the metal gates,’ they said.  They encouraged Chanda to dance with her nose just as it is.”  Chanda laughed when Lia stopped talking.  She pulled on my arm.

            “Baji,” she said, adding in English.  “Now Chanda not too nosey!”

 

            That evening Asma told Aga Ji that he must accompany us to Chanda’s performance.  Aga Ji never looked at me.  He sat in front with the driver who stopped the Toyota at a nondescript metal gate across from the ice factory.  Inside, a tent-like canvas covered the courtyard where twinkling white lights had been strung.  In one corner a few musicians assembled—a tamboura, tabla, and tambourines.  The audience of twenty or thirty men sat cross-legged on blankets, leaving an open circle in the middle for the performers.  Bags of walnuts and dried apples were being passed around.

            “Assalam aleikum,” said the emcee, with a wide smile across his face.  He wore a striped woolen shawl and bright cap.  The crowded mumbled its response, and peace also to you.

 “We have a very special performance tonight,” he continued, “the debut of one of Pakistan’s finest interpretive dancers—Chanda Khan.”

            The lights dimmed.  The emcee disappeared into darkness.  Then slowly the stage lights came up, focused on Chanda’s still body and her outstretched arms.  The sparkles on her nose patch caught the light.  Only her pale eyes lined with thick kohl moved.  They circled the courtyard, stopping briefly to match the gaze of each of us in the audience.  It was not a seductive move, although it drew us in.  Her glances seemed to be the oath of a witness, with a surprising and powerful effect.  It was over in less than a minute, and then the steady rhythm of drum and the tambourine began. Chanda’s movements were lyrical, steady like the strings of the tamboura, as she practiced the most basic moves of a beginner.  She took small steps to each side of her central spot, always returning modestly to that point.  Her glossy, stained lips opened soundlessly as the emcee returned to tell the crowd her tale as she danced.  Chanda hugged another dancer and the friends pantomimed waving goodbye, as Chanda covered her head and face with a gossamer veil and moved into the imaginary street alone.  When a male dancer entered the circle, he pulled Chanda into the shadow.  The crowd gasped.  Then an older dancer appeared at the edge of the circle and Chanda recognized him. 

            “Bapi, Bapi,” she cried out joyously.  “Father, Father, rescue me!”  The audience was relieved as the father approached. 

            “Whore!”  the emcee shouted out in the voice of Chanda’s father.  Instantaneously, the young man bound her arms behind her back.  The father’s blade glinted in the light and sliced the night in front of Chanda’s face.  She fell to the ground as the men ran away and the music stopped.  The sparkly patch wa gone.  A pool of beet red stage blood dripped into her cupped hand.  A man in the audience stood, outraged.

            “Where were the four witnesses?” he shouted, cutting the air with his fist.

            “Yes, the Q’ran demands that there be four pious witnesses to fornication!” said another.

             “There were none,” Chanda said in her own voice.

            The audience was silent as again Chanda looked into each one’s eyes and they knew in their hearts the truth of her courage and the truth of her dance.  I looked behind me to read Aga Ji’s face.  His eyes were wet with tears as he cried silently, shamelessly.

 

            In winter the pace of Chitral slowed like the pulse of a bear, as all life submitted to the twin fates of climate and altitude. My life became a constant effort to stay warm.  The river froze over quickly, and man-sized blocks of ice littered the riverbanks. I wore home-spun leggings, mittens, and shawls. Snowdrifts blocked the roads. All the woolen layers made me feel lethargic and heavy. I collected snowmelt to place by the kerosene stove for cooking, drinking, and washing. We ate oil and grains, dried fruit, peas and beans, and I began to put on weight. 

            Religious practices gradually became part of my daily routine. 

            “Maybe it’s the altitude getting to my brain, or the long, cold winter,” I told Sabira, “but there is something quite cave-like about isolation in this slow-moving life centered on the core of Islam that means so much.” It was new to me, a quiet, naturally contemplative life. I decided to fast during Ramadan.   I realized that for the first time I was fulfilling four of the Five Pillars—faith in God, daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, and service to the poor. The only one left was the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca I was obliged to do once, if I was able.  But I was not eager either to join a throng of two million and their patriarchs.

            Aisha’s Daughters decided to stay in Chitral for the winter, and their performances continued in the artists’ quarter. Chanda’s wound healed and her bandage became smaller and smaller until all that remained was a scar and her sparkly patch.  But all winter long the mullahs murmured about Chanda’s dancing.  The city’s prayer beads clicked and clicked their disapproval. 

            “In Islamabad women artists are resigning from the theater and taking the veil.  Why not here?” they asked. “The Kalash men and women dance publicly together, and they are kafir, infidels.  What will be next?”

            My youngest brother, Amir, arrived in Chitral on the day that the first impassable snowstorm began. He looked oddly modern in his denim pants and blue sweater.  Amir had collected donations of used computers while in the U.K., and shipped them to us.  He offered to install them at the school. I could hardly wait to see him. It was a double blessing!

            “You know I wouldn’t be here if Abbu had not insisted,” Amir told me impatiently after we climbed into the back seat of the car.  “Computers need a dry, temperate climate for their survival—and, by the way, so do I.”

            “You always were a bit spoiled,” I teased.  

            The only sound in the hushed city was our tires crunching the snow.  On the streets the loudspeakers that hawked blankets and prayers had shut down.  The air was cleared of the stench of diesel.  Wood smoke hovered, then dissolved into the river.  Day and night, the valley wore every shade of white.  All of the city’s sharpness had softened and rounded, except one.

            “There it is, Amir--” I said, as the Toyota crawled along the main street. I hooked my arm into his and hugged while I pointed.  “—Shahi Mosque, its minaret is a needle that pierces this cottony world.  On clear days its blinding light is magnetic.”

            “You are going to the mosque?” he asked.

            “I pray at home now,” I said.  “But just wait.  You’ll see what happens to you here.”

 

            In spring, the teachers’ father, Syed, returned home from Peshawar where he had been teaching at the university. Nothing gave Sabira, Tahira, and Asma more pleasure than seeing their father happy.

            One day Syed and Amir hauled cedar logs into the compound to build a wall for the school, while Aga Ji directed the work.  The women watched, picking their teeth.

            “Put the wall over there,” Aga Ji insisted, pointing to the opposite side of the courtyard.

            “But, Aga Ji, the school is over here.  We are building a wall for the school,” Syed reminded his confused father.

            “Of course, the school is over there,” he replied, hesitating.   “I knew that.  Well, put it over next to the school’s other three walls, you idiots,” he shouted.  “Why in the world would you put it over here by my room?”  Amir laughed out loud.

            “Do whatever he says, Amir,” I shouted.  “He’s the head man.”  It was always wonderful there when everybody was at home.

            Amir told me about the day that Aga Ji made him an honorary Pathan.  Amir was recovering from the hour he had spent pulling a wagon full of bricks and mud. The clouds were playing a game with their humans, drifting in front of the vanishing, then reappearing, face of the sun. He was chilled from the sunless sky and was putting on his heavy wool coat when he saw Aga Ji approach him.  The old man moved with purpose, muttering and flapping his arms like a chicken.  His red dog ran far ahead, returning to Aga Ji’s side again and again.

            “I must talk to you, young man,” Aga Ji said with authority.  Amir rose from the pile of wires that circled his knees.   “Syed is away for the day, and I am too old.  You are the oldest, so you must take this responsibility for the men of the family. We are Pathan.  If anyone asks for our protection, we must give it--even at the cost of our lives.  And it is our first duty to protect women--even those who are not of our blood.” Amir’s eyes popped open as Aga Ji continued.

“In the coffeehouse they say that the mullahs are discussing Chanda Khan again.  Although they have no witnesses, they say she is a fornicator and they have issued a fatwa, a religious ruling.  The mullahs say to kill her on sight.”

 

            Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!            God is great!  Prayer is better than sleep!  I heard the muzzein’s morning call as if it were in a dream. As if Abraham were crying at what had to be done.  Each tear broke open like a heavy star exploding in the winter night.

            I pushed open the shuttered window to let in starlight and fresh air, feeling grateful that Allah’s name awakened me again, so I could spend another day loving this difficult world. I wrapped in a heavy shawl, and, for ablutions, I circled my fingertips lightly over the sheet of ice in my washing bowl.  Then, when I bent to unroll my prayer mat, I caught a glimpse of movement in the stillness outside.  One of the animals must have gotten loose! It moved again.

            I lifted the wire latch to my room and walked straight across the courtyard in front of the main house and school.  Directly opposite my room, a mud brick shed housed goats and a few chickens. I saw a child hidden under the feeding trough, huddled in a blanket. Beneath a wool cap, thatched hair fell over his closed eyes.  He gripped a line of rope attached to an old donkey.

            “Assalam aleikum,” I said to them.

            “Waleikum salaam.” A small voice from the darkness. The child did not move.

            “What are you doing here?” I asked in Khowar.  There were more than fourteen languages spoken in the Chitral Valley, and I knew only four.  “Do you attend classes here?” I asked next in Pashto.  Silence.  “Tell me your name, boy,” I demanded in Urdu. I reached under the trough with both arms and pulled the child out. His lips were dry and cracked, and his eyes looked vacant from exhaustion.  “Something to eat?” I asked, motioning toward my mouth with cupped fingers.  “Naan?”  He nodded twice very quickly. “Follow me.  Leave the donkey here,” I instructed, pointing first to the animal and then to the ground.

            “No!” he said in Khowar.  He was clutching the end of the rope with his bare hand. I forced the rope out of his hand and looped it over a broken post.

            “No one will take her from here,” I told him.  The boy unwrapped himself and the covered the donkey with his blanket. When he turned around, even in the dark, I could see the little grin he flashed.  He bolted across the dirt courtyard toward the tiny light from my window.

I heated water on a single-burner stove and prepared two cups for tea. I unwrapped a long loaf of Kandahari naan that I stored in a clean cloth.  I offered some to him, along with a handful of dried apples.  He sniffed the scent of yeast from the cloth and sat cross-legged on the floor next to the wall.  He ate quickly, leaving one small piece of naan and a slice of apple on his knee.

            Where are you from?” I asked him.  “Why are you here?” He said nothing. “How can I help you?”  I knew what I was looking at; I had seen it before.  He was deciding whether to trust me.  He studied my eyes.

             “Allah has sent me. I am running away,” he said.  He spoke so softly I was unsure if I had heard correctly.

            “Running away?”

            “From a landlord in the valley.  I have walked all night to get this far,” he said.  “Don’t send me back there.  I beg of you.”  He turned his head away again, hesitating. “You have a kind face, Madam. Please help us.  My donkey is hungry.”  He took the bit of food he left uneaten and cupped it in his hand.  “Do you have more food for her, too?”

            I gave the child the entire loaf of naan and a small piece of cheese, and he divided it in two.  He folded half of the bread around the cheese and tucked it into his pants pocket.  He mixed the rest of the food with the dried apples in his open hand.  

            “Shukriah, thank you, Madam,” he said, rising, inching toward the door.

            “You come back here after you feed her,” I told him.  I poured water from a plastic jug into small pan.  “Here,” I said, handing it to him.  “Take this, too.”  While the boy fed his donkey, I mumbled my morning prayer as fast as I could.“I can see you want me to be wide awake this morning,” I said to God.  “To solve this little mystery you have put on my doorstep.”

            By the time the door creaked open and the child returned, the day was dawning.  In a beam of light I noticed dark red stains on the boy’s pants and shoes.   He was bleeding!  Red footprints spotted the little rug on the dirt floor.  The boy saw and jumped away.

            “Please forgive me,” he said, bending to wipe the rug with his bare hand.  I turned up the wick on the kerosene lamp and opened the window to get a better look.

            “What happened to you?” I asked.  I led him to the bed and felt his shoulder relax under my hand.  I placed a dhurrie over the bed and laid him down.  His trousers were soaked in blood.  It was a wonder he could walk at all.  I started to pull off the wet clothes.

            “No!  Don’t!” he protested, pushing me away.  He sat against the wall.

            “You asked for my help, young man.  Now let me help you.” I knew not to argue with him.  I waited, and the boy began to sob. “Here, drink this tea,” I said, lowering my voice.  I handed him the chipped cup he left on the floor.  “For now, I am your doctor, so you follow my orders.  You are safe. No one else knows you are here.”

            I pulled down the trousers.  There were no cuts anywhere on his legs or feet, but his underwear was soaked.  He squirmed in a half-hearted effort to get away from me. Carefully I took out my knife and slit open both seams on the underpants. Again the boy pulled away, closing his legs against my efforts.  I tugged on the front piece to pull the fabric out from underneath, and began to wipe the dried blood from his groin. 

            “God help us!” I whispered,  “You’re a girl.  Oh, look how you’ve been torn to pieces!  Who did this to you?  Who?”

            “The landlord,” the girl said, with tears spilling onto her shirt. “But this is nothing.  Will you help my donkey? Go look at what he did to her!”

            O Allah, this child needed you?  Look what you have brought me today! I covered her with goatskin and waited until she was asleep before entering the shed to look more closely at the animal.  It was covered with sores and scars.  Along each ear, V-shaped gouges were sliced out in a rickrack pattern, as a woodworker might do.  Its tail and hooves, too, were cut and wounds oozed with blood and pus.  Whiplashes crossed its haunches.  Its vagina was pulpy and red. The old girl was barely breathing.

            I stood in the courtyard watching the last star fade. There was not much time. What was to be done before they came looking for me, calling me to breakfast? Aga Ji opened the gate for a student who arrived early to prepare the classroom.  

            “I am quite sick today,” I told her.  “Please tell the others that I wish to be alone, and I would be very grateful if you would give some water to the donkey in the shed.  I found it wandering around outside the gate and let it in.” 

            The child must have heard me lie to cover up for her and to get her donkey some help.  She seemed quite cheerful when I returned.  “May I have some more tea?” she asked.  I applied more ointment to her sores with my fingertips and told her that we would have to find a doctor so she could be checked internally. The girl pulled her knees to her chest at the mention of an examination. 

            “Not now, of course,” I reassured her. “But soon.  It’s all right. It’s what women do if they are hurt or having a baby, or. . . “ I had to know, so I suddenly asked her, “Are you pregnant?”

            “I don’t know,” she answered.  “I’ve never had my monthly time.”  I continued to touch her gently.  I could feel her relax again.

            “You really had me fooled,” I said. “Now don’t fool me again.  Tell me what has happened to you.  Tell me everything.  Who are you?”

            Pushing her thick, black hair out of her eyes, she sat up on my bed, and leaned into the corner of the cold concrete walls.  She squirmed as she spoke.  She told me her name was Tasnim Ali Khan.

            “Eleven years old,” she said.  “My family, we are herders—goats, sheep, cows—in the Gur Valley, where we have lived for hundreds of years.  My father owed money to the landlord, and when he could not pay, the landlord asked for me as payment.”  She looked at me as if ashamed.  “But my mother refused,” she stated with a nod.  “But after my mother died, my father gave me to the landlord anyway.” 

            I sat down next to her.  Tasnim told me that her father tied her onto the bank of his donkey and delivered her “like a bag of wool,” she said.  Then she told me that this landlord not had a woman in twenty years.  What his body couldn’t do to her, he did with sticks and bottles and anything else he could find. When he was through with her he would send her to the barn to sleep.  He thought it was punishment because it was cold in the barn.  He wanted the bed for himself.  But to her, it was the best part of the day because she could be with her mother’s donkey she named Sheikha. So she made a plan, and when the moon was new, she cut off her hair and put on boys’ clothes, led Sheika out of the barn, and they ran through the woods all night, as fast as they could.  In the morning they saw our gate was open and crawled into the shed to sleep.  I was in awe of the sheer bravery of this child, dumbfounded in the face of it.             “Sleep now,” I said. “We will find a way out of this together.  You, me, and Sheikha.  I promise.”

 

            Later that same day , Amir knocked on my door to tell me about the fatwa against Chanda. I saw the opportunity and knew exactly what needed to be done.

            “I will go to town now to talk to Chanda,” I said. “She can leave on the morning flight to Peshawar.   If she travels as your wife and wears a full burqa, it should raise no questions.”

            “She can stay with my friends in Islamabad,” Amir said.

            “One thing is very important, Amir--tell no one else.  No one must know how Chanda escaped. Not your friends in Lahore. No one. I will impress on Chanda also how dangerous it would be for all of us if our part in this were known.  It would make it more difficult in the future to help others.  You must understand this, Amir.  Do not even tell Father or Fiza.” 

            “Even Fiza?” he asked.

            “Even Fiza,” I repeated. He nodded like an obedient child.

            “What about Lia?  She knows about the fatwa.”

            “Especially do not tell Lia.  I love her dearly and she loves Chanda, too, and has been so good to her.  But Lia is a journalist, and an American.  Hers is a different world than ours. No, she will figure it out on her own after Chanda has disappeared.  But there is something you can tell Fiza when you reach Lahore.”

            “What’s that?”

            “She will have to get medical help for your son.”

            “My what?”

            “You and your wife have an eleven-year old son who will be traveling with you when you go to Lahore tomorrow.  Don’t ask me anymore about it.  Remember what I said?” she asked him, waiting to see if he had been listening. 

            “Tell no one,” he answered, soundlessly mouthing the words for dramatic effect.

            “My clever boy.”  I laughed and held him tightly.

 

            That night Amir brought Chanda to my room where no one would see her.  Tasnim insisted on staying in the shed with Sheikha.  The old donkey lay on its side in the dirt, straining to lift her neck barely an inch off the floor when she heard Tasnim cooing to her. 

            “Nan . . . nan . . . nan . . .” Tasnim cried in Khowar for her mother.  She curled up like a cat, and nestled into the warm belly of the donkey.  She laid her head tenderly on Sheikah’s flank.  When I pulled blankets over them, the donkey snorted and the girl sighed.  Soon they were asleep.  I lay down in the straw next to them, winding one blanket around me and folding another one into a makeshift pillow.  Underneath the pillow I slipped a revolver.

            I was restless all night long, waking at the sighing of the wind or the stirring of the goats, until finally I heard the muzzein’s call.  I rubbed the tip of my shawl back and forth against the frozen crust of the donkey’s water until the corner was wet.  Then I wiped my hands, spread the blanket, faced Mecca, and knelt to pray.  Soon the roosters passed the muzzein’s prayers along into the morning. My heart’s dogs shook off the night.  I carried yoghurt, bread and hot milk tea from the house into the shed.  Tasnim was awake, nuzzling Sheikha’s lifeless face.

            “She won’t wake up,” she cried.  She pushed her hands against the animal’s side.

            “She is sleeping with Allah now,” I said, but Tasnim squinted, wriggling her nose her eyes as she spoke.

            “No! She is not!  Not with Allah.  She is sleeping with my mother.”

            When Amir arrived by taxi, I put Tasnim in the backseat next to Chanda who was wearing a blue shuttlecock burqa.  Tasnim wore washed trousers with a fresh kurta on top.  With the felt hat over her short-cropped hair, and a long woven coat, she looked like an eleven-year old boy. I introduced Tasnim as Hamid. They had no need to know their make-believe son was really a girl.  No reason to involve them knowingly in the rescue of Tasnim. Amir had contacted Fiza who would be waiting for them once they reached Lahore.  She would know what to do from there, and she would know not to ask too many questions 

            “You will be safe,” I said.  “Inshallah.  God willing.”

            When we met later for tea, Lia demanded to know where Chanda and Amir were.

            “Who?”  I asked her.

            “Don’t be coy with me—where are they?  I was up with the birds this morning and she was already gone.  I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.”  I wondered if Lia was dense or only pretending to be dense.  Amir said that Lia knew about the fatwa.  Couldn’t she figure out what happened?

            “Maybe they eloped,” I said.  “Let’s change the subject.”

            “Change the subject!  There is a fatwa against Chanda.  Maybe some zealots kidnapped her,” she added.  The hotel waiter brought us tea and sweetmeats, and we stopped talking until he finished serving.  The silence gave Lia a chance to reflect.  “Now I get it,” she said.  “Amir took Chanda away for her protection.  Otherwise, you’d have your feathers all ruffled. That’s it, isn’t it?  Probably took the morning flight to Peshawar.”

            “My lips are sealed.”

            “You mean you will not confirm nor deny.  I hate that about you,” Lia exploded.  “You always leave me out when something exciting is going on.  You think I can’t be trusted because I’m American, right?  Because I’m not a Muslim. ”  Lia’s frustration was spilling open.  She sat there fuming.  “Now I won’t know how her story ends,” Lia whined.

            “Well, you know two endings that weren’t possible—her being a theater dancer in Chitral, and her being murdered in a fatwa. Isn’t that truth enough?” I asked.

            “OK, I guess,” Lia said, calming down.  “I guess I can work with that.”  She lowered her voice.  “But next time you go on a rescue, can I please come with you?  Just once?”

            “I can’t promise you that.”

            “When do I get to be part of the solution?  I have been writing stories about people like Chanda for years,” Lia continued.  “I want to do something real, to help even one person.”

            “We’ll think of something,” I said, emphasizing the “we.”  That is when I realized that Lia was becoming part of the family, too.  “Don’t leave Pakistan,” I urged her.  “Come with me to Lahore.  I want you to meet my sister and her friends.  If you are serious about working on these issues, they are the people for you to know.”  A big smile spread across her face.

             “I can’t wait to get out of here,” she said.    “Let’s go today.”

            I left Lia at the hotel and walked back to the school in the afternoon brilliance.  I bound my wool shawl securely against the wind, donned my sunglasses, tugged on my work boots, and trekked along the tractor paths.  I passed the bazaar and turned down the road to the school.  The sky was a high blue, crisp and cerulean, a mile above sea level and four miles below the summit of Tirich Mir.  I inhaled the cold air, feeling happiness expanding inside me. By now Amir, Chanda and Tasnim would be leaving Peshawar on the flight to Lahore, and by the end of the day Fiza would take Tasnim to the hospital.  Chanda would dance again.  Amir was home.  The teacher training I had come for was almost done. 

            I passed the entrance to Chitral Gol, the wildlife sanctuary where snow leopards hunt horned goats. A tree sparrow and a whistling thrush sang on the holly oaks on the cliff. In a field of snow-covered rhubarb, a pair of partridges called back and forth in staccato, as if I were a wild cat they were warning other birds.  Crows swarmed as one body, cawing their criticisms wildly.  Who is she?  What is she doing?  Why is she alone?  Where is her husband?

            When I reached out to push open the gate to the enclave, I heard Aga Ji arguing with someone. He sounded very distraught.  I pulled back to watch through the crack between the doors.  A rotund figure in a striped wool shawl was shaking his walking stick at Aga Ji. Two boys I had never seen before appeared to be searching for something.  They entered the rooms around the courtyard despite Aga Ji’s ordering them to keep away.  Suddenly, the man yelled to the boys.  One raced into the driver’s seat of the Jeep, and the other one tripped as he opened the gate.  I hid behind a clump of scrub oak as the Jeep slid through and turned toward town.  I could hear the master’s shouting as they drove away.

            “Baji, Baji,” Aga Ji cried out when he saw me slip in through the gate.  A sheet of tears spread down his scraggly cheeks.  I was shocked to hear his voice.  He had never spoken to me in the six months I had lived there.  I ran to him while he knelt on the ground next to the lean-to, holding a cloth to the head of his shivering, little red dog.

            “Who was that?” I asked.  Aga Ji just shook his head.           

            “Hanum Ali Khan,” he said.  “He’s looking for his wife.  Somehow he thinks we have stolen her! He is going to the police to register kidnapping charges against us.”  His voice cracked.  “Look what he has done.”  Aga Ji opened the cloth to reveal his dog’s ears.  Each one was gouged with a V-shaped mark.  I ran to the shed. The dead donkey’s throat was sliced open, and her hide soaked in a puddle of blood.

 

            I had to find a way to leave the school compound without being seen.  I telephoned Lia.

            “Want to come on a rescue?” I asked.

            “So soon?  Of course I do, but who?  When?”

            “Me,” I answered. “Now do exactly as I say. And tell no one.”

            “Well, damn, girl.  You’re letting me into the club.”

            Soon Lia arrived at the school by taxi.  She instructed the driver to collect a special package from Tahira—a large tamboura case wrapped in thick blankets.

            “My friend is a musician and I promised to bring this to him,” Lia said to the driver.  Syed lifted one end and the driver tied the other to the roof of his car.  “Drive very slowly,” Lia instructed.  “Don’t damage the merchandise.”

            Inside the case, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply and evenly through a metal tube Aga Ji had bored into the side of the tamboura case.  For the next three days—until the Saturday flight left for Peshawar, I remained in hiding at the Hilton.  Lia did not let waiters or housekeepers into her room.  She ordered room service, or large portions for meals in the dining room and brought the leftovers to me.  We passed the days playing cards, watching TV, checking the Internet, and watching the activity on the street.

            By Saturday, I wore a boyish European style haircut and heavy make up.  I borrowed a pants suit from Lia, dark glasses, and a stylish floppy hat purchased in the gift shop.  I no longer looked like the Pakistani schoolteacher in work boots and a shalwar kameez. I passed by the police station easily on our way to the airport.

            Deep in one pocket, I carried my handgun and in the other, the Q’ran. 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Sisters Made of Light


Praise for My Sisters Made of Light

"Jacqueline St. Joan writes with the passion of a life-long feminist and the insight of wide experience. She brings to her story what she brought to the law, a conviction that life is full of both struggle and purpose and that grace comes to us when we have no reason to expect it." —Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina

In her writing, St. Joan comes much closer to Kristof, than she does to Larsson, though with a healthy dash of Harriet Beecher Stowe. In fact, this novel’s moment of conception could have come straight out of a 19th century sentimentalist’s imagination:  The night that St. Joan met Aisha, “As we washed dishes after a small meal, we recalled the course of the abused women we had known, and with our hands in dishwater, both of us silent, we began to weep.  Impulsively, I quietly asked her if I could write her story."  —Mendy Gladden, The New Mexican

I met the author in Manhattan by pure chance and, as I usually do when I meet an author, I bought her book on the spot. I figured I'd read it...I dunno...sometime. I have a busy life and a huge list of books I'm slowly eating my way through, and this would take its place in the back of the line. The subway back to Brooklyn from Manhattan that night was deadly slow, so I pulled the novel out of my bag and--what the hey--started to read. Just a taste before I hit home, where I'd stick it on the shelf for now and...When I looked up again, it was my stop; I had to scramble to get out before the doors slammed shut.—Susan O'Neill, author of Don't Mean Nothing

"I started reading My Sisters Made of Light and could not put it down. It is a powerful story, well-presented, well-researched, and written with passion. The labor of duty became a labor of love. I read voraciously but have not come across a work which deals so effectively and skillfully with the cultural fault lines of Pakistani society." —S. Akhtar Ehtisham, author of A Medical Doctor Examines Life on Three Continents: A Pakistani View