My mother’s English jerks like a mare that has sighted the Danube. Her tongue is tied with white lace and folktales and the song of Balkan crones and nymphs around a forest fire. My mother’s tongue speaks one language but is understood by all. Her tongue always gives her away like a “runaway bride” or one of the other “Americanisms” she has learned after arriving in the land of the dead Last Mohicans. She is always troubled by her treacherous un-conforming mouth parts, but mostly by her ancestry. My mother, she says, “fruet” instead of normal fruit, and researches how best to pickle plums in America and “where can one find good cow-cheese for burek?”
She says mila, dear sweet girl – come here, help me with these stolen Mohican words.” She chews on a Bic while comparing Cyrillic and Latin letters in her copybook and her blue eyes take on the color of ink. She sighs, “I am stupid. Never did well in school, or perhaps it’s early Alzheimer’s like that of my great-great aunt Vera. She too, died alone in a foreign country that didn’t want her because of her tongue. Imagine, I survived a war, and your father’s hate and my fear of the American man, but am afraid of their alphabet – mostly W – demonic letter that it is.”
And she then calls me Mila, like my grandmother’s name, and it
sounds like poetry but then she says “wacuum” pulling V over the words with a
sucking that feels like a death rattle each time, like something that might
finally kill her is stuck in her long neck. My mother’s Ws are hard but she is
a Durmitor rock and her words are
fragments – she speaks like she wants to forget the vowel-less language of her
ancestors and the shape of their black mountains.
Later, at the 7-Eleven we stop for
a crushed ice slushy and when she asks for wet
wipes she trembles, spilling words like quarters from a Blue purse that is
embroidered with a single rose that is Red. My mother’s tongue was molded in
the Balkans; she can only hear the strumming of a tamburitsa song in her mind.
Every day, at sunrise, he tells her he loves her. The words slip through his lips like honey, still heavy and full with her kisses, the memory of the night before running through his body like those unpredictable flash floods in the Hajar Mountains. I love you. Bahebek. He says it right before the call for prayer makes the sky erupt into a soulful Arabic melody and before it turns into a gently woven Persian carpet, threaded with sun-spun gold.
His hands are brown, her husband, and the fingers long and slender.
He could have been an oud player in another world. Oh, what delicate poetry, as sweet as ripe dates, flowed from his fingers when he wished it so.
They are also merciless on her skin, his fingers, often leaving his mark, the shape of a contorted flawed heart. He treads his nails across her sandalwood and myrrh-perfumed skin as if she was precious, as if she were possibly his life map. But sometimes, in her mind she is a squirming captured rat, or a veiled dust-covered china figurine like those in the souk. Often, she is confused because she can’t seem to remember ‘what’ she is. The buzzing in her head doesn’t stop unless she nestles herself into her children’s bodies, entwined within their chubby arms and legs, inhaling their mango juice breath into her lungs. With her hand she traces the magical creation of their noses, eyes, the curve of her babies’ ears, the pulsing life-vein in their necks. The fog she walks through lifts only when her sons’ burst into their baby-toothed gap-riddled laughter.
Every evening, when her husband joins her in bed her skin is oiled and inviting like that of a vengeful snake while a desert storm collects inside her heart like a mighty dervish, like the rage of her female Bedouin ancestors when they ululate in grief. Her hair is perfumed by the finest scents from India, white lotus, jasmine and marigold. It shines like the fine silk veils her husband buys her so she can hide it. Her hands and nails are carefully manicured and polished, massaged and creamed so that they can slide easily into the soft expensive gloves her husband orders her to wear. She passes her hand over the baby growing in her belly. It doesn’t quell her anxieties like the other two did, making her complacent, infatuated with the new spawn, living in a forty-week-long daydream. This time, the seed that had taken root inside her womb made her retch throughout the day, made her back and pelvis heavy and sore and made her depressed. The child seemed alien somehow, hostile. She almost didn’t mind. It took too much effort to get upset. She didn’t seem able to summon the energy these days.
Her husband tells her he loves her at dusk as steam rises off the heat-sodden pavements of their desert city, little funnels like a sigh of relief twisting into the sudden black sky.
Then he orders her to serve him clove and mint tea in gold-embellished teacups, on a gilded tray and with two of those expensive heart-shaped cubes of sugar, stirred into his cup just so. He frets because she has neglected to massage his shoulders, then his feet. Doesn’t she know he is tired and works all day to give her all this?He tells her this in a low voice but it’s where danger usually waits for her and she coils into herself like a worm, and then his face is his no more. A jinni, of the evil sort, has taken home there for now. Her husband’s hand swings through the air, smashing the heart sugar and shattering his perfect gold cup.
“Keep quiet, don’t complain, look what you made me do again, you whine, you are such an ungrateful, such a stupid wife.”
“Pull the veil over your hair. Everyone will see you.”
She can’t quite remember why her cheek stings or why her head pounds. It’s better that way. Then she notices that her hands are clenched like claws, her long nails digging into her flesh but she feels no pain. Pomegranate-colored blood oozes slowly into her palms, thick and sticky. It reminds her of the strawberry syrup she puts in her children’s milk. It always leaves traces which she then wipes off their plump cheeks and chins with a soft towel.
It’s a good thing he insists she wear long black gloves, because he says, her hands are lovely, the color of fragile pearls and he might break them if he wanted to.
The next day is Friday and they are on their way to the new park by the seafront, to take the children on the swings and have tea as they usually do on the weekends. Perhaps this time they might even be content for a while and if not that, then at least sit in silent hatred for an hour. Perhaps she will have that today. But he glances at her over and over as he drives. Inspecting. His eyes bore into her with an intensity that makes her heart jump under her breast.
“Cover your arms, milky and soft like a child’s.”
“Your legs, they are still long like when I first saw you on that beach, curse the day, I wish I never even met you. You will destroy me, woman.” He shakes his head as if talking to the jinni that has surely built a harem in his mind by now.
“Woman, cover your hair. I can see it, right there!” He points his finger accusingly. No matter how much she fortified herself against his words and his ugliness of spirit he still managed to startle her.
In the car mirror, like a madwoman she searches for that single hair that has escaped the confines of her tightly wound veil. She knows everyone will think her crazy if she told, but she is envious that it’s free. The moment lasts a millisecond in her mind and is gone. Then she pushes the strand back under the veil and closes her eyes. This baby she made with her husband one summer night hates her. It’s large and pushes its limbs into every nook inside her abdomen. There is a throbbing ache in her pelvis again.
Her sons’ voices bring her attention to the streak of azure blue. The sea.
“Look mama.” They clap their hands.
She smiles because she loves the sea and its vastness, its endless possibilities. She turns around in her seat, the belt tugs at her belly, and she high-fives the boys. Their hair is slicked back and they look healthy.
“They will grow into handsome, strong men like their father,” her mother-in-law often said.
“Can’t you control yourself? Don’t you know the angels curse a wife who is disobedient? Haven’t you learned that it’s a sin in front of your God?” He punches the wheel and the children start crying. She turns around in the seat again to placate them with plastic Supermen and boxed juices from the cooler. A trickle of sweat rolls down her back and she feels incredibly thirsty. So thirsty in fact that she seizes the half empty box of juice out of her son’s hand and drinks it through the tiny straw in a single breath. The little boy’s lip quivers but he doesn’t cry.
“It’s not my fault I love you and that I’m jealous.”
Her husband is pulling into the parking lot and the park is ahead. She can see the milling crowds, the cotton candy and sweet dumpling stalls, the cardamom tea-sellers and the roasted corn vendors. The sound of a thousand happy people reaches her ears and makes her dizzy.
They have stopped and she climbs out of the car, opens the back door. She unhooks the boys’ belts and helps them out of their seats. Her husband’s face carries a pout and a scowl simultaneously as he grudgingly helps with the picnic bag she had brought along. They make their way towards the small kids play area and the boys are running ahead, their legs pumping, their hair already stuck to their forehead in perspiration.
“What is that look in your eyes? Must you push me to this, look what you made me do now? You bring the devil out in me. I curse you… curse you.”
They sit at an empty table at a small café while the boys climb onto the play structures nearby. She is thankful that their table is isolated from other guests. She orders milk chai spiced with cardamom and two fresh-squeezed mango juices for the boys. Her husband orders an espresso and a large bottle of water. She leans back into the plastic chair and exhales. Her back is still damp.
“God, and those pink shorts. Remember them? You were eighteen on that beach in Oregon. What was its name? Oh, Cannon Beach, yes. I wish neither one of us had gone to that country. You know why?” he asks. He is facing the sun and his eyes gleam like some night creature.
She shakes her head. No. She doesn’t know.
“Because then I wouldn’t have married you. I wouldn’t have to suffer and keep my eyes on you all the time. I know you still want to wear those pink shorts. I can see it in your eyes, always ready and willing. An adulteress. Have you no shame?”
Tears rise in her throat. She is afraid to vomit in front of him. Her belly seems to have magnified threefold since this morning and her hair is damp with sweat under her veil.
“I will have none of that anymore.” He says.
“A handsome man,” her sister and cousins used to say about her husband.
She thought of Oregon and the beach and her semester as an exchange student that altered her life. Unlike her husband she didn’t regret going to America. She had enjoyed the Americans and their peculiar and often funny ways – even the ones that shocked her at first. Without her family watching her every move she reveled in her newly savored independence. She even bought her first pair of shorts. Pink and bold like those of American girls. After that fated pink-shorts day at Cannon Beach she had spent almost every day with her soon-to-be husband. He used to make her laugh then. They found solace in their joint homesickness for their shared desert homeland in the Persian Gulf and for their cuisine. How they both missed their grandmothers’ date syrup dumplings and minced beef stew!
It’s all because Bahebek.
She pulls the smooth garment tighter around her neck and adjusts her scarf and gloves.
Everyone will see you, can’t you hear me?
“The gold necklace around your neck, the new car parked in the shade of palm trees and jasmine at the house, you like them?” he asks.
“Yes, I do.”
“So pull the veil over your hair then. Ungrateful wife. Your curls and those wet eyes are as disobedient as you. And your pink lips.” He flails his arms in the air. “Curse you, woman.”
The children amble over to the table. She gives each a biscuit with a teddy bear face engraved into it. They drink their fill of mango juice and point out the park attractions to her one by one. The list is long and she hopes they leave before their father becomes annoyed but its too late.
He looks at the boys under thick furrowed brows. “Didn’t we come to the park so you two can play?” he asks.
“They are going. See, they were just thirsty.” Quickly, she takes the boys’ by their hands and yanks them towards the play area. She kisses each on the head before letting go. They smell of desert and sea and mango-scented breath. The park is bustling and busy. Fathers pushing children on swings and tricycles, throwing bright-colored balls into the air and one who is running alongside his daughter who shrieks on the spinning wheel, long braids and yellow ribbons bouncing behind her. The portly father is out of breath but his face is aglow with something like rapture because he is in love with his angelic-faced youngling.
Her husband is not to be ignored however, even in these rare moments of beauty. He waits for her to sit down before continuing his litany.
“You know what,” he says. He is shaking his head as if in disbelief.
She knows it’s not a question and remains silent. However, her disobedient wife ears strain to hear the seagulls call and the splash of waves from that vast sea.
“I never should have married you. Look at you. Because of you, my end will be eternal hellfire.” He doesn’t stop, he can’t. His anger picks up momentum like a speeding train with no brakes downhill through the Grand Canyon on a course that she knows will culminate within the four walls of their bedroom. He is agitated and his lips are a thin line. Gone is the soft curve left by the ingratiating kisses she left on them last night.
Her eyes wander to the children rolling on the grass. Carefully, before he speaks again she sips the tea brought over by the waiter. The café is pleasant and simple, a place for tired parents. The sky is cloudy this December afternoon and the sea is choppy, its waves the color of smoke. Something like winter has arrived in this desert country and she hopes for rain. Soon.
“Your large villa with high iron gates and crystal chandeliers, the cars and the servants and everything else I have given? The bangles and rings that you so boldly use to adorn those pearl-like hands.”
Her husband’s voice reminds her of those of preachers on TV and their incessant histrionics. She wishes she could turn him off just like those on TV. With a press on a button. Click. Instead, she listens. She doesn’t want to irritate him further.
“Yes, they’re lovely. Thank you.” She says.
“Well, then hide those sinful curves, those insolent soft breasts.” He says.
She looks at his profile against the light and his carefully trimmed goatee and sideburns. He is immaculately dressed and groomed as always. People take notice when he enters a room. He is tall and has a wide smile when he is not sulking or punching her in the back. But all she has seen for a long time is a husk of a man she used to laugh with and now just abhors.
“Draw the wings of that black caftan around your body, so abnormally misshapen with this third child. My brothers’ wives don’t look so ugly when pregnant. What’s wrong with you? I pray every morning that at least it will be another boy. God willing.”
His voice seems far away now. His face is a blob outlined by the sea the sky and the swaying palms trees. She places her gloved hand on her stomach. Something is different. Whatever it is it has snapped inside her heart and is now uncontainable. She feels the warmth in her stomach and chest, the tingling in her arms, even feet. As if her womb had broken open and let the warm contents spill within her. For a minute she can’t see. The sky sways into smoke and mirrors and the trees bend all the way to the ground like crones on a stick.Maybe a jinni has possessed her too just now, because she finally remembers what she is.
She is a princess of a red-hued desert, a warrior Bedouin riding a golden horse. Like the soaring falcon she rises ululating a victorious song. She is a maiden of Arabia and mother of all sons… she is her father and her mother. She stirs a melody from a thousand sand dunes with her heartbeat and then she weeps. She is the breath of a million breaths, a sand grain among a million sand grains. She is a desert storm and a sea storm. She is.
She rises from the chair then, rattling her cup of tea, pushing the chair backwards until it topples. Her breath rushes in and out of her nose and mouth in gulps and she is terrified he will stop her because she is swollen like a damn blowfish and he is taller and faster. But she marches quickly down the path as adrenaline rushes through her sluggish veins and stirs her Bedouin blood. As she walks she is already snatching the veil off her head and neck, pulling the gloves off … dropping them on the grass. She hears her husband’s cursing and the shuffle of his slippers as he stands up but she doesn’t turn to look.
She makes way to her children on the seesaw, laughing at their gummy smiles and sandy feet. She laughs harder when the breeze reaches into her long hair like the hands of impatient ladies-in-waiting, setting it delightfully… wickedly free.
She likes that her tresses are shiny and now billow like a brand new flag on Independence Day in America.
“Bahebak, that’s why.” She whispers.
Melody of Rainfall in the Balkans
On rainy days when it was too wet to go out and play, baka and I would sit together by the small kitchen window- outlined by lace curtains, crochet of course. So Balkan-ish.
The two of us frozen in time…
Ours is a typical peasant house, red tiled roof, slightly crooked… some twenty-one years old. Three times my age. Cobblestone yard. An outhouse. A water pump. A wash line for drying yellow dresses and white sheets and a miniature, angry mongrel that fancies himself a German Sheppard.
Doilies in white and red yarn lounge on all available spaces. Ripe apples line atop every surface, like decaying soldiers – rustic potpourri it was. Ham and salami hanging in the pantry, jars of homemade jam – carrot, blackberry. Pomegranate. Poppy seed rolls in the oven, a plastic vase on the table, a proud single rose that’s red.
On a wooden board baka chops up tiny pieces of garlic and cubes of prosciutto. Salty, but I smile at her plump face anyway. Baka is round and her brown eyes twinkle mischievously.
Sometimes, I can see stars inside the dark spots, and am convinced baka is a forest nymph possessing magical powers. How else would she always know when I got myself in trouble or when I lied? Like the time I stole blush red baby apples over the neighbor’s fence? Or when I sprinkled water from the attic window on the old men’s balding heads.
She smiles at me now as if she can read my mind and places thick, crusty peasant bread by my side, on a dishcloth.
I extend my face outside into the rain… baka slaps my bottom. She laughs. I laugh too except my bottom stings like a sunburn from a Balkan summer. Her face jiggles, her lips part to show a space between her front teeth… No wonder she looks cheerful all the time.
Except when she is crying under the walnut tree, for her three dead children – talking to herself or maybe those ancestors she speaks of all the time.
We eat silently, listening to the melody that is rainfall, inhaling the air scented with green plums and baka’s red roses and cut grass that’s dew-bathed and soft like a baby rabbit’s fur.
I chew and chew and taste the cruel bite of garlic on my tongue.