Wives of the Desert

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
July/August 2003

By Hilary Miller, Illustrated by the author

In the blue goat-hair tent, Shaimaa heard the music and laughter of the wedding, the shrill ululation of women’s voices and heavy swirl of woolen skirts. She pulled the scratchy blanket that smelled of camels up over her nose to avoid inhaling the mouth-watering flavors of prickly pear cactus, sweet and juicy, of plump golden raisins and date wine, of lentil bread soaked in sticky wild honey. Night had fallen over the desert, but there was no peace.

Mother stirred faintly in the corner. Through the musty dimness Shaimaa could see her, pale and thin as a wraith, the circle of scarlet paint on her forehead like a bleeding sun. Nestled against her in a mound of wool, baby Selwa whimpered, and Mother moaned in her sleep and pulled the browned bundle of skin and bones closer. Shaimaa knew how much the child had taken out of her: a sickeningly hard labor, then draining her of milk, which was in short supply as there had been sparse food for some weeks. They fed Selwa on camel’s milk while Mother slept, slept so deeply that her breath was only a whisper.

Marriage, thought Shaimaa disdainfully. Her father, seeing that Selwa was Mother’s last child, had taken a second wife now. It was their wedding bells that chimed; the food was brought by his new wife’s family. Tears sprang into Shaimaa’s eyes, stinging them with salt. Softly, she murmured a passionate prayer to Allah: “Please, Allah, don’t let Father stop loving Mother. Ever.”

*          *          *

“Shaimaa, this is Zainab.” Father smiled as he placed his hand affectionately on the plump arm of the young woman, shrouded in gauzy violet and deep-blue woven cloth and dripping with gold jewelry, who smiled shyly at them. She was short and her face was a satin oval, moderately pretty, Shaimaa thought, but nothing special.

Shaimaa clamped her lips together and glared darkly from the shadows of her veil, which revealed only her snapping eyes, gleaming wildly like black opals.

Zainab’s lips curved into a lilting smile. “I was very sorry to hear your mother is ill. I hope she’s feeling better?”

Biting her tongue, Shaimaa scowled beneath the folds of black cloth and smoothed her knotted blackbird hair haughtily. She left the question unanswered and strode away across the swirling hot sands, the dust stinging and blistering her bare heels, feeling the alarmed eyes of Zainab and father burning her back like glowing coals. She sank to her knees beside a creaking wooden loom. Mother’s latest blanket, unfinished, was still a web of dyed woolen threads, twisted and interlaced with the strings of the loom. Shaimaa delicately slipped the shuttle through the strings, imagining her mother’s soft gentle hands caressing the smooth yarn with the love she put into everything.

Footsteps pounded the dry gritty sand and Zainab knelt gracefully beside her in a whirlwind of lushly-colored cotton. “Beautiful loom.”

“It’s my mother’s,” muttered Shaimaa dryly. A choking sob rose in her throat, threatening to burst forth, but she swallowed it hard and touched the weaving.

Zainab picked up a coarse donkey-hair brush that lay nearby. Before Shaimaa could stop her, she felt her hair tugged and twisted, the coarse bristles drawn through the thicket of tangled silk tresses. “I love your hair,” Zainab murmured, lifting a lock that dangled in Shaimaa’s eye and slipping it into her hand. “Stubborn hair, the prettiest kind. Has its own flame. I would never hurt that sort of hair, or any hair, for that matter. Aren’t I brushing gently?” Her hands, on which were painted intricate swirled designs in the reddish henna dye, were light but firm, cool as date palms.

Wives of the Desert combing woman hair

“I love your hair,” Zainab murmured

Shaimaa jerked away, clasping her hair protectively. “Too gently. A mother should brush her daughter’s hair. And my mother is asleep.”

Zainab was still a moment, stunned. Then she flipped her veil over her own face so that her mouth was hidden, but Shaimaa saw her eyes, deep and watery, misted with a loneliness that filled her like a gaping black maw.

*          *          *

Selwa was crying. Her shrieks echoed though the camp, drowning out the fitful bleating of goats and squawking of chickens. Amira, who was nursing her own chubby infant, darted a venomous glance at the tent where Selwa lay with Mother. “Allah above, will that child never cease to wail?” Her throat contracted as her baby, too, stopped suckling and began to cry.

Silence struck more forcefully than a sandstorm. No one moved. Sheik Mansour, mending a camel’s swollen leg, dropped a green ointment-jar in surprise and it rolled into the cooking fire and splintered into broken glass.

Shaimaa tiptoed to the tent and lifted the soft flap of matted fur curiously. Mother was coughing. Beside her squatted Zainab, tenderly drizzling fresh goat milk into Selwa’s tiny, feeble mouth. Selwa’s lips puckered as she swallowed. Her flailing hand caught Zainab’s necklace of lacy golden hand-motifs, curling around the strand of precious stones with a soft, cooing giggle.

Shivering angrily, Shaimaa whirled and stormed up the slope to where Father was watering the sheep. Their woolly noses sent ripples over the opaque glassy surface as they drank. “Father, how can you? How dare you replace Mother with another woman?” The sob she had been dreading broke from her lips like a dry thunderclap, and it burned her like raw chilies rubbed against the skin.

Father’s mustache drooped. His snowy turban was unraveled and the melting sun struck his shining coffee-dark scalp, while light dancing blindingly on the blade of his naked scimitar made it almost impossible to look at him. “Shaimaa, listen . . .”

“No, I will not!” She stared hard at the sheep’s woolly back, allowed the angry words to flow forth in a flood she had, until now, held back. “Just because Mother is ill, you find another woman to try and make yourself happy. But it gives happiness to no one, not me, not Mother and Selwa, not Zainab. Not the children Zainab will bear for you, and that is why you married her.” She breathed hard, her voice wilting on her lips like rose petals, withering, dying. In a tear-drowned whisper, she demanded, “Isn’t it?”

“No.” He looked away from her, fingers drumming the cotton-fluff back of a sopping sheep whose wool glistened with water droplets like translucent pearls.

“Shaimaa, when Zainab was very young, she nearly died. Surgery was the only way to save her, but it made it impossible for her to ever bear children.” Father looked directly at her now, and his eyes reflected the sun-bleached sand, licked sorely by tongues of flame. “I married her to save her from a husbandless life of manual labor. Perhaps it isn’t right. But I never meant to replace your mother.” He sighed, twisting his ink-black goatee, and glided stiffly away without another word, his stormy-gray robes billowing.

When Shaimaa rose slowly from the foggy waters of shock, she stumbled sluggishly down to the camp. The fury which fed her aching mind had been quenched, and now her head was painfully clear and cold. Through the slits of tent fabric she saw Father kneel beside Mother’s mat, caress the line where her broad glazed forehead ended in a raven waterfall, flowing in a dark cloud over her pillow. “Do you feel better, Hala?” His hard eyes flickered with something like repentance, finally admitted.

Wives of the Desert peeking through the tent

Through the slits of tent fabric she saw Father kneel beside Mother’s mat

“Mahdi,” she murmured, and buried her face in his cloaked shoulder.

Shaimaa, dazed, turned away. Zainab was sitting on the stony edge of a well, gazing into the empty distance, alone. She only wanted to be a mother, a wife. Now she is neither. She moved hesitantly to the motionless woman. “Zainab?” The woman turned, her melting face soft as silk with sorrow. “Let us be friends.” Shaimaa held out her open hands, tasting that word, friends, as juicy-sweet in her mouth as ripe mangoes.

Zainab took her hands, enfolding them, and her teardrops fell and washed away the henna dye in bruised purple streaks.

*          *          *

The desert was embraced by a moist wind. Mother, swaddled infant-like in rough blankets, sat in the river-breeze with Selwa. Her skin was less shiny with sweat now, though her nose gleamed bone-white in the ice sunbeams. Zainab went up to her with a shy smile. “Hala? I am your daughter Shaimaa’s friend.”

“Welcome,” replied Mother, rising, and with sisterly affection she touched her polished cheek to Zainab’s mellow one.

Wives of the Desert Hilary Miller

Hilary Miller, 13
Moraga, California

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