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|Volume 11 |Issue 32| August 10, 2012 ||
If a Sea has Nowhere to Go
(Extract from Thinner than Skin)
Uzma Aslam Khan
Maryam stood up from the fire and glanced at the water's edge. Her fingers drifted to the braid around her face, feeling the tightness of the weave. This morning, her daughter Kiran had again refused to have her hair tidied, despite being shown both styles, a single braid around the cusp of the face, like Maryam's, or a cluster of braids down the back, the way Maryam's mother had preferred. Still Kiran insisted on wearing it loose. She had worn her hair loose all summer, ever since they had left the plains down near Balakot, if you could call the mess on her head a way of wearing it.
Pushing her frustration aside, Maryam said a quick prayer for her dead mother, and for every mountain, and for every name her mother bestowed on every mountain. The black door, the white door, the abyss. And the single peaks, like the ones soaring before Maryam now, the ones that could become windows or footholds, allowing you to scale a void. Her mother's two beloved peaks, Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat. Though some might say it was not possible to see him from here, how well he lived up to his name today! He was a naked white spear towering high above the Queen, breathing down the nape of her neck, the slope of her thighs. Not surprisingly, their snowmelt was thick today. Like her daughter when she tried to comb her hair, the lake could barely hold still.
There was a jinn here too. She could feel it. The Prince Saiful Maluk, the Princess Badar Jamal, Malika Parbat, Nanga Parbat, and the jinn. They were all here today. If she were her mother, she would smoke some juniper leaves and see deeper into the void. But she was not her mother. Visions did not come to her. Misgivings, well, that was another thing. She had felt them all summer long, ever since leaving the plains in a hurry, when she had removed all signs of the lowland shrine in a manner unbecoming to a shaman's daughter. She had even failed to cleanse her lowland home according to the ceremony. She had not blown into its sacred spaces the smoke of juniper leaves. Partly, this was because she could not wait to come up here, to these highland pastures, where her past was left behind. Partly, because her husband discouraged it. “Pagan rituals for a pagan wife,” the others said, so he asked her to stop. These were difficult times, he said. The valley was crawling with men who wanted proof of innocence, and pagan rituals were not innocent.
Up here in the mountains she could do as she pleased, and the curses of the sedentary folk were forgotten, if she only let herself forget. There was a line between the highland and the lowland that the troubled times could not see, let alone cross. Only those who came in peace could cross this line. And they would find that up here, everything moved – the mountains, the clouds, the fairies and the jinn, even the caves – but one thing did not move. The thing that did not move here was time.
It gave Maryam a kind of solace, knowing that she could reach time, even sit on it as she might sit on a horse, while all around her, the world was spinning. And for Maryam, solace came in many shapes. For instance, the shape of a cave. Like the one she used as her summer shrine (and much preferred to the one she had covered in haste down in the plains). It was over the hill and downaways and a man had once told her it led all the way to Tashkent. It was a cool womb of rock her mother believed their people once sheltered in, on their way down from the Caspian steppe. They'd come on horseback, though no one could say exactly when – they could not even say roughly when, it was two, maybe three thousand years ago – and they'd come from a faraway place that lay on the shores of a great sea surrounded by land. The sea was deep and it was black. The cave was cool and it was safe.
Two, maybe three thousand years later, her family still piled clothes, matkas, and tents onto the backs of their horses for green velveteen pastures every summer and for cold colorless plains every winter. Always on the move. Like the sea. Like the footholds in the sky, or the void down below. Like Lake Saiful Maluk, especially on this afternoon, as Maryam now watched her son take his time returning to her after carrying the gift to the two men from the city and the two Angrez from even further away than the steppes of her imagination. Honey, bread, potatoes. The honey, of course, the most valued item they had carried on the horse. Her husband approved. Guests must be made welcome.
One of them, Irfan was his name, was not unknown in these parts. He was as much a friend as a man from the city could be. He spoke their tongue. He knew about the cave. He hid in it for days after his wife had died, wanting to live alone from now on, he said, like a gypsy. Her husband had told him gypsies did not live alone. “We have our families and our animals,” he said. “Only saints live in caves, and there has not been a saint around here for some time.”
Irfan had answered with a proverb – a Gujjar will sleep where no man will walk – which made her husband smile, before he replied, “Many men have walked and slept in that cave. I assure you, none became saints.” He sat so tidily, this Irfan. Even when trying to inflict penance on himself in the cave, his shoes still looked polished. He had eventually returned home to the city. But now he was back, and Maryam could see he had not recovered. His cheek had sunk; his eye was dim. She was glad they had momentarily lit up when he walked toward their tent earlier this afternoon, to embrace her husband again.
The other – Irfan had pointed him out in the distance, she had not caught the name – had apparently also been here before, but Maryam found no recollection of him. He seemed to her to have no tongue. He followed Irfan's lead while his eye drifted constantly, toward her tent, toward the lake, toward the Angrez woman reaching for Kiran's hand.
The woman walked like a goat. She was too eager. Maryam had seen it before, good-hearted foreigners wanting to be friendly with local folk. They often selected the children, as that woman did now. Perhaps these Angrez needed to feel differently about themselves when they came all the way across the seas and all the way up the glacier to see the lake. She was not unfamiliar with the need. The lake seemed to inspire it. When you looked in the mirror of its surface you wanted to see something you wanted to see. And Maryam had seen the two looking in the lake, the friend of Irfan and the woman, when they first arrived. Though she was too far away to know, she took a guess. They were pleased with whatever else the lake had given.
Maryam also wanted to see something else whenever she peered inside, though she could never say what. Still or ruffled, the water's surface only heightened her desire but never sated it. Perhaps it was because she came – two, maybe three thousand years ago – from a landlocked sea. If a sea has nowhere to go, it must go in circles, like this lake at the foot of Malika Parbat, churning round and round in a bowl, the clouds reflected in dizzying speed, stirring up some limitless need. Yes, it was like that, she thought, watching Kiran chase her goat up a hill while the woman who walked like a goat chased her. In Maryam there was no simple need, such as the need to be charitable with the children of the poor. She had nothing to repent, or correct, really. It was more the need to, to … She frowned, unable to speak the word, or even put her finger on it.
She went back to fingering her braid, back to thinking of the cave, the one that could change shape.
If her grandmothers had once sheltered in it on their way down from the steppe, earlier this year, her children had sheltered in it on their way up from the plains. The cave was low and stained black from a million fires, including her own. But only she knew about that – she, and Ghafoor. The man who first showed her the cave, telling her it led all the way to Tashkent. She shook her head. No, she would not think of him now.
Her husband believed the cave was unsafe. Instead of becoming saints, the men who slept in its bowels became thieves. They saw the tell-tale sparkle in the seams of the rock and, over time, had scraped it clean. Crude attempts at holding the ceiling up still remained; wooden pillars were jammed haphazardly everywhere across the uneven floor. Her children had played with the pillars, shaking them like salt. She let them. She knew the ceiling would hold. They asked for the story every spring, on their way up to the lake, the story of Prince Saiful Maluk and Princess Badar Jamal. If it rained and they needed to step into the cave for a time, as had happened this year, the story grew even more magical because it grew even more real: this was the cave that had cradled the lovers as they fled the terrible jinn who lived by the lake. And when at last her family had continued on their way, a thirsty herd lowing and bleating beside them, shepherded by two gaddi dogs, when they had reached the lake this April, as on every April, the story became even more deliciously terrible: this was the jinn's lake. He lived along its shore – this shore!
But he had never hurt them, the jinn. Not in all the springs and summers they had camped at Malika Parbat's feet. He had blessed the lake where the fairies came to bathe at full moon. He had blessed these hills where Maryam could roam as freely as the goats and horses. He had blessed the peak of Malika Parbat, who was a pari khan, a ruler of all fairies, and who entrusted him with the task of keeping the fairies in check. He had blessed Maryam's secret shrine, too, so that Maryam could pray undisturbed in its womb. He had even blessed her taste buds, so that everything here tasted true, the fruit and the honey.
Then why the misgivings? Perhaps it was the wind, again.
A little honey stuck to her flesh from the food wrapped for the guests. Licking it clean, she watched the clouds drift and Malika Parbat scatter into segments in the lake like the rungs of a ladder. What else did she want to see? She could still find no word for it, though the ladder was there, at the bottom of the lake, and if she wanted, she might step right into the void.