Raheel’s mother Parveen was unmatched for stubbornness but even she crumbled before fate. Yes, she said — the words like a scorpion on her tongue — find a Masood girl for my son.
Her sisters had cunningly given birth to their daughters too soon, or too late, to be promised to Raheel. Parveen couldn’t undo their timing.
Who else would accept the boy? Raheel was lovely — intelligent, sweet as milk — but his hunchback was hard to gloss over. They hadn’t the wealth that makes such things invisible.
Parveen’s sisters, mothers of well-formed sons themselves (besides those useless girls), wept for her misfortune. Their sympathy smouldered like ashpiles in her heart.
Raheel was thirty-five, now, with a respectable job. The fine new bedroom built so hopefully onto the house sat quietly upstairs, a plastic-sheeted showroom no one visited.
Parveen gave up on all those beautiful wheat-colored girls in the matrimonial listings. Fifty thousand rupees will buy a snow-white, green-eyed angel.
Afsheen had the classic face of a king’s huntsman.
“Throw him over her shoulder like a stack of firewood,” the aunts giggled (out of Parveen’s hearing).
The middleman had been blunt. Those lily-and-tuberose girls go to the high-end market, he told Raheel’s uncles. “What’s your problem? She’ll breed like a rabbit — if your nephew can manage to shoot straight!” Raheel’s uncles smiled painfully.
The wedding festivities ended a little sooner than custom. No banquet from the girl’s side here! Afsheen, adorned with just enough gold to keep Parveen’s head high, was silent under her shimmering red veil, cheating the guests of a bride’s heart-rending sobs while everyone else dances.
Her mother tongue was a crunching Pushto dialect that strikes the ear like rockfall, but Afsheen had a little Urdu — even up in the mountains, the girls watch soap operas. “Pretend you don’t like me,” she whispered to Raheel, as she got up to wash before making the chai, on their seventh dawn together.
Each night they lay staring into each other’s eyes, comprehending strange and wonderful things swirling into focus. She wasn’t stupid; he wasn’t cruel. She wasn’t mocking; he wasn’t monstrous with lust.
On the eighteenth night, he whispered, “Your eyes are like the ocean” — he’d seen Karachi once — and she whispered, “Your skin is like cinnamon.”
On the twenty-sixth night, he whispered, “You are my orchard.”
On the thirty-sixth night she unbound her hair, spreading it over both of them like a magic shawl, and whispered, “See? You are perfect now.”
Of course Parveen, swearing in a slurry of Derawali whenever she ran out of patience, had to train the girl up smartly. She — known for the richness of her gravies and her hand for pickles — with a daughter-in-law from a place where a couple of cut onions are relish for a meal!
Raheel had no guile in him but was learning to interpret every flicker of Afsheen’s eyelids. He barely acknowledged her when he came home each afternoon; he kissed his mother and teased his sisters; he asked respectfully after his father’s day. He took the chai from Afsheen’s hand almost absently; Parveen didn’t yet suspect the flowering of such a profoundly traitorous love.
The perpetual ache in Raheel’s back exploded into brutal pain during the winter rains. Parveen had always wept while massaging him, murmuring “my poor little boy, my poor boy;” she knotted black threads into charms against the evil eye that blasted him while God was busy with other things.
Afsheen felt her way along the twisted pathways of tendon and bone under Raheel’s skin, puzzling out the topography of his suffering. She was used to hard work; Raheel was asleep beneath her hands before she began to tire.
Just once — pain an electric monster and he a broken fish flailing in its jaws — he looked at Afsheen, tears unstoppable, and asked, “Why?”
“God is Master,” she said, wiping his face with her dupatta. What more can anyone say?
“Where is a son for my son?” A year, and nothing. For what other purpose had Parveen endured this?
“God is Master,” said Afsheen, and Parveen slapped her.
By the time Raheel came home, Parveen lay on her own bed, worn out with sobbing. Raheel’s sisters sat cross-legged, pressing their mother’s feet and helping her to sip a little more chai. Afsheen, in the kitchen on a little wooden chowki, pounded green chilies and coriander leaves into chutney to serve with the dal.
“Ammi,” said Raheel tenderly, “it’s not right you should be unhappy in your own house.” Parveen smiled tremulously through her hurt, pressing his hands gratefully against her sodden face.
“Tomorrow,” Raheel continued, “I’ll ask for a transfer to Lahore. You’ll have the kitchen to yourself again, you’ll have no one in your way.” Parveen stared at him.
“I’ll get a housing allowance, of course; we’ll just be able to manage.”
That “we” was the most horrible word Parveen had ever heard. She started crying all over again.
The shouting lasted all evening. “Do you want to kill your mother?” Raheel’s father roared while Parveen lay moaning. His sisters shook in counterpoint.
Raheel didn’t argue. He and Afsheen ate, then he took her hand in front of all of them and led her to their bedroom.
He came back and sat patiently until his father ran out of noise. Then he bent awkwardly to clear the dastarkhan.
His father shouted for Raheel’s sisters. They saw Raheel contorting himself into a jalebi to do that women’s work, and began crying all over again.
Raheel’s father cleared his throat. “How will your wife manage, so far from us? It’s better that you stay.”
“We must all sacrifice,” said Raheel, “for Ammi’s peace of mind.”
“Well,” said his father, “let’s not be hasty. Women get emotional; nothing to up-end the world over. They’ll be laughing together in the morning. Talk no more of this.”
“Abba-jee,” said Raheel, “God is Master. But I’ll try to discover His will.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.