The following story is by guest contributor Weeda Mehran. Dr. Mehran has recently completed her PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. She holds an MSc degree from the University of Oxford, an MA degree from Kent University in Brussels and an Honours Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto. Weeda has published a number of short stories and essays in Persian. She is a social and human rights activist involved in human rights NGOs in Afghanistan.
Masoda was staring at the ceiling and counting wood beams. They were exactly twenty-two. Twenty-two lean beams aligned next to each other, at almost an even distance. Some beams had bent a bit, she noticed. The ones in the middle had caved in more than the others. She wondered “how long will they last before they break?” They were only slightly older than her. She could close her eyes and picture the ceiling with every little detail, the little pumps on the wood, the discoloration on some, the darkened spots on others and even the spider webs stretching from one beam to another. Nana had long given up going after the spiders with the long handle “watani” broom.
Her train of thought was interrupted by her mother.
“He just had to wait two more weeks, I am telling you! Damn this fate of yours!” said her mother, loudly sipping her tea. Masoda looked at her. She had been doing laundry the whole afternoon, but it was now getting dark. Soon the Mullah will do the evening Azan. Her eyes caught her mother staring at the cot. Inside, the babies were lying on the mattress facing the ceiling. Two small heads moving from side to side, two tiny pink faces looking peaceful and calm. They were three days old each.
“If only you had them two weeks ago. Damn this fate of yours!” her mother exclaimed, then sighed.
Masoda felt her heart beating faster, her stomach churning. It became harder to breathe.
She had tried to console herself: “even if the boys were born two weeks earlier, he would have still married the limping woman because they had been engaged for 7 months by then. When was the last time a man broke off his engagement? Never…he had already given his word and a man’s word is his honour…. An Afghan man’s honour.”
Yet, deep down she still wondered: would her husband have broken off the engagement had the boys been born two weeks earlier? Could she have pushed them out earlier? Why was that not an option? Options!….It is good to have options….She didn’t have that many options…it was bothering her, why didn’t she have the option not to get married at all….any woman her age in the village who had not been married?….None!
Nana continued to noisily slurp her tea, breaking off Masoda’s thoughts. Her mother was holding a big mug of green tea in her reddened hand; the skin on her fingers was shinning under the fading beams of the sinking sun. Ever since her father died some twenty years ago, it had become Nana’s habit to drink the whole tea pot every time she sat in the corner next to the window on an old velvet-covered mattress. Years of exposure to sunshine had turned the once-maroon cover into a dirty orange. In the winter, the sun would enter the room and shine on the corner until the last pallid yellow rays withdrew. Nana would sit there and have her tea, usually alone, sometimes accompanied by Masoda, before she left for her husband’s house. Occasionally some neighbours would show up for an afternoon tea and gossip.
Masoda often imagined her father sitting on that mattress and drinking tea with her mother. Her mother did not have many recollections of her father; just a handful of memories from the six months she had spent with her husband before he had died of some unknown illness.
One of the babies cooed softly. The baby moved his small head and opened his greenish brown eyes. He stared at the ceiling for a few seconds and then shut his eyes slowly, falling asleep again.
“Naam-e Khoda, naam-e khuda! May God save them from all evils. You should dress them both the same! Exactly the same! I bet no one will be able to say which one is which?”
Masoda did not respond. She sank under under the warm blanket.
Her mother took another sip of her tea. The mug was half empty now.
“Your hasty husband should have waited until you had given birth. I told him many times. Would he listen to anyone? No!…It is not in a woman’s hand to give birth to a girl or a boy. If it were in my hands, I would have given birth to a son myself, not a daughter so I didn’t have to smolder like a wet log my whole life, now would I?”
Masoda gathered all her strength to utter a couple of words. ‘‘Don’t worry so much Nana.” The words were heavy in her throat. She felt she would burst out in tears if she said any more. She also knew that her mother was right. She couldn’t change the fact that she was not a man and now could not change the fact that she gave birth to twins right after her husband’s second marriage! It was out of her hands too.
“Men! The best of them is the one who does not beat his wife a few times a day for a slightly over-salted dinner, or a dusty corner of the room. Being ignored, talked down to and treated like a cow rather than a dog is what you get on good days! Yes, a cow! That is the best you get, I am telling you, cows are luckier, at least cows are left on their own at night…” Nana was ranting.
Masoda did not want to be reminded of how horrible it was to be a woman. She had lived it for the past six years of her life, if not her whole life. Although her husband, Yousef was not very violent, he had his moments. Once she got beaten up over a couple of soap spots on his coat. She was called clumsy, useless and good for nothing but to give birth to girls. All she wanted was to give birth to a son, Yousef liked to have a son, to have a shahzada, a prince. She had prayed so much for a son. Every single time that her belly became bumpy, she prayed for nine months. And every single time she had become disappointed and hopeless after giving birth to girls. She loved her daughters unlike their father, though she always thought daughters were not the same as sons.
God finally granted her wish, now she had not just one but two sons! But too late, too late!
“So is he going to divorce that little trophy wife of his now?” asked Nana while filling in her mug for the third time. “Is he?” thought Masoda, entertaining the idea. She had given him two sons, two sons instead of one, hadn’t she?
Her mother took a hard yellow candy out of the small bowl and placed it in her mouth. She took a sip of the green tea, moved the candy in her mouth from one side to the other, and swallowed the sweetened tea. The candy had made an apparent bump on her right cheek, holding it there, she continued as if talking to herself.
“Of course, he is not going to divorce her!’’ The faint hope left in Masoda diminished. Deep down in her heart she knew that it would not happen. She stared at Nana’s face. The pump, on her right jaw was moving up and down as she was speaking:
“That fiendish witch-mother did not leave him alone. She preached him so much, so much until the man lost his way. He could have waited if she did not fake a sickness and didn’t tell him that she wanted to see her grandson before she died. What a player, she can really act…she fooled him! Will God forgive such a person? No! She is standing on the brink of her doom right now. Her days are numbered and look at what she does! Isn’t she afraid of the Judgment Day? How is she going to respond to God when she faces God? ‘’
Masoda wanted to say something, anything, but she could not find the words. At least Yousef had waited for 4 years after the birth of their first daughter. That was something. He had waited right? she thought. He had waited for her….maybe he was not as bad, maybe she should not be as upset, maybe.
She did not care whether her mother-in-law was going to be punished on the judgment day, that was a long way from now….She wanted things to be different now and not wait for an uncertain punishment in millions of years.
One of the twins shook his head slowly and scratched his nose with the back of his hand. “But you know, you shouldn’t worry too much.” Nana spoke more softly, lest she wake up the twins. ‘‘You shouldn’t worry! You are the queen of that house now. You have twins, two shahzada! Two princes! No one can harm you! No one! Not even that witchy mother-in-law of yours! As for this new wife, she would have to become your slave! She will have to work like a servant from the sunrise to sunset, unless she also gives birth to twin sons. And what are the chances of that?!”
Masoda wondered if she wanted a servant. Did she need one? She liked doing the house chores herself. If a servant were to do that for her, what would she do? The woman wasn’t a servant after all, anyway, she was her “ambaqh”, she was the other wife, she would live with her, and her children and she would share everything at her place, she would cook in the same kitchen, she would sit with her family and have dinner, she would share even her husband! Something she could not share with anyone. No! She didn’t want to become a queen, even if the other wife were to be a servant girl sleeping with her husband. She just did not want her around; she wanted that ambaqh out of her life.
This is not fair! Not fair at all, not fair. She always thought that the birth of a son would make her really happy, but she was feeling no joy. She felt no sadness either. Nothing at all, all she could remember was the pain she went through when giving birth. She looked at the twins as if they were not hers. At least when she gave birth to her daughters she pitied them, she felt sorry for them, and was remorseful. But she had no feelings after she gave birth to the twins as if all her feelings were drained out of her during the labour.
Nana who was still rubbing her hands together, vainly trying to comfort her painful joints with vaseline.
“Well, have you thought about a name for these princes? Nay? I have a name, why don’t you name one Mahbob and the other Masom? See, I always wanted to have three children, Mahbob, Masom, and Masoda. You know, I wish your father was alive, even if he were to have three other wives! If he were alive, I wouldn’t have to work as a servant in people’s houses to raise you and to feed you and myself. I did not have to do someone’s dirty laundry for 8 hours a day!”
Masoda thought what would she do without Yousef. What if Yousef does not come to take her home? Would she have to wash clothes, do dishes, clean houses and cook for others to feed her children? She had never thought about it before.
She stared blankly in the space looking at logs in the ceiling. They were the same, the same as long as she could remember them. She used to lie on the mattress stare at the ceiling and think about what she wanted to do when she grew up. She had wanted to become a teacher the first day she went to school. From that day onwards, she lied down there under the same roof and fancied herself in her class with 40 students. But she had to leave school in grade 8 because she had to get married. She lied on that very same same spot on her mattress and cried the whole afternoon.
She barely noticed the knocking on the door. Her mother said, “this must be your husband….it is about time he has to be here.” Masoda made moves to get up. ‘‘What are you doing? Don’t get up! You stay in there! I’ll go and open the door.’’
Masoda saw her mother leave the room, then she heard Yousef lumbering through the hall and his soft voice saying something she could not make sense of. Then she saw Yousef’s tall body enter the room, as usual he had to bend his head to avoid hitting the door frame. No words, no eye contact! He walked towards the twins. Although Masoda was not looking at him directly, she could still feel the big smile on his face.
She kept her attention on the ceiling. There wasn’t anything different about the logs. They are older, she thought and they looked thinner to her. She wondered how long they would last before they wore out and fell apart.
Yousef picked up one of the twins in his right arm and the other in his left. He stared at them, entranced. After a long time, his eyes still fixed on the babies, he muttered, “let’s go home.”