The mornings always began with the creak of the manja, the decades old cot she slept on, a sore back, and the slaps of the roti on the stove. Steam filled the open kitchen until streams of it reached her nose, swirling in the warm, hot country air. The first thing she saw in the morning was the ceiling above, a delicate layer of bricks, half battered and riddled with cracks. Every morning a new one split open. Another valley in the sky.
The afternoons always began with the sounds of cramped pigs in the pen, the smell of tossed soil, and the sweet taste of fresh sugarcane.
Her father taught her how to harvest the canes, how to strip off the extra leaves from the shoots, discard them, cut the rest into smaller pieces. She thought of that day. The ringing of the insects, the feeling of her scalp getting hot. She would watch his hands as they followed the veins of the plant, outlining just where to cut, delicately tracing the lined pattern of the cane before slaughtering it with a sharp blade, letting the sweet water hit the blades of grass underneath. She let her bare feet bathe in the drops.
That was before Sohraab went away for school. When he was still a brother. When they would outrun snakes in the fields on a steaming day, letting their bare soles pound the earth below. When they filled up the concrete tub by the wagons with tangy water and cooled off in the July air. When he helped her pierce her ears with a sharp stick. When he put blades of thick grass in the lobes to keep them open. When he showed her the new harmonica he bought at the shops, which he had to hide from Ammi and Abbu. They did not like the sounds of music.
Iman, mere saath aaiye. He would say. Come with me.
Okay, she said. And she would. Just the sound of his voice could lull her to do anything. She would sneak off with him to hear his music. No matter how much she loved listening to him playing and dancing along, clapping to the beat, it was only temporary. The notes turned sour. After months of arguing in the house, Sohraab finally left for an education a few towns over. On the day he was to leave he wore a Western shirt tucked into some pants she had never seen before. He had a briefcase that she had only seen on the television, the one in the corner of her room right under the fan. The one that only showed black and white. And she finally saw it in color, in the hands of her departing brother.
She remembered him when she watched television. She remembered him when she felt the blades of grass floss her toes, whenever she laid in bed and felt the cold spot next to her head. She could not help but think of him when she would catch her father with his head in his hands, next to an untouched cup of tea and a heavy ashtray. She eyed the harmonica sometimes.
She remembered him, too. Her father. She remembered him when she picked up the sugarcane knife, when she dragged the wagon onto the fields. Her hand burned on the handle, convincing herself that her father’s touch was still hot on the metal. She could do it by herself now, pushing the wagon for multiple kilometres, shucking the sugarcane, feeding the pigs. She did it herself while her mother rotted away in the house, flipping rotis and cleaning the house again and again to make herself feel like she was still needed. In between sweeping the kitchen and fixing the bedrooms she snuck in drags of cigarette smoke, usually accompanied with cups of tea with far too much sugar.
The rare sound of wheels on gravel made her turn her head and stop looking after the pigs. A shiny, white car glistened in the sunlight. It pulled in and parked. Visitors barely came to their pind, their village, unless they were attending a wedding or paying their respects at a funeral. And in her mind, she had trouble weighing which situation was most unfavorable. Perhaps if her hands weren’t so calloused, dirty, and stained from years of labor, they would be pretty enough for a man to hold.
The engine turned off. The door clicked open.
She was a passenger inside of a car once, back when her father just got his new job. He let her sit inside, hang her arm out the window as they drove fast down an almost empty highway. That was the first time she breathed in city air, and she felt it circulate throughout her whole body, from her lips down to her toes. And it felt so wonderful. She often wondered if that was why her father left. He loved the scent of wet concrete and bland air more than the feeling of her arms around him. Time and time again, she only hoped that wasn’t true.
She did not recognize the first man. He was too tall to be anybody she knew and had too little facial hair. His sunglasses hid his eyes. His suit was pitch black.
The other man opened the passenger door and slowly stood up. He did not wear sunglasses. She searched for his eyes and found them. She shut hers when they met.
Banja was the stray dog that skipped around, house to house, always begging for food and for some touch or love or attention. And when Sohraab left and Iman felt forgotten and lonely, she made friends with the only other thing that could understand how she felt. She brought Banja to the fields, showed her the canes, the pigs, the tractors. She sang to her, gave up dinner for her, and took care of her the way she wished someone had done for her.
The morning that Banja would not sit up and only whimpered through sunrise and sunset, Iman knew what was happening, but nonetheless spent the next few days in mourning and denial. On the second night, she lay awake in bed, her brother’s cold spot almost in reach, looking up at the wall above. She did not feel her body doing it, but she did taste the salt on her lips and hear the hiccups and sniffles that filled the room. The only thing she remembered feeling was the warm grasp of her father’s arms rocking her back and forth and wiping away her tears.
And that’s what she saw when she looked at the man. His soft, sad eyes mirrored her own. His mouth parted as if to say something, but then he closed his mouth.
In his hand the black mirror stayed. It wasn’t like their phone, it could be touched all over. Before he really left he held the black mirror more than he did his own child. Put it to bed before her, always got up when he heard it crying. He must have noticed her staring at it with disdain. He put it in the pocket of his pants.
Iman, he breathed out, unsure of what to say.
Somehow over the years his voice had gotten more raspy, more weak. His neck showed more bones, and his hair went from the color of the soil to the color of the clouds. He seemed so foreign, and his pink dress shirt dramatically contrasted the deep emerald of the trees behind him.
She hated him. For coming back now. What a waste it all was: the sleepless nights waiting for him, seeing the reflection of the moon in her tears. Taking care of her mother, then deeming her a lost cause. Feeling completely alone. Having to cut her hair down to her ears when it got caught in the tractor wheel, having permanent blisters on her fingers. Her lobes closed and massaged with dirt, her forehead and eyes creased from grimacing in the burning sun. Her cheeks freckled with dark spots. She missed her long, smooth hair. She missed her delicate skin, back when her hands felt like ribbons of velvet and her heels never touched the ground without fabric in between. Back when she remembered what her own laugh sounded like.
Oh, what he had done to her. Who she had become. She hated how she still loved him.
She ran towards him, ignoring the piercing pain of the gravel digging into her heels, ignoring how hot the rocks were after bathing in the day’s sun, ignoring how she still smelled like tractor gasoline and cut grass. She fell into his arms.
The day was hot, but he felt warmer, warm from the inside out. His hesitant arms eventually made their way around her. She was much thinner now, and it made his heart hollow. The only thing they could hear was each other’s heartbeat, his slow breath being the only breeze in the still air. She was shaking and he was comforting her as always. He whispered something near her ear, it could have been I love you or I missed you but to her the only thing that mattered was hearing his voice again. She had almost forgotten the sound.
Abba, she whispered. Abba. That was all she could say. It was all she needed to.
And there they were. Under an emblazoned sun, their shins kissing the tall weeds around their legs, their hearts radiating. His hands soft and tired, hers ringless and wrinkled. He was, in a way, different now. She pulled away slightly to look at him. He smiled.
But his eyes were still a deep, rich brown, like hers. Still sparkling.
Sema Madahar is a seventeen-year-old who attends Millburn High School in northern New Jersey. Her family heritage and culture mainly inspire her writing. Along with stories, Sema loves creating film and taking photos and uses it as another form of expression. Her favorite place to write is curled up by the fireplace, with her calico cat, Nimah, resting on the arm of her chair.