Fiction / May 2010 (Issue 11)


Crossing Over

by Gwen Florio

Rahima felt her new husband's eyes upon her and lifted her chin, tightening the delicate string of seed pearls that ran from the ruby stud in her nostril to the diamond in her ear. Let him look, she thought, now that he can. Let him measure her beauty against the meanness of his expectations. Oh, her sister Alia had been all too eager to relay his fears that Rahima would be small, dark—"black-black," he had scoffed—and, with all of her vaunted schooling, difficult to control. That, inevitably, she would bring shame upon his family. Rahima stirred in her seat, so that her crimson and gold wedding finery whispered silken promises, and raised her arm to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, the better to display the floral mendhi patterns that gloved her hand and wrapped her wrist, burdened in turn by engraved gold bangles stacked all the way to her elbow, leading the eye to the tender place above it, a precious few inches of milky bare skin revealed by her fashionable, short-sleeved qamiz.

Her husband gasped and started, ruining the wedding photograph. She closed her eyes in triumph. She would not give him the satisfaction of returning his glance, despite the curiosity increasingly at war with the anguish that had possessed her since this most unwelcome of betrothals had been announced. Had she married a fellow Punjabi, someone from Islamabad's respectable classes, there would have at least been a few meetings at family gatherings large enough to ensure maximum embarrassment. And indeed, her parents had mustered a dwindling procession of awkward second cousins and middle-aged widowers: men with oily stands of hair combed carefully over shiny pates; men whose bellies strained at the waists of wrinkled shirts; men whose thick fingers were none too clean; men who nonetheless frowned suspicion in her direction, unwilling to overlook the lingering tarnish to her reputation from her time abroad, a cloying perfume of inappropriateness that still clung to her, even after all these years.

"Oh, la. What did you expect? Everyone knows about the British boy," Alia shrugged after one such reluctant suitor departed with a decisive shake of his head. And so her parents had orchestrated the unthinkable, this union with a murkily wealthy Pashtun family who had fled Afghanistan during one of that impossible country's routine lapses into murderous factionalism. With such people, there had been no question of the bride and groom seeing one another before the wedding. Instead, considerable sums had been staked upon guarantees of Rahima's beauty and purity; with gushing testimony by her father as to both, even as he inwardly gave thanks for the fact that the groom's family lived in Peshawar, hard by the Afghanistan border, both geographically and culturally beyond the bounds of Islamabad's gossiping aunties.

The photographer said something and Rahima opened her eyes in time for the obligatory flash and resulting blindness. Footsteps shook the dais; another guest climbing to take his place beside the couple for the next photograph, a process that would continue for hours. Rahima and her husband left the tent well past midnight, Rahima bowing her head beneath the Holy Q'ran held above her as she walked, rose petals tossed by the guests fluttering like moths against the bare skin of her arms and neck. Only then did she begin to weep, silent tears sliding down her cheeks as she and her husband climbed into the car that would take them to the villa, strung roof-to-doorstep with twinkling ceremonial lights, that Gul's father had rented in the capital city for just this occasion. She wept again, later, after they were ushered into the bedroom, where streamers draped a tall canopied bed with more rose petals scattered across the coverlet. But her new husband, despite the noisy crowd of relatives waiting just outside the door for the deed to be done, could not bring himself immediately to the task at hand. Rahima sat on the bed in her shift, head bowed.

"My name is Gul," he said finally, telling her one of the very few things she already knew about him.

She neither spoke nor moved; willed herself not to flinch when he felt his hands upon her. He circled her wrists with thumb and forefinger and slid his hands up her arms and squeezed so tightly that she cried out. A roar of approval arose on the other side of the door.

"Your arms," he said, afterward, as she curled as far away from him as possible. "You will never display them again to anyone but me."

 

***

 

The beginning of the week brought the long drive to his family's home in Peshawar and its legions of waiting aunties. It was, Rahima thought as they fell upon her, an experience not unlike that of her wedding night, all poking and prodding, hot breath in her ear, sharp exclamations tinged with wonder and triumph. The aunties fondled the bangles on her wrists, commenting upon their number and weight, batted at the tiered earrings that swung from her lobes, bunched the silk of her qamizthis one with decorous long sleeve—in their hands, marveled at its softness. One woman sniffed at Rahima's neck.

"It's my perfume. It's French," Rahima said. The woman smiled, then touched her tongue to the spot. The day passed in a press of femininity and a blur of meals, one following immediately upon the other—so much food that, late into the evening, Rahima finally put her hand over her plate when Gul's younger sister, Bibi, began to ladle out a second serving of firni. .

"Please, no," she said, searching for more Pashto words to soften the refusal. "I shall burst."

"Maybe it is nothing for you to always have enough to eat," Bibi replied, her Urdu a double rebuke.

Rahima pursed her lips. She had hoped to make a friend of the girl. She dug her spoon into the quivering mound of rice-flour custard, thick with almonds and golden raisins, and raised it to her lips, aware of Bibi's eyes tracking the motion. There would be no sliding the spoon's contents back onto the plate. Rahima choked and swallowed, dipped the spoon again. "Good," said Bibi.

A door banged. A masculine voice sounded. A man Rahima recognized from the wedding as Gul's father stood in the hall. Maryam, Gul's mother, held up her hand and the room fell silent. He bent his head close and spoke into her ear.

"Are you sure?" Maryam said.

"Yes. Now. Quickly. Everyone."

All around Rahima, women rose from the floor, the repast at their feet forgotten. Rahima gratefully shoved her plate away, hurrying to follow the women across the hall to the men's sitting room. There, a television blared at full volume, distortion rendering the announcer's words unintelligible. The other women shoved in front of her, blocking her view.

"Aah-cha," someone next to Rahima whispered. "There will be big trouble now for sure."

Rahima balanced on her toes. The screen showed an urban skyline, plumes of smoke, two buildings like upended blocks. The view shifted; an airplane soared across the screen. A fireball flashed orange. Then, a new scene: the buildings again, the midair explosion, smoke boiling up white, the towers disappearing, first one, then the other.

A collective gasp arose from the aunties.

Rahima felt Bibi's eyes on her again.

"Don't you understand?" Bibi asked.

Rahima shook her head.

"What is it?"

"Amreeka. It has been attacked. Some people—mujahidin, I think—bombed them. Now they know how it feels."

Soft laughter arose in waves as the towers slowly collapsed, again and again. Rahima looked around for her husband and saw him in urgent consultation with his father. Nur Muhammed said something to his son. Gul's face went blank, and he nodded.

Rahima moved as unobtrusively as possible until she stood behind him.

"What is happening?"

"Amreeka has been attacked," he said.

"Not that," she said. "I saw you talking with your father…"

Gul met her eyes. It was, she realized, the first time he had done so.

"We are leaving Peshawar," he said.

"Oh," said Rahima. She tried to disguise the emotion she felt. Surely, she would have gotten used to it, she told herself, but could not deny the relief flooding through her at the thought of returning to Islamabad and her own people. Already, she was thinking of how her sister would laugh at her tales of the voracious aunties.

"Where will we stay? Perhaps near my parents?" she suggested.

She didn't understand Gul's expression. He waited a long moment before he spoke again.

"We are not going to Islamabad," he said and held her gaze until the meaning of his words became clear.

"No," said Rahima. She stepped back. "No," she said again.

"Yes," he said. "We are going to Kabul. My father feels it is time to return."

"No," she said, although she already knew it was hopeless.

"We must," he said. "And quickly, before the Amreekayii come. Look there," he said, gesturing toward the screen, where yet again, planes swooped and buildings fell.

"Do you really think they will let this go unpunished?"

 

***

 

Rahima jumped at the sound of a car moving slowly along the hushed street. It was nearly four in the morning.

The previous night, after Nur Muhammed—fairly twitching in his eagerness to return to Kabul and position himself with whatever faction came to power upon the Taliban's inevitable fall—had announced the family's departure, she'd slipped away and scrawled a note to her sister.

"Please, if you value my life, you must come for me. They are taking me to that terrible country. Alia, I will surely die there," she wrote, pressing the folded paper upon a maid, along with a good portion of the rupees Alia had palmed to her on her wedding day. "He'll never give you any," Alia had said with a sniff, lifting her chin toward Rahima's new husband.

"This must go now. Tonight," Rahima told the maid, who stood slack-jawed before her. Rahima grabbed the girl's shoulders and shook them. "Go! Run!"

The girl brushed at her clothing as though Rahima had dirtied it. "You are lucky I don't tell them of this," she drawled, taking the note—and the money—nonetheless, and slouching away at something considerably slower than a run.

Rahima made a despairing calculation. Three hours to Islamabad. Three back. She'd sent the girl into the night after ten. It was impossible that Alia had come so quickly. Unless—her heart leapt at the possibility—Alia had telephoned for someone in Peshawar to help. Someone local, who would know how to deal with these people. Rahima pulled on her clothes with shaking hands. Yes, the car had stopped in front of the house. Yes, that was the front door. Yes, those were footsteps approaching.

She cast about for an excuse to Gul's family as to why she was leaving. They would surely try to stop her. She squared her shoulders. She hoped Alia had sent more than one person. And money. A lot of money.

The footsteps halted before her door. Rahima thought her smile would split her face. She forced herself to open the door slowly, trying to arrange her features into a more appropriate expression.

"Good. You're dressed. Come quickly. We must leave now for the border. There's very little time."

Gul's mother stood before her.

"But—"

Rahima grabbed at the door jamb.

"But I heard a car," she whispered.

"Yes. It's waiting for us," said Maryam. She thrust a bundle of blue accordion-pleated silk toward Rahima.

Rahima reached for it, then pulled back.

"A burqa," she said.

"Put it on. You'll need it there. They're waiting for us in the car." Rahima tried to move and couldn't. She opened her mouth and no sound came out. Maryam threw the burqa over her head and yanked it into place, then took Rahima's hand and dragged her from the darkened house toward the car. Rahima cast a beseeching glance down the street, but even the inadequate view afforded by the burqa's grille showed there was no other car, no one sent by Alia, no one at all to save her from being kidnapped—was there any other word for it?—into that murderous land.

"We must get to the border before daylight," Maryam said, as the car left behind the rambling villas draped in bougainvillea and hibiscus and sped past the katchi abadis on the city's fringes, where less fortunate Afghani refugees crowded, along with their chickens and bullocks, into windowless mud huts. Despite the hour, people were streaming from those twisting dirt streets onto the main road, backs humped beneath belongings piled high, all trudging west toward the border. Rahima, seizing upon a last, forlorn hope, wondered how any of them would cross. She was sure she'd heard someone say, in the confusion of the previous evening, that the Khyber Pass had closed within hours of the attacks but the tense silence within the car warned her against posing questions. It had been decided that only Nur Muhammed and Maryam, Gul and Rahima, and Bibi would make the trip, leaving Gul's younger brothers and sisters in the care of the aunties. Without warning, the car careened off the road and bumped across a field, angling upward toward a grove of plane trees, their pale, peeling trunks ghostly in the wavering lines of the headlights. It stopped among the trees, well-screened from the road below. Maryam put her hand to the small of Rahima's back and shoved her out.

A man waited in the shadows beneath the spreading branches. A burro dozed beside him. Gul stepped forward and took the rope from the man's hand. He tugged at it and, after a brief back-and-forth, the burro took a single step forward.

"This is for you," Gul said to Rahima.

Rahima found herself giving grudging thanks for the burqa's disguising qualities. At this moment, she realized, no one would be able to see the utter stupidity of her expression. Was it a pet? she wondered. She stretched a hand toward its nose, but it turned its head away as if bored.

"Please," Gul said. "Get on. It is for you to ride."

"But no one else is riding," Rahima said. She had no idea how one got onto a burro, especially when entangled in a burqa.

"If everyone else is walking, I will walk, too," she declared, more confidently than she felt. "The burro can carry our things."

Maryam stepped in. "If she wants to walk, fine. But if she falls behind," Maryam warned, "she rides."

Maryam moved onto the path where Nur Muhammed had already vanished into the tattered mist. She walked with long, smooth strides that caused the folds of her burqa to billow and recede about her, giving her the appearance of a blue, heavily breathing apparition. Bibi followed behind, moving just as surely as her mother.

Gul shrugged. "Let's go, then," he said. Rahima followed him onto a trail that she couldn't really see through the burqa's screen. She had not yet mastered the art of walking adeptly within the burqa, using one hand to hold its flapping folds closed and her feet to somehow sense obstacles. No matter where she stepped, sharp pebbles bit into the thin soles of her stylish slippers. She tried walking on the sides of her feet to avoid the pain, but twisted an ankle so severely, nearly falling, that she went back to walking normally despite the blisters she could feel rising on her heels.

"Fifteen minutes," she told herself. She could stand it that long. But fifteen minutes passed, and then another fifteen, and after an hour and a half, Rahima's feet blazed as though she had thrust them into the glowing remnants of a cooking fire. She had another problem. The path, a rocky dirt track, began to angle upward, and soon her lungs competed with her feet for extremes of searing agony. Rahima tried to stifle her breathing. Ahead of her, Maryam and Bibi climbed easily, if anything moving more briskly than they had at the beginning of the trek. Sweat drenched Rahima's forehead. Salty rivulets stung her eyes. She was aware of someone beside her, but did not dare turn her head to look.

"Are you all right? Do you need to ride?" It was Gul, falling back to walk with her.

"Yes. And, no," Rahima said, not trusting herself to utter more than single syllables.

"Don't worry," Gul said. His voice sounded far away. The sun was up, and the trail was growing uncomfortably warm. Heat radiated from jagged rocks that reared high above them but provided little in the way of shade. "Not much longer. A few more hours, maybe. Cars will wait for us in a safe place."

Hours? Rahima thought. Hours?

With each step, the pain radiated up from her feet into her hips and the base of her spine. She concentrated on becoming accustomed to it. Just when she thought she had succeeded, a different sensation made itself apparent in her feet, one of moisture. She moved her toes within her slippers, and the sensation spread. Her blisters had begun to burst. Within the next half-hour, as her shoes rubbed her stockings into the raw wet patches on her feet, Rahima realized that nothing she had felt before even qualified as pain. She bit her lips, trying to distract herself, but left off when she tasted blood, yet still felt every stab from below.

She began counting her steps.

"When I get to one hundred, we'll be at the cars," she told herself.

And then two hundred. Five hundred. One thousand. Maryam and Bibi were blue smears across her vision; Gul an occasional voice at her side. She had no idea what he said to her. She was too busy counting, concentrating on the rhythm of it, a new number each time she moved her right leg forward. They were heading downhill now, and the momentary relief as the fire in her lungs eased gave way to a whole new aspect of suffering as her toes jammed repeatedly against her shoes. Rahima had let her toenails grow fashionably long so that she could paint the adorable half-moons that peeked slyly from the sandals she wore at evening functions, but now the nails bent and broke with each lurching step downward.

Rahima breathed and counted, stepped and counted. Beneath the burqa, sweat soaked her shalwar qamiz, dried, and soaked it again. Rahima counted. Her stiffened shalwar scraped at her thighs. Rahima counted. Her lips dried and swelled and cracked, and she breathed open-mouthed, no longer caring whether anyone heard. Rahima counted. She moved on wooden legs, shoving first one rigid limb and then another ahead of her, rocking sideways with each awkward step. Rahima counted.

A new awareness nudged its way into her consciousness: someone grabbing at her. She twisted away, trying to whisper her count aloud through thick and cottony lips so that she would not lose her place in the numbers.

She heard her name.

"Rahima. Rahima." It was Gul.

She counted.

"Rahima. Stop." Gul again. He stood before her; grasped her elbows. Her legs went still and then began to fold beneath her. Gul lifted her, bearing her weight, so that she appeared to be standing. "Lean on me," he whispered. "It's only a few steps."

As he launched her toward the cars, her dangling feet barely brushing the ground, Rahima registered a dim surprise at his words, at his acknowledgement of the difficulty of her situation, at his awareness of her need to show no weakness before his family, and she realized that her husband of but a few days was her only ally in this new world.

 

***

 

"You should hear what the aunties say about you."

Gul had taken to coming to her room earlier and earlier at night, staying with her as she rubbed the salve he brought her from the chemist into her ruined feet. At first, they sat in awkward near-silence, but lately he had begun to tell her of the events of his day, of the street demonstrations in the city and renewed battles between the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces on its outskirts, of the gossip that Amreeka would attack any day.

"And what do the aunties say?" Rahima asked.

"My mother told them she was sure the walk across the border would finish you. She wanted to leave you in Pakistan," he said. Rahima was suddenly glad he looked so rarely at her face. Otherwise, he'd be able to tell how she'd wished for exactly that. But Gul was still talking.

"They say you are a real Pashtun woman. Very brave, like us, and strong, too, walking all that way," he said. "It's good you are here with us. You would not have been happy in a soft place like Pakistan."

Rahima thought longingly of flush toilets, real beds with smooth sheets—she would have preferred even a rope charpoy over her sleeping mat—of dining with proper utensils rather than scooping up greasy morsels with her bare hand. "No," she said, hastening to agree with him before he noticed her reticence. "I do not like soft places."

"Sometimes soft is good," Gul said, putting a bold hand to her face. Before she could stop herself, Rahima leaned into his touch and, soon after, hurried to help him as he tugged at her clothing. Her sleep that night was disjointed, a long fall into oblivion, then a sudden, brief waking to revel in the unaccustomed sensation of warmth, that of her husband's body curled against her, his bare skin silky against her own. When she next awoke, she was screaming.

The earth beneath them rumbled and shook, the walls swayed. From the kitchen, she heard the sound of breaking crockery, and the raised voices of others in the household, sounding more annoyed than frightened. The rumbling stopped momentarily. Then came a crash, louder than before, and the walls quivered. Rahima screamed again, and folded into herself, clasping her arms around her head.

Gul pulled her to him.

"Shhhh," he said. "It's all right."

"Is it an earthquake? Shouldn't we go outside?" she said, trying to recall what she'd read about earthquakes. Outside, or under a doorway? She couldn't remember. She struggled from Gul's grip, and felt about for her clothing.

"Not an earthquake," he said. "Bombs. The Amreekayii have come."

Rahima made as if to leap from the bed, but Gul restrained her.

"Let me go!" she said, her breath coming fast. "We have to get out of here."

"Inshallah, we will be fine here," said Gul, and even in her panic, Rahima noticed the resignation in his tone.

The house shuddered with a new explosion.

"How can we be fine? We'll be killed!" Rahima strained against his hold.

"They are far away. In the mountains."

"But it sounds as though they're in the next street."

"Yes," said Gul, in that same flat manner. "That's how bombs sound," and Rahima collected herself enough to realize that for this family, bombs were nothing new.

"Why are they bombing the mountains? Won't they come here?"

"They'll be here soon enough," he said. "But the mountains are where the mujahidin hide. They won't get them, though."

Rahima tried to still her breathing, and lay beside him, listening. The rest of the house had quieted. She wondered if people had actually gone back to sleep. She turned her face into her husband's chest and breathed in his scent, seeking reassurance from his calm presence.

"Why won't they get them?" she asked.

"They are deep beneath the mountains. The mujahidin have tunnels there that they have worked on for years. They used them against the Russians. It is like a city under those mountains, electricity, everything. They live better beneath the earth than the people do on its surface," he said, and Rahima thought of the villages they had passed on their way to the city.

Even in her stupor following the trek through the mountains, she had noticed their poverty, whole families pouring from crumbling one-room homes of mud to watch their jeeps pass, everyone barefoot and impressively dirty, but looking like solid citizens in comparison to the ragged and filthy inhabitants of the Kuchi encampments they'd also seen, where unveiled women stared insolently at them from the openings of their goat-hair tents.

"The people!" she gasped.

"What people?" Gul asked.

"The people who live in the mountains. The bombs—oh, what will they do about the bombs?"

"Aah-cha," said Gul." They will do the same thing they did when the Russians came."

Of course, thought Rahima, how stupid of her to forget. These people had years of experience with all types of attacks. Surely, they had developed ways to deal with them. But then Gul spoke again, his voice harsh in the darkness.

"They will do what they have always done," he repeated. "They will die."

"But—" said Rahima.

"They will die," he said. He fell away from her and lay rigid beside her, staring at the ceiling.

"First, I hated the Russians," he said. "Now I hate the Amreekayii. They will kill the people just like the Russians did and then, just like the Russians, they will leave."

Rahima imagine a burst of metal and flame reducing mud hovels to dust, incinerating goat-hair tents. She thought of people whose only experience with an airplane was that of the death that exploded from its belly. She wondered what kind of country would kill so many innocents in the name of tracking down just one man.

She reached for her husband's hand and laced her fingers with his.

"I, too," she said, her words low and urgent as a vow of love. "I hate the Amreekayii."

 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2017
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.