The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers dont finally meet somewhere,
theyre in each other all along.
In the early days, when I was still an innocent girl, my father believed in perfection.
Once, musing over his empire, contemplating the splendor he had created, he composed a poem. On the vaulted ceiling above his Peacock Throne he had an artist inscribe in gold, "If there is a paradise on the face of the Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this." Simple words from a simple man. But how true they were.
Sunrise over the Yamuna River has often prompted me to think of Paradise. From the broad shoulders of the waterway I have cherished the sights before me as I might cherish the face of my lover. This mornings views are as inspiring as ever, especially after having been away in hiding for so long. To my right sprawls the magnificent Red Fort. Opposite, awash in the suns blood, stands the Taj Mahal, neither soaring as a falcon might, nor cresting like the sea. Rather, the mausoleum arches upward, strong and noble, a gateway to the heavens. Knowing that the Taj Mahal was built for my mother is among my greatest joys, and my most profound sorrows.
Today, I am not alone. My guardian, Nizam, patiently rows our boat across the Yamuna. Behind our crafts bow sit my two granddaughters, Gulbadan and Rurayya. No longer girls, each is a wondrous incarnation of my daughter. Looking at them, I think that time has moved too swiftly, that just yesterday I was stroking the soles of their diminutive, untested feet. My love for my granddaughters is even stronger now than it was then. When I see them I feel as if Im moving forward into places harboring no regrets, no memories to remind me of my scars, those thick welts upon my mind and body.
Gulbadan and Rurayya giggle, whispering as young women doof the men who strut before them, of the dreams they encounter. When I was their age my emotions were more closely guarded. On the surface I acted much the same, but within the thick shields of my defenses dwelt more troubled thoughts, thoughts often dominated by a yearning for acceptance, a need to feel worthy.
One of the few people ever to glimpse my insecurities was Nizam, who now propels us to the far bank, away from the prying ears about the Taj Mahal. A banyan tree perches at the rivers edge, its tendrils kissing the water. To me, banyan trees resemble giant spiders, their branches falling straight to the ground like legs. Nizam ties our boat to a limb that plunges below the ripples, then nods to me. This confirms what Im thinkingthat were isolated and quite safe here, safe enough for Gulbadan and Rurayya to hear the story of how they came into being.
The tale has never been told.
"My darlings," I begin, loosening the sash that bites into my stomach. "Your parents brought you to Agra, and asked me to travel here, because they believe youre old enough to be entrusted with a story." I pause, my eyes seeking theirs. My will at this moment is stronger than my emotions, and I force my voice to harden. "Are they mistaken?"
Gulbadan, the eldest, toys with a silver ring, which is as gouged as the planks of this decrepit boat. "What do you mean, Jaha?"
"I mean, can you keep a secret? Or are you like magpies on a water buffalos back, chatting away when hawks are about?"
"But why must we be so careful?"
"Because, child, like any woman who has defied men, I have enemies. And such foes would pay dearly for this knowledge. With it, they would see to your undoing, as would the Emperor."
"The Emperor?" Gulbadan asks, her ring forgotten. "Surely we cant concern him."
From Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Copyright 2004 John Shors. All rights reserved.
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