Other people would have turned to their family for help, but my mother and I were unfortunate in having no elders. All of my grandparents had died before I was old enough to remember them. My mothers two brothers had been killed in a war with the Ottomans. My fathers only relative, a distant half brother named Gostaham, was the child of my fathers father and his first wife. Gostaham had moved to Isfahan when he was a young man, and we hadnt heard from him in years.
By the time it started to become fiercely cold, we were living on a thin sheet of bread and pickled carrots left over from the previous year. I felt hungry every day, but knowing that there was nothing my mother could do, I tried not to speak about the pains in my belly. I always felt tired, and the tasks that used to seem so easy to me, like fetching water from the well, now seemed beyond my ability.
Our last valuable possession was my turquoise rug. Not long after I finished knotting its fringes, Hassan the silk merchant returned to pick it up and pay us what he owed. He was startled by our black tunics and black head scarves, and when he learned why we were in mourning, he asked my mother if he could help us. Fearing that we would not survive the winter, she asked him if he would find our only relative, Gostaham, when he returned to Isfahan, and tell him about our plight.
About a month later, a letter arrived for us from the capital, carried by a donkey merchant on his way to Shiraz. My mother asked Hajj Ali to read it aloud, since neither of us had learned our letters. It was from Gostaham, who wrote that he felt great sorrow over the losses we had endured and was inviting us to stay with him in the capital until our luck improved.
And thats how, one cold winter morning, I learned that I would be leaving my childhood home for the first time in my life and traveling far away. If my mother had told me wed been sent off to the Christian lands, where barbarian women exposed their bosoms to all eyes, ate the singed flesh of pigs, and bathed only once a year, our destination could hardly have seemed more remote.
Word of our upcoming departure spread rapidly through the village. In the afternoon, women began arriving at our home with their smallest children. Pulling off their head scarves, they fluffed their hair and greeted the others in the room before arranging themselves in clusters on our carpet. Children who were old enough to play gathered in their own corner.
May this be your final sorrow! said Kolsoom as she came in, kissing my mother on each cheek in greeting.
Tears sprang to my mothers eyes.
It was the comet, Kolsoom added sympathetically. Mere humans couldnt defeat a power that great.
Husband of mine, my mother said, as if my father were still alive. Why did you announce that life was going so well? Why invite the comets wrath?
Zaynab made a face. Maheen, remember the Muslim who traveled from Isfahan all the way to Tabriz to try to outrun the angel of death? When he arrived, Azraeel thanked him for meeting him there on time. Your husband did nothing wrong; he just answered Gods command.
My mothers back bent a little, as it always did when she felt grief. I never thought I would have to leave my only home, she replied.
God willing, your luck will change in Isfahan, said Kolsoom, offering us the wild rue she had brought to protect us from the Evil Eye. She lit the herb with a coal from the oven, and soon its acrid smell purified the air.
My mother and I served tea to our guests and offered the dates that Kolsoom had brought, for we had nothing of our own to serve. I brought a cup of tea to Safa, the eldest villager, who was sitting in a corner of the room with a water pipe. It bubbled as she drew in smoke.
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