What do you know of your new family? she asked as she exhaled.
It was such an embarrassing question that it quieted the room for a moment. Everyone knew that my grandfather had married my fathers mother many years ago while he had been visiting friends in our village. My grandfather was already married to his first wife, and lived with her and Gostaham in Shiraz. After my grandmother bore my father, he visited occasionally and sent money, but the families were understandably not close.
I know very little, replied my mother. I havent seen Gosta-ham for more than twenty-five years. I met him only once, when he stopped by our village on his way to visit his parents in Shiraz, the city of poets. Even then, he was becoming one of the exalted carpet designers in the capital.
And his wife? asked Safa, her voice tight from the smoke in her lungs.
I know nothing of her, except that she bore him two daughters.
Safa exhaled with satisfaction. If her husband is successful, she will be running a grand household, she said. I only hope she is generous and fair in her division of work.
Her words made me understand that we would no longer be mistresses of our lives. If we liked our bread baked dark and crisp but she didnt, we would have to eat it her way. And no matter how we felt, wed have to praise her name. I think Safa noticed my distress, because she stopped smoking for a moment to offer a consolation.
Your fathers half brother must have a good heart, or he would not have sent for you, she said. Just be sure to please his wife, and they will provide for you.
InshAllah, said my mother, in a tone that sounded unconvinced.
I looked around at all the kind faces I knew; at my friends and my mothers friends, women who had been like aunts and grandmothers to me while I was growing up. I could not imagine what it would be like not to see them: Safa, with her face crinkled like an old apple; Kolsoom, thin and swift, renowned for her wisdom about herbs; and finally Goli, my truest friend.
She was sitting next to me, her newborn daughter in her arms. When the baby started to cry, she loosened her tunic and put the child to her breast. Golis cheeks glowed pink like the babys; the two of them looked healthy and contented. I wished with all my heart that my life were like hers.
When the baby had finished nursing, Goli placed her in my arms. I breathed in her newborn smell, as fresh as sprouting wheat, and whispered, Dont forget me. I stroked her tiny cheek, thinking about how I would miss her first words and her first halting steps.
Goli wrapped her arms around me. Think of how big Isfahan is! she said. Youll promenade through the biggest city square ever built, and your mother will be able to choose your husband from thousands upon thousands!
I brightened for a moment, as if my old hopes were still possible, before remembering my problem.
But now I have no dowry, I reminded her. What man will take me with nothing?
The whole room became quiet again. My mother fanned the rue, the lines in her forehead deepening. The other women began speaking all at once. Dont worry, Maheen-joon! Your new family will help you!
They wont let such a fine young girl get pickled!
Theres a healthy stud for every mare, and a lusty soldier for every moon!
Shah Abbas will probably desire your daughter for his harem, said Kolsoom to my mother. Hell fatten her up with cheese and sugar, and then shell have bigger breasts and a rounder belly than all of us!
At a recent visit to the hammam, I had caught my reflection in a metal mirror. I had none of the ripeness of nursing mothers like Goli, who were so admired at the hammam. The muscles in my forearms stood out, and my face looked pinched. I was sure I could not be moonlike to anyone, but I smiled to think of my thin, bony body in such a womanly form. When Zaynab noticed my expression, her face twisted with mirth. She laughed so hard she began pitching forward over her stomach, and her lips wrapped back over her teeth until she looked like a horse fighting its bit. I flushed to the roots of my hair when I understood that Kolsoom had only been trying to be kind.
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