She wanted to explain that she had become a respectable woman, but knew that her mother would never understand.
Her mother found out about the money and wheedled day and night. Saleema kept the money in a pouch that she wore under her shirt. Late one night, she woke to find her mother stealthily untying the pouch with thin practiced hands.
When Saleema sat up, her mother at first said, “I thought I saw a scorpion.” Then, “You owe me, you gravid bitch, coming here puffed up after your whoring. This isn’t a hotel.”
“It’s not my money. And I’ve been buying all the food.”
“It sure seems like your money.”
The mother lay in her bed, coughing.
The old midwife from the village, with filthy hands and a greedy heart, brought the baby into the world, a tiny little boy.
Rafik immediately bonded with his son. He had been in Lahore when his other children, conceived during ten-day leaves, were born and grew up. He named the child Allah Baksh, God-gifted one.
Saleema sat leaning against the wall of the quarters while Rafik played with the little baby, which held his finger in its tiny hand. He clapped and made a crooning sound, till the baby laughed, showing its red toothless gums.
“His teeth are like yours. Plus you two think alike.” She saw that Rafik really did think like the baby, he would sit all afternoon playing with it, engaged with it and seeing the world through its eyes, till it tired. When she opened her blouse to feed the baby, Rafik would look away, embarrassed, lighting his hookah as a distraction, while it smacked and sucked, its tiny throat moving.
Happy months passed, then a year, Saleema became more rounded, she was at the peak of her strange long-faced beauty. Her breasts were heavy with milk.
Rafik sat cross-legged on the lawn one morning, holding the baby. He heard the screen door leading from Harouni’s room open, and the master came out. Rafik quickly stood up.
“Hello Rafik.” He was in a good mood. “Is this Saleema’s baby?”
The master touched the baby with the flat of his hand. The baby, which had been sleeping, smacked its lips. Rafik always dressed him too warmly, a knitted suit with feet, a floppy hat.
“I must say, he’s the spitting image of you,” Harouni said, teasingly.
Rafik’s face broke involuntarily into a broad smile. “What can I say, Hazoor, life takes strange turns. These are all Your Honor’s blessings.”
Harouni shouted with laughter. “There are some blessings that you shouldn’t attribute to me!”
The old retainer’s gentle face colored.
• • •
A letter arrived from Rafik’s wife. He kept it in his pocket all day, and that night showed it to Saleema. She literally began trembling, sat down on the bed with her head bowed.
“Will you read it to me?”
“All right.” The village maulvi had taught Rafik to read as a boy, so that he could recite the Koran.
He took his battered glasses from a case in his front pocket and began.
I am writing to you because you have not been home in so many months more than eighteen months and your sons and also I miss you and speak of you at night. The old buffalo died but the younger one had two calves both female so we will have plenty of milk though for a short while we have none. Khalid asks to come to Lahore and find a job there you can find a job for him perhaps with God’s help. Your brother’s shop was robbed but they found no money and now he wants to buy two marlas of land so he will not have cash which is better. The land is on the other side of Afzal’s piece. Everything else is well. Please dear husband come home when Mian Sahib can spare you. We all send our respects.
Excerpted from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. © 2009 by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Excerpted by permission of W.W.Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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