Misbah Khokhar


The River of Living and Dying

a tale of love

Dedicated to Xam, Bast, Sekhmet and mothers and daughters of earth.

Chapter One


     The clock is ticking over my head as I feign sleep. Sleep comes in like a hidden love affair, brushing the lashes of my eyes, sinking into my weary limbs.

     I am here, waitress all in one, plunging hot steam into empty teapots. I warm the teapots, in my head I sing to the insides of these shiny pewter teapots, that burn my fingers, my dry fingers. I have a face that ages by the consecutive daylight hours.

     A face that hides all the mind's longing far below the surface. My fingers feel the cool smooth surface of a river stone, and I sigh, because it is all I have with me, and it is all I need for my journey home.

     I am riding in a jeep with my father's family. See me now. My hair is long and black and plaited carelessly. My nose is sunburnt and my lips shall never be thick and moist. I have found myself in this eastern land as a girl-child accompanied by my mother and my two brothers. It is noon-day and we cross the shallow part of the river on our way to the crumbling fort of Rotaz.

     My mother washes clothes everyday, her hands are pale and always clean. They have never seen the sun, they are immersed in a world of domestic duties and maternal worries. I see the way she looks at me, her eyes focusing on my large round face, travelling around the features, sighing at my body. I have a body that moves, that insists on pleasure long before I have any conception of pleasure. A water colour painting of childhood. Under the house children touch each other's bodies and run away.

     I remember falling as a child onto cold cement and my mother's cream filled breath hovering around me. My mother who cannot make milk for her daughter because the eastern heat is too much for her. See the way her hair is pulled back tightly but her face remains soft and luminous. She holds me up to the light. She tells me stories. Sometimes the stories she tells her only daughter make the child weep. Tears of milk. A river of tears, with sorrow and much laughter.

     " I was addicted to Galibis when I was pregnant with you." Her voice trails into the winter air perfumed with sugar on the tongue. The coils of rosewater syrup sweets, golden in paper bags, melting on the pink flesh.

" I have a ridiculously sweet tooth and I now know why."

     She hears me and smiles at my scowl. She toasts her life with another piece of chocolate. I see a young girl, too young for marriage, dreaming of her grown daughter sitting near her and talking. I want to cradle my mother and iron out her fears and sing her praises into the hearts of every living person. Dreamy women.

     When she has had a particularly vivid dream she would announce it to me at the breakfast table. I am not sure if I have a photo of my father and me together. I may have imagined it, but I do remember my father constantly walking off, away from my mother and me. She would call to him but he would not respond until the last moment when she gave up calling.

     My father's sisters are imposing characters. Their soft caramel skin hides under layers of cotton and veils. Smooth skin like a river pebble. They are utterly devoted to Allah, and to the preservation of faith in all of the family members. I thought secretly that they were wild women at heart, once a long time ago, who had been broken and saddled by the beautiful velvet of the prayer mat. God, how I sometimes cannot even look them in the eye, for I fear they will uncover all of my wickedness, all of my abandonment, and that I will be convinced that my freedom is merely the fetters of enslavement.

     I do not let the easy sway of hips pass by them. I do not wear my hair down on windy days when I feel most alive. I cannot even bare to touch my face in front of them. But then I lead fractured lives, some to please, others to understand. I live in the spaces between the role of dutiful woman, daughter, niece, and sister.

     Can you see the girl standing at the side of the jeep? She has leaned over the river to wash her face in the heat of noon. Her veil is black and she has smooth skin like her two aunties. Skin for sinning, for pleasure. She is afraid that they will notice too much of her smooth skin as she lifts her long skirt to wash her feet and legs. No-one is watching her.

     Me, the girl with the long black hair that secretly wants to be un-brushed. I am taking all the time in the world, to feel the water on my skin, disappearing through my fingers. I have forever to bathe in the river and I only have now. I have eyes that wander, they would wander far if I wasn't so afraid that I might be caught.

     When I wear my Abayah I can look all around me. I gaze at my cousin. He has dark liquorice hair that curls around his face. He is always looking at me when he thinks I am looking elsewhere. Much older than I, he lives in the far north regions where there is war and death, snow and hashish. I imagine the meeting of our skin, his arm against mine. His mother is always talking to him of marriage, "I am looking for a suitable wife for you", and " Marriage will bring you security". His mother and father sleep in separate rooms. It is probably a good thing for her, perhaps it is her only place in her large house that she might call her own. I smile at my cousin when his mother speaks to him of marriage. He speaks to her with a steady voice and kindness, " I have no intentions of marrying."

     Once I ventured to ask him if he would ever marry a cousin. We are sitting by the river and my parents are not too far away, too far away from each other, but close enough to hear me if I talk loudly.

" Maybe you and I could marry hmm?" He laughs. I am not perturbed.
" I would never marry you… imagine it would be like trying to cage a free spirit."
" I don't want to marry anyone really"
" You don't want to marry me nor I you." He turns away, picks up a stone and casts it into the river. A stone so smooth and worn down with the passing of water over its body. Eons have passed over its body and moulded its shape. It will continue to change its shape with the shifting currents, it will continue to remain susceptible to change, will be forever moved.

     I look towards him, and I look into his eyes. His eyes hidden and full of pain. There is death in those amber orbs and my reflection. He touches the hem of my skirt, but my mind travels beyond the hem. His breath always of beetle nut and mint. Sharp white teeth that graze the nape of my neck. Hands that curl between my hips and skim my stomach. Snow falling silently on hot skin, hot sands of the desert. But he would eat me up, he would swallow all of myself and I would let him do that. I would give him pleasure, unconcerned for my own and tell my mirror I was happy. I would have to lie to him. I would lie about myself so that he would not eat me all too quickly. I would be bent over cooking pots and my skin would be smoked like the fish hanging on lines. I see myself with child, bent over a stool attempting to read my own handwriting. I cannot make out the words. I am heavy with the child in my womb, it grows every second. A small baby calls me from the corner of the room. My writing catches fire from the embers spitting before me.

     He has given me watercolours and a fine silver pen. Will I write about this river? Maybe. I tell him it can mean nothing, these paints, this pen. That it must not mean anything. I am gasping for life sometimes, flooded like the river where we once sat, by the sunset that called every soul to prayer, except mine. I moan to float in the river, to feel the lime rocks and the fresh cool water, to lie like I am sleeping on my back, to close my eyes like I am dead, except my eyes shall not be shut. I gaze at the violet sky as I drift down the river. I am smiling because I am being cursed by those who love me. My dress sticks to my body, my breasts and thighs, my belly rises, round and full. My hair is like the seaweed in the ocean.

You haven't seen the ocean have you? Well how shall I describe it to you? The salt is like the salt of my hidden area, of so named sin and pleasure. Its waters rock like the insides of my womb. Its sound is my beating heart, the laughter of women washing clothes at the well.

     If you look into this river, the river I am drifting on, you can see my mother's face, the laughter of my aunts rippling on the surface, grass reeds that dance with words scribed by a thousand women. They thought that all their dreams would disappear, that they could dream and die near the banks of the river and the river would remain as it is. But they have left their reflections peering up into the infinite sky, peering up into my face. Old wrinkled faces, removing veils from their grey hair, young angry faces that do not wipe the tears but let them fall. Tears that fall into the river, carried to the ocean, the ocean far away from here.

     Women once came to the river to wash their clothes. Sometimes they came alone. A young woman killed herself in this river, death by drowning, death by dreaming and desire. Women are forbidden to swim in these waters. A haunted river, a river possessed by a demon that seduces the passionate souls of young women, an angel's voice and then drowns them.

      The river winds through the valleys and will eventually come to the sea. It has journeyed from the snow peaks of Kashmir, past war torn villagers, the forms of sleeping women, snowcats, chimneys coughing up smoke, past the azan, pass on through God's words, moving still. And I move with it. It carries me gently, passed the prayers of my family, the beautiful eyes of my cousin.

     Once a young woman came down to the river to escape the demands of her family. She says to herself everybody wants a piece of her. Picking like vultures. She wears a green sari, cotton, she cannot afford silk. Her eyes sing tunes that her voice can never. Her body is tired and aches for the cool water. There is no-one around. No lover, no children, no family, no sounds… except the river as its voice spills over smooth silver rocks. Her feet have mendhi designs on them. She looks at her feet like they belong to someone else. Her jewellery, heavy and itchy on her neck, she casts away with her long brown hands. By Gabrielle! she is so real, so close to the river's edge that she bends down to see her reflection. A woman emerges from under the surface of the river. Her skin is smooth and dark. A phantom. She smiles when the girl smiles at her. She seems to understand the thoughts whirling through the girl's mind. The hands brush the surface of the water, the woman has vanished. The sari is like a sail and it catches the dry cool winds, lifting the green cotton above her head. She is crowned.

I pass on beyond vision, I pass on beyond the discomfort of hot noon sun, I pass beyond the rocky cliffs where eagles perch and shepherds dream.

      I have bathed my feet in the cool river. The hem of my dress in wet. My face is covered by a veil. I dream under this veil. My veil shields me from heat and the heat of men's eyes. A temptress. A seducer. I am seduced by you, you and your eyes that seem endless and deadly. I have knelt by this river before and washed my abayah. All of my veil's desires are released into the flowing water, all I see under my veil, all the bodies I touch with my eyes, all the longing seeps from my veil. The hidden desires, the longings of life saturated in the veil find release in the river, carried down the river to the ocean. That is why the ocean moans, thrashes against the cliffs, embraces the sands of the beach.

      A woman will come long after I have left the bank of this river and will also sink her feet into the water and there she will gaze upon the face of a thousand women, unveiled, whose faces will call her to swim in the river, to dive under its surface and let the hot skin meet with the cool waters. The glint of underwater bodies are revealed to the women that desire immersion in the river's waters, even if their skin never yields to the liquid embrace. The naked bodies, the phantom faces are there for the women, for only ever the tired, restless, caged bird that sees freedom in a tear drop.

     She will be called back to the edges of her family, but not before her body has been immersed in the cool waters, not before she has seen me, my face, my words formed on the surface, as I rise from below and take her hand and say to her,
"Swim with me for a while, sooth the burning soles of your feet, ease the burdens of your body". Of course she shall be afraid, to see such nakedness, such blasphemy in the lands of God.

     Her family shall caution her away, the one she loves shall look on her from another world, another room. They shall not reach for her arms until she has sunk them underneath the surface, her cotton sari floating in the river. She writes with words of love and anger. She writes upon the surface of the river with her body. Smoothed by the running waters of the river. Haunting the drinking water, the bathing water, the washing water, the water of the body.

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