by Jasmine Fahmy
She had a proper name once. Now she was Zofta, for the colour of her skin. Every morning she milked the goats then sat in front of the clay oven in their yard and kneaded and baked flatbreads under the sun. Then she beat the carpets and cleaned the aluminium pots and swept the stairs and anything else they wanted. All this made it so that if she stood by her Aba’s wife and the wife’s daughters she really did look like the asphalt and tar they named her after.
The only thing she didn’t do in the dawwar was cook and serve food and tea. The cooking went to Shams, the eldest of the wife’s daughters and two years Zofta’s senior. Aba’s wife said that her nafas, her breath in cooking, was best, unlike Zofta who had no nafas to speak of and whose food was (apparently) inedible as a result. The serving went to Badara, the youngest of the daughters and one year Zofta’s senior, who smiled prettily at Aba and Aba’s guests and walked with mincing steps that showed how well she filled out her gallabeya.
Zofta’s gallabeya hung loosely around her. Shams had control of the kitchen, so she had control of the food as well and doled lunch out grudgingly. Zofta had to secret away a flatbread while baking, steal a few sips of the goats’ milk. Today Amma managed to produce a few dates from her little palm tree.
“Eat up,” Amma said. Her words were the rustling of leaves. Zofta didn’t know if the wife or her daughters would be able to hear her, but kept an eye out for them nonetheless as she stuffed the soft, sticky dates in her mouth. They didn’t taste quite right, but things made of witchery rarely did.
“Eat,” Amma said again. “They’ll starve you and bury you beside me.”
“There’s worse things than being buried beside a witch. I might end up a palm tree, like you.” She pulled a pit from her mouth, and where date pits were normally long and narrow and split through the middle, this was round and hard as a polished marble, and the colour of the sky. Zofta tucked it down the front of her gallabeya.
“Spit those words from your mouth.” The spiky leaves rustled, as though Amma was gathering herself for a tantrum. “Buried, she says. Hmph. Never speak of such things again!”
So Zofta spat to the side, and the little palm tree quieted.
“Aba’s having a guest today,” Zofta said. The wife and her daughters were so busy cooking, preening, readying for the guest that she had a few moments to sit by Amma’s palm tree in peace.
“I know,” Amma said. “An important one.”
“I can tell. Aba’s wife is bringing all her gold out.” All Amma’s gold too, to give to Shams and Badara so that they jingled with every movement. Didn’t matter. She pulled another pit from her mouth, just as round and shiny as the last but red this time. More dates dropped into the dirt, and she busied herself with pulling away their black skins. “If Shams marries and goes away, they might give me the cooking.”
Amma made a sound that, when she was alive, could be made by sucking on the inside of her cheek. In spite of lacking cheeks and a mouth and a body in general, she nonetheless managed to get it, and all the scorn the sound implied, across.
“When did I raise you to be a mouse? You should be thinking about how you could marry and go away.”
“Only after they do. I’m the youngest, Amma, and haven’t a drop of witchery in me — and with how I look now, I’d need far more than just a drop.”
“Shush, child, you look fine.”
“To my mother, certainly.” Zofta might have been pretty once, and even then not on the level of Aba’s wife and her daughters, let alone now, sucked thin and dry as a raisin. “And after what they said of you, Amma, there isn’t a man in the entire village who would have me.”
“Which is precisely why you must catch this one. He isn’t from the village.”
Calls came from the dawwar. She quickly chewed and removed the third pit, this time white as a pearl. The rest of the dates she abandoned by Amma’s palm tree. As she ducked inside, Amma’s voice followed.
Catch this one.
The village children came running, yelling about an automobile. Big and white, they said, and shiny, with the glitter of gold here and there. A basha, they said, from the big city. They milled by the door until the roaring of an engine grew close, and Aba’s wife came blustering and scattered them, but she was smiling when she came back inside, and was gentler than normal when she sent Zofta to the kitchen.
“Help Shams with the food. Our best serving plates, remember!”
Zofta’s luck was looking up already. Shams even let her crush the garlic for the molokhia, bubbling on the stove, and it was a simple enough thing to slip the white date pit into the mortar as well. There wasn’t a why to it, so much as a why not. There was at least a drop of witchery in those pits, not enough to harm if they were harmful, but maybe enough to help.
The garlic flashed in the oiled pan. Nothing off about the smell. Zofta breathed a prayer in thanks as Shams scooped it into the soup.
Amma’s best gold-rimmed china was brought out and arranged on a tray large enough that Zofta could have curled up in it, with plenty of room to spare. Eight rice-stuffed squabs glistened on their plates, with two ducks roasted to crisp perfection. Rice piled high, along with assorted vegetables all swimming in spiced tomato sauce. Her own flatbreads sat warm and waiting. And finally, two steaming bowls of molokhia.
“Oh. Perhaps we shouldn’t have served yet.” Shams twisted her long braid in her hands, brows furrowed. “What if it gets cold?”
“It won’t,” Zofta said. “Aba’s greeting the guest now.”
His deep, booming voice grew louder with his enthusiasm. Aba was a man who gave an overwhelming and very convincing impression of warmth. Shams hurried past her and cracked the kitchen door open, all the better to listen in. Zofta caught a glimpse of the guest as Aba led him to the dining hall; his ruddy Turkish complexion, his finely waxed and curled moustache, his fez a vivid red and tilted dangerously to the left. City fashion, no doubt.
Aba called for the food. Zofta picked up the tray, but Aba’s wife was soon there to take over and with Badara they took the food out. The wife greeted the guest—Anwar Basha, she called him—and deep, City-accented Arabic replied, complimenting the food.
“Please, it’s nothing at all,” the wife said. “We can only hope Shams’ cooking satisfies your eminence.”
Such was the wife’s mood that she allowed Zofta to eat with her and the daughters in the kitchen, and because the daughters kept coming and going to meet Aba’s requests—Water! A towel! More bread for the Basha!—she managed to eat a whole squab herself, delicious stuffing and liver and all, and even drink a little of the molokhia the Basha had complimented.
“Once one of my daughters marries the Basha, we can get out of this miserable little village,” Aba’s wife said. Her gold bangles jingled with each spoonful she brought to her mouth, which remained perfectly rouged and drawn. She hadn’t a drop of soup or grease on her, unlike Zofta, who had delved into her food with both hands and no doubt looked it. That probably contributed to the wife’s good mood. “Then perhaps we can finally find someone who will take you, you poor thing.” She patted Zofta’s cheek. “It wasn’t your fault your mother was a filthy, witching snake.”
No. That was the wife’s fault. She was the one who had riled up the people with tales of Amma’s witchery and supposed corruption and infidelity, until Aba shot her where her tree now grew.
Finally Aba called for the washing bowl. Lunch was over.
Zofta slept in the kitchen. The doors to the pantry and yard were locked, but she was full enough not to care. For the first time in years, she slept soundly.
She dreamt of herself as she was, before Zofta, with round smooth palms and delicate fingers, with pink cheeks and lined eyes. She was shapely beneath a gauzy white gallabeya. Amma was as she was before too, a heavy set woman with a smile to warm the soul. She hummed an old song as she braided Zofta’s hair, and every movement of her arms came with the chink of gold bangles. Zofta smiled at her reflection. The braids done, Amma took off her necklace and fastened it around Zofta’s neck. The gold pendant in the shape of an open palm, the khamsa, and a fairuz evil eye in the middle now rested on her chest. It was Amma’s favourite.
“This will protect you from their envy,” she said, and pressed a kiss to Zofta’s brow. With it came a jolt of witchery.
The wife’s good mood was gone. She tugged at Zofta’s braids and smacked her upside the head and sent her sprawling in the dirt because she wasn’t milking fast enough, because the dough felt runny, because this bread wasn’t fit to feed ducks, because because because.
Mostly because the wife hadn’t been able to find Amma’s gold khamsa with the fairuz evil eye, because the kitchen had still been locked when she came thundering in that morning, because eventually Aba told her to leave Zofta alone when she clearly didn’t have it.
The balcony of Aba’s private sitting room faced the other side of the dawwar, so Aba wouldn’t have to see the clay oven and the animals. Zofta couldn’t see but could hear Aba and the noisy slurping of his tea. The Basha said he’d had a lovely dream about a lovely girl.
And Aba said, how curious, he’d had the same dream, but there was an edge of unease in his voice that told her he’d had this conversation already.
The wife’s glare bored into her back as Zofta kneaded the new batch of dough. The remaining two date pits she’d hidden against her breast were a warm, reassuring presence.
They kept her from the kitchen until it was time to sleep. As usual, the wife locked the door to the yard, then locked the pantry and stowed the keys down the front of her gallabeya. She said not a word, but the hushed silence of the daughters said it all. They had all had the dream. Even if nothing could be proven, it was only the fact that Aba wouldn’t want to be disturbed with a guest in the house that saved her.
“Good night,” Zofta said.
The wife slammed the kitchen door behind her and locked that, too. Zofta waited until the clacking of the wife’s slippers faded then pulled out the date pits. One was red as a ripe apple, the other blue as the dawn sky. She rolled them between her fingers.
The white pit had been the last for her to get and the first for her to use. If she was meant to use them, the order would be significant. She knew enough of witchery to know that.
The red one, then. She kept it in her fist and tucked the other away.
“Amma,” Zofta whispered. “Amma, if you can hear me, I could use your witchery about now.”
She wrapped the pit in the hem of her gallabeya and brought the heel of her slipper down on it.
A moment’s wait, in case anyone had heard. A deep breath. She hit it again and again, until all she could feel in the wad of cloth was dust.
It tasted like rose sherbet, cloyingly sweet in a way that made her grimace, but she forced it down with a gulp of water from the clay olla in the window.
That night she dreamt she was just what Amma had called her, a mouse. And as a mouse she could do what she couldn’t as a girl and squeeze into the pantry and take big bites out of this and that and those. After she was uncomfortably full, she squeezed back into the kitchen, then out of the kitchen and into the dawwar beyond. Her mousy nose twitched. Pungent cologne, the expensive sort, led up to the room she had occupied long ago. It was now a guest room and fit for a basha.
His English suit hung carelessly over the back of a chair. She sniffed it, rubbed her nose, and continued up the bed. The mosquito netting was easy enough to bite through, although the bitter taste of it left much to be desired. She scurried up to the pillow.
Hm. Not a particularly good-looking man, but he’d do.
Her whiskers twitched, and as they did a little red dust fell from them and onto his eyes. The dust became a ribbon. He stirred a moment, tugged it from his face, and went back to snoring. She scrambled out of the hole she’d made, fell off the bed with a squeak, then scurried out.
And because this was her dream, she went into Aba’s room and bit the wife a few times for good measure.
Aba was livid that they hadn’t cleaned the dawwar thoroughly of vermin, and that the Basha suffered from it. Aba’s wife was livid because she knew better. The only reason any of the girls were spared was because of the Basha’s presence.
“There are no vermin in this dawwar,” Aba’s wife said, holding up a bitten plum for inspection. She kept scratching at her neck absently over her veil. Luckily, Zofta was practiced in the art of keeping the smile from her face.
“You had the only key.” Zofta kept her eyes downcast.
And the markings were made by animal teeth. Even the daughters had to concede to that and eventually, grudgingly, so did the wife, and so they set her with the task of cleaning the dawwar while Aba took the Basha out to see his lands. It wouldn’t have been so bad except one of all of the pampered women kept watch on her the entire time and constantly found spots she hadn’t cleaned yet.
Zofta did not find any ribbons in the Basha’s room, but she paused in front of the dresser, taking in her reflection. She wasn’t so much of a raisin now. In fact, if she moved just so, she could actually see some fullness under the gallabeya.
That night, Aba’s wife had her sleep with the daughters in their room. Zofta would be on the floor, of course, by the foot of their shared bed, but they whined and wailed until Aba’s wife said, “It’s not proper that a daughter of ours should sleep where our male guest might stumble upon her. Look after each other, girls. Good night.”
Not that the Basha could have stumbled upon her in the locked kitchen, but it was clear they were to watch her. Badara locked the bedroom door, muttering about the unfairness of it all, and shoved the key underneath their pillow. Zofta curled up on the floor, facing away from their bed, until Shams started to snore and she felt safe enough to peer over and check that, yes, they were asleep.
Her arm pillowing her head, Zofta took out the last pit, the blue one. Could it turn her into a bird? Perhaps she could fly away in her dream this time.
She bit down on it till her teeth ached, but left no marks on the smooth surface. She couldn’t crush this one without waking them and, anyway, there wasn’t a drop of water in the room to help her choke it down. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be eaten. She held it up, squinting for any sort of sign. Come now, Amma. Continuity was important. Three pits, three nights. She was meant to do something tonight.
One hour ticked by after the other until she couldn’t see her hand anymore for the darkness. She rolled the pit between her fingers. The daughters slept on. One of them would probably marry the Basha. Then it would just be the other daughter, a bitter one, and Zofta for her to take it all out on until she got married too, and then it would just be the wife and Zofta and Amma’s palm tree forever more and—
Her nail caught on something. A crack in the pit? She wedged it in harder, trying to pry it open. It stung, she persisted, until with a snap the pit came apart and something soft tumbled into her lap. Something far too large to have been in a tiny date pit, even if it did have a drop of witchery. Zofta grabbed fistfuls of it, brought it to her face to see the glimmering fabric with her own eyes.
It was a dress like the hawanem wore, cut with a skirt too tight for any sort of housework, but then the ladies who lived in villas with bashas had people in gallabeyas—like Zofta—to do the housework for them.
Was it for her? But what use was a dress?
She rubbed the fabric between her fingers, hoping to feel the witchery, but something told her there was none. The daughters still snored, but sooner or later one of them would wake up and see the dress and they’d want it. No. First they’d ask where she got it.
Aba would ask where she got it. He’d shoot her before she had a chance to explain she hadn’t stolen it.
Ah, but what if it wasn’t for her?
One of the daughters stirred with the first light. Judging by the lack of snoring, it was Shams. Zofta closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. The daughter shuffled about, fumbling for her slippers, nearly tripped on Zofta’s feet, then tried the doorknob for a few times before she remembered to come back and get the key from under their pillow. Zofta had tried to put it back where she’d gotten it but trusted that even if she hadn’t, Shams wasn’t awake enough to realize it.
With the key this time, Shams opened the door. Then squealed.
“He brought me a dress!” Shams said, and held it up for them to see. In the light it was the same blue of the pit. “A dress, just for me! It looks so expensive.”
Badara was up in a moment. “Did he leave a note?”
By Shams’ glare, no, he did not, and therefore how did she know the dress was for her? Well, because it was clearly too small for Badara, and did she really think she could squeeze into this?
Their screeches would bring the wife running before long, and Aba not far behind. Luckily, they were too busy clawing at the dress to notice her slipping out. Zofta shot down the hallway, barefoot, her braids streaming behind her.
“Basha!” She battered the door with her fists. “Basha, you must let me in! Basha, they’ll kill you!”
He opened it, bleary-eyed. He’d had enough presence of mind to put on his dressing gown and slippers beforehand, but not enough to stop Zofta from pushing her way in. She closed the door behind her and began to tug at the dresser.
“What do you think you’re doing? Who are you?”
“I’m the daughter of the man of this household, who will soon be here with his gun if you don’t help me. He thinks you made an inappropriate gesture to one of the girls.”
“Do you really think he’ll wait for you to explain?”
The Basha wordlessly pushed the dresser, which creaked and groaned terribly in protest, to block the door. It helped that the sounds of the daughters’ shrieking reached even here. Even if the Basha hadn’t done anything, and he hadn’t, Aba was hardly about to let this opportunity to force a marriage slip between his fingers.
“What now?” the Basha asked. “I assume you have a plan. A secret door of some sort?”
“No door.” Zofta nodded to the window. “It views the garden. We climb down, and from there you can reach your automobile.”
To his credit, he only blanched a little bit at the sight of the drop. Amma’s palm tree was just below. The leaves rustled in greeting.
On the other side of the door, Aba’s wife loudly lamented her lost honour.
“And how do you propose we climb down?”
Yes, she’d thought about that. And since it hadn’t been used thus far, surely it would be of use now. “I believe you have a ribbon.”
“Yes. A red one.”
He furrowed his brows, but produced it from the pocket of his dressing gown. Very cooperative, this one. Perhaps that was Amma’s doing. Zofta took it between the fingers of one hand and pulled at it with the other, and so it grew. It grew until it brushed her feet, and when she threw the end out of the window, it kept growing until it reached Amma’s tree.
The Basha blanched significantly more. “I would ask if the ribbon will be sturdy enough to hold me, but I take it that would be a foolish question.”
“Very foolish indeed.”
“I saw you. In a dream. That was you, wasn’t it? You were quite lovely.”
Were? Zofta raised her chin. “Please, Basha. I have honour.”
Speaking of which, there came Aba’s voice, yelling for blood. The Basha gestured for her to go first, and stopped only to grab his wallet and fez. He slammed it securely on his head this time rather than fashionably tilted.
Zofta grabbed hold of the ribbon and sat with her legs dangling out of the window. She took a deep breath, smothering the little worm of doubt that crept into her heart. It was a ribbon but it was not.
It was more. It would hold.
She pushed herself off.
It burned her palms, scraped her skin raw, but it held on and it held true until the prickly leaves of Amma’s tree enveloped her and gently lowered her. The Basha’s descent was far less dignified, but he arrived on the ground whole, if bewildered, and with a tug the ribbon coiled itself neatly around Zofta’s arm.
“Good work, child!”
The Basha whirled around, his fists coming up. “Who’s that?”
Amma’s laugh rang loud, louder even than the yelling and the sounds of breaking wood coming from above. Aba had made it into the Basha’s room. A warning gunshot cut through the introduction Amma would have made, and had Zofta tugging the Basha away.
“Take these!” Amma said.
The little palm tree shuddered and more dates fell, as well as something else that fell with a thump and glittered under the sun.
Zofta knelt to see it. “Your khamsa…”
“Take it and go. Quickly now!”
Zofta gathered as many dates as her hands could carry then took off running, Amma’s favourite gold khamsa slapping against her chest. The wife screeched. They’d been spotted from the window. Didn’t matter. The garden wasn’t large, and the automobile was already in sight.
As was the locked gate, and the man who snoozed on a little wooden bench beside it.
“Money!” Zofta said. “We’ll need to bribe the gardener.”
“You can’t bewitch him or something? Use the ribbon, tie him up.”
The end of the ribbon lifted, as though it knew it had been mentioned. Zofta slapped it down. “Give me the money, get to your automobile, and we can both escape with our lives intact.”
The Basha swallowed and did as he was told.
The gardener didn’t seem altogether awake or aware of what was going on, but when money was involved and the Basha in his pretty white vehicle, well, Zofta didn’t let him think on it enough to refuse. She even gave him a couple of dates for breakfast.
And as soon as the gates creaked open, the Basha drove right through.
Zofta held her arm up and the ribbon coiled around it shot out and yanked her along. It was a terrifying few moments of flying and trying to hold onto her dates, until she found herself falling into the seat right beside the Basha. To his wide eyes, she only smiled.
“Don’t worry,” Zofta said. “I won’t force you to marry me.” The automobile rumbled beneath her. She looked down at her bare, muddy feet and her smile widened. Someone would have to clean the automobile very thoroughly. “Or bewitch you. But it’s only fair that you help me since I helped you. Isn’t that right?”
“I… Yes. Yes, of course, quite right.”
“So you’ll take me with you to Cairo and find me somewhere to stay.”
Tutting. She glanced at the Basha, who was silent. He glanced over at her.
“Is that really safe, child?”
The khamsa around her neck was warm. She lifted it for a proper look, and instead of a fairuz evil eye there was a dry date pit.
Zofta kissed it then pressed it to her brow, like she would have done with Amma’s hand when she was alive.
“Don’t worry, Amma. The Basha will look after me.”
He opened his mouth. Glanced at her, and the dates in her lap and the ribbon around her arm and the muddy gold khamsa against her chest, and closed his mouth again. Zofta offered him a date, shrugged when he declined, and ate them all herself. She tucked the ten round pits in her breast.
Hopefully one of them contained a pair of shoes.