~~~Chapter Three: Runaway~~~
If I'd ever thought skirts were fun to wear, it was certainly because I'd never tried to walk in them. Or get into cars with them. Or climb stairs with them. Or clean the house with them. How did the women of yesteryear manage to not fall on their faces every day? Or rather, how was it that I, as a woman, had lost the art of grace and refinement?
I was sure if I tripped on that darn skirt one more time, I was going to rip it right off.
But my frustrations melted away into tingling anticipation as my taxi driver pulled to a stop outside a two-story pink house with the number 15 spray-painted on the wall. I stepped out from the car, barely missing the water-filled pothole on the side of the road, and climbed up a row of steps to the front gate. I had just raised my hand to knock when the gate swung open and a woman clothed in black grabbed my shoulders and pulled me toward her for a crushing hug.
Kaveen. My heart melted as she embraced me - my dearest friend and next door neighbor back home, the girl who had etched in my soul the cry of the Shar people and had inspired me to leave behind my earthly treasures and come to them. To feel her arms around me now was proof enough that I was exactly where I wanted to be.
"You are here." She held me tighter, as if to let go would strip her of the strength to stand. "I can't believe you are here."
"Neither can I. Gosh, I've missed you." I pulled her head against my shoulder where it fit perfectly and cradled her. Her body shook, and she seemed on the verge of tears though I wasn't sure why. She kept wringing my jacket with her hands and taking short breaths, such that I became increasingly worried, and when at last I was able to draw back and look at her, I hardly recognized what I saw.
Nothing remained of the princess she had once been. Sunken, listless eyes, a gaunt face, her figure rounder and more fragile-looking than when I had last seen her. She had aged years and yet still seemed like a child. Worse still, I saw that something inside her had broken, and that she could barely keep herself together in my presence.
"Kalkay," I murmured softly, using the affectionate Shari word for "darling". "Are you okay? What's wrong?"
She shook her head fiercely, but no words came out. Instead she grabbed my hand and pulled me into the garden. We sat on a swing, and even though it was cold and windy she made no move to invite me inside.
Concern for her tightened in my chest. I knew it had not been her decision to marry Achmed and return to Sharghistan. I knew she had been terrified to give birth to her daughter, who had come less than a year after her marriage. And I knew it must have crushed her to leave behind all her dreams of finishing college and pursuing a career as a singer. But I certainly hadn't expected to come today and find her unable to speak.
"Whatever has happened to you," I whispered, squeezing her hand, "I'm so sorry."
Her round, dark eyes glistened, and she huddled against me, seemingly desperate to be near me. "You are here," she repeated, as if she knew not what else to say. "I am so glad you are here."
I couldn't imagine what had happened to make her so clingy and bleary-eyed. We had called each other intermittently since her departure last year, but she had never given me any indication that she was struggling. I tried to shake the suspicion that some tragedy had befallen her, especially since no one else had emerged from the house to greet me and her baby was no where to be seen. I played back our phone conversation yesterday when I invited myself over, searching for some sign of distress in her voice. But all to no avail. In the end I was forced to ask what I almost didn't have the courage to ask.
"Did something happen?" I rubbed her back gently. "Is your family okay? Is Seela okay?"
She looked up, eyes as wide and vast as the sky at night. I held my breath and waited for her to respond.
"Seela is sleeping inside." She brushed at her eyes and sat up. "We can go inside if you are cold, but I thought we could talk more privately out here. That's why I was waiting at the gate. They don't know you are here yet, or else they would be out here, too." She glanced nervously at the house, then lowered her voice and spoke for the first time in English. "They won't share you with me. I know how they are."
I hadn't the foggiest idea who she meant by "they", except I suspected she was referring to her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who were the main subject of our few and far between phone calls.
"Your mother-in-law, you mean?" I asked.
A scornful look crept into her eyes, changing the whole expression of her face. "If she won't even let me bathe and dress my own baby, why would she let me have even a moment alone with you? I'm sorry, but I didn't tell her you were coming today."
Alarmed by this blunt revelation, I hardly knew what to say. Did her mother-in-law even know I existed? And if I walked into the house right now, what would be her reaction?
"Don't worry." Kaveen lifted her headscarf and re-wrapped it around her sullen face. "I will get away one day."
This comment frightened me more than all the rest. I knew well the punishment for running away if she was caught and accused of indiscretion; and even if she did manage to escape, there was no where for her to go. I opened my mouth to admonish her for such a foolish thought, when the glass door to the kitchen swung open and a short, plump woman emerged.
Kaveen winced beside me.
"Kaveen!" the woman screeched, hands on her wide hips. "What are you doing out here? How long does it take to find the olives? Mila is inside all by herself cutting up the tomatoes and cucumbers and you still haven't finished the -" She stopped mid-sentence as her eyes fell on me. A smile bloomed on her aging face, and she hurried across the lawn. "Who is this? Is this your American friend? Why didn't you tell me she was coming? I would have had you make dolma!"
Kaveen cast me a look that meant I-told-you-so, then gave her mother-in-law a cold reply. "This is Ally. She moved here two days ago."
Dasda wobbled toward me, clasping my hands in her large ones and kissing my cheek twice. "Dar suphal di man!" she welcomed warmly. "How are you, my dear? How lovely to meet you. Come inside. I can't believe Kaveen left you outside in this dreary weather." Disapproval narrowed her eyes as she glanced back at her daughter-in-law.
"It's okay. I'm not very cold," I assured her.
"Nonsense. You are shivering. Come inside and sit right in front of the heater. Kaveen will bring you some tea, if she'll stop daydreaming long enough to remember." Dasda dragged me into the house, leaving barely enough time for me to slip out of my shoes before my feet hit the rug. She ushered me quickly down the hall and into the guest room where a kerosene heater glowed beside the shadak cushions.
I sat obediently, not knowing what else to do. It had been months since I'd sat in a Shari home, and while the feeling of having returned to something familiar descended upon me, I couldn't quite relax.
In the far corner next to the TV sat an amiable-looking man who I recognized as Kaveen's husband Achmed. Despite his pleasant expression, he barely gave me a moment's regard and seemed far more interested in smoking his cigarette and watching the news.
Dasda sat down next to me, drawing my attention to a covered cradle that swayed beneath the movement of her hand. "This is Seela." She peeled back the blue fabric that obscured the baby's form, exposing a tiny brown head with chubby cheeks and a shocking abundance of hair.
"She's beautiful," I said softly. "She looks just like her mother."
Dasda frowned. "No, she looks much more like her father. Her nose is much more refined and she has a sweeter disposition. It's a shame, though. I was certain Achmed would have a son first. I don't think Kaveen is strong enough to bear sons. I told him he ought to marry a strong, capable woman - but no, he had to go after the pretty one. And she's not even pretty anymore."
Kaveen entered the room just as Dasda finished speaking, and I saw her flinch beneath the woman's biting criticism. She said nothing, only scowled at her step-mother as she knelt to serve me a cup of tea.
"Oh, zetaba," I murmured, indicating that she had gone to far too much trouble and ought not to have brought me tea. "Do you need help in the kitchen?"
"Nonsense!" Dasda exclaimed, seizing my hand just to make sure I wouldn't get up. "You are our guest. You will sit here and stay warm. Kaveen, you put way too much sugar in her tea. I can smell it all the way over here."
"I only put in two scoops," Kaveen argued.
"Well, it's too black. Foreigners never like black tea."
I saw the tension rising between the two woman, and sensed the immediate need for intervention. "The tea is wonderful," I said, patting Dasda's hand. "The darker, the better, and black tea always needs a lot of sugar."
Dasda eyed me doubtfully, probably suspecting - with good reason - that I had only spoke out of courtesy to Kaveen.
"It's true," I assured her. "I drank black tea all the time in America. And iced tea - really dark iced tea. You don't have iced tea here, do you? I'll have to make you some in the summer."
Dasda marveled at my words, which had come out in such a rush I wasn't even sure what I'd said. "Iced tea? I've never heard of such a thing!" She sat back, Kaveen's very existence forgotten. "Your Shari is wonderful. Where did you learn how to speak it?"
I hesitated, for in truth it was Kaveen who had first taught me, followed by her cousins. But I sensed such a revelation would do nothing to help the situation, and thus answered vaguely, "Just some Shari friends in the States. They went to my university."
Dasda accepted my answer without question, and proceeded to drill me on all the particulars of my family, my education, and my personal life. It wasn't long before she saw the ring on my left hand and pounced.
"You are married!" she exclaimed, thoroughly delighted by this news. "I should have known you were married! Do you have any children? You have a son, don't you?"
Everyone in the room looked up and stared at me - Achmed, Kaveen, even Mila who had now entered with the placemat to set down for dinner. My cheeks flushed red, and while I tried to laugh off my embarrassment, I still felt as if I had been shoved under a microscope for no other reason than that I was a novelty to them.
"No, no," I explained. "I'm just engaged. I don't have any children."
Dasda's face fell, but she made short work of rallying herself and leaped onto the next series of questions. "Where does your groom live? When is the wedding? Will you get married here?"
"Um…" I hesitated again, this time trying to collect enough Shari words to sufficiently answer her questions. "My fiancé lives here in Salena. He teaches piano at the Aleti School of the Arts."
"Oh!" she exclaimed, fingers clamping down on my wrist. "That American pianist - I saw him on TV once. When was it? It was last spring, I believe. He accompanied a violinist at that big concert at the cultural center. He played beautifully!"
I knew well of the event - one which Nate had regretted afterwards because of all the publicity it had afforded him. He'd only done it to help one of Megan's violin students, but the thing had backfired such that now he couldn't go anywhere without being recognized, and he had a waiting list of thirty-eight persons who wanted to be his student. Since then he had agreed to perform at concerts as a means of encouraging his students to do so and also to spark interest in music amongst the local community. After that first performance it hadn't mattered any more - he couldn't possibly have been more renowned than he already was, even should he become a leading political figure. It was a fate which had befallen many foreigners in the city, especially those who had been misfortunate enough to catch the eye of reporters.
"Yes," I agreed softly, thinking it had been a long time since I'd heard Nate play, and how wonderful it would have been to sit and listen to him right now. "He plays very well."
"So you will get married soon?" Mila asked, taking a seat on the cushion beside me. She wore no headscarf, and a green mashi covered her young, slender body.
"Not until September. We'll fly back to the States in August and have the wedding there."
"September!" Dasda tsked her disapproval. "Such a long ways away. You ought to get married here. We will help you. My brother owns a large wedding hall near the governor's house. My other brother's wife is a fabulous decorator. And I will make your wedding dress. You will look beautiful in a traditional white Shari gown."
My head spun, and whether it was a result of being hungry, or of trying to process all the ridiculous ideas Dasda was throwing at me, I couldn't tell.
"Oh, you should let me do your hair and makeup," Mila said, brimming with as much enthusiasm as her mother. "Pink and green eye shadow - you will be gorgeous!"
They could have continued on for hours, I was sure, so I chose to stop them now. "Thank you so much. That's really kind of you. But we have to get married in America. All our family and friends are there, and they couldn't possibly come to Sharghistan."
That silenced them. Dasda nodded in agreement, while Mila pouted and muttered something that sounded a whole lot like, "So what?"
From there we bridged into lunchtime. Kaveen made short work of setting out the food and utensils. I tried to help her, but with Dasda and Mila anchoring both my arms, it was impossible to get up. The food looked delicious and smelled like heaven, but even before Dasda had tasted one spoonful, a flood of criticisms spilled off her tongue.
"The soup is too thick. I can smell the salt all the way over here. And you didn't cook the rice long enough." She sighed in disgust. "I can't believe you've been here almost two years and you still can't cook rice."
My heart ached for Kaveen. No wonder she had hidden herself behind a wall, putting up an exterior of scorn and indifference while breaking to pieces underneath. No wonder she had thrown herself against me as if she had no other friend in the world. Her entire family was in America, and she was here with people who saw her not as an equal, but as a slave.
"When was the last time you washed your dress?" Mila wrinkled her nose at Kaveen as she sat next to her. "It smells. You ought to make a new one. That pattern is out of style, and you didn't make it very well, anyway."
Kaveen's eyes flashed. "I would make a new one if I had any money to buy material. And your dress is out of style, too."
"It is not!" She glowered like a spoiled child, glancing to her mother for help.
Dasda was eager to oblige. "Eat your food, Kaveen, and stop talking."
"But don't eat too much," Mila warned, hiding a secret smile. "You've already gained ten kilos since you had your baby. If you gain any more you'll be fat."
If someone had attacked me the way Mila and Dasda were attacking Kaveen, I would have burst into tears. But Kaveen bore it all like a statue, that look of cold detachment in her eyes. I wanted to hold her and tell her she was lovely and give her real hope - but I knew that to do so in front of everyone would only makes things worse, so I sat in miserable silence.
Toward the end of the meal Dasda brought up the subject of children, asking Achmed in front of everyone whether or not Kaveen was going to have a son.
"God knows," was Achmed's bored response. He hadn't glanced at his wife once since she'd entered the room, and as he did now for the first time, his expression was void of any warm feelings.
Kaveen's face turned a dark shade of red, and her lips pursed together tightly. She said nothing.
Baby Seela chose that moment to let out a wild scream. Kaveen at once rose to tend to her little girl, but Dasda waved her away with a hand. "Go clean up the dishes. You don't know how to make her stop crying anyway."
If those biting words pricked my own heart, I could only imagine how fiercely they pricked Kaveen's. But the woman didn't argue, only looked bitterly at her mother-in-law and then turned to do as she'd been told.
Now that Dasda's hands were full with Seela, I had the freedom to get up. I leaped to my feet and scooped up a pile of dishes before anyone could stop me. "I'm going to help her," I said firmly, prepared to stand my ground if necessary.
But Achmed had disappeared from the house and Mila had gone to say her prayers, which left only Dasda to rebuke me for my folly. I refused to back down no matter how angry she got, and purposefully followed Kaveen into the kitchen.
"Do you see?" Kaveen hissed the moment we were alone. "It's exactly as I told you it would be. They all hate me."
I wanted to comfort her by telling her they didn't, but that would have been a lie. "I'm so sorry," I said, setting the plates on the counter next to the kitchen sink. I turned to Kaveen, feeling completely at a loss and wholly unsure how to help her.
Oh, God, don't you see this woman? Don't you see what she suffers? Please help her!
"I'm going to get out of here," she said. The determination in her tone scared me.
"You can't do that. If you run away they'll accuse you of all sorts of horrible things and then they'll kill you."
A flash of rebellion lit her eyes. "Maybe I don't care."
"That's not true. You do care. You have a baby."
"And I never get to hold her!" The words came out hoarse and broken, and then I saw the wall break down and she dropped to her knees on the floor and wept.
I crouched beside her, my heart breaking to see her so afflicted. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I had a little girl but no one ever let me hold her or care for her. Tears gathered beneath my eyelids, and I almost couldn't bear the thought.
"You don't deserve this, Kaveen," I whispered, rocking her in my arms. "I'm so sorry."
She looked up at me then, the pain in her eyes stark and haunting. "It's okay. Now that you're here, everything will be okay."
I wished I could believe her. I wished I could believe that my presence alone would make right all the wrongs. But I knew in my heart that until she gave her life to Jesus, nothing would be okay.
It was hours later when I finally left. The weather had worsened, and raindrops now splattered against the pavement as I stood on the street corner to hail a taxi. Dasda had insisted that Achmed drive me home since I didn't have a car, but I rather suspected the man would have seen it as an inconvenience, not a pleasure, and stubbornly refused. Besides, I wanted some time alone to think.
I'd only been here two days, but already I felt the weight of spiritual darkness that covered the land. It was so tangible I could almost breathe in its thickness. These were a people, while lovely and hospitable and amazingly resilient, who were spiritually blind, wandering aimlessly in the dark. A verse I'd read that morning in Isaiah came to mind: "They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand."
Oh God, I prayed silently, while the vibration of the taxi rocked me back and forth in my seat, open their eyes and their hearts so that they will understand. Open Kaveen's heart.
Courtney and Brooke were still at work when I arrived home. My slight headache and heavy eyelids were probably the result of jet-lag, though I thought I ought to have been fine after sleeping twelve hours last night. I put a pot of water on the stove to boil, turned on the kerosene heater, then snuggled under a blanket on the shadaks with my phone and called Nate.
"Hey, Al, what's up?" he answered cheerfully on the second ring.
What blessed release just to hear his voice. I sighed and pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders. "Nothing much. Are you still at work?"
"Just finished my last lesson. We'll be locking up in a few minutes." He paused, and I heard Shari voices in the distance. Nate responded rapidly with something I didn't understand, then came back to me. "How was lunch with Kaveen?"
My headache returned full force just at the mention of it. "Difficult, and not at all what I expected. She's not doing so well."
"Really?" Concern tightened his voice.
"Yeah." I fiddled with the fringe of my blanket, wishing he was here in person so that I didn't have to stare into empty space and imagine the expression on his face. "Her husband won't give her the time of day, her mother-in-law thinks she's incapable of doing anything right, her sister-in-law makes fun of her, and she's not even allowed to hold her own baby except to nurse her. No wonder she wants to run away."
"She wants to run away?"
"I don't know. All I know is that it's depressing to be around her." I sighed again. "Is it possible to truly love someone and at the same time dread being around them? 'Cause if it is, that's how I feel right now."
Nate didn't answer right away, but I heard him breathing, and knew he was contemplating what I'd said. "I think that's exactly how you're supposed to feel," he concluded at last. "It's hard to live here. Drains the life out of you sometimes. Loving people is costly."
I acknowledged in my heart that he was right, and sensed that the hardest thing about living here would be to see people suffering without Jesus. But that was why I was here, I reminded myself. I was here so that they didn't have to suffer without Him.
"Kaveen's mother-in-law was shocked when she found out we weren't getting married until September," I said after a while, hoping to buoy my spirit, and Nate's as well, with talk of our wedding.
He laughed softly. "It is a long ways away."
"She said we should get married here. Apparently she already has a wedding hall, a decorator, a seamstress, and a hair stylist picked out." I chuckled at the thought. "With the speed at which weddings come together here, we could probably have a spectacular gathering next weekend."
"Oh, no doubt," Nate agreed readily. "But your dad would kill me."
I sobered at the mention of my dad. I didn't even want to think about him right now. "That's probably true."
Nate sighed, and I sensed in that one gesture he was just as frustrated as I was. "I checked it out once, you know."
"Checked what out?"
"The legality of getting married here."
My stomach flipped, and I held my breath in anticipation of where he was taking this. "And?"
"It could work. For non-Muslims, all we'd have to do is have a ceremony and then go to the court with two witnesses and sign a piece of paper."
"Seriously?" My breathing quickened, and even though I knew the idea was preposterous, still a part of me wished it could happen.
It was a long pause before he answered. "Yeah, but whenever I think about it I think how selfish that would be. Our families, our friends, our church…"
"I know." I tried not to let disappointment color my voice.
"And you really don't want to wear a traditional Shari dress to your wedding."
"You're probably right," I acknowledged reluctantly, knowing full well a Shari costume would do nothing for my figure. But when I thought about waiting another nine months, I realized I would have worn absolutely anything if only I could be his wife. "I miss you, Nate. I wish you were here."
"I wish I was there, too."
I poked my toes out from under the blanket and moved them closer to the heater. "I keep thinking how hard it's going to be, us talking on the phone every night but never seeing each other."
"That's what we've been doing the last three months," he pointed out.
"I know. But now you're five minutes away and I still can't see you." I tried to hold back the tears, but everything about today was making me emotional. I really needed sleep. Or another cup of tea - as I was reminded by the steamy whistle calling out to me from the kitchen.
"It won't be this way forever," Nate assured me. "You'll see me more often once you start working. And then one day we'll be married and have our own house and see each other all day long. In fact, you'll probably get tired of me."
I felt his smile, bright and hopeful, even though I couldn't see him. "Hey, I gotta go," he said. "We're about to lock up and then I'm having dinner with Serush. Get some sleep, okay?"
I didn't want to hang up, but had no good excuse to keep him longer. "Okay. I love you."
"I love you, too."
He hung up, and I sat there huddled under my blanket, fighting off the tears that burned my eyes. I wanted to believe I was crying because I was exhausted, or because of Kaveen, or even because I couldn't see Nate. But the truth was that I was crying for another reason altogether - one I thought about every time he told me he loved me.
"Oh, God," I whispered aloud, trembling beneath the weight of my fear. "Please don't take him from me. Please don't take him."
Isaiah 44:18 "They know not…"
AN: Thanks for reading! This is the last chapter I will post with The Boy Who Talks to God, so if you want further update alerts you'll have to go to Where Cross and Crescent Meet and sign up for them. Also please check my profile for other updates about my blog and the forum I've opened. God bless!