Desert Girl, by Marwah Shuaib

The shower was a cream-colored marble, streaked with pink, like the pastel sherbet from the ice cream parlor on Block 15.

Afreen liked to take her time when bathing. There was something about the smog-choked metropolis, with its unpaved government roads, that lent a gritty quality to the dust.

She was used to dust. In the desert, everything was dust, the particles sifting themselves finely through her strands of henna-red hair, coating the hardened soles of her feet, and filling the gaps beneath her fingernails. Her old life had been made of dust.

Afreen was still a desert girl at heart, in the lean breadth of her hips, in  the bones that featured prominently on her toes, gone knobby from years of gripping the shifting sand planes. Her lungs had expanded and contracted with the massive clouds that filled the horizon, molecules hanging from her eyelashes like nuggets of gold. But this dust was something different. It was dyed, stained in cold lilacs and greys from the cars and factories, the burning of garbage in the streets. It was scented in polluted rivers and the sweat of the masses. It clung to her body long after she had escaped indoors, making grungy the pale marble floors, cold like the shower against her neck as she pressed her back to its wall. Ever since she had come to the city, she constantly felt the need for cleansing, for water to take the smell and texture from her skin.

She reached her arms up to gather her hair to the top of her head, rubbing her palms slowly together, savoring the shampoo between her fingers, its amorphous, sand dune quality . She moved the pads of her fingertips circularly on her scalp, allowing a cloud of floral to envelope her like a pashmina. She leaned forward to rinse her hair, letting it fall in front of her eyes, and blinked away the water that ran in fast rivulets down her face as her hair hung heavily, like an opaque curtain that brushed the middle of her thighs. It was still day, and the sun was painfully bright behind the grated window. It bounced off the mirrors and lit Afreen’s skin so that it gleamed like burnished gold in the water. There was no curtain on this shower, and the downpour sparkled, a virginal white pooling lazily at her feet.

Zara, the cook, had prepared butter naan that day. The meal had not made Afreen feel heavy, had not altered the simple grace of her figure. Even in the shower, she stood like a desert girl, with the arc of her back toward the ground smooth and unbroken. Her spine was perfectly symmetrical as light painted her skin. She took a peach-colored bar and stared at the way soap bubbles wavered away from her body. Her eyes glazed slightly, not washing the suds away and letting the rainbows burst from citrus clarity.

In the desert, she had bathed outdoors, behind makeshift curtains of bedsheets and linen dupattas. Afreen’s mother always worried at the transparency of the fabric, especially as her girlishness gave slowly way to the gentle curves of womanhood. Her silhouette cast sharp shadows on the curtains, and her mother made Afreen and her sister Neha bathe in pairs, one behind the curtain while the other stood watch, keeping her innocent eyes trained widely on the cloudy horizon. Idly, Afreen thought of how they were taught to fear men until they were married, to always guard their bodies with artfully draped dupattas and cover their mouths and noses so that the desert sun would shade their faces unevenly.

She shook herself slightly, splattering the far wall with peach-scented droplets, and turned so that the spray was now on her back. As she tilted her head and let the pressure knead her shoulders, she looked at herself in the mirror that hung above the sink.

Marriage had not yet taken its toll on her body. She was still slim, her breasts still unaware of what it was to bear children. There was a slight hardness to her beauty in the taut muscles that covered her legs, made powerful from years of walking on and in desert. They made her into a desert girl, used more to leading camels on tightly knotted ropes than the languidness of wealth . Afreen’s shoulders were like those of royalty, sloping nobly from her neck and the calligraphic lines of her clavicle. Her face was the face of desert women, her eyebrows not taken by metropolitan grooming crazes, her amber-bronze complexion unbleached and brilliant in the daylight. Her irises were the oddest green, almost yellow around wide, watery pupils. Her husband had been most taken by her eyes when they had met, had said that they reminded him of the way sun hit palm leaves, at once emerald and gold. She closed them now and remembered what it had been to bathe in the desert.

Her mother had hauled water for the entire family from the local well. Afreen remembered watching her disappear into the haze, her dupattas always blazing in brilliant color against the sand. She would come back balancing earthen pots on her head, struggling to keep upright. Desert women start out with the shoulders of desert girls like Afreen, but time warps their bodies, slanting their spines with the sustenance weighing down their skulls, until they are as hardened and crooked as the taste of dust in the air.

Afreen would stand next to the pot, shivering slightly as the sun beat her bare skin. Her mother would leave her a cup made from the same red clay, heavy and smooth, threatening to slip out of her hands. She would fill the cup once almost to the brim, and then tilt her head forward as the water slowly traveled to the desert floor. The soap they used was powdery, gritty as she pushed it into her barely damp skin. It smelled only like soap, harsh and chemical. Her hair took the longest, spilling from her fists and deep red like pomegranate seeds, static as she massaged her scalp. The water smelled earthily of damp and places beneath the ground, unfamiliar to the sun. The soap slid halfheartedly down her body as she took the second half of the cup and turned it over her head. The sand at her feet was very dark at the end of her bath, and she left small traces of herself there, kneeling to dry her hair with a bit of flannel.

Her hair wasn’t red anymore. City women had scorned the old practices of henna-dye, instead choosing to bleach their hair like their faces, making themselves pale and malleable for their men. But Afreen just let hers alone, reverting it to its natural state — a glossless black that curled after being washed. Her husband loved her hair, and often slept with his face pressed gently to it, tickling her neck with his breathing.

She stood still after turning off the water, the bathroom falling abruptly silent but for the plinking echo of droplets falling from her body to marble, tiny fragments of her chemistry in each polarized molecule.

There were children in the alley next to the house, shouting at each other and playing cricket. Afreen had not been raised in the city so she didn’t know what it was to be a little girl, watching the boys play and cheering for the one you liked best, only to be scolded terribly by your mother upon returning home. There were car horns arguing a few streets over, the tobacco-thickened voices of bazaar vendors and perhaps the shadow of an ocean wave, far off. She had not been prepared, in the desert, for how pervasive the presence of the sea would be to her life here.

As she pressed her bare foot to the tile, she began to dry herself with one of the fluffy pink towels. She felt very rich as she stood, naked, in front of the wardrobe and tried to decide what to wear. The silks and lawns and Egyptian cottons were crowded together, making a brightly striped wall that filled her nose with the heady scent of warm fabric. She continued to deliberate as she carefully put on her jewelry, adjusting its gentle sheen around her skin.

Afreen’s tastes were rather spare; she did not favor the heavy finery that was standard for young, married women. Instead, she wore a rope of gold on her neck, thin and fitting like the flattened sheets of water to her collarbone. Her wedding band shone gently, hammered and flaxen in the lazy sunlight that loped through the thick window-dressings. Her arms were covered in bangles, a plain glass rather than the traditional gold. She didn’t keep the real sona in her room anyway – it was locked away somewhere in the depths of the house where the maid could not get to it. Her mother had worn gold every day for as long as Afreen had known her, a thick disk in her nose and on her left ankle, a heavy cuff on both wrists. But it wasn’t done here.

Her slip was simple and black, its neckline dipping suggestively. It was made of satin and edged in lace, a contrast that her husband said was disconcerting when his mind was otherwise occupied.

Afreen smiled softly and swayed in the somewhat darkening room — the time for the mid-afternoon prayers was fast approaching. She remembered their wedding day, how his gaze had met hers so surely before he took her away to the city. For she had broken tradition with the boldness of a desert girl, and had looked up at him rather than shyly to the ground as she was supposed to. They had only spoken a handful of times before the wedding, with him often sneaking a grasp at her hand and she letting him.

He spoke in earnest tones of what he did in the city, of the things he would show her away from the desert. He told her of the money she would be able to send her family, of the visits she would take back home with bags full of presents for her younger siblings. Their wedding bed had been made of ivory sheets, the softest Afreen had ever felt. He had decorated them with rose petals, the scent mixing with his cologne on her skin, bare and blissfully happy. She remembered how much whiter the sheets had seemed next to the saffron-tinted browns of his body and was startled by the adhan calling people to pray.

She was standing still in the now dim room, with motes of dust (the maid really was far too lazy) swirling quietly into her clean hair, blending into the scent of flora. There was a chiffon suit pressed to her chest; she had been clutching it where the beading on the neck was pearl and lightly silver. She imagined how her husband would complain about the embroidery beneath his lips and grinned at her reflection, turning from the mirror and admiring how the deeper light added warmth to her skin.  It was prayer-time, and the people of the neighborhood were waking from their naps. The city kept the rich drowsy between prayers with heavy meals and people to cook them.

The adhan faded just as the street fell quiet and the desert girl prayed to God on the terrace, her bare feet catching some new dust before they fitted themselves around the mat. She bowed down, and then kneeled, curling her hands around her knees. She touched her forehead to the mat, her pores picking up some more grit, and tilted her face upwards so it would not get caught in her eyelashes. Her clothing embraced her like a lover; she had decided on a plain cotton in the end. It was a vibrant pink like she had worn in the desert, when she had first captured the attention of a city man who was visiting and wearing expensive shoes that were ruined by lack of pavement. It suited her best, she thought, as she wrapped her dupatta around her face and tried in vain to keep the sun from finding uncovered skin.

The walk home was always fraught with tension. Men filled the sides of streets, and their eyes followed Afreen as she flitted through traffic, tracing the shape of her body with an animal kind of hunger. Sometimes their hands found themselves in her path. She would blink angrily, swallowing tears and bile, and pray fiercely to God for protection and for her husband’s dignity. It was really a race against the sun, to see who could first slip behind closed doors. She was always late getting home on the days she had to wash the bathroom, losing herself in daydreams while she scrubbed the floor and ruined her knees.

Their home was crowded between an abandoned lot and a brothel. She kept her gaze fixed shakily to the ground until she had locked the gate.

Their courtyard was cement and painted burgundy. She sighed as she spotted a stray cat sitting on its haunches, fitting between the bars of their window. Her husband was sitting contemplatively on a stool, head in one hand and the other curled around his neck. She approached him hesitantly and shook him gently out of his musings.

He looked up at her and allowed a smile to bring warmth to his pallid face. He held his hand to her cheek while pressing one of hers to his lips. As his hand left her face, it lingered slightly on the bareness of her throat. His necklace was gone, the wedding present that he had wrapped in white tissue and bright pink ribbon. It had gone the same way as her gold bangles and earrings, the toe ring and the head chains. Her ring was all they had left. He took his hand back like she had gone cold, and turned away from her, facing the water stains on the courtyard wall and drawing his knees to his chest. There was guilt in the hair smattered across his chin. Afreen tried to keep her brows from knitting and pushed her mostly bare hands into his shoulders, kissing gently the top of his head. He had left his shoes by the open doorway of the house. They were lined in newspaper and caked with mud.

She made dinner in the darkened room: lentils and roti, flour stretched thinly across the hot plate. He took his evening meals alone, outside where there was light from the street.

Afreen was left alone inside the house; she could see him through the window feeding his roti to the cat and watching the moon. The room was filled with the sound of her chewing and raucous laughter from next door. As she ate, she noticed the bareness of the charpai in the corner by the window. She remembered that the ivory sheets were hanging from the clothesline. She would have to put them back on the bed before they went to sleep.

The walk home had left her coated in dust, clinging in shadowy handprints to her bodice and the hair on her arms. She told her husband that she was going to bathe before bed like it was not routine.

She dragged the plastic bucket behind their sheets; he had filled it that morning from the pump at the corner. There was a tin cup in her hand and a packet of crumbly soap next to her bare feet on the grease-stained cement. Afreen stripped to nothing in the moonlit courtyard, and tossed her kameez and shalwar onto the clothesline with her slip. The reflections in the bucket were pale and wavering, the shock of water ice-cold on her back without the sun. It created ripples in her skin as she rubbed her soapy hands all over her body to try and heat it by friction. Her hair clung to her back, scraggly and unevenly damp. She dried herself with one kameez and pulled on the other, feeling her way to their bed in the dim.

Afreen combed her hair in the dark as her husband lay in bed, silently awake. He had pulled away the sheet while she was bathing, and she reminded herself that she was married and no longer supposed to fear men who approached her when there was soap in her hair and dampness on her shoulder blades.  And in any case her sister was still in the desert, bathing beneath the sun and oiling her hair next to aunts and cousins.

Their mirror had a crack across it that split Afreen’s face as it reflected back at her. She was still beautiful, still unwrinkled and glowing like her clothing on the brown-smudged walls.

But she had been married only a year, and could feel something spreading in her body like an illness. And she could see her future in that broken mirror, the long days and nights of work that would break and bend her like her mother.

As Afreen went to lay in the bed, her husband’s breath was hot on her neck. His arm was heavy on her waist and she could feel the cells of her skin becoming dry and tired. He brought it to the front of her body, and she shifted slightly so that the pulse of his wrist would touch her abdomen.

She dreamt of desert women lost in city streets, their shoulders hunched and gnarled like towels that twisted into themselves on clotheslines. She dreamt of desert girls lost on high tide, their bodies covered in salt and foam that smelt of freshly juiced peaches, bathing in the quell and using dust for soap.