Sunday, September 26, 2010
In case you're interested, here's another chunk of Lilitu:
Things settled down by the following day, but contrary to her mother's prediction, they never did return to normal.
Rahminah and Hamid stopped sleeping together; an icy politeness descended over the remains of their marriage. Lilitu was miserable, and kept to herself, spending long hours reading in her room. When she did try to speak with her mother, Rahminah deflected all her questions, and would only discuss the most trivial matters; when Lilitu spoke to Hamid, there was always a pained sadness in his eyes that made her want to flee his presence as soon as possible. In short, just as adolescence was about to descend on her with all its attendant madness, her childhood, which had been so very happy, was poisoned at the end.
It was during this awful time that a new gardener came to work at the house, and he had a good looking son named Oded, about Lilitu's age, who assisted him. There was a large bed with many sorts of flowers along the mansion's wall beneath Lilitu's window, and she took to watching Oded discreetly from above, being very taken by the youth's curly hair, which was so very much unlike her own straight black tresses, and his boyish physique, which would generally be revealed about midway through the morning, after he worked up a sweat and removed his shirt. Looking at him was one of the three things that took her mind off the collapse of her whole existence.
The others were two books, a work on natural philosophy and a big collection of ancient Achaean poems. Regarding the first, Lilitu guessed that Zufir had given it to her in order to halt her constant questions about mating and breeding; as for the second book, he'd apparently given it to her thinking that it was Volume One, rather than Two. Ultimately, he realized his mistake, and fetched it back from her, looking very flustered, but in the meanwhile, Lilitu had had quite a time with it. Some of those old Achaeans had been very dirty-minded people, willing to set down just about anything that came into their heads, and most skillfully at that; as a budding poetess, Lilitu could see that these people were very great geniuses, and it was plainly the sheer quality of their poetry that had persuaded later generations to spare it from the flames. But the filth was all the filthier for being better expressed, and between all that classical literature and a great deal of very natural natural philosophy, Lilitu's adolescent mind was considerably inflamed, and before long she was watching young Oded with a fairly clear idea of what might be done with him.
That was where it rested for some while, however; boys were just about the worst sort of trouble. Her mother had always advised her to steer clear of them, and evidently she knew a good deal about it; moreover, all the maidens in those old poems got into horrible difficulties, and half the time wound up with no recourse but to be turned into trees or clouds or rabbits to escape the attentions of awful young men. And so Lilitu contented herself with merely watching, and, sometimes, touching herself. Whenever she encountered Oded in the gardens, she didn't have a thing to say to him; she was even somewhat relieved whenever she overheard snatches of conversation from him, and he sounded rather stupid---it made her that much less likely to act upon her impulses. But, viewed from a second-story window, he was a clarion call to masturbation.
By the time that Zufir took Volume Two back, and gave Lilitu Volume One instead, she was very greatly changed.
One day, as she was returning from a solitary walk among the fig trees, she saw her mother in the main courtyard, speaking to a group of servants; all at once, as Lilitu approached, her mother seemed to lose her balance, and would have fallen if one of the menials hadn't caught her. Gathering up her skirts, Lilitu rushed over.
"Mother," she said, "are you all right?"
"I'm fine," said Rahminah, but she didn't look it---there was sweat on her forehead, and her face, normally fairly pale, was even whiter than usual, almost Lilitu's shade.
"You nearly fell," Lilitu said.
"I just felt a bit light-headed," Rahminah said.
"Perhaps you should see Master Feyd," Lilitu said, referring to the household physician; a number of the servants nodded agreement--- Rahminah was a good mistress, and they were plainly concerned.
"I've seen him," Rahminah said. "It's nothing."
"Did he say that?" Lilitu asked. "How often do you have these spells?"
One of the serving-women answered: "Too often---"
Rahminah silenced her with a glare, then told Lilitu: "Don't worry."
"I had something like this when I was young," Rahminah said. "It'll pass."
But it didn't pass.
The fainting spells grew more frequent; once Lilitu found her mother slumped at the bottom of the stairs. Losing all appetite, Rahminah began to waste away. Master Feyd was helpless, indeed, didn't even know what was afflicting her. He sent for other physicians, but they were baffled too. Rahminah took to her bed.
Lilitu was desperate to keep her company; at first, Rahminah attempted to keep her from spending too much time in the room. But presently, Lilitu rebelled.
"Why do you keep trying to push me away?" she demanded. "It's not as though I have anything else to do."
"It's unhealthy for you to stay in here."
"You started this before you even got sick," Lilitu said. "You act as though you don't love me anymore."
"Don't say that," Rahminah said.
"Don't push me away. What are you afraid of?"
"There are things I don't wish to discuss," Rahminah said.
"We don't have to discuss them," Lilitu answered. "I just want my mother back."
Rahminah blinked as though something had stung her; she looked towards the window. In the soft light, her hands and face had a translucent quality, like that of pale marble, that Lilitu found oddly beautiful. After a time, Rahminah said: "You know everything anyway."
"Weren't you listening, out in the hall?"
After a bit, Lilitu shrugged, and said: "Maybe."
Smiling feebly at this silly evasion, Rahminah looked back at her. "Maybe?"
"I thought you didn't want to talk about it."
"What should we talk about, then?"
"I have nothing to report," Rahminah said. "Sick people are really very dull."
"Have you been reading?" Lilitu asked.
"Off and on. But I get so tired. It's hard for me to even hold a book."
"Would you like me to read to you?"
Lilitu smiled. "I'd be delighted."
So the rift between mother and daughter was closed. And for the next several heartbreaking months, Lilitu read to Rahminah, and watched her die. As the end approached, the one hope she nurtured was that Hamid and Rahminah would reconcile before the end.
"You should come and talk to mother," Lilitu told him.
"Has she asked for me?" Hamid replied.
"I'll come when she asks for me," Hamid said.
"She doesn't want to, because she doesn't think you will."
"Has she said that?"
"No," Lilitu said. "But I know what she's thinking."
"What a clever girl," Hamid answered.
Lilitu said: "She's your wife---"
"For what that's worth."
"She'll be gone soon."
"You're a doctor now?"
"You should make your peace."
"We are completely at peace with each other," Hamid said. "A veritable graveyard, our marriage."
"Some things can't be helped."
"Do it for me," Lilitu pleaded.
"For you?" Hamid smiled at her sadly. "And what are you to me?"
Her first impulse was to say your daughter, but she caught herself.
He shook his head and looked away from her. "I shouldn't have said that."
"No," she said.
"None of this is your fault."
"Please," she said. "Go to her."
He shook his head again and walked away.
Later that day, Lilitu was washing her mother's face with a damp cloth.
"That feels nice," Rahminah said faintly, smiling, her eyes closed. Lilitu found herself thinking of smoke, wisps about to dissolve into thin air. She imagined that a ghost would look very much the way her mother did now.
"You're a good daughter," Rahminah went on. "I know I keep saying that, but it's true."
She fell silent. Lilitu leaned back in her seat, putting the cloth in the washbasin on her lap.
"Has Hamid been by?" Rahminah asked. "I've been sleeping so much...''
"He wants you to ask for him."
"What if he doesn't come?" Rahminah asked, so softly that Lilitu barely heard her.
"What difference does it make?"
Rahminah didn't answer.
"Mother?" Lilitu asked. "Mother?"
But, hand to her mouth, she saw that the change had come.
Devastated as she was by her mother's death, she was keenly interested in Hamid's reaction, hoping that he had the sense to be properly stricken, so she wouldn't have to despise him utterly...to her relief, he seemed to be deeply anguished in his unworthy way, weeping openly at the bedside and the funeral, and having Rahminah interred in the family tomb.
He didn't share his grief with Lilitu, however. While she saw him every day at dinner, at least, he said very little, treating her very much the same way that he'd treated her mother. She made several attempts to draw him out, but he'd have none of it. Again and again that terrible question came back to her: What are you to me? Indeed, she had no reason whatsoever to think that his affection would ever return. It made no difference that he'd lost Rahminah too, that he was almost completely isolated; why should he seek solace from a living, breathing reminder of the sins that had rotted out his marriage?
He'll never love you again, Lilitu told herself. He might tolerate you, but whatever you had with him is as dead as your mother…
Faced with this, she tried to tell herself it wasn't really so bad. What did she want with the man besides food and shelter anyway? He wasn't intelligent, he was a coward, he was fat; even if he hadn't been fat, he still would've been ugly, and had very little in the way of charm. He smelled. His family name was ridiculous. He wasn't even her father.
The best thing about him was his gardener's son.
As her mother had worsened, Lilitu had simply stopped paying attention to Oded, even when he was someplace very convenient to be ogled, and suitably half-dressed. But now that her grief was being replaced by simple displeasure with Hamid, she began to think that, at some point in the near future, she might take up her daily observations---and all that went with them--- again. It had seemed to her that masturbation in a time of mourning was surely disrespect to her mother. But disrespect to Hamid---masturbating under the man's own roof---seemed almost mandated.
In the end, though, it took a whole new enormity on his part to push her over the edge, indeed, to propel her well past peeping and fiddling in her own bedchamber. A mere two months after the funeral---a most insufficient mourning-period by any rational standard---Hamid put aside his grief and fell completely and apparently contentedly under the sway of The Witch, The Whore, The She-Pig, The Jackal's Head, The Monster, The Open Grave, The Infected Wound, The Nail in the Ear, The Needle in the Eye, The Coal on the Tongue, The Tumor, The Mother of Flies, The Mother of Maggots and Flies, The Mouthful of Broken Glass, The Swamp of Sunwarmed Liquid Shit, Everything That God Detested---
Rahminah had told Lilitu a great deal about this woman; Shiraz was a cousin of Hamid's, and when Rahminah first attracted his attention, Shiraz had been living at the mansion--- Hamid had been thinking very seriously of marrying her. But once his affections shifted to Rahminah, Shiraz had led all his other relatives in the campaign to destroy his new romance. There had been several encounters between Shiraz and Rahminah, and the last had been a battle royal---after the two had smashed a dozen pieces of crockery on each other, and stabbed each other with forks and knives (Rahminah had shown Lilitu a scar on her shoulder), Rahminah had thrown Shiraz out a second-storey window at the inn. Shiraz had left Sawaliyeh after that, vowing never to return.
But word had reached her of Rahminah's death---Lilitu suspected Hamid might have sent a letter---and now, having just lost a spouse herself, The Abomination had returned. Hamid welcomed her into his house; sulking in her room, Lilitu received a curt written command from her father to attend dinner, and decided she might as well, if for no other reason than to get a look at her mother's hated arch-rival.
Lilitu was unhappy to see that Shiraz was really quite handsome; Rahminah had said she was good-looking, but Lilitu had hoped Shiraz would've lost her looks in the meantime. The Bitch of Bitches was tall and well-dressed in Sung silks, with a beautiful silver headpiece set in her hair; she had a slight double chin, but her features were nicely defined for the most part, her expressions tending towards the chilly, her smile very slight and rather sarcastic, quick to come and go. Her eyes were heavy lidded, the lashes abundant. Just at first glance, Lilitu hated her even more than she had expected to.
"And this is my daughter, Lilitu," Hamid said. "Lilitu, my cousin Shiraz."
As though she were startled by what she was seeing, Shiraz stared at her closely for a few moments.
''Most striking,'' she said at last.
Even though she disliked being complimented by the woman, Lilitu bowed, certain that something other than mere loveliness had surprised Shiraz...for one thing, Lilitu wasn't all gotten up, and that kept most people from seeing how good-looking she was.
''And speaking of striking daughters,'' said Hamid to Shiraz, ''Yours seems to be settling right in...''
Across the room was a young woman in green, about Lilitu's age and height, whispering something to the prettiest of Hamid's maids, who was called the Lark; all at once the Lark drew back, as though she'd just heard something shocking.
Apparently realizing she was under discussion, the girl in green came over.
''Sayida,'' said Shiraz, ''this is your cousin Lilitu.''
Eyeing Sayida, Lilitu knew now what had startled Shiraz so; Lilitu was very fond of admiring herself in the mirror, and clearly saw that Sayida looked just like her, although, since she and Sayida weren't actually related, that was rather puzzling...
Lilitu wondered if Hamid had noticed the embarrassing similarity. Unlike Lilitu, Sayida was elaborately and skillfully made up; her hair was long and in ringlets, which trailed down on either side of her face, whereas Lilitu wore hers much shorter. But Sayida's slanted grey eyes were virtually identical to Lilitu's, there was the same pout to her lips, and her skin was precisely the same milky white…
"Easy to see you two are cousins," said Yussef Habibi, a house guest standing nearby.
''Is it?'' Hamid asked.
''Really, old boy, you're as blind as a bat,'' Yussef replied.
Hamid squinted and glanced back and forth.
Sayida smiled and took Lilitu's hand.
"We're practically twins,'' she said, and slipped one of her fingers between two of Lilitu's, sliding it up and down slowly. To her surprise, Lilitu found the feeling rather agreeable, (she'd read about certain ancient women doing things with each other, and had found it all intriguing) but, deeply suspicious of Shiraz's daughter, withdrew her hand gently.
Later that evening, after they'd eaten, Hamid was called away, leaving Lilitu with Shiraz, Sayida and Yussef. Lilitu had already made several attempts to excuse herself, and tried to escape once again as the servants were removing the remainder of the food, but Shiraz called her back.
"Please," she said, ''I'd like to get to know you."
Lilitu turned. "Would you?" she asked.
"I knew your mother," Shiraz said. "Did she ever speak of me?"
"I don't recall."
"Come," Shiraz said, and patted the cushion next to her.
"Your mother and I weren't exactly the best of friends," Shiraz said. "Couldn't be helped, really, and I think you know why. But you and I aren't rivals. There's no need for enmity.''
"Will you be staying long?" Lilitu asked.
"My father didn't propose to you, did he?" Lilitu asked.
Shiraz narrowed her eyes---their lashes were so thick, it was an instant before Lilitu realized that she hadn't closed them entirely. "Wouldn't he have told you?"
Suddenly realizing that she had already given up too much about the state of her relationship with Hamid, Lilitu didn't know how to answer.
"Wouldn't he?" Shiraz pressed.
"Certainly," Lilitu said.
"Then why did you ask?"
"Don't worry," Shiraz said. "I don't want to come between you and your father. As I said, I want to be your friend."
Sayida came over and sat down next to Lilitu. "I want to be your friend too," she said.
The next morning, Lilitu, angrier with Hamid than ever, and fondling (somewhat guiltily) the memory of Sayida's digit moving lasciviously between her fingers, decided it might well be time to return to Oded-watching.
Her bedroom window was set with two intricately carved lattices on hinges; since the holes were too small for proper viewing, she opened the lattices a bit, pulled up a chair, and looked out from between. It was now midsummer, he'd already gotten himself all sweaty, and hardly had she settled when he took off his shirt, his glistening back all copper-red and beginning to show a little real muscle. He was down on all fours, weeding, and she wondered what it would be like to be down on all fours in front of him, just like those animals she was always watching...she was just about to start hiking her skirt up when the lattices in a window opposite swung wide open, and there stood cousin Sayida, who put a bowl of something, grapes perhaps, on the windowsill and then rested herself on her elbows beside it, brazenly watching the gardener's son, reaching into the bowl at intervals and popping whatever it was she took out into her mouth.
Go away, Lilitu thought.
But to her dismay, Sayida remained right where she was, and it wasn't long before Oded's curly head came up, and he began glancing her way; he started getting himself into various poses that looked quite artificial and provocative to Lilitu, and Sayida responded by asking him his name.
"Oded," he said, wiping his forehead. "My father's the gardener here."
"You seem to be gardening as well," Sayida observed.
"I also chop wood," Oded answered, getting to his feet. "And polish things."
"I bet you do," Sayida replied, sounding amazingly as though she was impressed by his answer.
"My father says I'm a polishing fool."
"Perhaps you'd let me help you."
"Help me what?"
"Polish something. Don't you have an item we could bring to a very high shine?"
Lilitu was almost sure she was talking about his penis, but before Oded could answer the question, Sayida glanced over her shoulder as though she'd heard something, whispered: "Have to go,'' whisked her grape-bowl off the sill, and swung the lattices shut.
Ooo, Lilitu said, under her breath, stamping her foot, far too agitated now to get anything accomplished.
The following day, Oded didn't appear, at least while Lilitu was watching; the day after that, he put on quite a display, but seemed to be making a point of staying over towards Sayida's window. No doubt to his keen disappointment, she never showed herself at the casement, but along towards mid-day, as he was putting his shirt back on and starting off for his noontime meal, Sayida came with a small basket and presented it to him. There was some sort of exchange, which Lilitu couldn't catch; then Sayida departed, while Oded sat down on a bench, opened up the basket, and took out fruit, a small wine-bottle, and flatbread.
Lilitu swore...how much more of her life was going to be encroached upon?
That evening, after dinner, Sayida took her aside.
"You have the room right across from mine, right?" Sayida asked.
"Yes," Lilitu replied.
"What do you think of Oded?"
"The gardener's son," Sayida said. "How do you control yourself?"
"Boys are trouble," Lilitu answered.
"Not if you know how to handle them," Sayida said.
"And you do?"
"My sister taught me," Sayida declared. "She taught me everything. She's very clever, and she married very well---a Mirkut noble, if you can believe it. She went to live in a palace a thousand miles from here, and has five hundred slaves to attend her. And all because she knows how to handle boys. Do you want to come up to my room?"
Lilitu was hesitant.
"What's there to be afraid of?" Sayida asked.
"Your mother doesn't like me," Lilitu said.
"But I'm not my mother. As a matter of fact, I can't stand her. Very nasty. Come on."
"I don't know...''
"I've got some wine up there."
Lilitu squinted at her.
"Do you like wine?" Sayida asked.
"Not very much. But I'd be happy to watch you drink."
And listen very closely once your guard's down…
"Fine," said Sayida.
They went up to the room. Sayida locked the door, then fetched the bottle; Lilitu sat on the window-sill as her cousin poured herself a glass.
"Sure you don't want any?" Sayida asked.
"Quite," Lilitu said.
"You don't have any moral objection, do you?" Sayida asked. "Some people think this stuff should be banned."
"Feel absolutely free," Lilitu answered.
"Very good of you," said Sayida, and took a sip, sitting cross-legged on the edge of her bed. One-handed she undid her sandal-straps and flipped the sandals off onto the floor, wiggling her toes.
"I think I've got very pretty feet," she said.
Lilitu looked at them and thought so too, but didn't say anything.
"Yours are very pretty too, just like mine," Sayida said. "Of course, everything about you is just like me."
"Strange, isn't it?"
"Very. Especially since you're not related to my mother."
"Who told you that?" Lilitu answered.
"I've heard some things. And I've got eyes. If your father's your father, I'll eat a live toad---"
Lilitu stood up.
"Wait, wait," Sayida said. "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings...''
"Then why are you talking to me this way?"
Sayida said: "My father isn't my father."
"So I shouldn't mind being insulted?"
"I wasn't insulting you. Us bastards should stick together. It's been pretty hard on me, knowing what I know."
"Do you know who your father was?" Lilitu asked.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say he must've been yours.''
"Do you know?"
Sayida downed the rest of her wine-cup. "He was a Naiman drifter, named Urugtai. Apparently my step-father, or foster father---"
"What do you call men who didn't father you?" Lilitu asked.
Sayida shrugged. "Anyway, my mother's husband didn't have a clue. And even though it must've been pretty plain to everyone that he wasn't my father, she got away with it."
Lilitu winced inwardly, not so much at the thought of Shiraz's sin, but to think that Rahminah and her rival had so much in common …
"Do you really hate her?" Lilitu asked.
"Oh yes," said Sayida, pouring herself another cup. "But not because she's a slut. Hell, so am I, and I only wish I could be more open about it."
"You're pretty open about it as it is," Lilitu said.
"Well, mother was just as bad as me, at least when she was younger. It's only natural to see someone like Oded, or that Lark girl---"
"Her too?" Lilitu asked, sitting back down on the window-sill.
"Why not? All this stuff about sin, it's just rules, like in a game. Who makes them up, anyway?"
"God," Lilitu answered.
"No, people, so they can control you."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
"Sure I do. I knew this very wise man once, Sibi Shariq. He'd been one of those Sharaj fellows---"
"A Sharajnaghi?" Lilitu said. Enemies of the Black Anarites, the Sharajnaghim were white wizards, revered as holy men in some quarters.
Sayida nodded. "Anyway, he was off on his own, because they didn't want him anymore---"
"He said we were all God. They hated that. He said all sorts of high-flown things to me, and I don't remember too much of it, but that part really stuck, because it meant I could do what I wanted. That's how he talked me into---" Sayida giggled.
"Letting him do it to me. He was my first man."
Lilitu just stared at her, her mouth hanging. "You did it with a Sharajnaghi?"
Sayida nodded. "Wasn't bad at all. But my father---foster-father or whatever--- found out the next day. He'd been pretty happy with Sibi up till then, but once he learned what he'd been up to, he set his men on him. Shariq blasted them all over the courtyard, then took his leave."
"Did your mother ever talk to him?"
Sayida giggled again. "Behind closed doors? I suspect so. Don't know if he convinced her of anything, although--- she wants to do all sorts of things, and sometimes she goes right ahead. But she doesn't want me to have any fun. And she's going to be a big problem for you, too."
"Because she's dead set on marrying your whatever you want to call him. She always wanted him, and now that your mother's out of the way---"
"Has he proposed?" Lilitu asked.
"I don't think so," Sayida said. "But it won't be long. I'm telling you, they're going to get married, and soon, and then you'll be in a lot of trouble."
"She said she wanted to be friends," Lilitu said.
Sayida laughed. "Your mother took her man and threw her out of the window. She wants your head on a plate."
"You said you wanted to be my friend too."
"But I mean it," Sayida said.
"Leave Oded alone," Lilitu said.
Sayida laughed. "Have you done it with him?"
"No," said Lilitu.
"Do you know how to do it with a boy?"
Lilitu shook her head.
"Do you know how to do it with a girl?"
"I'm not sure," Lilitu said.
"I could show you," Sayida answered. "Why don't you come over here and sit with me?"
"I really must be going," Lilitu answered.
"Don't you like the way I look? We're so much alike. It would be like doing it with yourself. Don't you ever look at yourself in the mirror?"
"Girls aren't supposed to do it with each other," Lilitu said.
"There are places where everyone thinks it's just fine."
"What do you mean? Like the Achaean islands, in ancient times?"
"Never heard of them. But there is this city called Khymir, way down south---"
"It's up north."
"Whatever. But everyone there does just as they please."
"It's supposed to be a terrible place," Lilitu said.
"People just say that," Sayida replied.
"I don't want to do it with you."
"And you're just saying that." Sayida replied.
But Lilitu went out into the hall, closing the door behind her.