T. L. Sherwood lives in western New York near Buffalo. She’s Fiction Editor at Literary Orphans and the Assistant Editor of r.kv.r.y Quarterly Literary Journal. Her most recent work appeared in Postcard Poems and Prose. She’s currently working on a novel.
My Song for Majabin
by T. L. Sherwood
Majabin is only eleven. It is almost planting time when I first learn her name. A few years ago, before they went into the hills, foreigners came to our village. They burned the fields and told us we couldn’t grow the flowers anymore. Burlap sacks of seed were handed out. Men who had never tilled our soil nor felt our rains told us to grow these new crops instead. Those of us who tried were disappointed, first with the yield, then with the prices the market paid.
Zuhayr has been my husband for eight years now. He and others learned to plant the new seeds around the perimeter to hide the poppies which thrive in our soil and provide enough income to survive.
For some in the village, games of chance hold more hope for survival than growing crops. Zuhayr joins them for a few throws of the dice every so often. I do not mind as he rarely loses, though when he does he is ferocious.
After a windfall, he is cheerful as he tells us about the games. “Subhi was going to roll a seven. I just knew he would,” Zuhayr says. He pauses and takes a long drink of sweet tea. The children, and even I, hold our breath waiting to hear the outcome. “But the dice decided my cousin should roll a four!” he declares dramatically, slaps his hand on thigh then bursts into laughter. The children eagerly join him.
“One hundred to four hundred then all the way down to seventy. Ah, such is the whim of the die.” He shakes his head slowly.
“And Hanif?” I ask when he isn’t mentioned in the story. Because of his repeated losses, Hanif is often a character in my husband’s tales. He has one wife, one daughter and very little else.
“Hanif owes three thousand now.” While the amount changes, it increases more often than not.
“It is a good thing we don’t need it.” This is how I end the conversations when he talks of the games. I want our children to understand that gambling is a pastime for those who may stand the loss.
On a cloudy day, foreigners return to the village. A few days later, Zuhayr takes me outside so the children cannot hear. I know the last of the new crops haven’t sold well and the return of the military men to the area has made everyone anxious. Clashes between people that should be smoothed over with calm words are not. The presence of guns puts pride and violence into the minds of ordinarily sane men. I fear Zuhayr has called me outside to tell me that the recent stress in the village has resulted in the death of my friend Jalyn at the hands of her husband.
“I talked to the elders today,” he begins, looking not at me, but at the light from a fire in the distance. “They say I should take Majabin as a wife.”
“Majabin?” I ask. I am confused.
“Majabin. Hanif’s daughter.”
“The girl? She is a child, not a wife!”
“There is no other way he can pay his debts.”
“But she is too young, Zuhayr. Be reasonable.”
Zuhayr stands and walks inside. My argument is ignored. The elders of the village are more powerful than guns in tribal affairs.
I make the calming tea for myself that evening. I remain outside and look at the stars. I think angrily of Hanif and how he can’t walk away from the tables. I try, but cannot imagine my own father being so weak nor so cruel. I curse the uniformed men who stroll through our village. I fear I will soon be burdened with another child, one that is not my own.
Majabin comes to our home. There is little ceremony for the marriage. She wakes easily and plants as diligently as any of us who work the soil. Eagerly, Majabin helps with the meals and laundry. In the fields, I work near her. I tell her what to expect when the time comes, her duty as a wife. I tell her so she will not be as startled as I had been.
My two children are quick to befriend her. Faiz is as tall and as lanky as I imagine Zuhayr was at that age. He chases Majabin with a snake he catches near the well. She runs away; I see her smile. My daughter Kali is a cautious child. I often think she arrived too soon and is not prepared for the harshness of life. I often hear her and Majabin whispering in the dark about Majabin’s old home.
Night after night I pleasure Zuhayr—exhaust him—so he won’t go to her later on. This is successful until I grow heavy with my fifth child. Subhi, Zuhayr’s cousin and my friend Jalyn’s husband, notices first.
“If you were my wife, it wouldn’t be so long between babes,” Subhi proclaims loudly while we are standing near the well. Jalyn and I exchange glances. She looks away in sadness. I remain silent.
Majabin asks about my changing body. I tell her things do not always end the way we would like. I tell her about the two I left nameless, each one’s breath gone before a new morning could arrive. She asks and I take her to the graves near the edge of our property where the albizzia grows. A small ribbon pinned there two days later shows me she cares. I am touched by her action.
Zuhayr asks about my condition in the morning. He is upset that there will be another child soon and curses me. When I cry, he is sorry. He kisses me. He says he will pray for an answer, then leaves for the gaming tables.
My children and my husband’s new wife play a chasing game outside. Majabin tells Kali and Faiz a story about a gluttonous goat. The story makes them laugh. We eat our dinner quietly, without Zuhayr. After my children fall asleep, I ask Majabin to follow me out to where I am making an extra potent calming tea for Zuhayr that evening.
When I first came to this village, Zuhayr and I often fought loudly at night. One morning after I had been slapped many times, Jalyn called me over to her house. She told me the secret of a happy union is as simple as sleep and sleep is easy to find in calming tea. She took some opium that she kept hidden and explained that if all the tea one makes for meals is sweet, a man finding a glass of sweet, calming tea near his bedside will not think it any different than the brew he drinks during the day. She showed me the amounts to use and told me to insist that Zuhayr drink it when his mood was foul. She told me that enmity in one family’s home is never secret in the tribe and that ill-will reverberated easier than happiness.
I want to explain this to Majabin, but she is tired. I give her one mug of the tea and tell her it is for Zuhayr only and that she must insist he drink it if he comes to her room in the night. After she leaves, I cradle the other mug I made for him and look out at the stars. It is peaceful. I wish I could capture the stillness of the night. A cool breeze blows. I go inside and kiss my children goodnight.
Loud, crashing sounds pierce my dreams. I roll over, wishing them away until I realize they are real. I wake to the woeful, wounded sobbing that no child should know. I rush past my own children, toward the sound.
Zuhayr growls. The high treble coils into a howl. He has lost at the dice game. Always before, his losing has been maddening to just me. No matter the hour, he’d spread my legs and thrust until his hardness came, then the release—brusque, brutal, painful. Objections made the ordeal worse. I learned to stay quiet, for after, in the morning, Zuhayr would be sorry and offer chocolate. Majabin does not know this. She is pugnacious with screams and slaps.
“Leave her be, you worthless dog!” I shout. Zuhayr looks up at me.
“Mommy!” Kali screams in the next room.
“Kali! Stay there! Stay quiet!” I hear her sobbing. I walk toward the cot. “I should kick you in the snout and cut off your cowardly tail!”
It is then that I see the blade he uses to harvest the new crops. It is freshly sharpened and resting on the floor. He grabs it and comes toward me.
“You will die!” he threatens. I know he will not kill me. Though his knife glints in the light of the moon, I know he will regain his senses.
There is a sickening sound. Hardened clay against dark hair. Zuhayr’s eyes look afraid, and even though he frightens me, I want to comfort him. His eyes scatter, looking but not seeing. The earthen jar Majabin threw at him is shattered. The pieces fall to the floor, then he falls and I am knocked down, his body drapes partially over mine.
I don’t know how long I sleep or if it is sleep. I am roused by Zuhayr’s snoring. When I open my eyes, I can make out Majabin’s form hunched over on the cot. She is weeping. I call to her softly. She doesn’t respond. It is then that I see the mug in her hands.
“Majabin! No! Spit it out! Majabin! Right now!”
Her breathing is so slow. I pull myself up from under Zuhayr’s leaden body. I go to the cot and hold the shivering Majabin in my arms, just as her mother would.
As I rock her, I sing. I curse the world for the madness it had brought. I curse the rains that have not come. I curse the soldiers that have. Tears sting my eyes, then my cheeks. I pray for her to be all right, knowing that praying for her death might be kinder. I kiss the top of her little girl head. I sing the song of Majabin into the dawn.
Copyright 2018 by T. L. Sherwood