Denied; Kalthoom’s Tears

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As soon as she could walk on her two tiny feet Kalthoom had been obedient; she listened well, always attentive, mindful to cause no strife as her older brothers had. She rubbed her father’s feet and served him sweet tea when he came home to their small two room apartment in their displaced country. She ran to him each night with bright warm eyes and a smile that reminded him of his wife; he would lift her high into the air and say, “my gift”. Muhamad was the father of four sons, Abdelkarim, Hussein, Salim and Omar; three were married to good women who stayed home cooking, cleaning and focusing on their husband’s needs while his sons were studying the new language in this culturally perplexing new homeland, at least for him. Muhamad for as long as he could recall was Baba, the provider and strong one who lived the life of a faithful Muslim. He wanted nothing more than his family to be happy, secure and feel loved. His youngest son and fourth child Omar was following in his father’s footsteps, this gave Muhamad much pride. His trade took expertise, patience and time; he would become an excellent mason with much to look forward to. He was not bright in the book knowledge sort of way, yet he was a master with his hands, his craft flawless. He longed for grandchildren and would often lean in with an unassuming manner trying to overhear his wife Amina speaking in low tones over tea with his son’s wives. Kalthoom was his little miracle as he was fifty-eight years old when his wife surprised him with the news that she was carrying his child once more. She had been a perfect companion, younger than he by eighteen years; she was angelic, never hurried or too tired of the children’s scattering about and noisy play, never once had she been ill. She did not deny him of pleasure nor raise her voice or undermine his decisions. It was an agreeable union meant to be. He was pleased that he could still create life with the grace of Allah and prayed for a healthy pregnancy. Honestly, he fully expected another son. Amina was his best friend, much more than she would ever know; he needed her easy way, her scent of life itself and her smooth skin touching his. Amina’s understanding gaze into his eyes at night by candlelight when he spoke of their earliest days together illuminated their faces, setting a melancholy atmosphere for his nostalgic recollections. He spoke of the chill in his skin when sitting nervously waiting to meet his soon to be wife, an arranged bride with their parent’s blessings. They laughed, remembering his shaking hands causing an obvious rattling clank of his teacup on its saucer. Her father asked him to stand when she came into the family room where they received visitors. He had spilled his tea on the carpet beneath his feet and his eyes widened and looked away quickly after his first glance. She had been escorted by her eldest brother and eventual first son’s namesake, Abdelkarim and seated with her mother on a burnt ochre settee. She never spoke directly; her mother and father spoke for her. Next, they welcomed Muhamad’s father and Aunt. His mother had died when he was sixteen from a stroke. The elders spoke while they had smiled, sneaking glances eye to eye. Her dress was like the desert sky, a perfect shade of blue. It had handsewn golden sequins around the high neck, her hair although mostly covered by her matching hijab, was a rich auburn, carefully dyed with henna. He would recall their first meeting often and Amina never grew bored with his repetitive memories. She knew that memories were important to savour for they both knew they could not return to where they had met. Kalthoom began to cook when her mother was ill with a sickness that no one talked about openly; her father was once a comforting man, reassuring her that everything will be fine if you believe in Allah’s plan. This was long before the dark shadows of sadness caused the family to simply appease their elders. The Imam came to pray with Muhamad by his wife’s bed some mornings when Amina was alert. She would thank him for his grace, then ask in her small voice for Kalthoom to serve tea, and whispered, “please serve the best of our sweet cookies, the one’s with dates carefully pressed into the middle.” Kalthoom obliged. She bowed to the Imam, careful not to catch his eyes and placed the silver serving tray on the low round table where his father sat on decorative cushions across from the Imam. Her father excused her, sending her off to sit by her mother and read poetry in Arabic, the only language her mother would ever know. Some nights and days passed quickly when Kalthoom would be awakened by painful moans and Baba crying in gasps, echoing was his broken heart throughout their otherwise silent surroundings. Kalthoom was frozen, unable to express her sorrow. The brothers and wives came with trays of food which filled the long table, yet no one dared to eat other than Hussein’s wife who was due soon with their first baby. Omar stayed over on the floor next to Baba ready to clasp his father’s hands into his own should he begin to quiver. A year passed and Baba relied heavily on Kalthoom. She learned from Omar how to take the bus to the pharmacy for Baba’s new medicines prescribed to calm his agitation, to walk without an escort into the enormous supermarket and her list of things to do grew longer and more stressful. One evening as Baba sat squatting on his haunches smoking his pipe on the balcony Omar called and said he needed her to listen to his guidance. “My dear sister, I cherish you for all that you do for Baba without complaint however, he is nearing the end of this life and you must learn the language spoken here. How will you survive when Baba should pass?” Kalthoom had never thought about her own future, not even once in a late-night dream state had she known what she longed for. Omar had finally bought a van for his business which was growing and said he would speak to Baba about her learning the new language. Surprisingly to Kalthoom Baba gave her permission to study. Class after class she attended regularly and the stares at her from all the blue eyes was unnerving. One morning a young woman replaced her usual teacher, her eyes were dark as Kalthoom’s. After each class they smiled at one another in a way Kalthoom did not understand; she only knew that the teacher’s smile made her heart thump faster and her palms to sweat. Weeks turned to months when one day the teacher asked her to have tea after class; Kalthoom jumped for joy for the very first time. A friend! She had a friend. For the first time she sat without one of her brothers supervision in a cafe sipping her tea and enjoying what the new land called, “fika”. Her teacher’s parents came from Iran, yet she had been born in Sweden; she shared each time they met a little bit more about the Swedish culture. Kalthoom silently studied how other women dressed as if flipping through a foreign fashion magazine. “Have you learned how to speak yet?” Baba asked the same question everyday. Kalthoom explained the new letters which made unique sounds, Ä, Ö, Å. She had a goal now. She continued to cook, clean and sit with Baba when he stared blankly at the television, not understanding anything he watched; it no longer mattered. His mind was tired, his appetite less and other than Omar picking him up to go to mosque he lay on a mattress near balcony window, drifting in and out of sleep. Her other brother’s wives were all expecting babies now and she looked forward to being an aunt again. When the first baby was born to Hussein’s wife, it was a girl and although it was a delight for the entire family, there was an unspoken knowing a son was longed for. Hussein and his wife Bouchera gave their daughter her grandmother’s name, Amina. Baba was joyful when they visited with the baby. A grandchild finally; he carefully cradled the swaddled bundle and held her close to his heart. Baba would die before the next grandchild was born. For weeks Kalthoom missed her classes and sat crying in the now empty apartment; her sisters-in-law took turns staying with her and they cooked for her, she was grateful yet hopeless now. The teacher rang her, understood her mourning and said she could return when she was ready. She told her in order to continue to the next level she needed to submit her identification number. What was that? Kalthoom wondered. One night the entire family gathered and spoke about necessary things, how to pay bills, how to avoid Swedes who asked too many questions and the brothers agreed that they would all pay a bit toward the rent. Omar would move in to supervise her, and she would need to stay home more. Kalthoom slipped into a depression when she was told she had been brought here with her parents illegally. Her oldest brother Abdelkarim had come with special papers and was able to study and work, but she and the rest of the family had come when she was small through channels worked carefully by other refugees. How could this be? Baba worked, Omar worked, and they had a happy life before. How could this number be so necessary? The wives suggested they meet a nice Muslim man at the mosque who was here legally and perhaps they could arrange a marriage to avoid any complications. Everyone agreed except Kalthoom. This is how it would unfold; she would be placed like a dog in a kennel with some man she never met. She was given handsewn dresses, typical formals to greet her unknown suitors. She was primped and stuffed into a yellow and white satin dress, her hair was dyed by Abdelkarim’s wife for the first time with henna and she had her eyebrows plucked and had eyeliner carefully applied. The teacher rang again and asked to meet Kalthoom, hesitantly she said she could no longer continue to meet or study the language. The language that gave her freedom was the entrance into a gated inner world of silenced women who could not be left to sip tea and sit in cafes with new friends from other places. The dreaded day came when a gentleman twice her age came to meet her. He looked directly at her and chatted and laughed with her brothers. She felt encroached upon, an item up for sale like the plums in the market where she shopped. Baba had left some money and a letter to give to the husband to be which Kalthoom never had known of. Unlike her obedient, attentive and congenial persona she stood up and ran into the bathroom slamming the door and locking it. Everyone could hear her sobbing. The gentleman agreed to leave and was given apologies on her behalf. Once he was gone Omar beat hard on the door, “Kalthoom! What on earth are you doing? We are trying to help you, please, I beg you to come out.” She refused and sat sobbing in a haze of desolation. The rest of the family left, and Omar let her be, easily drifting off to sleep on the sofa after an exhausting day. When all was quiet, Kalthoom opened the door and ripped off the sticky dress and put on one of her mother’s old tunics, a big coat with a hood and took cash from the safe inside the closet which once was her parent’s bedroom. She took a large bag of her mother’s and stuffed it with photos of her family, her bus card and a notebook of memoirs her mother had kept. She took a long look at her most loved brother and snuck out the door, unsure of her intentions. She walked to the bus stop and boarded with no plan. She arbitrarily pressed the button somewhere in the city and stepped out and saw light’s on in windowsills, snowflakes under streetlamps and heard laughter and passers-by enjoying each other’s company. It was not late, perhaps seven at night, but it was black outside, and she felt freedom in absence of her family. She saw a pizzeria open, and she went inside to warm up. She used the new language to order coffee and sat reading her mother’s journal.”Yesterday was the happiest day of my life, I gave birth to a baby girl. I finally am not alone in my femininity. I look forward to teaching her to sew, to cook, and share funny stories of our family’s past. Her eyes, like mine, are rich and warm, her tiny lips are pink as my cheeks. My daughter, my dream.”Kalthoom’s throat thickened, the sorrow she had locked inside when her mother died was rising to the surface and soon without control, she began to cry while seated in a corner table of a busy pizzeria. She knew she had no where to run, nowhere to hide and had to face her future willingly as her mother had accepted her own. She went into a small store about to close and bought a hand carved cedar box. Inside it was lined with red velvet; she bought bright kitchen towels with a floral print, an apron to match and a scented candle ina glass jar. When she arrived home Omar was beside himself with worry. “Kalthoom, where have you been?”. She took off the heavy coat and put her large bag and purchases down, her fingers numb from the biting icy weather. “I have been shopping dear brother; I am so sorry to frighten you.” He asked what she had bought. She pulled out the scented candle that smelled like cinnamon and he took the lid off and took a sniff. She pulled out new kitchen towels and he smiled, she tried on the new apron, and he smiled even more, finally she pulled out the cedar box with red velvet inside. “What is this for?” She walked to the kitchen, Omar right behind her and began to make dinner. She waited to answer and asked him to sit down and to stop talking so much so that she could concentrate on her mother’s lamb stew recipe she read in her journal. The aroma was familiar, one she recalled from a childhood somewhere else. The essence of Amina engulfed her, she felt safe and warm inside. She served the stew with cous-cous on the low table and watched Omar eat as if he had never eaten in his life. “How do you know how to recreate Mother’s secrets?”, Kalthoom simply smiled. She put the wooden box on the table after she had cleared the table and washed up for evening prayers. “Kalthoom, what is this beautiful box for”? Omar pushed for an answer before they went to sleep. “It’s nothing special”. Omar continued to ask her annoying questions and she felt the thickness in her throat again, the rise of her emotions and her mother’s love. “It’s for my unopened dreams that have been denied”. Omar had a blank look on his face. He shrugged his shoulders and went back to the sofa., happy she had filled his belly with such wonderful food. Kalthoom lay in her parent’s bed and read more of her mother’s thick journal. “I never admitted to anyone that I felt nothing for Muhamad in the early years, it has always been a seal between me and Allah. When Kalthoom was born I felt a reawakening and was full of love for everyone. Her devotion to us has opened the door to dreams I never saw come true.”She then placed the book and money back in the safe and lit the candle that smelled of cinnamon. She let some more tear’s flow and drip into the cedar box. She kissed it and put it inside the safe also. There she would share her dreams along with her mothers and perhaps, if she were lucky a suitable gentleman would call on her again soon and her brothers would be happy, and they all could laugh and live in the light of all that remained unspoken.