December’s morning dew had settled on the barren corn fields of the remote Kashmiri village before the screams of a newborn child filled the Chaudhary household. Bibi had been in labour since lunchtime the previous day; she remembered the smoke from clay ovens rising from the courtyards of houses on the horizon, slithering away like serpents into the cool winter air.
This pregnancy – her seventh – had been distinct from the others. It excited her, and scared her too. It was no secret that this was her last chance. After twelve years of marriage, with her eldest three of marriageable age, she couldn’t stomach the thought of returning to her parent’s home as a divorcee, unable to produce what every woman had been created to do. Chaudhary wouldn’t send her back. He was more forgiving than most men in their tribe, but it didn’t matter what he thought. The final decision would not be his, or hers.
When her labour began, Bibi had continued as usual with her daily business. Her pregnancies had never stopped her from undertaking her duties. She had baked the bread, made the yoghurt drink, fed the animals, drew water from the well with her clay pot, and washed the clothes. Afternoon rolled over into evening; she milked the cows and prepared the evening meal. When night fell, she crushed flour between the grinding stones. Her daughters slept while she spun cotton at the spinning wheel by the light of a lone, flickering candle. Amidst the contractions, she thought again how this pregnancy was not like the others, how it had been different in every way – every symptom, every craving. Each day brought with it signs of goodness, like the dove that sat on the roof of her mud-hut kitchen every morning. Wasn’t that a clear sign from God?
And then there were the recurring dreams of beholding the glorious moon in her lap, as if it were her very own. She didn’t need a dream interpretation to tell her that it meant she would be blessed with a son. And what about the fortune teller from the shrine in Khari Sharif? He’d sat by the fire, his eyes twinkling like glowing embers, a bowl of tea in one hand while the other cradled her own weather-beaten palm; he had whispered it to her as though it were a secret, telling her how the desires of her heart would soon come to fruition. The seventh number in anything is always auspicious, he said, and her stomach felt like she had swallowed a dozen of the moths gathered around her candle flame.
With the reassurances of all the signs lodged firmly in her mind, she braced herself for the coming of the child. The hours of darkness passed in a blur of delirious hallucinations and agonising contractions which Bibi endured by biting the insides of her cheeks. Suddenly, something felt wrong. Bibi looked down at her hands and saw the cotton thread had snapped long ago and the barren spinning wheel was protesting against its pointless journey. She accepted the futility of the task and resolved to join her sleeping family. With a single breath, she blew out the candle.
But by the time the last of the morning dew disappeared, silence encircled the house. Bibi took one look at the girl child that lay on an infant-sized charpai in the darkened corner of the veranda and turned her back to it. That thing, she thought with derision, that cursed thing seems oblivious to the problems it’s created – as if six weren’t enough.
When the news had been declared that it was, yet again, another girl, the midwife had quickly excused herself. Bibi refused to hold the child. Chaudhary was due to return from Islamabad in two days, and she wondered what would happen now. A giant rock was propelling itself deeper and deeper into the excavated hole where her heart should be. The sun was halfway across the sky when Bibi’s sister – her first and final visitor – arrived to express her commiserations.
The eldest two daughters stepped in, like surrogate mothers with experience beyond their years, put on earth solely for the purpose of removing the child before it could conceive of its awful rejection. Bibi watched them follow the plodding cattle down the path that led to the river bank, the baby’s face covered with a pashmina veil. They were going to the imam’s house.
The imam was a benevolent old man without any children of his own. Whenever Bibi’s four older daughters – the fifth and sixth were still too young to endure physical labour – went to the river with the cattle, or to the mountains to gather firewood, or to the fields to work the soil, they would finish their chores in a frenzied hurry and find their way to the imam’s house. Within the secret space of this sanctuary, the girls were taught how to read and write and it was here that their moral and spiritual compasses were aligned. This was the place they had learnt the secrets of life, of how to endure the maze of hypocrisy in which they were infinitely trapped.
When the imam saw the child, he flashed his toothy grin at her for she was truly a sight to behold. Although only a newborn, she already had a thick covering of jet-black hair that cradled her face like the night cradles the glowing moon, her eyes twinkling like stars. She stared rapt with wonder at the old man while he completed the rites of welcome and read the prayer in her ear. Then there was only one rite left: the naming of the child. The imam, with his hidden wisdom, decided to delay it for the time-being.
The two sisters wept, recounting the atmosphere at home. It was like a corpse-less funeral, they said. Their mother had rejected her own flesh for the seventh time. The imam listened attentively. He asked them to be patient and said that time was a great teacher and healer. And time, he said, was also a great afflicter of necessary punishment. The girls listened, like children listening to fairy tales; he was telling them the same tale that they had heard many times before. Cradling the child in his arms, he spoke gently: “When God is happy, He sends rain so that we may have provision for ourselves and our families. This is a great blessing. But when God is happier, He sends guests so that we may build our good deeds through acts of charity. This is a greater blessing.”
Although they knew what came next, the girls asked in unison, “And when God is happiest of all? What then?”
The imam smiled.
“When He is happiest of all, He sends daughters. Daughters are His promise to His creation, a reminder that Paradise is an inevitable destination for the God-fearing parents of daughters. And this is the greatest blessing of all.”
The child in his arms uttered something sounding like an approval and the imam chuckled.
“I think, Badriya….” The child seemed to fully comprehend the man’s words. “Yes. Badriya. Now, there’s a befitting name for one who resembles the moon.”
Happier now, the sisters gathered the cattle from where they had been grazing and undertook the journey home. They’d been away far too long already and they risked being whipped for their tardiness. Heavy rain began to fall and the biting December cold unsettled them. They thought of the stories they had learnt from the imam – of Nuh, of Lut and other perished nations. They whispered a quick prayer and hurried up the final steep slope to their home.
For a minute, they were sure they had arrived at someone else’s house.
The other daughters were busy – washing white linen, dusting down old furniture and arranging charpais in neat rows across the veranda, as though any minute now a herd of guests would arrive. A delicious aroma wafted through the shut kitchen doors. Bibi welcomed the child with a smile that reached her eyes; she cuddled and cooed over it and admonished her eldest for not returning before the rain had pelted down – didn’t they know the child could get sick? What if she died from pneumonia?
Their mother set the child down on the kitchen floor and unveiled her face to get a better look. The eldest daughter lurked in the shadows, watching Bibi with a curious gaze. Perhaps this sudden transformation meant the imam’s prayer had been answered. Bibi used tongs to dig into the burning coals in the stove and dropped the cold milk in. She whispered to the baby just loud enough for her elder daughter to hear.
There I was thinking you would be a... Still…it doesn’t mean I love you any less, does it? You’re my flesh and blood. I carried you for nine long months and now that you’re here, well, I’d be crazy to let anyone take you away from me. You’re mine, aren’t you? Yes…
She cradled the child and let her drink some warm milk, just heated up. Badriya drank and drank, as though her life depended on it.
Bibi’s eldest looked out of the slightly ajar shutters and saw the rain had stopped. The smell of wet soil tickled her nostrils. “The rain has stopped, mama.”
Her words trailed off into the damp room. Bibi stayed hunched over the baby, and when she spoke her voice sounded cold, almost alien.
‘The rain has stopped,’ Bibi repeated. ‘I bet the soil is soft. Perfect for digging, isn’t it?’