Leila in the Wilderness
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In the beginning, the great river was believed to flow out of a lion’s mouth, its size reflected in its ancient name – Sindhu, an ocean. The river was older than the Himalayas; the Greeks had called it Sinthus, the Romans Sindus, the Chinese Sintow, but it was Pliny who had given it the name Indus. One night under the vast silence of a perfect half-moon and six stars, a mosque appeared on a wooded island in the river, and Leila was woken by the call to prayer issuing from its minaret just before sunrise. It was the day she was to be blessed with a son.
As she knew there was no mosque within hearing distance, her initial impression was that the air itself was singing. Leila manoeuvred herself out of bed and went towards the door, making sure not to disturb her mother-in-law who had taken to sleeping in the same room as her in these last days before the birth. The servant girl appointed outside the door had fallen asleep, and as Leila moved past, a bad dream caused the girl to release a cry of fear.
Leila was fourteen years old, thin-framed with grey, glass-like eyes and a nervous flame always burning just beneath her pale skin. She pursued the song of faith drifting in the fifty-roomed mansion that had been in her husband’s family for several generations. The river with its boats and blind freshwater dolphins and drowned lovers was half a mile away, and there was nothing but rocky desert and thick date orchards between the riverbank and the mansion.
Long after the voice withdrew, she continued her search for its origins, now and then placing an ear against a wall. Earlier in the night she’d heard momentary fragments of other songs from the men’s side of the mansion, where her husband was celebrating the imminent arrival of his first son in the company of musicians and prostitutes. No doubt they were all asleep by now.
The windows in the women’s section of the house were inaccessible, nudged up against the ceiling, so the light poured in but not enough air. Leila was looking up at one of them when she heard someone come in behind her.
‘You shouldn’t be down here,’ Razia, her mother-in-law, said, unable to conceal her alarm. ‘If you needed something you should have asked one of the servants.’ Her attenuated face was wheatcoloured and pitted with smallpox scars. She had long white hair and every other year a doctor would inject liquid gold into her bones and joints to counter the ravages of time. ‘You should be resting,’ she said. It was the tone she had employed a year earlier when Leila came to the mansion as a bride, a tone suitable for the child that Leila had been back then. Someone who longed for her dolls and frequently misplaced her veil. But as soon as she became pregnant there was no end to Razia’s devotion and love. Along with the abundant care came the vigilance, an ever-present awareness that the girl was not mature enough to know the importance of the asset taking form inside her body.
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