Snake’s Secret*


Whenever anyone expressed their admiration for her ever renewable beauty my aunt would say, “With this handbag I’ll conquer old age forever.” No one in the room would take this literally, apart from us children. Our eyes would remain fixed on that blue cube-shaped purse, raised before us for split seconds before it was tucked back beneath her black abaya which she had draped next to her on the couch.

My sister, when we recollect our childhood memories together, insists that Safiya was not our aunt, but rather our mother’s elder aunt. She assisted with the birth of all of us: our mother, our aunts, their sons and daughters; in fact, most of the children in the neighbourhood who were born after the famous flood. As all our older relatives who were her contemporaries have  died off or lost their memories, my sister and I have the luxury to conjure up memories, alter events and shift the places they occurred as the mood moves us. Sometimes one of us takes issue over whether this or that incident could have actually taken place, although we will eventually resolve that it did. But neither of us will ever question the reality of our fascination with Aunt Safiya’s purse. How often we were drawn toward it, by some mysterious magnetic pull, hoping to touch its leather surface gleaming beneath the dim light of the hallway. But our aunt’s vigilant eyes would catch us just in time and her glare would send us scurrying into the inner recesses of our home.

There was a fine thread between the allure of her magical presence and the fear she inspired. Everyone sensed it. During feast days, when relatives gathered in her home, over there, disputes would be resolved, grudges would dissolve and hearts would grow pure and free of guile, enabling them harmonise with the rites and rituals of the collective melding beneath the shade of the perpetually verdant canopy of our extended family tree: Aunt Safiya. To us children, she was a djinni straight out of a fairy tale. There she sat, with majestic splendour on the antique Kashan rug, her indigo gown stark against her ivory complexion, her thick black hair cascading down to the middle of her back, the samovar before her exuding vapours infused with hints of mastic and jasmine….“With this handbag I will defeat….”

Among the grownups’ creased and wrinkled faces, Aunt Safiya’s face, bright and as smooth as marble, mocked the remorseless ravages of time. From time to time, we would recall what our grandmother told us, relaying what her parents had told her: On the night when Safiya was born, a star appeared. It had a long tail that stretched to the edge of the firmament. The star was huge and so close to earth that people clasped their hearts for fear. But that shimmering tail of particles of chalk dust was so enthralling that pedestrians seemed like sleepwalkers, their eyes glued skyward, their mouths muttering the Quranic incantations.

People rejoiced at Safiya’s birth just as that star gradually receded and vanished between the horns of Taurus. According to my grandmother, blazing rocks fell from its tail, sparking huge fires across the land. But they left behind tiny gemstones, like sapphires and turquoise, that glowed at night as though lit by electricity. Anyone who found one would be blessed with unbounded luck.

“With this handbag…”

Safiya was not yet thirteen when Sarhan the grain merchant asked her father for her hand. Her breasts at the time were barely the size of budding figs. But the feeble eyes of that old widower could see beneath those adolescent features the delectable fruit that was awaiting its day. Safiya’s father treated her like a sole son among his five daughters. He would have her bring his lunch to his store. But the wealthy merchant’s marriage proposal forced him to face the hard truth. She would have to stop playing with the neighbourhood boys and start wearing the abaya and niqab immediately.

The engagement with Sirhan would not bring Safiya harm. In fact, the doubts that troubled the father, who was determined to take the best possible decision for his favourite daughter, led him to display an unaccustomed boldness. He insisted on one condition: that Sirhan would have to help Safiya learn how to read and write.

My sister maintains that the grain merchant owned a farm and a garden along the riverbank. That was where Safiya preferred to spend most of the summer months. In the farm, she became a keen observer of the cows, horses and goats, noting the details of their life cycles: the feverish rutting season of each species, the ruses the males would use to approach and mount, how the females would respond, the pregnancy periods and the difficult hours of labour. It was by helping the female animals give birth to their young that Safiya acquired the secrets of the career to which she would dedicate her life.

Sirhan helplessly bowed to Safiya’s headstrong will and fluctuating moods. In daytime, she would dress in men’s clothing and take jaunts on horseback or manage the affairs of the farm. At night she would transform into the nubile enchantress, seductive but forbidding, who took delight in keeping him at an excruciating edge of desire.

The merchant continued to pursue a mirage. No sooner would he settle down to life with his young wife and begin to taste her secret gifts than she would be seized by the evil spirit of change, and they would have to move from the city to the village or visa versa. It only took seven years for his commerce and his property to begin to dwindle. That was when he started to show signs of an ailment that defied all remedies: chronic wakefulness. At night, people would come across him, nodding off while standing or mounted on horseback. No one was surprised, therefore, when a guard found him floating on the water in the well, eyes wide open in a mystifying astonished stare.

Her father’s house would now teem with fresh life. With the money she had inherited, it would be repaired and renovated. On the lintel above the double-panelled wooden door there would appear a sign, in gold leaf lettering: “Licensed Midwife”. From within would come the strains of melancholy songs from the first gramophone to enter the alley.

Safiya’s work carried her beyond the bounds of any one district. Many men from remote neighbourhoods, drawn by the renown that had accompanied her from birth, would come to her when their wives showed the symptoms of labour. How many of them named their own newborn daughters “Safiya” out of gratitude to her is impossible to say. At the same time, under Safiya’s mysterious influence, bonds began to be forged between distant and mutually antagonistic areas, gradually smoothing the path to roads between them.

Her father never tired of boasting of her. Inwardly he felt that she was worth more than ten sons. Soon after she returned home, she convinced her father to sell his store and to dedicate his time to hosting the sufi ceremonies he was so fond of. My sister swears to the truth of the stories she had heard about the prankish miracles he performed in the final years of his life: walking across the river on top of the water or appearing in two different places at the same time.

Whenever my sister and I compare my grandmother with her sister Safiya we discover new differences. My grandmother, for example, was deeply shy, as was reflected in her sombre clothes, downcast eyes and soft, muted voice. Safiya was the extreme opposite in all such traits.

We were amazed at how Safiya was allowed to do everything that was prohibited to women in those days. It was as though men thought of her as one of them. One day, seized by a strange impulse,  she sent an unusual gift to the mosque of the ascetic imam: a pot of rare mountain honey wrapped in a kerchief sprinkled with rosewater. It took a week for her to receive the response: verses of Sufi love poetry, open to diverse interpretations, penned on a piece of silk hemmed with golden threads. That platonic love would become the subject on everyone’s tongue and eventually remain in people’s memories long after the sheikh died of consumption many years later.

Then there was the time she returned home after a long and gruelling day, carrying a newborn in the folds of her abaya. No one had seen anything like it before: emerald eyes and a complexion as pure as snow. As the features of this captivating child grew more distinct, rumours would proliferate about its origins. Some held that she was the fruit of an illicit  relationship between a djinni and a human female. Others were convinced that she was the abandoned daughter of European parents. A very few would whisper that she was from the flesh of the midwife, herself. Safiya, for her part, kept her own counsel and acted as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. It was not long before people’s attitudes changed and they began to regard the child as a gift to them from heaven. My mother’s aunt gave it a name no one in the alley had ever heard before: “Wajd Al Quloub” – Rapture of Hearts.

As my sister traced the threads of her memories and her imagination, she would bring up the story of that sufi dervish, the one who was obsessed with the occult, and his relationship with Safiya. She must have come to know him through some of the wives of political notables. My mother’s aunt, in those days, had extensive relations among the families of senior officials. She was often invited to the marriage and circumcision celebrations they hosted from time to time. The people of our neighbourhood saw Safiya as a kind of ambassador for their isolated realm. Through her voice the world learned of its existence and their needs. If ever anyone needed a job recommendation, for example, they would not hesitate to call on her.

The moment she appeared before the dervish, he told her name and that of her father. She was wrapped in her abaya and her face was concealed behind a niqab at the time. He told her about her past and revealed what his cards held in store for her in the future. Before she left, she placed a folded piece of paper in his hands disclosing an aspect of his own fate previously unknown to him: “I wish to marry you in accordance with the strictures of God and His Prophet.”

Safiya often travelled with the sheikh to visit the sites of holy men – both the living and the dead – in the far-flung lands of the East. She would embark with him on spiritual adventures that would take her to the brink of madness where the past and the future fused in Safiya’s soul: She would get up to open the door, mentioning the visitor’s name before she had even heard the knock and begin to recount what had happened to him the previous day or the day before that. Her husband had to take her to a sheikh versed in the esoterica of the hidden meanings of the scriptures in order to restore her to the grips of sanity.

It was amazing how people celebrated her return: ceremonial sacrifices everywhere, the women’s shrill ululations piercing the air, trays of candles floated on the river. Safiya was taken aback by the nicks and scars of time that the years of her absence had marked on the faces of her relatives and neighbours. Even the buildings and streets, all covered with layers of dust, seemed slumped under the weight of the decrepitude.  Meanwhile, everyone stared at her face in astonishment. Time marched in the opposite direction with her. She had returned more radiant and more youthful than before.

By the time my sister and I grew aware of the adult world, Wajd Al Quloub was a young women, living in a nearby neighbourhood with her husband and two children. When we came across her in the company of Safiya, we found it difficult to detect an age difference between the two.

No one would ever have expected Safiya to drop by that brutal evening. The rain had been pelting down like mad all day long, forcing us children to remain indoors. We were all sitting in family room when she lifted the heavy curtain which separates it from the courtyard. The surprise filled us all with joy. She apologised for being only able to stay a few minutes because her coachman was waiting outside. She was on her way to a wedding reception but decided to swing by us first. Upon the insistence of all the grownups, she threw off her abaya and tossed down her purse and took the cup of tea offered to her by my mother. Just as she was getting ready to leave, there came a violent knock on the front door. My elder brother leapt up to answer it and returned a few seconds later, his face pale. There was a man asking for help for his wife who was about to give birth, he said. Safiya looked downcast for a moment but then silently collected herself. “Dismiss the coachman,” she told my brother firmly and then turned to my mother to ask if she would like to help.

Was it just the suddenness of it all that made Safiya forget her purse on the couch? The howling wind caused an electricity cutoff. My grandmother lit the lantern and then dozed off into a deep slumber to the rhythms of our incessant chitchat and laughter. Sleep might have lured us too, had it not been for the glint of the lantern flames reflected on Aunt Safiya’s purse which stood right before our eyes. My sister and I stood up slowly and apprehensively, as though we had both been struck by the same idea at once: to creep toward the mysterious purse and open it. Some metallic items clinked between my fingers. My hand paused at a soft, springy object. I pulled it out and held up what turned out to be a small wallet made of snakeskin. After some tugging we managed to open the short zipper. I flipped the wallet over. A small shiny object dropped out and vanished among the fibres of the large Kashan rug.

Between the past and the attempt to recollect it there resides another truth that has the texture of mercury. It alters shape with every passing moment and gives our inner lives a rich kaleidoscopic diversity. I could see that truth floating on the surface of my sister’s excited eyes as she related this ending, the veracity of which I doubt to the marrow of my bones. That object was a precious stone which made the room glow with a hazy blue light.

For a long time, a large snake used to reside among the rafters of the roof. My grandmother used to speak with it from time to time, as though it were a member of the family. As we scrambled to find the lost stone, that snake reared up and hissed, causing the blood to freeze in our veins. Then, in a flash it snatched up that treasure from the fibres of the antique rug and fled like a bolt of lightning, leaving behind a shrivelled castoff skin.

After the night was over and just as the first rays of dawn appeared at the edge of the darkness, our mother’s aunt returned home, exhausted. We were horrorstruck by how she had aged in the few hours of her final absence.

*from Dice Throw, a collection of short stories, published by Al-Mada, 1999, Damascus

Translated by Peter Daniel

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