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Fiction: Rushabah

Shukria rose from the floor next to the wash basin with a slight grunt as her daughter, her partner in running this household of boys
short story on a mother
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A tangy, mouth-watering aroma of dill, fava beans, eggplant, onions, and pickled grape leaves trickled out around the lid of the boiling pot. Shukria rose with an effort and straightened her back slowly, mindful of her balance. As Sobheiya peered into the pot, adjusting the stone that kept the rice-stuffed vegetables below the boiling surface, her mother peeked over her shoulder with a smile. “Soon your yaprax will be better than mine, Sobeiya!” Pleased and horrified in equal parts, the teen girl blushed and gently kidded her mother, “Never, Daiya, what are you saying! As long as I learn to cook better than Nigar xan, I can be happy.” A gentle laugh escaped Shukria’s lips, “poor Nigar xan! I think we can safely say you will reach your goal, inshallah. Before your next little brother or sister arrives,” she patted her swollen belly, “you, Sobheiya, will be an excellent cook.” 

The sound of running feet and children’s shouts preceded two of her youngest as they burst into the kitchen, six-year-old Osman in the lead clutching a small toy his older brother had made while Tahir (the older brother in question at the ripe age of nine) gave close pursuit. “Give it back, you little thief!” Tahir made a grab for him while Osman dodged behind his mother’s skirts, “No! You weren’t even playing with it!” 

Shukria and Sobheiya separated the boys in one fluid motion, “Tahir,” said his mother, “you boys are brothers, aren’t you? Let Osman play with the toy for a while.” Tahir hesitated, then nodded reluctantly before sneaking a pinch at Osman when their mother turned to glance out the window. Sobheiya quietly slapped Tahir’s hand while Osman rubbed his arm ferociously, but he was too pleased with his new toy to cry; it hurt much less than the mamusta’s ruler at school, anyway. 

Sobheiya looked up and followed her mother’s gaze, noticing the sun low in the sky, “I can start the water boiling, Daiya, so we can get them bathed before it’s too cold.”

Shukria began to answer but Osman, eager to assist, bellowed to the farthest reaches of the house, “Salah, wura! Come quickly, Daiya needs you!” A little voice called back faintly and with grave solemnity from upstairs, “Ser chaw! Upon my eyes, here I come as fast as I can!” Shukria called immediately over the pattering feet, “No! No, Salah! You will hurt yourself – come slowly!” The toddler answered with equal earnestness as the sound of running abruptly ceased, “Ser chaw, Daiya! Here I come as slowly as I can, you can count on me!” His brothers rolled their eyes, but his sister and mother laughed as they began to get the boys ready for their baths. Shukria shook her head at her little Pire Merd; she could not fathom where her three year-old Old Man had learned to comfort himself with such seriousness and self-importance. Even Ahmed was charmed by his absurdity, which was no small feat these days.

A kitchen with nothing yet ready to eat held little appeal for teenage boys
 

She was sure the shouting must have woken him; when the bath water had boiled she would make him some tea. Soon it would be time for dinner, so he would not have lost much rest. These bad days were coming more frequently of late and, besides keeping the boys and their rough-housing outside, the doctor did not seem to know what to do for him. On days like this, her husband’s coughs echoed through the house, and both his energy and appetite seemed to fail him. Shukria had tried to remove his cigarettes, but as one of his few joys and his only vice, Ahmed would not entertain the idea of having them rationed. At least it was not whooping cough, thank God. She experienced equal parts amusement and shuddering distaste as she remembered the story of old Simco Begh coughing so hard at the men’s after-dinner gathering one night that his phlegm flew across the room. 

As Shukria poured the boiling water into the teapot, her older sons came in – Fazula with a scowl at the rowdy younger boys running in circles around their mother and sister’s ankles, Orahman with a hopeful glance at the stove, and Salih grinning and bouncing Salah on his shoulders. “Were you waiting for this one?” he teased, depositing his youngest brother at the kitchen table before easing himself into a chair and lighting a cigarette. 

Working as a team to strip Salah down and set him in the wash basin beside his brothers, Shukria and Sobheiya scrubbed them pink and barely heard the story they were excitedly telling of the day’s adventures. “Orahman, would you take that tea to your father, please, and tell him dinner will be ready soon?” Shukria asked, craning her neck to see him without losing grip on the soapy boys in the basin, “and Fazi, will you help Tahir and Osman with their homework after dinner?” 

Ser chaw, Daiya,” they both replied, Orahman with a bit of trepidation, Fazula with a flinty determination. If it was Orahman’s mission in life to attract as little attention to himself while at home as possible, it was Fazi’s to prove his worth in part by whipping his younger siblings into shape. As the oldest son with all the privileges of that office, handsome good looks, and a natural, easy-going charm, Salih’s only goals in life were relaxation, fun, and as little of anything else as he could reasonably get away with.

She was sure the shouting must have woken him; when the bath water had boiled she would make him some tea. Soon it would be time for dinner, so he would not have lost much rest. These bad days were coming more frequently of late and, besides keeping the boys and their rough-housing outside, the doctor did not seem to know what to do for him. On days like this, her husband’s coughs echoed through the house, and both his energy and appetite seemed to fail him.

A kitchen with nothing yet ready to eat held little appeal for teenage boys and, one by one, her older sons wandered back out of the kitchen, Orahman with his father’s demitasse teacup in hand, hopefully to finish their own homework before dinner. Shukria could not help but smile when she looked upon her eldest, and she unreservedly adored all of her children… but she also could not avoid seeing how much Fazi and Sobheiya lived in the shadow of their kakim, their eldest brother Salih. Both hungered for blessings that Salih took for granted; Fazi for the favor, recognition, and authority Salih was born into as the handsome eldest, Sobheiya for the education that she had been denied and her brother treated with a kind of benign neglect. 

Followed by plumes of splashing water, Shukria rose from the floor next to the wash basin with a slight grunt as her daughter, her partner in running this household of boys rapidly becoming men, poured a final cup of clean water over each of the children – so engaged in their noisy doings that they barely noticed. With a tired smile of gratitude, Shukria handed two rough towels to Sobheiya to dry Tahir and Osman while she herself patted down Salah, tousling his hair with a laugh to remind the Pire Merd that not all of life had to be serious. “Ok, you little beasts are finally clean! Now thank your sister and go get dressed for dinner. Tahir, help Salah get ready, will you please?” Each of the toweled boys gave Sobheiya a quick kiss on the cheek, Tahir yelled, “yes, Daiya,” over his shoulder while he and Osman ran out in a cacophony of laughter and shouts, leaving damp footprints in their wake and a waddling Salah trailing behind. “Tahir, remember your little brother!” she called. Sobheiya had emptied the wash basin during the commotion and was just lifting the lid on the yaprax. “It’s ok, Daiya, I think dinner is ready – do you agree? I can go take care of Salah.” Shukria peered approvingly into the pot, her hungry stomach making her mouth water, and rested her palm on her daughter’s cheek, “Bless you, Sobheiya, and your hands, thank you for all of your help. Bring your brothers down with you when you are done so we can eat your delicious meal.”

With only mild pangs of guilt, Shukria seized the rare moment of peace to put her feet up for a few minutes and rest her aching body. She knew it would not be long now before the baby came. For what felt like the thousandth time, she whispered a silent prayer; she could not lose another child. Shukria already lay awake at night dreading the horrors that might befall her living children – illness, accidents, evil jinn or wild animals that might drag them off in the night, she had heard such stories – she was not certain she was strong enough to count yet another child among those who never made it out of infancy. She could not imagine how Ahmed lived with his even greater losses.

With a sigh, Shukria tried to shake off these morbid thoughts and bring her attention back to her older children, for whom she could do something more than stew in anxiety. She had tried to discuss these issues with Ahmed, the strains she saw between her eldest children – the one-sided rivalry between Fazi and Salih, Sobheiya’s sharp intellect and burning desire for a formal education – but her husband had clear goals and expectations for each of their children, and was quite assured he knew what was best for them, regardless of whether they agreed. Each of his sons was to become a doctor – a respected, safe, stable profession – which made serious attention to their schoolwork of paramount importance. Fazi seemed to be on that path; as long as he also had his basic necessities attended to, what more could he need? Sobheiya would marry, and to arrange a good marriage she must be able to keep a comfortable home for her intended husband – schoolwork was not only irrelevant to this pursuit but actually an encumbrance, therefore it was out of the question that he should pay from their limited resources for such folly.

Though Shukria could not argue with Ahmed’s reasoning where either child was concerned, she felt there was something more than what was strictly logical that they craved. To be seen by him, perhaps, in a way she sensed they felt they were not. She could see this ephemeral object of their yearning receding farther and farther away from her children as their father became more ill, and what he had had of patience and indulgence steadily eroded. She would try again to gently nudge him this evening, she resolved, before rising again to her feet to get the table ready for dinner.

Image courtesy: Flickr & Rawpixel

Kaylan Baban is (among other things) a public health physician who revels in arts, sciences, and the human condition.

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