On A Throne Of Seashells
by Hibah Shabkhez
Bruja, bruja, bruja, she needs no costume. No black hat, no gown, no hooked nose. And her ride is balanced with star-fire, not with twigs. She stands, watching her bolder sister streak into the sky, holding the flame that will let her do the same. She watches the wild abandon that knows no return to earth with a fierce yearning strengthened by the memory of chocolate and giggled secrets.
Bruja, bruja, bruja, they chant, and she who used to slink woundedly away from their cruelty and hate sees only their awe now, and in that awe a goad that exhilarates where it cuts to the quick. But one regret washes over her darkling eyes, as she raises the flame in her palm to the sky. “All this time I was trying to begin my story right, when I should have been writing it!”
"So they did burn her!"
"They say she rose on a whirl of violet flame and streaked across the sky to become a star. And in the morning the leaves wept ash instead of dew."
"That's it. That's the end of the story."
Every single time, you shook your head. No. It's not.
Every single time, I sighed. "If there is more, we do not know it."
Each night, when I finished the story and left, you turned to the sky and whispered, bruja, bruja, bruja, like an enchantment or a prayer. Ten years later, you can speak it only in pain, in despair, in derision. But there was another story too, a story I told you only once. Child that you were, you laughed at the farmer’s daughter. Ten years later, you begin to envy the tanner’s wife, envy her the clichéd bliss of ignorance.
Once upon a time a farmer’s daughter married a tanner. “The only thing that makes me unhappy,’’ she said to her parents “is the smell of the hides. It infects everything – rugs, sheets, even clothes – and I cannot abide it.” For weeks she soaped and scrubbed and beat every carpet in the house, in anticipation of her family’s visit. When they came she met them with a smile of triumph “I have washed off the stench at last!” she announced, and as they choked on it they wondered how to tell her the devastating truth: she had not driven out the stink of the leather: she had become drenched in it.
It began slowly for you, not with zealous vows to murder tyrants and deliberate plunges into dens of vice but with preposterously petty compromises, with little lies white and black. It began with the fond belief that you could serve the petty without becoming one of them, merely by saying “I do this to survive, but this is not me, and it never will be.” For each one who breaks a cycle ten more perpetrate it. But you know what is still more frightening? Nine if not all ten of those believe they have broken it too. Do you believe that too, my sister? Do you still watch broken stars streak across the sky and whisper bruja, bruja, bruja with your heart in your eyes?
Every day the milkman passes by our window, whipping his horse. The first time I saw him, I ran out to stop him, but you yanked me back so sharply the tears in my eyes turned from rage to pain. Then you let me go and sighed, the same tired sigh that was always the ending to your stories. The next time I saw him I did nothing. I learnt to choke down the sickness in my throat and look anywhere but at that, the casually vicious creature wielding the whip and the misting eyes looking straight at me out of leather blinkers, too mild to be an accusation but not too blank to be a reproach. Here I stand now, watching him beat the new mare into submission. I watch her buck and scream in agony with the strangely detached interest of one who knows the conclusion is foregone.
They came to see me today, you know. Yes, they they. At first they fidgeted and hemmed and searched for euphemisms, but my glacial stare at the horse must have given them a paradoxical courage. So they told me, in those very words “We know your sister has given food and shelter to the enemy’s soldiers –” Yes, I know it’s true. I know too what you would not say if I asked you: they were wounded, dying, and they had nowhere else to go. Even after one of them ripped Mama’s pearls from you, you did not close your doors to them. You picked up the one pearl that fell off where the string broke, kissed it and set it on a throne of seashells on the mantelpiece. I saw it and said nothing.
Oh sister, sister, all those lessons of survival you taught me so very, very well, between your stories and your arm-pinches and your sighs that hurt more than both, and did you learn none of them yourself? Here they stood, saying not in a whisper but in tones stentorian “It’s too late for your sister, but you can still save yourself. Agree to denounce her and to testify against her …” They walked out not with broken heads but with smiles, reading assent into my ragelessness. Were they right? Is this open, spoken treachery to be the harvest of my lifelong betrayals-by-silence? I do not know, I do not know! But I know that you will, when you see them coming, as they must inevitably come whatever I do or say. You will know the choice I made.
O bruja, bruja, bruja, would you not have done it too? Bruja, bruja, bruja, she needs no costume. No black hat, no gown, no hooked nose. And her ride is balanced with star-fire, not with twigs. She stands, watching her bolder sister streak into the sky …
Author Bio: Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, a teacher of French as a foreign language and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in the Mojave Heart Review, Third Wednesday, Brine, Petrichor, Remembered Arts, Rigorous, Lunate and a number of other literary magazines. Studying life, languages and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her.
Pieces Inspired by this Image
'When the dragon rises'
'The Climb to Wonderment'
'To Keep the World Turning'
'Sentinel of Life'
'You Can't Disappoint the Stars '