“Desert Mirages” a story by Taisa Irs
“Desert Mirages”, a short story by famous Chechen writer Taisa Irs. It was the only one translated story of the 2008 Short Story Competition at ShortStoryRadio.com webpage.
In the heat of far-off Tunisia, a young couple’s family had been expecting a boy, but it was a little girl who came into the world. Her body was so tiny and her skin so wrinkled and dry, that she resembled a little, shrivelled mummy.
‘The child will not live,’ was the verdict pronounced by the doctors. But her mother Zafira did not believe a word they said. She just couldn’t take her eyes of her baby’s seemingly lifeless little body. ‘She’s dead! Is she!? She can’t be dead’ wondered the young mother fearfully, putting her ear to her daughter’s puny chest. Hearing the weak beating of the little heart, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Thus the young mother spent sleepless days and nights in hopes for Allah’s mercy upon her and her little child.
Then, after some time, the little girl’s breathing became deeper and more even, that is when her mother, believing that life would not now desert her, gave her the name Naval, meaning ‘gift’!
Defying fate, with help of Almighty, the child survived. With time her skin that was once wrinkled, like that of a dried date, grew smooth and took on such a beautiful olive shade that even her mother could hardly believe she was her own daughter.
One day, after her regular feed, as she lay in her mother’s arms, Naval suddenly opened her eyes. Zafira stared in amazement at the child, especially at her wide-open eyes. Never before had she seen such a knowing look in a child. Naval’s eyes were large and black like two over-ripe olives. And just as shiny. No mother in all Tunisia had seen eyes so eloquent and beautiful, with such a strange, enigmatic expression!
The little girl, as if reading her mother’s mind, fixed a penetrating, unchildlike gaze on her mother’s face, as if reading her mind, so that Zafira felt beside herself.
‘Naval, my angel!’she was fondling her daughter, but Naval, as if trying to hypnotise, went on staring at her with her dry, shining eyes. And it occurred to Zafira that she had never once seen her daughter cry or make a fuss to get her way, as other small children did.
‘How can this be?’ she wondered, looking at the child in astonishment. Naval blinked a couple of times, screening her eyes with those thick, curved lashes, as if to confirm her mother’s thoughts.
Time went by. In the heat of Tunisia, where its shores washed by the bright blue sea, the Saharan wind scorches not just your face, but even your blood. The nights are tender and cool like in mountain gorges and the pearly dawn is as splendid as over ancient Carthage. In that glorious land of dunes and mirages, little Naval was born and grew up.
She was not like others of her age; she did not play children’s games. Instead she would disappear for whole days in the pineapple groves or roam in the jasmine gardens. But her true passion was to ride along the boundless dunes astride her beloved camel Kemi, with his long, fluffy eyelashes. Naval would go tearing off to meet her pet, clutching a handful of couscous granules which the animal would at once scoop up with his soft, moist lips and lick her palm with his rough tongue, as though to show his gratitude.
Naval would climb nimbly onto her friend’s shaggy back and settle in front of his hump. The camel would sigh like a human being and get up onto his back feet, whereupon Naval would cling on with both arms round his neck. Then he would rise onto his forelegs and Naval, rocking rhythmically to and fro, would ride like a true Bedouin across the endless sandy plains that faded into the distant heat-haze. The straw huts, the tiny hovels, the low houses and a big mosque were left far behind under the blazing sun. From the minaret rose the call to prayer, but Naval was sailing ever further away from her little home-town on her very own ship of the desert, sinking deep into the fluid dunes, getting scorched mercilessly by the sun and the hot desert wind.
She was drawn to where the desert Berbers lived, just as their distant sun-worshipping ancestors had done, in caves hewn out of the bare cliffs. Naval was already seven years old. But she had never once shed a tear.
Some years had passed since then. Naval’s little sister was now a year and a half old. And today, on Naval’s birthday, her mother had borne her the gift of a little brother.
Naval sat outside, leaning against the cracked walls of the straw hut, its boards warped by dryness and old age, and with a marabou’s nest on its roof. A scraggy, spiny palm-tree with yellowing leaves provided no shade at all. The previous day, the palm had exuded sugar-white milk. Palms only produce milk once in their lives, and afterwards they die. All around was just sand, endless sand, without so much as a bush or a blade of grass.
The huge marabou stork, who had become almost a member of Naval’s family, was standing not far away from the little girl. He was meditating about something and looking at Naval through crinkled-up eyes. Sometimes he would pace to and fro, unfolding his powerful black wings, as if airing them. He was full of pride and self-esteem. He considered himself the lord of Africa and looked with contempt upon the finches and doves that had settled on the yellowing palm boughs, not deigning to rank them as birds.
‘Maraboush, my dear Maraboush!’ said Naval to the bird, and she got up and went over to him and put her arms round his bare neck. ‘I know you’re hungry! Do you want something to eat? Just wait a little longer.’
A noise distracted her from her thoughts. Zakariah, Naval’s father, was dragging up a bleating, protesting lamb. It was going to be slaughtered for a celebration feast in honour of the birth of Naval’s little brother.
‘Something will come your way’- she said, turning to the haughty bird and stroking the soft down on his head. But she felt really sorry for the lamb… marabou then snapped his beak as to express his joy to Naval.
Before, Maraboush had been able to travel far and wide, flying over the emerald-green sea, perching on shifting sand-dunes, catching small creatures while in flight. There were few birds that could rival him. Now Maraboush had grown older, and his pensive demeanour reflected all the harsh blows that fate had dealt him and sadness had settled in his elongated eyes.
Naval felt very sorry for him: he could no longer find food for himself as in his youth. Naval and Maraboush were both waiting for the lamb to be slaughtered. Maraboush would was waiting to feast on his entrails and Naval just wanted it to be over. The lamb cooked in an earthenware pot on an open-air fire and seasoned with yellow saffron, coriander and cumin was only prepared for special occasions. And when the scorching pot was smashed, and the whole lamb hauled out of it, smelling of bonfire and smoke, everyone’s mouths would water as they longed for the mealtime to come. After all it was Naval’s favourite dish.
The feast had receded into the past. Ordinary grey days set in. Naval’s father would go off to work on the palm plantation, as usual, every morning and Zafira looked after her newly born son.
As the time went on Naval was no longer a carefree little girl with all the time on her hands. She had less and less time left to go for her rides in the desert, and seldom managed to meet up with Maraboush. Only she would catch sight of the pining bird from afar and her heart would miss a beat. Naval so wanted to get together with her friend, or to ride off into the desert! She had so much to tell herself, let alone Maraboush and her camel Kemi.
Something was constantly bothering her, but she didn’t know what. Every night she would wake up in a cold sweat. Sometimes she would dream that she was galloping through the desert astride her beloved Kemi, and then sliding off his long neck. Finding herself on the hot sand, she could not get to her feet and the sand-dunes were swallowing her up.
‘Mummy-y-y’, Naval would cry out in her sleep, waking herself up.
One day she finally did manage to go off into the desert. There she became lost in her own thoughts as she sat alone in the sand among golden dunes that resembled ancient pyramids.
She sat there looking far into the horizon, listening to the beautiful sounds of the dunes that she loved so much. ‘It was so long since she has been here!’ she thought. Straining her beautiful black eyes over the golden desert sands, Naval listened to the humming…
There was no way she could get up and leave, bewitched by the boundless yellow desert, gazing into the infinite distance where she glimpsed a Moorish loaded caravan. She felt a touch of fragrance, of spices and sweet-smelling musk, lavender and myrrh, was brought to her by the wind as if the desert was beckoning her into the distance.
Suddenly the caravan vanished. Was it there after all? Who knows… In that very instance she heard an aeroplane that roared by above her head and, before her very eyes, plunged nose-first into the sand, just where, shortly before, the caravan had been slowly wending its way.
The plane exploded in a ball of fire, flinging burning remnants far and wide. Naval’s eyes glazed over and the glittering reflection could be seen in numbed pupils that reacted neither to the fiery flares nor to the fragments of bodies thrown all over the desert. Some time later it was as if she had awoken from a terrible dream. She slowly got up and started wandering home, as thought she didn’t believe in what she had just seen. May be that’s why she told no-one about it, not even her own mum and dad.
Time and time again she saw the same thing. As she tried to tell her mother about it, she would ask:
‘Mummy, do you ever see the sun bouncing over the sands? Or the moon dancing on the dunes?’
‘Many people have seen such things. Only they are not real. They are mirages! Desert mirages!’ said her mother, laughing. So Naval learned to keep quiet.
One day Zafira’s sister, Aïsha, fell very ill. When Zafira heard about this, she helplessly wept day and night for they lived too far away and just couldn’t afford to go there.
Zakariah borrowed some money from a friend and bought plane tickets to Kairouan for himself, his wife and their little son. They had decided to leave the Naval and her little sister in the care of the relatives for a few days.
‘Just keep an eye on Naval: she likes to run off into the desert and then dreams up all sorts of cock-and-bull stories,’ her father warned.
Zafira was packing a bag for the journey, gathering together things they would, she did not hear Naval come in and went on packing, humming to herself as she did so, when Naval suddenly spoke to her, Zafira jumped in alarm.
‘You startled me – what are you? The invisible girl? Why are you silent? Have you been standing there long?’
Naval cautiously approached her mother, then stopped a short way from her. Her eyes were motionless, then there was a sort of strange trembling in them, as if her pupils wanted to jump out of them.
‘Naval, my dear, are you alright?’ Zafira slowly stepped towards her, dropping onto her knees and squeezing her tightly round the shoulders.
‘Mummy, Mummy, don’t go! Please! Stay home! Don’t go to Kairouan! I won’t let you go!
You mustn’t go there. Nor Daddy, nor my little brother either!’
Zafira shook her daughter and, still holding her by the shoulders, looked at her angrily:
“What is the matter with you? Is it those mirages? Have you been seeing things again?”
Her heart trembled and she embraced her tightly and whispered as she stroked her little head:
‘What am I going to do with you, other people’s children are like children! But you … sometimes I just don’t understand you …Dont worry my girl, everything is going to be fine’
Zafira slowly stood up and wondered around the room in a daze. ‘Soon will come the time for her to get married, and who will have her if they know about her eccentricities! People will just laugh at her! ‘What shall I do?’ she thought.
‘You won’t go, will you, Mummy?’ Her daughter’s voice brought her back to reality.
‘Yes, I will, Naval! I will go! She said angrily.
‘Your mirages, your strange ideas, your conversations with the marabou and with the camel, they’re not good for you,’ declared Zafira, choking with anger.
‘Everything is in the hands of the Almighty! I will go, and when I get home, I’ll then deal with you. You shall go and work in the pineapple grove, like all the other girls. When you have to pick fruit until your hands are sore and bleeding, you’ll soon forget about your mirage, you won’t go clambering on the roof at night to wish your precious Maraboush goodnights.
That miserable old carrion-eating bird that you worship! When I get back home, I’ll throw him off the roof and finally get rid of his nest– old parasite that he is!
‘Mummy, you won’t go to Kairouan, will you?’ Naval went on and on..
That her patience exhausted by her daughter’s latest question, screamed at the top of her voice:
Hearing his wife’s cry, Zakariah came running in to the room.
‘What has happened?’ he asked. Zafira was clasping her hand to her heart and tears were streaming down her cheeks. She was sobbing as she spoke:
‘Her fantasies again, her mirages again! I can’t take it any more!’
Zakariah turned to his daughter. Naval’s eyes were unblinking, like the last time. Then they began to tremble, and her pupils flickered incessantly. Amazed by this sight, her father went up to her, not taking his eyes off her pupils. He could see sparks of fire..no glittering or something incomprehensible happening in her eyes.
He recoiled from Naval, covering his open mouth with his hand. To calm himself and his wife and Naval and, above all, to make those sparks disappear from his daughter’s eyes, he said:
‘We won’t go, Naval!’
The little girl breathed a sigh of relief and turned her grateful eyes first to her father, then to her mother, with a smile at the corners of her mouth; then, to her parents’ astonishment, she raised her brows in an attempt to start crying. For Zafira, the whole world faded into oblivion and she started to chant – as Arab women normally do to express their joy. She forgot all about her sick sister, her howling baby boy, the marabou, who was snapping his beak as if he wanted to swallow up their hut once and for all – it was all forgotten. She sat down in front of her daughter and took her by the shoulders, gazing into her face.
‘Naval, Naval!’ she whispered. The little girl again wrinkled her brows, and even stretched her mouth in readiness. ‘Now she’s starting to cry’, thought her mother, overcome with joy.
Her father stood there, afraid to alarm her by the slightest word.
Suddenly, dazzle of clear tears gushed from Naval’s eyes, as she wept. They shimmered in the sunlight as they flowed, and glistened as they fell to the floor. They flew into Zafira’s face, becoming lodged in her dress, and in Naval’s. Those sparkling tears, clear crystals, kept on gushing from the little girl’s eyes.
All those uncried tears that burned her eyes and caused her pain, cascaded out in a silver shower.
Zafira stared bewildered with her mouth open and leaned forward, while on her knees, towards the sparkling deposit and scooped up handfuls of Naval’s solidified tears. She looked at them as they dropped on the floor and on Naval’s clothes, and into Zakariah’s outstretched palms.
Zakariah awed and shaken by his daughter’s sparkling crystal tears, ran to the local jeweller’s. The jeweller attempted in vain to shatter one of Naval’s little tears with a hammer.
‘It’s a diamond! He said as his eyes lit up. A nicely cut diamond! With 57 facets! He exclaimed the.
‘Where did you steal this?’ he asked staring suspiciously at the poorly-dressed man. Noticing this, Zakariah grabbed it angrily:
‘It’s my daughter’s tears’ he said with pride and carelessness. But what did it matter, he then just laughed at the old jewller’s face, backed off and ran out screaming: ‘Its a diamond Zafira! Its a diamond!
‘What? Whose tear?’ ‘Are you mad?’ ‘How much do you want for it? ‘Come back you fool, I will pay you a good price for it!’
Zakariah rushed off, like he was possessed, and not even hearing what a newspaper vendor on the market was shouting:
‘News! Latest news! Aeroplane flying to Kairouan crashes in the desert. Crew and passengers killed!’
The tears of the little Tunisian girl, that she had held back for so many years, eventually turned out to be a veritable treasure. All the townspeople found out about it, and soon the whole of Tunisia had heard of little Naval. Eventually, all over the world there was talk of the little Arab girl with diamond tears.
But only Naval did not care about all those diamonds because she knew nothing could equal just one day spent with her family she loved so dearly.