The History of Girls
While we waited we were visited by the ghosts of the girls who had already died, those who were closest to the explosion, in the kitchen sneaking butter and bread when the gas ignited, the ones who died immediately, in a sense without injury, the girls who died explosively.
The dead girls waited with us, amidst the rubble, our heads pillowed on it, our arms and legs canopied by it, some of us punctured by it. The rubble was heavy, of course. The weight of it made us wonder what happened to the softer things. Our sheets and blankets, our letters from home, our Korans, our class notes, the slips of paper we exchanged throughout the day expressing our affections and disaffections for each other, for our teachers, for the rituals of our contained life. What about the curtains on our windows, we thought. The stories and poems we wrote to read to each other at night or the ones we wrote and kept private, folded in our pockets? What about our pockets? Our uniforms, our gym skirts, our head scarves and stockings? The too soft pillows we always complained of? The ones the oldest girls horded, sleeping with three or four stacked under their cheeks even though their heads sank into the too soft centers and their necks ached in the morning. The explosion, it seemed, turned everything to stone. Except us. We were soft then, softer than we ever were.
Have you ever seen a buzzard? They are all feathers and fat, not like skeletons at all, but soft like cushions. Except for their beaks and claws.
There were day girls and night girls. Day girls went home at three o’clock, swept their mothers’ houses, helped their mothers cook kofte and pilaf, slept in beds with their sisters, with their brothers and mothers and fathers in near-by rooms. There were more than a hundred of them, sometimes we confused the names of the youngest. But there were only fourteen of us: older girls in the room on the right, younger girls in the room on the left. Not a door to close in between so all night long we heard each other giggle and snore and cry and dream and sometimes we shouted into the dark, goodnightgoodnightgoodnight.
They were curious about us, of course. And we about them. But there was always a difference: at night, day girls had mothers and night girls had each other.
There was Acelya and Seda, Samime and Hamiyet, Rabia, Turkan, and finally Fadime, the baby, seven years old on the day she came only two months earlier. Ghosts.
And then there was Mualla, Latife, Zehra, Sahiba, Nuray, Gul, and Celine. Waiting. How could we all hear each other? It was like we were on our own radio channel, each with a clear signal.
The dead girls were from the room on the left: the oldest only twelve. Usually we were the ones to sneak into the kitchen, usually they were the ones to sleep through. How many nights had they copied us without our noticing? How many nights would we, could we, bear the guilt?
We could not see them, and yet there they were. Between the darkness of night and the building’s collapse and the bright ring of the explosion still sounding in our heads, we could not see much. Instead we felt the light fingertips of the dead girls’ touch, and heard their high voices saying, “Does this tickle? Won’t you laugh? How about this? Does this tickle?”
“Stop it,” we said. “We don’t want to be tickled.” But they wouldn’t stop it and it did tickle just a little. So we laughed and they did too.
“Help is coming,” the dead girls said. “People are waking.”
“Who?” we asked.
“Help,” the dead girls said.
We called out the names of the night janitor and his wife and even their fat baby, but they did not answer.
“What happened?” we asked one after another until finally the dead girls told us.
Naturally it was expected they would know things we didn’t.
But how could we not know? It was what we long suspected. The gas. The dormitory was always too hot or too cold depending on what had gone wrong with the gas. Something was always wrong with the gas, and the teachers would adjust it only to turn the heat to cold or the cold to heat. At night when the teachers went to their homes and the day girls went to their homes and the cooks and the cleaners and the gardener went to their homes and we were left only with the night janitor and his wife and their fat baby, we curled under our blankets, sometimes three to a bed as if our bodies had any heat left to share or we slept on the tiled floor of the hall with our limbs slung out, as if we could separate from ourselves and become cooler.
First it was dark and quiet, later it was bright and loud. First there were dead girls and living girls; later there were girls in between. We would have lingered even there, stars poking through the rubble, cold ground beneath us, cold air creeping in, but with blood in our hearts and air in our chests. We would have stayed there as long as we could even with the dead girls saying, “It’s not so bad. I didn’t feel a thing. And look, now I can fly.”
The youngest was seven, the oldest nineteen, though most girls left school before then, to return home, to the east or the west, before marrying. Sometimes a husband they knew, sometimes not. Some girls went to university, abroad or at home, you shouldn’t think they didn’t; we were not the girls that you might assume. We did not wear our head scarves over our eyes. Some girls went to work. Some girls stayed on as teachers. The school had a long line of girls who did many things deep into the past and far into the future.
Some of us cried, of course. The dead girls tried to comfort us, but our tears were no longer ours to control. And when the dead girls tried to unpin our arms and legs, to move the rubble that held us in place, they found they had only their ordinary strength. And when they tried to hold our hands, stroke our hair, as we so often comforted each other after our petty fights, we found their touch had grown as hot as a lit match tip.
“Stop it,” we yelled. “That hurts.” “Sorry,” the dead girls said.
“We didn’t know.” “Sorry,” we said back, “we didn’t mean to yell.” How courteous we all became while we waited.
“Are they still coming?” we asked. “When are they coming?”
“They’re coming,” the dead girls said. “As fast as they can.” “Hold on,” they said. “They’re coming.”
“Look how pretty you look,” they told us. “I can’t believe it. In the middle of such a disaster, you still look so pretty.”
“Thanks,” we said. Or, “Don’t be ridiculous.” We blushed and we giggled, we did all the things we always did. They were our best friends.
“How do we look?” the dead girls asked. “Are we wearing clothes? Do we have wings?”
But we didn’t know; in the dark, we couldn’t see a thing.
“I see a light,” Mualla yelled. “Look at the light.” And first we thought she had been rescued, or even dug her way out as some of us had been trying to do, but then she died.
“Hello,” she said, and the dead girls chorused back, “Hello, Mualla.”
“Where did you go?” we asked her, and “What is it like?” But all she would say was “I saw a light.” She was just the kind of girl to tell you what you already knew.
Have you ever had a hawk’s shadow cross over you? It happened sometimes when we were in the garden with our potatoes. It is like death’s cape sweeping swiftly over your head. Every time we screamed.
The searchers, when they came, turned on a spotlight. It shone through the rubble, a moonlight spotlight, leaving us blinded by light rather than dark. It was a light so sharp it should have cut through the rubble like a laser, and yet it was as heavy as a stone. We felt pushed into the earth like seeds poked too far underground.
The searchers called our names, the living and the dead–they didn’t know the difference yet. Sometimes we recognized their voices: our teachers, the school nurse, the doctor that came to check us twice a year. Others we believed were the voices we had rarely heard of the people whose names we had never learned: the baker who made the cookies we liked to buy when we were taken into town, the men who came and collected our garbage, the repairmen who fixed our leaks and painted our walls, the old man who delivered the ill-fated gas, accidental executioner. Then there were the voices of the day girls woken from their beds, and the voices of their parents and their brothers and sisters. How happy they sounded, how excited. How could they help it? Our mothers, of course, lived far away. Perhaps they knew what was happening, perhaps it was on the news already, perhaps they woke in the night and felt, something’s not right.
Would we be mothers, we wondered. Or would we always be girls?
“Precious, precious,” we heard someone wail until they were all saying it, “Precious, precious.”
We called back at first, a chorus of the dead and the living, but the searchers never seemed to hear, and soon there was only the sound of shovels and machines, and digging that never came closer.
We were like diamonds waiting to be dug out.
“Precious, precious,” one of the dead girls mocked until we begged her to stop.
“Oh,” Celine said, a minor expression of surprise, uncharacteristically quiet, as she joined the dead girls.
“Hello, Celine,” they said.
“I told Allah I was angry,” Fadime, our baby, called out. “I told him he was evil for killing the Chinese boys and girls who had no brothers and sisters. You are all my punishment,” she cried. “Allah got angry with me because I got angry with him.”
After the earthquakes in China we wrote letters expressing our sympathies and sent them to the newspaper. After the Indonesian tsunami we wrote letters too, but we did not know where to send them so we buried them in the earth next to the potatoes. After the earthquakes in Greece, we prayed every night and when there were earthquakes in Istanbul we gathered the small sums of money we had saved to buy cookies when we were taken into town and mailed them to the government.
“Oh Fadime,” we said. “Allah forgave you right away. It’s not your fault, nor his.”
“I don’t believe, and you shouldn’t either,” Celine said. “I’m dead now and I see no signs of heaven. You should all do what you want and not worry about being cursed.”
She was always in trouble anyway, we thought to ourselves. What would she have done differently if she knew there was no heaven?
“I heard that,” Celine said, and we cried out, “You see, you are a miracle. This is no time for doubt.”
“This is exactly the time for doubt,” Celine said. “Why didn’t anybody fix the gas?”
She was only half-Turkish. Her mother was French and she sent Celine to a boarding school in Switzerland, but her mother died and her father brought her here. He did not think to sort her things, and so she brought Tintin and Madeleine and a book with dirty pictures drawn in ink. Also a Superman comic. Maybe she brought the devil too. What did it matter to us then?
But why didn’t anybody fix the gas? Surely that did not require an act of God.
“Maybe we’re angels,” Fadime said.
“Maybe we aren’t dead-dead, only in between,” another of the dead girls said.
“I just want to be dead-dead,” Acelya cried. “I feel so tired.”
“Me, too,” the other dead girls said. “I feel so tired.”
“Where are the rescuers?” we asked.
“Coming,” the dead girls said, quiet again. It was always up to us to keep them from getting hysterical. “Can’t you hear them digging?”
We were quiet, but we couldn’t hear.
Have you ever pulled a potato from the ground before it was ready? It looks like a thing that has been alive too long.
“I see my mother,” Celine said.
“Where?” the other dead girls cried.
“Inside of me,” Celine said. “She is an angel inside of an angel.”
“Celine,” we said. “Stop it. They are only little girls.”
“Tell us what she looks like,” the dead girls said.
They never were ones to know when they were being teased.
“Don’t, Celine,” we warned.
“She has one eye hanging out of her head and there are rotten worms coming out of her ears and she has a broken leg. I can see the bone sticking out of her rotten skin.”
The dead girls were hysterical then. They could not be contained. “I see her, too. Oh she’s hideous. Oh, I’m scared.”
Last year they all got rashes. Last month they all saw UFOs. Before long the ghosts would all be seeing ghosts.
“Celine,” we said, “we told you not to.”
We had been taught the history of girls. In Hiroshima, hundreds of schoolgirls were clearing homes and roads to make the widest of fire lanes when the bomb came. In China, in India, some girls weren’t allowed to live a day. In Russia, in Uzbekistan, in Georgia, in Ukraine, girls were sold once and shipped abroad to be sold again and again. It was how we learned our geography. The history of innocents.
But we learned, too, the history of sinners. Girls who were stoned by their villagers. Burned by their brothers. Killed by their fathers. Cast out by their mothers. Our lessons were full of girls who died. Stoned for this and stoned for that. More geography. In Afghanistan in Somalia in Florida in Iran and Iraq and Egypt and Syria. Be good, we were told. Legs tight, lips tight, eyes open, mouths closed.
Gul was sent to school because her brother threatened to kill her for having a boyfriend. Acelya was sent because it was her best chance to go to law school. All of us were sent to school to be girls, to be protected until we were women. Girlhood, we were taught, was something to be survived.
Maybe, we thought, the world needs enemies it can love, enemies who are no threat at all. Maybe, we thought, that is the story inside the history of girls.
“We are virgin sacrifices,” Celine called out.
“Oh hush, Celine,” we said.
At night we had told tales. The Somalian girl turned to stone before the attackers’ stones hit her, and as they bounced to her feet, flakes of dust rose from her, and when she turned back to flesh, she had only cuts and bruises and aches and pains. The Egyptian girl shot lasers out of her turned-to-ruby eyes and blinded her attackers. The Syrian girls turned to water, drowned their attackers, turned back to flesh, laid out the drowned bodies and when they were dry, lit them on fire. In Afghanistan, girls rose up to the sun and hid it from the sky until their attackers turned to ice.
But don’t think we wanted to be boys. Boys seemed lonely. Boys seemed helpless. Eventually, if we were boys, we would be expected to be cruel, at least once, if not every day.
We just wanted those girls to be strong.
“Celine, tell us about the dancing princesses,” the dead girls said.
If we had never stolen snacks in the night, then they never would have copied us.
“I won’t,” Celine said. “I don’t like that story anymore.”
“We need it. We’re scared. We’re tired. We need it,” they chorused.
They were so much as they ever were.
“Oh Celine,” we said. “Can’t you just humor them?”
“Why should I? They aren’t babies anymore.”
“Then do it for us,” we said. “We are scared and tired, too. We need it, too.”
“Well, then you’re all babies,” she said. And then, “Fine. Once there were twelve sisters and they never wanted to sleep and so they didn’t, they danced. They danced all night and wore out their shoes and their father never knew why so he killed a bunch of princes trying to find out until one got help—totally unfairly of course—from some old hag and that prince followed the princesses and he danced and drank their drinks and had their fun and then he told on them and ruined everything.”
“Celine!” the dead girls chorused. “Tell it right.”
“Please, Celine,” we said. And, “Where are the rescuers? Why can’t we hear them?”
“They’re there,” Celine said softly. “They’re coming.” “For you,” she added.
What was the fairy tale future we hoped for? That we would turn to stone and be protected? That we would shoot lasers out of our turned-to-ruby eyes or that we would turn the world to ice and kill our enemies? Who would want such a thing? Those stories were no help to us then.
All we hoped for were lives of promise and fulfillment and to be released into heaven at the end of time. What we wanted was to live just a little longer. What we wanted was to be together.
“Please, Celine,” we said.
“All right, are you ready?” Celine asked.
“Yes, yes,” we said.
“All right. Once there was and once there wasn’t, in the time of princes and princesses and genies and jinn and boys turned to men and girls turned to women, in that time there were twelve sisters. And they loved to dance. Each night their father, the Sultan, would lock them in their room—twelve beds, twelve sisters, all in a row—and each morning, he’d turn the key to find them still sleeping, but with twelve pairs of shoes worn through at the feet of their beds.
‘Your shoes,’ he’d cry each morning. ‘What are you doing to your shoes?’
‘Good morning, Baba,’ the girls would say, each in turn, youngest to oldest, and they would run, barefoot, to kiss him and hug him and not ever answer his question.
Then one morning he said, ‘You must stop this. Your mother is weeping. The princes are weeping. The cobbler is weeping. He has threatened to kill himself if he has to make any more shoes.’
‘Tell him not to cry, Baba,’ the oldest daughter said. ‘We don’t even like shoes. He need not make us any more.’
“‘Yes,’ her sisters echoed. ‘He need not make us anymore,’ and the youngest daughter started a pirouette on her bare toes, but the oldest caught her in her arms and shushed her feet. ‘Not now,’ she whispered in the youngest daughter’s ear.”
“Celine, you’re still not telling it right,” Fatime said.
“Shush,” we told her. “Let us find out what happens.”
“The cobbler killed himself,” Celine said and we could hear her lips press tight.
“Oh Celine,” we said. “He didn’t.”
“I don’t want him to,” Fatime cried.
“Fine,” Celine said, “he didn’t kill himself but he refused to make any more shoes and so the girls had to dance barefoot and the next morning when their father woke them he found their sheets soaked in blood and their toes worn down to nubs.”
“Celine!” we cried out.
“The daughters could not walk so they spent the rest of their lives in bed where nurses brought them food and drink and they peed in pots that were kept under their beds and they even got married in bed and their husbands, all princes, lay in bed next to them. Twelve big beds all in a row.”
“I don’t want to grow up!” Mualla cried out.
“Don’t worry, you won’t,” Celine said.
“Oh Celine,” we said. “You don’t have to be so mean.”
“I’m not mean,” she said.
“You’re selfish,” we said. “We all know it.”
“I’m not selfish,” Celine said. “Say it. I’m not selfish.”
“Celine,” we said.
“Please, I’m not,” she said.
She was and she wasn’t; we all knew that.
There was a pause and a stifled hiccough or sob and Celine said, “Tell my brother I’m sorry I stole his Fenerbahce jersey.”
We were quiet, until Gul said, “I’ll tell him.”
There was another pause and another stifled hiccough or sob.
Then Sahiba said, “But are you sorry?”
Celine often wore the jersey under her uniform or slept with it in her arms as if it were a stuffed animal. We had even named it Mehmet after her favorite player.
“Maybe not,” she said. “Maybe you should tell him it was a comfort to me.”
“We will,” we said. “We’ll tell him.”
“Yes, yes,” the others said. “Tell my brother my sister my mother my father my aunt my grandmother my best friend from when I was five the boy I never talked to the boy I never met the husband I would have had the children I would have had tell them we are sorry we love them we are all right we will never forget them never forget us. Tell them.”
“Yes,” we said. “We will tell them. Unless you tell them first.”
“Everyone be quiet,” Celine said, and we could not help but smile. “Once there was and once there wasn’t,” she said, “in the time when genies were jinn and boys remained boys and girls remained girls and nobody was born and nobody died, in the time when the earth stood still and the sun shone bright, in that time, there were fourteen princesses. And they loved to dance. They danced all night when they were meant to be sleeping, and then in the morning when they slept they dreamt of dancing. Night and day, they spun and spun, circling round and round, arms out wide and arms at their sides, spinning wider and wider until they could not even be seen.
“’Aren’t you tired,’ people would cry at the fourteen dancing princesses but inside the dance the fourteen princesses saw only each other and heard only each other and they spun and they spun and they never stopped spinning and their feet never hurt and their heads never hurt and their hearts never hurt. Inside their circle, they spun and they never stopped, not ever, not to grow old and not to die and not to work and not to marry and not to have children and not to eat bread and butter or sleep in the cold or the hot, not to do anything but spin. Together. Always.”
She was quiet and so were we.
“Thank you, Celine,” we said.
“I don’t care,” she said, but we knew she did.
“You’re not selfish,” we said. “We didn’t mean it.”
“We’re spinning, we’re spinning,” the dead girls said. “Watch me,” Fatime said. “Can you see me spinning?”
“Yes,” we said, though of course we couldn’t.
The history of girls is always told as a tragedy. Growing old is a tragedy and so is dying young.
What, we had always asked each other, could it be like to be stoned? Were girls pelted like the stray dogs we saw being chased away with rocks by shopkeepers? Was it like Dodgeball which our American teacher made us play in the yard until only Celine was left standing and we all refused to play ever again because she was so vicious? Was it like the snowball fights we read about in books? Or was it more like being hit with a hammer, close and bloody? Maybe it was the weight of human hatred that knocked girls from their feet.
Once we tossed rocks at each other just to see, but we missed every time.
Sometimes we fell quiet. Sometimes another girl died. She would let out a small sound or a loud one, death still a surprise, even under the circumstances.
“Hello,” the other girls would say, as if she had entered a room they were in. There were so many more of them then.
How hard it is to explain, what it was like. We were together, as we were so accustomed to being. We made our present worth living, as we so often had. But then the rescue took so much longer than we expected.
“Oh, we’re on television,” the dead girls said. “There are cameras and reporters and even Americans.”
“What can you see?” we asked but the dead girls wouldn’t say.
“Are our parents there?” we asked but the dead girls wouldn’t say.
“Are you still there?” we called out and they did not answer.
What is the heaviest thing you can imagine? A boulder? A house? An airplane? In all of the world, what is the heaviest thing? Can you even imagine it?
“Where are you?” we asked.
But they did not answer.
How quickly it happened then. One girl, then another. Gone.
“Please,” I said, “Don’t leave me.”
“Where are you?” I asked. “Can’t I come too?”
“Please,” I said. “Precious,” I said. “Precious.”
But they did not answer.
“I hate you,” I said. “You are all mean.”
“Take me with you,” I yelled. “Please take me with you.”
And from somewhere I could not see and in voices I could barely hear, they said, “Oh Zehra, don’t be silly,” and, “We’ll miss you. Don’t forget to tell them,” and, “Goodnightgoodnightgoodnight.”
“I don’t want to grow up without you,” I said.
But they did not answer. And though my arms were at my sides, and my legs were beneath me in a way they never should be, and my voice could not be heard, and my eyes could not see, I felt twice over that I always would be—and I never would be—without them.
Have you ever seen a girl?
She is my history.
This piece was originally published on May 31, 2016 in Aster(ix) Journal. It is republished with permission from Aster(ix) Journal.
It was previously published in Witness Volume 25, Issue 1 (2012) and 2013 O.Henry Prize Stories., ed Laura Furman, Anchor/Doubleday.