The Smell of Flowers and Salt: Chapter 1
A novel in progress translated by Assurbanipal Babilla, edited by Desiree Cooper
Captain Abd’s twins are standing at a tall window facing the sea. Sun rays beat against the stained glass, forming a rainbow of colors on the wall behind them. Every day they play the same game. They stare at the horizon where the sky becomes one with the sea. There is a tiny speck in the distance.
Whenever they see something on the horizon, Marjaneh always claims that it is a regular boat. Marjan argues that it’s a motorboat.
If it is a regular boat, it probably belongs to the man from the island that will arrive at noon with his nets heavy with fish. The children will rush to help him empty them, and will be rewarded with the seashells stuck in the net.
But if it happens to be a motorboat, it surely will belong to Captain Abd. Usually, as he glides swiftly to the island, he takes off his shirt and waves it in the wind about his head like a flag, so that all men, women, and girls can clearly see.
Marjaneh says: “It’s not a motorboat.”
Marjan says: “Nor is it a regular boat.”
Marjaneh, still clinging to the bars of the window, turns her head and looks at her mother who is busy sweeping the yard. Her mother has taken off her facial covering, and sweat is glistening on her forehead. She doesn’t seem as light on her feet as she had been yesterday and the day before.
Mother puts down the broom and climbs the few steps to the terrace. Even though her face is red and sweaty, the line of her eyebrow is beautiful and there are still the traces of threading on her face.
Yesterday morning, the eyebrow-threading woman came to their house. Whenever it is time for the men of the island to return, the hair-threading woman comes to the captain’s house with her bundle. On such occasions, the house fills with women and the threading lady takes her stuff, including cleansing mud, out of her bag and goes to work on women’s faces. Soon the women get restless and Marjaneh and Marjan are forced to answer again and again how long their father has been away.
The girls watch their mother who is now more beautiful than before. Hennaed hands, eyebrows shaped, no facial hair.
“Marjaneh, how long has father been away?” Mother now asks again.
Marjaneh is expected to check her notebook and count the number of strokes she makes each night—one stroke for each day her father has been gone. But she doesn’t move. Since this morning, it’s the third time she has answered: “Twenty-one days.”
Marjaneh climbs the bars of the window all the way to the top.
“You’re going to fall, girl.”
Marjaneh turns to her mother, her golden braids bouncing on her chest: “I see something out there!”
Mother comes closer and looks out at the sea. Shielding her eyes with her hand, she notes that the little dot on the horizon doesn’t seem to be moving. “Maybe it’s them,” she laughs with her entire face. “How should I know?”
Is it for the sake of their mother that the girls yearn for the speedy arrival of their father’s motorboat? Or perhaps it is because they long for the gifts he will bring them: crescent shaped combs, gold colored slippers or wonderful smelling shampoos in different colors. And fabric, of course, that their mother would sew into dresses that flutter in the wind.
Marjaneh climbs down while her mother watches the sea with a youthful bashfulness. In a split second, the twins join the other girls who are rushing to the beach.
Marjaneh says that if it’s father, she’ll swim all the way to his motorboat. Marjan is a good swimmer like the rest of the island girls, but who can beat Marjaneh?
Mother watches her daughters and the other children swimming furiously. The laughter and the songs of the children echo over the island.
“A boat! Abd’s motor boat!”
“What is he bringing?”
“A golden box.”
“And what’s in the box?”
“Go ahead, shout. Shout out loud!”
“Dolls this tall!”
“Shout again. Shout again!”
The mere smudge on the horizon grows bigger and moves closer as the children swim toward it.
“Hey! Marjaneh! Marjaneh!”
No one can rival her. With a few more strokes she’s about to capture the key to the golden box on Captain Abd’s motorboat. She wants to be the first one to open it.
But amid the frantically moving arms and legs, the laughter and the fun, no one notices that the evil boat has suddenly moved very close.
Marjaneh shouts: “This is not the motorboat! This is not the motorboat!”
As the seagulls screech, the evil boat closes in on Marjaneh. Two arms, like the arms of a demon, stretch out and grab Marjan and yank her into the boat. Is it Marjan or Marjaneh whose scream we hear? Marjan is too stunned to scream. It’s Marjaneh who is screaming.
The children stand in the water and watch the boat move farther and farther away.