By Jamie Dedes of The Writer by Day
The city Habah lives in is old, not as old as the eastern cities from which her family and their neighbors came. No. This is not an ancient city. Just an old city. Old for this so-called new world.
The gutters in Habah’s neighborhood overflow with tears. The smell in the air is not the perfume of gardens filled with roses and jasmine. It is the scent of cabbage and rice with underlying notes of hard labor, long hours, and stoic desperation. This flawed part of the old city is Habah’s whole world. As such, no matter its imperfections in the eyes of others, she deems it beautiful.
Habah knows her world as something magical. Her beloved city groans and pulses under a ceiling that has stolen its blue from the turquoise sea. The scintillating stars in the night sky protect her from dream demons. And, while she doesn’t remember her father or know where he is, she knows that by some exquisite metaphysics they gaze at the same moon each evening. Of the many gifts received with gratitude from the city, the only one missing is the ultimate bliss of her father’s presence.
Habah’s mother’s store is among the many magical elements of Habah’s world. It sits between Yúsuf’s Dry Goods Store and Badi’s Oriental Café. It is a small store, maybe four-hundred square feet. It smells of stale air and the fresh chamomile tea her mother drinks constantly. The floor is wood and covered with saw dust. There is shelving for food-stuffs along the wall on the left as you walk in. It is separated from the shelving on the right by an aisle that runs from the doorway and along the side of a showcase topped with glass. Below the glass countertop are precious items on display: her mother’s Turkish delight, dried figs and small jars of thyme honey from Greece, Jordan almonds from Malaga, tiny protective amulets of amethyst and lapis set in gold, mystical crystals dug from some unknown geology, and other things that spark the eye, remind the body of its hungers, or speak to the soul.
At the end of the counter there is a small desk. The desk has a small draw that holds a small box with their money. Everything is diminutive like her mother and grandmother who stand little more than four feet tall. Habah is undersized as well. Nine years-old and shoulder-high to most of her classmates, it is already clear that she too will grow to be a delicate wisp of fairy-dream. “Nothing wrong with small,” said her mother’s brother, AmmuDani, a poor attempt at accepting his own lack of height and girth. “Fine boned,” is what her mother, Yasmin, said. “We are a fine boned people, and that is exactly because we are fine-minded and true-hearted.” Yasmin believed that what you see manifest in this world is what you are in your mind and heart.
Closing the door to the house behind her, Habah went skipping to the store until she knew she was close enough for her mother to see her. Then she walked slowly like a civilized person.
Today is a big day. Today they expect a delivery from “the other side.” When she was little, Habah thought “the other side” meant that place you came from when you were born and returned to when you died. Eventually she learned it meant just another earthy place, the one that they emigrated from long before she could remember. It lay at the other side of the ocean. Now that she was older she understood that the packages they got each month were sent from dusty villages where prophets and angels had once walked unrecognized among men and women too preoccupied with worldly things. At least that’s what Yasmin had told her and what Habah believes.
Yasmin and Habah are never able to predict what each month’s shipment will bring. It might be a rock or a crystal, a dried flower or a salted fish. It might be a dead saint’s relic: a hallowed piece of bone or lock of hair. Her mother treated whatever came with equal reverence as she added it to the display under the glass countertop. Once the shipment was of a small coffee cup, etched gold on the outside and lined with the purest white china. It came with a matching gold spoon and sat on an old ebony tray. The wonders flowed from east to west, month upon month, year upon year.
Habah arrived at the shop to find a large man holding a brown box tied with white string. She wondered if it was their package. He looked down from his great height and smiled at her as if he knew her. Inside her mind, Habah talked to herself, “His eyes are like dark cocoa with cinnamon. They make warm the cold place in my heart.” The big man and Yasmin exchanged a glance. “I want you to go home, Habah. Go home and help your grandmother with her baking.” “Why?” Habah whined, “I want to help you.” All week at school, Habah looked forward to Saturdays and helping her mother in the shop. “We will meet you at home. First, I need some time with this gentleman.” “We?” thought Habah.
Though Habah chaffed at being sent home, she did as she was told thinking, “I’m being sent home because of this mysterious man. Who ishe?” She thought he looked like a Romani Gypsy she’d read about in a story once. She had felt unaccountably safe in his presence. She wanted to talk to him, to perhaps curl-up and cuddle on his lap, and relish the scent of him that seemed oddly familiar, a comforting combination of her grandmother’s stewed lamb, strong coffee, and winds from foreign places.
When Habah got home, her grandmother hadn’t started the baking. She was in the basement going through the contents of a battered black trunk. There are two fading sepia photographs in it. One is of Yasmin with a dark man who looks like he could be the brother of the man Habah met in the store.
Habah drew herself up. She knew it. She knew it!Everyone must come to her city. It was the center of the earth. She’d always known it: that one day the beloved city would toss from its secret depths and wide connections that singular precious missing bliss, the ultimate bliss, long fated and so longingly awaited. Habah did not care by what occult means the ultimate bliss had finally arrived, only that he had. Tonight – after dinner – they would stand together at her window and worship the moon.
© Jamie Dedes, 2011 all rights reserved.
* This story is fiction. Any resemblance to real people or a real life situation is purely coincidental. It first appeared on the author’s website The Writer by Day in 2011.