Name: Imaan Kazmi
It was dark, very dark; the moon had refused to rise. Gathering her tattered sack about her like a cloak, the little street-girl crept quietly along the cold, grey walls of the alley. With a single look at her, one could tell that she was seriously ill: her feet were mottled pink and blue, which looked ugly on her lean, scrawny form; her lips were purple and red with torn and bleeding flesh; her wide, agate-gray eyes, which looked twice as big than they really were because of the black lashes all around them, had a wild, hungry look in them; her hair, long and tangled, fell down in a dark cataract to her knees. All of this made a fearsomely ragged sight once added with her sheet-white face and torn green smock.
Sabr they called her, for she could be very patient if she liked. But poor Sabr could find no patience for her sickness. Her temperature kept changing: first she shivered like a leaf in a snowy blizzard, and then she sweated like a polar bear in the Sahara Desert. Apart from that, she talked and muttered to the walls; in her eyes, something grew bigger and bigger, until it was huger than the hugest thing; then it grew smaller and smaller, until it was tinier than the tiniest thing; always there was a continuous chatter, out of the hundreds of little voices in her hot and aching head, and the cry of a real alley-cat was the wail of a dying baby in her ears.
Without warning, Sabr dropped to the floor; and did not rise. She lay there for hours, sweating and shivering, her teeth chattering, huddled in a torn raggedy bundle on the dirty, hard ground, falling into a deep, delirious sleep.
When she finally came around, it was only to discover that she was in the alley no longer. Her head was propped up with fine, soft feather pillows; her body was tucked and wrapped up in a heavy, thick, warm quilt; her feet were heating deliciously with a hot-water bottle; her smock was off and in its place was a long woolen nightgown; and the mattress she felt beneath her was springy and smooth. The little girl nearly cried with surprise, but a warm, soft wrinkled hand stroked her forehead with a soothing whisper, which sent her back to sleep: “Hush now, little one, you are in good hands; rest.”
It was a while before Sabr awoke again, but she was so tired she fell back asleep, after tasting a few mouthfuls of a foul-tasting medicine. She cried a good deal, and screamed in her nightmares.
Days passed, and she finally showed signs of recovery. Sabr had sat up in bed her back supported with pillows, and stared well and long at her quarters. Her bed was a large four-poster, hung with thick brocade; a red velvet carpet spread on the floor, hiding the cold marble, and running a little way up the skirting-boards; one wall was attached by a row of mahogany cupboards; in addition, there was an empty bureau spread with a crochet scarf; two mahogany chairs with luxurious cushions and a glass-topped coffee-table; and a fireplace set ablaze behind the grate with cheery flames and a lovely mantle-piece of yellow crêpe on which a blushing clock ticked away merrily.
Old Mrs. Hussain was the one person Sabr knew in this mysterious house; save for the female doctor whom she only saw when she was very ill and feverish. She was an aged woman, but with very few wrinkles, a kind tongue and dimpled elbows and cheeks, which were rosy-red, currant-black eyes, a big mouth, and long chestnut hair which she plaited into a brown braid.
Mrs. Hussain and her husband owned kind, sympathetic hearts which Sabr could not understand. She was used to being jeered at, insulted, beaten, kicked, thrown out, and altogether treated like a mangy dog; but here, she was treated almost like a princess! She could not understand it in the least.
“Why are you so kind to me?” was her question as soon as she felt strong enough to talk. “Why? – and the others were so cruel?”
“Why, my child,” the old woman had answered in her soft, motherly voice: “God tells us to be kind and merciful to one another, as He is to us. We are completely helpless – even dead – without Him. He tells us that He has divided His mercy into a hundred parts; one part for this world, and the other ninety-nine are waiting to be used in the Hereafter: on the Day of Judgment. We are in the month of Ramadhan – the eighth day to be exact – the Month of Mercy, when the Devils are chained. Every good deed we do in this blessed month is multiplied ten to seven hundred times: which is why, my child, we have helped you.”
Later on, when two weeks had passed, Sabr gained health fairly strongly. She was able by that time to walk and move about; and she did not have any more of that bitter medicine. Instead, there were other things to enjoy and relish, for Mrs. Hussain loved to cook, and Sabr often helped her in the kitchen. Mr. Hussain was a jolly old fellow, black-haired with white streaks, with wrinkled face and mouth that always broke into a friendly smile at Sabr, and black eyes that were very merry. He spent most of his time either in his house or outside, brisk and cheerful; he was a respected teacher and scholar in a Masjid, and gave many good speeches, Sabr found, when she went to listen to him. Mr. Hussain taught Sabr to write and then read, and she grew very clever at it; and he helped her memorize some of the Qur’an, and in a week she had memorized a whole chapter, he reported to his pleased wife.
There was another surprise for Sabr, one bigger than all the others in her life, one evening when the family sat to supper. There was a gorgeous sight to behold, and Sabr could not quite make up her mind what to eat first, as always: hot, golden-crusted loaves of bread fresh from the oven; tiny, round baby-buns spread in the middle with dripping butter; two porcelain tureens filled with steaming soups of tomato and peas; a glass oval dish burdened with a great red fish-bake garnished with a garland of green herbs; a deep white bowl taken up to the brim with a warm potato mash, not too salty nor sweet; and a large vegetable pie, with silver steam escaping from arrow-shaped slits.
Mrs. Hussain heaped up their platters with generous portions, and Sabr tucked in eagerly. Only when she came to the vegetable pie, the very last item, did she slack her speed; and when she did, Mr. Hussain cleared his throat, which told her to drop her spoon and wait patiently until he had said his piece.
“You have been a good girl, Sabr,” he began grandly, with a smile that proved opposite to his tone; “a good student, too, the best I have had, and I have taught quite a few.” Sabr stabbed her wedge of pie with a fork, keeping her eyes on her plate, to hide her blushing face. “We have decided, seeing that your health has improved very well, and how fond we have grown of you, and as we do not wish to send you to the orphanage, we have decided to adopt you, and care for you in the very best way we are able, as long as we live, if God wills.”
For the first time in her life, and probably for the only time, Sabr was struck dumb. The fork clattered to the floor, and her hands went cold and trembled visibly. Her mouth broke open aghast, her face a picture of delighted astonishment and the agate-gray eyes seemed bigger than ever. Her voice, when it came to her at last, was surprisingly weak.
“Do you – do you mean it?” she asked huskily. “All this time I was here, I was happy, but I was not completely happy. You see, I have never had a home before. I never knew kindness before I came here; I trusted no one. I thought – I thought you would soon tire of me, as the other street-children did, and send me away as soon as I got well. It is silly of me, I know, and I must be so selfish and horrible to think such things, but I really cannot help it. Perhaps it will go away; but,” she looked around and met Mrs. Hussain’s eyes, “are you sure? Tell me to do anything, then, and I will do it; I do not care how hard it is! – I do not care! Just – just do not send me away to that place. It is like a prison, they say.”
At that Mrs. Hussain had to laugh. “Oh no, child; it is not a prison, but a sanctuary: a home. It is a home for children with no parents – like you – are cared for when they need looking after.”
But Sabr did not hear; she was too busy gasping for breath. “Oh!” she murmured in ecstasy. “Oh! How wonderful! A home at last; oh! How beautiful, how lovely that word sounds: home!”
Id Al-Fitr was just round the corner, so the Hussains decided on a shopping-trip, taking Sabr with them. There were clothes to be bought, shoes to be purchased, and some other odds and ends the family wanted. Mrs. Hussain took Sabr to a tailor’s, where she had her measured from top to toe, and all the while Sabr stood so stiffly that one would think she was a kind of lifelike dressmaker’s dummy. Then they spent a pretty penny on the dandy items the shoemakers put for sale, and there Sabr tried on high-heeled shoes for the very first time in her young life, and was very much enraptured by the height of which they were named. Next was the jeweler’s, wherein Sabr’s eyes grew wider and wider – until they resembled saucers with grey irises – at the sight of the rows of dummies arrayed with strings of pearls, and the seemingly endless rows of trinkets and rare accessories: amber, jet, ruby, sapphire, emerald, peridot, blue John, amethyst, coral, pearl, gold, silver, ivory, and much more. Lastly, they went to “take one little peek” at a henna-painting stall; that is, to spend a whole half-hour painting their arms, hands, and feet with the wet copper-colored design.
One cool hour before in the predawn dark, Sabr awakes; I see her yawn and stretch lazily. She rubs away the sleepiness from her blurry vision, throws off the quilt coverlet, and hops off the bed. I watch her wash and pray; then she snatches her new garments and dashes to change out of her nightwear; a few moments later she is clattering down the staircase. It is the first Id she has experienced, and she has dressed in the best: a cherry-red velvet gown with bell sleeves and a boat-neck bordered with white pearl-beads; her earrings, resembling little red drops, dangle from her ears; and her boots are white with high heels and golden buttons in the shape of starflowers.
After a good breakfast, the family pile into the car, which, I think, has had an extra wash and polish, so the maroon color shines bright in the sunlight; and they drive away down the grey street, past the houses and gardens. Sabr has a dreamy look on her face, and although Mr. and Mrs. Hussain chatter about their joy of Id, she is thinking of something else; and I can pretty well guess what: the thought of the extra-special day in Ramadhan, on which she was found, and of which’s memory she would treasure for the rest of her life. It was worth millions of Ids, however wonderful.
A whisper then escapes from her mouth:
“Ramadhan, the Blessed Month of the Year.”
© IIPH 2014