“‘Receive graciously,’ he said. ‘Give always,’ he advised.” Jasmine muttered under her breath. Fuming at the thought of Mikhal’s parting advice.
She knew none of this was actually his fault, but when emotions overwhelm one it is easiest to become defensive and cast a wide net of blame. Mikhal had been caught in Jasmine’s. After all, he was the one who set her on the path that led to this point. He was the one who encouraged and inspired her to pay the good he had done forward. He was the one who defied the terrible stereotype of the Mozi (and along with his band of brothers) gave her food, fixed her shelter and even gave her the gift that improved her weaving. This unexpected encounter with Mikhal had caused Jasmine to not only embrace her talent and set it on fire with hard work, but also to let her guard down. Given how wrong her assumptions about the Mozi had been, she had become much more inclined to be open minded and give people a chance to prove themselves either way. Now, in a much better mind space, Jasmine was free to pursue her weaving with an almost obsessive focus.
Jasmine had always known her work was very good. When she still lived with her parents she often received many compliments from visiting travellers on the beauty of the intricate designs she wove. Her parents had gifted one or two to a few special people they had encountered along the way, but her work had never gone beyond that. Instead it was seen more as a hobby to pass the time. It had taken Mikhal’s advice and guidance for her to start taking it seriously and benefitting from it. It had also taken Mikhal’s advice for Jasmine to become more open to the kindness of strangers and truly attempt to be a kind stranger to all those who came through her home.
Now Jasmine’s food baskets were full, her home was furnished with items from travellers from far lands, and she was truly satisfied. Her life had become a blur of robes, turbans, deep conversations, random encounters and fragrant oils and spices. She had met so many people who had left with pieces of her woven work tied securely on their camels; while she was left standing with some desirable good or visible evidence on a service rendered. Some had been kind, some had been surly, some had been nondescript. While Jasmine had entertained some interesting conversations and heard some amazing stories, she had not had a meaningful encounter since Mikhal. That was until she met the man with sadness in his eyes. Then Mikhal’s words of paying it forward had consumed her.
Let My Soul Sing to Your Sad Eyes
There was something about Laurent that just made Jasmine want to be tender and sweet. He was tall with a slight build. While he emanated strength, Jasmine sensed from him a sorrow and fragility lurking just beneath the surface. He wore about three layers of robes and always had a turban tightly wound around his head, pulled slightly back on his thick hairline, perfectly framing his long oval face. One of the first things Jasmine noticed was how clean shaven Laurent was compared to other travellers. Despite his callous hands he also had strong but slender fingers. Most importantly he had an easy laugh which made Jasmine smile every time it burst forth.
From the moment Laurent walked up to Jasmine’s oasis and introduced himself they became fast friends. They got along as if they had known each other for many moons. No silence was awkward and no conversation was strained. Laurent shared stories of a troubled childhood and of being separated from his entire family at the age of 10 while traveling between two oases. Laurent explained how he had learned to fend for himself and how he often missed his younger sister and his parents even till this day. When Jasmine asked if Laurent thought he would ever find his estranged family his eyes darkened and he simply responded, “No, they are gone.”
Laurent stayed with Jasmine for over three weeks. This was not the customary practice, but Jasmine had offered Laurent shelter for “as long as he liked,” and Laurent seemed in no hurry to leave. They fell into a daily routine: in the morning Jasmine would walk over to where Laurent slept under the open skies and offer him porridge made with coconut milk, spiced with cinnamon. They would share a bowl while they talked and laughed. During this time Laurent often entertained Jasmine with more lighthearted stories from his nomadic journeys. He had an inexhaustible amount as he had never settled anywhere. Sometimes he made her little carved animals from dried palm fronds with the short sharp blade he kept concealed in his robes when he was not whittling away. Other days were spent in creative silence – Jasmine weaving, Laurent whittling.
The Elephant in the Oasis
There was never any talk about the future. Nothing about where Laurent was headed next or what Jasmine anticipated life after marriage would be like. Laurent, unlike many passersby before him, never broached this topic that was the next obvious milestone in Jasmine’s life by nomadic cultural standards. One day Jasmine became convinced that the reason Laurent never said anything was because he was considering proposing marriage himself. Jasmine’s expectations were probably borne from nomadic tradition and the whispers of other passersby who visited the oasis during Laurent’s stay. In their culture discussing marriage without attaching a proposal to it signified that the person who broached the topic was uninterested or unable to offer marriage and letting the other party know in a subtle way. During her time at the oasis, Jasmine had already had countless discussions with visitors on the topic of marriage. Some had offered unsolicited advice, others made distasteful jokes, while some spoken blessings over her and wished her luck and fortune in her union. Laurent had done none of these things. They had discussed everything but this. For Jasmine it was fast becoming the elephant in the oasis.
She began to pay extra close attention to her interactions with Laurent. She noticed how respectful, calm and thoughtful Laurent was. While she had no romantic feelings whatsoever towards Laurent, she knew nomadic unions were not built on romantic feelings. Nomadic unions were built on initial compatibility, convenience and a desire to collaborate borne out of a brief encounters that were not allowed to extend beyond one month. In fact, according to an inherited law, if a male nomad who was not gravely ill spent more than one month at an oasis of an unattached woman, she was obligated to insist he leave or else they were obligated to perform marriage rites. Jasmine wondered if this was Laurent’s cautious plan. Maybe he was too shy to broach the subject by himself and was waiting for the final week to lapse so they would be forced to vocalize what was happening and make a final decision. Jasmine decided there could be worse things in the world than spending the rest of her days with someone she got along so well with.
Breaking Bread and Breaking Trust
The following morning, as Jasmine leaned over the three-stone open fire and mixed more coconut milk into the bubbling porridge, she decided today was the day. She would give Laurent a sign that she was open to his considerations on marriage. She would show him that he could feel comfortable proposing to her because she would say ‘yes.’ As she dished the food she hummed a song Laurent had taught her under her breath. It was a lovely morning, she was in a lovely mood and she expected lovely things to happen today. She placed the bowl on a flattened palm frond, slung a water flask over her shoulder and headed in the direction of Laurent’s makeshift room under the stars.
She continued to hum as she went, thinking through the different ways she could indicate her openness to Laurent. She looked towards where he usually sat in the mornings and realized he was not there. She continued approaching thinking he might simply still be sleeping. As she got closer she realized he was, laying down on one of her woven rugs with a blanket carelessly tossed over his slender body. His feet poked out from under the blanket along with the hem of his robes. Jasmine smiled and continued advancing. She ceased her humming so as not to wake him, although she was surprised the heat had not completed the task for her as the sun was now high in the sky. Despite the light breeze it was still considerably warm.
As Jasmine got closer she ran her eyes down the length of her sleeping friend and gasped. Something was desperately wrong! For the first time ever Laurent was not wearing his turban. It must have pulled off during the night and in its place was a thick mass of dark curly long hair. Laurent’s locks were spread out over his hairless arms and spilled onto the carpet. Jasmine tripped in surprise and the hot bowl of porridge flew off the flattened palm frond. She jumped instinctively, the heavy bowl just missing her bare feet, but the porridge splattered everywhere. As hot sticky porridge fell onto her feet and oozed into the sand she screamed in pain. “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”Laurent always teased her that she liked her food too hot, he was right. At the sound of her high pitched scream Laurent sat bolt right up.
“What’s wrong?” he inquired, concern laced in his sleep-laden voice.
As he sat up, his hair cascading down his shoulders and tumbling around his face, he gasped with realization. In that same moment Jasmine’s thoughts crystallized – she was right. Staring again at his delicate hairless features and the slender sculpt of her neck and that mass of hair… Laurent was not a man, Laurent was positively female!
Laurent hopped up, quickly wound her hair round her slender arms, pinned it up and secured her turban in record time.
“Jasmine,” she offered hesitantly, “I can explain.”
Jasmine was frozen in place, confusion etched on her face. Her insides were churning and rage was burning up inside of her. She felt so foolish and lost. Laurent was a woman? How? Why? But why?
As Laurent tentatively took a step closer, Jasmine erupted in rage.
“How dare you do this to me?” Jasmine blurted out. “What is the meaning of this? How could you? How could you pretend to be so sincere and wonderful only to turn around and do this to me?!” she asked enraged. Tears pooled in both their eyes.
“Don’t you dare cry! “ Jasmine ordered as she angrily swiped away at her own tears. “You have no right. What do you even really want?! What could you have hoped to gain from all this?!” she asked. Then spat out, “I trusted you!”
Jasmine paused to catch her breath as more hot tears tumbled down her suntanned cheeks. She absentmindedly rubbed one foot with the other, trying to rub off the congealed porridge that had cooled on her feet and between her toes.
“Please,” Laurent interjected desperately, “let me explain.”