“Please Jasmine, just let me explain,” Laurent begged, desperately.
Laurent closed the gap between them and picked up the broken shards from the bowl that had fallen when Jasmine tripped. She stowed them safely under a nearby shrub and came back to where Jasmine was still frozen in place. Then she knelt down and wiped away the congealed porridge on Jasmine’s feet with the hem her robe. She looked up at Jasmine, eyes glistening with tears and pleading for understanding.
“My dearest friend,” she tried again, her voice cracking.
Jasmine sighed a deep sigh and reached down to help Laurent up.
In an awkward silence they walked towards where they usually enjoyed breakfast and sat on opposite ends of the log. Laurent choked back tears, readjusted her unraveling turban and stared.
“Jas, I am so sorry. I did not mean to deceive you. I did not mean to take advantage of you. I have lived like this for so long. I have never stayed anywhere for this long. I have never gotten this close to anyone. I wanted to tell you, I just did not know how.”
Jasmine offered a weak watery smile. Her breathing had regulated and the burning anger had subsided to a more lukewarm confusion. She wanted to know why.
Laurent continued, with a little less trepidation. As Laurent delved into the deep end of her story, Jasmine’s anger melted into shock and dissolved into a pool of heartbreak. Her eyes were still swimming with hot salty tears but for a completely different reason.
Down Memory Lane…
Laurent told about when she was 11 years old, her family was migrating between two oases and she was excited. She was wide-eyed and high energy the entire trip. About halfway through they stopped to spend the night of a wealthy oasis owner. His name was Sha-Jaal and he had two wives and six daughters. Laurent was happy to be surrounded by such a hospitable group – especially his daughters. They fed them all till they were stuffed and offered her father so much alcohol he was in excellent spirits. As it got later into the night, mats were laid out for Laurent and the six sisters around the campfire, while her younger sister slept with her mother in one of the tents. From her makeshift bed under the stars Laurent could hear the soft snores of Sha-Jaal’s daughters and the deep cheery voices of her father and Sha-Jaal talking and laughing deep into the night. Their lilting tipsy voices echoed into the still darkness.
Laurent remembered falling asleep thinking it was one of the happiest days of her life, but that thought was abruptly interrupted a few hours later. Then it became the most frightening and heartbreaking night of her life.
Laurent was exhausted from eating and playing and did not even know when she fell asleep. She had never spent so much time with so many little girls before and they truly had a wonderful time. Sha-Jaal’s daughters were very creative and so they had made all sizes and kinds of dolls from woven palm fronds and pieces of discarded exotic cloth, and adorned them with expensive jewellery. They were the most beautiful toys Laurent had ever seen and she was enamoured with them. The girls were friendly but did not seem too enthused about their toys, so they let her play with any and all of them with no hesitation or time limit.
In fact, Laurent had fallen asleep cradling a beautiful homemade doll she fondly named Ari. Ari wore a deep purple silk dress and real pearl earrings poked into her protruding palm frond ears. Laurent was dreaming of an adventure she and the doll were on when she woke with a start in the middle of the night. The embers of the fire were still burning but suddenly she felt cold as goose bumps ravaged her body. The sleep quickly faded from her eyes and her body went stiff as she felt a large sweating mass pressed up behind her. As she stiffened a large palm roughly tried pulling up her skirts. Laurent inhaled in shock and quickly turned around where she found herself face to face with Sha-Jaal.
Her eyes widened and she attempted to let out a scream just as Sha-Jaal yanked Ari out of her hands and stuffed her head into Laurent’s mouth. She choked at the sudden intrusion as her scream collided with the dried leaves and her wide eyes overflowed with hot tears. Laurent tried to fight off Sha-Jaal but she was one-fourth his massive size. He pushed the doll deeper into her mouth and pinned both wrists over he head with her other beefy palm. She whimpered and wiggled the entire time, while she kept her eyes tightly shut. As she faded in and out of consciousness she wondered if his daughters were sleeping through this or watching. She wondered where her own parents were. Eventually she stopped fighting and completely lost consciousness.
She woke up hours later, her mother’s urgent whisper ringing in her ear. “Laurent, get up. Get up quickly. Come with me.”
She managed to rise to her feet with her mother’s help. Initially her legs were stuck together and caked with dried blood. She forced them apart as she whimpered and her head pounded. She limped to the tent her family had shared the night before, half supported, half dragged by her mother. As her eyes adjusted to the dark and she saw her father, she sighed with relief and collapsed at his feet. Finally, everything would be okay she thought.
His expression was cold and he did not say a word. Laurent realised he did not know what had happened. She summoned her strength and the story began to pour out of her, between tears and sobs. As she talked her mother sat behind her, propping her up, rubbing her back and patting her hair as Laurent explained what happened to her father. It was only later she realized they probably already knew the second they looked at her, if not before.
When she finally finished explaining the ordeal she had been through, between sobs and shivers, her father looked over her head at Laurent’s mother and simply said, “Clean her up. Breakfast will be served soon and she looks too disheveled to be entertained at Sha-Jaal’s table.”
Laurent froze in confusion. She cried out to her father, “but he..!”
“But he what?!” her father responded harshly. Addressing her for the first time since he had kissed her on the forehead and left her by the campfire the night before. “Sha-Jaal is one of the richest nomads in these deserts. He is so wealthy they no longer roam. Have you not seen the extent of his kingdom. He could have anyone and he chose you! Why are you complaining? It is time you start to grow up! Do you know what this could mean for us?”
Laurent turned to face her mother. She did not think her heart could shatter more than it had the night before, but it did. Fear gripped her and she felt the blood draining from her face. Her stomach rushed up to meet her swirling thoughts and she doubled over and began to vomit. All the delicacies she had eaten the night before were a mixed mess on the tent floor. She continued wretching till there was nothing but yellow bile.
“She’s 11,” her mother whispered pitifully as she tried to hold her up. But as Laurent’s father shot her a stern look she said no more. Instead he inhaled in disgust and stormed out of the tent.
When Laurent finally finished throwing up, her mother cradled her in her arms and carried her over to the pool of water behind the tent. She tenderly bathed her and put on one of her own embroidered robes on her. Then she quietly whispered, “at least you do not have to fear pregnancy. Your period has not started.” Laurent said nothing.
Then they all went for breakfast, with her father leaning over to warn her not to say a word about what had transpired.
All through breakfast Sha-Jaal, who was in an extra pleasant mood, told jokes and slapped her father on the back. He shot her leering looks while Laurent played with her porridge and did her best to avoid his gaze. Her body was sore, her mouth was bruised and her childhood was stolen. She could not look at anyone – not her father, not her mother, not her six playmates, or Sha-Jaal’s two wives. Instead she held her younger sister’s hand under the table, fearing for her future, as she hatched her own plan.
That evening, while Sha-Jaal and her father spoke in much more hushed tones, where Laurent heard her name come up more than once, she hid away in her family’s designated guest tent where they had left her pretending to sleep. Her mother was sat in another tent with Sha-Jaal’s wives and her younger sister was playing with the girls. Laurent quickly dug through their belongings and put together some food, a water flask, some of her father’s trousers and robes, and needle and thread from her mother which she would need later. She quietly snuck out, hid them on the other side of the pool of water that had washed away her blood, innocence and pain earlier that day, and went back to “sleep.”
Her father came in a few hours later, laid his hand on her back and laughingly said “tomorrow will be a big day for you my dear daughter. You are about to move up in the world.”
His words cemented her feelings towards him for good – unadulterated hate. She also agreed – tomorrow would be a big day for her, but certainly not in the way he imagined.
Very early the next morning, while everyone was still sleeping, Laurent dressed in her father’s baggy trousers, securing them with her mother’s scarf and tucked her long hair into a turban. She retrieved her hidden belongings, untied one of Sha-Jaal’s prized horses, and rode off in the direction her family had just come from. Based on nomadic law, she knew it was taboo to go backwards and they would never go in that direction to find her. They probably would not assume she would risk the fabled curses by looking backwards either, but at this point anything was better than what had happened or what her father had just sold her into. She planned to eventually take another detour eastward after getting 100 miles between herself and Sha-Jaal’s oasis. She ignored the searing pain in between her legs and in her lower stomach and urged the horse to go faster.
She never looked back. She never saw her parents, her sister, Sha-Jaal or his daughters/wives again. She left behind her childhood, her stolen womanhood, life as she knew it and became a wandering male nomad.
Back to Reality
As Laurent finished her story, Jasmine closed the gap between them. Her heart broke for her friend and she forgot her own petty expectations founded on random tradition that had blinded her to the obvious fact that the man with sadness in his eyes was actually a broken young woman running from a horrendous event. She threw her arms around Laurent and embraced her as Laurent collapsed in tears. This was the first time in 10 years she had let down her hair, let down her guard or told her truth.
Both Jasmine and Laurent froze. With Laurent’s truth so nakedly exposed and Jasmine’s assumptions so effortlessly debunked, this was definitely a definitive fork in the road.