Baptism of Solitude

 Kathleen Lee

Baptism of Solitude

 

THE MINUTE YOU enter a Muslim town or village for the first or the twentieth time you believe without thinking that men are the center of everything. They are all you see. But when you see a woman, she is all you notice and each one thereafter who appears, covered head to toe or maybe an alluring bit of wrist is flashed and you can see the bridge of her nose and the slant of deep almond eyes, you have only two things on your mind. Beneath the outrage at such control, such restriction, all you think of is sex, and women are what everyone wants.

        I once figured out that I’d spent 131 days of my adult life in Muslim countries on my own without hotel reservations, itineraries, or very much money. I counted the days on a bus ride from Peshawar to Chitral. The woman beside me wrapped in layers of black chiffon like a mummy going to a party, lifted the material to show me her left wrist with a large scar across it. She told me a long lamenting story in Pushto, two words of which I understood, rorh and khawun, brother and husband. I made my own stories while she talked. She’d tried to commit suicide when she discovered that her husband and brother were having sex with each other, when she’d discovered her husband was courting her taller more charming older sister, when her brother discovered she was leaving their family compound to have conversations in a side alley with a man who had never seen her face, when her husband found out another man had followed her home from the market.

        From Chitral I hitched a ride on a jeep to Ayun with two brothers. The road was bad and I thought the jug handle ears of the driver would be good handholds. We crossed a bridge made of old boards, through which I could see a mile of empty space and then far far below, the boulders lining a river that from this distance looked thin as dental floss. The boards bounced and trembled as we drove over them. They were only three wide so the driver steered very carefully.

        We stopped on a ridge above the swirling waters of the Mastuj River. They smoked a hash cigarette and told me all the reasons I should not be going to Krakel, the village I was heading for. It was late, the roads were bad, it might snow, there was nothing there. It sounded unpromising but I could not bypass a place where there was nothing. Besides the people there were not Muslim, it was very small and it was close to Afghanistan.

        Below us a man in dark flapping robes ran along the rocky shoreline of the river, throwing stones at a duck bobbing in the waves. A hundred feet up we could feel the man’s hunger. He was an Afghani refugee who lived in one of the camps down river. He ran to fetch a rifle while the two brothers flung themselves down to the river to help capture the duck. The duck appeared miniature and fragile, fighting its way through choppy December waters. If killed it would simply disappear into the frothing current. I sat on a boulder and watched, hearing the shouts of the men thin and high-pitched spreading out over the valley. The long-barrelled musket echoed eerily into vast emptiness of rock and water. I was in a black and white Fellini movie, the camera pulling into a long shot, the waving arms of the men feeble sticks insufficient to withstand the winds whipping down the valley. The duck continued its way down the river and the men gave up, the brothers climbing back to the road with their heads down.

        The plaza at Ayun was a flat of dirt ringed by small shops with rotting wooden shutters. Kids with snot dried in their noses and dirty cheeks ran around and around like puppies never tired of the same thing. One tried to open the jeep door and got knuckled on the head by a man who might have been his father. There were no women. Most of the men were sitting in the dark of the dirt floored teahouse. I sat on a stool outside a shop selling dates and the nuts from inside apricot pits. I ate peanuts and read sporadically, waiting for the journey to resume. A boy brought me a glass of tea on a bent metal tray. The children began a game of throwing pebbles into the eyeless sockets of a rusting jeep shell left on the mud roof of one of the buildings.

        I sat there for so long the men stopped noticing me. Another man brought me more tea. I felt solid with my boots in the dirt and my back against old wood. Memory dissolved, I could not picture my family, anybody I knew in California, any of my possessions. The sun grew cold and old crows flew spirals above the plaza.

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