Posts Tagged With: women’s fiction

First Chapter Reveal: The Silver Locket, by Sophia Bar-Lev

Book Cover - The SIlver LocketTitle:  THE SILVER LOCKET

Genre:  Women’s Fiction

Author:  Sophia Bar-Lev

Website:  www.sophiabarlev.com

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:   When The Silver Locket opens, it’s July 1941 in Boston, Massachusetts. War is raging in Europe and the Pacific. But for two young women in a small town in New England waging their own personal battles, the struggle is way too close to home.

When extraordinary circumstances bring these two women together, one decision will alter the course of their lives.  And with that one decision, their lives will be forever changed…and forever intertwined.

Were these two women thrust together by happenstance—or fate?   A tragedy. A decision. A pact. Lives irretrievably changed. A baby girl will grow up in the shadow of a secret that must be kept at all costs. But will this secret ever see the light of day?  And what happens when—or if—a promise made must be broken?

Adopting a child is not for the feint of heart—but neither is being adopted…

A sweeping and suspenseful story that unfolds in a different time and a different place, The Silver Locket explores universal themes that ring true even today. Secrets. Unbreakable bonds. The healing power of love.  Deception. Anguish.  Redemption.

In this touching and tender tale, novelist Sophia Bar-Lev weaves a confident, quietly moving story about adoption, finding hope in the face of hopelessness, and how true love can overcome any obstacle. With its brilliant juxtaposition of the wars fought both on the battlefield and internally, The Silver Locket is a poignant novel, resplendent with drama.  Featuring an exceedingly real and relatable plot, and characters that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned, The Silver Locket is a sterling new read.

 

THE SILVER LOCKET

By Sophia Bar-Lev

Chapter 1

 

July 1941

Boston, Massachusetts

It was over in less than four minutes.  She lay motionless, zombie-like.

He laughed.  He laughed…looking down his nose at her, his steel blue eyes boring into her very soul.  Snickering, he turned away, grabbed her black bag and pounded across the tarmac, disappearing into the imposing residence barely a hundred and fifty yards away.  Shadows danced grotesquely on its façade, as if paying homage to sinister forces within the darkened mansion.

She was numb, half-dead.  Night breezes stirred the leaves above her head.

They moved; she didn’t.  Shredded bits of fabric swirled about, brushing across her face, lifting off, floating back down, teasing her, nudging her to get up and walk away.

She couldn’t.  Not yet.

A full hour passed; a full hour of her life stolen by shock – by crippling, deadening, devastating shock.

Suddenly a wail pierced the quiet.  It crescendoed into a howl, and just as quickly receded into deep, forceful sobs.  Ten minutes passed, then twenty, then thirty.  Finally, drained and spent, she rolled onto her side and with difficulty, stood to her feet.  She felt pain but chose to ignore it.  Disoriented, she searched her immediate surroundings for something familiar.  The darkness gave up no clue but her mind came to the rescue.

It was coming back to her now.  The critical patient at the hospital…the Irish doctor, the kind one…the new chaplain on staff…making one last round on the ward …the new chaplain…my keys, where did I put my keys…why was he standing there…the new chaplain

 

She took a few steps.

 

“I’m so proud of you, darling,” her Dad had whispered as he led her down the aisle three years ago.  Why are such thoughts coming up in my mind now?  She shook her head violently.

 

Approaching headlights distracted her.  Startled into reality, she pulled her torn dress close, her eyes darting around for a tree, a shrub, any place to hide.

The car slowed and a kindly voice called to her. “Do you need a ride, Miss?”  The white-haired driver had rolled down the window and getting out of the car he added, “It’s awfully late for you to be out walking by yourself, isn’t it?”  He made his way to the other side and opened the passenger door.  “Where do you need to go?” he asked.

Still partially hidden by shadows, she hesitated.  “Thank you,” she answered, her voice uneven.  “I’ll be…um… fine. Thank you.”

The driver inched forward sensing her anxiety.  “Are you sure?” he asked again.  “I don’t think…well, I’d be happy to give you a lift.”

The moon broke through the clouds at that precise moment and illuminated the bloody, dress and dirt-streaked face.  He gasped.  She pulled back.  Biting her lip, she shook her head back and forth but said nothing.

He paused where he stood, uncertain, confused.

“Shall I take you to the hospital?” he asked softly.

“No! No!” she practically screamed.  “Not there. No! No!”

“I can take you home,” he persisted. “Do you want to go home?”

She stared at him for several moments, then nodded.  Pulling her dress tighter across her chest, she stumbled toward him. He guided her to the open door.  Before getting in, she turned to him, “Please, Mister, please.  Promise me you won’t tell anyone about this.  Please.”

He searched her young face and thought of his own daughter about the same age.  He sighed and nodded, “OK.  If that’s what you want, OK.  Let’s just get you home.”

Categories: Christian Fiction, Women's Fiction | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Chapter Reveal: April Snow, by Lynn Steward

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00031]Title: April Snow

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Author: Lynn Steward

Website: LynnSteward.com

Publisher: Lynn Steward Publishing

Website/Amazon

At the cutting edge of women’s fashion in the 1970s, a visionary young woman subdues her desire for love to remake retail at New York’s most glamorous department store.

Newly single, Dana McGarry learns she must divorce herself from more than a bad marriage to succeed. Not only must she prove to family and friends that she can make it on her own, but she also must challenge an antagonistic boss who keeps standing in her way. Moving out of her comfort zone and into the arms of a dynamic businessman, Dana bets it all on a daring new move that will advance her buying career, But at what price?

Her dreams within reach, Dana’s world is shattered in a New York minute when a life is threatened, a secret is revealed, and her heart is broken.

APRIL SNOW 

Chapter One

Dana McGarry, on vacation for the first time as a single woman, arrived at the Lansdowne Club at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, just steps from Berkeley Square, in London’s fashionable Mayfair on the morning of April 8, 1975.  Her lawyer had filed papers for a legal separation from her husband Brett in January, and after four months of being under the watchful eyes of well-meaning family and friends, Dana was savoring every moment of her solo trip across the pond.  She and Brett had always stayed at the nearby Chesterfield Hotel, but her beloved Colony Club in New York City enjoyed reciprocity with the Lansdowne Club, where she’d previously attended lunches and lectures while her husband met with clients for his Wall Street law firm.  Undeterred by the steady English rain and dark clouds hanging over the slick gray streets, she stepped from one of London’s fabled black taxis with renewed spirit, excited to think that the distinguished house in Berkeley Square would be her home for the next five days.    After Dana checked in, the hall porter asked her if she would like tea brought to her room and then discreetly disappeared with her luggage, a small, welcoming gesture that stood in contrast to an impersonal hotel.  Rather than immediately taking the lift to her room on the fifth floor, Dana stepped into the entrance hall and surveyed the club’s interior, intending to explore Scottish architect Robert Adam’s stately masterpiece commissioned in 1761 for King George III’s prime minister, the Earl of Bute.  Previously, she had limited herself to the dining room, never taking time to appreciate the club’s historic beauty.  Although rich with finely-crafted embellishments and Neoclassical splendor, the house was clearly showing signs of fatigue, and its understated elegance made the environment that much more comfortable.  Dana knew she’d made the right choice. The club was an oasis of tradition and tranquility affording her the peace and privacy she needed.

When Dana arrived in her junior suite, she noticed a bouquet of flowers sitting on a table in the sitting area. Thinking they were compliments of the club, Dana opened the attached note and laughed out loud.  The flowers had been sent by her childhood friend, Johnny Cirone.  The message read, “Take Phoebe shopping and buy up the town.  Whatever you do, enjoy yourself.  Love, Johnny.”

Dr. Phoebe Cirone, who was in London attending a cardiology convention, was Johnny’s sister.  Their father, John Cirone, known affectionately to Dana and her brother Matthew as Uncle John, was the head of the House of Cirone, a manufacturer of ladies eveningwear.  Having a passion for medicine from an early age, Phoebe had never expressed interest in clothes or haute couture, leaving Johnny to reluctantly carry on family tradition by working for his father.  Dana’s parents, Phil and Virginia Martignetti, had been friends with the Cirones since before her birth.

Dana, pleased to see a porcelain tea service had already arrived, took her cup to the window and sipped the Darjeeling as she observed the new plantings in the courtyard garden.  The peace she’d felt a few minutes ago was gone, however.  Something about Johnny’s note, as thoughtful as it was, unnerved her.  Johnny and her mother called daily to see how she was doing.  Dana sensed their concern, although she felt it was unwarranted.  What did they think—that she was going to kill herself because the divorce would soon be final?  They obviously didn’t recognize her personal strength and resolve.  Dana worked at New York City’s B. Altman, and the previous December she’d formed the department store’s first Teen Advisory Board.  She had also succeeded in getting Ira Neimark, the store’s executive vice president, to sign off on installing a teen makeup counter on the main selling floor over the objections of Helen Kavanagh, junior buyer, who thought youth-oriented strategies like those at London’s Biba, were a waste of time and money.   Despite these personal triumphs, she’d taken aggressive steps to further advance her career, leaving her comfortable job in the marketing department for the position of junior accessories buyer.  She had requested time off for this visit to London immediately after settling into the new assignment, and that alone was proof that she knew how to take care of herself.

Dana had been equally aggressive in terminating her marriage to Brett.  Papers for a legal separation had been filed in January by Dana’s lawyer when she discovered that Brett was having an affair with fellow litigator Janice Conlon, a saucy and impertinent young woman from California.  Negotiations for a final settlement were proceeding smoothly, with no protests originating from either Brett or his lawyer lest the firm be apprised of his misconduct with the audacious Conlon.  In the four months since their separation, Dana had realized that Brett’s dalliance with the abrasive Conlon had merely been a catalyst for the end of their relationship since there had been something far deeper and more troubling in their marriage: Brett’s growing neglect of Dana as he vigorously pursued partnership with the firm.  His work always served as a convenient excuse to pick and choose his time with Dana and in the long run, that grim reality had proven intolerable.  Within days of learning of Brett’s infidelity, Dana contacted an attorney and moved from her Murray Hill apartment to a carriage house a few blocks away in Sniffen Court.

Given the decisive actions in her personal and professional life, Dana therefore felt smothered at times by the daily concerns of others.  As for her traveling abroad alone, she felt more than competent to take care of herself.  When Brett had been with her in London, they were rarely together.  He usually spent days working, and evenings meeting with clients, joining Dana for late dinners, if at all.  He was up and out by 7:00 a.m.  She’d always hoped that the next trip would be better, but this was never the case.  Traveling alone?  It was all she knew.

Yes, it had all happened just four months ago, illustrating how the course of a life can change so radically and quickly.  But was she ecstatically happy now that a new phase of her life and career had begun, with Brett being almost surgically excised from the picture?  No, she wasn’t jubilant about anything at present, but she was content, at peace with the decisions she had made to take care of herself and her future.  In the words of her father, she had discovered that she had “a very good life” despite longstanding marital woes and formidable professional challenges.  Many of her friends had urged her to re-enter the dating scene since she was almost thirty and the clock was ticking, but Dana didn’t miss married life in the least and had no interest whatsoever in dating, especially guys described as the perfect match: upwardly mobile professionals, or “Brett clones,” the apt description provided by Andrew Ricci, Dana’s good friend and display director at the store.  Besides, marriage was not the only path to a fulfilled life.  In Dana’s estimation, happiness also resulted from pursuing a creative dream, enjoying good friendships and the myriad interests that gave her immense pleasure, such as travel, literature, films, and lectures on a wide variety of topics.  Being suddenly single was not a condition to be cured but rather an opportunity to be savored.

A line from Dickens came to mind as she thought of events that had altered her life:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Dana had survived the tumultuous weeks of the previous December, when she realized her marriage was over, but surely this was now the best of times, was it not?  She smiled as she contemplated her walk tomorrow morning to Piccadilly for breakfast at Fortnum & Mason, followed by a long and leisurely visit to Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop.  The thought of Dickens reminded her of the delight she took in finding rare editions of the classics, or even first editions of lesser-known authors.  Today, however, she was going to enjoy Richoux’s delicious risotto when she lunched with Phoebe, who was staying within walking distance at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane.  Filled with a new surge of energy, the blue-eyed Dana freshened up, brushed her short blond hair, and grabbed a shawl and a pair of unlined leather gloves. The clouds were beginning to part, and the steady English drizzle had let up, but it was still a nippy fifty-four degrees—a perfect spring day in London.

Rays of sunshine were reflected by leaded windows in the rows of eighteenth century townhomes Dana passed as she strolled leisurely through Berkeley Square.  It was only eleven thirty and she had an hour before meeting Phoebe at her hotel, enough time for a short detour across Hill Street and Hays Mews to the Farm Street Church, also known as the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception.  Years earlier, she’d been sitting on a bench in Mount Street Gardens when she looked up and beheld one of the church’s open gothic portals that seemed so inviting, beckoning her to enter and pray.  Then as now, it had been a glorious April day, the kind celebrated by Chaucer in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, when spring rains provide rich “liquor” for flowers suffering winter’s drought.

Dana arrived at the church and chose to enter from Mount Street Gardens rather than Farm Street, as she’d done on her original visit.  In the transept to the right of Our Lady of Farm Street statue was the Sacred Heart Chapel, and this is where Dana chose to pray in deference to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who’d taught her for twelve years in her youth.  She knelt in the third pew, said a decade of the rosary, and then sat, looking up to admire, as she always did, the glorious painting of the Sacred Heart flanked by four saints above an inlaid marble altar with three brass reliefs.  But instead of finding peace in this pious setting, the silence suddenly became deafening, and the alabaster walls of the chapel began to feel close, confining.  A wave of emotion engulfed her, and she cried uncontrollably, questioning her impulsive decision to end her eight-year marriage—and without considering her vows taken before God, family, and friends. What a hypocrite she felt herself to be—a selfish hypocrite who had turned her back on the faith that was such an integral part of her life.

Glancing at her watch, Dana saw that it was almost noon.  She needed to pull herself together and be on her way to meet Phoebe.  She took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and walked outside to a bench in Mount Street Gardens, where she would spend a few moments composing herself.

In the sacristy, a priest was marking the readings for the twelve-thirty mass in the gilt-edged lectionary when he heard anguished sobs emanating from the Sacred Heart Chapel.  Curious, he stepped into the sanctuary in time to see a young woman exiting the side door leading to the gardens.  He followed her and observed her sitting on a bench fifteen yards away.  He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and said a brief prayer.   

 

*                                  *                                  *

Looking in her compact mirror, Dana wiped away the mascara beneath her eyes and reapplied a bit of powder to her cheeks.  She didn’t want Phoebe to see that she’d been crying.  What could she possibly say in answer to any questions her friend might have?  That she was upset over the abrupt manner in which she’d dissolved an eight-year marriage to an inattentive man who’d cheated on her?  No, the emotions that had spilled forth in the chapel had taken Dana by surprise, and they needed to be processed in private moments of reflection.

Dana had been resting her eyes when she looked up and saw a priest approaching the bench.  The Jesuit, a tall man in his early fifties, walked with a confident gait, and the smile on his face was evident when he was still several feet away.

“Good morning,” he said.  “Lovely day.”  He could tell the young woman was upset and,               in point of fact, she wasn’t the only one he’d encountered on the grounds who needed consolation or, at the very least, a friendly smile.

“Yes, Father, it is,” Dana replied.  “A splendid day.”

“Are you on holiday, or are we blessed to have you as a new parishioner?” he asked.

Dana examined the priest’s face more carefully.  He wore rimless glasses, and pale blue eyes regarded her kindly beneath close-cut salt and pepper hair.  He was dressed in a black clerical suit and looked to be strong and vigorous despite his gentle manner.

“On holiday, Father,” Dana replied. “I come here whenever I’m in London and wanted to stop in and . . . visit.  I was taught by the Sacred Heart sisters back in New York.”

“A New Yorker!” Father Macaulay said. “And a member of the family, so to speak.  May I sit?” he asked, motioning to the bench.

A member of the family, Dana thought, again fighting back tears.  Not anymore.

“I’m sorry, Father,” Dana mumbled, rising to leave.  “I’m meeting someone and I’m late.”

Father Macaulay nodded.  “I hope you’ll visit again.  I’m here in the church or the gardens every morning from nine until I say mass.  If you can’t find me, just tell the sacristan that you’re looking for Father Charles Macaulay.”

“Thank you, Father.  Have a good day.”

Biting her lip to fight back fresh tears, Dana and Macaulay shook hands. The priest watched Dana walk out of the gardens, sensing that she was in distress.  He was a good judge of people, and he thought that Dana would surely return to the church before she boarded a plane for New York City.  Somewhere in her soul, he thought, there was unfinished business.

*                                *                                  *

Wearing sunglasses, Dana walked for five minutes along Mount Street until she reached the Grosvenor House.  Phoebe was waiting in the lounge, and after they exchanged warm greetings, they left the hotel for Richoux, which was two blocks away on South Audley Street.

The two women were shown to a small table in the dimly-lit restaurant owing to the dark wood paneling in the main dining room.  When Dana removed her sunglasses, Phoebe immediately saw that Dana was upset.  Her eyes were puffy and her smile was forced.  Phoebe cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, Do you feel like talking about it?

“I’m fine,” Dana said, brushing aside the concern.  “Nothing worth discussing.  Now tell me about you, how’s the convention?”

The two women chatted over lunch, Phoebe speaking of the lectures she’d attended on anticoagulation therapy, angioplasty, and catheterization for the diagnosis of coronary artery disease.  In turn, Dana described her new duties at B. Altman.  They laughed at Johnny Cirone’s daily calls and continued concern for Dana since her separation, although Dana was reminded yet again of the excessive attention she was receiving.

“We have to get him married off,” Phoebe said, “or at least find him a serious girlfriend.  He’s becoming a mother hen.”  She paused, knowing that Dana was holding back something painful, but decided not to press the matter.  “By the way, my dad has an offer on his house, and he’s in contract to purchase the estate sale on East 79th Street. It’s a big renovation, so he’s hoping to get approved by the co-op board quickly and start the demo. Johnny is already interviewing contractors.”

John Cirone was moving to Manhattan since his Long Island home seemed far too large since the death of his wife two years earlier.  He’d accepted a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and Johnny was helping his dad make the long-overdue transition to the city—and to the present, away from thoughts of his deceased wife, Lena.

“It sounds like the convention is keeping you pretty busy,” Dana said.  “Would you like me to pick up Uncle John’s cigars at Sautter’s?  It’s a few blocks from the Lansdowne.”

“That would be a lifesaver,” Phoebe said.  “I have two days of seminars on using something called a stent to open up clogged arteries instead of always resorting to bypass surgery.  It would be a non-invasive procedure, but most cardiologists think it’s still years away.”  Phoebe suddenly burst out laughing.  “And here I am, bringing my father cigars, which is the last thing a cardiologist should do.”

The two women finished lunch, Phoebe heading to the convention for afternoon lectures,

and Dana returning to the Lansdowne Club, where she finished unpacking.

Dana sipped afternoon tea while paging through a book of poems she’d found lying on the end table by the sofa, her thoughts returning to her display of emotion that morning.  Brett had indeed been quickly and surgically excised from her life, perhaps too quickly, and yet she had received no judgments about the decision to do so from her parents.   She was aware, of course, that Virginia had always been a bit leery of Brett, even at the very beginning of their courtship.  As for her father, he was quite unflappable and had reminded Dana that things always work out in the end, which was a part of his lifelong, homespun philosophy that she found so comforting.  And yet Dana couldn’t shake the realization that Brett, despite all of his shortcomings, was a man she’d loved for over eight years.  Should she have given him another chance?  After all, the marriage hadn’t been all bad.  The visit to the chapel, she concluded, had reminded her of Catholic dogma regarding marriage: it was indissoluble.  Mount Street Gardens, the chapel, the brass panels—they’d brought to mind her many years with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, causing her to second guess her decision.

Leafing through the slightly-worn pages—she thought that older books had such character—she saw Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.”  It was one of her favorite poems.  She especially liked the lines towards the end.

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

The sentiment was essentially that of her father, who had a “philosophic mind” when it came to handling disappointment.  There had been good times in the marriage, but some things were beyond repair, and Dana had indeed retained strength in what remained behind, which was a full life that included friendships and opportunity.  Dana realized how important this trip was—far more than a break from her daily routine or an enjoyable shopping spree.  On her own, she could privately mourn her marriage and process her emotions, opening her mind and heart for whatever lay ahead.  She was at peace again, ready for the rest of her stay in London.  Still, she wondered if Father Macaulay would share her perspective.  The priest had emanated kindness and understanding in the brief minutes she’d been in his presence, and now, feeling stronger, she decided to visit him again before she left London.  He’d demonstrated genuine concern, and she wanted to hear his soothing voice one more time.

 

 

Categories: Women's Fiction | Tags: | 1 Comment

Napoleon by Emilia Rutigliano

Napoleon 7Title: Napoleon
Genre: Women’s Fiction with an Attitude
Author: Emilia Rutigliano
Publisher: Emilia Rutigliano
Pages: 387
Language: English
Format: Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

They say that when a student is ready, a teacher appears.

What they don’t say is where to register, and how to matriculate in that teacher’s class.

That is a divine gift.

Veronica had it all:  the looks; the brains; the personality; and the wardrobe.  Not to mention a perfect husband, a fabulous career and two adorable children, until the perfect husband leaves her for another woman.

Thus begin the daily routines of a typical New York City immigrant with ambition whose teachers keep appearing, and for whom divine interventions keep affording new opportunities.

Though it starts like ordinary connections going through the tried and true, each relationship continues to delve into parts of her own universe that Veronica didn’t know existed.  A universe that is suddenly open to her.

This is a different kind of heroine…

Welcome to the New American Dream, Dare to Dream…

BOOK EXCERPT:

“You see the details and you are awed by them.  It shows in your dress, in your manner, in how you look at things, how you eat…  It’s all art.  No amount of money or education can give it to you.  You either see it, or you don’t.”  He took another sip.

He was about to tie it all together for her.  “Our society works in layers…”

“Oh, my god … what did you just say?”  Her eyes opened wide, and she stared at him.  But he didn’t see what was so shocking.

“Our society works in layers.  Notice I didn’t say levels.  It’s not linear.”  This was important.  He needed her to see this.  “Think of it this way.  You consider a person’s worth by their financial statement.  This is how much you earn/own, and this is how much you owe/spend.  Like, John Smith is worth a billion dollars.  With me so far?”

She shook her head … Someone else subscribes to the layers theory? She continued to stare at him.

“You transcend that, Veronica.  There are several more layers of you that you don’t even know.  You know that you are very beautiful, but you also have this magnificent charisma, this affect on people.  You talk with your clients, your friends, your kids, and with me on completely different “layers”… like a napoleon, yes?”

She nodded her head, still in awe.

“It isn’t that one layer is better than the other, although some will argue that the soaked bottom is best because it has the most flavor; others will say the flaky top is best; still others prefer the middle because it is just the right amount.  But one cannot exist without the other.  I would very much like to see you discover the layers of yourself.  There are many that you have not discovered, and it’s only because no one has taught you.  You excel in things that you do.  You’re quite a virtuoso, and I’d like to teach you about more.  Interested?“

I’m being presented with an opportunity.  Am I even hearing this correctly?  Did he just say that there is another world, layers, that I am worthy of attaining, and that he would like to help me reach and discover these layers?  Wasn’t that what I was hoping for when we first met … to learn from him?   Concentrate, Nika, this is serious.  “I’m more than interested, Jeremy, but I’m unaware of what is required of me.”

He smiled.  “Good question. There are many layers here, but let’s deal with the first two.  First things first… you have trust issues.”

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A List of Offences by Dilruba Z. Ara

A List of OffencesTitle of Book: A LIST OF OFFENCES
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Author: Dilruba Z. Ara
Website: www.dilrubazara.com
Publisher: CreateSpace

PURCHASE A LIST OF OFFENCES HERE

SUMMARY:

Daria, the heroine of the book is born under unusual circumstances that cause the people of her small village to gossip; yet as she grows she becomes an intelligent, sensitive and spiritual beauty that one feels is destined for a perfect life. After a flood, a boy is found on the bank of her river. Daria’s parents adopt the boy, and Daria befriends him. As they grow Daria begins to inhabit Mizan’s dreams and thoughts, but a sudden meeting with anglophile Ali Baba brings everything crashing down around Daria. She forgets her upbringing and falls madly in love with him and after her hasty wedding, she moves to Baba Lodge and is brought into the suffocating life of Ali Baba and his family.

Here she lives a life unloved and psychologically abused until she gets pregnant. Now she begins to hope that finally her potential for love, luck and happiness will be realised through her new-born child. Yet relations between Daria and her in-laws deteriorate further. Daria finds herself torn between the religious mandate of Islam to stay with and obey her husband and the call of her intellect and instincts to flee and forge a different life for her daughter.

FIRST CHAPTER

A Bottle of River Water

A whisper went round the little village of Gulab Ganga during the days around Daria’s birth. It said, “Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, defied God when she refused to give up the thought of having a daughter.” She had her four sons, three miscarriages and one stillborn daughter. But yet she couldn’t accept the idea of not having a daughter in her lap. When the most trusted doctor in the neighbourhood advised her against trying to get pregnant, she, like many in her dilemma, decided to get help from supernatural sources. The road there would be reached by means of a man, who claimed to be a Pir, a spiritual person. He lived on the outskirts of Gulab Ganga. A good many people went to him to catch cattle thieves and poachers, a good many went to get better crops, a good many wished to be cured of some incurable diseases, and a good many wished for a male heir to carry on the family name. And on rare occasions, someone would actually call on him to get a female child; to light up a family with only male offspring. And this was partly true in the case of Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, but mainly it was because she felt half a woman without a daughter.

It was exactly one year before Daria’s birth that Jharna Begum woke up on one occasion at a time that was neither morning nor night; night’s blackness was slowly oozing away at the touch of first light. A soft and transparent time, that could be called morning-night. She washed herself, took a bath, said her morning prayers, read some verses in the holy Quran. Then on an empty stomach, wrapped a shawl round her shoulders, opened the safe and took out a bundle of notes. Some fresh and crisp. Some dirty and limp. She put the money in her bag and sidled out of the room. Azad Chaudhury, her husband, was away on business and that suited her very well, because he wouldn’t have approved of her going to meet a Pir, whose credibility was dubious. The rest of the family was asleep. She took a deep breath, crossed the front veranda and stepped down onto the ground along the left gable of the house. She continued to the stable that was further off in the same direction. There she met the servant boy Gafur and the housemaid Gulabi. She told Gafur to keep guard on the house for an hour. After a moment, she was seated in the coach with Gulabi and the coachman, Abdullah, on her way to the Pir, the saint, who was to serve as a link between her and the supernatural powers.

It was a humid morning. The ground was covered with dew. On the horizon white haze rolled softly, blurring the contours and colours of everything. Beyond that the river sparkled in the first glow of the morning sun and some fishermen cast their nets in it; fishnets shimmered in the air like dewy cobwebs before falling into the water, but the haze blocked the view. The wagon picked its way in between the chequered boards of rice-fields. Sometimes it rattled; sometimes it thudded on the bumpy earthen road. Jharna Begum sat erect, her lips moving. Most probably reciting holy verses. Alongside the road some peasants were already at work. Some bent over the water-covered field to set rice plants, and some ploughed; peasant feet submerged up to the ankles in the muddy water; peasant hands disappearing under the water to transplant rice seedlings.

The Pir (said to be) lived in a small hut on the outskirts of the village. It was made of mud and bamboo canes with a sloping hay roof and stood in the middle of beaten ground surrounded by sprawling bamboo clusters that were partially veiled by the grey mist. From behind the hut an old mango tree spread its branches over the low roof. Haze lingered among the foliage of this tree as well, but just above the roof Jharna Begum could discern some baby mangoes. Grey-green, round and wet, silently growing out of hardness. A skinny hen walked on the patch of ground in front of the hut pecking at whatever it could find; a few dragonflies sat lazily on a tuft of withered grass-straws. A breeze blew, carrying a scent of water and river. The mango leaves hummed. The bamboo leaves whispered. Gulabi remained standing on the spot. Jharna Begum took a deep breath and approached the hut.

The room was murky in spite of the hurricane lamp that hung from the ceiling. Soft shadows danced on the walls as the tongue of the flame flickered inside the soot smeared glass. Major parts of the walls were plastered with various pictures from the holy city of Mecca. High stepping camels and Bedouins, dusty date trees around oases, scalp-shorn-men — pilgrims-in-white, women — pilgrims-in-black, the black holy stone and the white gathering around it. The only window was covered with a drape. In one corner out of a small brass bowl rose a fine stream of smoke; scents of sandalwood, camphor, incense and rose essence. An earthy dampness hung in the room.

The Pir was seated on the floor on a mat. He received Jharna Begum with due respect and asked her to settle down opposite him. She was hesitant; nevertheless she obeyed him as though in a trance. Perspiration gleamed above her lips, studded the tip of her nose, and her forehead. It grew in her armpits and between the fold of her breasts. A sweaty fear crawled down her back and she swallowed a lump of saliva. Words pounded in her head, while her stomach was hard like a tight fist. But she wouldn’t give in to her nervousness. So, gathering up her courage, she began to talk. Her voice trembled, tongue dried out. Words came out of her tense mouth; first staccato and then woven together into meaningful sentences. The man murmured and nodded.

After half an hour when Jharna Begum took the coach home, the sun had risen to a higher level in the sky. It was white. The haze had resolved into a fluttering piece of transparent cloth. She put her chin on the windowsill and looked out. Windblown ringlets danced on her temples. Her eyes saw the pale green rice plants, the mud coloured peasants with their mud coloured feet and hands under the muddy water, the tilting wicker-hats on their heads, the pelvic zone of a cow that lifted its tail to drop some dung, gleaming sun on the tails of diving kingfishers, and the shimmering river beyond; but with her heart she saw a baby girl. A baby girl in her arms. In her hands she held a green bottle. A bottle filled with enchanted water. Water, which would help her to mother a baby girl. Now she just had to ensure that one of her servants collected natural water for her by pressing the brim of an earthen pot against the stream of the river. Seven Thursdays she would bathe in that water eked out with the enchanted water she now had in that tiny green bottle in her hands. Imagine getting a baby girl! To get a baby at such an age! Forty years! God, Allah, the almighty. At such an age one should only wait for death to come. At such an age it was entirely legitimate to die, it was a well-acknowledged die-able age. But instead she was preparing to give life to a new human baby. A baby girl. Jharna Begum felt a mysterious wave of contentment sweeping over her. While the morning breeze, now crisp from the warming sun, fondled her face, she smiled. Like a child who had found the very bottle with the genie. She held the precious bottle tenderly. Azad Chaudhury was, of course, a little bit worried about his wife’s sudden obsession with the matutinal baths on Thursday mornings. But he decided to humour her. And therefore, he even went to bed with her as per her wish after her ritual baths with that magical water. They built and furnished a small room in the furthest end of the dwelling. The rest of the family members were told that Jharna Begum’s physical condition demanded total seclusion from daily life. Initially Azad Chaudhury had thought it would be unnecessary to build a new room only for seven Thursday mornings. But, soon, very soon, he changed his mind. For it didn’t really take him too long to realize that he enjoyed every second, every infinitesimal fraction of each second he spent there together with his wife. In secret they called this room ‘the love nest’ (even though the phrase sounded banal in their experienced ears). Within the four walls of that nest after twenty years of marriage they once again experienced the ecstasy of newly found love.

On those warm, fairy tale like mornings Azad Chaudhury, propped against the pillow, would look at his wife’s slender body and think that he had never seen her like that before. He licked her feet, her soles, her insteps, kissed her on her kneecaps, tickled her belly, felt the perfect curves of her round shoulders against the cups of his large palms, oiled her with coconut oil, and rubbed her gently. Her eyes would darken, the world beyond the dark blue curtain on the window would slowly brighten but inside they would be lost. She touched his hairy stomach, tugged at his nipples, let her nails run up and down across his body hair and create parallel lines like a farmer furrowing a land and leaving plough marks. Both would have gooseflesh on their skin, his Adam’s apple would move restlessly and she would swallow saliva. They would fondle each other, taste each other’s secret smells and drown in each other’s eyes. His warm palms against hers, his fingers intertwining hers, the soles of her feet rubbing gently on the back of his feet they would reach the climax. Later during the course of the day they would recognise each other’s private smells in their nostrils, and they would exchange furtive glances.

Considering all this passionate lovemaking, it was probably not a miracle that Jharna Begum soon got pregnant. But with the realisation both she and Azad Chaudhury reacted as though a miracle really had happened. As though the genie really had escaped from the green bottle to fulfil their dreams. They started to cry and laugh. They cried for a moment, laughed a moment, hugged each other, cried again, licked each other’s tears and lay down. They slept a while, woke for a while, embraced each other, whispered soft words and fell asleep again. When the pregnancy advanced, Azad Chaudhury saw to it that Jharna Begum was not in want of anything. He heaped over her gifts and tenderness and fulfilled all her strange whims, such as those which only suit a

pregnant woman.

If she wished for hot peanuts with salt and pepper, she was served that; if she longed for roasted green mangoes blended with crushed red chillies she was given that too. If she craved for ripened tamarinds those were also procured. One midnight she woke up and declared that she must have grilled Ilsha fish, alias silver fish. Now this fish is famous for its silvery scales, and when it comes to taste, it’s absolutely delicious.

But, unfortunately, it was not the season for this fish. Still, early the following morning Azad Chaudhury himself paid a visit to the nearby fishing community. He held out a leather pouch filled with coins (silvery and golden) and said that the one who was able to catch a couple of Ilsha fish before the next dawn, would be rewarded with the bag and its entire contents. The fish was caught, grilled and served on a silver platter at dinner. The dish so suited Jharna Begum’s taste buds that soon it became a permanent part of the family’s meals during the rest of Jharna Begum’s pregnancy. She was contented, and into the bargain a handful of fishermen got slightly richer than they had bargained for.

The Neighbourhood Talked.

On winter evenings snuggling in homemade quilts the villagers huddled around outdoor fires under the gaze of stars. They smoked hookahs, ate grilled sweet potatoes and whispered tales. Witchy tales. Wintry tales. Tales spiced with the chill of winter evening. Painted with the vibrant colours of the fire and cinders in the middle of them. They fed the fire with reeds and kindling that cracked and died in the flames, and they fedtheir ravenous minds with fabulous tales about Jharna Begum and the baby that was thriving in her belly. Before long it was heard that Jharna Begum was obsessed with the fish dish because the man who had given her the green bottle with the magical water, had proclaimed that she would give birth to a girl with hair the colour of ‘silver fish’. Some said she was carrying a mermaid, half-fish, half-human. Pregnant women avoided the sight of her in fear that the very sight of her might hamper the growth of the babies in their wombs. It was strange how one strange rumour gave birth to another, stranger one. Some even claimed that Jharna Begum really possessed the bottle with a genie. It was, however, poor Gulabi who had to face all these torpedoes of vicious remarks about Jharna Begum’s pregnancy. Whenever she showed herself outside the house boundary she was attacked by the neighbouring women. They relentlessly pestered her with ridiculous questions and soon she started to complain about these gossips. Jharna Begum listened patiently to her. But dismissed her anxiety with hearty laughter. Without appearing to be condescending or angry she completely disregarded the complaints and left Gulabi speechless, and as usual continued to send the servant boy, Gafur, to the fishermen to
get the fish every morning. The fish was prepared and cooked under her supervision. When she ate it, she ate it with such relish that soon Gulabi and others realised that it was no use trying to change her craving.

The four boys — Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi — who were between eight and twelve years old, had not yet the slightest idea why their father no longer took his usual trips to the other parts of the country. He was always at home. Only they continued as usual. They went to school, read the holy Quran every Thursday, did their home-work, played with one another, fought with one another, and when angry, railed on one another. Gulabi saw to it that their nails were clean, hair oiled, hands washed; that they had milk warm from the cow for breakfast, and that
they turned in on time.

Daria was born on a bright day. It was towards the end of May, just before the onset of the rainy season. The time was precisely twelve o’clock. The sun was hot and cruel. The sky was absolutely white and so was the baby girl’s hair. It was white. Silvery white. Alarmingly white. Very white. At the sight of the hair colour, a scream died in the bewildered midwife’s chest and at the same time her bladder gave way, making her thighs wet. The midwife’s face was glistening with tears, but she was struck like a statue, as though fixed by the mesmeric eye of calamity. Kneeling down between Jharna Begum’s legs, she held Daria’s tiny body in her hands, her head bent over it, her hot urine collecting under it, the navel cord still hanging loosely down the vagina of Jharna Begum. The whole thing was something akin to a scene at an altar.

And Gulabi, who had been witnessing the scene with a hurricane lamp poised in mid-air, took a while before she could even begin to grasp the nature of the incident; the stench from the urine smelled old, contaminating, of grief and troubles. Gulabi shuddered and gasped as the true scandal of the incident swam into her consciousness. She stood dumb-founded for fully two minutes before returning to her senses. But, once out of her perplexity, she hastily placed the lamp on a bedside table, bent down, cut the umbilical cord, and snatched Daria out of the midwife’s baffled, rigid hands. It was then Daria gave her first cry, relieving all others, and also shocking the midwife back to reality. Gulabi cleaned Daria thoroughly, even her nostrils, before swaddling
her in a soft piece of cloth to put her to her mother’s nipple, where milk had already started to flow. And the midwife, soiled by her own urine and the refuse from Jharna Begum’s uterus, withdrew to a corner.

Even in those days the dwelling house was two storeyed. The walls were made of bricks and the flat roof of corrugated tin. The rooms stood in a row one after another. Two deep verandas ran along the front and rear side of both stories, and a wooden flight of stairs connected the back veranda to the first floor. A small patch of land separated the main house from the kitchen while on the front was a rather big patch of land. There grew fruit and flowers, papayas, mangoes and jackfruits, bananas and coconuts, tuberoses and jasmines, marigolds and land lotuses. Today the flowers glimmered in the sunshine and it was impossible to avoid the numbing sick-sweet aroma emitted by the sweating jasmine flowers. The mango trees were filled with mango blossoms. The boughs on the jackfruit trees bent under the weight of the fruits. The sugar bananas, very yellow, waited expectantly to be harvested. Hot green leaves sheltered the buzzing bees. Blue bottles
hummed. Crows and jackdaws feasted to fulfilment. It was a hot, humid and fruity atmosphere as in a green house.

The climate in the birth-chamber was somewhat cooler in comparison to that of the outside world. The grey cemented floor and the bare white walls were cool; the room was clinically clean just as a birth-chamber should be. The doors and windows were closed making the room half-shadowy. And to add to its clinical element it smelled of camphor, incense and rose water. Daria’s Nanu (maternal grandmother) Salma Begum and Fufu (paternal aunt) Fatima sat in one corner. They too had temporarily lost their speech at the sight of the baby. But the child’s scream readily brought them back to the present. And both of them began to recite Quranic verses with such gravity that an outsider would easily have mistaken the room to have been designed for mourning. Surely you mourn for the deceased in a hospital room, and you rejoice for the newborns. Today of all days Jharna Begum would have liked to rejoice at her daughter’s arrival, she would have liked to sing the praises of God, she would have liked to extol him boisterously, she would have liked to thank him. But these two women turned the room into a mourning chamber, they made the atmosphere heavy, gloomy. Unnecessarily sad. Was it because of the poor midwife’s mishap? Was that the reason, Jharna Begum wondered?

But it was only an accident. Or, was it because the child’s hair had such a rare colour? Jharna Begum sighed. Strangely enough, she didn’t feel any irritation but a feeling of familiar indifference. She knew that it was no use trying to make others understand her feelings. In the soft light of a hurricane lamp she looked tenderly at her daughter’s swollen cheeks, the closed eyelids, the red mouth and two tiny nostrils. Jharna Begum repeated with a contented voice: water-baby, water-baby. Then she sighed
again.

Having performed the Jummah prayers in the mosque, Azad Chaudhury had just returned home together with the quartet, Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi. It was Gulabi who was waiting anxiously for him on the veranda. She told him about the newborn, took the prayer rug from his hands, and ushered away the boys to a different room. Azad Chaudhury looked very pleased and with a smile on his face he pushed opened the wooden door, and stepped inside. He halted for a few seconds in the semi-darkened room. As his eyes got used to the darkness he greeted his mother-in-law and then turning towards Gulabi said, “Open the window shutters!”

His mother in-law, Salma Begum, stopped murmuring. And so did his sister Fatima. There was a sudden silence. It took a while before Salma Begum shrieked in her frail, shrill voice, “You can’t let midday wind flow freely into a delivery room.”

Azad Chaudhury looked for a while at the old lady. His brown eyes were soft and polite. Without attempting to dispute the old one, he explained.

“Excuse me, Amma. But, I would like to see my daughter’s face in the daylight.” Salma Begum shook her head.

“Enough harm has already been done to the baby.”

“Like what?” Azad Chaudhury was surprised.

“The midwife…” Her words failed, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her son-in-law about the mishap. It embarrassed her. Her fingers clutched at the tasbhi in her hand.

Azad Chaudhury looked at the face of his mother-in-law, who looked beyond him. He then turned to Gulabi.
“What happened? What has the midwife done, Gulabi?”

“Abbaji…” Gulabi hesitated and then said, “nothing to worry about.

I’ve taken care of it. I’ve washed the baby. I’ve even cleaned her nostrils.”

“Nostrils!” Azad Chaudhury was even more puzzled.

“Yes, so that she shouldn’t remember the stench.”

“Stench of what?”

Gulabi was by now already regretting having said too much. She fell quiet. Not knowing how to answer she looked helplessly at Salma Begum.

The old lady shook her head and then said, “You had better ask your wife in private. As for the window, you may open it for a while. But it’s no good for a newborn. Midday wind carries evil spirits.”

Azad Chaudhury nodded thoughtfully, all but satisfied with the riddling answers. But he gave in, and once again asked Gulabi to open the shutters. The two shutters were opened. A sparkling parallelogram of sunlight fell on the floor. White walls became whiter. The cool floor became warmer. Azad Chaudhury took two steps towards the bed. He bent over it. There was suddenly that awkward silence again. Very silent.

Very tense. While the taut silence bounced against the four empty walls, Azad Chaudhury’s pupils widened, his spine hardened.

The child had violet eyes rimmed with black lashes, and she already had a pair of eyebrows shaped like the wings of a soaring gull. Her cheeks were chubby, smooth and fresh like any newborn. Her lips red as ruby. But her hair was silvery white. Ever so white. White like the tops of the Himalayas. Azad Chaudhury could think of nothing to say but murmur prayers. On his shoulders he felt his mother-in-law’s deep breaths, his sister’s attentive eyes. Unfamiliar thoughts were growing like weeds in his brain. He shook his head. Something must have gone wrong. Must have. A child can’t have silver hair. It’s not normal. Why?

Why? A curious sadness settled in his heart for the little creature in his wife’s arms, his little daughter, his little princess, born out of oneiric mornings. His eyes grew moist as he took up the girl and held her close to his heart. His eyes met his wife’s. The sun reflected in her eyes. She smiled.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Very well. Thank you!”

“Are you happy?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?”

He smiled, braving the pressure of the weeds that grew in his brain.

Hairy weeds, itchy weeds, poisonous weeds. All with long tentacles. Frightening. She stretched out her arm. He took it, and squeezed it hard.

Later the same afternoon he sent for Dr Nandi. Dr Nandi was as puzzled as others were at the sight of the child’s hair colour. But having checked the girl thoroughly he declared that it was a child, one hundred percent normal. Meanwhile, Gulabi was ordered to take care of the umbilical cord and the placenta. As instructed she dug everything down in the garden, and set a jasmine plant on the top. Having performed the task quickly, she returned to the room with some mustard oil in a brass bowl, tidied up the bed, spread a large towel in between Jharna Begum and the oilcloth under her, and then climbed up herself on the bed. There, kneeling down beside Jharna Begum, she oiled her palms and got hold of Jharna Begum’s belly. She held it tightly and at the same time with a rhythmical movement began to press out the air that had invaded the cavity from the afterbirth. Air came out of all possible holes in Jharna Begum’s body, while she complained about Gulabi’s hard grip.

Lots of Aaas and Uhuus! But, Gulabi proceeded in the same manner for an hour everyday during a period of exactly forty days. That was the time span taken by Jharna Begum to regain her flat and tight stomach so that no one could any longer believe that this belly had in its time accommodated a number of children.

This hot afternoon, when Dr Nandi had calmed Azad Chaudhury with his diagnosis, Azad Chaudhury sat down for a while and took a few deep breaths. With each breath he uprooted some of the twisting weeds in his brain and finally decided that it was time he demonstrated his gratefulness for being gifted with a daughter. He sent one of the men- servants to buy some rashgullahas, cheese balls drowned in syrup, from the village sweet-stall. When the man returned he ordered him to take the two finest cockerels from the pen and fill an earthen pot with some of the rashgullahas. He collected two sets of clothing and sent all these to the Pir Sahib, who had provided Jharna Begum with the green bottle with enchanted water.

Jharna Begum emerged from the delivery room — it was already evening — with the child in her arms, defying the rest of the women in the family, who advised her to remain there for forty days. They said she shouldn’t leave that room till her bleeding ceased and her uterus shrunk to its original size, the size of a goose egg. But Jharna Begum paid no heed to her concerned relatives. In the kitchen the old cook had already started to prepare chicken soup, an unspiced dish with horned fish and plantains and other so-called delicacies that normally are used to tempt an ill woman in childbed in this part of the world. Inside the room, by the window, Gulabi had prepared an armchair with a soft round pillow with a hole in the middle. It looked like the English letter O. It was supposed to ease Jharna Begum’s sore bottom when she sat there to enjoy her garden. But, as mentioned earlier, the woman didn’t feel at all ‘under the weather’. On the contrary, she felt incredibly fit and well.

Out she would come from that dreary room. Out she would be in the open air. And so she did, amidst protests and knitted eyebrows. Only when she needed to break wind or breast-feed the baby, did she seek out a private corner.

Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi, the four brothers who had missed their mother terribly during the previous nine months, and before that, those seven weeks with the seven special Thursdays, encircled her as soon as she came out of the room. They did not show much interest in the strange creature in their mother’s arms. One of them had a bunch of flowers, one had a ring made of hay straw, the third one had written down a verse from the Quran in black elegant calligraphy, and the fourth one had painted a picture of the setting sun on the river that flowed behind their house. These they presented to their mother.

Hadi, the oldest son, whose voice was breaking, murmured embarrassedly, “Ammu!” and gave her the bunch of flowers.

“Here, you’ve a ring, made by myself,” said the second one.

“It’s boring to sleep without having recited the suras (Quranic verses) with you,” declared the third and stretched out his gift.

“I’ve painted a picture for you,” announced the little one.

Jharna Begum dried a trembling drop of a tear with the back of her hand. Then she gave Daria to Gulabi, and took all her four sons in her arms; she embraced them, fondled them, showered kisses on them, ruffled their hair, crumpled their ironed shirts and murmured tender words.

That evening they all sat on low-legged stools around the low dining table to celebrate this family reunion. Daria was fast asleep in a wicker cradle that hung from the ceiling. The room was lit up with the yellowish light of a hurricane lamp that stood in the centre of the table. An imposing number of insects buzzed around the lamp like a live halo. Around this halo were porcelain bowls, set in a wider circle. They were filled with delicacies like hens in almond sauce, spicy wild duck, ruhufish chops and lobster in coconut milk. There were also various accompaniments like tamarind pickles, coriander chutney and green mangoes. The unusual dishes, which the cook had got used to preparing to gratify Jharna Begum’s pregnant palate, were no longer there. Neither
was the silverfish dish. Truly, none was missed by anyone. A cat circled and purred under the table — its black back arching, its tongue licking its own mouth. Perhaps it missed the familiar fish-smell. Who knows?

Every now and then its furry tail brushed several pairs of knees. The walls were embraced by the shadows here and there and a blend of aromas crowded inside a few pairs of expectant nostrils. Laughter and jovial voices were heard for a long time in that room.

But the following day the mood of the family was subdued. From early in the morning neighbours lined up to congratulate Jharna Begum and also to take a look at the newborn. Even though grandmother Salma Begum and Gulabi made a real effort to conceal the child’s hair by putting a hat on her head, one could yet catch sight of one or two glittering curls that rebelliously crawled out from beneath the edge of the hat, which in its turn brought out plenty of improbable comments from the hearts of the baffled visitors. “By, Allah. It can’t be a human child,” said someone.

“No, an angel,” someone answered, “I wonder if she has wings under the clothes!”

“Did you hear that the midwife wet herself while delivering the poor child?” exclaimed someone else. “Tauba” (a slap on the right cheek; an act that normally accompanies the word to ward off the evil eye).

“Tauba!” (A slap on the left cheek.) “Did you see her hair? It was all silver!”

“Oh, Allah, we knew it.”

“Her mother had conceived her by using paranormal methods.”

“She shouldn’t have defied God’s wish.”

“Didn’t we say it?”

“Poor, poor child!” Much as one avoided explaining the import of these pitiful words, it was all very simple. Such a vile incident at the onset of one’s life could only mean a pitiable life.

A bad sign!

An unlucky child!

Still Jharna Begum held her head high. It seemed she didn’t care what the people were saying. She went on talking, greeting and smiling her radiant smiles. Later, perhaps, she would think about these, but now her face betrayed none of her feelings. One of the maids picked her way through the crowd with a silver tray with a plate of dates and jar of cold lemon sherbet in her hands. The visitors helped themselves, casting furtive glances at the neonate. If they could’ve x-rayed with their eyes they would certainly have penetrated the hat to see the whole head. But this was not the case. They were to see only one or two silvery curls.

Nothing more. During the course of the day they came and went at will.

Like cats.

Azad Chaudhury worried about Jharna Begum’s apparent sedateness and the outcome of it. He admired her patience, but at the same time he again became aware of the growing weeds in his brain; hairy weed, itchy weed, poisonous weed. All his thoughts and feelings were muddled. He looked at his wife, the way she walked, held her head, the baby with silver curls in her arms — everything made him uneasy. He watched people come and go, he watched his daughter, two soft silver curls crawling out from under the pink hat, and suddenly made up his mind to forbid curious neighbours on the premises for a while. Salma Begum prayed silent prayers and Gulabi put a round kajal mark, as big as a pea on the forehead of the child to ward off the evil eye.
During the following few days the rumour spread like vapour; permeating every leak, every crack, making way, touring, detouring to every household of the little village of Gulab Ganga. It said that Jharna Begum had given birth to a silver-haired fairy child. But, unfortunately the midwife had befouled the baby. As the rumour travelled from
mouth to mouth several other embellishments were added to it.

Many incredible qualities were ascribed to Jharna Begum. While some continued avoiding the sight of her as if she were a witch, others began to treat her as a saint and claimed that she could solve their problems, cure their ailments, enrich their harvest etc. Queues were established in front of the gate, children climbed up the high wall and the high trees around it to get a glimpse of the saintly mother and her divine child.

It was a sheer circus; the beggars gathered to get an extra coin, the vendors crowded in the hope of good business, children frisked about,
and the old ones recited verses from the Holy Scripture.

Meanwhile, inside the big walls the little girl grew and transformed into a very ordinary child. Her hair had been shaved off and buried under the jasmine bush together with the umbilical cord. But the stubs of her new hair shifted colour. It grew dark and darker. Black with a luminous shade of purple-blue. Like a raven’s wing in the sun. And the violet of her eyes became coffee brown, dark brown, not quite black.

And by the seventh day, when there was to be a religious ceremony to give her a name, she had turned into a perfectly normal baby girl with perfectly normal features.

It was a Thursday. The Imam was the first to arrive there. With him he had a miniature copy of the holy Quran wrapped in a velvet cover, and a large knife. Polished and sharpened. Two fattened goats had been waiting to be slaughtered by this knife on this day. The Imam performed the task in the name of God in the yard in betweenthe kitchen and dwelling house. The goats were flayed and the good meat was divided into three mounds, the same amount in each. Three meat-mounds: one for the poor ones, one for the relatives and one for the day’s feast. The last mound was prepared on open fire with a fine mixture of spices. Rice was boiled in young green bamboo reeds. Parathas were fried, ducks were grilled, rashgullahas and steamed curd
were purchased.

Two colourful party-tents were set up in the garden; one for the males and one for the females and children. Gas lanterns were hung in the four corners of each tent. One special platform was raised for the Imam to lead the religious part of the occasion. A dozen men milled about hurrying, scurrying and getting things ready. Some set the tables, some arranged the chairs, and some swept the ground.

It was a warm afternoon. Neither torturing hot, nor pressing. Pleasant.

A wind blew.

A warm and nice river-wind.

Gulabi brought the little girl out when the sun had sunk in the west, and the sky was yellowish like water with a dash of turmeric, in the dull glow of its last rays. The baby was dressed in a chalk-white frock and a pair of white socks. Her scalp, which was now bare of hair, was topped with a laced-edged hat. From under the serrated edge of her hat, her two dark eyes looked curiously around. Around her soft neck, hung a garland of garlic cloves.

Gulabi walked past the gathering crowds to hand the girl to Azad Chaudhury. He took the baby, and went up two steps to the Imam who was sitting in the middle of the dais. By then, the guests were divided into two groups according to gender — each standing on either side of the parapet, listening to the Imam. Sitting on the dais, he read aloud a few selected verses from his Quran in the velvet coat, and then proclaimed firmly how very important it was for every Muslim to carry a name denoting his or her religious and ethnic origin. These were all very familiar words to the listeners, but still they couldn’t help but feel the solemnity of the moment as people always do on such occasions. It was all very quiet but for the Imam’s grave voice.

The child in Azad Chaudhury’s arms dozed off, but the function proceeded as planned. All suggested names were painted in different colours on a wicker-tray that was set in front of the Imam. By each name a candle was lit. Above, in the evening sky, the fair moon had become a little brighter by then and the stars shone like tinsel. As the candles melted, everyone made the utmost effort to catch sight of the tray; some stood on tiptoe, some asked the person in front to make a little room, someone else very simply took a chair or a stool and stood on it. They held their breath with eyes fixed on the candles. The twelve candles burnt, wax melted, wicks shrunk, smoke rose. The Imam’s face bent over the tray and took on a reddish tint. Candles began to go out. One after another. Slowly but surely they flickered and died in succession till only one was left. It stood there now dwarfed and fat, but still burning, illuminating the name ‘Daria’.

Jharna Begum’s face shone with delight, caught by the golden moon-dust-light. Long before Daria’s birth, during those magical mornings, she had decided to call her daughter Daria, for the word daria meant river. Daria was a child of the river, a water child. And, her own name, Jharna, meant source, fountain. Jharna, the source. Daria, the river.

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The Third Grace by Deb Elkink

THE THIRD GRACE, by Deb Elkink, Greenbrier Book Company, 306 pp., $14.99 ( $6.75 Kindle).

The past casts a long shadow — especially when it points to a woman’s first love.

Her name was Mary Grace until she fell in love with the French exchange student visiting her family’s Nebraska farm. François renamed her “Aglaia” — after the beautiful Third Grace of Greek mythology — and set the seventeen-year-old girl longing for something more than her parents’ simplistic life and faith. Now, fifteen years later, Aglaia works as a costume designer in Denver. Her budding success in the city’s posh arts scene convinces her that she’s left the country bumpkin far behind. But “Mary Grace” has deep roots, as Aglaia learns during a business trip to Paris. Her discovery of sensual notes François jotted into a Bible during that long-ago fling, a silly errand imposed by her mother, and the scheming of her sophisticated mentor conspire to create a thirst in her soul that neither evocative daydreams nor professional success can quench. The Third Grace is a captivating debut novel that will take you on a dual journey across oceans and time — in the footsteps of a woman torn between her rural upbringing and her search for self.

Book Excerpt:

Aglaia returned to the kitchen to refill her mug. Her cat stretched on the couch and yawned, his elfin tongue curling around a lazy “meow” before he bounded over to rub against Aglaia’s housecoat.

She picked him up and he climbed to her shoulder and arranged himself around her neck like a fur collar, his purring idling against her ear as she opened a fishy can of breakfast for him. The tabby was a barn cat, picked up at the SPCA last fall after her former cat lost his four-year battle against city traffic. She’d never buy one of those snooty Siamese or Himalayan breeds, and not just because of the price.

“Here you go, Zephyr,” she said as he sprang to the floor.

What her boss had said about names was true, she thought; they told a lot about a person and even about a pet. The farm crawled with cats when she was young but for some reason the Klassen family never labeled them “Fluffy” or “Snowball,” but talked about them in general terms like “the mama cat” or “that mean tri-color” or “the stray.” Dad liked them around to keep down the rodent population, and Mom always made sure, in the coldest part of winter, to set table scraps outside by the step. On occasion one cat or another made a mad dash into the kitchen, and Joel would always smuggle it into the basement for a quick snuggle.

Aglaia dubbed each of her cats “Zephyr” now—all three cats in turn that she’d owned since they formally named the first one on that perilous summer day in the hayloft.

Mary Grace hunts for the boys for an hour. She calls their names into the machine shop and the bunkhouse, and spies out the pasture but finds Joel’s horse unsaddled, unridden, standing against the backdrop of the thunderheads with its mane blowing. As the storm breaks the hot sky open, she thinks of the loft and scales the splintery ladder with the ease of her tomboy days. She doesn’t hear François picking on his guitar until she’s halfway up the barn wall. She hoists herself through the wooden doorframe into the loft and catches sight of Joel grabbing at the fleeing tomcat.

            “He goes like the wind!” Joel complains.

             She hasn’t climbed that ladder for over a year, and when she finds them there, it strikes her again what a haven the place is—the musty perfume of the bales, the daylight jabbing ghostly fingers through gaps in the shingles.

            François is smoking something that smells sweeter than the hay.

            “What are you doing?” She’s aghast that Joel hasn’t put a stop to it, if only because Dad’s been adamant about their never lighting matches in this firetrap. But more, she’s thrilled at the danger of what she’s walked into. She looks from François to Joel, and gets the impression the two have had words about it and François has won.

But she doesn’t leave the barn—she doesn’t run to tattle. How can she? François’s charcoal eyes smile away her indignation.

            “You’ve come here to sing with me?” François asks as he strums a chord. “Or maybe to smoke with me?” He winks at her again. “Joel won’t try, but you will, non?”

He takes the joint from his lips and raises it to hers, daring her while Joel watches with distress in his eyes. She remembers the pact they made, but she takes the slightest puff anyway and starts coughing. She’s never even smoked a cigarette, never mind a joint. Joel grits his teeth but François smiles, and so she takes a second draw—this time deeper. She knows she should leave now, but hail as hard as Pharaoh’s heart begins a staccato on the barn roof.

The tomcat reappears to skulk near François, curls up against him without invitation, then snags at Joel when he reaches to pet him. “Let’s name him Zephyr,” François says, “for the west wind.”

François makes her feel like a Zephyr, nervous and needy and a little naughty all at once.

***************

 

Aglaia’s fingers wrapped around the demitasse from which she had taken two delectable sips. She hated to polish it off with a final gulp but Lou, watching her from across the table, had already finished hers. Aglaia wanted to sit here forever.

The streets of Paris fulfilled her every expectation. This moment of lounging at her first sidewalk café was a condensation of all of her long-held expectations—the pungent coffee and chocolate-drizzled pastry, the wafting perfume of passers-by, the music pulled from a violin by a gypsy-busker in the shade of the boulevard’s trees. Ignoring Lou’s surveillance, she dipped into her bag to hook out her sketchpad and, with a few deft strokes of her graphite, captured the swing of the violinist’s skirt, the strain at the sleeve seam as the girl propelled her bow across willing strings.

***************

 

Aglaia turned the page to draft another hasty contour of the musician. It was Tuesday morning, eighteen hours since landing, and the first time Aglaia had consciously absorbed the aura of the city. She was in a daze upon arrival at the airport yesterday and almost nodded off in the cab ride to the Hôtel du Caillou, where she and Lou dropped off their baggage, freshened up, and set out on a walking tour of the Montmartre neighborhood stretched prostrate below the great white basilica of Sacré-Coeur. They read the grave markers of famous poets as they took a shortcut through a cemetery. They raced through a Monet show, Lou stopping long enough to instruct her on the Impressionist’s conveyance of light, although she had no use for the portrait artists in the square who called to them for a sitting. They spotted the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge from a distance as they marched along the avenues till Aglaia’s ankle could take no more. She didn’t get a chance to practice her French, since Lou was so quick to speak—to purchase entrance tickets to a gallery or to order a bottle of vin blanc. And she didn’t get a chance to check out a Paris phone book either, Lou yanking her past at least two booths. The day’s heat was unbearable, and after an early supper at an elegant restaurant, Aglaia fell into a deep sleep on her first night in the hotel.

So now she sat beneath the red awning of a Parisian café on a sunny morning with her sketchpad, and she only half listened as Lou began to outline their sightseeing agenda without once asking for her input. For the moment, Aglaia didn’t care. She was immersing herself in the whole luxurious encounter—the tastes and scents and sounds—like she might slide into her bath after a long day of work.

***************

 

Paper crackling, Lou unfolded the Métro map, subway being the preferred mode of transportation around Paris for tourists and residents alike. She said, “Well, come on. Let’s be intentional about our day.” She had all their options for the entire stay figured out, with time set aside for her own research at the university and for Aglaia’s appointment tomorrow morning at the costume museum. Relieved to be off the subject of François, Aglaia became more animated with every turn of the Fodor’s page.

Lou went on about the parks and galleries and bridges. “We’ll fly by the Opéra Garnier, make reservations for a boat trip down the Seine, and take in the Rodin museum.” Lou ran her fingertip along their intended path on the map. “I’ll show you Victor Hugo’s setting for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the movie was filmed, and then we’ll stop for some cherry sorbet from Berthillon.”

***************

Aglaia pitched into tourist mode for the rest of the day. She admired the architecture, nodded along to Lou’s overview of French rationalism, and shuddered through a demonstration of a guillotine. She gasped at the fiendish ferocity of the 384 masks carved on the oldest bridge in the city, glaring down at her from their height like some ill-tempered gods, and she recognized another bridge—when Lou pointed it out to her—that Marlon Brando stood upon in the Last Tango in Paris. She trudged through several cathedrals to appreciate their historic significance and even put up with a lecture on Lou’s view about the socio-cultural impact of Joan of Arc upon the women of late mediaeval France.

But they didn’t pause to taste the crêpes sizzling on a curbside griddle, drenched in butter and folded up in a cone of waxed paper but discounted by Lou as peasant fare. They didn’t inspect the bolts of lace stacked up on a vendor’s table in the flea market. And they dashed past the dead chickens that hung from their twine-wrapped claws beneath canopies blowing in the wind, and brown blocks of Marseillaise soap, and round goat cheeses powdered with ash. When they did sit for a few minutes on a park bench, shaded from the burning sun, to rest Aglaia’s ankle and watch a cluster of middle-aged men who played pétanque on the grass, Lou couldn’t explain to her the rules of the game.

It was almost seven o’clock by the time they got off the Métro at the Saint-Georges stop, and the phone calls to any existing Vivier households still hadn’t been made. As they walked into their hotel, Lou asked the concierge to book a table at a nearby seafood restaurant.

“It’s superb, Aglaia. Bouillabaisse as it was meant to be supped and Coquilles Saint-Jacques that trumps any you’ve eaten at home.” Aglaia hadn’t ever eaten either dish at home, and she was intimidated by her culinary ignorance—though she could bet Lou had never tasted really superb Kjielkje noodles rolled out, boiled, and fried in bacon drippings by an old Mennonite cook. She felt herself grin at that, and salivate just a little.

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Hidden Passages: Tales to Honor the Crones – Book Excerpt

Author: Vila Spider Hawk
Title: Hidden Passages: Tales to Honor the Crones
Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing
Genre: women’s fiction
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9796545-6-5
Softcover: 272 pages
Purchase Here at Amazon

Vila SpiderHawk is taking a different view on the aging of womankind. Hidden Passages: Tales to Honor the Crones is a collection of tales, some of which are interconnected, others which stand alone, all of which deal with women who are finding or already using the wisdom acquired from years of life experience.

Vila SpiderHawk and her husband share a log home of their design in the woods of Pennsylvania where they live with their five cats and enjoy frequent visits with their many woodland friends. SpiderHawk is an avid gardener and a gourmet vegan cook.
You can find Vila at www.vilaspiderhawk.com

Follow Vila’s Virtual Book Tour at Pump Up Your Book
http://www.pumpupyourbook.com/2010/10/17/hidden-passages-tales-to-honor-the-crones-virtual-book-tour-november-%E2%80%9810/

Watch the book video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wmlz31q_ugQ

Vila reads from Hidden Passages: Tales to Honor the Crones
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXzvTLo71Ok

Read the Excerpt

Perhaps it is my own “crone years” creeping up on me, but there seems to be a healthy change in how we look at women in and beyond their midlife years. In a youth-obsessed society, at least in the United States, so much of the current dictates point towards a Quixotic pursuit of the impossible, that is, finding the fountain of youth through plastic and cosmetic surgery, an endless array of surely useless creams and lotions, Botox shots and facial peels, diets that lead to eating disorders, and a general wave of ensuing self-esteem problems. Someone is getting rich. No one, however, is getting any younger.

Vila SpiderHawk is taking a different view on the aging of womankind. Hidden Passages is a collection of tales, some of which are interconnected, others which stand alone, all of which deal with women who are finding or already using the wisdom acquired from years of life experience.

In the opening tale of Mima Po, a young girl overcomes her fear of a woman who is markedly different than the other women in the girl’s community. Gossiping women whisper that Mima Po is odd, perhaps a witch casting mysterious spells and incantations. Children are frightened of her. But little Kathleen is more intrigued than she is frightened, and she overcomes her fear to befriend the elderly woman, who turns out to be Czechoslovakian rather than demonic. The older woman teaches the girl something of her own beliefs and perspective, and the girl learns to “see with her heart.”

In Passages, a girl moves through a rites of passage into womanhood, both symbolic and literal, among her tribe of watching women, bonding with the other women as well as with the feminine in nature, bonding with the divine, and erasing boundaries between all.

In a trilogy of tales, Maiden, Mother, Crone, we see the passages of the girl-child, the adult woman who is her mother, and of the elderly woman, the grandmother. Each has her own unique perspective to offer the others.

Nanu’s Story illustrates the life-giving force in women, the biological drive, the unfaltering love of mother for child, unchangeable even by death. The woman, Tichu, is a kind of mother of all, teaching survival skills and passing on her wisdom to those who will accept it. Her femininity is lush and full, in all senses of the word, and she knows a pride in herself from which the modern woman could learn much.

Gita’s Journey delves deeper still into the mother-child connection, exploring the process of grief when one is lost to the other, from the deepest and darkest shadows of despair into the eventual light of acceptance.

Lavinia is something of a ghost story of women, where the reader wonders at times who is living and who is not.

What all these tales have in common, aside from the story of various life passages traveled by women over time and various cultures, is a language that is as vivid and rich as these women in their femininity. The author combines all the gentle kindness that is woman, unabashedly emotional, with the enduring strength and time-won wisdom that earns a woman the proud designation of “crone.” SpiderHawk makes a feminist statement in each one of her tales without being abrasive or didactic or challenging. Her women, her crones, simply are as they are, and by spending time with them in these tales, we realize ourselves enriched by the gentle strength of their distinctly feminine presence.

“Happiness spun in the chamber like witch grass smoke. I immediately found myself chuckling. I was so utterly pleased with myself and with everything around me that I broke into giggles and finally into riotous guffaws. Jubilant spirits frolicked around and through me, each one laughing with total abandon, and I thought, so this is where mirth is created! And, indeed, while I watched, the glittering laughter fed on itself, growing and twirling like a giant pinwheel and spangling showers of joy all over and through us. Some of it swirled into a small, dense ball, and we played with it, batting it to and through each other, laughing all the harder with the game… it splintered into tiny twinkling bits, showering over the earth like platinum rain. I was thrilled that my joy was mingled in the droplets, and I hoped that it would heal someone whose heart was sorrowing.”

These are women as women should be: unafraid of living, unafraid of expressing their femininity, unafraid of aging, unafraid of facing up to their own fears and weaknesses and transforming them into strengths, unafraid to confront those who would deny them their place, simply – unafraid. We should all wish to be such terrific crones.

Categories: Chick Lit | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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