The gutters in Habah’s neighborhood overflow with tears. The smell in the air is not the perfume of gardens filled with roses and jasmine. It is the scent of cabbage and rice with underlying notes of hard labor, long hours, and a quietly restrained desperation. This flawed part of the old city is Habah’s whole world. As such, no matter its poverty and imperfections in the eyes of others, she deems it beautiful.
Habah knows her world as something magical. Her beloved city groans and pulses under a ceiling that has stolen its blue from the turquoise sea. Its stars scintillate in the night sky and protect her from dream demons. And, while Habah doesn’t remember her father or know where he is, she knows that by some exquisite metaphysics they gaze at the same moon each evening. Of the many gifts received with gratitude from the city, the only one missing is the ultimate bliss of her father’s presence.
Habah’s mother’s store is among the many magical elements of Habah’s world. It sits between Yúsuf’s Dry Goods Store and Badi’s Oriental Café. It is a small store, maybe five-hundred square feet. It is lively with the aroma of Mocha Sanani from Yemen, the spicy scents of cinnamon, cardamom, sumac and the smell of the chamomile tea her mother drinks constantly. The floor is a simple hard-packed dirt covered with saw dust.
The shelves are busy with packages of her mother’s hand-crafted Turkish delight and her grandmother’s coveted quince jam. There are spices and sesame seeds freshly ground into za’atar and majool dates neatly stuffed with black walnuts. The glowing old-gold of thyme honey, the pink sapphire of pickled radishes, and the bright garnet of tomato sauces are stored in jars and glasses of many sizes and varied origins. They stud the shelves like gems in a bracelet. The rich notes of malachite peak from pistachio-studded confections that rest next to the semi-precious pastels of kufeta, sugared almonds.
A glass-topped display case protects their most valued treasures. Right now it holds amulets of amethyst and lapis set in gold, a rare ancient text in Aramaic, two hand painted water jugs from the Lebanon, mystical crystals dug from some unknown geology and other things that spark the eye, remind the body of its hungers, or speak to the soul.
At the end of the display case there is a small desk. The desk has a small drawer that holds a small box with their money. Everything is diminutive like her mother and grandmother who stand a scant four feet. Habah is undersized as well. Nine years-old and shoulder-high to most of her classmates, it is already clear that she too will grow to be a delicate wisp of fairy-dream. “Nothing wrong with small,” said her mother’s brother, Ammu Dani, a poor attempt at accepting his own lack of height and girth. “Fine boned,” is what her mother, Laila, said. “We are a fine boned people, and that is exactly because we are fine-minded and true-hearted.” Laila believed that how you manifest in this world is what you are in your mind and heart.
Closing the door to the house behind her, Habah went skipping to the store until she knew she was close enough for her mother to see her. Then she walked slowly like a civilized person.
Today is a big day. Today they expect a delivery from the other side. When she was little, Habah thought “the other side” meant that place you came from when you were born and returned to when you died. Eventually she learned it meant just another earthy place, the one that they emigrated from long before she could remember. Ammu Dani said it lay oceans away. Now that she was older she understood that the packages they got each month were sent from dusty villages, places where prophets and angels had once walked unrecognized among men and women too preoccupied with worldly things. At least that’s what Laila had told her and what Habah believes.
Laila and Habah are never able to predict what each month’s shipment will bring. It might be a rock or a crystal, a dried flower or a salted fish. It might be a dead saint’s relic: a hallowed piece of bone or lock of hair. Her mother treated whatever came with equal reverence when she made them at home in her display case. Once the shipment was of a Turkish coffee cup, etched gold on the outside and lined with the purest white china. It came with a golden spoon and sat on an old pock-marked ebony tray. The wonders flowed from east to west, month upon month, year after year.
Habah arrived at the shop to find a large man holding a package of rough cloth tied with white string. She wondered if it was their package. He looked down from his great height and smiled at her as if he knew her. Inside her mind, Habah talked to herself, “He has eyes like dark cocoa with a dash of warm cinnamon.”
The big man and Laila exchanged a glance. “I want you to go home, Habah. Go home and help your grandmother with her baking.” “Why?” Habah whined, “I want to help you.” All week at school, Habah looked forward to Saturdays and helping her mother in the shop. “We will meet you at home. First, I need some time with this gentleman.” “We?” thought Habah.
Though Habah chaffed at being sent home, she did as she was told. “I’m being sent home because of this man,” she thought. “Who is he?” He reminded her of a Romani Gypsy she’d read about in a story once. She felt unaccountably safe in his presence. She wanted to talk to him, to perhaps curl-up and cuddle on his lap, and relish the scent of him that seemed oddly familiar, a comforting combination of her grandmother’s stewed lamb, strong coffee, and winds from foreign places.
When Habah got home, her grandmother had yet to start the baking. She was in the basement going through the contents of a battered black trunk. She pulled two fading sepia photographs from it. One is of Laila with a dark man who looks like he could be the brother of the man Habah met in the store.
Habah drew herself up. She knew it. She knew it! Everyone must come to her city. It was the center of the earth. She’d always known it: that one day the beloved city would toss from its secret depths and wide connections that singular precious missing bliss, the ultimate bliss, long fated and so longingly awaited. Habah did not care by what occult means the ultimate bliss had finally arrived, only that he had. Tonight – after dinner – they would stand together at her window and feast on the moon.
© Short Story ~ Jamie Dedes, 2011 all rights reserved; This short story is fiction and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is coincidence. Also published in The Cottage Reader and The BeZine. Photo credit ~ Brooklyn Memories/Old Brooklyn