Water boils in a steel cooking pot, the largest Sheitela could find in the middle of the night without making too much noise. Her eyes are red in the dim light of the fire, watching bubbles slowly form at the bottom. Her hands are hot but her full lips are firm.
She can hear his steady, rolling snore drowning those of her four daughters, sleeping in the courtyard. His bed is farther away from theirs, facing the rusting outer gate of the house and the roofless mud-cubicles that serve as toilets. His bed had first been placed there two years earlier, when he had instructed his oldest daughter Abeer to no longer set his bed next to her mother’s: she repulsed him and he was no longer interested in having sexual intercourse with her. Abeer said nothing to her mother, who in turn only noticed the continued placement of the far-away bed. She was, in fact, relieved- she had never had any stamina nor desire for her cousin’s rutting appetite, neither could she be bothered with grooming. Her daughters themselves were now of almost-marriageable age, and it would be unseemly for her to instruct them on proper wife duties during the day and have them hear her clobbering away with their father in the middle of night.
They had carried on fine for awhile, neither of them even remotely interested in discussing the topic. In fact, the arrangement suited each of them so perfectly that the for the first time they had gone almost three months without Sheitela threatening to throw him out of her house. It was during this time that Ismaeil discovered that his second wife was pregnant, and so he focused all his energies on willing God to grant him a son in place of the one Sheitela had so carelessly lost. Sheitela did not discover any of this until a few months after the boy was born, who was named Hassan after her own son.
Now, while she kept an eye on the bubbles forming around the edges of the pot, Sheitela glanced down her spotted dress. She peeked inside at her breasts, laying warmly against her stomach, their brownness smoother than any other part of her body. She wanted to see more, and nudged down the white, frayed sleeves, freeing her arms. The water continued to boil as the dress rolled down her wide, worn-out hips; down her layered thighs and sturdy calves. She studied her own body illuminated by the fire; twisting, turning, imagining how another lover would have caressed her, standing behind her- just like this- here, now, in the middle of the night, in the kitchen, with her daughters sleeping only a few feet away. She closed her eyes and bent her face lightly over the steam, breathing it in through her mouth. When it become too hot and too loud, Sheitela turned the stove off, and in her disheveled state carried the three liters of spitting-hot water through the courtyard, past her daughters, with only a rag to protect her rough hands.
She stood still over his head, watching his immovable form- now silent. There was only the sound of the water swooshing lightly between her shaking hands as she raised the pot- and then lowered it. She decided to murmur a quick prayer first before she raised her arms again, but one of her daughters let out a sudden snort that made her gasp and splash some of the water on the ground. Ismaeil did not move. She glanced back at her daughters, back at him, back at her daughters, back again at him- all the time lowering her arms and raising them in turn, until the water began to get cold. Sheitela moved back to her bed, slumping heavily and splashing the water on the pathetic-looking plant that never grew behind her. She wanted to scream, to cry out to God- she opened her mouth but shut it back quickly, frightened that Ismaeil would hear.
Image: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr