Posted by: jolantru | April 30, 2010

Seventh Branch: Caravansari.

When we finally reached the stone buildings, it was fast approaching twilight. We were covered with dust, hungry and exhausted. I could hear the children whimpering, some sobbing into their mothers’ legs. The lowing of nu surrounded us, coupled with the stench of manure and animal scents. The herders had reached the caravansari a few hours earlier and had already turned in.

Auri knocked on the door, the wood thumping hollowly. She spoke a dialect oddly familiar and alien at the same time. A man’s voice answered promptly: deep, musical. The door creaked open, revealling a broad-shouldered man with dusky skin. He wore a dark sarong, a wool wrap draped around his shoulders.

“Aaoree!” He greeted her while glancing at us speculatively. His eyes widened at the sight of the exhausted group behind us. “Herrii! We have more guests!”

~*~

Farhadi ushered us into the main building. The warmth embraced me, comforting my wearied soul. I ached all over. The rest of the City folk camped outside in the courtyard, provided with thick blankets, clean water and hot stew. Farhadi’s wife, Heri, cooked up a large pot of rice. The smell of steaming rice filled the den: pleasantly sweet. Home. My stomach growled. I gulped the rice down.

The caravansari owner sat down with us, listening to our accounts carefully. He nodded, harumphed and nodded again, pouring hot jasmine tea into our mugs and urging us to continue. He used to live in the City, but he had found it stifling. Running a caravansari right in the middle of the Plains was more suited to his free-spirited self. He appeared to be a young fifty sun-circles; his eyes were inquisitive, but bearing no malice. He was an old friend of Auri, who helped her during her wandering days.

“What do you plan to do, Aaoree?” Farhadi looked at us solemnly.

Auri remained silent. I wanted to hug her. However, she was prickly now, unapproachable. The sea witch.

There was a loud slam and a woman, about my age, stormed through the door. Cold wind rushed in with her and I shivered, rubbing my arms. I eyed her as she glared around, her entire posture stiff and unbelievably hostile. Her brown hair was tied in a severe ponytail, her face pretty, but soured, somewhat, by her cold and belligerent expression. She was carrying a bucket of glowing embers.

“I see we have freeloaders here,” she spoke, her voice hard as flint.

“Shame on you, Fiona,” Heri rapped out angrily. “They are our guests. Now, go!”

The woman named Fiona flung her a chilly glare and shuffled out, the bucket spilling flurries of embers. The red embers sizzled on the plush carpet, hissing with wisps of smoke. Awkward silence followed her departure.

“That Fiona girl,” Farhadi said, rough with emotion. Heri placed her hand on his arm, shaking her head.

~*~

I fell into a soft bed and woke up, thinking that I had only slept for two minutes. White adobe walls, sparse furnishing, a marble cistern flowing with clear water. Sounds of moving animals and people. Josh massaged my shoulders, smiling. I had been sleeping for almost eight hours!

Auri was already out, talking to the City folk. They looked so incongruous with the nu herds moving around them. A city of tents had sprouted up overnight. Women cooked soup while keeping an eye on their children. Physician Habibah had set up an impromptu clinic; a queue had formed with the usual complaints of colds and body aches, physical reactions of a people not used to long-term traveling. She expressed concern about the four pregnant women in the group. “We need a safe place, Mirra,” she told me in the privacy of the main den. “Giving birth in the open is not sanitary. Nor is it safe for mother and child.”

Fiona made her presence felt as well, ordering the City folk about as if they were her servants. Most quietly went about running her errands. Their hearts and minds were already heavy with sorrow. They missed the City.

They wanted to go home.

~*~

I helped Heri in the kitchen, busying myself with the rinsing of vegetables and rice grains. Mundane things. Thoughts of Home, my true home, were constant in my mind. Heri handed me dough and taught me to bake Plains bread, using the flat circular grill. The recipe was passed down from mother to daughter. The bread was intensely fragrant, of wheat and fenugreek, eaten with fresh hilbeh, a paste made from ground coriander.

“My mother taught me when I was a little girl,” Heri kneaded and patted the dough, her arms dusted with white flour. “I have no daughters, only two strapping sons who married faraway women. Now I teach you.” I bowed, humbled. In return, I gave her the oyster fritter recipe used by Grandmother. Her eyes lit up with delight, lifting my spirits as well.

~*~

We ate the bread when it came to meal time. Auri told stories, Josh sang, Gani lit candles in the glass bowls he had managed to save before fleeing the City. Someone played his frame drum. For a moment, the anxiety dissipated. People were laughing and clapping their hands, singing along with the folk tunes. For a moment, it felt like festival time at the City. Josh singing the wassail. Auri drumming.

I saw Fiona watching us from the shelters where the carriage animals spent their nights. Her eyes were haunted, her lips thin. Longing. Before I could say anything, she turned away abruptly and melted into the dark.

We went to bed after a long soak in the hot tubs situated within the bath house. The hot water held me like a long lost kinswoman, bearing with it a subtle tinge of sea salt and childhood memories. I loathed to leave it. My body yearned for the sea.

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