WHEN AZIZA’S VOICE LIFTED • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Ascending in kafi, Aziza’s voice was raw sugar and pomegranate syrup poured through a smoky fire. It caught in your throat when you heard it.

It didn’t lift til later. First —

Her father was a Sufi Pir — like a plumber, he kept life flowing in the right direction. He counseled the troubled and wrote out blessings, and was conveniently located. Wonderfully soothing — a handsome old man who twinkled at will.

Her mother’s earthy graciousness calmed women entering the ladies’ parlor trembling with embarrassment and yearning; they’d be giggling before she led them to the master’s study.

Aziza looked a plain though cheerful bird; her sisters were brilliant in colors that set off their fairness but she liked shades of cinnamon, honey and ginger — a plump brown gulab-jamun warm from the kitchen herself.

God in His infinite mercy gives everyone a purpose; Aziza’s fruit chaat and perfectly-textured shami kebabs were a blessing, her parents always said, in their household whose door was always open. Our comfort and our gift, they said, as they married off her peach-and-almond-blossom sisters. You are our sunflower, they said.

No hope of daughters-in-law, but God granted them one daughter no burden to keep at home.

***

All this began as insidiously as an infestation of mice — that first little bite letting everything else in.

“Will you wait for me,” asked Bakhtyaar, “til I see my way through?”

He and Aziza had been schoolfellows, and ruined perhaps by a modern education. They believed in the existence of happy endings.

“Yes,” Aziza said.

A long wait was likely. Bakhtyaar, respectful, though perhaps too advanced for the times, had asked his parents to approve the match.

“Are my nieces so hideous,” his mother inquired, “that you are forced to disgrace us?”

Bakhtyaar’s father said, “Choose any cousin you like.”

Bakhtyaar wasn’t quarrelsome, or a liar. “I will complete my education,” he said. That was all he said.

He worked hard; he gained admission to a fine institution abroad; he went quietly away, leaving a sharp but invisible rift in someone’s universe.

Aziza, kneading dough for parathas one morning, thought of him, the grace of his movements sketching parabolas in space while they talked of some mathematical concept.

The sweetness of the memory made the pain of his absence, for a moment, unbearably sharper. Aziza meant only to relieve it with a sigh, but found herself exclaiming a Seraiki kafi to the rhythm of her hands and brought the servants to tears.

To be the child of a Sufi Pir is to have in one’s blood every form of poetry.

Aziza’s father had an overflowing library; his daughters grew up speaking that Persianized Urdu birthed in the Mughal court. They recited ghazals with exquisite subtlety; all had done admirably in their tenth-year exams.

But Persian and Urdu are sweet languages, best for beautiful formalities. To voice the heart-ravishment of a created being thirsting for God requires tongues more vigorous than those where penis is rendered as the organ of procreation.

The Sufis used the languages of the plains — Punjabi and Seraiki, where “sister-fucker” is curse and endearment–to transmute every function of the body into descriptor of the soul — the bed soaked and reeking after the Beloved has possessed you, all night, in every orifice — until love has brought you deliriously to the brink of death. Such poetry allows even the most unlettered to feel who God is, unto the very marrow of their bones.

Aziza’s parents returned from a journey to find neighbor women sitting cross-legged in their courtyard, hands pressed to the ground, swaying and crying out in a joyful anguish of devotion as Aziza’s voice consumed them with gutter words.

These words, of course, expressed sublimities. But her father, liberal as he was, felt unsettled by this rapture. Were these particular sublimities suited to the mouth of his daughter?

He and his wife suspected some derangement of the bodily humors.

“Well,” said Aziza truthfully, “something pinched me inside, and it had to come up or go down.”

They dosed her with digestive remedies but couldn’t expel that voice.

She sang at unpredictable moments and her audience couldn’t be sustained; women cannot, of course, drop their cooking spoons in deference to the nourishment of their souls.

But energy once created can’t be destroyed; that voice was everywhere even when Aziza spoke and laughed and hummed in her cheerfully ordinary way.

Bakhtyaar heard it, thousands of miles away. His soul ached with shame. I shouldn’t have made her wait, he thought.

He took a week’s leave and traveled straight to Aziza’s house and paid a respectful call on her father. He described the course of his education and what God, in His infinite mercy, had enabled him to do with it.

He asked for Aziza’s hand, hinting that a quick decision was necessary — he had only such a limited amount of leave. And he expressed doubt that elaborate wedding festivities were what God, in His wisdom, required for the sanctification of marriage. Why not make a small gift towards the establishment of a household?

Aziza’s parents approved of the way he thought — practical though he was, he might almost have been one of her father’s students. Perhaps they could relinquish Aziza, after all.

Aziza agreed this was an acceptable offer.

All of them regretted the derangement of bodily humors this would cause to Bakhtyaar’s parents, but who can resist fate?

***

Aziza’s body, like kulfi, was cool and sweet and melted at just the right times. Bakhtyaar found every corner of her delectable.

Miraculous too.

“Just the laws of physics,” she said, “but thank God you had wonderful hearing.”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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