Authors: Suzanne Fisher Staples
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Text copyright © 1993 by Suzanne Fisher Staples
Map copyright © 1993 by Anita Carl and James Kemp
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To Jeanne Drewsen, my agent, whose faith has been constant;
Frances Foster, my editor, whose wisdom is an inspiration;
and the many people in Pakistan who gave of their time, energy,
and hospitality to make it possible for me to travel
and learn about their wonderful country
Names of Characters
italicized syllable is accented
puh)—A healer and herbal doctor
Abdul Muhammad Khan
muhd Khahn)—Pathan murdered by his brother
)—Shabanu’s male cousin
-mehd)—Rahim’s only son, betrothed to Zabo
(Uh-lee)—An old servant in Selma’s household
)—Arabic word meaning “God”
-nuh)—Rahim’s first wife, mother of Leyla and Ahmed
-bee Lahl)—Phulan’s mother-in-law
duhr)—Mumtaz’s stuffed monkey (Urdu word for “small”)
tee)—Mumtaz’s pet deer (Urdu word for “monkey”)
see)—Dadi’s proper name
ood)—Selma’s late husband
-muh)—Shabanu’s cousin, Sharma’s daughter
-loo-buhnd)—Shabanu’s dancing camel, her childhood favorite
meer)—Shabanu’s cousin, murdered by Nazir
-nee)—Rahim’s faithful manservant
)—Phulan’s brother-in-law, murdered by Nazir
-luh)—Rahim’s eldest daughter, betrothed to Omar
)—Rahim’s younger brother
muhd)—Holy Prophet of Islam
)—Shabanu’s brother-in-law, Phulan’s husband
-muhd)—Rahim’s youngest brother
-muhr)—Rahim’s nephew, betrothed to Leyla
)—Shabanu’s husband, a major landowner
)—Nazir’s farm manager
)—Son of Zabo’s servant
-uh)—Rahim’s second wife
-yuh)—Shabanu and Mumtaz’s teacher
muh)—Sister of Rahim, Mahsood, and Nazir
-noo)—Daughter of nomadic camel herders, fourth wife of the wealthy landowner Rahim
)—Selma’s lifelong servant
-duh)—Keeper of Derawar Fort
muh)—Shabanu’s aunt, cousin of both of her parents
uh)—Rahim’s third wife
-muh)—Mumtaz’s name for her mother
Dihl)—Camel owned by Shabanu’s family
)—Servant girl in Selma’s household
boh)—Rahim’s niece, daughter of Nazir, betrothed to Ahmed
habanu awoke at dawn on a cool spring morning, with the scent of early Punjabi roses rich and splendid on the air, warm as the sun rising through the mist. The
squeaked lightly, string against wood, as she rolled over to gaze at her sleeping child.
But Mumtaz had slipped out, perhaps before first light. Shabanu closed her eyes again and waited for the sun to creep through the open doorway of their room behind the stable.
She lay on her back and stretched her arms over her head. Mumtaz was nearly five, and there was little time for her to be free in this life. She would be safe enough within the ocher mud walls of the family compound near the village of Okurabad on the road to Multan.
Shabanu did not force her daughter to stand to have her hair untangled every morning. She allowed her to wear her favorite old
legs halfway to her knees, the tunic faded to a grayish wash. Soon enough Mumtaz would have to stay indoors and wear the
. For now Shabanu wanted her to have whatever freedom was possible.
Shabanu remembered how she’d rebelled when her mother had forced her to wear the veil that reached to the ground and tangled around her feet when she ran. It had been the end of her climbing thorn trees and running among the sand dunes.
Outside, the sun dappled through the neem tree, and Shabanu imagined her daughter hiding behind the old giant, her matted head against its leathery bark, the dirt powdery between her toes.
The spirit stove popped as old Zenat started a fire for tea in the kitchen beside the room. Already flies darted in and out of the doorway. Shabanu rose from the
Dust rose around her bare feet as she moved about, folding bedding, then gathering things for the child’s bath—tallowy soap and a rough, sun-dried towel.
Shabanu went to the doorway. A flash of sunlight caught in the diamond pin in her nose, sending a glint straight to where Mumtaz hid behind the tree. The glass bangles on Shabanu’s arm clinked as she whipped her long black hair into a thick knot at the base of her neck. She turned back inside to reach for her shawl and saw from the corner of her eye a small movement as Mumtaz flitted away, silent as a moth.
Wrapping her shawl around her, Shabanu followed her daughter toward the old wooden gate that led to the canal, where Mumtaz loved to play in the water. The small dark head bobbed beyond the bushes that framed the inner courtyard of the big house where Shabanu’s husband lived. Shabanu was the youngest, by eight years, of Rahim’s four wives, and Mumtaz was his youngest child. The other wives lived separately, in apartments in the big house.
Shabanu and Mumtaz had lived with Rahim until early in winter when Shabanu had persuaded him that life would be easier for her and the child if she could take up residence in the room near the stables while he was in Lahore, capital of the Punjab 150 miles away, for the winter session of the provincial assembly.
There had been incidents, a few of which she’d told him about—the scorpion in her bed, the rabid bat in her cupboard. Rahim had raged and demanded to know who had done these things. A small, thin boy was offered as the culprit.
Then Rahim said there was no need for her to move out of the house. Why would she rather be off, away from the rest of the family? Why would she give up the convenience of running water, electricity, servants? But Shabanu knew that danger lay precisely in her staying, and she had remained firm in her insistence. At the last moment before leaving for Lahore, Rahim had acquiesced.
The others said the stable was where Shabanu and Mumtaz belonged, and laughed wickedly behind their veils. She didn’t mind. It gave her privacy from the insolent servant women who walked into her room without knocking, and reported everything back to the other wives.
Shabanu followed the child to the stand of trees past the pump, where Mumtaz stopped. On the broad veranda, beyond the wide silver pipe with water dripping in sparkles from its mouth, stood bamboo cages in which desert birds blinked their fiery eyes.
The birds came from the dunes of Cholistan, where Pakistan meets India, a land of magic and camels where Shabanu had spent her childhood. Mumtaz never tired of her mother’s stories of the desert’s wizards and warriors. She was fascinated by her father’s birds. She loved to come in the first morning light to help the old
remove the linen covers from the tall domed cages. Shabanu stopped to watch her daughter approach, her hands stretched out toward the feathers that shone brightly from between the thin bars. The
returned with pans of maize, clucking and mewling to the birds, and asked Mumtaz to lift the cage doors.