It was last August I spent in Turkmenistan. The August before my husband filed for divorce, before my refusal to ever speak to our mother again.
I can still feel the scorching sun burning my skin in the front yard of our parents’ home. You and Mum said it was too hot to sit out on the tapchan and instead we drank green tea inside the spacious hallway that served as a kitchen. Do you remember? You cuddled six-year old Jamie and teased him, saying your nephew talked like a girl; that he needed to learn the art of being a proper man and you volunteered to wrestle him down to the ground. You ignited a competitive spark that made him strive to beat you; if not that year then the next, when he’d be older and stronger. Mum and I laughed at your silly jokes while we continued dunking traditional Turkmen bread, the smell of which could only be achieved from cooking in a tamdyr, into our soup. You do remember, I know you do.
It was also in August seventeen years ago that I first held you in my arms. You didn’t know then, but you were born in a cockroach-infested Soviet maternity ward. Mother fled from it as soon as she could, holding you tight to her bosom and then handing you over the wire fence to Dad. Dad would confess later that he nearly dropped you that night, after accidently setting fire to his trousers from a lit cigarette, which he was hanging onto for dear life.
I loved watching you in your sleep back then. Whenever you cried I covered your little rosy face with millions of kisses and inhaled your new-born odour, so sweet and so dear. On the seventh day after your birth I carried you round the dusty neighbourhood to show you off and accept gifts that I tucked under my armpits to secure their safe delivery back home.
Mum left you in my care because she had to go to work at the hospital in Ashgabat. In the meantime Dad spent his days watching television. He said he couldn’t be bothered to work for peanuts.
Mother taught me to stretch your little arms across your body and straighten your wrinkly legs. I observed her swaddling you in gündelik, and fastening you with a black and white splice to keep you tight. I watched your face turn red like a ripe tomato, feeling your discomfort in a confined space. I couldn’t bear to see you like that. I had to release you from your nappy trap and let you enjoy your afternoon freedom.
My little brother. I told you that I was going to study law. I was determined to adopt you and have you to myself. Do you remember the day our aunt brought you to visit me at my student hostel? You hid some bruises underneath your T-shirt and trousers. But I saw them. My poor darling, you begged me to come back home to protect you from Dad. His new-found mate Vodka became his favourite member of the family. I recall you telling me that at the slightest provocation he went around bashing everyone with a rolling pin. You described how Mum spent the nights crying in the bedroom while Dad drowned himself with the forty percent spirit. The spirit purchased with the money stolen from her purse. What you didn’t tell me though, is that one evening after a boozy night Dad chased Mum down and beat her up. She ended up at the hospital with broken ribs.
I never forgot your excitement when I phoned you from the tiny cabin of a call centre in Ashgabat to tell you I was coming home. You must remember the summer I persuaded our forever fighting parents to take us to the Caspian Sea. You were not afraid of the waves and swam as far as you could from the shore. I collected the seashells scattered around the beach and designed a necklace for you. By the way, do you still have that? Do you remember how you got upset when I giggled at your sculpture of a woman sprawled out on the beach with enormous boobs? It didn’t seem to be big enough for you because you kept piling more and more sticky sand mixed with gravel to increase her lady attributes. I wish I could revert time and go back to those happy moments. To those seconds when we grinned and played hide and seek, tried to catch fish with our bare hands and baked in the sun. Do you remember that wreck by the sea we stayed in for the duration of our holiday?
You always teased me, you cheeky monkey, saying that I looked like a parachute floating in the water inside my long roomy dress. I knew Dad would have gone berserk if I dared to wear Western swimming gear. We both knew there was no way he would have brought shame on our family by allowing his daughter to roam about half naked. But the sweetest memory of all is when you asked me to describe you Kow-Ata, the cave we’d planned to visit on numerous occasions and every time something prevented us from going. There were no radiators inside our one-star getaway.You loved it when I cuddled you to warm you up that night.
I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the guilt I felt the moment I boarded the plane heading to London. I honestly don’t know whether my reasoning to complete my postgraduate degree abroad made you not trustworthy of me or vice-versa. I waved at you and saw you scrunch your cap into a ball. A tear or two streaked down your cheeks. I assured you, “It’s just another year. It will fly by in no time.” You must believe me that I wasn’t planning on staying in England. But I fell in love with my fellow course mate that led to a wedding after the graduation ceremony. I wish you didn’t stop writing to me just because I gave birth to Jamie. I loved you both very, very much. Do you think I’m not aware of the fact that you wouldn’t pick up the phone when I rang? I know you’d listen to my voice on the answering machine. Then you’d press the delete button and walk away. How did I find out? Well, that’s because Mum told me in her letter.
It must have been really awful for you to witness Dad’s attempt to stab Mother during the heat of the argument over booze. I’ve been told he was sent to the worst correction facility in the country. Do you still visit him?
I don’t know whether it’s true or not but Mum was concerned about you at the time. She wrote to me that after that incident you got out of hand and tried to join the group of thieves. I could tell by her written words to me smudged from the wet stains on a white-lined sheet, hastily ripped from my old school notebook. I was horrified when she described the tattoos on your body and expensive bling that protruded through your shirt. The bling she suspected you ripped from someone else’s neck. I know you were there when she phoned me to come home to spend the summer.
It was so lovely to see you and Jamie together. Sometimes my son reminded me of you with his mischievousness and cute smile. What did you think of your nephew? I know you’d protest that you look nothing like my blue-eyed son with blond curly hair. But still, I think he possesses some nice qualities that you have, like his affection towards people, willingness to help, his kind and intuitive nature. Anyway, you seemed happy to see him. Though you did tease him being a mummy’s little boy.
Mum was right about your tattooed body with gold chains hanging around your neck. I didn’t want to believe her until I saw you for real. It was frightening to see the change in you after all those years. You were all manned up and looked confident.
Do you remember that August I baked some pancakes for you? The same pancakes I used to bake when you were little. Oh, yes. And you’re bound to remember the time we chased Jamie when he tried to steal one of the pancakes while I was still baking, just like you did when you were his age.
The idea of going to Kow-Ata didn’t thrill me as much as it did Jamie. He was ecstatic. You knew that I had asthma. But I couldn’t resist your charm of persuasion and joined Mum, you and my son.
I can’t remember myself before being so out of breath. We did pretty well by conquering 266 steps leading down to the lake at the bottom of the cave. There was only a tiny streak of light somewhere back up there in the distance, like a star in the dark rocky sky. “Mum. Granma. Listen,” I recall Jamie say to a noise sounding like a whisper above our heads. We all looked up but saw nothing in the pitch black ceiling of the cave. “They’re bats,” you said and jumped into the water, prompting my son to do the same. “Get in the water, before the bats attack!” you shouted to me and Mum and squeezed among the crowd of kids splashing in the lake. “Nice try,” I said and laughed. You know that raised ground by the lake? That’s where I and Mum sat while you swam with Jamie. You probably haven’t noticed but I felt claustrophobic then due to the dampness and darkness of the surroundings. I had to get my inhaler from my bag and spray two puffs into my mouth. I still have those images of vibrant colours in the water. The colours of the long dresses in which the Turkmen women floated beside their husbands diving in their swimming trunks.
I needed to get out into the fresh air. I asked Mum to keep an eye on Jamie. He was comically practising his back stroke and imitating your perfected style. Watching you and Jamie swimming side by side was an endearing sight. I distinctly remember Mother motioning her head without diverting her eyes and carrying on chatting to some middle-aged women. They happened to be her long-forgotten acquaintances.
You asked me later what I did outside the cave. Well, I took the chance to use the bathroom in the nearby café. Then sat on a bench observing the breeze sliding down from the hills. I thought about my husband, how much he must have been expecting us to return the following Tuesday, just in three days’ time. I already had a picture of him at the airport embracing me and Jamie and helping with our luggage.
That day I saw some women coming out of the cave and mumbling, “God forbid that to happen to any child!” I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. But I knew that it was time for me to join you, Mum and Jamie. I went down the steps. Mum was sobbing and shaking her wrinkly hands uncontrollably. You stood by her side with bloodshot eyes, dripping with water from your hair and trunks. Do you remember?
“My darling, I’m so sorry,” said Mum, looking at me with pleading eyes.
I’m sure you heard when I asked her “Where’s Jamie?”
You leaned against the rocks while I shouted Jamie’s name over and over again. And with each shout I felt my panic grow bigger and bigger. I searched every single corner of the cave. My ears and lips went numb and my head started to fill with muffled noise that was becoming a burden for my poor neck to carry. I plunged myself into the water and ferociously fought restraints from you and some strangers. I screamed like mad for someone to dive in and find my son. You let them drag me back onto the cold stone surface. You knelt over me and watched me pass out from an injection stabbed into my arm by an ambulance crew.
My baby brother, if you asked me what was the longest flight I had during my lifetime I would have said the six-hour journey from Ashgabat to London. The journey I made last August. I took a window seat, having shuffled through the transit passengers from India and looking through them with a vacant look as they trundled along the aisle. I wondered how many of them knew that my luggage sitting next to theirs was my son’s coffin. I looked at the unoccupied seat next to me and visualised Jamie playing his Nintendo or listening to his I-tunes. If you only knew the grief I endured on that bloody plane. The bubble of tension began building up in my throat and I burst into tears. My nose leaked, my eyes turned red from the constant rubbing. What am I going to say to my husband when he asks after Jamie, was the dreaded question that tormented my brain. Should I lie? Should I say I left him behind? Anything, anything, but not that he’s dead.
Do you recall the conversation I had with you after Jamie’s body was recovered from the lake? You swore with your life that you were out of the cave to get an ice-cream for Jamie. We both looked at Mum’s grief-stricken face, who appeared to shrink during the hours of mourning. I told her there and then that I hated her, that she’d ruined my life, and that her gossiping with stupid strangers was more important than her grandson’s life. We watched her weep when I swept past her outstretched arms to hug me in the hope to be forgiven.
A year passed, fast-forwarding autumn, winter, spring and two months of the summer. That’s when you called me with the news that Mum was at the hospital. You urged me to hurry up and get the next plane to Ashgabat.
This August our paths crossed again, my darling brother. I don’t think you saw a successful and a happily married lawyer but a divorced, heartbroken woman. I’d be too late. Too late to forgive our mother, too late to say goodbye. You and I stared at her being wrapped in a white sheet of cloth and laid down on a wooden carrier to be taken to the cemetery. She was buried without a coffin next to our grandparents. We stood in silence until the mullah finished the burial ceremony and people started to disperse. The emptiness of the graveyard was the perfect match to the graveyard I had in my heart. I held onto my black scarf, fighting off the dusty wind from snatching it from my head. While you stood there, digging the pointed toes of your shoes into the ground, I couldn’t help but become transfixed by the oblong-shaped heap of dry soil. I envisaged Mum’s body underneath it; the lifeless body parts that once had combed my hair and kissed my wounds after I’d fallen; that hearty laugh she had every time we impersonated each other. Now she’s gone. Gone forever. Gone to Jamie.
“What flavour ice-cream did you buy Jamie that day?” I finally asked you. I wanted to hear Jamie’s last wish through your voice.
“What ice-cream?” You looked startled.
“The one that you got the day Jamie drowned?”
“Oh, yes. Pistachio,” you replied after a mild hesitation.
“Jamie had a nut allergy,” I said quietly. You fidgeted like a caught rabbit. I know you saw me frown as I started to feel my asthma gradually preventing me from breathing. “He wouldn’t have asked for Pistachio. He is… he was a compliant child. No, he wouldn’t have asked for Pistachio,” I mumbled, shaking my head.
You bit your lower lips and rolled your tongue out to moisturise them. Then you gently pulled me towards your chest and told me it won’t do any good rummaging the past. “Please, tell me the truth, where exactly were you when Jamie died?” I pried myself away from your embrace. “Where’s that little brother of mine?” I asked you. “Where’s that loving gentle child I had once nursed?”
It was difficult to breathe. My tears were ready to invade my face. I fumbled for my inhaler inside my bag.
“You always loved your precious Jamie more than me!”
I dropped my inhaler and froze.
“What about me? You promised. Promised to come after me. A liar!” You shouted, speckles of your spit flecking my face and neck.
“Did you know what it was like living in a mad house and getting beaten up day after day? No, you wouldn’t know, because the only people you cared were yourself and your English family,” you carried on shouting with harsh sobs building up in your lungs.
The eagles, circling in the sky, seemed to sense our grief as they kept sprinkling more salt to the wound with their high-pitched sounds.
“I always loved you,” I said, breathing heavily and looking at Mum’s grave. “You and Mum. I loved you both.”
I slowly dragged my wilted roses and put them underneath the erected stick (instead of a gravestone) with a tied red cloth swaying in the wind. You found my inhaler and gave it to me as you saw me gasping for oxygen. Once my breathing returned to normal I searched your eyes. Surely, there must have been a glimmer of empathy inside those dark mysterious eyes sucking me in like Bermuda Triangle. No, I didn’t see empathy but Jamie swimming inside your enlarged pupils. He was sinking while you watched from aside in your usual calm and composed demeanour. Then you shrank into a baby and landed in my arms. I saw myself leaning my face against your puffed-up cheeks and lulling you to sleep under a starry night in the front garden of our parents’ home.
By Govher A. Babylova