Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

Fiction

Mamali

By Leyla Shukurova
Translated from Russian by Sabrina Jaszi
In Soviet Azerbaijan, a young woman strives to get an education, but powerful, dark forces oppose her, not the least of them her own formidable mother.
Leyla Shukurova Reads from "Mamali" in the Russian Original
 
 
·

1.

Mamali dishes food onto plates—two plates, four plates, six—and says to put them on the floor, where a tablecloth has been laid out for dinner. There are fewer people today than usual: Farid is still at work, Jalal has left for the city with his family, Sharut came home from school and went straight to bed, and their countless neighbors have stayed home for once. Neighbors often stop by Mamali’s in the evenings, especially the fat village ladies who at day’s end have nothing to do and no one to talk to—but today there’s no one. Maybe it’s the August heat: from early morning, the sun beat down, the air was thick, and people took refuge beneath outdoor showers to avoid heatstroke. 

Ulfet eyes the food longingly, but doesn’t dare touch the warm rice, nor the dried fruit, nor the chicken. She’s been holed up all day with her books in the farthest, coolest room, and is dying to eat. Still, she waits, knowing that if she starts before everyone is assembled, Mamali will get angry and slap her hand. Or, at the very least, mutter something mean: “The food’s not going anywhere—don’t be greedy.” Ulfet isn’t greedy, but she hears the unpleasant rumbling of her stomach and feels resentful. 

Her father, Maryam, and Farid arrive soon after. Mamali sits beside them and puts a bowl of chopped cucumber and tomato in the center of the cloth; her brother pours the cold feijoa kompot. Her father, with a smile, recites a one-word prayer, and then, finally, the family eats. Ulfet is always amazed by her mom’s cooking (everyone in the village calls her mom Mamali, although her name is something else entirely), and asks herself why, when her sister or other relatives and friends prepare food, it isn’t as good. Ulfet never cooks: there are plenty of people in the house to fill the kitchen, and someone else always takes care of it. Anyway, Ulfet is too small to be of real use around the house—she’s only ten; in her free time, she prefers to read or hang out with the neighbor kids. She and her friends spend hours exploring the nearby oak forest, playing hide-and-seek, and running to the seaside by the long tracks of the railway, picking rosehips and blackberries from the bushes and eating them as they go. 

After satisfying her hunger and licking her fingers, Ulfet steals a glance at Maryam. Her older sister, usually pretty and smiling, is sad and distant today—not herself. Three days earlier, she got engaged, and all their family members in Lankaran assembled to celebrate; they ate, drank, and danced all evening, while the bride was silent as a stone. Maryam had just turned sixteen; her new fiancé was fifteen years her senior. An old man. When his parents first approached them about an engagement, Ulfet listened from the kitchen as Maryam begged Mamali not to consent. She wanted to go to college before marrying, start her career as a chemist or a biologist maybe, she was such a good student, please please please, why now? But Mamali would not be swayed. “What does a girl need with all that education? What good will it do you?” she asked in a tone that allowed for no objection. “High school is enough. They’re a good family, our neighbors. We know them. It’s done.”   

After that, Maryam stayed in bed for more than a week. Ulfet, Sharut, and even their brothers visited by turns, trying to console her; at night, the girls, who all shared a room, took turns climbing into Maryam’s bed to hug her. Only Mamali never came. She sent the children in with food and drink and went into the room to get the laundry, but she was unyielding in her decision. Their father, too, sympathized with his oldest daughter but couldn’t, it seemed, do anything: against all tradition, the head of their family was Mamali. It was her the children feared, like the flames of hell, while their father was a confidant and consoler. “Djanali, my soul,” he said affectionately when he went to Maryam. He sat on a chair by the bed and put his palm on his daughter’s head, stroking her dark hair. “Djanali, that’s enough. No more tears.”

Maryam said nothing, but a few days later she came out to breakfast. 

“Let’s make a bet!” says Farid, their middle brother, holding a tiny bone triumphantly above his head. Ulfet understands right away—it’s the wishbone, from the base of the chicken’s breast.

“Let’s make a bet!” Farid says again, looking at everyone on the floor one by one and then, suddenly, making a generous offer: “I’ll give it away, I’ve got nothing to bet on. Who wants it?” 

Ulfet quickly volunteers to make a wish, and after her, for the first time that evening, Maryam speaks up, too. Together, they take the precious bone from their brother, give each other a look, and start pulling. The bone doesn’t crack right away—it bends but doesn’t break. Maryam’s round cheeks become flushed. A hundred thoughts rush through Ulfet’s mind in a second: getting a five in math that winter, a trip to Baku, hiding in the woods and not being found—no, getting a five in math, she hasn’t for the last two quarters, yes! The bone cracks and the larger half remains in Ulfet’s hand. She jumps for joy. She’s won! 

Maryam is quiet.

“I’m full,” she says a minute later. “Thank you.”

Her younger sister stares at her, feeling a strange tickle in her heart, as Maryam wipes her hands on a towel, takes her nearly full plate from the floor, stands, and, looking at no one, goes out into the hall.  

 

2.

Autumn comes as a relief. The temperatures drop and the days get shorter, but also quieter, softer. Ulfet likes school. In August, she’d managed to finish all the books assigned for the summer and to review math, as well as Farsi and her dreaded Russian. Russian doesn’t come easily to her: no one speaks it in their home, so there’s no one to practice with, and it sounds so jerky, so strange—it won’t lie on her tongue. At least she doesn’t have to learn Cyrillic from scratch. But Farsi is a totally different story: musical, strange, unlike her native Azerbaijani both in writing and speech. Despite its foreignness, she likes it more. But here in the Soviet Union Farsi isn’t essential, Russian is, so there’s nothing she can do. It irritates her to no end that she has such a hard time with it—why should this be so? She keeps trying. 

Playing with friends is different now, too: the kids get together in each other’s yards because their parents, who are home more often, want them nearby. Ulfet isn’t discouraged: she runs around the yards figuring out how to quickly open or jump over their neighbors’ gates and finding new ways to sneak into other people’s rose gardens and orchards. She clambers up trees better than any of the boys to pick the ripest bunch of grapes or quince, and then has the freedom to decide whether to keep it for herself or share it with her friends. Sometimes they manage to get a little pocket money off their elders and the whole gang goes down to the stream in the woods to buy ice cream from the stand run by Uncle Ali, and then sit down to eat it, dipping their feet merrily into the gurgling water. 

The falchi appears in late November. Ulfet is seeing her for the first time, but Sharut, the middle sister and a big gossip, tells her about this woman from the neighboring village of Astara who hardly ever visits. In some ways, the woman looks like Mamali—maybe it’s the colorful scarf wrapped around her head—but she’s smaller, younger, and more composed. And if Mamali’s prominent features make her resemble a bird of prey, like a falcon, then the little falchi reminds Ulfet more of a fox. 

When the woman enters the yard, the grown-ups greet her warmly, like an old friend. They seat her on a bench at the wooden table left there from the summer and bring her thyme tea, lumps of sugar, and jam. Later, they approach the guest one by one, hold their right palms out, and shyly ask questions. Even the men go. The falchi, it turns out, is a cheerful and chatty khanum—she’s quick to joke, drinks a lot of tea, and devours Mamali’s homemade apricot jam. Almost everyone leaves her smiling, though there are those who are unhappy. After some hesitation, Mamali herself puts some bills on the table and sits. Through the kitchen window where they stand, watching eagerly, Ulfet and Sharut catch the name of Maryam, whose wedding took place two months earlier. After the wedding, their older sister came home twice, both times in tears. Finally, she revealed the bruises on her shoulders, back, and hips to her sisters and mother—her husband was beating her every day but she had stayed quiet about it, not letting on, so as not to make a mockery of herself before the neighbors. 

“I can’t keep living with him,” Maryam said, crying, each time her family got together in the kitchen. “I need a divorce!” 

Mamali cut her off: “You’ll be dead before you come back here.” 

The falchi holds Mamali’s palm in her hands for a long time and then starts speaking with a slight smile (Ulfet listens as hard as she can to make out the words): “He’ll die before her.” The falchi says something else but the girls don’t catch a word of it. Mamali’s face is like a stone, not giving anything away. Unable to restrain herself, Ulfet runs into the yard. Seeing her, Mamali jerks her hand away from the falchi, shouting: “Off with you! Fortune-telling isn’t for children!” But the falchi narrows her eyes. 

“No, no, no, let’s see her. Don’t you worry, it’s free of charge.” 

She looks at Ulfet’s palm for a few minutes, running her rough fingers over the lines. Mamali sits nearby and Ulfet can feel her mother’s anxiety: is she afraid that the fortune-telling will negatively affect the fate of her youngest, still unmarried, daughter? Finally, the falchi raises her eyes and says in a sweet, foxlike voice: “You’ll marry someone close to you, a friend, and live very far away. Your husband will be a bigshot. People will point at you and say: ‘That’s so-and-so’s wife!’ A happy fate. You’ll have”—another glance at her palm—“six children. Yes, six.”

Ulfet wants to ask whether she’ll become a doctor, a pediatrician, but Mamali quickly says “enough,” grabs Ulfet’s wrist, pulls her up, and sends her back inside. Ulfet shrugs and runs inside, where Sharut awaits, her face glowing with curiosity in the kitchen window, as round as a wheel of cheese. 

 

3.

Sharut’s wedding is in the spring, four years after Maryam left the house. 

Unlike the other sisters, Sharut never liked to study. Quite the opposite, she preferred sitting around and sleeping late, her head was always in the clouds, and for this reason—as if out of spite—she was always given the hardest chores in her parents’ home. Despite their differences in age and personality, Ulfet has always felt especially close to Sharut, much more so than to Mamali’s other children. Yes, with Sharut she has a real friendship—as much as two sisters of fourteen and eighteen can. The summer before last, Ulfet, at her peril, decided to cut off her long hair, which was usually plaited into a thick braid, the envy of all. To do so without asking Mamali’s permission was a bold decision. That day, she hurried home from school, hoping to run into her room before anyone noticed the haircut, but of course it didn’t work. It was Sharut who saved Ulfet from their mother’s wrath: ahead of their brothers and aunts, she ran into the yard, exposed herself to a wave of shrieks and beatings, and managed to drag her younger sister into the house, where she stood guard, not letting anyone get to Ulfet. Mamali eventually calmed down and even apologized, but from that point on the sisters knew they could count on one another. 

This made it all the more painful for Ulfet when she could not repay the favor: she simply wasn’t home. A family from a neighboring village visited about Sharut’s engagement—the sisters had seen these people a few times at big events, but by no means knew them well. Their eldest son, Agil, an engineer and Sharut’s suitor, might even have been called handsome, except for one thing—a large white spot on his left eye. 

Later, Sharut told Ulfet how she’d gathered up her courage and gone into the sitting room, where she wasn’t allowed without permission, and announced in front of all the matchmakers: “I won’t!”

Having somehow escorted the stunned guests out, Mamali locked her in the bedroom where no one could hear and gave her a severe beating. “So you don’t like the white spot on his eye? Think he’s ugly? He’s ugly, huh? And what are you, a beauty?!”

“And what am I, a beauty?” Sharut mimicked bitterly later that evening. 

In time it became clear that her sister had actually been lucky. Agil turned out to be a kind, smart, and somewhat sarcastic guy who didn’t bother Sharut with prohibitions or jealousy, even during their engagement. The white spot on his eye, Agil said, was recent—a work injury at the factory, very unexpected, the doctors had done all they could. “Of course I was afraid,” Agil had said, “that no one would love me now, though my parents told me that was nonsense. Though how would they know? If you want to break off the engagement, that’s fine. I’ll help you. But let’s get to know each other first, all right?”

Sharut’s wedding takes place six months after her engagement. Ulfet has turned fifteen. Her older sister seems happy, full of anticipation, and crowds of strangers gather once again for the celebration, ready to scatter enough money over the heads of the newlyweds to cover both families’ expenses. As always. This time, Ulfet takes the role of a bridesmaid, carrying a mirror. According to tradition, the bride is brought to her husband’s house just before the ceremony amid music and singing, where she stops in front of the threshold of her future bedroom, dips three fingers in a bowl of honey, and smears it on the doorpost—so the life before her will be sweet. Usually the girl with the mirror leads this merry procession, bringing a gift into the bedroom—this mirror symbolizes protection against the evil eye and, after the wedding, must always remain nearby. 

“I hope you’ll be happy,” says Ulfet, bending down to kiss her sister. 

“Thank you,” says Sharut, smiling. In a white dress with a wide red ribbon around her waist, she looks unbelievably beautiful today. “I wish all the same for you.”

Normally Ulfet is terribly annoyed by the loud music at weddings, but this time she enjoys it. Maybe it’s her good mood. A white party tent has been pitched in the yard for dancing, and people stream through it to the street, the garden, the house—they flow ceaselessly, all over. The crowd looks to Ulfet like an upside-down sky full of noisy, multicolored birds—just the kind of image she sees when she lies on her back on a hill in the forest, folds her hands behind her head, and keeps staring, staring upward. 

Now Ulfet runs back and forth between the tent and the house, carrying food at the request of Mamali and her older aunts, chatting with friends as she goes and, of course, making time to dance. “Oh, shaitan!” Her happy neighbors smile at her, pinching her cheeks, when, having kicked off her shoes, she breaks into a lezginka, as good as any of the village guys. Her feet, moving to the beat of the music, become nearly invisible, bolts of lightning. Her father claps and smiles along: he loves it when his daughters show off what they can do. 

While dancing, Ulfet feels someone’s gaze upon her. She turns and notices her school friend Rasim, with whom she often played as a child. Rasim is all grown up now and has fallen hard for Ulfet’s school friend, while she, Ulfet, has had to play the role of messenger, passing love notes back and forth. But things aren’t looking good for the pair: Rasim’s family is very poor, and, from the moment of her daughter’s birth, the girl’s mother has been planning to marry her off to an extremely rich man. Because of this, the romance has had to be kept under lock and key.   

But actually, Ulfet realizes, it’s not Rasim looking at her. It’s his brother Maksud. She’s only seen him a few times—he’s six years older and left years ago to study in Odessa, returning only rarely. When the news of his departure for school swept the village, Ulfet caught herself feeling a bit envious: Where had this guy learned Russian well enough to get into college in Russia? How had he managed it in their village? Not fair. Later, she remembered that Odessa isn’t in Russia, it was somewhere in Ukraine, but you could still study in Russian there. 

Maksud, compared with fumbling Rasim, is intriguing: he’s tall and thin with tight curls, but seems cocky—he stares and stares at her, smiling and not even bothering to avert his eyes, though she’s noticed him. Is he drunk? Ulfet snorts and turns away, putting her shoes on and returning to her friends in the house. 

In the kitchen, instead of her friends she finds Maryam. After a year’s seclusion, her sister is out in company for the first time; with her fresh face and long black lashes, she’s still beautiful and always attracts notice, though her belly is round again, which she tries to hide beneath her clothes. A year ago, Maryam’s eldest son, who was just two, died after a pot of boiling water turned over on him—at a crowded gathering like today’s. Although such things happened often enough in the village, people still talked behind Maryam’s back, calling her a bad, careless mother. But Maryam was beyond all the gossip—for a whole year, she’d been so stricken with grief that even Ulfet hadn’t been able to get through to her. 

“See what he did?” Maryam asks, winking, strangely lighthearted, when her younger sister puts a plate of fried eggplant in front of her. “That older brother of your friend?” 

“What?” Right away, Ulfet feels uncomfortable. Has everyone noticed Maksud looking at her and started to gab about it already? 

Maryam goes on: “He went into the living room where our photographs are hanging. There are a few framed photos there, you know? On the wall. Well, he took one—yours!” Now she is actually laughing. Ulfet has a funny feeling of relief seeing her sister so cheerful. At least, she thinks to herself, something good is coming of this stupid conversation. 

“I bet he’ll whisk you off to Odessa, now,” says Maryam, smiling. “Mahabbat—love.”

Ulfet shrugs. A cocky boy, just like she thought. Well, let him worship her photograph, then. What’s it to her? 

 

4.

“No,” Mamali says curtly.

The fight has been going on for three weeks already. That’s when Ulfet decided once and for all that she wanted to go to the nursing college, and not in Lankaran, but in Baku: first of all, because she knows she’s unlikely to be taught much of anything in her small provincial town, and second, because she wants to be out of sight of her neighbors, who love nothing more in life than to gossip. Ulfet has given up on the idea of going to a university instead of a nursing college, and of studying to be a pediatrician rather than a nurse: she’s got to be realistic, and the college will take just two years, compared with five years at a university! Ulfet will definitely never get her mother to agree to the latter option, but with the former, she has a chance. 

At least a slim one. 

It helps that, around the same time, her older brother Jalal has moved to Baku with his family. They even have a guest bedroom, which Ulfet noticed on her first visit to the capital. Since childhood, she’s had an affectionate and trusting relationship with Jalal: even though he’s been mostly absent for many years, he loves to spoil his younger sister. Indeed, with age, he’s come to look more and more like a boisterous, good-natured Santa Claus who gives gifts to children on New Year’s Eve. Except that Jalal would never wear red—he hasn’t become that much of a city person.

Seizing this chance, Ulfet convinces her brother to let her stay with him if she gets into the college. His wife, tight-lipped and self-centered, is clearly unenthusiastic, but doesn’t oppose her husband. Nonetheless, the news that Mamali’s youngest daughter has decided to go study in Baku somehow spreads quickly through their village—much more quickly than Ulfet has counted on. 

“She’s losing her mind!” Sharut says uneasily on the phone. There’s no need to ask who “she” is. From the very beginning, Ulfet has obviously feared Mamali’s reaction. But she thinks that her brother’s support and her excellent grades in high school will work in her favor. No matter how conservative Mamali is on the question of her daughter’s education, she is also very vain: if her youngest daughter manages to get into nursing college in the capital, this would at least bring up her value on the marriage market. And her older brother’s involvement will help protect her from the nasty rumors Mamali, like everyone in the village, fears most. 

But this is all just in theory. In reality, Ulfet has spent three weeks trying to get through to her mother: with tears, hysterics, even threats. Mamali has failed to beat her into submission as she’s done in the past. Perhaps this is because of her bad legs, which serve her less and less. Or perhaps it’s because of Ulfet herself, who, after their first blow-up, runs into the yard where all the neighbors can hear, and starts tearing down the laundry on the clothesline, throwing it on the ground, and yelling: “Don’t you know what people will say?! That there’s something wrong with Mamali’s youngest daughter! Mamali’s crazy youngest daughter! She’s a lunatic, she’s insane! I’ll make sure everyone knows I’m crazy! The whole village will be talking about it! Everyone!” 

Later, when Sharut and Farid ask what came over her, Ulfet doesn’t know what to say. She jokes that she was “possessed by a djinn,” but wonders if this actually might be true: that day, a wave of rage crashed down on her with a force she’d never before known. Deadly black fury. Scattering clean linens on the ground as though they were wet rags, Ulfet saw Maryam with bruises on her back and her dead child, she remembered Sharut before she’d been happy, and felt something else complex, heavy, and slippery that seemed to bite into her solar plexus. Maybe it was the sharp understanding that now was both her first and her only chance. 

Jalal finally gives up on trying to help from afar and comes to the village. “What, Mama, you don’t trust me?” he repeats gently, day after day. Sometimes it even seems that Mamali hears him, nods, yields, softens. But the next morning it starts all over again. When Ulfet has already abandoned hope, help comes from an unexpected place—her father returns early from work. Usually at this time of year he’s in Russia selling flowers, vegetables, goat cheese, katyk, and farmer’s cheese, but the goods have gone faster than usual, and he decides not to linger in a foreign land. At home, listening to the arguments for and against, he shows some backbone regarding the children for the first time in Ulfet’s memory: with a single harsh word, he rejects his wife’s objections and tells his youngest daughter to go pack her things. 

“Jalal will take care of you,” he says, nodding. “If he doesn’t, canını alaram—I’ll take his soul.”

Then he smiles. 

Ulfet looks at her older brother, then at her father, and her gloomy, unhappy mother. She turns and goes to her room. There, standing in the doorway and looking at the narrow beds where her sisters once slept, at her desk, strewn with notebooks, books, and some pins and jewelry, she inhales the familiar smell of the dry floorboards, trying to calm her racing heart, and with each breath becoming more and more certain that no, no—she’s not going to cry. 

 

5.

The yard is covered in blood.

There’s no moon in the sky, no voices in the forest. A barefoot woman in a turban sits on the wet ground. At her feet, unnaturally splayed, lies a limp body. The woman takes the body in her arms—it’s still alive and convulses, groans, trembles. One minute, three minutes. An hour. Blood streams down the woman’s palms—as the accompanying sound slowly grows quieter, weaker. The woman doesn’t seem worried, though. She just sits there. The dark night encloses this murderer and her victim, along with a single accidental witness. This person sits on the steps that lead into the house. And he can’t move. He too is shoeless and has left sticky dark footprints on the bare steps. Probably, he came out into the yard just a few minutes earlier.

This witness raises his hands slowly to make sure that his own throat hasn’t been cut. But his gaze rises involuntarily with his hands. The woman sitting on the ground looks at him, unblinking, and thick hot blood begins to run down his arms. 

The day before the entrance exam, Ulfet calls her sister, complaining of insomnia. 

“I’m so sick of these nightmares! As soon as I fall asleep, all sorts of filth creeps into my dreams.” 

Sharut, who’s just been gushing about how, for the first time in her life, she can sleep in (her husband lets her stay in bed until noon, getting himself ready for work, instead of waking her at dawn), falls anxiously silent. Then she speaks up, uncertainly: “So you haven’t heard about Mamali’s gurban . . . ?”

Then the words spill out of Sharut’s mouth, she trips over them, unable to keep them in: A few days ago, after their father left for work, Mamali went to the local mullah and performed a gurban ritual—the sacrifice of a lamb. The animal’s throat was slit, accompanied by a prayer, and its meat, as required, was distributed to the poor. A person who initiated this ritual could perform it for no reason—out of the goodness of his heart—or could make the sacrifice in exchange for a niyyət—heart’s desire.

“Her wish was that you fail the exam,” Sharut blurts out. And then, right away, she falls silent. Ulfet understands that her sister is ashamed for telling the secret, but she can’t take it back. Feeling nausea rise in her throat, Ulfet makes some joke, quickly ends the conversation, and then lies face-down on her bed to muffle her voice in the pillow.

Then she begins to yell. 

 

6.

Obviously, she doesn’t get in anywhere. 

The exam in literature—an essay—is harder than expected, and she gets the one question she hasn’t prepared. Unsurprising that Ulfet, with her terrible insomnia, gets the lowest score. The good results in chemistry don’t help—no, there’s too much competition. Things might have gone differently had the principal of her high school passed along her certificate of excellence in advance. This ordinarily would be sent on Ulfet’s behalf at the end of the school year, but if it had been submitted early, with the other application documents, the entrance exam committee would have allowed Ulfet to take an oral exam in literature instead of the written one. But the principal demanded a bribe for something that Ulfet was entitled to by law and so she refused. 

She gets home to Lankaran and chats with her mother as though nothing has happened. And a couple weeks later, at dinner with her family, she says casually: “I’ll get in next year, with God’s help.” Her father simply nods: “Good, balam, go ahead, it’s in the hands of the Almighty. But you’ll need some work experience”—and he keeps eating heartily, scooping up the hot plov full of fatty lamb chunks with his fingers. He always eats with the sincerest pleasure. Meanwhile, Ulfet keeps a close watch on Mamali, who evasively, assiduously, avoids her eyes and whispers “God be merciful” under her breath. 

During Ulfet’s short trip to Baku, her mother’s health deteriorated considerably. It’s even harder for Mamali to walk now, she sits a lot, her breath is labored. Farid tells Ulfet that, when he went up to their tiny attic recently to fix a leak in the roof, he found some rotten eggshells covered in Arabic script. They had some kind of strange garbage smell, so he quickly gathered them in a towel and burned them in the yard. The last time he was in the attic, just six months earlier, the empty eggshells weren’t there—he’d have noticed. Still, that was around the time that Mamali’s legs started to go. 

They suspect the neighbors, but, even more so, their father’s eldest sister—she’s always been a jealous, conniving person with the evil eye, and sometimes still comes around, clearly wishing them ill. Despite everything that has happened, Ulfet pities her mother: She’s aging right before Ulfet’s eyes, the world she knows with its old rules is receding into the past, and every day she has less and less strength for the incomprehensible new one. 

To get into the nursing college next year, Ulfet needs at least six months of work experience. So, with her father’s help, she gets a job at the state flower farm near their home—it’s right by the railroad track and the woods where she played as a child. At the state farm, she works in giant greenhouses: makes sure weeds aren’t growing, looks after huge fragrant roses, tulips and gladioli, and carefully packs flowers into containers that are sent directly to Moscow by train. Ulfet likes this life among the flowers—they transport her to another world, completely unlike the one that awaits her outside the borders of the farm. What’s more, she enjoys earning her own money and saving a little. “You could buy something for the house once in a while,” her mother says sometimes, mildly reproachful, but Ulfet pretends not to hear.

One day walking home, she sees someone waiting for her across the railroad tracks. Ulfet is frightened at first, but then recognizes Maksud: he looks older, stands straighter, and is more tanned than before, but his smile and curly hair are the same. When Ulfet gets close enough, Maksud greets her and holds out a small box of chocolates from Lviv—exceedingly rare in their little town. 

“I’ll walk with you for a while,” Maksud half-asks, half-states, squinting his eyes meaningfully. His eyelashes are black and long like a girl’s. She didn’t notice this before. “Not all the way home, so your parents don’t see, but almost. If you don’t mind.”

The annoyance that she felt a couple years ago is gone. Ulfet turns the gift over in her hands—a nice gift—and puts it in her purse. Once home, she’ll say it’s a gift from a coworker. She looks straight at Maksud, drawing out the silence, then says nonchalantly: “I don’t mind.” 

 

7.

The rest of the year flies by. 

Two months after they first meet, Maksud returns to Odessa. But not before revealing to Ulfet that he’ll probably be sent to Siberia after graduation—to help open a wine and vodka factory in a small industrial town close to Irkutsk. Ulfet has heard almost nothing about Irkutsk, so, like the names of all Russian towns, it means little to her. Still, she knows it’s far away and he has prospects there, so she tries to encourage Maksud, whose parents are skeptical. 

“My dad says I’m living in a dreamworld!” Maksud says with a sneer during their calls. “That’s me, a dreamer. I want such big things. And meanwhile we have so little that my family can’t even come to yours with a khoncha.” In these moments the tone of his voice changes sharply. “But I’ll make sure they come soon.” 

A khoncha is the name of an elaborate pastry arrangement. Without it, in the countryside, there can be no matchmaking. A family that brings a skimpy khoncha to a girl’s home risks mockery, and no one wants that. But Ulfet isn’t particularly concerned about such formalities—they’ve been discreet, but the whole village already knows that Maksud has taken notice of her, which means that, on her end, it’s as good as done. Mamali is of course unhappy that the young man’s family is taking so long with the official engagement but, nonetheless, has already turned away other, less fortunate, suitors for the hand of her youngest daughter.

Moreover, Maksud isn’t against Ulfet continuing her education. He can’t afford a costly wedding in the next couple of years, not to mention an engagement party, so Ulfet can do as she likes. Besides, nursing college is considered an excellent type of education in the Soviet Union, especially for girls. 

A month before the entrance exams she quits her job at the farm and lets Jalal know that she’ll be coming back to Baku. Her brother doesn’t object. This time her father, who is still home, volunteers to take her to the city himself. When she gets into the car, he suddenly grins from ear to ear and announces: “Djanali, the principal of your school called me. He wanted to pass along the reference letter, with no bribe. He’s had it for a year. I picked it up this morning to surprise you.”

And he holds out a folder with the document. 

Mamali stands in front of the house with a pitcher of water, leaning on the wall. As the car carrying her husband and daughter pulls out of the yard, she splashes water after them—for a smooth road ahead. 

 

8.

The chemistry exam is written—difficult, but still more or less OK. I’ll definitely get a three or a four, Ulfet thinks afterward. The literature exam that she failed so disgracefully the year before is in four days, and all four nights Ulfet is once again sleepless: on the first night the dreams about the bloody yard, the faceless woman, and her own cut throat all come back. She awakes in pitch darkness, clutching her neck, coughs violently, chokes, and tries to calm down. 

No way Mamali has been performing that ritual again. No way, no way, no way, no way.

She wants to call Sharut and ask what’s going on at home, but it’s the middle of the night. It would be rude. So instead of calling her sister, Ulfet goes to the kitchen, gets out a glass, pours herself some water from a pitcher, and sips it, trying not to make noise and wake her brother’s family. She goes out onto the balcony. It overlooks a public road and there are few cars at this time, but the bright streetlights and the aroma of the southern night calm her down a bit. I’ve studied it all, Ulfet tells herself firmly. I know all there is to know. I don’t believe in any of that stuff! 

I don’t believe in that stuff, Ulfet repeats to herself, as she walks back into the kitchen in the dark, not turning on the lights, and feeling around for the salt dispenser on the table. I don’t believe in it, she repeats as she finds the salt dispenser, heavy and full, and pours a mound of salt into her palm. I don’t believe in it, Ulfet repeats as she walks back onto the balcony, shuts her eyes, squeezes her hand closed, so as not to lose a grain, and waves her fist around her head. 

“Göz vuranın gözü çıxsın,” Ulfet whispers. “Let he who gives the evil eyes lose his eye. Let he who gives the evil eyes lose his eye.” 

With the same hand she taps her right shoulder blade, then carefully approaches the edge of the balcony, opens her palm, and stares as the grains of salt fly down in a white cloud, dissolving into the darkness. 

The one who watches is still sitting on the steps to the house but can now look around. 

This is the yard of his childhood: a wooden gazebo, a table, an outbuilding attached to the right for summer suppers; blackberry and wild rose bushes growing at every step. 

Now he can clearly see the face of the woman sitting before him—and it’s not the face he expected. Father’s older sister looks at him, smiling, her white teeth shining brightly like stars on earth. Her eyes, always small and narrowed, are now completely gone. Two bottomless wells of darkness yawn in their place.

But he recognizes her. 

“Salt!” the woman says, grinning. “Would you look at that, she remembered the salt!”

He panics. He tries to recite the spell, but his lips won’t cooperate. Göz vuranın . . . Göz vura . . .

“Good for her,” the woman says suddenly. “Smart girl.”

And she stops smiling. 

The questions she gets are about the poet Samed Vurgun. Ulfet knows his work inside out, even recites his longest poem with ease. Thanks to the certificate of excellence that her father passed along, she gets to do an ordinary dictation instead of writing an essay. Later, she hardly remembers what it was about, but the capital letters, colons, dashes, and painstakingly checked commas stick in her mind. Could she have made some mistake? She can’t have, no, she has a knack for grammar. 

She’s supposed to get the results in a week. Ulfet doesn’t know how she’ll survive it. Seeming to intuit her sister’s anxiety, Sharut comes to visit from Lankaran (once again, Jalal’s wife isn’t happy about having guests, but only her sour expression reveals it). As usual, Sharut brings the latest gossip: Maryam is pregnant again, Mamali fell in the yard and can hardly walk, Farid will be getting married soon to that girl from the factory, remember her? That awful little girl you can’t stand? 

“I think she’s knocked up!” Sharut says, sniggering. “At the engagement party she was sucking her stomach in so hard she turned red like a tomato. And remember your friend Rasim?”

“What about him?” Ulfet hasn’t seen him in a long time. And he’s not the only one. 

“Oh, nothing. Got engaged, too,” Sharut says, shrugging. “To a different girl. Your friend’s mother turned him down in the end. ‘I won’t give my daughter to a pauper!’ Just like we thought. They were forbidden to see each other; the girl cried her eyes out. He nearly tried to steal her, but nothing came of it. The end.” 

The end. 

Ulfet starts running a high fever. She feels like a balloon that’s been stuck with a needle, and can no longer walk or stand. When she closes her eyes, there are clouds, trees, and, strangely, dead dogs swimming before her. Lots and lots of dead dogs. So, when the strong, herbal aroma of smoke enters the room, she thinks that it too is a dream. 

“Inhale, inhale,” someone whispers in Sharut’s voice. “I’m burning herbs to protect against the evil eye, üzərlik . . . Inhale the smoke, come on. Inhale!”

Ulfet obediently inhales. 

The woman coughs from the acrid smoke: she no longer looks calm, nor mocking. And the witness no longer has to sit still. He can move around the yard looking for a way out, but each time he thinks he’s found one, it turns into black, boggy nothingness. Then he looks down and sees that the dark, hot liquid dripping from the murder victim’s corpse is covering his thighs, arms, and chest. 

“Blood,” says the woman, when she’s able to stop coughing, “demands blood.”

The witness turns and notices that her face is trembling and changing. Instead of Father’s elder sister, the falchi sits before him—that old village fortune-teller. He recognizes her but for some reason feels no fear. 

“Blood requires blood,” the falchi repeats. Turning away, she leans over the body of her first victim. The witness finally realizes that it’s not a person, but an animal. A dead lamb. The woman puts her hands beneath the lamb’s wool palm side up, and when she pulls them out, there are six gemstones that look like rubies in her hands—three in each palm. 

“Blood demands blood,” the woman repeats. And unhurriedly, as though in slow motion, she starts to squeeze her left hand into a fist. 

Immediately, the witness feels a cramping pain deep in his belly. He cries out but doesn’t hear any sound. The woman opens her fist: there’s nothing there now, except for blood. 

“I didn’t take any payment for her daughter,” the witness hears, “but for this mother’s stupid acts I’ll now take a great price. For her günah.”

Her sin. 

Just as slowly, the woman starts to squeeze her right hand into a fist—the witness’s pain becomes so unbearable that he falls to the ground. The sour smell of blood hits his nose. The woman opens her fist—it too is covered in blood, but one red stone remains. The falchi looks at it with mild surprise—the witness observes her surprise—and then starts to laugh. The falchi laughs with her round, empty eyes dripping; she laughs silently, then deafeningly, at the top of her lungs. Finally, without warning, she jerks her hand and throws the stone in his direction. 

He jumps to catch it . . .

“Can you talk?” Jalal asks cautiously. Her brother is standing in the doorway to her room with the phone, unsure whether to come in. Ulfet has spent the last two days with a fever in complete delirium—her temperature rose to a hundred and four degrees, she had trouble breathing, and then, according to Sharut, she even began to bleed heavily. They called the emergency line and doctors came to examine her. They gave her some kind of injection, after which she stopped thrashing around and started to get better.

Mamali calls her for the first time—maybe she’s heard about the illness, or maybe she’s found out that Ulfet has gotten into the nursing college. Ulfet couldn’t go get the results herself, but her brother went and got them for her. A three plus in chemistry and a solid five in literature. She’s passed! Ulfet nods, takes the phone, and answers her mother, not getting up from the bed. After a long lecture about health and how she needs to take care of herself, Mamali finally says, with some warmth in her voice:

“Congratulations, balam. You got what you wanted.”

“Against all odds,” Ulfet wants to say.

Mamali continues: “Maksud’s parents visited yesterday, brought a khoncha and asked for your hand. He’s being sent to Siberia, apparently. Did you know? To Russia. They won’t be able to afford a wedding for a long time . . . So, you’ll have a long engagement.”

You’ll live far away.

“How old were you,” Ulfet asks, surprising herself, “when you got engaged to Dad?”

She is met by an uncomfortable silence. Such questions, no matter how innocent, are taboo in their familyconsidered indecent and closed to discussion with unmarried children, especially daughters. But now that Ulfet’s status has changed, she has the right to try.

Finally, Mamali gives a reluctant reply:

“Twelve.”

Ulfet feels a strange prickle in her chest, as though a needle has passed through her skin. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine her mother’s face as a child: vaguely familiar, but completely youthful, not yet haggard from anger or anxiety. Something very much like her own face.

There are no photographs of her at that age, the thought occurs to Ulfet. Nor of me.

“And when you got married?” Ulfet asks. “How old were you then?”

“Fourteen.” Now that the initial shock has passed, Mamali answers without hesitation. “My family wanted us to get married sooner, but your father’s grandfather died. We had to put it off.”

They are both silent for a few seconds.

“Times were different then,” Mamali says suddenly. Now she sounds almost guilty. “Everything was simpler. Clearer. Things aren’t like that now.” She thinks a little and adds: “Maksud will be leaving for a very long time, balam. Hopefully no one gives the two of you the evil eye before the wedding.”

Ulfet thinks about the lingering cramps deep in her belly. About the falchi, who took five of the six rubies promised to her, but for some reason left one. About the two years of long-anticipated study ahead, and about Mamali, who is now sincerely congratulating her, despite having prayed that her youngest daughter’s life would be different. Would Mamali forgive herself if she found out about Ulfet’s dreams? Would she believe the falchi’s words about punishment suffered for a mother’s sins? Or would the whole story go in one ear and out the other, just a folly and coincidence?

Somehow, Ulfet knows the answer.

“I don’t believe in all that stuff, Mama,” Ulfet says, smiling broadly into the phone. “And you shouldn’t either. It’s going to be fine.”

“Mamali” © Leyla Shukurova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2024 by Sabrina Jaszi. All rights reserved.

English Russian (Original)

1.

Mamali dishes food onto plates—two plates, four plates, six—and says to put them on the floor, where a tablecloth has been laid out for dinner. There are fewer people today than usual: Farid is still at work, Jalal has left for the city with his family, Sharut came home from school and went straight to bed, and their countless neighbors have stayed home for once. Neighbors often stop by Mamali’s in the evenings, especially the fat village ladies who at day’s end have nothing to do and no one to talk to—but today there’s no one. Maybe it’s the August heat: from early morning, the sun beat down, the air was thick, and people took refuge beneath outdoor showers to avoid heatstroke. 

Ulfet eyes the food longingly, but doesn’t dare touch the warm rice, nor the dried fruit, nor the chicken. She’s been holed up all day with her books in the farthest, coolest room, and is dying to eat. Still, she waits, knowing that if she starts before everyone is assembled, Mamali will get angry and slap her hand. Or, at the very least, mutter something mean: “The food’s not going anywhere—don’t be greedy.” Ulfet isn’t greedy, but she hears the unpleasant rumbling of her stomach and feels resentful. 

Her father, Maryam, and Farid arrive soon after. Mamali sits beside them and puts a bowl of chopped cucumber and tomato in the center of the cloth; her brother pours the cold feijoa kompot. Her father, with a smile, recites a one-word prayer, and then, finally, the family eats. Ulfet is always amazed by her mom’s cooking (everyone in the village calls her mom Mamali, although her name is something else entirely), and asks herself why, when her sister or other relatives and friends prepare food, it isn’t as good. Ulfet never cooks: there are plenty of people in the house to fill the kitchen, and someone else always takes care of it. Anyway, Ulfet is too small to be of real use around the house—she’s only ten; in her free time, she prefers to read or hang out with the neighbor kids. She and her friends spend hours exploring the nearby oak forest, playing hide-and-seek, and running to the seaside by the long tracks of the railway, picking rosehips and blackberries from the bushes and eating them as they go. 

After satisfying her hunger and licking her fingers, Ulfet steals a glance at Maryam. Her older sister, usually pretty and smiling, is sad and distant today—not herself. Three days earlier, she got engaged, and all their family members in Lankaran assembled to celebrate; they ate, drank, and danced all evening, while the bride was silent as a stone. Maryam had just turned sixteen; her new fiancé was fifteen years her senior. An old man. When his parents first approached them about an engagement, Ulfet listened from the kitchen as Maryam begged Mamali not to consent. She wanted to go to college before marrying, start her career as a chemist or a biologist maybe, she was such a good student, please please please, why now? But Mamali would not be swayed. “What does a girl need with all that education? What good will it do you?” she asked in a tone that allowed for no objection. “High school is enough. They’re a good family, our neighbors. We know them. It’s done.”   

After that, Maryam stayed in bed for more than a week. Ulfet, Sharut, and even their brothers visited by turns, trying to console her; at night, the girls, who all shared a room, took turns climbing into Maryam’s bed to hug her. Only Mamali never came. She sent the children in with food and drink and went into the room to get the laundry, but she was unyielding in her decision. Their father, too, sympathized with his oldest daughter but couldn’t, it seemed, do anything: against all tradition, the head of their family was Mamali. It was her the children feared, like the flames of hell, while their father was a confidant and consoler. “Djanali, my soul,” he said affectionately when he went to Maryam. He sat on a chair by the bed and put his palm on his daughter’s head, stroking her dark hair. “Djanali, that’s enough. No more tears.”

Maryam said nothing, but a few days later she came out to breakfast. 

“Let’s make a bet!” says Farid, their middle brother, holding a tiny bone triumphantly above his head. Ulfet understands right away—it’s the wishbone, from the base of the chicken’s breast.

“Let’s make a bet!” Farid says again, looking at everyone on the floor one by one and then, suddenly, making a generous offer: “I’ll give it away, I’ve got nothing to bet on. Who wants it?” 

Ulfet quickly volunteers to make a wish, and after her, for the first time that evening, Maryam speaks up, too. Together, they take the precious bone from their brother, give each other a look, and start pulling. The bone doesn’t crack right away—it bends but doesn’t break. Maryam’s round cheeks become flushed. A hundred thoughts rush through Ulfet’s mind in a second: getting a five in math that winter, a trip to Baku, hiding in the woods and not being found—no, getting a five in math, she hasn’t for the last two quarters, yes! The bone cracks and the larger half remains in Ulfet’s hand. She jumps for joy. She’s won! 

Maryam is quiet.

“I’m full,” she says a minute later. “Thank you.”

Her younger sister stares at her, feeling a strange tickle in her heart, as Maryam wipes her hands on a towel, takes her nearly full plate from the floor, stands, and, looking at no one, goes out into the hall.  

 

2.

Autumn comes as a relief. The temperatures drop and the days get shorter, but also quieter, softer. Ulfet likes school. In August, she’d managed to finish all the books assigned for the summer and to review math, as well as Farsi and her dreaded Russian. Russian doesn’t come easily to her: no one speaks it in their home, so there’s no one to practice with, and it sounds so jerky, so strange—it won’t lie on her tongue. At least she doesn’t have to learn Cyrillic from scratch. But Farsi is a totally different story: musical, strange, unlike her native Azerbaijani both in writing and speech. Despite its foreignness, she likes it more. But here in the Soviet Union Farsi isn’t essential, Russian is, so there’s nothing she can do. It irritates her to no end that she has such a hard time with it—why should this be so? She keeps trying. 

Playing with friends is different now, too: the kids get together in each other’s yards because their parents, who are home more often, want them nearby. Ulfet isn’t discouraged: she runs around the yards figuring out how to quickly open or jump over their neighbors’ gates and finding new ways to sneak into other people’s rose gardens and orchards. She clambers up trees better than any of the boys to pick the ripest bunch of grapes or quince, and then has the freedom to decide whether to keep it for herself or share it with her friends. Sometimes they manage to get a little pocket money off their elders and the whole gang goes down to the stream in the woods to buy ice cream from the stand run by Uncle Ali, and then sit down to eat it, dipping their feet merrily into the gurgling water. 

The falchi appears in late November. Ulfet is seeing her for the first time, but Sharut, the middle sister and a big gossip, tells her about this woman from the neighboring village of Astara who hardly ever visits. In some ways, the woman looks like Mamali—maybe it’s the colorful scarf wrapped around her head—but she’s smaller, younger, and more composed. And if Mamali’s prominent features make her resemble a bird of prey, like a falcon, then the little falchi reminds Ulfet more of a fox. 

When the woman enters the yard, the grown-ups greet her warmly, like an old friend. They seat her on a bench at the wooden table left there from the summer and bring her thyme tea, lumps of sugar, and jam. Later, they approach the guest one by one, hold their right palms out, and shyly ask questions. Even the men go. The falchi, it turns out, is a cheerful and chatty khanum—she’s quick to joke, drinks a lot of tea, and devours Mamali’s homemade apricot jam. Almost everyone leaves her smiling, though there are those who are unhappy. After some hesitation, Mamali herself puts some bills on the table and sits. Through the kitchen window where they stand, watching eagerly, Ulfet and Sharut catch the name of Maryam, whose wedding took place two months earlier. After the wedding, their older sister came home twice, both times in tears. Finally, she revealed the bruises on her shoulders, back, and hips to her sisters and mother—her husband was beating her every day but she had stayed quiet about it, not letting on, so as not to make a mockery of herself before the neighbors. 

“I can’t keep living with him,” Maryam said, crying, each time her family got together in the kitchen. “I need a divorce!” 

Mamali cut her off: “You’ll be dead before you come back here.” 

The falchi holds Mamali’s palm in her hands for a long time and then starts speaking with a slight smile (Ulfet listens as hard as she can to make out the words): “He’ll die before her.” The falchi says something else but the girls don’t catch a word of it. Mamali’s face is like a stone, not giving anything away. Unable to restrain herself, Ulfet runs into the yard. Seeing her, Mamali jerks her hand away from the falchi, shouting: “Off with you! Fortune-telling isn’t for children!” But the falchi narrows her eyes. 

“No, no, no, let’s see her. Don’t you worry, it’s free of charge.” 

She looks at Ulfet’s palm for a few minutes, running her rough fingers over the lines. Mamali sits nearby and Ulfet can feel her mother’s anxiety: is she afraid that the fortune-telling will negatively affect the fate of her youngest, still unmarried, daughter? Finally, the falchi raises her eyes and says in a sweet, foxlike voice: “You’ll marry someone close to you, a friend, and live very far away. Your husband will be a bigshot. People will point at you and say: ‘That’s so-and-so’s wife!’ A happy fate. You’ll have”—another glance at her palm—“six children. Yes, six.”

Ulfet wants to ask whether she’ll become a doctor, a pediatrician, but Mamali quickly says “enough,” grabs Ulfet’s wrist, pulls her up, and sends her back inside. Ulfet shrugs and runs inside, where Sharut awaits, her face glowing with curiosity in the kitchen window, as round as a wheel of cheese. 

 

3.

Sharut’s wedding is in the spring, four years after Maryam left the house. 

Unlike the other sisters, Sharut never liked to study. Quite the opposite, she preferred sitting around and sleeping late, her head was always in the clouds, and for this reason—as if out of spite—she was always given the hardest chores in her parents’ home. Despite their differences in age and personality, Ulfet has always felt especially close to Sharut, much more so than to Mamali’s other children. Yes, with Sharut she has a real friendship—as much as two sisters of fourteen and eighteen can. The summer before last, Ulfet, at her peril, decided to cut off her long hair, which was usually plaited into a thick braid, the envy of all. To do so without asking Mamali’s permission was a bold decision. That day, she hurried home from school, hoping to run into her room before anyone noticed the haircut, but of course it didn’t work. It was Sharut who saved Ulfet from their mother’s wrath: ahead of their brothers and aunts, she ran into the yard, exposed herself to a wave of shrieks and beatings, and managed to drag her younger sister into the house, where she stood guard, not letting anyone get to Ulfet. Mamali eventually calmed down and even apologized, but from that point on the sisters knew they could count on one another. 

This made it all the more painful for Ulfet when she could not repay the favor: she simply wasn’t home. A family from a neighboring village visited about Sharut’s engagement—the sisters had seen these people a few times at big events, but by no means knew them well. Their eldest son, Agil, an engineer and Sharut’s suitor, might even have been called handsome, except for one thing—a large white spot on his left eye. 

Later, Sharut told Ulfet how she’d gathered up her courage and gone into the sitting room, where she wasn’t allowed without permission, and announced in front of all the matchmakers: “I won’t!”

Having somehow escorted the stunned guests out, Mamali locked her in the bedroom where no one could hear and gave her a severe beating. “So you don’t like the white spot on his eye? Think he’s ugly? He’s ugly, huh? And what are you, a beauty?!”

“And what am I, a beauty?” Sharut mimicked bitterly later that evening. 

In time it became clear that her sister had actually been lucky. Agil turned out to be a kind, smart, and somewhat sarcastic guy who didn’t bother Sharut with prohibitions or jealousy, even during their engagement. The white spot on his eye, Agil said, was recent—a work injury at the factory, very unexpected, the doctors had done all they could. “Of course I was afraid,” Agil had said, “that no one would love me now, though my parents told me that was nonsense. Though how would they know? If you want to break off the engagement, that’s fine. I’ll help you. But let’s get to know each other first, all right?”

Sharut’s wedding takes place six months after her engagement. Ulfet has turned fifteen. Her older sister seems happy, full of anticipation, and crowds of strangers gather once again for the celebration, ready to scatter enough money over the heads of the newlyweds to cover both families’ expenses. As always. This time, Ulfet takes the role of a bridesmaid, carrying a mirror. According to tradition, the bride is brought to her husband’s house just before the ceremony amid music and singing, where she stops in front of the threshold of her future bedroom, dips three fingers in a bowl of honey, and smears it on the doorpost—so the life before her will be sweet. Usually the girl with the mirror leads this merry procession, bringing a gift into the bedroom—this mirror symbolizes protection against the evil eye and, after the wedding, must always remain nearby. 

“I hope you’ll be happy,” says Ulfet, bending down to kiss her sister. 

“Thank you,” says Sharut, smiling. In a white dress with a wide red ribbon around her waist, she looks unbelievably beautiful today. “I wish all the same for you.”

Normally Ulfet is terribly annoyed by the loud music at weddings, but this time she enjoys it. Maybe it’s her good mood. A white party tent has been pitched in the yard for dancing, and people stream through it to the street, the garden, the house—they flow ceaselessly, all over. The crowd looks to Ulfet like an upside-down sky full of noisy, multicolored birds—just the kind of image she sees when she lies on her back on a hill in the forest, folds her hands behind her head, and keeps staring, staring upward. 

Now Ulfet runs back and forth between the tent and the house, carrying food at the request of Mamali and her older aunts, chatting with friends as she goes and, of course, making time to dance. “Oh, shaitan!” Her happy neighbors smile at her, pinching her cheeks, when, having kicked off her shoes, she breaks into a lezginka, as good as any of the village guys. Her feet, moving to the beat of the music, become nearly invisible, bolts of lightning. Her father claps and smiles along: he loves it when his daughters show off what they can do. 

While dancing, Ulfet feels someone’s gaze upon her. She turns and notices her school friend Rasim, with whom she often played as a child. Rasim is all grown up now and has fallen hard for Ulfet’s school friend, while she, Ulfet, has had to play the role of messenger, passing love notes back and forth. But things aren’t looking good for the pair: Rasim’s family is very poor, and, from the moment of her daughter’s birth, the girl’s mother has been planning to marry her off to an extremely rich man. Because of this, the romance has had to be kept under lock and key.   

But actually, Ulfet realizes, it’s not Rasim looking at her. It’s his brother Maksud. She’s only seen him a few times—he’s six years older and left years ago to study in Odessa, returning only rarely. When the news of his departure for school swept the village, Ulfet caught herself feeling a bit envious: Where had this guy learned Russian well enough to get into college in Russia? How had he managed it in their village? Not fair. Later, she remembered that Odessa isn’t in Russia, it was somewhere in Ukraine, but you could still study in Russian there. 

Maksud, compared with fumbling Rasim, is intriguing: he’s tall and thin with tight curls, but seems cocky—he stares and stares at her, smiling and not even bothering to avert his eyes, though she’s noticed him. Is he drunk? Ulfet snorts and turns away, putting her shoes on and returning to her friends in the house. 

In the kitchen, instead of her friends she finds Maryam. After a year’s seclusion, her sister is out in company for the first time; with her fresh face and long black lashes, she’s still beautiful and always attracts notice, though her belly is round again, which she tries to hide beneath her clothes. A year ago, Maryam’s eldest son, who was just two, died after a pot of boiling water turned over on him—at a crowded gathering like today’s. Although such things happened often enough in the village, people still talked behind Maryam’s back, calling her a bad, careless mother. But Maryam was beyond all the gossip—for a whole year, she’d been so stricken with grief that even Ulfet hadn’t been able to get through to her. 

“See what he did?” Maryam asks, winking, strangely lighthearted, when her younger sister puts a plate of fried eggplant in front of her. “That older brother of your friend?” 

“What?” Right away, Ulfet feels uncomfortable. Has everyone noticed Maksud looking at her and started to gab about it already? 

Maryam goes on: “He went into the living room where our photographs are hanging. There are a few framed photos there, you know? On the wall. Well, he took one—yours!” Now she is actually laughing. Ulfet has a funny feeling of relief seeing her sister so cheerful. At least, she thinks to herself, something good is coming of this stupid conversation. 

“I bet he’ll whisk you off to Odessa, now,” says Maryam, smiling. “Mahabbat—love.”

Ulfet shrugs. A cocky boy, just like she thought. Well, let him worship her photograph, then. What’s it to her? 

 

4.

“No,” Mamali says curtly.

The fight has been going on for three weeks already. That’s when Ulfet decided once and for all that she wanted to go to the nursing college, and not in Lankaran, but in Baku: first of all, because she knows she’s unlikely to be taught much of anything in her small provincial town, and second, because she wants to be out of sight of her neighbors, who love nothing more in life than to gossip. Ulfet has given up on the idea of going to a university instead of a nursing college, and of studying to be a pediatrician rather than a nurse: she’s got to be realistic, and the college will take just two years, compared with five years at a university! Ulfet will definitely never get her mother to agree to the latter option, but with the former, she has a chance. 

At least a slim one. 

It helps that, around the same time, her older brother Jalal has moved to Baku with his family. They even have a guest bedroom, which Ulfet noticed on her first visit to the capital. Since childhood, she’s had an affectionate and trusting relationship with Jalal: even though he’s been mostly absent for many years, he loves to spoil his younger sister. Indeed, with age, he’s come to look more and more like a boisterous, good-natured Santa Claus who gives gifts to children on New Year’s Eve. Except that Jalal would never wear red—he hasn’t become that much of a city person.

Seizing this chance, Ulfet convinces her brother to let her stay with him if she gets into the college. His wife, tight-lipped and self-centered, is clearly unenthusiastic, but doesn’t oppose her husband. Nonetheless, the news that Mamali’s youngest daughter has decided to go study in Baku somehow spreads quickly through their village—much more quickly than Ulfet has counted on. 

“She’s losing her mind!” Sharut says uneasily on the phone. There’s no need to ask who “she” is. From the very beginning, Ulfet has obviously feared Mamali’s reaction. But she thinks that her brother’s support and her excellent grades in high school will work in her favor. No matter how conservative Mamali is on the question of her daughter’s education, she is also very vain: if her youngest daughter manages to get into nursing college in the capital, this would at least bring up her value on the marriage market. And her older brother’s involvement will help protect her from the nasty rumors Mamali, like everyone in the village, fears most. 

But this is all just in theory. In reality, Ulfet has spent three weeks trying to get through to her mother: with tears, hysterics, even threats. Mamali has failed to beat her into submission as she’s done in the past. Perhaps this is because of her bad legs, which serve her less and less. Or perhaps it’s because of Ulfet herself, who, after their first blow-up, runs into the yard where all the neighbors can hear, and starts tearing down the laundry on the clothesline, throwing it on the ground, and yelling: “Don’t you know what people will say?! That there’s something wrong with Mamali’s youngest daughter! Mamali’s crazy youngest daughter! She’s a lunatic, she’s insane! I’ll make sure everyone knows I’m crazy! The whole village will be talking about it! Everyone!” 

Later, when Sharut and Farid ask what came over her, Ulfet doesn’t know what to say. She jokes that she was “possessed by a djinn,” but wonders if this actually might be true: that day, a wave of rage crashed down on her with a force she’d never before known. Deadly black fury. Scattering clean linens on the ground as though they were wet rags, Ulfet saw Maryam with bruises on her back and her dead child, she remembered Sharut before she’d been happy, and felt something else complex, heavy, and slippery that seemed to bite into her solar plexus. Maybe it was the sharp understanding that now was both her first and her only chance. 

Jalal finally gives up on trying to help from afar and comes to the village. “What, Mama, you don’t trust me?” he repeats gently, day after day. Sometimes it even seems that Mamali hears him, nods, yields, softens. But the next morning it starts all over again. When Ulfet has already abandoned hope, help comes from an unexpected place—her father returns early from work. Usually at this time of year he’s in Russia selling flowers, vegetables, goat cheese, katyk, and farmer’s cheese, but the goods have gone faster than usual, and he decides not to linger in a foreign land. At home, listening to the arguments for and against, he shows some backbone regarding the children for the first time in Ulfet’s memory: with a single harsh word, he rejects his wife’s objections and tells his youngest daughter to go pack her things. 

“Jalal will take care of you,” he says, nodding. “If he doesn’t, canını alaram—I’ll take his soul.”

Then he smiles. 

Ulfet looks at her older brother, then at her father, and her gloomy, unhappy mother. She turns and goes to her room. There, standing in the doorway and looking at the narrow beds where her sisters once slept, at her desk, strewn with notebooks, books, and some pins and jewelry, she inhales the familiar smell of the dry floorboards, trying to calm her racing heart, and with each breath becoming more and more certain that no, no—she’s not going to cry. 

 

5.

The yard is covered in blood.

There’s no moon in the sky, no voices in the forest. A barefoot woman in a turban sits on the wet ground. At her feet, unnaturally splayed, lies a limp body. The woman takes the body in her arms—it’s still alive and convulses, groans, trembles. One minute, three minutes. An hour. Blood streams down the woman’s palms—as the accompanying sound slowly grows quieter, weaker. The woman doesn’t seem worried, though. She just sits there. The dark night encloses this murderer and her victim, along with a single accidental witness. This person sits on the steps that lead into the house. And he can’t move. He too is shoeless and has left sticky dark footprints on the bare steps. Probably, he came out into the yard just a few minutes earlier.

This witness raises his hands slowly to make sure that his own throat hasn’t been cut. But his gaze rises involuntarily with his hands. The woman sitting on the ground looks at him, unblinking, and thick hot blood begins to run down his arms. 

The day before the entrance exam, Ulfet calls her sister, complaining of insomnia. 

“I’m so sick of these nightmares! As soon as I fall asleep, all sorts of filth creeps into my dreams.” 

Sharut, who’s just been gushing about how, for the first time in her life, she can sleep in (her husband lets her stay in bed until noon, getting himself ready for work, instead of waking her at dawn), falls anxiously silent. Then she speaks up, uncertainly: “So you haven’t heard about Mamali’s gurban . . . ?”

Then the words spill out of Sharut’s mouth, she trips over them, unable to keep them in: A few days ago, after their father left for work, Mamali went to the local mullah and performed a gurban ritual—the sacrifice of a lamb. The animal’s throat was slit, accompanied by a prayer, and its meat, as required, was distributed to the poor. A person who initiated this ritual could perform it for no reason—out of the goodness of his heart—or could make the sacrifice in exchange for a niyyət—heart’s desire.

“Her wish was that you fail the exam,” Sharut blurts out. And then, right away, she falls silent. Ulfet understands that her sister is ashamed for telling the secret, but she can’t take it back. Feeling nausea rise in her throat, Ulfet makes some joke, quickly ends the conversation, and then lies face-down on her bed to muffle her voice in the pillow.

Then she begins to yell. 

 

6.

Obviously, she doesn’t get in anywhere. 

The exam in literature—an essay—is harder than expected, and she gets the one question she hasn’t prepared. Unsurprising that Ulfet, with her terrible insomnia, gets the lowest score. The good results in chemistry don’t help—no, there’s too much competition. Things might have gone differently had the principal of her high school passed along her certificate of excellence in advance. This ordinarily would be sent on Ulfet’s behalf at the end of the school year, but if it had been submitted early, with the other application documents, the entrance exam committee would have allowed Ulfet to take an oral exam in literature instead of the written one. But the principal demanded a bribe for something that Ulfet was entitled to by law and so she refused. 

She gets home to Lankaran and chats with her mother as though nothing has happened. And a couple weeks later, at dinner with her family, she says casually: “I’ll get in next year, with God’s help.” Her father simply nods: “Good, balam, go ahead, it’s in the hands of the Almighty. But you’ll need some work experience”—and he keeps eating heartily, scooping up the hot plov full of fatty lamb chunks with his fingers. He always eats with the sincerest pleasure. Meanwhile, Ulfet keeps a close watch on Mamali, who evasively, assiduously, avoids her eyes and whispers “God be merciful” under her breath. 

During Ulfet’s short trip to Baku, her mother’s health deteriorated considerably. It’s even harder for Mamali to walk now, she sits a lot, her breath is labored. Farid tells Ulfet that, when he went up to their tiny attic recently to fix a leak in the roof, he found some rotten eggshells covered in Arabic script. They had some kind of strange garbage smell, so he quickly gathered them in a towel and burned them in the yard. The last time he was in the attic, just six months earlier, the empty eggshells weren’t there—he’d have noticed. Still, that was around the time that Mamali’s legs started to go. 

They suspect the neighbors, but, even more so, their father’s eldest sister—she’s always been a jealous, conniving person with the evil eye, and sometimes still comes around, clearly wishing them ill. Despite everything that has happened, Ulfet pities her mother: She’s aging right before Ulfet’s eyes, the world she knows with its old rules is receding into the past, and every day she has less and less strength for the incomprehensible new one. 

To get into the nursing college next year, Ulfet needs at least six months of work experience. So, with her father’s help, she gets a job at the state flower farm near their home—it’s right by the railroad track and the woods where she played as a child. At the state farm, she works in giant greenhouses: makes sure weeds aren’t growing, looks after huge fragrant roses, tulips and gladioli, and carefully packs flowers into containers that are sent directly to Moscow by train. Ulfet likes this life among the flowers—they transport her to another world, completely unlike the one that awaits her outside the borders of the farm. What’s more, she enjoys earning her own money and saving a little. “You could buy something for the house once in a while,” her mother says sometimes, mildly reproachful, but Ulfet pretends not to hear.

One day walking home, she sees someone waiting for her across the railroad tracks. Ulfet is frightened at first, but then recognizes Maksud: he looks older, stands straighter, and is more tanned than before, but his smile and curly hair are the same. When Ulfet gets close enough, Maksud greets her and holds out a small box of chocolates from Lviv—exceedingly rare in their little town. 

“I’ll walk with you for a while,” Maksud half-asks, half-states, squinting his eyes meaningfully. His eyelashes are black and long like a girl’s. She didn’t notice this before. “Not all the way home, so your parents don’t see, but almost. If you don’t mind.”

The annoyance that she felt a couple years ago is gone. Ulfet turns the gift over in her hands—a nice gift—and puts it in her purse. Once home, she’ll say it’s a gift from a coworker. She looks straight at Maksud, drawing out the silence, then says nonchalantly: “I don’t mind.” 

 

7.

The rest of the year flies by. 

Two months after they first meet, Maksud returns to Odessa. But not before revealing to Ulfet that he’ll probably be sent to Siberia after graduation—to help open a wine and vodka factory in a small industrial town close to Irkutsk. Ulfet has heard almost nothing about Irkutsk, so, like the names of all Russian towns, it means little to her. Still, she knows it’s far away and he has prospects there, so she tries to encourage Maksud, whose parents are skeptical. 

“My dad says I’m living in a dreamworld!” Maksud says with a sneer during their calls. “That’s me, a dreamer. I want such big things. And meanwhile we have so little that my family can’t even come to yours with a khoncha.” In these moments the tone of his voice changes sharply. “But I’ll make sure they come soon.” 

A khoncha is the name of an elaborate pastry arrangement. Without it, in the countryside, there can be no matchmaking. A family that brings a skimpy khoncha to a girl’s home risks mockery, and no one wants that. But Ulfet isn’t particularly concerned about such formalities—they’ve been discreet, but the whole village already knows that Maksud has taken notice of her, which means that, on her end, it’s as good as done. Mamali is of course unhappy that the young man’s family is taking so long with the official engagement but, nonetheless, has already turned away other, less fortunate, suitors for the hand of her youngest daughter.

Moreover, Maksud isn’t against Ulfet continuing her education. He can’t afford a costly wedding in the next couple of years, not to mention an engagement party, so Ulfet can do as she likes. Besides, nursing college is considered an excellent type of education in the Soviet Union, especially for girls. 

A month before the entrance exams she quits her job at the farm and lets Jalal know that she’ll be coming back to Baku. Her brother doesn’t object. This time her father, who is still home, volunteers to take her to the city himself. When she gets into the car, he suddenly grins from ear to ear and announces: “Djanali, the principal of your school called me. He wanted to pass along the reference letter, with no bribe. He’s had it for a year. I picked it up this morning to surprise you.”

And he holds out a folder with the document. 

Mamali stands in front of the house with a pitcher of water, leaning on the wall. As the car carrying her husband and daughter pulls out of the yard, she splashes water after them—for a smooth road ahead. 

 

8.

The chemistry exam is written—difficult, but still more or less OK. I’ll definitely get a three or a four, Ulfet thinks afterward. The literature exam that she failed so disgracefully the year before is in four days, and all four nights Ulfet is once again sleepless: on the first night the dreams about the bloody yard, the faceless woman, and her own cut throat all come back. She awakes in pitch darkness, clutching her neck, coughs violently, chokes, and tries to calm down. 

No way Mamali has been performing that ritual again. No way, no way, no way, no way.

She wants to call Sharut and ask what’s going on at home, but it’s the middle of the night. It would be rude. So instead of calling her sister, Ulfet goes to the kitchen, gets out a glass, pours herself some water from a pitcher, and sips it, trying not to make noise and wake her brother’s family. She goes out onto the balcony. It overlooks a public road and there are few cars at this time, but the bright streetlights and the aroma of the southern night calm her down a bit. I’ve studied it all, Ulfet tells herself firmly. I know all there is to know. I don’t believe in any of that stuff! 

I don’t believe in that stuff, Ulfet repeats to herself, as she walks back into the kitchen in the dark, not turning on the lights, and feeling around for the salt dispenser on the table. I don’t believe in it, she repeats as she finds the salt dispenser, heavy and full, and pours a mound of salt into her palm. I don’t believe in it, Ulfet repeats as she walks back onto the balcony, shuts her eyes, squeezes her hand closed, so as not to lose a grain, and waves her fist around her head. 

“Göz vuranın gözü çıxsın,” Ulfet whispers. “Let he who gives the evil eyes lose his eye. Let he who gives the evil eyes lose his eye.” 

With the same hand she taps her right shoulder blade, then carefully approaches the edge of the balcony, opens her palm, and stares as the grains of salt fly down in a white cloud, dissolving into the darkness. 

The one who watches is still sitting on the steps to the house but can now look around. 

This is the yard of his childhood: a wooden gazebo, a table, an outbuilding attached to the right for summer suppers; blackberry and wild rose bushes growing at every step. 

Now he can clearly see the face of the woman sitting before him—and it’s not the face he expected. Father’s older sister looks at him, smiling, her white teeth shining brightly like stars on earth. Her eyes, always small and narrowed, are now completely gone. Two bottomless wells of darkness yawn in their place.

But he recognizes her. 

“Salt!” the woman says, grinning. “Would you look at that, she remembered the salt!”

He panics. He tries to recite the spell, but his lips won’t cooperate. Göz vuranın . . . Göz vura . . .

“Good for her,” the woman says suddenly. “Smart girl.”

And she stops smiling. 

The questions she gets are about the poet Samed Vurgun. Ulfet knows his work inside out, even recites his longest poem with ease. Thanks to the certificate of excellence that her father passed along, she gets to do an ordinary dictation instead of writing an essay. Later, she hardly remembers what it was about, but the capital letters, colons, dashes, and painstakingly checked commas stick in her mind. Could she have made some mistake? She can’t have, no, she has a knack for grammar. 

She’s supposed to get the results in a week. Ulfet doesn’t know how she’ll survive it. Seeming to intuit her sister’s anxiety, Sharut comes to visit from Lankaran (once again, Jalal’s wife isn’t happy about having guests, but only her sour expression reveals it). As usual, Sharut brings the latest gossip: Maryam is pregnant again, Mamali fell in the yard and can hardly walk, Farid will be getting married soon to that girl from the factory, remember her? That awful little girl you can’t stand? 

“I think she’s knocked up!” Sharut says, sniggering. “At the engagement party she was sucking her stomach in so hard she turned red like a tomato. And remember your friend Rasim?”

“What about him?” Ulfet hasn’t seen him in a long time. And he’s not the only one. 

“Oh, nothing. Got engaged, too,” Sharut says, shrugging. “To a different girl. Your friend’s mother turned him down in the end. ‘I won’t give my daughter to a pauper!’ Just like we thought. They were forbidden to see each other; the girl cried her eyes out. He nearly tried to steal her, but nothing came of it. The end.” 

The end. 

Ulfet starts running a high fever. She feels like a balloon that’s been stuck with a needle, and can no longer walk or stand. When she closes her eyes, there are clouds, trees, and, strangely, dead dogs swimming before her. Lots and lots of dead dogs. So, when the strong, herbal aroma of smoke enters the room, she thinks that it too is a dream. 

“Inhale, inhale,” someone whispers in Sharut’s voice. “I’m burning herbs to protect against the evil eye, üzərlik . . . Inhale the smoke, come on. Inhale!”

Ulfet obediently inhales. 

The woman coughs from the acrid smoke: she no longer looks calm, nor mocking. And the witness no longer has to sit still. He can move around the yard looking for a way out, but each time he thinks he’s found one, it turns into black, boggy nothingness. Then he looks down and sees that the dark, hot liquid dripping from the murder victim’s corpse is covering his thighs, arms, and chest. 

“Blood,” says the woman, when she’s able to stop coughing, “demands blood.”

The witness turns and notices that her face is trembling and changing. Instead of Father’s elder sister, the falchi sits before him—that old village fortune-teller. He recognizes her but for some reason feels no fear. 

“Blood requires blood,” the falchi repeats. Turning away, she leans over the body of her first victim. The witness finally realizes that it’s not a person, but an animal. A dead lamb. The woman puts her hands beneath the lamb’s wool palm side up, and when she pulls them out, there are six gemstones that look like rubies in her hands—three in each palm. 

“Blood demands blood,” the woman repeats. And unhurriedly, as though in slow motion, she starts to squeeze her left hand into a fist. 

Immediately, the witness feels a cramping pain deep in his belly. He cries out but doesn’t hear any sound. The woman opens her fist: there’s nothing there now, except for blood. 

“I didn’t take any payment for her daughter,” the witness hears, “but for this mother’s stupid acts I’ll now take a great price. For her günah.”

Her sin. 

Just as slowly, the woman starts to squeeze her right hand into a fist—the witness’s pain becomes so unbearable that he falls to the ground. The sour smell of blood hits his nose. The woman opens her fist—it too is covered in blood, but one red stone remains. The falchi looks at it with mild surprise—the witness observes her surprise—and then starts to laugh. The falchi laughs with her round, empty eyes dripping; she laughs silently, then deafeningly, at the top of her lungs. Finally, without warning, she jerks her hand and throws the stone in his direction. 

He jumps to catch it . . .

“Can you talk?” Jalal asks cautiously. Her brother is standing in the doorway to her room with the phone, unsure whether to come in. Ulfet has spent the last two days with a fever in complete delirium—her temperature rose to a hundred and four degrees, she had trouble breathing, and then, according to Sharut, she even began to bleed heavily. They called the emergency line and doctors came to examine her. They gave her some kind of injection, after which she stopped thrashing around and started to get better.

Mamali calls her for the first time—maybe she’s heard about the illness, or maybe she’s found out that Ulfet has gotten into the nursing college. Ulfet couldn’t go get the results herself, but her brother went and got them for her. A three plus in chemistry and a solid five in literature. She’s passed! Ulfet nods, takes the phone, and answers her mother, not getting up from the bed. After a long lecture about health and how she needs to take care of herself, Mamali finally says, with some warmth in her voice:

“Congratulations, balam. You got what you wanted.”

“Against all odds,” Ulfet wants to say.

Mamali continues: “Maksud’s parents visited yesterday, brought a khoncha and asked for your hand. He’s being sent to Siberia, apparently. Did you know? To Russia. They won’t be able to afford a wedding for a long time . . . So, you’ll have a long engagement.”

You’ll live far away.

“How old were you,” Ulfet asks, surprising herself, “when you got engaged to Dad?”

She is met by an uncomfortable silence. Such questions, no matter how innocent, are taboo in their familyconsidered indecent and closed to discussion with unmarried children, especially daughters. But now that Ulfet’s status has changed, she has the right to try.

Finally, Mamali gives a reluctant reply:

“Twelve.”

Ulfet feels a strange prickle in her chest, as though a needle has passed through her skin. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine her mother’s face as a child: vaguely familiar, but completely youthful, not yet haggard from anger or anxiety. Something very much like her own face.

There are no photographs of her at that age, the thought occurs to Ulfet. Nor of me.

“And when you got married?” Ulfet asks. “How old were you then?”

“Fourteen.” Now that the initial shock has passed, Mamali answers without hesitation. “My family wanted us to get married sooner, but your father’s grandfather died. We had to put it off.”

They are both silent for a few seconds.

“Times were different then,” Mamali says suddenly. Now she sounds almost guilty. “Everything was simpler. Clearer. Things aren’t like that now.” She thinks a little and adds: “Maksud will be leaving for a very long time, balam. Hopefully no one gives the two of you the evil eye before the wedding.”

Ulfet thinks about the lingering cramps deep in her belly. About the falchi, who took five of the six rubies promised to her, but for some reason left one. About the two years of long-anticipated study ahead, and about Mamali, who is now sincerely congratulating her, despite having prayed that her youngest daughter’s life would be different. Would Mamali forgive herself if she found out about Ulfet’s dreams? Would she believe the falchi’s words about punishment suffered for a mother’s sins? Or would the whole story go in one ear and out the other, just a folly and coincidence?

Somehow, Ulfet knows the answer.

“I don’t believe in all that stuff, Mama,” Ulfet says, smiling broadly into the phone. “And you shouldn’t either. It’s going to be fine.”

Мамали

1.

Мамали раскладывает еду по тарелкам – две тарелки, четыре, шесть, — и велит положить их на пол, где уже расстелена скатерть для ужина. Людей сегодня меньше обычного: Фарид ещё не вернулся с работы, Джалал уехал в город вместе с семьей, Шарут пришла из школы и сразу заснула, а многочисленные соседи, кажется, в этот раз решили поужинать у себя. Соседи часто заходили к Мамали в гости по вечерам, особенно толстые деревенские тётушки, которым под конец дня становилось нечего делать и некого обсуждать, но сегодня никто так и не явился. Возможно, дело в августовской жаре: солнце палило с самого утра, воздух был плотным, и, чтобы не получить тепловой удар, люди несколько раз на дню спасались под уличным душем.

Ульфет жадно смотрит на еду, но пока не решается прикоснуться ни к теплому рису, ни к сухофруктам, ни к курице. Она весь день просидела за книгами в самой дальней и прохладной комнате и страшно проголодалась. Но она ждёт, потому что знает, что если начнёт есть до того, как все соберутся, Мамали рассердится и ударит её по рукам. Или, как минимум, проворчит что-то обидное. «Еда не убежит, нельзя думать только о себе». Ульфет не думает только о себе, но слышит, как неприятно урчит в животе, и чувствует обиду.

Вскоре приходят отец, Марьям и Фарид. Мамали садится рядом, кладет в центр скатерти миску с нарезанными огурцами и помидорами. Брат наливает прохладного компота из фейхоа, отец с улыбкой произносит короткую молитву в одно слово, после чего семья, наконец, начинает есть. Ульфет всегда поражается тому, как вкусно готовит мама, (вся деревня называет её Мамали, хотя зовут её совсем по-другому) и спрашивает себя, почему ни у её сестёр, ни у других родственников и знакомых так вкусно никогда не выходит. Сама Ульфет не готовит: в доме достаточно людей, чтобы заниматься кухней, кто-нибудь всегда разберётся. К тому же, Ульфет слишком мала, чтобы быть по-настоящему полезной в хозяйстве, ей всего десять; в свободное время она предпочитает читать или гулять с соседскими детьми. Вместе с друзьями они часами исследуют растущий поблизости дубовый лес, играют в прятки, бегают к морю вдоль длинной железной дороги, собирают с кустов ягоды шиповника и ежевики, едят их на ходу. 

Немного утолив голод и облизав пальцы, Ульфет украдкой смотрит на Марьям. У старшей сестры, обычно миловидной и улыбчивой, сегодня грустное, отрешенное, слегка чужое лицо. Три дня назад прошла её помолвка, на которой собрался весь Ленкорань: люди ели, пили, бросались в пляс, пока невеста весь вечер оставалась тихой и безмолвной, как скала. Марьям совсем недавно исполнилось шестнадцать, новоиспеченный жених был на пятнадцать лет старше неё. Старый. Когда его родители впервые пришли к ним свататься, Ульфет сидела на кухне и слышала, как Марьям умоляла Мамали не давать согласия на брак. Ведь она хотела сначала поступить в университет, получить профессию, попытаться стать, например, химиком или биологом, она же так хорошо училась, пожалуйста, почему сейчас? Но Мамали была непреклонна. «Зачем девушкам столько образования, что ты будешь с ним делать?», – спросила она тоном, не предполагающим возражений. – «Школы достаточно. Это хорошая семья, наши соседи. Мы их знаем. Всё решено».

После этого Марьям пролежала в кровати больше недели. Ульфет, Шарут, даже братья приходили к ней по очереди, пытались утешить; по ночам девочки, спавшие в одной комнате, по очереди забирались к сестре в кровать, чтобы обнять. И только Мамали не пришла ни разу. Она молча отправляла еду и питье через остальных детей, заходила в комнату, чтобы забрать на стирку грязные вещи, но в своём решении осталась непреклонна. Отец тоже сочувствовал старшей дочери, но сделать, кажется, ничего не мог: вопреки традициям, главой их семьи была Мамали. Именно её дети боялись, как пламени ада, в то время как отец обычно служил им отдушиной и утешением. «Джанали», – нежно позвал он, когда всё же решился зайти поговорить. Присел на стул рядом с кроватью, положил ладонь дочери на макушку, погладил по темным волосам. Джанали, душа моя, хватит. Больше не плачь.

Марьям тогда промолчала, но вышла к завтраку через несколько дней.

– На спор! – Фарид, средний брат, триумфально поднимает над головой куриную косточку. Ульфет сразу понимает — это «рогатка», крошечная кость из основания куриной груди. Поскольку кость действительно всегда в форме рогатки, можно на что-то поспорить, схватить её с разных концов и потянуть на себя. Кость в конце концов ломается и выигрывает тот, в чьих руках остается большая часть. Если ни у кого не оказывается повода для спора, люди просто загадывают желание, личное, своё, а потом тянут, чтобы узнать, чьё именно желание имеет шанс сбыться.

– На спор! – повторяет Фарид, оглядывает всех сидящих на полу и вдруг щедро предлагает: – Могу одолжить, мне спорить не на что. Кто хочет?

Ульфет немедленно вызывается поспорить на желание, вслед за ней впервые за вечер подает голос Марьям. Вдвоем они забирают у брата заветную кость, секунду смотрят друг на друга и начинают тянуть каждая на себя. Кость поддается не сразу – растягивается, но не ломается. На круглых щеках Марьям проступает румянец. В голове Ульфет за секунду пробегает десяток мыслей: осенью получить пятерку по математике, съездить в Баку, спрятаться в лесу так, чтобы не нашли, нет, всё-таки получить пятёрку по математике, она уже две четверти подряд её не получает, да! Кость с хрустом ломается, в руке Ульфет остается большая часть. Девочка с энтузиазмом подпрыгивает. Победила!

Марьям молчит.

– Я наелась, – говорит она через минуту. – Спасибо.

Под пристальным взглядом младшей сестры, которая теперь чувствует странную щекотку в сердце, Марьям вытирает руки о полотенце, берет с пола свою почти полную тарелку, встаёт и, ни на кого не оглядываясь, выходит в коридор.

2.

Осень приходит как облегчение: спадает жара, дни становятся короче, но в то же время спокойнее, мягче. Ульфет нравится ходить в школу: за август она успела прочесть заданные на лето книги, немного повторить математику, фарси и нелюбимый русский. Последний даётся ей очень тяжело: дома на русском никто не говорит, упражняться не с кем, да и звучит он как-то отрывисто, по-чужому, никак не ложится на язык. Радует только то, что кириллицу не приходится учить с нуля. А вот фарси, конечно, совсем другой: певучий, странный, не похожий на родной азербайджанский ни письмом, ни звучанием. Но он все равно нравится ей больше. Живут они, тем не менее, в Советском Союзе, где именно русский, а не фарси, является обязательным, так что деваться некуда. Сильнее всего Ульфет раздражает, что у неё что-то не получается – почему должно быть так? Она продолжает стараться.

Игры с друзьями теперь тоже другие: дети чаще собираются друг у друга во дворе, потому что родители, чаще бывающие дома, хотят видеть их поблизости. Ульфет не унывает: бегает дворами в попытках выяснить, как быстрее открыть или перепрыгнуть через соседские калитки, много раз на дню находит новые способы прокрасться через чужие розовые сады и рощи. Она лучше любых мальчишек карабкается по деревьям, чтобы сорвать самую спелую виноградную гроздь или айву, а потом в одиночку решает, оставить всё себе или поделиться с другими. Иногда им удаётся выклянчить у старших немного карманных денег и тогда вся компания ходит ручью у леса, покупает в лотке сливочное мороженое у соседа дяди Али и садится есть неподалёку, опустив ноги в весело журчащую воду.

Фалчи[1] приходит к ним в позднем ноябре. Ульфет видит её впервые, но Шарут, средняя сестра и большая сплетница, рассказывает, что женщина живет в соседней Астаре, а сюда приезжает редко. Чем-то гостья похожа на Мамали – может, намотанной на голову пестрой шалью, – вот только смотрится поменьше, моложе, собраннее. И если крупные, породистые черты Мамали заставляют ту походить на хищную птицу вроде коршуна, то маленькая фалчи больше всего напоминает Ульфет лису.
Когда женщина входит во двор, взрослые встречают её приветливо, как старую знакомую. Усаживают на скамью у деревянного стола, оставшегося после лета, подают чай с чабрецом, кусковой сахар, варенье. Позже все по очереди подсаживаются к гостье, протягивают правую ладонь внутренней стороной вверх, стеснительно задают вопросы. Приходят даже мужчины. Фалчи оказалась говорливой и весёлой ханум – охотно шутит, пьёт очень много чаю, с жадным удовольствием ест домашнее абрикосовое варенье, приготовленное Мамали. Большинство людей уходит от неё с улыбкой, хотя есть и те, кто остаётся недоволен. После некоторых колебаний сама Мамали кладет на стол несколько купюр и садится рядом. До окна кухни, где Ульфет с Шарут жадно наблюдают за происходящим, доносится имя Марьям, которая вышла замуж два месяца назад. После свадьбы старшая сестра приходила к ним домой дважды, оба раза в слезах. Сестрам и матери она в конце концов решилась показать синяки на плечах, спине, бедрах – муж бил её каждый день, а она молчала, не подавала виду, чтобы не превратиться в посмешище перед соседями.

– Я не могу с ним жить, – плакала Марьям, всякий раз когда вся семья собиралась на кухне. – Я хочу развестись!

– Сюда, – отрезала Мамали, – ты вернешься только мёртвой.

 Фалчи долго держит в руках ладонь Мамали, пока не говорит с легкой усмешкой (Ульфет изо всех сил прислушивается, чтобы разобрать): «Он умрёт раньше». Фалчи говорит что-то ещё, но больше девочкам не удается понять ни слова, да и лицо у Мамали остается каменным, не выдает ничего. Тогда Ульфет, не выдержав, выбегает во двор. Увидев её, Мамали немедленно одергивает руку, прикрикивает и велит уйти: прочь, гадания не для детей! Но фалчи прищуривается.

– Нет-нет, пусть подходит. Не бойся ты, не возьму за неё денег.

Она рассматривает ладонь Ульфет несколько минут, водит шершавыми пальцами по линиям ладони, думает. Мамали сидит рядом, а Ульфет чувствует, что мать серьёзно напряжена: может, боится, что гадания плохо повлияют на судьбу самой младшей, ещё незамужней дочери?… Наконец, фалчи поднимает взгляд и говорит сладким лисьим голосом:

– Выйдешь за близкого человека, знакомого, а жить будешь очень далеко. Муж твой станет большим человеком. На тебя будут пальцем указывать и говорить: эта жена такого-то! Хорошая судьба. У вас будет, – ещё один взгляд на ладонь, – шестеро детей. Да, шестеро.

Ульфет хочет спросить «а врачом я стану, педиатром?», но Мамали торопливо говорит «всё-всё, хватит», хватает её за запястье, поднимает на ноги и велит немедленно идти обратно. Ульфет пожимает плечами и бежит в дом, где в кухонном окне уже светится круглое как сыр лицо умирающей от любопытства Шарут.

3.

Свадьба Шарут проходит весной, спустя четыре года после переезда Марьям.

По сравнению с остальными сестрами, учиться Шарут никогда не любила. Напротив, предпочитала витать в облаках, бездельничать, спать допоздна, поэтому в родительском доме именно ей доставалась самая тяжелая работа по хозяйству – как назло. Несмотря на разницу в возрасте и характерах, Ульфет всегда чувствовала особую близость со средней сестрой, куда большую, чем с другими детьми Мамали. Да, с Шарут они по-настоящему дружили – настолько, насколько вообще можно дружить двум сестрам в четырнадцать и восемнадцать лет. Позапрошлым летом Ульфет на свой страх и риск решила отстричь длинные волосы, которые обычно заплетала в толстую косу всем на зависть – подстричься короче без разрешения матери было смелым решением. В тот день она быстро пришла домой после школы в надежде на то, что успеет забежать к себе раньше, чем её новую прическу заметят, но ей, конечно, не повезло. Именно Шарут тогда спасла Ульфет от материнского гнева: раньше всех братьев и тёток выбежала во двор, подставилась под волну криков и побоев, но всё равно оттащила младшую сестру в дом и потом несколько часов стояла на страже, никого не пускала к ней. Позже Мамали и сама успокоилась, даже смогла извиниться, но именно с тех пор сестры чувствовали, что могут быть друг другу опорой.

Тем больнее было Ульфет, когда она не смогла ответить сестре тем же: её просто не было дома. Свататься к Шарут пришла семья из соседнего села – несколько раз сестры видели этих людей на общих мероприятиях, где собиралось полдеревни, но близко, конечно, не знали. Их старшего сына, Агиля, инженера и претендента на руку Шарут, можно было бы даже назвать красивым, если бы не одна проблема  – огромное бельмо на его левом глазу.

Позже сестра рассказывала, как собралась с духом, зашла в гостиную, где ей без разрешения нельзя было появляться, и громко сказала при всех сватах: – Не хочу!

Кое-как выпроводив ошарашенных гостей, Мамали заперла её в спальне, чтобы никто не услышал, и сурово побила. Бельмо на его глазу тебе не нравится? Он уродливый? Он уродливый, значит? А сама ты что, красавица?!

– А сама я что, красавица? – с усмешкой повторила Шарут позже вечером.

Со временем выяснилось, что сестре повезло. Агиль оказался добрым, умным, в меру язвительным парнем, который не мучил Шарут ни запретами, ни ревностью, даже пока они были обручены. Бельмо на глазу, рассказывал Агиль, у него появилось недавно – производственная травма на заводе, очень неожиданно, врачи сделали, всё что смогли. Я, конечно, боялся, говорил Агиль, что таким меня никто не полюбит, хотя родители и уверяли, что это ерунда. Хотя откуда им знать? Если ты захочешь расторгнуть помолвку, говорил Агиль, ни о чем не волнуйся, я тебе помогу. Но давай сначала познакомимся?

Свадьба Шарут проходит весной, четыре года после переезда Марьям и через шесть месяцев после помолвки. Ульфет исполняется пятнадцать. Её старшая сестра кажется счастливой, полной предвкушения, а на сам праздник снова собираются толпы незнакомых людей, готовых рассыпать над головами молодоженов достаточно денег, чтобы покрыть расходы обеих семей. Как всегда. В этот раз Ульфет даже берет на себя роль подружки невесты – девочки, несущей зеркало. По традиции, перед самой свадебной церемонией невесту с музыкой и пением приводят в дом мужа, где та останавливается перед порогом своей будущей спальни, опускает три пальца в плошку с мёдом и обмазывает косяк – для того, чтобы грядущая жизнь была сладкой. Обычно девочка с зеркалом возглавляет эту веселую процессию, вносит подарок в комнату – зеркало служит символом защиты от дурного глаза и после свадьбы всегда должно оставаться где-то поблизости.

– Будь счастлива, – говорит Ульфет, наклонившись, чтобы поцеловать сестру.

– Спасибо, – улыбается Шарут, которая сегодня кажется удивительно красивой. Белое платье, широкая красная лента на талии. – Пусть это случится для тебя.

Шумная музыка на свадьбах обычно страшно надоедает, но в этот раз Ульфет даже нравится. Возможно, дело в хорошем настроении. Из белой праздничной палатки, которую разбили во дворе для гостей и танцев, люди речной волной перемещаются на улицу, в сад, в дом, поток идет без края и конца. Толпа кажется Ульфет перевернутым с вверх дном небом, полным шумных разноцветных птиц, – точно такая картина открывается ей каждый раз, когда она ложится на спину на холме в лесу, закидывает руки за голову и долго-долго смотрит вверх.

Теперь Ульфет бегает из палатки в дом и обратно, носит туда-сюда еду по просьбе Мамали и старших тёток, по дороге болтает с друзьями и, конечно, не забывает танцевать. «Ах, шайтан!», – с улыбкой теребят её за щеку довольные соседи, когда она, сняв обувь, лихо отплясывает лезгинку наравне с деревенскими парнями. Её ноги, движущиеся в такт музыке, в какой-то момент становятся практически невидимыми, превращаются во всполохи молнии. Отец тоже хлопает в ладоши и улыбается: ему очень нравится, когда его дочки показывают, на что способны.

Во время танца Ульфет чувствует на себе чей-то пристальный взгляд. Обернувшись, она замечает своего школьного друга Расима, с которым они много играли вместе, пока были детьми. Теперь Расим вырос и страшно влюбился в её школьную подругу, а ей, Ульфет, приходилось целыми днями играть роль посыльного, передающего любовные записки. Но предчувствие у девушки оставалось нехорошим: семья у Расима была очень бедна, а мать подруги с самого её рождения намеревалась отдать дочь замуж только за крайне богатого человека. Поэтому роман её друзьям приходилось держать в строгой тайне.

Впрочем, Ульфет быстро понимает, что смотрит на неё не Расим. Его брата Максуда она видела раньше всего несколько раз – он был старше их на шесть лет, давно уехал учиться в Одессу и домой теперь приезжал редко. Когда новость о его отъезде в институт разошлась по деревне, Ульфет сама поймала себя на легкой зависти: этот парень где-то так хорошо выучил русский, чтобы в России в институт поступить? А как ему удалось, в их деревне-то? Везунчик. Позже она вспомнила, что Одесса – это где-то в Украине, а не в России, но русского языка там для учебы всего равно было достаточно.

Максуд, по сравнению с неуклюжим Расимом, выглядит даже интересно: высокий, худой, страшно кудрявый, но, кажется, наглый донельзя – смотрит и смотрит на неё с улыбкой, даже взгляд не отводит, хотя она его уже заметила. Пьяный, что ли? Фыркнув, Ульфет отворачивается, надевает туфли, идёт обратно в дом к друзьям.

На кухне вместо друзей она застаёт Марьям. После годичного траура сестра сегодня впервые вышла в общество; её пока не угасшая красота, чистое лицо и длинные черные ресницы неизменно притягивали к себе внимание, несмотря на в очередной раз округлившийся живот, который она старалась скрыть под одеждой. Год назад старший сын Марьям, которому было всего два, погиб, после того как на его случайно опрокинулась кастрюля с кипящей водой – на одном из многолюдных мероприятий, похожих на сегодняшнее. Такие инциденты происходили в деревне нередко, но, конечно, за спиной Марьям потом ещё долго болтали о том, какая она нерадивая мать, не смогла углядеть. Впрочем, сестре было не до сплетен – за последний год даже самой Ульфет не удавалось с ней поговорить, настолько сестра была разбита горем.

– Видела, что он сделал? – подмигивает Марьям в несвойственной ей легкомысленной манере, когда младшая сестра ставит перед ней тарелку с жареными баклажанами. – Старший брат твоего друга?

– Что он сделал? – Ульфет сразу становится неуютно. Они что, все заметили, как Максуд на неё смотрел, и уже вовсю обсуждают?

– Зашел в гостиную, где висят наши фотографии. Там несколько фотографий за рамку заложено. Помнишь? На стене. В общем, он одну украл, твою! – Теперь Марьям даже смеётся. Ульфет чувствует странное облегчение от того, что видит сестру такой весёлой. Хоть что-то хорошее есть в этом дурацком разговоре.

 – Теперь с собой в Одессу увезет, наверное, – улыбается Марьям. – Махаббат, любовь.

Ульфет пожимает плечами. Наглый парень, так она и думала. Ну, пусть хоть молится теперь на ту фотографию, ей всё равно.

4.

– Нет, – отрывисто говорит Мамали.

Их спор длится уже три недели. Именно тогда Ульфет окончательно решает, что хочет поступить в медицинский техникум не в Ленкорани, а в Баку: во-первых, понимает, что в родном провинциальном городке её вряд ли научат чему-то особенному, во-вторых, потому что не хочет постоянно быть на виду у знакомых, которые больше всего в жизни любят распускать сплетни. От мысли поступать не в техникум, а в университет, и учиться не на медсестру, а на врача-педиатра, Ульфет в конце концов отказывается: приходится выбирать из реальных вариантов, а учеба в университете, по сравнению с двухгодичным техникумом, длилась бы больше пяти лет! На последнее Ульфет точно никогда не удалось бы уговорить мать, а в первом случае у неё хотя бы были шансы.

Хоть какие-то шансы.

Помогает то, что примерно в это время в Баку вместе с семьей окончательно переезжает старший брат Джалал. Более того, в его квартире даже находится свободная комната для гостей, что Ульфет не отмечает во время первого же визита в столицу. С Джалалом у неё с детства хорошие, ласковые, доверительные отношения: пусть брат уже много лет редко бывает дома, он очень любит баловать младшую сестру, а с возрастом всё больше и больше становится похож на громкого добродушного Деда Мороза, приходящего к детям на Новый Год, чтобы раздать подарки. Разве что в красный цвет Джалал никогда не одевается – настолько городским человеком он всё же не стал.

Улучив минуту, Ульфет уговоривает брата позволить ей пожить у него, если она всё-таки будет поступать. Его жена, немногословная, но довольно нарциссическая особа, остается явно не в восторге от этой перспективы, хотя мужу перечить не пытается. Тем не менее, новость о том, что младшая дочь Мамали решила поступить в медицинский техникум и переехать в столицу, как-то очень быстро распространяется в их деревне – куда быстрее, чем на то рассчитывала сама Ульфет.

– Она же сейчас с ума сойдет! – беспокойно говорит Шарут во время телефонного звонка. Объяснять, кого сестра имела в виду под словом «она», было не нужно. Ульфет, конечно, с самого начала очень боялась реакции Мамали, но в то же время чувствовала, что поддержка брата и великолепные оценки в школьном аттестате могут сыграть в её пользу. Как бы консервативна ни была Мамали в вопросе образования своих дочерей, она была ещё и очень тщеславна: если бы ее младшей дочери удалось поступить в техникум в столице, это как минимум подняло бы той цену на брачном рынке. В то же время, протекция старшего брата могла послужить защитой от дурных сплетен, которых Мамали, как и все люди в деревне, боялась больше всего.

Но это всё теория. На практике Ульфет уже третью неделю пытается достучаться до матери: слезами, истерикой, даже угрозами. Усмирить дочь побоями, как в прошлые разы, Мамали не удаётся: роль играют то ли больные ноги, на которых ей всё тяжелее и тяжелее ходить, то ли сама Ульфет, которая после первого же скандала выбегает во двор, откуда всё слышно соседям, начинает срывать развешенное на веревке белье, бросать на землю и орать: «Знаешь, что люди будут говорить?! Что у Мамали младшая дочь – больная! Сумасшедшая младшая дочь Мамали! Больная, психованная! Я сделаю так, что все узнают, что я больная, ясно?! Все говорить будут про тебя в деревне! Все!»

Позже, когда Шарут с Фаридом наперебой спрашивают, что на неё нашло, Ульфет не знает, что им ответить. Отшучивается «джинн вселился», а сама думает, что не такая уж это шутка: в тот день её действительно накрыла волна ярости такой силы, какой она раньше не знала. Черная, смертельная злость. Разбрасывая по земле чистое белье, вместо мокрых тряпок Ульфет видела Марьям с синяками на спине и мёртвым первым ребёнком, видела Шарут тех времен, когда та ещё не была счастлива, видела ещё что-то сложное, тяжелое, скользкое, будто вцепившееся зубами ей прямо в солнечное сплетение. Возможно, то было четкое понимание того, что сейчас её, Ульфет, первый и единственный шанс.

Джалал, наконец, перестаёт пытаться помочь издалека и просто приезжает. Что ты, мама, мне не доверяешь? – твердит он мягко, изо дня в день. Порой им даже кажется, что Мамали его слышит, кивает, сдаётся, смягчается. Но уже на следующее утро всё начинается заново. Когда Ульфет уже отчаивается, помощь приходит, откуда не ждали – рано возвращается с заработков отец. Обычно в такое время он уезжает в Россию продавать цветы, овощи, козий сыр и гатых с творогом, но сейчас товар ушел неожиданно быстро и задерживаться на чужбине отец не стал. Дома, выслушав все аргументы за и против, он впервые на памяти Ульфет проявляет жесткость в вопросе, касающемся детей: одним грубым словом прерывает возражения жены и велит младшей дочери идти собираться.

– Джалал о тебе позаботится, – кивает отец. – Пусть попробует не позаботиться. Джанын аларам, душу у него заберу.

И улыбается.

Ульфет смотрит на старшего брата, потом на отца, на мрачную, недовольную мать, разворачивается и уходит к себе в комнату. Там, в комнате, она какое-то время стоит в дверях и глядит на узкие кровати, где раньше спали старшие сестры, на свой письменный стол, где стопками лежат тетради, книжки и какие-то брошки с украшениями, долго вдыхает знакомый запах высохших половиц, пытаясь успокоить участившееся сердцебиение, и с каждым вздохом всё яснее, всё отчетливей понимает, что нет, нет, так и не заплачет.

 

 5.

…двор залит кровью.

В небе нет луны, у леса нет голосов. Босая женщина в чалме сидит на мокрой земле. У её ног, неестественно выгнувшись, лежит чье-то обмякшее тело. Женщина держит тело в руках, оно ещё живо  дергается в конвульсиях, стонет, дрожит. Минута, три минуты. Час. По ладоням женщины бегут крупные струйки крови – сначала с шумом, потом все тише и слабей. Но женщина не кажется взволнованной. Она просто сидит. Ночная темнота вплотную обступает и убийцу, и её жертву, и единственного невольного свидетеля. Тот, кто смотрит, сидит на ступеньках, ведущих внутрь дома. И не может пошевелиться. Его ноги, тоже босые, оставляют на голых ступеньках липкие темные отпечатки. Наверное, он и сам недавно выходил во двор, буквально несколько минут назад.

Тот, кто смотрит, медленно поднимает руки к собственной шее, чтобы убедиться, что перерезана она не у него. Но вместе с руками невольно поднимается и его взгляд. Женщина, сидящая на земле, смотрит на него, не моргая, и по рукам свидетеля начинает течь густая горячая кровь.

 

За день до вступительного экзамена Ульфет звонит сестре, чтобы пожаловаться на бессонницу.

– Да сколько можно видеть кошмары! Всегда так, стоит мне только заснуть, как в сон лезет всякая гадость.

Шарут, которая ещё недавно без умолку трещала о том, как ей впервые в жизни удаётся выспаться (муж позволяет спать хоть до полудня, на работу собирается сам, не будит на рассвете), сначала тревожно молчит. А потом говорит неуверенно:

– А про гурбан Мамали ты что, не слышала?…

Дальше Шарут уже тараторит, в спешке глотая слова, потому что не умеет молчать: несколько дней назад, когда отец уехал по делам, Мамали пошла к местному молле и вместе с ним провела ритуал гурбан  жертвоприношение ягненка. Животному с молитвой перерезали горло, мясо, как и положено, раздали беднякам. Согласно обычаю, человек, заказавший ритуал, мог проводить его просто так, по зову сердца, а мог принести эту жертву в обмен на свой нийет. Сердечное желание.

– Она загадала, чтобы ты срезалась на экзамене, – выдыхает Шарут. И сразу же осекается. Ульфет понимает, что сестре совестно за то, что она проговорилась, но и сказанного назад не вернешь. Чувствуя подступившую к горлу тошноту, Ульфет отшучивается, поспешно заканчивает разговор, затем ложится на кровать лицом вниз, так, чтобы звуки её голоса заглушала подушка, и начинает кричать.

 

6.

Конечно, она никуда не поступает.

Вступительный экзамен по литературе — сочинение, — оказывается неожиданно сложным, ей попадается тот самый единственный невыученный билет. Неудивительно, что Ульфет, измученная бессонницей, получает самую низкую оценку. Не помогают даже неплохие результаты по химии – нет, слишком большой конкурс. Возможно, всё сложилось бы иначе, если бы директор её средней школы заранее отдал им благодарственную грамоту, которую прислали на имя Ульфет в конце учебного года. Грамоту нужно было приложить к остальным документам, тогда вступительная комиссия позволила бы сдавать литературу устно, а не письменно. Но директор потребовал взятку за то, что Ульфет полагалось по закону, и она отказалась.

Приехав домой, она общается с матерью, как ни в чем не бывало. А недели через две во время семейного ужина как бы невзначай говорит: «В следующем году уже поступлю, с божьей помощью». Отец кивает: хорошо, балам, дитя моё, попробуешь, все в руках Всевышнего, только тебе нужен будет рабочий стаж, — и продолжает с аппетитом есть ужин, зачерпывать пальцами горячий плов с жирными кусками баранины. Он всегда от души наслаждается едой. Ульфет же внимательно смотрит на Мамали, которая уклончиво, старательно избегая её взгляда, бормочет себе под нос «бог милостив».

За то короткое время, что Ульфет провела в Баку, здоровье матери сильно пошатнулось. Теперь Мамали ходит с ещё большим трудом, много сидит на месте и дышит с трудом. Фарид рассказывает, что недавно пошел чинить прохудившуюся крышу и обнаружил на крошечном чердаке несколько гнилых яиц, исписанных арабской вязью. От яиц веяло какой-то мутной дрянью, поэтому он немедленно собрал всё полотенцем и сжег во дворе. Когда я был на чердаке в последний раз, рассказывает брат, буквально полгода назад, ничего такого там еще не было, я бы заметил. А вот ноги у Мамали стали отниматься примерно тогда.

Они подозревают соседей, но больше всех старшую сестру отца – та всегда была завистливым, злым человеком с дурным «глазом», но иногда все равно захаживала к ним дом, явно желая плохого. Вопреки всему, что произошло, Ульфет чувствует жалость к своей матери: та старится прямо у неё на глазах, знакомый ей мир с его законами уходит в прошлое, а на новую, непонятную жизнь у неё с каждым днем остается всё меньше и меньше сил.

Для того, чтобы поступать в техникум в следующем году, Ульфет нужно как минимум полгода рабочего стажа. Поэтому с помощью отца она устраивается в цветочный совхоз неподалеку от дома – прямо рядом с железной дорогой и лесом, где она играла в детстве. В совхозе она работает в в гигантских парниках: следит за тем, чтобы нигде не росло сорняков, ухаживает за огромными душистыми розами, тюльпанами и гладиолусами, помогает бережно упаковывать цветы в контейнеры, которые поездом отправляют сразу в Москву. Ульфет нравится жить среди цветов – они будто уводят её в другой мир, совсем не похожий на тот, что ждёт её за пределами сада. К тому же, ей приятно самой зарабатывать деньги, что-то копить. «Хоть бы раз сама что-то купила в дом на свои деньги», – слегка укоризненно говорит порой Мамали, но Ульфет делает вид, что не слышит.

Однажды вечером, когда она возвращается домой, кто-то ждёт её на другом конце железной дороги. Поначалу Ульфет пугается, но потом узнаёт Максуда: он выглядит повзрослевшим, вытянувшимся, чуть более загорелым, чем раньше, но кажется таким же улыбчивым и кудрявым, как всегда. Когда Ульфет подходит достаточно близко, Максуд здоровается и протягивает ей маленькую коробку с шоколадными конфетами из Львова – большую редкость в их городке.

– Я тебя немного провожу, – полуспрашивает-полуговорит Максуд, прищурив глаза. Ресницы у него черные и по-девичьи длинные, она раньше и не замечала. – Не до самого дома, наверное, чтобы твои родители не увидели, но почти туда. Ты ведь не против?

Раздражения, которое она испытывала пару лет назад, теперь нет. Ульфет вертит в руках подарок – хороший подарок, дома скажет, что коллеги принесли — прячет в сумку, смотрит прямо на Максуда и, выдержав паузу, небрежно говорит:

– Не против.

7.

Остаток года пролетает очень быстро.

Два месяца спустя их первой встречи Максуд уезжает обратно в Одессу. Перед этим он успевает рассказать, что после учебы его скорее всего распределят в Сибирь — помогать с открытием винно-водочного завода в небольшом индустриальном городке рядом с Иркутском. Ульфет почти ничего не слышала даже об Иркутске, поэтому и остальные названия русских городов ей ни о чем не говорят. Но всё же ясно, что это очень далеко и скорее всего перспективно, поэтому она старается поддерживать Максуда, чьи собственные родители настроены скептично.

– Мой папа говорит, я живу мечтами! – часто усмехается Максуд, когда звонит ей по телефону. – Да, я такой. Мечтатель! Хочу больших свершений. А пока у нас дома даже нет ничего, чтобы прийти к вам с хончой. – В эти моменты его голос сильно меняется. – Но я сделаю всё, чтобы они скоро пришли.

Хончой называется богатая праздничная выпечка, без которой никакое сватовство в деревне не возможно. Семья, принесшая бедную хончу в дом девушки, рискует быть высмеянной, а быть высмеянным не хочет никто. Но Ульфет не особо беспокоится о формальностях – несмотря на их осторожность, вся деревня уже знает, что Максуд проявляет ей знаки внимания, что в свою очередь значит, что на словах всё уже решено. Конечно, Мамали недовольна тем, что семья юноши так медлит с официальным сватовством, но всё равно уже отказывает другим, менее удачливым претендентам на руку младшей дочери.

А ещё Максуд не против того, чтобы Ульфет снова получала образование. Он всё равно не может позволить себе сыграть свадьбу в ближайшие пару лет, разве что помолвку, которая тоже будет стоить больших денег, поэтому пока Ульфет может распоряжаться своим временем, как хочет. К тому же, медицинский техникум действительно считается отличным советским учебным заведением, особенно для девушек.

За месяц до вступительных экзаменов она увольняется с работы в совхозе и сообщает Джалалу, что скоро снова приедет. Брат не возражает. На этот раз отец ещё дома, поэтому вызывается отвезти её в город сам. Когда она уже садится в машину, отец вдруг широко, от уха до уха, улыбается и заявляет:

Джанали, директор твоей школы вчера звонил. Хотел отдать грамоту просто так, без денег, оно же год у него лежит. Я сегодня утром забрал, чтобы сделать тебе сюрприз.

И протягивает ей папку с заветной бумажкой.

Мамали стоит в дверях дома с кувшином воды, чуть облокотившись на стену. Когда машина с мужем и дочерью выезжает за пределы двора, она, согласно обычаю, выплескивает всю воду им вслед – для легкой дороги.

 

8.

Экзамен по химии письменный – трудный, но всё равно более или менее понятный. На тройку или четверку, позже думает Ульфет, я точно написала. Экзамен по литературе, так позорно проваленный в прошлом году, будет через четыре дня, и все четыре дня Ульфет снова не может спать: в первую же ночь ей снится залитый кровью двор, безликая женщина и собственное перерезанное горло. В полной темноте она просыпается, хватаясь руками за шею, много кашляет, задыхается, тщетно пытаясь успокоиться.

Не может быть, чтобы Мамали снова проводила свой ритуал. Не может быть, не может быть, не может быть.

Ей хочется позвонить Шарут и спросить, что происходит, но на дворе стоит глубокая ночь. Это было бы неприлично. Поэтому вместо звонка сестре Ульфет идет на кухню, берет гранёный стакан, наливает себе воды из кувшина, делает глоток, стараясь не шуметь, чтобы не разбудить семью брата. Выходит на балкон. Балкон смотрит на проезжую улицу, машин в это время немного, но яркие летние огни и запахи южной ночи всё равно немного её успокаивают. Я всё выучила, твердо говорит Ульфет самой себе. Я всё, всё выучила. Я во всё это не верю!

…Не верю, повторяет Ульфет, когда идёт обратно на кухню и в полной темноте, не включая света, ищет на столе солонку с солью. Я во всё, это, не верю, повторяет Ульфет, когда находит солонку, тяжелую, полную, и насыпает себе в ладонь большую, с горкой, кучу соли. Не верю, не верю, не верю, повторяет Ульфет, когда возвращается обратно на балкон, закрывает за собой дверь, закрывает глаза, крепко сжимает ладонь, чтобы ничего не рассыпать, и несколько раз делает рукой круговое движение вокруг  головы.

– Гёз вуранын гёзи чихсын, – шепчет Ульфет. – Кто сглазил, пусть лишится глаз. Кто сглазил, пусть лишится глаз.

Той же рукой она стучит самой себе по правой лопатке. Потом осторожно подходит к краю балкона, раскрывает ладонь и долго смотрит, как остатки соли летят вниз белой дымкой тумана, растворяются в темноте.

 

Тот, кто смотрит, сидит на ступеньках перед домом, но теперь может оглядеться вокруг.
Это двор его детства: деревянная беседка, стол, пристроенный справа флюгер для летних ужинов, кусты ежевики и шиповника, растущие на каждом шагу.
Теперь он может разглядеть и лицо сидящей перед ним женщины – и это не то лицо, которое он ожидал увидеть. Старшая сестра отца смотрит на него с улыбкой, её белые зубы горят ярко, как звёзды на земле. Глаз, некогда маленьких и вечно прищуренных, у неё нет вовсе. Вместо них на лице зияют два бездонных колодца черноты.
Но он всё равно узнаёт.

– Соль! – скалится женщина. – Про соль она вспомнила, вы поглядите.
Он паникует. Пытается повторить слова заговора, но губы не слушаются. Гёз вуранын… Гёз вуран…

– Молодец, – вдруг говорит женщина. – Умная девочка.

И перестаёт улыбаться.

 

Вопросы задают про поэта Самеда Вургуна – Ульфет знает всё назубок, даже самое длинное его стихотворение прочла наизусть с легкостью. Из-за грамоты, которую передал отец, ей приходится писать обычный диктант вместо сочинения. Позже она почти не помнит, о чем он был, в памяти сохраняются только прописные буквы, двоеточия, тире, тщательно выверенные запятые. Она же не сделала никаких ошибок? Не должна была сделать, нет, у неё врожденная грамотность.

Результаты обещают объявить через неделю. Ульфет не знает как её пережить. Будто поймав тревожное настроение сестры, из Ленкорани приезжает Шарут (жена Джалала опять не в восторге от количества гостей, но выдает себя лишь очень кислым выражением лица). С собой Шарут как обычно привозит последние сплетни: Марьям снова беременна, Мамали упала во дворе и почти не может ходить, Фарид скоро женится на той девчонке с завода, помнишь, противная такая девчонка, которая тебе не нравится?

– Она, кажется, в положении! – хихикает Шарут. – На помолвке так себе живот пережала, что ходила красная, как помидор. А Расима твоего помнишь?

Что с ним? – Ульфет довольно давно не видела друга. Да и не только его.

Да ничего, тоже обручился, – пожимает плечами Шарут. – С другой девушкой. Мать твоей подружки ведь ему отказала. За нищего дочь не отдам! Всё как мы думали. Видеться им запретила, девчонка глаза все выплакала, а он её чуть ли ни украсть пытался, но не вышло ничего. Ну и всё.

Ну и всё.

К концу недели у Ульфет поднимается высокая температура. Она чувствует себя воздушным шаром, который прокололи иголкой, больше не может ни стоять, ни ходить. Стоит ей только закрыть глаза, как под ними начинают плыть облака, деревья и почему-то мертвые собаки. Много-много мёртвых собак. Вот почему, когда в комнате появляется тяжелый травяной запах дыма, она решает, что это тоже сон.

Дыши, дыши, шепчет кто-то голосом Шарут. – Я травку тут зажгла от дурного глаза, узерлик… Вдыхай дым давай. Вдыхай! 

Ульфет послушно вдыхает.

 

Женщина кашляет от едкого дыма: она больше не выглядит ни спокойной, ни насмешливой. Но и свидетель больше не вынужден сидеть на месте. Освобожденный, он мечется по двору в поисках выхода, однако то, что кажется ему выходом, каждый раз превращается в черное вязкое ничто. Тогда он опускает глаза и видит, что темная горячая влага, которая вытекла из тела убитой жертвы, теперь повсюду на его бедрах, руках и груди.

– Кровь, – произносит женщина, справившись с кашлем, – требует кровь.
Обернувшись, свидетель успевает заметить, как её лицо начинает дрожать и меняться. Вместо старшей сестры отца перед ним теперь сидит фалчи, та самая деревенская гадалка. Он узнаёт и её, но почему-то не чувствует страха.

Отвернувшись, она склоняется над телом своей первой жертвы. А свидетель впервые за все время понимает, что это не человек, а животное. Мертвый ягнёнок. Женщина запускает ладони под шерсть ягнёнка внутренней стороной вверх, а когда вытягивает их обратно, в руках у неё лежит шесть камней, похожих на рубины, – по три в каждой ладони.


– Кровь требует кровь, – повторяет женщина. И неспешно, как в замедленном кадре, начинает сжимать левую руку в кулак.

Свидетель немедленно чувствует острую боль внизу живота. Вскрикивает, но не слышит собственного голоса. Женщина разжимает кулак: теперь в нём больше нет ничего, кроме крови.


– За дочь я не взяла с неё плату, – слышит свидетель, – а за глупость дорого возьму. За
 гюнах.

Грех.

Так же медленно, женщина начинает сжимать правую ладонь. Боль внизу живота становится настолько невыносимой, что свидетель не выдерживает и падает на землю. В нос бьет кислый запах крови. Женщина раскрывает ладонь  она тоже окровавлена, но в ней ещё лежит один красный камень. Фалчи смотрит на камень слегка удивлённо, – свидетель чувствует это удивление, – а затем начинает смеяться. Фалчи смеётся своими круглыми, пустыми, вытекшими глазами, смеётся молча, оглушающе, во весь голос, а потом без предупреждения бросает камень в его сторону.

Он успевает вытянуть вперёд руки…

 

Можешь говорить? – осторожно спрашивает Джалал. Брат стоит на пороге комнаты с телефоном, не зная, можно ли войти. Последние два дня Ульфет провела в полном беспамятстве и лихорадке – температура поднималась до сорока, дышать было трудно, а потом, по рассказам Шарут, у неё началось сильное кровотечение. Они вызвали скорую, врачи приехали, осмотрели, сделали какой-то укол, после чего она перестала метаться и пошла на поправку.

Мамали звонит сюда впервые возможно, потому что услышала о её болезни, а, может, потому что узнала об успешном поступлении в техникум. Ульфет не смогла сама проверить результаты, но брат сходил и выяснил всё за неё. Тройка с плюсом по химии, твердая пятерка по литературе. Она поступила! Ульфет кивает, берет трубку и отвечает матери, не вставая с кровати. После долгого разговора о здоровье, которое нужно беречь, Мамали, наконец, произносит с некоторой теплотой в голосе:

Поздравляю, балам[2]. Добилась своего.

«Вопреки всему», хочется сказать Ульфет. Мамали продолжает:

Родители Максуда вчера были у нас. Принесли хончу, просили твоей руки. Его ведь отправляют работать в Сибирь, ты знаешь? В Россию. Свадьбу они ещё долго не смогут себе позволить… Значит, долго просидишь обрученной.

Жить будешь далеко.

А сколько тебе самой было лет, спрашивает Ульфет неожиданно для самой себя, когда ты обручилась с папой?

Ответом ей становится неуютное молчание. Подобные вопросы, сколько угодно невинные, были в их семье под запретом они считались неприличными, закрытыми к обсуждению для еще не вступивших в брак детей, особенно для дочерей. Но теперь, когда статус Ульфет изменился, она имела право попытаться.

В конце концов, Мамали нехотя говорит:

Двенадцать.

Что-то странное колет у Ульфет в груди, будто игла нечаянно проходит сквозь кожу. Она закрывает глаза и старается представить себе мамино лицо в детстве: смутно знакомое, но совершенно юное, еще не изможденное ни гневом, ни тревогой. Чем-то очень похожее на её собственное лицо.

«Нет никаких её фотографий в том возрасте», почему-то думает она. «И у меня нет».

– А когда вы поженились? – спрашивает Ульфет. – Сколько тебе было?

– Четырнадцать, – теперь, когда первое удивление прошло, Мамали отвечает без промедления. –  Наша сторона хотела сыграть свадьбу раньше, но у твоего отца умер дед. Пришлось отложить.

Несколько секунд они обе молчат.

– Время было другое, – вдруг говорит Мамали и в этот раз её голос звучит как почти виновато. – Все было проще. Понятнее. Сейчас уже не так, – еще немного подумав, она добавляет: – Максуд очень надолго уезжает, балам. Как бы вас с ним до свадьбы… не сглазили завистники.

Ульфет думает о боли внизу живота, которая всё ещё не прошла окончательно. О фалчи, забравшей у неё пять из шести обещанных рубинов, но зачем-то оставившей один. О двух с половиной годах долгожданной учебы, которые ждали её впереди, и о собственной матери, которая сейчас искренне поздравляла её с победой, хотя ещё совсем недавно молилась о том, чтобы жизнь младшей дочери была другой. Простила ли бы Мамали себя, если бы узнала о её снах? Поверила бы в слова фалчи про наказание, понесенное за материнский грех? Или пропустила бы эту историю мимо ушей, сочтя её блажью и совпадением?

Откуда-то Ульфет точно знает ответ.

Я во всё это не верю, мама, она широко улыбается в трубку. – И ты не верь. Всё будет хорошо.

 

[1] Фалчи — (азрб.) ясновидящая, гадалка

[2] Балам — дитя моё (азрб.)

[1] (азрб.) ясновидящая, гадалка

Read Next