Written By: Sophia Pandeya
Rawalpindi, Pakistan 1975
The day began like any other day in her childhood – a slip stream of soap and water. Until her fingers emerged red from that closed place. Terra Incognita. She was eleven years old, blind as an Indus dolphin swimming submerged in twin rivers of mud.
“The girl has turned into a woman!” Her mother shouted at the crack in the bathroom door that once. And only once. Forever after, Nubia’s blood was to be shrouded in cotton and pause.
The dawn was also blood red that day but no one paid it any heed.
And to think that death would come like this, unannounced like the snow swirling in anagrams of silence. She climbed on top of the toilet seat and peered out the frosted high window. Snow was an anomaly in that garrison town lying, as it did, at the feet of the mountains. At their tops was a faint pink blush, on the ground below it had already begun to slur and slush.
Was there an echo to this location?
By now the pain was a ball made of exploding knives as if a suicide bomb had gone off in her belly. When her mother entered, it was like an apparition – a false prophet promising a panacea in a brown paper bag. She was carrying a chair in her other hand.
Nubia sat on the toilet, her blood drip silent as the descent of snow.
“Now that you are a woman, there are a few things you must know. ” Shehrbano opened the mouth of the bag. The rolls of gauze that came out carried the memory of iodine and alcohol, of scrapes that had made her knees a hotbed of graffiti. Beneath them was another, deeper memory, one that swam upriver through the bodies of countless generations of women. That sonar was within her, emitting a siren: The time of tree tops had drawn to a close.
There were clouds of cotton coming out from the bag. Her mother laid them out like giant milky toffees on beds of gauze, snipped into foot-lengths and wraps. Her fingers had a practiced cadence. Cotton was another kind of snow and she played it in the key of silence. The gauze was rolled tight, knotted and looped at both ends. Finally, from the bottom of the bag a thin white snake emerged.
Her mother stuck the fat toffee between Nubia’s legs, threaded the snake in the two blind eyes of the loops and pulled until the knot was digging into flesh.
“Make twelve or fourteen at a time so you have a good supply. You are lucky to be living in the modern age. We had to make ours with old rags – wash them, and reuse them, endlessly. I had to scrub mine in the dead of night, unseen by anyone until my hands were raw, because when I hung them out to dry there must be no blood, not even a faint pink. Do you know how hard it is to wash a blood stain?”
In the distance the mountains had thickened with snow.
The bandage in her groin grew soggy, stanching this strange un-clotting, unceasing wound. Would she bleed to death?
The radio was on downstairs. It seemed the snow was all anyone could talk about. Nubia felt an escapee trickle down her thigh. The fortress bandage could no longer stand the siege. She went into the bathroom to change. The blood-soaked toffee looked like an island from an alien planet, lava red in the center and a burnt, browning crimson at the edges. She imagined having to wash that month after month.
She needed to dispose of the evidence. Just then she heard her mother come in.
“I brought you a fresh hot water bottle. Nubia are you changing pads? Don’t throw it in the bathroom can! Wait. Let me bring the newspaper.” Shehrbano scanned the pages quickly to make sure there were no scriptures that might be contaminated. “The classified section of Dawn is your safest bet.”
When Nubia was seventeen she read Neruda for the first time. Mouthed those repeated lines under her breath. “Come and see the blood on the streets! ”
The blood of men was always public. A matter of pride. Every year it was the same – on Ashura, the mourning Moharram procession wound and roared its way through the streets, the valiant young bucks clustered around Zuljinnah. Bare chested men flagellated themselves with tiny knives attached to long steel chains in a steady hypnotic left-right motion chanting, “Imam Husain! Husain Husain!” while women watched from windows and cars parked at the side of the road.
Sabeels had been set up for the heroic young men at frequent intervals en-route to the main Imambara. Theirs was the blood of roses, petals showered on wounds, blush red, syrup-sweet roohafza pressed and poured to parched lips. Even the water of the warriors of woe came from the cool of clay matkas.
All her life Nubia’s shedding was kept wordless and nameless as the men gloried in their naked baptismal, bathed in rivers of blood for all to see and hymn-him.
Sophia Pandeya is an Asian-American writer, born in Karachi in 1964. She writes in Urdu as well as English and her poetry has also been translated into Bengali. Sophia believes in a liminal poetry that straddles linguistic, cultural, temporal and geographical borders.
Her writing has been anthologized worldwide, in both print and online journals including Poetry International Rotterdam, The Adirondack Review,The Daily O, BlazeVOX, Cactus Heart, Askew Poetry, Bank Heavy Press, Spilled Ink, Lantern Journal, Convergence , Antiphon Poetry UK, The Sunflower Collective, AntiSerious, The Ghazal Page, Aaj Urdu, Kitab, Scroll & many other publications. Peripheries, is her critically acclaimed debut collection of poetry, published in September 2015 by Cyberhex Press.
Links to her published works and blog can be found on her site: www.trancelucence.net
She tweets @sophiapandeya