“You can love two things at once, Bilquis,” Kemisa told me, her eyes cast down towards her graying wedding dress. She traced a finger down the nightstand, long and slow, with a heavy silence enveloping her movements.
“Soh tsa khaet,” I said, bony and young.
“Shh,” she murmured, her voice a drafty breeze.
I stared into her empty eyes, shrouded by the dead white veil. “Don’t fall in love,” she said. “Not in this world.”
“Soh tsa khaet,” I said. I don’t understand.
She sighed. “You can only understand once you know how it ends.”
It had been two years since Kemisa moved away with her husband, and now I feared her. Would she remember the way the falling snow looked from our window, or the dusty Atlas Papa gave us when she turned fourteen? Perhaps she was a stranger now with an empty distance in her eyes.
I knew they would be arriving soon for dinner and she would sit with the women in the kitchen while Kuyra sat with the men. She would avert her eyes not only from them, but from Mama and me too. “Soh tsa khaet,” I would tell her. I don’t understand.
“Salam, Bilquis,” she said as she entered, falling away from Kuyra.
“Salam,” I said. I knew I could trust her, but still I faltered, afraid that by getting too close the memories would spoil. I decided in a moment she wouldn’t understand, just as I hadn’t when she told me her truth. I searched for a glow in her eyes, a mischievous scrap of childhood, but finally concluded that although only air lingered between our bodies, her soul would never come back for me.
I always believed we were similar, and I used to believe it with pride. But now it occurred to me with repulsion that so similar were we that I too clutched a long and seemingly tenuous strand of lies. I too got a strong urge in the middle of the night to run down the icy meadows, past the groaning livestock, as far as I could.
Ever since Papa brought home that dusty Atlas all I ever wanted was to see the places it held, to touch the foreign sands and feel the warmth of the ocean between my fingers, and while I could’ve left one day and never returned, abandoning an eternity of being no more than a wife and mother, my heart tethered me to Chechnya, to them, to the Caucasus Mountains, to the sound of Papa’s accordion and everyone exclaiming, ‘Marsalla!’ before bursting into song. I had only ever belonged to them, cooking their food and cleaning their clothes, but when they stood beside me proudly in the mosque or the street, had they not also belonged to me?
The clock was the only sound in the room, and I couldn’t tell whether it marked a beginning or an end. I sat across from Kemisa, cloaked in a white so akin to darkness it seemed old even before using it.
“Her name is Marzet,” she told me. “And I love her.”
“Soh tsa khaet.”
“Stop saying that.”
“And Kuyra?” I asked.
“I love her more than Kuyra.”
“Aren’t you afraid God will be angry?”
“God knows it’s not a choice.”
“Everything is a choice,” I insisted.
“No,” she said softly. “Not everything.”
“Soh tsa khaet,” I said, my head growing heavy.
“I sit with my back to the wall, Bilquis,” she explained. “You can’t understand me from there.”
I watched Kemisa pick at her dessert, dried pears, Mama’s pride. I wondered why I feared her, why I feared Marzet. Then I wondered if she would fear me too if I told her my dreams, so revolting and grotesque in the Chechen sunlight.
Papa called everyone into the living room and told us to clap as he played. Kemisa squeezed my hand.
“Bilquis,” she said with a faint smile. “Suna h’o eza.”
“I love you too,” I replied, my shoulders becoming less heavy.
I closed my eyes and let the music consume me. I let it take me beyond the Caucasus mountains and drift me through the pages of Papa’s Atlas like an autumn breeze lifting scattered dried leaves. I tried not to smile so they wouldn’t sense my desire when they looked at me. I soared off the coast, across the sea, and through the clouds, with warmth inside and cool air on my rosy cheeks.
And yet at the end of the journey, joyously solitary, I found myself right back in the same flimsy cottage, all fourteen of us clapping around the living room with Papa and his accordion at the center.
“Soh tsa khaet,” I thought. I don’t understand.
The accordion played on, weaving our souls together like the brightly colored fibres of the living room carpet we danced on. For the first time I didn’t feel the need to understand her. All that remained was color, contrasting and complementing against all the colors around it, and her color, so exotically beautiful and different from the rest, that reached out to me as if nothing had changed.
“Bilquis,” she whispered as she stood up in her sparkling wedding gown. “Tell Marzet the truth.”
I nodded, averting my eyes.
“Look at me, Bilquis,” she said, gently lifting my chin. “Take care of Papa’s Atlas, help Mama clean the house, and be good to your husband when you find one.”
“Kemisa,” I said. The sound of her name only just escaped my lips.
She wiped away my tears and kissed me on the forehead with her soft cold lips. I closed my eyes and tried to freeze time, but before I even felt the ache hit my heart, she pulled herself away. “Don’t fear me,
Bilquis,” she said. “I will always be your sister.”
First Place: Sofia Perez from Warwickshire, United Kingdom, for “The Atlas.” Sofia attends King’s Highschool for Girls and is in the 10th Grade.
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