“November is a good time to be in Kuwait. It’s cooler now, not like summer. It can reach130 degrees then.” Rasheed wiped his brow with the back of his hand and squinted at
the lights burning in the airport’s vast interior.
I did not reply. The Philippines were also hot in summer. I was used to sweating.
“This household where I am taking you for the work, Asria, is air-conditioned, a mansion. You’ll see how beautiful.”
I smiled when he winked at me not looking down at my feet as my sister had taught. No, this time I met his eyes to see if there was truth in them. But I could not tell. There was a haze behind his glasses that kept me from seeing truly.
My number was finally called. “Go—go.” Rasheed pushed me toward Immigration. The officer took a long time examining my passport as if he was certain he’d find something amiss. But I knew it was in order. Rasheed had made sure it was so.
I stood at attention, my feet straight ahead, arms at my sides so the officer could find no fault. My dress was also modest. I wore a light sweater over it. “The night air can be chilly. Wear something warm,” Rasheed had advised.
However, I did not have anything really warm. I never needed it in Manila. This light sweater, borrowed from my older sister was all I had.
Just as my knees started to shake, the officer stamped my passport and issued my visa. Rasheed took me by the elbow, “Good girl,” he jostled me through the hordes of anxious immigrants to the exit.
I dragged my small suitcase. Rasheed took it from me. “You must be tired. That was a long trip.”
Yes, I was exhausted. I had been up since early yesterday preparing to come, not wanting to leave home really but what home did I have? My sister and I rented a room in the poorest section of Manila. We spent our days scavenging the garbage dumps behind KFC for chicken parts. My sister would recook the pieces in palm oil with bits of wilted vegetables. I
tried selling our product on street corners but began vomiting from the smell before I’d sold a single portion. “This is not for you,” she said. “You have to toughen up.”
I thought I had a better chance in life by leaving the country of my birth. “Filipinas needed,” the advertisement read. “Work in Kuwait for stable and reliable families.” Why not? I
would have a family that cared. It was so long since anyone had. Even my sister had grown tired of me.
Outside the airport the night was brisk. I buttoned my sweater. “You should have brought something warmer.” Rasheed slipped into his faded leather jacket. He was not much older than me, still in his late teens or early twenties, scrawny and tall with the scars of acne. I could never love him. There was something about him; something in the way he shuffled his feet that bothered me, something in the stoop of his shoulders….
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll get the car.”
The dusky night closed around me. A wind blew in from the Gulf sweeping sand into my eyes, my throat, leaving a fine layer of dust on my suitcase. I longed for the moist air of Manila.
A whistle from across the street. Rasheed stood beside his vehicle beckoning me to cross. But how could I in all this traffic? I stood frozen as the lampposts surrounding me while men in passing autos honked, opening their doors. “Come,” they hooted, “Come.”
Finally, Rasheed came. Grabbing me, he shoved me into the traffic. “What’s wrong with you, girl?” We rushed between braking cars. “You need some guts in this city. They don’t wait for you so you don’t wait for them.”
His automobile was sleek, like an old hearse that had been refurbished. “You can sit up front with me. Take a nap. It’ll be a long while before we get there. Your family lives on the other side of town, the better side.” He patted my knee.
I could not close my eyes. The lights on the freeway bled into them. Huge skyscrapers
loomed beneath a fierce moon. “We’re passing the Grand Mosque, Asria. Look quickly. Once
you start working you might not see it again.”
“Why not?” I murmured sleepily, dazed by the floodlights bathing the Mosque’s dome.
“You will soon see,” he laughed and gunned the motor.
I fell forward. He thrust his arm across my chest. “Sorry,” he smiled. “Better tighten
We drove past McDonald’s, past the Friday Market. The Market was still open even at this late hour. Women with babies wandered about in their black abayas examining rugs, clothing and cutlery through the slits in their niqabs. How could they see? How could they balance? As we slowed for a light, children tossed soda cans and candy wrappers from car windows. My thirst increased. How I would love to have a sip of that soda before it hit the ground.
“We’re almost there,” Rasheed said as we left the piles of debris choking the city’s center. The rancid odor of rotting vegetables and fruit followed us. Soon we drove through long streets lined with high walls protecting concrete mansions. We stopped in front of a wall topped
with broken glass. A night watchman hovered behind the gate adjusting his tattered turban. “Asalalmu alaykum,” peace be upon you, Rasheed greeted him.
“Mualaykum salam,” and also with you, the old watchman returned.
Rasheed pushed me inside and slung my suitcase after me. “If things don’t work out,” he shouted, “call me. I’ll drive you to the airport.” He honked his horn and was gone.
The watchman rubbed sand from his eyes, ran gnarly fingers through his beard and led me in silence up the sandy drive toward the white mansion glittering in the moonlight. ”You
sweep drive tomorrow early.” He kicked aside a sand drift that had blown in from the surrounding desert. “Must be clean before Sir drives off. Sand in his tire he does not like.”
I shook my head as if I understood but really did not. The sand would always blow in. Where would I dispose of it before more sand engulfed us? But I would not ask such a question.
Such a question might send me packing back to Manila.
He unlocked the huge wooden door and led me down a marble hallway. I glimpsed the living room. It was lined with silken couches beside golden lamps. Gilded porcelain urns loomed in the corners bursting with artificial flowers. High ceiling spotlights lit the room. If I could only lie down on one of those couches I would be happy.
Eventually we arrived at the kitchen. It gleamed with every appliance I’d seen in the magazines at the airport. “You sleep here.” He parted a beaded curtain. Behind it lay a small
cot big enough for a child. A uniform of yellow pajamas, blouse and apron hung on the wall. “In back toilet and tub. Clean mops there.”
The curtain shuddered as he shuffled back through the kitchen and down the hallway to his post outside. The heavy door groaned as he left.
I fell onto the cot hugging my knees, then I rocked myself to sleep as I had when I was little.
In the dim morning light the watchman hovered over me. “Rise child. Family chores.”
“When will I meet this family?”
“To meet you they do not care. Soon you see.”
“Sh…” he cautioned. “You be shadow person like me. It is best.”
I had foolishly hoped that it would be different, that perhaps my family would grow to love me. Maybe they will yet, I thought.
“Dress quick. Soon Sir will be up. He can no be late for hospital. Patients wait. Some travel from far to see him.”
Quickly I dressed and went to the kitchen. I splashed water on my face and was about to dry it with a rag when in the mirror above the sink I saw a beautiful image. A girl, about my
own age, eighteen years or so, stood in the entrance to the kitchen. “My espresso,” she clicked her ruby fingernails. “I expect it as soon as I wake.”
“Sorry. No one told me….” I lowered my eyes and turned toward the shadows as the watchman had advised.
“Well I’m telling you now. At this time every morning I expect coffee in my bedroom, also some Naan. Perhaps a few dates too or figs, whatever’s in season in our garden.” She tossed her ebony hair. It fell across her robe like a silken shawl. Her lips pouted and her glistening eyes, still full of sleep, slowly turned from me as if she hardly saw me, as if I were simply a bit of dust or a mop waiting to clean the floor. I heard her stomp back up the marble
staircase. She slammed the door to her bedroom. I hurried into the garden to examine the trees for fresh figs. The date palms were so tall I knew I could never harvest them without some help. The old watchman might possibly know—
“Child,” he was behind me. “The sand— You have not swept. Sir will be angry.”
“The girl came and—“
“Ah, that Fauzia. She bad tempered until her coffee come. Did you bring?”
“I did not know I should. No one—“
“You must know without us say.”
“You come to Om for help. I know little but do my best. Here figs.” Expertly he pulled some from the branches without bruising them. “Wash them careful. Place in silver bowl with a bit of cream and sugar. Serve each morning unless the dates be ripe. She prefer the dates. She like to lick stones when through.”
“But the sand?”
“I sweep for you this morning. Tomorrow rise earlier so you sweep before prepare coffee. Now that her mother has passed, Fauzia mistress here.”
“Please help me with the machine. There are so many.”
“Soon you master coffee machine. For now press this switch only. Four cups in silver pot from Iran is what she want. But now I hurry. Sir rise soon.”
“He take breakfast at the hospital.”
“Om?” a voice from the driveway.
“I displease him.” Grabbing a broom, he scuttled out swinging it before him.
“Hurry Om.” It was Sir’s voice in the drive, mellow, soft curves around his syllables, so different from Fauzia’s sharp edges.
“I’m already late,” he said. “Didn’t you tell that new Filipina to clean my drive first thing in the morning?”
“Yes Sir, but she arrived late and did not know.”
“Well see to it that she knows or I will have to replace her. Things are not the same here since my wife passed.” I heard him pause for a moment in prayer. “Make sure Fauzia comes down today. It is not good for her to stay in her room mourning her mother. Her wedding day must be prepared for.”
I watched from the shadows as his car ground down the drift strewn drive. Then I rushed about the kitchen spilling coffee and olive oil, wiping up and spilling again before I assembled Fauzia’s breakfast neatly on a tray. I started up the stairs to her room trying not to slip as Om had recently mopped them. She did not answer my knock so I set the tray outside her door.
“Go away,” she called. “I’m no longer hungry. I shall stay in bed all day.”
“But your father—“
“My father doesn’t have to know. Make sure you don’t tell him.”
My stomach lurched. I had no intention of telling her father. But what if he asked?
Don’t think about it I told myself. Just busy yourself with what needs to be done. But where should I start? I went outside where Om was sweeping. “Om,” I pleaded as the hours yawned before me, “where do I begin?”
“Begin at beginning.” He turned back to his sweeping.
I retreated to the kitchen and filled a bucket with soapy water to mop the floor.
“What are you doing?” Suddenly Fauzia was behind me.
“It is not your place to think. It is your place to see that the kitchen is clean. You can begin on your knees.” She handed me a scrub brush and some rags. “This is how you will wash the kitchen floor and all the other floors as well.” She tightened the red sash around her slender waist and left the room trailing a faint essence of rose perfume.
I scrubbed well into the late afternoon, my knees burning, my hands raw from the harsh soap and scalding water. There was no time for breakfast or lunch as whenever I paused Fauzia would somehow appear from nowhere with new orders for me. Om slipped me a crust of bread or some figs whenever he could. But still I was hungry. I had thought my hunger in Manila was bad. However, I’d never known anything like this constant gnawing in my belly.
That night I collapsed on my bed grateful to lie down at last. But in the middle of my
sleep I heard something stir. My eyes searched the darkness. There behind the beaded curtain
was a figure. I held my breath not daring to speak wondering how long it had stood there. It drew back the curtain slightly. A breeze ruffled the beads. Then, just as I was about to scream, it disappeared.
In the morning I rose at dawn and rushed to the drive to sweep before Sir appeared.
When he came he gave me a sidelong glance, stamped sand from his feet and swung his lean
body into the gleaming Porsche. From the shadows I watched him adjust the white gutra on
his thick wavy hair. The crisp shoulders of his dishdasha were erect behind the wheel. The roar of his motor thrilled me.
“She come soon.” Om was beside me. “Hurry, make coffee before she scold.”
I ran into the kitchen. Fauzia stood beside the espresso machine challenging me to begin. She clenched a broom as if she would strike me. I tried to hide, to withdraw into the shadows, but as I parted the beaded curtain of my room, I felt a blow on my back. I tried to crawl beneath my cot but there was no need. Without a word she was gone. I grasped the edge of the cot to help me rise feeling a burning sensation where she had struck me.
Om waited at the kitchen door leading to the garden. He pressed some figs into my apron pocket. “Her blows do not remember. I have many. I forget.”
I nibbled a fig for energy hoping my strength would return. Then I assembled her coffee and bread and climbed the slippery stairs to her room hoping she was asleep, that I could leave her breakfast at the door. But she answered my knock. “Come in,” she said sweetly as if this was a different person than the one who struck me. Her bed was hidden by filmy veils. She rested behind them. “I am to be married soon. It is my father’s wish.”
A satin bridal gown was draped across the couch. Wall mirrors everywhere reflected its elegance. “Stay where you are. Do not come near me.”
The veils trembled as she turned away. “You may leave my breakfast on the side table. It is so kind of you to bring it. Leave quietly. Pretend you were never here.”
As I withdrew the door swung sharply catching my hand, squeezing it until I cried out. Then she was beside me releasing it. “Asria,” she whispered, “even the doors do not know you.”
It was dark when I finished my chores each day. The mansion remained silent as if no one lived there. Om usually dozed at his post outside. Even the palms were quiet. No breeze stirred inside the thick walls. I longed for a breeze, some sign of life as I crawled into my cot hoping to get some sleep. Deep sleep had disappeared from my life. I only dozed during the brief hours of rest afraid I would not wake in time to sweep the drive or brew the coffee. Also I was alert for signs as that same figure appeared each night behind the beaded curtain disappearing as soon as I stirred. I asked Om if he knew of a spirit that wandered the mansion once night fell. He only smiled and wished me peace.
But this night peace would not come. I tossed on my pillow. Suddenly the curtain parted. He stood before me in his spotless dishdasha, so handsome it hurt my eyes to look at him so I drew the covers over my head. “Asria,” he murmured, “it is all right. You may see me.”
Slowly I drew down the covers and turned toward him absorbing his faint antiseptic
odor. His fingers were long and thin, the fingers of a surgeon. Carefully he approached and
perched on the edge of my cot. “Welcome to my home. I did not know they would send me such as you. In the future please call me Saleh.” He smiled and left the room.
I felt as if a warm blanket had been laid upon me. So, this family might come to love me after all. I fell into a deep sleep.
After that Sir came every night on his return from the hospital. I would wake knowing he was there by the medicinal odor, a fragrance I came to love. “Asria,” he would whisper. His delicate fingers touched my shoulder. A soothing balm enveloped me. His voice in the dark glided over me, hypnotizing me to his will. And his will was to have me for his own. Even though he rarely looked my way as I swept the drive for him each morning, I knew he loved
me. He told me so when he came to my room and caressed me until I trembled in his arms. I worked in a dream those days smiling as I scrubbed the floors or prepared the morning coffee. I would watch his car leave the drive, hover there until I could no longer hear his motor, praying for his quick return to me each night. It did not matter that he would not look at me in daylight. He looked at me at night. That was enough.
Months passed. My love for him overwhelmed me. I thought of him constantly longing for his touch, longing to tell him that I…. How should I say it? How should I tell him that I thought….
“We have been feeding you well,” he said one evening as his arms circled my stomach.
I did not know how to reply so I said nothing until he kissed me there in that special place. Then I had to confess. “Saleh,” I whispered, “you have blest me with your child. She is growing there beneath your kiss.”
He rose abruptly as if what I had just said were a sin. In silence he parted the curtain. I heard his step on the stairs. Then it was as before, as if he had never been. Each night I waited
for him but he did not come again. He ordered Om to sweep the drive so he would not have to see me.
As the day of the wedding approached, Fauzia became more irritable. “We are having many guests tomorrow,” she said. “The ladies will gather in my bedroom. The men will
meet my father downstairs. Then when the contract has been signed by us both, only then will the groom see me. You will prepare the wedding feast in advance, Asria. Do not plan to sleep tonight as the food must be ready by dawn.”
I bowed and backed from the room, the weight in my heart greater than that in my womb. Soon my apron would not hide the truth.
That night Saleh came to me in the kitchen as I was preparing the banquet. He stood some distance from me as if I could contaminate him. “I have bought your return ticket.” He thrust an envelope on the cutting board. “You will leave tomorrow after my daughter’s wedding.”
“Saleh,” I pleaded, “please allow me to stay. I will have the child in secret. If you wish, I will bury it in the garden beneath a date palm. No one will know. Please allow me….”
He turned to leave.
“I will do anything for you,” I called after him. “Spend my life in your service if only….”
The door snapped shut behind him. I wanted to tear the envelope, burn it with the trash, pretend I’d never seen it, that Saleh had not forsaken me. I stared at the cutting board, at the sharp knife that sliced through the bloody chicken and the fish fresh from the sea. I wiped the blade clean and hid it in the largest pocket of my apron. Then, when I was certain the house slept, I mounted the stairs to Fauzia’s room. Softly, I opened her door. There she lay in her wedding dress as if she had fallen asleep anticipating the celebration. I parted the veils protecting her. “Fauzia,” I murmured to make certain she was still asleep. Then, my hand
shaking, I wielded the sharp edge of the kitchen knife toward her heart and plunged it in. Suddenly she stared up at me, her mouth open as if she would scream but no sound escaped. She tried to turn the knife toward me but I was stronger from my work in the house, the endless months of cleaning and sweeping. She collapsed beneath me, the delicate skin of her chest red as the sash she wore that first morning on my arrival. My body felt numb as if this act had been committed by another being stronger than I. “Toughen up,” Rasheed said and I had. I wiped the bloody blade on her dress. I had killed what was dearest to him. Saleh would have no children now. He would be as bereft as I.
Quickly I descended the stairs and tossed the knife behind some palms hoping a sand
drift would bury it. Then I rushed down the path rousting Om who somehow foretold this event.
He called Rasheed on his cell who only agreed to come after I promised him a huge tip. “So,” he
grinned when he finally arrived, “it did not work out. I could’ve told you. You’re not the first to
leave that house. There were many before you.”
As we drove to the airport a dust storm followed us, not the white or yellow dust I had experienced in the past but a whirling black rage. “You have time before your flight?” Rasheed was trying to get ahead of the storm. It was quickly enveloping us.
“Yes, I have time.”
“Then I’ll pull over and wait for this to pass.”
“No don’t. Keep going. We’ll get stuck in a drift if we pull over.”
I hoped the storm would slow the police. Saleh would search for me forever. I knew what my fate would be if he found me. The traffic stalled as we arrived at the airport. Visibility was zero. Inch by inch we approached the entrance guided by the flashing lights of cars in front
of us. “Give me my money and get out,” Rasheed ordered slinging my suitcase after me. “I should never have agreed to drive you in this mess.”
I rushed into the airport and checked my flight for Manila. It was hours before it would leave. My feet felt anchored in cement as I sat on a bench envying the passengers leaving for Addis Ababa, Istanbul, Dubai and other parts of the world where I might find refuge. Suddenly
a firm hand gripped my shoulder and forced me from the bench. “You are wanted for
questioning,” the voice said. I heard it as if through a tunnel. There was still a spattering of blood on my blouse that I could not remove no matter how hard I had tried wetting towel after towel in the Ladies Room.
Soon my wrists were shackled in handcuffs that dug into my flesh until more blood was
drawn, my blood this time. And then he arrived in his pure perfection, his face as pale as his dishdasha. “Saleh,” I whispered as he joined the policemen. “Saleh please….” But he would not look at me. I had become invisible. He picked a smote of dust from the sleeve of his dishdasha and flicked it in my direction.