Fiction

Unfurl

by Mehreen Ahmed

This morning, Alisha Alam drew the curtains apart in her bedroom. She gazed at a grey sky. The clouds hadn’t melted. Anytime now, but this greyness gave her a thrill. She smiled and opened the window to smell pithy air from her orchard full of ripened mangoes. They hung from the trees to drop any day. A full blush brushed a yellow, and orange on its smooth skin. Green mangoes were long gone. Who cared about the age of the mangoes? Ripeness was all, like old wine.

Alisha moved from the window and looked at herself in a tall mirror by the bed. She saw a few crow’s feet around her eyes. At thirty, she didn’t have a boyfriend. Time took its toll; her life’s journey had been undulated so long, like gentle footsteps on the sand along its contours. It was only her mother, who kept a vigilant tab. She was thirty. When people asked how old Alisha was, her mother would tell them plainly that, “My Alisha was twenty.”

“Really mother,” Alisha yelled one day. “I’m thirty, why would you lie to people like that?”

“You won’t understand, what do you care anyway?” mother said.

“What do you mean?” Alisha asked.

“Who would marry you if they knew your real age?”

“And how do you think they’d react if they knew later?” Alisha asked. “hmm?”

“How would they find out, if you don’t tell them? Don’t show your birth certificate to anyone.”

“As if I would be able to keep it from my husband if I were to ever get married.”

“You can choose whatever, but I’ll continue to tell people that you are twenty. That way I would preserve your youth until you’re properly wedded,” Mother declared.

Alisha was aware of guests dropping in this evening for dinner. Since morning flavourful cooking wafted in the air. At this moment, she felt unburdened for not being married. A light wind whistled through her room. She looked at the windows and realised that she had left them open. She went up to close them and saw dry, swept away leaves on orchard grounds. Her mind burst into an open, placid sea, of stretched, unruffled aluminium sheet across the horizon.

The leaves had turned brown in a while. Why was her mother so concerned about age and the aging process? Alisha wasn’t. She wondered what her mother was going to do tonight. If she tried to lie again, she was going to intrude and tell everyone the truth. The day passed as usual without a fuss. She saw her mother knitting in the drawing-room. She sat down with a book by her. Mother eyed her up and down.

“Do you know who’s coming tonight?” she asked.

“How would I know?” Alisha asked.

“A prospective groom with his family.”

“Oh, and how am I supposed to behave?”

“Just stay quiet and don’t tell your age. You being young, matters. Your complexion is not great either. Dark. At least if they know you’re young that might help.”

In the evening, Alisha’s mother told her what to wear. She wore a bright red sari with matching ruby. She also wore thick make-up. According to her mother, the make-up would enhance the skin colour to a tad shade fairer. In about a couple of hours, Alisha heard noises. They had come. The groom’s party had arrived. She could be wedded to this complete stranger if they liked her. But she too had to make an impression by following the tradition, not talk about taboos at all, such as age. She had already made up her mind. When they had all been seated comfortably, a maid entered to tell her that Alisha had been summoned into the drawing-room. She looked at the maid and asked her how old she was. She looked blankly and said.

“I don’t know. I was told that I was born in a great storm.”

“Great storm? Which one, though?”

“I don’t know. In the villages, no one talks about age. People are born, they grow up, grow old and they die when the time comes. We only guess how old a person may be by the colour of the hair and wrinkles in the skin.”

Alisha looked at her and said nothing but followed her demurely into the drawing-room. Everyone including Alisha’a mother looked at her but Alisha dared not to look at anyone, not even the groom. She kept her eyes downcast as custom required. She looked only at the ornate carpet on the floor. How intricate the inlays were? Alisha sat down on the edge of a chair. She wanted to be a runaway bride. Then everyone left the room, except for the groom. He asked her to look at him.

“We need to talk,” he said.

His was dark and middle-aged. His side-burns were greying. He also had a receding hairline which he could’ve hidden if he wore a wig. Gosh! How old was he? He must have seen the shock in her demeanour.

“I’m fifty,” he said. “How old are you?”

“Thirty,” she said.

“Perfect. I love your honesty.”

Yes, it was a perfect match according to Alisha’s mother and the groom. At thirty, she had already become an old maid with limited options. No one must know her real age. And to remain single would be disreputable too. People would gossip and wonder if she had a character blemish of some sort. However, this man knew her real age. She had just broken a taboo by blurting out her real age to him. But she had also noted that he hadn’t raised an eyebrow. She liked that. A new beginning was in the offing. But under layers of make-up, he didn’t really know her true colour. What beauty would he find there? If he didn’t find any beauty, then at least there wouldn’t be ugliness, she thought. Alisha had a beautiful mind. She had unfurled. Free.

About the Author: 

Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning author, internationally published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review. One of her short stories won The Waterloo Short Story Competition,2020. Her works have been nominated three times for The Best of the Net,2020. Pushcart Prize nomination,2020.Two times for Ditmar Awards in 2016 and 2019, Aurealis Awards nominee,2015 and nomination for Christina Stead Prize,2018. Her book was announced as The Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice, June 2018. Three of her books received Author Shout Reader Ready Awards,2019. One Received Silver. The other two Bronze medals.

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