It was early Saturday morning. A text from Lucky lit up Shelly’s phone. “NY NY wedding.”
Another followed. “Sky-high fancy, second weekend June. COME!”
“Yes,” Shelly replied. “ BTW Going to Nepskis for Thanksgiving with George.”
“How does that feel?”
“Awkward,” Shelly replied. “Germany for research fellowship will be good for me.”
“You should be SO proud of your Fujitsu award. What will happen to George?”
“He’ll stay in my apartment. Not worried. Super mature kid. Also, David is now working in SF. Says he’ll check on him.”
“Let’s talk this weekend.”
After they set up a time to video-call, Shelly returned to online research for a medical review article she was co-writing.
George appeared at noon. Unshaven, he had just woken up and was still wearing his bathrobe.
“Did you talk to your Dad?”
“About you leaving for Germany, yes. I said I’ll be fine, especially with Dr. Campbell checking in.”
Garcia had told her, “If there are any problems, he’ll go back to his aunt in Chicago.
“George,” she asked, “what shall we take to the Nepskis for Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Too early to think.”
He spattered eggs in the frying pan. She heard cereal and milk poured into the mixing bowl. Her quiet Saturday morning to work had ended.
After he sat down to eat, Shelly ventured, “George, your dad said you may have a little bit of Native American in you.
“But,” she continued, my type was not around for that first Thanksgiving. Probably, everyone else at the Nepskis will be 98 percent descended from immigrants.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Why does everything become political?”
They reverted to silence and their phones.
Sunday morning, Shelly called Lucky.
“Thanks,” Lucky said. “Bring George if you can. It’ll be terrific for Charlie to see him. Maybe Michaela can come too. The kids can entertain each other.”
Lucky peppered Shelly with questions: “What’s the latest with Mr. Walden Pond?”
“Manny is very happy with his research in Africa and always has good ideas for me. Unfortunately, he can’t get a travel visa to come see George.”
“That’s so sad. Ugh. So have you been in touch with David? How’s he doing?”
“David’s now working in San Francisco,” Shelly said carefully. George had surprised her when he told her that “it’s obvious” — that Campbell had feelings for Lucky.
“How’re the cats?” Shelly asked to change the topic.
“Happy, an old married couple like Harry and me.” Then Lucky added, “They’ve never seen a New England winter, and our first is coming up. I hope we don’t get bad winter storms. They’re predicting unpredictable weather.”
“How’s the weather in California?”
“The droughts and fires keep getting worse. But it’s not so bad here at Pandolf especially as rents keep falling while people leave.”
George entered the living room. “Are you talking to Lucky?’”
He waved to the screen. “Can I see Livingstone and Layla?”
Waiting for Lucky to return with the cats, George said, “You know, Shelly, that as our environment collapses, Chicago will be a very safe place to be someday compared to both coasts of the United States.”
“Now that’s depressing. Did you have a nice trip to see your aunt?”
“Yup,” George said.
Pandolf High School had been closed for a Teachers Day so he went to Chicago for a long weekend.
While his aunt slept in — so unlike her — George and Uncle Max had eaten at an outdoor cafe near the apartment.
Leaves from the nearby park fluttered by them on morning-fresh fall breezes. Outdoor speakers piped a Native American melody with flute and wind chimes. His giant salsa-topped stuffed cheese omelet with hash browns arrived and he dug in.
Uncle Max drank his black, bitter coffee with a cinnamon roll.
“George,” he said, “let me tell you, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. You remember that lawyer, Jim Sichet, who bought one of my paintings, my biggest sale ever? He said that he would put it in the entryway of this historic landmark bank building.
“Now I didn’t believe him even back then. But now that fixer has stashed my girl away — where no one can see her.”
Uncle Max looked up.
“Wow, we were just talking about you. George, this is Callie.”
The waiter brought another mug and Uncle Max poured more coffee into it. “I know you’re like me, you like it straight,” he said to the woman.
Not looking up, George stared at her cup. His gaze traced her long delicate fingers past rings to thin bracelets around her wrist. The sunlight revealed the faintest fuzz on her forearm.
As with her portrait by his uncle, he lifted his eyes up to her sleeve and was surprised to see a tattoo on her cream skin where the fabric of her shirt draped over her shoulder.
Uncle Max had told him he had drawn and redrawn her arm many times (minus the tattoos). Now in the bright daylight, he admired his uncle’s solution to the problem of how to draw that lean muscled limb down to her bare and bitten nails.
Should he tell his aunt he finally met Callie? He remembered her warning glance to her husband one day when she saw George enter the room, abruptly ending their conversation.
But he had already overheard.
“My mind worked furiously to draw my sketch,” his uncle was saying, “while filtering out Callie’s chatter which never includes any mention of her husband. But in the future, it would work better if she is clothed. She has a big city talent for how to dress.”
“You mean that nude models are dangerous?” AnnaMaria said, “and why do you want to paint her again?”
“Jealousy is not pretty on you,” Uncle Max had said. “Besides, it would be a bad idea to have an affair with Callie when Jim’s my patron.”
After finishing her coffee, Callie ordered some wine. His eyes had already dropped back to the starched white tablecloth.
The waiter splashed it into her glass. The red cabernet in her delicate glass contrasted with his uncle’s black coffee in a hefty, white porcelain mug, both vessels side-by-side.
Then his uncle rose. “I just paid the bill on my phone.
“Callie, I’m sorry to run. I’ve a meeting downtown. George, you can stay and finish eating.”
“Is it OK if I get dessert?”
“Sure, take something back for your aunt too.”
He waited for his uncle to walk away. Finally gathering courage to look up, he stared straight into the most beautiful face he had ever seen.
She was watching his uncle leave, a dark, slender figure moving away with stiff grace. Then she pointed to drops of red wine that the waiter had spilled on the white cloth.
“He wasn’t being clumsy, George. That was deliberate. Rude!”
George tried to squeeze more ketchup out of the bottle without splattering any more red onto white.
“George,” she asked.”Do you think the waiter spilled it because my dress is a little worn and when I talk, I have traces of a country accent? Never mind, it’s so good to escape the house.”
She inhaled the morning air and lit a cigarette. George looked around. His uncle had said that she had a voice of smoke and liquor.
“Oh don’t worry,” she added, “The cafe owner doesn’t mind me smoking outside if no one complains. George, laws are only as good as the people who enforce them, a friend tells me.
“Don’t ever start this nasty habit, George.”
“Oh, I never plan to,” he said fervently.
How could he appeal to her vanity by telling her that smoking would make her age faster, crinkling her perfect skin, even if she may not care that cigarette smoking caused lung damage and cancer.
He lowered his eyes and dug into warm pecan pie with the best vanilla ice cream he had ever tasted.
“Your uncle’s a great artist,” Callie told George. “I was home, looking out the window when I saw him walk down the street with you to get his coffee. So I decided to stop by.”
Looking into the distance, she said, “Max sketched an arrangement near my kitchen window of fruit, wine and glass — she threw up her hands — stuff, cheap random stuff like in a billion homes. Except it was Max and his magic box of the most exquisite colored pastels.”
She smiled. “I framed the drawing myself. Now, it hangs on my kitchen wall. A man like your uncle appreciates life’s daily domestic routines.”
His uncle had also said that Callie liked to chat.
He found that he did not have to keep up his end of the conversation.
“When I was modeling for the painting,” she said, “Max told me you had come from Paris.”
“Yes, my grandmother still lives there.”
“My husband and I lived in Paris for a while. Your uncle said he met your aunt there. How romantic.”
He had forgotten how to speak. He had never seen such skin before, like the vanilla ice cream he was finishing. Even without any makeup, her lips were full and pink like strawberries.
His uncle had said she had two young kids. But she only looked a few years older than him. Losing himself in her large sea-green eyes that his uncle had painted like sailboats on an ocean, listening to the Native American flute take its melody to new heights before dropping into silence, he felt happier than he had been in a long time.
“Your aunt is beautiful,” Callie said softly. “I see her in you. Your uncle’s first wife was lovely, and he used to paint her too.”
“Now he calls his ex: MX,” George said, “my-ex, he says it’s the name of an old and outdated nuclear missile.”
Merriment lit Callie’s face. He felt witty.
“And how’s his son, Barry, doing?” she asked.
“Fine, I think. I mean I’ve never met him.” He felt perplexed by her questions.
Uncle Max was supposed to call his son on the weekends but often forgot. AnnaMaria had told George that MX had married a busy doctor in New York City and how she boasted that they could afford to buy Barry many things that Max could not.
George once overheard his uncle on his phone. “AnnaMaria is courteous to Barry but shows no maternal feeling. Have you heard that expression, ‘as cold as a stepmother’s kiss?’
“Still, I excuse her, prefer to be child-free myself. I’m just as bad. She wishes I were closer to her nephew. I try.”
Callie now drained her second glass of wine. “It’s nice to finally meet you, George. I have to get back to reality, tiny, cluttered children’s rooms with dirty clothes still on the floor. Then there are the books and toys and artwork in various planes rising to the ceiling — she raised expressive hands — and jumbled bed-sheets hiding wild packs of stuffed animals.”
She continued, “I just finished cleaning ‘that stupid stupid kitchen,’ the dining room, living area, and my husband’s workroom. Daily, I bring beauty and order to domestic chaos only to do it again a few hours later. Isn’t there some Zen wisdom about cycles of order and disorder that repeat themselves futilely? That’s housework.”
She left. He saw her fade around a corner and scraped crumbs of pie off his plate. He could hear the music again, a haunting flute call into the cooling breezes. He remembered his own mother, her light movements like butterfly wings, fluttering, when she used to pick up his toys as a child.
His father often told him stories about his mother — clumsy efforts. But over video-chat now, his conversations with his father were practical and guarded.
In September, Soria clinics had moved their African operations, along with Manny Garcia and the Drukker computer, to a new Research Institute in Ramses’ main hospital. Dr. B. remained behind at the coastal base, running the clinic.
Soon afterwards, Garcia met the king for the first time in a meeting room at the hospital.
White robes covered the monarch’s body. Close-up, his face was actually a painted mask like a theatre actor. The king asked his guards to step outside.
“Have you heard of the Sun Order of Ra?” the monarch asked, “an ancient order that dates back to the Pharaohs of Egypt?”
Garcia shook his head. “Forgive me, I don’t pay attention to the world outside of science. Still, I’m just worried that your enemies may be spying on the Porphyry project.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation about us out there,” the king said.
He rose and folded his arms. “I’ll not waste my time, Dr. Garcia. We believe there’ll be an apocalypse. Then a leader will come to rebuild our world. We are connected to each other from the boarding school, StarHall, to Soria Clinics and the Zoser corporation that bought the Drukker.
“But we’re not religious like Mr. Kochanski. To be fair, Mr. Kochanski’s god beat us in Egypt, beat us in Rome, still may be the one to bring the apocalypse and beat us at that too, his god of justice and death.”
“Yes, Michael is faith-driven,” Garcia said.
He could not gauge whether the king was serious or mocking, either by the timbre of his voice or his made-up face that was impassive like the Sphinx, his expressions further disguised by subtle tribal markings on his skin — barely visible even this close.
The king added, “Something that is less well known is that our Order also includes a Chicago businessman, Jim Sichet, who now runs Mr. Kochanski’s Pierre Building. From working at Pandolf, you must know Dean Baluyn and the Mather family.”
“Only in passing, sir,” he said, “ I’m grateful for your trust to share all this with me.”
Are you telling me this because I might never leave? Dead men don’t talk.
“Good,” King Saburi said. “Now, why would the current world powers want to spy on my Porphyry project, Dr. Garcia, or care about what they consider is my ‘superstitious’ side with the Sun Order? I’m not worried about them. I only keep the project a secret because only I should reveal it to my people at the right time.”
“Who’s the leader of the Sun Order?” Garcia asked.
The robed figure was turned away from him.
“I only dimly see a spider web that spins from a center,” the king said. “Its source of energy, the rhyme and reason for its rules, from Pi to Phi to fractals, whether its a creator that is good or evil or exists in the past, present, or future, or outside time altogether, that’s a question one may as well ask our universe.
“I have a question for you, Dr. Garcia,” he said. “Do you believe in good and evil?”
“ A manmade concept, I think. Why is it OK to butcher an innocent animal but wrong to do the same to a human being?”
King Saburi turned to him. Painted lips and eyes smiled on flawless Saburian skin-toned canvas.
“Dr. Garcia, you should know that we import frozen steaks from your Dr. Campbell’s ranch.”
“I’m aware, sir,” Garcia said. “But you mentioned ‘time.” That is a god to men, seen by all, their ‘grim reaper.’ Still, as a king, could you lead a Sun Order?”
“No. Human beings have never led it. We have rules of inheritance like rules of chemistry: such as who is my royal father, and his father, and on and on about who begat who dating back to the Egyptian Pharaohs.
“Or the Mather family in the United States. In the Sun Order’s oral history, the story is that the original Puritan had to leave England to break into a more inner circle. The Mathers are even rumored to have their shelter for this world’s doomsday: a building named after them on the Harvard campus in Cambridge.”
Garcia listened with increasing disbelief. The king was revealing himself to be a superstitious man with grandiose beliefs about himself and this society he belonged to. Royal families throughout history had suffered from insanity, perhaps from inbreeding, or maybe simply because people endured more suffering from royal dysfunction than that of an average family.
Then he remembered Eleanor at the military base clinic. Soon after his arrival, one of his outbursts from culture shock at Saburian ways led to an awkward incident.
She had scolded him, saying in her British English, “Manny, there’s never an excuse for a lack of courtesy.”
Now he nodded. “Sir, this is so much for me to think about.’
The Saburian king tapped his ring to summon a guard.
Garcia asked, “So you don’t want genetic testing on Queen Noru’s pregnancy to know which of the two implanted embryos survived?”
The king did not meet his eyes.
After that meeting, the Sun Order’s idea of a spider became a playful way for him to look at the world and its events. Why not? He was a scientist. Any theory must be disproven to consider it false.
An insect metaphor for a god was no better or worse than any other religion he had encountered.
Working around the clock, Garcia barely noticed the holidays come and go. In Saburia, Thanksgiving did not exist. Christmas was not a vacation day. He missed Elise. If Mary continued to do well, Elise would bring her back in January.
He had emailed Mary to let her know that his son might be coming to New York for a summer wedding next year.
“George can stay with me along with your doctor friend,” Mary had promptly replied.
“That would be too much trouble,” Garcia wrote back. “There’s also another student, Michaela, not George’s girlfriend, who may be coming too.”
“She can also stay here. I’ve plenty of room.”
The OB, Seema Kapoor, gushed to him that the pregnant Queen Noru was “blooming like a rose,” and was “as beautiful as a fertility goddess.”
She became matter-of-fact however one day, walking in the hospital garden next to the gurgling fountain, her suggestion to avoid being overheard.
“My first guess,” she said, “as to which of the two embryos survived the transfer will occur after the baby comes. But with newborns, it’s often hard to tell about their parentage. But Manny, by rebuilding chromosomes, isn’t it likely that the margins of error are so large that it would make the more artificial embryo less likely to survive?”
“You mean by more artificial, the embryo with the Genghis Khan substitution for Noru?”
“Yes,” Seema said, “that was a lot more processing for Noru’s egg. First, Noru’s chromosomes were extracted. Then the Khan chromosomes were put in. Then it was artificially fertilized with the king’s chromosomes. So many unnatural steps, so much that could go wrong, Manny.
“But the other twin embryo,” she continued, “That’s just the king and Noru, straightforward IVF, just with his abnormal DNA repaired. I put my bets on that one.”
Manny shrugged. “The Drukker checked its work to the point where error is almost impossible. Still, there could be unknown variables.
“But gene self-repair happens too. You know that in reproductive biology, most genetically defective embryos become miscarriages. The king’s first two queens have lost many pregnancies that way. If the Drukker AI created a defective embryo, Noru’s body would probably reject it.
“The surviving embryo had to go through two very discriminatory checkpoints. Seema, first the Drukker and then human reproductive biology. Why do people seem worried that a Frankenstein will be born? (The king had mentioned a similar concern.) But that story about Frankenstein is art, very creative, but not science.”
The loneliest aspect of his move to Saburia was that there was no community of research scientists like at the NIH or Pandolf. He read extensively, corresponded with other scientists and doctors online and still chatted by video with Shelly once or twice a month.
For that reason, late in December, Dr. Liang’s arrival in Ramses was welcome. For his cancer vaccines, Dr. Liang was Garcia’s new Chinese research assistant. He was a bright and serious young man in his 30s whose English was passable for daily conversation and scientific discussions. Liang had set up his desk in the corner of the lab.
A picture of Mooncake, the popular cable cartoon star, decorated Liang’s pencil mug. She wore her trademarked purple glitter headband. It was an international children’s series about a Beijing girl to teach children Mandarin.
Garcia had first seen her picture on a kiddie cup in the LoveDiDa store in the Atlanta International Airport many years ago. All those Christmases ago, George had been a little boy, delighted to receive the mug as a gift from his father.
Now, their video conversations were short. His old boss’s kindness in hosting his son for Thanksgiving surprised him. For winter break, George had gone to Chicago.
“He’s really turning into such a fine young man, Manny,” Shelly reassured him before leaving for Germany.
In a “Happy New Year” email, Kochanski told him he would not be returning to Saburia anytime soon, now that their project was progressing well. Anyone spying on their communications would assume they were discussing the cancer vaccines. Kochanski was actually referring to the king’s project.
In a video-call, Garcia asked, “Is there new management for the Pierre Building? I got an email from a Beth?”
Kochanski laughed. “Oh yes, Manny, it means I no longer have to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
“But seriously Manny, the new management is doing great things. Now that the winter holidays are done, we are going to upgrade the storage under the building. But at our location in Chicago, you can’t go too deep underground.”
Kochanski went on to give a mini-lecture on the technical details. Eavesdroppers would have no clue that Kochanski had just reassured Garcia that his biological samples for the Purple project, stored in the basement of the Pierre, were fine.
After they disconnected, Garcia logged into his computer. He inserted the latest numbers into his Drukker AI modeling of the planet’s environmental change and the destruction of most of the world’s rare species. Was it only a matter of time before an environmental global catastrophe occurred? The Drukker still had no answer, just statistical likelihoods for various theories out of which stubborn hopeful ones persisted.
But like a dot on a distant horizon, he sensed the shadow of a coming apocalypse growing inexorably. Something very deep in the inner web of this universe could be getting ready to destroy this world and create a new one. If such a thing existed, he badly wanted to know more about it before his life ended.
There was a cot in the locker area next to Garcia’s lab. Too tired to walk home, he fell asleep on it. Dressing in the morning after his shower, a movement outside the window caught his eye. He looked outside onto the small parking lot splattered with a few dusty cars, scooters and cycles. Like a beetle, a long black limo had stopped at the gates in the tall walls of Ramses Hospital. Military guards opened them. Queen Noru’s car then crawled in and disappeared around a building.
After her prenatal appointment, Queen Noru sat with Aisha before a computer screen. She clicked through ultrasound pictures of her baby on which she wrote with a stylus: the date, a body part or sometimes her feelings.
“Your mother will be so happy when she gets your pictures,” the older woman said. “Now, here I used to be your mother’s age now when I used to take care of you as a baby. Soon, I’ll help you with your child.”
Noru moved her fingers swiftly over the touchpad. “I just can’t wait to hear what Mama says.”
She then asked Aisha, “What’s the latest gossip? What are the servants talking about?”
“Just rumors,” Aisha replied with a troubled face. “Queen Salma is jealous. The king is breaking religious rules. Instead of sharing his time with all his wives, he just stays with you.”
Absorbed in the ultrasound pictures, Noru laughed absently. “That’s because he loves me, and I’m going to have his baby.”
“Queen Salma is the king’s first wife and a princess in his tribe, his first cousin,” Aisha said. “We need to beware. Your father is gone. Many of the king’s men are her family, more loyal to her than to you.”
Noru rarely saw Salma except at social gatherings and royal ceremonies. Even in her prime, Salma had never been pretty. But Noru knew her own beauty. Her large eyes and long smooth neck echoed Egyptian art from thousands of years ago. Carvings with curves like hers still brought that old stone to life.
“What I hear,” Aisha said, “is that Salma makes weekly trips home to see her mother. It’s an ancestral property in Ramses. The surrounding walls are ten feet high — here Aisha raised her hands above her head — topped with barbed wire. Inside those old walls, there are modern electric fences and steel gates. Killer dogs roam between the walls and those fences. The roofs and tunnels are also guarded, all latest military technology, her servants boast.
“Queen Salma goes in an armored car with black tinted windows and tall Sikh guards carrying automatic rifles. Then those thick steel gates clang, closing behind her. Once inside, you enter beautiful gardens. At the market, they show me pretty pictures. One of her brothers meets Queen Salma in the driveway and accompanies her inside. The queen removes her headscarf, and then she is with her mother and brother alone in the sitting room.”
Noru leaned in with a mischievous grin. “But you have your friend outside who’s listening.”
Looking lovingly into Noru’s face, Aisha then pulled away.
She was solemn now. “Queen Noru, Queen Salma’s brother, Abdul, says it would be hard to dispute Prince Malik’s succession to the throne on any grounds. But the king is in love with you, No one could challenge a king’s heart — if he changed the line of inheritance from our Crown Prince to your son.
“Queen Salma’s family discusses how you were in India for some time, with many injections and treatments, and how you see Dr. Kapoor a lot. What is the purpose of all the medicine and magic, they wonder, puzzled despite all their expensive spying.
“Also Queen Salma’s mother says bad things to her daughter.”
Aisha now whispered. “That the king sees his first queen as a jealous old crone next to you, and she pokes fun at Queen Salma’s weight. Her daughter just sits there and looks at the floor.”
“You sound like you might feel sorry for Salma.”
Aisha shook her head. “In royal families, they say they talk like that to toughen their children because life is pain and suffering, and royals have to be strong. I hear that Queen Salma never even cried out in childbirth.”
Noru scoffed. “Dr. Kapoor says she’ll numb me up nicely when I go into labor.
“Still, Aisha, that sounds like something my husband called ‘bullying’ in the American boarding school that he attended. In his class, the bully was a man from Chicago who’s still his close friend.
“I asked Akila about it in one of my English lessons before she left to work on the military base. She is half-British, her English name is Eleanor. She said that ‘bullying’ in British boarding schools used to be a method to teach leadership.”
“Who cares what the British think?” Aisha said harshly. “Glad to be rid of all those colonial powers and then their local puppet rulers.
“I know that you’re just trying to understand your husband better. But that’s not going to help you here.
“Queen Salma’s mother is to be feared,” Aisha whispered. “She tells her children to remind the king that they’re family. She instructed Abdul, ‘Be his cousin, you know the one he grew up and played with, fought with, pushed into the deep end of the swimming pool when he knew you couldn’t swim.’
“And to her daughter, she says, ‘Rebuild the king’s trust. Let him think you have forgiven him and respect his natural manly preference for Noru over you. Don’t try to be his wife anymore, just family. You need to get more information and then come to me. There will be absolutely no disinheritance for my grandson.'”
Noru shuddered. “I’ve heard terrible stories of how wicked Salma’s mother can be.”
“Yes,” Aisha said, “And you have heard the rumors that Bassam, your king’s older brother, is also behind the terrorism and rebellion. But now, it appears that Queen Salma’s mother talks to Bassam. That’s what my friend is saying.”
“What?” Noru exclaimed. “We must tell the king.”
The servant scoffed. “You have no proof. The king will just think you’re jealous, and he won’t like it. He’ll say there’s nothing wrong with his brother talking to his aunt.”
“One more thing,” Aisha continued. “Bassam and Queen Salma loved each other… once.” She shook her head and added, “Not that they could ever do anything about it, I mean, not just because the noble families didn’t want it but because Bassam is not capable.”
“Because he’s in a wheelchair?”
Aisha shrugged. “That’s all I know about that.
“Queen Salma listens to her family. She sees her king rarely but has become dutiful. They discuss their son. He shows little interest in their daughter.”
The nanny now pointed to her head. “They have that poor girl someplace in Europe, pretty mountains like in Bollywood movies I’m told.”
“My husband’s relatives are a nest of snakes,” Noru said.
Aisha nodded. “If someone is listening to us, it doesn’t matter. I serve you, it is the destiny I was born to.
“Queen Salma waits as her mother tells her to … because change is a rule of existence and they pray that the future unfolds in their favor.”
“Aisha, I’m not worried about those primitive gods that they still pray to.”
“OK, more gossip,” Aisha added. “One day, Queen Saira came to visit Queen Salma.”
“I thought those two hated each other!”
“Dear,” Aisha said, “The first and second queens, Salma and Saira, have become friends along the lines of the old rule that an enemy of my enemy is my friend. Now here they are, sharing coffee together, a treat they both enjoy.”
Aisha grew wistful. “Queen Salma’s maids serve it on silver trays in little porcelain cups with steamed milk and sugar.”
Aisha then gave detailed descriptions: where the sets were purchased — I plan to purchase them for our quarters — and methods of coffee preparation.
Not paying attention, Noru read her mother’s responses to her ultrasound pictures.
She turned around when Aisha said, “The women discussed the usual matters first: family, clothing, troublesome servants, travel plans, shopping, skin creams, fillers, Botox, good plastic surgeons and slowly wound their way to more substantial matters.”
“I’m still waiting for your story,” Noru teased her.
Aisha’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. ” True my sweet, you don’t need to know how to fix coffee. But the two queens then started talking about the party that’s being planned for you.”
“Yes,” Noru interrupted her old nanny. “Mama and I were just chatting about that. They have a tradition like that in the West too, called a baby shower, to celebrate one month before a baby’s arrival.”
“True, the day will be here soon,” Aisha agreed. “But dear, over coffee, the queens’ eyes met, full of hatred for you.
“Queen Saira knows that Salma will be sincere in her gratitude for any information. So there is the younger queen, gobbling the sweets, nervously munching on pistachios, abandoning the coffee, the red shells staining her fat face, lips, tongue and fingers.
“Queen Saira is weak, her family is weak, she has no children with the king, so people look down on her and are less guarded around her. She learns much as she feasts and gossips, and she tells it all to Queen Salma.”
“So now she tells Queen Salma, ‘The party will be at the main palace. The budget is one million kumats. That’s more money than was ever spent on either of us.’
“Then Queen Saira grabs another handful of cashews and raisins because she comforts herself with food, and indeed, her figure has filled out even more since the king married you.”
Noru laughed merrily. Aisha went on with a sly smile, carefully also attending to alterations to a maternity gown.
“My cousin says that the crystal tray of nuts and dried fruit was already being refilled for the fat one. There was only one pastry left, and Queen Salma had not touched anything but the coffee. The first queen is a perfectionist about her appearance, dress and figure.”
“I know,” Noru said. “My husband says Salma has told the family doctor to inform her mother that she’s not overweight. The court doctor also told the king that Queen Salma is unable to sleep, anxious about aging, her husband’s neglect, her son and so on-an-on.”
“I’ll finish my story.”
“Less warnings, Aisha, more fun.”
Aisha looked at the floor wearily. “The Elder queen’s first cup of coffee was still half full, she had eaten nothing, and she nodded at the maid to refresh it. ‘Salma, you need to eat,’ fat Saira scolded her. “You make me feel like a .. .’ Here, Queen Saira, she puffed out her cheeks and pursed her red-stained lips, imitating a pig.”
The nanny added a few animal noises.
Noru teared up with laughter. “Aisha, you’re such an entertainer.”
“But the Elder queen did not laugh, my queen. She asked, ‘Yes, the king loves Noru. What’s so special about her pregnancy? Why is Noru so sickly, always seeing the foreign doctor?'”
Noru looked straight at her servant. “You agree with Salma and everyone else that I’m weak?”
With tears in her eyes, she added, “The king admires modern science and thinks I should not trouble myself with the opinions of backward and uneducated women about my pregnancy. I know he means you too. Aisha. But I do care what people think. I want them to think I’m noble like Salma in childbirth, with no pain medication and silent like her.
“Still, I’m sorry my husband doesn’t appreciate you. You’ve been with me my whole life. But if you don’t want to work for me anymore, you can leave.”
Aisha waited patiently until Noru was calm again. “Dear Queen Noru, pregnancy is like a full moon on the waters of a woman’s moods. I’m yours faithfully until the end of my days, and afterward when I’m gone, I may still be some wisdom that you hear. You asked me what I knew, and so I told you.”