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The Book of Heaven

Souraya’s father, masking his fear of banditry, perhaps even the possibility that these were not in fact Adon’s men, approached the commander directing the pillage. They were searching the luggage for images, the commander explained to him. It was forbidden for images to be transported into the compound, or across any threshold occupied by a kinsman. Any images that were discovered would be taken back across the river and quarantined there in a guarded post, unless they belonged to the bride. They amassed a small, indiscriminate pile of clay figurines, winged angels, painted medallions, golden eyes, and a pair of earrings in the shape of swimming dolphins. Among Souraya’s dowry gifts, there were cooking pans with handles in the shape of nymphs, which, though they were exquisitely crafted and valuable, were destroyed.

The soldiers turned their attention to her personal belongings. Packed with her perfumes and cosmetics were a group of mirrors in graduated sizes. The guards seized them and began to smash them. Souraya pleaded to keep just one, for the sake of her husband, so she could make herself presentable for him. “These objects collect and contain images,” the soldiers said, unmoved. She looked at her father but he kept his eyes on the ground, not looking at what the soldiers were doing, and for the first time not meeting the mirror of his daughter’s gaze.

Suddenly there was a commotion near the baggage, and a soldier rushed forward, embracing a dress covered in a magnificent, intricate design of sequins, which glittered scarlet in the light of the sunset. It was Souraya’s wedding dress. The commander examined it closely, narrowing his eyes. Then, without hesitation, he ripped it from bodice to hem, and tossed it to the soldiers to finish shredding. “These reflect,” he said to Souraya. “They are image-givers.” The soldiers set on the dress and quickly destroyed the sequin-covered sleeves it had taken months to design and sew. She covered her own eyes then.

The commander made some gesture afterward indicating to the compound that the search was successfully completed. Then a torrent of music opened out over the landscape and the wedding party was swept inside the walls, where hundreds of torches were lit at the same moment and the rhythmic clapping of the families of the community welcomed them. A gaggle of children rushed forward to touch Souraya when, from the whispers and gestures, they realized she was the bride. Souraya didn’t smile at them or respond to them, though as a rule she was lavish with her smiles at children and could, with a still, steady gaze in which a small flame of smile flickered, bring the smiling willingness to be adored out of nearly any child, even one determined to wail. But the violence that had been done to her wedding dress made her feel both hostile and anxious. The fabric had been set to her body as words to music. It was a dress in which she felt as certain as a goddess must, absolutely sure in her movements, perfect in her shape with the ancient perfection of a sheaf of wheat, perfect enough to pass into archetype and become immortal, which was the purpose of all ornament.

It is a strange fact that a dress can safeguard a woman, its elegant design or fine color functioning as a counterweight at the moment she risks stepping off a precipice. It is a strange fact that a few lengths of cloth can bring a woman to life. But water, if it is to be drunk deeply enough to satisfy thirst, needs a cup, as an idea needs a sentence. And the strangest fact of all is that what we ourselves make gives us life. Souraya had a wild thought of running from them, these madmen who would dismember a dress. Her confidence in her new people had been shaken, as had her confidence in herself.

She had not known that ideas could be violent, had never seen anyone destroy something beautiful for an idea. If these people were haters of beauty, then they would surely hate her, too. And she would hate them in return, with her own red terrifying capacity for savagery. But the worst of her fears was beyond impersonal. She had glimpsed an implacable demand that something she thought of as lovely and harmless must be destroyed. What else that was precious to her must not exist? She passed through the crowd toward the nuptial lodging.

Later, she would remember this progress as blind; she could not distinguish a single face in memory until she saw Adon’s, the face that belonged to the right hand she already knew and had held. And looking at the angular planes of that face, set on the colossal height of Adon’s body, she found her balance. Adon’s features were set on the scaffolding of his bones as if riveted there; they expressed a force that seemed almost metallic. When he turned to look at her, his eyes gleamed, not only with obvious pleasure in her beauty, but with a kind of will to friendship, even though his mouth stayed stern. It was like having a shield smile at her. The kindly look relieved her of the burden of violent hatred she had been feeling after the mutilation of her dress. Her flood of relief and gratitude at not hating her husband on sight was so great that her willingness to love felt akin to love itself. It was as if the blood inside her turned to wine.

With the help of two kinswomen, she chose a costume to be married in. They helped her dress, and after the priest had joined the couple’s hands and given them wine to drink together, the women helped her again, to undress. One of them gave her a small hand-mirror that she had smuggled past the soldiers, and then they left her to wait for her husband. She could hear drumbeats beginning outside, establishing a steady regular rhythm, even as they built in intensity.

She knew what they were for. If there was pleasure, it would remain inaudible; if there was pain, that too would remain inaudible. The percussion also served to muffle the footsteps of her husband. She did not hear him as she fretfully changed the position of the small mirror, trying to catch a whole glimpse of herself in its turning orbit. But the light in the room altered and she realized that Adon stood behind her. It was as if her body held a reunion with its wandering shadow, a shadow that was now the stronger of the two. Her husband reached for the mirror, not unkindly, but authoritatively.

I beg your pardon,” she said. “I am anxious for you to be pleased with my appearance, and I do not know how to appraise myself without a mirror.” Adon raised his arm and shattered the mirror on the threshold. “Images are forbidden to us,” he explained patiently. “We are forbidden to gaze anywhere but at God. You will never see your face again.”

It was at that moment that Souraya understood the depth of his power over her. She understood through the easy, despotic violence of his gesture, the self-multiplication of his “we,” the perfect repose of his tone. He was not simply explaining unfamiliar customs to her, he was telling her the life she would live, feelings he expected her to have, her future, as if he were a seer with the power to make his prophecies come true. In the moment when he deprived her of her mirror, she saw clearly. If she were to have any power over herself again, it would only be through exaggerated, even competitive obedience to the laws of her husband’s God. Her only power would be in her embrace. She must embrace him—and his God—to survive. It was at that moment that she truly lost her virginity, when she understood, as a girl does not, that the marriage was a matter of life or death. And that God would be in her bed.

Are you going to blind me?” she asked, with the kind of frankness that absolute fear produces.

I am going to transform you,” he answered. “Here is how you will see yourself from now on.” He smiled radiantly, and touched with his index and third finger the dark pouches under his own eyes. “If you are beautiful in my eyes, you are beautiful. Look here.” He gestured again toward his face and frowned with disgust. “And if I look like this, this is how you will see yourself. But I feel sure,” he said, “that I will more often look at you with the delight I do now.” He held out his right hand, the living model of the clay one, and caressed her hair with an almost priestly gesture of benediction. “I chose you and I believe I have chosen well. I am going to make a nation inside your body. I am going to make a world out of you.”

She never forgot, although it did not spoil her pleasure in lovemaking later, the intense pain of her wedding night, when she was ripped apart like her own dress. And afterward, shocked and wounded as she was, enduring the violation of displaying the sheet, the public evidence of their intimacy, with the imprints of their bodies apparent on the cloth, the whole community crying out its triumph in its collective possession of her. The brief but unforgettable intensity of the pain, the particular sense of agonizing vulnerability it gave her, the sensation of being stabbed or raped, even though she had not been, even though Adon had treated her carefully, was frightening. It gave her a doubt about the nature of the world that it was so ordered that the initiation into lovemaking for her sex began with an inevitable cruelty. But the shrilling and shouts of the crowd when they saw the sheet stained with her blood aroused in her a disgust she had to conceal for years, especially when she was a guest at other wedding feasts. They had massed outside waiting, and ululated at the sight of her wedding blood as if it were the trophy of an enemy brought down.

It was a mystery to her later that although she would come to know years of confident pleasure in her marriage bed, she never remembered her first night without shuddering, that she could recall specific details of her physical agony and the gross exhibition of both her virginity and her husband’s capacity.

In the morning, when they brought a basin of water for her to wash in, she saw that its interior was lined with black stone, so she could not see her face reflected in the water. Its surface was covered with exquisite incised calligraphy. This was true of their plates, trays, ewers, and cups. She could never catch a glimpse of herself even when she prepared food for fifty in a vast metal cauldron. She saw occasionally a fragment of her lip, or a triangle of her eye, but never her whole face, fissured as it was in a shining web of prayers.

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