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The Book of Heaven

She missed herself sharply that first morning—if she could have seen her face, she would at least have had the comfort of seeing someone she knew. But as she began receiving the wedding visits, and assuming the domestic command of her household, she felt the contrast between herself and the men and women around her, many of whom had never even caught a glimpse of themselves or seen any kind of representation of the world outside them. To themselves, they were the seers, never the visible.

It had a strange effect on them physically, and even verbally. They somehow lacked the self-consciousness of those who had seen themselves. In ordinary conversation, with both strangers and family, they narrated their digestive, sexual, and health preoccupations with acute and intimate detail, as if all were members of one vast body, all flesh held in common. Without hesitation, they took one inside the theater of their intestines, or seated one inside their chests to listen to the thunderous ovations of their heartbeats. On their visits, they sprawled, unaware of how much space they occupied, forgetful that they shared it, unable to sense boundaries. Or they sat blindly slack-jawed or gesturing strangely while conversations flowed around them, taking their features and movements as absolutely as they would a dawn or nightfall.

Often when Souraya walked in narrow passages or alleys, she found herself having to leap out of the way of someone who, although he saw her, continued to possess the path obliviously, unable to gauge the distance between his body and her own. They had a tendency, too, to stand only inches from whomever they were talking to, never dropping their eyes, but gazing intently and deeply into the other’s eyes, as if they were seeking out their reflections there. A casual acquaintance would reach over and absently finger Souraya’s jewelry or cheek during an encounter, in the way someone would forgetfully touch his own face or hair, rub his own chin.

It was strange, the severe restrictions they imposed on themselves seemed to have an opposite effect; deeply enclosed as they were in their customs and beliefs, they seemed to feel they knew the world absolutely with a knowledge that could not be challenged. Somehow, this prohibition against seeing themselves seemed the twin of an intense desire not to see other people, to be free of their existence except as ghostly presences. Even more, the refusal to look out at the world overlay a never-acknowledged ambition to determine and control what was there, to tell the whole world its story, rather than to hear it tell its own.

She would come to experience this in her daily life, most intimately with Adon; it took a strange authoritative form socially, a prescriptive insistence, as if he really wanted not only to be married to her but to have created her. He was ardent and affectionate with her, but also impatient, severe, strangely melancholy. He made her memorize prayers to accompany each quotidian action, bread-making, planting, washing her hair, before and after lovemaking. He wanted to rededicate her every moment, to cast her hours in the crucible of God’s will. He would gaze on her for hours by firelight but insist that she not speak, as if he both adored and regretted her existence. It was as if he had been given a gift he thought magnificent but in some way hated, because it had come from outside him and was therefore corrupt.

She came to find herself, among his people, in a world where her accounts of her own experience were constantly corrected, even by people who had never ventured outside their own walls. During the storytelling and song-making that was the chief form of entertainment, she found herself constantly interrupted by the community. Confined elderly people as well as young children would object to her descriptions, or the events of her story, even when it was something she could swear on oath to having seen. “That didn’t happen,” they would say dogmatically, “that could never happen.” They would overwhelm the progress of the story with noise. Once when she was telling a childhood tale of a boat that traveled under the sea, they stopped the story with the rhythmic chant, “You can’t say that, you can’t say that, there was no sea, there was no sea.”

This was different from anything she knew of the art of story or epic poetry of her own people—here the art of storytelling was a battering collective struggle, where elements were rejected or insisted on until a final version prevailed, which it became taboo to alter. A story was judged acceptable when the priests, the Guardians of the Story, called for the great tribal parchment. A red silk cylinder covered with a calligraphy of sacred words wrought in silver wire was brought to them. The Guardians unfurled from it a thick roll of flayed-looking skin and hovered over it, deliberating. They chanted it aloud, alternating the recitation. If words or sentences were unacceptable, they plucked the metallic script from the scroll, held it up, and crushed it in their fists. These words were never again to be uttered. When the redaction was complete, one of them stepped forward, and with a great slab of porous stone, grated what looked like an uncut gem but was actually a block of solid perfume onto the flames. Thick clouds of incense in a garden of colors flamed upward and diffused through the gathering. Then the Guardian called out the title chosen for the tale, under which it became part of the record, and the audience acclaimed it with shouts of “God permits! God permits!”

In this way they created a world suspended from the meshes of their stories. They named themselves after the characters in the stories they accepted; new lives seemed to be retellings of old stories, proof that the world repeated itself; so it was as they said it was. So they conceived destinies, and were surprised that they came to pass, as a clandestine couple is stunned on the day they realize the woman has fallen pregnant. The elderly were strange automata of prescriptions and adages, as if they had been replaced by their own fictions. Even the youngest were shaped here by the tensions over what they were compelled and forbidden to believe. Souraya, in the way of people who kept their own counsel, was told secrets. Eventually, she could have become a living library of discredited tales, prohibited variants, and inadmissible family histories.

The arts in which they truly excelled were those that concerned themselves with the invisible, or at least the abstract. They were fine scribes, with a keen appreciation of the abstract patterns of script. They were skilled in medicine, in comprehending the invisible workings of the body. For that reason they were also excellent navigators, at home in an element whose territory was nearly entirely concealed from them. In war, they were experts in espionage, so skilled that opposing tribes competed to make mercenaries of them. They understood how to shape tales subtly and aggressively to their own ends. They understood how not to be seen. They were marvelous hunters, and they were the originators of the use of camouflage in military operations. And they made magnificent jewelry whose forms were based not on flowers or fruits or mythological figures, but on light itself. They took bleak dead stones and revealed the light and brilliant colors inside them. These were remarkable; it was as if they had gone into catacombs and brought back life out of inertia and death. The women, the children, and the men themselves all wore these splendid ornaments, and they were a steady source of trade for the community.

Souraya knew of other communities where both the men and women wore garments that concealed their bodies, but here it seemed that the air itself veiled the people. She would go daily to examine the state of the gardens, paradises, as they were known, that Adon owned, which were now her work to oversee. This gave her the right to be called a human being, literally, because those who worked with the soil were called that, human beings, children of the earth. And the gardens were considered the realm of women because they produced food, but also perhaps because no one experiences sheer misfortune more intimately than gardeners, farmers, and women. All they planted was subject to caprice—hailstorms, freezes, drought, disease—while women give birth to dead infants and girls. Even overabundance could be dangerous, its own kind of emergency, which required the mother to deprive her too numerous children, or the gardener to recquisition many hands to harvest and preserve a surprise of success. Hence a foolish local legend about a woman who destroyed the world through harvesting a dangerous fruit in search of some esoteric knowledge, a legend that became the underpinning for cruel superstitions about women, and later a body of opportunistic laws which deprived them of letters, and of civil and property rights.

As she approached the gate that led into the property, she saw a small child being soundly punished for making a drawing with a stick in the ground. Souraya stopped and came closer, hoping to plead for some leniency for the little girl.

She looked down at what the child had drawn. It was a sketch of Souraya herself; the child had caught the almond shape of her eyes, and had marked out curves with a playful exuberance that were the wave on wave of her hair. She looked with a pang at her face; it seemed as far away now as a boat receding into the distance before vanishing around a river bend.

It was with a concealed sense of relief and pleasure that Souraya received the news from Adon that she was to prepare to leave with him on a trading journey of indefinite duration. If she were a wife of longer standing, he might well have set off without her. She thanked God she was a new bride.

Although she had adapted to her new life with tact, if not with ease, she had a keen, if untried, appetite for travel, as she had even in her girlhood. She was young and wanted to see cities and settlements she had heard about in traveler’s tales, cities ascending to heaven on stone, concealed in cliffs and caves, or settlements in marshes, where you leaned out of your floating house to catch a fish for breakfast. If she had submitted her own face to eradication, she could at least look at the faces of others. She wanted to see a world that insisted on itself. She wanted to be in motion in this world where she had not found a home.

And she wanted to give an illusion of holiday to the work of her marriage. It was her work to create an environment of efficiency, productivity, prosperity, and enjoyment for a perfect stranger, to anticipate and provide him with everything he wanted, even if what he wanted was an illusion, even when he did not know what he wanted. It was a strange paradox of marriage that it required her to outwit her husband. It was critical that she know him better than he knew himself.

She woke up charged with energy, each day a day of danger to be outwitted, each day a test for her; her sense of herself was urgent, a runner straining to outpace a capture. She worked to enlace him in a web of services, obligations, delights, to construct a power of life and death over him that would balance the power he was born with over her. She knew her fate depended on not disappointing, at least until she could provide the dynasty that was the obsession of this aging, childless man.

At home, she was owned, a locked house which her husband entered or left at will, a garden whose fruit her husband fed from according to his appetite. She offered herself with ruthless practicality and an increasingly successful forecast of his moods.

The deprivation of images she lived with seemed to have enhanced an intuitive capacity of hers to nearly supernatural levels—she had developed an almost infallible gift for predicting action and analyzing character through observing other people physically. Their bodies told her stories, warned her, confirmed rumors. A tension in the neck, a slight compression of the lips, the way arms were crossed, had shown her details of business dealings in a way that even impressed her husband. The anticipated journey would give her more scope to demonstrate these skills and so secure her husband’s favor.

At least as travelers she and her husband would be almost equals, equally subject to the unknown, equally engaged in acts of discovery. They would wake up both unsure of what each day would bring, embarked on a common journey at last.

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