“If you are not a wolf, Humaira, then other wolves will eat you.”
Humaira mulls over the statement, taking it in as slowly as her suhoor. The steam over her bowl cools to gentle whisps. Finally, she feels ready to breathe an answer just as warm. “I hope they like the taste of trahana and tea, then, Papa.”
The man smiles sadly. His face is carved in many places, much like the ridges in a tree trunk. The bowl underneath him is hardly touched, the strikes of his spoon having barely scraped the sides of the porridge she’d mentioned. Today had been a special day, flour with yogurt instead of water, fresh butter instead of leftover oil. Yet still no honey to sweeten it all with, so her father had added some dried wolfberries for their suhur.
“I’ll be back before Maghrib,” she offers, as though that would restore her father’s appetite. It was the fifteenth day of the month, and they had finished fasting the last of the White Days. His stomach couldn’t have shrunk that much.
“InshaʾAllah,” he says, staring now out of the window. Towards the woods. She glances towards them once, then chooses instead to focus on collecting her dishes from their meager spread. There’s an idea for her to take his as well, but doing so would only encourage him not to eat at all.
So she washes the dishes in silence. How did this happen? she thinks. For so long, the forest had been their friend. It was how her father, a woodcutter, had been able to purchase the cottage. To marry her deceased mother. To support her grandmother from afar.
She blinks. Tears, she’s learned, are stubborn things, and if you weren’t careful, then they would crawl out of your sight if they had to.
Humaira chooses to do the same, quietly retreating to her bedroom to dress for the journey. A pair of sturdy overalls once worn by her father when he was younger, and a white long-sleeve shirt to protect her from the snags of the trees. Lastly, a long, bright hijab that trailed like a tail past her back, as red as the wolfberries on the table. The color was fitting, in case she would need to be spotted and saved from afar. Her clumsy fingers—or perhaps, fearful ones—keep faltering as they plait her brown hair and again while covering it.
Packing for the journey is just as straightforward. Soft goat’s cheese and fried petulla, sticky dough to be eaten with them. Dried meats, figs, and nuts. No humble semolina for trahana, otherwise, her grandmother would worry about their financial state. When a man as experienced as her father now feared the woods, there was only so much lumber that he could cut, and only so much that the people wanted, meaning that there was only so much money they had for meat and eggs. Many of them now saw it as a bad omen to keep in the house. As if it would somehow attract the evil in. No matter, Humaira thinks. Everyone has cut off the woodcutter and his daughter anyway.
“Be sure to bring the wolfberries for Umm Xhemile,” her father instructs from the table, like an unmoved figure in a painting.
She frowns. Those sour things, for her sweet grandmother? They were worse than unsugared cranberries and hard enough to rival the nuts in texture. But that would break his silence for sure, as well as her grandmother’s. The two went on about its benefits so much that they could rival the apothecarist. Yet she complies with little objection.
“Flowers, too, Papa? I forget which ones she likes.”
“No.” He finally turns to look at her. “It’s not necessary, Humaira. And besides, you’re fasting.”
She wrinkles her nose. “I know that—”
“And there are things that I know too, my daughter.” His idle hand finally begin to address the trahana below him, in the same place, as though he were knocking a great tree down. “She likes her tea. Take the leaves from the garden and sell them to the apothecarist.”
“Wouldn’t the florist, too? Rinor and Ayiq work together. Rinor probably collects the flowers that Ayiq uses at the apothecary.”
A groan. “I’m old, Humaira, not blind. Alhamdulillah. And speaking of old, it’s about time the two of you stop spending so much time together. Unless and of course—”
“No!” she says, a little too loudly. Why was marriage always the hidden subtext behind every conversation between two Muslims? She and Rinor were friends, and nothing but.
He bursts into laughter. “That’s not how the adhan starts. But with that… we should be on our way to the xhamia.”
As though the muaddhin had heard his reference to the mosque, he begins reciting. A smile spreads across her father’s face, finally, and he whispers alongside it. Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.
Humaira helps him cover the bowl with a piece of cloth, removes the herbs and leaves from where they were drying, and the two leave their cottage. Fajr has barely illuminated their path, so the sound of the reciter’s voice gives them guidance through the darkness.
“Just like in life, my daughter,” the woodcutter mentions.
At least we know that if we go poor from your work, maybe you can be the imam instead, she thinks bitterly. It’s a horrible thought, albeit a humorous one, she thinks. She lowers her head. Already so cranky. As if to run away from herself, she hastens her horse forward. Quicker and quicker to the xhamia.
He follows, giving her a caveat just as urgent: “Stay on the path!”
She slows down. All these rules, she thinks, as the end of the adhan commences.
Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Little Red Riding Hijabi.”
The smile that appears on her face is the first that Humaira has felt in what seems like days. It seems the same for the tired-looking boy in front of her, Rinor, the childhood friend that had followed her into the beginnings of adulthood. He has always been like that, even when he was young, finding some kind of silver lining even when all seemed to be rusting.
As they go to collect their horses from the side of the xhamia, people naturally seem to avoid them. Whereas she and her father were deemed outcasts from dealing with the woods, for Rinor and his brother, Ayiq, it was because both had albinism. As though the moon had touched both their skin and hair. But for Rinor, the difference was that his eyes were the color of roses. Everyone else seemed to imagine the thorns. She readjusts her scarf, a little red in the face. She shouldn’t stare.
“You sound surprised to see me!” Humaira charges with good nature, mounting on her horse. “Only, there’s one new thing. I’ve discovered that I’m allergic to dogs.”
He flashes a smile, white as everything else about him. Then he darts his head towards the xhamia. “Plenty of those here,” he says, eyes dancing with glee.
She gasps and covers her mouth, trying to hide the grin. He was right—both had lost their fathers to the woods, only in different ways—only to be met with an unkind community. “There are wolves everywhere, Rinor,” she affirms, doing her best to change the subject. He looks so tired. How late last night had he been awake? “Any news about your father?” Abu Rinor had been the first of the victims taken by them.
A low huff. “No. I’ve been loitering around the garden at night, hoping they would appear like they did, last time. Ayiq—” he says the name with some annoyance, “planted something there, and now they avoid it.”
“How is the garden doing?” she asks.
“I wish you would come back,” he says softly. “Like when we were young.”
I do too, she thinks. Humaira had been around the garden since before she had been born. Her own mother had claimed that the smells of the flowers reached her in the womb. She passed this knowledge to her own daughter until her own death, to a point where the only difference between the woodcutter and his daughter was how far they could be found in nature.
Umm Rinor would’ve been the same way with Ayiq, had she lived past his birth.
Maybe that’s why Rinor is so angry at Ayiq, she thought. Rinor must blame him for taking their mother away. Meanwhile, as Ayiq aged, he was only trying to preserve his mother’s memory, to a point where there was no reason for Humaira to come tend to it anymore. But she could still try.
“I’m headed to the apothecary, in fact,” she says.
His eyebrows raise. “Then I’ll take you!” He lifts himself onto his horse, but before too long, his expression has returned to sour. “I’d talk to you more, lule, but we’re going to be pretty busy today.”
She can feel her cheeks flush red. Flower, he called her. “How so?”
He shrugs, gripping the reigns of his horse, leading her away from the xhamia. A shortcut from the main path? She doesn’t question it and follows him.
“We haven’t been hit as hard as you have. Mama’s garden grows a lot. It was genius for Papa to use it to make money off of the community rather than give them things for free.” He makes a point to trot through some dandelions, mumbling something about weeds. “Families have been sending flowers to console one another. Men want to woo their women faster than ever. Because we don’t know how long we’ll have now…” he trails off, making his voice high-pitched to imitate them. But his eyes were on her the entire time, like a hawk observing the grounds below. Waiting to see what her reaction would be.
Rinor was a natural seller, she knew. A man going in with the intent of one singule rose would emerge with a full bouquet of different flowers, a vase, and a list of dates for later visits. After all, there were birthdays, anniversaries, and of course, surprises—which Rinor argued were the most necessary reasons for flowers.
She’s no longer laughing. His words echo in her mind like the ghostly feedback in a cave: As hard as you have. It was no secret that her and her father were struggling now. Rinor knew that. Was he implying a marriage between the two of them in order to relieve her of potential poverty?
“How much long do we have before we’re at the flower shop?” she asks. Her tone says more than her words do, and she can see his expression turn into one of annoyance. He mentions a duration and something else, but her anger drowns him out.
They arrive at the shop in tolerable time. It seems to be waking up as much as the village is. The windows burn humble light, and its long roof provides small shelter from the crowds.
“Well, vëlla,” her voice calls him brother, but her frown doesn’t. “I know you have a lot of work to do.”
She shifts past him and enters the wooden doors of the apothecary breathless. Now—in the middle of the villager’s greatest crisis—was not the time for marriage!