4 Settembre 2022
We can already feel the flaming-hot breath of summer on our skin, even though the last days of spring are still with us. On the suri, under an elm, mum is quilting a duvet. Snowy is dozing in the shade of the house, tongue hanging out. Dad called him Snowy, though I don't know why; but now we're so used to calling him that. Once my friend Dilfouz said - almost with an expert air - that the dog should be named Shadow, or Dusty, or something like that, but not Snowy. I accepted what she said as entirely sensible and began calling the dog Shadow, for which dad, quietly and nicely, told me off.
To tell the truth, it's always Dilfouz who discovers something new, while I'm always the one who has to hear about it secondhand. For example, not long ago, she picked up a weird game called Five Stones after visiting her aunt, and we've been playing it ever since, holding five polished pebbles the size of an apricot stone in our hands.
Usually, Dilfouz comes to our house early in the morning and stays till evening. Right now she's waiting for me beside the suri, as usual, and every now and then I can hear the stones clicking in her hands. I'd already be playing with her if it was up to me, but I can’t: instead, I'm trying to thread a needle.
I'd just licked the thread’s tip to make the job easier when our neighbour, Aunt Bikajan came in. Normally, I don’t like this woman and her prattling, but right now she seems like the loveliest woman in the world.
“Godspeed you, dear”, she said, plodding heavily across the yard, panting because of her obesity.
“Oh welcome, dear!” said mum as she got up to greet her.
“I thought it would be nice to come round and have a chat with you, dear.”
“You did right” said mum.
Seizing the opportunity, I get up, silently signing to Dilfouz to go, and without anyone noticing, we slip away, into the far depths of the garden at the end of the yard, to our special playground under the canopy of a giant mulberry tree. Half of the mulberry branches, with fruits as big as your finger, are in our yard, while the other half hang over Mother Hadicha’s yard.
As soon as we get to our tree, Dilfouz takes a deep breath and throws herself onto the ground. I sit down next to her, sweeping my hand back and forth across the swollen earth. Clouds of thick dust waft up, into the warm air, and I wave them away with my other hand. Then I place the stones.
“Have you seen the town girl visiting Mother Hadicha?” says Dilfouz, goggling like she's seeing something she's never seen before. “My mum's always saying how great she is and how she's got lovely long shiny hair.”
She casts an inquiring look at me, and I'm picturing a fair-faced girl in a pink dress.
“Of course I have,” I say, half-boasting. “I see her every day.”
“Is it true that she's got really long hair?”
“Yeah. Really long. Nearly as long as her dress, and her dress is down to here,” I get up and point below my knees. “She wears an apron over her dress while she's doing housework.”
Dilfouz's eyes widen. “Did you talk to her?”
“I didn’t, but…”
“What did you do? Did you play?” Clearly Dilfouz is getting impatient.
“We didn’t, but…” I pause, not sure if I should say, but I say it anyway “I see her every day.”
“How come?” says Dilfouz.
“D'you want to see her? I'll show you.” I say.
I get up and start climbing the mulberry.
“What are you doing?” Dilfouz asks in astonishment.
Not looking back, I signal her to follow me. She doesn’t get why I'm climbing, but comes up after me anyway, clambering quickly up into the branches. I stop near the top of the tree, sitting comfortably in a shaded spot where the bigger branches meet. From here there's a clear view of Mother Hadicha's yard and I can see Mother Hadicha fanning herself. The town girl is sweeping.
“Is that her?” Dilfouz asks, squeezing in beside me.
“It is,” I whisper, as if the town girl can hear us, but she is too busy and too far away to hear what we're saying.
Like a newly-married bride, she's wearing a headscarf over her dark, thick, hair and we watch her till she's finished sweeping. Then, she picks up a bucket, dips it into the trough and runs to the bottom of the yard, sprinkling water all over. Her hands are very agile, and every splash of water is evenly spread across the ground, leaving it gleaming in the sunlight.
The girl is half-way across the yard when out of nowhere a kitten appears and rubs itself up against her legs. She puts down the bucket and picks up the kitten, carefully and gently stroking its head. When she's done, she puts it back down on the suri and carries on with her work. Once everything's done, she wipes her hands on her apron, goes over to the washing hanging on the clothesline and with great care, takes down the clothes, piling them on top of each other. No doubt she did the washing too.
I'm still watching her deft movements intently when Dilfouz tugs my sleeve.
“I'm bored. Let’s get down and play.”
In no time, we're back in our special place, playing our game. I don’t know exactly how long we've been playing, when suddenly I seem to hear my mum calling me.
“Was that my mum?” I say, looking at my friend.
She listens for a bit before shrugging her shoulders.
We get back to the game. Then, a little while later, I hear that voice again.
“It is my mum!” I say, jumping up and quickly running to the suri.
“Where have you been? Under that mulberry again?” mum says angrily.
I lower my head, frowning. I don't like her telling me off in front of Aunt Bikajan. Of course, mum notices, and it just makes her more irritated with me.
“Go and fetch us some water to drink, instead of standing there frowning” she says.
I do as I'm told without a word. But when I come out of the kitchen, Mother Hadicha is coming through the gate.
“Ah, here you are. I've been looking for you.” she says to Aunt Bikajan.
“Yeah, here I am. I just came round to help out.” Aunt Bikajan smiles.
“And you do help, dear, but we don't see you often enough.” mum says in a reproachful voice.
“The duvet is coming out so lovely.” Mother Hadicha says, sitting down next to mum on the suri. Then from under her arm, she produces a newly-made atlas dress. The dress glows in the sun.
“Oh, how gorgeous!” says aunt Bikajon, unable to hide her surprise. “To tell the truth, I didn’t think she would sew so well. She's done it perfectly!”
“You're right, it's dazzling. Can she make one for me too?” mum says to Mother Hadicha, turning the dress a few times.
“Of course she can, dear neighbour. Rano never refuses such requests.
I immediately guess they'e talking about the town girl.
“See, she's made one for Bikajan,” continues Mother Hadicha. “And from the next district, two young women came. Rano made a dress for them as well. And one for me, too. It's so lovely; I'll show you when you come to visit. In fact, she just finished Bikajan’s dress this morning, and now she's cooking something for dessert. So I came to borrow your sieve. I've no idea where I put mine.”
“What's she making? A cake?” said Aunt Bikajan.
“I don’t know. I think she said it's a Turkish sweet, but I forget its name.” Mother Hadicha wrinkles her brows, then turns to me. “Do you know what it's called?”
I shrug my shoulders in response, my eyes still glued to the dress.
Mum answers for me “Are you asking her? How can she know such things? She's always playing.” she says, then turns her face to me. “Can you see what girls your age are doing? Go and bring the sieve!” she snaps.
I get the sieve from the kitchen and hand it to Mother Hadicha, running back to the mulberry while mum's still busy with the visitors.
Next morning, Mother Hadicha brings our sieve back, along with a package of that Turkish sweet. I get my portion and fly to our mulberry tree to share the sweet with Dilfouz. The Turkish sweet with walnuts on top melts in my mouth.
In the evening, Aunt Bikajan’s house is filled with guests. The yard is swarming with children; everyone playing with kids the same age. The boys are either playing fighting games or hide-and-seek, while we girls are sitting 'round in a circle, beginning our favourite game: Five Stones. Suddenly Iqbol, one of Madrim the Teacher's daughters, jabs her elbow into my side.
“Look! I saw that girl on TV, she won first place in Biology.” She points at the town girl, who is leaning against the gate, watching the children play.
“Really?” I said doubtfully. “Did they really show her on TV?”
“Yes, they did. My dad told me. He said she can also speak three languages, besides Uzbek.”
I'm looking back and forth at the town girl as I'm listening to my friend, feeling envious of the town girl's success, and she seems to catch us talking about her. Her face flushes and she quickly looks away. But a few moments later, she's looking over again. In her eyes there is something like misery mixed with hope. I suppose she wants to play with us, so I wave, inviting her over. Seeing me waving, the other girls start calling her, too. At first the town girl doesn’t know what to do, then she approaches us hesitantly.
“Would you like to join us?” Dilfouz asks her. The town girl gives a nod.
“Come and sit down next to me. Do you know how to play?”
“I don’t…” She says, blinking her eyes, as she sits down next to Dilfouz.
“Look at these.” Dilfouz shows her the stones in her hand. “There are five stones, that’s why the game is called Five Stones. At the moment I have six points and it's my turn again. You'll learn if you watch me. When your turn comes, you'll be playing with one, 'cause you're just beginning.”
Then Dilfouz goes on playing. Soon it's the town girl’s turn. She picks up the stones, but stops, unsure of what to do. Dilfouz takes the stones from her and once more shows her how to play. The town girl gets the stones, but again stops.
“Let’s play that card game, instead.” Dilfouz suggests, seeing the girl’s state. Then she turns to her. “Do you know it?”
The town girl shakes her head.
“What about White Poplar?”
“Do you know Geese and Wolves at least?”
“Is there any game you do know?” Dilfouz says shortly, clearly getting annoyed.
The town girl is silent, looking at the stones in her hands. I feel very sorry for her.
“Let’s play Five Stones. It’s easier, and she can learn it gradually.” I say, looking at Dilfouz.
“Look!” I say to the town girl. “At first you play with one, then with two, then with three. After that with four. Then you play a final game. After that a super final. In the final game you throw the stones up in the air and then catch them on the back of your hand. The more you catch, the more points you get. Understand?”
She's looking at me like my classmate Sharif does, whenever I try to teach him Maths: he nods his head as if he understands, but he forgets everything as soon as we begin solving problems. Now this town girl is nodding her head like Sharif does.
We start playing. When it's the town girl's turn, she takes the stones, but again keeps still. I urge her to start, and after my rushing her, she separates the stones as if she's going to play. Then she puts them together again, then separates them. Finally, she squeezes the stones so tightly that every vein in her hand stands out and the stones are screeching against each other.
The town girl thinks a while, shooting a questioning look at me and I've hardly opened my mouth when all the girls in our group begin to squeal at her. “How can’t you do it?..” “You must do it like that…” “Look! Like that!..” “You throw them up in the air…” “How can’t you learn it?..” “Have you ever played anything?..”
In the midst of the hubbub, the town girl looks first at this girl and then at that one, then she covers her face with her hands and cries out. Suddenly, she jumps up and rushes into the house, leaving us to watch, open-mouthed.
“Why's she crying?” we say.
We look at each other and shrug our shoulders, understanding nothing.
Translated from Uzbek
by Munira Norova
Guzaloy Salih was born in 1984 in Khorezm region of the Republic of Uzbekistan. She graduated from the "Higher Literature" course of the National University of Uzbekistan named after Mirzo Ulugbek. Studied at the State Institute of Arts and Culture of Uzbekistan (bachelor's degree), University of Journalism and Mass Communications of Uzbekistan (master's degree).
The poetry collection "Xayol so'qmog'i" ("Imagination Trail", 2009), the collection of short stories "Mehr rishtasi" ("Bond of Love", 2010), and the collection of stories and short stories "G'oliba" ("The Winner", 2019) were published. His poems were included in the anthology "Sevgi fesli" ("Season of Love") published in Azerbaijan. She is the author of the documentaries "Ogahiy", "Asilaning jasorati" ("Courage of Asila") and the short film "Hali urush tugamadi" ("The war is not over yet") about the lives of children in Syria. Member of the Union of Writers of Uzbekistan.