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Excerpt from Uprooted
The fire in the clay tamdyr was hot, ready for the dough to be stuck to its walls. It looked like an oversized anthill, Tohtagul had always thought—rounded with a big hole on top. The difference was what lay below, or rather what didn’t. There were no underground tunnels, no villages of bakers beneath the earth’s crust waiting to be discovered if one were to crawl in.
Tohtagul’s mother had just finished stamping the bread with the metal seal, which marked it as hers with a flower and let the air in, too. You could always tell one woman’s bread from another just by looking at it. Her mother picked up the jar of water and dipped her fingers inside. She splashed the water against the sides of the tamdyr; the water hissed against the hot clay and steam rose up in clouds. She put the mitt on and picked up one round, flat, unbaked loaf of nan. Slap, she stuck it firmly to the hot wall of the oven. Slap. Slap. There went another and another.
The knock on the wooden compound door didn’t cause any alarm. Tohtagul stopped sweeping the path to the house and unlatched the metal gate, ready to greet whichever neighbor or relative had decided to stop in. Her house robe was cinched tightly around her thin waist. Slap, another nan took hold on the tamdyr walls. Tohtagul pushed the metal out of the latch and pulled the door open with a creak for each year it had been on its hinges.
“Salam,” she said and then turned her eyes to the ground. Slap.
“Is your father home?” the thin, dark-haired man asked. Slap.
Tohtagul thought he looked like a turtle. His neck had a little too much skin, and it sagged beneath his chin. His eyes were on the beady side and bulged just enough to make him rather unattractive. She had seen him around town before and knew he was from the mayor’s office. Her mother looked up. She took the mitt off.
“Gyzym,” she called, referring to her daughter as such, “come finish the nan.”
Tohtagul leaned her twiggy straw broom against the compound wall. Mother and daughter switched places. Slap. Another loaf clung to the clay. The heat of the fire in the bottom of the oven warmed her face and scared her. She was always afraid that one day the whole tamdyr would catch fire and the smell of burnt bread would singe the air for days. Bread was too holy to let burn. She couldn’t hear what the man and her mother were saying, but it couldn’t be good. Anytime anyone from the government came, it was never any good. Her mother led the man inside. Slap.
Moments later, the teakettle whistled. The first few loaves were ready to be pulled out, so Tohtagul opened up the bread cloth and placed the warm sweet-smelling loaves inside. She quickly ran them in to her mother, who was busy setting up the tea. She had the guest cloth spread on the floor, the good cookies were out, and the bread was placed reverently in the middle.
Tohtagul ran back outside, not wanting the bread to be any darker than the golden brown it was meant to be. Another knock at the door.
“Allo?” Her father’s voice questioned deeply through the compound door.
“Coming, papa,” Tohtagul placed another loaf onto the bread cloth and went to the door. She gave him fair warning of the man waiting inside. A cloud came over his face briefly, and he went inside the house, slipping his shoes off deftly as he did. Once the bread was finished, Tohtagul tied the neatly stacked discs inside the patterned cloth and then wrapped it again in a thicker, embroidered quilt-esque one. She brought them through the back door into the kitchen. As she was about to escape back into the compound yard, her mother appeared.
“Come,” she said. “He is here about you.”
“But I haven’t finished sweeping,” she pleaded.
“The dust can wait.”
She followed her mother into the living room and sat down with her legs folded to her right side. Her father was leading the man out the front door.
Tohtagul’s mother poured her a cup of tea.
“Do you see the bubbles?”
“That’s good luck. It means true love will come to you.”
“But doesn’t it always have bubbles?” Tohtagul asked.
“Gyzym,” she began affectionately, “you are fourteen now. The man who was here works for the Khan. He is making the bride selection for a young man in the village.”
Tohtagul almost choked on her tea. She stared at her mother, wishing it could all be a joke, but the pit of her stomach told her it was all very real.
“One week from today, we must bring you to the town hall. If you are chosen, you will be married.”
With that, her mother got up to prepare dinner. She was never one to waste words, even when a little sugarcoating would have been nice. Tohtagul popped each of the bubbles in her tea.
That night, she dreamed that she was locked out of every compound in the village. She kept knocking and knocking, but no one let her in. She could hear them all on the other side, laughing and talking, but she was stuck in the street, alone. She woke up with a pillow soaked in sweat and a heaviness in her chest. Six days remained until Huday would decide whether she could remain a girl for a while longer, or cross the bridge into womanhood.
Those six days seemed to fly by. Tohtagul tried to slow the seconds down, tried to stay awake as long as possible to keep the days from ending, but time passes whether it is watched or not. She had no excuse not to be at the town hall. Everyone would be there. These kinds of things always drew a crowd. She pulled on her best dress, the one she’d had embroidered for her cousin’s wedding. The neckline was stiff with the thousands of stitches ringing it. She sat on the floor in front of her mother, who began to braid her thick dark hair, firmly yet still somehow, gently. That was the essence of her mother. It was written in her hands, strong from years of kneading dough and scrubbing floors, with an indestructible delicacy that only a woman’s hands can have.
The whole family went to the town hall together. When they arrived, she could tell who the other girls were simply from the look in their eyes. It was sheer terror in each one. The Khan’s Assistant, the man who had come to their home, lined them up in a very straight row. It was uncomfortably hot already, not even the slightest breeze, and barely even an exhale. It was questionable whether or not the girls were breathing. It was far too still for any of this to be real. The girls looked at each other, knowing exactly what the others were thinking. No one dared to say a word. It was as though, if they were still enough, if the whole world was still enough, they just might disappear.
The groom-to-be was hustled through the crowd, his parents beaming with delight. His tunic-length robe had been embroidered with care, just for this occasion. His pants were brand new and finely sewn as well. His shoes sparkled in the sunlight. His little brother, in tow, had a telltale streak of black shoe polish on his left arm. It had been a family affair to get him ready for such a momentous day. He stood, as only a teenage boy can, with his thin limbs dangling awkwardly as though he didn’t know where such long things could have sprouted from. He tugged at the new clothing, looking boyish rather than manly. The ten girls stood, a row of eligible beauties from the right tribe and the right families. The boy’s parents could envision the dowries behind each pair of eyes. They saw rugs and dresses and gold and flour and goats. They were prepared to pay the bride price, even if it meant calling distant relatives for help.
The Khan’s Assistant, now looking like a puffed up turtle who had just shined his shell, approached the boy and his parents.
“Orun,” he said to the boy. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, sir. I am.”
“May Allah help you choose well.” He said and handed the woolen telpek to him.
Orun held the large hat in his hands. It still smelled a bit of sheep, and it was heavy, much too large for a boy. The inside had been stitched well and the outside was covered in beautiful gray wool curls. Looking at it from the top, it seemed big enough to fit two heads inside, but it was only built for one. He put the hat in one hand and then the other, to feel its weight. He felt eyes boring into him. He looked up at the ten girls lined up for him, for him to choose. He scanned the row. They all had their eyes on him, all except one. Her braids shone in the sun as she stared at the ground. What could she be looking at? he wondered.
Tohtagul was watching an ant stumble around. It kept climbing over obstacles in the dirt, obstacles which seemed so small to her but must have been mountains to this poor creature. She watched it try to find its way somewhere else, but it kept going in circles. There didn’t seem to be any other ants around. It must have gotten separated somehow, and now it was lost and scared. So, perhaps, if it were a she-ant, Tohtagul thought, maybe it’s not lost at all. Maybe it’s right where it is supposed to be, here with the other scared girls. She smiled to herself as she finally looked up.
Orun saw her smile and thought it was for him, as boys and men often do. He caught her gaze, lifted the telpek, and hurled it at her. She didn’t realize what was happening until the wooly hat hit her square in the stomach. It knocked the breath out of her, but she caught it. She stared at the telpek fiercely, as if it had decided to throw itself at her of its own free will. She was definitely still standing.
The crowd cheered. Murmurs of the new match and the wedding to come wafted through the crowd like wind through leaves.
The girl next to her hissed, “What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you fall?” Her unibrow was lifted high in shock.
“Fall?” Tohtagul was perplexed. “Why would I?”
“If you fall, then you’re not ready for marriage. You could have stayed at home a while longer.”
“But I didn’t know that! No one told me to fall. Who told you?”
“My older sister. She tells me everything,” The girl with the unibrow walked off with the lightness of girlhood in her step. Tohtagul still held her ground and the telpek, unsure of what would come next.
The family didn’t have to ask what came next. The preparations for their toy were rolled out like dough in the hands of an expert baker, which, of course, all Turkmen women were.
Yards of solid golden silk were bent beneath the needle of a sewing machine powered by feet and a pedal to slowly, seam by seam, become a long elegant dress. The bridal tahya, a stiff square Muslim cap, was adorned with gold beads and shiny sequins, embroidered in the swirling shapes of flowers and leaves. Long beaded strands were attached to three sides and shorter strands, like bangs, hung from the front. A transparent veil would be draped as another layer on top of it. Her feet would slip into delicate slippers, also adorned with beads and sequins, so that the parts of her touching the earth and reaching for the sky would match.
Then, the food preparations began. Kilo upon kilo of flour was bought for the ubiquitous round loaves of bread and the traditional puffed triangular fried dough which were necessary at any major celebration. Her sisters ran their hands through rice sacks at the bazaar and let grains slip between their fingers to find the best one and then haggle for the cheapest price. They also selected cuts of mutton, yellow carrots, onions, and garlic for the traditional pilaf dish plov. Once all the ingredients had been lugged home from the bazaar, her sisters, aunts, and neighbors all sat outside in their housedresses with their legs crossed, beneath the trellises of dangling green grapes on the raised patio platform of the tapjan. Together, they kneaded dough, washed rice, chopped vegetables, and cleaned the meat. The air was heavy with heat, sweet with the smell of grapes, sharp with gossip, and punctuated with anticipation.
Of course, all weddings were important to the culture, and they were celebrations that people looked forward to, but there were so many. Weddings were not limited to family and friends; they were community affairs. The young couple’s ears would be filled with toasts wishing them longevity, fertility, and prosperity from each one of the guests. The ceremony was to be kept simple; it was about eating and dancing. It was about merging two families and ushering in the start of a new generation.
People would put on their gold and make their way to her cousin’s compound. It was on the edge of town, and they had a large plot of land, big enough to hold all of the guests. Very soon, it would fill with small cooking fires, upon which kazans of plov would be placed. The meat, carrots, and onions would be set at the bottom of the huge round cast iron pot first. Then all the washed rice would be poured in. Cottonseed oil would be added. Their tamdyr, along with many others, would fill with round loaves of nan for the occasion. Shallower cast iron pans would be filled with oil, which would crackle when hot and then cling to the dough for the fried dough in agitated bubbles until the dough puffed up and darkened to a golden brown; then fished out with a wire sieve and placed into a clay serving dish.
It seemed the whole city was making their way to her wedding. The courtyard swelled each time she peeked outside. Once the imam recited the prayers and everyone dipped their hands into communal dishes of plov to celebrate, she would be a married woman. Sharing a meal could be more powerful than all the laws in the land.
On her wedding day, Tohtagul stood very still as her mother brushed her hair and started weaving it into forty tight braids. She rightly assumed it would be the last time for such girlish things. From tonight onward, she was supposed to become a woman, except the hormonal right of passage that marks a girl’s entrance into womanhood hadn’t yet arrived. She still hadn’t felt the twisting of insides into cramps, that shock at seeing the first smear of brownish-red blood staining the inside of her underwear, the panic at wondering what to do, and the experience of walking around with cotton between her legs to absorb the flow. But just as she didn’t know not to fall down, she didn’t know that she was missing anything. Women never warned their daughters about menstruation until they faced it firsthand. Another thing that went unspoken was what really happened after the wedding, once the young couple was alone. Although a woman’s virginity was paramount, she was unaware of what that meant physically and why she would likely bleed when she and her husband consummated their marriage. Physiology was purely what could be ascertained by looking at someone. They could only be certain about what they could see; what went on inside the body was a mystery.
The bride’s arrival to the wedding was greeted with music and cheering. Though the bride’s body faced the groom, her eyes trained down on the ground, lingering on the pointed tips of her groom’s shoes. The veil was never lifted from her face during the ceremony. That intimate act of opening was always reserved for the husband later in the evening. It was improper to show such public displays of affection. Since Tohtagul still hadn’t gone through menarche, though, her veil and her legs would stay closed a while longer.
On her wedding night and every night until that tender transition came, she would sleep beside her mother-in-law. It took Tohtagul a long time to fall asleep in those first days. She lay awake next to the large sleeping mass of her mother-in-law, slowly expanding and contracting with each breath. She watched the woman’s body as she slept and wondered what she looked like with her eyes closed. She felt like she was watching a secret. It also empowered her a little bit to know that at least now, in the middle of the night, time and space was hers.
– Jen Wos studied creative writing and film at Emerson College and was an editor at Oxford University Press for six years. While serving in the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan from 2004–2006, she met Haticha K., whose memoirs and family history are the basis for Uprooted.