A reddish dawn is breaking upon our blessed village, and through my window I can see the lacework of twigs and leaves of the fig tree. I like the smell of the fig, but the buzzing of the little gnats drawn to its fruits disturbs my sleep. There is nothing bad without some good in it, my aunt always says, and no good without bad: no one knows this better than the people of our village, a village upon which the best of all blessings befell, yet by now no one knows for sure if it is indeed a blessing.
The impending day raises first sounds of morning in our darksome house: the cracking cough of my father, who will soon shake my mother's shoulder, so that she will get up, sighing, and go to the kitchen to put life into the dying embers of last night. My father says my mother is lazy, that a man is not supposed to hurry is wife, and that she should get up early on her own and prepare everything. To me my father says I am as lazy as my mother, that I am dreamy, and woe to the man who will have me as his wife. But I don't mind what he says, because my wise aunt had told me that men are the truly idle bunch, sitting in the shade smoking and drinking coffee while we fetch the water and feed the chickens and make the dough and cook, and so I should not take what he says to heart.
But his words take on a different meaning today, and my heart trembles like a chick, for today is the big day, the wedding day, my own wedding, and it is the weirdest and saddest of all the weddings our village ever saw, and my aunt has nothing to say about it. And I do not know what I should think of, my own miserable happiness or my perplexed village, celebrating and not knowing why. Blessing brings with it distress, like the gnats driving us mad day and night, attracted by the fig tree, with her pleasant smell and cool shadow and sweet fruits. I am eighteen today, and the situation brought upon us by God is the reason I only marry so late. Once the girls were married at fifteen or sixteen, but things have changed since the army came, and since the women of this village stopped frequenting the grave of our holy man, the round, white, egg-like dome of which I can also see from my window. He was a very powerful holy man, and practiced many miracles in his lifetime, not to mention after his death, a miracle in itself, because he decided upon his death by himself, and had he not wanted it, he wouldn't have died, for he was divine and immortal. His name was known all through the land, and women from all villages of the region made pilgrimage on holydays to ask the holy man for a baby boy, but since he is our own holy man, he granted our request more than anyone else's, and made this strange permanent arrangement up there in heaven, so that no one has to pray for a son any more, a son is sure to come, no doubts whatsoever, and maybe its time we prayed for daughters, but who is crazy enough to implore heavens for a girl?
When first the prayers were answered in full, the joy was mixed with the confusion and fear brought on by the army that came on the very same year. Everything happened at the same time, the blessing and the curse came down entwined, and our priest says it was a sign from God, and undoubtedly it is a sign, for no one has heard of such a wondrous thing, but what kind of sign and what exactly it means no one knows for sure. I was born on the same year the army came, and do not remember life without it, but my aunt told me a little as we sat sorting the beans or embroidering dresses. Shortly after me, my cousin was born, my best playmate, and then other boys were born, more and more boys, only boys, and than they started calling our village "the blessed," and then the women from neighboring villages started coming to our holy man's shrine, to drink water from our spring and pick magical herbs growing near it. The years went by, and not a single daughter came to the world. The women were getting older, less babies were born, and I was the last girl born here, there is no girl younger than me in the village, no sister nor niece, and today I shall marry a man, and no one is really sure whether to be happy or sad, for no one ever heard of such a thing, not even the army and the other people who came with it, those who wear no uniforms and walk around the village asking silly questions, those who erected a tent like nomads, with bizarre instruments in it, so my aunt says, where they cure people by pricking them or feeding them bitter hard beans, and request you to do odd things and movements and to answer questions about drawings, and even those knowledgeable people have never heard of a wonder such as ours, a place where only males are born.
If things continue this way there will eventually be only men in our village, and they are already frightened: when it happens, men will be forced to do women's work, and how can this be possible? Our esteemed holy man, while performing his miracles, did he not think of what might happen? Does he really want to see men drawing water from the spring and carrying jars upon their heads, and men embroider, launder and cook? I can barely stop myself from laughing when I imagine such pictures of a topsy-turvy world. When I was still a girl the village people convened to discuss matters. They were bewildered and knew not what to do – many boys were getting old enough to be engaged, but soon there will be no young women, and only a few parents can obtain brides from other villages, and it gets worse as even there the number of girls is declining, and they went away without a solution, still worried and bewildered. Only one person is happy about all this, my cousin, who studied and went on to study some more away in the city – I could never understand how much can one study – only he is strangely pleased with what goes on, and speaks about it a lot, and I listen and sometimes do not understand what he says. And when I ask and investigate he may dismiss it with a wave of his hand, and then I think he himself does not understand much of the things he says, just repeats what he had heard from others, for I know his dismissive gesture since the days we played together half-naked and suckled a piece of cloth dipped in sugary water and wallowed in the dirt in the yard; and I smile inside at the sight of his new raging pride, which I can squelch without difficulty by looking him in the eye and smile and hint at the pantry, as I did when we were kids, telling him I know where the sweet dried figs, which he madly craves, were laid, and the mere movement of my eyes evokes the sweet taste in his mouth, and then I go and bring a saucerful and watch him swallow it all avidly, and it swallows up his rage. But some of the things he says make me think of things I never thought of before. He speaks of the army we must fight against, and for that we need many warriors, and this is the reason only boys are being born in our village, but he does not say what would happen once the war is over, where will the warriors take wives, and when I asked him he answered, laughing, we shall take their women; who's, I asked; the army, he said, and then it occurred to me for the first time, and I was surprised, that the army people also have wives, and children, and families, it is obvious, but I never thought about it. And I could not stop thinking about it since – that they too have their own villages and houses and holy shrines, and perhaps over there, too, some holy man determined that only males will be born, and so they had so many men they were forced to establish an army and send it over to us? Of course I immediately realize they are infidels and their holy men are unable to make such miracles, and isn't it true that the army people and even those without uniforms are amazed by our village, and according to my cousin nothing worries them more than that, not even his comrades who prepare to fight and gather arms and sometimes strike the army from an ambush: they know how to deal with that, my cousin says, but not with this mystery of our village, a puzzle to all their wise men who don't know what's to be done about it, or if anything should be done at all, for they cannot decide whether it's a good thing or bad, but who needs the army's wise men, I say, in order not to decide whether its good or bad, even the most ignorant people in our village will suffice, they all still wonder about it, and only my cousin, and maybe the priest, believe it's a good thing, but they are solitary in their confidence. And they do not answer the one question lurking in everyone's minds: what to expect of the future when I, the last girl in the
village, will be married.
My heart quivers with excitement and uncertainty and so my thoughts wander to memories instead of thinking of the day ahead, or maybe I fear what's to come, the great celebration where everyone will hide their anxiety behind a mask of gaiety and singing and dancing, and the festivities will go on till morning, and I am even more afraid to think of what comes next, but I have to think about it, it is a happy, scary thought: I am glad to think of my groom's eyes, which have the shade of an olive, and scared by his sharpened moustache and the cigarette stuck between his lips as he sits among the men and I watch him from a distance. My aunt says he is a good young man, hard-working, and I could not hope for a better choice, and she strokes my hair, smiles and tell me not to worry, for I shall be happy even if the village is suffering, and she keeps on saying that since women became scarce, men appreciate them more, and I should count my blessings, for all the young men are jealous of my husband to be, in spite of his peculiar older brother, a scrawny man with fiery eyes who spends a lot of time alone in silence, but may suddenly appear uninvited and make raving speeches and disappear again, I have heard him speaking and know not what to think of it, he says not a blessing came upon the village but a curse, and not the holy man caused it but the army; is it a blessing, he shouts, that only males are born? That only roosters hatch from eggs, that goats and sheep give birth to he-goats and rams only? That we cannot produce out own milk and eggs and are forced to get them from the army? If this is the blessing our holy man has brought about us, he says, there never was a holy man stupider than him, and his listeners recoil angrily hearing this, but he keeps on claiming it is not the holy man at all, it is the army and his doctors and medicines, the army wants us to be dependent and ask for mercy, and this is very bad, and they must agree with this. Never before were there so many black roosters in the yards, and he-goats and calves that can only be eaten but will never give milk. For eighteen years the ewes give birth to male lambs only, and cattle brought from other places only give birth to males, and my groom's brother screams and says we do not understand, it is nothing but slow death spreading, and even if the dying is prolonged it will come sooner or later
unless we do something, but even he has no clue about what's to be done, so he returns to his silence and disappears for days, and the men continue to sip coffee and smoke, but they are weary and more gloomy now, and my groom becomes a little embarrassed and looks at the others coyly, but they are all deep in thought and pay no attention to him.
I do not know what the village looked liked long ago, when herds galloped in the alleys, and the white hens and yellowish chicks were not brought here from afar but born right here, and the black roosters weren't so numerous, grouching and boastful and eager to pick a fight. I remember how I liked to play with kittens in the spring, and I have not seen a kitten in years. All this makes me sad and I'm beginning to think my groom's brother is right, it is a curse, but I do not think the army brought it about, because my cousin knows they are as puzzled and afraid as us. I don't know how things were, but good and pretty things still exist. The spring is still cool and its water clear, the sky blue and the fresh wind before evening falls brings sweet smells, and the fig tree is as fragrant as in my childhood, and her fruits as sweet. But our hearts are full of worries and fears and I cannot be sure even the little we still have will go on forever – who can be sure things will last with the weird things that already happened. But no one prays at the holy man's shrine any more.
The sky is turning blue and my mother gets up, sighing, from her bed; I'll soon get up into this day of turmoil, full of preparations and ceremonies, and a decision is formed within me, it is sudden and clear, I get excited and my heart beats fast, but I am sure of it, and before the coolness of the morning disappears I will do it, I will not tell anyone, I will go alone to the shrine of our holy man and pray for something no man or woman ever prayed for, I shall lie on his grave holding the magical herbs, and ask him to grant me a baby daughter.