Sunday, June 12, 2011

Short story: "Untitled"

The last couple days comprised my ward's Youth Conference trip to Moab. Upon reflection, much of what I learned can be summed up in a short story I wrote when I was fourteen. I called it "The Veil" because I had to name it for purposes of a contest that I entered, but I'd actually rather not name it; people too often judge a story by its name.

I see her every day, but it is five years until I really notice her for the first time.

I am a timid person; I am born into a family that blends in with the background. I, too, blend in. I never need attention, and I am a poor speaker. I work at my father’s stall, where he sells things in the marketplace. I began when I was seven and now I am twelve. We sell things that my mother and older sister make; bowls, jewelry, clothing, food—anything we can sell is sold. The marketplace is always busy and loud. There are many other vendors, shouting to customers on the dusty, unclean streets.

At every street corner, there are dancers and musicians. Many of the dancers are unemployed women who wear too much jewelry and too little clothing. They try hard to be noticed. My mother says that they are only disgracing themselves through their behavior and the way they dress and act. I never tell her, but I like to watch them dance through those hot days when there is little to do other than watch the sun pass over the world.

When everything is so loud and wants your attention, it would be hard to notice her, even if she is there every day. I remember when I first became aware of her.

I sell a green and blue clay vase to a short, harsh man. I hear shouting and look towards the sound. It is just the dancers on the corner of the street, shouting to men passing by. They are probably asking for money, I think, and making rash promises in return. Then I notice a dark figure that contrasts with the bright, vibrant colors of the dancers. That is a girl there, I realize, who wears too much clothing for the intense temperature. I directly become curious. In an area where women crave attention—they seem to live off it—this girl seems very drawn back and uncaring of such attitudes.

I become interested in this different girl instantly. I watch for her the next day.

There. I see her. She is closer to our booth today, so I see her more clearly. She wears a long dress with long sleeves that cover her hands and feet. Her head is swathed with a simple, pretty headscarf. There is a veil over her face. Even though I do not see her, I can tell that it is she by the way she dresses. No other woman or girl ever wore so much for no apparent purpose.

I watch her for weeks, trying to decide why she is the way she is. She never buys anything that is too ostentatious or expensive, I notice. And she always wears a headscarf and a veil.

Weeks after I notice her the first time, she finally comes up to my father’s booth. My father is not here right now, so I am alone when I greet her.

“Salaam. May I see that basin?” She points. I notice that she is wearing gloves.

“Yes.” I hand it to her. My hands are shaking; does she know I notice her so often? I speak to costumers as little as I can manage, but I decide to be adventurous today.

She turns it over in her hands carefully and looks at it through the veil. Then she hands it back to me.

“It is cheap,” I prod her. Does she hear the strain in my voice?

She shakes her head. “I only wanted to look at it to see how it is made. This one is clever; my compliments.”

“I will pass them on to those that made it,” I respond. She is polite; that is interesting. I find myself comparing her to the dancers on the corners, who even now call aloud and sing to be noticed.

“They are…?”

“My sister and mother. They make everything here.” I indicate with my arms spreading.

She nods, peering around. “They seem to have their hands full.”

“Yes,” I agree. There is nothing else I can say now. The girl leaves.

She comes back a while later. I do not count the days, but it is a long time. Now, she asks to see a headscarf. She buys it and I see her wearing it the next week. I feel proud and speak to her as she passes.

“It flatters you,” I say, unsure how else to tell her.

She stiffens. “Really?”

What did I do wrong? I try to remain confident and I almost shrug. “It looks nice, that is.”

She leaves quickly after that, and I never see her wear the headscarf again.

She puzzles me. A compliment is usually received with pride and gratitude here. I have not seen anyone act the way she does. She only intrigues me more after this. How could someone behave so differently?

The next week, I pluck up the nerve to speak to her again.

“What is your name?” I ask as she passes my stand.

“Mona. And yours?”

“Basil,” I reply. “You come here often, then?”

“Every day,” Mona says.

I know this already.

We talk until a woman paces up to the stall. When that happens, Mona says goodbye and leaves.

I speak to Mona regularly. She does not often buy my merchandise, but she always talks with me.

One day, I ask her why she wears the veil and headscarf. “Is it for religion?”

“Not exactly. It is because of the way I look,” Mona explains.

“But why hide it? We are the way we are.”

“Everyone would treat me differently,” she replies. “Not everyone is satisfied with the way others are.”

I do not ask her anything else out of courtesy, but always wonder how she looks and why exactly she hides it.

It has been more than five years since I met Mona. I am now a man. Many of my friends have already married and have work of their own. Two of my good friends married two beautiful, poor women who danced on corners. Another handsome friend of mine married a rich woman whom he does not know. My mother says that I am to marry a kind woman who would be a good mother, and she is ashamed of my friends, who married only for lust or riches.

Mona and I are still good friends. She sometimes spends time behind my counter, helping me sell my goods—my father has passed on his job to me.

I had always liked Mona, and I begin to love her. She is a very kind, generous person. Yet, through all the years I know her, I never see her face.

One day, I speak to her when she comes to my booth. “Mona,” I say, “I need to talk to you.”

“Yes, Basil?”

“My parents want me to wed and have a family soon. Would you become my wife, Mona?”

She does not hesitate—I always admire her confidence. “I do wish to marry you, Basil, but I will not promise a family.”

I am surprised. “This is the reason my parents desire me to marry.”

“Then do not let them know, but I will not bear children.”

We marry, and afterwards, I understand why Mona would not promise a family. Even when we are married, she doesn’t even lift the veil over her face or take off her gloves to hold my hand. She remains as mysterious to me as when we met.

We live together, always loving each other, for several years. One day, Mona becomes ill. The doctor says that she has a week or two left to live.

I spend all of my time at her bedside. We cry much of the time; it is mostly I who cries, and she pats my cheek and tells me to hush, for everything will be fine. Sometimes, we are silent, each thinking. And sometimes we talk.

One day, Mona summons me to her bedside. Her voice is weak. I imagine her eyes drooping with the weight of sadness as I kneel next to her.

“How can I serve you, my love?” I ask.

“I will not be here much longer, Basil.” My eyes sting with tears, for I know this already. “I want to explain some things. First, I want you to take off my headscarf and veil. I cannot.”

My breath catches in my throat. She has never wanted me to see her face before.

“Why now?” I whisper.

“I will die soon, Basil, and I want to explain something to you.”

With quivering fingers, I use both hands to lift the veil and pull down the headscarf from Mona’s face. I look at her, afraid and eager.

I am more surprised than ever. Before me lays my dying wife Mona, who is the most lovely person I have ever seen. I gasp lightly.

“Mona,” I whisper reverently, “you are beautiful.”

She is not just beautiful. She is perfect. She is flawless. The pretty girls who dance on the streets could not be judged against her. She is even more stunning than anyone I even imagined could exist.

Mona smiles feebly. “Thank you, Basil.”

“But why did you always cover yourself, Mona?” I ask. “I thought you were mottled, or burned, or…“ I cannot bring myself to say ‘ugly.’ Such a word cannot be uttered before a countenance like Mona’s.

“What would you have thought of me if you had seen me this way originally?”

I realize why she has done it before she tells me. I feel ashamed. “Differently,” I admit honestly.

Mona nods. “I want the world to look on me for how I act and what I have become, not how I look, lest they be very misled.”

“But you are gorgeous!” I say, desiring to defend her, even against herself.

“I want people to see me for the things that I can control about myself, not that which I have no power over. That is why I was so willing to marry you, Basil; you didn’t marry me for the way I appear, you actually loved me.

My wife dies that night. I sit by her and watch her face sadly until she stops breathing and closes her lovely eyes. I think about what she has told me as I mourn.

I live to be an old, childless widower. I still work at the stall in the marketplace, for there is no one to pass it onto. New girls come and go, dancing on the street corners. And I never forget Mona, my beautiful wife, who was beautiful in more than one way.


  1. That was lovely Miriam. You were such a profound 14-year-old.
    Still are :)

  2. Yeah I remember when you read this out loud at a creative writing club's still just as good as it was then. Haha you're uh...sorta talented. No big deal.