It happens the last day of school. A dictate. Delivered to me, personally, by my teacher. It will change my life.
I tell no one. I try to celebrate Meryam’s wedding as if it is the happiest of times, and it is, for her. Now the three days of her wedding are coming to a close as the bridegroom’s family and friends take the bride from her home to the home of her new husband.
As we come near, we hop from the donkey carts that have carried us and form a procession. Four attendants are in the lead, and I am one of them, leading the gathering past the policemen and cameraman who have been assigned to attend our ancient ritual—?which is still allowed, though I’m certain that’s only because it’s good for the Chinese tourist website. I try to erase the intruders from my mind as my arms move gracefully in wide waves and my feet keep the pattern of our dance. We approach the opened gate of the silk maker’s compound to the steady beat of the musicians, who now pluck louder and louder on the strings of their instruments while one finger-drums the taut leather of his dap.
A rush, and Meryam’s brother, Ahmat, and three other male relatives break through our gathering. They carry Meryam, crouched, her head covered, in the middle of a richly colored carpet that they hold by its four corners. A bonfire burns in front of the groom’s home, and they whoosh her through the leaping flames to show how she will endure the hardships of married life.
I slip inside the house, where her mother and I will provide the familiar hands to help her slide from the carpet to her seat on the floor beside her new relatives. She is expected to cry, to be scared and unsure, but I hear giggles behind the thick white covering that she must keep over her while the musicians play and sing of how the new couple will never part.
At last the cloth is lifted. A female cousin of the bride dances. Then we spill out into the courtyard for the last rituals of the three-day celebration, during which Ahmat and I have been so busy catering to Meryam’s needs that it has been easy for me to avoid being alone with him.
He heads toward me now. I pretend not to see him, and with my arms raised I slide in among the dancers. He follows. We will each dance alone. That is the Uyghur way. But we are dancing together, our arms, our feet intertwining, almost touching. We are one. I know that so truly.
I force myself to think only of the repeated taah-te-ta-tah-tah of the beat—?over and over—?until the high-pitched chant of my little sister, Aygul, breaks through.
“You will be next. You will be next,” Aygul teases as she dances at our side. Her words are picked up by those around us, even though the others know that Ahmat and I intend to continue our studies, so there is no plan for a wedding yet.
I lower my head to hide my pain as Ahmat slowly turns his arms and feet away and joins the other dancers.
There is laughter at our expense. We’ve been caught in our oneness. They must think I’m shy, for I don’t look up.
How could I?
In a few days, I’ll be gone. Sent away.
There’ll be no more schooling. Courtship? Wedding? Those words are no longer meant for me. I’ve been given the honor, my teacher said, of working in a factory far away in southern China. The local cadre will come speak to Father. Wait until after Meryam’s wedding, I pleaded, and the teacher agreed.
I dance my way to the edge of the crowded courtyard and slip inside the weaving room. Today there is more interest in dancing and eating than in the weaving of ikat. I stand among the idle looms and let my sorrow flow from my eyes.
If I refuse to go, they’ll deny me my schooling. There will never be a wedding. They’ll take away my registration card and refuse to issue me a marriage certificate. I have no life if I go—?or if I stay.
Ahmat moves toward me, and I don’t have time to stop my tears. “Roshen,” he says, “it’s a happy event. Meryam has dreamed of this day for years.” He brushes my tears away with his fingers, letting his touch linger on my cheeks. Even as my heart races, I push his hand away. I must not allow it. But my fingers go to my face and touch the place where his have been, for I want to remember the feeling forever.
He smiles, and for the longest time we devour each other with our eyes. No one can deny us that. Then we dance again, alone but together in our Uyghur way.
I say nothing about my leaving.
It is near evening when Aygul comes to tell me we must go home. Grandfather has clapped and sung until his old bones will hardly hold him upright long enough to get to the donkey cart. I spend little time saying goodbye to Meryam, for I do not trust myself to show only the joy she deserves. Yet she will not let me go and insists on walking me to the cart. And soon we are an entourage, for Meryam’s mother, her father, and Ahmat all walk out too, to say goodbye to my family.
When the beats from the drum and the last sounds of music fade from our hearing, Father turns to me.
“Are you certain you want to keep going to school, Roshen?” Father says, and Grandmother, Mother, and Aygul cluck their tongues and laugh.
I’m caught off-guard. I pretend shyness, covering my face with my hands, hoping the coming darkness hides my distress.
Father laughs and prods the donkey to a faster pace. For now, the happy mood of Meryam’s wedding prevails.
I will speak to him tomorrow.