The Spice Portrait
By J.M. Evenson
They said my love for my daughter was excessive, that I made her weak by kissing her and singing in her ear at night.
They also said I killed her.
My mother did not believe in tenderness. She was gaunt, all teeth and hair, her face hard as a stone lion. “If she wants to be fed, she must work,” my mother said.
She hunched over a copper vat of bubbling breadbean stew, stirring to make sure it didn’t burn. Powdered white liverwort dusted her eyelashes and the edges of her black headscarf. A dozen vats boiled behind her, each with a different gaunt woman stirring it.
Three young girls carried large bundles of firewood and loosed their loads into the flames beneath the vats. They couldn’t have been more than six or seven, but their shoulders were already wide and knotted with muscles.
I looked up from my own copper vessel and snuck a glance at Damla. She was sitting in the crook of a juniper tree collecting berries. She had dark eyes ringed in lashes that curled upward at the outer corners like a cat’s and a black ponytail that spiraled down her back.
Damla was smaller than the other children, even the younger ones. She’d been premature at birth and struggled for every inch, but I was proud of her length of bone. By some miracle she’d survived infancy—many didn’t—so I still had hope she’d catch up to the others.
“She’s too young,” I said.
“Nonsense,” said my mother. “You started when you were five. Like everyone else.”
My mother thought those born in the Walled City were spoiled. They didn’t know what it was like to wake at dawn to see who had died during the night and steal bread from their pockets. They didn’t know what it meant to be strong.
I pretended not to hear her over the clatter of the cooking compound. It was true my mother never sheltered me as a child, but Damla was not like me.
A Protector appeared in the doorway with her wooden staff, ready to make her rounds outside. My mother waited until she passed, then hissed at me.
“Are you listening?” said my mother. “Don’t test their patience.”
The Protectors assumed we were all thieves. They were right, at least about me.
Armed with wooden staffs, Protectors lined the perimeter of the room. Colored carpets overlapped on the floor. They sat us at round tables, believing the only way to stop theft was to have us watch one another.
My goal that day was to steal two stoneflower rolls. They were the size of my fist, made with high-nutrition lichens and greased with gull fat.
Damla sat at a children’s table on the other side of the room. All the mothers cast quick glances at their children as they loaded and delivered baskets of food to the tables. The key was for me to wait until one of the children made a noise loud enough that all the mothers looked at the same time.
“Damla is growing well,” said Rabia. The Lawgivers had decided not to award Rabia a husband due to her dangerous level of beauty. They said she’d tempt any man to ruin. Their verdict also meant she couldn’t have a child, and her isolation had made her cruel. “You must be so proud she’s starting work soon.”
Rabia always knew where to stick the knife. I gave a curt nod, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of knowing how worried I was.
Rabia’s best friend, Azra, smelled blood. “I never hear Damla cry in your room, Naz. She must be very good at taking beatings.”
“I can’t even remember how many beatings I took when I first started working,” said Rabia.
“Felt like hundreds,” said Azra. “I’m just glad I had a mother who made sure I knew how to take a beating. She made me strong.”
But they knew I refused to beat Damla. Just the idea of her being “good” at taking beatings made me feel ill. I set a basket down on a table, then went back to the kitchen for more.
On my way back, I glanced up at Damla’s table. She’d stopped eating to take a drink of cold tea. The tall girl next to her was reaching a meaty fist toward Damla’s sheathbill egg while Damla wasn’t looking. I glanced around, trying to think of some way to get Damla’s attention.
A smile stretched across Rabia’s face like a snake about to strike. “Damla is getting so big, you’d almost think you’d been stealing extra food for her.”
My eyes flicked to Rabia, trying to assess if she was serious or just taunting me.
There was a shout from the children’s table. The large girl had given up on Damla’s egg and stolen one from a different plate. Both girls screeched as they fought. The mothers’ eyes turned toward the table like a flock of starlings. The Protectors moved in swiftly, striking the girls with their staffs.
This was my chance. I grabbed a roll from my basket and stuffed it into my pocket. I reached out for a second when I felt a stinging slap on my arm.
“Why are you touching the food before we sit?” said my mother.
The eyes turned to me. I dropped the roll back in the basket. The women stared.
“They already think you’re stealing. Don’t give them more cause. Unlike you, I’m not afraid to beat my daughter,” said my mother.
The other women looked away. It was impolite to watch a mother discipline her daughter.
“I won’t do it again,” I said.
“Have you heard this, Rabia?” said my mother. “I will beat her personally if I catch her stealing.”
Rabia knew better than to goad my mother. “Of course, Emina. No one would ever doubt you.”
Rabia tilted her eyes at me with a smirk before she sat down at our table to eat. She thought she’d won.
But no one had seen me take the first roll. I still had it in my pocket. I had won.
The following night, as soon as we shut the door to our room, Damla let out a gleeful yelp. “Can I stay awake until midnight? I want to know exactly when I turn five!” she said.
“You should sleep, Damla,” said my mother. She unpinned her headscarf.
“It’s her birthday,” I said. I kissed Damla’s cheek.
Damla dragged the chair over to the wall and stood on her tiptoes to see out a small window. It wasn’t more than a few inches wide, but we had a view of the mountains and the sea. The peaks were tipped with snow year round, but the valleys below were carpeted with soft angelgrass and pearlwort.
The polar nights made everything glow blue until midnight, when the southern lights took over and flamed green.
Damla pulled something from her pocket. “Look what I made,” she said. “Sera’s mother let me take a gull bone from the compost and I found some string.”
The bone wasn’t much larger than my hand. I ran my finger over its surface. “Why is it all scratched up?”
“There are twenty-nine days in a moon cycle. One scratch for each day.” She turned over the bone. “And here are groups of twos, threes, fives, and tens. Each group adds up to a hundred. See, I wrapped the strings here and here because there are thirty-three more days of polar night.”
“Where did you learn this?” I said.
“Nowhere. I’ve been keeping count of the days in the bark of the tree. I started on my last birthday because I wanted to know how long it would be before my next birthday. But this bone is so much easier than the tree. Also, I can keep it in my pocket and look at it whenever I want,” she said.
I could feel my mother’s eyes on me. I already knew what she would say: that girls aren’t supposed to invent counting systems. That girls don’t need to learn anything but cooking, because we live in the cooking compound, and that this is all we need to know.
“Did you show this to anyone else?” I said.
“No,” said Damla.
“I think we should leave the bone in the room. It’ll be our little secret,” I said.
“But why?” said Damla.
“Because it’s fun to have secrets,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows as if to say she didn’t agree. Then something caught her eye. “I saw the first southern light. It’s midnight. I’m five!”
She squealed as I wrapped my arms around her and twirled her around.
“Shh. Everybody will hear us,” hissed my mother.
I put Damla down on the bed and whispered in her ear. “We should be quiet.”
I helped her out of her headscarf and dress, then handed her a new pair of underwear, dry from last night’s handwash.
Our workdays were long, and those few hours in our room at night were the only time I was permitted to see her uncovered so I always used my time wisely. My eyes touched every inch of her body. I knew the shape of her bones. I could tell if her skin was stretched too tight. When I hugged her, I picked her up off the ground to measure her weight.
“What are you thinking about?” said Damla.
My throat pinched closed. I knew what she faced tomorrow. I busied myself washing her face and cleaning her teeth with my fingers.
“Who was the girl sitting next to you last night?” I asked. “She tried to steal your egg.”
“Hira?” Damla climbed into my lap and I brushed her hair. “She’s always hungry. She says it’s from work.”
I didn’t want to remind her that she’ll start working soon, too. “You should eat faster,” I said.
“But maybe Hira needed it,” said Damla.
I’ve taught her too much compassion. I put my arms around her and pressed my mouth to her hair so my mother wouldn’t hear. “I love you,” I said.
We got under the covers and she pressed herself to my body to get warm. I reached over her to a small hole I’d carved in our mattress where I’d stashed the extra roll last night.
“Close your eyes,” I said.
Damla giggled, then squeezed them shut.
But there was nothing in the hole. I felt around again.
Damla’s eyes opened. Her smile faded. She could sense I was upset.
“I had a birthday present for you,” I said.
Then my hand found something—a crust of the roll. I pulled it out to look at it. Bite marks scored the sides. Rats had gotten to it. Not all of them carried the Blight, but many of them did.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t need a present.”
I could see the knob of her knee, her thigh bone wrapped with too little muscle.
She wrapped her arms around my neck and tucked her head under my chin. “Please don’t be sad, Mama. It’s okay. I’m not hungry.”
I felt a tap on my shoulder. My mother stood above us in her night clothes. I prayed she hadn’t heard us talking about the stolen roll, and that Damla wouldn’t tell her.
My mother reached out. I shrank back like she was about to hit me. But she opened her hand. In her palm were two sheathbill eggs.
“For Damla,” she said.
I froze, more out of surprise than anything. How had she managed to do it? And why? She’d never stolen before, as far as I knew. Never for me, that was for sure.
“Don’t look at me like that,” said my mother. “The strong survive because we’re willing to steal.”
Damla glanced at me, checking to see if it was okay before she took them. “Do you want one, Mama?” she said.
“No, honey,” I said.
She ate them eagerly.
Yes, she had been hungry.
There is a cry children make when they are hurt. All mothers know this cry. It’s higher in pitch, urgent, fast, loud. It hollows.
Damla could hardly lift the firewood bundles at the start of her first day at work. Five hours in, her legs shook. At the afternoon prayer, Damla collapsed on her carpet and was unable to get back up.
When the Protector found her on the ground, I could feel the vibrations of Damla’s screams in my bones. Every detail of her pain echoed inside my body as if we were still one, as if the part of me that had made her was connected to her somehow, as if no one would ever truly split us into two.
We had five more hours to go before the end of the workday.
It had only been a week since Damla started work, and she’d already lost weight. The skin on her little body was stretched tighter. So tight, I could see the dark spiderwebs of veins running down her arms and legs.
I pulled off Damla’s dress. She was tired and her eyes were closing. I picked her up, light as a sheathbill feather, and I set her down on the bed. I turned to wet a cloth so I could wipe her face. When I turned back around, she was asleep.
I tucked her under the blanket and dabbed the cloth across her hairline, crusted with sweat salt, then leaned down to kiss her.
She was warm. I put my lips to her forehead again to check her temperature. A fever would be the death of her.
She had a fever.
I held Damla in my arms just like I had when she was born, naked body to naked body.
It was early morning. I was on the bed with her. Her fever was gone. She was cool, almost cold. Her eyes were closed, her lips the color of clovers.
I made my hair a curtain around her so they wouldn’t see she was already gone. So I could spend a few more minutes with her.
“You’re falling behind,” hissed my mother.
We were standing at the long table. Thirty women were gathered around it, each with a stone knife. Young girls hauled baskets of breadbeans from the garden compound next door and dumped them into piles in front of each woman. Our job was to shuck the beans and chop the discarded pods for drying.
But I couldn’t move. I was holding the knife above a single bean. I’d cut my finger. Blood tumbled down my knuckles, settling in the grooves of my skin.
I could see the cut, but I couldn’t feel it. I felt nothing at all.
“Please, Naz,” said my mother.
The tone of her voice was strange. Soft, somehow. I looked up at her, then noticed that everyone at the table had stopped working to watch me.
“Why have we stopped?” said Rabia. She stood across from me. “She’s just doing it for attention.”
“Shut up, Rabia,” said Azra.
“It’s her own fault. That girl never would’ve died if she’d done what she was supposed to as a mother.”
“Shut up,” said Azra. “You don’t even know what it’s like to have a child.”
Rabia gaped at Azra, but the sympathy in the room had already shifted toward me.
“Everyone here has lost someone,” said my mother.
The woman next to me, Sera, took a fistful of the beans I was supposed to shuck and put them in her own pile. One after the other, the women leaned over and took fistfuls of my beans, until I was left with just the one bean.
The one bean, and a handful of blood.
I knew my actions carried the risk of death. I didn’t care.
I missed her the most at night. For five years we’d slept together in the same bed, and every night I’d stayed awake until she dropped off to sleep, studying her face.
But that’s what began to slip first: the memory of her face.
I wouldn’t have cared if I forgot my own name. I would’ve welcomed it, if I could’ve remembered the exact shape of her face. Forgetting was like losing her all over again, in slow motion, and with only the weakness of my mind to blame. There was nothing I wanted more, every second of every day, than to remember her face.
That’s why I did it.
I waited until my mother was asleep. I slipped out of my dress and turned it inside out. I pulled the thread from the seam. Using a stone knife, I sliced a strip from the fabric, then I sewed my dress back together and put it on. I hid the cloth under my mattress.
The next night, I took a strip from the other side of my dress, then strips from the two sleeves. Until I had enough.
The fifth night I rolled up Damla’s baby blanket and stuffed one end of it until it was rounded out like a head. I tied a strip under the head to make a neck. Then I sewed two legs and two arms and attached them.
I hid the doll for a week while I caught my tears in a small cup. When the cup was full, I dipped my pinkie in the tears and began to draw on the fabric with the liquid. The lines of my painting were dark with wetness at first, but as they dried, salt stains appeared.
Yes, I could see it: first, her eyes, crinkled at the sides as if she were smiling. Then the uneven spacing of freckles that gathered in one stripe like the Milky Way across her nose, the deep v in the top of her perfectly crescent lips, the mole on her left earlobe, the tiny white scar on her chin from when she fell out of the tree last year.
I held her and kissed her, the memory of her face clear again, the smell of her still on her blanket, and I slept quietly for the first time in a moon cycle.
If I hadn’t slept so soundly, I would’ve heard the inspection whistles. But I didn’t open my eyes until the Protector was already in our hall.
My mother shook my shoulder. “Wake up, Naz!”
I closed my eyes and rolled away from her.
“Naz!” she hissed. “Get up! The Protector is coming!”
I bolted upright and frantically threw on my dress and pinned my headscarf, then stood at attention like we were supposed to.
I glanced at my mother. She was standing over my bed, but frozen mid-motion, like she’d seen a monster.
Then I remembered. The doll was in the bed.
The Protector rapped her staff on the door. My mother grabbed the doll and stuffed it under the mattress just as the door swung open. We both scrambled to attention.
The Protector walked in. She glanced over our sink and our shelf, then bent down to check under our beds. Nothing was out of place. Nothing she could see, anyway.
She turned to go. My heart was still pounding, but I allowed myself to take a breath. Then she stopped and wheeled back around.
“Where is Damla’s blanket, Naz?” said the Protector.
I fumbled. “They wrapped Damla in it when they took her away.”
She slanted her eyes at me. “I didn’t notice it was missing when I checked your room last moon cycle.”
“It was definitely gone,” I said. “You must not remember.”
The Protector stepped back into the room. “I remember everything,” she said.
She walked slowly toward my bed, her eyes roving over every surface. My mother grimaced at me, her face contorted with apprehension. A Protector had never stayed in our room for more than a few moments before. There’d never been cause.
A group of women began gathering in the hallway to watch us.
The Protector halted when she came to my bed. She stared at it for a moment. There was a small lump, barely noticeable, on one side. She tilted her head, then reached down and lifted the mattress.
She grabbed the doll, then turned and held it by the neck in front of me. Hot flush crept up my neck.
“Is this yours?” she said.
I nodded. I couldn’t let her think it was my mother’s.
The Protector threw the doll onto the hallway floor, so that all the women who had gathered there could see it. They could see my girl’s face.
“Naz Aysiz, I charge you with blasphemy,” said the Protector. She raised her wooden staff and brought it down on my temple.
Idolatry was the reason six continents turned to waste. We must not covet the material. This is what the Lawgivers said.
Grief is a form of idolatry. The flesh is just a shell. This is what the Lawgivers said.
I felt nothing but pain.
Blue bruises flecked my back, belly, arms and legs. The aches strung themselves together until they formed a weighted chain across my body.
The Lawgivers sentenced me to seven days without food or sleep. I was to cook all day and night, non-stop, for the Ninety-third Deliverance feast. If I died serving others, they said, then I would die a useful death.
I stood next to a copper vat of steaming soup, stirring. A Protector had been sent to watch me at all times. The sun was just coming up, and the other women were filtering in, moving to their assigned stations.
My mother took the vat next to mine, her eyes moving over my face. I could feel my eyes were puffy and red, though I didn’t think I had been crying. Maybe I had.
The women watched me, Azra and Sera, Meryem, Yasemin, but they said nothing.
My mother filled her vat with water, then lit the bundle of firewood underneath. As it began to heat, she mixed in purple sprouts, redroot, and clover.
She walked toward me. I thought she was coming to me, but she moved past me to the copper kettles where we stored our fats.
I could feel the Protector’s eyes on me, but I needed to tell my mother something. As she walked back toward her vat, my hand shot out and clamped onto her arm.
“I can’t remember Damla’s face,” I said.
“Don’t speak,” said my mother. But it was too late. The Protector struck me with her staff, this time across my spine.
Rabia knelt in the spice garden near the compound wall, pulling weeds. She watched everything, but said nothing.
If I couldn’t remember Damla’s face, I wouldn’t be able to find her in the Next World. I needed an eternity with my girl.
It was the seventh day without sleep or food. Somehow I’d survived, but my thoughts seemed thick and sticky, and every time someone spoke to me it sounded like their words were wading through mud. I said only one thing to anyone who came near: I have to remember her face.
The Protectors climbed their towers and sang out their long call to prayer. The women lined up to wash at the prayer fountain. When it was my turn, my mother was behind me in line. She leaned forward to help me wash. Sera held me steady while my mother washed herself, then they both helped me to the prayer rug. We bowed, we stood, we prostrated, we offered our greetings to the angels on our right and left, then cupped our hands to our ears to listen for guidance.
It was an extended ceremony, a special one, to show thanks for the Ninety-third Deliverance.
Azra helped me to my feet when it was over. I leaned on her as we made our way into the dining area. For Ninety-third Deliverance, they took away the small tables we usually used and replaced them with a large table. It was round and set low to the ground.
“You must look,” said my mother. She stood at my side.
My eyes were foggy. I blinked and focused. The table was set with food, a hundred different dishes, each fragrant with spice for the feast.
There were two round plates of blackbread, dark as eyes. Ringed by strips of fried brownstem, curled upward at the outer corners. A crescent string of clover soup bowls, pink as lips, with a deep v in the top. An assortment of stoneflower rolls, shaped to a nose, with brownseeds sprinkled unevenly, freckles gathered in one stripe like the Milky Way. A curved ear of candlenut treats, with a small bowl of brown berries as the mole on her left earlobe, and behind her ear, a ringlet of hearty brown gull stew that trailed over her shoulder. A small plate sheathbill egg on the right side of a chin, her little white scar.
Only someone looking from this angle would see it.
I stood perfectly still, trying to take in everything at once. To smell the spices of her image, to relish her colors, to devour her perfection. I longed to touch her, to put my hands on the bread of her skin.
The women circled the table, their eyes on me. Even Rabia. They’d said nothing, but they knew.
I didn’t eat much at the feast. My stomach wouldn’t permit it. But I tasted a little bit of every dish so I could swallow her. She filled me, like we shared the same body again.
When I got back to my room, my mother helped me into the bed.
I took a crust of bread from my pocket and touched it to my lips. The bread still smelled of her spice. Yes, I could remember Damla’s face. I would find her in the Next World. I closed my eyes and followed her into the night.
About the Author
J.M. Evenson lives with her husband and young children in Los Angeles.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Apex, and Nightmare. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, Uncanny, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts.