In the shadows, pressed against a wall, Shahla tensed. Though her pulse thudded in her ears she tried to make no sound at all, taking only the smallest sips of air until the soldiers passed. She still waited many minutes longer; then, as twilight deepened, hurried over stained cobblestones, hoping to outrun the night and the soldiers and reach safety. As if there were any safety.
At a corner Shahla paused to spy for soldiers. Cold fingers curled around her heart--she knew this street, her mother's cousin had lived here. Shahla remembered it full of sunlight, and men whitewashing the walls or standing in doorways smoking, and women leaning out of second-story windows to catch the latest gossip from passers-by. Now the street was empty, the windows boarded up and the walls scarred with bullet holes. Shahla's mother was dead; so was the cousin.
Shahla tightened her shawl about her head as she crossed the street. Her limbs filled with ice, not from the winter air but from terror: terror that at any moment a soldier might see her, a voice would call her to halt, hands would grasp her and move over her clothes and her body while she squeezed shut her eyes and bottled up the scream inside her.... Every shadow she passed she feared and every boarded-up window she resented. Once she had loved living in this city. She had loved shopping the marketplace in the carsija, holding the hand of her son Kerim as they strolled among the stalls containing row after row of bright peppers and fruits and brown eggs and fresh-caught fish, pausing to inhale the drifting odor of spices and roasting lamb. In the evening her husband Nasir would return and when he kissed her she could taste the coffee he had drunk all day and he would lift their son high into the air as Kerim laughed with delight. Now there was no food, the stalls in the carsija were empty and shattered, and Nasir was in the mountains with the other men fighting a futile war---if he were still alive, that is. Just a month ago they had news that Zaran, the fianc‚ of her younger sister Azrah, was dead. Azrah and Kerim were all the family Shahla had left in the city. Shahla hated the city and longed to be far away from it. They had hoped to leave it---but now night had fallen, it was too late and getting too dark, and they would have to spend another agonizing night trapped.
Shahla rounded a corner without slowing, without thinking, and immediately saw four soldiers walking towards her. Shahla backed around the corner and stood against the wall, not breathing. If they came for her she would run. Let them shoot her, that would be better than their hands on her again. But then Kerim---
No voices shouted and no figures loomed in the dark, and Shahla had to take a breath, and then another. She inched along the wall to the corner to glance up the street. The darkness was so thick she could see nothing clearly. Still looking up the street, Shahla stepped away from the wall, and into someone behind her.
Shahla jumped away, nearly crying out. All she saw was a dark shape. A hand lifted towards her and a voice said, "Hush, my dear." A woman's voice. Then Shahla saw a woman dressed all in black, with a sharp, pale face; the eyes hidden in shadow she could not see.
"You gave me a start," Shahla whispered, relieved. "I saw soldiers, and---"
"You are afraid of the soldiers," the woman said. She had a foreign accent, not the accent of the invaders, but from farther away, north and east.
"Of course," said Shahla, "everyone is---it's not safe here, I have to go. So should you."
The woman in black reached out and put a hand on Shahla's face. "They've hurt you, haven't they? They've...touched you." The words were gentle but Shahla flinched and started to deny it until the woman hushed her again. Without taking her hand from Shahla's face the woman moved closer. "I'm so sorry."
Shahla said, "It isn't safe out here. For either of us." Turning her face from the hand she added, "I must go. We're going to leave the city---there are convoys to take women and children to safety this week, they say the soldiers promised not to stop them." Moved by the other's compassion, Shahla added, "You could come with us."
The woman let her hand drop and shook her head. "It'll be no better."
"Oh, but it will..."
"No." She turned away and looked up into the night sky. "There is no safety." She spoke with a great, lethargic sadness that touched Shahla. "No matter where you go they'll hurt you---us---they've taken so much away and given so much pain...."
"You?" Shahla asked hoarsely.
Still staring up into the sky, the woman said, "I can take away your fear."
"Who are you?"
A sigh. "Once I was called Teodora, but that is only a word. Promises are made of words; words are worthless."
Then she turned back to Shahla and added, "Do you hate them?" She spoke softly but her voice suddenly had a knife's edge to it, something so cold and sharp it hurt Shahla. "Do you ever think about vengeance?"
"No," said Shahla, the word thick on her tongue.
"With all they've done to this city, to the women---to you---don't you wish to see them dead?"
Shahla recoiled, but her back was already against the wall. "I--"
"Vengeance," said Teodora, so close her face almost touched Shahla's. "Don't you thirst for their blood?"
Shahla's legs began to shake uncontrollably and she
said, "I have to go," but she had troubled getting out the
words; her chest felt constricted and she could barely
breathe. She slid along the wall, not looking at the woman,
and then she ran away down the street. Behind her she felt
Teodora's presence like a cold void at her back.
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