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Ties That Bind

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Saba had always loved her son. She had not always loved her daughter-in-law. She knew now that she had been wrong -- quick to judge, quick to call Zeenat disrespectful when she prioritized work over social obligations and quick to call her rude when she spoke her mind plainly and honestly.

As someone who had been raised to weigh each word before it left her mouth, aware of how even the simple things she said could be used against her -- signs of her inferiority, her lack of intelligence -- she'd viewed Zeenat's inhibitions with a mix of contempt and jealousy.

She'd met women like Zeenat before. They could open their mouths and let their opinions fly free, and no one listening seemed to find a single flaw. Their words were beautiful at best and inoffensive at worst, like flower petals decorating the wind; not capable of tarnishing the women who spoke them. Saba herself had been judged for every mistake she'd made and any stupid thing she'd ever said, so it seemed like some charm these women possessed, that they could be interesting and entertaining and unafraid of speaking their minds.

Even Saba could be charmed by these women. Some of them she even counted as friends. She'd never expected to have one as a daughter-in-law.

Saba was a guarded person. She knew that. She guarded herself and her family against the mistakes of others and the mistakes they themselves might make. And in response her own son accused her of being cold. "Do you even realize how harsh you've been with me?" He'd asked, and Saba still felt anger when she remembered how he'd made her an ultimatum: accept Zeenat or loose all contact with him.

But she was not too proud to admit that it had worked. Saba had warmed quickly to Zeenat. Brash, wild, rude Zeenat was also funny, compassionate, loyal Zeenat. She was not who Saba would have picked for her son, but there was not a better match for him. She could see that now.

Even if she hadn't been convinced before, the relief and joy that swelled in her chest when she learned that the Saudi officials had granted the pardon would have convinced her. Instead of losing Amir in a far-off country to an unjust execution, she would have him back home in a matter of weeks. Zeenat had done that.

Watching as Zeenat stepped off the bus, Saba felt that swell of relief again. Zeenat was finally home, and that made Amir's imminent return feel even more real. And she had missed and worried for Zeenat, too, traveling alone. She had prayed for Zeenat and Amir in the same breath since the day Zeenat had left for Rajasthan.

Saba wrapped Zeenat in her arms, quick and tight, then stepped back and studied her daughter-in-law. Her hair was a mess and her clothing rumpled and travel-stained, but she was grinning. "Is this the first time you've hugged me, mother?" Zeenat asked, eyebrow quirked playfully. "Come here." She grabbed Saba in a much longer hug, until she was sure her clothes were just as rumpled as Zeenat's.

"Thank you," Saba whispered as Zeenat let her go. The younger woman's eyes were wet but she was still smiling.

It was then that Saba noticed the woman standing behind Zeenat. She was even younger than her daughter-in-law, wearing severely dark clothes. Her eyes were downcast. The bus was pulling away, with the other passengers who'd disembarked scattering their separate ways, so it couldn't be coincidence that this girl in widow's robes was standing so close.

Zeenat cleared her throat. "Mother, this is Meera. She is the widow of Shankar." Here she paused to glance back at Meera, but Meera gave nothing away, so Zeenat continued. "As Shankar and Amir were friends, and as Meera is now alone, she will be living with me."

Saba wanted to say, what will Amir think of this, coming home to a strange woman in his house? She wanted to say, she's not even Muslim. She wanted to say, will Meera get a job or will she be living off your charity? But that wasn't fair, considering Zeenat had given all of Amir's wages to his parents and kept none for herself. Saba benefited from Zeenat's charity, too.

Instead, she took a breath, ignored the way Zeenat narrowed her eyes in suspicion, pressed her hands together, and greeted Meera. "You saved my son's life," she said, and the words opened up something in her chest, the tomb where all her cataclysmic fear and doubt had hidden, buried deep so she could be strong for her husband.

She realized she was crying a split second before she realized Meera was hugging her. Meera's arms were almost as warm and comforting as Zeenat's, but Saba pulled away. It wasn't right. Meera's husband was dead while Amir would soon be home. She couldn't take a young widow's pity.

Saba stepped back and composed herself. Even with her back straight, she was dwarfed by Zeenat's height, but at least Meera was at eye-level. She was surprised to see tear tracks on Meera's cheeks, hastily wiped away while Saba had been drying her own. She felt a strange regret. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad to cry here. But she could let go later tonight with her husband, maybe. And Meera…

She glanced down and saw that Zeenat had taken Meera's hand. Well. Meera had Zeenat to comfort her.

The weeks between Amir's pardon and his return were both a relief and a torture. His safety wasn't going to be real until Saba could see him with her own eyes, but at least her hope wasn't a fragile thread poised to break anymore. She kept busy to make the days pass faster. Unfortunately the extra hands Zeenat had insisted they hire for their farm were extremely diligent, competent workers -- of course they were, Zeenat had helped hire them -- so Saba had to roam a bit to find more busy work.

Amir and Zeenat's house was not terribly far, and since Zeenat worked most days at the dam, she didn't have much time to cook and keep their house clean. Saba offered to help. She'd been keeping the house in order while Zeenat was away, so there was no reason to stop until Amir was back. Then she would give them their space.

But now the house wasn't empty. Meera was there.

"Don't come in without knocking," Zeenat had insisted. Saba wouldn't have anyway. It was too presumptuous. But Zeenat felt the need to make it an explicit rule, apparently.

The first time she came over, Meera was doing laundry, intently washing a pile of Zeenat's shalwar kameez, as well as the dark robe in which Meera had arrived. Meera was now wearing an outfit similar in style to Zeenat's, but in a soft print of green and yellow. Her hair was tied back, out of the way of the strong, repetitive motion of her arms and shoulders. Saba had helped her hang the clothes to dry, and answered Meera's questions about the nearby farms, the closest town, and Amir and Zeenat's own small garden.

The second time she came over, Meera was weeding in the garden.

She was not wearing her dark robes or a new set of shalwar kameez, but instead one of Zeenat's oldest and most-worn sets. The pants and sleeves were rolled over and over to compensate for their height difference, but despite the modifications necessary, it was obviously the right call. Meera was covered in mud. "Mountain living is never this messy in the movies," she grumbled, and Saba smiled.

She knelt down, carefully in deference to her old knees, and grabbed a pair of work gloves to help with the weeding. "And I suppose desert living is realistic in movies."

Meera flashed a small smile back as she worked a weed out of the ground. "Of course. Sand always stays put. Never goes in unwanted places." The weed came out and Meera tossed it into a growing pile of thorny leaves and twisting, dirt-caked roots. That was when Saba noticed that Meera was wearing Amir's necklace. It had come free from behind the loose neckline of the tunic and was now dangling against Meera's chest. It was the one Amir always wore, every day, until the day he'd given it to Zeenat, mere minutes before boarding the bus. His parting gift.

She wanted to point this out. Maybe Meera didn't know. She wanted to ask questions. Maybe Zeenat kept it at home for safe-keeping and Meera had put it on in ignorance. She wanted to demand the truth about why Meera had followed Zeenat home, but any question or comment Saba could make would hold an accusation, no matter how subtle.

Meera caught her staring. Flushing, she tucked the necklace back into her tunic.

Saba expected Meera to no longer wear Amir's necklace in her presence, but this wasn't the case. On the contrary -- Meera became less likely to hide it. Not too long ago Saba would have chafed at the impropriety of a strange woman moving in with Amir's wife, but whenever her hackles rose she remembered how quick Meera had been to comfort her.

It was becoming clear to her that Zeenat wasn't her only new daughter. Zeenat had been a blessing. Perhaps Meera would be too.

Amir had met people from all around the world during his months in Saudi Arabia. There was cheerful Shankar from Rajasthan, for example, but Amir hated to dwell on his roommate. Whenever his thoughts strayed that way -- and they often did -- Amir said a quick, solemn prayer. No, there were many other people he'd rather remember.

There was Said, who worked at the refinery with him. He was from Turkey and was Muslim like himself, but their faiths resembled each other the way any two species of bird might resemble each other -- a beak and wings in common, perhaps, but a multitude of variation in size, in structure, and in song.

Said had loved to talk. Amir was a content listener. They were a good match that way. Amir had learned a lot about Said's personal Sufism during those months before… before.

Said had told him about the Punjabi Sufi poet Shah Hussain, who fell in love with a Hindu man named Madho Lal, and the two men loved each other so much that they were referred to by one name, and were buried together.

He remembered that now as Zeenat led him inside his home and he caught his first sight of Meera. The young woman's eyes had gone straight to Zeenat as they passed through the door, and Zeenat's eyes had gone straight to her.

His parents had met him at the bus stop. Zeenat had come later, arriving at his parents' house with a warm smile that felt like the sunrise. The walk back to their house gave them plenty of time to talk.

"Your mother told you about Meera, I'm sure," Zeenat had said.

He'd tried not to get nervous or defensive. He'd always known that Zeenat was different. He and Zeenat had been friends before they'd been sweethearts, and a part of him had recognized that the friendship had come easier to her than the romance. But they did love each other, or he would never have had asked her to wed him. "Yes, although she didn't say much," he'd replied.

Zeenat had huffed. "No, she wouldn't, would she?"

"I know that she signed my pardon." He'd let that sink into the crisp evening, the quiet mountain road that he'd walked a hundred times before. It should have felt different, coming home after such a long time away, after weeks spent so close to death. But it didn't. "I owe her my life."

Zeenat had stopped then, tugging his arm until they were facing each other on the shoulder of the road. "Amir, I would never lie to you. You know that."

He'd nodded.

"I love you. And I love Meera also. From the moment I met her."

He'd nodded again. He had no desire to interrupt her.

"I never acted on it. I have so far only been a friend to her. But she knows and-- and she feels the same way."

Of course she loves you too, Amir had thought, though it made little sense. He'd never met Meera, so how could he guess at her emotions? But the idea of Zeenat loving someone unrequitedly seemed absurd, somehow. "Do you want to leave me?"

She'd looked at him steadily. It wasn't fair that she'd had so much time to mull this over. She could have warned him, over the phone. But no, she wouldn't have delivered the news that way. This was better. "No, I still love you. I'm happy living with you. But I won't leave Meera."

He hadn't answered. She'd nodded, as patient as always.

And now here were Zeenat and Meera gazing at each other. If he'd needed proof that they loved each other, it was all in that gaze.

In the next instant Meera was regarding him. She was young and pretty, and gentler-looking than he'd imagined, but there was no mistaking the steel behind her eyes. This was a woman who'd disobeyed her family to save his life. She'd also disobeyed her family to be with Zeenat.

He'd disobeyed his parents to be with Zeenat, too. Love was ever more compelling and complex than he could understand. He clasped Meera's hands and thanked her for his life.

It was a struggle at first to regain a routine. His family and friends came around in the evenings or pestered him until he visited them, and it was good to see them all, but mostly he wanted to spend time by himself. He'd had little to no privacy in Saudi Arabia.

Meera had gotten a job in the front office of a neighboring apple orchard, so both she and Zeenat were gone much of the day. Oddly enough, as much as he avoided large gatherings and cherished his time alone, he felt content when both his wife and Meera came back home.

Early one morning, when Zeenat had already left, Meera sat down next to him and held out her hand. Perplexed, he held out his, and into it she dropped her necklace. No, his necklace; it was as familiar to him as the mountain road.

Meera rubbed the back of her neck. Nervous, perhaps, or maybe the skin there felt bare without the cord. "Zeenat left that behind when I didn't… did she tell you that I almost didn't sign the pardon? I was so angry-- so when she left the necklace I thought it would be all I'd have to remember her by. Going with her hadn't even occurred to me until she reached out. But the necklace is yours, isn't it?"

He didn't even have to think about it. "No, I gave it to Zeenat. It was hers. And she gave it to you. I trust you. I want you to keep it."

The way Meera's face lit up with her smile made him happy, too.

At night he slept in his bed and Meera slept in their guest room, although by now it was simply Meera's room, slowly filling with gifts and trinkets - candles, posters, and scarves -- that marked the space as hers. Zeenat slept in both, according to a schedule in her head that remained a mystery to him. Maybe it should have made him jealous, but it didn't. Meera had become a part of his marriage, irrevocably entangled with Zeenat, as if they had always belonged together. As if, when he'd married Zeenat, he'd actually married Zeenat-and-Meera and he'd just not realized it yet.

One morning he awoke early, alone in bed. He wandered outside and watched the sun rise, slowly painting the mountains in pale washes of blues and greens. The sight made him feel peaceful and whole. It was a feeling he was slowly rediscovering.

Inside he paused in the doorway of Meera's room. She and Zeenat were curled around each other. A sunbeam was brushing up against Zeenat's shoulders, nestling in. Amir rested his head against the door frame and smiled. "I used to ask why Allah would make a woman like you," he told the room softly. Neither woman stirred. "Now I know. Zeenat, only a woman like you could have saved two lives with only the strength of your heart."

The men of Shimla were affectionate with each other. It was common to see friends holding hands as they walked down the busy streets, or sitting with their arms slung around each other's shoulders on the steps of shops and office buildings.

Women were much less physical, which was why Ila noticed when she saw two women strolling hand-in-hand along the mall. It was an unusual sight.

The hands were what caught Ila's attention, but a moment later shocked recognition bloomed within her. That was Meera. That… that was Zeenat and Meera.

How many years had it been? Ten? Ila still remembered the day that had Meera left, and the storm cloud that had hung over the old haveli in her wake. To be fair, the storm had begun earlier -- weeks prior when they'd learned of Shankar's death. Shankar's name had become holy in that home. He had been repainted as the perfect son and spoken of in hushed reverence. Meera's name had become synonymous with dishonor and ill luck (except when Meera's grandmother spoke). And Zeenat was never mentioned at all.

Some days Ila almost believed she'd imagined the woman who'd appeared one day from far off Himachal Pradesh, seemingly with the sole purpose of making Meera smile and buying them all sweets. But most of the time Ila knew that Zeenat had been real. Whatever her reasons for being there at the temple each day, she had been there, and her presence had changed things. She'd told Meera that joy was not a sin. Ila still remembered jumping from the temple steps and landing on her feet in the hot sand -- a "jump of honesty," Zeenat had called it. It was something Ila had done repeatedly in her childhood even after Meera and Zeenat had left, as if the jump were a game or a good luck charm.

She'd never expected to see either of them again, even when she'd enrolled at medical school in Shimla. By then Meera and Zeenat were specters of her past. But if she was honest, the impression she'd held of Himachal Pradesh as a place of courage and generosity had stemmed from Zeenat, and that positive association had influenced her choice of school.

She'd been in Shimla for almost a year now. She was at the mall to buy a new book bag -- her old one was wearing through -- and escape her two roommates for the evening. And now here were Meera and Zeenat, holding hands and ignoring the bustle of the mall in favor of each other.

They hadn't changed at all. No, they had - but in strange, impossible ways. They were both older and younger than she remembered. When she was a child, they'd seemed so old, and although logically they were even older now, their age didn't seem quite so distant. They were smaller, too - especially Zeenat; she wasn't as tall as Ila remembered. But the way they looked at each other -- a river of joy and devotion flowing between them -- that was exactly as Ila remembered.

As they passed her Ila heard Meera laugh. She hadn't heard Meera laugh since Shankar had left India. It was gentle and unconstrained sound; wildflowers spilling over the boarders of a garden in splashes of color. Zeenat was grinning down at Meera, and their fingers were entwined without a thought to the world around them.

They were moving away from her now. Ila shook herself mentally and rushed after them, determined that they wouldn't slip off without a reunion. She had to let them know that they'd had at least one friend in Rajasthan, and that even now they had one more friend in Himachal Pradesh. Ila found her voice and called out to Meera and Zeenat.