A sharp knock on the door woke Zahra immediately and she sat up bolt upright in her small pallet. She was disoriented for a moment thinking she was still on the Galagher Farm and late to wake up. There was a severe punishment for lateness and not many were late again after being punished once.
April sat up beside her and stretched bringing Zahra back to the present. They had been sold to their new masters last night. When they arrived, they had been ushered to this small room that they were to share with strict instructions that they were to get some sleep since they would be up early the next morning. It can’t have been three hours later that they had been woken. This would take some getting used to. The sharp knock sounded again and the door opened to reveal Ms. Delaney.
“Still abed at this hour? Get up and get ready immediately. You will be briefed with the other servants downstairs.” With one last sharp look, she turned and left the room not bothering to get a reply.
April flopped back on her bed and Zahra yawned. It looked like they weren’t going to get it easy on their first day. Then again, she hadn’t known what to expect so this could be a good thing. At least she didn’t have to start back-breaking work at that odd hour of the morning.
The rest of the day went as expected. They were put to work almost immediately they reported for the morning duties. From sun up to sun down, they wiped and cleaned and cooked and fetched and worked until they were worn out. But they still got three meals and a warm, clean place to sleep. A vast improvement, even April had to admit. The last time she’d worked, she was little more than a slave herself; a concept Zahra still found odd but did not question. She was in a strange land and the customs were stranger.
In the evening, they were both called out, tired as they were, to meet the masters. Zahra wondered briefly why they weren’t introduced in the bright light of day but kept her questions to herself. If April thought this odd, she didn’t say anything.
They were led to the living room where the impatient man from before sat next to a woman who was pointing out something to him from a book she was reading. Zahra thought she saw a small smile touch his lips as he gazed at the woman and not the book but it was gone as soon as they walked into the room.
The woman smiled and put down the book.
“Ah, you must be the new girls,” she said, her voice soft and airy, “we welcome you into our home.”
Zahra and April curtsied as Ms. Delaney had taught them and she gave them a small nod of approval.
“I trust you won’t give Ms. Delaney any trouble,” she said tilting her head slightly to the side. A jet black lock of hair fell over her shoulder and her light brown eyes briefly glowed a bright amber. It startled Zahra and she did her best to hide it. Her words were soft but the sentence hung heavy with an unspoken threat.
“No ma’am,” they said in unison.
“Good,” she chimed clapping her hands, “well then, the children are up in the nursery. Their nanny will be with them. You will introduce them, won’t you Ms. Delaney?”
“Of course, Madam,” replied the housekeeper and then she led them back out of the living room. Zahra had the distinct feeling that she had just survived something major. It would probably be best not to get on the mistress’ bad side.
They went up the stairs and onto the first floor which, Mrs. Delaney explained, contained the library, the master’s study, the guest rooms and a cleaning cupboard. At the far end of the hallway was a window overlooking the east garden. In the morning, the entire hallway would fill with sunlight. The heavy curtains at the windows were currently open. It reminded her of the room they had been in just before they were sold. Most households would draw the curtains in the night time and open them in the day.
“The second floor contains the nursery, the master bedroom and the west library. There are a few more guest rooms up here as well and when the masters are entertaining, you and the other maids will be expected to keep them clean, turn the beds, change the linens and the curtains and dust and polish all the furniture. I don’t have to tell you that you are to keep your interactions with the guests to a minimum. The perfect help should not be seen or even heard.”
Zahra and April shared a look but said nothing.
The nursery was the third room to the left of the long hall. From inside came the happy voices of the children. Why on earth would they be up that late? It was another mystery, but again, not her place to question the ways of the household. Ms. Delaney opened the door and led them into the well-lit room. The curtains here were drawn back as with the rest of the house. Two children, the older probably ten or twelve and the younger probably four or five, sat on the floor with an array of toys scattered around them. The older child, the girl, stood and bowed her head slightly.
“Mistress Marie, Master Terrance, these are April and Rose,” Zahra flinched at the use of her slave name, “they will be working with us and taking care of you while nanny is away.”
An elderly woman stood from her seat in the corner and came up to Zahra and April with outstretched hands, a smile on her face. She reminded Zahra of Tess. Her skin colour was similar and her eyes were just as sharp and just as bright.
“Welcome,” she said, her voice stronger than they expected, “I know you will find a lot of joy with these young ones, so well-behaved they are.”
Zahra couldn’t help but smile back. The boy who had come for a closer look peeked up at them from behind the old woman’s skirts. The girl stood at her side and, seeing the smile on her nanny’s face, smiled at them both.
“You look funny,” she said to Zahra, “your skin looks like the night time.” It was a startling declaration and the other three women waited anxiously for Zahra’s response. There was no argument as to how rude it sounded and Mrs. Delaney was about to interject when Zahra smiled and thanked Marie very kindly for her apt observation.
“I come from very far away, across the waters. And in that land, all the people look just like me,” she went on to explain. The little girl looked fascinated. She hadn’t seen enough of the world to realise that this was possible.
“Really?” she said almost bouncing where she stood. It was clear that she had already chosen a favourite. Their nanny took her hand, however, and changed the subject. She looked a little deflated but there would be plenty of other opportunities to talk and ask all the questions Zahra had seen her creating in her mind. They were both precious and Zahra was sure they would get along just fine.
It reminded her briefly of what she had lost and a shadow crossed her features. Her own child would have already been born and she would have held him or her in his arms. Would they have been round-faced like her brothers and sisters? Would they have her eyes? Her ears? Her nose? Her father’s chin? Her mother’s smile? She would never know.
They child would probably have been taken away from her at birth. It was not uncommon and given Mrs. Galagher’s temper, it would not have been beneath her to kill her husband’s illegitimate child. And she would have made sure Zahra watched. Zahra shuddered wondering which fate would have been preferable.
When they got back to their room, she sat heavily on her pallet. The loss had been much greater than she had expected and even now, even though it really didn’t seem like it bothered her, she would feel the same sorrow she felt when she thought of her home. The hole those losses left could not be fathomed as much as it could not be filled.
April sat beside Zahra and took her hand. She had a feeling this was much more serious than being in a house where the conditions were much better than they would be on a slave farm. Something else was bothering her.
“There, there now. What’s the matter?” she asked wiping Zahra’s tears. Zahra shook her head and April drew her into her arms. Whatever it was, they would get through it together. They were all the other had and they had formed a bond almost immediately. So April held Zahra until she finished her cry and pulled away slowly.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered and wiped the last of her tears.
“You don’t have to apologise to me,” she said patting Zahra’s back, “but you don’t have to tell me either. It must have been hard.”
Zahra nodded and began preparing for bed. They spoke no more that night. They would have to be up very early in the morning. Zahra’s strength was drained from all the crying and she was sure Ms. Delaney would not accept that as an excuse for being in bed late. They were still in a new house and it would not be hard to replace them if they caused trouble, not to mention the fact that the mistress was not someone to be trifled with.
Sending up a prayer of thanks to her ancestors and the Creator for her change in fortune, she climbed into bed and was fast asleep in moments.
“Za… ahra… Za…a”
The voice that called her name sounded as if it came from far off. She opened sleepy eyes only to be met with the sight of tall brown grass rustling in the wind as it did in the hot months back at home. The crickets chirped happily in the golden sunshine. Above her, old branches creaked as they swayed gently back and forth. She was leaning against her favourite tree, the bark old and gnarled, the wood solid beneath her. The sound of water drew her attention. She was near the river. It was a warm sunny day like any other. She wondered what this meant.
“Zahra,” came the voice again, this time clearer and much closer. She sat up and looked around to find a figure sitting next to her.
His name spilled from her lips and her eyes at once filled with tears. How was this possible? How long had it been since she’d seen him like this, healthy and as cheeky as ever? She had longed for that smile. She felt a warmth wash over her. Her Hadi…
He reached for her cheek with one hand to wipe her tears away and she only cried harder, throwing herself at him and holding him tightly. He laughed and patted her back, his palm against her cheek and she felt his lips against her head. Had it all just been a bad dream? It couldn’t have been… She sat back on her heels and he wrapped his arms around his knees with a fond smile at her.
Hadi smiled and shook his head looking wistfully up to the sky. She followed his gaze upwards. Fluffy white clouds floated lazily across a blue, blue sky. The world was this space, with Hadi as they sat in the warm sunshine. It was perfect.
“My flower,” said Hadi not looking at her, “we were to be married. Where did you go off to?” It wasn't an accusation but she felt the hurt behind the question.
She looked down at her fingers. So that life, the one where she now dwelt in a foreign land and this... this was the dream. She felt the weight of that realisation and more tears fell.
“I was… stolen.”
He nodded still looking up. She wished he would look at her. She had missed him so much and here he was, with her. Her Hadi.
“And you are far away from me,” he said finally turning to look at her, a strange gleam in his eyes, “and I am even farther away from you.”
The meaning of his words sank in slowly. It couldn’t be…
“I have gone before you, my Zahra. I only came… to say my farewell.” More tears fell and this time, he did not wipe them away. She reached for him but he had already begun to fade so her hands landed on nothing. She called out his name but he did not respond.
“Be brave my love,” echoed his voice all around her as he disappeared completely, his mischievous grin fading into the beautiful background of grass.
Then she was all alone.
That was the last thing she remembered as she opened her eyes to the small room in her new masters’ home. She stifled her sobs even as she felt her heart break a little more.
Her people believed in spirits that visited the last person they thought of when they left the earth. They came in form of visions, of apparitions, of voices in the wind… and occasionally, in dreams.
And Hadi had come to her.
She hadn’t wanted to believe – to think… but now, after this…
She huddled herself in her blanket and cried all the tears she had still held in her heart.
The next few days were full of bustle. The masters had invited guests over and the help was to get those rooms prepared. The rooms were thoroughly dusted and swept, the windows were wiped clean and the heavy curtains changed with clean ones. Zahra helped one of the other maids spread the bed wordlessly. It had been much easier for her to throw herself into her work and not think about Hadi or strange dreams.
The nights were harder. That was when the ghosts of her past came to haunt her. She saw the look in her mother’s eyes when she had offered herself to save the other women in the hut. She saw Hadi kissing her goodbye before they went to fight the invaders. The grasslands where they had sat in her dream were dark and grey and the loneliness… sometimes there were screams that woke her with a start. Other times, strange creatures with sharp teeth and glowing eyes chased her through the long grass of her homeland.
They never caught her but the nightmares would not stop. And they were taking a toll on her, one she could not seem to shake.
So, when she made her way through the main corridor of the house heading for her quarters, in desperate need of a brief respite, she stopped as her head began to swim. She reached her hand out for the wall to steady herself but her hand caught only air. A deep voice spoke somewhere near her but she couldn’t place it. The green patterned carpet at her feet swam and then her vision blurred and then the ground rose up to meet her.
Strong arms caught her before she hit the ground and the last thing she saw were two beautiful blue eyes looking into hers and that deep voice saying something incoherent to her, before the world faded into darkness.