In Turkmenistan, the lucky ones have TVs. They point satellite dishes towards Turkey, towards Germany, towards Russia, trying to intercept European channels, longing to peer into worlds inaccessible to them. Mexican soap operas dubbed in foreign tongues play as housewives rest from the noonday heat. Unable to understand the language, they have to glean as much about the plot as they can from the actresses’ raised eyebrows. Beautiful blonde women in diamond-studded evening gowns glide under golden chandeliers, their lipstick never smudging on the necks of their illicit lovers. “Ah, Kelly, how beautiful it all is! Is this what America looks like? Americans are so beautiful!” I was working as an English teacher in a remote village, renting a room from a family at the outskirts of town. Maya, the mother, would grab my arm and compare it to her own. “To be so pale as you!” she’d sigh: a woman’s value predicated on her whiteness. In the autumn, when the whole country was required to pick cotton in the government-owned fields, she’d smear bleaching cream onto her face and hands and cover all but her eyes with an armory of scarves, abhorring every cell threatening to darken her person.
Danny and Peggy couldn’t have children so when their niece Paula shot herself they took her two kids on. My grandma cried when Paula shot herself because she had been such a smart little girl with so much promise. Grandma used to watch her after school and feed her soup and a sandwich and listen to all the things she’d learned that day. “She was a genius,” Grandma said, “really, smart as a whip, and her boy Kevin is turning out the same, too smart for his own good. Still comes over my house every day like his mom used to, and tells me all about his math class. He has bipolar they call it. We used to say it was the devil. We used to call the priest for a boy like that. He can be a real pill, I’ll tell you what, but usually he’s a real sweet kid. Real sweet but he called me a c-u-n-t last week. Can you believe that? Where does he learn it? When Danny and Peggy got Kevin and Ruthie, Kevin he was just a baby. Them two was already more or less raising Ruthie anyhow. Botha them kids was born addicted to meth, you know. Botha them babies cried like banshees for months after they were born, on account of withdrawal. The first Sunday Peggy brought Kevin to Mass you could swear he looked so mad he could spit. What a racket he made! What hate in that sweet little baby’s eyes!”
There was a gunshot and screaming and everyone ran out into the hall and a man was running with all of his heart. The teachers all burst into the classroom where everyone was screaming and there was blood all over one of the desks, and a dying child in the blood. The teachers began crying and screaming and the child was dying. The other children were crying and screaming. The face of the boy’s teacher was grey with terror. The principal, Parahat, called the police. What could the police do? The police came and the boy was dead and they could do nothing. They questioned the children in the classroom. “The killer was a drug addict!” they said. “Hasan’s parents were addicts too, they owed him money.”
“Money?! He killed a child for money?” The teachers wrung their headscarves and cried.
“Twenty dollars he said,” the grey teacher whispered. “His parents owed him twenty dollars for heroin.”
“He was a member of the Baluch tribe, wasn’t he?” the police goaded the children.
“No, not a Baluchi, he was a Turkmen–just a heroin addict,” the children said.
The police arrested and shot a Baluchi man for the crime. Parahat called the police because she didn’t know what else to do and the police used it as an excuse to kill the wrong man. Someone said they beat his dick with water bottles until he confessed.
The Baluch are a nomadic people originally from Pakistan, trapped in Turkmenistan decades ago when the Soviets closed the borders. Many of them still live off the land, but they’re hated; thought to be dirty, homeless drifters. Whenever there’s a crime the police use it as an excuse to kill another Baluch. A valueless life, a valueless death: if, as some have said, the only true currency is human attention. A child was killed for twenty dollars his parents owed, and Parahat accidentally got another man killed for being born, thirty years prior, to the wrong mother.
Desire is an infectious disease: traders trace it through stock market charts like epidemiologists, auscultating its progress by the market’s fitful breathing. Early economists wrote equations predicated on the idea that a thing’s value determined its price: value was something produced by the land, or labor. Now, value is measured by the market, a euphoric dance between supply and demand: price determines value. Money has gathered its own dim agency, borrowed from us like the moon borrows sunlight.
Take, for example, the diamond. Diamonds are a common gem, not nearly so rare or valuable as they’re made out to be. But the De Beers company controls the vast majority of the worldwide diamond production, so they can artificially inflate the diamonds’ worth by letting them trickle out to market slowly. Over the past century DeBeers has managed to run one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever. They’ve transformed the lowly diamond into a rock of inestimable worth, the physical signifier of love, a corporeal stand-in for human companionship. What could be more valuable — save love itself, of course?
Commercials for diamonds invariably end with a woman gasping in delight: a diamond means fulfillment, means security, means admittance into ‘forever.’ A diamond means relief from striving: we have found the person with which to share — or at least to admit — our mortality. An advertisement is not selling a material good or service, but a heightened state of being.
Like the diamond, freedom is made valuable by how little is meted out to us. It is waved before us as we lie thirsting for some semblance of control over our lives: held up to our chapped lips like a cup of salt water.
There was a family living in a car perpetually parked outside my friend’s house in Oakland. They kept a foil sun deflector up to afford themselves some privacy, but you could see them nonetheless. The windows were usually fogged up from their breath, beads of condensation rolling down hesitantly, zigzagging like wandering drunks. Their baby would sometimes pound on the hazy window and wave at me but the mother, ashamed, pulled him away. I never waved back: I pretended not to see them, in deference to her humiliation.
Language was a weapon, there. The dictator of Turkmenistan had instituted a new dictionary, had renamed even time — the months, for example, were named after himself, his mother, bread. He’d written a book and citizens were subject to oral examination on its contents and vocabulary at any given moment — to get a driver’s license, to get a job, to keep a job. He’d also renamed himself: Turkmenbashy, Leader of the Turkmen. No one would dare speak against him; he’d stocked the world with spies. Certainly no one trusted me, a foreigner, and doubtless a double agent. But I learned, in time, how to gain their trust: dissenters referred to him by his birth name, Saparmyrat. Refusing to call him by his self-fashioned title was the only power we had over him. We used the name he was given as a newborn. Voicing it was a spell we cast, summoning back his infant frailty.
I sometimes think of the American flags NASA left on the moon: by now they’ve been bleached white by solar radiation, like flags of surrender. And it’s so wonderful, this image: our armipotent nation, leaving nationalistic icons on a celestial body, only to learn their meaning’s been slowly, secretly, transformed. Those white flags are up there still, surrendering us endlessly to the sky.
Maya’s grandfather had found the race to the moon hilariously misguided. “Don’t they realize the moon is a concept, not a place? They’ll pour money and research into these rockets, but once they fly up there, the farther away the moon will float, like a mirage. They’ll never be able to reach it — they’ll only discover how wrong they’ve been.”
“Now, what kind of race do we have to be proud of?” Maya asked, throwing scraps of bread to their dog, Laika. “Just a race to build walls, protect the poor people of this place from the poor people of that one. Look at my windows — bars to guard us poor against the destitute! What are they going to take? I am the only thing I have left they can steal from me!”
No one knew his name and he wouldn’t tell it to us so we called him White Shirt. He was wearing a hand-me-down dress shirt–possibly from his father, possibly from the custom of donating a deceased person’s clothes to the poor after a funeral. It was grimy and tattered, billowing like sails on his pole thin body. He wasn’t enrolled in the school, and my students and I had never seen him before. He was probably a shepherd for his family’s flocks, but he must’ve heard about the soccer ball so he left his animals with a sibling and came running. I’d bought the ball in the capital and brought it back to the village in order to start a sports club; hoping to distract my bored students from the prevailing hobbies of alcohol and heroin.
White Shirt came running to the schoolyard in bare feet. The other boys had shoes, sandals at least, sometimes the discarded house slippers of their mothers, pink and much too large but protection from the rocks and nettles. I had on sneakers and the tall thorns cut up my ankles–my legs stinging, I couldn’t understand how the kids could possibly be enjoying themselves, but they were thrilled. White Shirt, however, had a terrible temper. He raged at the other children. He kicked and clawed them and ruined the soccer ball. His feet were bleeding and his white shirt got bloody and he was laughing when the other children began crying about how White Shirt had ruined all their fun. He was hatred and laughing and drinking up greedily all the fun of the children wearing shoes.
My Grandma’s mother ran a diner during the Great Depression. Grandma said Great Grammo couldn’t cook worth a damn but she could sure cook a lot. She’d always make a plate up for drifters when they came through, always had a plate of food for anyone who was hungry. “We had to hang in together,” Grammo would say of those times. “We was all of us hurting.” But Grandma later confessed to me that, as a child, she was horrified by the dirtiness of the homeless men. Whenever one ate in her mother’s diner she’d smash his plate outside by the highway rather than have to clean it. Some kinds of trouble are catching.
Maya listened to Radio Freedom every morning at breakfast, a news program broadcast by Turkmen revolutionaries living in the Ukraine. Radio was just the right sort of technology–less risky than a physical meeting, but accessible and untraceable, unlike the internet. She and her husband discussed the disappearance of an old man: it was reported that he had sent a complaint letter to the government after they’d rescinded all retirement pensions. Maya’s son Muhammet tried to join in the conversation, but she silenced him. “You are not to talk of Radio Freedom. Not to anyone. Ever.” Muhammet feigned indifference and licked a Hershey’s Kiss I’d brought them. He regarded it for a moment–”It looks just like a little mosque!” he laughed, then folded one into his mother’s hand. “Mama, try this, really–it will remove all your sorrows. You don’t need to worry about this sad stuff all the time.” Maya unwrapped the chocolate and studiously bit off its minaret. “It’s true enough. What’s the point of Radio Freedom? I can’t stand to listen to it anymore. People send them letters and questions with neighbors who travel to the Ukraine for business. They report on heartbreak after heartbreak, murder after murder. But they can’t help. All they can do is talk. All they can do is report the problem. They’re just pouring more black water into our dark sea. I have enough problems of my own. What can they do? Nothing.” She switched the radio off. “I can’t afford any more worry.”
Mildred had lived in the same house since the fifties, had raised her children there. All the angles of the house were wrong now; the area’d been mined so clean the whole town slumped. She prepared dinner with tinned meat, a white can professing “Pork, with juices” in a sanserif black font. Her china set was a source of great pride. When she was a child you’d get a free teacup if you bought a certain brand of oatmeal that no one could afford save the wives of steel workers. She’d thought them so beautiful then, and promised herself that when she grew up, she’d own exactly — exactly! — those dishes. Finally, she’d tracked down a full set from flea markets and estate sales.
Her neighbor had the same obsession. He’d bought nothing nice for himself save that dinner set. He’d been a curmudgeon, no wife or family. He’d saved money his whole life, but didn’t want anyone, not even his relatives, to get any of it when he died. He and Mildred had been neighbors for decades, and she’d always been friendly to him. He could’ve helped her, he might’ve helped her afford a nurse. But instead, he’d commissioned a miniature replica of the Washington Monument to be built on his lawn. Mildred shook her head. It wasn’t finished by the time he died, so the construction workers just quit the job and pocketed the remaining commission. Mildred could see it over the tree line: a half-hearted obelisk broadcasting the spite of man.
Bahar, a former student, called me with some good news after I’d returned to the States. I’d written her a letter of recommendation for an exchange program to the U.S., and she’d been accepted. It was her absolute dream: she would be living in America for a year. “And Kelly, I will be in Pennsylvania, near you! You can come visit me, and meet my host family!” A few weeks into her stay, Bahar called me late at night. “I hate it here,” she whispered. “It’s awful and dirty. I don’t think I can do this anymore.” I offered to take her to New York City for the weekend, so I drove to central Pennsylvania to meet her host family and pick her up. A pack of dogs chased my car as I pulled down the long driveway. Bahar was living on one of those dilapidated old dairy farms that’d been taken over by poison ivy, the families who inherit them lucky to make a few dollars selling hay for mulch. Her host family had seven children ranging in age from three to seventeen. They also had several dogs and a family of cats who had known such effusive attention from an early age that the children could drag them around like toys and stack them into a neat pile: I saw the seven-year-old make a tower of five cats, each laying serenely atop the last. Bahar’s host mother sweetly fussed over the “nice sit-down meal” she was preparing — microwaved mini pizzas and celery with cream cheese. Her children squealed “pizza!” with delight. Bahar whispered “the food here isn’t fresh, it always tastes bad. Sometimes all we have is potato chips for dinner.” The house was so packed with detritus there was only a slender path carved between the rooms, a bag of pretzels spilled on the ground days ago, ignored even by the dogs. The host family had given Bahar her own room but she took a full weekend to clean out the space–the family wasn’t happy about it but she purged or relocated everything she could, then scrubbed the room floor to ceiling because everything, everything, was packed in and they had so much junk still they couldn’t let go of a single thing, no matter how tobacco stained, burnt or broken and “oh, I had no idea America would be like this. I asked the school nurse why am I getting so fat here, I’m not eating any more than I was in Turkmenistan, and she said it was my fault, it’s my bad genes, she won’t admit that the food here is bad. I’m so lonely here. All they do is talk about the TV. If I knew America was like this, I never would have come.”
That winter, the wheat shortage was devastating families. “The grain crops here were bad this year, and too many farmers are changing the crops they grow to sell corn to biofuel companies. There’s no point to money if there’s no food to be bought! They’re putting gas in American’s cars instead of food in our mouths. Allah hold us!” Housewives lined up at five AM to buy a round of bread or a bag of wheat, but often came home empty handed. Maya had stockpiled a few sacks of flour last autumn, so she gave out bread to her neighbors the Durdyevs, who only had income during the cotton-picking season.
One afternoon Maya’s son Muhammet came home with a black eye: the Durdyev boys Arslan and Azim had ganged up on him. Maya was livid. “Wahey! Hold this ice to it. What nasty people–I give them bread all the time! Their mother just watched it happen, just stood by as her sons beat up my poor boy! But she must hate having to take our charity as much as they do. Besides, they have nothing–not a pinky’s worth. You must forgive them, Muhammet. Those boys are always hungry. You know how angry you feel when you’re hungry!”
She’d mentioned, once, that the Soviet Empire fell not to ideology, not to high-minded ideals, but to hunger. “How much longer can we stand to go without food? Without clean water? Without medicine?” Revolutions do not root in the mind, but the body.
It is said that the sultan Malik Shah prayed thus:
“Oh, My Allah!
I can get rid of hunger.
Save me from satiety!”
“I seen there was four of them went down there, down a Debbie’s place. They been beatin’ her up for her social security check. Don’t even beat her up I mean, just threaten her and she has no choice, she gives it over. Same guys I wonder stripped the copper pipes outta Jim Cullen’s house when he was in the hospital over the weekend. Now he’s gotta ask Pat McPherson’s nephew to stay in the house whenever he goes in an’ gets his dialysis. Nothin’ left but old folks here, all the jobs moved to West Virginia. All the families. Left just the meth heads and us old folks living hand to mouth off whatever the state’ll give us anymore. Like sitting ducks. But this was my family’s farm. I don’t want to leave. This place was my dream. I could go live with my daughter and her family in West Virginia. But that’s not my land. That’s not my home.”
Forty thousand light years away, in the direction of Serpens Cauda, dances a single diamond the size of a planet. Once a giant star, it has collapsed into a crystal of pure carbon five times more massive than earth itself. The lighter elements were ripped out of the star by the gravitational pull of its companion pulsar, a dying sun, leaving only its diamond core. A world of perfect, indestructible beauty, spinning dangerously with its collapsing twin. Invisible to the eye, its beauty can only be appraised by mathematical estimation. How much is such a diamond worth? And to whom valuable?
Usually we’d get our water from Afghanistan–it was trucked from high in the Hindu Kush mountains and stored in a well. The local canal water wasn’t potable–mostly agricultural runoff diverted from the ecological disaster that is the shrinking Aral Sea–but the water in Afghanistan was deteriorating too. They said a woman had recently given birth to a not-baby, to something lifeless and deformed, and we wondered whether the water from Afghanistan was becoming poisoned with uranium from the American’s dirty bombs. Many Turkmen believe that water by its very nature is clean, incorruptible: you’d see people drinking from the canal that all the outhouses emptied into, all the pesticide-laced cotton fields drained into. Water could not be sullied: it was purity itself. But they said that when this woman had her child, there was nothing but blood and meat. They said it looked as though a sheep had been slaughtered inside of her.
There are several theories as to how the Hindu Kush mountains got their name. It might refer to the days when Hindu slaves from India died in droves as they were being transported across Afghanistan to serve in the Muslim courts of Central Asia: Hindu Kush meaning “Kills the Hindu” in Persian. Or the word “Kush” might be related to “Koh-i-Nor,” the name given to a famously massive diamond in India, which translates to “Mountain of Light.” “Hindu Kush” may then refer to the diamantine snow of the peaks leading to India, one of the few remaining sources of clean water in Central Asia.
English primer, level 3
“Janet, let us go to the music hall.”
“I do not know where is the music hall.”
“Oh, we must go there just right. Stop, stop Janet. Listen to the music.”
“Oh, it’s about our Great Leader. It’s a nice music.”
“Yes, it is very nice. I know the words. It is our anthem. Turkmenistan, my Motherland! If I speak a word against you, may my tongue be lost! If I commit a deed against you, may my life be lost!”
Our neighbor Lachyn had a highly sought-after job at the Turkish jeans factory. She came home every night with arms and face dyed blue. She was proud of it–a mark of her status. She’d gesture emphatically, elegantly stained hands slender as her wrists, her indigo luster a kind of alien beauty. When she blew her nose, her handkerchief turned blue and she coughed up blue phlegm. All the workers were having lung trouble, but they held up their ruined health like a badge of honor. They worked, after all, for an international corporation. Lachyn pushed over a plate of Russian chocolates wrapped in gold. “Why are you so quiet, always? Just ask–ask for anything you want! You are my guest. We Turkmens have a saying: the infant who does not cry out in hunger will be given no breast to suckle.”
Some years later, in Turkey, workers went without salaries for months, were fired without notice or severance pay. There was no one to complain to, no one to hold accountable. Shoppers 6,000 miles away found handwritten notes in the pockets of their new pants: “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.”
When this made international headlines the parent company issued an apology. “We are committed to improving labor conditions at all levels of the garment sector value chain” they lied, then patiently waited for the media attention to fade away.
My friend’s car was stolen out of his driveway. He was furious. He pestered the police station every day to ask if it’d been found. Turns out there’s a favorable recovery rate for stolen cars–they usually don’t go very far. His was discovered two weeks after it disappeared. Its door was bent out of shape and a window was shattered. He raged about what would happen to his insurance rates. “This is bullshit! I can barely pay my bills as it is!” But the radio was still there, and the car ran just fine. When he opened up the trunk, he found an abandoned baby seat and a job application for a position washing dishes at Red Lobster.
Bibish was the finder of lost things. She helped me find my flashlight, and Maya’s misplaced paperwork. She could put her hand on the Koran and feel for truth through it. They said one day she’d fallen into a coma, slept for several months, and when she woke up, she could see things no one else could see, feel things no one else could feel. Our young neighbor Azim had gone missing, so the next time I saw her for tea, I asked her about him. Rumor had it that Azim had crossed the border to Afghanistan to join an extremist group. The family, of course, would never confirm such a rumor. It put them at risk with the local authorities. When a son disappeared in this way, it was euphemistically said that the boy had left for the “house of forgetting,” because the family never seemed to be able to remember what had become of him. “Azim, we haven’t heard from him, he left for the capital,” they claimed. But Bibish couldn’t feel him through her Koran, and he never returned. Azim had stolen his family’s memories for good.
Of the four fundamental forces in nature, gravity is the weakest. It’s so weak, in fact, that scientists have only recently made direct measurements of it. It had previously been inferred from the motion of the massive bodies it affects. It’s still full of mystery: for example, there is a well documented anomaly wherein spacecraft flying by Earth report a brief, inexplicable increase in velocity of 13 millimeters per second. Gravity doesn’t fit within the Standard Model of physics, and by our current estimation, it’s too weak to hold galaxies together as well as it does. Yet, while stars are bound together more tightly than could be possible given such a frail force, the universe also appears to be rocketing apart, as though repulsed. The constellations, familiar forms since antiquity, will eventually become unrecognizable as the stars composing them stretch towards the farthest edges of the sky. Though physicists have yet to fully relegate gravity with the rest of the universe, our experience of it is inarguable: to most humans, it is the mundane perpetrator of wrinkles and prat falls. We infer it every time we drop a pen, or pour milk into our cereal.
When a body falls to Earth, it exerts an equal but opposite force on the planet. During the global recession of the early 80’s, my grandfather, facing financial ruin, jumped from a bridge into the Delaware River. “Jumped, or fell,” the obituary politely reported. (“It is a mathematical inevitability,” we say of the market: “what goes up must come down.”) Now, assume my grandfather’s body was a sphere. The center of his mass moved in a straight line through curved space-time, tugging–infinitesimally–on Earth’s trajectory. He did not hit the water, but the rocky riverbed: atomic forces binding molecules of stone repulsed his descent, underpinning an inelastic collision wherein the force of impact was absorbed by his skeleton. The mammalian heart is not well supported within the chest; we might model it as an egg cradled by rubber bands stretched across the rigid ribcage. My grandfather’s legs were broken, but he would have lived, had his heart not been torn from the soft web of arteries stringing it in place.
Gravity is the weakest force, but we know from relativity that gravity doesn’t just pull on mass, it pulls on time, too. So, as my grandfather neared the surface of the Earth, time slowed imperceptibly. As he fell, the arch of Ursa Major flattened itself out by a billionth of a degree. As he fell — mirroring the market by which he divined his own value — every galaxy in the universe flew farther away from Earth in an arc that gravitation has no power to correct. My grandfather’s body was discovered the next morning by a passing motorist; policemen collected the items flung from his pockets on impact. His bloated face unrecognizable, my grandmother refused to believe it was him until an officer produced his rosary. Outside, spring flurries floated, as though suspended midair.
While respectable people took taxis to get where they needed to go, the Baluch and the very poor walked, or drove their donkeys. The women would gather up the six-foot train of their white headdresses and hold them at their hips to avoid dragging them in the dust. They carried large plastic satchels of things they’d bought in the village, and out of nowhere one might take a sharp left at a deer path, or a clump of thistle, and walk off into a landscape as barren as the moon.
The road into town was not terrible. My taxi driver had all the windows open and was eating sunflower seeds, spitting salted husks against the air tumbling into the car. The backseat felt like a convection oven, my face filmed with dust and dried sweat. Some distance ahead, a child’s reclining body rose, as though floating. At the pinnacle of his trajectory, he might have surpassed the height of a man. My driver slammed the brakes. A mother had been crossing the road with her son, had been busy re-arranging her headscarf when it happened. The boy had run out into traffic, perhaps eager to chase the dog on the other side of the road. I asked the driver to stop, and he did, reluctantly. The man who hit the boy had also pulled over, but the other drivers, who had no doubt seen the accident, continued to speed past.
The boy’s mother was oddly composed. The boy was not dead but perhaps she could not yet let herself imagine all the things that might be wrong with him when, if, he awoke. There were no obvious wounds. The driver who hit the boy, likewise, seemed strangely calm. He picked up the boy like a ragdoll and offered the mother a ride to a hospital. “Which one would you like to go to?” He gestured behind him to the nearest village with a provincial clinic. There might not be a doctor there, but even if there were, there would be no medicine. The driver then pointed to the city: “there’s a decent hospital there, with some German equipment.” There the boy might have some hope, but the cost impossible. Meanwhile my taxi driver was whining about the heat, trying to push me back into the car, eager to be done with his fare. The woman looked back and forth between the two points on the horizon. Her mouth was working rhythmically up and down, her palm pressed hard against it. “I could help with the doctor’s fees,” the driver lied. The woman eyed the city with fear. She asked to be driven back to the village; her dying son limp the in the arms of his assailant.
Maya brought out the ring her grandmother had given her. She kept it in a secret place she’s never shown anyone. Her daughter Keyik leaned in, eyes burning with awe.
“This will be yours when you marry, Keyik.”
“Praise God! It’s so beautiful, Mama! Is it a real diamond?”
“Real?” Maya paused. “Yes. Almost.”
“Millennials are killing the diamond,” headlines scream, despite the fact they aren’t alive. Nor have they utility to life: we can’t breathe diamonds. There are no headlines announcing “Texaco killing the Amazon.” There is, apparently, no valuing life over product: because life has no value, because life has no price.
“Mama — why is this on? I thought you didn’t want to listen to Radio Freedom anymore.”
“Of course I don’t want to. But of course I will.”
Maya came home and plunked down a soccer ball outside the kitchen door.
“Kelly! You lent Arslan this soccer ball? Are you crazy? Thanks be to Allah, I got it back for you!”
“He’s just next door, where’s he going to go with it?”
“Not Arslan, his father! You know he’s a drug addict! If he saw this he would’ve stolen it from his boy and sold it for heroin! Don’t you have a head?”
Earlier that summer I’d given Arslan a few pennies for ice cream. I gave him enough to buy one of the nicer chocolate covered popsicles, but I saw him walk back from the store with two small cones of the cheaper ice cream. “Hungry, Arslan?” I teased. “One for me, one for my Papa!” he beamed with pride.
Touch is the first sense developed in the womb; a fetus can feel as early as seven weeks. Scientists claim that it is through touch that social consciousness develops. Within a few weeks of their limbs forming, twin fetuses take care to direct their kicks away from one another, suggesting that empathy begins as soon as the body registers pain.
After returning home to the States, I had beers with my best friend from high school, who’d become almost unrecognizable. He’d been working as a roofer since we graduated, and had turned from a lanky comic nerd to a man twice his previous size. “I’m applying for the Marines,” he announced. “You’ll kill people,” I stammered. “You could be killed.” “There are bad men out there,” he told me. “I want to protect the people I love.” We’d both loved comic books as kids, and he’d always had a particular affinity for vigilante heroes like Batman. He made it into the Marines and left to serve as a medic in Afghanistan just after marrying his girlfriend. Within a year, he was blown up by an IED and came home to his new wife with no legs, one arm, and two fingers. After he woke up out of his coma he kept crying, over and over, how happy he was no one else got hurt in the blast. He was so utterly grateful he’d been the only loss.
“In America, you have very good doctors, hm? I’ve seen it on TV–people can get new faces, new bodies. You know my husband’s hand, how it’s just a little claw? I hear in America they can sew a new hand on and it would work as though it were his own. If we could send Döwlet to America, could the doctors fix his hand?”
“Where would the new hand come from?”
“I’d give him mine, of course!”
There was a terrible dust storm that night but Maya and I braved it. Maya’s cousin was getting married across town and we couldn’t miss it. The street lamps lining the deserted village threw off halos that seemed to extend forever in the gauzy haze and we held scarves over our faces like shy brides ourselves. The wind had died down by the time we got there, and they’d just begun to serve dinner and vodka. We helped by scraping the coating of dust off the mayonnaise salads. As the dancing picked up, an older man twirled out of the crowd to introduce his daughter to me. “I know she’s the most beautiful girl in the world, but I thought I should ask the American to confirm it!” His daughter was my age–by Turkmen standards on the cusp of old maid-dom–but her hair was still in the braids of an unmarried woman. Her looks were unremarkable, and she was painfully shy. “I’d buy her jewelry, but she’s far too pretty for it. She’d shame even gold! Have you ever seen such a beautiful girl in America?”
“Never,” I told him. His eyes danced with joy. He shoved some hard candies into my hand for luck and spun his daughter back out into the dancing crowd, crying “A jewel! A jewel! Praise Allah for this fortune! I am the father of the most beautiful diamond in creation!”