I Breathed You First, Even Though He Claimed You by Maya Kanwal

That you were forbidden, not to be had, was something I had assumed—but only until the moment I brushed raven curls out of your eyes. That drenched winter morning you were still new to our town. You passed by my mist-laden window all kohl-lined eyes and plum lips, then you slipped in the mud at my threshold.

I ran out barefoot, more to see the creature you were than to check if you were unhurt. Your shoulders and head lay in my lap and you would not blink; those unflinching pools reflected the rainbow of me, gave me vertigo, like the spiral in my dreams that I willingly descend into and never can escape. So I lowered my lips to your ears and whispered, “It's okay. You're okay.” I thought to say “I'm here,” but just then my broad-shouldered brother strode out of the house and towered over us, legs splayed, and you fluttered your eyelashes at him.

After that he had no choice but to rescue you. In one swoop he raised you from my lap and said, “I'm here.”

And me? You ruined me by leaving your fingers laced in mine a moment longer than was necessary.

He spirited you away and lay you on the divan in the drawing room. Our mother was summoned and she was struck by your potential. She shooed away the maids and fussed over your ankle herself. My brother coaxed your phone number out of you and Mother insisted I inform your family of your state, because it was only proper that I call your home, not he. Once the families had exclaimed sufficient gratitude and claimed nothing but neighborly duty, it was understood that I would be your new best friend, and my brother, your suitor. Welcome.

So here we are, in your jasmine-scented dressing room on your wedding day. You have no sisters, so I have been offered the delicious prospect of being both from the groom's side and the bride's.

I'd fretted at this suggestion at first, revisiting every bilious memory of you flirting with him. What of the times when you and I sat back to back on my bed, inscribing our journals until he wandered in and enticed you away with a bundle of bottle-green glass bangles? What of the secrets in those journals that neither of us shared with the other and the ache to be part of those secrets? And the time we fought, so you ran off and let him kiss you. And then you ran back with chafed lips that I soothed with butter? Where do those moments bleed into what I am to do with you today?

But it has occurred to me that I will be preparing you to be brought into my home too. You will be ensconced in what was previously my brother's cave, but has lately been referred to as the bridal chamber. This means I bring not only you, but also your next life into mine.

So let us begin with your soul. We sift through your things and I stay your hand as you reach for every little trinket in sight. I cull away at your memories and harden your heart against all that was your past. You are allowed only a few protective charms—your rag doll who banished your nightmares, your journal that freed your tongue; and you may bring your little servant girl if you wish. I gather these items and take them away with me, to be arranged in your chamber-to-be. When I am satisfied, I step back and bolt the door.

Now your body—allow me to lavish your face and limbs with turmeric to illuminate your skin; massage warm coconut oil into your hair. Let us rinse away the flaking henna from your hands and feet, and marvel at the filigree that adorns you. Here are the marigolds I will braid into your hair. I swathe you in red silk so laden with golden vines that you cannot move.

Here, now you are settled on the bride's chair in the wedding tent. A cushion under your left arm, one last hairpin to tuck away the veil from your glowing face, and now I must leave your side and rejoin the groom's procession.

It is late, and we have brought you home. I watch him carry you into the chamber that I have prepared with your things. I pace the dirt of our veranda all night. When the sun rises will you walk out of that tomb? Or will it be the portal to your next life?

Maya Kanwal's fiction is forthcoming in Quarterly West. She is currently completing a novel set in Pakistan and a short story collection inspired by the people of the Indus Valley. She can be found on mayakanwal.com and on Twitter @mayakanwal.