The woman stood in the street, her back poised with an exquisite posture, like the most perfect arc on an ancient Hellenic sculpture. She ran her hand over her long black dress, smoothing out any creases and then checked her watch. Almost in perfect simultaneity with the first rain drop that fell from the sky, she opened her umbrella, her perfectly coiffed hair undisturbed by a single particle of water. I had pressed my face up to the glass window pane for a good five minutes, so intensely looking at the scene that I could feel parts of my cheek begin to numb. The woman turned and walked down the street towards the bus stop at the end of the beautiful boulevard that we called home.
I had known Fatima almost my entire life. At least that was what my mother had told me. Some time after my parents had married, and my mother was pregnant, they had hired a maid. They had interviewed dozens of potential candidates. My mother often told me in Fatima’s company about the impression that she had made on her. When Fatima first showed up for the interview, my mother thought perhaps there was a mistake. A tall, elegant woman appeared, someone who would not have looked out of place on a fashion runway in Milan. Fatima’s appearance was matched by the elegance of her discourse. At the initial interview, she had spoken with such a dignified, robust and yet kind air, that my mother once again thought that perhaps an error had been made, that Fatima had instead taken the wrong job listing or even had been led on by a friend as a joke. My mother was enthralled at the outset and Fatima was immediately hired.
In my early years, I felt of her like she was my friend, as well as my mother. I admired her beauty as well as her class. She could always be strict, but in the way that children appreciate, namely, that there is some order in their life. Above all, in these early years when our consciousness is wavery and unstable, I can still recall from these times the astonishing scent of her perfume. It was as though she wore the most potent form of rose water, intensifying her already dignified and exquisite outer appearance. The sternness of her words when I inevitably misbehaved at times were only betrayed by a subtle shaking or trembling, as though she knew it was not in character to raise her voice. Needless to say, I and my entire family were enthralled by her and our good fortune that Fatima had answered our humble ad in the local paper searching for a maid.
When Fatima came and went every day, as a very young child I thought nothing about it. I thought perhaps she was a friend of my mother, who spent some time cooking and cleaning, chatting with her, and playing with me. At times I recall in my early childhood I thought that she was my mother’s sister. I had asked my mother one time, why does Fatima emit such a beautiful scent? My mother answered that she wore rose water. After this time I called her “rose water” or even “Auntie Rose Water.” Fatima enjoyed this loving nick name I had given to her. I would watch my beloved Rose Water clean the expansive room where I would play each day, thinking nothing of it, simply the work of my second mother. When she left at the end of the day, I was re-assured in knowing that she would return the next morning.
As I grew in age, and as my consciousness expanded, certain parts of the narrative I had constructed began to become shaky. I did not understand why Fatima left everyday. Why would she not stay with us? Where did she go in the evenings? Did she not like it by us, in our beautiful home on the boulevard lined with tropical and grazing trees? My mother explained to me that Fatima was what is called a maid, or a servant. She did not live with us. She lived in another part of town. She had never been my mother’s sister, she had never even been my mother’s friend. She simply worked for our family.
This was difficult for me to understand. Why did my mother not work for some other family, if my exquisite Rose water came to work for us every day? Did Fatima have her own family, her own children, another version of myself where she lived? My mother answered that she did not know much, in so far as Fatima did not discuss her family. She only knew that m Rose water lived in a part of town that was about two hours from our home with a bus, with her father and mother and grandfather and grandmother.
As I began to better understand, every time Fatima left our home, I would watch her leave. I wondered precisely at this time, where she was going, what her life was like, what did her home look like? I would some times ask her about her home life, but I was an obedient child, and also quite sensitive, so that I understood that when she was somewhat reluctant to respond I would not press her any further.
During this period, I recall that one time when I sat on the giant leather couch of the softest and most pleasurable material where I did my studies that Fatima was in the room cleaning in the corner. I heard a soft, faint sound, something like a restrained gasp. I looked towards the corner, Fatima cleaning, and I noticed a single tear running down her cheek.
“What is it, Auntie Rose Water?” I asked.
“Nothing my child, continue your studies.” I knew something was amiss, something was not right. The sky outside seemed to confirm my suspicion. It was a sinister palette of colours, blacks layered upon greys. I looked at Fatima again. She felt my glance on the back of her neck and turned her head. Before she had turned I was back in my book, not wanting to upset her.
The next morning when I woke up I expected to see Fatima in the kitchen, the exquisite perfume-like smell of my beloved pancakes cooking in the frying pan. There was only silence. My mother sat in the corner, drinking tea.
“Where is Auntie Rose Water, mother?”
“Sit down, my dear.”
“What is it? Something is terribly wrong is it not?”
“Fatima will not be here today. She will not be here for some time.”
I was astonished.
“There has been a tragedy in her family. She must remain with them at the moment. Someone close to her is very ill. She must take care of them.”
“But why do we not go to help her? Fatima has cleaned for us for years, has cooked, has made my beds, and my hair. Why can we not go? Can you not go mother?”
“That is not how the world works, my dear. We all have our places.”
“No buts. Now go upstairs and wash your face.”
I went upstairs, some what in shock. I did not understand what had happened. I looked out the window at the meticulously pruned trees on our wide boulevard. I looked towards the horizon, imagining somewhere where my beloved Fatima was, perhaps suffering, or close to someone who was dear to her who was suffering. I did not understand why we could not go there, to help her, to help her family as she had always helped us. I drew in my breath to smell the familiar scent of rose water, but there was no such fragrance.