The Women’s Baths by Ulfat al-Idlibi

Rewritten in a postmodern technique of magic realism:

Our household was troubled by the uncanny: my grandmother, who passed away last week at the age of seventy, still exists within our presence. Her voice is still imminent amongst the whispers of the wind. As the leaves of the Black Mulberry tree make subtle movements, her laughter emanates from the sounds of the tiny bells hanging from the low strung branches of the ancient tree. Everyone was afraidβ€”my mother the most given that she always antagonizes my grandmother by refusing all her puny requests, my father now avoids going to his chair under the Black Mulberry tree, and our maid won’t go to the restrooms at night anymore. Everyone is afraid with my deceased grandmother except me. For me, she is an endearment, a treasure who inspires my calling.

Grandmother is a strong-headed woman. She does not take no for an answer. She insists on taking a bath at the start of each month at the public baths as she requested for assistance of our maid. My mother, appalled would say, “but the market baths has been destroyed more than decades ago!” To which my grandmother replies, “It is gone, only to those who think it is gone.”

I enjoy waiting for my grandmother to go home from her imaginary visits from the baths, she tells me such lively stories about the colorful ambience of her visits from each bath. The baths were made of silver tiles, the maids were gentle water nymphs, and the warm water in the golden tubs were covered in vanilla musk and luminescent Jasmines. The bath was owned by the Goddess Atargatis, a beautiful mermaid who welcomes all Syrian women to pamper themselves alongside her. It did not matter that is was not realβ€”as my mother objectively points out every time she shakes her while overhearing grandmother’s recount on her experience, even when it was more beautiful than any other realistic imagery.

Three days before grandmother passed away, she bestowed upon me a gift. It was a large wooden trunk filled with silken linens called Damasks. Surprised, I gasped when she gave me this box because she always polished the box and never lets anyone touch it. From the linens, she produced a bundle of red velvet embroidered with pearls and sequins, white towels lined with silver thread, and a wine-colored bath wrap decorated with golden stars. These were all magnificent and they were mine to keep. That day, I felt like I have won the lottery with my new acquirement of linens.

I still remember our last evening with grandmother. She sang me a song from my bedside chair. As my eyes began to close she said, “In your dreams, you will always find me, my dear child.” I could not stop thinking about this as days passed by. It was an enigma to me that I would not solve. What dream? Why find me? Grandmother did not scares me, instead, she intrigues me.

One day, I woke from a silent whisper brushing my ears. Wondering, I yawned while looking out of my window. The sound seems to be coming from the Mulberry tree, as the whispers rustled amongst its leaves so I carried my shoes on the way outside and crept outside silently barefoot as not to wake up anybody. As I went out, the whispers became stronger. It was not just a whisperβ€”it was some kind of chanting coming out of the tree. As I approached, there were glowing embers of petals on the path as it led to a door I never noticed before. My curiosity urged me to enter to a place that might be just a figment of my imagination, or even my insanity.

There were little orbs that lit up the passageway inside. They were beautifulβ€”glowing balls of fire levitating above the ground. The air underground was also cooler I noticed as my drops of perspiration vanished. The explanation to this revealed itself eventually when I heard a splash. The corridor ended with a golden chamber. In the center was a statue of a mermaid. It was made of diamonds except for her ruby set eyes. I touched them, and with a click the statue moved slowly to expose to me a view that was unbelievable: grandmother’s description of her favorite baths. The floor was golden and there were baths made of silver tiles on the hemisphere of the hall. I can smell the strong Jasmine scent as its petals floated on the smooth flow of the water. At the end of the hall was a waterfall and below it sitting with a serene smile on her face was the most stunning woman I have ever seen. She looked exactly like a breathing replica of the mermaid statue.

Everyone around me was smiling while the unwinding chants resonate around with the warm fragrance of the petals and musk. There were water nymphs everywhereβ€”beautiful and gentle they enacted the role of bath maids as they crooned a soft chanting melody. “This is the sound that woke me up!” I thought. They were pouring vanilla musk oils on the people enjoying the baths. One water nymph approached me and asked if I can give her my robe. Baffled, I looked down and to my surprise saw that I was wearing the wine colored bath wrap decorated with golden stars, the one that my grandmother gave me. I whispered, “This is my grandmother’s…” To which the maiden nymph replied with a smile, “Yes, she is here. She has been waiting for you…” I followed her, my heart beating rapidly.

Grandmother was sitting in one of the baths, her head rating on the edges. She was smiling in a way that made her seem like she got everything she ever wanted. In short, it was a look of pure contentment. “Hi dear, so you have finally decided to visit!” she greeted me with her eyes closed. The pool of water was filled with the scent of Jasmine and musk. I closed my eyes as I inhaled the sweet tantalizing scent. That’s when I decided to sit beside the bath with her.

The bath was owned by the Goddess Atargatis, a beautiful mermaid who welcomes all Syrian women to become assured with their own femininity against the harsh obligations of the real world. Here, everyone is allowed to do whatever they please as long as it does not result to hurting another being. Now, I finally understood why grandmother insisted on visiting this place. It was an escape from the harsh realities of one’s existence. This was a place of freedom, self-identity, and peace. I told her, “I want to live here forever,” to which my grandmother opened her eyes and replied, “No dear. This is a place that needs to exist within you at all times.” She then gave me one of the floating petals. She pressed the blossom on my palm and touched my forehead. “Goodbye, dear. Remember everything.” as she sent me back to my own realms.

Thus, I woke back on my bed. The usual state of my room: strewn books on the floor, the windows opening, to let in the wind. I was shivering, in my cold dark room. Unfortunate as it was, the alluring of the whispers from the outside was already gone. The floating orbs under the Mulberry tree have vanished as well. Alone, I peered from under my bed sheet covers and began to question my own sanity. Being in a dream has never been this real before I pondered. If only, only, there is one thing that can make me believe…

A gust of wind, and I smell it again: Jasmine. I pulled back my covers quick and sat on my bed eyes wide open. That smile. The dream. And then it was there, luminous, peering between my fingers. The truth that I needed. The same petals in the fist of my hand. A tangible dream worth believing…


(Written on March 2017)

Published by Asha Gutierrez

Writer | Vegan | Feminist

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