Scrawny boughs were crooked, weighed down by the full-breasted mangos that hung high like little golden prizes. Aisha's face was cast in the most terrific mosaic light, shafts of the sun's rays bending and winking past forked branches impregnated with the soft stalks of green leaves. Her olive skin almost glistened, soaked in the vitality that was life. Her amber eyes were like those of a Royal Bengal Tigress, translucent and touching. Aisha wasn't a tigress, but she was just as beautiful, as regal, as powerful, as dangerous.
She smiled - a movie-star smile, only the left side of her mouth curled upward, her pomegranate pink lips parting. Her long black hair fell over her shoulders like a velvet curtain. A brown birthmark lingered above her top lip and beneath that splendid, hooked nose. She was perfumed with the scent of undying spring. She wore a white tank top and a long, flowery knee-skirt. Her baby-like toes poked out of the slits of her leather sandals. She always wore the same attire. The seasons may have changed, but she refused to change with them.
Aisha smiled again, pink gums and white teeth on display. I stared beyond her - at the rolling heather-tufted hills, at the bulge of a plateau, dark peaks jutting out like jagged teeth, clouds amassed over the massif as though it possessed some kind of natural pull. Rushing rapids roared beyond the line of poplar trees.
The first time I'd seen Aisha had been on a cold, autumn evening. The steady hiss of rain had filled my ears. I'd been sitting on the window pane of my bedroom window, watching passing by cars spraying mists of silver under their remorseless wheels, listening to the rain rattling against the gabled roof and noting beads of moist slithering down glass. Dead, rusty coloured leaves were whipped into small hurricanes by the sighing wind, littering the slick green of front yards, adding further woe to the sprawling fields of decay.
A coughing car pulled up on the driveway next door, its round headlights cutting funnels of light in the melting silver of rain. The car grunted to a halt, the door opening with a click. Aisha emerged, tall and slim-hipped, a half-moon smile on her face. She wore that same tank top, the knee-skirt and sandals. My heart hammered, almost exploding from my chest due to the incessant pounding that felt like a madman on the drums. Aisha spread her arms and stared at the sky, smiling. She stood in the rain for what seemed like an endless moment, almost as though she were on display for me, as though she wanted me to see, yearn and dream. Like her clothes, her coal black hair became slick, matting to the skin on her face in loose, messy strands, making her look unruly, untamed.
My parents liked to gossip. It was their only source of chatter. Their bond, crumbling like eroding rock battered by relentless waves, could only be intersected and sphered in the same world by hearsay. Like journalists, they could only survive and thrive on other people's stories. We would sit around the mahogany dinner table, eating from plates ringed with blue lines. The silence made the ticking of the overhead clock sound like hammering blows.
But on the evening Aisha stood on the driveway next door, my parents spoke to each other as though their flame had been rekindled, as though they were the youngsters they had once been in the wedding photograph that stood on the marble mantelpiece; a relic of a past that had been gnawed by the profound silence of time.
"Have you heard about her?" Mum said with a smile that was about as wide as the Grand Canyon. The lines of laughter at the corners of her eyes stretched, her grey eyes glinting with rare life.
"The girl . . . Aisha?" Dad answered after a sip of wine, his strong, broad shoulders heaving for no apparent reason. "She's trouble, I heard."
"An estranged woman, apparently," Mum continued with a chuckle, poking her half eaten lasagne with a fork like an uninterested child. There was something new on the menu. "A part time environmental activist," she added.
"A hippie, you mean." Dad frowned, his full black brows arching downward like the wings of a bird in flight. He'd never been a diplomatic man. I always thought his candidness had been moulded by the days of rugby during his youth and his profession as a policeman.
"Well, an activist living under the same roof as a politician is like putting a crocodile in a tiger's cage." Mum had always enjoyed her crude analogies, befitting of an English teacher.
Listening to my parents gossiping while processing every single piece of information like a computer's hard drive, I discovered that Aisha was the only child of the politician who lived next door. The word child wasn't quite an accurate description, for Aisha was twenty-four-years old, six years my senior. But that didn't matter. I mean, hell, I was basically a man; I stood at six feet, I shaved and very soon, I'd start living a life of my own.
Later that night, falling asleep with the dog-eared pages of the novel I was reading resting on my chest, I dreamt of Aurora; of green, curving streams and veils of light sliding over the glistening polar whiteness of the far North. I dreamt of my feet crunching through the white, the steady burst of snow burning my hands, flakes biting the skin on my face. I then dreamt of glittery, high silver stars blanketed by a sky of bluish black. I saw strands of black hair in that sky, waving like the puffy sail of a great vessel at sea. I awoke the next morning, feeling the rough touch of my cat's tongue on my face.
I observed Aisha for months. I watched through the rusty leaves of autumn, through the cold, glistening white of winter and the thawing ice and sprout of the colourful flowers of spring. Only the summer heat brought us together. Aisha's parents held a barbecue in their back yard, inviting family, friends and people fortunate enough to live on the avenue. Throngs of bodies crowded the back yard, the shrieks of children jumping on the bouncy castle mingling with the deep throated laughter of men. The stench of kerosene and scorched red meat hung in the air. I stared around the throng of bodies, muscles tensed, heart pounding, soul yearning for a glimpse of Aisha, for that velvet curtain of black hair, that radiant complexion of brown skin.
I didn't find her in the back yard, laughing with her family and friends. Instead, I found her in the living room, legs curled over the coffee coloured leather couch, holding a book over her face. Her black hair was tied in a neat bun, accentuating the beauty of her skinny cheekbones and that long, swan-like neck. My stomach lurched, a surge of both adrenaline and fear coursing through my blood. My tongue felt dry and thick. Aisha turned her head over her shoulder, holding her gaze with mine for a moment. She lowered the book to her lap.
"Can I help you?" She asked with a sweet smile, her voice like smooth velvet.
"Uh . . ." I staggered, deprived of the simplest words, despite being an avid reader, an aspiring writer. I shifted on my feet. "Do you know where the bathroom is?" Aisha blinked and I realised the stupidity of my question. Beads of sweat rolled from my underarms, slithering down my chest. "I mean -"
"Upstairs, second door on the right."
"Uh . . . thanks."
"You're welcome." Aisha turned and returned to her book.
"Thanks." Hadn't I said that already?
I muttered a curse under my breath I stood in the neat bathroom decorated in mosaic tiles and linoleum flooring, listening to the hiss of running tap water. I stared at myself in the mirror, frowning and feeling the inundations of insecurity rising within me like a powerful tsunami. After ten minutes of maddened whispers, I left the bathroom, glancing at the large, framed photograph hanging high on the sky blue wall. It was a picture of a little girl sitting on a rollercoaster, silver wires coiled to her teeth as she brandished a large, innocent smile.
I found the adult version of that girl still sitting and reading in the living room. She turned her head at the sound of footfalls. Held her gaze and smiled. I waved to her book. "So," I said, "you like to read." Had I really just said that?
Aisha smirked, holding the book's wings high. "I thought no one would've noticed."
I blushed, catching the book's title - A Thousand Splendid Suns. "Brilliant book," I said, "but really sad."
"That's what makes it brilliant. It's the tenth time I've read it."
I dabbed an index finger on my chest before holding my hand high, splaying my fingers in a gesture of five. "My name's Tom, by the way."
Another smile. She dabbed a finger on her chest. "Aisha. You want a drink or something to eat, Tom?"
I could only nod, feeling as though something was lodged in my throat. I took a seat as Aisha stood up and strolled to the kitchen. I sat with sweating palms and laced fingers. My stomach fluttered, my brain infected with strange exhilaration. Aisha's sweet scent left me feeling intoxicated, as though she were some kind of illicit, deadly drug. I heard the rasps of opening draws and the clanging and clinking of dishes and cutlery from the kitchen. Moments later, Aisha returned, smiling like a congenial hostess as she held an aluminium tray containing food and drink.
I drank the juice without tasting, ate the burgers without savouring. We met each other's eyes on a few occasions, me blushing and her smiling with velvet ease. After we ate and drank, we indulged ourselves in the only comfort that closed the gaping chasm between us; that intersected us on a path leading to the unknown. We talked about books, I gaining confidence, she rising in prominence. I was so absorbed by her scent and presence to the point I was lost within myself, lips moving like the staccato bursts of a machine gun. So absorbed that I didn't notice my neighbour, Aisha's father, standing in the doorway, toned arms across his chest, glaring in silence.
We turned as one, staring at the tall, slim man with a strong, square face, a pointed nose and black, shark-like eyes. His skin was brown and leathery. Streaks of silver matted the sides of the man's black hair. Prickly heat danced on my skin as Aisha's father swung his head back and forth, the smile that came over his mouth acting as a paradox; there was no warmth in the gesture that was supposed to exude it.
"Uh . . ." I stuttered, standing up quickly, knees growing weak, cheeks burning red. "Thanks for the food, Aisha. I should probably find my parents now."
She smiled and nodded. I didn't dare spare a glance at her father, feeling as though I was eight, not eighteen, when I brushed by him. I didn't speak to Aisha for the rest of the day. I wandered through droves of bodies, reciting everything about our conversation, hearing her musical laughter reverberate in my head.
Later that night, I dreamt of a braying coal black horse, its body knotted with powerful muscles. I dreamt of its hooves thundering against the ground as it rode through a starry night alit by a pale moon, kicking up plumes of dirt and dust beneath its hammering feet. I dreamt of a hooded figure dressed in medieval war gear sitting atop the horse, gnarling while flicking the leather reigns, iron armour glinting, sword gleaming in the scabbard embroidered in gold. The horse and figure came to an abrupt halt, the animal kicking up its front legs while screeching. The hooded figure leaned forward, caressing the horse's handsome mane like one would brush a lover's hair. The human whispered in the animal's ear. The horse calmed. The figure slowly lowered the hood. Long black hair spilled over the shoulders. A birthmark lingered above the top lip. Piercing, deep eyes gleamed. A sword hissed as it was retracted from the scabbard.
Much to my surprise, Aisha knocked on the front door the next day. The summer weeks that followed marked bliss beyond compare; we didn't touch, kiss nor make love. We simply talked, going on long walks, feeding the ducks in the park, trolling the shopping centres and looking at items we couldn't afford. We learnt about each other. Aisha loved travelling and had already visited nine countries, using her degree in English to gain temporary work in whichever country she was visiting. She spoke of the conflict between her and her father in a detached sense; like a spectator or better still, a newscaster disseminating the latest news, refusing to add her own emotion.
I blushed and felt self-conscious when I spoke of graduating from sixth form, of waiting to go to university in September. I felt like a baby, one that a full grown woman like Aisha wouldn't be interested in. I realised I loved her when I sacrificed an entire writing night, choosing to dot down every single detail of the rapture that had cast me in a convoluted labyrinth, one I doubted I could escape.
We sat in a meadow of yellow-stalked lilies tossing their heads back in the sighing wind. Our backs were lined against a thick trunked mango tree. Our shoulders touched. A stray strand of Aisha's hair rested against my cheek. Her warmth filled me with helpless desire. We'd just discussed yet another brilliant book.
"Can I tell you a story?" Aisha asked, smiling as always.
She interlaced her fingers. "When I was in India a couple of years ago, I was on a small expedition with some photographers and tourists. We happened to come across a tiger's den - a crevice surrounded by huge boulders and bamboo trees. A young male tiger sat atop a boulder, on top of a sprawl of bamboo leaves. You know, before seeing him, I'd always wondered why Bengal tigers were described as 'Royal.' But seeing him in the flesh, I understood. He was just so wonderfully ignorant, so beautiful and majestic. He stared at us so simply . . . in an uninterested way . . . it was like, well - it was as though he were just a common cat."
I laughed. "He was."
"No," she said quietly, shaking her head. "He was much more than that." She paused, as though she were contemplating something. "Male tigers are nomads. When they leave their mothers at twenty-four months, they roam for hundreds of miles, unlike female tigers which carve out territories near their mother. Male tigers roam wide and far looking to establish themselves, to gain territory with good ground, an abundant supply of prey and an adequate amount of females to court. If a male tiger wanders into another male's territory, the holder of territory will fight the intruder to the death, if necessary. Usually one tiger will submit to defeat by rolling on its back and leaving, but sometimes males will kill each other; prey and females are a lot to fight for. A lot of young male tigers continue to roam and roam, a catalogue of defeats by the hands of older and more experienced tigers trailing their steps. They just have to keep going, to keep searching for that slice of land that will establish them as adults, as real tigers. That place that will be in their hearts."
I stared at her in silence, yearning to touch, hold and love her. A tiger butterfly with pale fireball skin and black stripes fluttered by, landing on the breast of a purple thistle flower and draining sweet nectar. We watched the colourful butterfly for a moment.
"Looking at the tiger sitting on the boulder," Aisha continued, her voice almost a whisper, "I realised I was looking at myself. I realised I was looking at the person I'd always been, the person who had never gotten along with her father. I never stopped in life - just kept roaming and roaming like a young male. Never sticking around after defeat. That's why I hadn't been home for so long, that's why I kept going around the world, avoiding my parents, my life."
Aisha then took my hand in hers, inciting a surge of heat and breathlessness within me. Her skin felt so soft and warm, like the touch of a mother. She laced her fingers with mine before her palm moved to my wrist, her index finger dimpling my skin. She smiled and moved closer to me, so close I could feel her hot, sweet breath on my face. I felt light-headed as the curtain of her hair brushed against my face, as she wrapped her arms around my neck, as I felt the swell of her breasts pushed against my beating chest. Silver liquid settled in her eyes, making them look glassy.
Staring into those tiger-like amber eyes, I realised something. I realised the dream of colourful Aurora had been about the beauty of a tiger. I realised the dream of the braying horse and the dark, medieval figure had been about the power of a tiger. I realised it had all been about the woman I loved. And with that, I knew Aisha had discarded those black stripes that had been with her for all those years. I knew she had found that place in her heart.
I knew she had found a place with me.