Sare stared at herself in the mirror, holding the end of her scarf and trying to figure out how to wrap it properly. She had the tie for happiness down; she could feel the warm glow of it thrumming through her. The loose end it left was supposed to fold into something that represented confidence, but it was flopping loosely and doing no good at all. Sare closed her eyes and breathed out deeply, trying to conjure in her mind how Yalle did it. There was a kind of twist.
Sare took some deep breaths and relaxed back into the meditative state necessary for these kinds of wraps. They didn’t have to hold power, but there was something special about them when it did. Her ancestors had wielded incredible power, heroes and leaders like Tavra and Maram who had brought water to the desert and driven off invaders, nourished their people and created civilisation itself down the furthest bend in the river Nahre. Sare smoothed the tail back, twisted it, then tucked it. She let out a slow breath and opened her eyes, then scowled when no great change in emotion came. Happiness was one of the simplest wraps, the first she had learned. This adaption should be easy, but it had been eluding her for hours now.
“Sare!” a voice called from the other room. “You ready yet? We’re going be late!”
Sare took another look at herself in the mirror, sighed, then just tucked the tail up and out the way. “Yes” she called back, sliding her feet into colourful sandals and slipping her money pouch into a pocket of her baggy pants. She touched up the kohl around her eyes, then went to join her sister Riv, who was holding the crimson doorway cloth aside impatiently. Sare ducked through, striding across the square as Riv kept up a constant chatter at her side.
“Akhish is bringing the most amazing drinks, he said, and Mazal is making those delicious dates with the nuts inside. Plus my musician friends will be there and I think Lor is bringing her lute but either way there’s going to be so much to do and its going to be so much fun and Lor told me….”
Sare had stopped listening, distracted. Lor’s younger brother Akob was one of her students, and he’d been struggling with reading lately. Maybe it was time to slow down and review with him, though could she really keep everyone else back while she clarified the correlation between formal and informal lettering? Shev seemed to have a solid grasp of the material though. Maybe she could pair her up with Akob, but did Shev have enough patience for it? Maybe –
“Sare! You have your teacher face on.”
Riv was glaring at her. “Take it off and put on your party face right now or I swear-“
Sare smiled, raising her hands placatingly. “You caught me. I’ll behave, ok.”
“But I want you not to behave.” Riv said, waggling her eyebrows mischieviously. “Lighten up would you?”
“Maybe I’m waiting for those amaaaazing drinks of Akhish’s,” Sare said, sticking her tongue out. Riv swatted at her, and she dodged aside, laughing.
The sun was slowly setting, relieving the heat of the day. Cooler breezes wrapped around the pair as they ducked through alleyways and past squares where people were slowly emerging from their houses, starting flickering fires for warmth and food. Some families lit their own fires, while others joined together to talk or play music while they cooked. The hum of conversation on the air lifted Sare’s spirits, and she stepped faster and lighter, eager to get to the party.
Loud noise filtered in from the adjacent square, and Sare hoped there wouldn’t be any trouble with the neighbours this time. The large fire threw flickering shadows onto the passageway between squares, and Riv practically skipped through, Sare right behind her. The fire dominated the space, crackling and warm. An entire goat was roasting inside, the fat sizzling onto the wood and the rocks below. Sare inhaled. It smelled delicious. Riv waggled her fingers at Sare before turning and finding a group to hang out with. How she was so social, Sare would never understand. She wandered more slowly through the crowd, working her way around the bonfire, looking out for her friends. Finger food was being passed around on plates, and Sare saw the dates Riv had been raving about. Good. That meant Mazal was around. Sare took a date and found it to be surprisingly tasty. It was the perfect mix of soft and crunchy, sweet and salty. She took another, chewing slowly, and was suddenly surprised to find herself standing on the riverbank. The sounds of people and music had obscured the noise of the slowly but steadily moving water. She hadn’t realised they had walked so far. People sat with their feet dangling gently into the water, still cooling off as twilight faded into night proper.
Hands slid around Sare’s waist and squeezed tightly. She jumped, heart pounding, then let out a bark of laughter. Riv was occupied, and there was only one other person who would do this to her.
The other woman giggled, squeezed, then let go. Sare spun around to face her. “Don’t scare me like that!”
Yalle pouted. “Well what’s the fun then?”
Yalle was short, but made up in personality what she was lacking in size. Her turban was tucked perfectly, even more complex than the last time Sare had seen her at a party. The base happiness could barely been seen, there was that perfect twist of confidence, and what were those extra folds along the top? Something flirtatious perhaps? Sare couldn’t even guess.
“Come,” Yalle said, grabbing her hand, and towing her back towards the fire. She stopped along the way to talk to practically everyone, while Sare smiled pleasantly and answered when spoken to. She grabbed another date in order to have something to do with her hands, wondering how she could teach formal lettering better. She glanced at Yalle, who was laughing at something Yakhov had said. If she could get that confidence tie right, if she could more like Yalle, maybe she could finally get a grip on her life. She constantly felt like she was running, tripping, barely just keeping up her momentum before she fell. Other people seemed to just breeze right through, happy and confident. For some reason, Sare had a harder time than everyone else. She wished she could just get on top of things for once.
Sare spotted a tall woman with curly black hair standing a few small crowds of people away. She squeezed Yalle’s hand, then slipped away, ducking through the crowd until she reached Mazal.
“Hey,” she said. Mazal turned, and reached forward to envelop Sare in an enthusiastic hug. Her wooden bangles dug slightly into Sare’s back.
“Thank God you’re here,” Mazal said, her dark eyebrows furrowing. “I need to know what you think of my dates. Ive never made food for this many people before.”
“Are you sure?”
Sare gripped her shoulder gently. “Yes. I promise. I’ve eaten about ten myself.”
Mazal grinned. “Alright. I’ll believe you. How have you been?”
Worried my class isn’t learning efficiently. Not as confident as I want to be. Am I just failing at everything?
“I’m alright,” she said. “What about you?”
Mazal sighed. “Tavvar has these designs that just don’t work. Yepheth spends most of his time inventing things for his grandchildren, and because I took responsibility for Tavvar, I’m busy supervising all the time. We need more efficient water channeling or there just won’t be enough food and we don’t have enough people working on the problem.”
Mazal gave a quick half laugh. “But I shouldn’t be worrying you. We’re at a party.” She grabbed a skewer of goat off a wooden tray and rather forcefully swallowed a piece, coughed, and choked it down.
Sare was frozen. How had Mazal just spoken about her problems like that? Did she expect help? Could Sare confide in her? No, no, she had to be like Yalle. No problems ever. Just brazen confidence and constant cheer. That was how she wanted to be. Nothing to worry about.
“I’m sorry,” Sare said, “I have to go.” She turned and melted back into the crowd, allowing people to step in between her and Mazal. Her hands shook. No problems no problems no problems. She found Yalle, who was recounting some story to an interested audience. They were listening intently, laughing and gasping at all the right places, but Sare couldn’t concentrate on what her friend was saying. She turned and walked away, and found herself wandering towards the river bank again. There were fewer people there now, and Sare sat next to a torch planted into the ground, folding her feet up underneath her. She shivered in the chill.
What was wrong with her? She sighed, then inhaled deeply. Almost without noticing, she fell into a meditative trance, breathing evenly, slowly relaxing. The fire cast light upon the river, and her reflection rippled in it. Surely this was as good a time as any to try.
Sare reached up to her scarf, feeling along the soft fabric, then untucked the tail. Confidence, she breathed. Give me confidence. She twisted gently.
Give me confidence.
She twisted again, then tucked it back in and held her breath.
A soft hand touched her shoulder, and a warm presence settled down beside her. Sare glanced over, startled, to see Yalle sitting there.
“I was wondering where you went,” Yalle said. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t get confidence right,” Sare said, voice breaking. “I’m trying so hard.” She took a deep breath and steadied herself. She stared down at her hands in her lap.
“Well, you’ve got the twist right,” Yalle said. “Something about your intent must be off. What are you doing?”
Sare swallowed. “Trying to be like you.”
Yalle blinked. “Like me? Why like me?”
“Because you’re so confident!”
Sare turned her head sharply. “You?”
“Yes me. You. Everyone. We’re all trying to do our best and most of the time it’s barely enough. But we hang in there and we do what we can. The twist, its not that much about confidence. It’s mostly about being brave. Being afraid and giving it everything you’ve got anyway.”
Sare sat, dumbfounded. Yalle was afraid? Yalle just pretended to be brilliant? Was everything a lie?
Mazal had confessed to having trouble. Was Sare supposed to do that as well? She couldn’t. Everyone else was managing. She needed to be bold too. Strong. Confident. No weaknesses.
But… maybe everyone else wasn’t managing. Could it be?
But that’s what Yalle had said. Mazal too. Were all these strangers equally afraid? Had Riv tried to get her to relax because she knew how it felt too?
There was only one way to find out. Taking deep breaths, Sare untucked her scarf.
Bravery she thought. I’m terrified but I’m going to do it anyway. She twisted, focusing. I’m scared but I will face my fears. She tucked.
And something washed over her. The feeling wasn’t brazen confidence. It wasn’t fearlessness. But it was a kind of strength in her gut and her brain, a warmth. It was the knowing that you weren’t alone.
Sare knew what she had to do. She walked back into the warmth of the fire, looking for a tall woman with black hair. Her height made her easy to find. Sare tapped her on the shoulder. Mazal turned.
Sare felt a thrill of fear run through her, and she was momentarily paralysed.
Bravery, she thought. I can do this. She opened her mouth. The warmth in her stomach gave her a little push.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “about before.” Her mouth was dry. “Do you – do you want to talk?”
Mazal visibly relaxed. Sare hadn’t realised how tense her posture and been until suddenly the tension was relieved.
“Yes please,” she said. “God, I’m so scared and I’ve had no one to talk to.”
Sare squeezed her hand. “I’m listening.”