Ian, Janis: “Mahmoud’s Wives”

Mahmoud’s Wives

by Janis Ian

When the rains came, Mahmoud packed his wives into a large canister and loaded them onto the truck.

The eldest wife, of course, complained loudly. It was dark. It was dank. It was crowded. She could not breathe.

Mahmoud bore her invective in silence. Truth be told, the exceptionally good soya harvest of last year had allowed him to afford a third wife, and in all likelihood it was getting crowded in there. Still, if Fatimah would only exercise more as he’d suggested, instead of just dragging around all day like a landsnail, she would probably lose some of that extra weight and fit in there quite comfortably. There were plenty of air holes.

He sighed and closed the hatch over her protests. Glancing sheepishly at the neighbor’s empty window, he mused to himself, “What does woman want? Is it not written that to serve and obey is the greatest of all blessings? Why can she not be content?”

In actual fact, Mahmoud had very little idea whether his wives were content. Nor did it trouble him; that was not his job. “Happiness is for pigs,” he often said, making the sign of the horns to ward off the unclean animal’s presence in his mind. “Who has ever seen an unhappy pig? It suffices that we do our duty, are solemn or joyous as the occasion demands, and obey The Law. A snug wife, a full belly, and contentment will follow.”

It was a mystery, nonetheless, the way these women failed to grasp such a simple tenet. Try as he might, there were complaints. Let him reap enough grain to feed an army – why hadn’t he done more trapping? Let him bring them fresh goat – why couldn’t they have meat every day, instead of once a week? Let him take them for a ride – why couldn’t he take them all the time? And now this whining about space – as though the rains were his fault.

Was it not enough that his people, nomads for millennia, finally had this entire place to call their own? Was it not the greatest of good fortunes that allowed them to live here undisturbed, free to practice the faith set down by the first settlers, and without the interference of the Unbeliever? Were they not the luckiest of women, that he did not beat them or harass them, but only occasionally raised his voice? And if a bit of rain fell each time the second moon began its annual cycle, or the floods began when the Eastern Star was at its zenith, what was that compared to this otherwise most perfect of all worlds? Truly, women were a mystery.

Still, it didn’t do to be too harsh with them. After all, they were little more than children, brains like empty feed sacks, nothing but gossip on their minds. And the authorities did not look kindly on men who starved their wives into silence, tempting as the thought might be. Best to ignore it completely. That was the job of man, to avoid contamination with the empty heads of ignorant females. To concentrate on The Law, blessed be Its name.

He pulled the robe around him and settled into the cab of the truck.

Already the streets looked slick; if he didn’t hurry he’d be stranded here for the entire season. Once the gutters filled, the water would rise up the foundation until it almost reached the doorsill. There’d be no escape at that point.

And wouldn’t he be in a fine fix then, trapped with three noisy women in the house all day! Caged with them, hour after desperate hour, running out of amusements and unable to leave. And it would be “Mahmoud, please lift me here,” and “Mahmoud, please reach me this,” and bickering over who got the most attention until he was ready to drown the lot of them.

A fate worse than death, provided, of course, that one went to the right place after death. And how bad could death be, he wondered, when compared to three demanding women?

Perhaps I should have more children, he thought, contemplating the situation. A male child, now, that would be all right, though the thought of four or five years before the boy could begin to earn his keep made Mahmoud feel anxious already. It had been hard enough when their first three were babies, keeping them all fed. Still, the family had survived, and with the famine years behind them, it might be possible.

Fatimah and the other girl were young enough to have a few more, and the new wife – what was her name? She’d been so expensive that he usually just referred to her as “The Mortgage” – had many child-bearing years ahead.

Not yet, not yet, he thought in a panic. Not until these three women are settled in together, and the debt paid off. They must learn to cooperate first. Besides, they might bear females.

Mahmoud shuddered at the thought. There were enough females to go around already. When the authorities had closed the landing port, putting an end to tourism, it also put an end to the simplest method of losing unwanted girl children. The Unbelievers, it seemed, would adopt just about anything, and pay for it to boot. A good source of extra income, that, though one he’d never contemplated with Fatimah’s first. Still, they could have used the cash, and he’d heard the Infidel would even pay for a doctor at the delivery, so long as there was no surgery after the birth. It was a pity, really. There were always more girls than boys. They seemed to have a hardier nature. Probably because their brains weren’t as full, and could concentrate on staying healthy instead.

Yes, a male child could be of great assistance with the loading and unloading. His lower back was definitely feeling the effects, despite his judicious use of the winch.

In the distance the mountains rose, their tips breaking above the clouds. Yes, he mused, it would be well for his wives to spend some time there, a break in the routine. Really, they were good wives most of the time. It would be restful; the area around his ancestral mountain home was practically deserted these days, everyone had moved to the villages. Most of the planet was raw wilderness, difficult and time-consuming to clear. The forest went on for thousands of acres; the fresh air would do them good, enhance their beauty. He would make an effort to trap more meat, build up their stamina just in case. A pregnant woman needed a great deal of upper body strength to get around. Yes, he decided, I will bring them upstairs at least once a day, though perhaps not all three of them together. It will be good for me, also, to lose some of this fat I’ve built up in the past months.

Feeling noble, he glanced behind him at the receding village. Everyone else had taken their wives away the day before, but Fatimah would not be satisfied until he’d shifted every photograph of the children off the tables and put them away on the highest shelf, where no flood waters could mar them. He smiled benevolently as he thought of the blessed fruit of his loins, both boys already rushing through the rounds of their respective workplaces, and the girl safely married and living too far away to make demands.

The girl. There was the rub. What if he had another girl? He’d known it was none of a man’s business, but he’d been so besotted with Fatimah back then, so anxious for her welfare during that first birth. He’d even insisted on calling a surgeon rather than their simple village practitioner, though they could ill afford it at the time. And he’d remained in the house, against the better judgment of the medical man.

“Go to the fields”, he’d been advised, “or to your brother’s home. I will send for you when she’s done.” But no, he’d been adamant about it, to his eternal regret. With the arrogance of youth, he’d informed the doctor that these were modern times, and he, Mahmoud, was a modern fellow. His insistence had only amused the bone-cutter, who’d smiled benignly and gone off to supervise the birth procedure.

The screams had been horrible, and the doctor’s blood-drenched gown when he left the birth-room was a picture Mahmoud would rather not have seen. He could never look at his daughter without recalling that day, and was relieved when she married and moved away.

Fatimah was not, of course, but that was a woman for you – never satisfied. If the girl moved about early, Fatimah thought she would damage her spine. If the child showed a bright enthusiasm, pulling herself up to grab at objects kept safely out of her reach, Fatimah cried that she would fall and hurt herself and then where would they be, with him in the fields all day? And if she was married off at twelve, admittedly a year younger than usual, but as only the second wife of a man well-off enough to afford better, well, nothing would do but for Fatimah to go into mourning for months.

It was absurd, really, the value his first wife placed on her female offspring. Why, compared to the boys she was practically useless! Oh, he grudgingly supposed the girl had brought them joy in that first year, especially after she’d healed, but nothing like his sons. And there wasn’t the expense of surgery, with sons.

Although even he had found it miraculous, the way she’d smile and try to grab his beard when he held her, or how her little eyes followed him around the room as she lay on the carpet. Such trusting eyes, so certain that her papa would protect her from all harm. He’d been enthralled with her every move then, laughing as she flailed her hands at the empty air until he offered her a finger to hold. Learning the little burp that always warned him to hand her over to Fatimah before an accident could occur. The sunny smile when he came home for the day, the sweetness that lit a small fire in his heart. He supposed any first child would have elicited the same response, but it came as a surprise. Despite the bad memories she provoked, she’d been a pleasant child.

Although it had all changed when she got older. But that was to be expected, wasn’t it? Who’d have thought she’d be so angry with him, when he was only following The Law? It wasn’t like he never saw her any more; hadn’t he invited them all to spend this season with him up in the mountains?

With the boys, now, it had been different. Not as exciting, perhaps, because by then he knew that quite often the smile was just gas. Not always, though. Sometimes, he knew, she smiled just for him. But boys were different, as his father had explained when he was just a boy himself. Women were best kept inside, at home, away from important matters. They were incapable of fending for themselves; they needed guidance, and judgment. That was why the forefathers, in their infinite wisdom, had created The Law. A new Law, for a new world. Women needed to stay in one place, to avoid tempting others. Boys, however, should be encouraged to run, to jump, to exercise their little muscles.

A boy and his father, now there was a bond his wife would never understand. The way they crawled after him when he left in the mornings, trying to stand well before their tiny legs would hold them, just to imitate him! The way he felt watching them take their first quivering steps. The shine on their small bodies as they worked beside him in the fields, carefully stepping around the tender shoots and only pulling the weeds, once they’d learned the difference. Their short legs pumping to keep up with him as he strode home to his well-deserved rest. No, one could not compare the joys of sons to a daughter who’d practically bankrupted him with her dowry.

He passed an isolated field where a small group of women were weeding a thin plot of ground by the road. Widows, he supposed, and no male family member willing to take them in. Truly, it was disgraceful the way people behaved these days. It was a real scandal for these women to be out here unattended, even though the robes hid their bodies completely. It must get hot under those veils, he thought, but at least their faces are hidden. The temptation of staring at a woman’s face was to be avoided at all costs. One might very well jeopardize eternity for such a brief, guilty pleasure. Even with Fatimah, he had always been cautious not to look at her too long, lest it distract him from the more important things in life.

The Law, for instance. Mahmoud was not an especially educated fellow, he knew that. Growing up in the fields did not leave one time for fripperies. But he did know The Law, and he knew his place within it. Life was very simple once you understood that. One followed The Law, or one did not. There was no middle ground.

Truly, these women were a disgrace. Why, if something happened to his brother Faris, Mahmoud would immediately take both Faris’ wives. Of course. Though it would mean buying a bigger truck. But the younger one was small, he could probably fit her in the canister right now. She was a beautiful woman, that one, lithe and nubile, and she would fit wonderfully into the household, he was sure. One old and fat, one middle-aged and skinny but a good worker, the third wife a treasure trove of sensuality…and a fourth, young enough to be his child. She would fit beautifully, yes.

Mahmoud laughed aloud at the thought of Fatimah’s anger should that come to pass. She’d be unable to say one word against it! After all, he’d only be doing what The Law required.

But no, she would make the girl’s life a misery on earth, just to get back at him. Women were vengeful creatures, prone to snap decisions.

Speaking of earth, it’s a wise man who trucks those widows here to till the soil, he mused. One might almost envy him. He’ll be heaven-bound for sure, with all those good deeds entered in the ledgers by a just and merciful Providence. Mahmoud briefly considered buying a bigger truck and transporting a few widows himself, just to be on the safe side. Regretfully, he set the idea aside. There weren’t enough hours in the day to tend to his own family, let alone another’s.

He saw the old side road, almost hidden now by underbrush, and was surprised at how quickly the time had passed. The arguing in the back had died down a few hours ago, and all had been blissful silence since. A man who spends his days with women has no time for contemplation, let alone The Law! he realized with a start. It was moments of revelation such as this that drove Mahmoud to reflect upon the wisdom of the authorities, and the safeguards they’d instituted. Nowadays, all the younger men talked about was reform, but some things went too far.

He pulled off the main road. Hunger tickled his ribs as the truck made its bumpy way down the rutted path, accompanied by a chorus of protests from the back. Reaching a clearing at last, he carefully braked to a halt and cut the engine. The noise ceased as the women began to wonder where they were.

Serves them right if they’re nervous. Mahmoud was not ordinarily this sanctimonious, but the return to bedlam after such peace had triggered his anger. He had so little time for philosophy these days, how hard was it for them to be still and allow him to think?! It was good for them to be silent. Perhaps it would encourage them to think. Although sometimes he doubted whether women were truly capable of serious thought. Particularly when they wanted something. Then it was “Mahmoud, can’t I have this?” and “Why can’t I have that?” until he was ready to tear his hair out in frustration. And if he didn’t provide it, or argued against it, little things began going wrong. The tea was just a shade too cold, the house a shade too warm. Truly, I have allowed them to take me for granted. It will be good for them to wonder what I’m doing.

And of course the women would be silent, that was their great weapon. Usually, when one of them stopped talking, he knew enough to coax it out of her – did she want a new shift? Was there not enough meat? He tried very hard to pay attention to their small needs and concerns, and he rarely grew angry enough to punish them. But up here in the mountains, with the nearest government authority three day’s drive away, there was nothing to make sure he continued that way. The very thought made him uneasy.

He supposed women, too, got nervous now and then, though about what he could not imagine. They were fed, they were clothed, they were housed. And he would never do such a thing. But still, if women were known to be inane featherheads, men were known to be unpredictable and violent. That was also part of the reason for The Law. Perhaps they were smart, to be anxious.

Why, he’d even heard of men taking old wives who annoyed them once too often into these very mountains, dumping them in the forest and leaving them to subsist on pinecones and grubs, until they finally wasted away into nothingness! He’d overheard his wives speaking about it many times. In the beginning, there had been search parties, but no bodies were ever found. And I bet that taught them a lesson! he thought smugly. I’ll let the women stew a while longer.

Whistling cheerfully under his breath, he opened the door and got out. This far into the mountains the rain had already ended, and though the ground was a bit damp, he supposed it wouldn’t harm anything. He walked around to the other side of the cab and took out the picnic basket Fatimah had packed. Picking a level spot, he spread the crisp tablecloth over the ground and smoothed the edges with his foot. Returning to the silent truck, he pulled his folding stool out and set it in the center of the cloth.

Feeling rather pleased with himself, Mahmoud sat down. The women would be quiet for a while longer, leaving him this rare opportunity to rest and think. No more children right now, no. With children crawling underfoot, chances like this were non-existent. Especially girls, always begging to be taken here and taken there, wanting to visit the souk, demanding rides on his shoulders at the end of a long, tiring day. He closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the peace that spread over his shoulders. When he opened them, he smiled and enjoyed the scenery.

Sunlight struck the trees, illuminating the dark edges of the forest surrounding the clearing. Small birds rustled in the background, calling out to one another with happy tidbits of gossip. A lone butterfly poked gracefully among the wildflowers, beating its wings against the sky. Thin shoots of brand-new grass were struggling to make their way through the soil, scenting the air with promise. The breeze carried a hint of dark mulch and mystery, brought from the heart of the forest to this very place, where it filled his heart with wonder. All was well.

“It is living within The Law that brings us these gifts,” he said aloud as he surveyed the landscape. Taking up the thought, he rose and began unpacking the basket. If his wives were listening, they would be impressed with his devoutness. They could learn something from it. He raised his voice a bit.

“And how does the Unbeliever live, without The Law?” He shrugged. “All around us there is evidence of His presence. There is glory everywhere, with The Law to support it.”

You see? he thought. With just a bit of time and silence, even I, Mahmoud, can philosophize. I am more than just a simple farmer. If these ignorant women only had the ability to recognize and appreciate me!

He picked up a covered dish and peeked inside to see what it contained. Dates again. Truth be told, he was a bit tired of dates, for all their healthy reputation. He’d made the mistake once, early on, of telling Fatimah how much he liked their taste. From then on nothing would do but that he have them with every meal.

He bit into one. Very sweet, much more so than usual. She certainly did try to see to his needs. He carried the plate back to his chair, picking at the dates, still speaking loudly for the benefit of his wives.

“It is The Law that requires birds to live in the trees, and not on the ground. It is The Law that new grass comes through the soil, and not through the carpet. It is The Law that woman be as she is, and not as she was. How does the Unbeliever live without The Law?”

His daughter had loved dates when she was a baby. He paused, remembering the way she’d gurgle in delight when he mashed one up with his fingers and rubbed a bit of it on her gums. Those first few weeks, he’d been so desperate to stop her crying.

“What we do, we do for your own good. There is such a thing as too much freedom; temptation is difficult enough for a man to resist, let alone a woman. No, we do it for your good, and the good of your souls.”

He bit into another date. Truly, they were good at heart, these women. Good enough to be freed of his discipline for a while. And he was so very sleepy. Many men kept their wives chained all of the time; he believed in allowing them a little latitude, when they behaved. Besides, how far could they go?

He took the keys to the canister from his robe and walked toward the truck. Opening the hatch, he saw they were all sleeping. So much for educating them in the word of the One All-Seeing. Tip-toeing back to the clearing, he shook his head.

He would take a nap himself, now, and leave the hatch open for them to discover when they awoke. That way, his dinner would be ready when he finished his nap.


After several hours of silence, Fatimah decided they might be safe. Grasping the side of the bin with both hands, she hoisted herself up so her head topped the canister, and peered out at the silent clearing. Satisfied with what she saw, she motioned the other wives to help lift her the rest of the way.

They made a platform for her with their backs, and she slowly pulled her body over the top, then turned hand-over-hand to lower herself. Once in the bed of the truck, she clambered down to the ground and knuckled her way toward the campsite. She checked on Mahmoud first; he was still, as she’d expected. Taking a deep breath of the clean, fresh air, Fatimah slowly and deliberately made her way back to the truck.

The newest wife, being younger, climbed out next, and with the aid of Fatimah and a length of veil, they managed to hoist the third over the edge and into freedom. The women all stared at Mahmoud’s motionless body, then removed their veils and shyly smiled at one another. It was good to be free.

“He looks as foolish now as he ever did!” exclaimed the youngest, sitting on the grass beside him. She gave the silent body a couple of thumps in the ribs, just for good measure.

Fatimah sighed. “He was a good man, a just man, according to his lights. Not too greedy, not too mean. He believed in The Law above all…” She shook her head. “It’s a pity things had to come this far.”


Daylight merged into evening, and it was almost dark by the time they’d made dinner and settled in for the night. For a long time, there was nothing but the sound of contented bellies being filled, and the rustle of small animals as they nosed about the edges of the campfire.

“Truly, this meal is a feast, Fatimah!” said the second wife, gnawing on a large piece of meat. “So delicately spiced – it is amazing what you can do with so little!”

“Yes, yes, blessings be upon you! Who would have known so many wonderful foods grew just within reach?” agreed the youngest, as she teetered on her stumps and put another piece of Mahmoud’s chair on the fire.

Fatimah dimpled at this praise from her co-wives. Yes, it was good to be here, amidst the onions and soya that grew wild by the stream. She leaned back on the ground and stared contentedly up at the stars. It would be hard, but they had plenty of time to stockpile foodstuffs and wreck the car. If her sons came looking, they’d eventually have to conclude that some terrible accident had befallen their father, and the women had wandered off to perish of hunger and exposure in the forest. Those frightening stories about the incompetence of women in the wild had their place, to be sure; no one would ever believe they’d survive on their own. But they could, and they would.

She smiled contentedly to herself, and carefully placed the rest of the rib she’d been eating onto the fire.

“I’ll take the first watch; we can sleep in three shifts that way,” she told them. The others agreed, gathering up the dishes for washing downstream. Their chores completed, the two women crawled into the make-shift lean-to they’d spent part of the afternoon building. Fatimah, meanwhile, made herself comfortable by the fire, and prepared to wait out her portion of the long night.

A few moments later, she heard girlish laughter, and what sounded like dice being thrown against one another. She sat up for a moment, then lay back without worry. They were young, and it had been a long time since they’d been allowed to play freely. At home, life was an unending cycle of chores and childbirth.

Something was not quite right about the sound, though… It was muffled, as though the dice were covered in something soft. And try as she might, Fatimah couldn’t recall any of their games being packed away for the trip.

She sat up suddenly, realizing what had happened, and called out harshly, “Ladies! Ladies! Stop it this instant!”

Silence reigned in the lean-to. After a few minutes, the youngest wife’s head peeped out. Casting a sullen look toward the fire, she mumbled toward the eldest wife with barely concealed irritation, “Fatimah. We were only playing. It is nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

Fatimah swiveled to look her in the eye, then said, “It is not polite, to gamble on such a momentous occasion. And with such dice.”

The youngest, eyes downcast, protested, but Fatimah sat firm. The home-made dice must be placed in the fire, just like the rest of the meal’s remains. The girl was glared into submission, and retreated into the safety of the tent. In a short while, Fatimah heard them giggling again together. She leaned back again, musing philosophically to herself.

“It is not right, though understandable of course,” she thought. “They are young, but they need to learn. No matter how far one goes in righteousness, there is always the problem of going too far, as the prophets say, looming in the distance like a blade.”

She leaned back further and closed her eyes, keeping one ear cocked for the sound of her son-in-law’s car. They should be here in a few hours; in the dark, he wouldn’t see the truck now straddling the narrow road. It would be good to have her daughter back, she thought sleepily. A girl child belonged with her mother. And the other wives would calm down, once they got over their excitement. They’d make a new set of dice, from pebbles or some such. She began to say her prayers, working her way through the daily litany without thought.

“One must respect the bones of one’s family, and bear them tenderly to the fire,” she quoted drowsily. Then she opened her eyes for just a moment, stared up at the Eastern Star, and smiled.

“After all, it is The Law.”