Batma’s mother was a stolen, taken one cold October evening as she left the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, pushed into the back of a van and driven to Osh, four hundred miles to Kyrgyzstan’s far-flung south, where a roomful of women she did not know badgered her to marry a man she had never met.
Throughout that long night the women cajoled her and insisted this marriage was best for her, slapping her lightly on the cheek if she looked away or tried to sleep. One of them said she too was taken, as were others here. We are all fine now. And you will be fine too, in the end. Do not worry.
Batma’s mother knew she would not be fine, not at the beginning and not at the end. Batma’s grandmother had also been taken and forced to marry a widowed policeman, a hard man who had lived a hard life. The day after she was taken, Batma’s mother was allowed to telephone her parents, who said the kidnapper’s family had visited and offered a fine dowry.
You stayed the night alone in that house, her father told her. Everything has changed. Those people told us, ‘You no longer have a daughter. She is our daughter now.’ I am sorry about this, my child. There is nothing to be done.
Batma’s mother was married by a local mullah to a man named Azamat, in the way stolen brides often are in Kyrgyzstan. Three times in the early years she fled her husband and their Bishkek home, each time brought back against her will. She set aside the idea of escape after Batma was born, but nursed the idea of leaving without fail, fleeing for good in the early hours of her daughter’s twelfth birthday.
* * *
Batma, round-faced and small, now twenty years old, was quiet in the telling of her mother’s story, a tale bred in her own flesh and bone.
My father told me when I was twelve — after my mother left for good — that she had run away before, that it was not the first time. I asked him, ‘Why did she do this? How could she do it?’
He said, ‘She took the car. I did not know she could drive.’ He kept his head down while he spoke. He said, ‘She went to her sister’s house in Uzgen, like before.’ That was all he said. That was all I knew, until last week.
Last week he came to me and said he had something more to say about my mother leaving. After all these years he said, ‘I never should have done it.’
It was a whisper, the way he talked. I knew it was something bad. Done what?’ I said. ‘You never should have done what? Tell me, father. Did you beat her?’
‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘I love your mother.’ He waited, offended by what I had asked. Then he said, ‘The story about your mother and me, it is a long story, dear one. I will tell you more some day.’
And I said, ‘No. You will not tell me some day, father. You will tell me now.’
* * *
Batma knew from an early age that her mother did not love her. Relatives told her there had been no beishik toi celebration when she was born or tushoo kesuu, when she took her first steps, much to her father’s shame. Her mother, whose name is Nazira, would not allow it.
Batma’s mother fed her and washed her clothes and brushed her hair and made sure her schoolwork was finished on time. It was her father who hugged her and kissed her; her mother touched her rarely. She called Batma by her name, but never daughter. Batma’s mother never raised her voice, no matter what Batma did or did not do. Her mother’s praise came after prodding from her father, who would say, This is a wonderful school report, is it not, Nazira?
Batma’s mother would say, Yes, it is a good report, nothing more.
Batma played soccer with the boys and insisted that her father teach her how to repair things, a small, rusted motor she found in the basement of their apartment building, a bicycle with a broken chain. If Batma asked her mother how to make bread or beshbarkmak she always heard the same answer, Not now. I will show you later.
When she was six Batma asked her father, Why does mama not like me?
Her father –- untethered by the question, his face flushed with uncertainty — turned suddenly cheerful.
What! Why would you ask such a thing? Of course she likes you! She loves you! His voice was forceful, upbeat. What mother does not love her child?
He grabbed Batma by both wrists and swung her in one smooth motion onto his shoulders, then lurched around the living room, growling like a bear. Batma laced her fingers tight under his chin, laughing at his antics.
She knew her question had gone unanswered.
Many nights, before falling asleep, she asked herself the same secret questions: Why does this mother does not love her child? What did the child do?
* * *
I took your mother, Azamat told his daughter. My cousins and I, we stole her. My family forced me. I did not want to steal her.
They sat at the kitchen table drinking tea, father and daughter. Sunlight sliced the edge of a still-dark morning; new smoke rose in plumes from hearth fires, staining the sky.
It was not my plan to steal a wife. My father pushed me. I could not say no. I know I cannot undo what I have done. I have been sorry for a long time.
Batma waited, not certain what to feel. She loved this man but wished she did not know these things.
My father said, ‘We will give you some weeks to find someone. If you do not, you will have to steal a bride.’ I was frightened of girls. My friends talked to girls, but I was nervous and stammered. I worried they would laugh at me.
Which ones? asked Batma. Your friends or the girls?
Both! said Azamat, an answer that made them almost smile.
It is hard, Batma, to tell you these things. They are my failures.
Yes, said Batma, I see that. But what happened?
Yes, what happened to you and Mama?
After three months, said Azamat, my father asked if I had found someone for marriage. I lied and said yes, but that I needed more time. He said, ‘Can you ask this girl to marry you?’ I said, ‘I cannot, Papa. She would not say yes.’
Batma asked, Was it true? Did you know mother already?
No, I did not. But I found her, Batma. I only needed more time.
Batma and her father stared at the top of the kitchen table, as if his newest lie was laying there, waiting to be claimed as true.
* * *
Batma’s mother had been gone eight years. She wondered about Batma, how she was doing at university and if she still lived at home. Nazira could not write her daughter or call her because of Azamat, as if her husband and daughter were the same person. She knew this was not true, but it did no good to think otherwise.
This is what she thought: I detest Azamat even now, so long after ‘ala kachuu,’ after his ‘take and run.’ It was more for me. From the moment I was stolen I have hated Azamat as much as I could. Not because he bad. He shouted at me sometimes; he never struck me. He was not bad.
But he did a terrible thing. Not to my parents or to my daughter or to anyone else in this whole world with all of its people, only to me. He blames his father. I blame him.
I carry a stone inside me. I can see inside myself and I see the stone. It weighs me down. That is why I am sick. This stone is my life. I cannot remember a time when I did not carry it.
* * *
Not long after their talk Batma told her father she was bringing Nazira back to Bishkek to live with them. Her mother, who had breast cancer as a younger woman, was growing frail. Her cancer had returned.
Auntie says she has been falling lately, Batma said. She loses her bowels. The doctors say her cancer is back in many places and they can do nothing. They gave her morphine and sent her away.
Azamat asked, Does your mother know you are coming? Do you talk to her?
No, I do not talk to Mama, only to Auntie. I never tell you. Mama is too sick to talk much. I will put her in the car and bring her home. She can stay in the small room off the kitchen. You will clean it out today.
Do a good job. I will return tomorrow.
* * *
On the long drive from her aunt’s house in Uzgen, Batma told her mother, You will live with us Mama. With father and me, in Bishkek. Her mother slept little in the back seat of their left-hand drive Camry, jostled by rutted roads.
When she woke Nazira said, I will not stay in the same room with Azamat.
Of course not, said Batma. Do you remember the pantry? We fixed it up for you. We have not used it (since you left, she thought. Instead she said), in a long time. My room is close.
For two months, Batma nursed Nazira, who faltered under the weight of her own pain, despite the morphine. Batma made mutton soup for her to sip and bathed her with warm water. She mixed teaspoons of strawberry jam in hot chai, the way Nazima liked. No one spoke of the years they had lost, together and alone.
Nazira thanked Azamat once for letting her come to Bishkek, a city she loved but had learned to forget. Over several weeks she told Batma what her daughter already knew:
I have not been a good mother.
Nothing was your fault.
I could not behave any other way.
I knew too much about stolen girls. My mother was stolen and I treated you as she treated me. For that I am sorry, dear daughter.
I never learned how to live with what I was, who I became.
Batma remembered Nazira’s final words throughout her long life and repeated them to herself, sometimes out loud, when she found the need.