Early morning, while dew clung to the blades of grass, Farida opened the gate to the sheep paddock and stood aside as Aamir, barking and nipping at the hind quarters of those ewes at the back of the flock, guided the twenty-six adult sheep and nine lambs out. When the paddock was empty, Farida closed the gate and followed behind the flock, using her staff to poke the stragglers as Aamir wove in and out of them, urging them along by his mere presence. He had been with them since he was a pup, but they regarded him as a threat that they had little memory of one day to the next. So too, the flock entered the pasture where they grazed every morning as if discovering it for the first time, running about testing one patch of grass and then another until each ewe found a place to feed. Never straying far from their mothers, the lambs frolicked.
Two and one half hours later the flock were guided back to the paddock by Aamir. Farida was nowhere to be seen. Only a Pharaoh eagle owl setting on a branch of a large oak tree knew where she had gone.
Elkebir leaned on his crutch awaiting anxiously at the open gate of the sheep paddock when the flock returned with only Aamir accompanying them. He knew something was wrong when they returned a half-hour late, and now not seeing Farida with them he was certain the girl had wandered off or ran off, or worse yet lay injured in the field, awaiting rescue. It would be another two weeks before the cast would be removed from his broken left leg and the thought of trudging to the field to look for her weighed down by the cast, and possibly injuring his leg again in the process, brought sweat to his furrowed brow. He started to yell for his wife, Latifa, and then remembered she had gone to the bazaar in search of material to make another jellabas for Farida. He had reminded his wife many times that Farida was a hired girl, not her daughter, or even a relative.
“Farida sleeps in the barn and tends the sheep, what does she need a new jellabas for?” he asked her each time she began sewing another one.
“Be quiet, old man,” his wife told him. “She’s just a teenager still in need of being cared for.”
“The only things that need to be cared for are the sheep and my broken leg.”
By habit, he counted the ewes and lambs as they entered the paddock. As the last ewe entered the paddock he did a final tally in his head. Twenty-seven ewes. He paused and then glanced at the flock, shaking his head. Twenty-seven ewes! How can that be? he thought. He leaned against the fence and counted them again. Twenty-seven. Then he began searching the flock for a ewe he didn’t recognize, but having not looked at them very often since breaking his leg, some of them didn’t look familiar at all.
His wife used to name each one, but he forced her to quit doing that when she began naming them after people in the village. Somehow word got out that Latifa did that – actually it was he who mentioned it by accident while at prayers in the mosque – leading to the couple being ostracized for several weeks by the entire village. Staring at the sheep, some did remind him of people he knew, but that was of no help at all.
Aamir was lying in his favorite spot inside the pen, beside the water troth, seeming unfazed that he had returned with an additional ewe. It was said that Sarabi dogs could actually count the sheep in a flock, and in his years of raising sheep, he didn’t doubt that was true, but he considered Aamir to be a dull-witted dog that he kept only because it was a gift from his wife’s brother, Jahander, who he suspected of giving Aamir to him knowing that it was a stupid dog. In forty years of Latifa being his wife, Jahander had found numerous ways to show that he didn’t believe the marriage of his sister to Elkebir had been a good match.
He glanced toward the field, scratched his beard, and thought, if Farida is injured or dead what good would it be to have two bodies lying among the sheep manure? He turned and limped back to the house. Inside he fixed a cup of tea, sat down in his favorite chair, and wished that Latifa would hurry home.
On her way home, Latifa called Allah’s name each time her husband’s old car stalled. Turning the key in the ignition resulted in the entire vehicle shaking before the engine fully came back to life, only to travel a short distance before coming to an abrupt stop once again. It had given her a terrible headache. Her arm was sore from shifting the gears. Her back molar on the right side that had nearly rotted away throbbed in pain from the piece of baklava she had purchased at the bazaar. Her stomach was queasy thinking of what Elkebir’s reaction would be when he found out how much she had spent on the material for Farida’s new jellabas. It would be a shame to have the sight of such beautiful dark blue colors of the fabric spoiled by his ranting. The car came to a stop three miles from her house and couldn’t be bothered to start up again, no matter how much she pleaded with it or called out to Allah.
With the fabric in her arms she got out of the car, looked about to make certain there were no strangers in sight who may mean to harm her, and then began the slow trudge home. She wished they lived on a road that was a bit busier, but her neighbors left their farms only to take their produce to market or to go to the mosque to pray, just as Elkebir did. His broken leg had restricted him to home, making him even more surly than usual. He had failed to tell her how close to death their car was. From over her shoulder she looked back at it, hoping it would be stolen.
She arrived home three hours later, carrying her sandals in her hand and covered in dust blown across the road from the open farmlands. The soles of her feet and her knees ached. She had lost count of how many ailments she was suffering. She passed the sheep paddock and wondered why Farida hadn’t cleaned it out. It smelled to high heaven. Going into the house she was greeted by an irate Elkebir who had been pacing back and forth on his crutch.
“Where have you been? I demand to know!” he yelled, slamming the fist of one hand into the palm of the other.
“Can you not see that I’m in no condition to be screamed at?” She passed by him and went into the kitchen, tossed the fabric onto the table, filled the kettle with water, and set it on the stove.
He followed behind her, grunting and huffing with anger. “A wife must answer her husband when he asks a question.”
She plopped down on a chair. “A husband must respect his wife, especially when her feet are blistered,” she replied, lifting the right one and rubbing it. “That contraption you call a car broke down on the road three miles from here. I walked home from there. That’s where I’ve been. Where is Farida? The paddock reeks.”
He sat down across from her, still scowling. “That girl is useless. She has disappeared.”
“What do you mean, disappeared?”
“Not here, gone, vanished, you know, pfft!” he said, waving his hands. “She never returned from taking the flock to the field this morning. Aamir brought them home on his own.”
“You didn’t go look for her?”
“Have you noticed, my leg is broken?”
“Yes, but that poor girl could be lying the field with a broken leg in the same condition you were found.”
He sputtered before answering, “Yes, but there were the same number of ewes with me that I entered the field with as the number with me when I was found.”
“Farida left with a flock of 26 ewes but 27 ewes returned with Aamir. The girl disappears and an extra ewe joins the flock. What do you make of that?” He settled back in his chair, a smug expression on his face.
She nervously glanced around the room and with her voice barely a whisper, said, “You don’t suppose Farida is a jinn who has turned herself into a ewe?”
He hadn’t thought of that. She did just show up at their doorstep out of nowhere, and now she had disappeared in the same mysterious fashion. A chill went up his spine that he quickly shook off. “Even for a jinn she wears a lot of different jellabas. We must call someone to go look for the girl.”
“Why don’t you call Jahander?”
“I’d rather eat splinters.”
She rose from the chair, went to the phone and dialed her brother’s number. “Hello, brother. This is Latifa. Our hired girl, Farida, did not return this morning from taking our flock to the field. Can you come and look for her?” After a few moments listening she said, “sepâs” and hung up. She glanced at Elkebir. “Jahander says he tended his own flock when he had two broken legs. He said he will be here within the hour to begin looking for Farida.”
Elkebir knew that the banging on the door had to be Jahander, but he didn’t move an inch from his place at the table and away from his tea to go answer it.
“Jahander may have news of Farida,” Latifa said as she stood up, scowling at her husband. “Why you hate him so much is beyond me. May Allah forgive you.” She left the kitchen to go answer the door.
“I’m certain Allah isn’t fond of him either,” he mumbled as he watched her go.
A few moments later he heard the front door open, and the boisterous voice of his brother-in-law. “Sadly, the girl could not be found,” Jahander said, his words dripping with sincerity. Said in such a manner for Latifa’s benefit, Elkebir thought.
Moments later his wife and her brother entered the kitchen.
“Sadly . . .” Jahander began.
“I heard,” Elkebir said, cutting him off. “As I thought, she has wandered off to live off the good will of another unsuspecting family.”
“Good will! She lives in our barn and watches the flock,” Latifa replied. “Perhaps if we had treated her better.”
“It will do no good to argue about her now,” Jahander interjected. “Your ewes were all returned plus you have one additional ewe. The flock must be examined to determine which one is the new one.”
“I did examine them,” Elkebir said. “A ewe is a ewe.”
“I have a flock twice the size of yours and I know each ewe as if it were my wife or daughters,” Jahander said.
Elkebir grunted. “No doubt.”
Knowing a verbal fight was about to begin between her husband and brother, Latifa said, “It has grown dark outside. We can figure out where the twenty-seventh ewe came from and continue our search for Farida in the morning.” She took her brother’s arm and led him from the kitchen and to the front door.
When the door opened, the hoot-hoot of the owl echoed across the landscape.
In the middle of the night, Elkebir was awakened from a restless sleep by tapping on the front door. Latifa was lying on her back, sound asleep, snoring loudly. He sat up on the edge of the bed, put on his robe, picked up his crutch, and hobbled to the front room. When he opened the door, there stood Farida, holding a lamb.
He looked at the girl, at the lamb, and then back at the girl. “Where have you been?” he asked her sternly. “On my crutch, I looked for you all yesterday late into the night.”
“I was looking for this lamb. It had wandered off and it took me some time to find it. Did you not count the lambs when I sent the flock back with Aamir?”
He then remembered he had counted the ewes, but not the lambs. “There were twenty-seven ewes,” he replied, stuttering, in defense.
“That must be one of your brother-in-law’s ewes. His flock shared your field for a short while in the morning. He didn’t call you to tell you it was missing?”
“No, but I will call him first thing in the morning to look for his wife and daughters.”
“Nothing,” he replied. “You will find this amusing but my wife thought your disappearance and the sudden appearance of the twenty-seventh ewe meant you might be a jinn.”
Farida giggled. “Me, a jinn, just imagine.”
“I can’t,” he replied. “Put the lamb with the flock and get a good night’s sleep. Latifa will be happy that you have returned.
She turned, pulled an owl’s feather from under her hijab and flicked it into the night breeze, then headed for the sheep paddock.