A hidden gift tucked in a scarf

On a train ride across Turkmenistan, two women share a sleeping car and concerns.

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When Turkmenistan was first becoming independent, it had trouble stabilizing prices. The currency had inflated. Even a little money was hard to get; people worried and felt uneasy. We stood in lines for staples, and food was scarce.

It was 1993. I took a train from Ashgabat to Kushka, my hometown, near the Afghan border, because my relatives had asked me to come. My husband booked me a bunk in a sleeping car and accompanied me to the station.

In the train, I found myself sitting next to a woman with a small boy of 4 or 5. No other passengers arrived. My bunkmate wore bright-red woolen scarves around her weather-beaten face; a long, traditional dress; and embroidered socks with dusty slippers. She looked as though she had spent all her life in the fields tending cotton or melons, or taking care of sheep and camels. Her hands were calloused.

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As everyone does, we introduced ourselves and drank tea together. She had brought her youngest son to town to see a doctor and to make sure a cut near his right ear had healed. He clung to her fiercely, saying nothing at all, even though I smiled at him and spoke to him in his dialect. Like his mother, he had bright, dark ebony eyes, deeply set and shining. His nose was straight, like hers, but he had rosy cheeks, while her skin was the color of tobacco.

After the train had chugged along for several hours, the sun set over the desert and we got ready for bed. The desert sands glowed from the orange rays of the setting sun. I walked the corridor, listening to my fellow passengers shifting and rustling in their compartments, settling down like a flock of ravens. Perched on my bunk, I looked out the window. I could not see another living soul but it seemed that, off in the distance, I perceived camels wandering in the deepening dusk. Sighing, I yearned to see my family again.

My fellow passenger was wearing layers and layers of clothing that she took off slowly, for the train was quite warm. She kept on her woolen stockings and camel-wool socks, bright with the pattern of the Sari tribe. I saw that she wore an old cotton undershirt when she pulled off her long ragged dress of red velvet. "It must be her best dress," I thought sadly. On top of her dress she had worn a woolen sweater with patches; she pushed this behind her pillow.

Before she lay down, the woman patted herself and stroked her child's head. She kissed his forehead softly and murmured something. Then she lay down to sleep. I did the same, undressing quickly and covering myself in the blanket provided.

In the middle of the night I woke up. My neighbor was tossing and turning, and moaning to herself.

"What is the matter," I asked her, switching on my tiny night light next to my head.

"Ten manat," she said, referring to the local currency. "Ten manat. I cannot find it." She pulled at her clothes, and moved the child, who was nestled next to her fast asleep, to the end of her bunk. Then she began tearing apart the bed, looking for her money. She took the pillow out of its case, and shook the sheets. She grabbed at her clothes, waving them about right and left, shaking all the pieces of fabric with increasing strength.

"Please calm yourself," I said to her. At that time, 10 manat could buy several kilos of flour, or two liters of milk, or meat enough to feed a family. As I watched, her fear upset me and made me feel as if I was somehow the culprit. I felt terribly guilty: I had more than this woman, a hardworking, simple soul. Losing 10 manat, although not a small amount of money, would not have disturbed me so greatly. For her it was such a lot.

Why did I feel culpable? If she did not find the money, would she accuse me? We had been alone; no one else had entered the compartment. "Secretly she is blaming me for her loss," I worried to myself. "I cannot prove that I am innocent and I hate to watch her suffer like this."

Finally, the woman calmed down, and cradled her sleeping child. She pressed the little breathing bundle spoonlike to her chest, and went to sleep. When morning came, I watched her again look for the money in vain. Perhaps she had lost it before getting on the train, or perhaps she had spent it and forgotten somehow. Her face showed her fear, and I felt guilty again.

When she took the child to wash up in the tiny train toilet, I quickly took 10 manat from my purse, shoving the bill under the folds of one of her scarves. When she returned I beseeched her to look one more time for her lost money. "Look carefully," I said, "Perhaps here, perhaps there." I urged her to check her scarf again, and as she lifted it, the bill floated down to the floor of the compartment. "Thank goodness," I said, watching her smile in relief.

She stuffed the money somewhere in her bosom, and smiled. We drank tea and chatted until she got off near Merv. My stop was still almost a day away, but no one else came to occupy the compartment after she left.

The remainder of my journey was uneventful. Sometimes I still think about this woman. Remembering her, I feel grateful that in some small way I was able to help a fellow countrywoman.

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