Razia Mirza is a Pakistani woman from Corona, Queens, who grew up in a tight Muslim community surrounding the first Sunni masjid built in New York City. When a rebellious streak leads to her ex-communication, she decides to hit the road. “Corona” moves between Razia’s childhood and the comedic misadventures she encounters on her journey, from a Puritan Colony in Massachusetts to New York City’s Bhangra music scene. With each story, we learn more about the past she’s escaping, a past which leads her to constantly travel in a spiral, always coming closer to but never quite arriving home. Readers can pre-order “Corona” and find more excerpts and information about it at Sibling Rivalry Press.
* * *
My first summer away from Queens, I worked in Salem, a city so famous for burning women its whole economy was based on it. I got a job at a recreated seventeenth century village called Pioneer Spirit. It was like a run down Plimoth Plantation, the bastard child where all the druggies and misfits went, the ones who couldn’t be trusted to stay in character in Plimoth, the ones who would forget.
Pioneer Spirit was different than Plimoth in that we didn’t have to act like we were pilgrims. Mostly we just hung out in costume. Once or twice a day each of us gave tours. We had a line-up and when it was your turn and you heard the bell, you went up to the governor’s house to see who had shown up, what poor tourist had been led astray, had come to Salem to see the witches and somehow got duped into taking our tour of pre-witch trial Salem: Pioneer Spirit 1630, a living history museum.
Some of the folks who worked there were history buffs. They wore their costumes even when they weren’t working and actually read about Salem’s history. But most of us, Walter, June and me were just folks who couldn’t deal with having any kind of real job, stoners who liked the idea of dressing up in costumes from the 1600s. We got by on one history book we rotated among us and our imaginations.
On my first day, they gave me a white bonnet, a red jacket, white undershirt and brown wool skirt. The woman who was training us warned me it was extremely flammable, so I should try not to get too close to the fire when I was demonstrating how to make johnny cakes for the tourists. She said it in this way that made me feel she wasn’t kidding. That many women had come and gone before me, up in flames.
Johnny cakes were made out of corn meal and a little sugar. Puritans took them along when they went on journeys, but they couldn’t pronounce “journey” right so the cakes were called johnny cakes. I didn’t really know if this was true but I said it on every tour. I would stand back from the fire and hitch up my skirt (in a very non-Puritan way) and cook those cakes in cast iron pans which could really have been from the 1600s, they were so old and dirty. I wasn’t allowed to let the tourists taste the cakes, but mine always came out so burnt no one ever asked.
* * *
At the end of my first week, I got a group made up of seven Harley bikers and one older white couple. The bikers were grizzly bearded and big and made me look like a tiny Puritan doll when I stood next to them. I was terrified, but I pulled myself up to my full five feet and looked them in their bearded faces. If I took away their motorcycles and muscles, they looked just like my bearded Muslim uncles in Queens. Somehow my costume had me feeling brave, as if I really was a ghost of the past. If anyone tried to touch me, their hands would just pass through.
That day was pretty hot, and my wool skirt and jacket were itching. I started off the tour by taking the bikers and the older couple to the dugouts. There were seven bikers, all different heights and widths, but they all looked like they had been caked with the same dirt from the open road. Standing next to them, the older couple seemed ironed out, pink and unbelievably clean.
The village was set up to go chronologically, from how the Puritans first lived when they were FOBs, to how they “advanced”, until they were living just like the English in London, except surrounded by “savages” and wilderness, instead of the ash and sin they had left behind. When everyone was gathered around, I began my tour:
“The Puritans got here during a dreadful winter. They had been lost at sea, and when they arrived the snow was yea high.” I put my hand up to my chest. “There were no houses set up with fireplaces and maids, so Someone had a brilliant idea to dig homes into the sides of the hills. These dugouts.” I waved my arms grandly at the not so grand entrance. “You can come closer and look in.” The old couple pushed ahead of the Harley bikers to take a peek. I put my hand on my hip and continued, “Kind of dark and spooky. Not really welcoming. Now imagine fifteen to twenty men, women and children, all cramped in, stuck and homesick, and really sick too.” Whenever I said that part of the tour I realized it sounded like the Pakistani families I knew back in Queens, but no, I had to focus.
“Most of the Puritans died that first winter when they arrived. Of course the Native Americans probably would have been happy if all of them had died.” The bikers chuckled, but the old couple looked shocked. They seemed to get paler, and I made a mental note to never use that joke again on a tour.
“Alrighty then.” I moved the group a bit abruptly to the pen next to the dugouts where we kept our historically accurate goats. The couple and the Harley bikers thankfully followed me.
“Well these are our goats. There’s Snowball and that’s Rosemary and Thyme. Now these goats are not your average goats. They’re historical goats. Not stuffed, they’re real.” The goats bleated in affirmation. “But they are pure bred so they look, act, sound, eat, chew and well I guess every other goat activity, they do it just like the goats back then.”
The lady knelt down by the pen and started luring Rosemary with a blade of grass. “These goats are pretty big,” she noted. Rosemary ignored her, nonchalantly turned her head and bleated. I don’t think she appreciated the crack on her weight.
“Yes, please don’t get too close to the goats. Remember they’re not petting goats and can get pretty nasty. They’re big because they’re pregnant. And they actually look just like the pregnant Puritan goats from historical times. If you come back in a few weeks, there will be babies.” I was told by Ron, my boss to promote Pioneer Spirit since it was on the verge of being shut down.
The older man said in a dry voice, “Where’s the father?”
“Oh, we’ll meet Winthrop, the daddy in a moment. He’s named after one of the first governors of Massachusetts, but he had to be fenced off in another part of the village for getting a little too frisky and believe me Puritan goats get frisky just like the rest.” The Harley bikers laughed which was a relief for me, but the old man turned pink.
Like Winthrop on the ill-fated Arabella, I turned and motioned for them to follow me.
“We used to have Puritan chickens too but those, well those, had to be taken away because you see Puritan chickens weren’t like the scrawny weaklings we eat nowadays. They had wings long enough to fly. Yes, fly. So they always ended up on top of the governor’s house. We spent so much time pulling them down, we barely had any time for doing other Puritan things. Like, um” I had to think of what Puritans did, “Like praying.”
We came to the bottom of a hill. “Okay then, if you follow me, up this hill along the stream. . .”
“What stream?” The older man looked annoyed.
“Oh, the stream.” Shit. Will the Blacksmith was supposed to turn it on in the morning. “Just one second.” I ran up the hill, cursing Will and found the water tap in the rocks that was supposed to create the stream. At first I thought it was stuck, but I finally got it to twist. Brown water shot out and after a few seconds it was clear. I ran back trying not to trip on my skirt.
“Okay, here’s the stream!” They all looked up and down the rocks, a trickle of water was slowly inching towards us. “It hasn’t rained, so it’s drying up. But yes, if you follow me. . .” I could tell the Harley bikers were getting a kick out of my tour. The other couple, I could still try to win over. The Harley bikers were kicking up dust and the old man and lady were doing everything to dodge the clouds that were rising to the surface. Still, they all had to be impressed by the next part.
“What is that?” The wife pointed to what looked like a giant piece of Shredded Wheat.
I walked them up the hill “Well, this strange looking structure you see is an English Wigwam. Basically the English got tired of living like cave people in the dugouts. And you know the saying if you live with Romans act like Romans or something like that. Well the Puritans didn’t really want to act like Native Americans, but they just looked so warm and healthy and with the Puritans dying off so fast, they knew they would have to do something to adapt, so they copied Native American wigwams. But they couldn’t give up their Englishness. They missed their thatched roofs so much, they decided to thatch their wigwams instead of using leaves like the Native Americans.”
I brought them inside where it was cool and dark.
“The only problem was these English wigwams were basically stacks of hay which could burn down in a matter of seconds with nothing more than a spark. And since the inside of the wigwam was used for cooking food like johnny cakes, many families died, this time not from the cold, but from being burned alive. ”
“Anybody got a light?” It was one of the Harley bikers. I loved it and nicknamed him Chuckles in my head. But I could feel the old man getting wound up right behind me, even though it was dark and I couldn’t see his face.
I was getting pretty tired of giving the tour and I couldn’t wait to get out of my bonnet and meet up with the rest of the Puritan gang for lunch. We usually got high behind the Blacksmith’s shop. So I skipped a few stops and brought them to the Governor’s house. It was two stories with real glass windows. Compared to the other homes, it was a mansion. I guess some things never change. “Okay, next is Winthrop’s house. The governor, not the goat.” They laughed, but their laugher sounded more like bleating than anything else.
I brought them into the front room where there was a stuffed turkey and gun hanging above the fireplace. I waited for everyone to gather around. The old man and woman were lagging behind. They looked like they were disagreeing. He was whispering to her angrily.
I tried hard not to look worried. There had already been complaints about our tours. But a few minutes later, they joined us and I was able to breathe. I continued. “The Puritans were terrible hunters. They would rush through the forest trampling everything in sight, making a ton of noise, shouting left and right, letting the animals know for miles around they were coming. So for months, the Puritans had nothing to eat, but johnny cakes. Lucky for them, they discovered wild turkey. Now, wild turkeys were stupid birds and easy to catch even for the Puritans. The Puritans were beside themselves with joy when they discovered wild turkey.”
“I’ll bet!” It was Chuckles again. “Wild Turkey!” All the bikers started cracking up. I wasn’t sure why they were laughing, but I smiled along.
The old man broke in. “This is ridiculous! Turkeys were not stupid birds!”
Everyone stopped and turned to him. He had turned bright red. Being a person whose skin color made it impossible to blush, I was impressed. Even the Harley bikers stepped back.
“This is the most historically inaccurate, ridiculous tour I have ever seen, even in Salem. Anyone who actually knows American history,” he gave me a look, “would know wild turkeys were not stupid birds. They were so intelligent Benjamin Franklin wanted them to be our national bird instead of the eagle.”
“What’s wrong with eagles?” One of the larger Harley bikers stepped close. I noticed he had an eagle tattooed on his left arm.
“There is nothing wrong with eagles!” This man was on fire. “But I don’t enjoy the fact that I paid for a historical tour and have gotten nothing but superficial nonsense!”
I winced. I knew my tour wasn’t perfect, but superficial nonsense?
“I teach American history and almost everything this young lady has said is wrong, wrong, wrong.” Each time he said “wrong” his face deepened in color. “It’s because of people like her that this country is going to shit.”
There was silence for a moment and I could feel the hair bristle on the back of my neck. I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry sir. I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m sure you can get your money back.”
“Oh I’ll get more than my money back.” He turned and stormed out the door of the governor’s house.
His wife looked embarrassed. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “He retired early this year and he just misses teaching history. I enjoyed your tour. Really.” Then she ran after him.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Chuckles looked at me. “So where’s this frisky old goat you were talking about?”
They all looked at me gently and suddenly I felt so homesick for Queens, where the men who looked scary used to be the men who took care of me.
* * *
When I got off the tour, one of the other fake Puritans, Walter, was waiting. Walter was tall and thin and had stringy red hair down to his chin. His face was freckled and my first thought when I met him was Ichabod Crane, but if Ichabod was a stoner who did gravity bong hits and had a punk band.
We had become friends after I tagged along on one of his tours to see if I could learn any new “facts.” His tour was so funny I almost died from not laughing. When we got to the part where there was a fake burial ground, he turned to the group and said, “So this is where the Puritans were buried. Of course these wooden posts aren’t the original wooden posts. They don’t exist anymore. They rotted. Just like Puritans, and that’s why we don’t see them much either.”
I guess he hadn’t had that history teacher on his tour.
“Hey Injun.” That was Walter’s nickname for me. He got a big kick out of the fact that I was Pakistani and working as an English Puritan. “Ron wants to see you.”
“Did he tell you about the old guy?”
“Don’t worry about it. We get crazies here all the time. Who else would pay for one of our tours?” He had a point.
When I went to the old barn which was our office, Ron was waiting at his desk. He rubbed his hand over his face. “Razia. I guess you know what this is about.”
“The old guy.”
“You didn’t call him that did you?”
“Of course not.” Now it was my turn to be offended. I had more respect for my elders than that.
“Well, that was David Green.” I looked blank. “He’s one of the board members for the Historical Society in Salem. It’s because of him we stay open.”
I picked up some trousers which were thrown across the chair, tossed them on the floor and sat down across the desk from Ron. “I don’t think he really enjoyed my tour.”
“No, he didn’t. He thinks you should be fired.”
“He said, well . . .” Ron hesitated. “He didn’t think your tour was historically accurate.”
“But no one’s tour here is historically accurate.” I began to feel sick like the time I had eaten one of my own johnny cakes.
Ron looked embarrassed. Everyone knew he had used the money for training to have “Ye Olde Keg Party” for the entire staff. He’d insisted Puritans drank a lot of ale. Most of us had gotten so drunk and done such embarrassing things we couldn’t even look each other in the eye the next morning.
“Well, he also said your presentation wasn’t historically accurate.”
“The way you look.” Ron looked down and then up again. “But I talked to him and said you were great and we agreed you could keep your job. You could be an Indian. I could arrange for a costume and you wouldn’t have to do or say anything. Just stand around. And you know, act like an Indian.”
“But I’m not that kind of Indian.”
“I know.” He seemed depressed by this.
“And it’s not like they were just standing around?”
Ron took a long drag and started having a coughing fit. “Razia, we’re barely keeping our doors open.”
He walked to the back door, hacking all the way. It looked out onto the ocean, and it occurred to me that this was the real reason Pioneer Spirit was being taken. Real estate. Ron spit outside before he continued. “No one cares about Salem pre-witch trials. They come here to hear about the burnings, stonings, hangings, about death. They don’t give a shit about what really happened to people when they first got here.”
“Why don’t you just put me on a stake then? That’ll bring people in.”
“Razia. . . ”
“Ron. This isn’t fair.”
He looked at me. I knew he was thinking I didn’t look like an English Puritan. But it was one thing to disrespect Puritans and another to disrespect Native Americans.
“Look, think about it.” I could see Ron was upset. “Come in the morning and we can talk, okay?”
I didn’t say anything. I just walked out and down the dirt road towards the exit, still wearing my costume. It didn’t really matter in Salem. You could walk down the street in full seventeenth century garb and no one noticed. Half the population did. Everyone was stuck in the past, wearing costumes, pretending they were someone they weren’t. I thought of the Harley bikers and my uncles.
And then I thought of my father, the day he told me I had to leave. All too often, his face, ash grey, would rise up in my mind and each time it would shock me, the way the full moon shocked me when it rose against the buildings in Queens.
I walked faster. Outside the gate, the Harley biker clan was hanging out in the parking lot. They were smoking and passing around a brown bag.
“Hey there sweetie. Out early?” It was Chuckles and his gang. They looked happy to see me.
“No, I think I just got fired.”
There was a general growl. “Fuckers.” Chuckles said. And on cue, all of the rest of them spit or mumbled curses. Chuckles passed me the brown paper bag. “Wild Turkey.”
I looked inside and then laughed. I raised the bag to my mouth and let the whisky burn through my body. I could taste Chuckles mouth on the neck.
Writer Bushra Rehman’s novel “Corona” is forthcoming in August 2013. Bushra’s poetry, essays and short stories have been featured widely on BBC Radio 4, WNYC, KPFA and in The New York Times, India Currents and NY Newsday. She is also the co-editor of the acclaimed anthology “Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism,” adopted as essential reading material in women’s studies and ethnic studies classes around the United States.