See the Story Index for a chronological guide to the previous stories.
I live in a small apartment in Istanbul with Lena, my love. Lena is in one of her rare good moods, and we’re happy. I’m trying to teach her a knife flow drill that I learned from Saber many years ago, when we used to practice in the yard of Boulos Haddad’s villa in Beirut. It’s a sequence of about a dozen slashes and thrusts, with each person blocking and attacking in turn. I don’t have any wooden training knives at home, so Lena and I use a pair of wooden drumsticks that she picked up from one of her musician friends.
I’m annoyed because Lena won’t take the drill seriously. She’s goofing off like she does when she’s happy, tapping on my head with her drumstick and singing, “Nasseni el donya, nasseni el ‘alam, dawibny habeeby, wa sibni aqolak ahla kalam.” Let me forget the world, let me forget the land, melt me my darling and let me tell you the sweetest talk. I snatch away the drumstick and smack her on the rump with it. She laughs and runs into the living room. I pursue, but when I get there I find her sprawled on the floor, her throat cut, and her blood flowing along the cracks of the floorboards.
Suddenly a tree sprouts from Lena’s chest. It erupts into greenery, filling the room. As I stand horrified, watching the tree consume her body, a tendril of orange flame licks up the trunk. The entire tree combusts, and thick black smoke billows in the enclosed space of the room. I inhale the smoke and it fills me, roiling inside me like a living thing, staining me.
It hits me that this is a dream, and I am tremendously relieved for only an instant, before frustration fills me like bile. What is this cursed place? If I am alive then how long must I remain before I die? And if I am dead… but I feel the presence of the woman, J – something with Ja – it’s a spark in the fog of my thoughts, but I can’t remember. I feel her, I sense her words as if from a great distance, like echoes on flat stone. But I’m fed up. I can’t take these dreams anymore.
Allah. This comes to me like sunshine through a storm. I have, at first, no other words to attach to this single powerful one. Then others come: La ilaha il-Allah. And: Allahumma.
Then I pull back from the shadowy borders of awareness, sinking into the depths. I want to go further, to plummet until my thoughts wink out like the last ember of a dying flame, but once again the fish hook is in my throat like a great puppet’s string, trapping me so that I dance on the end of its line. It beats a dull rhythm in my ears: pshh, pshh, pshh, like a mechanical tide. I want to be rid of it, but I have no hands any longer, nor any voice to speak.
The next morning, Jamilah worked in the garden for a few hours, hacking away at the weeds, mentally weighing the arguments she would use at this afternoon’s meeting with Shamsi and Mo. The very idea of pulling the plug on Hassan was ludicrous. She was also anxious about Kadija’s impending visit, and about the upcoming meeting in the afternoon. It was going to be a heck of a day.
She ate a big breakfast – gardening always stoked her appetite – then went to Hassan’s room to study. This particular book dealt with international human rights; the chapter she was reading focused on the question of whether human rights were culturally relative, or universal. This subject was close to Jamilah’s heart, so that she was able to forget her worries and immerse herself in the reading.
Soon two hours had gone by. Jamilah put down the book, stood and stretched, and then did a few jumping jacks, feeling slightly self-conscious about doing them in front of Hassan, and feeling foolish for feeling self-conscious. Then she sat down again and began to read out loud from the biography of the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam:
The Mission to Ta’if
In consequence of the growing hostility of Quraysh after Abu Talib’s death, the Apostle went to the city of Ta’if (a mountainous city several days journey from Makkah) to seek help from the tribe of Thaqif, and to secure their defense against Quraysh. Also, he hoped that they would receive the message which Allah had given him. He took with him only his adopted son, Zayd bin Harithah.
When the Apostle arrived at Ta’if he met with three brothers who were their leaders and chiefs. The Apostle sat with them and invited them to accept Islam and asked them to help him against his opponents at home.
All of them responded with hostility and abusive language. One of them swore that he would tear up the covering of the Ka’bah if indeed Allah had sent Muhammad. The other said, “Could not Allah have found someone better than you to send?” The third said, “By Allah, don’t let me ever speak to you. If you are an Apostle from Allah as you say, you are far too important for me to reply to, and if you are lying against Allah it is not right that I should speak to you!”
So the Apostle got up and went, despairing of getting any good out of Thaqif. Before leaving he said to them, “Keep the matter secret,” for he was loath that his people should hear about it and be further emboldened against him.
But they did not do so, and in fact they stirred up their louts, children and slaves against him. For ten days he stayed there delivering his message to several people, one after another, but all to no purpose. Stirred up to hasten the departure of the unwelcome visitor, the people hooted him through the alley-ways, pelted him with stones and obliged him to flee from the city pursued by a relentless rabble. Blood flowed down both his legs; and Zaid, endeavouring to shield him, was wounded in the head. The mob did not desist until they had chased him two or three miles across the sandy plains to the foot of the surrounding hills.
There, wearied and exhausted, they took refuge in one of the numerous orchards, and rested against the wall of a vineyard. At a time when the whole world seemed to have turned against him, Muhammad [pbuh] turned to his Lord and betook himself to prayer and the following touching words are still preserved as those through which his oppressed soul gave vent to its distress. He was weary and wounded but confident of the help of his Lord:
“O Allâh! To You alone I make complaint of my helplessness, the paucity of my resources and my insignificance before mankind. You are the most Merciful of the mercifuls. You are the Lord of the helpless and the weak, O Lord of mine! Into whose hands would You abandon me: into the hands of an unsympathetic distant relative who would sullenly frown at me, or to the enemy who has been given control over my affairs? But if Your wrath does not fall on me, there is nothing for me to worry about. I seek protection in the light of Your Countenance, which illuminates the heavens and dispels darkness, and which controls all affairs in this world as well as in the Hereafter. May it never be that I should incur Your wrath, or that You should be wrathful to me. And there is no power nor resource, but Yours alone.”
Seeing him in this helpless situation, the two wealthy Makkans who owned the orchard felt pity and sent to him one of their Christian servants with a tray of grapes. The Prophet [pbuh] accepted the fruit with pious invocation: “In the Name of the Allâh.”
The Christian servant ‘Addas was greatly impressed by these words and said: “These are words which people in this land do not generally use.” The Prophet [pbuh] inquired of him: whence he came and what religion he professed. ‘Addas replied: “I am a Christian by faith and come from Nineveh.” The Prophet [pbuh] then said: “You belong to the city of the righteous Jonah, son of Matta.” ‘Addas asked him anxiously if he knew anything about Jonah. The Prophet [pbuh] significantly remarked: “He is my brother. He was a Prophet and so am I.”
Thereupon ‘Addas paid homage to Muhammad [pbuh] and kissed his hands. His masters admonished him at this act but he replied: “None on the earth is better than he is. He has revealed to me a truth which only a Prophet can do.”
Heart-broken and depressed, Muhammad [pbuh] set out on the way back to Makkah. When he reached Qarn Al-Manazil, a shade cloud came over him, and Allâh the Almighty sent him Gabriel together with the angel of mountains. They greeted him, and asked the Prophet [pbuh] for permission to bury Makkah between Al–Akhshabain, the two mountains that flank Makkah.
The Prophet (pubh) replied that he would rather have from their loins people who would worship Allah the Almighty with no associate.
“Wow,” Jamilah said out loud, addressing Hassan. “How could he be so forgiving? I’d want revenge. Not a whole city destroyed, but… something.”
She walked to the sliding glass door and opened it all the way, letting in the sea breeze. It had rained last night, but the sun shone brightly now, only a few wispy clouds tracing patterns in the sky. The trees and the coastal grasses shone emerald green, and the air was so crisp you could almost bite it.
That moment in the Prophet’s life, when he stumbled out of Ta’if wounded and exhausted, was for Jamilah one of the most inspiring moments in human history. The Prophet literally had nowhere left to go. He could not return to Makkah as he would certainly be assassinated by the Quraysh. And yet he did not give up. No suicidal thoughts for him. No abandoning his mission. No giving in to fear, or the impulse for revenge.
Jamilah had read the story before, and she knew that the Prophet next stationed himself in the cave of Hira, from which he dispatched a messenger to try to find someone in Makkah who would extend protection. His request came back rejected, but he tried again, until a powerful noble agreed to protect him. The Prophet resumed his mission, attending the poetry and trade fairs that the Arabs held in Makkah and its environs, approaching the visiting tribes, and inviting them to Allah and Islam. They turned him down one after another, until finally a break came in the clouds, and a ray of light shined through. A group of six pilgrims from Yathrib – later known as Madinah – heard his preaching and accepted Islam.
The six returned home and began to speak about this extraordinary man, until news of Islam reached every home in Madinah. A year later twelve pilgrims came; they gave the Prophet a formal pledge of obedience and faith. A year after that seventy two came and pledged!
The rest is history. Islam took hold in Madina, and the Muslims migrated there. Tribalism was replaced with brotherhood and sisterhood. The nascent Islamic community came under attack, but they survived and grew, until all of Arabia came under the sway of Islam, and then, within a few centuries, half of the known world.
You could draw a straight line, Jamilah thought, from that incredible day when one man stood on a road outside Ta’if, wounded and exhausted, yet refusing to abandon his mission – to today, when Islam was the dominant religion in the world. Even here, on this remote stretch of California coastline, at the boundary line of the terrestrial world, as far from Makkah as you could get, Muslims lived and prayed.
In fact, you could draw a straight line from the Prophet to Jamilah’s very existence, for she descended from his grandson Hussein, may Allah be pleased with him. She owed the Prophet her faith and her life, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam.
It was the ultimate proof of Allah’s saying, “Inna ma’ al-’usri yusraa.” Surely with every difficulty comes ease. Any Muslim going through hardship could look to that moment on the Ta’if road and ask, “Am I at a lower point now than the Prophet was then?”
That’’s what I should have done, Jamilah thought, when I had my year of sorrow. But I didn’t know better. I hadn’t read the seerah yet. At least I never gave up on Hassan.
A thought came to her, and she voiced it out loud. “Hassan, what would have happened if the Prophet had said yes to the angel’s offer to destroy Makkah? Islam would have died, right? I wonder why Allah gave him that option?”
A voice said, “Because life is all about choice.”
Jamilah whirled and stumbled, falling against the door screen. The screen’s aluminum frame bent, and Jamilah almost fell through.
“Sorry!” Alice said, hurrying forward, one hand supporting her bulging belly.
Jamilah waved her off and recovered her balance. Her heart palpitated and her breath was short. She had to stop overreacting! “No, I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I’m jumpy sometimes. Look at you.” She put a hand on Alice’s belly. “Except for this, you’re as skinny as ever. How do you do it?”
Alice laughed. “Hardly. I feel like the Pillsbury Dough Girl.”
“You look wonderful.” There was a radiance and peacefulness in Alice’s face that had not been there before. Jamilah didn’t think it was the result of pregnancy alone. So much had happened in Alice’s life in the last year and a half. “You want to go for lunch? Chef Samuel said he was making a crab lasagna with zucchini, tomatoes and basil.”
“Oh my, that sounds delicious! But I came for another reason.”
Alice touched Jamilah’s arm and smiled. “Kadija is here. I picked her up at the bus station. She brought some surprises.”
Jamilah’s heart began to thud. She’d imagined this meeting for a long time. She felt deeply sad for Kadija’s loss, but she also felt abandoned by her, and she didn’t know how to balance the two emotions.
“What surprises? Gifts? She didn’t have to do that.”
“Come on,” Alice said gently, taking Jamilah’s arm. “Walk this way. By which I mean, take small steps and shuffle from side to side like a penguin.”
When they reached the door to the garden, Jamilah paused. “What was that comment you made about choice?”
Alice squinted at her. “You’re stalling.”
Alice chuckled. “I was saying that God gave the Prophet a choice, because choice is the magic ingredient. It’s what makes us human. You and I face big or small choices every day. Maybe a Prophet has to make titanic choices, like whether his people live or die. And there’s something else.” She paused for a moment, thinking. “People can handle terrible burdens if they know it’s for a good cause, and if you give them a choice. The key is the choice. My mom taught me that.”
“Sounds intriguing,” Jamilah said. “Like there might be a story there.”
Alice tipped her head in acknowledgment. “Might be. Some other time. Now come on.”
Alice pushed open the door, and Jamilah followed. Three sensations washed over her. The first two were the cool ocean breeze that ruffled her white headscarf, and the sun warming her face. The third was the raucous sound of children playing. Many children. It sounded like a schoolyard.
Jamilah spotted Kadija sitting with Mo on the bench beside the small playground at the south end of the property.
The playground had been built only a month ago. Jamilah noticed that when families came to visit their loved ones, the children had nothing to do. The garden was not kid-friendly, and the headland was dangerous. So she suggested the playground to Mo, and to his credit he brought in a local construction crew and completed the job in a week.
The playground wasn’t huge, but it had bucket-style swings for little kids and strap swings for big kids, a slide, a sandbox, and a merry go around. A mature bishop pine grew just inside the boundary wall and cast welcome shade.
Now, there seemed to be a herd of Asian-looking children playing. Jamilah tried to count them. Six? A girl popped out from beneath the play structure. Seven! They ranged in age from a toddler to a tall girl who must have been in her mid-teens.
Kadija sat with her legs crossed and her hands folded on her lap, talking to Mo. She wore a long skirt and a rose-colored batik blouse with a floral pattern. Her hijab was draped in a style Jamilah had not seen before, where it hung down in front on one side, and swept back on the other. Something she’d learned in Indonesia, perhaps. She wore a large bag over one shoulder that looked like it might have been woven from straw or rattan.
She had not yet seen Jamilah and Alice.
“Maung Tin, stop that!” Kadija called to one of the children. “No throwing sand.” The sand-thrower – a stick-thin boy of perhaps five years old – had darker skin than the others, but bone-white hair. It was a jarring juxtaposition.
A pair of identical looking girls executed perfect cartwheels and handstands on the poured-in rubber flooring of the playground.
Jamilah’s roaming gaze settled on two children. A girl of perhaps nine years pushed one of the bucket-style baby swings. She was knock-kneed and slightly clumsy in her movements. The toddler in the swing laughed as the swing went up and down.
Jamilah felt Alice’s hand on her shoulder, urging her forward. Kadija saw her and strode forward to meet her, Mo trailing behind.
Kadija extended her arms and smiled awkwardly. They embraced, and Kadija held her tightly until Jamilah pulled away. She saw that Kadija had tears in her eyes. Jamilah herself felt reserved and wary. She didn’t want to feel that way. She just did.
She pointed to the children. “You brought all of Indonesia back with you!”
Kadija smiled proudly. “My kids.” She turned and called out. “Munirah!” The girl pushing the swing looked up, and Kadija made a “come here” motion with her hand.
“Your kids?” Jamilah said.
Kadija nodded. “Yup. That’s my crew. I adopted them all from Bait As-Salam. Well, except for one.”
Jamilah didn’t know where to start. The girl’s name was familiar. Hadn’t Hassan mentioned her? “Munirah?” she managed.
Kadija nodded. “Mm-hmm. The same one Hassan talked about. He used to write to all the kids, did you know that? They think of him as an uncle. They’re excited to see him.”
The girl arrived, leading the toddler by one hand. She had Asian features – naturally – and long black hair. She wore a sarong and a cream-colored blouse that accentuated her glowing brown skin and white teeth.
“Jamilah,” Kadija said proudly, “meet my daughter, Munirah Azeez.”
“Pleased to meet you mum?” the girl said in a British-tinged Asian accent. She gave the statement the intonation of a question.
“And this” – Kadija bent down and picked up the little boy – “is the little one. Fifteen months old.”
The boy had light brown skin and curly locks. His eyes, however, were as blue as the sea. Jamilah’s heart leaped, and her mind flashed back to the night she, Layth and Kadija all left Hassan’s apartment together. They were descending in the elevator, and Kadija started to tell Layth something, then changed her mind. Jamilah knew now what Kadija had been about to say.
The little boy had his father’s sharp nose and high forehead. Looking at him brought memories of Layth flooding back.
“This is Layth’s child,” she whispered.
“Yes,” Kadija said. “This is Layth Junior. Would you like to hold him?”
Jamilah accepted the boy, holding him with both arms. She felt a twinge of pain in her belly and tried to conceal it. Mo must have seen it because he took a step forward, arms out to support her or catch the baby. “You need help?” he said.
Jamilah waved him off with one hand. “I’m fine.” She noticed the girl, Munirah, watching her oddly, her head tipped to one side as if hearing a sound in a frequency that only she could detect. Jamilah was about to make a light-hearted remark to the girl – something along the lines of, “Do I have mustard on my chin?” – when Layth Jr. reached out and grabbed her nose.
“Mama dose,” he said, squeezing surprisingly hard.
Jamilah looked to Kadija in surprise. “He can talk?” Her voice came out nasal and high-pitched as Layth Jr. pinched her nostrils.
Kadija laughed. “A little bit, sure.” She removed the boy’s hand from Jamilah’s nose and spoke to him. “This is Mama’s friend Auntie Jamilah.”
“Mila,” the boy said. Jamilah was strangely moved. Milah was her own mother’s nickname for her.
“Bika,” the boy said. “Wan bika.”
“He wants a biskit,” Kadija explained. “That’s the Indonesian word for cookie.” Kadija rummaged in her bag and came out with a pack of graham crackers.
“Munirah, love,” Kadija said, “would you take Layth back to the playground?”
“Yes, mum?” the girl replied. She took the toddler from Jamilah’s arms and led him away.
“He’s beautiful,” Jamilah said. “The image of his father. And Munirah is so polite, ma-sha-Allah.”
“She’s been through a lot. All these kids have. Munirah was a year old when the tsunami hit. Her father and older brothers were on a fishing boat, and were lost at sea. Her mother survived, but later died of dysentery. She’s been at Bait As-Salam since she was three, and almost died of malaria when she was five. But she’s sweeter than Tupelo honey with little Layth. And she… well. She has some unusual abilities.”
“What do you mean?” said Mo. “Is she Captain Indonesia?” He laughed.
Kadija rolled her eyes. “No. She has a way with people, you could say.”
“Wow,” said Alice. “I’ve been anxious about having just the one. How do you care for this clan all by yourself?”
“Alhamdulillah. We manage. You see the tall one? That’s Starlight Sky. Don’t look at me, I didn’t name her. She’s fifteen. She helps when she’s not in school. And I have a lot of support back at the orphanage.”
“You mean you’re going back?” Jamilah felt dismayed.
Kadija turned to Mo and Alice. “Is it alright with y’all if I speak to Jamilah privately? I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Of course!” Alice replied. “I need to get off my feet anyway. We’ll watch the kids.”
Kadija took Jamilah’s hand and led her down the path that wound through the vegetable and herb garden. “What was Muhammad talking about when he asked if you needed help?” she asked. “Are you hurt?”
Jamilah pulled her hand free of Kadija’s. “It’s nothing. I get twinges from when I was shot.”
Kadija stopped walking. “I’m sorry, Jamilah. I wish I could have been there for you. That was a bad time for me. Everywhere I looked, I saw reminders of Louis. It was killing me. I thought about quitting my job and going back to North Carolina. I even thought about living in a cabin by myself in the woods. I was as mixed up as a fart in a fan factory.”
Jamilah laughed, then cut off her laughter abruptly as she saw Kadija watching her quizzically. “I’m – I’m sorry,” she stammered. I just never heard that expression before.”
Kadija grinned. “You can take a girl out of the South – “
“- But you can’t take the South of the girl?” Jamilah finished.
The two friends regarded each other, and Jamilah’s tone became serious. “I understand why you left. But why didn’t you answer my emails? I felt like…” Jamilah looked out toward the sea. “Like you blamed me and Hassan for Layth.”
“No, Jamilah!” Kadija sounded genuinely abashed. She took Jamilah’s face in her hands, turning her head so that they faced one another. Kadija’s palms were warm. “I don’t blame you for anything. I will stay in touch from now on, okay?”
“Okay,” Jamilah said. She waited for Kadija to remove her hands. She knew she was acting cold. She didn’t want to be that way. She loved Kadija and was truly happy to see her, but it wasn’t coming out. She closed her eyes and bit her lip, then spoke. “I’m sorry about Layth. Back when it happened I was either in pain or medicated into la la land, and then you were gone. I’m sad that he’s not with us. He was a good man. I know he’s in Jannah now, with Allah.”
Kadija sighed. “For a long time he was the first thing I thought about in the morning, and the last at night. I’d wake up and bam, the pain and grief would hit me like a wrecking ball. The kids saved me from that. They are what I think about now. But Layth…” She exhaled loudly. “I miss him. I miss his cardamom breath and saffron rice. I miss those eyes of his, as blue as that sea out there.” She nodded toward the wide Pacific ocean, visible in the distance. “I miss his broad shoulders, his scars, his strong arms around me, the smooth jazz playing on the radio, his dumb jokes, even his silences when I knew he was thinking about the war and the people he’d lost…”
She cut off her reminiscences abruptly and threw her arms out to encompass the clinic, the mountains and the sea. “This is stunning ma-sha-Allah. It’s incredible what y’all have done. I’m proud of you.”
“Then stay. I’m lonely here. I miss you…” Jamilah’s breath stalled in her chest and she could not continue.
“I know, sweetie. But the clinic needs me. I’m the interim director of Bait As-Salam.”
“You are?” Jamilah was incredulous. “I thought you were teaching English.”
Kadija nodded slowly. “Mo didn’t tell you?”
“I was teaching English. But I noticed discrepancies. I’d be told to sign off on a supply list, when I had not received the supplies. I did some digging, and realized that the director was embezzling funds and supplies. I was mad as a mule chewin’ on bumblebees. I confronted him, and I got thrown in jail for slander.”
Jamilah gaped. “Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack. Muhammad got me out. I still don’t know what strings he pulled. Then he made me director.”
Jamilah shook her head. “He didn’t tell me.”
“It’s only until we find someone new. It wouldn’t be right for me to continue as director, now that I’ve adopted these kids. It wouldn’t be fair to the other children. I’m not sure what I’ll do after. Write a travel book, or a book about the tsunami. I do think I’ll stay in Indonesia. I’m sorry, Jamilah. Life is so vibrant there, and so different. My heart doesn’t hurt when I’m there.”
Jamilah nodded. “I understand. Salsabil is like that for me, sort of.”
“What do you do with your time here?”
“I’m studying law. I had to drop out of GGU, but I’m doing a correspondence degree.”
“Do you still worry about being found by, you know, the bad guys?”
Jamilah shrugged. “Not really. Boulos Haddad is dead. I don’t know if there’s anyone else who wants Hassan dead, but it’s been two years, and if Mo and Inspector Sanchez’ ruse was successful then everyone believes that Hassan was killed in the earthquake. Plus, Syria is blowing up, refugees pouring into Lebanon…the world has moved on.”
She didn’t mention the two nurses she’d gotten fired. Her worries seemed paranoid even to herself.
“Hey.” Kadija lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “There’s something I’ve been wondering about, but didn’t want to ask Muhammad over the phone. Whatever happened to all of Hassan’s weapons? Please tell me that y’all got rid of them.”
“Gone,” said Jamilah. “Mo chartered a boat and dumped them into the sea. Paid the guy well for his silence.”
Kadija nodded. “That’s good.”
They strolled about the garden in silence. Kadija angled her face to the sun and inhaled deeply. “I can’t get used to this cool, dry air. After two years of Indonesian humidity, I have to apply lotion twice a day or my skin gets ashy. I love this garden, though. It’s prettier than butter on a stack of hot cakes.”
Jamilah smiled. “I planted it.”
Kadija opened her mouth in amazement. “Get out! Ma-sha’Allah!”
After a moment, Kadija said, “Can I ask you a question? Do you plan to continue living here at the clinic? I admire your dedication to Hassan, but how long can you put your life on hold?”
That hurt. Even though she’d not heard from Kadija in ages, she’d somehow thought that her best friend would understand. Hadn’t Kadija been the one who’d lectured Jamilah about standing by her man, and supporting him no matter what?
She was still trying to formulate a reply when Munirah came trotting back. The child approached Jamilah and stood an arm’s length away, watching her intently. A gust of wind came off the ocean and whipped Munirah’s long black hair about her face.
“Is Layth okay?” Kadija asked.
“Yes, mum? Uncle Muhammad and Auntie are watching him?”
Kadija raised an eyebrow. “You need the bathroom?”
Munirah shook her head. Her gaze flicked to Jamilah’s belly, then to Kadija.
“You see something?”
The child nodded.
“She wants to touch you,” Kadija explained. “She has a… a talent, you could call it. It’s okay if you don’t want her to.”
Munirah’s expression was strangely tranquil for a child, but her eyes were bright. Jamilah was baffled. A talent? Did the child know acupressure massage or something? “Sure,” she said finally. What could it hurt?
Munirah put a hand on Jamilah’s belly, right where she’d been shot. Even through her cotton dress, Jamilah felt the surprising heat of the child’s hand as the girl moved it in small circles.
Anxiety began to bubble up in her chest but she pushed it down. After a minute, however, it became too much and stepped back.
Munirah regarded Jamilah seriously, then cast her gaze at the ground.
Kadija stroked her daughter’s shoulders. “It’s okay, sweetie. What did you feel?”
The girl looked up at Jamilah, then pointed to her own belly. “You have something there.”
Jamilah felt a surge of fear. This was exactly what she had suspected herself. She had long believed that a fragment of the bullet must have remained behind, or perhaps a stray chip of bone, or maybe even a towel or instrument left behind by the surgeon. Maybe they hadn’t stitched her up properly. Maybe she was still bleeding inside. Shamsi had run first a CT scan then an MRI and insisted there was nothing there, but she could be wrong, couldn’t she? She’d only been an intern when they hired her.
“How do you know?” Jamilah said intensely. She looked at Kadija. “Did you tell her about me?”
Kadija shook her head. “Not about your injury, no. She has a talent. Something Allah gave her. I’ve seen her do this before. She’s gifted.”
Jamilah spoke to the child. “What is it? Is it a bullet fragment?”
Munirah shook her head. “No, mum? Not like that.”
“What then, sweetie?” Kadija urged.
“Fear. Sad. Bad memories. Being alone. All…” She made a motion with her hands, as if squeezing something.”
“Concentrated?” Kadija suggested.
Munirah nodded and repeated the word slowly. “Con-cen-tra-ted there.” She pointed again to her belly. “Making pain.”
Jamilah felt like she’d been punched in the gut. Though the child had not said much, Jamilah sensed that if Munirah were more articulate she could name every secret wound, fear and shame that had ever laid roots in Jamilah’s tattered soul. It was unfair. She had a right at least to the sequestration of her own heart! Reeling, she stepped backward, stumbled into a young lemon tree that she’d planted several months ago, and fell.
Kadija rushed forward to help, but Jamilah was already back on her feet. She walked quickly, head down, to the wall of the clinic and sank to the ground, sitting on the footpath with her back to the wall. She tucked her face against her knees and covered her head with her arms. For a long time now she’d been stubborn and strong. She had not allowed herself to cry, even when it felt like the one thing she wanted to do. Now, though, the sobs came without volition, shaking her entire body. She didn’t even know what she was crying about, but could not stop.