See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
Previous Chapters of Death in a Valley Town: 1. Moving Day. Author’s note, 1-5-2020: It’s been a while since I posted Chapter 1. Please go back and re-read it, as I expanded it and added some important details. I also changed the title, which was formerly”To Kill a Muslim”.
At first everything had gone beautifully. Seeing the raghead dropped like a buck in hunting season, that had been awesome! Chad cheered and laughed, shouting, “Pick it up, pick it up!” What his coach used to shout at him when he was jumping hurdles. He liked to shout it at random, exciting moments. It made him feel like an authority figure. He watched gleefully as the cops carted the miserable sand chigger away, probably to Guantanamo where he belonged.
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Now it was going sideways. Angry neighbors surrounded him on the porch, arguing with him and each other. They’d seen the two officers questioning him and had figured out that it was he who called them. One of those stupid cops accused him of filing a false police report. He said detectives would be around later to question Chad further, and that “filing a false report of terrorism” was a federal crime! Unbelievable. He’d caught a terrorist on his own street and now he was the criminal?
“He was right to call them!” shouted Eggers, the short, chubby guy from four houses down who owned three pit bulls and wore a t-shirt that said, “You stomp on my flag, I stomp on your ass.” “We don’t want their kind on our street. We have to keep our kids safe.”
“You don’t have kids,” retorted the dark haired, wide-hipped lady who walked five miles every day. She was Armenian or some crap. Not as bad as camel huggers, but not really white either.
“Yes I do, just because they live with my ex, so what, my point stands.”
“It’s racist,” another woman interjected. That was the blond lesbian from the corner, the one whose grown daughter lived in a camper in front of the house. “Muslims have as much right to live here as anyone. We have freedom of religion in America.” She pointed an accusing finger at Chad. “You had no right to do that.”
“Shut up dy*e!” Jessica, the teenager from directly across the street, was red in the face, spit flying from her mouth. Chad knew she had a crush on him. Pimply-faced little nitwit was always trying to bum a beer off him. He’d seen her drinking with some stoners at Dry Creek Park once and had taken her into the bushes and made out with her, but she reeked of old sweat overlaid with strawberry perfume, and he had no desire to repeat the experience.
“Don’t talk to Chad that way,” Jessica went on. “At least he’s standing up for the white race.”
“I’m not racist,” Chad muttered. “I’m not against anyone. But coloreds should know their place and stick to their own kind. And Muzzies are different, they’re raghead terrorists. Not normal like us.”
“Oh my God,” Alan said. He was a married father who lived right next door to where the Muzzies were moving in. He taught school at Alhambra High. “This is sickening. Where are our youth getting these ideas?”
Chad snickered at Alan’s use of the word youth. What did the dork think this was, a PBS program? Fairy.
Alan addressed himself to Chad and Jessica. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Do you know those words? That’s from our Declaration of Independence. Do you know what self-evident means? It means anyone with a mind and a heart can see that all human beings are the same, we’re all equal. That was written almost two hundred fifty years ago.”
“We don’t care about your stupid declaration,” Jessica retorted.
“All your opinions don’t mean squat,” Chad said. “‘Cause the cops agree with me. That’s why they arrested the raghead’s ass. Proves I’m right.”
“You’re not right,” Alan the teacher insisted. “I saw everything. The police’s actions were abusive and illegal, and I’m going to make sure everyone knows it, including the cops, the city council and the TV news. And you, Chad Barber, will be charged with filing a false police report, and you’ll be billed for the cost of the city services you wasted, which I’m guessing will be around one hundred thousand dollars.”
That was when Chad’s mom appeared, hungover and red-eyed, hair plastered to one side of her face, shielding her eyes from the light. It took her a minute to understand what had transpired, at which point she turned to Chad and slapped him hard across the cheek. “You little moron,” she growled, her upper lip curling in disgust. “We don’t have money to pay any damn fines! If they bill us a single red cent I’ll take it out of your hide, I swear to God. I thought I was free of your dad’s racist garbage. But you’re an idiot just like he was.”
Chad thought he was beyond caring what his drunken slut of a mother thought, but her words pierced his heart. He hardly cared about the slap – that was nothing – but hearing her insult him in front of all these people make him shrink up inside like a wounded child. He threw his beer can on the grass and stomped into the house.
“And fix this damned-to-hell porch!” his mother screamed after him.
They were all against him, but he didn’t care. He’d show them he was right. If that raghead got out of jail, Chad would beat the truth out of him. Pick it up, pick it up. Then people would realize that Chad was a hero for standing up for his race. As for his mother, she would get hers when RaHoWa came, that was for sure. Especially since one of her boyfriends was black. Wait, Chad thought. I don’t believe in RaHoWa, do I? It was confusing sometimes, trying to remember what was true and what wasn’t. The Muzzies were evil though, that much was sure, and Chad intended to make a lesson out of this new neighborhood raghead, no matter what it took.
Yahya ran up a forest path. He was muscular, his calves and thighs as hard as iron, his bare feet calloused. He wore furs, and his beard was long and full. In each hand he carried a sword, one as long as his arm and the other half that length. The swords’ surfaces were engraved with writings that detailed all he had seen and learned in life. There was a lot of it, for he had traveled far and fought many evil men and vicious beasts.
He must get north. The tribes were not expecting him, but he carried a message that must get through. The path became rocky, with stone outcroppings on either side. Soon a sheer cliff face loomed, blocking his way. He’d known this would happen, for this formation ran for thousands of miles, dividing the southern lowlands from the northern highlands. But he’d heard rumors of a cave system that ran beneath the mountains and emerged on the northern side. He prowled the base of the cliff until he found a sinkhole. Dropping into it, he discovered a cave opening. He entered, and the darkness swallowed him like the throat of a dragon. How would he proceed in this sightless void?
His swords began to glow. This did not surprise him, for they were objects of power. By their light he ran, squeezing through fissures and occasionally strapping the swords to his back in order to climb. Relying on his internal sense of direction, which was extraordinary, he found a tunnel that ran north. It was so large that the light of the swords did not reach the roof. Soon he began to sense movement above. Things scurrying, creeping. He raised the swords and shouted, “Mwanga!” and the blades blazed with brightness like tiny suns.
Leathery creatures with bright fangs seethed across the roof of the cave, covering it. Their eyes were dead black, and their winged bodies long and serpentine. They crawled and slithered over and under each other, so that the entire ceiling appeared alive. When the light hit them they shrieked. For a moment they froze, only their obsidian eyes moving, tracking him. Their muscles bunched. They attacked.
Yahya spun, wielding both swords simultaneously. He ducked, rolled, and leaped as the weapons blazed. Battling without thought, operating purely on instinct and sanguinary experience, he cleaved monstrous heads from leathery bodies, severed scaly torsos, and littered the cave floor with wings and limbs. Even as he fought he never stopped moving north, driving his way through, the swords slicing, spinning, chopping. The creatures bit his shoulders, arms and legs, even his face. They slashed with claws and clubbed with tails. The air was coppery and hot with blood.
Finally, daunted by Yahya’s prowess and his terrible, frightening swords, the creatures retreated. Leaving bloody footsteps, Yahya ran on.
After what seemed like days of running and might indeed have been so, the tunnel narrowed and the roof came down to his head. Abruptly the tunnel ended in a stone door. It glittered with inlaid gems arrayed in mystical patterns, and was carved with the words ni wenye haki tu. Only the righteous. Yahya knocked and waited, then louder. Nothing. He pushed with his shoulder, but the door would not budge. He took a deep breath. His entire body pulsed and burned with the pain of myriad cuts, bite wounds and bruises. He gathered the last of his energy, took a deep breath, invoked the name of God silently and touched the door with the tip of his right index finger.
The door swung open. Bright sunlight flooded in, making Yahya squint. When his vision adjusted he saw a land of green grass and tall trees, and a great blue river that wound in the distance. Two women stood before him. They wore long multicolored robes and scarves on their heads, and their mahogany faces were serious.
“What do you bring?” one asked.
What else did he have of value? Only his swords. He held them up, crossing the blades. But they were books, one large and one small, the covers glinting with inlaid gold lettering. On one cover shone the words, “You were on the edge of a pit of fire,” while the other said, “He saved you from it.”
The women stepped aside. “Welcome home,” one said.
“No,” Yahya replied. “I have no home. I’m an orphan. No center, cave, clan or tribe. No one, nothing, nowhere.”
* * *
Something jostled him and he opened his eyes. Were the creatures attacking again? No… that was a dream. But reality was just as strange. He was lying on the back seat of a car with his hands restrained behind his back. And – pain. It hit him like a train with no brakes, making his breath catch in his throat. His entire body ached, including his head. His lips were swollen and split.
Two men were talking in the front seat as the car jounced over a potholed road. A metal screen separated the back seat from the front, and Yahya realized he was in a police car. He tasted blood, and there was a wetness on the side of his head and neck that might be yet more blood. His left arm in particular was on fire. His kufi was gone and one of his pant legs was torn from the knee to the ankle, exposing a lacerated and bloody shin. Then he remembered… They’d Tased and beaten him. For no reason at all. No warning. He was about to speak up and protest when the words of the officers in the front seat pierced his mind’s fog.
“You know that was wrong, Jay,” said the cop in the passenger seat. “We messed up. The guy did nothing wrong. We need to take him to the hospital, not to booking.”
“Shut up,” the driver said. “You don’t say another word. We responded to a report of suspicious activity. We ordered this son of a bitch to lie down, but he resisted arrest. For all we knew he had a weapon or an explosive vest. We acted to protect the citizens of this town.”
“That’s B.S. and you know it,” the passenger said, but the certainty had gone out of his voice.
“Don’t tell me what I know, you boneheaded rookie. You say exactly what I told you to say, or it’s your job and mine and maybe worse, you understand?”
“Yeah,” the passenger cop muttered. “I understand, sarge.”
The conversation died. A fresh wave of agony hit Yahya like a cricket bat. Beating him like a bat. Rat-a-tat-tat. He gritted his teeth, then spoke. “Officers, I need medical attention. I think my arm is broken.”
The two cops looked back in surprise. The passenger was the young red haired cop who’d Tased him. The other – the sergeant – was a middle-aged cop with a beer belly and a thick head of salt and pepper hair. “Shut up,” the sergeant growled. “You don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. One more word and I’ll stop this car and kick your ass again.”
“Why?̈” Yahya did not fear the man’s threats. Let them do what they would. La ilaha il-Allah.
The sergeant turned and shot Yahya a quizzical look. “What do you mean why? Because I can, that’s why.”
“But why would you want to hurt me? Your job is to protect and to serve. I’m a citizen of this town like any other.”
“Can you believe this freaking guy?” the sergeant said to his fellow cop. Then, addressing Yahya again, “You’re no citizen, you’re a criminal.”
“What crime? What am I charged with?”
“Trespassing for starters. Menacing, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, assault on a police officer. You’re going down, douche.”
“Trespassing? That’s my house you arrested me at. I’m a rideshare driver. My wife is a doctor at Alhambra Community Hospital.” He saw the two men exchange looks. They hadn’t known any of that.
“I told you to shut up,” the sergeant repeated. Yahya realized nothing he said would make a difference. Maybe someone at the station would listen.
They did not.
The Black Jesus
He was led into the station limping and bloody, where he was fingerprinted and photographed, then deposited in a cube-shaped and locked booking room that contained a steel toilet, a molded concrete bench that extruded from the wall, and a payphone. The numbers of various bail bonds agents were written in ink on the wall beside the phone.
Thank goodness, Yahya thought. I can call Samira and let her know I’m alive. He wondered if it was time to break his fast. There was no clock on the wall. How much time had passed? He couldn’t think clearly. The pain in his arm was like a red sea whose waves broke over him again and again, pounding, carrying away his rational mind.
He took a few steps toward the phone and stopped. A massively muscular, brown-skinned man with numerous tattoos on his chest and arms sat huddled on the concrete bench, pressed into one corner of the square room. He wore no shirt or shoes, and his thick arms were wrapped around his torso as he shivered. His eyes were red slits. He was like a suffering mountain, so powerful and solid but mined and clear-cut, and reduced to a naked, frigid mass.
This was all so familiar, like a recurring nightmare. Scenes of his youth came back to him. Living as a foster child, doing his best to survive in facilities not unlike this one. He would make it through this, just as he had survived that. Hadn’t he been passed around from one uncaring family to another? Hadn’t he come through it all as strong inside as a baobab tree? Hadn’t Allah brought him to the deen, showing him a place where he would always be welcomed and loved, by God if none other? He would get through this. Be patient, he told himself. Be patient and trust Allah.
In spite of his own considerable pain, Yahya felt a wave of sympathy for the shirtless man. No matter how bad one’s situation, there was always someone who had it worse. He considered. He could not give the man his shirt, because then he’d be the one shivering. But he could give his shoes. He took them off and approached the man.
“You need these more than me,” Yahya offered, but the man did not respond. Yahya gently touched one rock-hard, tattooed arm. The shirtless man jerked in surprise, his eyes opening wide. He brought his hands up in fists and bared his teeth.
Yahya looked at the man’s light. It was a gift he had, something he discovered at the age of thirteen, when trying to tame a feral cat that lived in the buses near the foster home. He looked past the exterior and into the soul, at the same time relaxing his own chest and arms and exposing himself on a spiritual level. He saw the souls of others as thin, translucent sheets of color. Sometimes their faces displayed colors as well, often in swirls that changed and pulsed. Occasionally he saw auras of color surrounding the person’s entire body.
Whether he could truly see this or only imagined it, he did not know. No one knew about it except his twin sister Yusra. Even Hafsa didn’t know. Yusra was skeptical, and had been imploring him to see a doctor since they were young. He never told her that he had in fact gone to see a doctor when he was twenty and worked at the bottling plant. Six months after he got that job and completed the probationary period, his medical benefits kicked in. First he saw a GP, who referred him to a neurologist. The man diagnosed him with a condition called synesthesia, in which the senses became crossed, so that stimulation of one cognitive pathway carried over into another pathway. In some people, letters and numbers took on color. Others saw colored shapes or even fireworks when they heard ordinary environmental noises like car horns or vacuum cleaners. Still others saw music as three dimensional lines that moved through space.
There was no treatment, since synesthesia was not considered an illness, but simply a difference in perceptual experience.
Yahya rejected the entire diagnosis. This so-called explanation could not account for what happened when he looked at someone’s light. Often he gained deep insights into the person’s history and character – insights that were proven true as he learned more about the person. And there was something else. The mere act of looking at someone’s light seemed to trigger a response in that person. Angry people softened, becoming, if not friendly, at least relaxed. Violent people calmed down and seemed to forget what had provoked them. It was not something Yahya could do at will, however. It took time and focus, and sometimes left him feeling physically and emotionally drained.
He relaxed now, focusing on this man’s light, and opening himself. This man’s soul was a deep, rich brown, but with thin streaks of angry red and washed-out yellow. Black and red swirled over his face, indicating confusion and pain.
As Yahya studied the man’s light, he sent a mental message to it: “Be calm. Be at peace.” The living mountain uncurled his fists and lowered his hands. His jaw relaxed and he stared at Yahya dumbly.
“Take these shoes,” Yahya repeated. His limbs were suddenly weak. The shoes felt heavy in his hand.
The man did not speak English. Yahya drew upon his mediocre Spanish. “Zapatos. Para ti. Gratis. Free.”
He knew, from his own experience in such situations, that the man might suspect an ulterior motive. But Yahya had none. He wasn’t trying to buy the man’s protection against other inmates, nor store up a marker for a future favor. Nor was he calling upon God with a quid pro quo: God, accept this act of charity and free me from this trouble. He did not believe in such things. One did not make deals with God.
No, it was just… There was a hadith he’d learned, a narration of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that was always in his mind: “On every person’s joints or small bones, there is (the obligation of) sadaqah (charity) every day the sun rises. Doing justice between two people is sadaqah; assisting a man to mount his animal, or lifting up his belongings onto it is sadaqah; a good word is sadaqah; every step you take towards prayer is sadaqah; and removing harmful things from pathways is sadaqah.”
Yahya often thought that many Muslims did not realize the profundity of this statement. It wasn’t just an admonition to do some miniscule good deed every day. It described a radical way of approaching the world. The small bones of which the hadith spoke were the bones of the hand, or so Yahya had read. The hand was the instrument of creation. A man’s hands built, shaped, struck. They were symbols of power. It seemed to Yahya, therefore, that this hadith represented a declaration that kindness and charity were powerful forces of the universe, like gravity and combustion. Removing a harmful thing from the road, as the hadith suggested, could mean picking up a discarded beer bottle, sweeping up broken glass, or even scooping up animal excrement. This might be seen by some as degrading. It was the work of a janitor or a street sweeper, people who in some societies would be untouchables of the lowest caste. Lifting a man onto his mount was the work of a servant. Speaking a good word was something even a child could do. It required neither position nor power.
Yet in the sight of God such acts were not expressions of lowness but of personal and elemental righteousness. They drew one close to God, and that could only be a good thing. Yahya knew that these thoughts would probably make no sense to anyone else. But they drove nearly all his personal interactions.
He extended the shoes toward the man, nodding his head in a way that said, “Here, take them, please.”
The living mountain took the shoes with shaking hands. His gaze traveled up and down, taking in Yahya’s dark skin, black beard and bloodied head. His eyes opened wide. “El Jesus Negro!” he breathed. “Dios mio!” At which point he fell to his knees before Yahya and pressed his palms together in supplication. “Ayuda me! No cuestiono su plan, señor. Por favor, dile a nuestro padre que soy un siervo agradecido.”
What on earth? If Yahya understood correctly, the man had just called him “the black Jesus.” Clearly the poor fellow was delusional or drugged.
He turned toward the phone and was suddenly overcome by a wave of dizziness. He stumbled and put a hand on the wall. He put a hand to his forehead. His skin was cold and clammy. He had been badly beaten and was in terrible pain already. Looking at the man’s light had drained the last of his energy. His heart was beating so fast you could play a Kenyan benga song to it. Boom-cha-cha-boom cha-cha-boom. Like the Joseph Kamaru song. Wendo wa cebe cebe. The motion of the cube, but the cube was this room. His eyelids came down like a winter sunset, and he was only vaguely aware that he was falling.
He heard shouting in Spanish. His eyes were half open but he saw nothing, or if he did he could make no sense of it. He was aware only of the brightness of the overhead light, which conversely seemed to provide no warmth, actually sucking heat away, as if its function had been reversed. The concrete was freezing against his cheek. The cold deepened, becoming a sphere or tunnel that narrowed around him, tightening like the tunnel he’d been in earlier. Or had that been a dream? He couldn’t remember anymore.
* * *
Next: Part 3 – A Fighter and a Thief
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