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River Delta: A Love Story

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time.

Sacramento River delta

They both have the day off. Jimena takes him to the Sacramento river delta, where the muddy shallows stretch forever. Mile after mile of wetlands, some preserved for migratory birds and small, wild creatures, and others claimed as farmland, growing rice in vast acres of standing water. They take off their shoes and she drags him into the calf-deep water, laughing. She is tiny, a small-boned woman of Mexican ancestry, and the water comes up to her knees.

A crisp wind sweeps across the open water, lifting the clothes from their bodies and drawing tears from their eyes. The air is brilliantly fresh, like he imagines air must be in the middle of the ocean, or coming off a remote glacier.

“This is the safest rice,” Faiz says, his toes sinking into the frigid mud. “Asian rice nowadays is grown in industrial wastewater and sewage. It’s full of heavy metals. And most American rice is grown in the South, where the land is tainted with arsenic residue from the cotton growing era. Only California rice is not polluted.”

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But she’s not really listening, and why should she? He’s prattling. There’s no one else in sight and she is splashing in the mud, shrieking with pleasure, not caring that her leggings and even her dress are soaked. “SubhanAllah!” she exclaims, bending over to pick something up. It is a tiny seashell, curled in on itself, burnished copper outside and pink outside. “Que bonita! What kind of shell is this?”

Faiz smiles and shrugs. He should know, but does not remember. And he is worried about how they’ll keep from tracking mud into the car.

‘You know,” she says, “My father used to bring me here to fish. I know this area like my own living room. See that deep spot? You’ll find catfish among the tree roots.”

“You mean like our living room.” They’ve been married two months, but he still feels she is a bright macaw that he has somehow tamed, and if he doesn’t pay close enough attention she’ll fly away.

“Right.” She begins to sing in Spanish, and the sound seems entirely natural, as if she is a creature of these wetlands.

He almost asks, “What made you want to be my wife?” But he has asked this question before, and does not want to annoy her. She’s my wife, he thinks. He likes the sound of that. “My wife.” It occurs to him that this is an odd way of expressing things. “My” husband, “my” wife. Possessive. As if we do not all belong to Allah, carried in His hand. Do we truly own anything in this dunya? Not really. All this will pass, and only the presence of Allah will abide. Take a breath, he tells himself.

Sacramento River delta

Sacramento River delta

She’s wilder than he expected. A little nutty, in fact. Like this thing now, traipsing around in the freezing mud of the delta, amid the reeds and terns, hawks and catfish. His life feels slightly out of control. He is nervous and happy at the same time. Overall it is better than he expected, Alhamdulillah.

Back on solid ground, covered in mud like a riverbank otter, she takes a notepad from the glovebox and scribbles a note, her soaked hijab dripping onto the paper and smearing the ink. She slips it into his shirt pocket.

“I wanted to drown myself in the deep part,” she says with a laugh. Only later does he realize that she meant it. Beneath all the wackiness and laughter, her sadness is a wide river. He has seen it in flashes, when she talks about her father, who was killed in a street mugging when she was a child, and her mother, who died of uterine cancer when she was in high school. There is a terror in her too, a dark chasm that he has only glimpsed.

There are moments when she does not know he is looking, when her eyes go wide and distant. He watches her, holding his breath. Her skin is dark, and he thinks she must have some Mayan ancestry. But she has a sharp Castilian nose and wide-set green eyes. She is captivating, way out of his league. Then she catches him watching and gives him a quizzical look, or she doesn’t catch him so he goes to her and rubs her shoulders, and she returns from wherever her reveries took her, sometimes grabbing him and wrestling him playfully to the ground.

They go home to the little green house Faiz grew up in and inherited from his parents. In the front yard is a Japanese-style arched wooden bridge over a pond, and a Zen sand garden. His father, a practitioner of Japanese martial arts, was crazy for everything Japanese, but Faiz never took to it.

A New Land

Thai restaurantThey shower and change, toss their clothes in the washer, then walk to the country-style Thai restaurant a block away. It stands alone between a house with peeling paint and an empty lot, and is covered in vines, as if it has been there for centuries. The sign looks hand-painted, and the brass Buddha mounted in a niche above the door smiles beatifically, as if welcoming all visitors.

Sant, the owner, in his sixties but sporting a full head of black hair, brings a bowl of sticky rice and a platter of salmon with cashews in yellow curry. As he sets the food down, Jimena exclaims, “Wow, this looks amazing!” and touches the back of Sant’s hand. Faiz flushes, but says nothing. He knows his jealousy is stupid. He loves Jimena and trusts her completely. He is grateful that no one notices his reaction.

Sant smiles widely. “In my country we have story of man who cannot taste food. All his life he wonder what the fuss is. He is bony and thin, because he have no interest to eat. Then he get married. The first time his wife cook for him, he taste everything. He weep with surprise and joy.”

“What’s the moral of the story?” Faiz asks.

“What you think?”

“The family that eats curry together, stays together.”

Sant grins. “Correct.”

“Also, love changes you.”

“Correct!”

“It’s more than that,” Jimena offers. “Love pulls you into a new land. You enter a trance state, like a dervish, where everything is possible through the love of God. Then you lose balance and come out of it and you don’t know your name, and don’t recognize the country in which you stand. You realize you died and didn’t know it, and that the oceans of this new land go on forever.”

Sant’s smile falters. “Ehh… Not so sure about that one.” He wanders off.

Faiz watches his wife licking yellow curry from her fingers. He knows that some of his friends do not approve. She’s a Hispanic convert, and was married once before.

“You can’t trust converts,” one of his friends said. “They might be Muslim now, but leave the religion later. It’s not in their DNA like us.”

Faiz does not speak to that friend anymore. There is no place for arrogant fools in his life. Let them look, let them whisper. He does not care. He is a poor man, still pursuing a masters in environmental studies and earning meager pay as a teaching assistant. He does not consider himself handsome.

In his first year of college he attended an Islamic retreat that affected him deeply. One of the scholars spoke of sincerity, and how this simple philosophy – to be sincere with God, with yourself, and with others – could transform your life. Since then he has strived to always be sincere. That is all he really has going for him, he thinks.

And yet, this beautiful woman married him. She is gorgeous, and smart – a Stanford grad. She’s petite but so strong. Sometimes she seizes his arms and squeezes playfully and it hurts. What she sees in him, he does not know. Later he comes to understand that she is deeply insecure. Would she still have married him if she actually knew how smart and beautiful she was? Did it matter?

Still, her faith is as powerful as the tide, and she loves him. What a miracle. Like Jibreel striking the ground with his wing to produce water from the desert. What an unexpected blessing. He never saw it coming.

At home, Faiz moves the clothes to the dryer, and they pray the night prayer. His wife goes to bed – she gets up early for work and always sleeps before he does.

The Note

Sea shellWaking in the morning, he notices the little seashell that Jimena found in the delta. She has placed it atop their bedroom dresser. The morning light illuminates it, making it look like a museum piece. How amazing to think that something lived inside it once. Some tiny creature manufactured this shell as a home. That creature is long gone now, dead. No one but Allah knows what it was, or when it lived.

Looking at the shell, he remembers the note Jimena wrote. The clothes they wore yesterday are still in the dryer. He knows the note is in the pocket of his blue shirt, and may be ruined, or illegible. But he forces himself to fold the clothes one at a time, tapping his foot nervously. Finally he removes the note. The paper is crumpled and fragile. He unfolds it gingerly. The writing is faded and smeared, but to his surprise he can read it. “You will always be my hero,” it says. “Be patient with me. I love you.” He is so moved that his face grows warm and his eyes well up. He performs wudu’ and prays two rakahs out of sheer gratitude.

Two months later Jimena goes through her first serious depression, at least that Faiz has seen. She weeps, rocking back and forth, and will not let him touch her. Back when she found the seashell she wove a cord through it and hung it around her neck. Now, as she weeps, she clutches it tightly, as a drowning woman might clutch a life-ring. She draws the curtains and barely eats. It lasts almost a week.

Aside from her job as a nurse, she is an activist, always raising money for one cause or another. She paints, writes poetry and plays the guitar, singing Los Lobos songs in a lovely, clear voice. At dinner parties she is the center of attention, telling anecdotes and jokes, and laughing along with her audience. Faiz knows that some of the stories are exaggerated, and he thinks she laughs too loud, but he does not say so. People tell her she is an inspiration, the most positive and cheerful person they have ever known.

Those people are not there when she slashes her own paintings with a box cutter, or strides through the house raging and screaming at Faiz for not supporting her, or locks herself in the bathroom until Faiz has to break the door because he fears she might harm herself. Though she never actually goes that far.

These depressions come along every three or four months. Anything can trigger them. A criticism by a work supervisor. One of her experimental vegetarian dishes not coming out right. One time she is talking about a patient at work, a child who had been abused by a parent, when Faiz receives a text on his phone. He checks it, and that is enough to send Jimena spiraling into the howling tunnel of depression.

Faiz, in his typically rational way, tries reasoning with her. He praises her, pointing out her many good qualities, and tells her how many people love her, including himself. None of it works. Then one day he is texting with his cousin Saleem Haleem, who has dedicated his life to working with the homeless but also possesses a wacky sense of humor. “Try dressing up in a bunny suit,” Saleem suggests, “and run around hopping and shrieking, ‘stop eating my chocolate eggs!’”

Faiz laughs it off, but then thinks, why not? In a desperate fit completely unlike himself, he pulls on a swim cap, paints his face red with Jimena’s lipstick, and runs into her bedroom shouting, “I am alien. Where is leader? Bashooomdafaaaah! Oueeegamaaala!”

Jimena stares wide-eyed, looks for a moment like she might attack him, then bursts into uproarious laughter. And like that, she is back to her usual creative, bubbly, hyper-social self.

Faiz begins to think that this is why he was blessed to marry her. It’s a bargain that Allah has made with him. A trade. She is too beautiful for him, too witty and charming, it is true, but he is patient enough for her. He can bear the insults she flings. He can comfort her when she rages that life is dark and useless, and that she is ugly and alone. She may be the woman he desires and dreams of, but he is the man she needs.

She loves to sit on his lap and kiss him until his lips are sore. She cooks his favorite foods. She writes love letters that he reads again and again, saving them in a sandalwood box, along with the note she wrote at the delta. She brags to her friends about how smart he is. She prays with him, and asks him to teach her Urdu and Quran. And through it all, she does not lose her faith. Just the opposite. When all else seems bleak to her, she still believes in Allah, still prays.

Hard Times

Empty walletJimena becomes pregnant but miscarries. She is plunged into postpartum depression that continues for a year, during which she cannot work. An economic recession hits. Faiz loses his job and takes consulting work when he can find it. They buy used clothing at thrift stores, and shop for groceries at the dollar store. There are times when they have no money in the bank, and Faiz’s wallet is empty. He is reduced to selling his childhood baseball card collection and his father’s old coins. Jimena castigates him: “You’re not a man. A man provides for his family.” She blames him for her miscarriage, saying that the stress of poverty caused her to lose the child. This last accusation wounds him to the quick, but he knows she doesn’t mean it. It’s the depression talking.

He goes for aimless drives in the foothills, letting the curves and angles of the road rock him like an infant. Sometimes he stops the car and presses the heels of his palms into his eyes as hard as he can, so that his eyes ache and strange shapes appear. Dark hands reaching for him. Exploding suns. Ghosts with no arms. Jimena is big on healthy eating and will not tolerate junk food, but when Faiz is out driving he goes through the Taco Bell drive through and binges on nachos and soda. Then he stops at the car wash and vacuums away the crumbs, eliminating the evidence.

When he feels most frustrated with life and with Jimena, he opens the sandalwood box. Beneath all the letters is the note she wrote that day at the delta, the words barely legible. He reads it and thinks of all the love Jimena has given him. He holds a picture of her in his head, a shining image of the woman he fell in love with, and his love returns stronger than ever, like a river replenished with the spring melt. Holding that bright image in his mind, he goes to her and takes her in his arms.

Jimena’s depression passes, as does the recession. She goes back to work for the hospital, and Faiz gets a government job as an environmental compliance inspector. Jimena has one sibling left, an older sister named Mariela. One evening the phone rings. As Jimena speaks to her sister, her face goes pale. Mariela has breast cancer. The doctors don’t know yet how advanced it is. Further testing is needed.

Jimena cannot stop weeping. “I’m alone now,” she moans. “There’s no one left.”

Faiz urges her not to imagine the worst. “Maybe they caught it early. Be patient. Trust in Allah.”

It turns out the cancer is advanced. Mariela undergoes treatment, but in three months she is gone.

Things are never the same between them after that. Jimena has it in her head that he told her Mariela would be okay. “You always make promises you can’t keep.” She stops writing love letters, stops sitting in his lap. She works overtime, returning home late. Faiz orders takeout and eats alone. When Jimena’s depressions descend she checks into a hotel, telling him she can’t stand the sight of him. Whenever she leaves he checks to make sure she has taken the seashell necklace. It is the only thing that gives her comfort anymore. She holds it obsessively, kisses it like a talisman. As long as she has it with her, he believes, she will not harm herself, and will come back to him.

Goodbye

One day he comes home and the necklace is hanging on the coat rack by the front door. There is a note on the kitchen counter, scrawled on computer paper:

“Don’t come looking for me. You’re better off anyway. You know it. Let go of your worries and be clear hearted. Goodbye.”

Sandalwood boxHe takes out the sandalwood box. Her love letters are there. Also the old note, yellowed note: “You will always be my hero. Be patient with me. I love you.” Faiz does not know what to do. After all they went through together, she is gone. So what was it for? He thought this was his test, his bargain, his gift, all rolled into one.

He wants to burn the letters. He wants to go after her in spite of her warning, convince her that they belong together, prove his love and his patience. What does she want, for God’s sake? What does that mean, let go of your worries and be clear hearted? Is it a puzzle for him to solve? No one will ever love her like him, doesn’t she know that?

He decides to wait. He will be patient, and she will return. She has blocked him on all the social media networks, so he creates a fake profile and befriends her, and learns that she has moved clear across the country. There are photos of her with people he does not know, looking happy. She posts about her usual activist causes, shares messages from her favorite religious teachers. Nothing about Faiz. It’s as if he never existed. Her profile status says, “single.”

Every day he takes out the sandalwood box. He selects one of the love letters at random, unfolds it. Her cursive script is flowing, loose:

Rumi wrote, “This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.” I thought true love was a myth, but you, my darling Faiz, have caused the veils to slip from my eyes. The veils of cynicism, bitterness and despair, lifted by the wind of your love and carried away. Now I see the hidden heart that beats in the forest of bones, the intoxicating air that only lovers can breathe, the hushed and peaceful path that only reveals itself to four feet that walk as two.

How could someone say such things and not mean them? Or if she meant them, how could such love disappear? Shaking his head, he folds the letter carefully and returns it to the box.

Six months later he receives divorce papers in the mail. All this time he still believed she would return. He is dumbfounded. Why is Allah doing this to him? What terrible thing did he do, to be punished this way? Why does Jimena not love him anymore? How can she be happy without him? Who will love her as he did? In a fit of pique and resentment, he signs the papers and mails them.

He tumbles into his own emotional hole, where he has thoughts of suicide for the first time in his life. He imagines stabbing himself in the throat, or maybe taking some pills, that would be easier. He doesn’t do it, and would never do it, he knows that. His faith in Allah would never allow it. No matter what else he might be, he is still a Muslim.

A month later, he learns from a mutual friend that Jimena has married a wealthy restaurant owner with grown children. Faiz is shocked and angry, and blindingly jealous. He wants to find her and scream at her, insult her, but he knows this is useless and stupid. Instead he begins taking hour long walks before Maghreb, feeling the breeze in his face, exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods, admiring people’s gardens, thinking of nothing.

A week later he hears that Jimena and that man have divorced. He can make no sense of it, but feels bitter satisfaction. How is it possible that he loves her but is happy at the news of her failure? Does he really love her, then? He doesn’t know anymore. Love is all fake nonsense. He deletes the fake social media profile and shuts down all his own pages.

He is sure that one day she will show up at his door again, and he fantasizes about what he will do or say. In one fantasy, he spits on her and screams in her face. But he would never actually do that. In another, she starts to beg forgiveness, and before she finishes her apology he snatches her into his arms and embraces her, and they resume their relationship of adoration and madness. In yet another scenario, he invites her in and they have a civil conversation in which they agree to be friends.

Japanese Garden

His walks lengthen to two hours, then three. He stops at the masjid to pray Maghreb in the middle, then resumes walking, going on until his feet and calves ache. His legs grow muscular. His body feels light and strong. He thinks of Jimena every day, but he can live with the ache and loss. He has learned this. He hears that she has married again. A white convert this time, a sufi. Faiz feels some jealousy but not like before. If jealousy is a green-eyed monster, then what he feels is its pale-green ghost.

Six months later she is divorced again. Faiz feels only sadness and confusion.

He usually pays little attention to the Japanese garden, but one day he gets out a rake and begins drawing patterns in the sand. He remembers his father trying to teach him: “Don’t drawing anything real,” he’d say in his sharp Pakistani accent. “Just moving the rake in random patterns. Seek for symmetry.” Faiz does so, and is happy with the design he creates. Then, as his father taught him, he erases it and starts anew, ending up with something different but lovely.

As he gets into bed that night, a thought makes his breath catch. He used to believe that Jimena was a gift from Allah and a test. He imagined he was the man she needed, the man who could handle her. No one could love her like him. But how arrogant these ideas were! How insincere. She was not a wild animal, and he was not her caretaker. Nor was she a child. Who was Faiz? He was not some living key to Jimena’s joy. He was not Jimena’s god. He was just a man. She had a life before she met him, and she would have a life after.

This leads him to another thought: he too can be happy without her.

Two months later an old friend named AbdulMalik calls him. “Guess what I heard? Jimena-”

Faiz cuts him off. “I don’t need to know.” It is true. It’s not necessarily that he doesn’t care. But he has achieved some measure of hard-won inner peace. Why mess that up?

Four years pass. In the beginning he thinks of Jimena often, remembering intimate moments they shared, conversations, the way her chin dimpled when she smiled, and the curses and weeping as well, the accusations. And their lost child. That is the most difficult of all, for the pain it caused and for what could have been.

One day he realizes with surprise that he has not thought of Jimena in quite a while. He’s pleased by this, and rewards himself with a pint of premium vanilla fudge ice cream – something Jimena never would have let him get away with.

Be Sincere

At the masjid after Jumah prayer, the Imam signals him to enter his office. A sister has recently moved to town, a white American woman named Anamarie, with two small children. She converted to Islam a year ago. The father of her boys is in prison. Would Faiz be interested?

The offer is not exactly tempting. If his parents were alive it would be a non-starter, as they would give him blazes over it. Raising someone else’s kids? A frightening thought. What if he doesn’t love them, or they don’t love him? What if he has no idea how to treat them? What if he disciplines them and the mother gets mad because he’s not their dad? Stop, he tells himself. What’s the harm in meeting her?

He meets her in the Imam’s office, with the Imam present. She is his height, not fat but a bit chubby. She breaks the ice by inquiring about his work, and is surprisingly interested and informed about science and the environment. She has a slight southern accent, and eyes the color of a winter sky. He asks hesitantly about the kids, and what she would expect of him. Evan is three years old, and Ellie is one and a half. Anamarie can see, she says, that he is a kind hearted man. She would not expect anything more from him in the beginning than to be present in their lives. “Be sincere with them,” she says. “That’s all you have to do.”

They meet for lunch next time, still just the two of them. Being around Anamarie is strangely easy. Why is he so comfortable? Maybe because she is nothing like Jimena. With Jimena he was always giddy, nervous or dejected. Anamarie, on the other hand, is a calm summer sea. You could lay out on your boat and relax on a sea like that, and not have to worry about hurricanes or whirlpools.

Oh, there are things she is passionate about. She is a teacher, and loves her work. She is also an aspiring novelist, and speaks wistfully of being able to earn a living from writing one day. She is not an activist of any stripe, and Faiz likes that, as he has come to associate activism with instability.

Meeting the kids is easier than he expected. Evan is serious but friendly, surprising Faiz by taking his hand as they walk through the park. The boy’s hand is warm but dry. Ellie is wacky and easily entertained, ready to laugh at any funny face Faiz makes.

Their nikah is held on the shore of a nearby lake. There are only a dozen people in attendance: Faiz, Anamarie and the kids, the Imam, and a handful of Faiz’s friends and co-workers. He rarely thinks of Jimena anymore, but can’t help wondering on this day whether she is happy somewhere. He hopes so.

He has saved quite a bit of money over the last five years. He sells the tiny house and buys a modestly sized Mediterranean style home with arched doorways, a sunny breakfast nook and a large backyard.

A week after the wedding he takes a drive out to the river delta by himself. Squatting at the water’s edge, he burns Jimena’s letters one by one, watching the ash spill into the water and dissipate like breath on a cold day. He feels no anger. Standing, he takes the seashell necklace from his pocket. He studies it one last time, admiring the perfect smoothness of its inner curves. Something lived here once. But now it is gone. He draws his arm back and throws the necklace far out into the water. It floats on the surface, buoyed by the cord, then finally sinks.

* * *

A year later he, Anamarie and the kids are seated in the nook, eating spaghetti and meatballs for lunch. They are planning to visit the airplane museum tomorrow and Evan is excited about the planes they will see. Faiz smiles to hear him talk about wing designs and aerodynamics. A budding engineer, mashaAllah.

Spaghetti and meatballsEllie is on Faiz’s lap, and he is struggling to increase the ratio of spaghetti that goes into her mouth versus onto her shirt. “The flyer is returning to the mothership,” he says dramatically. The forkful of spaghetti swoops and dives. “Open the bay doors so it can land.” Ellie shuts her mouth tightly. “Open the mothership,” Faiz urges.

“I’m not a mother,” Ellie pouts, turning her face away.

“Ships in space don’t land,” Evan says. “They dock.”

The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” Anamarie offers.

Faiz waves her off. “No, I’m on it.” She is seven months pregnant. Getting to her feet is a struggle. He hoists the little girl onto his hip.

When he opens the door he feels the blood drain from his face. It is as if an angel, a devil and a ghost have all combined into one person and materialized on his doorstep.

“As-salamu alaykum,” Jimena says.

It has been five years since she left. He has forgotten how tiny she is. Yet she is as intense as ever, even just standing there. Her eyes are forest green, her teeth white. She wears an orange hijab, blue jeans and a “Save Gaza” t-shirt.

“Who’s this?” Jimena nods at Ellie and smiles, but there is tension behind it. Is that jealousy Faiz sees in the set of her jaw? Disappointment? Unconsciously, not knowing why, he shifts his hip slightly, moving Ellie away from Jimena.

A flash of anger crosses Jimena’s face, then vanishes. “You look good. You’re fit. Do you think we could talk? I have some things I want to-”

“I didn’t know if I would ever see you again,” Faiz interrupts calmly. Sincerity, he tells himself. That is all. “I am glad you are here so I can tell you that I am grateful for the love you gave me, for as long as it lasted.” His voice is soft, gentle. “I was angry, but not anymore. I only think well of you. I wish good for you in the dunya and aakhirah. May Allah bless you in everything. That is all I have. Please don’t come here again.”

He steps back into the house and begins to close the door. He is afraid she might throw a tantrum, maybe push her way in. But she stands in place. Her mouth turns down in an expression of utter dismay, and Faiz feels a terrible flood of guilt. He never could bear hurting her. He closes the door all the way. His hand trembles on the doorknob, and his breath is ragged. He locks the door.

Back in the nook, he takes his seat.

“Who was it?” Anamarie asks.

“Oh. One of those people, you know, the people who come to the door?”

“What people? Missionaries?”

“Daddy didn’t let her talk,” Ellie says.

“That doesn’t seem like you,” Anamarie remarks.

Faiz picks up the fork. “Open the bay doors. The flyer is coming in for a landing. I mean, to dock.” He glances to Evan, who nods approvingly.

Ellie turns her face, and the fork pokes her in the cheek.

The End

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com:Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com.For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

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                #Culture

                Day of the Dogs, Part 5: Sorceress of the Forest

                The eagle perched on one of the upper branches. It was a bizarre looking creature, and made him think of a child wearing a dark cloak and a mask.

                Harpy eagle

                See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

                This is chapter 5 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 |

                “You must overcome your fear.” – Mamá

                Home Alone

                Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

                MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

                The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

                OMAR WAS RELEASED FROM THE HOSPITAL two weeks after the attack. Nemesio was gone, and that was a barakah as great as a cloud. The miserable man had taken his things and disappeared, leaving behind only a scattering of old papers and business magazines in the drawers of Omar’s old desk – the desk that Nemesio had appropriated for himself. Omar was going to throw them out but Mamá said no, put them in a box and store it in the closet. Shaking his head, he did so. He did not tell Mamá about the ultimatum he’d given Nemesio.

                Cash money in a canThe next day Mamá discovered that Nemesio had stolen the gold bracelet that had been given to her by her mother, as well as a wad of cash – Mamá’s emergency savings that she kept inside an old Thermos bottle in the kitchen cupboard. She hadn’t known that Nemesio knew about it.

                Mamá was melancholy, but Omar tried to reassure her, telling her, “Whatever Nemesio stole is a small price to be rid of him.” After that they did not speak of him again.

                Omar could finally breathe. Mamá’s mood too improved as the days passed, and he saw her smiling and laughing for the first time in years.

                * * *

                Hospital Nacional, Panama

                Hospital Nacional, Panama

                Mamá had to go back to her job at Farmacias Arrocha. She’d taken time off after the Day of the Dogs, but couldn’t afford to miss any more work.

                On the three days a week when Omar had physical therapy, he took a taxi to Hospital Nacional and back. He got to know many of the nurses and orderlies by name. There was one nurse, an Afro-Latina woman named Leticia, who told Omar he reminded her of her younger brother, who had gone to New York for university. She often brought him chips or brownies from the hospital cafeteria.

                There were days when Omar felt like the ugliest kid alive, with the scars on his face and his limp, and his hair that had still not fully grown in. He looked, he thought, like a gang member. Or an accident victim, which he was, in a way. Then Leticia would come along and give him a wide smile and say, “How’s my favorite young man today? Oh look at you, your hair is coming in curly like Eric Dane. And your scars are fading, I can barely see them. The ladies are going to fall at your feet!” And even though Omar knew it was half baloney, he would stand a little straighter, and his heart felt lighter.

                When he wasn’t at the hospital, he was home alone.

                In past summers, he’d avoided the house during the day, because Mamá was at work and he never knew when Nemesio might be there. He’d spent his days reading at the library, playing football in the street, taking classes at the dojo, and sometimes visiting the masjid.

                So being home alone was a new experience. At first he loved having the whole house to himself. He could limp around in his underwear, turn the mop bucket upside down and pound it like a drum, or soak in the bath for an hour, reading a sci-fi novel. He could watch football with the volume turned up, and eat as much microwaved popcorn as he liked.

                Once the novelty wore off, however, he realized he was lonely. Entire days passed where he neither saw nor spoke to another human being. His mother had purchased him a basic phone, a little flip-model with talk and text only, but he didn’t know anyone’s numbers except his mom at work and the taxi service. He found himself watching the clock, waiting for Mamá to come home. When she finally did walk through the door, he often didn’t want to talk to her. She’d end up throwing her hands in the air and walking away, and he’d be lonelier than ever.

                Beetle Season

                He lay on his back in the dark. It was storming outside, the power was out, and the house was hot. Perspiration beaded his forehead and glued his back to the sheets. The digital clock on his nightstand was dead, but Omar knew it was past midnight. The window was a meter from his bed; one of the geckos that gathered on the outside of the glass, eating mosquitoes and termites, startled him by calling out loudly: “DAP dap dap dap dap dap dap dap.”

                He could smell the sickly-sweet strawberry air freshener that his mother sprayed in her room to help her sleep. Soothed her nerves, she said. Strawberries didn’t grow in Panama, and Omar was not sure he had ever seen one. Did his mother’s air freshener really smell like strawberry, or just some manufacturer’s chemical imitation?

                Golden beetle

                Golden beetle

                It was beetle season and the creatures were everywhere, to the point that he could sometimes hear them scurrying about his room at night. There were common black beetles, striped beetles, huge brown hercules beetles, and once he’d even seen a golden beetle, gleaming in the dark. He’d once seen a TV show about Bogotá’s Museo de Oro, and the beetle looked like one of those golden artifacts, come to life.

                Sometimes a beetle would end up helpless on its back and the ants would swarm out and devour it. Omar knew the feeling.

                Sleep was a torment. No matter which side he lay on, there was pain. He spent many summer nights like this, staring up at the ceiling, trying to think of something other than the throbbing of his wounds. All too often he found himself reliving the Day of the Dogs. What if he hadn’t gone? What if he’d forced Tameem to stop hassling the dogs? What if they’d taken a different route? Why had no one helped him? Was he stupid for trying to fight those two dogs alone? But what else could he have done?

                He’d told Hani that the past was gone. A lo hecho, pecho. But he couldn’t silence the self-recriminations, especially at night, when his body was exhausted and in pain. Ramadan was here, but he could not fast, and that shamed and angered him. He had not missed a Ramadan fast since he started at eight years old. He was in and out of the hospital, going through one procedure after another. A physical therapist worked with him three days a week, putting him through stretching and strength-building exercises. Omar wanted to know when he could resume karate training. The doctors said years, possibly.

                Pain stalked his days and haunted his nights. It was a strange thing, to live with constant pain. He felt stretched out, like a rubber band about to break. He couldn’t concentrate, and was irritable all the time.

                The doctors prescribed pain medication, but Omar remembered Toyo, a short, beefy man with the images of Catholic saints tattooed on his fingers. He’d been a brown belt at the dojo, one level above Omar at the time. Toyo had been tough, not only in the dojo but in life. One of those guys who grew up scrapping. Then he had a motorcycle accident and injured his back. In the wake of that he became addicted to painkillers, and when the doctors cut him off he switched to street drugs, so it was said. Omar watched Toyo waste away week by week until his skin hung on his frame like wet laundry on a line. Then he stopped coming. Some said he was living on the street. Others said he’d gone back to Santiago, where his grandparents were from.

                Omar never wanted that to happen to him, so he took the medications only when the discomfort became severe.

                Other times, when the sun was shining and his pain was dulled, he felt confident, and knew that he had done exactly what he had to do that day, and that Allah would take care of him, and guide him where he must go.

                This was not one of those times. Lying there in his bed, sweating like a runner in a relay race – except that he couldn’t run, and had no one to pass the baton to – he felt like his breath was trapped within him, unmoving, growing hotter by the moment. He needed to cool down. He should get up, rinse the sweat off and splash some cold water on his face.

                Stiffly, painfully, he swung his legs over the side, began to walk toward the bathroom – and stepped on something living. It crunched wetly beneath his foot, but before it died, it bit him. He gave a muffled groan – Nemesio’s fist-first training against crying out loud still in effect – and sat on the floor. He’d stepped on a beetle, of course, and though it was nearly obliterated, a few of its legs still twitched, and its antennae waved. Omar’s foot pulsed with pain.

                Sitting there on the floor in the lightless room, with the rain finally beginning to tire of its assault, Omar cried.

                E-Commerce For Idiots

                A Saturday morning in July. He sat at the kitchen table, poring over a book titled, “E-Commerce for Idiots.” Mamá was trying to expand her makeup business. She’d always bought goods imported from Hong Kong and South Korea, but she’d recently started her own line of organic makeup, made from sustainable Panamanian forest products. She called it Puro Panameño.

                The problem was that Puro Panameño products were expensive, because of the cost of sourcing the ingredients. Mamá’s usual customers were working class Panamanian women who could not afford these products. She had to find a way to reach middle and upper class women.

                Mamá thought an ecommerce website would be the key, so here Omar sat, in a kitchen that looked like a storeroom, with boxes filled with raw ingredients, bottles, shipping labels and packaging stickers. His mother, who had the day off work, sat on the floor, cutting boxes open. She wore black sweat pants and a colorful Kuna blouse, hand-woven with a striking mola in the shape of a fish. Bits of cardboard clung to her long black hair. Her face was tired and sweaty.

                Eventually she’d have to lease a proper manufacturing space, but they were a long way from that. Orders were barely trickling in. It was deeply discouraging.

                Omar was trying to figure out how to place an advertisement on a social media website, and target it to a specific group of Panamanian viewers. He sat back and exhaled loudly, running his fingers through his curly hair, which had finally grown back after being shaved in the hospital.

                His mother looked up. “You want something to eat?”

                “What do we have?”

                She gave an apologetic head tilt. “Tuna, crackers, peanut butter, rice, bananas. The usual.”

                Omar grimaced. If he ate any more tuna he’d grow fins. Between the funds Mamá had invested in these new products, and the cash Nemesio had stolen, they were broke, with hardly enough money for food.

                Staring through the barred window, watching a man selling single cigarettes in the street outside their home, his eyes wandered over their little yard, with its neat flower beds that his mother had planted, and the wide acacia tree that shaded the house in the mornings. Though his eyes were on the tree, his mind was elsewhere. He still received phone calls from reporters wanting to interview him. He’d always declined, partly because he didn’t have the energy, and partly because it was intimidating. What if his tongue got tied? What if he ended up looking foolish?

                War or Death

                Suddenly his eyes focused on the tree, and what he was seeing there. His mouth fell open in astonishment. His mother, busy with her work, did not notice. Omar closed his mouth, opened it again. “Mamá,” he said. “The tree. Look, Mamá.”

                “Is it the neighbor’s cat again?” she said testily. “The silly thing can stay up there for all I-”

                “No,” Omar broke in. He grabbed his cane and stood, pointing. “It’s a harpy eagle.” He gaped at it. The national bird of Panama. According to Brother Mamdooh, his biology instructor, there were only two hundred breeding pairs in all of Panama.

                Harpy eagle

                The harpy eagle

                The eagle perched on one of the upper branches of the acacia, partly hidden in the foliage. It was looking off to the north, so he saw it in profile. The creature was massive, maybe 100 centimeters tall, with a gray head and a long, hooked beak, and wearing a tall gray crest. The upper body was charcoal gray, the belly white, and the massive black legs sported curved black talons the size of meat hooks.

                He’d seen photos, of course, but had never imagined he’d see one in person. It was a bizarre looking creature, and made him think of a child wearing a dark cloak, a hood and a mask. A chill ran up his spine, and he shivered.

                His mother leaped to her feet, scattering a pile of small metal canisters filled with pigments. She looked where Omar was pointing, then put a hand to her face, half covering her eyes. “La curandera del bosque,” she breathed. The sorceress of the forest. “Don’t look at it!” She reached out and put a hand over Omar’s eyes.

                He pulled away, grinning. “What are you doing?” He looked back at the harpy and now it was gazing directly at him. It gave a loud squawk, and Omar had the sense that it was in fact speaking to him, communicating something.

                His mother cried, “No!” then ran to the window and pulled the cord to drop the blinds, cutting off the view of the eagle. She said, “La ilaha il-Allah,” then sat at the table, closed her eyes and began to chant, rocking back and forth. She spoke in Ngäbere, the language of her people, and Omar could only understand a few words.

                He sat beside her, gripped her forearm. “Mamá! What’s wrong?”

                When she opened her eyes, they were liquid with fear. “The águila arpía is the curandera del bosque. She is the queen of the forest, while the jaguar is the king. When the curandera speaks, it means war is coming, or death, or both.”

                Omar shook his head. “We’re Muslims. We don’t believe in all that. Second, I’ve already been to war. I faced death and survived.”

                Mamá’s eyes, locked on his, went wide with surprise. “You might be right.” She jumped up again, and opened the blinds. The eagle was gone. Omar watched with amazement as his mother dashed into her bedroom and came out with her sneakers. She almost never wore these. She slipped them on, tied a scarf around her hair, and ran outside. Omar followed as well as he could, limping and leaning on his cane, and found her walking around the base of the tree, looking at the ground. Then, to his further amazement, she reached up for a branch, dug her sneaker toes into an old knothole in the tree trunk, and began to climb.

                “Mamá! You’ll fall.”

                She made no reply, but continued to climb, and in fact she moved with swift agility, as if she’d been clambering up trees all her life. Her small form moved higher, until she reached the branch where the harpy had been sitting. After a moment she cried out in triumph.

                When she dropped to the ground she held up a single long feather, gray with black stripes. Her face bore a wide smile. “You were right. La curandera left this as a gift, in honor of your courage. But it is also a challenge.” She held out the feather.

                Omar took it. The feather was half as long as his forearm. “What’s the challenge?”

                “You must overcome your fear. Then your status as a warrior will be acknowledged by the jaguar and eagle throne, and you will be ready for the crown.”

                “What crown?”

                “You are nobility, remember? My father is king of the Ngäbe.”

                “Oh yeah. But isn’t there, like, a whole gang of people in line in front of me? And aren’t you exiled?”

                His mother gave a noncommittal grunt. “Yes, that is a problem.”

                “What am I supposed to overcome my fear of, anyway?”

                “That is for you to decide. I want you to wear the feather around your neck always. It will protect you.”

                “We don’t believe that, Mamá. Only Allah can protect us.” Seeing the look of dismay on his mother’s face, he added, “I’ll frame it and hang it on my wall. Not for protection, just decoration.”

                She seemed satisfied with that.

                All this reminded Omar of something. “When I was in the hospital, I had a dream of an old woman who sang over me and gave me something bitter to drink. A Ngäbe woman.”

                “It was not a dream. She was a krägä bianga. She healed you.”

                “The doctors healed me.”

                Mamá shook her head. “The krägä bianga healed you. The doctors helped.”

                Like Father, Like Son

                “How do you people get my number?” Omar’s mother said into her mobile phone. “He’s not interested. Do you know how many-”

                “Let me.” Omar took the phone. The man on the line was from La Prensa. He wanted to conduct an in-person interview and take photos.

                “Will you pay us?”

                “No. We don’t do that. We feel it compromises the integrity of the interview.”

                Omar thought. The memory of the harpy eagle, and the challenge it presented, was still bright in his mind. He must overcome his fear, his mother said. He’d avoided publicity so far, but he had an idea. Maybe there was an opportunity here.

                “I’ll do it.”

                Spanish newspapersThe reporter came to the house. He was bearded and middle aged, and spoke to Omar with great respect. There were the expected questions about the dog attack: Why did you try to help your schoolmate instead of running away? What went through your mind when the dogs attacked you? Do you regret intervening like you did? Are you angry at the owner of the dogs? Have you spoken to him?

                From there the questions became more personal. Omar’s childhood and parents. When Omar explained that his father had been killed trying to stop a robbery, the reporter seemed pleased and excited. Omar stiffened with anger. The reporter must have sensed this, because he began to stammer. “I mean, it’s a tragedy of course…”

                Finally came the question Omar had hoped for. When the reporter asked him how he was spending his time this summer, he said, “I’m helping my mom with her organic makeup company, Puro Panameño. It’s the best makeup in the world, made right here in Panama.”

                Two days later, his mother came home from work with two copies of La Prensa. She layed one out on the kitchen table and they looked at it together. Omar’s story was on the front page. The headline read, “Like father, like son: a family of heroes.” Thumbnail photos of Omar’s face and Papa’s face stood side by side. Omar broke into tears. Why had they done that? He went to his room, and did not read the article. Later, he wasn’t even sure why he’d cried. It just caught him off guard, he guessed.

                Nevertheless, when a female reporter from El Siglo called on the house phone the next day, Omar spoke to her and let her interview him over the phone.

                That same day he received a call from TVN Noticiera Estelar, one of the most popular news shows in Panama. This was the first news outlet that actually offered to pay him.

                The day before the interview Mamá pressed a suit that she had purchased for Omar for this occasion. Where she found the money he did not know.

                Off With His Head

                That night he could not sleep at all. His left leg throbbed and ached, and his many scars itched like wildfire. The doctors said the itching was a normal product of healing, and that he must not scratch the wounds, but the sensation drove him mad sometimes. Finally he could not take it. Rising in the dark, he took one of the pain pills the doctor had given him, downed it with a glass of warm tap water, and went back to bed.

                 

                Red boxing spiderThe Spiniflex hatchlings were beginning to eat their way out of his body. The pain was blinding, as if he were the centerpiece in a bonfire. The Ruby erupted out of his skin, and blood cascaded from his body, falling in rivers from his chin, his fingertips, his elbows… He fell onto his back, writhing in pain.

                The Ruby spiders massed on his chest, gathering in a V formation, their cilia-covered bodies glistening with his blood. He saw that some had the heads of hedgehogs, and others of flamingos, but no matter what their eyes were all insect eyes, black and mirrored, and all focused on Omar’s face.

                The largest spider stepped to the point of the formation. On its back it bore the shape of a red heart, the kind from a playing card. Pointing one hairy arm at Omar’s face, it cried, “Off with his head!” Its voice was thunderous, rattling Omar’s teeth. At the command, all the spiders produced axes. They were all hooded now, like executioners, and they advanced on Omar’s neck, coming to chop off his head.

                 

                He fell out of bed, panting as if he’d run a race, his stomach heaving like he might throw up. He remained on his hands and knees on the tiled floor, gasping for breath, his body drenched in sweat. When would the dreams stop? He shouldn’t have taken the pain medication. “Hasbun-Allahu wa n’em Al-Wakeel,” he said out loud. Allah is sufficient for us and is the best Protector. He felt a sudden urge to call Samia, which was ridiculous. It was the middle of the night, he didn’t have her number, and they weren’t even friends. Not really.

                He rose, washed his entire upper body at the small bathroom sink, and changed the sweat-soaked sheets. His body hurt, but he could tolerate it. He would be okay. “A giant,” Samia had called him once. “You may be short,” she’d said, “but you’re a giant.” He’d be okay. And he’d never read that damned Alice in Wonderland book again.

                Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 6: The Curious Sensation of Pity

                Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

                See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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                Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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                Day of the Dogs, Part 4: You Are the Miracle

                Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did?

                Goat standing on a cow's back

                See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

                This is chapter 4 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 |
                Chapter 5

                Krägä Bianga

                “Fear no one.” – Samia

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                MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

                The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

                Hospital IV bagLIGHTS IN HIS EYES AND PAIN EVERYWHERE… warmth pouring into his veins like liquid honey… his mother’s face close to his, saying his name… darkness…

                His mother and a doctor talking… everything blurry… his face hurt. He tried to touch his face, but his mother grabbed his hand and stopped him… sleep…

                Someone sobbing… why?… pain everywhere in his body. He moaned then fell into darkness…

                A nightmare, hands dragging him down into a well, and at the bottom of the well, sharp teeth and claws. He struggled, until a warm hand took his, and he settled into silence…

                An old woman in a red Ngäbe dress standing over him, singing. Her skin was walnut colored and deeply seamed. Her long ebony hair hung free, falling below her waist. She spooned something into his mouth and he swallowed. It was bitter, but as it slid into his stomach he felt it nourishing and strengthening him. The woman’s night-black eyes stared unblinking into his as she whispered a single word in a language he did not understand. His eyelids came down like shuttered doors, and once again he was asleep…

                The next morning he was somewhat aware. It was the third day after surgery. His mother and a doctor spoke at his bedside. He tried to eat something but could only manage a cup of pudding.

                “There was a woman,” he said, and his voice sounded like radio static. “Singing.”

                His mother touched his forehead. “A krägä bianga. A healer of my people.”

                “But we’re Muslims.”

                “Hush,” Mamá said. “She is a krägä bianga, not a curandera. Medicine, not magic.”

                That evening, Omar’s mind was completely clear for the first time. The doctor spoke to him personally about his surgery and recovery. He was able to eat some solid food. Samia came for a visit as well, and he learned about what had happened to her. At some point, as Samia was speaking, he fell asleep.

                The Old Nightmare

                The fourth day, the old nightmare returned. The spiders.

                Red boxing spiderTHE SPINIFLEX RUBIROSA LARVAE WERE IN HIS BODY, and they were hatching. They ate their way out, chewing through muscle and cartilage, fat and veins, destroying his body as thoroughly as if he’d stepped on a landmine. There was no point calling out for his mother. She was nowhere to be found.

                The spiders burst out through his skin, blood pouring from a thousand wounds, and through a crimson curtain of pain Omar saw that they had the bodies of spiders, but the heads of vicious dogs. Dewed with his blood, they growled, thousands of tiny dog voices joining into a single rumble.

                He rolled onto his back and saw that he lay on the muddy, putrid stretch of beach below the Panama City seawall. The ground was littered with rotting seaweed, plastic bags and used diapers. Above the seawall, the city was burning. Flames engulfed the tall towers, pouring from shattered windows. Smoke darkened the sky. Not a soul could be seen. The metropolis was dying.

                The Spinifex hatchlings advanced up his body toward his face, intending to eat his eyes. Their little dog eyes were solid ruby red, as if filled with blood. Omar thrashed, slapping his own face and crying out in terror.

                Where was Mamá, where was Papá, where were Samia, Halima, Hani, anybody? Anybody anybody the Ruby was killing him…

                Eighty Seven Bites

                “Hey. Wake up.” Someone touched his shoulder.

                Omar’s eyes flew open and he gasped as he shot up to a sitting position in the bed, looking around wildly. His racing heart began to slow as he realized that he was still in the hospital, of course.

                Samia sat in a chair beside his bed, wearing a fluffy gray robe and an orange hijab, and still reading Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. One side of her face and head were completely bandaged, so he could only see her mouth, nose and one eye. Her skull had been fractured in two places from the attack. The doctors had shaved her hair, she had told him, but she wore her hijab on top of the head bandage, which made her head look about the same as usual.

                “You’re still here,” Omar breathed.

                “Where am I gonna go? Skydiving?”

                Omar’s mother slept next to Samia in a chair, her head tipped back against the wall, her mouth slack. She wore black pants and a dark blouse rather than her traditional dress, with a gray hijab. She looked exhausted, with purple circles beneath her eyes.

                He groaned and sank back. He hurt everywhere. It was not the pain of the Ruby hatchlings burrowing out of his body, but of the wounds from the eighty-seven bites he’d received in the dog attack. It must be almost time for his pain medication.

                He’d been here for five days. When he’d first arrived at the hospital, his organs had been on the verge of shutting down due to massive blood loss. He’d been in surgery that entire first day and halfway through the night, they told him.

                It hurt even to breathe, as he had a tube in his nose to prevent his nasal airway from collapsing, as Dr. Medrano had explained to Omar and his mother. A jaunty, heavyset man with thick black hair, Dr. Medrano had smiled and rocked back and forth on his heels as he detailed Omar’s injuries and the surgeries that had repaired him.

                A stent had been placed under Omar’s left eye. It drained out of his nose to keep his tear duct system from collapsing as well. He’d lost a piece of the upper half of his left ear. He had lines of stitches everywhere, like Frankenstein’s monster. Several parts of his body, including his face, had required primary reconstruction during surgery, to repair or replace flesh and skin that had been torn away. Much of his body was still purple and swollen with bruising. He was receiving aggressive antibiotic treatment to prevent infection from the many deep punctures. His left forearm might never recover to full strength.

                He would require multiple follow-up procedures, including secondary face, hand and calf reconstructions, as well as fat grafting to fill in depressed areas, cartilage grafting to reconstruct his nose, and ongoing scar treatments.

                Goat standing on a cow's back“Hey,” Samia said, interrupting Omar’s morose mental review of his Frankenstein-like reconstruction. Samia had been in his room daily, when she wasn’t in her own. “Remember we were talking about unlikely things? You know what else is unlikely? A goat standing on a cow’s back. But I saw that once.”

                Omar turned his head to look at her. The girl was certifiably crazy. He felt a laugh begin to form inside him, but it hurt to laugh, and it came out sounding like a cross between a chuckle and a moan.

                Bruises

                The sound awakened his mother. She stood with a soft exhalation of, “La ilaha il-Allah.” She came to his bedside and bent over him, gently stroking his cheek, taking care to avoid his injuries. “¿Cómo estás mi amor?”

                Omar began to reply, but then, seeing his mother’s face up close, noticed something. The discolorations beneath her eyes were not the result of exhaustion. They were bruises. Her cheek was bruised as well, and she’d made an effort to conceal it with makeup. She’d been beaten.

                Tio. Omar’s face settled into a hard mask. He seethed, wishing he could leap out of this bed and go thrash the little rat, taking the man apart limb by limb. For a moment these thoughts surprised him, as he had never been inclined to fight back against Nemesio in the past. Something had changed inside him.

                Beating up Nemesio was not the solution, however. Omar had bested him that last time because Nemesio had been drunk. But the two of them fighting sober would turn into an all-out brawl. He needed another solution.

                Mistaking his expression, Mamá said, “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. You’ll be as strong as ever. And these scars will fade.”

                Omar nodded tightly, saying nothing.

                “I’m going to go to the cafeteria,” Mamá said. “Can I bring you some guava juice?”

                The doctor had prescribed a post-op dietary regimen for Omar, but it was so bland it was like eating paper. Normally Omar would have said yes to some tasty tropical juice, but he was too angry right now.

                “I don’t want anything.”

                Mamá hesitated, looking between him and Samia. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll be back soon.”

                When she was gone, Omar spoke to Samia without looking at her. “You should leave now.” His fists were curled into balls beneath the blanket. Seeing the bruise on his mother’s face had brought it all back, pushing his rage to penetrate his very bones. His nightmare of a life just went on and on. Oh, you need something to break up the routine? life said. How about a dog attack? Okay, now back to the daily mess.

                It wasn’t only his foul excuse for an uncle he was angry with, but everyone who was supposed to have been responsible for him, who was supposed to have cared. He resented his mother for not being strong enough to protect herself, or him. The principal and teachers at his school had surely seen the bullying directed at him year after year, and had done nothing. Even his father he blamed for dying and leaving him. Why had his father done that? Why had it been more important to stop the mugging of some stranger on a bus than to survive for his own family? And lastly, Omar blamed himself for being a victim. His father would have expected more from him.

                He had to do something. Life could not continue like this. He heard Sensei Alan saying, “The only failure is the failure to act.” But what could he do here, in this bed, with his body torn half to shreds?

                Fear No One

                “I’ve been reading Surat An-Najm,” Samia said, hefting her book. “You want to hear?”

                He had forgotten she was there. He wiped his tears with jerky motions. “No, I told you-”

                Samia recited:

                “Or has he not been informed of what was in the scriptures of Moses, and Abraham who fulfilled his mission; That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another; And that there is nothing for man but what he strives for; And that his effort will be seen, and then he will be rewarded for it generously?
                And that to your Lord is the final return; And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep; And that it is He who causes death and gives life…”

                A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Al-Ghazali says,” Samia went on, “that we must recognize Allah’s power over everything, and know that no man can control another’s fate. There is nothing for man but what he strives for. If you want something, make a plan and go after it. Fear no one.”

                “Do I even have to tell you this?” she continued. “Even with one eye I can see you lying here all tight and angry. Do you have any idea what you did? You saved my life. How many people could have done what you did? How many did? Nobody. Only you. You might be short, Omar, but you’re a giant.” A tear ran down one cheek and she wiped it away.

                She finished in Spanish, something she almost never did: “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Rolling her Spanish r’s hard, sounding almost like Halima, and almost bitter. How strange.

                “Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.” Samia commanded.

                Omar did so, then Samia stood and shuffled away slowly, one chubby hand grasping her book.

                Omar felt like Samia had taken a hammer and smashed the diamond-hard shell of fury that had encased him, shattering it. She was somehow able to see through his emotional walls as if they did not exist. Was she like this with everyone? And had she really just happened to be reading that surah, or had she chosen it specifically for him?

                Alone in his room, Omar began to think. He was still angry but it was cold anger now, the kind that did not interfere with his ability to reason. Make a plan. The only failure is the failure to act.

                Friends

                When Mamá returned from the cafeteria with cups of mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese for him – he could only eat soft foods for now – Omar said, “Tell Nemesio to come see me.”

                Mamá looked alarmed. “Why?”

                “Just tell him.”

                “He will not come, I think.”

                “Tell him I know a way to profit from this thing.” He waved a hand to indicate his ravaged body. “I want to consult with him.” That’ll get him here.

                She studied his face uncertainly. “Your friends are here again. The doctor says you are ready for visitors now, but only two at a time, and only ten minutes each.”

                He nodded his head, and his mother and Samia withdrew.

                First in were the three Muhammad sisters, all with large black eyes and rings in their left nostrils. Nadia and Naris were decked out in colorful shalwar khamees outfits,  looking like young mahogany trees hung with bright fabrics for a festival, while Nabila wore jeans, a band t-shirt and hi-top sneakers. One or all of them wore a musky, jasmine-scented perfume that filled the small hospital room.

                Many of the teachers and students at IIAP could not tell the sisters apart, but Omar always could. Nadia was quick to laugh, goofy and wide-eyed, as if constantly surprised. Naris was solemn, and asked hard questions, or gave uninvited criticism. Nabila – she of the band shirts and hi-tops – couldn’t stand still. She danced to her own music, ran when other people walked, and rarely spoke. Even now she was swaying her hips and rotating her hands Bollywood style. She had her own Youtube channel where she showed off dance moves. Omar had heard she was making money with it.

                “I thought it was only supposed to be two at a time.”

                Nadia grinned. “We dazzled them with our triplicate identicalness.”

                “They wanted to know,” Naris said seriously, “if we were Hindu princesses.”

                “Did you tell them you were Muslim princesses?” Omar asked. Nadia giggled, while Naris looked at him solemnly, as if he’d said something profound.

                “We’re sorry about what happened to you and Samia,” Nabila broke in, ceasing her dancing momentarily. “Our family’s been praying for you. Everyone has.”

                “Thanks,” Omar said, and he meant it. “So what’s new?”

                “Árabe Unido beat FCDeeeeee,” Nabila sang, and she did a little dance that ended in a victory pose, her fingers in Vs.

                “Halima and Hani are here to see you too,” Nadia said. “And the principal, and a couple of teachers, and the TV news people.”

                Just the thought of seeing all those people exhausted Omar.

                “And if you’re wondering if Tameem is out there,” Naris added, “he’s not. He wouldn’t dare show his face. He and his coward sidekick Basem.”

                Not surprising. Tameem would never bother visiting him. “Why do you call them cowards?”

                “He was the one who said to run, wasn’t he?”

                “Didn’t you all run too?” Omar was not accusing, just trying to understand.

                Nadia let out an explosive laugh. Naris shot her sister a chiding look, then said, “Yes, but we came back. Tameem and Hani kept going. I think they ran all the way to the main road. We haven’t seen them since the Day of the Dogs.”

                When Omar raised his eyebrows she added, “That’s what we’re calling it now. You know what, I heard they were laughing about it later. If I ever see them again I’ll stick kebab skewers in their eyes.”

                Omar sighed and adjusted his head on the pillow. His pain level was increasing, and he was tired.

                “Do you want us to leave you alone?”

                Omar thanked them for coming, and asked them to send in Halima and Hani. He was exhausted just from this short visit, but he needed to see those two. His memories of the attack were a mayhem of images and sensory impressions as overwhelming as a fireworks show. Teeth and claws, pain, slick blood on his skin, the hot metallic taste in his mouth, the smell of dog fur, the sound of Samia screaming, others shouting… a knife and a gun. People standing around as if they’d just witnessed a massacre. And Halima and Hani right there, above him. He needed to talk to someone who’d been there.

                Panama Rainforest

                Halima and Hani would not meet his eyes. Hani with his long face and nose that reminded Omar of a horse; shoulder-length greasy hair, and persistent acne. Halima, as lovely as a daydream, her eyes as green as the Panamanian rainforest.

                Omar remembered his fantasy of marrying Halima one day. If she’d been out of his league before, how about now? He was a mangled mess.

                He tried to put such useless thoughts out of his head. “What’s the matter with you two?”

                “We’re sorry about what happened,” Halima said. “I’m the one who pressured you to come. If I hadn’t done that, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

                “If you hadn’t done that, Samia might be dead,” Omar countered, then immediately realized he’d said the wrong thing by reminding them that they had done nothing to save Samia.

                “It was all Tameem’s fault,” Hani said, glancing up to meet Omar’s eyes, then looking away again.

                Omar said nothing.

                “I know what you’re thinking,” Hani went on. “I’ve been following Tameem like a robot. You and I were friends, and I abandoned you. I’m sorry. I know he’s no good. I can’t explain, man. He’s rich, and everyone admires him, and when you’re around him you feel important. But I’m done with him now. My eyes are open.”

                “Hani,” Omar said kindly. “My memories are mixed up, but I remember you standing there at the end with a bloody knife in your hand. What happened?”

                “Hani killed the one dog,” Halima said fiercely. “And the cop shot the other.”

                “But I ran away first,” Hani said dejectedly.

                “You were there when it counted. Whatever happened in the past, a lo hecho, pecho. And you, Halima, are a good soul. I remember you standing beside me when everyone else ran away. The Day of the Dogs is done. Let’s look forward.”

                He began to realize that he had changed. In his mind he heard Samia saying, “You might be short, but you’re a giant.” He was not speaking as one in need, but as one who held power, and therefore possessed the ability to forgive. He felt a core of iron within himself, yet strangely enough, from that iron flowed benediction. Cowardly Tameem and Basem didn’t matter. Omar saw now how meaningless they were, how petty.

                He thought of the verses of Surat An-Najm: That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another... And that it is He who makes one laugh and weep…

                Let Tameem and Basem bear their own burdens, laugh their own laughter, cry their own tears. Omar would be his own man, in the universe of his own soul.

                A nurse came with Omar’s medication, and instructed his visitors to leave. On the way out, Halima turned back with a quizzical expression and said, “Day of the Dogs?”

                Omar shrugged. “That’s what we’re calling it now.”

                Get Out

                He was awakened by a rough thumping on his shoulder. Nemesio stood there with his short, barrel-body and gold teeth, dressed in an expensive but rumpled yellow suit, the broken veins in his nose betraying his alcoholism. His breath stank and his cheeks were shadowed with a week’s growth of beard. A fat canary on a bender.

                “What’s this nonsense ‘bout making money?” Nemesio demanded. “You thinking to sue? The dog owner is a policia nacional captain. Sue him, you bring a heap of trouble on your head. Stupid boy.”

                In spite of Nemesio’s words, the man must have thought the possibility of a lawsuit held some promise, or he wouldn’t have come. Omar was going to have to disappoint him.

                “You know,” Omar said casually. “The police captain came to see me. The one whose dogs attacked me.” This was not true, but Nemesio would not know that. “He was extremely apologetic. He said if I ever need anything, I should only ask.”

                “Ah, I see.” Nemesio nodded knowingly and stroked his chin. “You wanna ask for compensation for the attack.”

                “No. I want to ask him to investigate the fire that burned down your gas station.”

                “Whaaa?” Nemesio’s eyes bugged and his cheeks turned beet red. He seized Omar’s bandaged wrist. “Watchu talking, you little bastard?”

                Omar ignored the pain flaring in his wrist from the puncture wounds there. He kept his tone calm, and began a carefully rehearsed speech. “I seem to recall that gas prices were at rock bottom around the time your station burned. And you were always complaining about your employees stealing from you. You couldn’t have been making much of a profit. What did the fire inspectors say? An electrical problem? Did you bribe someone to say that?” This was pure speculation on his part, but he saw Nemesio’s eyes widen and knew he’d struck pay dirt. “Then you had a huge insurance payout, but you didn’t restore the station. You abandoned it. I think the police captain would find all this very interesting. And you don’t have anything left to bribe him with, do you? You’ll end up rotting in La Joya for fraud.”

                Still gripping Omar’s wrist, Nemesio raised a fist.

                “Go ahead,” Omar said. “The captain can add assault to your charges.”

                Nemesio released Omar’s wrist and stepped back, looking as if he’d just released a viper. His chin trembled and a speck of spittle dribbled from his bottom lip as he spoke. “Watchu want?”

                Man walking away, leaving Omar brought his voice to a low hiss, letting some of his rage show. “I know you’ve been beating my mother again, Nemesio.” Normally he would never dare to call the man by his given name as it would bring a terrible beating, but now he spat it like a curse. “I want you gone, today. Pack your things, leave and never come back. If I ever see you again I will beat you to a pulp myself. If you don’t think I can, wait and see. Then I’ll report you to the police.”

                “I-” Nemesio stuttered. “I don’t got nowhere to go.”

                “That’s your problem. Leave today, you understand? And don’t you dare touch my mother again. Now get out.”

                Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 5:  Sorceress of the Forest

                * * *

                Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

                See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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                Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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                #Culture

                Day of the Dogs, Part 3 – The Attack

                The dog spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face…

                Doberman pinscher

                See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

                This is chapter 3 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

                Stop Pitying Yourself

                “I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” – Samia

                Playa Santa Clara, Panama
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                Playa Santa Clara, Panama

                OMAR DID NOT FIND A SEASHELL. At one point he heard the sound of muffled sobbing, and followed it to where Samia sat in her cabana. She had her face tucked into her knees, her forehead pressing against the book she’d been reading. When Omar said, “What’s the matter?” she looked up with a startled, tear-streaked face.

                “Nothing.” She wiped her face with her scarf.

                Omar shifted his weight and looked at the ground, unwilling to either press her or leave her alone.

                “My parents are getting divorced,” she said finally.

                “Oh. Sorry to hear that. I thought you guys were a perfect little Islamic family.”

                “Yes, well. Things are not always what they seem.”

                That sure was the truth. “Will you go back to Malaysia?”

                “No. My dad’s going back. I’ll stay with my mom.”

                That struck Omar as odd. Wasn’t it usually it was the man who traveled to work and the woman who accompanied him?

                Seeming to read his mind, Samia explained: “She’s an executive for Petronas. She interfaces with oil company executives from all over Latin America. My dad owned an electronics shop back home, which is fine, you know, it’s a good, halal business. I just think…” Her mouth twisted to one side as she tried to hide her distress. “I think he was happier back home.”

                Omar pointed with his lips to her book. “What are you reading?”

                “That’s so Panamanian. Pointing with your mouth.”

                “I am Panamanian.”

                A Thematic Commentary on the Quran by Al-Ghazali“Oh yeah. It’s Al-Ghazali’s thematic commentary of the Quran. Hey, can I give you a little advice?”

                Uh-oh. Omar’s shields went up. Samia always thought she knew best. Before he could say anything, she went on: “You should stop pitying yourself.”

                He glared. “Excuse me?”

                “How long have I known you? You think I don’t see you’re miserable? I know there’s something wrong.”

                “That’s not your business.”

                Samia sighed. “Would you listen? I’m trying to say that you’re so strong and smart. Almost as smart as me.” She grinned. “Whatever’s going on, you’ll get through it if you stop pitying yourself and just keep on working. You’ll come out on top. You’ll see.”

                “Unlikely.” She sounded like Sensei Alan, but he’d never give her the satisfaction of telling her so.

                “Is it? I believe in six unlikely things every day before breakfast.” Seeing his quizzical look, she added, “Halima told me you were reading Alice in Wonderland.”

                He wasn’t reading it. And if he recalled correctly, the White Queen believed in six impossible things before breakfast. But whatever. “That’s fine for you and Alice. You don’t have my life.”

                “Oh really?” Her voice was sharp. “Where’s your imaan, akhi? Allah always makes a way, don’t you know? You want to know something else unlikely? I’m unlikely!”

                “What do you mean?” he muttered, chastised.

                “One: My family comes from Kedah province, on the coast of Malaysia. On December 29, 2004, my father, who was not my father yet, was invited by my grandfather to go sailing on a boat he had bought. They were boarding the boat when my father received a mobile call from the wife of his best school friend. The man had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital at Jitra, an inland city. My father said goodbye to my grandfather and went to see his friend. One hour later, you know what happened?”

                Omar shook his head.

                Indian Ocean tsunami

                Indian Ocean tsunami

                “The Indian Ocean tsunami. One hour later! You may have heard of it? It killed a quarter of a million people, including my grandfather, who was never found.”

                Omar made a sympathetic face, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry,” he managed.

                “Two.” Counting on her fingers. “My father’s taxi was buried in mud, and he should have died, but the mud left his face exposed. He was able to breathe, and to lick rainwater that ran down the inside of the crushed car.

                “Three: He was rescued by a volunteer relief worker. She was my mother. Soon they married.

                “Four: My mother’s pregnancy was difficult. The doctors said she might lose the baby. I was born premature. In fact I was not breathing, but the doctors revived me.

                “Five: I have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

                “Six: When I was five I had bacterial meningitis. My body didn’t respond to treatment and at one point the doctors told my parents I would die by morning. I remember hallucinating that the doctor was a wolf with a muzzle and huge black eyes. I tried to scream but didn’t have the breath. It was terrifying. My mother told me later that she spent that entire night making dua by my bedside. In the morning my fever broke and by noon I was walking. No one could explain it.”

                Seven.” She paused, touching index finger to index finger, then shrugged. “I don’t have a seven. But my point is, you say it’s unlikely that your life might improve? My entire existence is unlikely. But Allah does what He wills.”

                Omar hadn’t known any of that, and didn’t know what Samia was trying to tell him.

                Samia snapped her fingers. “I’m saying, the unlikely happens every day. And you know what else? Ramadan is coming. Ramadan is about not only the unlikely, but the impossible. Miracles. Angels pouring out of Jannah by the millions. The battle of Badr. Think about that, akhi. Say hasbun-Allahu-wa-n’em-Al-Wakeel.”

                Omar said it.

                “Go back to your wanderings.”

                The Gate Opens

                It was funny how people kept telling him to go away. What was he, a bad smell?

                At noon, when it was too hot to be out in the sun, the kids ate at a beach restaurant that served only fish and chips. Omar didn’t have enough money for that, but that was okay. He sat in a cabana eating the peanut butter sandwich from home. It was smashed into a trapezoid and the bread was soggy, but it tasted fine.

                They prayed Dhuhr in congregation, with Tameem leading. Omar didn’t mind. It was not about who stood in front, but about his personal connection with Allah. Though sometimes he wondered about that connection. Not about Allah, but about his own heart. The Creator felt distant sometimes, and Omar knew that was his own fault. But he didn’t know how to fix it.

                The group headed back up the road at two o’clock, wanting to make it to the highway before the afternoon rains came. As they passed the house with the vicious dog, the creature was nowhere in sight. Tameem kicked the gate and shouted, “Oye perro estupido!” and the dog came running, barking like firecrackers going off.

                Doberman pinscher

                Doberman pinscher

                This time a second dog, a tall doberman pinscher with alert ears and a black muzzle, rounded the house as well and sped toward them on the other’s heels. Drool flew from its mouth as it growled and bared its terrifying teeth. Again the kids screamed and ran, except for Omar, who only shook his head and trotted away quickly, and Samia, who was not a fan of running.

                A few houses further up the street they stopped and watched a massive silver-colored 4×4 truck cruising down the road. It might have been three meters tall, jacked up on oversized tires, with chrome running boards, and a top-mounted light bar that could probably turn night into day. On the front were bull bars that could be used to ram another vehicle.

                As it passed they saw it bore the logo of the National Police, and had a rifle mounted in the cab, though the driver was not wearing a police uniform. He was a youngish man, in his late twenties maybe, sporting shades and a cowboy hat. Spanish gangster rap battered its way out of the truck’s speakers. Heading right for the awestruck kids, the truck blasted its horn. The kids jumped out of the way, a few of them cursing the driver.

                The truck stopped in front of the house with the dogs, and the driver must have hit a remote control, because the gate began to roll quietly open.

                The two dogs came flying out, snarling, and charged straight at the kids. The German shepherd was in the lead, its large fangs flashing white in the sun, but the doberman was gaining ground. Both dogs were enraged, in full attack mode. The driver yelled at the dogs to stop, but they were so inflamed by Tameem’s provocations that they ignored him.

                The hair raised up on Omar’s arms and neck. He stood rooted, unsure what to do. Watching the dogs come was like watching a pair of nuclear torpedoes shooting at him. Living torpedoes of bone and claw, muscle and sinew, burning brain and vengeful heart. Their feet flew across the dirt, and their eyes were filled with rage.

                The Attack

                SAMIA HAD STOPPED TO CATCH HER BREATH after her brief trot and was now at the tail end of the group, closest to the dogs, with Omar just ahead of her, and Halima beyond him. All the kids froze utterly for one second, as if they were playing a game of red light green light where the losers would be shot dead. In that numb, dumb moment, the dogs covered half the distance from the gate to their motionless victims. Then Basem made a wordless whimpering sound, and Hani whispered, “Oh my God.” One of the girls screamed.

                Halima started to say, “Nobody run,” but was cut off as Tameem bellowed, “RUN!”

                Omar shot a glance in the direction of the group and saw they were all fleeing in a panic, led by Tameem and Basem. Only Halima was hesitating. He turned back toward the dogs and saw instantly that Samia wasn’t going to make it. She was jogging toward him but her run was little more than a fast waddle. The dogs were almost on her as they blazed forward with ears tucked and teeth bared. They would kill her.

                He could not let that happen. It was not even a decision – there was no decision to make. The believers are a single body. The only failure is the failure to act. He ran toward Samia and the charging dogs.

                Seeing him running toward them, the dogs hesitated, slowing just enough to buy Omar the time he needed. Samia’s eyes were wide with terror, and she looked like she might have a heart attack.

                Just as Omar reached Samia, the German shepherd leaped at her from behind. Omar tackled Samia, taking her to the ground. The dog sailed over them where they lay in the dirt. He shrugged off his backpack and thrust it at Samia, shouting, “Shield your face!” Then he turned toward the other charging dog and started to rise, bringing his arms up defensively, with a crazy idea that he could use his copper bracelet to block the dog’s teeth – then the animal was on him, crashing into him with the force of a sledgehammer, knocking him back to the ground.

                German shepherd

                German shepherd

                Pain exploded in his forearm as the dog’s fangs stabbed deeply into his flesh. He grunted in shock, but remained clear-headed. Falling back to his years of karate training, he used his free arm to deliver powerful elbow strikes to the dog’s nose and eyes. Not releasing its bite, it snarled and shook its head as if trying to rip the meat loose from Omar’s arm. He screamed as he felt the muscles in his forearm begin to tear.

                The doberman, meanwhile, had overshot. It turned and charged back. Samia lay on the ground just behind him and to the side, calling out loudly for help. Goaded by her cries, the doberman aimed not for Omar but for Samia.

                As the doberman raced past him, Omar shot out his good arm and made a desperate grab for the dog’s spiked collar. He caught it! But the dog’s momentum stretched his arm out until he felt something pop in his elbow. Between that and the spikes digging into his hand, he could not hold on. The doberman pulled free, and an instant later Samia cried out again. This time it was not a cry of fear, but a chilling wail of pain, shock and horror. Omar turned his head to look. Oh God. Samia must have begun to roll away before the dog reached her, because the beast straddled her side, and was biting the top of her head as she clutched the backpack tightly to her face.

                Desperately, with every shred of strength he possessed, Omar struck the German shepherd repeatedly in the face with his wrist, using his copper bracelet as a weapon. Dazed, the dog released its bite and stood over him, swaying. Anguished over Samia and given fortitude by this outrage, Omar pushed, flinging the monster off him. He turned and scrabbled toward Samia. The doberman straddled her, not biting once and clamping down like the shepherd had done to him, but biting repeatedly about her head and shoulders, and sometimes biting the backpack as well.

                The neighborhood Omar lived in was poor, and there were plenty of stray dogs, many of them hungry, rabid or vicious. He’d seen dog attacks, and knew what to do. He seized the doberman’s sleek black tail, and pulled it backward and up as hard as he could. The big black dog gave a yelp of surprise as it was dragged away from Samia’s weeping form. Then it spun and attacked Omar. The beast was lightning quick, and before he could get his arms up he felt the doberman’s teeth sink into his face, penetrating his forehead and cheek. At the same moment the German shepherd, recovered now, bit his calf, its teeth sinking into the muscle like the jaws of a bear trap. The pain was so shocking that he could not even draw a breath to scream.

                They were both on him. He rolled and fought as best he could, punching, kicking, clawing at the dogs’ faces, even biting the shepherd in the neck at one point. And the whole time the dogs were biting him. He felt wet all over, and knew it was his own blood.

                The blood in his eyes blinded him, so that he saw the world faintly, through a sheet of stinging red. He tasted it in his mouth, coppery and hot, along with the rank dog fur he’d bitten off. Pain burst and roiled everywhere in his body. He’d been in pain before, he’d been beaten and bruised and had even fractured bones. But nothing like this. He was baking like a piece of beef in an oven, transforming into something unrecognizable. They were killing him.

                Some of the kids must have come back to help, because he heard voices shouting and crying, men and women, but above them all he heard Halima very near, screaming, “What do I do, Omar? What do I do?”

                “Knife,” he managed to croak. “Hani’s knife.” Then louder, mustering his panic and fright, “Get me Hani’s knife!”

                The dogs continued to bite and tear at his flesh, and he fought, but his strength was giving out. His arms wouldn’t work properly. Then the doberman yelped in pain and was gone, pulled off him. The shepherd was still on top of him, its teeth deep in his upper arm. Omar put a thumb in its eye and it yelped and released his arm, then went for his throat. He turned, and felt its teeth sink deeply into his shoulder. His body went slack. He couldn’t fight anymore. Cold seeped into his body and mind. Even the pain was beginning to recede.

                Drifting Out to Sea

                A tremendous blast rang through the air. The shepherd wailed in agony and released his shoulder. Another blast, and the dog was gone. Not on him anymore. He heard terrible, anguished weeping, and realized after a moment that it was him. Tears flooded his eyes, clearing the blood, and he saw people standing over him, their faces registering horror and disbelief. Halima and Hani were closest. Hani’s knife was in his hand, and the blade was bloody to the hilt. His eyes were wide with shock.

                A man in a cowboy hat also stood over him, and Omar saw that the man was carrying a pistol, and that smoke wisped from the barrel. The man’s face was drained of blood, white as a bone. Who was he? Omar couldn’t think. He wasn’t even sure where he was anymore, or why he was lying here on the ground, burning with agony and covered in something wet.

                “Samia,” he managed to say, and wasn’t sure why he said that. Then his body began to shake. His teeth chattered and his limbs convulsed, and he couldn’t stop. He was cold, and didn’t understand why. Panama was not supposed to be cold. His heart raced and he could hear it thrumming in his ears, pulsing and crashing like ocean waves.

                He was half-conscious through all that followed. Hands doing something to him. Sirens. Someone wrapping him in something and lifting him up. Moaning rhythmically, asking for his father. A ride in the back of a vehicle, rocking. The pain going away, ebbing like the tide, to be replaced with a feeling of warmth and comfort, and a deep drowsiness. Something over his face, forcing air into his lungs.

                Then he was gone, lying on the deck of a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, drifting out to sea, borne on the back of a giant, warm wave. He would live on this sailboat, and Allah would provide for him as He had provided for Maryam, and he would be content. He would sail the world with Alice and Halima and Niko and the white rabbit, and…

                Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 4:  You Are the Miracle

                * * *

                Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

                See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

                Avatar

                Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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