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Searching for Signs of Spring: A Short Story

At the party she stood near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. At least the food was good.

Golden Gate Bridge at night

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

The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

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, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

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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

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          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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          #Culture

          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

          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.

          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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          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.

          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.

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