She could hear her screaming in the next bedroom over. Screaming loudly in pain and agony as the thumps of a belt rang out in the background, Father’s grunts breaking in every once in a while. Fatima sat up in her bed sweating with fear, clutching her flimsy bedcover tightly to her chest. Her mother was being raped. Her younger sister was sleeping soundly in her bed, holding the pillow over her head and blocking out all sight and sound. Her brothers, also littered around the same room, were awake. Some of them on the ground, having been punished by Father, sat upright like Fatima…staring out into the dark recesses of the room. Using their mother’s screams to paint an image in their head of what was happening. The youngest among them imagining that Father was simply punishing Mother like he punished everyone in the family. Those who were older knew better. Younis was sleeping soundly in his bed with those expensive headphones in his ears, soft pillows and mattresses cushioning his soft but large body. They were seven siblings all in all. The youngest, their sister Laila, was only four years old, Younis was the oldest at twenty-six, and all of them, bar Father and Mother, slept in the same room in that broken-down old house.
The beatings died down eventually, the screaming with it. Soon everybody who was awake welcomed the dark silence and went back to sleep to forget and to be woken up by the innocent daylight of dawn.
At the breakfast table that morning, they saw Mother preparing breakfast. Black and blue welts covered her face, her arms, and any other revealed part of her body, like some obscene henna. Even her toes were bruised. Her morning dress was ragged and tattered. Despite the pain and the bruises, she was preparing the breakfast beans and bread at the furnace, her face looking toward the red fire, hidden. Some brother or another was fanning the flames that kept the beans simmering in their water. Another was racing to the river to fill the old, chipped clay jug that the family drank from. Everyone chipping in for Mother, doing her chores. The remaining brothers and Laila were all seated at that table. After the long and cold nights, the morning after always seemed like a warm flurry of activity and color. But the night before was always there, watching silently like a hungry ghost.
No one talked about it, the night before. And if they did, only in hushed terms, silently whispering in the crumbling shack of a house; afraid of the walls and the traitorous cracks which shot echoes of their whispers throughout. Suddenly, they grew quiet as Father started to climb down the stairs. His heavy form left jarring thuds on the staircase. Large, heavy thuds trumpeted the entry of God on earth. His shadow loomed into the kitchen and over the breakfast table, darkening the room and leaving everyone in a dark mood before his physical manifestation in the room. When the shadow passed and the man was finally revealed, his physical form was much smaller than the shadow which played on their imagination, and which gripped their hearts in fear. He was still a large man; it was only that he seemed a dwarf next to his own shadow. Ham-like fists hammered on the table as he sat at the head, Younis to his left, always to his left. Mother served his breakfast immediately, trembling as she ladled him a huge bowl of beans, five loaves of bread, two fresh eggs, and even some preserved cold cuts. Younis, the same fare, with one less egg maybe. The rest of the family’s breakfast was ladled out in accordance with Father’s directions. Some getting an egg, others getting only beans, and some only bread. Fatima being the smart one in the family, responsible for the accounts of the farm stock and inventory, got a middle ration. Not too large of a meal but not starving either.
Father looked out across the table silently, his white bushy eyebrows and beard hiding his eyes and face. He said nothing, he never did. No small talk from that man. Nothing to add or to build a conversation with. Only stares which took and questions which lashed. The whisper of a family soul which would sometimes try to root itself at the breakfast table, the harmony of conversation and the release of stories and a common family history was always destroyed utterly before it could be born. He was a cruel man. He would ask a question every once in a while; what grades was Samy getting at school, Deif, Lamy. If a response didn’t please him, he would then whisper to Younis silently and then Younis would smile at his brother or sister before slapping them forcefully in the face, faster than the crack of a whip. But mostly Father ate in silence and just watched his family with a sour grin on his face. He must have been proud to have raised such a large and strong family of men…and beautiful Laila, of course.
Sometimes Father would look at Mohammed, the second-oldest brother at twenty-two. He was physically fit, a strong young man, but he was also a devout man, silent and secretive. He never made trouble but he didn’t take any trouble either. He did his chores and tilled the soil on the farm. His muscles rippled with sweat and dirt and occasionally blood when the farm demanded. He wasn’t afraid of Father and for some unknown reason, Father was deathly afraid of him. They never spoke to each other, Father would not look at him, let alone ask him his questions. When Mohammed rested, he never returned to the house like the rest of the family, he would, instead, walk out to the nearby holy house and isolate himself with the Book and its interpretations. He would sit there as long as he could, rocking his head back and forth as he read verse after verse, cross-legged on the rough mats underneath. He had made good friends with the holy men and they would sometimes deliberate on the meaning of religion and life.
Father knew the children liked Mohammed, he was kind and powerful and religious. Even with his size and natural strength, he never struck them, not like Younis. Years ago, Father had tried to use him much like he used Younis. Directing Mohammed to strike the children who displeased him. Mohammed had refused and they had gone at it back then. Father had been younger and stronger and had pinned Mohammed down beneath his massive figure before taking his belt out and beating him mercilessly. His fists beat Mohammed’s face to a pulp. Breaking Mohammed’s nose, scarring him forever.
Mohammed had walked around after that, proud of his pulpy nose, proud of his victory. In many ways, Father had won but in some strange way he had lost as well. Mohammed hadn’t broken. His spirit was intact even after Father’s attempts to devour it as he was so used to devouring the souls of others, easily. In an act of rebellion, Mohammed would afterward sneak his family candies and chocolates when he went to the store in town after praying at the holy house. They loved Mohammed almost as much as they hated Father. They loved his trips to town because it inevitably meant him returning smiling with his hands full. But while Mohammed didn’t make trouble, he was also secretive. The brothers knew he loved Mother as much as they did. At the breakfast table, he would see the bruises covering her like some perverse perfume and then look down at his bowl of food. He would eat quickly and then go do his chores before hiding somewhere alone with the Book. If there was a fault in that man, it was that he never extended the aura of protection that surrounded him to the rest of his family. While content to live happily himself, and pained to see the wrath of Father meted out to the rest, he never did anything. For all his bravado, he was a coward.
Life went on like that for years. Silence and shadows haunted that broken house. Its red bricks echoed and reverberated with Mother’s screams at night. The two-story house crumbled, every scream bringing down the foundation a bit at a time. Every thump of the belt unhinging an old rusty door. Every morning, Mother would prepare breakfast, hiding her face in that furnace, the fire consuming the family’s soul just as it consumed the wood chopped from the dwindling trees which surrounded the farm. Robbed from the apple trees and the mango wood.
The years passed silently between them. Time stealing their youth like a thief in the night. Silent, unheard, and uninvited. The family had gotten used to life this way. Accustomed to the beatings and the nightly screams, and otherwise life went on. The farm was tended to, the family grew older but not necessarily wiser.
Then Laila became twelve and everything changed. She was blossoming into womanhood and Mother was trying desperately to find her a groom to get her out of that broken-down house. The farm was suffering and her dowry would help. Worse, she had caught Father’s eye. Mother could see that as plain as day and knew that it did not bode well. Laila started wearing the veil and stepping out into town accompanied by Mohammed to try and find a groom. Mother knew the sooner Laila left, the better…
Father spent his days now inside, staring silently at whichever brother found himself in the house doing whatever chore, helping with the kitchen, maintaining parts of the house. It was a silent stare that tore into your soul, measuring you as you would a toy, in simple terms of cruel amusement.
While Father left the farm untended, untilled, and uncared for, it suffered and food kept dwindling. The family chickens died. Their mottled feathers littered the dusty ground inside the house. Father and Younis ate them all. Their gristly remains picked at and sucked by the two. Mother made a soup from the bones and fed it to the rest. The family buffalo was ailing, its sagging udders oozing curdled and yellow milk. It couldn’t plow the fields anymore. The brothers, without the fear of constant beatings, became lazy. They slept in the shade of the ailing trees, leaves wafting down lazily onto their resting faces. These were ill omens. When Mohammed, Younis, and Fatima pointed toward the dwindling fields, the children including Younis, Mohammed, and Fatima would point the finger right back. The farm was Father’s, he had made that clear enough, so no one cared if it died. And dying it was. Everyone knew. Everyone talked. Things would change soon. They must.
That summer the hunger dragged on everyone’s shoulders. Father, who had aged and become weak and frail like a gnarly old stick, spent his days inside that cursed house instead of tilling the soil as he used to. Staring. Bored. Bored and staring at things he shouldn’t have.
The beatings died down
eventually, the screaming with it.
Boredom and hunger wafted through the house instead of the smell of fresh-baked bread. It was on a boring summer day, full of lazy hunger, hot and bright, that Father grabbed Laila. Dragged her upstairs…biting and screaming and snarling, she resisted but he beat her. He took off his belt and beat her again and again; dragging her to the bedroom, to Mother’s room, by her beautifully flowing hair. Most of the family was out of the house when it happened. Mother ran out into the fields and screamed and wailed and cried and her tears flowed down her face and her bruised breasts. She tore off her clothes, and lay there wailing, naked in the fields. The mud and dirt clinging to her bloody body, pale blue and red now from years of hiding in the house, beaten and afraid…deathly afraid. Her wailing called the brothers from the fields back to the house. Where they found Laila crying in a corner. Her dress torn and bloody.
Younis, fat and large, came back from the fields first, he walked up to her, smiling, and asked her what had happened. His smiling face told her to say nothing. Ordered her to say nothing. Speak nothing. Be nothing. Young and still innocent, she answered the question on his lips and could not read the order in his eyes. She began to mouth the word “Father” through her bruised lips but Younis hit her in the face before she could finish, bloodying it even more. Laila, the twelve-year-old flower looked like the wailing, bruised, broken Mother still weeping out in the fields.
No one knows how it happened. The sight of Laila, broken, stole into everyone’s heart and burnt the creeping weeds of fear and silence which had grown for so long inside. Something snapped inside. Broke inside. Years of patient suffering, of saying things would change soon, Father will die, pain will go, our honor is intact, all the illusions and delusions of the patient, persevering victim…burned away. Fear became hate and hate became bloody vengeance. Mohammed and Fatima and two of the other brothers, Lamy and Samy, not Younis of course, walked up to Father’s room and carried him outside the house. They beat him and whipped him with his own belt. They hounded him and pounded him. They tore his clothes off and shamed him. They insulted his honor, his manhood, and beat him some more. They went at him with the fury and fire of years of oppression. They whipped him raw, his buttocks and the instrument of his crime and their creation.
Younis stood in the doorway, watching, as still as a statue but against all four brothers there was nothing he could do, so he joined in beating Father. They descended on him like wolves. Mother, Laila, and Deif stood by watching, weeping fire. Mohammed took out a butcher’s knife, its edge gleaming in the sunlight but Fatima and Younis stopped him. The soil had drunk enough blood that day and besides, there was no curse worse than that laid on patricide; he was still, after all, their father. They wrapped his frail thrashing body in an old rug and carried him to the old well, hesitating only a moment before throwing him in, alive but impotent. The last sight of him before they covered the well was of his flaming blue eyes staring at them through the darkness. His howls crackled through the air and could be heard every night from then on, echoing through the empty walls of that old house, seeping up through the rusty earth and the cracks of the walls.
Snapping out of the daze of what they had just done, they discovered themselves free. For the first time in their lives, there was no Father. They were free. The idea entered their minds slowly at first and then quickly colored their souls in revolutionary liberty and mad joy. They gathered round Laila, and Fatima and Mother took her to the river and bathed her. They scrubbed her down and washed away the blood. They wrapped her bruises in flowers and placed garlands on her torn hair. They brought her back to the house and the family hugged her, and sang songs to calm her crying. They swore on their honor that it would never happen again. They cried together, they laughed together at their childish songs. She smiled back but it was a wooden, dutiful smile. Not fooling anyone, but accepted as what was required.
Life became a roaring affair in the broken-down house after the fall of Father. Mother cooked breakfast with a smile on her face. The bruises began to wither and the flower that must have been in her all those years ago in the bloom of her youth began to show. Colors, sound, and song erupted from her very being. She would sing and celebrate every day like a sparrow in the morning air. Her perfume wafted through the shambling halls of that old, broken house. A strange energy began to ebb and flow through the walls and the beating hearts of the family. The brothers took orders from no man. Every one of them went out and tilled part of the farm as he saw fit.
That summer at breakfast, the children all sat at the table and ate their fill. Everybody ate the same meal and everybody talked. They would talk of whatever they wanted. Of football, of girls, of God. Talk. Talk. Talk. Hidden radios were taken out and placed out in the open for all to listen to, to dream to. Dreams were painted with words on the walls of the broken house. They would fix the fields and repair the walls and build an extension to the west, and repaint the rooms and they would grow cotton and wheat and flowers. Mother would never be cold or beaten again. Laila would get her own room and she and Fatima would be sent to school (which Father had always been against). Samy and Lamy talked of how they would move to the capital and find work there. Living it up as city folk. Take trains and planes and fly. But Mohammed and Fatima soon convinced them to stay on the farm.
They were needed, they would get married and life would be better soon, they would see. Their farm would be the talk of the town.
And they started, too. The girls went to school. The boys started to fix up the farm. The cracks remained but the seeds of fig, apple, and lemon trees were replanted. They planted flowers around the house and inside Laila’s room they gave her her own room in the barn, with the buffalo.
Yes, the summer of that year, talk was everywhere; the only ones who never talked were Younis and Laila. Younis would come down silently to the breakfast table. He would eat what the others were eating. He wouldn’t talk and nobody would talk to him. People noticed that he would go out and tend the fields more vigorously in those days and the fat on his body began to melt away to reveal a strong body beneath the layers of the years of pampering. Strangely enough, he began to look more and more like Father in the only photograph in that house. An old black and white picture of Father in his old sergeant’s uniform, taken decades ago.
Laila would sit at her end of the table. Silent as well. Pretending to smile for the rest of them, but it was obvious to all that she hadn’t forgotten, that she would never forget. She started to wear her veil indoors and outdoors, never taking it off. The only ones she would let touch her were Mother and Fatima. When any of the brothers came to hug her or play with her she would flinch away, pained. After a while she was left to herself completely; forgotten in her corner of the farm. It was happier that way. Seeing Laila only reminded them of things they’d rather were forgotten.
Yes. It was a fine summer.
But it was followed by a harsh winter. It crept with a cold, westerly breeze, snapping at their heels. Freezing the corn stalks and the potatoes buried in the ground. The crack in the west wall of the house grew and the wind poured into the house, shrieking in the night, making it impossible to sleep. The seeds wouldn’t grow. The water was corrupted. Something had fallen into the good well and soured the water. The only things that would grow that winter were dry, barbed weeds that sucked the air and water from the ground.
The years passed silently
The energy which had filled them that summer left them suddenly. The cold bit into their bones. The food they had eaten in summer was gone and they were soon starving, going for days on cold, gravelly government bread alone. Their teeth chipping as they bit into the pebbles. The buffalo had died. When they had butchered its carcass they had found maggots inside, pus and a foul odor. They burnt it instead of eating it. The death of the family buffalo was a cruel omen of a brutal winter.
They survived that winter but everyone was worried. Discontent began to slowly grow and spread around the table. They needed a leader, a Father. The halcyon days of every brother doing what he wanted when he wanted were over. It was time to sweat and toil if they were going to save their farm. They needed someone to tell them what to do. But the idea of Father, dragging himself out of the old well and sitting there once more at the head of the table, scared them more than the cruel winter ever could. Yet what were they to do? If they were to choose a guardian who would it be?
The obvious choices were Mohammed or Younis as the two oldest brothers, and the strongest. Fatima, while smart and hardworking was, after all, a woman. No, the farm needed a man. Fatima didn’t mind much. She was full of ideas and even more so now after schooling. All she cared about was seeing her family and the farm prosper. Leave its guardianship to the men so long as they listened to her. They chose Mohammed who was a pious man—God knows they needed His help after that winter. If anything, his piety had grown after Father was gone. Mother would wash his field clothes, bleached white, and his beard began to grow sprinkles of sage-grey in them which made him look the part of the strong, wise man, the prophet and protector. He would sit up and pray all night and then sweat all day in the fields. He never struck his siblings and he still gave them chocolates when he could afford to get them.
Though in truth, it had been a while since he had done so.
The brothers had never forgotten Younis’s brutal physical assaults under Father’s orders. So by and by, the brothers began to defer to Mohammed for orders and instructions for the farm work.
That spring they worked harder than they had ever worked before. Mohammed woke them all up at the crack of dawn. They would pray the morning prayer and then eat a meager breakfast. The food was being rationed for the harsh winter to come. The town had made it clear that they would not help if things took a turn for the worse. They did not approve of what the family had done to Father. It made too many fathers on other farms reflect on their own mortality. No, there would be no help and the family would be left to starve. They would go out into the new dawn day and work under the relentless sun. Tilling and toiling. Their flesh began to wither as their souls seeped into the soil. Their distended bellies straightening and forming into lean, burnt wooden flesh. The scars of winter and of the years before etched into their skin forever. An unforgettable tattoo of worse days and a symbol of their goal that those days never be repeated. The family worked hard, they poured their blood and souls into the farm. They prayed to God and prayed with their entire being. Giving their lives and souls as an offering. Praying so as to make the passing of the days easier, to bring rain and calm weather. For God to smile upon them.
Even with their piety and their suffering, tragedy struck. One particularly cold spring day. When winter was still leaving the land but lingering nonetheless. Mohammed waked the family earlier than they were used to. It was still dark outside but there was a roaring light coming from the window. A sparking wildfire as tall as the house, in a single point on the horizon. It was a towering red inferno of light. An old mango tree, no longer bearing fruit. Fatima told Mohammed to leave it be; it did not bear fruit and there was no danger in letting it die down. It was not in the fields. Younis however pointed out that the burning tree was an omen. Would Mohammed be up to the challenge of caring for the farm or was he weak? Father would have never left the tree to burn. Father, with all his faults, loved the land. What is the family but the earth. If the family didn’t tend to the farm, the farm would never tend to them. Fatima laughed at the notion. The farm served the family and nothing more. The tree was old and would have been cut down anyway. Mohammed, however, had made up his mind. He roused the rest of the family and all of them were sent out into the cold darkness to gather water and save the tree. The youngest brother, Deif, was getting water from the river when he slipped and fell into the water. He quickly became tangled in the ropey reeds and river vines. The more he struggled to escape, the more the river pulled him in.
They found him there just as the sun was setting. He left a bloodred mark over the water. It seemed as if the entire river was soaked in a bloody crimson. His face was white and bloated and emotionless. So unlike the youth they had all known. So unlike the youth who dreamt of fields of sugarcane and of owning a store in town.
Mohammed picked him up like a ragged doll and brought him back to the broken house. He was buried there next to the old well where Father had been thrown in. Father’s howls turned to laughter and sobbing as he heard the funeral procession above him. A hysterical and haunting sound of enjoyment and sorrow. The old man’s laughter bit into the children’s souls. Madness slowly started to descend onto the house.
Laila refused to attend. Mother winced every time a howl erupted from beneath the earth. Fatima asked Mohammed to bury Deif somewhere else. Why curse Deif with such bad company forever. Her complaints fell on deaf ears.
Mohammed did not mention Deif’s death. He didn’t give a speech. He didn’t cry. He gave the funeral rites and went to sleep. It was less than what was needed and everybody felt so.
True to its words, the town did not show up for the funeral. It was a dismal, lonely affair.
Sleep was particularly painful that night. Mother’s sobbing reminded them of the darker nights they thought they had escaped.
The next day Mohammed woke everybody earlier than had become the norm. An hour before morning prayer. He forced the boys to perform their ablutions while he watched them silently. One of the brothers was late in waking up and so Mohammed woke him up with a violent beating with Father’s old belt.
They prayed for an hour before breakfast from then on before having an ever more meager meal—the rations had shrunk yet again. Strangely, Younis still ate well and had turned into a strong bull of a man, his olive muscles rippling beneath a modest dress…when the children asked why, they were told not to question the wisdom of their elders.
Mother stopped singing and wore only black from that day on. Laila, as ever, was silent and kept to herself.
Hunger gnawing on their memories, the brothers started to whisper to themselves that it may have been a mistake to throw Father down the well. That’s Deif’s death was God’s punishment for attacking Father, for hadn’t he struck Father first? That the harsh winter was His wrath, that the brambles and weeds which choked the land and their lungs were divine retribution. That Mohammed’s piety was all show to cover the darkness in his heart, why else did he wake them up so early? What dark secret did he obsessively need to atone for? What secret could he harbor in his heart that they did not know about? He had attacked his own Father after all. He had sent Deif to his death and buried him next to Father forever. Instead of apologizing and confessing his humanity, he had taken it out on Samy, beating him mercilessly.
Fatima still insisted that it was the right thing to do—getting rid of Father, that is. She reminded the dissenting brothers of Mother’s screams and Laila’s…incident. She reminded them of their oaths. That Father had looked at them all with hungry eyes. Wanting to devour every bit of them. To violate them. That many of them had starved while Father and Younis ate their fill. Soon they quieted down again but the growls of their stomachs only began to grow as time went by…and some remembered that Mohammed had not starved either during Father’s time.
Things went on like that, hunger twisting their memories. Old scars becoming new. Work on the farm took its toll on their minds. What was worse was no matter how hard they worked and slaved in the fields, it was not enough. The burnt mango tree stuck out like a sore thumb taunting them as they sweated under the sun.
In the dead of summer, Fatima went up to Mohammed and told him that the farm was in trouble. She had done the math and this winter there would not be enough food or money to feed the family. They needed a solution and they needed it fast. Things just didn’t add up. At the rate they were going, they wouldn’t have enough food to last all winter. Fatima recommended taking a loan from the town bank to buy more seed. Perhaps even a buffalo or two to plow the fields and provide milk. Besides, a buffalo is a blessing to a farm, as everyone knows. She had gone into town and the bank was willing to lend them the money, but if they were going to take a loan they should do so while there was still time to plant the seeds before winter.
Mohammed listened to Fatima silently, even smiling at Fatima’s suggestion of the loan. He told Fatima that he would think about it.
The next morning after the morning prayer, Younis and Mohammed got into an argument. Mohammed shouting loudly at Younis about something. Younis only replying with a shake of his head and muttering quietly that he would never strike his sisters or brothers again. Mohammed, fed up with trying to convince bullish Younis, strode over, fuming red, to the eavesdropping family and grabbed Fatima violently and dragged her by the hair. Everyone went quiet and just stared. Laila and Mother ran over to help Fatima but Younis held them back silently. Mohammed threw Fatima on the ground and started to beat her face and kick her chest, over and over again. He took out Father’s belt and began to whip Fatima in front of the other brothers. When nothing was left of Fatima but a whimpering, simpering mass of bruises and blood, a signal from Younis stayed his hand following which Younis went over to the dinner table silently and sat down to eat his breakfast without a word.
Mohammed, calming down from his madness, explained to the brothers that Fatima had wanted to take a loan. A usurious loan from the town bank. A sinful act to save the farm that would only plummet the family and the farm into hell. No, he explained, the only solutions to the farm’s problems were piety and pain. He had to punish Fatima. Her beating today would lessen her punishment in the hereafter. That was why he could not show pity or mercy. It would lead to more suffering afterward. It was his responsibility as her guardian. It was necessary.
There was no more talk after that day of loans or town, or even of saving the farm. Fatima stayed in Laila’s room and tended to her broken body.
Finally, after much toil and prayer, the farm began to grow again. Whatever had corrupted the stream had surely become dislodged. The water flowed white and pure again. Fatima’s cries of pain seemed to waken the earth beneath their feet. That broken-down old house seemed hungry for the pain. The cornfields shot up to suck on the bloody soil.
And so Mohammed reinstated Father’s policy of questioning the brothers at the table but this time the questions were religious in nature. Any answer that displeased him was met with Younis’s beatings.
Silence returned to the breakfast table. Its icy grip could be felt once more on their hearts.
Things went on like that for a while. Fatima recovered from her wounds and finally returned to the inventory work. Limping she would do odd jobs around the house, using her keen mind to fix what she could. Sanding the rusty pipes, mending the broken dike, oiling the hinges. But she had changed since the day Mohammed had beaten her. He had taken away the only thing that mattered to her. She didn’t care about the beating, she wasn’t afraid of men and what they could do. Father had seen to that. She couldn’t have gotten married before the beating anyway, for obvious reasons. Her broken pummeled face now didn’t make a difference. No, he had robbed her of her voice. He had silenced her and that bit deeper into her soul than any beating. It was, after all, all she was. A lonely voice in the fields of men.
Having drunk its fill of pain, the farm was doing better but it still couldn’t feed all the boys fast becoming men. Fatima had been right. There wasn’t enough seed or food to feed the family, even with its sudden turnabout. Strangely, neither Mohammed nor Younis seemed worried.
It was autumn when the Stranger came. He knocked on the bent-in door while the family was having supper. The table was so silent that the knocks from that door echoed with unobstructed finality. Mohammed went to meet the Stranger at the door.
They talked for a while and then the Stranger left.
When Mohammed came back, he explained that the Stranger was a man from the town. He wanted to buy the south side of the farm. It had long been a barren part of the farm and wasn’t tilled anymore. The family had used it as a scrapyard for a while, throwing old, broken goods and garbage there. It was where Father lingered forever in the dead well. His howls still echoed from over there. It was a cursed and evil part of the farm. And the Stranger wanted to buy it to build a railroad through it.
Mohammed was excited, his recent stern silence transformed magically into the loving Mohammed of old, full of potential and emotion. He explained that a railroad was a blessing from God. Two blessings, in fact. One from the sale of unusable land and the other from having a railroad go through the land. They would be able to sell food to passersby and ship their stock directly to town and maybe even to the faraway capital. Lastly, it was understood that the sale of the land would bring the ostracized family back into the loving embrace of the town. They would be part of the community once more, all would be forgiven.
Some of the boys were all for it. Some were less excited. The land belonged to all of them. If it was going to be sold, they should all decide and they should all share whatever wealth would come. Mohammed agreed that he would not speak to the Stranger again unless all of them were present. Mother and Laila only looked at their food silently.
The discussion and Mohammed’s recognition of all the brothers’ rights brought a feeling of that old hope back into the house. They began to speak around the table again. Younis’s beatings stopped. Mohammed stopped waking the brothers an hour before morning prayer.
Soon all the household was talking about the sale of the land. Some said sell, sell, sell. Others said to use the land. Clear the scrap and grow again. The railroad will come anyway and so why throw away good tilling soil, needed now more than ever with the looming winter crisis. The others responded that the sale of the land would allow them to buy some buffalo, seed, and even food for the winter. Reintegration into the community would also be important. No one could survive without the town, this was known. Mohammed had surely been right when he refused Fatima’s suggestion of the loan and God was rewarding them for their pious patience. Some remembered that Deif was buried there, alongside their ancestors. Father was still there. Would they take him out of the well, allow him to roam around free. Or would he be literally railroaded.
Mohammed sat silently watching the discussion thread its way through the family. Smiling secretively to himself with some internal knowledge.
The discussions continued. The family dividing itself more and more over the sale issue. Mohammed clearly wanted to sell the land. Samy and Lamy wanted to sell and run away. Fatima, Mother, and Laila wanted to keep the land, if only to keep Deif, to keep the family together. Younis agreed.
The death of the family buffalo was
a cruel omen of a brutal winter.
Things had gotten so bad that Samy and Younis had even gotten into a wrestling match over the issue. Samy saying that he wanted to leave. That he couldn’t take the farm life anymore. All they had agreed on last year had been a lie. He hadn’t married. It hadn’t gotten better. It had only gotten worse. Life was unbearable. Younis told him he was selfish. If Samy and Lamy left, the rest of the family would starve. Then Samy jumped on him. Younis, the older and bigger of the two, won the fight easily, but it was always a bad sign when a family fought like that.
It was that night that Younis came to Fatima’s bed in the dark and woke her. Before Fatima could scream at Younis’s imminent beating, Younis silenced her, clasping a hand to her mouth. He pointed Fatima toward the window. Fatima walked over and looked out across the farmland. She saw a figure sneaking out of the house into the night.
It was Mohammed. His bleached white gown smothered in the darkness.
Younis went back to sleep and Fatima sat back in bed and thought long, hard thoughts about what she had just seen.
It was the next week that things changed dramatically once again for the life of the old house. Nobody woke the family before dawn prayers. Nobody shoved at them to wake up and work, no one poked at them, no one prodded them like cattle…they remained in that other land well after the sun had begun to make its laborious rise into the sky.
It was Younis who finally woke them up suddenly by slamming the door shut behind him as he left the room, awake, fresh, and in a hurry.
As the brothers dressed and made their way downstairs to breakfast, they slowly realized that there was a conversation going on. Looking outside the window, they saw Younis running into the fields and disappearing in the horizon.
Downstairs, they saw that the Stranger was there and got a good look at him. He was old. Older than they remembered him being when he darkened their door that other night. He looked like he might die right there at the table. Coughs and phlegm echoed from his dusty, old throat. On the other side of the table sat Laila and Mother, both veiled and looking down at their feet. At the head of the table was Mohammed, pleased as punch. A smile cracked through his face, unmoving and gleeful. Insane. To his left was the town holy man. His beard was stern and emotionless. The man held a piece of paper in his hand. It was Laila’s marriage contract.
The house filled with shouts and screams and the brothers threw themselves at Mohammed, shouting and fighting. They had been duped. There was no railroad, there were no visitors coming, the scrapyard wasn’t to be sold. All their talk, all their dreams thrown out of the window. Laila was to be sacrificed to this old man. But Mohammed quieted them with a shout. It was dishonorable to fight in front of guests. Especially guests who were paying a handsome dowry to marry Laila, a burden on their family. A dowry enough to get Samy and Lamy to the capital, enough for Mohammed to go on a pilgrimage, enough for Younis and Fatima and Mother to live for a year on store-bought food, and to buy seed and three buffalo. Life would be good. Besides, as the eldest, he was their guardian and had the right to do as he saw fit. The brothers quieted down after that. But some remembered that Mohammed wasn’t the eldest, Younis was, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The wedding was planned for that same night. True to its word, the whole town came to celebrate the wedding and the reconciliation. Flashing red and green lights were rented out as well as a giant marriage tent. A million radios were brought to the wedding, emitting a cacophony of sound to go with the eruption of a million multicolored lights.
Laila sat there like a small doll on the huge wedding chair in the center of the celebrations. Her head down, staring at her tiny, childish feet. The old Stranger next to her, fondling her. Mohammed was there in white. Smiling. Smoking opium, hash, and drinking beer as they were swung around the party.
Mother and Fatima had refused to come at first but the look of fear in Laila’s eyes, the pure terror of her fate screaming from her silent, wet eyes were too much. They went in the end, if only to help Laila through the ordeal. But they reminded Samy and Lamy of their oaths given so long ago. But Samy and Lamy were too drunk in the excitement of the night to care. Drunk on the beer and the hash and the thought of leaving to the capital. Younis was nowhere to be seen. Mohammed was walking around, shaking hands with the townsfolk, thanking them for coming. The groom kept staring at Laila, hunger in his eyes, and his dancing fingers.
The townsfolk and the music began to whirl through the tent. A beautiful, traditional wedding. A community wedding. The town was re-embracing the family. And they were happy. The sacrifice of the little girl was a small price to pay. Besides, she had been the cause of all the family’s unhappiness.
Then Lamy came running screaming through the tent, screaming louder than the music and the drunken chatter. A scream which stopped everyone in their tracks. He pointed to the outside of the tent. Everyone followed him outside only to find written on the side of the tent, in glistening, dark red paint:
“Is Laila a whore to be sold? To be raped forever again by the limp-dicked?”
Reading the writing on the wall, everyone stood there silently. Fatima, Mother, and Samy started to shout that the wedding was cancelled. Mohammed shouted over them that it was continuing. He was her guardian-in-law and in religion and she was going to get married that night. Lamy shouted that Younis was her guardian. Others that all of them were her guardians and they must all agree. The party, which only moments before had been a place of joy, erupted into chaos, blood, and tears.
Fists flew through the air. The town quickly broke down into families divided according to their principles, according to their past feuds and squabbles, and some just for the heck of it. The tent reverberated and drew in on itself. Soaking in the violence. In the chaos, Younis entered, a shovel in his hand. Quickly, decisively, he walked towards Mohammed. Wading through the factions trying to steady the wrathful bull. Mohammed saw Younis stride towards him. He jumped at Younis and struggle, a longtime coming, commenced. While it only took a few seconds, it felt like years for the spectators. Younis thrashed at Mohammed with what he had done to the family, what he had done to Father, at the way he had ruined the farm, at how easily he was willing to let everyone go their own separate ways, at his sheer stupidity. Mohammed in return struck with his years of shame at Younis’s beating of the family, with the feeling of righteousness and God on his side. Every fist landing with the sound of thunder. But for all his piety, it was not enough. Younis struck Mohammed over and over again, grabbing the shovel and bashing Mohammed’s head in and finally throwing him lifeless to the ground. Blood flowing past him and seeping into the earth, feeding it. Mohammed’s pristine white gown, ruined forever.
The tent went quiet. Silent and speechless at what it had just witnessed. Breathless. The holy man stood up and tried to run away but Lamy held him down and began to beat him. The townsfolk’s stepped in and began beating Lamy. Younis and the family intervened and once more the fighting started. Mohammed’s still body lay on the floor. The fighting reached a fever pitch and the tent caught fire. Townsfolk, friends, and family fled. The bodies left to smolder in the collapsing tent.
In the dark aftermath of what they had done, the family—or what was left of it—gathered back in that broken-down old house. Younis went to wash himself in the river. The rest gathered Mohammed’s body—or what was left of it rolled up in a bit of the wedding tent, his makeshift funeral shroud, and buried him next to the well, next to Deif. Father’s laughter shadowing over the solemn affair. Like Deif’s funeral, no words were spoken. No rituals were performed. Mohammed was left there forever to be with his brother and Father. When they came back inside, they found Younis sitting at the breakfast table. To the left of the head of the table. Sitting and waiting by the table. Father’s chair left empty.