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

This is a multi-chapter novel.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18

“You have to forgive. It’s the only way, baby.” – Samia

Gum Seller

When Omar was discharged five days after the bridge attack, Fuad pushed him in a wheelchair out through the hospital’s back door, in order to avoid the diminishing but persistent band of reporters stationed in front. Samia walked at his flank, one hand on the wheelchair for guidance, while Ivana trailed behind. Omar would rather have called Nadia Muhammad for a ride home, or his Palestinian friend Mahmood. Samia had never ridden in a car with Ivana driving, or she would have known better. After everything, they’d probably die in a car accident on the way home.

Beggar girl

After so long in a sanitized, air conditioned room, the pulsing morning sunshine made him squint, and the enveloping heat irritated his sensitive skin. There were no reporters at the back exit, but a thin girl, a child of eight or nine years, approached them with a small cardboard box. Her face was tanned to the color of leather and layered with dirt, her hair was matted and stringy, and her dark eyes were too weary and knowing for a child. She looked less like a child than an old rag that someone had left out in the sun.

“Chewing gum?” The girl held up a yellow packet. “This one is nice, it’s pineapple. Only twenty cents.” The word she used for nice was chévere, the ubiquitous Venezuelan slang term for cool or amazing. It was obvious she was a refugee.

Ivana clucked her tongue and waved the girl off, but instead of leaving, the girl tried again. “Please sirs, I’m peeling balls. I haven’t sold a hair today. I’m so hungry.” On the word hungry, the girl’s voice broke, and she began to cry.

Omar reached into his pocket for his wallet but found nothing there. “Samia,” he said. “Do you have my wallet?”

“No, the police gave it to me but I threw it away.”

Omar was outraged. “Why would you do that?”

“It was ruined, babe. The money was burnt and the cards were half melted. I’ll give her something, okay?” She took out her pocketbook and felt the bills. Each denomination was folded differently so she could tell them apart. She gave the girl a five dollar bill and said, “I’ll take the pineapple. Keep the change.”

The girl looked at the money in amazement then took Samia’s hand and kissed it, saying, “Thank you señora, God bless you.”

“Give her more,” Omar urged.

Nodding, Samia gave the girl a twenty dollar bill. “Be careful with this,” she advised.

The girl took the money, but looked suddenly suspicious, and backed up a step, stuffing the bill into her pocket. Tears had formed tracks through the dirt on her face.

“You shouldn’t do that Samia,” Ivana said. “She’ll spend it on drugs.”

“You don’t know!” the girl protested. “I don’t do drugs.”

“Then your parents will spend it on drugs.”

‘I don’t have parents,” the girl muttered, and walked away.

As they drove away, Omar turned in the back seat to look at the girl, and saw that she too had turned to watch them leave. He waved, and she in response half raised a hand, then lowered it. Her face was filled with a combination of regret and pleading, and Omar could read her mind in that moment. She was wishing she hadn’t walked away, wishing they would come back and… what? Take care of her. Help her. Omar felt a pang of pain in his heart that made him hunch over in the seat.

“What is it?” Samia asked. “What’s wrong?” But he said nothing.

Walking the Edge

At home, Omar was too tired and in too much pain to climb the stairs to the bedroom. He collapsed onto the living room sofa, and Samia brought him a pillow and a glass of water.

In the ensuing days, the space around Omar became a tomb. His mood was lightless and foul, and everyone tiptoed around him, unsure of how to act. The hospital sent a nurse once a day to check his burns, change his bandages, and administer physical therapy. And he was still taking pain medication four times a day. “You could go back to work,” the doctor had said, “if you wanted to. Just take it easy at first.”

Working was the last thing Omar wanted to do. Just the thought of going back to that office, with all those people staring at him and pitying him, and spending an entire day placing ads, formulating press releases, talking to retail partners – it made him feel ill. What was the point of it all? To convince women to buy a different brand of lipstick or eyeliner? It was meaningless.

“Ivana wanted to know where to find Señor Melocoton,” Samia commented. “I told her about the shop.”

Omar made no reply. Closing his eyes, he slept.

Horse in the fogHe fell into a deep depression. His mind was clouded, filled with thoughts of his own worthlessness, and of people who had abandoned, bullied, hurt and betrayed him. He kept seeing Nemesio’s torn body, and the image was tangled up with memories of the feel of the man’s fists on his body when he’d been a child, and even his old recurring dream of the Spiniflex Rubirosa, with his mother standing by and watching.

He had strange dreams: a horse standing in fog, watching him. Waking up to find the entire house covered by a massive bell jar, so that all was silent and lifeless beneath it. Sometimes he dreamed of the little girl, the gum seller, gazing after him with that look of longing and desperation. He was tormented by that look.

He was not yet tumbling into the undersea trench from which there would be no escape, but he walked the edge with his eyes closed, one foot sometimes slipping. The weight of the water pressed upon him, compressing his lungs so that every breath surprised him.

He managed to climb the stairs to his bed, after which he refused to get up for anything except the bathroom. He didn’t pray, didn’t shower and barely ate. The nurse – a short, muscular black man who could have been an Olympic sprinter – kept berating him for not attempting the physical therapy, but Omar would roll over, giving the man his back until he left.

If anyone saved him from drowning during those days – from falling into such deep depression that he would possibly lose his mind or will to live, and never return – it was Berlina. She was normally not allowed in the bed, which she knew full well. As a trained service animal it was not her way to disobey rules. Yet the dog spent hours in the bed beside him, resting her chin on his chest, and sometimes reaching out with a paw to tap his cheek. It was as if she was saying, “Don’t worry, I’m here, no matter what.” Omar accepted Berlina’s love because the creature possessed no judgment and no guile. It was love in its purest possible form, and on a level he could not put into words, he was grateful.

Ask Allah

At first Samia was patient. She recited Quran at his bedside, applied lotion to his healing skin, and filled the room with the cards and flowers that his friends kept bringing, aside from Nadia who brought, rather than flowers, home cooked food every day.

Samia liked to talk about the things they would do when he was ready to go out again.

“Remember when Fuad and Ivana took that trip to Costa Rica last year?” she’d say. “I remember Fuad talking about Volcan Arenal, how it rumbles all the time, and you can see the lava coming down the sides at night. I think Nur would love it.”

Or, “I want to have a picnic and invite all your friends and family. The kids can play football and frisbee, and everyone will bring food. Maybe we can even do it at the beach. I’d love to go to Playa Santa Clara. We haven’t been there in so long.”

This last one rankled. She knew he hadn’t been to Santa Clara beach since the Day of the Dogs. It felt like she was pushing him toward some pseudo-therapeutic confrontation of his past, where he’d recreate a terrible memory and transform it. He wanted to say, “Don’t manipulate me,” but he didn’t because it would hurt her, and she, along with Nur, was someone he could never bear to hurt.

Except that he was hurting Nur. The first few days the boy came into the bedroom frequently to sit on the bed and talk to him, or show him drawings. Omar was comforted by the boy’s presence, but he was mostly silent. He was too far underwater. He could not rise to the surface to speak, to express love or hope, or to embrace the world in a meaningful way. Discouraged, the boy stopped visiting.

One evening Omar heard Samia urging Nur to come into the bedroom and talk to Papá. “Tell him about school.” Nur protested that he didn’t want to, Papá was acting weird. Finally Nur entered the room with tears on his cheeks, and touched Omar’s hand. “I hope you get better soon Papá,” he said. “Ask Allah to make you good like normal.”

It broke Omar’s heart. “Don’t send him in here again,” he told Samia later. “Don’t do that.”

“Then tell me what to do!” Samia cried. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Call my friend Mahmood,” Omar muttered, “and tell him to take food to the Venezuelans by the Centro. Tell him I’ll pay him back later.”

Samia threw up her hands. “The Venezuelans, the Venezuelans. Is that all you think about?”

“Do I have to justify wanting to do sadaqah?”

“Sadaqah starts at home! What about us? Your son needs you right now, this moment. I need you. Your wounds are not serious enough for you to be in bed. What about your martial arts kids at the Centro? What about your mother? She’s worried sick.”

The Only Way

Omar flinched in the face of Samia’s anger – those three cutting words, what about us – but his own anger rose in response. She’d almost netted him, almost had him feeling so guilty that he’d do whatever she commanded, until she brought up his mother.

“My mother?” he said incredulously, raising his voice. “You think I care? She’s no better than Nemesio or Melo. She doesn’t care about me. She never has.”

Samia went still, her head cocking to one side. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t? It all comes back to your mother, and everything you went through as a boy, and from there it extends to everyone else. Anyone who loves you is suspect. You need to talk to her. Period. Let it all out.”

Omar felt like he’d been run through with a pike. He was still underwater, and now his blood was spilling into the water, polluting it. He wanted to deny what Samia had said, wanted to scoff at it, but her sight – her blind yet piercing sight – cut through him like an x-ray. With his will pouring out like blood, he had no energy to speak. He moaned and turned away.

Instead of leaving him alone, Samia lay down beside him, her body pressing against his back. “You have to forgive her.”

Like a child, Omar pulled the blanket over his head.

Simple village masjid in Punjab“One time,” Samia said quietly, almost whispering, “Rasulullah, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, was sitting with a group of sahabah in the masjid, and he said, ‘A man will now enter who is from the people of Jannah.’ Abdullah bin Salam walked in. He was a Jewish rabbi who had converted to Islam. Later the same situation happened with the same man, and then a third time.

“Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-Aas wanted to find out what was so special about this individual, so he asked the man if he could stay at his house for three days, making up a reason why he needed a place to crash. Abdullah bin Salam agreed.

“Abdullah ibn Amr watched his host, but saw nothing extraordinary. The man didn’t fast more than usual, didn’t stay up all night praying… Nothing special. At the end of the three days, Abdullah confessed the real reason why he’d wanted to stay. He repeated what the Prophet had said, and asked the host why he was from the people of Jannah.

“Bin Salam couldn’t think of anything, but after some time, he said, ‘Every night, before I go to sleep, I forgive whoever has wronged me. I remove any bad feelings towards anyone from my heart.’

“Omar, I know you’re wounded, but I feel like there’s an inner sickness consuming you. My instinct tells me the only cure is forgiveness. You have to forgive your Tio Celio, Señor Melocoton, Ivana, and all the Ngäbe tribe. You have to forgive your father, and especially your mother. This next one is crazy, but you have to forgive Nemesio. He’s gone, my love. Hating him doesn’t hurt him. It only hurts you. Most of all, you have to forgive yourself. It’s the only way, baby.”

She may have said something else, but he didn’t hear it. With the words the only way echoing in his ears, he dissolved into a blissfully empty sleep, for which – if he’d been conscious enough to formulate a feeling – he would have been utterly grateful.

Alhamdulillah Every Day, Every Way, All the Time

He awoke to find his mother asleep in the armchair against the wall. Though she was wealthy and could have worn the most expensive European designer clothing, she preferred simple Ngäbe nagua dresses, like the white and green one she had on now. Her hijab was down, lying about her shoulders, and her long black hair spilled across her chest.

Omar remembered the last time he’d seen her like this, in the hospital bed after the dog attack, sleeping in a chair with her head against the wall, looking exhausted. He didn’t know if it was the organic skin creams or just good genes, but she’d hardly aged. Her deep brown skin was firm and unwrinkled. Of course, she was only in her fifties.

He heard the muffled sound of people talking downstairs, then a muted laugh, but couldn’t tell who it was.

Maybe Mamá had only been contemplating, because when Omar pushed himself up to a sitting position, she opened her eyes.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Like a lit cigarette in the mouth of a giant.”

She grunted. “Ahamdulillah.”

“Alhamdulillah that I’m half burnt?”

“Alhamdulillah that you are alive. Your family is safe, you have shelter and food, and your deen. Alhamdulillah every day, every way – “

“All the time,” Omar finished along with her, despite himself. It was something his father used to say.

“Don Celio asked for you. You should go see him.”

“Why do you call him Don? He’s your brother.”

“He’s a great man.”

“My father was a great man. Or did you forget that?”

His mother tipped her head slightly, as if hearing an indistinct, far-off cry. “Absolutely he was,” she said slowly. “I did not forget.”

“And what would he say?” He spat the words like a bite from a rotten mango. He had not planned to say this, and in fact did not want to get into it. He’d always skirted this subject, always left the past alone. Once, when Omar had questioned Melo about his past, the old man said, “The past is not a tourist destination. You don’t want to go there.” Omar felt the same way. Yet here he was, buying a one way ticket to the land of the dead and done.

“About what?”

“About how he was hardly cold in the grave before you let Nemesio into our home to beat me and make my life hell. For years you let it go on. Why? Why wasn’t I good enough for you to care?” Saliva flew from his lips and he wiped it away with the back of his hand.

His mother’s face fell in shock. “Don’t say that,” she whispered. “I always cared. I always loved you. I didn’t know what to do.”

Omar shook his head. “That’s a lie. You still don’t have any idea what you and Nemesio did to me, do you? Do you know that I wanted to die sometimes? I once walked to the Casco Viejo seawall and thought about throwing myself in. Wallahi, I was ready to die. The only reason I didn’t was because it was not what Papá would have wanted.”

“No, no, no.” HIs mother put her hands over her ears, looking as if she’d just witnessed her own murder. She slid out of the seat and fell onto all fours on the floor. Omar experienced a moment of terror in which he thought she was having a heart attack or a stroke. He called out for Samia, and threw his legs over the side of the bed, preparing to get up. As he did, his mother crawled toward him and put her forehead on the ground. Her body shook as if she were having a seizure.

Omar slid off the bed and went down on the ground beside her. He gripped her shoulder and said, “What’s wrong, Mamá? Is it your heart?”

“Forgive me, my son,” she said without lifting her head. “Forgive me, forgive me.” Her voice was choked and strange.

Omar realized to his shock that his mother was prostrating to him. It was unthinkable. She was a strong, proud woman. He had never seen her abase herself this way, and never imagined he would. He took her by the arm and lifted her head up. Tears ran from her eyes as she shook with sobs.

He clasped her hand, and found it feverishly hot. “Don’t do that, Mamá. Don’t do that.”

She put her hands to her face and continued to weep. “I deserve,” she said between sobs, “your hatred. I don’t deserve… to be called… a mother.”

Omar put an arm around her shoulders, feeling for the first time how narrow they were. She was a small woman, strong in personality but frail in body, and – he realized now – fragile in other ways too. “Stop, Mamá, stop. I’m sorry for what I said. It’s okay.” He held her until her sobs gradually subsided.

His mother took her hands from her face and wiped her eyes and nose with her scarf. “I will tell you everything, my son. There are things you don’t know. If you still hate me, then you hate me.”

“What do you mean?” Omar’s breath stopped in his chest. “What things?” Only then did he notice that Samia had come in response to his call. She stood in the doorway listening. For an instant Omar considered asking her to leave, as he didn’t know what his mother might say, but he remembered that he had promised no more secrets, so he said nothing.

“You believe,” Mamá began, “that I met your father, fell in love, became Muslim, and we got married. And that’s why my people ejected me from the tribe.” She wiped her nose. Omar sat cross-legged with his back against the bed and listened.

“The truth,” she went on, “is that I was with Nemesio before I met your father.”

Ximena’s Tale

Omar’s mouth fell open. Mamá held up a hand. “Let me explain. Out of all my siblings, when I was young I was the best in school. Our Papá had high expectations for me. Just as Don Celio wanted you to be the bridge between the Ngäbe-Buglé and the outside world, our Papá envisioned the same role for me. When I was fourteen years old he sent me to Panama City to attend a private boarding school called Colegio London, to get a quality education. I hated it. The other kids were all white rabiblancos, the children of wealthy elites. They mocked me, called me India, pulled my braided hair, stole my things… It was a nightmare.

“When I was fifteen I met Nemesio. He had just gotten out of prison a few months before. He did two years, I think, for selling fake lottery tickets. At the time he was a mechanic at a gas station near the school where I used to go to buy peanuts and sodas. Every time he saw me he said sweet things. Told me how beautiful my hair was, how I must be so smart to attend Colegio London, how all the boys must be after me.

“No one had ever said such things to me. He used to call me Little Fox, which I thought was strange but I liked it. Nemesio was a young man then with a strong body. I became infatuated. When I told him how much I hated the boarding school, he said I could leave the school and come to live with him. I immediately collected my things from the school and disappeared. I didn’t tell them where I was going. It was the worst decision of my life.

Apartment building in Panama City, Panama“At first it was okay. We lived in a rundown apartment on the Tumba Muerto. Nemesio took my virginity, even though I was not ready, but I accepted that. Other young people, teenage girls and boys, came to the apartment sometimes, and Nemesio would take them to another room to talk. I never knew what about. Once he beat one of the boys, and told me that the boy owed him money and wouldn’t pay. Growing up in the comarca I had seen plenty of violence between drunken men, so it didn’t frighten me.

“Don Celio found me after a month. I don’t know how. He came with three other men from the comarca and kicked the apartment door in. Nemesio had a gun, but as soon as he saw Celio he recognized him. He dropped the gun and became a different man, servile and apologetic. He did everything but fall to his knees. Celio slapped him once across the face, hard, and took me back to the comarca.

“I felt like my life was empty without Nemesio. The first chance I had, I ran away. I actually stole a horse that belonged to my cousin Chä and rode it down to the highway, then abandoned it and hitchhiked from there. Again Celio found me, but this time when he tried to take me back I fought and spat on him. He gave me such a look of pity and disappointment, I will never forget it. He said, “Then you are on your own. You are neither eteba or ngwae.” When he said that I was neither brother nor sister, I knew that he was excommunicating me from the tribe. But in my foolishness I didn’t care.

“After that everything changed. Nemesio knew I had no family who would come for me, nowhere to go. He started sending me into the street with an older girl, to pickpocket tourists. That’s what all those other kids were doing for him. When I refused, he beat me. When I tried to run away, he handcuffed me to a propane tank. He used a combination of praise, punishment and sex until I fell completely in thrall to him. I lost all thought of resisting. I became a good thief and slave, doing as I was told.

“It went on like that for three years. By then I was one of the leaders of the pickpocketing ring. Nemesio trusted me fully. He took me with him one day when we went to see your father. That day would change my life, though I didn’t know it at the time. Nemesio and Reymundo had not seen each other in years, but one of their Chinese uncles had died and left a sum of money to Reymundo, and Nemesio felt he was entitled to a share. From what I gathered the money had been left specifically to Reymundo, but he gave Nemesio half of it anyway.

“At one point Nemesio took a phone call. Reymundo asked my name and I said Little Fox. He asked what I was doing with Nemesio and I had no response so I only shrugged. I noticed that Reymundo was a muscular man yet walked with grace and poise. He smiled at me and there was genuine kindness there, not the anger and contempt I was so used to seeing. I smiled back, and Nemesio saw that and backhanded me across the face. Reymundo punched him in the chest hard enough to knock him down, and told him to take his money and go, but he asked me if I wanted to stay.

“I didn’t trust anyone back then, yet even though I’d just met Reymundo I sensed a goodness in him. I was too firmly entrenched in fear and servitude to Nemesio to do anything but go with him. But I never forgot Reymundo. I felt like I’d seen my first ever glimpse of a truly good man. It was so strange to me then, like seeing a unicorn. But I held on to the memory of his smile as if it was a life buoy in a raging sea.

“Nemesio was arrested not long after that and charged with racketeering, pandering, assault – a whole slew of charges. Turned out one of the teens in the ring was not a teen at all but a young undercover cop. The ring broke up and we went our separate ways. I became homeless, but I fed myself through stealing, as always. It was a hard life. I was beaten by strangers and police alike, and nearly raped more than once.

“One day I performed what I thought was a pretty slick lift on a man waiting for the bus on Via España. The man seized my wrist. When I looked in his face, it was Reymundo. He laughed and said, ‘If it isn’t Little Fox. That’s a dummy wallet, you can have it. Or I can take you to Niko’s and buy you lunch.’

“It was that same smile that I had never forgotten. That same aura of goodness. I was a suspicious creature back then, not even trusting my own instincts. But my hunger won out, so I went with him. I was nineteen, and he was twenty two. He was already Muslim. When he found out I was homeless he took me to stay with an Afro-Panamanian convert Muslim couple. Abdul Qayyum and Ghanima. He made me promise to behave myself, and that he would visit me from time to time. Abdul Qayyum ran a boxing gym, and hired me as a maintenance assistant.

“Every time Reymundo came to visit he brought me some little gift. I asked him why he was always so in control and peaceful, like all the crap in the world couldn’t touch him. He said it was his religion, Islam. I knew a lot about Islam by that time from Abdul Qayyum and Ghanima. I decided that if Islam could do for me what it had done for Reymundo, I wanted it too. Ghanima gave me the shahadah.

“The rest is straightforward. Reymundo proposed to me and we had a small wedding ceremony at Panama Viejo. I invited my family, I mean my Ngäbe family. Not directly, but I sent word. They didn’t come. Reymundo had a good position as a security guard, and I got a job doing maintenance at Farmacia Arrocha. We had a small but clean apartment, and then we had you. Life was so good, alhamdulillah. It was the happiest time of my life, Omar. I loved your father as a tree loves the sun. And I still do. Don’t get me wrong, I love Masood too. He is a wonderful man, so sweet. But your father was so dynamic, so fundamentally good. There can never be another like him.

“Anyway, when your father died, and then Nemesio showed up a few months later like a body raised from the grave, you can’t imagine what it was like. I was paralyzed by sheer terror that the life I had built would unravel and I would end up his monkey once again, dancing to his hurdy gurdy. I told him to go away. But he promised me it wasn’t like that. He was a changed man. He owned a gas station, and could help me. We could help each other. He said I owed him, that he took me in when no one wanted me, and taught me to survive.

“I knew that what he really wanted was me. Some part of him actually loved me, or needed me, or needed to control me. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t seem to have the power. And I knew that we needed his help financially. We couldn’t afford the apartment on my salary alone. So let him stay, but as a guest, in his own room. When he began beating me, and then you, I tried to kick him out. But he threatened to expose me to the Muslim community. He would tell them all that I was a thief and a whore, which was true, I couldn’t deny it. I had been a thief. One of the dregs of society. Nemesio said I would be humiliated, and so would you. Your friends would mock you and turn their backs on you. The school might even cancel your scholarship. I couldn’t let that happen. You needed that scholarship, that school, that community.”

The Truth

Throughout this speech Omar had felt at turns horrified by what his mother had experienced, and fascinated by her tale. A strong current of sympathy coursed through him. When she reached the part that concerned him personally, however – what Nemesio had done to him, and why she’d allowed it – her words rang false. He felt coldness and cynicism creep back into his heart. He would never get the truth from her, and even if he did, so what? Was there anything she could say that would take the barbs of betrayal from his heart?

He wanted to tell her that her justifications rang hollow. He wanted to drip sarcasm and say, so you let him abuse me for my benefit. He wanted to say that he was done with her, and she should leave him alone from now on. But she was his mother. In his head he heard Samia’s softly spoken words: “You have to forgive, baby. It’s the only way.” When had she said that? He couldn’t remember. Why was it so hard for him to forgive? It was a failing of his, he knew. In the end he said, “Okay, mom.”

He had not meant to inject the words with any tone of finality, but his mother seemed to hear it. She stood and turned away but did not leave. Then she turned back, and Omar saw the sheen of hopelessness on her face.

“Alright,” she said, her tone desperate. “I was weak. That’s all there is. I didn’t know how to get rid of him. In my heart of hearts I’d never been free. The fear of Nemesio still haunted me, even when I married your father. When he returned, it was as if I was bound by invisible chains. I saw what he was doing to you but I was paralyzed, Omar. And I was selfish. The only time in my life I’d been alone I ended up homeless and half starved. I thought if he left, you and I would end up on the street. I was a coward.”

She began to weep again, not violently this time but silently, with tears slipping down her cheeks. “I was a bad mother and I failed you. There is no excuse. I’ll go now.” She began to walk out of the room.

Finally, the truth. Her actions were still not justifiable, but at least it was the truth, and Omar felt a profound sense of relief. What else could you ask of someone? If you asked for perfect love you’d wander the earth for a lifetime. If you asked never to be hurt, never to be disappointed and even betrayed at times, you’d find yourself living alone in a shack like the Unabomber, poring over your manifesto of revenge. No, all you could ask for was truth.

At the doorway, Samia caught hold of Mamá’s arm. The two of them exchanged quiet but intense words.

“Mamá,” Omar said. She turned to him, her dark eyes occluded. “Help me up, please.” His mother grasped his hand and assisted him to his feet. Omar put an arm around her shoulders. It’s the only way, Samia said again in his head. So Omar spoke those three words, though he had to practically wrench them from his heart. Why was it so difficult? “I forgive you,” he said.

His mother looked him in the eyes and saw the effort those words took. She embraced him tightly, causing him to wince as her arms chafed his tender skin.

Let me get cleaned up,” he said, “and we’ll go visit Tio Celio.”

His mother let out a slow breath, and a lifetime’s worth of tension seemed to leave her shoulders. She nodded silently.

Back From the War

He showered in lukewarm water with a light spray – the first time since the fire. It was painful but good. His mother’s story had provided no genuine resolution, but really, what could she have said? Yet he felt his depression lifting. The words of one of Tio Niko’s poems, one Omar used to recite often in his youth, popped back into his mind:

I thought I was drowning
but God was in the water
and I breathed
where I should not have been able to breathe.
I felt hands of flame upon me
stoking the embers of my soul
and I was baptized in rushing,
silt-laden darkness
until I understood
that I must not take life for granted
and must neither fear death
nor greet it at the door.

After praying dhuhr and putting on some clean clothes, he headed downstairs, where he found Niko and Teresa sitting at the kitchen table with Samia and Nur. Mama was there too of course, as well as her husband Masood, who looked like an Arab banker or diplomat in his tailored white suit and Italian loafers. Berlina sat at Masood’s feet, and he reached down now and then to rub her ears.

Nur was drawing, and the rest were snacking on the multicolored biskut piring cookies that Samia bought at the Asian supermarket.

From the stairs Omar smiled weakly and greeted them, then said, “Hey Nunu. Do you have a pinwheel to put on the gate?” To his amazement the boy cried, “Papá!” and ran to him as if he were a soldier returning from the war. Nur embraced Omar’s legs and chattered excitedly about the new set of drawing pencils that Tia Teresa had given him, and how a picture of an alien city he drew had won first place in a drawing contest at school.

Ximena’s phone rang. She answered it, argued with someone, then hung up. “The hospital,” she said. “Stupid doctors. Don’t they know who my brother is? He’s not someone to just die in a bed like -”

“Mamá,” Omar broke in. “What did they say?”

“They claim he is near death. A few hours, they say. And he is asking for you, Omar.”

Standing there on the steps with Nur still hugging his legs, Omar experienced a moment of revelation. Not a religious revelation, but a pure thought that seemed to come from outside himself. These last few months had turned his life upside down, but if his life was a puzzle then this was a key piece falling into place. He knew what he had to do.

“Then let’s go,” he said. “There’s no time to waste.”

Next, the final chapter of Day of the Dogs: Chapter 20 – The Conch

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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.

The post Day of the Dogs, Part 19: Ximena’s Tale appeared first on MuslimMatters.org.