This story though based on an actual happening has been fictionalized and has no association with any particular place or people.
It had happened a long time ago when she was seventeen. She was forty now and a full-fledged doctor. Yet her nights were filled with it. She was best known at the hospital to take everyone’s night call if they needed a backup. “She never sleeps,” said one of her colleagues laughingly explaining to another colleague about her.
It was a warm summer night in Ramadan in the faraway state of Maryland with tons of trees and traffic. Far away from the rolling corn fields of Nebraska and Kansas and yet there was no escape for her.
It could have been me she thought, the words swirling in her brain till she felt dizzy and nauseous…
It had been an innocent summer evening. They were all pumped with the Quran they had heard at taraweh and felt they owned the world. The walk to the fast food restaurant was not far.
Unashamed of their abayahs, long shalwar kameezes, their skin colors ranging from the color of freshly brewed coffee to one that had more milk than coffee in it.
She was an outlier, not one of them, just a visitor from the Midwest. What did she have in common with these girls, they were so naïve, so untouched by the real world, their dresses were so frumpy, she felt quite removed from them……… and yet she envied their multicultural camaraderie and bonding just due to being a Muslim, across socio economic and ethnic lines.
She did not wear hijab or an abaya, she was a runner; such flowing outfits were for the sedentary. However the taraweh prayer required full coverage. Her cousin had obliged by lending her one of her abaya and hijab.
It was the night of the 27thof Ramadan, they had prayed all night almost and she had felt a sense of belonging and peace in this home away from home.
As soon as they came out of the mosque the cool breeze of the night caressed her face, she took off the hijab and shook her hair and with one swift movement derobed herself from the outer covering of the abaya. The group walked to the restaurant, the thought of food tasted delicious at 3 am in the morning, this was insane she thought, insane but innocent fun.
She thought of the club nights in the Midwest,. The cigarette smoke, the sickly smell of beer mixed with the carelessly wiped vomit, heading home with the crowing of the rooster.
Her gentle but frumpy mother admonishing her for coming home so late. Her father defending her freedom. Her superb grades bought her the ticket to do anything she wanted as long as she excelled in her subjects as her father wanted her to become a doctor. “You will be the first doctor in the history of our family” he would say his chest puffing with pride as if she was already in medical school.
Then came the summer. The internship she was supposed to do at the private medical office fell through and suddenly she had all this time on her hands.
“Why don’t you go and visit your cousin they live by the lake, it is very beautiful over there”suggested her mother.
She was bored, Ramadan had begun and her mother was fasting and her father was sleeping through the suhoors as was she.
She agreed to go visit her uncle who had three daughters. The plane touched down and immediately her uncle who was the brother of her quiet unassuming mother picked her up at the airport. He was very much like her mother, quiet, unassuming, gentle and a man of few words and lots of smiles.
They drove up to what would be considered a blue-collar home. It was different, it was simple with minimal furniture in the rooms and next to nothing on the walls. Every thing was clean and sparse. “They must be poor” she thought to herself as she settled in the bed vacated for her by the youngest sister without so much as a murmur.
Ramadan excitement began with the last ten days of the month. She had never experienced or been a part of such a festive family time in her life. People dropped in to open their fast, and her uncle’s family packed food to take to the mosque and then prayed with them. Initially she stayed home with her youngest cousin but soon curiosity won over and she went to experience Ramadan in the mosque.
The building was lit like a football field at night for the big game. People from all over the world, glided in. Their sandals clappering on the lavish marble floor. All the women were wearing a hijab; she was greeted with great warmth and love from total strangers. It was a novel feeling and she began to let down her guard.
She had also started fasting with her uncle’s family but it was tough for the first few days and then she fell into the rhythm with ease and it actually made her running easier.
Her uncle would always seem reluctant to see her pop into her running shoes, her biker shorts and shortsleeve T-shirt going out the door to run. “Be careful,” he would say, his large soft brown eyes would fill with concern, as she would shut the door behind her. Why was she irritated with his concern, she knew how to take care of herself?
The joy of running beside the lake made up for all the suffocation she felt in her uncle’s household. The three girls never went out unless there was a particular reason and seemed to be happy with this arrangement. It was not that he stopped them but they did not feel the need to do so. Friends came to visit and they would go to visit friends, or at the most go to the local plaza where there was a fast food restaurant.
And then one night what happened is indelibly engraved on her brain………something that she has not forgotten even twenty years later and will never forget.
She had been back home to the Midwest after the horrible event that had taken her cousins life. She did not want to talk about it and did not even want to think about it at all. As long as she was running she did not think about it but as night fell, the nightmares would return and she just couldn’t escape from it.
She was screaming but no sound was coming from her throat, she felt someone shaking her “wake up, wake up…………” it was her mother, soft mousy and patient. “Are you having a bad dream again?” That was the understatement of the year. She was panting, her face was flushed as if she had been running. The sound outside was of someone pounding the watermelons with a blunt stick.
“Stop them!” she said to her mother, and did not realize that she was screaming. It was the sound…………..it was the same sound as the one she remembered, when her cousin had fallen, He had lifted the baseball bat and it had contacted her skull with the same sound that she was hearing outside.
” Tell them to stop!” she said what she thought was a normal voice but did not realize that she was screaming and sobbing uncontrollably.
Her mother walked to the window and told them to stop the din.
She sat in bed shivering and shaking, unable to calm down. Her mouth dry and her teeth chattering.
Her mother had aged with her brother’s sorrow. She sat down next to her on the bed and took her hand in hers and said” what is it………?”
“Its………..its what happened!” she stuttered. Her stoic mother did not budge as tears rolled down her eyes; she kept looking at her daughter with an understanding in her eyes.
Yes….. her eyes said, it was not what happened but how it happened. The time of death is written for each of us but how it happened was evil.
“ I saw it…………..I saw it all” She said and suddenly she realized that for the first time she had spoken aloud…. no she had screamed it aloud.
She started to speak her eyes glazed as if in another world……
“He came out of the car his eyes were bulging with hatred, and swung a baseball bat at us……….”run” some one said and we all picked up and ran, I was the swiftest but I tripped and twisted my ankle at one of the parking stoppers and fell on my face almost under a car. I could hear him panting as he reached the other side of the car. I pulled myself under the car…but he stopped far enough away that I could see him…someone in a black abaya and blue hijab had fallen also and lay right at his feet…”
She stopped her face white stricken with fear and panic. Her mother hugged her as she sat sobbing, “I saw it all and I couldn’t stop him…………I was too afraid. Will I burn in hell for not trying to save her?” tears that she had dammed up in her welled from her eyes like a tidal wave.
“Could you have saved her?” asked her mother quietly. “No” her mother replied to her own question and hugged her, soothing her, caressing her wild unruly hair.
She played the scene again in her head. There were too many odds against her. Her ankle had twisted and she was under the car when he raised the baseball bat and brought it down on her cousins head making the sound of a split watermelon’
Someone was screaming…………….and wouldn’t stop. Suddenly she realized the screams were coming from her. She had witnessed her cousins murder and told no one, she had witnessed it and had not gone to help her, she had witnessed the brutal fall of the baseball on the hijab clad head again and again and had become paralyzed and done nothing………….
She wanted to unwitness the scene but it came to her every night in her sleep such that she would fight sleep every night but when she would succumb to sleep, he was always standing over her fallen cousin who lay in a crumpled heap, the black of her abaya pooling at his feet with a splash of aqua blue of her hijab.
She felt rather than heard the keening sound coming from her gentle mother, she was keening for her brother, for the deep and interminable grief of the murder of his child many Ramadan’s ago and yet fresh as if it was yesterday.
She had become a doctor, the first in this immigrant family of few means.
At forty with years of antidepressants and counseling she still sometimes had the dream of the bat coming down on the hijab clad head of a petite teenage girl lying crumpled at the feet of this man, her black abaya pooling around her like a shroud. She could not see the mans face, just his jean clad legs and the end of his baseball bat dripping with white goo mixed with blood………….. Much later as a doctor she realized it was remnants of her cousins brain mixed with her blood that dripped from the baseball bat as he stood over her……..
She gave up running, she could no longer run, it was a terrifying, To this day she could not see or hear the thwack of a baseball bat making contact with the ball without rolling into a ball with terror.
Her gentle sweet innocent seventeen year old cousin had been dead twenty years but she came to her in her dreams and it was like yesterday with no exit from the scene…The repeated mantra in her head kept drumming……….IT COULD HAVE been me~IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME………