By Umamah Wajid
I have never seen Zayna’s face.
It has been thirteen years since I first entered her house and her mother led us inside, our small feet making soft pattering noises on the rug as we walked past the kitchen doorway and the large windows of the wide hallway. We were all six or seven and we were a messy, chaotic bunch, so much so that by the time Zayna’s mother came back with a tray of cookies and jelly, the sofa cushions had formed a defense fort and a few of my friends lay howling on the carpet which we had naturally pretended was a sea of molten lava. Her mother tried to calm us down but gave up quickly, only staying to tactfully remove all glass decorations from the room.
It was then that a voice began to sing so beautifully that we froze and looked around for its source. Baber, a small boy who had begun to cry after being smacked one time too many with a cushion stood silently, his eyes wide behind his dirty spectacles. It took a few minutes to realize that the words being sung were in fact a recitation of the Quran and that the voice came from behind a curtained doorway.
“My name is Zayna and I am your teacher,” said the voice. “Today I will teach you from here and next week you will join me upstairs.” Her voice was melodious even when she spoke and although we shot each other wild, questioning looks, no one spoke.
Next week, we were shown into a room with many windows and round cushions. We lay our individual saparas on our laps and waited to see our teacher for the first time. A few moments later, she came in and sat down quietly between two chubby sisters. She was clad in a pale blue burqa that swept across the floor when she walked and a white scarf covered her head and her face, only revealing her large, hazel eyes. She wore gloves and traced the words of the Quran with a gentle cautiousness, as though it may fall apart at her touch.
When she began to read her voice filled the room with a compelling serenity and, even as we sat together – a wild, bold gang of kids audacious enough to steal candy from Saaid Uncle and kick the motorbikes of rich teenagers – we shrank back from the intimidating authority in her tone, disguised in a song so marvelously sung. We recited after her and were aware, perhaps for the first time ever, of how small we were, how weak.
Thirteen years later, and I am returning to the house with the large windows and the wide hallway for the last time. I climb the marble steps and head into the room with my Quran held tight in my hand. My usual spot near the third window awaits me and my friend, Rasheed, raises a hand in greeting.
“Muhib,” she says. “It’s your last day with us, I believe?”
I nod. “Yes, baji. I’m leaving for Islamabad in a week.”
“That’s exciting – what do you plan on doing next?”
I straighten up, inflicted with a defensive pride that is new to me. I am the only one in my neighborhood to travel outside of the city. “I plan to write, baji. There’s a company up there and they like my writing. They’ll pay me to take trips around the country and tell the stories of people. I won’t even have to pay for my Daewoo tickets!”
She laughs and the sound of it is mirrored around the room. Rasheed nudges me in the ribs and tells me to remember them when I’m famous. Laughter echoes once again and then Zayna starts the lesson. I don’t pay much attention, absorbed by the soft clarity of her voice. Over the years, the room has become a sanctuary of sorts for me and Zayna’s suggestions and thoughts have provided me with more comfort than I can probably say in words.
I remember when I began to cry after one lesson, a few weeks after my father passed away. I was only ten and Zayna had said nothing until my sobs subsided. The others had left as soon as the Maghrib azaan had sounded and I sat alone with her. At last, she held out a small blue book, a book of prayers, she told me and then began to recite. I thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever recited and, when she told me that every time I read it, my father would be blessed in heaven, I grabbed the book and thanked her until my throat was sore.
After the lesson ends, I wait for the other students to leave. The girls smile at me, some of them shyly, and wish me good luck while my friends slap me on the back and tell me they’re waiting at Saaid Uncle’s shop so I can treat them all to bottles of Pepsi.
Zayna stands and her eyes seem to be smiling again. “You’ve been a wonderful student, Muhib,” she says. “I hope you’ll come back to visit.”
“Of course I will! And… you’ve been a wonderful teacher to me, baji. I wanted to thank you so much for everything.”
“Remember me in your prayers.”
“I always do.” I hesitate. “Baji… my first assignment came in yesterday. They’d like me to write a story — any story, about someone from around my hometown. You know so much and I was wondering if, perhaps, you might have a story to tell me?”
She shakes her head gently. “Muhib, what stories could I possibly have for you? I spend all day inside.”
“Right — well, I just thought I would ask.”
Saaid Uncle is unwell and his father is managing the store. He is old, at a stage I hope I never reach, and he limps from the refrigerator to the counter, his hands shaking so much I’m afraid the Pepsi bottles might break from being clinked so hard together.
I express my worries to my friends. “I have no story to put together. This old place is too boring for anything interesting to be written about it.”
“Did you ask Zayna baji?” asks Rasheed.
I nod. “She spends all day inside. What could she tell me?”
“Why is that, anyway? Rich folks don’t stay in so often.”
“She has that big car, too.”
“Who?” Saaid Uncle’s father is leaning over the counter, peering into our faces. I move back, trying to ignore the thick stench of sweat that clings to him.
Rasheed is politer. “Our teacher, Zayna — she lives in that big white house with the green gate. Kumar family.”
“Ah — yes! Tragic, tragic.”
“Yes, yes. Poor girl.”
Annoyed at the typical banter of elder people, I sip my Pepsi, wishing Rasheed would stop talking to the old man.
“Why is she poor, uncle?”
“Haven’t you heard?”
“She used to love a boy from one of those tribal villages up north.”
I sit up, my mouth dropping open and the old man nods happily.
“Yes, yes — I’ve been working here long enough to know everything. He loved her back, too, but these tribal folk; they’re not too happy when someone tries to marry outside the tribe, of course. So they snuck into her home one night and, that was it — the poor girl. She was so beautiful, too.”
“What did they do?”
“Well, she was a pretty young thing but everybody knows looks don’t last. They threw acid on her while she slept. I heard it got all the way down to her hands. Her flesh melted like a wax candle. I swear I even heard the screams in the middle of the night but my foolish wife was too deaf and told me to go back to sleep.”
“What about the boy?”
“He left her, of course. She was sweet but nobody wants someone with a face like that.”
“So, is that… is that why she covers herself all up like that?” asks Rasheed, stupidly.
“Of course. These rich folks, they don’t have much modesty. It isn’t like them to cover themselves up without trying to hide something.”
We walk home in a stunned silence and I quickly grab my notebook, ready to scribble down this tragic truth but some indescribable instinct stops me. I run back to Zayna’s home, desperate to see it for myself. I knock hard on the gate until the grouchy guard finally opens it. I mumble something about leaving my Quran behind and rush past him.
I cannot believe my luck when I see her sitting there, under the shade of a large tree, in a garden chair. I peer at her from afar. Her gloves rest on the table.
My gaze lands on her fingers; long and pale with short pink nails.
My thudding heart plummets into a gloomy despair and although some part of me is — must be — glad that maybe my caring teacher never had to experience the pain of the old man’s story; I can’t help but realize I might have no story at all.
I stand there, fiddling with the buttons on my sleeve, frozen in a state of mental limbo. Should I try sneaking forward? Somehow glimpse her face?
Something tells me that her skin will be smooth, flawless and that Saaid Uncle’s father is another village gossiper with nothing better to do than to spin stories about people more fortunate than himself.
I turn away, too afraid — no, hopeful — to find out that Zayna has never suffered.
I head home with my head hanging low. My notebook lies on my bed and I open it to a fresh page thinking about how despicable I find liars to be. I wonder how the story ever started, how the rumor turned into a tale and who ignited the first flame.
Despicable, I think.
The page is so empty, so clean. And, if the story were true, what an amazing story it would be. Swatting away looming guilt as though it is a persistent fly, I whip out a pen and start to scribble down all that could have been.
Umamah Wajid, upon graduating from The Missing Slate’s creative writing workshops, went on to attend the LUMS Workshops for Young Writers. She is now a Junior Fiction Editor for the magazine.