This Is How To Live For Them

When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”

That was what the Prophet had said but each time Mariam heard it, she felt like the chained devils might be in her house. She was also almost certain that they were going to hell when its gates eventually opened.

Mariam watched as her mother mixed the stir-fried vegetables into the rice, the sun was still out but it was starting to set. The tiny rays filtering into the kitchen fell on her mother’s back. Mariam thought this was a perfect metaphor, one that she hated.

It was only the 12th day of Ramadan and her mother looked exactly as she had been when she was pregnant with Faizal. Eyes drooping, mind elsewhere, and bone tired. You didn’t have to ask to know, her mother looked like a robot stirring the huge pot, and her eyes were glazed over. Mariam thought the only thing that could snap her out of her reverie was burning her hand on the hot pot and even then, she might not react properly. It was why Mariam was in the kitchen till then. Sure, she had to be in the kitchen with her mother for a large part of the evening but the food was all but done now. She could have left but who would be there if her mother slipped away by the fire?

Today, she had tasted the food and even swallowed it because her period had come the day before and she was exempted from fasting until it left. Only her mother knew, she had forbidden her from talking about it in front of her father or brothers. Last year, when she had carried her plate of food into the living room, her mother had all but dragged her out.

“Does everybody need to know that you are bleeding and why are you tempting your brothers? Go into your room and bring out your plate after Iftar.” Mariam sighed and did as she was instructed. That was how it always was.

Wash the clothes like this. Don’t sit like this when the boys are around. This is how to eat when you are alone. This is how to sit when you are with the men. Clean this, wash that. This is how to ask for something: after your brothers have gotten everything they want.

That was the part she despised. The instructions were infuriating enough but the worst part was they were never really about her. They were for her and varied depending on how it affected her father and brothers.

Her relationship with her mother was a complex math problem and even though she hated math, this was one she might have to spend her life solving. Watching her mother for too long anywhere in the house, mostly the kitchen—her prison and haven— caused her heart to ache. But when her mother turned to her and tried to turn her into a mini version, when Mariam saw that she was truly turning into her mother, her sorrow became graded with rage and misery. Each day she eventually settled into defeat. Still, she feared when something would kick her up. The havoc she could wreak if she decided to never stop swirling like the dust in the Sahara.

Then, she ate her mother’s masa, tasted the love mixed in with the sweat and misery. And Mariam forgave her mother, again and again. And again.

There was one person she could not forgive though and he was calling her brothers now to go to the mosque. She could hear the crackling of the PAS in the mosque just a few blocks away as the men set up the mic for the Maghrib prayer. Mariam brought out the tray of dates and sliced watermelon she and her mother had prepared.

The families took turns to supply fruits but her father took a tray along each day regardless. He was like that, bent on building the perfect reputation for outsiders while he took bricks out of his own house. She set the tray on the center table before disappearing into her room. She waited until she could no longer hear the banging and shuffling before going into the back garden with some dates. That was where she waited for Zainab, her best friend.

While she waited, listening to the cry of the Muadhin, Mariam wondered what the night would be like. She never knew what to expect with the men in her house. Despite being fully clothed as per her mother’s instructions, her brothers remained perverted little pigs. She often had to hide or simply shrink so they wouldn’t notice her. But she didn’t have it bad, it was her mother she worried about.

The leader of their family had vices he couldn’t seem to get over despite the spiritual discipline that the holy month required. He was sexually undisciplined and her mother often had to pay for it. Perfect on the outside, the men in her house saw the women as many things but never as human beings with autonomy. Whenever Mariam saw her mother sneaking around, she knew what she was doing. Hiding things, blocking vile sites, protecting her fully grown man-child from himself; hoping to save herself. She knew her mother had been forced out of fasting several times because her husband couldn’t control his urges.

As she heard the distinct heaviness of Zainab’s footsteps, Mariam renewed her vow to never meet a man like a father. And if she did? To run like hell.

Mariam grinned widely as she saw the bottle in her friend’s hand, chilled tiger nut milk. Oh, heaven.

Zainab lived just next door and she must have just been permitted to disappear too. She didn’t fast all the time because of her chronic ulcer. So, most times, Mariam didn’t even bother asking.

As soon as Zainab sat, she motioned with her hand for Mariam to come closer. “I saw your brother with Fatima this afternoon.”

Mariam sighed. Could it be genetic?

She also wondered what anyone saw in her square-headed, foul-mouthed brother but that wasn’t her business. As they passed the bottle between each other, Zainab offloaded all the gist even though what Mariam really wanted to talk about was a character in their new read—A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum— and how she felt their lives related. But this was good too, she could hold it over her brother for a while even though he wouldn’t know what consequences were if they came and slapped him in the face. She wished something would slap him in the face.

“How far have you gotten with A Woman Is No Man?” She asked eventually.

“I’m almost done, you know that part where Sarah was-” As Zainab started laughing, getting ready to describe the part, Mariam’s mother’s voice rang out through the kitchen window.

“Come and help me with the food!” Mariam waited for a beat before answering. She was tired.

She excused herself as Zainab also stood up, promising to come back later. Mariam went in and started carrying the food out of the kitchen. When the table was set and her brothers had started shoveling down their food, she went back into her room with hers. As soon as she took a bite, Mariam winced. Some of the seasoning must have settled on one side of the pot. She was reaching for tissue paper when it happened.

A loud spitting. The clatter of metal against ceramic. A shout.

Her father had discovered this, too.

“Amina!” He roared.

The house grew deathly silent but the noise in Mariam’s head reached a crescendo at that moment. She could swear that she saw more bricks falling out of the walls of their home. She crept into the living room at the same time her mother appeared before the man. He rose, his shadow stretching across the entire floor.

“Follow me.”

Her mother silently scrambled after him into the room. He closed the door behind them.

The sun had fully set and it was pitch-dark outside. No one would see a thing.

Masa- rice cake.

Muadhin- a man who calls Muslims to prayer from the tower of a mosque.

Iftar- the meal eaten by Muslims to break their fast after sunset every day during Ramadan.

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Image from unsplash.

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