about the author

Hananah Zaheer lives, writes, and improvises (life and theater) in Dubai. Her latest work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review and Michigan Quarterly Review, where it won the Lawrence Foundation fiction prize. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. She tweets @hananahzaheer.

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Smaller, lesser things  

Hananah Zaheer

Father comes home from the mosque on Friday and says too many women showed up. “Looked like a funeral,” he says.

Mother goes on knitting whatever pink thing she is making these days. It is June and school is nearly out.

Father sits down and stretches his legs. “It’s vulgar, women coming to mosque.” Father doesn’t like vulgar things.

He unlaces the black combat boots he wears everywhere even though it’s been eight years since he left the army.

Once a soldier, he likes to say, always a soldier. He calls it muscle memory; a body remembers who you are even if you don’t.

We don’t need a soldier, Mother says, we need love.

I turn the page on my biology textbook. I am learning about meiosis and how one thing can become so many smaller, lesser things.

Someday, I think, I might leave.

“All that kneeling,” Father says, “all that bending. It gives a man ideas.”

At this Mother says, “The women pray behind the men. If you can’t see something, does it really matter?” She is bitter; I can hear it in her voice.

Father peels a sock slowly off a yellowed heel. “Even if one can’t see a thing, one can know it.” He drops the sock on the floor.

They make it sound like they are talking about religion, but I know what they mean: she, about how he holds himself away from us; he, that her silence asks for too much from him.

She looks down at her hands. Despite the housework, they are beautiful, a slender skeleton bound by skin. The needles pierce the pink holes over and over and I think I can see inside her, see how the flesh moves across her bones, sliding, trapped in a perpetual motion. Against her neck her jaw is clear, defined, pulsing. On her face, a flash of her old self, her heart in her eyes, pain and all. I wish she would let her fingers be still.

Father asks if I am ready for exams. He believes in education, he says, but I must put God first.

I nod. I like studying biology and how a constant, quiet violence gives life to the simplest of things: the universe, flowers, me. It comforts me, knowing that even God needs to break one thing to make another.

Father goes to the bathroom and I hear the shower. We sit in the living room quietly, me on the floor and Mother on the sofa. I wonder what we could talk about.

“I am tired.” I twist from side to side. “Want to go for a walk after dinner?”

She doesn’t answer. In the hallway, the lightbulb flickers, then goes out.

“Someone will need to take care of that,” she says and her hands keep moving.

The shower stops. Mother gets up to set dinner on the table. She fills her time with chores so she doesn’t have to speak to Father or me. They are what hold her together. I wonder what holds me.

I reach over to where she has left her knitting and slide one of the needles out. The empty loops keep their shape but I know the stitches will unravel at the first touch.

Father comes back, towel around his waist.

“What happened to the light?” A drop of water falls from the end of his beard.

I shrug and slide the needle up my sleeve. He misses the most obvious things.

“What’s for dinner?” he asks.

I close my book and go to his room. Every Friday night, Mother makes rice and chicken with cardamom and cloves. He knows this.

His shirt is on the bed. I drag my finger along the front. In the middle, upright, it looks like an arrow sticking out of a chest. I find a pair of pants.

“Remember,” he says when I return with his clothes. “If you don’t fix things in time, they get worse.” He slides the shirt over his head.

I kneel to pick up my books. He looks at me and his eyes are dark. I try not to look away. He is always saying things like this. But I don’t agree with him anymore. It feels like the only way to fix a broken thing is by breaking it over and over until the fractures are so many that the first one becomes just that: the first.

“You understand, right?” He says this holding my gaze so steadily that I feel my heart rush.

I nod. I don’t tell him that sometimes I hide outside the gate of my school after he drops me off and that a boy comes and picks me up. I don’t tell him that sometimes we find places to park and sometimes the boy asks me if I ever think about running away. I don’t tell him that I say yes.

He moves to the dining room and I follow. We sit, Mother and Father and I, and eat. I look at creases in Father’s forehead and Mother’s quick, unsettled fingers and wonder if the quiet between them feels as vicious to them as it does to me. I hang my hand to my side and let the needle slide to my palm. I press it against my leg till it hurts. I like feeling. I could, I think, thrust it at my chest, my stomach, break through the skin to the chaos: the veins, the cells, the center of everything, to the parts that break and breathe and want. I could stab myself, over and over, until it matters, until I can no longer even moan. I clench my legs.

“Pray before you sleep,” says Father. Mother spoons more rice in my plate. We pretend we are whole.

I nod. My breath is heavy, my body alive, my nerves electric. I savor my skin, knowing that it will have to hold me together for only a few more hours.

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