Sunday Scribblings: Pilgrimage (a short short)
(Hajj pic from here.)
Ed note: Just a short little story inspired by this weeks Sunday Scribbling prompt. It's been a while.
Me? I'm nothing.
You know that feeling you get when you walk down the halls of your school, and a draft of air blows past you? That feeling like maybe you should look around, see if you missed something? But also feeling a little dumb, and not wanting anyone to see you looking around for nothing?
I'm that nothing. And believe me, I've worked at it.
We've all lived in this neighborhood so long it's like we've worn a groove into the cement. First my brothers, Rich and Tom. Then my sister, Angie. Another brother Johnny. Sister Liz. And then me, Jenny. Some days it can feel like my sneakers are trudging into their footsteps, but my feet never quite fit. And so I trip, a lot.
Everybody knows my family. They remember the red sirens streaking across the walls of their houses, breaking through the gray. They remember the muttered metallic gibberish of the police radios as the cops' big hands shoved my brothers' heads into the car. Maybe their heads had a groove too. A rut where only cops' big hands could fit.
My sisters? They kept their terror local—inside the walls of the school itself. I still get the sideline look and scuffle from the older girls, even the tall, tough ones. The ones who remember them, and see my red hair and pale skin as an ugly echo.
Usually, I tried to stay out of everyone's way. This was easier than it sounded, thanks to Aziza Manjur and her family. They've lived in the neighborhood almost as long as we have, and are probably the first Muslims anyone around here ever met. People gave them the weird glances for a while, but they were just too normal. They lived in the same type of two story gray house we all did, with wooden steps that sagged after years of too much snow. Mr. Manjur taught me to drive behind the wheel of their old Honda with the scratches on the doors. Mrs. Manjur taught me to cook mutton, and boil tea. I'm sure if you look at their family pictures, you'll see me, pale as a ghost, floating off to one side. But still there.
For a while, it was just the Manjurs, and me, and everyone else, but then something happened. It was like a worm hole opened between Somalia and here, and before long, there was a whole community of them here. The girls all looked a little like Aziza, except for those glittery head scarves that made their heads look like sleepy flowers. These girls smiled their shy, toothy smiles at me, but chattered to Aziza in that language that sounded like a bunch of As and Bs and Ms to me. And Aziza, who used to streak her dark hair orange and pink for parties (I used to have to hold her head over the sink for hours afterwards. I'm pretty sure Mrs. Manjur never knew), would stroll over to them, and talk back. The Manjurs were always busy. But they always offered me the use of the house. Sometimes, I didn't bother. Alone is alone, even with cable and nicer furniture.
It shouldn't have surprised me the day I picked her up to go to school, and she was wearing a pink flowered head scarf. She walked next to me like everything was normal, except she didn't even look at me. She kept sneaking glances of her new head in car windows.
“So...your mom and dad finally insisted?”
“Nah, I decided to try it for myself.” She tossed her head a little, like she'd grown a new mane of hair. The spangles in the scarf caught what little light was around us and seemed to reflect little pink spotlights on the dull snow piles.
“That doesn't even match what you are wearing.” I said, keeping my eyes on the cracked, iced sidewalk in front of me.
“You know it's not about that, Jen. Besides,” she added with a grin. “I kind of like the idea that it doesn't match. Feels more like me.”
“So...you gonna teach me how to wear one?” We always tried stuff together.
She stopped short. “Jen...this isn't...I mean...”
“I know.” We'd reached the school. I walked away from Aziza, but not before I noticed the excited crowd of girls around Aziza, pressing against her like jungle birds.
And then at the end of homeroom, Ms. Carena muttered her usual question about “Any announcements?” That was our cue to push our chairs away and trudge into our day. But Aziza stood up and said, “I have something. Uh...I'll be out of school for the next month. My family is going to hajj. The pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims need to take once in their lifetime. We're leaving, uh...this weekend.” I noticed she was using her “Explaining things to non-Muslims, and everyone not named Jenny” voice and felt a little smug, until her words hit me. Going?
I caught up with her in the hallway and managed to tear her away from the Somali girls for once. They were like an honor guard.
“When were you going to tell me?”
“Didn't you notice we were packing stuff?”
“Yeah, to send to family. Like you all do all the damn time.”
“A bunch of us are going this year.”
“Oh, you need to go because these girls are going? Like its Prom?”
“What?” She looked confused. I wished I could still see all of her. “I meant...a bunch of family. From England. From Somalia. It's a big deal.”
“Take me with you.”
“Jen...it's, uh...it's not a vacation. It's a pilgrimage. It's, like, super-holy to us.”
“I can be holy.” The endless rows of lockers faded from my eyes and I started to see myself there, surrounded by millions of other people, a part of the Manjurs' “us.”
“So...OK. Then you stay here. Let your folks go alone. You have the rest of your life to do this.”
“Yeah, like Mama and Papa would just lea...”
“Anyway, Mama and Papa already said no. It's not like I didn't ask.” Her words were clipped. We'd reached my classroom. “See you later.”
Oh, I wished that I could tap into that blood rage that marks my family. But maybe I'd been neglecting it too long. Unlike my brothers, who would have just slammed Aziza and her new friends into the pavement, and unlike my sisters, who would have found a way to make Aziza kill herself in self-loathing, I...couldn't do anything. Except sit and start my class, so that's what I did.
After school, I sat in the Manjurs' living room, and I couldn't believe I'd ignored all this. Huge suitcases lay open all over the floor in the living room and hallways. Silky piles of fabric and chiffon pooled inside of them, and draped on the couches and chairs. The room looked excited, happy—full of something I couldn't explain. I wanted to be anywhere else.
The Manjurs were trying to include me, I could tell. “Oh, Jenny....could you hand me that file folder? Oh, Jen...could you please make sure I'm not forgetting...?” I already had a set of keys, instructions on where the circuit breaker was, and a stern admonition to “eat for EVERY meal...not just the ones you remember.” Once I caught Mr. Manjur looking at me, a puzzled, sad expression on his face. Again, blood rose up in me, and wanted to flow through the ruts that were already inside of me.
I'm not sure when I found myself alone in the room.
The lamplight glowed warm, red in the room, making it look smaller, shoved up full with stuff for the pilgrimage. The whole room appeared to be leaving at once.
I stood up, stroked the ceremonial white suit draped on the back on my chair. Folded it and dropped it in the mouth of the open suitcase. Closed it, then opened it again. I knew Mr. Manjur had it specially made. I knew he needed to wear it on the hajj, another rule I couldn't follow.
And then I looked at Mr. Manjur's desk.
Piles of bills were stacked there, rubber banded. A plain manila folder teetered on the money. I knew the family paperwork was in there. Passports. Confirmations.
My hands moved towards them, and I pulled them back, hard. Steadied myself on the desk. I saw myself, then, shoving the money and papers into my backpack. Taking a pair of scissors and destroying the clothes. Doing it all.
It would be so easy. Blood hummed in my ears, in my throat. It would be so easy, and it would be so good. Then, they'd stay. Instead of leaving. Like it was nothing.
They'd already left me here.
With the keys. With all they had.
The blood beat in my skull, and roared around my well worn grooves. Rich, Tom, Angie, Johnny, Liz, me. My hands strained, itching with the desire for action. I had to get out.
“Jenny?” Aziza, soft, questioning. Normal.
I rushed past her without a word, ran through the door into a night without any stars, lit by the hollow glow of streetlamps on the tired snow. The circles of light were, and then were not.
The Manjurs went on their hajj, had their holy time without me. But I took a trip too. Maybe even a longer one.
Sometimes the pilgrimage that matters is the one from “nothing” to “something.”
To take more holy trips, go here.