On Saturday morning, Anais’s mother prayed for an hour. Anais sat on the foot of her parents’ bed and looked across the room into the bathroom at her mother at the sink, performing her ablutions. And then Anais followed her mother into the living room and watched her settle down to pray. Anais watched as her mother kneeled and bowed on her beautiful, special rug with its gilded edges, facing the television. Always facing the television.
Anais always knew what it meant when her mother prayed for an hour. She sat on the sofa to her mother’s right with her legs pulled up to her chest and her chin resting on her arms hugging her knees.
“Never sit or stand or walk in front of me when I’m praying,” her mother had cautioned her when she was just four years old. When she was five, Anais had made the mistake of crossing her mother’s prayer path to fetch a doll. Her mother seemed not to notice while she prayed, but afterwards, without uttering a reprimand, she had smacked Anais.
Now, every time her mother prayed, Anais would not move a muscle, not so much as to scratch her knee. She instead screwed up her eyes and watched her mother’s profile, her stiff movements – she could be a doll, thought Anais as she watched her mother rigidly bend to touch her forehead to the rug. Her mother kneeled on her rug with a black scarf wrapped loosely around her copper hair, her hands cupped a little ways away from her mouth, the right one slightly overtop the left. Anais thought that if an alien were to walk into their living room and see her mother kneeling like that in front of the television, the alien would think that she was worshipping the television, and this thought made Anais want to laugh. But Anais did not laugh, she dared not even smile, for if she did her mother would know, and she would smack Anais.
And so Anais sat in silence waiting for her mother to finish praying her extra-long prayer that surely meant she was apologizing for last night’s Tragedy and also asking for it to be stopped.
The Tragedy would begin when, at midnight, Anais would be woken up by a loud bang: the front door hitting the wall behind it after being violently, carelessly thrown open. This had happened so often that the spring door stopper on the wall had broken off and the door handle had pounded a deep, round hollow into the drywall. When pulled awake by the bang, Anais would hurriedly scramble out of bed and unplug her little star-shaped nightlight, her heart beating deafeningly in her ears, in the hope that her father would notice her room’s darkness and would let her be. Anais would then lie prostrate in bed holding her breath while her heart tried to pound its way out of her throat. She would sequester all of herself into her brain so that not a single muscle in her body might move. She would squeeze her eyes shut so tightly that her head would begin to hurt, reciting fervently as though it were a prayer her hope that he not come in.
But her father was not nice. Careless of the inky darkness shrouding her room, unafraid of it unlike herself, he would charge into her room and flick on the light to find Anais with her purple covers pulled up to her chin and her eyes squeezed shut. Anais, seeing nothing but the insides of her eyelids made red and trying to breathe evenly, would continue hoping that he go away.
But when he would thunder in his bass, “Anais!” she could not keep on hoping. She would open her eyes and squint up at him, watching him fearfully as he made his way up to the foot of her bed. He would ask her questions about her day, what she had eaten for lunch, for dinner. What had she done at school? Had she made any new friends? She had made the mistake once of being honest and telling him that she hadn’t finished her lunch – he had yelled at her most viciously then, and even though his words had been incoherent to her, she was so frightened that she always now lied to him, reciting to him the same answers to his same questions every night that he stood looming there above her bed, swaying in his place with an aloof, unfriendly look in his watery eyes, the whites littered with little red veins that looked like unwoven thread. Never did his lips spread into a smile, not even for a moment, as he addressed her.
When he finished asking his questions, he would leave without giving Anais a kiss on her forehead – she had seen on television fathers kissing their children goodnight, and wanted him to do the same to her, all the while being repulsed by him. Sometimes he would leave without turning her room’s light off, and Anais, with a sigh of relief and her body relaxing, would turn it off herself. There lingered about him an acrid smell always. It was manifestly sweet, but laced with a bitterness that made her eyes water. She hated that smell. He would ooze that smell while in her room and then neglect it behind him.
Her father’s departure from her room would be followed by a trembling thud: the rigid door of her parents’ bedroom being slammed shut so forcefully that it would tremble in its frame. Soon thereafter Anais would hear through the walls howling, weeping, whimpering, and screaming, all in her father’s deep and sometimes shrill voice. She could never make out the words but understood their fierceness. What was happening, she knew without the slightest doubt, was not good. She sometimes could make out, if her father remained silent long enough, a soft, ardent whispering like the rushing of water. She thought that this might be her mother’s voice, but she could never be sure. It might be a ghost, said a small voice in Anais’s mind.
Next to Anais’s bed there stood an old oscillating fan. This fan Anais would turn on so that its low whirring might throttle her father’s noise. But the fan was much too old to complete the task with any real success, and so what she hoped for every night the Tragedy took place was cherry rain – raindrops as big and ripe as cherries that the dark clouds pelted against her room’s window, creating a pleasant, messianic cacophony. The cherry rain, hitting the window above her bed loudly and bursting against it juicily, coupled with the soft whirring of her fan, were mightily successful in conquering her father’s howls. But it didn’t rain every night of the Tragedy. It simply couldn’t.
The Tragedy would conclude with a symphony of bangs and crashes, followed by a shattering dull blow that would rack tremulously throughout the house, and then there would descend upon the house, the world, a heavy, black silence. Finally, Anais would fall asleep.
Anais reasoned that her mother was, with her praying, saying sorry to God for the Tragedy and asking for relief from it and each of its nuanced iterations – it was what Anais would do. She saw the praying and the Tragedy as connected because her mother would, without fail, always pray an extra-long prayer the day following the Tragedy. More and more often her mother would perform her extra-long prayers. It was because the Tragedy, Anais reasoned, was occurring more and more often.
And so Anais watched her mother pray on her beautiful rug. She watched and waited. She waited for her mother to fold up her rug, always vertically first, and then horizontally until it was a little rectangular bundle. Then, she watched her mother stand with her bundled-up rug in her left hand, whispering a final prayer into her right hand cupped in front of her face. Finally, when her lips stopped quivering with the silent prayer, she waved her right hand vertically down the front of her face, as if washing it.
“Do it now,” her mother commanded, turning to Anais with a sharp look in her eyes. And with those words as sanction, a magic spell, Anais jumped off the couch, stretched her legs, and went to the hall closet that housed the vacuum. This was her weekly chore: vacuuming. Every Saturday morning, after her mother’s morning prayer, Anais was to vacuum the entire house. Anais did not think of this chore as a chore. She thought of herself as an anomaly – while the children on television abhorred their chores, Anais enjoyed hers tremendously. She accrued great pleasure from sucking up with the vacuum the footprints that the carpet had collected over the week, from leaving behind nothing but the fluffy, clean carpet looking almost new.
As Anais vacuumed today, she thought about her mother’s praying. She knew that her mother was praying to God, but she didn’t know if God could hear her. Was she having conversations with God? Anaïs thought about the possibility of God not hearing her mother, and she thought that this was very likely. Her mother prayed assiduously, especially assiduously after each Tragedy, and Anaïs was certain that her mother was praying for the Tragedy to stop, but it hadn’t stopped. If the Tragedy was not stopping, then maybe God couldn’t hear her mother. She should stop whispering, thought Anaïs.
Marie, Anais’s friend at school, once told Anais all about church and the magnanimity of her Jesus Christ. When Anais told her mother about what Marie had said about Jesus Christ, and that maybe she should pray to him, her mother looked at her with a stormy gaze. Her face was calm, but tears were pooled in her big, brown eyes, and she slapped Anais. She didn’t explain to Anais why she had slapped her. Anais stared at her with tears in her eyes because of the stinging in her cheek. Anais was hurt and vexed, but mostly indifferent. Vexed because she could not get an answer from her mother, and therefore was uncertain about whether her mother would pray to Jesus Christ, and indifferent because this silence was something that was not new. In her six years Anais had become quite inured to her mother’s silence.
Anais knew things happened because she saw them happen, and if she could also see why certain of the things she saw happen happened, then she would feel as though she had solved some mystery. But the “why” of an event is not always seen easily, and this inability to see, this blindness of sorts, frustrated her, made her feel not as though a secret was being kept from her, but as though she were inadequate, lacked the ability to see or understand what everyone else around her grasped. When she felt this blindness, she would, impelled by frustration and anxiety, ask someone to explain things to her. More often than not, this someone would be her mother, from whom she would rarely get a satisfying explanation. But there was someone who readily answered all her urgent questions, explained away the tangled mysteries she was incapable of solving.
Anais finally reached her parents’ room with the vacuum, the final bit of carpet from which she needed to erase all footprints. As she reached a spot along the wall opposite her parents’ bed, she heard a lot of clicking and crunching as the vacuum picked up big crumbs. When she had been around the whole room, she began to walk backwards out of the room, pushing the vacuum canister behind her, and pulling the head in front of her so as to suck up her own footprints and the tread marks of the canister’s backward-moving wheels. When she was done, when the entire house was footprint-free, she gently took apart the vacuum and put it away back in its closet. Gently because she felt that if she manhandled it, it would get upset and would not perform to its utmost the next Saturday.
At noon, a little while before lunch, Anais sat on her parents’ bed and watched her mother hang a painting on the wall opposite the bed, right above the spot where Anais had vacuumed up the crunchy crumbs. The painting was an imitation of Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, but Anais didn’t know that, nor did her mother, who didn’t much care what the painting depicted. The painting’s purpose was to simply cover up, veil, the hole that had been punched into the wall by Anais’s father last night. But the hole was too wide and the painting too thin and this amused Anais. The entire wall opposite Anais’s parents’ bed was polka-dotted with paintings, imitations bought for a dollar or two. Some paintings depicted brutal wars, some glamorized and flattered ruthless leaders, others depicted some woman and her baby, and there were even a few whose focal point was a beautiful haloed man with placid blue eyes and golden hair. If the paintings were removed, then the wall would look like a slice of Swiss cheese, so many holes there were. The holes stopped appearing above five feet off the ground.
Anais and her mother ate their lunch in silence in front of the television, as they had done, it seemed to Anais, from time immemorial. They watched a strange movie about an actor being accidentally invited to a party and clumsily moving through it, doing foolish things along his way. Near the end an elephant showed up and this delighted Anais no end.
After lunch, Anais watched her mother put on makeup. Anais always enjoyed watching her mother put on makeup. She didn’t know why but it made her feel calm. She watched stupefied and transfixed as her already beautiful mother transformed into something more. Only before special occasions did Anais get the opportunity to watch as her mother massaged into her face liquid the colour of her skin that made her face seem almost to glow from within. She watched her mother take a brown pencil crayon and fill in her eyebrows and then comb them through, put on a pair of magnificently thick and feathery fake eyelashes without wincing or getting watery eyes – Anais thought that she would never be able to do that, her eyes watered so easily, just thinking about her eyes water made them water. She then watched her mother trace above her eyelashes with a felt-tip pen, similar to the coloured markers Anais kept in her pencil case. She watched her mother dust her cheeks with an effervescent pink-red powder that gave her a rosy blush, and Anais wondered with horror at the thought of having a permanent blush. She then watched her mother colour her lips a bloody red and she loved this part the most. Her mother’s movements were always stiff, but when she put on makeup her rigidity gave her a certain etherealness that evinced mastery over and relish in her art – she knew what she was doing and the effect that her art would have on others. This control, this self-awareness, was on complete display when she would smack her lips together after applying the rouge onto her lips, and Anais felt proud watching her mother look so beautiful and so fierce.
Her mother, with all her makeup on, looked an absolute goddess – the kind Anais had seen in cartoons. Her chocolate brown eyes, bordered by wisps of plumy eyelashes and haloed by black smoke, seemed to glow, as if there were a layer of liquid gold and silver churning beneath the brown. Her fake blush made her cheeks seem hollow. And, under the light, with her eyelashes casting long, sinewy shadows, her face looked like it belonged to one of those models in perfume ads.
Anais tried to remember if it was someone’s birthday, someone’s anniversary. But she couldn’t remember any special occasion for which her mother would have to put on makeup and her best dress. She was loath to ask her mother why she had dressed up – she knew she wouldn’t get an answer.
“Mind your own business,” her mother was sure to say. So, Anais just watched. She watched her mother get her purse and put on her good shoes.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” she said as she walked out the door.
Anais locked the door after her mother and went to the television.
While a cartoon dog did silly things before her, Anais thought about her grandmother, the only person who would explain everything to Anais, answer all her questions. She hadn’t seen her grandmother in a very long time. Going to her grandmother’s was something Anais would eagerly look forward to, dreaming the night before all such visits about everything she would and could ask her grandmother, all that they would do. Her memories of her grandmother were always bright; yellow and red and golden.
Her grandmother always inaugurated Anais’s visits by giving her Turkish delight that Anais thought was too pretty to eat. Then, she would take her to a bookstore where Anais was allowed the purchase of one book. Anais loved animals, and each bookstore trip saw her selecting a book on a different animal. The last time she had visited her grandmother, she had got a book on elephants and had read it from cover to cover with her grandmother, who had enjoyed it as much as Anais had. At home Anais had tried to read the book with her mother, but soon gave up the endeavour when she noticed her mother’s disinterest.
Anais enjoyed being with her grandmother more than she enjoyed anything else. She enjoyed looking into her compassionate grey eyes that never seemed cold or icy, but as warm as the sun-baked sand on the beach. And her grandmother’s embraces always smelled of jasmine and her clothes were always the most beautiful – colourful and sparkling, they were a sharp contrast to her mother’s customary dull monochrome. Anais talked with her grandmother freely and happily, much unlike how she talked with anyone else. She talked about everything and anything she could think of, but never about the Tragedy, memories of which she banished to a very dark abyss in her mind whenever she was away from her mother. With her mother, the Tragedy loomed over her and her mother like a dark cloud threatening a violent downpour at any moment.
But Anais hadn’t seen her grandmother in a month and she didn’t know why. She wished that her grandmother would come and take her away from her mother and her father, but she didn’t come.
At six o’clock, Anais’s mother came home. Anais spied her mother first through the window above her bed, where she had been trying to read her elephant book. Her mother got out of a red car that was unfamiliar to Anais, and a blond man got out from the driver’s side with a white envelope and the car’s keys jingling in his hands. He looked around quickly, uncertainly, and when he saw that no one else was about on the street, he allowed himself a smirk that pulled his nose flat down on his round face, and he seemed to stand taller. He walked around the car to Anais’s mother and put his arms around her waist.
Anais thought her mother was suppressing a shudder, her eyes blinked rapidly and she swallowed deeply. Her arms were pinned to her sides, and her eyebrows were furrowed. The man put his lips to hers while she seemed as though it was all she could do to not pull away. She closed her eyes and just waited, reminding Anais of her trips to the dentist that she loathed absolutely. The man removed his lips from hers but continued to hover his lips over hers. He said something, to which she quickly smiled and nodded in reply. He then put the white envelope and the car’s keys into her hands, squeezed them, kissed her on her forehead and walked away. Her smile fell off her face as quickly as it had appeared as soon as his eyes were off her and she teetered in place for a moment, as if about to fall. She shook her head, breathed in deeply, and allowed herself now to shudder. She started toward the front door.
Anais got to the front door just as her mother closed it behind her. Her mother seemed displeased at finding Anais right there, staring at her confusedly. The black around her eyes was smudged, making her look like a racoon. Her dress was wrinkled and she smelled pungently of sweat, laced only slightly with a sweet, quickly fading perfume.
“Wash up for dinner,” her mother commanded.
Before dinner, while her mother was praying an extra-long prayer, Anais found the white envelope that the brazen blond man had given her mother lying audaciously on the dinner table. It was unsealed and Anais poked at it with a finger, prodding open its mouth. It was filled with a dull green-coloured sheaf of papers that Anais realized was money.
During dinner, Anais asked her mother about the money, not expecting to get much of a response. She didn’t.
After a while, her mother said, without looking up from her plate, “After dinner, I want you to go to your room and pick out one toy, the one you like most, and bring it to me. Got that?” Anais nodded that she did.
A quarter after eleven in the evening, Anais’s mother lugged two small suitcases into the trunk of the blond man’s red car, and then told Anais to get into the back seat and put her seatbelt on.
Just as her mother slammed the car door shut after Anais, a familiar car rolled into the driveway in front of the red car, its headlights suffocating them, lambasting tall shadows onto the garage door behind and creating a macabre tableau. Anais looked out the window at her mother, whose jaw had dropped and eyes widened. She wanted to laugh because her mother looked like a cartoon character, her jaw wanting only to lie flat on the ground, but she thought better of it. Instead, she unfastened her seatbelt and slid onto the floor of the car, covering her ears with her hands and squeezing her eyes shut.
Her heart pounded rapidly and painfully in her chest, making her chest jerk forward with every thud. She heard her father step out of his car, neglecting to turn off its headlights. She heard the door slam shut and then his heavy boots stomping over to her mother, thud thud thud thud in time with her heart, and then she heard her mother yelp. She heard her father speak steadily but through clenched teeth, and then she heard his footsteps angrily, confidently going back up to the house with the skittering and scampering of her mother’s feet trailing, or being dragged behind him. The front door slammed shut and Anais uncovered her ears.
She counted to twenty in her mind and then quietly opened the car’s door and slid out, landing gently on her feet. Outside, she took one step toward the house but was frightened by the sounds she heard coming from inside. She turned on her heels and walked away toward the main road. She resolved to go to her grandmother’s.
As she walked, she again began to think about her mother’s praying. She thought that in addition to being out of earshot, she might also be out of God’s line of sight, out of his purview. Maybe God was nearsighted and simply could not see her mother at all. Maybe, because he could not see her or hear her, he could not help her.
Anais looked up at the night sky and saw nothing there, not a single star or constellation. She walked into the empty road and stopped in the pool of light under the nearest streetlight. She looked up and saw only the bugs flinging themselves dumbly at the bright, hot streetlight with unrelenting passion. Anais wondered if God could see her now, if she was illuminated enough now that she could be seen from space, from the sun. She waited but nothing happened.
A cat meowed somewhere in the darkness outside of her spotlight, and she stepped toward the sound, out of the light. Where she stood it was dark, and perhaps that was why the driver of a red sports car didn’t see her until he felt her as a bump passing under his speeding wheels.
Alisha Mughal was born in Pakistan and grew up in Ontario, Canada, where she still resides. She has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She will have a story published for the first time ever this May in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal.