The association between Nimrah’s name and her coarse looks was nothing short of ironic. She was given the name Nimrah, which literally means tigress, as soon as she was born, based on a common belief that naming the baby after a predator protects it from dying young, since before she was born her mother had given birth to two babies, one of them died few hours after birth and the other lasted for no more than 3 days before it was found dead in its cradle. No one ever knew the reason behind the deaths, not only of Nimrah’s siblings but also of the many miscarriages and stillbirths in the Village. Some say it was something in the air, some sort of a poison. Some say it was the spring water that still carried the remnants of the children slaughtered in the upper land’s blood baths some hundred years ago. But the most commonly believed theory was that of the curse cast upon the Village after a woman deliberately suffocated her bastard child to death shortly after he was born. It was easy to see why this seemed the most plausible for the people in the Village, given that it involved a curse, a scandal and a death: The three most feared misfortunes.
Whatever the reason was, one way or the other Nimrah did survive. I couldn’t tell for sure if the name has anything to do with it, because my father used to say that she would’ve survived even if they called her a squirming maggot. At this Noura would usually joke that it would’ve been a pity because any other name of the sort wouldn’t have suited her serrated “fags” climbing over her front teeth. I remember how my mother used to smile sarcastically and shake her head in dismay. She once uttered something under her breath I didn’t understand, but it was obvious she made sure my father and Noura couldn’t hear it.
It was no wonder given all this that Nimrah seldom looked in a mirror. Those reflective surfaces were her life-long enemies. Whenever she passed by one, she had never so much as gave a sideway glance. It was as though she knew what she was going to see, or worse yet, feared it. As I said, there was no reason to wonder here, unlike that morning when the oddest thing happened as I stood in the hallway of Saif’s house and saw Nimrah, for the first time, standing before a mirror at the end of the narrow dimly-lit hallway.
I couldn’t see her face as she was giving me her back, but something about her looked majestic. Maybe it was her upright posture or the light that fell upon her from the right and twinkled on her frizzy curls. It could be many things, but as I look back at it now I believe beyond doubt that it was the air of confidence around her that I saw for the first time then. It wasn’t one of arrogance like Noura, it was something different, something I rarely saw in any one in the village.
As I left the house with Saif, my mind kept going back to Nimrah. I couldn’t help but wonder what could possible have happened to change her in such a way. I wanted to ask Saif but I couldn’t find the right word to form a sensible question. At last, I decided to depend on Saif’s habit in finishing my sentences and spoke out.
“So, what is it with Nimrah? She looks…”
“Happy?” Said Saif with a knowing smile.
“Well, maybe, but that’s not exactly what I meant. There seems to be something different about her, she’s not her usual self. Do you know what I mean?”
“I know. And I know she deserves to be happy.”
I was mildly annoyed at the way Saif mystified his answers. I knew he was hiding something and I was dying to know what it was, and I knew that he wouldn’t keep it from me unless it was something that would upset me, because Saif knew as well as everybody that when it came to secrets, the village has its own circulating mechanism: Everyone may know it except for those who shouldn’t. Unless someone broke that circle, the secret is safeguarded.
I knew Saif trusted me, and I knew that he would tell me when he made sure I knew the value of secrecy for what he was going to tell me. It didn’t take him much time to establish that, he usually did it with a few words.
“She deserves to be happy.” He said once again, and I was ready to hear what’s next.
“Namirah has gotten a letter.” I said.
My mother raised her eyes and looked at me with an amused smile. Noura too gave a smile, but without lifting her eyes from what she was knitting.
“Is that a fact?” Said Noura in an unsurprisingly sarcastic way. “Who is it from? The natural reserve?” she gave a small laugh and glanced towards my mother is if waiting for the usual reproach.
“No!” I said earnestly. “It’s from a secret admirer”
“Oh, please Layla!” Noura said “The last thing you need to add to your graces is a bad sense of humour!”
“I’m serious!” I insisted even more earnestly. “Saif told me she found the letter on her windowsill this morning. He never lies!”
“Poor desperate Namirah!” cried Noura. “Obviously she wrote it to herself. Or maybe it’s her other personality. Wait, it could be her imaginary friend!”
“Siaf would’ve known it. It wouldn’t have escaped him. If he knew she was lying why would he lie too?”
“Why not?” My mother said tilting her head.
Noura started to look disturbed and incredulous. My mother said nothing else, only smiled and continued to peel the vegetables on her hands.
“Well, I don’t believe it. It’s absurd! Why would anyone send that funny face a letter of admiration?” Noura persited in her denial.
“Exactly the same reason why no one would send an insolent arrogant girl like yourself one.” My mother said half-jokingly.
“No matter what you say, it’s beyond absurd. And that secret admirer, if he even exists, must be a sorry desperate old man with a major deformity” Cried Noura, obviously annoyed as she stood up and walked towards the bedroom.
“You know her father can’t know this” I said before she exited the room. She stood in her tracks and turn around with a cunning smile that suggested she had an evil idea.
“I know that very well, but thanks for reminding me.” She said as closed the door to the room.
The next day Noura seemed so normal that I thought she either had forgotten all about it, or was up to something malignant. My fears came true when Noura volunteered to go to the grocery store to get the salt mom needed for cooking. It was suspicious because I knew how much Noura hated to go there. It wasn’t the errand she resented, but the man in the grocery store himself. Abu Ashour was a widower in his late fifties, he wasn’t exactly popular, but he didn’t have a bad reputation either. Yet. Noura has always felt uncomfortable around him. She tried to avoid those trips to the grocery store as much as possible, and when she had to go, she made sure to make him feel how much he disgusted her. Hence, I found it very weird that she would offer to go there.
As we approached the store, I observed the eerie smile on her face, and then things started to get clear. I remembered that although Abu Ashour didn’t have a bad reputation, but it was very well-established that the grocery store was a rumor mill, that’s why elderly men gathered there in the afternoons, to share a cup of tea and some breaking news. And, if you want to get the word out on anything, all it takes is a random chat with Abu Ashour. Noura was very well aware of that fact.
As we entered the store, I felt the pressure building up on my chest. I felt my heart petrified into a rigid stone as I waited for Noura to take her next step. I stood there helpless, unable to speak, clueless as to what I should do.
As Noura asked for the salt, I noticed how she was trying to look a little bit less disgusted as Abu Ashour eyes lingered on her in a very awkward way that even I felt uneasy. She tried to avoid looking at him, and in an instant, in a calm yet obviously eager tone of voice she blurted out the words I dreaded.
“So, I hear freaks too have secret admirers.”
“Which freak are we talking about here?” Abu Ashour said with his yellowing teeth visible through his guile smile. “I didn’t get any love notes if you’re talking about me. Unless you…”
“You wouldn’t even dream of it!” Noura interrupted. “But who knows? One day the frizzy-haired giant gets a love letter, the next day it could be you!”
“Frizzy-haired giant?” The wrinkles around his eye disappeared for a moment.”You can’t be talking about her!”
“Well” Noura said even more calmly. “Of course I can’t, who in his right mind could believe it anyway? It’s just what people are saying.”
Noura walked out of the store with her eerie smile turned into a victorious grin. My heart was no longer petrified, and I felt the guilt ripping through the flesh like a thousand knives. Saif told me because he trusted that I wouldn’t tell anyone who would break the circle, and I betrayed his trust.
I couldn’t confront Siaf for a few days after. I was didn’t know what would happen to Nimrah, but I knew that whatever was going to happen was my fault. I waited for a few days, unable to eat or talk. All I could think of was Nimrah and Saif.
One morning when I couldn’t take it any longer, I rushed out to Saif’s house, not knowing what to expect, nor what I would say or do, I only wanted to make sure they were okay. As I reached the house and was about to knock on the front door, I heard pounding and shouting inside. Their father was shouting and banging closet doors and drawers. The only words I could make out were “Tell me where are they or I will crush your head under my feet.” I crawled up beside the door, unable to move, trying to muffle my whimpers. Then the shouting stopped, and all I could hear was crying, drawers opened and closed, then there was silence.