The Snake in the Cauldron
A/N: Some of you may have noticed that I changed Fatima's last name from Said to Syed. I was informed by a Muslim sister that the surname Syed is more common. As a non-muslim writer, I am constantly learning more about Islam and I will try to correct my mistakes as I write. Thank you for understanding.
Fatima brought a spoonful of rice to her mother’s mouth, but her mother continued to stare off into a vacant area on the wall. She had been lethargic and unresponsive for two days which was unlike her nature. Fatima put down the bowl of rice and checked her vital signs. Physically, her mother was fine. Her pulse beat at a steady rhythm. Her body emitted body heat at a stable temperature. Her feet were kept warm by red hospital socks with extra grip on the soles. And her breathing was deep and even. But despite the reassuring vital signs, Fatima knew something was wrong.
Gently placing her hands to her mother’s face, she turned her mother’s head to face her, and looked deeply into her mother’s eyes as if to say, ‘remember me.’ Usually, that was enough. Her mother would slowly fixate her gaze, drawing her attention from the wall to Fatima. Her eyes would glint with a spark of recognition and there would be a small light that illuminated inside her, granting her a few seconds of consciousness that stabbed Fatima’s heart in all the right ways.
Fatima looked into her mother’s eyes and waited for the reaction.
Her mother continued to stare at the wall behind her with nothing more than a ragged sigh. Fatima backed away in shock. In an instant, nothing else occupied her mind other than reviving her mother, so she tried everything that used to work. She tried turning on the t.v. to the Discovery Channel, hoping that the sight of Ancient Aztec ruins would rouse her mother’s interests. And when that didn’t work, she blasted the speakers with a recorded Islamic prayer session, held by her mother’s favorite imam. She tried lighting scented candles, hauling her mother in a wheelchair to take her outside for some fresh air, and drawing on her mother’s hand. All attempts to revive her mother failed to no avail.
Fatima’s anguished cry lured her father out of the laundry room, and he rushed to her side.
“What is it, Eshgham?”
“Maman’s not eating.” Fatima turned her teary face to her father, searching in him for an answer. “She won’t look at me. She hasn’t eaten anything in the last two days. What’s wrong with her?”
Noticing his daughter’s shaken expression, Omir tried his best to calm her down; however, his rationality fell short.
“Maybe she’s not hungry yet. Take a break and try again later.”
Fatima did not hesitate to throw him an accusational glare. “Try again later? She hasn’t eaten in two days. Two days! At this rate, she’ll starve to death!”
Possessed by a bout of temporary madness, Fatima redirected her anger towards her father, who became an inevitable victim of his daughter’s wrath.
“Did you mess up her medication? Is that why she’s like this? You swore after what happened last time that you’ll be more careful!”
At the recollection of his greatest shame, Omir fell to his knees. “No, Fatima. I didn’t do it. I was careful this time. Please…”
Omir staggered to his feet and rummaged the medicine cabinet for the notebook which he and Fatima used to record his wife’s medication schedule. The notebook was tattered, barely holding together by its wired spine. But like the Syed’s family dynamic, it still managed to work despite its rough history and deep scars. Omir brought the notebook to his daughter, who yanked it out of his hand and scoured through its contents greedily. The contents revealed that Omir’s protests were true; he did not mess up her mother’s medication, meaning that the cause for her concerning behavior was yet to be determined. Her father was, in fact, innocent.
Fatima sighed from relief, the kind of relief that brought as much pleasure to its subject while also cutting them raw. The relief made her sober and after realizing how cruel she was to her father, she felt remorseful and cried.
“I’m so sorry…” Fatima said while furiously wiping away tears that came down more violently than she had expected. “I was afraid...I was scared I would have to lie for you again. I didn’t mean to bring...that up. I––”
Her father shushed her.
“No. Don’t apologize. You were scared and tired. Your maman may not have eaten in the last two days, but you haven’t slept in that time either. None of us have.”
Omir felt his heart swell with tenderness for his daughter. With one hand, he swept a long lock of tangled hair away from Fatima’s face, taking care to detangle it as needed. As much as he loved her, he also pitied her as most fathers did when they were aware of the part they played in their child’s suffering. If Omir could turn back the clock and done things differently, he would have made sure he never touched his first drop of alcohol. He would have told his past self to stay sober that fateful day to make sure he had counted his wife’s medication twice. He would have made sure Fatima had the pleasant childhood she deserved.
But alas...all of this was wishful thinking. Regrets became regrets when people realized that they did have a choice in the matter, that they consciously chose to do wrong, and now it was too late. The damage had already been done, and Fatima had grown to become independent too soon and hardened by life’s reality.
Omir felt himself sinking and deeper and deeper into his personal dark pit when suddenly, his brooding thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell. He perked up and so did Fatima. Both looked at each other as if the other knew who it was at the door.
“Go to your room and get dressed.”
Omir waited until Fatima was out of sight and opened the door, only to be met face to face by Samir and his abundant bouquet of red roses. The tips of Samir’s ears were as red as the flowers he held, but his face was solidified with a determined expression that was intended to mask the excitement beneath it.
Samir noted the fresh tear steaks staining Mr. Syed’s cheeks. It unnerved him but only slightly. When he remembered his purpose, he regained his composure with a new sense of dignity.
“Did I come at a bad time?”
Mr. Syed stammered. “Uh...no. No! I just...I wasn’t expecting you.”
Heat scorched Samir’s face. “I’m sorry! I know I should have called.”
“No! It’s fine. Please, come in.”
Mr. Syed stepped aside to allow Samir in. Even after taking off his shoes, Samir managed to keep up with Mr. Syed as they cut through the living room. Samir couldn’t help but notice Mrs. Syed sitting on the living room couch and the bowl of rice that was placed conspicuously next to her. Her eyes were hovering on an empty space on the wall and Samir could tell she had been staring at the same spot for hours.
Samir slowed down his pace. It had never occurred to him that he never bothered to inquire about Fatima’s mother. He had already heard of her unfortunate condition through his family’s rumors and seen her briefly when he was first introduced to Fatima at the tea party, but now that he had the chance to see her up-close and personally, his heart broke for her as well as Fatima. Because now that he had seen her with his own eyes, he could finally begin to understand the weight of Fatima’s burden.
Mrs. Syed was so small, so frail, and so sick. It was a wonder how she was able to survive for so long.
“Seven years,” Mr. Syed said at such an imperceptible volume that Samir could barely hear it.
“Seven years.” Mr. Syed paused in his tracks. Standing in front of the dining table, he thought about gesturing to the seats in which they were to sit down. But with his wife occupying his mind, he decided to turn around and walk to the couch instead.
“I know what you must be thinking. It hurts just to look at her.”
Samir choked on his tongue. “I wasn’t––”
Mr. Syed could only laugh light-heartedly. “It’s okay, Samir. Life has been hard. I don’t think there’s anything you can say or not say to offend me. Please sit down.”
“Now let me introduce you to my wife. A long overdue introduction, I would say.” Mr. Syed turned to his wife and took her hand in his, lightly thumbing the back of her wrinkled hand. “Joon-am. This is Samir. He’s Emina’s son, remember?”
Mrs. Syed was still unmoved.
“You met him a long time ago when he was as tall as your leg. Look how much he’s grown. Look how handsome he is...”
Samir watched Mr. Syed with a sort of shyness. He was in awe of Mr. Syed’s devotion to his wife and how his words were tender with love. It was evident in his touch and his gaze that he loved his wife. He was not afraid of her like how most people were afraid to hold something delicate. Human beings, after all, were not made of glass no matter how sick and fragile they became with age and disease. Samir heard Mr. Syed’s voice rise and drop with humor and excitement, and he became inspired.
This is what it means to love someone, Samir thought. This is true love.
And it was. There was nothing to stop Mr. Syed from sending his wife to a nursing facility and finding another wife, nothing except his love for her. But Samir was no romantic. Love, as he knew, was as much as a burden as it was fulfilling. Love came with responsibilities, with suffering. Love hurt.
“...he wants to marry our daughter. What do you say to that?”
Mrs. Syed slowly lowered her gaze. Mr. Syed and Samir tensed up in excitement, waiting for some kind of response. Instead, all they received was more silence as Mrs. Syed shifted her gaze from the wall to her knees.
“Looks like Mrs. Syed has high standards,” Samir said jokingly.
Mr. Syed laughed as well. “Nonsense. I’d like to believe that if she was here with us right now, she would want the same thing––for Fatima to have a life of her own.” When Samir furrowed his brow, Mr. Syed explained. “My wife has been gone for a while now. She’s on her way to Jannah as we speak, but something is keeping her here.” Mr. Syed smirked. “I guess after all these years she still doesn’t trust me with Fatima.”
Samir entertained the thought of Mrs. Syed being an overprotective mother. It wasn’t hard to imagine it after all the things he heard about her. Had Mrs. Syed been healthy and well, she would have murdered Samir for hurting Fatima. It was something that Samir would have secretly looked forward to.
“Anna always knew what to do. She was my superior in almost everything, especially parenting. Even to this day, I’m still surprised Fatima ended up...decently fine.”
“I believe you should give yourself more credit, Mr. Syed. Parenting is the hardest job in the world. You’re looking at the product of a single mother. My mother practically fantasized about strangling me in my sleep (not that I blame her). And besides,” Samir said with a wistful sigh. “There’s only so much you can do to protect your children. You can’t shield them from the world forever…”
Mr. Syed’s eyes began to wet with tears. His words caught in his throat. “Sometimes it’s not the world you should shield your children from. Sometimes it’s you. Samir...you must have heard about it now. About my...habit.”
Samir could say nothing but nod. Mr. Syed chuckled to himself. It was as he had expected. People talked.
Mr. Syed breathed a ragged breath before confessing. “I picked up the habit in college shortly after my parents passed in a car crash. I felt so lost...so angry. Like, up until then, life was relatively simple, even though my family came here to escape a messy revolution in Iran. Before my parents died, I thought that nothing bad could happen to me if I just prayed hard enough, believed hard enough, and did everything right.”
Mr. Syed’s hands balled into fists. “And despite doing everything right, they still died. And I was so angry at Allah. I still remember praying to him, screaming that I did everything he wanted. And the problem wasn’t that they died. It was the fact that they died, screaming and moaning in pain while crushed under piles of burning metal and the drunkard that killed them drove away like nothing happened. So I drank. There were so many times when I thought I would drink myself to death and I would die, happy that I couldn’t feel anything other than my own self-hatred.”
Samir was stunned into silence. He was seeing Mr. Syed for the first time, the real Mr. Syed. He was Mr. Syed with all his darkness and bitterness and anger. This was the Mr. Syed that was forced to remain hidden, secluded behind a curtain of infamy. Samir wasn’t sure if he liked this version of Mr. Syed, but at the same time he was inexplicably drawn to him.
“...and that was before Fatima was born. Eventually I married Anna, and we had Fatima. My life seemed to fall into this pattern. I would stay sober for a while, be happy, and then I’d feel the need to drink, and suffer the consequences. The cycle would start all over again. I would keep thinking that I was doing better and feel proud of myself and then...I’d mess up again. And now it feels like I’m just waiting...waiting for the moment I would mess up.”
Samir thought about what Mr. Syed said while rubbing his own facial hair. “I know this might be a dumb question but...have you considered rehab?”
“Then what’s stopping you?”
“My own damn excuses. I’m afraid if I go to rehab, my wife will pass away while I’m there and I will regret not being here. I’m afraid of leaving Fatima alone even though she’s twenty-years old and knows how to take care of herself. I’m afraid that rehab won’t work and I’ll mess up after. I’ve been an alcoholic for so long that I’m afraid what my life will look like when I’m free.”
Mr. Syed felt his heart slow and his muscles relax. A wash of cool relief drenched him from head to toe, leaving his thoughts tranquil and clear. Mr. Syed looked to Samir to see if he was feeling this sensation too, but Samir only greeted him with a smile.
“It feels good, doesn’t it? To finally talk about it without someone judging? Four years ago, I had to fly to Bosnia for the first time in my life to attend my aunt’s funeral. She was a crack addict and although I didn’t know her, I felt sad because people were talking bad about her even after they lowered her shrouded body into the grave. A lot of people forget that addiction is a disease. Yelling at someone and calling them lazy or sinful won’t help them. She was in and out of rehab and still died.”
At the mention of death, there was a look of terror dimming the light in Mr. Syed’s frightened eyes. Samir quickly quelled his fears but maintained his sense of urgency. “It’s not too late for you to get help, Mr. Syed. Your daughter is grown. You have a family that loves you, which is more than what my aunt could say. Someone else can take care of your wife while you’re away. You are out of excuses and if you want to be there for your daughter long after she gets married, you should do it. If not for you, then for her.”
Remembering the bouquet of roses he left on the dinner table, he got up to retrieve them and asked Mr. Syed for permission. Mr. Syed agreed and left to bring Fatima into the living room. Samir waited anxiously. He gently brushed through the roses, making sure each petal was fluffed to perfection. The flowers were bound together with a satin pink ribbon, and woven in with the ribbon was a small hand-written letter which Samir wrote, himself.
Fatima came into the living room fully dressed in girlfriend jeans, paired with a white top and a calf-length sandy cardigan that matched her hijab. She was breathtakingly beautiful in a frightening and godly way. The sight of her made Samir freeze and he wished he could erase the dumb look burned into his expression as Fatima questioned him with crossed arms.
“Why are you here?” She sneered.
“Fatima, be nice.” Mr. Syed warned.
Ignoring her father, she said, “Well?”
Samir rose to his feet and gave Fatima the bouquet which she took in the same way someone caught something when thrown at them, an automatic reflex. Her face contorted to resemble an expression of perplexity because she could not possibly understand why Samir could give her something so extravagant and lovely.
“W-What is this?”
Fatima turned the bouquet over in her hands and noticed the letter trapped inside by pink ribbon.
“It’s a bouquet of roses,” Samir said simply. “What? You’ve never seen roses before?”
Fatima’s cheeks puffed from embarrassment and the frustration building inside of her. “Of course I’ve seen roses before. I’m asking why.”
“It’s an apology bouquet. I shouldn’t have scolded you in front of all those people.”
“It’s fine,” Fatima grumbled. “I was being a megabitch. It’s kind of my thing…”
Samir’s brows lifted high on his forehead. “Megabitch?”
“Yeah. Like being a bitch but on an astronomical level. Mega.”
“It’s not supposed to be funny,” Fatima said with a stone-cold countenance that dissipated Samir’s humor.
“Sorry. Well then...do you like the flowers?”
Fatima brushed a rose with her finger, revealing the layers of fleshy red petals that comprised the flower’s structural beauty.
“Funny. Your father said the same thing about you.”
Fatima stabbed a murderous glance at her father, who quickly looked away. “Did I say that? I don’t remember…”
Fatima thought about scolding her father when Samir abruptly announced his departure. “It was really nice seeing you again, Mr. Syed. You too, Fatima. I’ll be going now.”
Mr. Syed began leading Samir towards the door while Fatima stood frozen in place, baffled by the conversation that just occurred (or rather the lack of it). She was perplexed as to why she was suddenly hit by a pang of disappointment when the sight of his hair disappearing behind the door frame made her heart pound against her ribs or why he didn’t stay to talk to her. Fatima became overwhelmed with an urge that was equally agitating as it was invigorating, and she set off to chase after him out the door and managed to stop him right as he was about to enter his car.
“So what?” Fatima began to shout. “You think you can just come to my house and talk to my dad without giving me so much as an explanation?”
Samir let go of the handle to his car door and smiled despite himself.
“I didn’t think there was a need for an explanation. Figure it out yourself.”
“And what the fuck is this?”
Fatima shook the bouquet of roses in her hands to emphasize her point.
It took all the self-control Samir had not to laugh. Instead, he feigned an exasperated sigh.
“They’re flowers, Fatima. Apology flowers. You want me to apologize again?”
But Fatima wasn’t having any of it.
“Normal people apologize with just words. This is unnecessary.”
“So give them to your mother,” Samir said simply.
“I’m NOT giving my mom used flowers. That’s insulting!”
Samir leaned back against his car and chuckled. It was a deep laugh that stemmed from his chest which irritated Fatima to the bone. She leaned in, standing on her toes to look him in the eyes, and with the most serious disposition she could muster, she threatened him.
“I’ll cremate them.”
“Cremation is haram.”
“They’re. Fucking. Flowers.”
“No, Fatima.” Samir was enjoying the new playfully condescending tone he adopted. “We established this already. They’re apology flowers. ‘Fucking’ flowers on the other hand…”
“Is everything a joke to you?” Fatima hissed.
Samir registered her flustered demeanor, flushed cheeks, and her iron-grip on the bouquet with a newfound softness that he had never felt before. And because of his honest nature, his emotions were reflected on his visage, making them apparent to Fatima and for the rest of the world to see. Fatima saw this and staggered backwards.
She could only stand still as he backed out of the driveway and waved to her one final time before disappearing down the road. When he was out of sight, Fatima walked back into her house. Terror slowly sunk in, followed by dread as she realized that she was seeing Samir through eyes that were brand new. She saw him: now handsome when he used to be repulsive, charming whereas he was vulgar, and brilliant as he always was. Now she was aware of the danger she was in and how quickly and suddenly the tides had turned. The witch had been bewitched by none other than the snake lurking in her cauldron.