It was only ever supposed to be a joke, a trick, a meager, selfish brutality that we thought would fade away just as soon as it was committed. I suppose it was foolish of us not to expect anything more. It was foolish enough of us to expect anything at all. We, with our gum-snapping, eye rolling, lip-curling and hair-flipping were so entranced, so caught up in the beauty of what it meant to be beautiful, in the intoxicating splendor of living, of youth, of power, and of vanity.
We lived as if nothing could go wrong, because when had it ever gone wrong before; at least, for us? We were not out parents, with their broken accents and war-torn, poverty-riddled pasts. We were Americans and we were free to be as stupid as we wished. At least, all of us except for Mariam.
What a character she was to us, in her baggy clothes and carefully wrapped headscarf, she was the court jester to our society of glossy-haired, primly-dressed princesses. She was our black sheep, our punching bag, a constant source of cruel amusement. We never questioned her place at the bottom rung of the social ladder we had created, but the funny thing was neither did she. Whether she was too foolish or too nice for her own good— nobody could tell— but that kind demeanor and eager-to-please smile never faded, not even after the worst of tricks.
Zahrah said we ought not to feel guilty. Mariam had brought it upon herself, but I couldn’t help but wonder sometimes. We’d play some mean little joke or pull some ridiculous stunt, and we’d laugh and take it all in, but she was always silent. Was there something in those moments I should have read and seen?
Utter disbelief always seemed to appear on her face. It irritated me, what had we ever done to make her think she could trust us? But, I suppose I was only angry because of the guilt I seemed, on some level, to feel. It weighed on my conscience like wet feathers on a bird. These wet feathers I brushed off and plucked out when I could and I treated Mariam, our little jester Mariam, all the more cruelly because of them.
It’s sad to think that we were all such cowards in our youth. Sara, Nur, Iman and myself; everyone seems to have been afraid to speak out and make those wet feathers known. Sarah was just following the others, Nur didn’t want to lose the friends she had made, and maybe me? I buried my feelings deep inside and became the best puppet the world had known. Was this a reasonable cause? If it was, I was the pride of the coalition.
“It’s nice to be able to share the guilt,” Iman had said over coffee, that hazy afternoon, years later. She was haunted, too, we all were.
Mariam visits me at night. She sits on my bedside and smiles her smile and asks, “Was it easy?”
I hate myself for it but I know the answer is that it was. There was nothing easier than descending that mountain, nothing simpler than that last slip of the tongue. I tell her I didn’t think, that I’m sorry, but she only nods her head and turns to the window. I watch her as the night fades by, as if watching will atone for my sins. In the morning, when my mother rouses me with a silent smile and stony eyes, I am still watching, but Mariam has gone already, and only my nightmares remain.
I remember that month in fragments, jagged shards of shock and pain that piece together to form a horrible picture. It was Zahrah who started it. Zahrah had lost the election of Student Government Association president, and Zahrah was angry.
She wasn’t obviously angry. In fact, she made it a point to go out of her way to seem the complete opposite of furious. Always smiling at the people who passed by, pasting that million-dollar crest-white grin on her face for the entire world to see. It was obvious to anyone who knew her, really knew her the way we did, that she was fuming.
We could see it in the way she clutched her books to her chest with enough strength to make her knuckles turn a pale yellow-white, stark against her nut-brown skin, in the way that peculiar little vein pulsed in her temple, and most obviously, in the way that she spoke to Mariam.
It was with a special, vicious tilt to her tone, nothing like our carelessly cruel jokes of the past. When she spoke, there was special venom in her voice, reserved for the girl who had beaten her in the elections.
In all honesty, it was only to be expected that Mariam would win. She may have represented everything we claimed to loathe – frumpy, stuffy, disgustingly fastidious in faith, always looking at us with those large, round eyes, as if to say, “Allah is watching.” We hated the reminder – it chafed at us, made our skin crawl.
Yet, when we had reached the sanctity of our own rooms and were separated for the evening, it was always Mariam we turned to, Mariam who listened to us complain about one another in silence, Mariam who promised to pray for our tests in this subject or for that college entrance exam. It was always Mariam.
We just didn’t like to admit it, and so when daytime returned, we put our masks back on and continued playing to the same rhythm, mannequins in the hands of some master puppeteer.
So it made sense that Mariam won, at least, to everyone in our little gang but Zahrah. She ranted and raged and took us aside one foggy Friday evening, when the Imam was giving his usual soporific spiel about Jennah and Jahannum, and told us her master plan.
The excitement of that evening had mingled with the exotic spices of the food before us, and we took to the idea with a kind of fearful, panicky excitement; it is easy to forget your own mortality when you are intoxicated with vitality.
“Oh, it’s perfect!” Nur had blurted out, eager to please Zahrah. She clapped her hands together, her eyes shining with a nervous delight. The others quickly chimed in with nods of assent, each doing their best to show our ringleader how much they adored the idea.
I was slow to cotton on to the display of flattery, and asked the question that must have been lingering in everyone’s minds.
“Won’t she be…upset? It’s kind of going too far, isn’t it?”
Zahrah had scoffed and rolled her eyes, quirking one perfectly arched eyebrow and demanding,
“Don’t tell me you’re chickening out, Hafizah.”
I was quick to deny, my cheeks flushing under the sudden accusing stares, and shook my head, stuttering out a response in an attempt to do damage control.
“I thought we were friends.”
Friends. Friends didn’t do this sort of thing – take away the one thing another person cared about. It was wrong. But, it was what Zahrah wanted, what we all thought we wanted, and so I buried my moral compass and bobbed my head in silent acquiescence, listening with resignation and growing apprehension to the blueprints of Zahrah’s master plan.
I wish I had stopped it then. Had stood up and refused to be involved; if I had backed out Nur, Iman, and the others would surely have followed suit.
Yet I held my tongue.
One of the greatest crimes I had ever committed.
We spent our days scheming and reviewing and waiting, biding our time for the right moment and rehearsing every move. Nur would be the watch, Sarah would man the lights, and Iman would catalogue our little prank with the camera— so that we could laugh about it in the future, according to Zahrah. Zahrah, as always, watched her idea blossom into a venomous flower from the sidelines.
I was to be the star of the show, the final blow that brought our week of preparation to an end. Every painstaking step depended on me. At last, the day of reckoning arrived; the SGA’s canned food drive had finally ended, and the entire school was packing itself into the auditorium for a grand finale of sorts, a pep rally. One that would start off with a short message from their president.
Mariam stood when a beaming principal called her name; smiling that gentle smile of hers as she made her way to the podium amid cheers and applause.
Silence reigned, as the noise died down and she looked out over the sea of students. I lurked in the shadows behind her, waiting, my heart thudding in my chest and my hands twitching at my sides. Any moment, and it would begin…
“My fellow students, welcome -“
Her words were cut off by a piercing scream from one of the girls in the lower seats as the lights went out with an abruptness that took my breath away, burying us all in darkness. That was the signal. Sarah’s job was done, and only mine remained. I had minutes, seconds and my hands reached out, fumbling blindly in the dark, groping, reaching, and at last meeting with soft cotton fabric.
I jerked back, ripping away at the cloth and diving back into the shadows, just as the noise intensified and the lights came on.
Every eye was riveted upon the girl who stood on stage— the girl whose hair had only moments before been hidden by cotton fabric.
I don’t know when it was that she started screaming. Just standing there, one hand raised futilely to cover her hair, sobbing her eyes out as if that headscarf had been her last shred of sanity.
And perhaps it was. We had taken everything from her: test scores, homework, clothes, friends and now? Now, we had taken her dignity.
They never would have found out it was us, never, if we hadn’t turned ourselves in. Nobody guessed. Nobody suspected that the Muslim girl had been betrayed by her own fellow Muslims.
You could tell she knew though. It was in the way she looked at us, those wide, owl-like eyes of hers filled with accusation, with a question.
It stayed like that, right up until the day she hung herself in her backyard. They say her mother found her with a scarf wrapped like a noose around her neck, and a copy of the Qur’an glistening with dew drops in the grass. Religious, right up until the moment she ended it all. A permanent solution to what was only temporary.
Time went on. I haven’t seen Zahrah lately. In fact, I haven’t seen her since the funeral, when the four of us stood in a silent line, our heads hung like naughty children as her mother screamed at us, her words made unintelligible by rage and bitter, burning grief.
I wonder if she ever takes a break from her medical school studies to think about the girl whose death she caused or helped cause. I wonder if she blames herself at all.
Although it may have started with Zahrah, I know that fault lay in all of us. There is a certain sickness to be found in the hearts of girls who would betray one of their own. I carry guilt like a constant weight on my shoulders; it lightens sometimes, when I’m off uncovering the dirt on some new story in my journalistic endeavors or holding my little girl close.
It never truly fades. I reckon it’ll stay with me until the Day of Judgement; I wonder if she and I will meet again, the victim and the criminal.
Oh, by the way, my daughter. Did I mention we named her Mariam?