The train slipped through the silent, snowy landscape. Most passengers were either returning home or vacationing. But one, a petite girl of nine, was leaving home and never returning. To her, the train was a portal to a whole new world. A world without Mama.
Footsteps distracted the girl away from the frosty window. A man in a sky-blue uniform loomed over her. A friendly, yet concerned smile painted his face. “We’re almost at our last stop. Can I help with anything? A phone call? Bags?”
The girl blinked at him with her huge dark eyes, shaking her head.
“Ok, well I’m always here.” The man moved along.
Only two things were coming with the girl to her new world. Herself, and her parting gift from Mama: The book.
“It was Papa’s.” Mama’s voice was teary. “He said it’s the most special book in the world, and has magic. A good magic. Keep it safe, promise?”
The girl had promised, though she wished the book could’ve stayed on their wobbly table, there for her to read to Mama and Brother, in the future when she planned to become the first literate family member. But Mama was gone. Brother was really gone.
She opened the book now. The black lines swirled into shapes that could’ve been a playground for angels. Red and green flowers bordered each page.
A tear dropped from the girl’s face and spread over the tip of one of the inked flowers. The train rattled to a stop. The girl wiped her eyes, and stuffed the book under her arm, forcing herself to descend the steps.
Mama had taught her one word to recognize: Layla, the girl’s name. At the train station’s platform, Layla spotted her name sketched in chalk on a piece of cardboard, held by a brown-skinned man with a woman in a red headscarf carrying a baby adjacent to him. Mama had referred to them as Uncle Saleem and Aunty Maryam. Layla clutched the book tighter, trying to summon the “good magic,” as she approached them.
Even the adults’ smiles dripped with sympathy. Sympathy because of the girl’s separation from her mother. Sympathy because of her brother’s death.
“You must be Layla,”Aunty Maryam said.
“How was your trip?”
An eternity seemed to pass before Maryam broke the silky silence. “Well, you must be starving. I have a hot supper cooking back at home.”
Layla jostled against the car seat in the back of a small, silver car. The ride went slow because of the ice, but she barely noticed. Layla focused on not crying. Though after she reached her new home — no, it’s a house, and not mine, she thought — and nibbled at dinner, and was shown to her room, she immediately buried herself under the blankets and quietly cried, the book indenting her cheek.
The next few weeks followed a pattern. Since Uncle’s small painting business was closed during winter, he would be out from early mornings to late evenings performing the odd jobs he could find. Layla spent her days quietly playing with the infants and toddlers Aunty babysat, doing chores, and watching the snow from the window, wishing to ride the snowflakes to Mama. At supper, the adults made futile attempts to converse with Layla. Layla would respond with nodding, shaking her head, or shrugging, and eventually the adults would give up and talk amongst themselves. Layla finished her food quickly, excused herself, and went to cry until she slept.
It wasn’t until the snow piled up so high that it trapped the townspeople in their houses that Layla really spoke.
Aunty was in the kitchen making soup. Uncle sat on a pine-green armchair reading the newspaper, muttering about rebels setting fires across the state, in defiance of the government. Whatever that meant. On the floor, Layla played with Baby Tariq, with the book in her lap.
Uncle eventually cast the newspaper aside. “You’re always carrying that book. What is it about?”
“Can I see it?”
Uncle fingered through it, and brightened. “It’s the Qur’an! Do you know what that is?”
Layla remembered it being mentioned, but that was all. She shook her head.
“It’s a holy book that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, through Angel Jibreel.”
“An–” Layla stuttered. “An angel?”
“Yes, the angel would descend from heaven and tell the verses to the Prophet over twenty-three years. Now Muslims everywhere recite it in our daily prayers.”
Layla’s heart sped. Maybe it really was magic. “So, it’s a book from heaven?”
A smile crawled up Uncle’s face. “You could say that. Would you like to read some?”
Layla stared at her socks. “I don’t know how to read.”
Uncle scratched his beard. “I have an idea. Follow me.” He marched to the basement door at the end of the kitchen.
“What are you two up to?” asked Aunty.
“Layla’s going to learn the Qur’an,” Uncle announced, so matter-of-factly that Layla truly believed she could learn to read; she would finally achieve the key to unlock the magic.
Wooden steps moaned like a distressed spirit beneath the twin feet of Layla and Uncle. Scattered across the basement floor were dozens of cans of paint. Layla nearly tripped navigating around them.
The walls were concrete. Uncle brought a brush dripping with black paint up to one wall. Layla scrunched her face. Were they going to learn to read, or to paint?’
“We’ll start with the alphabet.” Uncle drew several symbols on the wall, conveying their names and Layla repeating after him. The sounds tickled Layla’s throat.
“Can you start from the beginning?”
Layla inhaled. “Alif, baa, umm…”
“Taa,” Saleem reminded gently.
Layla’s fist clenched. She would learn this. It was her lifeline to Mama.
With Mama’s warm smile hanging in Layla’s heart, she said, “Alif, baa, taa, thaa.”
“Congratulations, that’s four of twenty-eight letters down. Practice them. We’ll have lessons every day.”
Layla was eager to learn more now, but tomorrow would arrive soon enough. That night, with the letters and their names spinning around her head, Layla cried a little less.
As promised, Uncle and Layla practiced every day. They reviewed the letters Layla knew, and then learned new ones. It was a struggle sometimes. Layla often forgot the letters or their proper order.
You’re too dumb, self-doubt would whisper. Ha, you’ll never learn to read.
But Uncle patiently reviewed her work with her, and Layla set her jaw and tried until she succeeded.
Along with learning the alphabet, Layla’s attitude also improved. Gradually, she livened up, chattering or humming brightly, as she did in her old world. She still missed Mama and Brother deeply and occasionally cried at night, but that was to be expected.
Aunty would sometimes smile to herself as Layla talked to her, murmuring, “The Qur’an truly is a miracle.”
Several weeks after Layla’s first lesson, she dragged everyone down to the basement, which she and Uncle had dubbed Cave Hira, after the place where Prophet Muhammad received his first verses of the Qur’an from the Angel Jibreel. Layla loved how the first word revealed was: iqrah, which means “read.” It helped fuel her determination.
“Why did you paint over our alphabet?” Uncle said, but Layla didn’t answer.
A brush covered in light green paint in her hand, Layla carefully attacked a bare wall. Layla chanted the alphabet and wrote the letters out one by one without mistake. “…Noon, how, wow, yaa,” she finished.
Saleem clapped. Maryam twirled Layla around. Tariq drooled happily. At dinner that night, Aunty presented Layla with a lemon cake, which she could eat all on her own.
With the alphabet learned, the lessons in Cave Hira transitioned, first to how the letters sounded, next to how they sounded under vowels, thirdly to how they were combined. Layla sometimes thought the day would never come, but finally she was ready to learn actual words. Cave Hira was an increasingly vivid place; Arabic words and letters in myriad colors covered the walls, sometimes extending to the newspapers that covered the basement floor. Layla often gazed around in wonderment at her and Uncle’s work.
From the beginning, every day after the main lesson was finished, Uncle read passages from the Qur’an, and conveyed the plethora of stories they told. Layla learned about the many prophets, and the arrogant people that opposed them. She learned about good and bad, paradise and hellfire. She learned about God and His glorious names. She learned that Mama was wrong; the book wasn’t magic. It was a miracle.
Uncle had a strong, melodious voice, and as he recited, Layla would rock along and imagine her soul leaving her body to dance with the angels. Months of retreating to Cave Hira with Uncle Saleem, helping Aunty with Baby Tariq, visiting neighbors, and playing outside, all flew by. And then, the snow long gone and the sun tinting the grass golden, school came.
The route to the one-room schoolhouse was easy, and Layla had memorized it, but Uncle wanted to take her on the first day. His car hobbled up to the school and Layla popped out, touching a backpack pocket to make sure the Qur’an was there. She waved to Uncle, and, slightly nervous — but excited to experience school for the first time — trickled in with the other students. About a dozen kids, ranging in heights and ages, lined up behind desks. Ms. Amina, the teacher, made them all introduce themselves. Simple enough. Then came placement testing.
“Just to see what you know,” Ms. Amina explained. “Don’t stress over it.”
Layla knew hardly anything Ms. Amina tested her on. Until it came to Qur’an reading. Layla raced through the alphabet, confidently pronounced the words Ms. Amina wrote out, then was given a passage from the Qur’an itself. Although she stumbled slightly, Layla got all the way through it.
Ms. Amina’s hazel eyes were beaming. “That’s amazing Layla! Very well done!”
Layla blushed, but smiled. She caught the eye of Ahmed, an older boy who’d been struggling with the alphabet earlier, scowling at her. Layla’s smile disappeared. By the end of the day, however, Layla had forgotten, and was contented with her first day. Until she turned the bend in the road, and was surrounded by a gaggle of red-faced classmates, Ahmed at the forefront.
“Who do you think you are?” he spat. “Acting like you’re better than us.”
Layla was momentarily confused, then realized he was referring to her reading. “I’ve just been practicing a lot. You guys can learn how, too.”
A girl mimicked her in a whiny voice, and in seconds, Ahmed’s fist was flying in Layla’s face. She stumbled back, landing hard on the road.
“Crybaby.” Ahmed sneered at her tears.
The gang ditched Layla before an adult came.
Instead of lashing out, Layla turned and ran. Uncle was away at work, and Aunty was busy babysitting, but Layla wasn’t heading for them. She went straight to Cave Hira, huddling between the paint cans, finding herself reciting Surah Al-An’am.
“And this is a book which We have revealed as a blessing, so follow it and be righteous.”
Layla was so focused on reading, she didn’t notice the smell of smoke.
The fire raged through the town, as if it were seeking vengeance. Perhaps it was. Billows of smoke clouded the air, setting the scene for a cacophony of ear-piercing screams and violent coughing. Most of the citizens of the town either sustained a serious injury or died from the fire. But one, a petite girl, clutching a book, was rescued by a team of medics from beneath a collapsed ceiling.
“She’s completely unscathed,” the one carrying her announced.
“It’s like magic,” the partner commented.
The girl trembled, her grip of the book tightening, the vivid memories of her treasured lessons and family members floating in her mind.
“Not magic.” Layla croaked. “It’s a miracle.”