Volume 25, Number 3

The Gift

Patty Somlo

Dr. Abdullah patted his pants pocket a second time. The envelope was still there. He would read the letter at home, after cleaning this last office. He leaned over the long wooden conference table, depressed the yellow plastic nozzle and then smoothed the foam. At least for another night, the trash had been emptied and the desks and conference table polished.

Under his breath, he acknowledged that he was worn out. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept the entire night. Most nights, he lay awake, letting his old life torture his mind.

* * *

He had spotted her sitting in the third row, close to the aisle. At that moment, the light kissed her mouth. Sun rays ribboned through the open windows. She was young, her neck long. Tight braids pressed against her head and gathered at the base of her neck in a knot.

Dr. Abdullah chastised himself to focus on the sermon. He took a breath and exhaled the words, then ran his gaze across the pews, at last letting his eyes savor her.

His sermons always began with a clear devotional intention, and this morning’s was no different. Today, he aimed to lead his parishioners’ thoughts to the idea that children represented God’s love.

When he looked up near the end of his sermon, Dr. Abdullah saw that the young woman had begun to cry. He was tempted to ask but then assured himself that his rhythmic repetition of the words fruit, God and love were what had prompted the tears to fall.

By the time Dr. Abdullah arrived at the door, a line had formed—from the porch, down the steps and spilling across the lawn. Near the end, he spotted her, in a rose-colored dress that showed off her ebony arms. She clutched a Bible in her right hand and a blue cloth. The cloth she lifted now to dab her eyes.

* * *

The elevator dropped silently down the twenty-six floors. Dr. Abdullah stepped out and walked across the silent lobby past the security guard. When he exited the front door, he heard the lock click behind him.

The air was foggy and cold. He could hear raindrops fall. It had taken time for him to get used to this weather, always damp, making him shiver. It had taken even longer to get used to the man he had become—a janitor, in a country he had never even wanted to visit.

In the vacant lot, his blue car, the paint faded nearly to white, was easy to spot. The door groaned when he dragged it shut.

He twisted the key and the engine sputtered to life. Seconds later, it died. He turned the key again. He could smell gas this time.

Before trying again, he leaned back and closed his eyes. A moment later when he sat up and turned the key, the engine caught.

A slender line of light appeared above the darkness. In moments, the sun would be up. Dr. Abdullah was so tired he could have drifted off to sleep, right there in the car.

* * *

“Thank you for coming,” Dr. Abdullah said, his right hand out.

Her eyes appeared swollen. She dabbed them with the blue cloth.

“Is anything wrong, child?”

He placed his hand on her arm. The flesh felt warm. He thought he detected her shivering.

The young woman looked down. Though Dr. Abdullah waited, she refused to say more.

“If there’s anything I can do,” Dr. Abdullah said.

The woman raised her head. She had midnight-colored eyes. He slid a square folded handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the sweat off his brow.

* * *

The sun had come up by the time Dr. Abdullah arrived. His living room was dark, crowded with books piled on plywood shelves and on the floor.

Normally at this hour, he liked to sit in the rocking chair and sip tea sweetened with three teaspoons of sugar. He was in no mood for tea now. The envelope waited to be ripped open, the contents devoured. He didn’t have the heart to fill the kettle and listen to it sputter.

* * *

She came to see him the following evening. He would never forget how she looked. Twisted locks of hair hung around her head, like snakes that had slithered out from under a rock. The light was low, lamps lit instead of the harsh white overhead fluorescent bulb. Her oval eyes made him think of a frightened antelope.

She spoke softly. Dr. Abdullah needed to lean close.

“My husband,” she whispered.

Dr. Abdullah scooted his chair over to be nearer.

“My husband is angry,” she explained.

She stopped and sighed.

“My husband beats me,” she confessed.

He placed his hand on her wrist. The young woman’s fingers twisted in her lap.

“What is your husband angry about?”

Dr. Abdullah edged close enough to hear her breathe. The scent of her coconut oil caused his concentration to slip.

Her eyes flew down to her hands. Dr. Abdullah slid his fingers down to cover hers.

“I cannot have a child.”

Dr. Abdullah was breathing hard. He gripped her hand so fiercely, she let out a small cry.

* * *

It wasn’t the first time she came to see him but the second. His fingers caressed her hand, clutched into a ball, as if she were a flower whose petals ached to be unfolded. She did not move away or shiver as she might have done. Ofelia was her name, and he whispered it, as he touched her earlobe and circled the narrow passageways with his tongue.

With the deadbolt securely fastened, he took her on the floor. She wore a long loose skirt that he lifted to reveal pastel yellow underpants. He touched her softly between her legs, surprised how sticky and wet he found her there. In moments, he was moving inside her.

The world spun away. Blood pulsed in his throat. Suddenly, he felt as he did when preaching, rising on the wave of his words. At a certain point, he could do nothing, but let go.

For days and weeks afterward, visions of Ofelia interrupted his thoughts of God. In unguarded moments, the image of her eyes, her breasts and the dark melted chocolate of her skin drifted through his mind.

* * *

The narrow road separating the Christian and Muslim towns was dusty, the afternoon sun blindingly bright and hot. The truck veered off the road several times to avoid deep ruts.

One by one, Kofi and the other Christian men from Dr. Abdullah’s town set the Muslim homes on fire. The mosque they saved for last.

The Muslims retaliated the following morning. By the time the light disappeared from the sky, ashes from thirty Christian homes were smoldering on the ground.

Village elders came to Dr. Abdullah’s house and pleaded with him to go. After they left, he sat at the kitchen table, staring at the shadow his head threw against the wall.

* * *

The morning had started out hot. Dr. Abdullah leaned down and kissed his wife. His five children, two girls and three boys, were asleep in the bedrooms.

“I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon when the meeting is over,” Dr. Abdullah assured his wife. The assistant pastor would be giving the next day’s sermon.

During the drive to the capital, Dr. Abdullah couldn’t stop thinking about Ofelia. He felt himself grow hard, imagining her on all fours, her buttocks under his fingers, as he entered her from behind.

He took a room in a hotel near the center of town. A few miles south, he met Ofelia in a smaller hotel, known for its discretion.

The following morning before Dr. Abdullah stepped up to the front desk of his hotel, he pressed his fingers to his nose. He was breathing in the smell of Ofelia when the desk clerk spoke up.

“An urgent message for you sir,” the clerk said, handing Dr. Abdullah a folded sheet of clean white paper.

Dr. Abdullah did not open the letter until he entered his room. Seated on the edge of the bed, he unfolded the paper and read the news.

Later that evening when Dr. Abdullah greeted Mr. Namembe at the door of the elder’s home, Mr. Namembe said, “I wanted to tell you in person. There were some people in the church.”

Mr. Namembe closed his eyes and dropped his head down.

“They did not survive.”

He couldn’t make himself look up.

Dr. Abdullah’s vision blurred and his stomach lurched.

“Your wife,” Mr. Namembe said.

Dr. Abdullah knew what was coming next.

“And all of your children.”

Dr. Abdullah heard the angry buzz of a trapped fly.

“I am so very sorry,” Mr. Namembe said.

That evening, a note was slipped under Dr. Abdullah’s door.

My husband knows, Ofelia wrote. He is the one who started the fire at your church. There were no Muslims involved.

The night Dr. Abdullah slipped out of the country with his money and a 14-karat gold wedding band sewn into the lining of his charcoal gray dress pants, the heavens opened and the rain poured down. Sometimes in dreams now, Dr. Abdullah stands at the pulpit, his gaze moving over the congregation. Waking in the morning, his spirits sink, as he realizes that his old life is gone.

* * *

The letter rested unopened in Dr. Abdullah’s lap. He leaned back and closed his eyes. Sweat from his fingers smeared the return address. His thumb rubbed against the stamps absently.

Staring at his hands, Dr. Abdullah could see that his nails had grown jagged and long. He used the one on his index finger, lengthened into a point, to rip the envelope flap apart.

Before slipping the thin blue paper out, he got up and walked to the kitchen. The stove was old. He rifled through a pile of garbage bag ties, paperclips, receipts and loose change in a hand-woven basket on the counter. Having lifted everything out, he set the objects down in a pile.

Though he hadn’t found a match to light the stove, he filled a teapot with water, settled it on the burner up front and turned the knob to high. A quiet hiss signaled that the gas was on.

He moved the rocking chair into the kitchen, next to the stove. Before sitting down, he shut the door.

* * *

The boy in the photograph Dr. Abdullah pulled out of the thin blue envelope had Dr. Abdullah’s mouth and his narrow eyes. A quiet hopefulness played across his face, as he smiled broadly in a black cap and gown, shiny under the late afternoon sun. Seeing how straight and proud he stood, Dr. Abdullah felt glad that he’d sent money to help the boy finish school.

It was no surprise that Ofelia had chosen to name the boy Zawadi, the word meaning the gift in Swahili. At the time of the boy’s birth, a mere week before her violent death, Ofelia couldn’t help but see the infant’s arrival as a blessed act.

The words written on the slippery blue sheet by Zawadi’s grandmother, who raised the boy after Ofelia’s husband Kofi was arrested for Ofelia’s murder and sentenced to death, blurred as tears started to fall from Dr. Abdullah’s eyes. Zawadi has been awarded a scholarship to study in the United States. He is anxious to finally meet you and thank you in person for all of your help.

Setting the envelope down, Dr. Abdullah took a deep breath of air that smelled oddly sweet. At first, he closed his eyes.

But then somewhere at the back of his mind, he heard a voice telling him, No, not now. This is not your time.

He stood up, walked over to the stove and turned the hissing gas off. Next, he moved quickly across the kitchen, opened the window and took in a deep breath of the cool morning air.

That’s when he let the tears that had started flowing run freely down his face. And for the first time since leaving his country, Dr. Abdullah sat himself down and began to pray.