Volume 27, Number 4

The Girl in the Headscarf

George Holm

The girl in the headscarf moved into the old house on the corner of the street around the beginning of last spring. I remember the first tulips had just emerged from beneath the year’s final crust of dying frost when the neighbors began to talk. The house on the corner had stood empty for a while prior, so the girl likely would have been noticed regardless, but I know now that the headscarf attracted an attention all of its own.

In the early days, the neighbors talked a lot about where the girl in the headscarf had come from and how she had gotten here. Their stories differed, but the theme was the same. They said that she was one of those refugees from this or that country. She was here on the taxpayer’s dollar, they said. She was being given a free ticket to come live in the country our forefathers had fought to build and protect. She had no place here.

I wasn’t sure which parts of those tales were truth and which were fiction. I just listened and nodded when the neighbors would stop me and tell me these things. A lot of them took their information from the News, they told me. I guess I always thought it pretty strange how one source could produce so many different versions of a single story.

The girl in the headscarf seemed to work pretty hard on that house. Like I said, it had lain vacant for a while, and the place had a mildewy look about it. The garden was unkempt and overgrown. I think most would have agreed it had become something of an eyesore. She changed all that, though.

She worked on that place all day long for weeks on end. The house took on a radiance, and the garden was trimmed and pruned back meticulously. The neighbors weren't impressed. A few said their houses might look the same if they had free money and no job to worry them. I didn't argue but honestly I found the fruits of her labor were something of a pleasure to regard. Also, I was pretty sure at least one or two of those neighbors were unemployed themselves.

* * *

By the time that the cool stubble of spring had become summer’s rich overgrowth, the girl in the headscarf appeared to be legally employed and working hard. She would leave the house early each morning and return late in the evening. Of course she wore the headscarf and below that the uniform of one of the local chain stores. I only saw her occasionally but she always seemed to walk with a certain nobility. Her skin was dark beneath the headscarf, the eyes bright and the teeth perfectly white. Her back stood straight and her shoulders high. She looked hopeful and proud to me. Like the home she had created, I thought she was a sight to behold.

By this time, the neighbors talk was of a different flavor. They said that the headscarf she wore was a symbol that concerned them in no small measure. There had been whisperings in the local church and prayer meetings about the nature of her religion and exactly what it entailed. What information they had been unable to glean from church they had learned from the News.

Some said that the girl’s god was sexist. There was further concern that her god was an intolerant one and that his teachings encouraged violence against those who had chosen gods other than he. Something about that god sounded familiar, although if I’m honest I haven’t been to church in a while to know exactly where that familiarity stems from.

Like I said already, the girl in the headscarf lived on the corner of the street. I live up the street from that house, up on the hill such that if I had ever felt a need to keep a watchful eye on her, I likely could have. I never felt that need, but a man can’t help his eyes from seeing if they’re open.

On one of those bright summer mornings, I was passing an upstairs window when I saw that girl in her back garden, kneeling on a rug. According to my intel from the neighbors, the rug was called a prayer mat. They said that this is what those foreigners use to worship that vengeful god of theirs. I’m no expert—I don’t even watch the TV much—but that ritual looked like something peaceful to me. I thought it might be nice to go down there and talk to her about her prayer-time, maybe even ask her where her family were and if she needed any help with anything. I’m sad to say I didn’t, though. I guess it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t have made much difference anyway. Might have got me in trouble with the neighbors too.

* * *

One day in late autumn, I was sipping on some cider and admiring the color changes in the trees through an upstairs window when I saw the girl sitting on the back step that overlooked the little garden behind her house. She had her knees pulled up to her chest, holding them tight to her, and she was crying, I guessed from how her body moved in the autumn light. It was a painfully lonely scene. What had happened I do not know, although I figure that if I had been alone for six months in a foreign land without the sight of a friendly face I might well have mustered a tear myself.

No one visited her while she lived in that house, not that I noticed at least. The neighbors certainly made no attempts at congeniality, for their time was consumed watching her movements and of course watching the News when they weren’t doing that. I sipped my cider, and it tasted all the more bitter for the scene I was witnessing, but I will admit I did not act upon my emotions. The hand of friendship remained firmly on my cup, and I went about my business rather than have the neighbors on my doorstep interrogating me about collusion with the enemy, for their concerns had escalated once again, you see.

By then they were claiming that anyone who had the audacity to come to this Great Country of Ours and brazenly wear that thing on their head was clearly trying to make some kind of a statement. They said that she was someone to keep a close eye on. It was pretty likely she was planning something, they reckoned, something that ultimately meant the maiming and killing of God-fearing homegrown men and women. We were under attack, they said. Vigilance was required. The News had to be watched, and so did the girl in the headscarf.

The gossip that whispered up and down the neighborhood was an infectious kind of chat, one that you could easily find yourself believing in completely if you weren't careful. The neighbors told stories of refugees raping and slaughtering innocents at every opportunity. Atrocities were on the increase around the globe, they said. To be honest, I got a little nervous when I heard that. I even watched the News myself that night.

* * *

Last year was an election year, and this had the neighbors pretty excited. Election years always seemed to get people talking as you might expect, but last year had an extra buzz about it. One of the candidates seemed to think just like the neighbors did. He shared their fears, and he promised to do something about it. The neighbors wouldn't have to worry about the girl with the headscarf with a strong leader like that in charge, they reckoned.

I noticed changes in the neighbors after that. They no longer made efforts to lower their tone or to disguise their stares when they spoke of the girl in the headscarf. With a strong, intelligent candidate in the public eye, thinking and talking just like they did, the neighbors felt their views were vindicated, they said.

She walked some days, that girl. She walked normally enough, even wore Nikes and gym pants. As time passed, she looked increasingly nervous on those walks, with her head low and her shoulders slouching. Her eyes lost some of their sparkle, and those white teeth were rarely revealed. At least wearing gym gear, she couldn’t hide a bomb around her waist, the neighbors said.

* * *

The first snow of the season had arrived by the next time I saw the girl in the headscarf through that upstairs window. A thin layer of soft powder had covered the neighborhood and she was laid pretty much in the same position she’d assumed to pray last time. It was early dawn light and I couldn’t understand why she would brave the chill of the early morning like that. As I strained my eyes to see closer I realized that her headscarf had spilled forward into the snow. At least that was what I thought at first.

By the time I had brushed my teeth and approached the window again, the winter sun was lighting the snow, bright and pure. The first thing that struck me was how strange it seemed that she had prayed long enough for the rug and herself to be dusted with a good layer of white. I fetched my glasses to afford myself a clearer view, and I knew then that it was not the headscarf that spilled about her head, for it was black—had always been black—and the spillage that encircled her was red. It was blood, I knew, for it was the same color as my own, the same color as the blood of every man and woman in the neighborhood. The only difference between this blood and our own was that it was spilled and still and cold.

I figured from what I could see that the killer must have escaped toward old Ted’s yard, for I could make out footprints leading through the snow. I called the emergency services like a good neighbor should, I guess, but I offered no name. Further, a fresh flurry of powder had arrived before the emergency services did, and those footprints were gone before anyone else could witness them.

No one ever did figure out for sure what happened to the girl in the headscarf. I had some sadness about it, I must admit. But, as with so many things before, I kept that fact to myself. Sometimes it’s safer that way. The neighbors were shocked, of course, but only in the way they were shocked when old Ted’s missus ran away with his brother the month before. There seemed to be a strange excitement in that surprise.

* * *

So the house on the corner stands empty now. No one walks the street wearing a headscarf anymore either. The neighbors remain cautious nonetheless or vigilant as they call it. The election has ended, and it appears that the neighbors’ opinions were shared by many, for their horse won the race. The neighborhood was well educated on the best person for the job all along, they say. Now they’re talking of a wider, growing movement. People in headscarves better watch out. The things they talk about now remind me of some stories my grandfather used to tell. The details are hazy though. That was a while ago.

Regardless of the means, we’ve got to be kept safe, the neighbors say. Safe from the threat of brainwashed lunatics who expect us to change our ways.

I guess it's possible they're onto something.

People are pretty terrifying when you think about it.