Everything started when we were thirteen—young and learning to love the womanhood that our mothers forced upon us.
We were eating lunch and she shoved a few more bites of chicken and rice into her mouth, picking absently at the cartilage on the bones, before looking back up at me, “That’s what it meant.”
So it started there, with her grandmother and the books she started to read throughout freshman year. They were books we had to keep hidden, sneaking around and learning everything we could. “We” because Dunia didn’t want to be alone. She wanted a partner and I was happy to do it. I was always happy with her.
But, I guess, maybe it didn’t all start there. The real beginning was Rashida.
Rashida who we loved. She was our age and she was pretty. She didn’t wear a scarf so you could always see her hair long and freshly done. She’d swing it around when she got a nice weave, act like she was all that. None of us could really fight her on it, ’cause beneath our scarves we just rocked those slave cornrows. Easy, no fuss, and no cost. Our mamas could do our hair while we sat between their legs, trapped in for the latest lecture while they greased and tugged at our scalps, but Rashida’s hair was the type to get done someplace else.
Sometimes we were jealous. I don’t know if it was over the hair or the comfort. See, when you don’t have to wear all this fabric, this tell-tale scarf, there’s a lot more you get to do. Rashida could take an ID and buy alcohol. We’d get chased out the stores by the Arab men behind the counters, who’d lecture us about the sin of drinking while selling the devil’s juice themselves. She could walk down the street and be okay, too. Swing her hips and that’d be cool, ’cause that’s what a girl does. My momma still buys dresses three sizes too big to hide mine. But being jealous doesn’t mean we hated her. We loved Rashida.
And ’cause we loved her, I think that’s why she came to Dunia’s house during sophomore year. Dunia’s mom worked the night shift down at the convenience store on Washington and 7th. That meant we got to be in a house alone all night. Rashida knew that. She came to the door loud, banging on it until Dunia hollered for her to shut the fuck up and swung it open.
Rashida stood in the doorway, fake strong. You know how that looks. Watch women walk down the street sometimes, how they keep their heads high and shoulders back. They got the walk of somebody who is somebody, till you catch that limp in their step or how their eyes dart all over the place. Then you notice that this strong isn’t who they want to be. And even if it’s real in the sense that they could handle themselves, it’s still fake ’cause it ain’t how they want to be. Rashida stood collected, her new hair (faux locs, we loved them) piled high on top of her head. She didn’t have any makeup on except for her eyebrows; it made the rest of her look dull, her face a little sunken in. What snitched on her, though, was the way she pulled her bottom lip into her mouth. I could see where the skin had been ripped open, probably on her walk over.
“Your mom home?” Rashida asked, stepping forward. Dunia let her pass inside. She shut the front door and locked it before turning back to the both of us.
“Naw,” I said for Dunia. “She works the night shift.”
“Good,” Rashida said. Dunia opened her mouth, but Rashida went right on speaking over her in a nervous rush. “I’m pregnant. And y’all gotta help.”
See, what I guess happened was Rashida couldn’t find her momma’s box of condoms one night. She always used to take just one before going off to a party. “My mom probably started counting them,” Rashida told us, all hunched over in the chair we sat her in. She looked at Dunia while talking; I don’t think she really noticed I was there. “She’s mad ’cause I’m getting more than she is. Not my problem her marriage is fucked up.”
“So you just let some dude fuck you raw?” I demanded before I could stop myself.
Rashida curled more in on herself like an animal on defense. She hugged her arms close to her body, digging her nails into her sides. “Don’t get religious on me, hypocrite. I didn’t come for that.”
“She’s not, wallahi.” Dunia said quickly, running one hand through her hair. “But damn. What do you need?”
What Rashida needed was no baby, except her mom could never find out she was pregnant. Or that she wanted to get rid of it. I thought Dunia was tripping when she promised Rashida that she could help. I told her that, too. “She’s not pregnant ’cause she’s dumb,” Dunia told me. “She’s pregnant ’cause she did something dumb one time. There’s a difference. Besides, you know she can’t have that baby.”
“She’s not pregnant ’cause she’s dumb,” Dunia told me. “She’s pregnant ’cause she did something dumb one time.”
’Cause, see, the thing about growing up where we’re from is that girls get pregnant. Nothing new. Preaching abstinence doesn’t do much. I think even our health teacher realized that, ’cause she took to just sitting behind her desk all period with ABSTINENCE TODAY, IT’S THE WAYwritten up on the chalkboard behind her. Bombarding the rest of us with Quran and yelling about zina changes nothing, partially ’cause none of us speak a lick of Arabic anyway. But girls get pregnant and then they get stuck, ’cause what college wants a freshman with a two or three-year-old on her hip? What man wants a wife who’s already been used? The boys who father the babies get off free, of course, ’cause it ain’t their bellies that extend out as a brand. You can’t lie when you a girl and you’re pregnant, but all those boys gotta do is hold a straight face long enough to say, “That ain’t mine.”
Don’t ask me how, but Dunia got Rashida into the clinic on our side of town. Maybe she should have known better, or Rashida at least, but someone caught them going in. Rashida was always a skinny girl, so her belly showed early. She ditched the abayas she’d been hiding in for a t-shirt that showed off too much that day. Dunia came by my house after ithappened. We sat on my front porch, watched everyone keep going like Rashida’s mama hadn’t just beat her daughter in the street.
“She called me while her mom was chasing her out the house,” Dunia told me, picking at one of her fingernails. “Think her phone got broke ’cause the call dropped. But I heard her mom say that somebody saw her at that clinic. She kept asking who brought her there. I guess they didn’t recognize me.”
“Good,” I said, ’cause it was. Sorry for Rashida and all of that, but I don’t know what I would’ve done if Rashida’s mom tried coming after Dunia. Maybe gone to jail. I think Dunia was put off by my voice, though, ’cause she looked over sideways at me.
“It’s not good, Sumaya. I heard that Rashida’s mom put her on a Greyhound. She’s going to her grandparents’ house in Atlanta. Not even finishing up the school year here.”
She went to pick at her finger again. Her nails were all bitten down, the way they get whenever she’s anxious, and the skin around them was red and irritated. I took her hands in mine, “It’s good ’cause you’re not hurt. You know her momma would’ve come after you, too. She got problems.”
Dunia stared me in the eyes before looking down at our hands. She looked like she didn’t know what to think, so I put her hands down and turned back to the street. “You tried to help her, man, what else could you have done?”
“Better,” Dunia said. She put one nail in her mouth, chewing around it as she spoke, “I could have done better.”
So, yeah, the beginning started with Rashida. Rashida, whose Greyhound bus crashed on the way to Atlanta, somewhere in a stretch of road between some nowhere towns. They said it was an accident and not the driver’s fault; he swerved to avoid some kids who stopped their car right in the middle of the road, I guess. Turned too much and down they went. After that, it was quiet for months. We were over Rashida, I thought. The circles had faded from under Dunia’s eyes and she didn’t call me up at odd hours of the morning anymore.
There were people in between. Girls who Dunia and I helped. We swiped them condoms, birth control, and did everything that the adults around us were too busy trying to turn their backs on. They wanted to act confused when they saw girls kicked out with babies in their bellies, spend time muttering in the masjid or in the aisles at the marketplace. We did good, for a while. Sometimes, I thought I could smell incense and oil on Dunia. Could feel someone behind me.
Then there was Eleanor.
Eleanor who should’ve been living on the opposite side of town, except her daddy got caught taking money from the rich white church—first and last time they ever hired a Black man to be their minister.
“Can I talk to y’all?” Eleanor asked, dropping her shit down at the bus stop next to us.
I didn’t like Eleanor; I thought she was stuck up for someone whose father was serving time in the same prison as mine. Dunia got along with her, so I played nice. Dunia scooted over closer to me, making room for Eleanor to sit down on the bench.
“What do you want?” I asked, frowning at her.
“I just need to talk, that’s all,” Eleanor said, sitting down next to Dunia. “Y’all know I’ve been seeing a boy,” she began, nervously.
Course we knew. He was a junior—in college. Old enough to buy his own liquor and everything. She got harassed about it in school for a while, but I think most the girls were just jealous that she could get an older guy like that. I don’t really know. I don’t pay attention to men like that. I felt Dunia tense up next to me as Eleanor spoke, though, and I put one hand on her upper arm.
“I don’t know if I’m pregnant,” Eleanor said in a rush. “But I’m late and I don’t wanna risk it.”
“So go get one of those Plan B things,” Dunia told her. “I can’t get it for you, they keep them locked up at the store. But the clinic—”
“Ever since Rashida,” Eleanor said, cutting her off. Her eyes were fixed on her hands, so she didn’t see the way Dunia almost flinched, “they tightened up security at the clinic. Like you really got to have some proof that your parent is with, you know? And I don’t need to tell my mom. Nothing is for certain, I’m just late. I don’t know if I’m pregnant for real.”
“But you think you are, so isn’t it about the same?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she pulled her backpack down next to her feet and rummaged through it until she pulled out a couple sheets of paper. She handed them over to Dunia. “I’ve seen the books you carry sometimes,” she said, “about plants and shit. I looked it up. They can, you know, cause an abortion.”
“That’s dangerous,” Dunia said, looking back up from the papers. The mention of Rashida’s name had driven some of the color from her face, the fear giving her skin a grey tinge. “Eleanor, I’ve never done that for nobody before. I just . . . get people things. Help them, feed them, show them how to take care of babies sometimes, you know?”
“I can’t have this baby,” Eleanor hissed. “And I can’t wait until I pee on a stick or start to show. You got to help me, Dunia.”
I thought she was going to say no. It would have made the most sense to just say no. But her eyes slid back to Eleanor’s papers. Dunia was a sucker for helping people beyond what she could actually do. I was the one who always had to stop her from stealing too much or from running out to confront people’s parents. Some things are beyond us, I’d tell her. That’s not what your grandma wanted you to do.
But her grandma didn’t just birth babies.
“Okay,” Dunia said, taking a deep breath. “Okay.”
Don’t ask what herbs Dunia used. I wouldn’t know. After Eleanor came to us, she disappeared for a few days. I saw Dunia, of course, and we were together, but she wasn’t always there. I’m not regular with my prayers, but I prayed for her throughout those days until she came to my door. It was the middle of the night and there Dunia was in a black abaya with a wooden box held firmly in front of her.
“My mom is home sick tonight,” she told me when I swung open the door and stepped back to let her through. “Yours is at your auntie’s, right? I got the tea. Eleanor is coming here.”
“It’s a tea?” I asked, incredulous, turning back to Dunia after locking the door behind her.
“Yeah. What’d you think it was?”
“I don’t know,” I said, following her into the living room. “I didn’t really think about it.”
“Well, I read some things and a tea is better. There’s not a lot of stuff I could find, though.”
The doorbell interrupted our conversation. Eleanor came inside with her backpack slung over one shoulder. I kept my distance from her and Dunia while they talked. She looked inside the wooden box, smiled thinly to herself. “Like the Nirvana song,” she said as Dunia explained the contents of the tea.
“Exactly,” Dunia smiled back, hers just as superficial. She handed the box over, tapping the lid, “Drink it once a day. Same time every day.”
We walked Eleanor towards the door. She placed the box inside her bag like it was a treasure. I unlocked and opened the door for her, stepping back to let her pass.
“And it’ll work?” Eleanor asked, pausing at the entry to look over her shoulder at Dunia one more time.
Dunia only kept on smiling.
In seventh-grade ceramics class, I remember the first day our teacher introduced us to the kiln. It had its own room connected to the art class by a single door. “This baby can burn up to 2,400 degrees,” our teacher, Mr. Casper, said. He placed one hand on top of it and smiled proudly at the ugly shining thing for a moment before looking back at us. “The clay goes in here after you’re done with your projects.”
“Why?” Dunia piped up from beside me without bothering to raise her hand. She toyed nervously with the edges of her khimar when she realized she’d spoken out of turn, but Mr. Casper was one of those new hippy white teachers. Fresh out of college, he’d come to this side of town to do good work with the “underprivileged” youth. He almost seemed happy any time one of us spoke out of turn or did something rambunctious.
“Good question, Dunia,” Mr. Casper said, stressing parts of her name all wrong. “The kiln transforms whatever you put into it. For clay, it makes it harder. It won’t break as easy, you can get it wet, all of that stuff. No project is finished until we fire it up in the kiln!”
The dry, brittle pots we placed into the kiln would come out sparkling and strong. They were still ugly, sure, but we could actually use them. I found it so strange. We had always been told to avoid heat and fire, you know? Except 2,400 degrees was what it took to make some mud actually useful.
Do you know what a jinn is? They’re creatures made of scorching fire. Smokeless fire. In some ways, they’re a lot like us. They’re supposed to be more prone to tricks, but I’ve met shiftier people. Jinns have free will, too. Like us, they can be good or bad or any combination of the two.
We’re made of clay.
It was multiple organ failure that got Eleanor. A little over a week after Dunia gave her that wooden box with the tea inside, we returned to school from spring break. We’ve had enough deaths to know the drill. We come inside and our teachers stand at the front of the classroom where they usually spend every second right up to the bell sitting at their desks, trying to remember why they even went to school for this shit. Then, instead of a freshman reading the morning announcements, our head principal comes on.
I don’t have homeroom with Dunia. I have sociology on the East wing while Dunia has Algebra in the North. But I know every spot she loves in our school. There aren’t many good places to go, so that narrows it down. Most of the school is already busted or actively breaking. We still can’t use half of our gym ’cause there’s a giant leak coming down from the ceiling. I sat at my desk, only looking up when I heard Eleanor’s name.
“Oh,” I said, frowning, shrugging on my backpack and heading towards the door. Normally, my teacher would’ve stopped me from going, but I think she assumed I was one of Eleanor’s grief-stricken friends. I wasn’t.
I headed to the girl’s bathroom between the North and East wings.
“Oh,” I repeated when I stepped inside to see Dunia standing in front of the sink. She had pulled her khimar off to splash water over her face. Some of the droplets ran slowly down her cheeks; others clung to her eyelashes.
“Sumaya,” she said, and that was it.
I pulled her away from the dirt-streaked mirrors and down to the floor with me, even though it was disgusting, and sat with my back against the first stall. Dunia doesn’t like to be touched when she’s upset, so I didn’t put my arm around her like I wanted. I kept one arm pressed against hers instead. We sat like that for a while, ignoring our principal’s voice droning on overhead. Grief counselors would be available. He was very sorry. There were hotlines to call. People to go to. He didn’t mention that none of them would care after this first week, but he didn’t need to.
There were hotlines to call. People to go to. He didn’t mention that none of them would care after this first week, but he didn’t need to.
“Zola texted me right before first period,” Dunia spoke quietly, almost startling me. “Said Eleanor went to the hospital last night. I don’t know what happened.”
“Wasn’t your fault,” I muttered, putting my arm around her despite myself, pulling her in close. She was tense against me.
“I gave her the tea, Sumaya.”
I shrugged, “Still. Wasn’t your fault.”
The funeral was on a Thursday. Anyone absent from school that day was automatically excused. I wanted to cut, maybe spend the day lying around outside, but Dunia came by my house around 9 a.m. I answered the door in my pajamas and she wrinkled her nose at me.
“You’re going in that?” she asked, looking me up and down.
I didn’t ask her what she meant. She was wearing all black and had swiped one of her mother’s gaudy church hats to cover her hair. A few loose strands floated outside of its confines. I didn’t reach out to tuck them back in. She would have looked good, except for how tired she was. The bags were back underneath her eyes and this time her shoulders sagged with them. It had been less than a week and already her face looked thinner.
We barely spoke on our way to the funeral. Dunia borrowed the car keys from her mom, so we drove down to the opposite side of town—the side that Eleanor should have lived on. And I found myself wondering, as we all crowded into a tiny chapel on funeral grounds two blocks over from the church Eleanor’s father used to preach at, where the chain of blame starts in events like these.
Dunia elbowed me in the side, jolting me back to the present. They were reading the closing prayer. I brought my hands up as Dunia did. We mouthed Al-Fatiha together, the only ones in that entire church, whispering like the aunties do in the masjid. All tongues against teeth, a hiss of breath just loud enough to hear. I copied Dunia when she moved on to recite Al-Ikhlas three times. I don’t know if Eleanor actually gets any rewards, but I guess it doesn’t hurt the dead to try.
“I’m done,” Dunia told me after the funeral. We were sitting on her front porch, watching the cars pass by. She’d gone inside briefly and left me sitting there. She didn’t say more than that, but I could see the pages Eleanor had given her clenched in her hand. She balled them up and smoothed them out over and over and over again.
“Hm,” I leaned back, resting my palms on the ground behind me. I turned my face towards the sky. “What would your grandmother say?”
The kiln and the clay have a relationship that is neither good nor bad. It just is. You can’t force it, though. If you don’t let the clay dry enough before you place it into the kiln, it’ll break. If you heat it too much, it’ll explode. Some things need to double burn.
It was six months before Dunia called me over to her house while her mother was on the night shift. We wandered into the basement where all of her grandmother’s things were still kept. We sifted quietly through her things. I was flipping through an old photo album, running my fingers across unfamiliar faces, when Dunia finally spoke.
“I don’t know how many is enough to give up,” she said without looking at me. “My grandma never wrote about the ones that she lost on accident, you know?”
I flipped another page. It was a picture of Dunia’s grandmother, standing outside of a small building set deep in the woods. She wasn’t smiling at the camera. She rarely smiled in photos, instead staring straight on, like a challenge. The photo was taken on her birthday, probably meant to only celebrate and capture that, but I could see what looked like a small patch of freshly turned earth just behind her.
I shut the photo album and placed it off to the side.
Dunia says she’s got jinn in her fingers.
When we picked up practicing again, she used to whisper verses of the Quran to herself, recite duas until the words became trapped in her dried out throat. They’d turn into meaningless gibberish and she’d sigh before starting over again. I stopped paying attention. At some point, the words became just another background noise as we studied or worked or sat and held the hands of girls younger than us. When they were too young, I could tell it got to Dunia. She’d pick up her pace as she muttered protection and she moved carefully around them.
It took another three months before she tried the tea again, this time on a girl older than us who went to the college campus downtown. She knew of us through a friend or a cousin or something like that. We had always thought that going to college, things would be better. There’d be more help. Guess we were wrong about that.
The tea worked.
Dunia never stopped muttering.
Not until Khadijah came to us, belly already rounding out. She was young.
“I’ve got jinns in my fingers,” Dunia said to her, plainly.
Khadijah jutted out her chin, “I don’t care.”
Somewhere in the woods, Khadijah keeps on throwing up.
Dunia is silent next to me, staring up at the sky. We’ve been lying on our backs for the past half hour. It’s still hot and muggy out from the leftover humidity of the day and it makes me want to crawl out from under the blanket, but I know that sweating is better than making myself an easier target for the mosquitos. The moon is strong tonight, full in the sky, and its light catches on the curves of Dunia’s face. It highlights the way she’s clenching her jaw.
Khadijah had wanted to try the tea when she first came to us, but Dunia had refused. Told her that she was too far along. That we would help her with everything else instead. She was sent to our city by her parents from the West coast—California or something like that. She lived with an aunt, who was waiting for the baby to be born, long enough to take it. Now, it seems like Khadijah is trying anything to evict the baby herself. Tonight, it was the drinking. A call from Khadijah with half-wild sobs on her end brought us out to a house party on the edge of town. Dunia brought her into the woods, partially to free Khadijah from the stares and partially to clear her own head. The sound of Khadijah’s puke hitting the ground is uncomfortable.
I don’t know what Dunia plans to do. I’m here for the same reason as always—because she called me. Because I’m along for the ride. Reaching out in the dark, I slide my hand under the blanket to find Dunia’s. When I take hold of hers, she looks over at me briefly, the tension fading from her jaw as she does. I look back at her for a moment before turning to the sky again, tracing the stars where they lie. My tongue runs ahead of my brain.
“You know, not all jinns are bad.”
I can feel Dunia turn her eyes back onto me.
I keep mine forward.
Somewhere, in the woods, we don’t hear Khadijah anymore.
Vanessa Taylor (@bacontribe) is a freelance writer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She's interested in using a multi disciplinary approach to social justice, from on-the-grounds activism to finding accessible ways to educate community, with writing as a way to make sense of it all. Her work has appeared in Racked, Teen Vogue, Rise Up Review, and elsewhere. She is currently an Arts & Culture co-editor for Sapelo Square and a fellow for Muslim Wellness' inaugural DREL fellowship class.