Silent Witness

the prompt : Sphinx

746 words ©Piper E McDermot 2014

My name is Zainab, and that is what I was, once. An ornament. Something admired and cherished; something to be set on the shelf above the empty clutter and foolish accidents of daily life.

  I sit in the bus as it rumbles down the El Faoum Desert Rd, and stare at the greasy bald patch on the back of Abdallah’s head. Just as I have stared at it every day for the last twenty-five years, all the way from the end of Street 8 to our shop on the far side of the Giza Plateau. The shop has been in Abdallah’s family for generations, and like all the former generations of wives, I dust the curios, sweep the floor, and make Abdallah’s lunch in the kitchen at the back.

  If my son – my beautiful, stupid, stupid, Hassim – were still alive, he would have worked there too. Every day, for the next fifty years. Perhaps he is better off now. Abdallah boasts in coarse whispers about Hassim to his cronies on the bus, more and more as time goes by. I no longer care what rewards Hassim might be enjoying in paradise.

  I slip my hand inside my bag to stroke the figurine of Abū al-Haul, the Father of Dread. I don’t think of him like that. I prefer the way the tourists speak of him – enigmatic, mysterious, silent witness of the ages. Sphinx. My figurine is not perfect; I couldn’t quite get the shape of the face right or exactly match the gold paint to the ones in our shop, but it doesn’t matter. I am proud of him.  I think I did a good job with the paws.

  Beneath my hijab, I smile. Oh, how they argued and blamed and shouted over that missing piece of deadly clay. Not one of those men thought to question me. I am but a silent witness to their great deeds, after all. But like Abū al-Haul I am full of secrets.

  At the shop, Abdallah unlocks the padlock and rolls up the metal shutter door. He goes in first, as always. In the kitchen, I boil the water and set out the glasses on a tray for his morning coffee.

  Our customers are tourists, but not the kind who spend lots of money. Those tourists buy their souvenirs of pharaohs and pyramids and mysterious Abū al-Haul at the museum gift shop. Our tourists are the ones who took a wrong turn, the ones who haggle over the price because someone told them it is expected. Abdallah calls them infidels, and worse. Not to their faces, of course.

  Allah’s blessings on one of those infidels. The woman stood in the gloom of our shop, fanning herself with a glossy brochure – I still remember the picture of the Great Pyramid flapping back and forth in front of her face. She complained to her husband that she didn’t want that thing “goggling” at her every day for the rest of her life, and why couldn’t they just buy a nice papyrus or something and get back to the group, it wasn’t safe here.

  I was captivated by that word, goggle. I like to learn new words. One thing led to another and well – as I said, I too have secrets. I still like to think of Google as goggle.

  “Abdallah, I need to go buy some tomatoes for your lunch.” I have my bag slung over my shoulder as I walk through to the front of the shop.

  “I’m hungry, so don’t stop to gossip. Hurry up.”

  “Insha’Allah,” I murmur.

  He doesn’t even look up from his newspaper, and it is no trouble at all to slip my clay figurine in amongst the others on the counter right by his elbow. I even risk a look at my Abū al-Haul’s face. No, far from perfect – but there is the ghost of a smile on lips. His body looks lithe and proud.

  I finger the little black box inside my bag as I walk away down the crowded street. Now? No, another moment.


  The whumph of the explosion hits me in the back, harder than Abdallah has ever hit me. I lay in the gutter, an unnatural silence singing in my ears. Through the cloud of dust, I look up at the plateau. I can make out the shape of Abū al-Haul.

  Is he smiling, too?

  Abdallah has paid for Hassim’s rewards in paradise. Insh’Allah.

 Allah’s blessings on immodest tourist women, secrets, and Google.

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