Ian knew about the forthcoming royal wedding, but he’d never wondered if Sarah Ferguson would be invited. His Egyptian neighbor, Khadija, explained that Ferguson had told Oprah she blamed herself for being snubbed.
On a night when her second husband, Fuad, stayed inside to watch soccer with their son, telling Ian about poor Sarah Ferguson and other details of the royal wedding reminded Khadija of her own married life. In the courtyard of their building, Khadija sat in an iron chair. It would have burned her flesh during the day. Ian, facing her, inhaled her spiced perfume and kitchen smells.
Khadija had identified the problem with her first marriage after learning from Oprah and a highly intelligent guest that men cheat because they’re weak.
Suddenly, without evidence, she knew her husband was unfaithful. Or rather, her evidence was the knowledge of his weakness. From that knowledge, thanks to Oprah and her guest, she was able to infer disloyalty. She knew he’d cheated with the same degree of certainty that she knew that if the sea were ink used to record God’s wisdom, it would be consumed before the words were exhausted.
He didn’t deny the accusation. He slandered the woman whose show he henceforth forbade Khadija to watch.
Khadija interrupted the story about her first husband to mention Fuad.
“It is as if God made us for one another.”
Ian had sought to be on Fuad’s good side since their first meeting, months before in Dubai. They hadn’t known they would become neighbors and teaching colleagues at a technical college in Oman.
In a crowded café, Fuad and Khadija had asked to share Ian’s table. Fuad’s flawlessly pressed white shirt radiated intensity. He drank coffee, wiping his mouth delicately. He seemed bothered by the possibility of ruffling his mustache. It was straight and narrow, like the knife-edge creases in his slacks.
“What will happen to rich boys who have studied only shopping when the oil wells are dry?” he said, eying two men at the next table. “Will the Americans rebuild these ignorant boys’ grand houses when they crumble? Will the British give them jobs? Then they must learn to drive taxis and wash the clothes of other people.”
Khadija tightened her headscarf as if it were a noose.
“But they have camels,” Fuad said. “A true desert Arab knows what sweet consolation riding a camel can bring.”
He made a kissing noise.
“They create no civilization or science. They know only how to sell the oil God has created and to train their police to frighten the foreign workers into making no trouble.”
He passed a hand over his military haircut. Feigning composure, the men left the café in their robes that were as white as Khadija’s teeth.
One evening in the courtyard Ian had mentioned his plan to visit Jerusalem.
“Sacred to Muslims and Christians,” Fuad said.
“No,” Fuad said, striking his palm with his other fist. “Their history in Jerusalem is of guests who steal a house from its owner.”
“But the Temple. . .” Ian said.
“Invented! You are my friend, but the Jews spread this lie and good people believe it. In time, God will punish the liars.”
Fuad smiled at Ian to forgive him for being deceived.
“My grandfather never forgot the day that Jewish soldiers told him that his home in Jerusalem was now theirs.”
Khadija fussed with her headscarf.
“The house stood on a small piece of land,” Fuad continued. “But it was fertile land. For centuries, our family never wanted for oranges or dates.”
In the sharia court, Khadija had told the jurists about the ban on watching her show. Then she admitted that perhaps this wasn’t a terrible thing. She didn’t know if the scriptures applied. But she opined that if anyone possessed competence to render an opinion absent direct scriptural evidence, it was these learned men.
The judges wept with laughter into their beards. They instructed Khadija’s husband to let her watch Oprah.
In the courtyard, Khadija shook her head.
“My husband was clever. He apologized to the judges. His show of humility satisfied them. For his infidelity, I had nothing they would have considered evidence. Yet I knew the evidence would come, for Oprah now lived in my home like a djinn.”
The anger drained out of her voice. She looked solicitously at Ian.
“I think for Christians the word is ‘angel.’”
Ian had never disputed Khadija’s assumption that every Westerner on the Arabian Peninsula must be Christian since no Jew would live there.
“So now Oprah haunted your husband’s conscience? Did he confess?”
“He coughed blood that was like truth erupting from his ulcerous soul.”
Khadija took a breath.
“I respect the judges. Yet I believe they will rule incorrectly because my husband knew to show piety and deference. I see the serpent, but it is sheep’s clothing that he shows the judges.”
Ian imagined a snake in sheep’s clothing.
“But the decision was taken out of their hands. God understood that they were pious and learned men who must not be permitted to make a mistake. The end came like a miracle. Only in months.”
Ian shook off the image of the woolly serpent.
“The fast end was his death from cancer,” Khadija said, “but also not from cancer.”
“The autopsy was inconclusive?” Ian said.
“Can cancer kill a young healthy man? God killed him so the judges would not dishonor themselves with a mistake. Disaster strikes only with God’s permission.”
Khadija waited for Ian to reply.
“The death of my husband was like the border between the desert and the oasis,” she finally said. “I walked in the desert for months in the faith that those who believe will have gardens that rivers flow beneath. God is with the patient.”
Khadija twisted her head as if her headscarf were chafing.
“In one month, Oprah’s show is ended after twenty-five years,” she said. “My husband could not stop me to watch. Only Oprah herself stops me to watch.”
“I will find a different reason to make sweets.”
“Sweets?” Ian said.
“Before her show I’m in the kitchen one hour, sometimes two. I make sweets. I eat while I watch and she and the sweets are together a great comfort.”
She tugged on her scarf.
“Today I make too many, so some are left over. You want me to bring to you?”
A lock of Khadija’s hair escaped. Ian and Nicola had discussed Khadija’s hair. They’d agreed: it must be jet-black. Now he saw it was brown, like Nicola’s. He closed his eyes and wondered if there was any chance she would return after walking out on him and going back to England a month before.
Don Stoll‘s fiction is forthcoming in THE BROADKILL REVIEW, XAVIER REVIEW, THE MAIN STREET RAG, WILD VIOLET, SAGE CIGARETTES, NORTHWEST INDIANA LITERARY JOURNAL, HOOSIER NOIR, HEART OF FLESH, COFFIN BELL, BETWEEN THESE SHORES (twice), PULP MODERN, YELLOW MAMA (twice), FLASH FICTION MAGAZINE, and FRONTIER TALES, and recently appeared in PUNK NOIR, THE GALWAY REVIEW (twice: tinyurl.com/y6nxt9nv and tinyurl.com/y4vdsqhe), GREEN HILLS LITERARY LANTERN, THE AIRGONAUT, CLOSE TO THE BONE, HORLA, YELLOW MAMA, DARK DOSSIER, A NEW ULSTER, THE HELIX, SARASVATI, ECLECTICA, EROTIC REVIEW (twice: tinyurl.com/y8nkc73z and tinyurl.com/y36zcvut), CLITERATURE, DOWN IN THE DIRT, and CHILDREN, CHURCHES AND DADDIES. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasizing women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages.