FLICKERS OF LIGHT
By Hina Ahmed
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”
April 2014: School
“Where is the boy Ms. Zareena Khan?” Where is he? The principal of the school asked her like the badgering of a woodpecker on a dead tree. Zareena stood looking before the parking lot, bustling and alive with children, but Zayan was nowhere to be seen.
How could she? How could she lose a child?
October 2015: Zareena’s bedroom
“I just wanted to let you know that I delivered a healthy baby boy last night!” The text message flashed on Zareena’s cell phone screen.
“That is great! I am very happy for you!” Zareena exclaimed, relieved that text messages were able to hide the yearnings of the heart.
September 2016: School
“You have been assigned to work with a special needs second grade boy named Michael. This is temporary matter until we find a full-time placement,” the secretary stated as Zareena entered the main office of the school.
All eyes were on her as she made her way into what reminded her of the cold, fluorescently lighted chambers of an international airport, with its wide hallways, and grandiose, hanging displays of art. She walked with her austere, marble colored glasses and sharp new hair cut that accentuated the delicacy of her jaw line, and the fragility of the femininity of her features, marked by the subtle, silver gem that rested on the left side of her nose; a sculpted face, made by none other than the conscientious hands of her generous Creator; the modesty of her beauty served to magnify it in all the ways that invoked the green laced envy that grew like tangled vines on chalked faces that Zareena sought to briskly walk past on her way to the classroom.
“Hi Michael!” Zareena exclaimed upon first meeting him. “Hello,” he responded jovially, wearing a t-shirt of giant cheeseburgers and flying spaghetti monsters, with his protruding little belly, and short, spiky strands of blonde hair that rested on the top of his head like a freshly mowed lawn. Michael: the epitome of a lovable, huggable boy, with his perfectly round face that glistened like snow in the dark, and eyes that radiated with the dancing charm of both the curiosity and mischief of an unyielding youth. Michael: The perfect American boy.
“Make sure he takes walking breaks every thirty minutes, and make sure that he goes to the bathroom exactly when he needs to, or he gets restless, and he has to sit in his wooden chair while on the floor, or he just won’t pay attention…and he also needs gum, at several intervals throughout the day…” the lead classroom teacher instructed frantically as ‘orders from his mother,’ as she ran from one end of the classroom to the other in last minute preparations for the first day of school.
Things started to take shape within the first week of student acclimation.
“You can’t be giving that much attention to Dayshawn. He is way behind grade-level. Don’t waste your time with him. You need to stick with Michael,” the lead teacher prompted.
September 2016: Zareena’s home
“Let’s make America great again!” Roared a voice over the evening television screen, as Zareena’s father Omar looked on with the alertness that is invoked from an internal disturbance. Omar scoffed at the implications of the man’s remarks, as Zareena viewed the television screen with her father in a state of equal condemnation. “You know the majority of doctors in the hospital we work in were not even born in this country. Does this man not realize the contribution of immigrants?” Zareena’s brother Abdulla said as he profusely chewed on the taut marrow of his chicken bone.
“Well, I can say that after being in this country for over thirty years, we will at best be second class citizens,” Omar said resting his face in his hands, as he continued to look on the television screen with eyes filled with the sorrow of migration.
Back in School
“I am sorry, but we cannot have you filling in for the one-to-one position with Michael anymore. We are looking for someone full-time. However, we do need substitute teachers for our other positions.” The school secretary said to Zareena on her way out of the school.
Zareena spent the remainder of the next two weeks filling in for other grade levels where she was needed, but she found herself lost in thoughts of working with Michael: the eccentric, lovable, huggable boy.
“Ugh. The new woman who got hired to work with Michael is awful, just awful, I want you back!” The lead teacher said to Zareena in a state of flurry while passing her in the hallway one afternoon.
“Yes! Tomorrow morning, you and I will go talk to the principal, and I will get you back!” She said before scurrying down the hallway.
The following morning Zareena and the lead teacher approached the principal.
“Zareena would like to come back and work with Michael, you know she was just so good with him and I would really love to have her back,” the lead teacher said in a state of desperation. Zareena stood silently beside her with a look of passive compliance.
“If Zareena goes to the district office and changes her position from a substitute teacher to that of a 1:1 teacher we will be able to hire her for the position,” the principal remarked curtly.
The District’s Office
“Are you sure? Are you sure you want to resign as a substitute teacher? You realize the significant pay cut, as well as the status shift that will come from switching your position?” The administrator said to Zareena in shock with her request.
“Yes. I realize that, but I think I have really grown attached to this child. He needs me.” Zareena said.
“Well, alright, if that is your decision. I will go get the appropriate paperwork,” the administrator stated.
For as much as Zareena loved Michael, her love, like all love was tested. Especially when it came to having him complete his writing tasks.
“If you don’t stop Michael, I will have to tell your mother,” Zareena said, as he refused to do the writing prompt.
“No!” Michael squealed as he abruptly got up, ran around her, took his hand and struck it forcefully over her mouth.
“Silence!” He screamed.
January 20, 2017
We are going to spend the rest of the day watching the inauguration of our new President, the lead teacher announced in a state of euphoria, as Zareena looked on with all due respect.
“You know, you have done such a wonderful job working with Michael. The family needs a care provider to work with him at their home over the summer. You would be great for the job,” The occupational therapist said to Zareena during the last week of school. Zareena paused.
“You know, you don’t have to take the position, but maybe think about it.” She added before leaving the room.
Zareena had no serious plans over the summer. She wanted it to be that way. This job with Michael would give her a little spending money and seemed like it would be easy enough.
The following week Zareena announced: “Well…I decided. I will take the job!”
July 2017: Michael’s home
Zareena approached the house on the brink of the hill. It was a one story home made of bricks, resting on a small yard, with barren soil and a broken driveway, deteriorating with rumbling rocks, where a worn down, rusted mini van sat slumped and exhausted from the weight of carrying a heavy burden. Zareena rang the doorbell.
“Come in, the door is open!” Hollered the voice of a woman. Zareena entered the home that smelled of both children and their pets on hot summer days. The blinds were shut, the windows closed. A dark dankness penetrated through creaking cracks in the hard, wooden floors that were covered in boxes upon boxes of material goods of dire need.
Michael’s mother, Diane sat at the head of a wooden table, her blonde hair thrown up carelessly, her face plain and unadorned, with the potential for a country like beauty of simplicity, but one that had lost itself.
“Oh, don’t worry about taking off your shoes, we are not like those people,” she said as Zareena stopped herself from doing what had been her childhood habit upon entering a home.
“So, basically, my son has thousands of dollars in his budget in terms of the services he can receive with his disability,” Diane proclaimed.
“Oh, wow, that must have been a difficult process to receive,” Zareena stated.
“Yes, you have no idea, but I did it,” Diane responded.
“You know what would be great for you to watch in order to get some context into working with Michael? Watch the film ‘Gifted,’ it sums up my son very well,” Diane said proudly.
Zareena was intrigued by the endless assortment of magnetic monkeys on Diane’s refrigerator. In one particular image Diane held the face of a gorilla next to hers, her eyes closed, her face softened by the tranquility that comes from sharing tender affection.
“Wow, you seem to be so fond of them,” Zareena said touched by the photo.
“I am. You know they are easy to love once they have been trained to do what you need them to do,” Diane replied.
Zareena’s summer days were spent taking Michael around town, playing in the parks, taking him swimming, and going to the museums: the perfect summer job indeed.
“Come on Ms. K! Come into the water with me!” Michael screamed from the lake, as he splashed around like a fearless, flapping fish.
Zareena tepidly walked to the edge of the lake in her bathing suit, feeling the penetrating eyes of the large bystanders on her small body, hearing their jarring voices in her head:
Perhaps that is her adopted son…he is far too white to be her actual son…then again anything is possible these days…is this woman even permitted to be with this child? Faces compounded by both confusion and suspicion left Zareena with both inner sensations of pulsating pleasures and disorienting disturbances.
“Come on Ms. K! Be the unicorn that I wish to ride!” Michael requested as Zareena got into the water next to him and Michael climbed onto her back, as she took him for a swim: the magical, swimming, unicorn, and her heroic rider.
“It is so great that Michael has you, that you love him so much, thank you so much for all that you do, I really don’t know what we would do without you,” a text message from Diane appeared before her.
It is nice to be needed. To be wanted. Zareena thought.
In a home, outside of home:
“Michael really wants to meet our family cat, Misty, is it ok to bring him to my home?” Zareena asked Diane via text message.
“Sure,” she replied.
“Ok, now before entering you need to make sure to take off your shoes and I don’t want you running around like crazy—got it?” Zareena said more sternly than her usual self as they arrived on the driveway of her home.
“Ummi! I have a special visitor!” Zareena hollered to her mother; her voice echoing through the large foyer as they stepped on shiny, white, floors made of untarnished marble.
“Oh…what a surprise…hello…” Ayesha said, in her trying to be welcoming voice, as she made her way down the stairs, as Michael looked around like a domestic cat brought into the wilderness for the first time.
“It is nice to meet you Michael,” Ayesha said shaking his hand. Michael, suddenly coy, looked down and smiled innocently.
Zareena took his hand and led him to the living room, sitting next to him. Ayesha sat on the opposite side of them, looking on.
“So, what do you like to do Michael?” Ayesha asked, attempting to make conversation with the boy that had won over the heart of her daughter.
Michael: restless, eager to move. “Michael, Mrs. K asked you a question, what do you like to do?” Zareena reiterated, looking at him intently, as Ayesha’s face suddenly fell to clouds of sadness.
Michael made his way over to the mosque monument that rested on the table in the foyer and turned it on.
“Allah Akabar!” The monument rang loudly.
“Ah!” What is that? Michael said as he jumped. “That is our call to prayer, as Muslims.”
Ayesha suddenly interjected enthusiastically. “You know, Islam is a religion that….” But Michael was already half way through the family room, where he found the cat.
“Here Michael, hold my hand and I will give you a tour of our house.” Zareena said leading him into the kitchen.
“Ah! What is that smell?” He asked in frightful awe. “That is my mom’s Pakistani curry, remember I told you that we were from Pakistan?”
“See.” Zareena said as she lifted the cover to the dish, the hot steam invigorating Michael’s face, as he gazed in, and then abruptly made his way to the fruit pile and helped himself to the sweet, decadence of a juicy plum, digging his mighty teeth into its bursting flavor, “this is delicious!” he proclaimed in a state of exhilarated intoxication, the plum’s purple residue smearing the perfection of his skin, as he continued to make his way through the rest of the house; Zareena following like a sheep behind him.
“I met Michael today, he came to our ghar,” Ayesha revealed to her husband Omar that evening. “Oh. He came to the house?” Omar asked, suddenly unable to sip his tea.
Exchanges At the Kitchen Table
“You know, since you work with my other children, just add some extra hours so that you can get paid more, I don’t want you to think that this job is not worth it for you.” Diane said.
“Oh, ha. I don’t mind playing with them, making up hours would probably be just a little bit unethical!” Zareena said with a hint of sarcasm.
“Unethical? No. I don’t think so. Just do it,” Diane remarked.
“You want to teach children in the inner city? Do you understand that they will most likely rape you? You will not make it out alive. You are really great with children, but you need to be working with children like Michael, not those kids that will just end up working in Burger King. Don’t waste your time.” Diane said looking Zareena in the eye.
“Did that woman in the water not understand to evacuate the city? What is wrong with these people?” Diane retorted in response to the images of the Houston flooding on the news.
“So what is your plan?” Diane asked.
“My plan? Like my life plan?” Zareena laughed.
“No silly. Your plan with Michael, what’s your plan with my son?” Diane asked.
“Oh come here Michael let me fold your jeans up so that you can put your rain boots on properly,” Zareena said, as she kneeled down in front of him.
“Oh, stop Ms. K! You are just crazy! Let me show you the way this is done.” Diane interjected.
“You know, you don’t have to call me Ms. K, you can call me Zareena.”
“No. Ms. K… it just suits you so well,” Diane responded.
“Ms. K, my daughter Mallory’s birthday is coming up. I will email you an image of the gift that she would just love to have. Ofcourse, don’t feel obligated to buy it or anything.”
“I really think you will end up marrying a white man, tell your family to stop trying to pair you up with a South Asian man!” Diane declared one evening. “In fact, let me message my one cousin, he is amazing. He would be the perfect husband for you.”
Meanwhile, Michael’s younger sister:
Mallory screamed in anger
Running to the refuge of
Zareena’s safe arms
Wanting to hide in them
From the scorching flames
Of the inflaming voice of her mother
“Ms. K cannot save you!”
Her mother roared
Screaming in terror
The child fled to the chambers
Of her fortified room
The glorified Nanny, with a master’s degree,
The brown Savior
Of white mothers and their children
Empty handed in the homes of their Oppressors
“Zareena, you need to understand what this woman is doing. She is using her power over you, to guilt you into staying in this job, that quite frankly you seem to not even want!” Zareena’s friend Zion stated to her over coffee.
Zareena looked on at him with the pouty sullenness that comes from hearing the hard truth. “Yes. You are right. I don’t even want this job. Yet, here I am. Feeling stuck, feeling like this woman’s children are mine, saturated, completely…by feelings of a despairing guilt!” Zareena exclaimed in devastated self-realization, sitting haplessly before him.
“Break free Zareena, break free from the chains of the oppressor.”
“But, Zion, for all the ways in which you are right, I cannot help but see the humanness in her. In me. In us both.”
In those moments of your
Of your angry anguish
Of your sullen eyes filled with a dooming despair
Of longings for a life that could be
Something other than what it is
I see in the emptiness of your watered gaze,
A reflection I cannot run from.
October 2017: Laps of Affection, Words of Hate
One evening Diane’s youngest daughter Katie decided to crawl up into her lap like a cat; Zareena more than willing to rub her back with affection.
“You like Ms. K that much, huh? Diane said staring at her daughter with piercing eyes. Why don’t you go and live with her and her mOzlem family? She said, like the sudden hiss of a venomous snake.
That evening, Zareena stopped and parked her car in front of her favorite soothing tree, staring at it for what seemed to be hours, unable to stop thinking about Diane’s words.
Her and her Mozlem family.
Words sitting like cemented, wet spit on her face.
How could she? Why would she? As much as Zareena wanted to pretend it did not happen, she could not get her words out of her mind. But more importantly, Zareena had no choice but to confront the unveiled ideology behind them; the haunting secrets of Diane’s heart overtly emerged, engulfing her into the darkness of her heart’s inner most chambers.
But then, there were the children.
The children who had her heart.
The children that found refuge in her lap.
The children who loved her love.
But, the love that loves, also chains one’s feet to the ground.
“She is not my mother!” Michael’s words of the past shook her.
“But they are not your children!” Zion’s words reminded her.
In Bed Wide Awake
The image of Michael’s baby sister, Adele flashed before Zareena’s eyes as she lay in bed wide awake that night.
The tender, soft feet
Delicate and fragile
Healing the broken, bruised hands
Of the people doing their bidding
Grow up to become
The thudding thuds
Of loud feet in combat boots
Ready for battle.
Voices of the past came suddenly flooding through her:
“Zareena. I want you hear now. Right now, right this instant, get in the car and just drive, just drive to me,” Christopher commanded over the phone in the voice of utmost urgency.
“I just want to dig in, dig it into your sweetness, and taste it, taste it on the tips of my tongue.”
After the ordeal, Zareena perused through her facebook page as a numbing ritual, as Christopher planted himself directly in front of her face and demanded her to:
Zareena felt Michael’s hands fearlessly placed on her mouth as if they had the right to be there:
“Silence!” The memories flooded through her like a devastating tsunami.
October 13, 2017
Zareena stated via text message to Diane. And then, she quickly clicked:
“You need to call Diane. She is very upset,” read Diane’s husband’s text message.
Zareena quickly clicked:
Freedom is never earned through the asking of permission.
Zareena parked her car, as it sat still under the bright sun. She got out of the driver’s seat and climbed over to the passenger side of the vehicle. She took her favorite handmade crochet blanket infused with the rich hues of blue, purple, and red, and placed it over her delicate body. She closed her eyes. Yet, even amidst the darkness that ensued, she could still see the faint flickering of light.
About the Author:
Hina Ahmed is a writer from Binghamton, New York. She holds a BA in history and an MA in education from Binghamton University. She enjoys writing poetry, short stories, political essays, and is in the midst of a forthcoming novel: The Dance of the Firefly. She has had her work published in NYU’s Aftab Literary Magazine, East Lit Journal, Archer Magazine, Pipe Dream, Press and Sun Bulletin, among others. When she is not writing, she is probably talking about how she should be writing.