The body in the bathtub is starting to smell.
I have been staring at it for hours, trying to forget that not too long ago the body had been he and not it, but that does not seem to be working.
When he died I dragged it into the bathtub, leaving a trail of blood along my imported Moroccan rug—a gift from my mother-in-law. I lifted the body, heavy as cement, which meant practically embracing it. The front of my dress was soaked in its blood.
I took a moment to catch my breath afterward, and I could not stand the feel of the bloody dress on my body so I simply stripped down until I was in nothing but sheer black tights and pink brassiere. With slightly trembling hands I lit a cigarette and curled up on the toilet seat, knees pressed against my chest.
Now, hours later, I have smoked an entire box of Cleopatras and bitten through most of my thumbnail. I have to spit out chipped black nail polish.
When the body twitches violently enough that it slides further into the tub, I jump in response, nearly falling off the toilet, stare at the body for a full minute, then sigh when nothing happens. I adjust, sit cross-legged, my last cigarette dangling loosely between my fingers, and continue to frown at the body as though it is a maths problem I need to solve. My leg twitches faster than I can control it.
It is the waiting, more than anything. Waiting means idleness, and idleness leads to thinking, and thinking leads to overthinking, and overthinking means that doubt and anxiety and fright would creep into the unguarded corners of my mind and tear me apart from the inside out.
I hear a phantom wail coming from the bedroom, and almost run to it by instinct before I remember my baby boy is safe at my mother-in-law’s house for the weekend.
My phone buzzes, sound waves scraping against ceramic. I put out the cigarette and retrieve my phone from the sink. The text on the screen reads: “Proof?”
I snap a photo of the body in the tub. Its eyes stare emptily at me as the flash goes off.
Less than a minute after I send the picture I receive the response: “3:45AM. Street 9, Maadi. Deco Cafe. Wait outside. Wear white.”
3:45AM. Less than twenty minutes from now. Resisting the urge to throw my phone away I instead go to my closet to pull out the first white dress I see and quickly leave the apartment. Deco Cafe is close, but I will have to hurry if I want to make it in time.
Street 9 is bustling even this late at night. Twenty-four-hour cafes have all their tables laid outside, where their patrons are enjoying the breezy night. Hookah fumes drift towards me, along with the fumes of freshly made Turkish coffee. The unnaturally bright street lights expose deep cracks in the sidewalk, along with the dust and trash that litter the streets.
And the noise—car horns honk in uneven rhythms as they speed past. Motorcycles rev their engines. Speakers blare loud pop music from every corner, the irritating songs mingling together into a long string of nonsense. Various people shout various things intermittently: a mother calls to her daughter not to cross the street, a waiter yells at a busboy to fetch more tobacco, a group of teenagers squeals with laughter at a dirty joke . . .
It is beginning to grate on my nerves. I grew up feeling stifled on my parents’ farm in Sohag, surrounded by nothing but open fields. I wanted to come to the city, so I latched onto the first Cairene suitor who asked for my hand, a distant relative of ours. My parents were ecstatic at my acquiescence; my new husband was rich, born and raised in America, and he had returned looking for a bride and a place to put his business degree to use. Less than a month after our first meeting we were married and living in Cairo.
Now I found myself missing the farm: the smell of goats and clean air, the palm trees heavy with dates, the utter and complete silence at night. Cairo is a rabid, roaring animal that refuses to be silenced.
I arrive at the cafe promptly at 3:45AM and loiter, trying my best not to look conspicuous. Soon, a girl approaches me. She is wearing a white abaya with a scarf draped loosely around her shoulders, as though it has slid off her shiny straight hair. She looks me up and down without saying anything, then stops with her eyes lingering on my legs.
“You’ll have to take those off when we get there,” she says finally.
I blink. “What?”
“Your tights.” She raises her voice a decibel. “They said white only.”
I scowl. “Right. Are you my ride?”
She nods. “Nawal. Are you Nahla?”
We walk quietly to her car, a greenish Fiat that looks about a thousand years old. When I sit down in the passenger seat, the springs beneath me poke up into my thighs. I shift uncomfortably as Nawal starts the engine, which takes several tries.
Nawal speaks first. “So . . . did you do it?”
I glance at her warily. “Would I be here if I hadn’t?”
Her laugh is hollow. “Right. So . . . who was yours?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
I only look at her out of the corner of my eye but I can see the look she gives me as she begins to speak.
“It was my brother. Since my father died he’s been calling himself the ‘man of the house.’ You know what that’s like. He’d hit me if I so much as laughed too loudly.”
I say nothing, only keep my gaze on the road in the hopes that my steadfast silence will get her to shut up. But Nawal keeps talking, almost like she cannot stop, like she needs to get it out, to be heard.
“It wasn’t that hard, really. Mostly because he didn’t expect it.” Nawal sighs, as though recalling a pleasant dream. “I came up behind him and slit his throat. He died so quickly!” She pauses. “But he saw me before he passed. He knew what I’d done. Did yours know?”
A faint buzzing is beginning to gnaw at the corners of my brain, so I say nothing.
Nawal is quiet for a few moments, then starts up again. “Why do you think they said we had to leave them in the bathroom?”
“I have no idea.” I massage my temples, but it does nothing to quell the headache that is all of a sudden raging inside my skull. Why is she talking so much? Why does she want to explicate this?
“Do you think—”
I turn to glare at her. “Would you please shut the fuck up?”
Nawal snaps her mouth shut. She is silent for the rest of the drive. Thank God for small mercies. At this point, I cannot thank Him for anything else.
After about an hour Nawal pulls up to a squat, redbrick building. We are just on the outskirts of Cairo proper, where the ancient, sprawling city kisses the desert. Here, buildings are sparser, overshadowed by vast swaths of golden sand. We are far from any streetlight, and only faint moonlight illuminates our surroundings.
Nawal leads the way, swinging the metal gate back slowly. She takes off her shoes at the entrance and waits for me as I removed my own shoes and tights, so that I am barefoot in my white dress. The floor is unfinished, like the building’s exterior, and the cement scrapes against my toes as I follow Nawal towards the dark stairwell and into the basement. I can hear a faint humming coming from below but I choose to ignore it for now.
The air grows colder the farther we descend. The humming grows louder. I can barely see anything in front of me but for the faint glow of an approaching lamp, which I realize is attached to a very short, round man.
He smiles at us, the cavernous gaps between his teeth like crooked doorways. I frown as my eyes fall on the rough brown zebibah on his forehead—a prayer bump. What is a man of such devotion doing here?
He notices where I am looking and laughs softly as I avert my gaze. “It’s an old mark,” he says, his soft voice belying his girth. “It refuses to go away.”
“We’re not late, are we?” asks Nawal anxiously.
“Not at all. Follow me. I’m Muhsen, by the way.”
We follow Muhsen further underground, while I try steadfastly to ignore the humming. It is not helping my headache, which now feels like a blade between my brows.
We emerge in a dimly lit room filled with people. Most are women; there are only three other men besides Muhsen, who walks ahead to join the rest. Nawal and I are the only ones dressed in white. The others, including Muhsen, all wear pitch-black clothes. They all seem to be gathered around something, but I cannot see what it is from here. I glimpse something writhing under a black tablecloth, but something tells me I do not want to look too closely.
Beside me Nawal absently scratches at her wrist, only she is doing it so hard she draws blood. I look up at her; she is transfixed and does not seem to have noticed her self-harm. I want to reach out and grab her wrist, stop her bloodletting, but the sight of her skin sloughing off her has me mesmerized too.
The humming is so loud in here. Where is it coming from?
A woman in a black abaya breaks away from the crowd and approaches us. She appears to be in her thirties at most, only a few years older than I, but the way she carries herself suggests an authority beyond her years. Her black hair is drawn back into a high bun; pearl earrings dangle from her lobes. Along with her long nose and sharply arched brows, she looks like royalty.
She smiles at us and only her lips move. A shiver goes down my back.
“Welcome. I am Widaad.” She clasps her hands right at her pubic bone. “You’re the last of us, so we can get started.”
“What is it that we’re doing?” asks Nawal. She still has not stopped scratching.
Widaad’s smile spreads. Instead of answering, she says, “I’ve been told you’ve both done what you were supposed to. Well done; our handler will take care of the rest.”
I fight my headache to speak. “If you have someone watching us, why’d we have to do it? Why couldn’t your people have done the killing as well as the cover-up?”
“It doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid.” Widaad maintains her serenity, but I sense a new rigidity in her jaw, as though she is holding something back. “They were yours to kill. That was necessary. Now, let’s proceed.”
I see a glimmer of something in her eyes then, in those unblinking eyes—has she blinked since I have seen her?—a glimmer of something that unsteadies me. By the table where everyone is gathered, I hear a low wail that reverberates through my organs.
“No.” I feel like something is trying to break through my skull. “Forget it. I changed my mind. You can turn me in if you want but I’m leaving.”
I turn but stop short when I realize the door we walked through is now shut. I turn its handle but it does not budge. Muhsen locked it after we came in.
I face Widaad; she is still smiling. She has not stopped smiling.
“We’re trapped?” Nawal asks shrilly. “You’re keeping us prisoners?”
“You made a bargain,” replies Widaad. “You must fulfill your end.”
I back away, nearly bumping into Nawal, who is still scratching her wrist even as she dances in panic. “What do you want?”
Widaad gestures to the table where everyone is gathered. “Come.”
The thudding in my head intensifies every sound in this tomb; beside me, Nawal is hyperventilating, and through it all, scratching. Her fingers are caked in her own blood. I am struggling to contain my panic; I do not need hers to amplify my own.
There is nowhere for us to go. I take Nawal’s bloody hand and drag us both forward. I wonder at this even as my feet drag me towards the table, even as my mind screams at me to run away, as far as I can, to beat my head bloody against the wall until I pass out—but—the humming—
Those in black begin to sing. It is soft, at first, barely a whisper, but slowly their voices join and rise, echoing through the small room. It is a strange tune. It is not any kind of Arabic I know, and it does not sound like any of the Coptic I learned at church, but it is familiar nonetheless. They are harmonizing with the humming. Their guttural melody is beautiful and terrifying. My headache—does it still hurt? I cannot tell. The singing is so loud.
The tablecloth slips off and I see—I see—
It is like the remains of a chicken dinner, with the meat not quite picked cleanly off the bones, only bigger, huge, each bone as big as I am, and the smell is like cheese and raw meat left to rot under the sun.
The chanting grows louder, and the humming is so powerful I can feel the entire room trembling with it. Beside me Nawal is screaming, everyone is screaming, I am screaming, as the bones came together, assemble, the flesh growing in patches, mismatched chunks of flesh, and for a moment I see the body I dragged into a tub, only it is not yet a body, it is still a person, and—and his face is suddenly just there, and the whole scene plays out before me as though I am at the cinema—
My husband, sitting at our dining table, drumming his slender fingers along the hard wooden surface. The rhythm is incessant and threatening. He stares hard at me as I bring out dinner, a bowl of lentil soup, the steam rising off it in crooked towers.
When I set down the bowl, my husband laughs, but there is no humor in it. “Again?” He shakes his head. “Are you really incapable of making anything else?”
I have nothing to say so I say nothing. When I start to walk away he grabs my wrist and shoves me down without even getting up. “Sit. Don’t move,” he says.
I watch him shovel the lentils down his throat then push the bowl at me and demand seconds. When I return, I set the bowl of lentil soup down and stab my husband in the face with a knife. When he screams I know I will never forget that sound, that shriek of utter agony.
He rises out of his chair. He is bigger and stronger, but I am angrier, and I have the advantage of surprise. I yank the knife out and dig it into his gut, then his chest, and his arm, and—I lose track, but I do not stop even when my husband collapses, when he stops moving, stops breathing.
And I know, then, as my memory plays out with sight and sound and touch magnified, every passing moment like a siren in my head, why they had insisted we be the ones to do the killing even as they helped cover it up, helped keep us out of prison. They wanted this, they wanted our sick thrill, our guilt and triumph and relief. They needed it. They needed to feed whatever is forming before us.
It is growing rapidly, and I know that I do not want to look at it, that I cannot look at it, that if I look at it I will never be the same again, so I keep my eyes shut tight. I can hear it, though; I can hear its low, ragged breathing, its words, strange clipped syllables no human mouth could form. I cannot help opening my eyes to try to see what is happening. I look anywhere but up and find my eyes on Widaad. She is gazing up with a look of such pure joy, such ecstasy, such complete and total bliss—
And then the screaming in my head overwhelms me, and, mercifully, I finally pass out.
When I regain consciousness the room is empty but for Nawal, sitting up next to me with a faraway look in her eyes. I lift myself off the floor slowly, wary of my thudding skull, but the headache is gone entirely. It is all too quiet in my mind, and in the room.
“Where did they go?” I ask Nawal.
She says nothing, doesn’t even acknowledge me, only keeps staring straight ahead. It is then that I notice she has resumed scratching at her arm, and while I had been passed out she had scratched at it so much she had gone through her skin and dug through to the muscle, a bright, throbbing crimson.
“Stop that!” I grab her arm despite the revulsion overtaking me. The only response she gives is to yank herself away and continue scratching. She is going to peel off her own arm.
“Nawal?” The girl has no response to her name. Her eyes are blank, empty, staring at nothing, red from not blinking; her fingers move methodically, scratching away. “Nawal?”
Silence, but for the slippery sound of skin being sloughed off.
I get to my feet shakily. The door to the room is open now. I feel I should try to do something about Nawal, but somehow I know she is completely gone, and I want so badly to escape this room.
So I just leave her there.
She does not look back at me, or move at all but for the constant scratching. I wonder briefly what she what she will do once she hits bone.
I stumble upstairs, squinting, as the sun’s glare penetrates the cracks in the building. How long has it been since last night? What had happened? What had we helped unleash?
I cannot find my shoes and do not have the energy to look, so I just walk out barefoot. The ground is bumpy and white hot but I can barely feel anything. Nawal’s car is gone, so I walk until I come to the nearest building. I knock and a teenage girl in a bright red galabeya stares blankly at me.
What can I say? My mind is struggling to form words; my tongue is like a wad of cotton stuck in my throat. “I . . . my car was stolen.”
This is not an uncommon occurrence after the chaos the revolution has unleashed, so the girl simply nods and lets me in. Inside her parents are gathered on the floor around a tableyya piled with fava beans and flatbread. I sit down in the corner, careful to gather my dress around me.
Few words are exchanged as they call the police, who show up nearly an hour later. They ask me so many questions that my head spins, and finally one of the policemen determines I am in shock. He asks if the men who stole my car had hurt me. I shrug because I do not know how to answer.
They drive me home. I make my way to the bathroom and vomit what little I have in my stomach. As I collapse by the side of the toilet I finally notice the bathtub—empty. The floor is clear and shiny. I return to the living room—not a speck of blood anywhere. Even the carpet is clean. The knife I used is gone.
I do not want to think about what any of it means; my mind feels thick and heavy and any thought, no matter how small, is tiring, so I collapse into bed and sleep.
They find my husband’s body a few days later, stabbed nearly beyond recognition and stuffed into a heap of trash near Imbaba, missing his wallet and keys. A robbery, they say, very common these days. I hold my sleeping son in my arms when the police tell me, and I think the tears falling down my cheeks might be real, only it is not grief that I feel.
Later, much later, once the dust has settled, and my husband is buried, and I have inherited all his wealth thanks to my son’s existence, I think back to that night. I allow myself to wonder what might have come of it, what might have been unleashed by two women’s pain and fury. But it was worth it, for this—this peace.
I have heard nothing of Nawal since that night, and with every passing day my memory of those peculiar events fades into a phantasmagoria. It is easy for the memories to slip away when I want so badly to forget. It is easy to pretend everything is going to be fine, even as Cairo’s murder rate skyrockets.
My son gurgles, and I pull him close—
It is easy to ignore all that lurks behind his eyes.