The Seven Leaves
“Wahid, ithnan, thalatha, arbaa, khamsah, sittah, sabaa…”
“What is it? Can’t you count further than seven?”
“I can’t see any more leaves. Do you have any?”
“I’ve already collected mine and I’m going to take them home.” Within seconds, Dawud snatched the leaves Nuh had just collected out of his hands and sprinted through the grubby alleyway towards his home. Nuh’s feet twitched for a second, wanting to chase after him, but he knew he was too tired. Even walking home seemed daunting.
“Rotten thief.” He muttered, kicking up the dust on the dry pavement. There was still time for him to find more leaves, perhaps fresher ones, bigger ones. It was past asr time, which gave him only another thirty minutes before he had to be home. He had been picking up the leaves that had fallen from the old man’s garden. The branches of the pomegranate tree were leaning over the wall and into the alley, its leaves wafting in the wind, starting to shrivel from the burning sun. The idea that this tree once grew such mouth-watering fruit never even entered Nuh’s mind. He was too busy wishing that he could be tall like his brother Ibraheem was and how that would enable him to reach for as many leaves as he wanted.
A few minutes had passed, and to Nuh’s dismay, no more leaves wanted to fall from the tree. The old man must be taking his afternoon nap, Nuh thought, and like children do, he had an idea. He grabbed a broken stool that had been dumped in the quiet alley and dragged it towards the old man’s wall. The wicker stool had clearly reached the end of its journey, with bits of rattan sticking out in all directions. For you and me, moving the small stool would feel like lifting a piece of paper, but Nuh became breathless and felt weak after taking it ten feet and placing it in front of the wall.
He lifted his bare feet up onto the stool, balancing with all his might as he pushed one leg up and over the wall. The sharp edges of rattan left him with a thief’s farewell. Tiny speckles of blood now decorated the cracked, white wall. Instinctively, Nuh jumped down onto the hard ground, the base of the pomegranate tree by his throbbing feet. Most of the leaves on the ground had dried up, perhaps only a handful or two would actually come of any use. He ruffled through them and picked each one up frantically, hoping that the old man hadn’t heard the thump that came from his landing.
The old man had lived in this house as long as Nuh could remember, everyone in the neighbourhood knew him. When he was younger, Nuh would see the man pushing a cart full of pomegranates, oranges, and lemons through the alleys, knocking on every door he came upon. He realised that these must have been the fruits that grew in this very garden and his eyes scanned for the citrus trees, only to be met with disappointment at the dry-barked trees sat wimping a few feet away. No, he thought, I should be happy with what I have; I have nineteen leaves now – way more than Dawud or any of the other boys.
The garden reminded him of a time when he would prop himself up onto his own brick wall, which had been painted a light blue by Nuh’s father after finding out that his wife had borne him another son. Having finished a sweltering day at the madrasah by Khalto Sofina’s house, he sat with an orange and a cup of water watching his father and Ibraheem shake the date trees, collecting the fruits of their labour to sell the next morning in the market. Their faces had almost dissolved in his memory and he tried so very hard to bring them back into focus. Where were the lines of their smiles? Do I really have my father’s nose? The only vivid image that had stayed with him was of their bodies wrapped in white cloth, being lowered into the ground as the Sheikh read al-Fatiha. Back then, whilst clinging onto his mother’s side, he had not understood why they had died and left him. Now, he spent each day avoiding the same fate.
The bittersweet contentment in his eyes soon turned to astonishment, astonishment that the old man hadn’t yet stomped out of his house, shouting at him to leave at once! Where are you, old man? He peered through the open window into the living room. Decorated with old Yemeni print rugs, cushions, and throws, the room looked extravagant to Nuh. There was no sign of the old man so, as children do and have always done, Nuh formed a clever plan (the kind of plan so clever that adults would never understand). He’d always wished he could have such beautiful ornaments in his home, but for some reason his mother never seemed to express any interest towards these things. She simply asked him to search for leaves and not to wander too far from home. He pushed himself through the window and into the man’s house. The stone floor felt cold and soothed his swollen feet.
The room where families would gather to sit and eat and laugh smelt odd, but it wasn’t anything unfamiliar. He slowly walked around and eyed the cushions, one of which he would take home for his mother. With the leaves safely tucked away in the back pocket of his shorts, he reached out for the prize. Nuh believed this day could not have gotten any better. His fingers brushed the golden threads dancing through the deep maroon embroidery; mesmerising calligraphy-like patterns with intricate leaves pulled him forward as delusion creeped behind him. He was completely enthralled – until something caught his eye in the next room.
It was the bedroom, but nobody was sleeping. There lay the old man, in a worn-out chair that sat at the foot of his bed. It was as if he had melted into the chair’s woven gaps. Flies circled his body. His bones stuck out just like the rattan sticking out of the neighbour’s discarded stool. Nuh stood there, swatting away the occasional fly that flew towards him. Guilt. Sadness. Horror. All these things rooted into Nuh. He didn’t know, but they went to hide in the smallest, darkest parts of his mind, promising to one day appear again. Nuh turned around and ran. He stumbled out of the house, threw the cushion over the wall and jumped over it, using the pomegranate tree for support. His foot twisted a little as he landed, and this time, he couldn’t feel the soreness; he was too busy fumbling after the cushion and thinking about how the sky was changing its hues to a more sinister complexion.
“Nuh ibn Ahmad! What are you doing there, child?” Khalto Sofina’s voice startled him.
His face pale and sweaty, he replied, “I am just on my way home, khalto!”
“Hurry now. It is almost maghrib and your mother will be worrying.” She frowned, not quite able to find a reason for her suspicions. Nuh turned and ran home so much faster than Dawud had done.
Nuh’s mother sat waiting outside their home, stirring some water that had been boiling in a pot over a weak fire. She saw him run up the dusty tracks towards her. Her abaya moved with the evening wind as she stood up, the material hitting her bones with every gush. Her brittle hair escaped from her hijab and twirled around against her dry skin, getting stuck in her eyelashes every now and then. She couldn’t quite read the expression on his face but, exhausted and panting in front of her, he opened his right hand to show her the leaves and the left presented her with the old man’s cushion.
“Oh, my child.” She took the cushion and examined its fine, colourful maroon print. “Where did you get this?”
“Ya ummi, I found it on the street.” Unlike the other days where he had told lies, no laughter escaped his mouth.
“Hm.” She smiled. “Look at my son. He has provided me with so much.” Nuh’s mother took the leaves out of his hand and dropped them into the pot. The leaves immediately wilted, transforming into half the size of their original selves. She used a thin stick to prod away at them until she was satisfied that they were cooked.
By Asia Khatun