Ten minutes since they opened the door and Anaya couldn’t wait for Uncle Abdul to leave. He wouldn’t stop staring at her. Rather he silently seethed through every pore of his body, boring holes in hers. It was worse than him just scolding her with that thunderous voice of his.
She sat on the sofa with her sister who peeked through lowered lashes at the brooding man before them. Hadiza sat in the chair beside them with her head bowed solemnly, hands folded in her lap.
The insistent clock ticked loudly in the quiet room and Anaya looked up to watch the pendulum underneath its face.
“Where is Aman?” his gravelly voice erupted through the stifling darkness. “Is he working again tonight?”
Anaya stiffened at the disdain in his voice and clenched her teeth tightly. It was clear that Uncle Abdul did not approve of her father’s security duties; he made mention of it every night he came to visit. She cut him a look and almost gasped sharply when she caught him glaring at her. Her spine stiffened and Anaya jerked her eyes to her fingers gripping her knee.
“When will that unwise husband of yours learn how to handle his girls?”
All warmth left her body.
“Brother…” Hadiza started to say, her head still lowered dutifully.
“That husband of yours has done everything to break our traditions and look what has happened…” the man’s voice shook with forceful anger. “You have brought up two daughters with no sense of fidelity.”
Anaya’s jaw tightened as her face warmed under each biting, accusing word from Uncle Abdul.
“The younger one can’t even sit still to do well in school and cannot even keep house while the other…” Anaya didn’t need to lift her head to see the disgust in his eyes. It was clear his disdainful stare was on her alone. “Does everything to dishonor the family and shame us all.”
“Brother…” Hadiza pleaded, her voice trembling against her pent-up tears.
Anaya noticed Leeza’s fingers curling tightly beside her, veins straining under her palm.
“I don’t blame you, Cousin,” Uncle Abdul continued, undeterred by Hadiza’s weak protests. It is that foolish, harebrained husband of yours. He turns from Allah and this is what it has caused—“
“That is enough…”
Hadiza’s eyes jerked up and so did Leeza’s, all gaping in Anaya’s direction.
She didn’t look at them. Instead, her narrowed glare was on Uncle Abdul’s stunned expression. “You will not come to my father’s house and mar his name like this.” She could hear her racing heart in her ears and her eyes stung with tears at bay. “He has done no wrong and you will not insult him like that again.”
Uncle’s thick lips pursed in a firm line, his eyes narrowed into menacing slits. “Who are you talking to?”
Leeza nudged Anaya gently but she didn’t budge.
“If you have a problem with me, blame me, Uncle Abdul. My parents and my sister have nothing to do with my decisions. And neither do you.” She knew her mother was probably about to swoon in dismay but she couldn’t stop.
The man slowly stood to his feet and so did Anaya as if they were to face off. She wasn’t scared, the adrenaline from her anger pushing her forward. And then it happened. Uncle took one step toward her and before she could do anything to brace herself, his bear-like hand swooped down hard on her face.
The stinging came later as her head reared back from the unexpected blow. Blinking rapidly at the tears that now clouded her vision, Anaya forced her glare up at him.
“Lower your eyes now!” Uncle barked, seething all the more when she didn’t even flinch.
Hadiza had now moved in between her daughter and her second cousin, weeping openly. “Brother,” she pleaded in their native tongue with her hands shuffling before her. “Spare her. She is just a child.”
“A foolish child who has caused more pain than she should,” Uncle Abdul spat, frowning at Anaya over Hadiza’s shoulder. “This is what happens when you spare someone like her for too long.”
The door squeaked open and Anaya’s shoulders sagged as Leeza rushed over to greet their father. She couldn’t look up, her face still throbbing with pain.
Aman Balewa stepped into the house, taking in the scene before him with his brow furrowed in concern. His eyes shifted from his weeping wife standing beside her second cousin to Anaya before them, her head bowed. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked softly, walking into the parlor.
Uncle Abdul turned his eyes to Aman and pointed accusingly at him. “You! Do you know what you’ve done?”
Anaya closed her eyes, the tears sliding down her cheeks.
“Because you have abandoned the laws of our people and the traditions of the family, you have not only brought dishonor to yourself and your family, but shame and betrayal to us all!”
His accusation rang loud and clear through the house, punctuated by Hadiza’s choked sobs.
Aman watched warily as Hadiza fell on her knees and folded her hands before her, peering up at her cousin. “Please, Brother, please forgive us. Forgive our foolishness. Please…”
“Are you blind to not see that your daughters have no sense and are running around like headless chickens?”
“What is this about? My faith or your nonsense prejudice…” Aman’s calm voice sounded amid the chaos.
Hadiza moaned, covering her face with her hands. Uncle Abdul gaped at Aman.
“What exactly are you accusing me of, Abdul? Is it not your son who died because of his foolishness?”
“How dare you?!” Uncle Abdul roared, his eyes bulging with fury.
“I’m tired of you blaming others for why Ibrahim lived the way he did. It’s not anyone’s fault that he lived as an angry man and died as one too.”
Aman nodded, releasing a heavy sigh. He could feel his daughters now gaping at him. How wrong he was for voicing his thoughts aloud. “I am sorry that I had to tell you that…” he said quietly, his jaw still taut. “It is late and I wish to speak to my family alone.”
Anaya couldn’t breathe. Her soft-spoken, polite father was kicking out the respected elder from her mother’s side, someone who had practically given her mother permission to marry. No doubt Uncle Abdul would not forget their insolence. Her cheeks still stung.
Uncle Abdul hissed through his clenched teeth and started for the door.
Hadiza reached up to clutch his pant leg, her sobs returning with full force. “Brother, please!”
He shook her off and stormed past Aman, shoving his shoulder on his way out of the house.
Aman clenched her jaw tighter as the door slammed hard behind Uncle Abdul.
“Papa…” Leeza whispered from where she stood, staring at her father’s tight face.
Anaya could only stare at her mother’s hands splayed on the carpet, fingers trembling to hold herself up.
“Help your mother up,” Aman said softly, his eyes lowering to where his wife knelt on the floor, her veil sagging over her head. His brow furrowed with deep concern and pain, and regret. He shouldn’t have insulted her family the way Abdul had insulted him; especially not in front of her.
When his daughters remained where they were, Aman sighed and walked toward his wife. Hesitating for just one moment when Hadiza refused to halt her tears, he knelt and reached for her shoulder.
Hadiza bit out a tortured scream and recoiled away from his hand. Anaya and Leeza blinked at their mother’s strange response.
Aman only sighed and removed his arm from her. “I’m going to sleep…” he muttered sullenly and trudged toward his room.
Heaving a deep sigh, Leeza cast one annoyed glare in their mother’s direction before turning for the stairs.
Anaya could only stand there, listening to Hadiza sob inconsolably as regret settled in her heavy heart.
“Penny for your thoughts…” Tunde’s gentle voice broke through her muddled mind.
Anaya peered up at his handsome face, managing a gentle smile as though to convince him she was alright although her heart was in pain.
His dark eyes searched hers and Anaya lowered hers. She sighed when he nudged her chin up. “I’m okay.”
“You’re not a very good liar, Ana…” The corner of his lips curved in a wry smile. He caressed her cheek. “What’s the matter?”
The gentleness in his voice almost undid her; his warm touch a stark difference from the heavy blow last night. The stinging had only stopped just before she headed out to school earlier that day.
“Something has happened… I can tell,” Tunde muttered, searching her watery eyes. His brow furrowed. “You’re crying.”
Anaya pulled her chin from his hold and lowered her eyes. “I’m not…” Anaya attempted to sniff discreetly.
“Right…” Tunde leaned back in his seat, watching her with deep concern. He could feel the weight on her shoulders as if it was on his too, but felt too helpless to release her from the burden she carried. He reached over and covered her hand with his. “You can tell me whatever it is that troubles you–”
He raised a brow. “Hmm?”
“Just hold me… Just for a while, please…” Anaya bit her trembling lip, feeling the tears slide down her cheeks. She closed her eyes as Tunde’s arms reached for her and pulled her into his embrace. All restraint fell away and she cried, pressing her face in the crook of his arms until there were no more tears left.