This story is paired with “The Three Apples” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
Neena refused to see dead people, unlike the spooky kid in the movie that would be a hit by the end of the decade. I guided her to the kneeler in front of our grandmother’s casket as if leading a blind person. No—in that case, I would have been gentle. Because Neena is my irritating sister, I gripped her arm as if she were under arrest. As a seven-time civil disobedient, I had experience.
My fingers fit perfectly into the spaces in Neena’s hand-crocheted sweater. It was 1991—three days after the start of Operation Desert Storm—but Neena was dressed like Ali McGraw in Love Story. She said that she was wearing the rainbow sweater and matching hat because our grandmother, Sitti Laila, had made them for her, in a rare stab at fashion. Neena was so pretty that she carried off the eccentric ensemble. I dug my fingers into her arm a little harder.
Sitti Laila’s casket was enormous, fashioned out of dull gray metal with a rounded front end like a nosecone. It looked like a ship from another planet, one even more warlike than our own.
“We’re here,” I told Neena in a low hiss that could be mistaken by bystanders for a respectful whisper. “Kneel down and pretend to say a prayer.”
I released Neena’s arm as we sank to the padded kneeler, made the Sign of the Cross, and bowed our heads. Neena shut her eyes tighter; I widened mine.
Sitti’s profile, with its long, beaked nose, was as proud and uncompromising in death as in life. Her silver hair was elaborately waved, but her skin was gray, a shade paler than her casket. I wondered if she—with her compulsion for controlling the details—had left instructions that the funeral director put no makeup on her face. Few people crossed her unless they were prepared to hear, “Get out of my house!” This was no threat, but rather a ticket to permanent banishment.
Shifting my gaze to the olivewood rosary that Sitti had brought with her when she emigrated from Lebanon—now permanently lashed between her gnarled fingers—I attempted a prayer. The only words that came to mind were Sitti’s, describing the times that she was carried out of her house on a stretcher during her twenty-year wrestling match with heart disease: “Well, we give the neighbors a show.”
I gripped Neena’s arm again as a signal to rise, letting go after I turned us away from the casket. Then we lowered our heads and clasped our hands in front of our stomachs, like pious little girls after Communion.
As soon as we were in the seats in the back row of the funeral parlor that Neena had insisted on taking, she whispered, “What does Sitti look like?”
“Like herself, Ojinneen. In a weird sort of way.”
“That’s why I can’t look, Laila.”
Our baby brother, Peter, who’d decided to join us in defying funeral protocol, suppressed a snicker.
Neena, craning her neck to inspect the living, didn’t react to the name Sitti called her. Unexpectedly charmed by this baby girl, Sitti announced that she would be named Ojinneen (“like a jinn, a spirit who rise into Heaven”) in memory of her sister, who died in 1915, during the famine that followed the Lebanese locust plague. The calamities in every story Sitti told us about the Old Country were of Biblical proportions. No frickin’ kidding.
My mother, who felt she had capitulated to her mother-in-law by giving her a namesake in unremarkable me, refused this command. After the ensuing argument (the gist of which I knew because Sitti repeated it over the years, like the ceramic click of our grandfather Jiddi’s worry beads, like a Sorrowful Mystery on her olivewood rosary), Mother compromised by naming the baby Neena—although it says “Ojinneen” on her baptismal certificate, the only official document Sitti ever saw.
“My sister was so beautiful, I can’t tell you how beautiful she was. No one take after her. Until this baby, just a little. So I ask one thing from your mother, one thing for respect for the dead…”
“There’s Auntie Salma,” Neena said, poking me in the ribs with a macramé elbow. “Do we have to go over and say hello?” But Auntie Salma—the first ex-wife of our Uncle Youssef—was upon us.
Peter, always quick when he needed to be, was halfway up the aisle to pay his respects at Sitti’s casket.
“Girls,” Auntie Salma said, although Neena was thirty and I was thirty-three. I did a quick mental calculation. Seven years older than Uncle Youssef—a scandal, Sitti used to say, as well as an unlucky number—Auntie Salma was seventy-seven. Double trouble.
Auntie Salma’s hair had the sheen of a patent leather purse, and her lipstick and rouge were blood red. She’d applied the rouge in circles, barely blended at the edges. I thought of a Matryoshka doll, because of those cheeks and because Auntie Salma had shrunk, was no longer the pneumatic giantess who’d intimidated me when I was a child. Her heavy gold necklace and earrings (“twenty-two carat, habibti, not that cheap American gold”) seemed to weigh her down.
We offered her our own cheeks for the traditional kisses, left-right-left, knowing that we’d have to inspect our faces afterward for smears. I tried not to breathe in her stifling perfume—Shalimar, the aroma of the East as appropriated by Guerlain.
Unlike Auntie Salma, Sitti never mimicked the charms of youth. She looked something like Maudie Frickert, the tart-tongued old woman character that the comedian Jonathan Winters used to play on TV— shapeless polyester dresses, Cuban-heeled shoes, netted gray hair, eyeglasses decorated at the temples with floral sprays of rhinestones. A caricature of an old woman, but with a scary strength—as if old womanliness was a costume, a disguise she put on to express her disappointment with life.
“I’ll never forget the letter your Sitti sent me, the week before I married him,” Auntie Salma said, waving her right hand—to which she’d long ago transferred her wedding rings—in Uncle Youssef’s direction.
“What did it say?” prompted Neena, giving a creditable impersonation of innocence.
“What didn’t it say? I’d show it to you, if I hadn’t ripped it into little pieces and mailed it back to her. She said that I was a wicked woman, taking advantage of a young boy—your uncle was twenty-eight years old!—and that if she took a minshifi and scrubbed the paint off my face, the world would see that I was much older than thirty-five, although at thirty-five it was a sin to trap Youssef into marrying me. Then she cursed the day she let me through her door, and all my family as well…” Auntie Salma chuckled. “Ya habibti, there was no one like her. I’d kneel in front of her now and thank her for the warning, if he wasn’t in the way.”
Uncle Youssef stood in the taut receiving line that included my father, Sister Mary Laila (otherwise known as Auntie May), and Auntie Madeleine. Daddy looked skinny and dyspeptic; Auntie May, forbearing and sweet; Auntie Mad, forbidding and more prim than Auntie May, although she was wearing a chic navy pantsuit and Auntie May was in her modified habit, black with a white collar and short veil. As for Uncle Youssef, it was hard to see the handsome boy Sitti had been heaven-bent on protecting in the pot-bellied man in a rumpled corduroy blazer, with stooped shoulders and sparse gray hair raked backward over his bald spot. Of course, there had been two other wives who took over where Auntie Salma left off. The last one had divorced him a few years before.
“I left a little something at the house for you—one of your Sitti’s specialties. I hope you like it,” Auntie Salma said, squeezing our hands goodbye. Her grip was unexpectedly strong, and with all of her rings, painful.
Peter rejoined us. “What did Auntie Salami want?”
“The usual,” I replied. “Oh, and she left us something at the house—one of Sitti’s specialties. She didn’t say which one.”
Peter grabbed his stomach in mock agony. “La-ah,” he said, elongating the Arabic no into a groan. “Ptomaine kibbee? Today?”
Our grandmother was a notoriously terrible cook, but a terrific reader, and fluent in three languages—the opposite of Arab grandmothers of fact and fiction.
“It’s probably a dessert.”
“Great. Baklaywa burned at the bottom, just the way she used to make.”
“Sitti wasn’t raised to do housework,” Neena and I exclaimed in unison, then clapped our hands over our mouths.
“Everyone will be channeling her before this is over,” Peter said.
“Sitti’s cooking probably helped to build up our immune systems,” said Neena.
“I don’t care. I brought a bunch of PowerBars,” said Peter. “I have bigger problems. The Anal Retentive Brother is on my case.”
Alex, our oldest brother, was sitting stiffly in the front row, wearing a dark gray suit and subdued blue tie. He’d informed us that he packed another suit—black—for the funeral tomorrow.
“What now?” I said.
“First he tried to get me to wear his spare overcoat instead of my leather jacket. ‘Hey,’ I told him, it’s black, isn’t it, dude?’ Then he said that my jacket is OK for tonight, because the people of Bullhead are ‘sartorially challenged’—like old Cousin Eddie, in that purple ski parka with the stuffing hanging out—but that I’ve got to wear his coat tomorrow. He made me try it on, dude! Didn’t care that I’m four inches shorter, and the coat makes me look like frickin’ Napoleon…”
“Since when do you do anything that Alex says?” Neena challenged, hands on slim hips.
“Since he threatened to throw me out of his Caddy, force me to ride to the cemetery in that frickin’ tin can Dad rented for $14.99 a day. ‘We need to make a good impression here, Peter,’ he says, although why he cares what the ‘sartorially challenged’ losers in this frozen burg think is beyond me.”
“He’s trying to be respectful, Peter,” I said.
“Maybe Sitti’s making him do it,” said Neena. “Remember the time she told Laila, ‘You look decent to go to church’?”
“And that’s the only compliment any of us ever got from Sitti,” drawled Sammi—Neena’s fraternal twin—coming up behind us. “Except for Ojinneen, of course. Sitti thought you were a religious girl, Lail— what a laugh. You just didn’t know anything about clothes and hair and makeup. Still don’t,” she added, appraising me with her green laser-beam eyes. In Lebanon, they call eyes like Sammi’s “Crusader eyes.”
“You and Neena look like Auntie Salma gave you heat rash,” Sammi said. “Better come with me to the bathroom and clean up.” Sammi didn’t care about our appearance—she was continually trying to wrest the title of family beauty from Neena—but she wanted a private conference.
The three of us crowded into the funeral home ladies’ room, which had been done over in knockoff French provincial style. Sammi removed the traces of Auntie Salma’s greeting from Neena’s and my cheeks with a wet tissue before turning her attention to her own image in the gilt-framed mirror. She wore a flowing teal dress with matching belt, and gold hoop earrings that were a gift from Auntie Salma. Auntie Salma and Uncle Youssef’s last official act as a married couple had been to serve as Sammi’s godparents.
Sammi refreshed her makeup with the dispassionate concentration of a professional and combed mousse into her mane, which that winter was a sun-streaked brown like Cindy Crawford’s. When she was finished, there were tears in her eyes. “Sitti always told me I was vain. ‘Not even pretty, like your sister, to be so vain.’ She never loved me.”
“Samira,” I said. The witticism I was about to make about wasting her glamour on Sitti’s wake died in my throat.
Sammi waved away my sympathy with a fresh Kleenex. “Oh, screw it. Good thing my mascara is waterproof.”
She sat on the closed toilet lid and stretched her legs to inspect her spike-heeled boots. “So, where are all the cute cousins? I don’t have much time left.”
“Didn’t you see Cousin Eddie?” said Neena.
“Don’t even joke about that Lebanese Michelin man. He pinched me.”
“He can hardly move!” Neena said.
“Like that would stop him.”
“Philippe and Farid are coming tomorrow,” I said.
“Who told you that?” said Sammi, turning a little pale.
“Auntie Mad. They’re taking the red-eye from California. That’s why we’re not having Mass until two o’clock.”
Philippe and Farid were our cousins from Lebanon, the grandsons of Sitti’s brother, great-uncle Namtallah. They came to the States in 1985, as tanned and exhausted as surfers, after ten years spent riding the waves of endless civil war.
Both of them immediately proposed marriage to Neena, who not only declined but revealed—to everyone’s astonishment—that she was engaged to Cleve Clayton, whose claim to fame was that his parents had been Homecoming King and Queen at the University of North Carolina. (The only jewelry Neena wears is the ring Cleve gave her, a diamond as big as the Ritz, paired with a specially made platinum wedding band. The rock is a family heirloom, a little something Cleve’s ancestors hid from marauding Yankees. Even Sitti was impressed.)
After letting his broken heart heal for a week, Philippe proposed to Sammi. She refused—out of pride, she said, but I think she was holding out for Farid, the handsome one. Farid decided to try his luck in California, and Philippe joined him there two months later. None of us had seen Philippe and Farid since.
“Auntie Mad says that both of them are single,” I added. Auntie Mad knew everything about the Lebanese-Lebanese branch of the family, even though she lived in Drawer Post, West Virginia, working for an outfit called Appalachian Catholic Charities.
How she paid the phone bills was one of Auntie Mad’s Sorrowful Mysteries. She’d spent twenty years, from the ages of eighteen to thirty-eight, as Sister Mary Sharbel—after St. Sharbel, a cloistered Lebanese monk whose self-inflicted mortifications included sleeping on a log pillow. (St. Sharbel annoyed Neena: “Why didn’t he sleep on a nice fluffy pillow, so he’d get a good night’s rest and have the energy to help people?”) After Auntie Mad left the convent, she’d married a former Jesuit priest, who’d abandoned her after two years, along with their infant son, Berrigan, called Berry.
The only reason that Alex wasn’t on Berry’s case that evening is that Berry had decided at the last minute not to come to the funeral home. He was prowling the woods behind Sitti’s house, wearing a miner’s helmet complete with working headlamp, looking for traces of Sasquatch. At seventeen, Berry believed in this crypto-zoological creature as passionately as Sitti had believed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Berry, a young punk version of my father, did have a coat—a long black thrift shop number made for a man thirty years older and heavier than he was. It went with his Doc Martens.
“How are Philippe and Farid making a living in California?” said Neena.
“Import-export. Consider the possibilities,” I replied.
“I’m surprised that they haven’t imported brides for themselves yet,” Sammi said sourly.
“You had your chance, ma petite carte verte,” I said, doing a poor imitation of Philippe. My sympathy for Sammi had evaporated as quickly as her tears.
“You’re just jealous, Laila,” Sammi snapped. “Neither of them would have proposed to you, anyway.”
“Especially not after Dad told them that the Palestinian flag hanging in the spare bedroom belonged to you,” Neena added.
“Laila’s lucky to have Sean,” Sammi said. “He goes for that left-wing nun look. Must be because he’s Irish, like Auntie Mad’s un-dear departed husband. Is every item of clothing you own black, Lail?”
“Pretty much. One of my friends calls me ‘peace protester of the Third Reich.’”
This cracked Neena up—Sammi too.
“Leila looks almost as sad as Berry,” Sammi said.
“Now there’s a possibility, Sammi, once he turns eighteen,” I said. “Remember, in the Old Country, there’s no problem with first cousins getting married. Consanguinity is a plus.”
“Shut up, Lolly,” said Sammi, using my childhood nickname, which everyone knows I despise.
“Sammi, remember how Philippe used to love that Billy Joel song, but he never could get the lyrics right?” Neena said.
“I don’t care anymore what you say, this is my life!” Sammi bellowed.
“Hold it down in there,” came a furious whisper from outside the door—Alex, of course.
I cracked the door open. “You want the one across the hall, brother—unless there’s something you’re not telling us.”
“I know that Neena and Sammi are incorrigible, but I expected more from you, Leila,” Alex hissed.
“Are you ashame of me, Alex?” I said, as the three of us filed out of the ladies’ room.
“Yes. It’s time for the Rosary. Sit up front, as you should,” he barked.
“Now who’s doing the channeling?” said Sammi, tossing her hair.
* * *
The smell of Sitti’s house was what always hit me first. At bottom was the dusty steam heat that rose from embossed silver radiators. Above that, a sharp-sour mist of food—cut onion and garlic, the homemade yogurt we called laban, roasted lamb, all in various stages of cooking, cooling, or sitting. (Sitti used a room off the kitchen for storage, winter and summer.) Then came the bitter ghost-smoke of Jiddi’s endless cigars. Floating on top of everything was the smell of old—old clothes bunched in closets, old-fashioned tooth powder, as musty as ground chalk.
I unpeeled a layer of plastic wrap from a Pyrex casserole dish that had been among the shrouded Jell-O salads lined up at the front door. It smelled faintly of licorice, like Jiddi’s home-brewed arak—there were a few bottles left, although he’d been gone for ten years. Boiled bulgur wheat with a shiny, sugary glaze, dotted with oblong pink and black shapes that looked like tranquillizers. Good ‘N Plenty candies. Auntie Salma’s grief offering: Sitti’s offbeat version of a dessert called kamhie, made for St. Barbara’s Day. It usually is mixed with dried fruit and nuts. The wheat symbolized one of St. Barbara’s miracles, the transformation of the loaves of bread she was carrying to the poor, in secret, into a sheaf of roses.
Sitti called the dessert St. Barbara’s Miracle. Traditionally, there were two versions, she told me: one for the birth of a boy, and the other for a funeral—or for the birth of a girl.
Everyone else had gone to bed except Berry, whose headlamp was flashing outside like a police siren or a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. I took a demitasse spoon from the drawer of Sitti’s pearl-inlaid sideboard, dug into the dish, and swallowed one pungent, forgiving mouthful.
Angele Ellis is author of Arab on Radar (Six Gallery Press), whose poems earned her an Individual Creative Artist fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Spared (A Main Street Rag Editors’ Choice Chapbook). Her poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in over forty journals and ten anthologies. She lives in Pittsburgh.