Twigs snapped and leaves rustled as two pairs of sneakers made their way deeper in the forest. The beam from the flashlight revealed a bright, red fox, which quickly scurried out of sight. It was not an uncommon occurrence for the teenagers of the cozy, tucked-away neighborhood of Harbor Pointe to venture into the woods when they were expressly forbidden not to. Though unlike most, who liked to use the trees to cloak rebellious activities such as marijuana-smoking or romantic interludes, the two sisters of Number 44, Lakeside Road were entering the forest for another reason entirely.
“We should probably head back, Jackie,” said Monique, tugging on her sister’s sleeve.
“Don’t chicken out on me now,” said Jacqueline. “Mom and Dad won’t be back from their Christmas party for at least another three hours.”
“But we don’t even know if she’ll be there,” Monique whined.
“Of course she will! Tonight is the full moon.”
The “she” in question was their neighbor, Leila Abbas, a woman who lived just down the road. She moved in two years ago, first as a renter then eventually buying the house for herself. At first she was of no interest to Jacqueline or Monique, with the exception that she was one of the few other people of color in their community. Within the last few months, however, other neighbors would whisper of little else than the public menace living at Number 36. Many had complained to the Home Owner’s Association, some even signing a petition calling for her removal from the community. As far as the sisters knew, these efforts have proved fruitless, but that didn’t stop the vandalism that plagued Leila’s home from time to time. Jacqueline and Monique’s parents, for their part, never signed the petition and never wished any ill will on Leila, but as devout church-goers they had advised their daughters to give her a wide birth.
“Do you think it’s true…what they say about her?” asked Monique.
“I know it’s true! I’ve seen her for myself.” And Jacqueline had. She vividly remembering seeing Leila waving a smoking sage stick on the rear balcony of her condo, chanting in a foreign language. She had also seen Leila emerging from the forest in a black cloak, holding an old-style lantern, making her appear quite literally like an enchantress from a fairy tale.
Jacqueline pushed aside the last of the branches and the two sisters were standing on the edge of Lake Ogla, the peaceful body of water that their community surrounded. Jacqueline found living in lake country to suit her tremendously. The sound of the gentle waves on the shore soothed her mind and spirit. They walked along the shore for about five minutes when the edge of the lake naturally veered left, and it was then that they saw her. Sitting along the shore was a hooded woman sitting crossed-legged, her hands resting on her knees. She sat in the middle of a circle made of tea-lights. A wisp of smoke could be seen coming from an incense burner. She did not stir upon their arrival; she appeared to be in a deep state of meditation.
“Well, go on!” Jacqueline whispered, pushing her sister forward.
“What? This was your idea! You talk to her!” Monique hissed.
Jacqueline hesitated. She had barely spoken a few words to Leila. She had no idea how she was supposed to breach such a delicate issue to what was basically a total stranger, a stranger that spent her Friday nights summoning God-knows-what!
“Blessed be to you.”
The two jumped as the woman rose to her feet. The hooded woman raised her arms above her head, as if trying to embrace the moon above, and brought them slowly back down. She finally turned to face Jacqueline and Monique.
“Ah, the Laveau sisters,” she said. Her tone implied bemusement rather than surprise as she lifted her hood to reveal her face. Leila Abbas was a beautiful Arab woman with thick black hair that encased her oval-shaped face. She had a nose piercing on her left nostril and several small stars tattooed near her collarbone.
“Yes,” said Jacqueline, trying to muster of an air of authority. “And you are Leila Abbas, the witch of Harbor Pointe.”
“I am Leila, but as to being the witch of anything, I don’t think our neighbors would respond well to me carrying that title.”
“You are a witch, are you not?” Jacqueline pressed.
“Then that makes you the witch of Harbor Pointe, since you’re the only one.”
“Fair enough,” said Leila. “Then as the witch of Harbor Pointe, may I ask what brings you to my domain so late at night? You’re not here to honor the full moon in Cancer, are you?”
Monique laughed nervously.
“Unfortunately, no,” said Jacqueline. “We actually came here to warn you.”
Leila raised an eyebrow. “Warn me?”
“Warn you that last week your brother was waiting outside our school, trying to drill us for information about you.”
Leila’s expression went from one of calm to one of shock and terror. “What? Mahmud…at your school?”
“Yep,” said Jacqueline. “We were about to get on the bus home when he approached us. He tried to be all sweet at first, saying how terribly worried he was about his sister. He wanted to know if we had any of your contact info. When we told him we didn’t, he asked if we knew any places that you liked to go. We said we didn’t. Then when I brought up his outburst last month when the guard at the gate refused him entry into Harbor Pointe, he got increasingly more agitated. He called you an ungrateful Ka…kafa…
“Kafira?” Leila finished.
“Yes, that!” said Monique. “What does it mean?”
“It means unbeliever in Arabic,” said Leila. “Did he make any threats against you?”
“No, only that ‘If Leila thinks I’m going to let this go, she’s sorely mistaken!’”
Leila was quiet for a moment. From the light of the candles Jacqueline could see the weariness in her eyes.
“And I assume you told your parents about this?” she said at last.
Jacqueline shuffled her feet. “Actually…no, we didn’t…”
“And why ever not?” Leila snapped. “My brother is not a man to be trifled with, especially when he feels his pride has been wounded.”
“We didn’t want to make more trouble for you,” said Monique, chirping in. “We know the neighbors already dislike you, and we didn’t want to add to that by making it sound as if your presence is becoming a physical threat to the community.”
Leila’s expression softened. “That’s very sweet of you, but your safety is much more important than whatever consequence may befall me due to his meddling.”
“But why does he hate you so much?” asked Jacqueline.
Leila signed. “My brother, and the rest of my family, for that matter…cannot respectfully agree to disagree.”
“Agree to disagree about what?” asked Monique.
Leila looked pointedly at the two girls. “Well…I suppose you’re entitled to at least part of the story, since I have inadvertently dragged you into this. But not here. Let us go back to my house and we can have a cup of tea.”
She bent down and blew out the candles. She gathered them and the incense burner and placed them and back into her bag. She picked up her lantern, which Jacqueline now realized to be electric, and turned it on.
“Well, come on,” said Leila, motioning for the girls to follow her back into the forest. Jacqueline and Monique looked at each other briefly before trailing after her.
The walk back to Lakeside Road was silent for the most part. Leila removed her cloak before stepping into the range of the street lights. As they stepped back onto the street, Jacqueline saw the rustling of curtains from the corner of her eye. She looked to see an elderly woman peering out at them from Number 30.
“That’s Mrs. Kingsley,” said Monique, pointing. “She’s the one who initiated the eviction petition.”
“So it is,” said Leila. She smiled and and waved to her. Mrs. Kingsley scowled and quickly pulled her curtains shut.
“Like you, Mrs. Kingsley has picked up on the fact that I go out every full moon,” said Leila. After passing a few more buildings, they arrived at Leila’s house, a duplex that she shared with Number 45. Like the others, it had a rustic exterior. They walked up the pathway and Leila turned the key in the door.
“Welcome to my little abode,” she said. “You can place your shoes in the little cubby on the left.”
Jacqueline and Monique pass through the doorway to find themselves in a tidy little home. Leila’s house, at least by first impression, did not appear to be the den of devil-worshiping debauchery that the neighbors had portrayed it was. It was decorated in a neoclassical style that left no suggestion that a witch lived there. Visible from the entrance was a living room with a glass-top coffee table and a kitchen with sky-blue cabinets and copper counter-tops. Nestled next to the fireplace in the living room was a seven-foot pine tree fully decorated with lights and ornaments.
“You have a Christmas tree,” said Monique, observing the large pine.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I?” asked Leila.
Monique fumbled. “Um…well, if you’re not Christian, then…”
“Many Christmas traditions originally come from pagan festivals,” said Leila. “You’ll find that many witches and pagans celebrate winter solstice in a similar manner that you celebrate Christmas.”
Leila went into the kitchen and opened a cabinet.“What kind of tea would you like?” asked Leila. “There is black tea, chamomile, hibiscus…”
“Just black, please,” said Jacqueline. As Leila prepared the tea, the two sisters wandered onto the couch. It was not long before Leila returned with tray stacked not only with tea cups, but also with little finger-bowls filled with nuts, cookies, and chocolates.
“That’s quite a spread,” said Jacqueline, picking up a raspberry jam cookie.
“Never try to outdo an Egyptian in terms of hospitality,” said Leila. She seated herself in the chair opposite the couch, facing the girls. “So you never saw Mahmud again after the incident by the bus?”
“No,” said Jacqueline.
“Do you know if he has approached anyone else? Your parents? Other kids?”
“Not that I know of,” said Jacqueline. “So what’s his deal? Why is he harassing you?”
“The same reason that Mrs. Kingsley and others dislike me.”
“What? Because you’re…different?”
“Why is your religion any of his business?” asked Jacqueline.
Leila shrugged. “Why is it the neighbors’?”
“But the neighbors aren’t your family,” said Monique. “Why does it matter so much to him?”
Leila smiled, but it did not quite reach her eyes. “It can be a little difficult to understand, when you’ve grown up in an individualist society rather than a collectivist one.” She poured the tea and handed the cups to them. She then laid back into her chair, taking a sip.
“My parents immigrated to the United States from Cairo when I was five years old. With most immigrant families there are questions regarding how many cultural concessions a family should make as they adapt to life in the new country. Some balance assimilation with maintaining pride in their heritage, while others take a defiant, reactionary stance. My family was in the latter category. My parents wanted to prove to their extended family, community, and to themselves that they could continue their culture and religion completely untainted by Western influence. So when I left Islam, I became their worst nightmare. I became the symbol of everything that they fought so hard to prevent. As the oldest son, my brother feels a sense of duty, instilled in him by our culture, to correct me and to erase the great shame that my apostasy has left on the family.”
“But you’ve been living by yourself for the last two years,” said Jacqueline, confused. “Couldn’t you just go through the motions when you visit your family and do whatever you want the rest of the time? Why is he acting up now all of the sudden?”
“That’s what I was doing for quite a while, but then my sister found out that I was no longer Muslim. She ambushed me at a pagan meet-up, and it’s been chaos ever since. I’ve since broken off all contact, which is why there my brother ended up making a spectacle of himself at the gatehouse when the guard refused to let him in, and why he’s grasping for straws in you guys to find any sliver of information about me.”
Jacqueline and Monique sipped their tea, lost in thought. They thought their neighbors were bad enough, but to hear that Leila was also combating prejudice from her very own family as well…
“I am so very sorry that I have indirectly subjected you to my brother’s witch-hunt,” said Leila miserably. “That is the last thing I would have wanted. I should have been more careful to ensure that my family didn’t find out…”
“Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your job to police him,” said Jacqueline. “My sister and I just wanted you to know that he is starting to get desperate so you can take whatever preventative measures you think appropriate. I never really thought about how much religion still matters to so many people in the 21st century.”
“Sadly, it does,” said Leila. “I’m a proud Arab. I’m a proud Egyptian, but that is not enough for my family. To leave Islam is just as taboo as being gay in conservative Christan settings. This won’t be the last I hear from my brother, of that much I am certain, which is why it’s so very important that you tell your parents about your confrontation with him. Make a police report if you have to.”
The clock above the fireplace chimed 1:00 am.
“Do I dare ask when your curfew is?” asked Leila.
“It was two hours ago, but our parents will be back from their party in about 30 minutes. We should probably head back.”
“Of course,” said Leila, standing up. She followed the two sisters to the front door.
“Do I need to walk you back to your house?” asked Leila
“Nah, we’ll be fine,” said Jacqueline. “It’s literally 100 feet away.”
“Thank you for the tea and snacks,” said Monique.
“It was my pleasure, although I wish a more cheerful event brought our meeting about,” said Leila.
“Would it be possible…for us to come again?” asked Jacqueline hopefully. Leila was far kinder than anyone, even her own parents, had given her credit for. She was a little kooky in her beliefs, but she wasn’t doing anyone any harm and didn’t deserve the persecution she was getting from all fronts.
Leila smiled, this time sincerely. “You are always welcome here. Next time I shall make you falafel.”
“We would like that very much,” said Jacqueline. “Good night.”
“Nighty-night,” said Leila, and she closed the door behind them.
© Amy Sophiamehr