An orphan named Noor receives a mysterious gift from her grandmother in this excerpt from Sonia Nimr’s YA novel Thunderbird.
Umm ‘Arab looked carefully into the coffee cup, wordlessly tipping it right and left. She allowed only a few grunts to escape each time she turned it in a new direction. “Hmm. Hmmmm.”
“What do you see in the cup, Umm ‘Arab? Is it good?”
As Widad asked, she shifted her huge body toward the ashtray that sat on the table in front of her, stabbing out her cigarette and looking back at Umm ‘Arab with an expression of interest.
“It’s good, Widad, it’s good. I see a big fish, and you know what that means—wealth is on its way.” Umm ‘Arab glanced up at Big Widad to see the effect this had on her before going on. “Didn’t I tell you good days were on their way?”
Widad fixed Umm ‘Arab with a serious gaze. “And when’s it going to happen? Soon?”
“I don’t know exactly. I see three signs, so it might be three days, three weeks . . . You know the cup doesn’t give specifics.”
After Umm ‘Arab spoke, she looked back at the cup.
“And what else?” Widad asked, urging her on.
“A phone call is coming that will make you very happy. Mmm, and I see two signs, which means it could be two hours or two days.”
Umm ‘Arab moved the cup toward Widad’s hand. “Now, when you’ve got your wish in mind, press your thumb to the bottom of the cup.”
Widad cradled the cup as though she were holding something sacred. Then she looked around until her eyes settled on Noor, who was sitting glued to her grandmother. Widad gave a spiteful smile as she pushed her thumb with all her strength to the bottom of the cup, jabbing it down so that it left a clear mark. She handed the cup to Umm ‘Arab before she took a tissue and wiped off her thumb.
Umm ‘Arab looked at the bottom of the cup. After a moment, she turned to Widad. “You’ll get your wish.”
Widad smiled triumphantly. “Bless your mouth.”
There was a brief silence in the room before Umm ‘Arab spoke again. “Evening prayers are coming, I’ve got to go.”
Noor’s grandmother had been watching the scene in silence. Now, she finally spoke. “Before you go, Umm ‘Arab, take a look at the little one’s cup.” She put a hand tenderly on Noor’s back.
“Little ones don’t drink coffee!” Widad said, indignant.
The grandmother quietly interrupted, “She’ll take a sip from my cup. I haven’t drunk from it, and I want Umm ‘Arab to see what’s to be seen.” She looked at Noor and reached out her cup. “Drink, my love, drink. Perhaps your fortune will be as lovely as your face.”
Widad glared at the girl with bubbling resentment. “Drink fast,” she said sharply. “The lady wants to go pray.”
Noor gulped down the hot coffee, which burned her tongue, and handed the cup to Umm ‘Arab. The woman turned it, then flipped it onto the saucer.
“And me, and me!” said Wafaa, who sat on the couch beside her mother. “I want her to read my cup, Mommy.”
“But there’s no coffee left, my sweet,” Widad said, lovingly stroking her daughter’s hair. “Maybe next time.”
Wafaa slammed her foot against the floor and pointed a jealous finger at Noor, who pressed more tightly against her grandmother.
“I don’t care! Why does she get to?”
“All right, my love, I’ll make more coffee for you. And Umm ‘Arab will read your fortune, won’t you, Umm ‘Arab?” Widad turned with a look that made the other woman throw up her hands.
“I’ll read her cup.”
Widad got up, slipping her feet into her high heels and heading for the kitchen, followed by Wafaa. Umm ‘Arab held Noor’s cup in her hand.
“Now let’s see what the cup has to say about your fortune.” Umm ‘Arab turned the cup around several times before she shifted, getting closer to the light that seeped in through the window.
Noor’s grandmother fixed her gaze on the expressions flitting across the cup-reader’s face. Involuntarily, Grandmother let go of the prayer beads she’d been clutching and reached out to grasp Noor’s hand.
“Strange!” Umm ‘Arab said, looking carefully at the cup, her thick eyebrows knitting together.
“What have you found?” Grandmother asked.
But Umm ‘Arab wouldn’t answer. She held on to the cup, looking at it carefully, before lifting her gaze to look at Grandmother.
“This is something strange! I’ve never seen a cup like this before!”
“What do you see in it, Umm ‘Arab? Just say it! I can’t wait,” Grandmother said, her voice urgent.
Umm ‘Arab gave her a serious look, eyebrows still knitted together. She adjusted the scarf on her head.
“The cup isn’t clear. And honestly, it’s hard to read.” Her voice was edged with surprise. “I don’t see anything well enough to explain it. It looks like a bird spreading its wings over the whole cup. I can’t say if that’s good or bad. Forgive me, but I don’t want to lie to you.”
Without noticing what she was doing, Noor’s grandmother tightened her grip on her granddaughter’s hand.
“Listen,” Umm ‘Arab said. “The bird in the cup usually means a remedy or cure. It usually means good news, but . . . I’ve never seen a bird like this before. It’s a riddle! I seek refuge in God from the accursed Satan.” She put the cup aside as though relieving herself of a heavy burden.
Widad came in with a silver tray laden with coffee. “Wafaa’s turn!” she announced, without noticing the grim expressions on the three faces. Then she turned to her daughter. “Come on, sweetie, drink the coffee, just be careful not to let it burn you. It’s still hot.”
Ever since Noor had moved out of her old house, she’d been staying in her grandmother’s bedroom, sleeping beside her on a big wooden bed. There was safety in the evenness of her grandmother’s nighttime breaths, and Noor found comfort in her grandmother’s arms when she woke, terrified, from her nightmares.
“Don’t be afraid, my love, it’s just a dream, go back to sleep,” Grandmother would sigh as she gathered Noor up against her chest. Then she’d sing, Sleep, sleep. I’ll catch a dove for you to keep. Oh dove, don’t you believe it, I just want Noor to sleep. Fly into the skies, while I stay by dear Noor’s side, so she’ll shut her eyes, her eyes, her eyes. Grandmother would keep singing until Noor’s small breaths grew regular and her eyes fell shut.
Since Noor’s parents had died two years before, Grandmother had become her only oasis in the wilderness of her life. Inside her grandmother’s arms was the only place where visions of ghosts and monsters couldn’t reach her.
When she came home from school each day, Noor ran to Grandmother, telling her about her day, about what she’d learned. Her grandmother was always there, listening with interest.
“You spoil her,” Widad said angrily.
“She needs it after everything she’s been through,” Grandmother said calmly. “Leave it alone.”
Widad was always annoyed when Grandmother talked about Noor. It nettled her when Grandmother defended Noor, and she was even more annoyed when Grandmother didn’t treat Widad's own daughter, Wafaa, the same way.
“Please don’t say that she’s an orphan and needs tender, loving care. That’s getting old,” Widad said. “You encourage her mistakes, and now she’s become lazy and mean-spirited. You always protect and defend her. Don’t you remember when she set that fire in the garden? The house almost burned down! What if the fire had gotten in through the kitchen window and burned everything?”
“But it didn’t,” Grandmother said. “And the house didn’t burn down.”
“Ha! See, you’re defending her,” Widad said, her tone nervous and aggressive. “And what about the time she set fire to the clothes out on the line, eh? What do you say about that?”
Grandmother set a bunch of parsley on the kitchen table. She spoke quietly, her voice tinged with irony.
“But you bought three times the amount of clothes that were burned, and with the little one’s own money.”
Widad took the pot lid she was holding and threw it violently into the sink.
“Yes, we bought new clothes to replace the ones that were burned. But you still don’t blame the crazy one who burned them!”
Grandmother’s hand reached down to the long string of prayer beads in her lap, moving the beads as if to suppress her anger. “Noor is not crazy, and that was an accident. She didn’t mean to set that fire.”
Widad turned to her, trembling with rage, her face going red.
“Are you serious? She deliberately burns things—whatever catches her fancy. You know the reason. It’s because she’s jealous of Wafaa.”
Grandmother smiled and said nothing, which irritated Widad even more, and she stormed out of the kitchen, grumbling, “Dear God, why did you hang this on me?”
Grandmother returned to chopping parsley with a satisfied smile.
Ziad poked his head into the kitchen, then came in to sit down at the round table. “Afternoon, Mama. What are you making today?”
“Maqlooba.” Grandmother smiled, her face full of love for her only remaining son.
“Ah, I love it.” He gave a satisfied grin.
Ziad washed his hands and face in the sink that stood in the hall outside the kitchen, speaking to his mother as he toweled off. “Did you hear the news today? A shooting in Gaza! Seven bullets for one child!” He returned, sitting at the table and tugging down his loose shirtsleeves.
“May God punish those who did it,” Grandmother said, lifting her hands up to the sky.
“God alone is able.” Ziad approached his mother. “I talked to the school principal,” he continued in a low voice. “It seems that Noor set fire to another student’s backpack.”
Grandmother moaned and put a hand over her mouth. “But how did it happen? Why—?” She didn’t finish her sentence, since Widad came in, addressing her husband.
“What’s going on, Ziad?”
He gave his mother a conspiratorial glance.
“Nothing,” Ziad said. “We were talking about the girl who was killed by seven bullets on her way to school. And they said it was an accident, can you believe it? Seven bullets by mistake! Shameless.”
But Widad hadn’t missed the meaningful look her husband had exchanged with his mother.
“No,” Widad said in an accusatory tone. “That’s not what you were talking about. You were talking about her, weren’t you?” With her head, she indicated Grandmother’s room, where Noor was.
“Why are you always so suspicious?” Ziad asked.
“You were talking about her,” Widad insisted. “What did she do this time?”
“She didn’t do anything, and we were not talking about her.”
“Ha!” Widad said defiantly. “You’re defending her, too, and covering up for her!”
“Why are you talking like this?” Ziad asked. “I—”
“Ever since she came into this house, you’ve put her first,” Widad said, with a growing anger. “And please don’t say it’s because she’s an orphan and needs tenderness! The only thing that girl needs is discipline. She’s got to be disciplined to stop her from these destructive acts, which is your job. But instead you make excuses for all her mistakes, so she goes on wrecking things. Are you going to wait till she burns down the house before you start to take her in hand? It’s—”
“Is it possible to eat our lunch?” Ziad asked, his patience snapping. “And after that we can go back to our daily shouting party?”
Whenever Noor heard shouting, she hid in her grandmother’s bed and covered her head with the quilt, or else she ran to her favorite hiding spot in the garden. She knew her uncle’s wife didn’t want her in their house, but where else could she go? After her parents had died, she had no place in the world—no place except this one, where they hated her. When her parents had died in the crash, her uncle had sold their apartment and brought Noor to this old house.
Now, Noor heard footsteps approaching Grandmother’s bedroom.
“Noor?” her uncle called gently. “Noor, are you asleep?”
She lifted her head from under the covers. “No, Uncle Ziad, I’m awake.”
Her uncle sat at the edge of the bed, giving her an affectionate look that was full of both sympathy and accusation.
“What happened today at school?”
Noor understood exactly what he meant, and she sat up in bed.
“Honestly, Uncle Ziad, I didn’t mean to do anything! I don’t know how her backpack burned, I didn’t touch it! Please believe me, I’m telling the truth.”
Ziad patted her hand. “I believe you, but I’m still confused about how these fires happen without anyone starting them. Do things just catch fire by themselves? It’s a real mystery!”
Noor started to cry. “I swear, I didn’t touch the bag or even go near her!”
“But how?” her uncle asked, caught between pity and disbelief.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Noor said, still sobbing. “Things just burn on their own, I don’t know!”
She buried her head under the quilt and went on crying. Her uncle gave her a confused look. “There’s no power nor strength except in God.”
That night, as she got ready for bed, Noor asked her grandmother: “Do you believe me? Honestly, I didn’t touch that bag. I don’t carry matches. The bag just caught fire on its own. I don’t know how, I really don’t!”
Her grandmother pressed Noor against her chest and stroked her hair. “I don’t know, my child. You have a power only God can understand. I can’t explain it, but I know you didn’t set those fires. You’re a good girl, without a single drop of evil in you.”
“But I got in trouble with the principal, and Auntie Widad hates me, and Wafaa hates me—they all hate me. What am I going to do?”
“Don’t do anything,” her grandmother said. “Grow up, just as you are, beautiful and kind and good. As they say, We cannot understand all that God does, my sweet, and you don’t know when or how help will come. For now, just try to sleep. You have to wake up early for school.”
“I hate school,” Noor said in protest. “I hate the principal, I hate the teachers, I hate the girls who make fun of me! Why did my parents leave me? Why did my uncle take me out of the school where I was happy and put me in this awful one? Nobody in this world loves me. Nobody!”
Tenderly, Grandmother took Noor’s hand between hers.
“I love you, and don’t you forget it. I will always love you, and I’ll never let anything hurt you.” Then she added, as if it were an afterthought: “Oh, I forgot, there’s something I want to give you.”
Grandmother reached a hand into the drawer of a small cabinet that stood near the bed. She took out a little red velvet bundle and opened it to the light. Noor looked at the old ring at the center of the bundle and then back at her grandmother.
“Take it,” Grandmother said. “It’s for you. Your father, God rest his soul, gave it to me before he traveled, and he asked me to give it to you if . . .” She didn’t finish her sentence.
“If what?” Noor asked.
Noor’s grandmother spoke with a sigh that came from the depths of her heart. “If I found the right time to give it to you. And I thought that, if I gave it to you now, it might make you happy.”
Noor held the ring and considered it. It was gold, and something had been carved into the top. But it wasn’t clear because of the tarnish that had crept over it.
“It’s very old!” Noor said.
“Yes, it’s old,” her grandmother said. “Your father said it was priceless. He didn’t want to leave it at the house while he was traveling.”
Noor looked back at the ring, but it didn’t seem like anything special. She couldn’t understand why this old thing would be priceless—if she’d found it lying on the ground, she wouldn’t have cared enough to pick it up.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s worth anything.”
“Maybe,” her grandmother said. “Maybe it doesn’t have material value, but it must have meant a lot to your father—something more important than its price. Otherwise he wouldn’t have asked me to hide it, tell no one, and give it straight to you, un—”
Noor’s grandmother didn’t finish her sentence. She’d been about to say, unlike your mother’s jewelry, which Widad sold off.
Carefully, Noor looked at the ring, holding it closer to the light. She was still wondering how this dirty old thing could be valuable. She moved it between her fingers, trying to make out the engraving. It looked like some kind of bird, but maybe she’d have to clean it off to see the shape more clearly.
Noor slipped it on her finger, and to her surprise, it felt as though she’d been born with it on. The ring felt weightless, and it was, in some mysterious way, comfortable and reassuring.
“Keep it with you and don’t lose it,” Noor’s grandmother said. “It carries the scent of your father, may God have mercy on him. And now, my love, to sleep. It’s a school day tomorrow.”
“School, school,” Noor muttered. “I hate it.”
She put her head down on the pillow beside her grandmother’s white hair. She placed her left hand, which was wearing the ring, on her grandmother’s chest, as she did every night, to feel her grandmother’s reassuring breaths until she sank into sleep.
Noor woke in terror from one of her nightmares, a sheen of cold sweat on her face and chest.
“Grandma, Grandma,” Noor shouted. “Help me!”
But her grandmother stayed deep in sleep. Noor sat up in bed and shook her grandmother, trying to wake her, but she didn’t respond. Noor put her hand against the old woman’s chest, trying to follow the movements of her breath, but she didn’t feel any movement.
“Grandma,” Noor shouted. “Grandma!”
Noor put her head on her grandmother’s chest, and then she gave a long, long faint cry. In the morning, they found her asleep on her dead grandmother’s chest.
© Sonia Nimr. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.