f all earthly pleasures, Laila's favorite was lying next to Aziza, her baby's face so close
that she could watch her big pupils dilate and shrink. Laila loved running her finger
over Aziza's pleasing, soft skin, over the dimpled knuckles, the folds of fat at her elbows.
Sometimes she lay Aziza down on her chest and whispered into the soft crown of her head
things about Tariq, the father who would always be a stranger to Aziza, whose face Aziza
would never know. Laila told her of his aptitude for solving riddles, his trickery and
mischief, his easy laugh.
"He had the prettiest lashes, thick like yours. A good chin, a fine nose, and a round
forehead. Oh, your father was handsome, Aziza. He was perfect. Perfect, like you are."
But she was careful never to mention him by name.
Sometimes she caught Rasheed looking at Aziza in the most peculiar way. The other night,
sitting on the bedroom floor, where he was shaving a corn from his foot, he said quite
casually, "So what was it like between you two?"
Laila had given him a puzzled look, as though she didn't understand.
"Laili and Majnoon. You and they akknga, the cripple. What was it you had, he and you?"
"He was my friend," she said, careful that her voice not shift too much in key. She busied
herself making a bottle."You know that."
"I don't know what I know." Rasheed deposited the shavings on the windowsill and
dropped onto the bed. The springs protested with a loud creak. He splayed his legs, picked
at his crotch. "And as....friends, did the two of you ever do anything out of order?"
"Out of order?"
Rasheed smiled lightheartedly, but Laila could feel his gaze, cold and watchful. "Let me
see, now. Well, did he ever give you a kiss? Maybe put his hand where it didn't belong?"
Laila winced with, she hoped, an indignant air. She could feel her heart drumming in her
throat."He was like a brother to me."
"So he was a friend or a brother?"
"Which was it?"
"He was like both."
"But brothers and sisters are creatures of curiosity.Yes. Sometimes a brother lets his sister
see his pecker, and a sister will "
"You sicken me," Laila said.
"So there was nothing."
"I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Rasheed tilted his head, pursed his lips, nodded. "People gossiped, you know. I remember.
They said all sorts of things about you two. But you're saying there was nothing."
She willed herself to glare at him.
He held her eyes for an excruciatingly long time in an unblinking way that made her
knuckles go pale around the milk bottle, and it took all that Laila could muster to not falter.
She shuddered at what he would do if he found out that she had been stealing from him.