We were surprised when the Musayu family moved in next door. But who wouldn't be? A Gayasin family, in a Rekhajee neighbourhood? Unheard of! It was the first time little Rayak, our son, had seen the ghostly white skin and icy blue hair: until then, he had only known the pitch-black skin and gold-bronze hair of the Rekhajee. To him, they were aliens.
Of course, we treated them as nothing of the sort. It's not like our cultures did not have similarities: both advocated welcoming guests as though they were divine, and so we offered to help them bring their furniture in and at night we invited them over to dinner. The following Friday, they invited us over for dinner and so we spent our Friday dinners together, at our home one week and the next week at theirs. They were wonderful neighbours, so friendly and polite. We looked forward to the weekly dinners; Nesuno was never short of funny tales, and his wife Muchima presented her excellent food with a smile; Rayak and Raheesh, our daughter, got along so well with their children, and their newborn baby, Miku, was so cute.
It started on a Saturday night.
A baby screamed while I performed my daily Sprahaeen, prayer, at six o clock. It didn't stop; the air filled with screams of agony. Sareesh, my wife, rushed down the stairs, the mark of prayer fresh and incomplete on her forehead.
"What's going on?" she asked. I didn't know, but it came from the direction of the Musayu residence. I told her to prepare to go outside and I washed my hands from the prayer salts. She dabbed her face with cotton and put on a shawl: it was cold outside. The second we went outside it stopped. We shrugged and let the matter drop.
But the next week the same thing happened. At exactly six o clock on Saturday, while I was in the middle of Sprahaeen, the screams of a baby pierced the air. One couldn't concentrate on anything else. Sareesh thought that someone was mutilating Miku, but again, the moment we stepped outside, it stopped.
"We can't be imagining it," Sareesh said. "Shall we make sure that everything is all right?" I looked at the Musayu residence. The light was on in the dining room. Mrs Musayu brought Miku inside, rocking her to sleep.
"Babies cry, don't they?" I shrugged. I looked at the sky. The sallow face of a full moon hung low in the sky.
"It's nothing," I said.
I knew it wasn't, and Sareesh as well. We had two babies of our own and they never cried anything like this. This cry was so desparate, so sharp, it sounded as though the baby was dying. Not even when Raheesh had a fever that could have killed her - yes, then her cries were piercing - but not like this. But perhaps we were wrong. Perhaps we imagined it. After all, we saw Miku through the window, and she seemed fine. Either way, we had no right to interfere with the Musayus. Old Uncle Arkhas made nothing more than a nuisance of himself when he told us how to raise our children; we would certainly have detested a Gayasin family doing the same. So what right did we have to interfere with the way they raised Miku? They did no harm; on the contrary they were wonderful neighbours who always helped us: Muchima brought us herbal tea when Rayak was sick the other day, and Nesuno and I often lent each other tools for gardening and maintenance.
Besides, the New Order stipulates that one should respect and tolerate other cultures - that's fair, is it not? To impose oneself on another's way of life is dreadful as a thought alone. Surely they would do nothing to harm their own baby, Gayasin culture is said to be among the most peaceful. Why should we target them specifically because they practised another culture? No, we would leave them alone, we decided. They had their right to privaycy and knew their baby daughter better than we did.
But it was not that easy to forget. The following Friday when the Musayus came over Sareesh searched Miku for any scars surreptitiously, but found nothing. Over the dinner table I tried to hint at it.
"I've heard some strange things of late," I said. "I sometimes wonder how safe our youngest are."
"Friend, life is strange," Nesuno laughed. "The youngest understand it better than we can."
"Oh, I don't know," I said. "Sometimes, in the evenings I think of how bad the world is."
"Yes, but the real question is what is bad and what is good," Nesuno answered. "That, no one knows."
And so the matter dropped. Either way, on Saturday, at six o clock, the cry didn't come. Not a peep. Had the Musayus realised that we were on to them? They seemed so oblivious over dinner. I went outside after Sprahaeen and saw Muchima setting the dinner table She stopped for a moment by the cot and reached inside, smiling. We must have imagined it over the past weeks. It was nothing more than paranoia. A silly thought.
But it came at midnight, the baby's cry: as powerful as before. I jumped up and stared out the window. It came from the direction of the Musayu residence, as before, but from the window I could only see the road and a bit of their garden. I turned around - Sareesh was beside me.
"Do you think we should go see what is going on?"
"At midnight?" I rubbed my eyes. The cry persisted. We wouldn't be able to return to sleep.
"Let's get dressed," I mumbled. I put on a t-shirt and sandals, and over that a robe. Sareesh put on a robe, slippers and her shawl. We trudged out onto the frost-covered grass. Again, the moment we stepped outside, the cry stopped. I saw no light in their dining room, but that was the only room I saw.
"Let's leave this to the morning," I said. Sareesh agreed and we returned to bed to see out the sleepless night. Yes, we had no place to interfere, and we should respect other cultures, but is it not that evil prevails when good men do nothing? We had a duty, to this suffering child, to protect it. After all, we were citizens of the same country, and that baby deserved not to be hurt: it was its right. So how could we do nothing?
But when we awoke the next morning the urgency was forgotten. Perhaps we had only dreamt it? There was nothing to say for certain that it was in the Musayu house, or their baby. And how could we be sure that the baby did not cry for want of milk, or a change of diaper?
Timidly I approached Nesuno in the morning when he went out to collect the paper.
"Wonderful morning, no?" he greeted when he saw me. As I came closer, his eyes filled with concern.
"You appear tired. Is anything wrong, friend?" he asked.
"I struggled to sleep last night," I said. "Around midnight I heard a strange noise. Did you hear anything, perhaps?"
"Not at all," he said. "But we were praying; we may have been too focused on that."
"At midnight?" I uttered before I could stop myself. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't..."
"Oh, not at all," Nesuno laughed. "In our culture, when the moon wanes we pray at midnight. It's just this month; our holy month, see. It will end with the new moon next week."
"Oh, very interesting," I said.
"No, it's tiring, really," he yawned. "I hope that's not what disturbed you last night."
"No, no, I don't think so," I began to back away. What I heard was certainly not a prayer. "Well, have a nice day."
"May God watch over you," he waved.
Sareesh waited for me at the door.
"Well, what did he say?"
"They were praying at the time, and didn't hear anything," I answered.
"Then are we imagining things?" she asked. Neither of the children had heard anything at night, but they slept like logs. Nor were they at home on the previous Saturdays when we heard the cries; both were at religion school. But when we asked the Musayus' other neighbours, they all concurred: strange cries have come from their house, like a baby's cry. We decided to find out for once and for all what went on in our neighbours' house: Nesuno said that there was one more prayer at midnight the following week, so we would prepare for that. We took strolls around the block, looking for better vantage points of the house. On Friday, when we went over for dinner, both Sareesh and I explored the house under the pretext of looking for the bathroom. On Saturday, after Rayak's fifth birthday party we spent hours cleaning the house so that we could stay up later. At five to twelve, we went out with a large bag of rubbish to throw away, and pretended to enjoy the cool, quiet night. Convinced that the streets were empty, we dashed to the tree across the road, giving us a perfect view of their house while covering us. The lights were on upstairs, but we couldn't identify the room. At twelve exactly it came: the baby's cry, louder and more desparate than ever and coming from the Musayu house. After a couple of minutes Sareesh couldn't bear it any more; she ran across the street to our neighbours' home.
"Wait!" I hissed, but she had already knocked at the door. I hurried beside her. The cries stopped soonafter, and a minute after that Nesuno opened the door.
"Sorry to disturb you at this hour," I said, "but we heard a... a strange cry."
"We were wondering," Sareesh searched for the best words, "is... is everything all right... with Miku?"
"Oh, perfectly fine," Nesuno answered. "She's upstairs, in our prayer room. As I said, it's our last night of the ritual." He pointed to the bright patch of the new moon in the sky.
"Ritual?" Sareesh uttered. "With Miku?"
"Yes," Nesuno smiled. "Why, she's at the centre of the ritual." Sareesh and I exchanged horrified glances.
"Would you like to join us?" Nesuno offered.
"No," Sareesh snapped.
"Why - we - " I gave up on words. "Sorry to disturb you."
We rushed back to our house and locked the door. We would inform the Muyasus that dinner on Friday was cancelled. If we heard any more cries, we would call the police. Barbarians! To torture a baby like that? Sheer animal behaviour! Sareesh took out her ritual dagger and cotton to perform Sabrapaeen. I took out my thorn and salts to perform Sprahaeen. Now, more than ever, we needed to pray. As I pierced my hand with the thorn and covered the cut in salt, I thought of how I would be teaching Rayak this prayer the next day. Yes, it hurts, son. It stings like murder. But that is the proper custom. At least we don't do... only Aeer, our god, knows what they do to babies.
Nesuno Musayu returned upstairs to the prayer room. The priest and his family waited, Miku on the satin cloth on the table.
"Who was it?" Muchima asked.
"Oh, the Rashals from next door. I think they were disturbed by our prayers."
"I see," she nodded. "Did you invite them in?"
"I did, but they seemed disturbed, somehow. No matter, let us continue," he said. Muchima put the Gayasi whistle, with its rubbery cloth and taut gold threads, to her mouth and blew as hard as she could.
Perhaps it does sound a bit like a baby's cry, he thought. Muchima blew for another five minutes, the priest said the final prayer and the ritual was finished.
"Poor thing," Muchima picked up Miku. "It's a harsh sound. I'm surprised she doesn't cry from the noise."
"She's a good girl," Nesuno smiled. "Devout."
copyright Ori Ben-Ze'ev November 2006
Total word count: 2016