A Layer of Silence

Wednesdays were Mustafa Ahmed’s favorite days. Mostly because he only had to work for half the day. And his wife always made him a special lunch. But also because he got to see all his many nieces and nephews and play with their children. Mustafa was getting old, but he liked to believe he was still strapping at the age of 81. He knew his wife thought so. And really, her opinion was the only one that mattered. 

So on that normal Wednesday morning, Mustafa got ready, taking care to make sure his short beard was shaved to perfection and his equally short hair was combed back. He smiled at his reflection, a half toothless smile seeing as some of his teeth had begun to fall out, and nodded. He looked good. And ready to take on another day. 

Walking to the kitchen, he took a deep breath. The smell of fresh bread and tea lingered in his nose. Sakina stood in front of the stove, shoulders tense, expertly flipping an omelette and muttering to herself. He softly placed his hand on her waist so as not to startle her and gave her a swift peck on the cheek. She smiled, relaxing slightly. He moved to the sink, washing his hands and filling two glasses of water. The table was already set with a pot of jam and a slab of butter on a plate sitting in the middle. Sakina placed the cheese and spring onion omelette on the table and sat down. 

She was the butter, and he was the jam.

Mustafa picked up his knife, said a quick prayer, and began lathering his toast with butter and jam. That was how their breakfasts usually were. They didn’t eat eggs too often, mostly because their old stomachs couldn’t handle it even though doctors always said eggs were good for them. But the bread, butter, and jam were a staple. Every morning, Mustafa spread a generous layer of butter and a small amount of strawberry jam on each of their pieces of toast. After 56 years of being married, their taste in food had merged into one. He liked to think that he and Sakina represented the two condiments quite well. She was the butter, and he was the jam. He needed her more than she needed him. But they worked extremely well together. 

He watched Sakina take a bite of her toast, and he sipped on his tea. Mustafa remembered the first time he’d seen her, when their fathers had arranged a short meeting for them. He didn’t know what he’d expected from her. Maybe a shy, blushing girl in her early twenties. That was how her father described her anyway. Mustafa himself was quite shy so his father said she’d be a perfect match for him. But when she’d walked into his family’s living room, head held high and a playful smile on her face, he’d faltered. She’d spoken with such confidence and grace. Her hair had been in a low ponytail and she’d worn a perfectly tailored dress that fit her frame just right. She’d scared him senseless with her questions. There was a smart and confident young woman with a heart of gold and a wicked personality.

Why would she want to tie herself to an invalid like himself? So he’d asked her. And she’d only smiled at him and said, “Everything happens for a reason. I trust God and He’s led me to you.”

And although he’d been terrified of marrying someone who was the polar opposite of himself, he’d found himself agreeing. He’d have been a fool not to. 

Mustafa tilted his head as Sakina shifted in her seat a bit, her face contorting into a slight grimace. He placed the cup back on the table and asked her what was wrong. She replied with a shake of her head and said it was nothing he needed to worry about; it was probably just gas. He gave her a stern look, asking her if she was sure. She smiled that crooked smile that took over her entire face, one that he loved so much. So he relaxed in his chair. 

After breakfast, he asked Sakina if she wanted to come down to the shop with him. She declined, saying she wanted to rest for a bit. So Mustafa began the short walk to the only clothing alteration shop amid dozens of fabric shops. After living a few towns over for almost four decades, he and Sakina had decided to come back to where their families were. And so, they’d packed up everything they had, sold their shares of the large textile company they’d invested in, and bought a little shop in the middle of the busiest fabric store street in Mombasa. It was hard, but since it had always only been the two of them, they’d made it work. Mustafa rented a two-bedroom apartment above a bookshop and they were happy. 

Mustafa walked to his shop, smiling and waving at the usual people he saw down the street. He opened up the shop, taking in the smell of fabric and wood. His Singer sat on the nearest table, ready for use. Sakina’s sewing machine sat on the table beside his, pieces of fabric strewn over it. He walked over, grabbing one of his customer’s suits and beginning the alterations. 

There was a sort of calming sensation that passed over him every time he sat down and began sewing. When Mustafa was younger, he’d only ever pursued sewing as a passion, a hobby, a way to pass time. His brothers always made fun of him for it, and he knew he’d never get a real job. No one would ever want him because of his very obvious set-back. But Sakina had given him that little push. She’d only ever sewed to fix a button or two but she’d learned how to for him. They’d taken on altering people’s clothes and from there, they’d only prospered. And he made sure to thank God each day for it. 

Mustafa snapped the thread with his fingers and began altering. Time went by and before he knew it, his nephew had arrived with his rowdy bunch of grandchildren. Sakina had a younger sister whom she dearly loved and she was one of the reasons they’d chosen to move back. And Sakina had a favorite nephew, whose kids she doted upon extensively. Mustafa always thought of Sakina’s nieces and nephews as his own as well. His brothers and their kids had all ventured out, many of them moving out of the country, but they still tried to make time for him. 

And he was thankful for that. But the relationship he had with Sakina’s nephew was different. For almost fifteen years after their marriage, he and Sakina had tried to have children. Perhaps it was him or perhaps her, but they’d been unable to have any. So they’d left it to God and decided to spread the love they’d kept for their child to other children. Sakina’s nephew being one of them. 

“Uncle Mustafa! Bilal’s wedding is soon, and I just wanted to make sure you and Aunty Sakina would be staying with us during that week,” Abdullah asked, hefting his granddaughter higher on his hip. Bilal, his youngest son, was getting married in a week. 

Mustafa nodded, moving his hands quickly. Abdullah and his granddaughter’s identical eyes focused on his hands, following his movements. The four-year-old with her hands wrapped around Abdullah’s neck squealed. Mustafa’s eyebrows raised in amusement. 

“I know what he said!” she exclaimed, shaking her grandfather. 

Abdullah chuckled, “What did he say?”

She glanced at Mustafa, her eyes alight with excitement. “He said he would stay with me and give me presents! Only for me!”

Mustafa grinned proudly. She was smart for her age. And he knew just who had taught her to read him. 

He was a mute man without any children, and yet he felt as though he’d lived an extremely fulfilling life.

He gave the young girl a gentle pat on the head and told Abdullah he’d see him soon. It was lunchtime, and he always closed up the shop for an hour so he could go home, pray, and eat lunch with Sakina. It was a tradition they upheld every time Sakina decided to stay home from work. But on Wednesdays, he only worked the first half of the day. Then he went home, where Sakina would then either begin cooking her delectable lunch or already have it ready. 

Mustafa smiled to himself. As he’d gotten older, he’d realised just how great a life he’d lived. He was a mute man without any children, and yet he felt as though he’d lived an extremely fulfilling life. If he were to die any time soon, he’d die a happy man. Because Sakina had made it so. 

Learning sign language hadn’t been easy. His father had paid a hefty sum for their family to learn sign. But that was his family. Who else in the world would bother learning an entire new language of gestures for him? 

Sakina had. 

She’d started as soon as they’d gotten engaged. She’d made sure her own family learned as well. And each new person that entered their lives had become a student of Sakina’s at one point or another. 

And when Mustafa had started to go deaf, she tried to get him to lip read as well, which hadn’t gone quite as planned. The hearing aid the doctors provided were helpful, but he only wore them when he went out. At home, he liked teasing his wife. After a few years, he still hadn’t gotten any better at lip reading. It was quite comical. His wife always scowled at him every time she’d speak and expect him to have at least picked up some of the words she’d say. Then she’d sigh and exaggerate her frustration a bit and resort back to signing to him. He loved it when she did so. 

Really, he loved anything she did. 

So when Mustafa walked back into their flat, a little before one, he wanted nothing more than to sit beside Sakina, eat whatever goodness she’d made, and talk about Bilal’s wedding. He found Sakina sitting on the couch, a glass of something in her hands and a frown on her face. 

He walked over to her, sitting beside her and nudging her shoulder. She turned to him, her eyes glazed over and startled, as if she’d only just noticed he was there. 

“Oh! You’re back,” she said, placing the glass on the coffee table. 

Mustafa nodded and asked what she was drinking. 

“Just some Sprite. I felt like having a bit. My tummy’s been acting weird all day,” she answered, placing a hand against her stomach. 

Mustafa placed his hand on her forehead, his eyes narrowing when he felt it warmer than it should be. He signed to her, asking her to go lie down. She needed rest. 

Sakina shook her head, denying her need to take a break. He grabbed her hands, pulling her to their bedroom and tucking her in. Brushing a few strands of hair out of her eyes, he went to grab a glass of water and some Panadol. Sakina had the biggest heart. She was always so busy worrying about him and everyone else that she completely disregarded herself. She left her own health and well-being behind and that was the one thing that always bugged Mustafa. He’d tried time and time again to instil in her that her own health mattered more than anyone else’s. She hardly ever listened though. 

Sighing, he filled a glass up with warm water and opened the cupboard above the sink where they kept all their medicines. There were only four Panadol tablets left. He popped two out and took them to the bedroom, where he placed the glass on the bedside table and left the tablets on a tissue there as well. He turned to Sakina, who’d shut her eyes. He gently shook her shoulders. She was warm to the touch. He shook her again. Mustafa sat down beside her, frowning down at her. Had she gone into a deep sleep? She must’ve been really tired. But she needed to drink some water and take that Panadol to cool her fever down. He tightened his grip on her shoulders, shaking her a little more this time. Her body shook limply in his hands. 

Why wasn’t she waking up? 

His heart began to beat faster. 

Mustafa leaned closer to her, wanting to call for her. He opened his mouth, mouthing her name.

But no sound came out.

He cupped her cheeks, squeezing her just a bit. Why wouldn’t she wake up? He clutched her sides, shaking her again. Then he dipped his fingers in the glass of water and flicked the droplets on her face. 

She didn’t stir. 

Now Mustafa began panicking. Why wasn’t she responding? 

He put his ear closer to her heart, trying to listen to her heart beat. 

But he couldn’t hear anything. 

Maybe his hearing aids weren’t working. 

He pressed his forefinger and middle finger against her pulse point on her neck. 

He couldn’t feel anything. 

He held his finger under her nose, waiting for her breaths to come out. 

They didn’t.

Mustafa got up, his legs shaking, and grabbed the Nokia sitting on the dresser. He quickly pressed a few buttons, messaging Abdullah. He had to still be in the area. Then he rushed out of the apartment and to the bookstore downstairs. He motioned to the young girl that managed the store. She glanced at him, taking in the obvious panic and worry on his face and following him without a word. 

Mustafa ran back upstairs, sprinting into the room and gesturing to Sakina. The young girl gasped, trying to shake his wife awake, yelling her name and whipping her phone out. He stood on the side, his entire body trembling. 

Abdullah came a few minutes later, doing much of the same things Mustafa had already done. 

Mustafa knew what was going on. 

He knew why she wasn’t waking up.

He just didn’t want to believe it. 

His wife, the woman who had spent 56 years of her life loving him, making him whole, giving him a reason to live, was gone. She’d gone and left him all by himself. 

She’d gone never hearing him ever say her name. 

His back hit the wall, tears pouring down his face. Abdullah turned to him, saying something, but he couldn’t hear anything. No, he didn’t want to hear anything. 

His wife, his Sakina, his entire world, had left him. 

And so Mustafa wept soundlessly. 


Wednesdays were the worst days of the week. Mustafa Ahmed hated them. Mostly because he had to work for half the day. And he had to eat whatever food he’d gotten around to buying the day before. But also because he had to see all his many nieces and nephews and their children. Mustafa was getting old, and he liked to believe he would die soon. He was 81, and he wanted nothing more than to join his wife. He hated having breakfast alone. He missed the butter to his jam. He hated working alone. He hated living alone. He missed her. The only person who’d ever mattered to him. 

His Sakina. 

He prayed he would join her. 

And a day before his 82 birthday, he did. 

Asiya is a writer and journalist based in Brisbane, Australia.