This short story by Jumaana Abdu was published in Westerly 68.1, and we’re thrilled to make it freely available for everyone to read here on the Editor’s Desk.
Jumaana Abdu is currently working on her debut novel. In 2023, she won the Dal Stivens Award and came runner-up in the Peter Carey Short Story Award. She was a Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellow in 2022. Her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, The Griffith Review, Overland, and Debris. During the day, she is a junior medical doctor.
Children Go Straight to Heaven When They Die
The pigs were screaming when Cookie’s brothers came out hauling buckets of swill. One by one they dumped their loads, and into the troughs gushed red liquid full of clumps that plunked and sloshed.
Leena and Cookie watched without blinking from behind their boulder hideaway at the border of their two neighbouring estates. They were tiny enough that one large rock sufficed to obscure them both from view, and the supposed innocence they understood their tininess to represent enlivened them all the more with the imminent victory of disobedience.
The boys kept dumping scraps. On and on the reddish coagulates came glugging out, even frothing. The pigs thrust their human-like ugliness into the slop with greed.
‘They eat guts…’ Leena scowled.
‘Silly, it’s watermelon,’ Cookie clipped back, and she elbowed Leena in the stomach. After Cookie’s brothers had delivered their load, they lumbered back towards the storage barn, each of them spitting or scratching a scab or squeezing acne on their way.
This was their cue; the two girls sprung from their hiding place and sprinted past the pigsty and round the back of Cookie’s house and in through the screen door and into the kitchen and under the table where an embroidered tablecloth hung down on all sides almost to the floor. The tiles were so cool that the girls’ legs, sweaty and grimy from an Australian summer in full, obliterative swing, stuck to the ceramic like tongues to an icy pole. Even the little light that reached them under the table was enough to illume the electricity of wretchedness in their eyes. How delectable it was to be a child, and how they had fooled their slow-trudging parents, who were dull and arbitrary authorities and who had forgotten how to do wrong with such brilliance.
Leena surveyed Cookie in the dark and reaffirmed that she did not like the girl all that much—she smelt ripe, and she was vulgar—save for the fact that their being friends was, for reasons unknown, impermissible as per Cookie’s parents. Sneaking about was their only and most inexhaustible game.
A few squeals pierced through the walls from outside.
‘I’m hungry,’ Leena declared.
Cookie perked up. ‘There’s buns on the table fresh from this morning.’
One hand came groping blind from the undertable and pilfered a few buns for two darting tongues below. The treats were fist-sized and topped with melted cheese and small red cubes that Leena assumed to be tomatoes. Cookie handed one to Leena and cradled one for herself, and Leena watched as her blonde accomplice took to their loot like a street orphan. Leena dug in so as to partake.
Immediately, she arrested her chew. The tomato was too rubbery, the taste was too much of something once boned.
‘What is this…?’ Leena asked through an apprehended mouthful.
She could make out only the elfin whites of Cookie’s eyes and her Robin Hood smile: ‘Ham and cheese.’
Leena let the bolus of her desecration roll slowly off her tongue to splat on the floor. After a few seconds of kinetic silence, wherein Cookie looked with curiosity at the slop at her feet, the browner of the two thieves screeched unholy and flew from the darkness across her friend’s estate, past the pigsty, past the acned farm-boys, lacerated through the hedge border, over the log bridge at the narrow of the dividing creek, and scuttled all the way home in such a frenzy that by the time she reached mother in the kitchen, she no longer resembled a little girl but a piglet, pink, furry and spattered in mud.
The arrival of this snivelling, waist-high heretic coincided with the down-swing of a butcher’s knife and a crunch separating a fowl body from a fowl head. Leena was in the mind to conflate the bird’s slaughter with her own. She dropped in a pale fit to the ground. When she prised her eyes open again, it was to the image of mother looming, butcher’s knife suspended in dispassionate hand. Mother’s blankness forestalled the threat of execution, and so Leena, now polite, roused herself to standing and submitted to trial. She wiped her eyes and nose on her sleeve, only she had no sleeve, so she left a snail’s trail all along her forelimb.
‘What do you want?’ mother prompted, without so much as a twist in the dial of her demeanour. Her solidity was terminal; her geometry was hypoxic, fatigued.
‘I ate a pig!’ Leena screamed.
Mother pinched the bridge of her nose and tripoded her arms on the kitchen counter.
‘On purpose?’ she asked, suddenly out of breath.
‘Next door at Cookie’s. I thought it was bits of tomato!’
‘Okay.’ She turned away and continued gutting and slicing.
Leena squawked, ‘What?’ She had been cheated out of her flog. ‘It’s haram…’
‘You’re a child. Your book isn’t open. The angels aren’t writing your deeds.’
But Leena was a sharp accountant. ‘What about all the good ones I did?’
Mother’s cheeks went concave under the vacuum of a murky disdain.
‘Only the good,’ she said. ‘That’s why children go straight to heaven when they die.’
To double-check, Leena asked, ‘I’m not in trouble?’
‘Stop asking. Stop crying. Those people will think Muslims beat their kids.’
Leena dried her face with a snort, but her bloodlust was dissatisfied.
‘Where’s Baba?’ She thought she might test out her scandal on him.
‘He’s in the musallah giving a khutba. Go, I’m not praying.’
‘Do I have to do anything?’
‘To make up for eating the pig.’
Mother set the knife down and the look on her face was so dog-tired. ‘Aren’t you listening? You’re just a kid. Nothing, nothing.’ She sighed palliatively, then rubbed the heel of her palm hard into her eyeballs, reprised her weapon, and set the blade mutilating.
In the garage, father sat on a plastic chair serving in place of a mimbar and acknowledged Leena’s entrance with a stutter when he caught her, now cleaned up, wriggling in flat on her stomach beneath the garage door at the back of the congregation. In a sea of fifty men, there was only one other woman in attendance, situated at the back of the garage. Leena dashed to kneel beside her and, fetching for this a judgemental glance, realised she had forgotten to bring her prayer clothes. In a pinch, she shimmied her skull down into her T-shirt like a tortoise of God.
Father, meanwhile, was still recovering from the slither of a girl-serpent entering his sanctum garage. In a moment, he continued more smoothly, ‘Surat an-Naml, ayah eighteen, describes an ant hearing the approaching troops of the Prophet Sulaiman.’ The balm of Quranic recitation then restored his natural colouring: ‘Until, when they came upon the valley of the ants, an ant said, “O ants, enter your dwellings that you not be crushed by Sulaiman and his soldiers while they perceive not.” When the Prophet Sulaiman heard that little plea, he commanded his troops take another route so they would not trample the colony. A king accommodating for an ant. On the Day of Judgement, we will be held to account for every animal we have treated unjustly.’
Here, he paused. He scanned the room, elongating his verdict.
‘So,’ he broke at last, and his gaze landed squarely upon Leena with a benevolence both strained and overwhelming. ‘What great kindness, then, must be expected of the way we treat human beings?’
They all stood to pray. Afterwards, the men’s solemnity dissipated into a brook of conversation. Before they could slip outside to smoke or get back to work on the renovations next door, father called out, ‘Insha’Allah, this is the last week we will be praying in a grubby old garage! Some takbeer, please, for the brothers who volunteered their time and sweat in the construction of our region’s first mosque!’ Everyone gave a cheer of takbeer. ‘Vitriol aside—and of that we’ve had our fair share—we’ve also had support and solidarity. Let’s do our best to vindicate that support by… being on our best behaviour.’ He clapped his hands then ran his beard through his fist. ‘Alright!’ he said, and sent the men off outside.
Leena zipped up to him and he prickled her cheek with a kiss. Then he pinned her with a look. He could tuck every corner of his face into a wrinkle, there were canyons and ridges upon ridges of them, and his great, mythical brows could converge to a magnificent point.
‘Best behaviour,’ he said.
‘Best behaviour,’ Leena saluted. And when she spun off to slip back into the house through the exit that led from the garage to the kitchen, she caught mother watching through a crack in the door, the very statue of best behaviour, like a stallion halter-broken and combed.
Father was not a perfectionist, but he expected no less than constant and complete engagement of a person’s optimal capacity. In this expectation, however relentless, he could not be called a hypocrite, for he exacted no less of himself. His beautiful if daunting integrity was used to corral his wife and daughter, it’s true, but not despotically. He was most militant of all in dispensing magnanimity. If they policed themselves to please him, it was because the maelstrom of his steadfastness drew their rafters in and made anything less feel slothful or obscene.
At dinner, Leena itched. She poked at her chicken drumstick, peeled back the skin and tried biting the bone like a puppy before she landed on an idea.
‘What does concubine mean?’
Father’s cutlery hit the plate with a clink. Mother had not yet started eating, but she often did not eat. She had her hands in her lap and her eyes trained on her hands and was so still that if it were not for the thrum of radiation she emitted, one might think her asleep.
‘Where did you hear that word?’ father asked, once he had managed to swallow his mouthful through a gullet constricted.
‘Cookie said her parents said that we’re building a harem on our property, and I asked her what’s a harem, and Cookie said she didn’t know, but she heard her parents say it was for keeping concubines in.’
Father’s body clogged and churned and strained until many of his pores sprung a leak. With effort, he responded. ‘It’s not a harem, it’s a mosque. What else did Catherine say?’
Leena prepared for triumph. She sat upright.
‘She said her mum thought Mama wouldn’t be happy to share with other ladies. And her dad said it obviously didn’t matter what Mama might think, that she’s trained for this sort of thing. And then she asked me what harem and concubine means.’
Something marvellous happened then. Mother, who had been so muted a brown for so long, took on a violet-vermillion tint. She rose and floated from the room into the ink of the kitchen unlit. Father ground the porcelain of his teeth and did not move. Best behaviour had a profound stillness.
‘Am I banned from playing with Cookie?’ Leena asked, to test her victory.
‘It’s not Catherine’s fault…’ He was an archaeologist digging for the fossils of goodwill. ‘I don’t want to ban you from anything…’
As far as punishments went, this was insipid. It was beginning to feel to Leena like the real punishment here was guilt, but just as she suffered a twinge, she remembered with relief what mother had told her earlier about how it was impossible for children to sin.
The next week, before the new mosque’s opening ceremony, Leena took herself on her best behaviour all the way to the creek dividing her property from Cookie’s. She had told the blonde girl they were now both equally banned from seeing one another, so they stayed on opposite banks and wore pining expressions for effect. A butterfly creamed its way through the air between them and landed on a branch sticking out of the shaded creek. All around them, the bush perimeter clicked and whirred.
‘My mum said that we believe in kids going straight to heaven, too,’ Cookie said. She picked up a pebble and pirouetted to launch it at Leena, who then batted it off with a stick.
‘Told you,’ Leena decreed.
‘But I don’t get why.’
‘Because we’re just kids. We don’t mean to do anything bad.’
‘Even if we killed somebody?’
‘Why would anybody wanna kill somebody?’
‘But you could.’
‘You don’t get it.’ In disapproval, Leena plonked herself tailor-style in the dirt. Cookie mirrored her on the opposite bank.
‘Is that why you ate the bacon?’ Cookie asked.
‘No, that was an accident!’ the other girl burst, and she torpedoed a rock in Cookie’s direction, though it hadn’t been Cookie’s fault—she hadn’t known it was haram to eat pig.
‘Then why did you cry?’ the muddy blonde persisted.
‘I felt bad.’
‘Why would you feel bad if it doesn’t even count?’
‘Because it’s disgusting!’ Leena shot up and frog-leapt across raised stones in the creek until she was standing right next to Cookie and thundering. The other girl paid her little mind. She was using a small twig to scoop dirt out of her fingernails.
‘I hope I’m gonna die,’ Leena announced in a ploy to re-commandeer attention, but there was some truth to it. She was thinking on the one hand of her terrible monstrosities and on the other of the blistering acne each of Cookie’s older brothers had developed at thirteen, the same age they had stopped playing with her and instead started looking at her with a rotten feeling. Now, they worked in the pigsty with their hoggish father and flung at her words she knew only enough to loathe. But if Cookie snuck her into the house furtively enough, and if she sprinted past them on her way home, their catapults missed. It was their father who had made them evil, it was age that had mottled their cheeks; Leena thought how much of a relief it was to know that if she died while still cherubic and baby-smooth, she’d be spared. Then she thought it was evil to wish for a loophole into heaven, and she remembered her father saying God didn’t play tricks and loopholes. He was straightforward and kind. And then she was glad all over again that if she died soon, her conniving character wouldn’t count, and she would get straight into heaven all the same.
‘I used to catch butterflies at preschool,’ Cookie publicised, contemplating the butterfly perched on the branch in the creek. ‘I put them in the side pockets of my backpack with a flower for them to eat. But they always died before the next day and I didn’t know why. Now I think I suffocated them on accident because I didn’t know I had to leave the zip a little bit open for them to breathe. I was just worried they’d fly away. But even if I did it on purpose, it doesn’t matter. It didn’t even count.’
‘Doesn’t mean you should do it. My mum said it’s cruel to even pick a leaf off a tree if I don’t need to,’ Leena reprimanded, agitated that Cookie was running away with her idea. Cookie hopped up and picked a leaf off a nearby banksia to prove a point. Not one to be outdone, Leena manifested the pièce de résistance of the afternoon from her pocket: a magnifying glass. She plucked a leaf of her own and angled the magnifying glass under a beam piercing through a crack in the canopy. The leaf began to smoke. Beside her, Cookie refused to breathe. On the verge of apnoea, she seized control of the magnifying glass and raced to an anthill by the creek and made Leena watch as ants came marching one by one and fried and died, then she turned from her goblin crouch to give a slow, reptilian grin which brought Leena nearly to convulsion. Instead, Leena clawed the magnifying glass back and spiked a leaf onto a hairy twig, setting both on fire before thrusting them down the ant-hole. When she saw the green pallor in Cookie’s face, she was immensely enthralled.
The ants flooded out all at once. They scattered and mounted their tormentors’ bodies. In a matter of seconds, both girls were coated head to toe, and what began as a tickled titter turned to a full-throttle scream as they staggered and tripped one after the other into the creek. They thrashed in the water, which was only about as deep as their knees. Hysteria abated only once their skins had stopped crawling. They opened their eyes to find themselves bug-free and sitting in a slow-moving stream, upon the surface of which floated hundreds upon hundreds of drowned little things.
They smiled. A plucked leaf could lead to a holocaust, they could see. They smiled because nothing they could ever think to do would be worse than this.
Unburdened by evil, the girls parted as friends. Leena followed the butterfly all the way home and waddled into the kitchen to avoid the crowd outside, where their very first mosque was set to be imminently unveiled. Mother was in the kitchen hacking through lambchops in preparation for the celebratory barbecue. From behind, she had the shape of a sanded-down, cement rectangle.
Leena announced herself with a squelch. Mother turned to conduct a disembodied survey. Her eyes rolled like great, big pearls from the tip of Leena’s head to the magnifying glass like a smoking gun in her hand and the puddle at her feet.
‘We fell in the creek. We were playing with the ants, but they got on us.’
Mother’s voice echoed out: ‘Playing?’
In that moment, Leena knew she had been a devil. Her lip turned white. To pre-empt her penalty, she sobbed through confession.
By the end, mother was a glacier. Now she faced the drain-plug of her daughter, now she stalked towards her, across coals, now her knuckles were white gripping the butcher’s knife, now her voice came from some mouldy cavern.
‘Does it feel good?’ she asked. ‘To be cruel when you think it doesn’t matter?’
Leena shrunk into a maggot beneath the growing shadow of mother, who was so silent and so still, who took on a lightless glow that glinted off the knife in her hand.
Then came a sound like the sky splitting open. Mother and daughter locked eyes before running out to the front yard, where Leena was hit with the vision of Cookie tearing across the property ahead of her acne-ravaged brothers and father. Cookie was weeping, and her male relatives were closing in swiftly behind her, their purple cheeks grinning. They kicked ahead of them a screaming, leviathan pig.
Leena and mother were the first to see the ambush approaching. Leena couldn’t understand what was happening, or how or why. She looked with panic between father and the congregation ambling afore the newly revealed mosque, and the entourage spurring a pig towards them. These men, nervous and dressed up for the occasion, were so embarrassingly unaware of the torpedo of excrement on collision-course with their lives.
But once Cookie let rip an other-worldly shriek, all the bearded men turned gleaming black eyes towards the acne-boys and the pig in gallop. Leena was in a vile rapture. She heard mother’s breathing beside her like a death rattle. She thought of mother’s best behaviour, father’s dogged goodness, her own unrepented sins, all the million ants she had massacred earlier that day and how easy it would be for so many men to murder just one little pig, and so, to redeem herself, and because she could not stand the sound mother was making, she flew to intercept the hooved bombing.
The pig was rabid with terror when she crashed into its horrible body. Its eyes were intelligent, white, spasming in sockets mashed by augmented obesity. The animal began to trample her, and she wrangled with it to save its life, even as she felt her lungs being stomped and a metallic taste leeching into her mouth. Her mind blazed; she could not see. She heard a million men howling, and the earth shook as so many boots converged in her direction, but they would not reach her in time, not even for all their agony and hatred so impenetrable and so random that Leena could not see its meaning even as she choked under its animal consequence.
Then she heard a ripping. A gush of warmth bathed her body so that she had to sit up to stop spluttering. An uproar of men filtered through to her ear, and when at last she wiped her eyes, gone was the swine. In its place, above her, all around her, was mother, butcher’s knife in one hand, and in the other, the lifeless ear of a pig. She lifted the great flab of its body, still surging with blood, and dumped it to the side. Then mother mounted Leena on her hip and fled from the mob. She would not look at the men wailing on either side of her, and her eyes were like titanium pins. Leena shuddered, she was stuck to mother, and the blood that joined them was hot and silky as the day she was born. At the threshold of the kitchen, the girl threw a final look behind. The men were brawling in the front yard, and father’s body was crammed in the writhing knot, his wrinkles taut in a grief so pitiful. Cookie had been pushed to the wayside. Both girls, when they locked eyes, were crying; they were embarrassed. They had failed cruelty. And they wished they would die soon before the years made competent their latent-yet sins. They wished they had been animals who could be slaughtered and had no soul at all.