The judge looked down its nose at the accused. “Will the defendant please rise.” Then a forty-three year old man rose from a worn wooden chair, his hands cuffed in metal in front of him and clad in an orange jumpsuit as he kept his head bowed.
Meanwhile in a different room, farther away in a seemingly unrelated space, but happening simultaneously and their breaths in an unknown unison, a fifteen year old girl stood in the middle of a lavishly draped living room. Her hands hidden within the long sleeves of her orange salwar kameez and as she kept her head lowered. The girl’s family surrounded her seated in their own unworn, carefully carved wooden chairs.
“What do you plead?” The judges asked, one an old man with a pale sunken face, the other with a richly tanned, round, bearded face. Each of the judges watched the defendant with a mix of pity and disappointment.
“Not guilty.” They said, each of them raising their heads to stare at their judges in the eyes, and to themselves they repeated in a whisper only for their hearts to hear, “Not guilty.”
The man in the courtroom looked around trying to remind himself of the room’s original purpose. That this was the home of justice, of democracy. That the flag that hung by the judge stand with its crimson stripes not only stood for the blood of fallen soldiers, but of his fallen ancestors. The ones who remained in chains while tens of thousands of people cried that the United States of America was free.
The girl in her less official courtroom looked around trying to remind herself of the room’s original purpose. It was a room where countless parties were held, either for her or for her siblings. Where as much of her family that could fit in one room laughed, danced, and celebrated countless memories. Her eyes flicked to the tapestry that hung above her parents’ heads, which had written in Arabic the prayer “Sustain Me With Your Power” sewn with a shimmering gold. One of its lines caught her eye the most, “And in Your power let me drive away all falsehood, ensuring that truth may always triumph.”
As the accused sat back down, his lawyer stood and spoke, “Your Honor and ladies and gentlemen of the jury: under the law my client is presumed innocent until proven guilty. During this trial, you will hear no real, substantial evidence that would condemn my client.” The lawyer didn’t see when his defendant’s eyes filled with tears. They were not out of shame nor of distress for himself, but for the shame of being viewed negatively because of how he was born, and perhaps just because of that he could be persecuted and placed in a prison for years for a crime he did not commit. For a crime he would never commit.
The man kept his focus on the flag, more specifically on the vibrant scarlet stripes as his mind recalled what had brought him to this place. Going back to the moment that had blown on his life at a certain angle, at a certain speed, and unmistakably had changed everything permanently.
What struck him the most was how what he had always thought was something that made people indistinguishable, that made him no better or no worse than someone else was what had betrayed him. The darkness.
The shadows that had protected him, disguised him from the accusatory lights of society, were what led to his wrongly placed disgrace. He had been walking home, in a grease stained uniform, checking his phone to see the picture his wife had sent him of his three-year old daughter, when he was pushed by another man. This man reeked of alcohol and was dressed in baggy clothing that hung off him so loosely that it seemed to be there was hardly any man inside them. As the ghost of a man pushed past he turned on the father suddenly. The ghost was screaming curses in the tired father’s face telling him to watch where he’s going. The father merely responded by lowering his head keeping his hands at his sides murmuring an unintelligible apology as he tried to keep walking home. He felt the street light flicker above him as this ghost grabbed the back of his shirt.
The father gasped and held up his hands saying, “Look man I don’t mean any trouble!” But the ghost wanted trouble, the intoxicated state of mind is hardly sensible. And it could have been nothing, just a small scuffle on the street in the middle of the night in a busy city, nothing too far out of the ordinary. But somewhere within the folds of this ghost was a weapon.
A weapon constructed of three parts, a gun, a bullet, and a man. The bullet is what kills, but it’s useless without its vessel, the gun, and the gun is useless without a man to pull the trigger. Whether there is a specific singular guilty party or not cannot be debated because each of them carry their own blame.
The ghost pulled out his weapon and the father’s eyes widened in fear as he held up his hands higher he used his own weapon, “Please man, I don’t want to cause any trouble.” Then the street light flickered again, but this time it remained dark and the shadows swallowed the ghost and the father.
Then an explosion erupted in the cold velvet of the night. The father’s mind flew to his daughter to his wife and as another blast came he felt the air sharpen by his arm where the bullet flew by.
In moments there was a siren, a distant wail that at the moment sounded like salvation, that this moment would be over and the father could go home to his family. But as another bullet sliced the air somewhere and the ghost continued to scream obscenities, words that seemed to hurt more than the bullet ever could, everything began to happen so quickly that in the mind of the father it seemed to happen even slower, as if it were happening frame by frame.
The red, white, and blue lights flashed as the ghost turned on the officers who held guns of their own. The father held his hands up higher and fell to his knees as the officers approached, then the bullets of the ghost and police officer’s guns went off simultaneously. They went off like mini firework explosions, one clinking off the hood of a police car, and the other hitting the ghost squarely in his chest.
The father watched the ghost drop his weapon as he glanced down and stared blankly at his wound before crumpling to the ground. It was almost as if the ghost dissolved into his large clothing, all that was left on the ground was a flowing pool of dirty cloth and blood.
Then the police swerved on the father demanding he hit the ground and keep his hands on his head. The father obliged immediately, breathing heavily, fear clutching his heart as he heard the boots come toward him, and one of the officers kicked him in the ribs. The darkness in his vision was replaced by bright flashes conducted from his own mind. He wheezed heavily as the air was forced out of his lungs and winced as another kick of a heavy boot sent his ears ringing.
“Get up!” One of the officers said again and this time the father stood up quickly fighting the tears that welled up in his eyes from either horror or humiliation, perhaps just both.
One of the officers grabbed his arm and said, “You have the right to remain silent. If you do say anything, what you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you if you so desire.”
It was recited robotically, with absolutely no emotion and it seemed to remove any weight or power that the words should have had. And now as they shoved the father onto the hood of the car he couldn’t seem to hear anything else that was said. He felt them pat him down, looking for a weapon, anything that might make him guilty, and when they pulled out his keys he didn’t even remember that it was connected to a multi-tool attachment.
It had been a gift from his wife because she had been worried about him walking home in the dark. The tool had a mini-flashlight, a bottle opener, and a small point that was supposed to be used for cutting fishing line. He’d never thought much of it, mainly used it just for the flashlight when he couldn’t open the door to his house.
Now the officers shook him and slammed him roughly into the hood when he didn’t answer. They wanted to know why he had this attached to his keys. The father stammered out, “It was a gift… from my wife. Please, I didn’t want any trouble.” His voice had caught and now he felt the cold metal cuffs close around his wrist and all he saw was a bright red, white, and blue flash repeatedly as he was ushered into the backseat of the police car.
“Do you understand what you have done is wrong?” The girl lifted her lashes and stared at her father, her lips parted slightly as she tried to think of something to say. She didn’t feel like she had done anything wrong. She felt no guilt for what she had done, no remorse, just a resentment at having been caught.
“Look at me, Saleena,” She took a sharp intake of breath and met his eyes. “What were you thinking? Were you thinking at all? Did you not know how this would make you look? Make us look?” With every question his tone rose in intensity like a cruel crescendo.
Saleena still couldn’t manage any words, they evaded her like smoke. Her family’s eyes burned her, as if they were all shooting lasers at her. They wanted to understand, to know why she would do such a thing. Why she would ruin her reputation. No. Not her reputation but theirs. Nobody wanted to be the father or mother or brother or cousin of a girl that kissed other girls.
Saleena’s eyes were drawn back to the tapestry seeming to lose themselves in the gold, just like the gold of sweet Josephine’s hair. Gold like the sunlight that had witnessed her one moment of rebellion, of stolen passion.
Once school ended the sun seemed to be at its peak, melting everything with its exhausting rays. Saleena had been sitting in the courtyard sweating profusely in her numerous layers of clothing when her friend Josephine came up to her.
Now, Josephine was beautiful in a way that tended to make people’s heads spin. She was perfect in every curve, edge, and line. She had rich brown eyes that always seemed to be laughing and rose tipped lips that always looked a little puckered. But Josephine was infamous for her hair, it was a golden haze of effortless curls that framed her face like an elegant halo.
Saleena had always felt her heart skip two, three beats when she saw her and immediately felt ashamed of feeling that way. That is until Josephine turned to smile at her and Saleena couldn’t seem to remember why she had to feel guilty.
It was on that sunny day Josephine sat snugly next to Saleena. Josephine was sighing as she fanned her face before she turned to smile at Saleena. “I don’t know how you wear all that clothing in this heat!”
Saleena wasn’t sure if it was the suffocating heat that led to her to say, “Me neither, would you help me take off my hijab?” Josephine’s creamy eyes widened in excitement, Saleena had never taken her headscarf off in public, but with so much steam in the air she was feeling reckless and brave.
Josephine began helping her pull the fabric of her hijab off and she felt a strange release, both of heat and something stronger. When Josephine saw Saleena’s thick black hair fall free she gasped delightedly and said, “I knew you had to have beautiful hair under there.” She grinned at Saleena and before she could think twice Saleena leaned forward and pressed her lips against hers.
It didn’t feel like she had always imagined, but when Josephine responded in kind Saleena did feel her heart beat impossibly fast and didn’t even try to make herself feel bad for it. Josephine tasted of honeysuckle. For Saleena that was the finest thing she had ever tasted.
Then she heard her name. It shattered the moment like a cold cascade of water. When the girls pulled apart gasping Saleena found her older brother staring down at her. His tall, built frame blocked out the sun and cast him in a malicious shadow. He looked at her with a glare of both severe disgust and surprise.
Josephine tried to speak, “It wasn’t her fault-” But Saleena was already being pulled to her feet by her brother. Being pulled to his car and the whole time all Saleena could taste was honeysuckle and feel the soft golden curls of Josephine in her hands. Meanwhile all her brother kept asking was, “What is the matter with you?”
The judge with the sunken face said in a mildly detached voice, “The prosecution may call its first witness.”
The father’s lawyer cleared his throat and replied, “The People call Jefferson Graham to the stand.”
At his name the whole court started to hold its breath, waiting for him. There had been few other eyewitnesses at the actual scene. It had been on a dark, lonesome street that led into his neighborhood and when the ghost had run into the father there was no one to say whether it was true, but also no one to support his claim. It was his word against a dead man’s.
Once Jefferson Graham stood behind the witness stand the court clerk, a stiff man in a stiff suit, approached him with an ebony colored Bible etched with a golden cross in the center. The stiff held the Bible out to Jefferson and spoke in a grating monotone, “Raise your right hand.” Jefferson complied. “Do you promise that the testimony you shall give in the case before this court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
Jefferson’s hand trembled in the air as he felt those eyes fall upon him. Not of the judge or the lawyers or the stiff. But of this God, the God that at the moment was watching Jefferson with the expectation that he’d defend himself and his ancestors.
When he speaks his voice reverberates around the courtroom, and it could easily be mistaken for an echo, that his voice is just a baritone. Yet if one listened more carefully one could almost hear the voices of millions of men and women who never had a voice, never had the opportunity to speak their truths and say, “I do.”
“Did you even think how you’re selfishness would affect me?” Saleena slowly slid her eyes to her brother who stood with his arms crossed and leaning against the wall at the back of the living room. “To see my sister in the middle of school… kissing another girl! What do you think people will say about me?”
Saleena wasn’t sure what was more mortifying: her brother calling her selfish or the way he seemed to strain himself everytime he said “me.” Her father raised his hand, silencing the huffing figure of her brother.
“Your brother is right. Your heart has been filled with vanity. You have condemned this whole family with your shame, and yet you remain silent. Do you still have a voice, child?”
Saleena looked up once more and took a deep breath, feeling the air flood her lungs before allowing herself to exhale. She let her eyes swivel around the room, her entire family was here, all waiting for her to speak, to explain herself.
Lifting her hands, Saleena pulled her hijab off her head, ignoring the murmurs of her family, and responded, “I do.”
The district defender of the court stood and approached Jefferson, his hands hidden within the pockets of his clearly tailored suit. He lifted his clean shaven face and asked, “What were you doing on the night of the attack?”
Jefferson took a deep breath through his nose and released it slowly through his lips as he began to speak, his voice rumbling through the courtroom. “I was walking home from work.”
The lawyer did not hesitate as he asked his next question, hands still in his pockets. “Where do you work that you have to walk home at such a late hour?”
Jefferson had never felt ashamed of his job, but the condescending undertone of the lawyer’s voice left him feeling uncomfortable for a moment. But Jefferson responded with a steady voice, “I work night shifts at McDonald’s sir.”
The lawyer nodded and seemed to consider this, it almost felt like he was saying, “Of course. Where else would a man like you work?” Jefferson was use to this kind of reaction, yet somehow this lawyer made him want to say something, to defend himself.
“And where were you walking when you ran into Mr. Brotman?” Jefferson frowned slightly, he hadn’t run into that ghost of a man.
“I was walking down Old Cutler road, it leads straight to my house and I was looking down at my phone, I remember because my wife had sent me a picture of my daughter, and that was when Mr. Brotman bumped into me.”
The lawyer stared at Jefferson for a moment, seeming momentarily surprised at his word choice. Then he began to nod again, a nod that seemed to make Jefferson flicker with irritation.
“And was it just your phone in your hand Mr. Graham?”
“Yes, it was.”
“What about your keys?” Here the lawyer finally took a hand out of his pocket and lifted it in the air, waving his hand in speculation. “Because when the police officers checked your person they found your keys.” The lawyer paused and looked at Jefferson, a look of arrogance in his eyes, “And what is it you have attached to your keys?”
Jefferson knew what the lawyer wanted him to say but Jefferson had no intentions of satisfying this man. “I’ve got a keychain of Mickey Mouse and a mini-tool attachment.”
The lawyer smiled at the jury as if to say, “Look at this man, isn’t he hilarious?” Jefferson lifted his head higher trying to maintain calm.
“And what does this mini-tool attachment contain, Mr. Graham?”
“A flashlight, a bottle opener, and a small point that’s supposed to be for cutting a fishing line.” Jefferson finally let his eyes move away from the lawyer to look at his wife.
She was a svelte woman, with what most people called bony shoulders. Her entire body seemed coiled up at the moment, lips pressed together, eyes narrowed as she stared at her husband intently, and hands clasped neatly in her lap. It seemed she was holding on to something as the joints in her knuckles lightened, perhaps she was holding on to her vision of hope. Clasping it like a fickle bird trying to fly out between the slim cracks of her fingers. She thought if she held on tight enough the bird called hope would stay and guide her husband to freedom.
Not so different from the millions of women who held their own birds for their husbands, for their children as they were pulled apart by cold pale hands.
Jefferson met those hazel eyes and she nodded at him, and the simple motion melted away the rising irritation he had been feeling before. Now Jefferson turned back to the lawyer just as he asked his next question, “So you confirm that this tool in your pocket has a blade?”
Remembering his wife, Jefferson remained calm, “It has a small sharpened plastic point, yes.”
The lawyer placed his hand back in his pocket and stepped closer to the witness stand, “But still sharp enough to cause damage correct?”
Jefferson opened his mouth to speak, but his attorney stood abruptly and said, “I do not see how this is relevant, Your Honor.”
The judge merely waved a hand and said, “Continue.” Jefferson’s attorney sat down looking anxious and unsatisfied. The lawyer pressed Jefferson again, “My question still stands, Mr. Graham, is the point sharp enough to cause physical harm to someone else?”
Jefferson responded, “I wouldn’t know sir, but I don’t think it could.”
The lawyer seemed unfazed at how Jefferson retaliated, and shot back, “But regardless of the damage it can cause, it can be seen as threatening. A man such as yourself pulling this sharp object out of their pocket could frighten anyone.”
Jefferson opened his mouth in protest, but the lawyer had gotten to the point he clearly wanted to make. “And thus is it not possible when Mr. Brotman and you collided, you responded naturally, in the moment, and pulled out this tool hoping to intimidate him. But of course Mr. Brotman was not unarmed and surprised you with a gun, and as soon as you heard the police sirens you hid your own weapon to seem innocent while Mr. Brotman was shot down by the officers. Which is very helpful in your case, Mr. Graham, because now no one can say anything against you isn’t that right, Mr. Graham?”
The lawyer spoke quickly, gaining confidence with every word, the tension in the room reached an unimaginable peak, and suddenly the room didn’t feel as quiet, it was bouncing with the noise of the lawyer’s words. Jefferson stared at the lawyer feeling out of breath, he scrambled to center himself, trying to make sure he said the right words.
“Mr. Graham?” The judge was looking back down at him, an impatience radiating from him.
All Jefferson could say was, “That isn’t what happened, I never did any of that.”
The lawyer smiled at the jury, and it was a charming smile that said, “So he says.” But to the judge he says, “That’s all, your honor.” Jefferson felt like he had just lost a battle, but glancing back at his wife she still held her hands together tightly. She hadn’t let go of hope so neither could he.
“I love you Baba. I love you Mama. I love all of you, you’re my family.” Saleena spread her hands apart and lifted them, as if now speaking to something higher. “I love Allah. I love my religion,”
Then Saleena lowered her hands and reached her hands out to her parents who watched her warily. “My love has never wavered, tell me of a time it has.”
Her father lifted his chin and spoke in a grave tone, “Saleena.”
She sighed and pulled her hands away placing them on her heart. “You’re asking me to defend myself for having done something wrong. I am merely saying that my love is not a sin to be scorned as you do now. It’s the same love I’ve given all of you.”
Saleena’s brother snarled at her from his hiding place behind her parents, “Are you saying you love a woman the way you should a man?”
Staring at her brother Saleena saw him differently, not as the big bad wolf he tried so hard to be. Instead she saw the fearful pup that trembled in fear of being apprehended by the leader of his pack. He’d rather be on the offense then help defend his own sister.
Saleena didn’t resent him for it, she only felt remorse for his fear. When she answered it was for the entire room to hear.“I’m saying I do and I see no sin in doing so.”
There was a cold silence that filled the air as soon as she finished speaking. Saleena stood perfectly still her chin lifted in the air, her eyes met with each of her family members and in all of them she saw the same thing. A twisted fear that seemed to be rooted in their core, and in that moment Saleena knew they didn’t think she was repulsive, they were too blinded by their reputations to feel anything at all. Saleena wasn’t sure if that was better or worse.
Then one of her cousins stood. She was only ten-years old and already wore her own hijab, Saleena wondered if she even understood what was unfolding around her. Then she stood with her hands clasped together tightly close to her chest.
All eyes finally left Saleena to watch what she would do. The young girl stepped forward and pushed her hands forward slowly unfurling each finger before she rushed forward and threw her arms around Saleena’s waist and whispered, “I don’t know what you did, cousin, but I still love you.”
Tears welled up in Saleena’s eyes as she ran her hands over her cousin’s head. Then for the first time she looked at her mother. She sat beside her father while seeming to not be there at all. Saleena had often thought her mother hid behind too much cloth, trying to go unnoticed even when she hosted or attended countless parties.
Now she locked eyes with her daughter and something trembled in the air between them, an intensity that neither knew how to describe. Then Saleena watched as her mother raised her hands in prayer and said something with no sound. The only word Saleena understood from her mother’s silent prayer was “hope.”
When the sun sets it often allows the sky to have some creative liberty. It gives the sky the horizon and allows it to blend and experiment with different rays of colors. It’s during these moments people call sunsets that the horizon can appear as if it is blushing with bold strokes of pinkish hues. Or it can be oozing over the edge of the world with a lazy violet that isn’t quite dark enough yet to be the night sky.
But at this moment it was a toasted orange that seemed to flare like the flickers of the sun itself trying to leave an imprint on the blemishless sky. It left the world in a warm bronze glow, the aftermath of the gold that had heated the earth minutes earlier.
This was the first thing Jefferson saw when he stepped out of the courthouse. He was holding his wife’s hand tightly and with the other shielding his eyes, his heart was heavy after the long hours he had spent indoors and the sight of the sun seemed to warm him. It made him feel just a little lighter even though he remained uncertain of his future.
The court had extended the trial until tomorrow and his attorney had managed to allow him to return home with his wife. Then Jefferson saw several people approach him and his wife, strangers who rushed at him as if he were a lost long friend. Jefferson and his wife exchanged surprised glances and then an elderly man whose smile was blinding in contrast to his cacao complexion.
The man extended a long hand to Jefferson and said, “You are Jefferson Graham, am I right?”
Jefferson took the man’s hand and shook it, surprised at the old man’s strength, “Yes sir.”
Then the man smiled some more and placed his other hand over their already connected palms, “We just want to thank you, Mr. Graham, for what you’re doing.”
Jefferson tried for a smile but something about this group of men was incredibly familiar. Still he couldn’t quite place it and instead said, “I’m not doing much, sir. Just trying to say my truths.”
The old man smiled at him and responded, “Exactly. And by doing so you speak for all of us. For that we thank you.” Then he stepped back and he and all the other men smiled at Jefferson and his wife, raising their hands in goodbye as they walked away, and when Jefferson looked at his wife once again her jaw hung open slightly. When they looked back at the men, only the elderly man remained. He was waiting to cross the street, and as if knowing they were watching him, he turned around and shouted out to them with one hand raised, “Make sure you play Take My Hand, Precious Lord tonight, Mr. Graham. Play it real pretty.” Then he stepped out into the street and in the orange dust of the horizon he seemed to disappear in the burnt sunset.
Jefferson didn’t even have time to think of how the man knew he played piano.
Saleena also stood on the steps of her own courthouse and watched as the sun seemed to melt into a thick orange goo over the horizon. It was a very similar sunset to the one Jefferson witnessed on the steps of the courthouse.
She turned her head up and soaked in the final warmth of the sun and tried to calm her nerves. Saleena had left her family in the living room to discuss her as much as they pleased, or rather discuss how they’d save their precious reputations.
Saleena wasn’t certain of what her verdict would be, but she felt better than she could ever recall feeling. Her heart was light and her mind finally at an interesting degree of ease. When her mother came out to stand beside her, she turned and smiled at her.
Her mother studied her daughter’s face for a minute, then she raised her hands and took the younger version of her face within her calloused palms and suddenly began to cry. Saleena pulled her mother into a loving embrace and told her, “I have hope for us, mother. I know that love will always win. Even their vanity cannot defeat the biggest truth of reality.”
Her mother pulled back from her and wiped away her own tears and responded, “May Allah bless your words, my precious child.”
Then they both turned to watch the sun finally slip away from view just as Jefferson and his wife gazed at their own sunset. Each accused party had yet to receive their official verdicts from their time frozen judges, but both Saleena and Jefferson were both still quite confident in their original claims. They were just as they always had been: not guilty.