Fiction

When the Buildings Began to Bleed

Their mistake was simple: They sent her body to the masjid

Downtown Minneapolis. Photo: Steijn Leijzer/Unsplash

We say her body was the seventh ’cause that’s what we could gather from records. Truth be told, she could’ve been the eighth. The 10th. The 20th. It both does and doesn’t matter.

When the story first broke, the media called her a “woman,” but she was freshly 18. Just a week before, she had walked across a stage with her new diploma in her hand, khimar pushed back on her head to show the red streaks in her hair. A week out of high school—does that really make you a woman?

It started with the bodies of men from prisons built outside the suburbs, far up in northern Minnesota. Most of the dead had no families. They were buried outside the walls they suffered in without a marker to find them.

A few made their way back down to the Twin Cities to be met by grieving parents, siblings, and people made family through sheer will alone. Those families agreed to a closed casket with little resistance. People are malleable in their grief.

If you wanna get real about it, though, the inspiration came before the fog, in chairs and handkerchiefs and dentures and stuffing for cushions. Black skin stretched out where it didn’t belong. The idea of taking without giving a fuck ’cause what our bodies had wasn’t even ours. “Tools” can’t own things or be violated. Tools are meant to be broken down, ripped apart, dismembered, and built up again however the master desires.

My sister didn’t come from prison. She was in the country jail downtown waiting on a court date. Maybe they could’ve gotten away with it if they picked another girl out of those cells. But their mistake was simple: They sent her body to the masjid.

For the first time in years, I turned to see my sister with her forehead pressed into the carpet, old duas falling — rusty and sincere — into its fabric.

The fog came when I was 11 years old. Its descent was gradual, a slow blot rolling across the sky and intruding upon the sun in her domain. There was something almost beautiful about the takeover. I watched at the playground and would’ve stayed captivated, but my gut recognized a threat. Even if my head couldn’t name it, something inside pounded against my rib cage: run.

It brought me to my feet where I’d been playing in the sand with Clara. Aaliyah sat on a swing, half on her phone, half watching us. The other kids were all looking at the sky too. Parents craned their necks from park benches. I tugged on Clara’s hoodie. She was the baby of the family, so she had a thing about being bossed around. She was gonna have to deal with it.

“We gotta go.”

“Don’t do that,” Clara snapped, turning to face me. She paused then and pointed up at the sky. “What’s that?”

That thing inside demanding I run made me pull Clara to her feet. Ignoring her yelp of protest, I shoved her hard in the back. I didn’t have to say anything. She was seven and afraid. She started running home without me telling her ’cause it was the only place she knew how to get back to.

I almost got lost in those strange, shifting clouds. It was Aaliyah who grabbed me by the hand. She didn’t speak, just looked up at the sky, mouth a perfect shocked circle before she booked it.

She never let me go as we ran all those blocks home. Not until after we caught up with Clara and shoved our way through the front door. The house was silent from Umi’s absence — no Qur’an in the background, no smell of cooking, only her note as a reminder that she was gone at work, she’d be home by 11, and Aaliyah was in charge for the day.

I didn’t notice we weren’t holding hands anymore until I heard the thump of Aaliyah’s knees on the ground. For the first time in years, I turned to see my sister with her forehead pressed into the carpet, old duas falling — rusty and sincere — into its fabric.

But how do you put the world you stand on behind bars? How do you kill her dead before she gets to you?

Everybody had somebody else to blame.

The conversations fell back into the same cycle that got us into this mess to start. Nobody took responsibility for the oceans that swelled before I was born, consuming islands and becoming mass graves. Politicians accepted corporations’ checks to ignore the warnings and pretend that the world placed herself into rebellion. They were used to harassing protesters, intimidating them, finding any means to silence dissent. But how do you put the world you stand on behind bars? How do you kill her dead before she gets to you?

The fog descending upon the country and blocking out the sun meant that nobody could ignore things anymore. Big cities across the nation developed their own projects, searching for ways to make the fog go away. Then, they were looking for ways to gather energy and grow food. The old fuels couldn’t be found anymore. Crops withered or didn’t grow at all. Everything dried straight up.

After it first started, we used to watch the news as a family. Umi would cuddle Clara in her lap. She treated Clara as if she were still a baby. I heard the aunties whisper when Umi wasn’t around about how she couldn’t have kids anymore. I remembered standing in our old apartment’s hallway, thumb in my mouth, Umi moaning in her room. Her blood on towels, on old women’s hands, its smell thick in the air.

“Are we going to die?” Clara asked once.

It was three months into the fog.

Downtown, they started constructing solar energy panels for a new project. Aaliyah would sneak me out with her sometimes to go look at them at night. She was less distant after the fog came. Before, Umi considered sending her away to her older sister in Philadelphia. We were deep into summer then, but you wouldn’t know it. Our skin grew winter-light again from the lack of sun.

In the kitchen, Umi chopped onions for dinner. The cost of food had gone up so much that, even though I hated both the onions and the stew that Umi would make with them, my stomach rumbled at the thought of having something filling to eat.

I wasn’t helping ’cause I cried too much and once lost the tip of my finger in the bowl. I had Clara sitting on the ground between my legs. I wanted to practice my cornrows. She winced but never complained ’cause I promised her a dollar if she didn’t bug me with her whining.

Umi didn’t miss a beat as she chopped an onion in two: “If Allah wills it.”

That Ramadan, the moon wars were like nothing before, given that nobody could really see it. The imams made dua after dua for the sun to return. They also liked to remind us that Allah doesn’t change the conditions of a people until they change themselves. That made me mad ’cause the fog wasn’t our fault. You could trace it back to just 10 people, I read, and all their greed. I understand what I have to do now though.

During that month, Umi kept us in the masjid all night. Clara usually fell asleep in the back halfway through taraweeh. She followed along the best she could, but most little kids didn’t make it all the way through. Aaliyah and I prayed in the back row. Sometimes, we snuck out after four rak’ahs to head to the McDonald’s down the street. We would try to squint and see the moon through the fog.

“You’re praying again,” I said to Aaliyah one night. We were walking back with half-melted McFlurries. I scraped my spoon against the wall of my cup to get all the Oreo chunks. I looked over at her. “I mean, really praying. Not just doing the motions.”

“Yeah.” Aaliyah’s voice was soft.

“Do you think it’ll help?”

Aaliyah didn’t reply right away. She let the question sit until we were half a block from the masjid. We could hear the imam’s recitation on the speakers outside. In front of the men’s door, a pair of cops sat in an unmarked car. We always pretended we didn’t know who they were. Those nights, it was better to convince yourselves that nobody was watching even if you knew otherwise.

“I think,” Aaliyah turned to me, “that it’s all we really got left to hold onto.”

“Fuck this fog and fuck forgetting. You can’t forget what you can imagine. Don’t even remember. Just make it up for yourself.”

A year passed. The solar panels were complete, but they weren’t functioning well enough for the entire city. Those panels had to fight through a lot. Sometimes, our power would randomly cut out. It left us in the dark, staring into nothing.

“Do you think we’re gonna die?”

I sat on the bridge at Minnehaha Falls next to Aaliyah. She shaved her hair off again despite Umi’s pleas to let it grow. I liked it. She kept on wearing a khimar, but it slipped with nothing to grab onto and hung uselessly around her neck. There was nobody around us anyways.

“Maybe.” Aaliyah shrugged and looked at me. “But would it really be so bad?”

“I don’t wanna die.”

“I don’t want it to hurt,” Aaliyah said. “But dying? If it’s written, it’s written. Besides, think of all the shit you get in Jannah. Like, there’s probably all the bean pies you could eat.” She nudged me, grinning.

I tried to smile back, but it didn’t want to hold. It slid off my face until I was left just looking at Aaliyah. I turned away, staring at one of the orange street lights along the sidewalk.

“What’s up with you?” she asked.

“I remember the sun,” I whispered like a confession. “And I’m afraid. ’Cause what happens when I don’t anymore? Shit. Maybe we’re already dead, Aaliyah. That fog is the grave, and we don’t even know it.”

“Listen, Rahma.” Aaliyah took my hand in hers. Her grip was almost too tight, but I found it comforting. “I’m the older sister, so I’m always right. And you’re not going anywhere. Fuck this fog and fuck forgetting. You can’t forget what you can imagine. Don’t even remember. Just make it up for yourself. You can do that, right?”

In the dark of the night, beneath the always-still fog, I could. The sun was a blazing heat, a miracle of my own conception, warming me up from the inside out. I closed my eyes, tilting my head to what I couldn’t see but put back into the sky anyway. The sun’s rays on my face were like Umi’s gentle hands when she used to wipe the water from my eyes after wudu.

When the panels failed after I turned 15, I held onto that.

The mayor’s renovations were proposed as a grand intervention. Melanin on the building’s exterior—that was the key. It would collect energy and protect the buildings and people inside too. The fog and the sun together did things to us that I couldn’t really get, but I knew it was bad.

It’s hard to pinpoint where the idea really came from. Probably higher up, some researcher’s work torn apart in a federal office. Misinterpreted document after document trickling down through emails — and good luck reading any of them after the redactions.

We thought it was good. There were critics who talked about how nobody could afford this anymore. It cost too much to bring materials in, too much to create. Still, the mayor got his way.

Umi shouted when all our lights finally came back on. She danced around with Clara in the living room. Umi never danced. I loved seeing her that way: dress swaying, the scarf she wore during lazy nights in the house falling down from all the movement. Umi even took her ponytail out. Swung her hair around her face, mouth open with laughter, Clara giggling beside her. Aaliyah sat on the couch that night. She let Umi pull her up by the hand.

To a music none of us could hear, we danced.

As I went to throw the sheet over my sister, I saw what had sent the other women running. Her body, all violated and bare.

The day my sister’s body was supposed to be washed for her janazah, the women helping Umi left as soon as it was revealed. They walked out of the building altogether, far enough until they could vomit into the street. One didn’t make it. She threw up in the hall with glassy eyes, using her bare hand to wipe at the drool hanging off her bottom lip.

I watched her from where I stood beside the stairs leading to the basement with Clara. Umi had left us there ’cause “You’re children. I don’t want you to see this.”

“What the fuck?” Clara whispered. I didn’t bother scolding her about cussing. Technically, we weren’t in the masjid’s side of the building. Besides, I had the same question.

“Wait here.”

The building had a designated room to wash bodies. Inside, Umi was on her knees with her back to the door, a mass draped beneath swaths of fabric in Aaliyah’s favorite colors. The bright oranges and reds stood out in contrast with the otherwise sterile room.

Aaliyah’s body laid on the table. I moved on autopilot, grabbing a clean sheet off a rack near the door.

“Don’t.”

Umi grabbed my ankle as I went to walk past. She wasn’t crying ’cause she couldn’t do that anymore. She ran out of tears the night before when she emerged from her room to cook a late dinner as if she hadn’t dropped half the groceries while listening to a voicemail on speaker that let her know, all apologies, but Aaliyah Baker was dead.

“She needs to be covered.” I pulled my ankle free. As I went to throw the sheet over my sister, I saw what had sent the other women running. Her body, all violated and bare. I ate the scream that wanted to come up from deep inside. Without any words, I left.

“What’s happening?” Clara asked, her eyes round, as I came up. She made like she was going to head down too. I grabbed her by the shoulders before she could get far. Downstairs, Umi began to howl, begging for answers that the walls and my sister’s body couldn’t give.

“May Allah give us all the strength to deliver ourselves from this plight.”

They flayed my sister.

I said it first to myself in the quiet of my room. Then to Clara, watching as tears welled in her eyes. She didn’t seem to know she was crying. My little sister, the baby of our family who’d never fought once before ’cause Aaliyah and I always handled it, punched a hole straight through the wall.

I said it again in a small room beneath a church in a neighborhood miles away. It was the one sanctuary that my friends and I had. Government programs and cops lurking outside made our masjids and homes unsafe. The internet was nothing but one big federal eye. In front of the room, my hands curled into fists. I barely felt it as my nails dug into my palms.

“From the crook of her legs to the top of her cheeks. Probably more, if I turned her over,” I inhaled, deep and shaky. “They took her skin like it was theirs to have.”

“And we know why they did,” Clara hissed from by my side.

I walked over to a window, lifting a single finger to point at the towers of city hall stabbing the sky downtown. It was then that I noticed the puncture wounds I’d given myself. A drop of blood dripped off my extended finger onto the carpet below.

“She wasn’t the start, and she won’t be the end.” I took another deep breath, turning to face everyone again. I pulled the bottom of my scarf over my face. It was how we all entered so nobody could track us and it was how we would all leave. “May Allah grant my sister peace. May Allah give us all the strength to deliver ourselves from this plight.”

Clara stepped up next to me first. The other girls — a mix of her friends and mine — followed after. With scarves obscuring our faces, we were a mass. Formless, taking shape. Clara’s hand came to rest on my shoulder.

“Amiin.”

I was downtown when the buildings began to bleed.

A janitor on their way to clock in for an early morning shift first noticed the cracks oozing along the walls. City officials later circled the plaza, flitting from building to building like disturbed hummingbirds. They traced the paths of liquid with gloved hands, marveling ’cause it shouldn’t have been possible. The smell left behind was similar to something gone straight to rot. Nothing sweet about it, not like when fruit is left beneath the sun. This was all hard and hot, lingering on people’s tongues and sticking to the backs of their throats.

A week after the bleeding began, the mayor held a press conference outside. Workers were supposed to clean the walls before it started, but they couldn’t reach the higher stains before the crowd came. The mayor stood directly beneath them, the skin around his eyes crinkling from his fake smile as he looked out at the people assembled.

“We have already seen the benefits of this project in harnessing solar energy,” the mayor assured us. Sweat stained his armpits and stunk along with everything else. Most people held cloths over their faces. The mayor was careful to speak without saying anything meaningful. “We are putting together steps to navigate this. The architects and engineers assure me that everything is coming along nicely. We’ll be safe, so long as we continue our renovations.”

I tilted my head to look at the buildings as people raised their hands to ask questions. The walls had grown darker. I removed the fabric of my khimar from across the bottom of my face, inhaling deep. I’d grown used to the smell as we worked. Nothing about it could bother me anymore.

In my small area of separation, I whispered to myself as I waited for the mayor to step away from his podium. Nobody paid me attention when I lifted my hand as someone directed the mayor to stand alongside officials against the building. They had to prove that the city hall and everything else were still safe, still beautiful, still a monument for those deserving.

On the roof, something moved.

I brought my hand down and blood began to rain.

Nothing about myself, my decisions, or my hurt was less than predictable.

The dictionary defines chaos as a noun: “complete disorder and confusion; behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.” The newspaper called what we did chaotic.

My friends — the people on the roof pouring blood, the Black girls on the ground who fixed hooks deep into the buildings, pulling and pulling and pulling until the coating began to fall free — took offense at first. Chaos: disorder and confusion and so unpredictable as to appear random.

I sat on a table in the back of the mayor’s crowd and whispered a predictable dhikr. My predictable prayers coordinated themselves with what was left of the sun. I felt predictable pain for my sister. Nothing about myself, my decisions, or my hurt was less than predictable.

And then again: chaos, the formless matter supposed to have existed before the creation of the universe. Chaos, the supposed tools who rebelled against that designation of being. Chaos, in our deep breaths, in our lungs, in our prayers, as we gathered the remains of who should’ve never been placed on the walls to start.

Vanessa Taylor is based in Philadelphia. She has work in outlets such as Teen Vogue, Racked, and Catapult Magazine. Follow her across social media @bacontribe.

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