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Cup of Charity

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"Tell me if you've heard this one. An ifrit, a jinn and an malaekah walk into a bar." Umar swung himself around the battered pole like a bored flag in his white thawb. Behind them, the Al Tazaj carried its own rhythmless unmotion o f a stream of steady customers flowing through the Men's door. Flowing through the Family door. Sending out as messengers to the world sizzling smells of meat and spice.

Umar sighed and the flag of him went still. Already bored with his own joke.

Sure enough, Mikha'il said, "Wouldn't that hurt?" Mikha'il smoothed the edge of his cardboard sign, which enjoined all who looked upon it to know that every good act is charity; and verily it is a good act to meet your brother with an open countenance, and to pour water from your own water-bag into his vessel.

It was a large piece of cardboard and he'd written the words that he'd been given very carefully with a white feather and black ink.

"Pfa." Umar rolled his eyes. "They're inter-phasic. They walk right through the bar, which is made of steel the way all good bars should be." He swung around the street sign's pole. It had not been made of steel until Umar arrived and wanted a pole to swing around. Well, in truth, it hadn't been there at all. It was causing a bit of consternation from the passing cars. Umar was bored with that joke, too.

"Shouldn't it be they walk through a bar then?" Mikha'il smiled hopefully at the crowd pushing their way into the restaurant now that the sun had set, just as he'd been instructed to do.

A little boy, shining eyes for his shining heart, skipped over and away from his mother's safe hand. The boy dropped two brown coins into the Styrofoam cup at Mikha'il's feet. Mikha'il smiled a little reflected light in return. The mother swiftly folded her son back into the dark folds of her abbaya. She reminded Mikha'il of a storm cloud. So many things did.

"But then it wouldn't be funny." Umar reversed his spin around the pole and went the other way. Umar's voice rasped as if it had been grated for three days and then washed in the sea.

Mikha'il jiggled his sign as he'd been instructed to do. "And you're not an ifrit." His face creased between his eyes. Well, at least it looked like his face creased between his eyes. This was just the face he'd been told to wear. "Are you saying Danya is an ifrit? She's not an ifrit either."

Umar sigh sounded to Mikha'il like a damp gust of wind from the sea that carries a promise of rain. Any number of things sounded like that. Coins in a cup. Laughter. A smile. Umar said, "She's late." He leaned back and let the pole hold him. It bent like a bow, because in that moment Umar had decided that he was very heavy or the pole was very light or something. "Late. Late. Late."

"I thought that you were going into Al Tazaj, not through a bar." Mikha'il shook his head and frowned. Or at least, it looked like he shook his head and frowned with the body that he'd been told to wear. Umar peered briefly at Mikha'il with one eye closed and sighed again.

Umar swung right and then he swung left on his bent bar. "Okay, so tell me if you've heard this one. One day a wise teacher goes crazy. Starts jumping up and down and claiming to be a chicken or something. So, they haul his wise head off to a place to be looked at. See if it's empty. You with me?" He looked at Mikha'il.

Mikha'il smiled over the top of his sign. "I am standing next to you."

Umar waved one hand at that and resumed his swinging. "Anyway, so the teacher's students come to see him, and they tell him all sorts of things. How sorry they are to see him there and how they love him and will never leave him. You with me?"

An old man dropped a wide worn coin that was smooth on one side and with a little hole at the top where someone had pounded it with a nail into the cup at Mikha'il's feet. It rang against the other coins and almost tipped the cup over. But it didn't. Mikha'il said, "I am still standing next to you."

"Yeah, yeah, head in the clouds. Anyway, the teacher starts throwing rocks at the students and they run away from him. At which point, the teacher stops and calls after them. He tells them that they'd just promised to stay with him no matter what, but couldn't put up with a few rocks and what kind of friendship was that. So, what do you think?"

"How large were the rocks?" Mikha'il couldn't really have an opinion, but he'd been told to ask questions as appropriate.

"Yeah, I thought the same thing," said Umar. He spun around the pole again.

Then in a flutter of black fabric, flapping like the wings she didn't have, Danya landed next to Umar. From the ridges and curves of her long fingers, Mikha'il knew that under her overgarment, Danya looked exactly like herself. She shook her abbaya with both hands and yellow sand scattered in all directions.

Umar held up his human enough hands against Danya's sand storm. "What you been doing? Rolling in the dunes?" He stopped. Peered at her. "You have! You went and rolled round and round and whipped it all up and you did it without me."

Danya laughed. Her eyes laughed. The laughter of her eyes was a crackling wind that rushes behind the fire and urges it on. The laughter of her voice was a silver plate struck by water from a blue fountain. "You didn't have to wait. You could have gone in."

"No, no. That would be like you. Practically an ifrit you are. While I," Umar put his hand on his heart, or where his heart would have been if he had one, "am the good cousin. Waiting for you here even until starving. The meat of my body gone until all that is left is bones." Umar nodded sadly.

Danya snapped her fingers in the air. Above them, the florescent light got a little brighter. "More like you didn't want to be stuck in the Men's section."

Umar grinned and opened the Family door. "We are family."

Mikha'il said, "I am not your family." Which was true. He was made of something entirely different than Umar and Danya. Although, to a manner of speaking, not entirely unrelated.

In any case, Umar shoved at Mikha'il's shoulder and said, "Pfa. I've adopted you."

Danya's eyes laughed tornados at him in the buzzing light of the street. "You should come with us."

"I do not eat." This was true, but the real truth was that, "I cannot go until my cup is full."

Umar sighed like a great gust that blows over the dunes and carries a mere whirlwind in its wake. "Come on. You can fill it after."

"I need to fill my cup." Mikha'il jiggled his sign and smiled at the people crowding down the wide sidewalk by the busy street. A car honked, but not at him. The cars had turned on their headlights in the gathering dark.

Danya looked into the cup at his feet. Umar looked into the cup at his feet. Umar looked at Danya, who looked at Umar. She put her hand on the Family door. She said, "You're the one who adopted him."

He looked at her with his eyes arranged as wide and sad as he could arrange. "But we're family." He blinked for good measure.

She let go of the door and laughed like a silver plate in a blue fountain, the water falling down. She picked up the Styrofoam cup, which was a large and not a small.

Umar cracked his hands and stood on top of a white plastic bucket, which he'd decided should be there on the cracked cement along the wide city street with the people passing by and going into their dinners of delay. Umar spread his arms wide and opened his mouth and sang with his rasped three days and then left in the salt water voice.

Mikha'il might have expected a hamd in praise of Allah. Or a naat in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. Although, Mikha'il could not really expect anything. In any case, what he heard was a ghazal, some sort of love song about battlefield love. Then another about large hearts in vinegar. One about how the hunt was over, and the Call to Prayer had faded into that of the wounded gazelle tonight. How the idols cried out to Allah, "Don't let us be broken. Only we can convert the infidel tonight."

Umar sang and Danya walked back and forth rattling the Styrofoam cup, which was a large not a small. Her sound, his sound was the sound of rain. Coins falling. Laughter building. Hands clapping. A crowd gathering in the gathering night and calling for more. More. More. A rasped voice that sounded nothing like gold and everything like a smokeless fire that warms as the hot day turns to cold night and the sand gives away all the heat it ever had.

In its time, Danya handed Mikha'il a cup full of charity. Mikha'il smiled. This was what he had been told to wait for. This very thing. These songs. This cup. While high above in the clear sky, the last light of the day faded into faint city light stars. Soon hidden as wind chased black form clouds in from the sea.

Umar pushed Mikha'il through the Family door and said, "What are you having?"

Mikha'il said, "I do not eat." Which was true.

Umar wrinkled his nose. "That's why you're having the garlic and lime chicken. It's delicious."

Danya made a "Mmm" noise of agreement and shook new caches of sand on the floor.

Mikha'il stood in front of the display of choices that he could not make for food that he did not need, while the cousins ordered and whirled around him. He let them push him, white and black, to one of the enclosures where families sit.

Outside, the wind pushed the black clouds in from the sea. Until unexpected soft rain like laughter on a silver plate, like wings brushing, like coins in a cup, soft rain like that fell onto the happy earth.

Even with the smell of garlic and lime and chicken, Mikha'il could smell the rain on the pavement mixed with oil and sand and the white plastic bucket. Heard the drum of its music.

"Well? What do you think? Are you with me?" Umar snapped his fingers as he leaned across the table. Danya laughed and her eyes crackled. The lights grew brighter in their hum.

Mikha'il smiled. This was what he'd been told to wait for. So with the smell of rain and chicken, with the sound of laughing families and drumming rain, with a song in praise of Allah that was always in the light that was his heart, Mikha'il ate chicken and smiled light.