Lady Zubaida’s Maid

Michael Díaz Feito

“We breathe with the plants,” my friend Maram al-Razi used to say. She would say this while doting on the potted cactus and succulents by her kitchen window. She had studied biology.

I recently read about Muhammad Abduh, the Egyptian jurist and Islamic modernist, and I was reminded of Maram. Abduh argued that we also breathe with the djinn, because they are real and they are just bad microbes.

Now I wonder if Maram believed that, if a potent mix of banal fact and horrifying magic compelled her to commit the crime. We never spoke about belief.

Maram met Zahir Betancourt in Tompkins Square Park, where he was playing an electric bass and kicking a tambourine. He was also singing with an earthy rasp that Maram chose to ignore.

Zahir’s bass slithered, droned.

They talked. Maram was impressed by Zahir, because their talk was sincere from the start, not riddled with jokes.

The next week they met again walking along Avenue B, and hearing that Zahir was hungry, Maram invited him to dinner.

Maram said, “Wash your hands while I reheat the ragout.”

Although it was dusk already, summer heat still clung to the kitchen. Opening the window, Maram smiled at her potted cactus and succulents. She then lit the stove and stirred the cumin-spiced ragout.

When Zahir, having carefully set down his musical instruments, left for the bathroom, Maram noticed how sweat had sopped his purple t-shirt.

Heat from the stove made her dizzy — so dizzy, she later said, that she nearly sent Zahir away. But the fragrance of the cumin seeds whirled from the pot to refresh her.

A mottled pigeon walked along the windowsill. It entered the kitchen, crossing the boundary marked by the open window’s shadow. It watched Maram.

“Yes?” she said.

If you continue, the pigeon said, continue cleanly and without my help. But if you do not keep cleanliness, I must intervene and take my fee.

“And what,” Maram said, “is your fee?”

Before the pigeon could answer, Maram lunged at it with a knife.

The pigeon flitted off.

Despite the heat, Maram shut the window.

A heavy meal like ragout is sometimes perfect for summer. At first it further burdens your sluggishness, which makes you sit and digest the day, but then the meal provides real energy, runs you through the humid night.

Maram led Zahir to the bedroom. She undid her headscarf.

Zahir said (without irony), “You’ll undo me next.”

They tumbled onto the bed.

But when Zahir held her face while kissing, Maram screamed. Zahir’s fingers stank of cumin. His fingernails were stained with grease. Maram said, “You didn’t wash your hands?”

She had not seen Zahir laugh before. She grabbed a pair of garden shears from the nightstand. She swung at Zahir’s head. He collapsed.

It was then, allegedly, that Maram clipped off each of Zahir’s unclean thumbs.

The charges against Maram were dropped. Zahir refused to cooperate with the police. According to the legal record, then, none of this happened.

The couple was soon engaged. Last I heard, Zahir had given up music to work at an Upper East Side bank. He became a singing teller.

Maram also related to me a dream she had in the holding cell:

She woke up shrieking in her dark apartment. Someone was whistling. She rushed to the front door, and as she had suspected, it was unlocked, ajar.

A soft glow drew her to the kitchen.

The gas stove was lit. All the burners licked up at her.

MICHAEL DÍAZ FEITO is a Cuban American writer from Miami, Florida. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Acentos Review, Axolotl, theEEEL, Flapperhouse, Hinchas de Poesía, Jai-Alai Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, and Petrichor Machine. You can find Michael’s work at and follow him on Twitter @diazmikediaz.