Sagirah Shahid

Uncomplicated Rules

The crow swooped into the light rail just as the automatic doors were closing. It hopped over to the seat directly across from Hanifah. The crow stood in the blue plastic seat, its glossy eye unblinking. Hanifah tried to ignore it.

“Caw,” the crow said.

In childhood Hanifah learned when faced with potential danger, sometimes the wisest course of action was to wait. Hanifah held her breath and busied her mind with thoughts of Ms. Pac-Man. The arcade game had become the highlight of her work week. She’d wipe down the greasy lunchroom counters, hand dry the small puddles of chocolate milk, retrieve stowaway french fries and abandoned baby carrot packets and then, out the cafeteria she went, walking the seven blocks to the bowling alley where the novelty 80’s machinery lived.

Frogger, Donkey Kong, Tetris, and of course her personal favorite, Ms. Pac-Man. And for a glorious hour or so, before having to take the light rail home to watch another round of highlight reels with Ahmed and the boys after football practice, Hanifah devoted herself to beating her own high score.

The first time Hanifah reacquainted herself with the game, she had already given up on trying to bowl. The boys were fighting again. Ahmed, floundering to make the boys see reason, opted instead to have their nacho-fingered pre-teens do push-ups on the grimy bowling alley floors. Bored out of her mind, Hanifah noticed the familiar pink trimmed silhouette. The inviting dramatization of a rounded Ms. PacMan, depicted on the machine’s exterior, pink heels and all, barely escaping the clutches of a gloved cartoon ghost. Like rediscovering a long lost friend, Hanifah excused herself and for nearly 30 minutes,  the boys and her husband never noticed her absence.

“Caw,” said the crow.

The light rail had come to an abrupt stop. The crow hopped over to an adjacent seat, its ebony wings briefly extending as it landed. The crow pecked its beak on the window’s glass.

In Ms. Pac-Man the trick is timing. You must balance Ms. Pac-Man’s insatiable hunger with finesse, draw the ghosts in moments before you devour the power pellets that render them temporarily powerless. Hanifah knows a thing or two about that. Before the boys were born, Ahmed and Hanifah couldn’t get pregnant. They had saved up everything they owned, for years, borrowing money discreetly from select family and friends to assist their efforts. And then, like a power pellet, their second round of IVF took root.

The boys were their costly miracles. When the boys were old enough, Hanifah started working odd jobs, Ahmed took a second job coaching football, to help their young family inch out of the debt they found themselves drowning in.

The automatic light rail doors flapped open again. In walked a girl, not much older than her own boys. The girl spotted the crow and screamed. The crow reflexively took flight, angling first for the doors but upon missing them, swooped low, passing, perhaps too near the flailing arms and ducked head of the screaming girl.

Hanifah almost had a girl, once. Ahmed doesn’t like to talk about the first round of IVF and the pregnancy that nearly made it full term. Sometimes she sees her husband with her boys and wonders if he has forgotten her. Hanifah can never forget. The blood. The doll-sized  face. She had even picked out a name—Khadijah. She heard the name everywhere. And sees the tiny face in her dreams. She never mentions this to her husband, or her boys.

Ms. Pac-Man is a simple game, in a simple world, with uncomplicated rules. Hanifah clings to that world.

“Caw,” the crow says.

Sagirah Shahid is a Black American Muslim poet from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her poetry and prose are published in MiznaPaper DartsWinter TangerineRain Taxi, and elsewhere.