I was seated on the mat in the balcony, gently shaking the mango tree in the center of our courtyard, causing its leaves to cascade down to the ground. A beautiful tree stood before me, and I absentmindedly traced its bark with my fingers, finding comfort in its presence.

Suddenly, my dear friend Ladio entered our house, her hands cradling her forehead, which was bleeding. Even when I looked up and met her gaze, she remained silent. Without hesitation, I rushed to fetch water, my mouth agape in shock, letting out a gasp that seemed to emanate from the depths of my being, much like the sound Sadeek made when he cleared his throat.

I regarded Ladio with concern, gently touching my lips as I inquired, “Ladio, are you alright? Did something happen to you? Or did someone harm you?”

Ladio had been waiting for me to ask, as if she needed my inquiry to confirm that I hadn’t abandoned her. Tears welled up in her eyes as she finally spoke, “Where is the young man we met yesterday?”

“I remember him. What happened to him?” I asked.

Ladio proceeded to recount her ordeal. “Well, after receiving the money for her wedding from Zulai at Ummata’s house, I was on my way to meet the young man. Can you believe it? Even some of his friends congratulated him upon seeing me. But then, Ramma intervened and scolded them, which prompted them to let me go. But I swear, they would have harmed me further if not for Ramma. They even threw stones at me, and I wish they had taken my life. You know how cruel some people can be.”

I nodded in understanding. “I see. So, someone in this village is out to get you, and they’ve openly threatened you with harm. Well, Dande village has been eagerly awaiting the return of its collector. Whether he’s back or not, we should be prepared. But since he’s challenged us, let’s go to his house first and confront him. If he wishes to harm you, we’ll confront him with evidence.”

My mother emerged from the room with a bag in her hand. Upon noticing me, she chided, “What kind of attire is this for a pious girl like you, Inna? You look as though you’ve forgotten the ways of Islam.”

I replied with a smile, “Oh, Mother, are you referring to Ladio?”

It was only then that my mother noticed Ladio standing at the doorway, her hand still on her bleeding forehead.

“I saw her, but what about her?” Mother inquired.

Growing impatient with her questions, I retorted, “Mother, did you not notice the blood on her forehead?”

“I did, but ever since her separation, she has been suffering. Her hair has thinned, and she’s helpless. I merely provoked her,” my mother explained.

I chuckled. “Mother, it wasn’t Ladio who injured her forehead. In fact, he asked me to close my eyes, and when I did, he struck me. It was both painful and amusing. And by the way, even if the entire village adopts the name Siddeekar, his body would start dancing uncontrollably upon meeting me. It’s not something I planned; it just happens.”

Lost in thought, I didn’t notice someone approaching until I raised my head and found myself locking eyes with a stern individual who appeared ready to speak. If he spoke, I would speak as well.

As he stood before me, I could tell that if he wasn’t threatening to harm me, my jaw would have dropped in shock. Our gazes met, and he closed one of my eyes with a firm gesture. With an air of authority, he spoke, “You, devil-possessed wretch, let me give you a piece of advice before I devour you like a predator. I’m doing you a favor by not breaking your mouth right here. You’re just a troublemaker; you have no respect for anyone in this village. You’ve been accused of numerous offenses, yet you remain defiant. We’ve shown you patience, but you continue to test our limits.”

Ladio, still as a statue, stared at him with a piercing look that warned him not to cross a certain line. With her hand still on her forehead, she finally spoke, her voice filled with confusion, “Ladio.”

He dismissed her name with a wave of his hand. “Change your name for all I care and follow me.” He gestured for her to leave the house, his tone leaving no room for disobedience. “Even at the doorstep of this house, if I catch sight of you, may God be your guide.”

Before departing, he issued a final warning, “I hope you’ve heard what I’ve said. If you have, you’d do well to keep your distance.”

Ladio left our house, her head held high but with a sense of vulnerability.

When he turned his attention to me, we locked eyes once more, and he gave me an intense glare. I retaliated, declaring, “I won’t be cowed by that glare either. If someone wants to threaten me, we can confront each other face to face. You’ll soon realize you’re dealing with someone who won’t back down.”

He seemed taken aback by my response as he walked away.

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