Aisha lay in bed looking up at the crack in the plaster. The explosion had woken her up, silly of her to try to turn on the light, there had been no electricity for a week.
Without light time flowed like honey.
“I’m scared.” Mar was standing in the hall, not coming in after she got mad at him for rummaging through her things.
“Ts, ts, come under.” He ran to her mattress on the floor and wriggled under the heavy duvet. She chuckled as she’d never seen him walk anymore, only dart from spot to spot. After he snuggled into a ball under her armpit she said “It’s far from here. In the Christian neighborhood. Remember you had a piece of ham. Mr. Gregorian gave it to you?”
“It was salty. And thin.”
“They cut it thin. They put it between two square pieces of bread the size of your hand. They take a bite of a pickled cucumber between each bite of the ham.” She saw him swallow.
“Can we go again?”
“You’re not scared?”
Aisha smiled and tucked her thick black hair away from his face, his very dirty face.
“You didn’t wash up before going to bed.”
“The pool is cold. I don’t like it.”
“We could go together. When your dad comes back, we’ll ask him to put an oil lamp in the courtyard. Remember he showed you how to pump it?”
“Ya, then it started hissing. Can I light the match?”
“Probably. You’re almost six now. Not a kid anymore. Just remember not to do it if you hear a plane. When you hear its engine. You know the sound?” Mar started to make the sound, low at first then louder and louder, spitting from his vibrating lips.
“Just like that, but a lot quieter. They fly very high and they have socks on their feet. You can’t see them because they are painted the same as the night. When they’re coming towards you the sound is very faint, only ears as sharp as yours can hear them. But when they pass you, they sound just like how you did it.” By then it would be too late, Aisha added to herself.
Mar’s regular breathing was as soft as the purr of a cat. They’ll never leave, not while any of them were still alive, the birds of hell killing at night, the birds of fear roaming by day.
She hadn’t heard from Issa, not even from the café. It wasn’t like him not to leave a word. If he wasn’t back by tomorrow night, she would have to start scavenging for food. They were good for water, thank God. The prospects of leaving Mar alone, or taking him along, both presented their own set of worries. It was perhaps time to take him to the village, to stay with Amu for a while. She had no choice, really, she would have to submit to him, not the worse thing she’s ever done. She could see his curled smile. No, they’ll hold on as long as possible. Mar was small for his age but agile and in good health. We won’t even wait for the night, we’ll investigate the cellar of the stone house early in the morning.
Aisha had the most pleasant dream. She was at her dad’s farm, counting the cucumbers the size of her fingers on the vines. She was feeling their fuzzy skin while her dad rearranged the mud passage of the irrigation ditch to flow towards her. He had his white shirt on. He was young and strong.
She woke up with tears in her eyes. Oh Daddy! I’m glad you died before the occupation, before the twenty one check points Issa has to cross to get to the village. I hope one day I die too. Mar needs just a few couple of years. Protect him. Bring him luck, even though you never got to see him. He has the same way of holding his hands at his hips. Did I hold this on and pass it to him through my genes? If mannerism, then why not the soul?
She gently rolled Mar away, reached for her gown and in one swift motion put on her chador, wrapping it around her waist so it wouldn’t be in the way. They had lots to do today.
The house was built for a family of twelve, plus servants. It had two floors. Brick columns rose from the courtyard that was open to the sky, to the roof where they met in complex geometric shapes. Some of the ornamental tiles still hung up there in the three dimensional crevasses.
They slept in the servants’ room on the top floor. It had a latticed opening to the courtyard and its shallow pool. The rows of pots that sat in the pool had tomato and cucumber vines growing. She was growing wheat too further back, without much success or at least quantity. Being on the second floor had the benefit of an escape through the roof should anyone break the front door. Of course they could just as easily come from the roof themselves, but she could hear their footsteps.
The rest of the rooms upstairs were for storage, away from the rodents below. Tin cans of all sizes, books, jars of oil and lots of broken furniture only allowed narrow passages in the rooms. She was good. Water was the biggest hassle. When it rained she would spread the curtains on the wires so that most of it would fall in the pool. The shade let it stay for months.
She filled up the tea pot and placed it on the hearth oven, using scraps of wood, chair legs today, for fire. Mar, when he heard the gurgling of the water, got up by himself and washed up.
“Well done Mar. I like it when you do things all by yourself.”
“Sweet tea for sweet Mar. We’re going to the stone house today. I think I found a way to the cellar. Only you have to make yourself as small as a mouse to get in. You think you can manage that?”
“Drink up, we want to beat the other mice, God willing.”
“God wills.” Mar said with Issa’s voice.
The curfew was twenty four hours, but hunger being stronger than soldiers, the street was busy with women and children, none older than ten. Any taller and they would get whisked away to a camp of one sort or another. Aisha meandered nonchalantly, taking her time, pretending to barter. People were carrying anything, food and water coveted like gold and silver, matches like swords. Everything was broken down by the ant colony, reduced to metal for bullets or paper for papier-maché explosive containers, and wood for burning, from simple to complex and back to simple again. Bricks from walls with bits and pieces of exquisite turquoise tiles formed mounds to climb. Pools of water in between were gathered in brightly colored plastic cans, no matter how shallow or dirty.
“How come people don’t shop anymore Ma?”
“The money rotted.”
“We have some new ones.”
“Not that kind of rot.” Aisha didn’t add that it was replaced by food, weapons and sex. They arrived at the tall walls of the house she called the stone house, even though they were made of mud bricks like any other wall. They followed their curve into a side street. Three quarters of the way in, a hole was dug at the base of the wall. Aisha went in with some difficulty, as thin as she was, and Mar followed swiftly. They stood in a garden overgrown with dandelions. We can eat the roots, she thought. A gnarled chestnut tree with oily trunks and roots, as if hand rubbed for a thousand years, provided a stadium-sized shade. The house itself was in ruins. The roof had collapsed taking down the front walls.
“I know there is a cellar, because my dad brought me here once to a wedding.”
“A sort of party, when you buy lots of food with good money, and hire musicians to sing just like from a radio.” Mar looked unconvinced.
“I remember the bride, a girl even prettier than me, if you can imagine that, with a silver veil and Kohl eyes, walked up these steps. We kids were standing right there where you are now. As soon as she lifted her long dress that was dragging on the floor and stepped on the first step, the grownups threw candies in the shape of gold coins into the air. I grabbed a bunch, fighting with the other kids. The coins’ tops came off and inside was a huge round piece of chocolate.”
“Ma, did you eat all of it?”
“I ate so much that my stomach got the size of a pillow, and still I ate.”
“You didn’t save any for the next day?”
“We didn’t have to, back then. There was a wedding almost every day.”
They were at the front entrance. Aisha turned around to survey the garden. It was a lot smaller than she remembered.
“The cellar is in this room behind the kitchen. I sneaked into the kitchen to watch the cooks throw dough in the air. They would compete with each other to see who can toss it the closest to the ceiling without touching it. If it touched the ceiling, the poor cook had to take a bite of it, all raw and doughy.”
“And right here, the servants would go to the cellar to get jars of fig jam, whole figs drenched in sugar.”
“You’re making stuff up.”
“That cellar was huge. See the bricks standing tall, I did that to mark the entrance.”
They approached it with respect. Flies were looping noisily in a cloudy ray of the sun. Their jewel-green bellies sparkled against the dark.