It’s a brand new year at the Write...Edit...Publish... hosted by authors Denise and Yolanda, and I am beyond pleased to able to get back here! Though I have to admit that there’s nothing very brand new about my entry.
Ever feel that a completely imaginary character has taken over your entire life?? Heba's got me by the throat these days. Remember her? Refugee, mother of 5 children, with 4 surviving when she and her husband Mahmoud found asylum in the USA? Much as I would have preferred to write something fresh and new and romantic, I mean, Back of the Drawer, c’mon! It’s practically sitting up on its hind legs begging a juicy romantic type..sigh…
Heba walked into my head coolly one morning in November after the US elections and demanded that her story be told. So I did, for the last WEP in December, and that was that. But apparently was not. Here she is again, insistent, persistent, resistant, the universal sisterhood of women everywhere.
Heba - MC.
Mahmoud - Heba's husband
Saeed - Heba's eldest son, missing, presumed dead by all except Heba.
Eissa, Zouhra, Bassem, Malak - Heba's other children.
This episode starts off with Heba finding a threatening note wrapped around a piece of shrapnel in Saeed's unused, but still meticulously-maintained room, after a fitful night of shelling and sleep.
“We must leave, Heba.” Mahmoud was sitting up on the edge of the bed.
“La, ana majnoona?” Heba retorted. “Am I crazy? Not till Saeed comes home. He can walk in any time.”
Too many young people had disappeared over the last few years – but Mahmoud knew it was no use arguing with her.
“Saeed is under God’s protection, Heba. If it be His will, He will get us all through this difficulty and bring my son face to face with me in this world again. If His will be otherwise, we meet in the next. Meanwhile, I must take my other children to a safer place, this is not a fit existence for them. Living with this...”
“But why? What have we done? What have you done? You haven’t done anything, have you, Mahmoud?”
“Does it take any doing nowadays? People are vanished simply on suspicion – this one’s on the wrong side, that one’s the wrong religion, this other one’s a terrorist - the whole place has just gone mad.” He ran a distracted hand through his hair. “I know these chaps – organise passages to the border, I’ll see how soon we can leave…pack, be ready.”
“No, I can’t leave,” Heba’s eyes flashed. “this is home. I live here, I die here. You take the children to safety, I’ll come once Saeed is here.”
“Don’t try my patience, Heba! I can’t teach my sons to abandon their mother, or have Malak grow up without the one person she needs most. Be ready. Only the essentials, mind.”
It did not take very long, after all. She had thought the selection would be excruciating – how does one define essentials for a one-way once-in-a-lifetime, excruciating trip such as this? Her grandmother’s knitted blanket, kept over three generations, was that just baggage to be discarded now? How would the texture of life feel away from these rooms - the front door hasp worn smooth with use, the curtains she had got, shredded now by the conflict but still bravely rippling in the front room?
But there really was no space for indecision, each overnighter filled up quickly – a few items of clothing, a blanket, cosmetics, a bit of memorabilia. For a journey without any known destination or travel time. Eissa and Zouhra both, without having to be told, surmised the reason of the trip from the start. They casually threw in a couple of USB’s with some family photos, some music Heba loved, a few scanned paintings of Saeed’s. Heba went to the kitchen and baked up every spoonful of flour into biscuits; combined rice and vermicelli into a dish without any accompaniments, did as much as she could on the precarious stores of fuel. No telling where their next meal would come from.
When every task she could think of was completed and there was no further excuse, she scrubbed her hands extra-clean, and finally climbed the stairs again to the room with the north-lit windows.
Saeed’s room stood almost exactly as he had left it more than a year ago. Heba had made sure it did, by cleaning it personally. She left the papers on the desk as he had left them, neatly in piles, his pyjamas folded and draped on the chair back, and the minutiae of his existence strewn around. For a year, she had dusted, swept, shaken folds out and folded them back again, putting nothing away. He would not be inconvenienced if he walked in now, she thought, he would know exactly where to find everything.
But henceforth? She could see the dust piling up in the corners, the sheets darkening with the dirt, further broken window panes littering the floor. Well, she would do what she could. She got to work, cleared away the fallen glass, dusted and swept the room, and finally took the pyjamas off the chair and put them back, neatly folded, into the wardrobe. As the latch clicked close with a sound of unnerving finality, some thread of control snapped clean out of her fingers.
She sat down heavily at his desk, sighed and opened the top drawer, stuffed with papers and scraps of his old school exercise books and discarded odds and ends. He had never liked her to go through his drawers, and she had respected his privacy. But today the borders were blurred as she stood on this fearsome edge of saying goodbye to the comfort of his presence, made tangible in this enclosed space. She went through the drawer shuffling the things with quick nervous hands, surely she would find something? some piece of paper, some sketch, something meaningful that would substitute for the entire room in this unknown, terrifying exile? No, nothing. She stretched her hand right back in the last attempt to grasp at something, anything! And her fingers touched a hard oblong under the mush of loose paper and debris of stationery. She drew in a sharp breath and pulled it out.
It was the flipbook. She had come to check on him and sat looking at it as he flipped the pages containing a young man moving further and further away from the viewer. That night he had confided his dream of going abroad to an art school through a national competition. How long ago it all seemed now, how achingly insignificant!
She flipped the book now in her hands, and it was like a knife-thrust between her eyes. All her pent up energy and frenzied grief coalesced into a huge clot of pain. She finally laid her head down and wept inconsolably in great, heaving sobs.
“Heba? Umm Saeed?” Mahmoud had returned. With unerring instinct, he had come upstairs. “It’s settled. We leave tomorrow at sunset. Ready?”
She lifted her eyes, her face disfigured with tears and grief and exhaustion, and slowly stood up, clutching the book like a talisman.
“Yes, Mahmoud. As ready as we will ever be.” She strode out of the room without looking back, “Shut the door please, will you? Saeed doesn’t like it left open.”
Mahmoud hesitated, then quietly shut the door and followed Heba downstairs where the children sat in a ring, each with a neat bag stacked against their knees.
WC : 1037
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