When my friends and I left the homeland, my second departure from Kuwait, there were five of us and ten suitcases. I knew exactly what was in each bag, just as I knew the pain and angst of the five travelers heading toward the unknown. The suitcases were packed with clothes, kitchenware, Indian spices, and various items we didn’t think we’d be able to find abroad. I could only bring four books with me from my vast library back home: Al-Mutannabi, in two parts; the collected works of Mahmoud Darwish; and just one of the volumes of The Unique Necklace. These would constitute the entire library I would survive on, for however long I ended up living in estrangement. Once we’d settled into our accommodation in a small house on Norris Drive in Ottawa, I arranged the books on the sleek wooden flooring, the place being still unfurnished. Then I sat back and simply gazed at them.
Around noon on those April days, my father would do his best to stop me from going out. After lunch, he’d stomp around the house locking all the doors: the kitchen, the front door, the back door, the main living room. Sometimes he’d even try to drag me to his bedroom and force me to take a nap.
As soon as I read about the albatrosses in the Times, I thought of my big sister. Natasha.
“Natasha—albatross ty nasha,” Aunt Lyuba would sing in the communal kitchen, slinging blobs of wheat porridge into my bowl with the cornflower border. Each time she’d shuffle the bowl from the stove over to Natasha-and-my table, her felt slippers would catch on the peeling linoleum floor, and I’d worry about my breakfast. But Aunt Lyuba never slipped.
During her worst fits, my waters couldn’t drown out her cries. Stacking plates, cups, spoons, and knives, her fists flailed against the sides of my bowl; she’d stare at the gushing water stream, her head slackened against her chest.
In a departure from daily routine, she went on an angry, blabbering rampage, hurling her son’s glass pill bottles into my lap, smashing cups and plates, and turning on the faucet. Water and bits of glass floated everywhere—oh, my, I got so dizzy and regurgitated the larger pieces that had lodged in the drain.
She kept kicking me as I coughed my guts up, and she smashed more plates with the skillet.
The specter of her son appeared, grabbed her wrist firmly but tenderly, and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She stopped and breathed a deep sigh but didn’t raise her head or turn around.
When I can’t sleep I drive up to the ski hill and ride around with Tic in his snowcat until all the runs are groomed and my head’s raked clean, just before first light. I bring a Thermos full of hot chocolate mixed with a few shots of Rumple Minz, stale donut holes from Village Foods, and sometimes an uplifting book about how to live a better life that I always end up losing before I can give it back to my sister, Deena. Because it’s almost Christmas, the donut holes are decorated with tiny red and green sprinkles.
Whenever she spoke, my mother habitually turned down her upper lip and clenched her teeth as if to control the flow of her words—filtering them, if you will. Her teeth were white and strong; they were free of blemishes, except for the three that had been chipped in an old accident. She leaned in toward whomever she was conversing with, an apologetic smile on her face, which our neighbor’s daughter described as radiating kindness. A colleague who was once delivering an urgent message to me couldn’t help but remark that even from a distance her beauty was striking. He must not have seen her moving about with the distorted gait that caused one side of her rear to rise as the other descended. Although it had become less conspicuous with age, her limp harkened to another old story, but whenever anyone inquired about it, my mother just smiled enigmatically. Some of the questions were innocent enough, but others seemed veiled––I couldn’t fathom their subtext, nor could I recall anything from the actual events that might help me discern the questioner’s motive. All I know is that I had grown used to the way her limp caused gasps of astonishment, making mouths salivate with unspoken questions and eyes gleam with curiosity.
They say that, sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, a woman came on a wooden ship from Najd, married a wealthy man from the island, and, when she didn’t conceive, had a maqam built on the ruins of a pagan temple near the cliffs of the shore. Having had a dream where a man holding a staff spoke to her, the woman then named the maqam after the mystic Al-Khidr.
In those days, everyone had the right to have feelings.
It was natural to feel things, and the right thing to do about your feelings was to make them known. Feelings were plenty, but broadly they were segregated into two groups: Love and Fear.
In those days, there was only one way you could sin: by faking your feelings.
The city overwhelmed us. We’d moved to it from a smaller part of the country, fairly rural, though it’s true that even rural parts of the country had by that time much in common with urban centers. In our small town there was a Walmart and high-speed internet and a bar that boasted craft beers from across the region. An intimate and well-known musical venue often featured prominent artists, and, as the woman I lived with always found loudness distasteful, I would attend these shows alone. Being at one, the gathered fans swaying together, made it easy for me to feel like there could be nowhere better. But also, circling the edges of the town, fields ran hundreds of miles in all directions, lush with the green stalks of corn and soy undulating over a landscape that, in winter, shriveled and turned dead, brown, and brittled.