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.
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.
Whatever you believe, know this: Teodoro Ramirez’s dog could see into the spirit world. Teddy, as he was called by everyone in barrio La Zavala, never shared this with anyone. Of course, the only people he could have shared this with would have been his co-workers or his tíos and tías, who only came by his house occasionally now that his mother, Josefina, had died, que en paz descanse. He probably could have told la Señora Izquierdo, the nice old lady who lived alone next door and brought him tamales every year when it was close to Christmas. She may not have believed him, but she would have listened.
Teddy believed lots of things his mother, Josefina, had told him and sometimes heard her voice even now that she was gone from this earth, the diabetes she’d had trouble controlling taking her too soon, que en paz descanse. Like if you went outside and got either your head or your feet wet, but not the rest of your body, you would catch a cold. If you ate hot flán or cake, your stomach would get sick. “Mi hijo,” she would say, “don’t eat that or you’ll get empachado.” If you pointed at a rainbow and then touched yourself without washing your hands, you would get pimples wherever you had touched yourself. But the one thing that helped Teddy comprehend how his dog was different was Josefina’s teachings about spirits. She had often said that any place—a house, a church, even a whole barrio—was imbued by either good or bad spirits that had influenced the events there. Teddy had even accompanied his mother on several limpias of homes, where she and the comadres from church anointed doorways with oil, waved bundles of burning sabio in hallways to clear the home of bad memories or mal espíritus that had plagued the families therein.