Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Featured Author

My Space Behind the Wall

I feel like a ghoul. I sit every day beneath the stairs in the basement of the small house on Eichenweg street. Some days I stand, though I have to crouch in my space behind the wall, and I stretch my legs, stepping on my toes before my calves pull, and bending my neck so as not to hit my head on the low ceiling.

It is dark behind the wall and only once a day do I emerge, to walk around the Leitner family’s basement and to relieve myself in the chamber pot Frau Leitner so kindly cleans for me. It is then that she brings me bread and sometimes some cheese and I can look on the single bulb that lights the basement. Then I return to my space behind the wall.

I lie on the cold ground and listen all day to the Leitner family’s steps. I have come to know Herr Leitner’s work boots that he puts on early in the morning to stomp off to the fields where he must herd and slaughter cows. I recognize Frau Leitner’s soft steps, silent in the midafternoon—when she does her sewing, she has told me. The Leitners have a daughter, Inge. She does not know I live in the space behind the wall but I know her fast, pointed steps. She walks like a young woman with purpose. Sometimes she fights with her parents and then her feet fall heavily when they relegate her to her room. Sometimes she is disrespectful and Herr Leitner hits her. I can hear her soft sobs then.

When I leave the space behind the wall, under the stairs—when the Americans come and pull me from my home of some two years—I thank the Leitners for their bravery and compassion, I move to America, I meet a young girl whom my mother would have liked (who understands the reasons I cannot sleep at night and why I save even the juice of the pickles we buy) and we have a son, a boy we name Otto. He attends a school in Brooklyn where he sits in the sun on hot summer days and sleeps close to the radiator during the coldest of the snowy winter nights. He makes friends and loses them and makes new ones in the way that children should, he plays a game of hiding in closets and beneath beds, under stairs and behind walls, and he likes the feeling of being snug and trapped in a world that is for him so sprawling and free.

This is what I tell myself, the future I contemplate as I sit in my space behind the wall for years. This is what I tell myself when I hear new footsteps and then shouts, cries of alarm and a wrenching of the secret door that leads to my solitary space behind the wall. This is what I tell myself as I am finally brought out into the light that I’ve missed for so long and, as it falls so pleasantly upon my sallow skin, it burns my eyes and I cry tears of joy for the son I must someday get to hold.

Snow, Ashes

Paralyzed, a girl watches her father on fire in the forest. He runs through the trees, flailing his arms, attempting animally to escape his blazing tormentor. He looks overwhelmingly like a part of the forest, his limbs extending outward like branches, and from them the orange leaves dance in the wind, flickering into nothingness. He gives up and falls to his knees, seeming to recognize the snow beneath him and rolling through it desperately. 

A dog the girl’s neighbor once owned rolled in such a manner. It was the kind of dog which always sniffed at her outstretched hand before nuzzling close and bowing in playfulness, hopeful as dogs tend to be; the same dog which cheerfully approached the boy—now likely young man—from down the road who was gifted a pellet gun for his fourteenth birthday. It sniffed the muzzle of his gun as he lifted it to meet the dog’s face and when it fell its eyes were still but the twitching of its legs were like that of a spider’s or a grasshopper’s which has been killed but is too dumb to realize. 

Her father rolls and rolls but the fire refuses to go out, burning horribly, and as terrible as it is, the girl cannot remove her eyes from his slowing form, from the body of a man who once had been so full and lively and now kicks like a spider that can’t know that a life on fire is not one worth living. She watches him die and she cannot look away. 

The mass of people behind her hasn’t stopped moving, the men who set him on fire have not even stayed to watch. She turns slowly and rejoins the long, unending march where no one has the strength to feel sorry for her, another sudden orphan. With his death, the girl becomes a girl who is unloved. It is five years before they will change her name to Johanna. It’s seven before she’ll be able to write a letter in English to the British family who housed her for five months. In total she lives twenty-seven years. She doesn’t forget her father. 

* * * * * 

When she is nineteen, a young woman, she moves to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into a two-bedroom apartment she shares with five other girls. She’s glad that she can’t live alone. She takes one of the girls’ advice and applies to any and every job that will hire her. She’s fired as a stenographer for typing too slow and as a cashier at a small grocer’s for her accent. She ends up sewing pockets onto men’s slacks in a downtown workroom where she’s commended for her quick work and clean lines. When she returns home she often pulls pieces of loose thread from her hair and from her clothes. 

She runs errands with the other girls. They buy cleaning supplies and vegetables, bread and sometimes pastries for special occasions; together they can even afford meat on holidays. Before the New Year she walks to the butcher’s alone, the girl meant to go with her having fallen ill that morning. The walk is surprisingly pleasant in the cool early-fall air. The butcher smiles at her as she walks in, asks how he can help her. 

She needs a brisket. He says he has the best flat cuts in all of New York and she laughs, asking How could he know? He’s tried them all himself to be sure, otherwise would he not be a false advertiser? He smiles at her again as he walks into a backroom. His humor—really the way he seems so at ease—is disarming. 

She’s the only person in the shop. She looks at the different cuts of meat on display in the refrigerator. They glisten under the halogen bulbs and imply luxury. How much meat does a butcher eat? The walls of the shop are covered in posters advertising beef and lamb suppliers, some showing the borders that distinguish the cuts from one another in white dotted lines and the ceiling is higher than one might expect when observing from the outside. The butcher walks back in with a parcel in waxed paper and throws it on the scale. She still hasn’t told him how much meat she needs. 

There’s a discount for fine young ladies, he informs her. She’d best leave her friends at home then in future, she says, or they’d run him out of business. They laugh and he tells her the price which she says is far too low but he won’t hear anything of it. She pays him and predicts she’ll need to come back next week in preparation for the pre-fast meal. He’ll be there, he promises. 

The next week he asks her if he can take her out, to a movie or something, and she says she thought a butcher might take a fine lady like herself out to a cow farm but she supposes a movie will do. They continue to see each other for a year and a half and then they get married. His mother who lives in Brighton Beach doesn’t like her but they get along passably well. His name is Aleksander and she loves him until the day she dies. 

* * * * * 

Things go well for the couple. The young woman quits her job sewing pockets to keep house and she no longer lives with the five other girls. His mother seems to like her a little more, though she would never say it. After two years of marriage—and four months of trying—she is pregnant. They refrain from intimacy during this time so as not to disturb the child’s growth and the baby, a boy, is born two weeks early, cutting short her visit to the grocer. 

She loves the baby almost immediately, his dark eyes always following her proof that he knows they are connected in some ineffable way. She loves the baby and she loves her husband and she is again loved after a pause that was once not notable to her but now seems like it would be torture to return to. 

She walks the baby down the street in a carriage in the early spring and, as a breeze brings the smell of a wood fire and cooking meat to her nose, she smells the feeling of her childhood. She tries to explain it to her husband when she returns home but the idea that was so instantly clear is also instantly fleeting. In that moment, though, she realizes that she is happy with her husband and her baby, with the friends she sees on Saturday when they go to pray and during the week when they shop together or walk their babies about, the extended family that has accepted her as a part of their ever-changing whole. She is content, and yet in the back of her mind she is always afraid. 

Sometimes she awakens in the middle of the night, dreaming that her husband is being torn apart by wolves while she can only stand by and watch. The dream always begins pleasantly enough; they walk the baby through the streets of Manhattan when they come upon a dog across the street from his butcher’s shop, in front of the police station. He reaches down to pet the dog and in an instant its teeth have sunk deep into his hand. The baby and its carriage are gone and she is frozen still as dogs pour out of the police station through the doors and windows, jumping from the roof and transforming into monstrous wolves on the way down. She almost always wakes up before the dream ends but on certain occasions the wolves finish and she is allowed to push through them to see that her husband has been reduced to a pile of ashes that is quickly blown away by the breeze. She develops a great fear of dogs. 

She takes care of her husband and he takes care of her and together they care for the baby. She washes the baby in the sink under the warm water, but one day she finds that he is getting too big. She brings him to the bathtub and allows the water to fill up around him, though 

it quickly becomes clear that if she does not hold him up he will eventually tip over and fall beneath the surface. She supports him behind his neck while she gently pours the water over him. She washes his body and scrubs his face. She puts a lavender-scented oil in his hair and washes it out, teasing it up into a tall spike before crushing it beneath her palm. The baby likes being bathed. 

Would he remember her if she disappeared? He knows her well, as he does her husband and her mother-in-law, but really, given enough time, could he not love others as his family? She remembers an orphanage populated by Anyas and Chavas and Devorahs, younger than she, who could not remember a family and were quick to turn on those who could. It was wise not to mention who you thought you were before you were an orphan because not only were you likely wrong according to those without memories to share, but you could incite malice merely by having a before, by having a history. Suffering, it seemed, had a wide reach and yet was not equal in its torment. 

She looks into the baby’s eyes. He meets her gaze and smiles. Will he have a happy life? Will he have a safe life? Will he have a life that’s worth living and, for that matter, is hers? She removes her hand from the back of his head and he sits with his head above the water for a moment before he shifts, and his mouth and then his nose and his eyes descend below the surface. His body doesn’t react instantly to this wholly knew sensation of submersion until he tries to take a breath, air escaping his mouth, and his eyes widen, he thrashes violently, sending water over the edge of the tub and onto her skirt while he tries to scream, but he finds everything muffled—his movements through the water, his voice, his hearing, his sight—and where is the hand that holds him when he feels pain or hunger or anger or happiness? 

She watches almost peacefully before she returns to herself, as if from a trance. She drags him from beneath the water and repeatedly strikes his back with an open hand to force the fluid from his lungs. He coughs several times between tears, water spattering from his mouth onto her blouse. By the time she is convinced that he is alright, they are both drenched and shivering. What was she thinking? What has she done to him? She holds him to her breast and they cry together, he heaving short, shallow sobs, she greater, shaking ones that run through both of their bodies. She will not tell her husband, anyone actually, of the incident. 

The baby’s name is Yevgeny, after her father. 

* * * * * 

The baby grows into a toddler and on Sundays the young woman takes him to the park. She seats him in a swing and pushes him gently, back and forth. She feels a sense of peace in the park, like she’s another American mother living just down the street from where she grew up and is now taking her baby to the same park she played in as a child, though it looks much different now from how she imagines it would have when she was younger. She speaks with the other mothers, many of them non-American, and they each feel a sense of fondness for each other’s children. 

One Sunday after an intense storm cuts power to half the block, a young girl approaches her and the baby and asks, Why if your eyes are blue then are his eyes brown? She is taken aback briefly—it has never really bothered that his eyes don’t resemble hers. Well, she says to the girl, his father has brown eyes and babies get brown eyes over blue eyes. Oh. Alright. The girl laughs and waltzes away, satisfied. 

The young woman walks around the swing in front of Yevgeny and looks into his eyes. They dart about and she cannot get them to remain on hers. He has a certain fascination with birds and how they can all look so different from each other. He does not know any of them by name, but as she walks him down the street on errands or to his grandmother’s, he points them out and shouts gleefully the identifying color. In New York the color is very often gray. 

She manages to catch his gaze for a moment and his eyes widen, his face expanding into a smile. She knows that he loves her and she loves to see it in the way his cheeks crease and his eyes squint until the tops of his irises disappear under his eyelids. She wishes briefly that the color of his eyes matched hers but, no, he is a beautiful boy. He is a happy boy and he looks like her just as much as he is meant to. 

* * * * * 

Yevgeny grows to be six years old and he is enrolled in kindergarten. His mother very suddenly has time to herself which she at first fills by cleaning the entire apartment, removing the books from the shelves, dusting, rearranging; she hangs a glass hand with a blue eye beside the front door, a parting gift from one of the girls she once lived with; she sweeps and mops and after two weeks she has done all she can do to beautify the house. 

She takes to reading the newspaper but she is not very good at it and it bothers her so she learns how to knit. She knits her son a sweater for the coming winter and her husband a hat, both in a deep maroon yarn that she hopes will not irritate the skin too much. She knits socks for her mother-in-law which are accepted graciously and never worn, and she knits mittens for her friends. 

She eventually tires of knitting and settles finally on daily walks. She walks up the East River, past parks with children playing, over small bridges and beside the dense public housing. Boats drift by, stirring the gray-brown water, lifting its dirty ocean smell to her nose. Soon she’ll come to the East River to cleanse herself of her sins, dropping them in little pieces of bread to the waiting ducks below. Every year she wonders whether bread laden with sin tastes different. 

On Saturdays in the afternoon her husband and son join her. She suspects they must look to others like a very happy family which, when she considers them, they truly are. They continue their weekend walks well into the fall, past the time when the winds become biting and the occasional spray of water is no longer refreshing but alarming. 

Her husband catches cold and she tends to him for a week as he recovers. She writes a small sign on butcher paper, advising his customers that he will return the coming Monday. She moves most of the meat to the freezer, taking home or giving to her friends what she suspects won’t be salvageable when he makes it back. On his worst night, when he is feverish and short of breath, she decides she needs to venture out to the pharmacist to retrieve some sort of medical treatment. She has made him rest for four days, feeding him soups and preparing expensive teas, but his decline has continued. 

She’s lucky—she arrives as the pharmacist is closing his shop for the night and he gives her Quinine to alleviate at least the coughing. He recommends that she drape a damp towel over his forehead for the fever which, although she doesn’t mention it, she is of course already doing. She bundles herself up against the cold again and heads back into the night, hurrying home. She walks back along East 12th street towards the river, lost in worry for her husband when she realizes she is being followed. A man—tall, blond, dressed in dark clothing, she can see from the corner of her eye when she turns as though to look for cars as she crosses the street—follows her even as she turns unnecessarily down side streets. She walks as quickly as she can without looking rushed. 

He calls out to her. 

Hey. Her back tenses; her entire body stiffens but she continues at the same pace. He calls out to her again, He can see her bracelet. She glances at the charms on her wrist. She’s pretty for a Jew, he tells her. She pretends she can’t hear him. She doesn’t know what else to do. She pretends she can’t hear him and she prays that someone will come and stop him or save her or she’ll come upon a group of people out for a drink whom she can quickly befriend or beg to protect her. In the pocket of her jacket she balls her hand into a fist, then, after more thought, searches for the key to her front door and holds it like a knife. She feels ridiculous. The situation is ludicrous! She should be walking home and nothing more. She should be focusing on the health of her husband but she is instead focusing on the metal in her palm and the presence at her back calling her Jewess and worse and staying always at the same distance. He could run up at any time and grab her. 

Why doesn’t he stop her? What does he want? 

After five minutes she makes it to her street. At the stairs to her small lobby she takes one last step forward, miming a continued trajectory forward, then she twists left and leaps up the stairs, jams the key into the lock, and flings the door open. She shuts the door behind her and locks it, throwing her body against it to prevent any attempt the man might make to follow her. Through the peephole she watches as he saunters up the steps. He holds in his left hand a dark blue cap and a glinting badge peeks at her from beneath his coat. He knocks three times, loudly. You can’t hide from me! She turns away from the peephole and sits down, her sweaty back still against the door. 

The man remains another minute or two. He raps his knuckles against the door, rattles the lock, calls to her through the keyhole. She can hear a dog barking somewhere down the street. Finally he leaves. She listens to his shoes hit the concrete steps as he makes his way down and lifts herself to watch as he ambles away from her house, stopping only to upend a trash can at the corner. She looks down and realizes she is still clutching her keys. 

She turns around and makes her way upstairs to her apartment, her heart still pounding and her legs suddenly weak, her fingers trembling. She opens the door slowly. The boy is still sleeping in his room. She removes her boots and her jacket, draping it over a chair rather than hanging it in the closet, and checks on her husband. His fever has abated slightly and she refreshes the damp towel. He has no idea what she’s gone through. She kisses him on the cheek, her cold, chapped lips catching on his damp, warm skin. He truly has no idea. 

* * * * * 

For two years events proceed in an orderly fashion. The woman prepares breakfast and takes her son to school while her husband heads to work. She takes her walks in the park, runs errands, cooks dinner. Her mother-in-law mentions every few weeks that they should have more children but her husband reiterates that they are perfectly content with the one beautiful boy they have. He’s made the same suggestion to her before, but she doesn’t want to have more children. Why not? he asks. It wouldn’t be right. No, she can’t explain, she simply does not want to have more children. He is frustrated but he recognizes when she’s put her mind to something. When they make love they use a latex condom which she scrutinizes endlessly for any imperfections before allowing him to put it on. 

Yevgeny shows promise in mathematics and is permitted to skip the third grade. His principal, Mr. Erickson, assures them that if he continues on the same trajectory there should be no obstacle to his procuring a scholarship to a private junior high school. He dreams, the boy tells them at the dinner table, of being a famous mathematics professor. He wants to be famous in the way Einstein is famous. He takes to teasing his curls out at night before his bath, creating a frizzy, brown mane. 

The woman is not there to pick him up from school one afternoon in the early spring. He waits with a teacher who eventually decides he must walk the boy home, as all efforts to reach his mother have proven futile. They walk to the boy’s home together, holding hands as they cross the busy avenues, and reach his front door. It is locked and no one answers even as the teacher beats the door with an open palm. Just as he considers bringing the boy home to spend the night with him and his wife, or maybe to the police station, his father arrives. It is already becoming dark. 

The father, having thanked the teacher profusely, leads the boy into the building and upstairs. He opens the door to the apartment and calls for his wife. Johanna? There is no response. He employs another name. Yoni? The lights in their small living room are on but there is no movement in the house. The air is static and cold; a window in the kitchen is open. The father tells his son to begin his homework in his room and he goes along obediently. He checks his own bedroom but she is not there. He calls his mother. No, she has not heard from his wife. He calls one after another of her friends but Last they saw her was Saturday. 

He finally phones the police and gives a description of his wife, what she was wearing that day, where she might have gone. They promise to be on the lookout and that they’ll call if any other steps should need to be taken. It’s seven thirty in the evening now and he hasn’t stopped pacing in front of the phone. It dawns on him that he will have to produce some form of dinner for himself and his son. Perhaps sandwiches. Where the fuck is his wife. He removes the bread from the breadbox and leans against the counter. He feels like crying. He doesn’t want his son to hear him cry. He is worried for when he asks where his mami is. 

He leaves the bread on the counter and heads for the bathroom, he needs to wash his face and perhaps fix his hair; he feels disheveled. He opens the door to his wife in the bathtub. He stares at her pale face, framed by the white porcelain dropping off into motionless red water, the color of pomegranate seeds. 

The light is off. The water is cold. Her body is cold. 

He does not move her. He walks in, closes the door, locks it. He turns on the light and sits beside the bathtub and then he sobs silently, looking intermittently at the place where the tub meets the floor. His lungs fill and empty noiselessly, his pulse beats in his ears and his chest tightens. It’s almost as if he’s drowning. Tears flowing, he studies the cracked grout, sticks his fingernail in to remove the mold that has accumulated despite thousands of washes and wipes and mops that still could never remove all the spores or could never poison them enough. He scrapes it out from beneath his nails onto the tiles. He wipes his eyes on his arm and then he finishes crying. He stands up and washes his hands, drying them on the freshly-laundered towel beside him. He walks back over to his wife and holds her face with one hand. It’s hard to look at her from so close. He closes his eyes and kisses her once on the cheek. 

He unlocks the bathroom door and returns to the phone. He tells the police he has found her. He asks what he should do. He doesn’t listen to the response. He calls his mother. She will get on the next train to Manhattan. He returns to the bread and makes his son a sandwich which he brings to his room. He sits and looks over the work his son’s completed so far. He doesn’t really look it over. He doesn’t care. 

* * * * * 

Yevgeny does not become a famous mathematician. He gains scholarship to a prestigious private junior high school but is at last expelled after myriad arguments with his teachers and fights with other students. He works with his father and becomes a butcher, marrying three times over the course of his seventy-two years. His father never remarries. The woman’s mother-in-law moves into their apartment in Lower Manhattan when she becomes too old to care for herself and Yevgeny takes off work to care for her when she begins to die. He himself has two children, a girl and a boy, who never see him cry. Indeed he only cries once in his adult life, when his father dies. His daughter, conceived in his first marriage, he names Yonah. His son comes from his second marriage and they name him Ronny after his wife’s mother, Ruuta. 

His daughter dies of meningitis at fifteen. Ronny becomes a family physician and is able to find him adequate care in his old age. Yevgeny considers himself a successful beneficiary of the American Dream and he dies content, but not happy. He is buried beside his mother, father, and third wife. Ronny will die in twenty years and be cremated. He will not want a burial. 

Yevgeny’s grandchildren whom he saw occasionally as they grew up will not know to fear fire. They make fires in the woods when they go camping, huddling under sleeping bags as the wind beats at their tent and snow pounds the ground. In a deserted wood they collect sticks as their father tells them about his father, Yevgeny, whom he knew to be stoic and resilient. The wood is covered in snow and a log slips from the little girl’s arms, rolling a short distance before it comes to a stop. She picks it back up and brings it over to where her siblings are sitting with her father. She’s scared of the darkness of the woods, especially alone, but they contain intrigue for her too. She doesn’t know what’s out there. She throws her log on the pile. 

Together they build a bonfire, pour lighter fluid on it, and watch as tiny sparks float into the sky and glow a soft red before extinguishing. They wonder if their ancestors enjoyed building fires the way they do. They will never know. 

My Father’s Garden

Peace was intermittent in that time. More often than not we could hear missiles trailing through the air or bombs going off. Nowhere was safe and we lived with the knowledge that at any moment our small house, made of rough white rocks bridged by a thick mortar, could soon become our tomb. I was a young boy then and so the knowledge never gave way to fear. It was the only life I knew.

We were among the lucky; we had a garden. It was my father’s garden and he showed it intense care. He kept the arid soil watered, red peppers neatly placed, never intermingling with the cucumbers. The grapes he allowed to grow up the back of the house, and we would eat them one-by-one in the summertime, spitting out the large seeds that could ruin a bite if you weren’t careful. He sometimes grew jasmine flowers for my mother, the seeds of which he collected on short walks he took alone when the fighting died down, briefly. His pride, however, rested on the thick-branched fig tree that grew in the center of the garden with its smooth trunk and plump fruit, consistent in the puzzle-patterned shape of its leaves and protected by the patchwork of wire and wooden slats he had repurposed into a tall-enough fence. I would oftentimes peer out through the holes in that fence, a good way to watch the world without truly stepping into it.

The garden was my father’s safe haven. Anything important sent him out to the garden, and usually us with him. At his most worried he worked the soil, he brought us out there for holidays, he spent an hour there just looking over what he had grown when he learned my sister would be born, and most of his prayer he did facing the Western wall of that makeshift fence.

By the time I was twelve years old, I was praying daily out in the garden with my father. It was a meditative experience in peaceful moments. You could hear both near and far, the sound of bees buzzing among the flowers, birds in the fig tree, as well as trucks rolling down the street and the ezan phasing in and out from the speaker at the top of the minaret so tall it even overlooked our little garden from so far away. The smells were pushed by a gentle breeze, soft thyme mixing with the sharp mint and the sweetness of fallen figs. In the middle of the day the sun shone down powerfully and you saw the dull red of your eyelids, even as you put your head to the ground.

We laid on our mats as we always did—not a monotonous task, but a grounding one—when we heard the high-pitched whine of a missile. I continued to pray; in a situation such as this there are always three options. The first is prayer and the missile passes you by. The second is again prayer and the missile strikes you and you die closer to God than at any other time. The third is the revocation of prayer in which case I do not think it matters whether the missile misses or not. And so I continued to pray.

The whine grew louder, and seconds later I heard a swish and a thump. I was compelled to look up to see that the branches of the fig tree were swaying, jostled by a huge gust of wind. I looked down at the earth below it and there in the soft soil that my father had only just hoed and aerated was a large hole. Neither of us moved. I turned to my father for what to do next but he was fixated on that hole. For entire minutes we sat in this posture, my eyes fixated on my father’s, his on the indication that, no matter whether we were actually in imminent danger, something important occupied that hole in our garden. Years later, at an American university, I attended an introductory philosophy class in which we discussed Schrödinger’s cat. Placed in a box with a poisonous gas released at an unknown and random time, the cat could be said to be both alive and dead at the same time. Only the observation of the cat released it from its prison. Sitting under the bright fluorescent lights, I could think only of this moment where, without moving, without reacting, my father and I could remain both alive and dead—could remain unaffected by that aftermath—and my eyes never wavered.

Finally, he looked up from that hole, then down at his mat, and began to roll it up. I was still rooted in place but I watched as he walked inside the house, leaving the door open behind him. He walked back out, holding a filled watering-can which he brought over to the hole and immediately emptied into it. The circuits, he explained, like the hot plate. He spoke in reference to the hot plate my mother used for cooking which I had ruined the month before when I spilled a bottle of water, sending sparks flying and earning a curt, well-deserved slap across the face. With that I was freed. My father understood the situation fully, its inner machinations and exactly how to deal with the problem. I rolled up my prayer mat and followed him back inside.


We never called anyone to remove the missile. There were no police and no bomb squad and, even if there were, they would have had much more important bombs to worry about. My father continued to love his garden. He watered his peppers and his cucumbers, the grapes and the flowers and the fig tree, and he began to water the dormant projectile, too. After a few days the hole fell into itself and closed up, but he continued to soak the area in hopes that it would rust and eventually break down into just a memory.

Slowly, the bomb became a part of the garden. On days when my father was sick or could find work, someone else had to take care of the watering and weeding, and we all knew that this empty spot was a stop that had to be made. Years passed and, though we did not forget about it, we no longer worried about it. It was our unspoken secret, no longer recognized as a threat, only as a responsibility.

The fighting ended at around the same time. It took months, trickling out of the suburban areas first and then slowly, at last, receding from the bigger cities. But peace came with a price. You could no longer watch television, listen to music, keep family pictures. There was only one channel now that played, and I found it exceedingly boring. The adult programming we watched on our little black-and-white TV was dull and one-note (propaganda, as I later learned) and the children’s programming which generally involved a rabbit chasing a carrot, I found too immature. We didn’t have many pictures of the family. Those we did, we hid behind paintings on a thin canvas, stuck between the glass, the paper, and the frame. Our family sat safely behind these perfect patterns, blossoming from singular points and rapidly expanding into colliding hexagons, squares, and triangles that eventually made every shape imaginable, only infinitesimally small. We watched over our own lives through that infinity of shapes.

The music ban hit my father especially hard. He had a large plastic bin of cassettes—Ahmad Zahir, Mehri Maftun, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—that he often pulled from at random and dropped into our tape player, another luxury of ours. When general peace began, however, personal peace disappeared. Anyone could expect a raid at all hours of the day and, fearing for our lives, my father sealed the bin, making sure it was watertight, and buried it in the garden, not far from the bomb. The tapes, too, entered our routine, only now we knew where not to water so as to preserve them. We never ended up unearthing them.

The other big change was in our schooling. I was permitted to attend the same school, but we now studied many more religious texts and many of my teachers left or had disappeared. Women were not allowed to study, however, and my sister who had recently completed her sixth grade was relegated to secret study in our garden with my mother or my father, whoever had more time available to spend with her that day. This worked for a while, a few months even, but they found us out as they always seemed to find out. Perhaps it was a neighbor, or someone walking by who happened to peer through one of the many holes in our fence but it does not matter how, only that they knew.

On a late Thursday afternoon, two men walked through our open front door, both carrying large assault rifles. These I had seen only on the adult TV programming, but I associated them with a familiar sound—a sound that was supposed to be heard exclusively from far away. I was in the kitchen, making myself something to eat and as they walked by I was unable to move. In my memory I believe I was cordial, greeting the men with a good afternoon, but I forgot to ask them if they wanted something to drink.

They asked if my sister lived here. She does. They asked me if my parents were home. They were not. One of them asked me if I had prayed this morning. Of course. The other asked me if I was scared of them. I did not know. I said nothing. They asked me where my sister was and I could think of nothing but to point to the sliding-glass doors.

They walked out to the garden where my sister was watering the jasmine flowers and, wordlessly, one of them pulled out a knife and killed her with a cut across the throat. Then they stood there, enjoying the garden, enjoying the smells and the shade and the beautiful sights that we so lovingly tended to and created in our haven of a backyard. Then they left as quickly as they had come, causing no real disturbance in the daily routine. I never even thought to shout for help.

We buried my sister in the garden, beside the cassette tapes, beside the missile. Above her body, my father planted more jasmine, shaded by our enduring fig tree. She too became a part of the gardening routine.


I spoke of this incident in an English class I attended at the American university where I discovered living-dead cats. I found it relevant to the conversation, but my classmates simply stared at me and, after a quick aside from the professor that truly meant nothing, no one responded to what I had said. They felt no need to engage with my life—indeed they felt an internal pressure, I believe, not to engage—because if you don’t give thought to something, you don’t have to make a moral judgement. And so my sister’s death passed for them as fact, not something good or evil, rather something that simply was. Or maybe that made it both; in their minds I think she might have been both dead and alive.

In my second year at university I lived with my friend Jason, a tall blonde man from Arizona. I brought up this moment from my English class, marveling at my peers’ inability to even briefly ponder an event that was so integral to my life. We’re at war with you, he said. I had no response to this. It struck me as quite reductive, placing me with “them” and him with “us,” even as we slept and ate and studied under the same roof. We were pursuing the same major, we often pined after the same women, we enjoyed watching the same television shows together. I began praying in my room rather than next to the couch in the living room, where there was more space.

Still, Jason became one of my very best friends, and we travelled together during breaks in our schooling. On a trip to Germany I was detained at the gate. I was asked to step aside as Jason made his way helplessly onto the plane. Two security officers brought me to a nearby windowless room where they asked me the normal questions. Did you pack your own items? Did anyone give you anything to take on your flight? Why do you grow your beard? A woman on the same flight believed that she recognized me from a list of terrorists she had seen on television. I missed the plane and the airline paid for me to take the next two hours later. They’re even upgrading you to business class, said the woman who printed my new ticket. Thrilling. Now when I travel I build an extra two or three hours into my itinerary. This is a product of fear.

When I arrived in Germany, Jason was waiting in a black taxicab. He lamented my treatment by the airport staff so profusely that by the time we reached our hotel I was apologizing to him for the worry he had felt. He eventually got over it and we went to bed as the sun peeked over the horizon. We had a wonderful time in Germany.


I was hired as an associate professor of anthropology at Iowa State University: Iowa State’s first Middle Eastern, Muslim, non-American, associate professor in the anthropology department, that’s how they introduced me. My mother passed away of tuberculosis a little while before that as I was earning my Ph.D. and she wouldn’t let me come home to see her—or ratherI could not leave the United States and be readmitted due to my stupid oversight and my unrenewed visa. I said goodbye to her by phone. I felt so alone.

A year later, visa successfully renewed, I travelled home to see my father. We had horrifyingly little to talk about. I told him about my work, the wide berth people gave my academic interests due to my Islamic background. I was never questioned when I proposed the study of Middle Eastern relations because why should I not be interested in the one thing they felt defined me?

My father spoke of the garden. It was wholly the same as when I had visited some three years before. The routine was unchanged: water the bomb, skip the tapes, tend to the jasmine. There was now also a small headstone in my mother’s memory. On the flight over I had had a premonition that I would reach my childhood home, walk through the kitchen to the garden, and find that the missile had finally exploded. It never did and it still has not.

We still prayed together, outside among the fruits and the flowers, shaded by the fig tree. Its branches had continued to lengthen since I’d left for university more than a decade before, and it now covered that entire area, with patches of sunlight shining through. We prayed there with my sister and my mother, with the growing plants and the memory of flowing music, we prayed with the bees and the ants and the snakes and the birds, and we prayed with the missile, whose sharp whine had long diminished to a dull trill: the trill of the garden.

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