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Issue 21, Prosa | October 2017

     

San Francisco, California, USA, 1993

I only saw you once while you were growing up. It was in San Francisco where your mother moved to try to claim you back, though as you know the court cases were long and protracted and she was too argumentative and confrontational for them to ever rule in her favour. You were six at the time I visited and I was newly pregnant, and nervous with my secret, but what I remember most is the desperate lengths Rayah went to, making up for stolen time.

We picked you up in my rented car outside the Mission police station, that one time that I visited. There, amid the bustle of newly released prostitutes and vagrants blinking in the morning light, you left your father’s car and entered ours. There was no other exchange. Only you. But I saw your father as he pulled past us in the traffic and he looked the same as I remembered him from the desert, just a little more fixed around the jaw.

When he was gone, Rayah climbed into the back with you. You didn’t return her hug or even say hello, but as I drove, your mother talked cheerily about the packages she’d brought you: a new dress, a horse-shaped bag filled with books, a pair of shoes and socks, and slowly you relaxed. Feigning reluctance, you changed out of the mismatched clothes wore. Your fingers lingered on the texture of the dress as you smoothed it over your knee and you smiled as you let Rayah comb your unwashed hair, which was as long as your mother’s and mine, and as she swept it off your forehead. You told her the latest on your stepmother, a woman you loved with a hopeless unrequited passion, and your new baby sister whom you also adored. You told her about your best friend’s father now living in a jail. I watched you in the rear-view mirror. It was a different child reflected there, clean and neat and cared for. But still the little-girl smell of your dirty underwear filled the car. Your mother hadn’t thought of that.

I drove, following the directions Rayah gave me. In the Castro we stopped, double-parking in front of a coffee shop, and Rayah dashed inside to get a friend of hers. You complained as she raced away.

‘Why does she always have to bring someone else along?’

I shrugged, knowing only that others dissipated tension and that Jeff was a photographer and was coming to document the day. With the ongoing battle over you still raging in the courts, precautions like that were necessary.

When they returned, we went on, first to our breakfast at the Japanese gardens, next to a children’s Asian festival at the gallery. Jealous of your mother, you wouldn’t speak to Jeff, but you posed continually for the camera. You twirled in your dress, holding its edges as you spun, and you looked up from between us as we helped you with calligraphy. Chin resting on your palm, you affected thoughtful, coy or provocative poses. You poked your tongue out, held your fingers up in the victory sign, made childish ugly faces. The camera caught it all, every smile and mood swing. In the photos, which I hold before me now, your eye looks almost steady, and your mother and I, well, we look like stylish older sisters – too young to be a mother and an aunt.

The day wore on. A picnic lunch. A trip to the beach. A shopping venture in second-hand shops. You were very busy and involved but by three, when Jeff left, you were asking for the time.

‘What time is it, Rayah? I have to be home at five.’

‘It’s only two,’ your mother lied.

‘Well, Daddy says it has to be five or else there’ll be trouble.’

Your mother nodded and ignored you.

At the pet shop, buying food for your frog, you asked your mother again.

‘What time is it, Rayah? Daddy says you’d better not mess up this time. This time he says will be the last, so you’d just better watch out.’

Your mother responded by pretend-throwing the plastic bag of squirming flies. You giggled and ducked behind me.

At the ice-cream parlour, ‘What time is it, Rayah? Daddy says…’

‘Yes, well, it’s all right,’ your mother answered. ‘We have you for the day and that means until tomorrow.’

Your damaged eye turned inwards. You changed your mind about an ice cream and fell behind us as we walked outside.

Later, at the park, as you were climbing on the jungle gym, I whispered to your mother, ‘Well, if she wants to go home, then maybe you should let her.’

‘I am co-custodian. I have equal rights.’

‘It’s not the rights I’m worried about.’

‘Worry about her with a kidnapping lying bastard of a father and with the drug dealers that he calls his friends, not with me, her mother.’

Silenced by her fierceness, I joined you at the jungle gym. We swung monkey-like from bar to bar and I followed you through the maze. You are agile and decisive and, like your mother, you directed me. As with your mother, I obeyed.

Walking back to the car, your mother and you both told me separate secrets. Your mother took my hand and pulling me aside said, ‘Please Kayla, sorry. But she has to see that you love me. You’re the only one she knows that does.’

And a little further down the path, while we were gently blowing on a spider’s web, you said, ‘I wish that you could always live here. Rayah’s nicer when you’re here.’

Dinner was at a sushi place. ‘What time is it, Rayah? Daddy’s probably waiting.’

‘Your father’s busy, darling. Doesn’t he work tonight?’

Again your eye was wandering and you started to grind your teeth.

‘I hate this stuff. I want rice and beans. That’s what Jody always makes me.’

‘Just try it, darling.’

‘No, I want to go home like Daddy said. I hate having to hear you talk all the time. All you do is talk.’

You refused to eat or drink. Rather than make a fuss or deal in public with what your deep strained breathing may have become, we got the food packed up and headed towards the car. It’s not that we were overcautious; it’s just that your mother knew your fits could be extreme and sometimes trigger other fits, another scar of the car accident.

It was dark and cold when we arrived back in the Castro. You were tired and upset and as your mother carried you from the car, your shoes slapped against her thighs, creating a gentle rustling rhythm that echoed in the empty street. Your mother fumbled with the door key as she looked around and tried to keep hold of you and all your gifts. I took the key from her and let us in. She indicated that I should lock and double-bolt the door. The chain fell into place with a thunderous clap and we went upstairs. Your mother’s flatmates were away and there was so much wood in her apartment – wooden steps, wooden floorboards, wainscoting on the walls. Everything seemed amplified. Our footsteps were loud and they echoed.

We dumped our stuff in the living room. Rayah left us there and you and I looked down at the bay and watched the fog roll in. The moon rose as I was listening to your mother securing every window; outside, it fogged over quickly and the light turned ghostly grey. If you heard your mother’s noises and knew what she was doing, you did not react or indicate. You were upset but controlled with me.

We bathed. We all hopped in together and you whined again, saying to your mother, ‘I hate having baths with you. I hate looking at you naked.’ But Rayah and I, our mother’s daughters, talked about our breasts, about how mine are smaller and hers are larger than they used to be, and about the regularity of our breast examinations and about our periods. You were fascinated and couldn’t stay removed. We taught you how to check yourself. You giggled as we made you touch your contourless chest. Then you proved your maturity by raising your arm and showing us a single downy hair. When she bent forward to examine it, and sob-laughed about its beauty, you allowed your mother to kiss you.

Then, with our hair towel-dried, we wrapped ourselves in robes and sat on Rayah’s bed to comb it as we talked. We tried each other’s moisturisers and rubbed cream into your legs as well as our own. Then I told you a story I used to tell to the little ones – the story Aunt Gen would tell us about combing her sister’s hair in their canopy bed in Belfast.

Finally you slept. Rayah got up and walked about the apartment switching off the lights. She came back and sat on the other side of you and we listened to you breathe. The fog cleared a little. The moon and the lights from the city filtered through the window and we watched your back as it rose and fell, watched the light as it caught at your soft brown hair, which was spread on your mother’s pillow. You smelt like Claire once did, clean and musty sweet, and I remembered the room we shared with her, remembered the way Rayah and I would whisper while she slept – but we did not whisper while keeping watch over you. We sat in the dark and waited. There was nothing to say to each other, only your soft gentle breath to listen to, only the waiting.

The knocking started at eleven.

‘Open up,’ someone said. ‘Police.’

We watched over you, blanketing you with our presence. Neither of us looked at the other. Neither of us made a move. We concentrated, instead, on breathing as quietly as possible and on staying absolutely still.

The knocking kept on, more forceful and insistent. With everything that was in me I prayed you didn’t wake.

The knocking changed to pounding. A muffled, angry voice was carried up the steps and amplified by the wood.

‘She’s in there,’ the voice shouted. ‘The car’s around the corner where they thought I wouldn’t see it.’

‘Open up,’ the other shouted again. ‘Open up. Open up. Police!’

Rayah stood, slid over to the bedroom door. Quietly, slowly, she closed it. Then she returned and took up her post again. The voices were more garbled but the pounding was still loud. We kept watching you, kept monitoring you, kept praying you didn’t wake.

The knocking went on for several minutes and then suddenly stopped. There was silence now, and in that silence I noticed that our breaths were matched, that the windows had fogged with your soft warm pant and mine, that the lighting was more obscure. Still you slept your fragile sleep and I sighed, thinking the worst of it was over.

Then the phone began to ring. It blared so suddenly into our quiet room that I jumped and screamed a little. I recovered and covered my mouth as I turned to see if I had disturbed you. You rolled and muttered incomprehensibly. The phone kept ringing and ringing.

‘Rayah?’ I whispered at last.

‘Sh,’ she hushed me in reply.

‘Can’t you take it off the hook?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t do that.’

You rolled again and this time looked as if you were really going to wake up. We held our breaths as if that could make a difference. Then your mother stroked your hair. You groaned and relaxed. Your mother lay down beside you and curled around your back. I saw her breathe you, smell you, take you into the inside of herself. I saw her lose herself to external sounds and concentrate on scent.

The phone kept ringing. Then it stopped.

Moments later, the pounding started again.

The voice called out your name.

The person behind the voice kicked at the door, rattled the handle, shouted with frustration and anger.

‘Tell her that you’re going home. Tell her to let you go.’

Silence while the voice waited for a response. Nothing happened, nothing at all. It was quiet on that street, as quiet as this room of breath, until he yelled again. ‘I’ll make you pay, you fucking bitch. I’ll make you pay, I swear.’

‘Rayah?’ I whispered loudly. The veins behind my eyes were pounding. ‘I think he’s been drinking.’

‘Sh!’ she said and smelt you again.

More shouts, more curses, more abuse. From up and down the street the opening and closing of doors, the yelling of ‘Shut up already, would you?’

‘Rayah,’ I pleaded in fear.

‘Yes?’

‘He’s alone this time. There’s no police. What are we going to do?’

You tossed your arms. I kept quiet and tried to control myself. There was an interminable pause, a long extended silence, which the previous shouting only amplified.

Finally Rayah answered, ‘There’s nothing to do at all. Alone or not, we’re out of his reach. He always does something like this but he cannot get us tonight.’

The shouts started again. They went on and on, then suddenly stopped. I waited for the next assault, waited until it didn’t come. It was cold and silent then. The moon had sunk and the fog had cleared. The Bay Bridge glittered with reflected light.

‘Is she asleep?’ I asked.

‘Yes, thank God. We really wore her out.’

She sat up and reached for my hand. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

We laughed nervously and then lapsed back into our silence. We held hands, linking them above you, and stayed there for a long, long time. At two o’clock, I let her go. I lay down, closed my eyes, and listened to your frog catch and propel, catch and propel, against the glass of the aquarium. Drugged by the Claire-like smell of you, I slowly fell asleep.

The next morning, after we had read to you through breakfast and you’d helped me pack my things, we changed you back into your other clothes. You were dirty and mismatched again, but you were happy to be leaving us, happy maybe believing that who we are is distant from the life you are currently leading. We returned you to his door. You tried to jump out of the car the moment that we got there, but your mother held your hand and kept you for an instant longer.

‘I want you to know I love you. I have always, always loved you. And I will always, always fight for you.’ You screwed your eyebrows up in response, then nodded and pulled away.

And that was it. Your mother and father went back to court and I went back to the desert knowing I would live in one desert or another until I had undone all the damage of the spell that I had set and the patterns I had activated.

Doha, 2008

It is my forty-second birthday today, which means you will soon be twenty-one. I have been waiting and preparing for this day for a very long time and know exactly what I will do. And, yes, I can hear you now as you read this saying this is silly, just silly, and maybe you are right. Maybe it has all just been a haunting, an echo only I can hear and whose reverberations are contained. Maybe. But still I want to be sure, not only for you but for my girls as well, who also lost a parent.

So I am almost ready. Ariana and Cadance are gone. They know I don’t like to celebrate my birthday and are happy to sleep over with friends. My hair is tightly tied and I have all the items I will need packed into the car.

This is what I will do.

First I will complete this narrative, my act of yoga and spell-breaking, and email it to you and your mother. Even if you scoff at it, I know you won’t forgive me, but that’s okay as I only want you to forgive each other.

Next I will drive to the Singing Dunes. I would’ve gone to the sand flats where I took my daughters driving in the dark and wrote our names in phosphorescent sand, but it is under construction now and access is denied. Still, the Singing Dunes will suffice. The sands that vibrate and trumpet in them have rolled long distances and been shaped by the wind, as have I, and their unstable surface will hum as I cast a circle with three points in the centre, seven around the circumference and a fire in the middle. I will walk this circle forty-two times, chanting the truest told story that I can, which is this one, and then I will cut my hair, all of it, and throw it into the fire. Hopefully then, all the patterns that I activated through my envy and fear of abandonment will burn away and the three of you – ur daughters –will form a future that’s unburdened by them. This I pray.

After that there will just be one more thing to do. Rayah has asked for it for her coming child, her late child, her last possible child, who she is having difficulty conceiving. I have a brooch, a Cinderella coach brooch, the one Rayah and I used once to become blood sisters. I will prick every finger and let the blood fall free, flaming up the spitting fire. I will release her blood from my body then bless the child she is seeking. Even if she doesn’t ever come to us I will harness the whispers of the wind to form a song for her, a song as secret as this story once was. I will hum it, over and over, till it vibrates like a sacred mantra through every cell of my body. It is a blessing for the unborn child and the one I let slip away, a blessing for the children of my daughters and my niece and for all their future generations. May peace resound in your untarnished bodies. May silence be a balm.

San Francisco, California, USA, 1993