This story was first published by Sonic Boom in 2015 and the fact that we are still ‘debating’ the incarceration of human beings in detention centres, saddens me deeply. Here’s a story I wish I didn’t feel the need to write.
Names and numbers, she thinks. Names and numbers have such powerful resonance, especially when synonymous with catastrophe. September 11, 2001. November 11, 1918. Osama. Hitler. What happened to the German children called Adolf in the decades following the war? She wonders this as she thinks of her own sweet Sam, her beautiful, round cheeked baby boy, her Osama. It is a family name, passed down from generation to generation, one of the few connections to the old country that endures in this one, this new country whose sky is broken into little squares.
There are other numbers too.
One hundred and fifty six. The number of people who drowned when the stinking boat flung itself against the swell of foam that obliterated the world when she thought she would die. She would die and her boy would never hear stories about brown hillsides and olive trees and the way the sky looked where he was born. And how the rain was scarce and temperamental, but enough to grow grapefruit and orange and basil and spinach and a renegade almond or two. Those trembling attempts at growing food; despite trucks rumbling through their villages, flattening, blasting, scattering layers of concrete and dust. Despite boys who never came back and fathers who never spoke again.
These jailers are not unkind. She takes Sam every day to the makeshift schoolroom at the end of the long grey corridor. There, with 15 children of varying ages, she has moments of restfulness, moments when she can close her eyes and not feel the prick of a thousand knives behind her eyelids or hear the screams of the drowned ones. The older children scrawl misery on cardboard boxes and the younger ones draw neverending circles on a square blackboard.
Osama, she whispers, Osama, and the boy looks at her. She clutches him hard against her chest and he squirms. The Afghani girl with green eyes keeps moving the red yellow green beads of an old abacus back and forth and the thin dark boy hugs his knees and rocks. She wishes she could show them some kindness, some affection, some understanding. She wishes she could speak but her sibilant whispering would scare them, so she says nothing.
She tries to imagine a future for all of them. A future that includes olives and flat bread and the smell of sea and tobacco and kind men. Outside this cage, there are real people waiting to take the thin boy and the skittish girl to their homes, to love them as their parents would have, had they survived. She will walk out of here with Sam. Look up that glaring sky and thank whoever it was who allowed her to live. Get her voice back. Find a school and wait for Sam to teach her how to read this wrong-side-of-the-page language. Never call him by the name of his father and grandfather. Osama.