The village of Betnahrain, northern Iraq. 1960.
He had to say something. He couldn’t leave it any longer.
But he didn’t dare break the silence or enter the room so he gripped the safe side of the doorway, felt the familiar rub of the ochre against his fingers, and willed Mama to turn around.
She was still praying, her bottom spilling over the little wooden stool, her hands pressed flatly against each other, rosary beads dangling from her thumbs. She was as he’d left her, the hem of her dress crumpled on the earthen floor, her solidness failing to hide the restless, skinny form of Leyla, who lay in bed in her nightie, one arm bent on top of the sheet, defying all Mama’s attempts to keep her tucked in.
He would be in trouble if he didn’t do something soon. He lashed out at the floor with his foot and scuffed the heel of his sandal roughly in the dirt.
Mama started and looked around. “Thomas!” She made the sign of the cross on her chest and sighed in relief. “What’s the matter?”
“Mama, the bread – you need to come quickly,” he said, the words tumbling out.
“Is that all.” She crossed herself again and rose heavily to her feet.
“Stay with her, azzizi. She’s sick, she needs you.”
Mama shuffled past him into the living room and out the back of the house to where the tanoor was, to rescue the baking from the hot clay.
Thomas kept a reluctant guard at the doorway, looking anywherebut at Leyla, seeing the outline of the stone walls beneath the ochre, the specks on the light bulb, the flickering of the leaves in the fig tree beyond the window.
Leyla scared him now. Sometimes she rambled and writhed andcried then slept so still he wondered if she was dead. Baba said she was possessed by the devil, but Mama said no, it was just the flu, and would heal given time.
The window in his parents’ bedroom vibrated as another truck rumbled outside. The army was moving into the mountains to fight the Kurds again. Their normally quiet village road had been busy these past few weeks, jeeps and trucks rolling past, soldiers stopping at their roadside stall to buy the fruit grown in their orchard. Leyla would hide in the field when she heard the trucks coming, leaving Thomas to sit alone under the walnut tree to look solemnly into the faces of these men with their big moustaches, stern eyes and gleaming rifles.
They spoke Arabic, the only time he’d heard it outside the classroom, and yelled at him when he wouldn’t lower the price of a box of fruit more than a few fils, saying he should be proud his fruit was going to the fearless Iraqi army who were risking their lives fighting those backwards, mountain-dwelling Kurds. Then they said that even the Kurds had radio and knew what television was, unlike this dumb Assyrian kid sitting on his bum waiting for walnuts to drop on his head. Thomas forced himself to stay mute and not say that you didn’t need to see something to know about it, like God, and that he’d read of television and radio, planes and much more in the books at school.
In a strange moment of boldness, in halting Arabic he had told one soldier, a man with three stripes on his shoulders who seemed to be in charge of the others, that he was proud to be Assyrian, a Christian, like his entire village.
“We have empire all the way to Africa,” he said, “before Jesus. And our king Ashurbanipal is a great fighter, with lions to pull his chariot.”
The soldier laughed, his mouth a riot of gaping holes. “So show me these lions, then. Are they out the back?”
“That was before,” said Thomas, sorry to have opened his mouth.
“Many years ago.” Hundreds. Maybe even thousands.
“Two years ago?”
Thomas shook his head.
“Five years ago?”
He shook his head again.
“Come on, you said you had lions! I want to see them!”
He was sitting very still now, holding his breath.
“No lions, no money, stupid boy.” The soldier yelled at the others. “Come and load these up!”
The men kept four boxes for target practice, rifle fire echoing in Thomas’s ears and up the valley as the men hurled peaches, plums, apricots and figs up high and splattered them mid-air, fruit pulp smearing the road. His mother told him later that one old lady in the village had had a stroke because she thought the soldiers had come to massacre the menfolk as they had one day nearly thirty years earlier.
After that, Thomas said nothing to the men in khaki. He pretended he couldn’t speak Arabic, couldn’t understand their taunts, held up his fingers to indicate prices and only scrambled to his feet when the nudge of a rifle meant they wanted him to load their purchases into their trucks.
But he’d not manned the stall these past two days. Instead, he’d helped his mother in the house while she tended to Leyla. He’d threaded figs onto string and hung them along the patio, under the vines, to dry. He’d kneaded the dough for the bread. He’d taken the white goat’s cheese Mama had made to the neighbours and swapped it for olive oil. He’d ground the sesame seeds into tahini and plucked the plump chicken she’d killed for their dinner.
It was women’s work, but Thomas was glad to have a break from the stall. Leyla might frighten him now, but the soldiers scared him more. And he knew they scared his parents too, because it was weeks since they’d allowed anyone to sleep on the roof. The nights of looking up at the stars and feeling the breeze dance gently over your sheet were gone. These days, they slept sticky and sweaty on their beds inside, the windows facing the road shut tight, the ones at the back ajar but hardly letting in a breath of air.
“Thomas.” Leyla’s eyes were focused on something on the dresser, pushed up against the wall to his right. “The picture, Thomas.”
There was a little framed painting of Jesus on the dresser, next to the saucer where a candle had been burning since she fell ill. Thomas didn’t like to touch holy things – they had an importance that frightened him. He leaned away from the doorway, ready to take flight.
It was too hot in here. Her skin was all saggy and her eyes reminded him of the flies that clung to the ceiling in the heat. But Mama would scold him if he ignored her.
He took four quick steps to the dresser, then crossed back towards the bed, placing the picture in her outstretched fingers before retreating to safety.
“Dear Lord …” She kissed the picture, touched it to her forehead, then lay back, all that curly hair looking like it would swallow her head, and turned to the window, clutching the picture in both hands. She lay there so quietly and calmly that Thomas wondered if she’d fallen asleep with her eyes open.
“We are all tainted.” Thomas took a step back into the tiny hallway. She was awake – and talking to someone that only she could see.
“You don’t know, do you?” She turned towards him, and he averted his eyes. “Of course, you’re only nine, you’re still just a boy.”
Thomas wanted to correct her, to tell her he was ten, that he knew lots of things, especially about football and scorpions, and that when he grew up he was going to live someplace where there were no soldiers and no army trucks, where he would have his very own car, like his friend Ishmail’s father, who owned a 1948 Buick, the only vehicle in the village. But talking to her might mean he would be touched by whatever had touched her. So he gazed at the ground and wrote his name in the dirt with the toe of his sandal and wondered how her fiancé could go ahead and marry her at Christmas.
“Get my mother for me.” She was looking out the window again, agitated now. “Go!”
He was out through the living room in an instant, needing no excuse to escape the fetid indoors and breathe in the freshness of the air under the vines.
“Mama, she wants you!”
His mother put a ball of dough alongside several others in a chipped enamel bowl on the table, then hurried inside. “Be sure to watch the bread in the oven!” she called back.
“Leyla, what is it?!” He could hear her worried voice through the gap in the bedroom window. There was a murmur then a relieved “Of course, azzizti,” and a few minutes later the two of them appeared on the stone paving of the patio, his mother supporting Leyla around her waist, Leyla walking gingerly in her nightie and slippers along the stone path towards the wooden outhouse, just past the fig tree.
“See, she’s up!” said Mama, with forced cheeriness. “Such a good girl, aren’t you, azzizti.”
They shuffled to a stop at the door.
“I can manage,” said Leyla, leaning against the wall.
Leyla nodded and entered the outhouse, slipping in like a ghost.
Mama waited a moment, then turned her attention to the tanoor.
“Are they still white?” she asked.
Thomas peered inside the oven at the flatbread clinging to the urn-shaped sides. “The colour of chickpeas,” he replied.
His mother came to look for herself. “Just in time,” she said and she grabbed the large wooden paddle that Thomas’s father had carved, and removed the bread one after the other, four pieces, piping hot, and slid them onto a metal plate.
“You all right, Leyla?” she called out.
“Yes, Mama,” said a muted voice, and his mother shepherded him inside, telling him to get the lunch things ready while she put on the last batch of dough, so that they might tempt Leyla with some lunch under the vines.
Laden with white cheese, fresh figs and cream, Thomas returned from the kitchen to find his mother knocking on the door of the outhouse.
“Leyla? Have you finished? Leyla? Azzizti?”
When there was no reply, his mother knocked again, opened the door and froze. “Leyla!” she yelled. “Leyla!”
She turned to him. “She’s gone! Find her!”
Thomas dropped the lunch things on the table and cut across the path to the outhouse. There was no sign of his sister.
“Inside! Inside the house!” his mother yelled.
Thomas bolted back past the fig tree and into the living room, searching under his bed in the corner, in the kitchen cupboards, behind the chairs, sprinting the few steps down the hallway to his parents’ room then racing to the other bedroom – which until two days earlier he had shared with his sister – and heading back outside, empty-handed.
“Mama! She’s not here!” His knees wanted to buckle, he wanted to sink into a hole in the ground, but he was the only son. His father was away all day labouring in a neighbouring village, and his mother was relying on him.
“Look, child, keep looking!” Mama headed towards the long grass beyond the outhouse that led to the road. When she turned and saw him still standing there, she yelled, “Run, Thomas!”
He felt his legs carry him around the other side, past the neighbours’ house with their lazy chickens and sheep, to where he had a view of the road. He looked left, towards the village. There was no sign of Leyla, no sign of anyone. He looked to the right and saw an army vehicle trundling towards him, the green canvas on one side flapping, a cord trailing, dust rising on the road behind it.
“Leyla! Leyla!” Thomas heard his mother scream. “Stop!”
And then he saw what his mother could see. The frail form of his sister, his older, smarter sister, the one who was to be married in December after her eighteenth birthday, arms raised to the sky as if expecting someone to reach out and pluck her up, running in her nightie, her only nightie, past the front of the house and lunging headlong under the front wheels of the truck.