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We stood for a minute, holding hands, looking at the sky. Then Khalida led me across the remaining floor, the periphery of what once must have been a bedroom. There, she said, and she pointed to the corner.
It was a small closet, mostly intact. There was still some gloss on the oak doors. One handle was missing, but the other was carved into a rosebud. Open it, whispered Khalida, and I did.
She lay on a low shelf upon which shoes once stood, or neatly folded piles of underwear. I say she but really I do not know; it was just a feeling I had; it might have been a boy. An entire skeleton. The way she would have rested in her cradle, legs bowed out, arms slightly bent. Her ribs splaying sideways, her spine a jigsaw line. Her skull golden, small enough to fit in my hand.
The bones of her fingers delicate as a butterfly’s tongue.
“Why is she here,” I whispered, “and whose was she?” But Khalida only shook her head, and even if she knew the answers they would have held no meaning. I pressed a finger very gently to the bone of her cheek; it was cool and smooth. Her skull shifted slightly beneath my touch. They were loose, the bones, and they must have been carefully arranged to look this perfect. In the dark corners of the shelf I noticed small objects: a wrapped piece of chewing gum, two marbles, a knotted shoelace, a wilted sprig of geranium. Offerings.
“Come,” said Khalida, tugging at my arm. “Come, your mother will be angry.”
But I would not move from that spot, not until the sky was purpling, not until there was barely a breath of light in which to make her out, and the first stars stood skittish on the horizon.
Four days later our boat left for Marseilles. It pulled out of the harbor at night, and we stood on board watching the lights of our city fade. In my hand I clutched a knotted handkerchief, a gift from Khalida. “Do not open it until you are on the ship,” she had instructed as she pressed it into my palm. She was at our house when Mr. Mameri came in his shiny red Renault to drive us down to the dock. She cried as I waved to her through the back window, tears running all the way down her neck, snot murking her upper lip. But I could not cry. Tomorrow our house would be occupied by a strange family. Three small boys would sit at our kitchen table, digging the ends of their spoons into the wood. Would the customers return, now that we were gone? None of our neighbors came out to see us off. There were none of the gifts that had piled up on the doorstep of Mustafa Khelil’s house when his family left for Casabalanca. My father’s family was in Kabyle, and all that remained of my mother’s family was her sister Asma in Paris. And so there was no one except Khalida and Mr. Mameri. For a moment I thought I saw Bassam at the end of the street, but it was just a trick of the falling light. My father sat in the front seat, staring at the valise that rested in his lap. My mother sat beside me, nostrils flared and pale, eyes on the unspooling street ahead.
It was the same expression she wore when I came home from the bombed house. They were sitting in silence at the oak table when I walked into the kitchen. My mother turned to my father, but he said nothing.
“Farouk,” she said. He glanced at her, at me. It was as if we were both strangers.
“Yes, Ghazala,” he said.
“Say something,” she said.
“Allah commanded that you obey your parents,” he told me, his voice brusque. He did not look at me.
“I am sorry, Beba, Yemma,” I said. ‘Please forgive me.”
He said nothing.
My mother waited another minute. When she finally began to speak, it was in a voice so cold and flat that I wondered with terror whether she still loved me. “Your father,” she said, is a pious man. “We are a pious family. You are a very careless girl.”
While I understood I had transgressed, upon hearing my mother’s words I began to grasp the full import of my actions. My father had seen me; they knew I was not at Khalida’s house. If my father’s piety was his main defense against the accusation of traitor, then my being out on the street past nightfall — my distinctly impious act — had potentially placed my father in grave danger. All it would take, I later understood, was a single aggrieved neighbor.
“Aysha,” said my mother, “you are a careless, thoughtless girl.”
I hung my head. My tears fell to the floor, bathing scars left by blistering oil. I was implicated. I was part of the vast carelessness. Yet I knew that once we were in the bombed-out building I could have chosen no differently. That too would have been a form of betrayal, one for which I had no name.
My mother turned once more to my father, but he remained silent. She rose from the table in a single sharp motion and began dishing up tagine from the pot on the stove. My transgression was not mentioned again. But then there was not much conversation in my house during our last few days in Algeria. My mother drew no more pictures of the Eiffel Tower. When I spoke to her in the kitchen — tentatively at first, then more boldly as I saw the anger had left her — she did not listen to me with the same attention. The day before we left she cleaned all the baking instruments and scrubbed every corner of our kitchen. Then she packed our suitcases. My father sat in tense silence behind the counter, occasionally thumbing through his miniature Koran. No customers came, but he sat on his stool with his head high, like a king on a throne overseeing his subjects, his loyal makrout and samsa and mkhabez. When I went to sit with him, he told me brusquely to go do my homework, even though I had no homework, would never again have any homework from that school.
The day we left, my father still sat on his stool. My mother tried to dissuade him. I heard her telling him gently that we did not need twenty francs more, we had enough. “Go pack the suitcases,” he told her.
“Farouk, the suitcases are packed,” my mother said in her quiet voice.
“A virtuous wife obeys her husband,” my father said, and my mother returned to the kitchen. I did not go to school that day, and my mother and I were sitting in silence at the gleaming kitchen table when we heard the bell on the storefront door tinkle. We both started. When she rose and stepped into the hallway to listen, I followed.
There was no talking, only the scraping of my father’s stool on the floor. We pushed the curtain aside just enough to see. My father was taking out the largest white cardboard box we had in stock. He papered it with doilies and laid rows and rows of baklawa and makrout inside, until it was filled to the brim. For whom? There was nobody standing behind the counter. Our curiosity pushed us further, until we were out of the hallway, in the store.
He stood at the door, his cheeks sunken and his hands at his sides. The man without a tongue.
Yet now his eyes were steady, and he was dressed in a suit, patched but clean, and his chin was shaven and held high. When my father came to him with the huge box, he reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills. But my father shook his head, pushed the box into his arms. They stood for a moment, watching each other. Then the man dipped his head slowly, more a bow than a nod. My father’s back was to us, so I could not see his face, but after a moment he opened the storefront door and ushered the man out.