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When he turned around, my father looked exhausted, as if he had been loading bricks instead of sweets. “Allahu Akbar,” he murmured. Then he came back behind the counter, picked up the three remaining diamonds of baklawa, handed one to my mother, one to me, and popped the third into his mouth. He chewed slowly, with his eyes closed. “Wonderful,” he said, after he had swallowed, and his eyes upon my mother were soft again. “Wonderful.” Then he began to laugh. He laughed so hard he shook.
“Farouk,” said my mother, “Farouk,” and she pressed a hand to his shoulder. But he kept laughing, on and on until the tears ran down his cheeks. He was still laughing when my mother motioned me upstairs.
When I came back down half an hour later, unable to bear the sad angles of our empty rooms, both of my parents were at the counter. It was a beautiful day outside and the street was bustling, but our store was empty. Yet my father was on his stool, my mother upright behind him. I went to them and slipped my hand into my father’s. At first his hand was inert, loose around mine, but then it came alive, tightened until it crushed my bones together. My mother shifted forward and I felt her breath ruffling my hair. Together we waited until the sun sank low. Not a single person paused outside our door. Finally my father rose and walked outside, rolling the steel gate down over our storefront. My mother’s hand on my shoulder slackened. I felt my own muscles wilt in relief.
Now we stood on the boat. The passengers gathered aboard grew quiet as the boat pulled away from the harbor. We were safely out; perhaps we should have been celebrating. But there was nothing of joy in our leaving. My mother stared at the receding city, her hands clenched around the edges of her veil, tears slipping down her cheeks. My father, his eyes blank, turned away from Algiers, to the lapping Mediterranean, the sky beaded with stars. I slipped my hand into the pocket of my dress, located the knot of handkerchief at the bottom, slowly worked it open.
What lay within was tiny and fragile, delicate as a butterfly’s tongue. I did not have to bring it to my eyes to know what it was.
A finger bone.
I wanted to leap overboard, swim all the way to the white sands, run through the streets of my city to the bombed-out house, rattle the doorknob until it gave, pick my way up the ruined stairs, open the rosebud closet and set it carefully, reverently, back in place. She was not the same, even with one tiny part missing. She was one finger bone less perfect, one finger bone less holy. Khalida had done what none of the street children had dared. Blasphemy, I thought angrily. I wanted to shake her in rage. I wanted to weep in gratitude on her shoulder. I wanted the sun to rise out of the west until it was peeking over the horizon, until the light pooled red in my palm. I wanted to stand on broken beams holding my best friend’s hand beneath a vast, blooming sky.
I wept, then. Silently, like my mother. I raised it to my face, traced it over my cheeks, my eyelids, my lips. Perhaps, I thought, it would taste of what butterflies drink.
I placed it on my tongue.
I saw him standing in the kitchen in my mother’s apron, dipping his little finger in batter, raising it to his lips. It tasted like — nothing.