by D.T. Collins
I see her screaming, her tiny red face scrunched up like an old woman, her little mouth gasping for air between the cries. But I can’t hear her. Not even when I bend down, seizing my sprained back, straining my cut ear to catch her shrieks. Instead, I hear the screeching missiles, the thunderous collapse of my old city that roars like storm waves, crashing and crashing, one after another, until all that is left is a ringing in my ear and my shaking granddaughter. That foolish soldier boy had lied. There wasn’t enough time.
I quickly wrap Aya up in a soiled tablecloth I had found while scavenging in a neighbor’s house for food. There had been a dead body on it, but I couldn’t tell who since half the face had been scorched off. It could have been a friend. It could have been the Grand Imam. Didn’t matter now, the blanket was mine. Blood, sticky and dried, had covered it in spots. I had snipped off what I could. Now I bunch up what’s left, pushing it in waves around her, but no matter what I do a tiny brown foot or hand always sticks out, exposed. It must do for now.
I shouldn’t have listened. I shouldn’t have hoped. Hope is for the rich and the dead, not for me. I shouldn’t have said yes to staying till after the birth. She could have been born in Jordan. No one would have cared. Now nobody can care. Why had I listen to that soldier, all dressed up in his military garb, with that gun slung around his shoulder, sounding so professional, so sure. Now instead I wrap my granddaughter in tethers that smell like rotten eggs and seared flesh. I can’t even find any bobby pins to keep it together.
I gently sit my Aya down in a torn bread basket we used to use to hold the dog food. Her new wooden crib, a gift from my younger brother, had been stolen and smashed, probably used as fuel to fight off the cold. Pigs. At least she isn’t crying anymore. Now she just heaves and sighs, looking at me with red shot eyes, her tiny shoulders shaking, her tiny hands clasped in fists. Already the hate is taking root. I rub her head, her chubby cheek. It is not as fat as it used to be. She moves her head away. That hurts more than seeing her scream.
I feel a tremor. The house shakes, and dust drifts down from the ceiling, like mist spraying from the surf. I’m not sure if that was from a rocket or an earthquake. For once I hope it’s the former. Man will eventually stop when nightfall comes. Allah never sleeps. I better move the basket. I place it under the dining room table. It is an old, sturdy oak, made by my father. It should hold if the ceiling collapsed. I place my hand on the edge to help me balance. My fingers dig into the bullets that riddle the side, edging out their brass ends. Allah keep her safe.
I sit her down on the floor under the table, a bundle of cloth in a wicker basket. My daughter’s black cat, Dexter, jumps in and curls around Aya, snuggling in. Good boy. I smooth his matted fur, specks of wood caught in his long, dusty hair. And to think I use to complain when my daughter brushed your hair till it was as smooth as ink. That I thought it was a bad idea to adopt you in the first place. That I got into an argument over naming you from an American TV show. I pat his head. Keep her safe. Always keep her safe.
Another building crashes in the distance. I need to hurry and finish packing. I place both hands on the ground and heave myself up. Oh, my knees. I should have retired sooner. I steady my legs. Construction is for young men. They were never going to give me that management job. They were never going to give me that raise. My wife wasn’t going to live long enough to enjoy it. Flies hover around me in clusters. I swipe at them. There are so many. There used to not be before the corpses started dropping. Where’s that bag I was going to use?
There it is. I latch my fingers around a worn white linen bag laying on the only chair that still has four legs. I lift the bag. It was a long time ago when my wife made this. For our wedding. The stitching is a little off, and the handle had to be resewn three times. But it will do. We will only take a few things. The important things. This is not the first time I have had to pack. This is not the first revolution I have had to see. But I sure wish I hadn’t. Where should I start? The bedrooms. No, I’m not ready yet. The kitchen. Yes. That will do. I take a small step towards it.
The ground rolls under my legs as I hear the scream of a missile. I stumble to the floor as the world cracks before my eyes. Chunks of the wall fall, smashing against the table, into the floor, breaking into bits. The sun streams through the gaps, around the exposed rebars, playing with the dust. A dull red in the ashy smoke. I lay on the floor, plaster dust lining the inside of my mouth, my cheek flat against the ground, until the shaking stops. An ant scurries across, running towards the wall. I go to wipe my mouth. Pain rips through my right arm.
I look at my arm. It is red. I study it. It looks like a chunk of the wall cut my arm. It’s probably broken. I try to bend it. The pain, like a blade, is inside me spiking through the veins, erupts from my arm. Nope, just sprained. I roll over and struggle to my knees. Better. The floor tilts. My stomach lurches. My head throbs so much from the pressure, the pressure that is all over it. If I could drill a hole into my head and let the blood drain, that might help. Through the haze, I see my Aya, still in her basket. I need to get up.
I heave myself up, slowly, first one leg, then the next, trying not to use my arm. A moment, then, I’m up. I lean against the white wall I just painted last year. I need to make a sling. Then I can pack. There is a strip of the cloth that I cut, with strains of blood on it. I reach for it and wrap it around my head. How am I going to tie this? I try once. It slips through my fingers. I try holding it with the injured hand. The pain causes me to black out for a moment. I lean back against the wall and, holding it down, tie a not. Done. Finally. I stand, leaving a bloody mark on the white wall.
I grab the linen bag and shuffle into the kitchen. I need to hurry. But not rush. There is no time for second chances. I take a deep breath, fighting the iron bars that restrict my chest. I lean against the tiles that I laid when we first bought the house. Back when it was just my wife and me. Before the war. Before our daughter. Before cancer took my wife. I stop, letting my hand rest on the cool tile. It is blue, her favorite color, to match the sea. And gold, my favorite, to match the wheat fields. When I first put them in they were so bright, it looked like flecks of the afternoon sun on a clear day. Now the colors have faded so much it looks like daisies under a spring sky.
I shake my head. Memories are for after dinner meals. I start opening cupboards, leaving a trail of blood on the door handles. A metal pot with a mismatched lid that we have had forever? We will use that. Keep. A large stainless steelpot for when the relatives come over? No need anymore. Leave. The new non-stick pan my daughter brought over while in Europe? Probably has value. Sell. I hurry through some drawers. Breakable dishes, no. Plastic spatulas, maybe one. A cutting knife, yes. I open the last drawer next to the calendar. I stop. I really shouldn’t waste of space. But I can’t leave it. I reach in and grab a small green plastic spoon. Aya’s favorite.
The kitchen is done. I pause a moment, heaving, glancing around one last time. I try to grasp all the moments in here, but it’s like collecting rain drops for a drink. I’m not ready to go into my daughter’s room, so I guess mine is next. Machine gun fire breaks out in the alleyways, rattling like tin cans, tin cans filled with rocks and shaken by children as musical toys. I freeze. The fight is getting closer. I hear another round, a pause, and another round, a yell, and then silence. Nerves in my arm twitch as I wait, the echoes of the exchange replaying in my head. I glance at Aya to make sure she is safe. Still asleep. Probably wore herself out crying.
I enter my room. It is small. It used to be the extra room where we stored linen materials for my wife’s business, but when I gave the big bedroom to my daughter and her husband, I took it as my own. I would rub my hands over the material. It reminded me of her. But I have no time to rub linens today. I open the dresser. Three shirts should do. I hold up a Manchester United shirt my daughter got me. It is my favorite team. I throw it into the linen bag. Another shirt won’t hurt. What else? Another pair of jeans. A thoub would only get in the way now. I’m wearing my shoes. I’ll need a sweater once we get up north, in Turkey, or even Germany.
I run my finger down the nightstand, running a clean line through the dust. Do I need my books? No, too heavy. Far too heavy for what lies ahead. Clock? No. No need. The sun will do. Quran? Well. I hold it for a moment, tempted to leave it. I’m no Job. I can’t keep suffering and not lose a little faith. I feel the leather bound spine, with the golden laced lines running over it in design. I lower my head. Is this what seventy years of faithfulness leads to? A lone reef in the sea? I set the book down. I pick up a family photo from before the bombings. Something to show Aya when she is older.
The bag is not too heavy yet. I’m done here. I need to go to my daughter’s room. But I am still not ready. A loud crack snaps overhead. What was that? Then I see, green gas, spewing down the alleyway, into every cracked wall and splintered window frame. A gift from Bashar. The window has been long gone. I cover my mouth and stumble out of my room, closing the door. I hit my sprained arm against the doorframe. The pain causes me to nearly drop the linen bag and collapse onto the floor. Less and less time, there is less and less time.
I stand outside the door to my daughter’s room, then grab the handle and walk in. There she lays. On the bed. Her eyes close as if she is only sleeping. My only, dead daughter, wrapped in the only dirty sheet I could find lying around. A blue sheet to hide the bloody mess of her birth. She really did look just asleep. Perhaps I could pretend she was. Pretend, like I pretended that the government was trustworthy. Like I pretended that I could raise my daughter to be naïve. That the government would protect. That revolutions were a thing of history. That she could wait to have her baby. A Syrian baby. Now an orphan baby. Tears start forming in my eyes. I drop the linen bag on the floor and stagger towards my daughter, sleeping. I collapse next to her and grab her cold hand. I wish I could pretend that it wasn’t all my fault. I lower my head as my shoulders shake, and I cry.
The force of a missile exploding somewhere on my city block woke me from my wake. I need to get Aya out. What do I need? No clothes, dresses, or shoes. What can I take? Jewelry. I see her wedding ring, loose around her decaying finger. That will do. I slip it off. I slowly stand and try to rush to the small wooden box that holds her valuables. Monet earrings? Yes. I’ll get a decent price for these. The Faux gold necklace that worthless cousin from America gave her? No. I’ll leave that for the scavengers. What else? Nothing else. Wait, baby stuff.
I turn to a basket full of clothes and what not. Gifts from neighbors when having neighbors made sense. I grab handfuls of onesies, all pink and purple, and diapers, I hope these will do. I grab some linen diapers as well. These I can wash. One last look around. Nothing else I can sell. Nothing else I can use. I stand at the door and glance back one last time. I want to remember her. Even now. She still looks pretty. I pick up her graduation photo. She was so proud. First in the family. Her daughter shall always remember. I slip it in. Maybe I will take the Quran.
I step into my room, the gas having dissipated, and drop the holy book into the bag. Maybe I am not out of faith yet. It is time to go now. I set the linen bag over my shoulder. My arm stings. I pick up the broken basket holding Aya. She is asleep, snuggled into Dexter, who purrs, his skinny belly cresting like the ocean. The sun, streaming through the cracks of the walls, sets a dull red. The skies are clear of the fighter jets for once, and the machine gunfire echoes in the distance. I better leave now if I’m to make it out of the city by dark. I pick my way to the front door where a simple kick drops its off its hinges and walk outside.
Fires, devouring the ruins, crackle and snap, spewing smoke. Dark ash columns spiral into the sky, like fingers clawing to grab the sun and smash it down. A rocket explodes in the distance. It seems the fight has moved westward, away from the city for now. An arch built by the Romans crumbles and smashes against the ground that Syrians had walked and skipped on for thousands of years. It echoes across the empty corridors. I gingerly make my way down the steps, over boulders and torn limbs. I smell gasoline mixing with decaying bodies.
When I make it to the main street, I try not to look at the bodies. I try to shield my eyes, but I can’t help it. I must know if my son-in-law is among them. I haven’t seen him in months since he left to fight in the rebel army. I flip one over. Kalhusb, the one who always sold everything at twice the price of what it was worth. His neck was cracked. I stumble along. I see another. Isa, my wife’s best friend who never left the city limits. She was shot. I shuffle forward. Botors, the only Christian Palestinian who didn’t go to church, lays propped up against a wall, a rebar pipe sticking from his gut. None are my son-in-law. What was I thinking? Foolish thoughts.
The edge of the sky darkens. I will not make it to Turkey in one night. I will need to find a place to stay. But first, I need to get outside these city walls. If I can get outside, maybe I can make it, for Aya’s sake. Germany is a long way away. I will need to take small steps. That way I won’t get tired and die. I need to live so Aya can live. Is someone moving? I pull the basket closer to me. I pray it is not robbers. The figure stumbles out into the street. It is a child, a boy. I stand there, silent. The boy has a bloody leg and a torn red shirt. It looks like someone has already tried to bandage him up. There is another movement. An older person, maybe a sister, steps out of the shadows and puts a hand on his shoulder. I lock eyes with her. They are green, like my daughters. Then go back to the boy. There is nothing to say. But maybe it might be wiser to travel as a group. I motion with my hand for them to follow as I walk towards the city’s gates. Slowly, bit by bit, others join us. Some I recognize, some I had never seen before. An old woman with nothing. A young man with a gun. More and more join. But I just focused on me. My linen bag. My wicker basket holding Aya. My steps, one in front it the other, as I flee Aleppo.