El Amrican: a short story

BY RUAA LABANIEH
Expressions Section Editor

“They won’t come.”

The old familiar voice broke through the silence.

Her eyes dragged almost exactingly from the clay pot of murky water to her mother’s equally dull eyes.

“What?” Her tone was timidly careful.

She was trying not to provoke the beast within her mother that had risen a few weeks ago.

El Amrican, the Americans, they won’t come.”

That was no surprise so her hands went back to work. She clutched the two edges of her mother’s blouse and rubbed them together in the dirty bubbles. Why would they come? What would they get from liberating this town? Once again, her eyes were painstakingly yanked from the stubborn stain to the broken glass of what would have been the window. They most definitely wouldn’t come to a town like this. Barely anyone lived here anyway; they’ve all justifiable run away. Just as she was about to lug her eyes away from the shards, they landed on a crookedly hung mirror. The matted, greasy hair piled upon her head in a faux bun didn’t bother her. The one piece night gown she’d donned since two Fridays ago when they’d last had running water was hideous in itself, but it didn’t bother her. The hump in her back as a result from hours spent leaning over a ditch she’d dug from the start of the week for water didn’t bother her. The wrinkled face she’d forced through furrows and frowns that made her look 80 instead of 18 didn’t bother her. What bothered her was that after all the buildings and bodies she’d seen bow down to the weight of the airstrikes, something as stupidly fragile as a mirror had remained tacked to a cracked wall.

It was mocking her.

If it wasn’t for the little knowledge of the effect of loud, sudden noises on her mother’s PTSD, she would have hurtled the clay pot swiftly against the mirror and humiliated it as it had her.

Instead, she twisted her mother’s blouse above the clay pot to drain the water, flung it once, twice, three times in the air and clipped it onto the single strand of yarn they’d hung for the laundry. Wiping her hands against her robe, she held out her hand to her mother, her eyes on the wool, flowered blanket settled in her mother’s lap.

“Ummi, give me the blanket.” She ordered without conviction.

With no soap, it was highly unlikely that the filthy, blood stained blanket would be cleaned. It was the principle of the matter. If something was dirty, she cleaned it.

“It was your brother’s blanket.”

And there it was the ever consistent, persistent phrase: it was your brother’s. One of the little utensils they had left, it was your brother’s. One of the little pairs of shoes they had left, it was your brother’s. One of the little blankets they had left, it was your brothers. The arm her mother had wrapped beneath the blanket, it was your brother’s.

“Ummi, give me the blanket.” She ordered again, the conviction still lacking in her tone.

He hand was no longer outstretched and waiting, it fisted and fell to her side. Even in death, her brother never failed to defeat her.

“How will he stay warm without it?”

“Ummi, I’m washing the laundry.”

“When he comes, he’ll need it.”

“Ummi, give me the blanket.” The conviction has made itself known.

“His fingers are freezing.”

And just like that, the clay pot was forgotten. The laundry unattended, the soap sloshed sloppily off the sides, and the toes of her bare feet curled against the floor in a defensive stance.

“Ummi, he’s dead.”

The silence roared as her mother’s eyes began to water she gazed her daughter with desperation and accusation in her eyes.

Bas, enough, don’t speak to me like that.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to; it’s the lahjeh, the tone.”

“Ummi, give me that blanket.” She advanced towards her mother, who shrunk against the corner like a little kid caught red handed with a bottle of glue.

“Amal, khalas, enough.” Her mother ordered, the conviction in her tone alarmingly high pitched.

Ummi, give me that blanket.” Amal ordered, the conviction in her tone matching her mother’s.

Her cold hands gripped the edge of the blanket and began to tug.

“Amal!”

Her mother had named her Amal, meaning hope.

“Amal!”

Her mother held on.

“Amal!”

She pulled harder.

“Amal!”

Yet, her mother had no hope.

“Amal!”

Her mother adjusted her hold.

“Amal!”

She blinked rapidly to clear her vision.

“Amal!”

Her mother’s cry rose.

“It was your brother’s!”

Everything happened all at once. The resonating sound of a targeting airstrike and her mother’s ear-piercing scream exploded through the poorly paved street just outside their door, and shattered their argument.  Then, the ringing began. Amal let go of the blanket and staggered backward, her knees buckling and she fell to the floor. The decaying arm that had been enveloped lovingly in the confines of the cocoon of the blanket rolled unenthusiastically to the floor. Her fingers shakily flew up to cover her reverberating ears. Above the echoing, she could hear her mother scream.

Ataloo ibni, they killed my baby! All they left was his arm!”

Amal wanted to see the damage that had been done outside. Her fingers fell from her ears to the ground she dug her nails into the dirt to steady herself.

“First my husband, then my son! My son, lahmi w dammi, my flesh and blood! Noor ayni, the light of my eyes!”

Amal began to crawl, her gown riding up and exposing the yielding skin of knees to the rough debris. Heaving herself up she threw herself from wall to wall, trying to find the door.

“Take me instead! Give my son and take me instead!”

The heresy of the statement knocked against Amal’s heart and sent a pang into her soul. Her mother was no longer talking to the pilot behind the drone, but to God.

“Amal! It was your brother’s!”

She’d made it to the doorway. Reaching for the thin, faded scarf, she threw it around her head before sticking her head out from the doorway. Dust attacked her eyes, viciously impairing her vision.

“It was your brother’s!”

A gaping hole stunned the background of slowly splintering homes. Her eyes darted despairingly over the scene, trying to see if there was anything to save.

“It was my son’s!”

Amal’s eyes flew from the fire that had sprung from the ground like a geyser and wrapped its cackling arms around the apartment to the window at the very top. A girl her age had both hands flattened against the window, her face so pressed against the surface; she could see each and every one of her features even through the grubby glass.

“They won’t come.”

Face to face, eyes penetrating and mouths slightly open, they stood staring each other down.

“Did you hear me Amal?”

She licked her dry, peeling lips. The girl in the window let her hands fall.

“They won’t come.”

Amal was the first to break eye contact.

She backed away from the door and tore her gaze away from the building. Stumbling back into the house, she let the scarf fall from between her fingers. Her eyes swept the room, from her mother’s form hunched over the blanket to the arm in the middle of the room to the upturned clay pot to the martyred blouse to the fractured wall to the splintered mirror.

And then the ringing stopped.

“Ummi, give me the blanket.” She said, all the conviction gone.

“They didn’t come for your dad. They didn’t come for you brother. They won’t come for me and they won’t come for you.”

Amal snatched the blanket from her mother’s arm with so much strength; she lost her footing and fell backward onto her bottom.

Unperturbed by the sound of the rubble tumbled to the ground, they sat still. The atmosphere so thick, they felt like they were breathing water.

“I’m not going to become another arm for you, Ummi.”

And just like that, another airstrike catapulted from Amal’s mouth and targeted her mother’s heart, shattering the protective mold of grief. At 43, her mother had taken all the precautions to diminish the beauty she had. She’d left herself to become haggard and ashen.

Her mother had vaporized herself to a ghost.

“Ummi, we are not going to wait. We are not going to die here.”

Amal stood up and threw the blanket over the sickening arm. Kneeling by her mother, she clutched her shoulders firmly and forced herself to look her in the eye.

“If el Amrican won’t come to us, we go to el Amrican.”

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