Authors: Nada Awar Jarrar
NADA AWAR JARRAR
Dreams of Water
For Aida and Aref and
for Amou Ahmad
tanding in the back garden of her parents' mountain home, Aneesa, at four, hears the angels, a chorus of sweet voices that tell her to dance for them. She twirls around beds of roses, down a dirt road and into the breeze, humming to herself. When Waddad calls to her, Aneesa stops beneath the shade of a pine tree and takes a deep breath before running indoors.
âTime for lunch,' her mother says. âLet's wash your hands before you sit down.'
Aneesa stands up on the stool in front of the sink and puts her hands under the tap. Waddad pulls her sleeves up, turns the water on and lathers soap on to her own hands before grabbing Aneesa's and kneading them with cool suds.
âWhen I call my children in to eat, they wash their hands on their own,' Aneesa says, looking up at Waddad.
âHaven't I told you not to put your dolls in water? You'll ruin them.'
âThey are my children,
, not my dolls.'
Waddad wipes Aneesa's hands dry and gently pushes her towards her seat.
âAlways talking about children that are not there.' Waddad sounds cross as Aneesa sits down to eat.
Later that day, Waddad takes Aneesa by the hand and they walk down to the village. The sun is strong and wisps of Aneesa's long dark hair stick to her forehead.
âWhere are we going,
âWe're going to talk to the sheikh,' Waddad replies in a firm tone.
They arrive at a house in a side street just before the main
and go carefully down some stone steps on its side. The door of a basement room is open. An old man sits on the floor, his back propped up by large pillows against the wall behind him, his legs crossed neatly in front of him. He is dressed entirely in dark blue and has a grey-black beard that lies rigid on his chest like a small, coarse broom. He looks intently at Waddad as she speaks. When he opens his mouth to speak, the beard moves up and down with his words.
âThe child has spoken of a past life,' he says.
Waddad pushes her hands down on Aneesa's shoulders, the scent of fear emanating from her skin.
âBut what am I to do? Her father does not believe in these things and he will be furious if he hears her talking about it again.'
The old man shakes his head so that the white headdress slips forward over his forehead. Then he passes a hand over the length of his face. When he removes it, the stiff beard looks narrower and less impressive.
âShe may never speak of it again,' he says.
He shrugs his shoulders and leans forward until his face is very close to Aneesa's. She looks into his bright blue eyes and sniffs at the scent of olive-oil soap coming from his skin. When Aneesa reaches out to touch the beard, she hears her mother gasp and call out her name. She puts her hand down. The sheikh smiles and moves back to rest against the pillows once again.
Father is helping Bassam with his homework. The two of them are sitting at the dining table with books and paper and pencils before them. Aneesa can feel anxiety in the air but is not sure if it is hers or theirs.
âAneesa,' her father calls out. âGet me a cup of coffee, will you?'
Aneesa looks up at her father and begins to say something but he stops her.
,' he says. âNot too much sugar now.'
Aneesa glances quickly at Bassam and feels her heart sink. He is leaning an elbow on the table and holding his head up with his hand. He looks bored and clearly uninterested in his work. Father will be so angry with him, she thinks. Where has Mother gone?
In the kitchen, Aneesa brings water to the boil in the pot and adds half a teaspoon of sugar, then she puts in the finely ground coffee and stirs gently, taking the pot off the burner just as the mixture begins to come to the boil and then putting it back on again until the coffee is thick and frothy at the edges. She hears her father's raised voice from the dining room.
âBassam, you're not concentrating. I asked you a
question and I want you to think about the answer before you say anything.'
Bassam murmurs something in reply but she cannot tell what he is saying. Aneesa pours the coffee into a cup.
âWhat?' Father asks tersely.
Moments later, Aneesa hears her father shout out loud. When she steps into the dining room with the coffee, he is no longer there but Bassam is still in his chair. His head is bent low and he has one hand over his ear. When he looks up at her and removes his hand, Aneesa sees that his face has gone very red. She remains perfectly still as Bassam stands up and slowly walks out of the room.
Aneesa stands on a chair by the kitchen table holding a large loaf of flat bread in her hands. She sees her child self carefully fold the loaf into quarters and then try to put it inside a plastic bag before it unfolds again.
âAre you all right, Aneesa?' Father comes up behind her.
She looks up at him, his round face, bulbous nose and greying hair, and waits for him to smile.
âShall I help you with that?' he asks.
She nods and watches him hold the folded loaf with one big hand, put it into the bag and then tie the handles of the bag together to make a tight bundle.
âWhere are you going with the bread,
Aneesa steps off the chair.
âI'm taking it to my children. They're hungry.'
He puts his arm around her shoulders and they walk out of the kitchen.
âTake me there,
,' Aneesa pleads. âI can hear them calling to me. Take me in the car.'
Later that night, as she lies in her bed in the dark, Aneesa hears her parents arguing in the next room. She knows that no matter how loud their voices, they cannot drive away the sound of weeping children that fills her ears.
Waddad spoons a mixture of rice, tomato and parsley on to half-cooked vine leaves that she has placed flat on the kitchen table. Her hair is tied back and her face shines with perspiration. Once each leaf is filled, she rolls it into a small tube and places it in a saucepan. Little Aneesa stands on a chair and peers inside to look at the cigar shapes lined up tightly against one another. She sniffs at the tangy, uncooked smell of the stuffed leaves and feels her mouth water.
âI like the old man best,' Aneesa says.
âWhat old man, dear?' Waddad's head is bent low and she is not looking at her daughter.
âThe one with the beard. I want to see him again.'
âShhh,' Waddad whispers. âYou know your father doesn't want us to talk of such things.'
âHe's out in the garden. He can't hear us.'
âWhat do you want to see the old man for, anyway?' Aneesa reaches inside the saucepan, takes out a stuffed vine leaf and pops it into her mouth. The rice makes crunching noises between her teeth as she chews.
âThat'll give you stomachache,' Waddad warns.
Bassam follows Father around in the garden carrying a heavy bucket filled with wilted roses. Father examines the bushes closely and expertly snaps off the heads of the flowers at the top of the stem before Bassam rushes to pick them up and put them in the bucket. They are not speaking but Aneesa can tell her brother is itching to be elsewhere. She walks up to them and takes
âAh, Aneesa,' he says with a gentle voice.
Bassam tries to hand her the bucket.
âYour sister can't carry that, Bassam. It's much too heavy.'
âI'll go and empty this,' Bassam says sulkily. âIt's too full, even for me. I'll be right back.' But Aneesa knows he will not be coming back.
There are times when she imagines she can see her brother in the distance. He is walking down their street, hands in pockets, head bent low. He cannot be more than fifteen years old; his hair is sticking upwards at the crown of his head and in the fragile curve of his long neck, Aneesa sees hints of their childhood. She waves to him but he ignores her. When he finally stops, there are two of him, one standing behind the other, arms wrapped tightly around his twin. They are on a beach in moonlight and she hears them whispering to one another above the sound of waves lapping at their feet.
Somewhere between the village spring and the wilderness, beyond the fragrant fig tree by the grocery shop, Aneesa stands in the single sunny spot in the square. Her eyes are squeezed shut so that blazes of orange line the backs of her eyelids. She raises both arms, palms towards
the light, and takes a deep breath. A gentle humming unfolds behind her forehead and her mouth stretches in a smile.
She opens her eyes and turns around. As Waddad approaches through the light and shadow, Aneesa feels a movement in her chest.
âCome on. The sheikh is waiting for us.'
He is sitting outside this time, on a low stool by the front door. His slippers are covered in dust and the front of his baggy navy-blue
hangs in folds between his thin legs. A young woman in a black dress and the customary long white
brings out two chairs before walking back into the house.
Aneesa shifts forward in her chair so that her feet touch the ground.
The old man lifts a hand to shade his eyes from the sun, puts it down again and looks at her.
âHow old are you now?' he asks.
âShe's six,' Waddad replies.
The old man grunts loudly and Aneesa leans towards him, placing both hands on her knees.
âOur house was made of stone like this one.' She points to the wall behind the sheikh. âBut it was very small and the ground was uneven. The mattress tilted to one side when we slept and the soles of my children's feet were always black with dirt.'
âWhat else?' asks the sheikh.
âThat's all I remember,' she says, shaking her head.
Waddad shifts in her chair but remains silent.
The sheikh shuffles his old feet and a cloud of dust rises up around them. Aneesa feels suddenly weightless
and realizes that she has been holding her breath. When she lets go, the air comes out in a loud sputter. She holds a hand up to her mouth and hangs her head before looking up again a moment later.
The young woman in the veil is leaning over Aneesa with a tray in her hands. Aneesa takes a glass of lemonade and says thank you. The old man and Waddad are quiet. Aneesa sips at her drink and sees time close around the three of them in a kind of circle.
They are in the mountains and Aneesa, Waddad and Bassam are in the garden at the front of the house. It is summer and the pine trees around them and in the valley below give out the sticky scents of sap and strong sunlight. Waddad is sitting on the stone bench in the centre of the garden with a tray in her lap on which there are two bowls; one is filled with raw minced meat mixed with
and the other with fried pine nuts and pieces of cooked minced meat for stuffing. Aneesa is standing beside her and Bassam is kicking a football aimlessly on the small patch of lawn around the bench. Aneesa wishes he would either stop or let her join in.
âI want to play too,' she says.
âStop whining,' Bassam retorts and then kicks the ball past her and into a tree trunk just behind Waddad.
âBassam,' Waddad says in a warning voice.
âShe's always bothering me,
. Make her stop.'
Aneesa lunges after her brother but he slips away and turns around and grins at her. She reaches for the ball, lifts it above her head and aims at him. He moves quickly to one side and the ball misses him.