Rumpus Original Fiction: Of Birds Alit in Trees

By

The Dubai weather has finally settled, the heat in December no longer tyrannical but lulled into an almost docile warmth. The sun is gentle, streaking the house lightly as she sweeps beneath the furniture, changes the sheets. She still misses the rain of home, but at least the air is no longer prickly with ungodly temperatures.

It is nearly three o’clock now; she ascertains this by the angle of light on the white kitchen tiles. The daughter should have arrived half an hour ago. This makes her anxious, as though they expect her to conjure up the girl before dinner. Still, she hopes the daughter appears soon, before the family returns with their grocery bags and questions.

Her name is Selvakumari, but the name catches like a vine in the family’s mouth, comes out bungled and limp. They call her Sally.

 

Madame, the mother, has told Selvakumari about the daughter, who returns during university holidays. “She studies chemistry, a stupid degree,” Madame had said, adding, “We told her to be a doctor but she doesn’t listen.”

Selvakumari has inspected the photos along the stairway, nearly memorized the daughter’s slender face, especially the eyes. Large and dark, the color of beetles or damp bark, bordered by thick eyelashes.

Selvakumari does not like beauty, does not trust it, especially in women. She finds her own plain face, oval and simple, to be satisfying. Nothing distracts in it. When she bathes, in the small showerless bathroom that has to be wiped dry each time, she holds the detachable faucet directly above her head, lathers the soap bar with its disinfectant scent in small, efficient circles on her skin. She doesn’t want to smell of flowers or fruit.

 

A car grumbles outside. Selvakumari frowns, peers over the sink into the street. A taxi. She feels a splashing relief, straightens the blue maid’s uniform. Madame has told her to wear what she wants, and offered to take her to the mall, but Selvakumari always demurs. She likes the blandness of the uniform. It sets her apart, keeps her from being merely another person who eats and sleeps and wakes in this house. She has saris, dozens of them like multicolored puddles, but wears them only in Sri Lanka.

 

Before Dubai, she was in Amman, with another family, taking care of their three children. The youngest had been two when Selvakumari began, nearly twelve when she left. During that time Selvakumari saw her own daughter exactly five times. Chandra. Selvakumari marked her years over telephones, the childish voice becoming sharper, angrier.

“How are the children?” Chandra would ask, the bitterness of the question sinking into Selvakumari like shark teeth.

 

Fifteen years ago, in a small Sri Lankan hut where young maids were trained, Aunt Vidu instructed them to practice writing the names of vegetables and meats in Arabic and English. For grocery lists, she said. Selvakumari had sat on a dusty floor with the other women, mosquito bites swelling their legs as they listened and took notes.

Younger women were preferred, but not too young or they were assumed to be impudent. Women with children were told to be especially careful. No one wants a mother pining for her child in their home, Aunt V would say. It brings bad luck.

They will take your passports, she told them. This is for your safety, because you are their responsibility, but also an investment. You shouldn’t try to run away, but memorize the numbers I give you for the embassy. They will be kind, your family, Aunt V would say, almost always, but it is good to be prepared. In case.

At night, they would lay next to one another on straw mats in the hut, Selvakumari cushioned by the sounds of women sleeping. Dreaming of homes they had left behind, or ones they would be sent to.

 

“Sally, right?” Photographs haven’t shown how tall the daughter is, towering as she stands in the doorway, nudging a tattered suitcase with her foot. Her hair is cut oddly, in feather-like tufts.

“Yes, miss,” Selvakumari says, bending to lift the luggage. It is heavy and the girl clicks her tongue.

“Gifts,” she says. “Lots of them. I’m Layla.” Selvakumari stares at the extended arm for a second before reaching out. Dry to the touch. The girl should soak her hands in milk, lightly heated with grated almonds. “Here, let’s try and lug this upstairs before they get here. I want to remove price tags.” She laughs. It has a luscious chime to it.

 

They were lucky, lucky to have her, Aunt V would tell them during those weeks of training. Other girls, the ones that were plucked from their beds at night by evil fathers or uncles, found themselves herded into airports. They didn’t even know where they were headed until the plane kissed the ground.

They had no choice, Aunt V always said this sadly. But you do. A difficult choice, yes. But.

And, anyway, it could be worse. They were not selling their bodies. Yes, sometimes the father or son might rub up against the pretty ones, but one should ignore, try not to be left alone in the room with them. One should avoid wearing makeup or rubbing coconut oil on their skin.

No, Aunt V would conclude, there were worse fates. A bed to sleep in, food to eat, houses to clean. Raising children, watching them grow. They will love you more than their own mothers, Aunt V would say. But one was never, ever, to speak this aloud.

As for your own children, she would say, her face suddenly heavy, they will be here. Missing you, yes. But fed, alive. Safe.

 

That evening, as she sets the table and brings the platter of lamb and rice out, filling glasses with orange juice, Selvakumari observes the family with Layla. She seems to be closer to the men, laughing with her brother and father while she cuts her meat.

“It’s good to have you home, habibti,” the father says, and Layla reaches over and pats his bald, brown head. They both laugh.

“How’s university?” the son, Omar, asks.

“Oh, they just finished the new laboratory. It’s amazing.” They all speak a rapid-fire mixture of Arabic and English, the two languages intertwined with one another. Madame told Selvakumari, when she first moved in, that they were Iraqi, but had lived in America for many years.

“You should grow your hair out.” The mother’s voice cuts quietly across the chatter of the other three, their laughter. “It’s unattractive.”

A silence falls over the table. Selvakumari watches the girl lift her chin. “I like it like this.”

 

When Selvakumari arrived at the house six months ago, she was startled by the quiet. The family in Amman had been a loud, jovial bunch, always teasing one another and going on impromptu trips to the beach. Selvakumari would go along, running after the girls when they were younger, shaking sand from their hair. In the evenings, she would tell them stories, not fairytale ones from their large, colorful books, but stories from Sri Lanka, the tales of nomads and clever monkeys. Even when the girls got older, slendering into adolescence, they would perch on the kitchen counters as she mopped, long legs dangling, begging her to retell the one about the princess kidnapped by a lion. The Madame in Amman was a stocky woman who insisted Selvakumari eat dinner at the table with them. On holidays, she would give Selvakumari beautifully wrapped gifts of scarves and stationery paper.

“I don’t know what we’ll do without you,” she’d told Selvakumari at the airport, weeping. Selvakumari herself wiped away a few tears, and she let the other woman hug her tightly.

But here, Selvakumari feels superfluous. She has arrived to a house of adults, the son already seventeen, no children to clean after or comfort or make pillow forts with. Any other maid could do what she does—boil chicken to a froth, tuck blankets tightly over each mattress, wipe the mosaic tiled floors first with disinfectant and then with polish—and she barely speaks with the family. Even amongst each other there is little interaction, each of them going to their own rooms after dinner, out of the house all day. They aren’t unkind, not even the frosty Madame, but they seem busy, preoccupied with their work and school, barely noting Selvakumari’s presence.

Sometimes, Selvakumari composes little sentences in her head to describe the family, passages to send back home to her sisters or Chandra.

The father is tall, but round as Buddha, and with kind eyes. He works at a university, I think, for there are always chalk marks on his shirts.

Sisters, you should see this Madame—skinny like a child. She asks me to make large meals of stuffed squash and lamb, and then she eats lettuce and a forkful of rice. Her voice is girlish, and she always looks at me like I’m distracting her, like she cannot remember why I’m here.

The son is sweet. He always rinses his own plate and asks me if I would like coconut milk when they go to the supermarket. But I fear he drinks, for he comes back late at night sometimes. In the mornings, I wash the smoke from his clothes.

And now—

There is a daughter, a tall thing with black eyes. She reminds me of Sita, remember? From those myths the aunts would tell us. The queen who fights through fire for her city, and disappears into the split earth.

 

Aunt V never spoke of the other girls, the unlucky ones. The only stories she ever told them were of kind families, the luxury of Arab cities, the thick stack of money they would send back to their families.

The other stories they would find out on their own, from each other. In Amman, Selvakumari used to see other maids at the marketplace, chatting at fruit stalls. Here in Dubai, the maids of the compound meet every Sunday at the small makeshift church behind the pool and recreation center. A wax figurine of Jesus sits atop a wooden altar and rows of candles surround it. They fill the room with the rich smell of cooked meat and fried onions, and talk about the families. Selvakumari keeps mostly to herself, but she loves the sound of female laughter and chattering—if she shuts her eyes, the voices and rich smell of incense transports her to Sri Lanka, back with her sisters.

Sometimes the talk turns somber. A girl named Bambi, from the Philippines, tells stories of being beaten by a family in Saudi Arabia. It is always the same story, of the cruel Madame striking her with a belt. Bambi often holds her hand out to show the long scar on her palm. From trying to shield her face, she explains. Once, she had matter-of-factly said, “The doctor told us that sometimes, if the eye is hit hard enough, it has to be removed.” She still had both eyes, thank God, Bambi would continue, sopping bread in dhal. But she lost her toe, the second one, when the Madame threw a sharp metal tray at her. Here, she always extends a sandaled foot. The gap looks more forlorn than grotesque.

There are dozens of other stories. Some women speak of husbands back home sending their daughters to work in unknown homes. Others tell of the crooked labor agencies, swindling them of every dollar. Once in a while, a woman speaks about the roaming hand of a father or son in the family, touching her body as she bends over to sweep.

Selvakumari grimly listens to this talk, then dips her head into the incense-filled air of the church and prays. Thanks God for her luck.

 

After the family has eaten and the dishes have been washed, Selvakumari lies in her small white room adjacent to the kitchen. She listens to the sound of Omar and Layla, speaking in the kitchen, their parents asleep. They are talking about their lives. Selvakumari can smell cigarette smoke.

“And Manhattan?” the boy asks.

“Endless,” Layla says. She speaks of underground trains and musicians on the streets and traffic and nightclubs. Selvakumari falls asleep to the sound of their voices, her dreams full of skyscrapers and girls dancing to unfamiliar music.

 

There are times when Selvakumari wonders if this is the easiest way, watching families age like time-lapse photographs. She knows there is a world outside the large, sun-filled rooms of this house. Dubai, with colossal malls and palm trees dotting beaches, business towers that she glimpses each time she goes out with the family. And, on the outskirts, there are desert villages, where Bedouins still live and sleep under the naked sky.

But she prefers it: the insular life, remaining preoccupied with the simple tasks of washing the same windows, vacuuming the same floor, over and over.

“The tranquil one,” her mother used to call her. “My little keeper.” Selvakumari had taken care of her six younger siblings as a child, waking at dawn every morning for seventeen years to iron saris and pluck mint from the garden for tea.

Even when she wed she felt apart. Assim was the youngest son of an ironsmith in a nearby village and the night they wed, she’d sat in the ceremony tent and observed the slender crescents of black beneath his fingernails. As the priest instructed Assim to place a garland around his new bride’s neck, Selvakumari tilted her head to let it fall on her shoulders. That evening, when Assim unwrapped robes from her body and lifted her hips, bucking, she could still smell the flowers on her skin.

 

Only with Chandra was that cool demeanor shaken, the tiny brown baby trembling in her hands, rain falling on the grass outside the midwife’s hut. The love that swelled Selvakumari at her new daughter’s starred eyelashes, her tiny lips—it was astonishing.

Oh Chandra, Selvakumari had written years ago in a letter when the girl turned eighteen. You cannot know how much I miss you. How I ache for you even on the trips when I am home. You are always so far away, as if partitioned by glass.

Selvakumari never sent it. She is keenly aware of her love as a burden. A tiresome thing.

 

With Layla, the entire house is transformed, as though a crackling has infused the rooms, brightening the air. There seems to be more laughter, joking in the evenings as the family sits in the living room and playfully argues about movies. Selvakumari brings them plates of washed plums and pumpkin seeds, catching glimpses of films on the television screen.

“Watch with us,” Layla says, and sometimes the father chimes in as well, telling her to sit, but Selvakumari smiles and shakes her head.

During the days, when the others are at work and school, Layla spends the morning eating figs in the garden while she reads, or at the compound pool. She wears a faded-looking sundress, and takes a bottle of baby oil with her. Selvakumari finds glistening fingerprints on the refrigerator door, greasy streaks smudging the countertops. Everywhere she goes, the girl takes a book with her and they litter the house. They are mostly novels with dreary-looking covers, but a few are textbooks, colorful graphs and glass beakers on the front. Selvakumari goes through them sometimes, tracing her fingers around the bright blue bubbles of a chemical reaction.

In the afternoons, Selvakumari washes the girl’s towel and bikini on the rooftop with the rest of the family’s clothes. Layla always gives her the damp pile politely, apologetically.

“I can just wash it myself.”

“No miss, you give.” Selvakumari can speak better English than the family knows. It is an old trick they were taught, back in the river huts. Appear simple, Aunt V would say. Uncomplicated, but competent.

Selvakumari watches the girl eat peaches to the core, the way she flurries her rice with salt and cumin. She has her brother’s mischievous gaze. When the two of them dip their dark, gleaming heads over their plates, they look like royalty.

 

Each time the plane circles Sri Lanka, returning her home, Selvakumari cries, her tears blurring the approaching forest and rivers into greens and blues. The first few nights back in her village are always soothing, surrounded by her sisters and Chandra and Assim, waking to the sound of birds and eating delicious kokis with her hands.

But there is always that old distance, peering into the lives of her own family as she does with the ones she works for. The restlessness begins to stir after a couple of weeks, a slight boredom listening to her sisters gossip about the village. Assim remains unchanged, a man she learned to love as a girl, but his flaws seem to magnify as days go on—his meekness, the annoying way he clears his throat while eating. And Chandra, her darling little girl with braids, turned into a fleshy, bitter young woman. On the last trip, she’d told her mother curtly that she was marrying Nimal, a lazy fisherman from a nearby village.

“The time for mothering has come and gone,” Chandra had said acidly, when Selvakumari tried to protest.

Always, Selvakumari returns to the families in faraway cities. Let me leave, she prays to the Mary statuette in her village church. Let me leave, let me send money back home for my sisters, my daughter, my coming grandchildren. Let that be the little I do.

 

On Sundays, Selvakumari gets the day off. Sometimes, Madame drives her to the grocery store, and Selvakumari wanders through the aisles, stacking a cart with noodles, spices, the coconut biscuits that remind her of bibikkan from back home. Other days, she walks through the compound, past the identical looking houses with palm trees and glossy cars in the driveway. She walks until she reaches the makeshift church, where the other maids already are, sitting on the wooden benches, a few kneeling in front of the altar. Someone has brought a pot of biryani and the room is thick with its aroma.

This Sunday, Selvakumari tells them about the daughter who is visiting and a couple of the older maids nod and speak excitedly.

“Priya, the girl before you, she used to tell us about the daughter,” Anu, who has worked in the compound for years, says knowingly. “Pretty, right? Kind of stubborn looking?”

“Yes,” Selvakumari says. “Like a modern-day Sita.”

“That’s her.” Anu nods. “Priya used to say there would be terrible fights with the mother, before the daughter moved away.” Anu looks around the women, dropping her voice and widening her eyes for effect. “There was talk. About the daughter.”

Selvakumari is confused. “What talk?”

Several of the women fidget, one crosses herself. “That she is—well, unnatural. That she is one of those who, you know.” Anu looks embarrassed. “Who loves those like her. Priya heard the mother call her daughter appa once, and then tell her husband they’d raised a godless child.”

Selvakumari eats her rice slowly, listening as the women discuss the girl and other families. She thinks about Layla’s hair, the crackle of air around her. Selvakumari remembers something she overheard the Madame say months ago, after speaking with the daughter on the phone.

“That girl will never change.”

 

The family goes out to dinner one night and comes back with Styrofoam boxes of food for Selvakumari. While she is eating, Selvakumari hears the mother and daughter arguing in the living room.

“I can’t go out wearing anything without you launching into a sermon.”

“You’re wearing your brother’s shirts!”

“And the way you were apologizing for me, like I’m some kind of—”

“If you would just—”

“Okay. Okay,” says the father and the women, finally, quiet. “Does it always have to be a battle with you two?”

“She does it,” the mother hurls. A door slam shuts and Layla says something to her father, quietly, inaudible to Selvakumari.

 

The girl spends long hours scribbling on notecards. She says something about a presentation, some important project due when she returns to university. On each notecard, she uses a different colored pencil and draws a symbol and, on the back, a long paragraph in scrawled handwriting.

“Chemicals and their reactions,” she explains when Selvakumari brings her tea one afternoon. “I have to memorize each of them.”

“Why?”

“Because they explain almost everything in the world,” Layla says, tapping the mess of notecards on the table. “This is where it all begins.”

Selvakumari nods, though she doesn’t understand. In her village, there had been one small ramshackle school, where they wrote words on thin paper and recited basic mathematics. She stopped going after her thirteenth birthday.

Selvakumari lies awake during the evenings, straining to listen through the walls of her bedroom, as Layla and Omar smoke and talk.

“She hates me,” Layla says.

“I think she’s afraid of you.”

“Things aren’t going to go away just because she covers her ears and hums.”

Selvakumari wonders what her Chandra would think of Layla, tries to imagine the two of them, in another world, sharing a meal or trying on clothes at the mall. But the image is hazy, impossible. Never will their paths meet, her daughter with her tiny village life and fisherman husband, and this girl on the other side of Selvakumari’s door—cracking seeds with her teeth, asking her brother for another cigarette.

 

Sisters, do you remember this? The girl whose father was a tailor, the one who lived on the riverbank and had long hair. I thought of her by chance this morning, and wondered where she is now. I remember there was a story about her, the aunts saying that she was peculiar. She used to paint, do you remember? Drawings of birds alit in trees. And then that thing that happened, with the other schoolgirl. I’ve been thinking of her all day, trying to remember her name (it started with an N, I believe), wondering what became of her, after the fights and all that nasty talk and her father sending her away. I wonder what she paints now.

 

On the following Sunday, Selvakumari walks through the compound, past the recreation center and teenagers lounging by the pool. They laugh with one another and wring water from their hair. The Dubai skyline in the distance is filled with skyscrapers perched between swaths of stubbornly blue sky. It hasn’t rained once since she moved here in July. Back home, it would rain for entire months, the monsoon season painting villages brown and green with shed plants. Afterwards, everything smelt of soil.

Past the compound gates is a small bodega, run by an Indian couple. The woman nods at Selvakumari, gestures towards the row of pay phones in the back, past aisles of spices and canned vegetables. Selvakumari has been here dozens of times, and familiarly feeds coins into the slot.

She punches the silver numbers and waits. It rings six times and then Chandra’s voice, miraculously, appears. “Hello?”

“Little one.”

“Mama.” Chandra’s voice is neither pleased nor displeased; the girl has long ago learned the skill of neutrality. “You’re well?”

“Yes, yes.” There is a wall of posters beside the phone, flyers tacked on the corkboard advertising Bangladeshi concerts, English lessons, a new hair salon. An entire sub-world, Selvakumari thinks, in the underbelly of this city. An ecosystem composed of maids and chauffeurs and workers, like the interlaced atoms in Layla’s textbooks. “There is a daughter in the family, your age.”

“Oh, really?” Chandra sounds bored. There is a crunching sound. “I thought it was only a son?”

“She lives in America. She is just visiting.” Selvakumari touches a corner of the concert flyer. “How is Assim? And your husband?”

“Baba is fine, he fixed the shed finally.” Selvakumari thinks of the moldy room, its creaking floors. “Nimal is thinking of moving to Jambukola for the better port.”

“You’re going to Jambukola?”

“If he goes, obviously.” Irritation creeps into Chandra’s voice. “There’s better fishing.”

“What are you eating?”

“What?”

“That noise. What are you eating?”

“Oh.” There is a slight pause. “Vada.”

Selvakumari pictures it, her fat daughter chewing the thick fried dough, salt crumbs on her mouth. “How are your aunts?”

“Fine, I suppose. They might—” The line cuts. Selvakumari rattles the receiver, taps the machine but the line is cut, lost. She pulls out more coins from her pocket, drops them into the slot. The line rings and rings, but no one picks up.

 

The days of Layla’s trip whirl by and Selvakumari finds herself depressed at the thought of the house without her, going back to the monotony of boiling vegetables and scrubbing tiles, answering the mother’s strident calls from upstairs. The house empty all day long, no glistening fingerprints, no scrawled notecards.

She isn’t alone. As the family watches television, Selvakumari overhears the father tell the girl, “It’s not going to be the same without you, Lulu.”

Two nights before Layla’s departure, the family goes to the supermarket and returns with bags of vegetables and seafood, glistening prawns and bundles of fragrant herbs. There is a large package of brown paper, tied with twine, and when Selvakumari peels the paper back, the large crystal eye of an enormous rainbow fish stares back at her, scales glittering as she washes the gills with salt.

“A stew,” Madame announces as she bustles around the kitchen with Selvakumari, orchestrating the cooking. “With tomato cubes and prawns and mussels. Slice the fish thin, please. And marinate it with ginger.”

As Selvakumari fixes the food, Madame hovers around her, giving instructions. “Green pepper,” she says. “No chili, too spicy.”

While the fish is baking, Selvakumari prepares her own food in a small pot, as she always does. She boils water and stirs in noodles, potatoes, dhal. A handful of chili powder. She is pulling the fish out of the oven when Layla appears at the doorway.

“Wow,” Layla says. “It’s like a restaurant in here.” She strolls through the kitchen to where her mother is preparing the salad, filches a cucumber slice, and chews on it.

“Have you packed?” Madame asks her, and the girl gives a slight nod. There has been a coolness between the two of them, since the night of the dinner. The girl walks over to the stove.

“What’s that?” Layla asks, pointing to the small pot of boiling water.

“Curry,” Selvakumari says.

“It smells good.” Layla dips her head towards the pot, her choppy hair falling into the steam. Selvakumari wants to offer her a taste, but Madame speaks first.

“Is the stew done?” Madame asks. “Remember, only a splash of olive oil.”

When the food is done, Madame asks Selvakumari to arrange it on the porcelain plates, the bone-white finery they usually only use at dinner parties. Madame lights taper candles at each end of the table, and the effect is pleasing, festive. From the kitchen, Selvakumari scrubs fish scales from the baking pan and listens to the voices in the other room. They are laughing, even the mother, and soon the brother’s voice carries over the others:

“To Layla.”

There is the sound of glass clinking.

 

At the end of the evening, once the dishes have been soaked in lemon juice to rid them of the fishy smell, once the family has eaten bowls of strawberry ice cream and watched a movie, Layla goes out. She is going to see some old friends, to say goodbye, Selvakumari hears her tell her brother.

Layla enters the kitchen as Selvakumari is soaping the counters, the girl dressed in a black dress with sequins stitched in rows. Her lips are a light pink.

“Bye, Sally,” she says as she exits through the kitchen foyer, the door clicking behind her.

Selvakumari wipes the counters, then dries them with a small towel. Upstairs, there are sounds of shuffling, doors shutting, someone walking around—the family settling for sleep. She washes her face in the bathroom, pats dabs of sandalwood cream on her forehead and cheeks. As she lies down in her bed, Selvakumari thinks of the girl smoking, crossing one leg over the other beneath the sequins as she laughs. I should stay awake, Selvakumari thinks, watching the streetlamps through her thin curtains.

 

She must have fallen asleep because she wakes to yelling. At first, Selvakumari thinks it is part of her dream—some kaleidoscope burst of her sisters in a river, a star streaking the water—but as she blinks in the dark, she can hear the voices sharpening, clear. Selvakumari sits up. Two women, the sounds coming from the kitchen.

Layla. And her mother.

Selvakumari untangles her legs from the blanket, pads silently to the wall, a bar of light visible beneath the door.

“And your hair,” Madame is saying. “It’s like you want to boast, like you want to force everyone to look, to—”

“I’m not ashamed. That’s what you want, I know, but I’m not… I’m, I’m not ashamed.” Layla’s voice is thick. The girl has been drinking, Selvakumari realizes.

“Everywhere I look, there are nice girls from good families, getting good degrees, marrying nice, successful boys. And then I look around… What did I do? What did I do to deserve this? You come around flaunting this nonsense…” Layla makes an indistinct, murmuring sound. “What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“No, please, go ahead, you might as well—”

“I said you martyr. You poor martyr you. Mother of the decade. With her sinful children and—”

Child. Not children. Child. You.”

“All of this because you’re terrified,” Layla’s voice quivers, “of something going wrong. God forbid we talk. Let’s bring out the porcelain and the candles, and make sure the house is perfectly swept and never, ever speak the truth.” There is a pause. “Are we never going to talk about it?” she asks. “Never?”

“Shut up, Layla. Just shut up.”

“Never?” Layla asks again. “I can’t live like that. Just because you’re a coward. I won’t live like that, I won’t, you know that I won’t, you—”

“I don’t want to hear it!” the mother screeches. There is silence, then the gasping sound of the mother crying. A moment later, footsteps out of the kitchen, then on the staircase.

Selvakumari hears the girl utter a low curse. Selvakumari waits for a moment, then she opens the door and steps into the kitchen.

Layla is sitting at the table. There is a cigarette between her lips, which are trembling. She blinks in the fluorescent light at Selvakumari, her gaze unfocused—not tipsy, Selvakumari sees, but drunk—and shrugs.

“Sorry,” she says and starts to cry.

The girl smokes her cigarette, crying softly. Her lipstick is faded, and the sequins look garish, unnecessary in the bright light. For a moment, Selvakumari stands awkwardly, unsure whether she should touch her or help her upstairs into bed when, suddenly, she knows what to do.

The idea strikes Selvakumari swiftly, immediately obvious. It is what her mother would do, what her sisters would do, what Selvakumari herself had done for the girls in Amman—for isn’t Layla still a child? she thinks—what she never did for her daughter.

Selvakumari strikes a match against the stove, fills a pot with water. First the long glassy noodles go in, then the dhal. A dusting of cinnamon. Selvakumari stirs the mixture as the fragrant scent fills the kitchen. Finally, she adds a pinch of chili powder, hesitates, then sprinkles in another spoonful. The girl needs the kick for clarity. She pours the steaming concoction into a bowl, and places it on the table in front of the girl. Layla looks up at her, sniffing, the cigarette burnt out between her fingers.

Layla wipes her nose with her sleeve. “I’m a mess.”

“Eat,” Selvakumari says, placing a spoon next to the bowl.

The girl lets out a bitter laugh, shakes her head. “You don’t understand. You just don’t get it.”

And because Selvakumari cannot tell her she does, cannot tell her about a fictitious queen or some girl who lived by a riverbank years ago, she just nudges the bowl closer towards Layla. “Eat.”

There is a long pause, and Selvakumari sees the lonely streets in Manhattan, the journey still unfurling, nettled and long and hard, before this sniffling girl. She waits for Layla’s gaze to lift, catching hers, and smiles gently.

“Eat,” Selvakumari says for a third time, and this time the girl does.

***

Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Guernica, among others. She is the author of three collections of poetry, the first of which, Atrium (Three Rooms Press), was selected for the Arab American Book Award. The second, Four Cities, was published by Black Lawrence Press, and the most recent, Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press), was selected as a winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, Salt Houses, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this year. More from this author →