Hi Writers & Readers
Trying to gather courage here so going ahead and sharing a short story I've recently written. Almost 3200 words.
Would really appreciate some gentle feedback.
An Only Fly
"On the roof, on the roof.” I shriek pointing at the black intrusion that buzzes along the edges of the wall. It zigzags in the air and although its eyes have disappeared in a very black face, I know it’s watching me.
“Roof? What’s on the roof?” Bubba looks up from the thick book in his hands and rubs his eyes as if adjusting them to sunlight. His head tilts to one side and his ear stands tall on the other, the way it used to when he was trying to catch approaching sounds, warning signals. He looks around the room before turning to me, “Did you say something Yamama?”
I pull the duvet over my face and push myself deeper into the prickly mattress. “The fly.” I cry.
Bubba draws a long breath, the kind that indicates danger has gone. “It’s only a fly.” He says, waiting for me to reappear from under the duvet. “Now where is your mother?” When he can’t fix something he always looks for Maman. But Maman isn’t there. She still isn’t back from the Old Lady’s place where she cleans and rubs until her hands and temper become sore.
It’s not an only fly. It’s a buzzing machine that buzzes in my ears and threatens to come near me any time now. From under the thin duvet I can see the shadow of its black shapeless form making lines on the wall like a fighter plane leaving a trail. I push my fingers into my ears to stop the buzz.
“Come out now, it’s harmless.” He says, not happy to be distracted from his book.
“Can you get it out?” Almost before I ask, I know what the answer will be. Bubba could never get the sound of the drones out of my ears, no matter how he promised each time they flew over our heads. Or the sound of the bombs that shook the buildings as if they were no stronger than cardboard boxes.
“It’ll go away, I promise. Just close your eyes and don’t think about it.” He used to say that about the bombs and the drones too. But they never went away. Bubba throws his head back into his book again, that thick volume that survived the trip from Aleppo to this strange country when almost nothing else did.
“The only things that disappear with closed eyes is dreams.” says Maman. I think sometimes she’s an angel, arriving whenever I most need her. But today she doesn’t look like her angel self. Her frizzy brown-black hair is tied at her nape like the women who walk on the streets here, and she’s wearing black pants and a loose T-shirt that hang around her body like empty bags left for drying. Her head isn’t covered by the familiar head covering she used in front of strangers in Aleppo, or when we first arrived here. I always liked it better than her uncovered head.
“Maman,” I cry and finally leave the mattress to fling myself at my mother. “There’s a fly on the roof.” I say, wrapping my arms around her waist so I’m not forced to look up at the strange woman she has become. I fail to find a soft spot to bury my head in. Nonetheless she smells of washing soap and detergent in a comforting motherly sort of a way.
“Not the roof, Habibti. It’s called a ceiling.” Maman corrects me. “You must learn your English well. The school test is only two weeks from now. They won’t take you in the third grade if your English is so bad.”
I don’t like that she gives Bubba an angry look for not correcting my English sooner. But I like it that she still calls me Habibti – my love. She hangs her bag on the edge of the wooden chair Bubba got from a kind family that wanted to help refugees. The rest of the chair is filled with small things of everyday use, a towel, a few books, a blanket when it’s not in use, Bubba’s medicines, Maman’s prayer scarf that she uses less often now.
“There’s a fly on the silling.” I say, hoping they'll hear me now.
Bubba greets Maman although she doesn’t answer back. “How was your day?”
“Did they call you for the interview?” Maman asks, without answering him.
Bubba runs a hand through his uncombed hair. “Not yet. But I’m hopeful they will after they see my CV.” His eyes wander to the bag of medals he carried with him from Aleppo. They are a clunky lot of cups and medallions that made the guards at all the airports we have been through, very suspicious. Maman said she hated them because they almost made us miss our flight to this country.
“You’re still hoping they'll accept a degree from a university that was blown by a bomb?” Maman’s voice is not a fighting voice. It’s a tired voice. “Go on wait. Wait for the perfect job while I clean people’s houses so we don’t starve.”
Bubba winces but he doesn’t scowl the way he used to. Instead he picks up his big book and hugs it to his chest. I think the closeness of the book, the familiarity of its pages gives him the comfort Maman or I cannot. He tries not to look her in the eyes when he answers. “I don’t want you to clean people’s houses. Just the way I don’t want you to stop wearing your headscarf. We came to this country to be free.”
Maman makes a sound like the one the pink animal in the Peppa cartoon makes. The one Bubba doesn’t want me to watch. “Do you think anyone will give me a job if they see my headscarf? Someone has to make a sacrifice. And it won’t be you. We know that. And it certainly won’t be my child. No, never again.” Maman looks down into my eyes and pulls me closer. Yet she is very far away. Although she’s hugging me but there’s a stiffness in her bony fingers as they press into my arms.
“There’s a fly on the silling.” I remind my parents of my presence.
Maman notices me then. The arms that were pressing into me push me away. “You had to let the window open, Yamama?” Maman’s voice is unforgiving. But I forgive her anyways.
“It’s hot in here Farah. The girl needs some air.” Bubba says carefully. He doesn't argue too much with Maman anymore, at least not the way he used to when we were in Aleppo, when the war just broke out, when she begged him to leave but he wouldn’t listen. And then it was too late.
“Alright then, get the damn fly out,” Maman snaps at Bubba, watching me from the corner of her eyes. “if you can.” Maman adds under her breath before turning her back on Bubba as if she’s done listening to him.
Bubba watches her thin, receding back, the broad set of shoulders that appear out of place above a thinning waistline, and wipes the sweat off his brow with the back of his sleeve. I retreat to a corner of the room and close my eyes to stop the tears from spilling on my face. They’re going to leave me here with the damn fly, I know it. No matter how hard I try to shut it out, its noise buzzes in my ears and multiplies the way Bubba sometimes talks about a machine called the amplefier. I hold my arms, and perhaps my breath too, around my shoulders to stop the shivering. The door of the quarter thuds as heavy steps leave in a rush. Someone kicks Bubba’s bag of medals and then follows the footsteps out of the quarter. There’s an eerie silence interrupted only by the buzzing fly, like the drones coming and going, going and coming. I jump when I hear a sudden swish cutting the dry summer air.
“Damn this fly.” It’s Maman, just when I thought she had abandoned me. She’s cutting the air with her new dusting stick that grows from the size of my arm to almost as tall as me. She bought it for two neat brown papers from the Something for Everybody store. It was a treat, she had told me earlier when I saw it for the first time. A treat for three months of hard work at the Old Lady’s place. Two brown papers that felt heavier than they weighed. It was as expensive as the book she bought me last time, when she thought it would be too much of a waste to use the money on this duster.
"At least now I won’t be breaking my back when I get up on stools to dust off all the hidden corners that the Old Lady finds in her house.” she had said with something close to a smile.
I watch her pull the stick out to its full length. She swats it against the walls where the fly sits and sends the black mite into a crazy frenzy. The creature throws itself against all corners of the room like a blind dog but never finds its way to the window. I almost laugh watching Maman chase the fly because she looks so full of life, her limbs dancing with energy that makes her face bright. She looks at me each time an attempt fails and I whimper my encouragement for her to continue. How she fights with it until she gets more tired than she already is. She throws the stick at the silling like a crazy woman until the top snaps and the funny bobs that do the dusting fall apart and all that remains in her hands is the long stretch of a headless stick.
She looks at the broken stick like she had looked at the limp body of Benghazi in her arms that day in Aleppo. That day when Bubba finally agreed to leaving Syria. And then she slips into the only empty corner of the room and buries her head in her knees. I hear her raspy cries and they hurt me more than the buzzing of the drones and the falling bombs and the hissing of the fly. They tear at a something within my chest until I pick the broken duster and run out of the room, out of the quarter and out into the street. I run, if that is even possible, on one good leg and one plastic leg. I carry the duster as if it’s my own broken leg I carry in my arms. I’m panting as I reach the grocery store some streets away.
“Oh dear, is everything alright?” The grocer asks.
I must be looking something because he never asks whenever I come here with Maman. Not even when he sees me limping behind her, he always looks away as if he’s too afraid to ask why I don’t walk like the other children. I put the broken duster reverently on the counter, touching each piece like they are the limbs of a little girl torn by a bomb.
“Can you... ?” I bite my lips so my words don’t tremble. I gulp back my tears.
“Now what do we have here? A duster?” I wince as he touches the parts with his rough, square fingers. His eyes narrow as he looks at my face. He looks around to make sure no one is there before he bends closer and whispers, “Did she beat you with it?”
I step back and shake my head forcefully. "No.” I heard Mr. Bahman mention the other day that one of the refugee families had their children taken away because they suspected the parents beat them.
The grocer scrunches his nose. “Then what?”
“It broke. Can I get a new one?”
“Oh dear, I’m afraid the ones I have are fairly expensive. This one looks from the Something for Everybody store and that’s pretty far away in the city.” He says.
“Does that mean your duster costs more than two brown papers?”
He doesn’t look like he understands. I bite my lip, but this time the tears won’t stop. “There was a fly on the roo - silling.” I say quickly. “Maman tried to save me.”
The grocer laughs in a kind sort of way. “She tried to save you from a fly?”
I shake my head. “She tried to save me from the drones and the bombs.”
His face falls. When he doesn’t answer I gather the broken pieces and start to walk back to our quarters.
“Wait a minute, young miss. Come here, now.” He asks for the broken duster. “Let’s have a look. It’s not done too bad.” He runs a hand along the rod that now stands as tall as me. “Ever tried fixing broken things?” He asks, pulling out a tube from a drawer.
I shake my head. Never. Broken things were always thrown away. Like that leg.
“Well it’s always good to know how to fix broken things. In this country everything is expensive. Sometimes it’s better to fix the old than to buy new ones.” He rubs the tube along the edges where the head had fallen off. Then he puts the head back and holds it against the length of the duster for a while. In a minute he releases his hand and watches for the head to fall off. When it doesn’t he shakes the stick sideways. “Well, I guess this is better than not having a duster at all?” He hands me the duster.
I wave it slowly in the air, not believing my eyes. Is it possible to fix something so broken? I thank him the way Maman has taught me and speed back to the quarter. I am happy Maman will be able to use the duster but I am sad too. Sad that no one thought of fixing my leg when the bombs tore it.
When I enter the room Bubba is already there. He’s crouching on the floor beside Maman and they’re both crying into each other. Her head is on his chest and his head is on her shoulders like two people joined in pain. Did she tell him about the broken duster? That the two brown papers they could have used for food or books for me had gone to waste.
It is then that I see the bag of medals lying at Maman’s feet like a deflated balloon. Next to it is a box of sweets. The duster drops from my hands as my eyes glue on the golden karabij rolls.
“Maman.” I lick my lips.
They look up at me as if they never knew I left the room. I, too, have forgotten why I left the room. From where I stand I can imagine how these cylinders of semolina and walnuts will taste. Maman follows my gaze and nods her approval. I plop a roll into my mouth allowing the pastry to melt inside.
“From tomorrow I shall go to work Yamama.” Bubba says, offering me more rolls from the box. I gulp the sweet. Will they leave me alone in this room? “Mr. Bahman was so kind to introduce me to his employer.” He carries his big book reverently to the shelf where Maman keeps the Quran. “He said you can come with me until your school starts.”
I bounce off Maman’s lap and stand beside my father. “Are you going to be a teacher?”
“I am a teacher Habibti. And you shall always be my student.” He smiles patting my head. “That will never change.” He walks over to the window and draws the curtains over the fading sun. “Come, it’s late. We must get up early tomorrow. We’ll have our Maths lesson before we leave for work.”
When I slip under the duvet that night the fly is still sitting in a corner of the room. I close my eyes tightly and push my fingers into my ears. It’s an only fly, I tell myself. When I wake up the next morning I’m surprised that I even slept at all. Bubba has combed his hair and is ready to teach me my Maths lesson. Maman brings us the breakfast she cooked in the kitchen we share with the Bahmans. Today must be special because she’s made labneh balls and hard-boiled eggs with pita and hummus. When we sit down to eat, she pulls out the duster I had forgotten on the floor last night.
“What’s this?” Maman asks, placing the stiff, tall stick beside me.
I search her face for anger but clear like the sky after rain. “Mr. Grocer fixed it. He said it won’t become short anymore, it’ll always stay one size but he said it will work.” I put a hand on Maman’s thigh. “You won’t have to break your back when you do dusting at the Old Lady’s place.”
Maman closes her eyes and opens them again as if doing so will help her see everything for the first time. She opens her arms and invites me in. I rush like a thirsty kitten. It has been so many months since she hugged me. It was always I who came after her. Bubba ruffles my hair as I bury myself in Maman’s chest. She doesn’t seem to mind Bubba’s closeness anymore either.
“How did you fix it?” Maman asks.
“Mr. Grocer has a magic glue that can fix anything.” I say proudly. “He says it may not be the same again after fixing but at least we won’t have to throw it away.”
Bubba nods. “Mr. Grocer is very kind.”
That morning Maman stands in front of the oval mirror that hangs on the wall and wraps her hair in her best brown scarf. She stops when she sees me staring at her reflection.
“You look beautiful.” I say.
Her fingers quicken around the scarf. She tacks it firmly in place with a pin.
“Will it be ok?” I ask. “They won’t stop you from working because you wear a scarf?”
Mama shakes her head. She picks up the duster but she also picks up something else. A blue file like the one Bubba has been carrying around when he asks people for a job. Perhaps, she too, hopes to have a job at a school as an English teacher. Perhaps she too, has hope.
“I was thinking, Yamama, about what Mr. Grocer said.” She comes to sit beside me on the mattress where I’m finishing the Maths lessons Bubba gave me. “Maybe one day, we can also fix your leg. It's never too late.”
When Maman is gone I look up at the silling. The fly is not there anymore. I rub my eyes to make sure the black spot isn’t there but I'm certain now. The fly is gone. Like all bad days, it did not stay for long.