Mike Holtzman
Runner-up

Paper Dolls of the East

The boy runs along the pitted dirt road behind the leaping tire. The tire is almost as tall as the boy and when it lands it wobbles because the steel belt stabs through the sidewall into a cankerous bubble.  The boy releases the tire with one last push and he leans his hands on his knees to catch his breath as he has been doing this very thing for the better part of an hour while the sun was climbing hot overhead but also so he can steady himself to watch the tire as it careens towards the jagged half-wall ahead.  The boy wonders if something different will happen this time, if the wall might crack or judder or if the tire will by some force unknown to him rebound right to his hand like it did once this morning but not again since. The tire catches the rut by the ashes where the trash fire was and veers off. It bounces off the wall confounded and spins in a circle a few times before it shudders in the dust. This is the last one, the boy thinks.  Maybe one more.

***

I have this dream where I feel as if I am falling.  Not falling fast and heavy like I was dropped from an airplane, but more like a snowflake, drifting on the accident of the winds only there is nothing and no one to catch me and the falling is without end. This kind of falling feels scarier than a fall to the earth. I could be falling upward for all I know.

***

The girl peers through a hole in the sun-bleached blue polythene wrap that doesn’t do much to keep out the rain and the cold which come more often in this squalid valley than they did back home just over the mountains. Those jagged peaks once three days beneath her feet are now two days walk behind her, a forbidding ridge at the edge of camp that splits her life in two uneven parts, one teeming with the simple delights and rituals of childhood, the other littered with despair that collects spoils and spreads under thousands of flimsy tents pitched across an unwanted patch of useless landscape. Today visitor doctors from America are coming to give out medicine. A sister lies inside, parched with thirst and eyes reddened from blood full of sugar and four days without insulin.

In the center of the timber stone and tarpaulin shelter that sags like empty sailcloth is the red rug that was a wedding gift the girl’s parents received and kept laid in the living room of their apartment in Hena which the television showed was now only bones stacked in mountains of grey rubble dust.  The red rug is as brilliant as the midday sun with orange and gold kaleidoscope patterns in the heavy silk that is worn down to the mesh in parts sticky in others. Laying on the red rug reminds the girl of home. Her mother sits on the red rug for much of the day, wrapped in her niqab, tending her sick sister and it reminds her of her husband.

When can we go home the girl would ask.

There is no home without father habiba, the mother would say.

But our things are there.

Nothing is left there. Everything we have we have here.

The girl sweeps her hand across the warm red Aubusson.

Is this our home.

We have no home.

Well we live here.

We survive we do not live.

***

Through a rip in the covering the girl peers down the dirt path between the chain link fence and the long row of shelters she lives among. The doctors walking stopping looking in mouths and ears are surrounded by a growing pack of children who enlist from all quarters of the camp because although they are used to visitors who come and go never to be seen again there is always the promise of gifts and attention and the doctors do not fail them, dispensing tiny bottles of hand sanitizer.

Yalla, go mother says and the girl goes.

***

The man more belly than man is squeezed behind the wheel of the brown Mercedes that is clattering on the gravel road outside the half wall that encloses the camp, the road where children who are not in the schools and there are many go each day sometimes even Saturdays for the drive further into the valley to pick and bundle the sticky pungent spiked hashish leaves until their fingers are stained with green dust.

In a stringy cloud of grey tar the man’s fingers stuffed like grape leaves raise a cigarette to his lips and he watches through the chain links the girl as she pleads with the doctors more useless almutasakieun who slow down his business in Bar Elias.

The girl’s shoulders slouch defeated and the man smiles through his Chinese Marlboro and leans on the Mercedes’ horn. The girl’s chin turns a slight acknowledgement towards the man though her half-lidded eyes remain on the empty place where the doctors had just stood and said they only had aspirin and antibiotics but no insulin today.

The man flicks his cigarette and with the side of his fist punches the horn again longer as two young boys climb up into the back of the rust-dinged flatbed idling behind the Mercedes they join a dozen or so other children who fill the bed a drab rainbow of hand me down colors.

The girl walks slowly through the gate towards the truck and the man despite his fat and his rattling cough is out of his car quickly and upon her slapping her face hard with both meaty hands.  She cries out and falls and the man kicks up a dust cloud then kicks her in the backside as she crawls under the bed and out the other side where she clambers into the bed and shelters among the swell of little bodies.

You are late Daesh, the man shouts red-faced kicking gravel at the truck and yanking up his sagging trousers. You better work extra hard today or I will tear down every tent in this camp just like your houses in Raqqa.

Kess ommak he swears.

The man picks up a rock and hurls it into the bed of the truck and the children cower and cover up their heads and turn their backsides lest the stone hit them.

You work my land if you want to live on it you terrorists. Do you hear me. No one wants you here and no one will care if you die like your fathers did.

Save for the girl the children aren’t weeping at this cruelty as they have endured it countless times. Most already have scarves tied over their faces to protect them from the crop and some for shame because drugs are a sin to the believers and some to conceal their faces from masked men of Daesh who would bleed them like goats were they happened upon in the fields. The girl ties her scarf and hides inside it from the whole of the universe she breathes into it wet with tears and the run from her nose and she looks through the rabble past the shouting man towards the tent where her sister lies helpless.

***

I don’t awaken from the falling dream. There is no mercy like that. No, this is as if I am alive and dead at once. That is why it is the falling I am afraid of not the sudden and painful end. I am floating through absolute nothingness. Nothing above or beneath. Nothing behind or in front. I am nothing.

 

***

The boy is sitting atop his tire now. Men come sometimes to take tires no matter their repair and sell them roadside on the long vaulted stretch from Beirut. Bigger boys also come for things, anything not nailed down, because it is something to do. On this day, the tire will be taken from the boy by British Christians who are visiting the camp to separate plastic rubbish from the other rubbish and to take photos with their thumbs up and they pity the boy sitting atop a useless old tire.

***

In the sea of displacement that casts careless and cruelly its vast tide through the camp, there are but seven schools, sad brown unfinished structures with hand-drawn cartoon characters and words of encouragement such as believe on the walls and math and English spelling lessons sealed in peeling plastic on the doors and unfit teachers recruited from the rabble. The schools depend for supplies on the kindness of strangers so they are struggling too. There is a rumor going around that one school the one for older girls who wear the niqab will close and without this hope and refuge they too will belong to the shawishes, the strongmen the fat man who owns the land has put in charge to act as informants and to keep order and most of all to aid his enterprises in the fields and in stealing electricity from the tents and in selling the girls off to a fetid runnel of bewitched Lebanese men as brides for marriages that last a few wretched weeks.

***

On this evening the children return from the fields with their skin tacky from the hashish and scraped raw in places from dragging and stacking the harvest in the corrugated warehouses in Bar Elias. The girl runs to her tent where her mother brother and sister lay on the red rug. The boy is still blubbering because his tire was taken but the girl smiles at him and takes from her pocket a small pair of garden shears. They are dull and also covered in green dust. The boy runs his hand over the blade and sniffs at the acrid film that has collected sticky on his fingers.

La the girl tells the boy and he wipes his hands on his legs.

Taeal ‘iilaa huna she calls to him. We have something to do.

Inglisi the mother instructs the girl. Speak English.

The boy jumps up as the mother strokes the sleeping sister’s sweaty hair and the older girl squeezes through the flap in the canvas and holds it open for her brother to join her on the dirt passage outside. The girl grabs a withered fold of the polythene stapled to the plywood wall and extends her hand to the boy who clutches the shears to his chest for he has all he wants.

OK Mehdi you do it. Cut.

What are you doing the boy asks in a nervous hush.

Hamdoulah the girl assures him. Shush. Cut.

The boy smiles and his eyes widen at the mischief and he cuts a jagged rectangle of washed out blue papering about the length of his forearm and giggles.

Quiet Mehdi. Let’s go inside now.

***

Pull it closed the mother says and the girl hooks the eyelet in the canvas door on a bent nail.

Sitting on the Aubusson the girl starts to work on the paper with the shears turning it in all directions and tiny scraps of this scrap from Hena drop to the carpet. The boy sits beside her craning over her shoulder reaching to touch the shears.

What are you doing he asks.

Wait Mehdi she says.

The boy balls his fists impatient as the mother yells in a whisper what are you doing with those scissors what is that garbage on the floor you better clean it up.

The girl holds up the paper cut into a figure a boy maybe but still blanched and featureless. The boy grabs at it.

Gentle habib the girl says. Shall we give him hair?

Aiwa the boy yells and he is shushed by the girl and the mother.

The girl rubs her finger along the handle of the shears and along the blade and collects the sticky dust gathered from the fields and smears it atop the figure. She brushes her hand across the tufted Aubusson and scoops up red fibers from the pile yarn and sprinkles them onto the doll’s head.

Hair she says and the boy delights.

***

Saturday there would be no work in the fields but here is the Mercedes parked out on the unfinished road at the entrance of the camp.  The girl’s arms are slung low her fingers laced under a case of bottled water retrieved from the truck which has backed up inside the gate to distribute a shipment of charity. Her sister is thirsty and although she is six she is now wearing diapers again because she is too weak to walk to the latrine or to the sewage reservoir to relieve herself. The girl sees the man who is bursting out of a button-up shirt not his usual t-shirt but dressed like he had somewhere important to go.  He is leading another man this one balding and bearded and dressed fancy in peg-legged trousers and pointy black shoes.

The girl shuffles faster squeezing her lips together and sipping in tiny breaths under the weight of the case of water which makes her arms burn.

Mahlaan he yells to her.

The girl ignores the slur and pushes and stumbles through thickets of people because on Saturday the passages are crowded with children and there is food and water being given out.

Mahlaan the man yells again. Alkaiba he swears. He hacks into his hand and laughs with the man who walks beside him in no hurry as the crowds part for him on the pocked road that leads to the shelter where the girl lives.

The girl is inside on the red rug cowering behind her mother who is holding her sister’s head in her lap and tugging a plastic water bottle from taut plastic wrapping. The man’s fat hand appears in the slacking curtain and he pushes it open to lean inside wide enough for the bearded man to stick his head in too nodding and smiling through plaque-stained jagged teeth.

Stand up girl the fat one says but the girl says no and sobs on her mother’s shoulder.

Alkaiba he says shaking his head and smiling at the bearded man whose eyes are covetous on the girl. You’ll have to train this one.

Stand up habiba, says the girl’s mother.

Mama no mama cries the girl. I don’t want to marry him.

We have a deal don’t we the man points a yellowed finger at the mother.

Yes says the mother.

You get money you get medicine for the sick one and when she’s well we have a husband for her too he says coughing an amber fleck into his hand and laughing toward the bearded man who is delirious with wicked intention.

Just go the mother says and there is much crying from the girl and scratching at the fat man who wraps his arms around the girl and squeezes her arms hard into her sides and carries her off.

***

I have this dream where I am falling and there is no one to catch me or any solid ground to free me. But I realize now it is the world not me that is falling away, like the collapse of a scaffolding that was built to make me feel tethered to something real and far from death. Perhaps the world carries on somewhere beyond the ruin but it is no matter for I am left behind here. I am forgotten. So let me remind you.

I was a schoolgirl in Hena. I was twelve years old. I was filled with cousa and barazek cookies. I was a friend to a girl named Amira and we played with a little white cat that lived behind our building and kept coming back to rub on us even when the sun was hot or when the boys would throw rocks at her and make her run. I was a daughter to a father. I was a keeper to a sister. I was a good Muslim. I was.

***

The boy enters his home through the dangling flap of plastic and sits by the edge of the red carpet where his mother sits also, mourning her faith into brown napkins. He lifts a matted corner of the Aubusson and slides out his paper doll which is now splendid with red hair fashioned from the rug’s pile and trousers made from his mother’s old black niqab and a shirt cut from the leaf of a book his sister had carried from the place somewhere over the mountains where he once lived before the world fell away.

 

 

 

Comments
  1. Sarah Posten on

    Great issue. “Paper dolls of the East” is quite a find.

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