Joyland

Canada |

A Dull Yellow Presence

by Mona’a Malik

edited by Kathryn Mockler

Aida, on the day of her uncle’s funeral, was a hummingbird—little brown twig elbows fluttering up and down for attention. Making as much commotion as her body could expend. Tiny hot breaths puffing out of her beak: “Abee! Ommee, Ommee!” She wanted her father to talk to her, her mother to talk to her. She could be a hard child, acerbic, but she had spurts of affection that could drown a man. A striking child, mammoth moss-colored eyes in a tiny heart-shaped face. At nine, she only liked to eat dark, bitter foods. Her mother’s friends wondered what kind of magic she used to make Aida eat broccoli and brussels sprouts and kale. Aida drank her father’s unsugared coffee when he wasn’t looking, spat sour words to the girls at school. The alkaline bile seeping from her liver gave her an ill temper. She was exacting and liked things to be ordered. Now, everything was in chaos, and she clenched her hands in fists wherever she went. 

Her mother’s hands were like wisps of Oil of Olay, all scent and warmth on her neck, plaiting Aida’s charcoal strands down, down, down her back, quickly, her knuckles tickling Aida’s spine. All of a sudden, Aida felt guilty, bending her ear to Ommee’s held back sobs. She saw in her mind’s eye the drooping face of her uncle—the loose, flapping eyelids, the creases and corrugations wrinkling and unwrinkling like an accordion, the gold tooth. The purple bags under his eyes. She saw him clapping along to music as her Ommee and Abee danced and warbled in the living room, feet jumping, hands raised, the airless smell of something spoiled coming from his direction. Sometimes throaty singing jumped out of the melodies, a woman who sang like she was suffering, sometimes there were tinny instrumental refrains and old men singing stories that made you think of a sunny day that had passed. She wasn’t sad about her uncle dying but she was sad to not feel sad. She patted Ommee’s shoulder. She didn’t like this feeling of iniquity which weighed on her like thick, syrupy molasses on the brain, which pulled her tight as a drum.

“Kgruh-kgruh-kgruh”: vomitous sounds emitted from her phlegm-ridden mother. Abee helped Ommee walk around the house because she was so dizzy. Walking pneumonia, the doctor had said, which meant her mother could pooh-pooh anyone telling her to stay home from the funeral. “Walking,” she said, “I can still walk.” She hadn’t slept for three nights, since the hospital called. Her skin looked blue, like the fairy in Aida’s storybook, but in a way that scared her.

Two days before the funeral, Jidya had talked to Aida in her low sing-song voice on the phone, begged Aida to make her parents send the body back to Mosul. She had already asked Aida’s father, and he had told her it wasn’t possible.

“Jidya, we can’t,” Aida said, mimicking the harsh tones of an angry adult. “Abee told you we can’t. There’s no way to get the body there in time. It’s better to bury him in St. John’s. He will hear your prayers no matter where you are.”

Jidya cried loudly, wailing, keening on the phone for her son and Aida held the receiver a foot away. “But I will never see his face again!” 

Aida put the receiver down carefully and went to find her coat. 

Aida’s father had washed the body at the mosque with the help of the Imam and wrapped it in the white ka-fan, the cotton that would decompose with the body into the earth. The prayers whistled through the speakers too fast and loud, “Siraatal-lazeena an'amta 'alaihim ghayril-maghdoobi 'alaihim wa lad-daaalleen,” and her uncle rested in a box in the mosque basement. Her mother told her she could go up to say goodbye. She lingered by her mother’s right leg, or held her father’s arm, eyeballed Uncle’s face, which didn’t appear lifeless at all. Well rested. She looked at him from various angles, searching for movement beneath the sheets, or a wink from a flappy eye. Wondered if it was a joke. She whispered “Uncle” into his ear. She pinched his side when no one was looking, right in his fleshy hip, but the body wouldn’t flinch. They ate food on the basement tables, and everyone came up to them to say what a good man he was, to say a small prayer, to hug her mother. If they tried to hug Aida, she inched away. She only wanted to be near Ommee and Abee. 

At home, people came over to eat and drink coffee and recount nice things that Uncle had done. Someone brought a blackberry pie which tasted stale. One family brought a sack of rice and one of flour. Ommee tried to hang a black cloth in their window but Abee dissuaded her, said the neighbours would think they were odd. People didn’t do that in Canada.

“What do I care what they think?” she replied with a sneer but took down the cloth. 

On the fortieth death day anniversary, Arb’eenja, they went back to the cemetery. Ommee sprinkled rosewater on Uncle’s grave. She stood at a distance from Aida and her father, irritated with Abee for making them late. It smelled nice, the damp earth with the rose, like spring. It had rained for a week, but Abee nudged Aida forward to throw a handful of the wet dirt. The clouds were grey and angry behind the small chapel, and pinpricks of cool air stung her skin through her sweater. 

She said she was afraid of the worms, said “they’re squishy,” but really she was afraid of the body. The body she had pinched. That might be angry. That might grab her and take her with him. But her father scolded her.

“Aida,” he said, “Show respect.” He looked tired, even his moustache seemed shabby and worn out. He wiped his forehead as Ommee, now crying again, moved closer and leaned against him. 

Aida touched the dirt and flung it toward the grave. And then she did it again. And again. It was quite fun after a bit. Her parents said it was time to go home. She spied a small whitish worm in the dirt, which she pet before flinging it toward her uncle’s last resting place, and then took her father’s hand on one side and her mother’s hand on the other. It was cool and peaceful next to the graves and no one else could be seen except for an undertaker on the other side of the field, who from here was only the size of a beetle.

The only burying place for Muslims in St. John’s was a tiny section of a larger Christian cemetery. It was three blocks away from their home, but Aida had never noticed it before the funeral. From the side of the street that lead Aida to school, it looked like a small meadow, maybe a gated-off park. Now, the week after Arb’eenja, she couldn’t resist, began slipping inside the iron gate on her walk home from school, running her hands against the rusted bars. She would read the names on the tombstones, was astonished to find the same names as her classmates. There was a Martha, an Alexander, even a Joey. She stuck her dirty fingers into embossed scriptures. No one bothered her. The colors were more vibrant in the cemetery, the grass greener, the spring bloom more vivid. The air above the tombstones shone in different hues.

She went most days after school. Sometimes she and the undertaker would catch sight of each other from afar but neither said a word. Once in a while, a car would pull up, and then Aida would follow and watch elderly people or a young couple or a family stand at a particular grave, and maybe leave flowers. They never stayed more than ten minutes. 

One day in May, when she had friends over, she made them play gravedigger, and they solemnly half carried, half pushed each other into Aida’s bed, covered Martha’s body with blankets and pillows and said that she was a good man. Aida rocked her heels back and forth, raised her hands to the sky, and keened. It came out as a howl.

  

Death was a curiosity that she couldn’t get enough of. Aida forced her friends to play gravedigger often, even as she continued into grade five, more than a year after the funeral, and after other children in her class had stopped playing pretend. One afternoon when Ommee came in the door from getting groceries, she walked into the living room with two full paper bags in her arms and found Martha laying on the floor, her head and part of her body encased in a black garbage bag. Her shroud. 

“What are you doing?” she shrieked.

She dropped the groceries. Aida heard the eggs crack and watched them leak yolk through the brown paper onto the linoleum.

“Get that off your head!” Ommee ran over and pulled the bag off, pulled Martha up.  She said they could have killed her.

After her friends went home, and Ommee had cleaned up the mess on the living room floor, Aida peppered her mother with question after question about how it was possible for a person to stop breathing. How long does it take? What if you were strangled? Does the bag have to be tied tightly? Is that what happened to Uncle? She asked her mother where Uncle went after they brought his body to the cemetery, and Ommee said he went to heaven. Abee came home and asked why they didn’t have any eggs.

But how did he die? Aida asked again and again, having not realized before the myriad of ways that people could die, and Abee finally told her his heart had stopped working. “Please, Aida. Enough. You’re upsetting your mother.” Ommee looked at him, lips pursed. 

That night, Aida began to watch them from the doorway of their bedroom as they slept, checking to see that her parents had not yet left for heaven. When Abee caught her, he was irascible. He pulled her by the ear and brought her back to her bed. From then on, when she played gravedigger, again and again and again, she always wanted to be the body.

 

After the death of her Uncle, (by murder or suicide or plastic bag; Aida had still not figured out how his heart stopped working), a tension filled the cracks of the house. Where there used to be music playing in the halls, and people dancing, now Aida walked alone up and down the stairs, and each creak sounded in a dark blue. At dinner, no one spoke: Ommee read the newspaper, Abee stared out the window. Aida ate little. When she was up in her room, she pretended she was the only one who lived there.

Back and forth her parents hissed in low Arabic in the living room and the dining room and the back porch when they thought Aida was in bed. Sometimes she hid herself in the laundry room with the door ajar, moving toward them as their voices rose, and noted each verbal punch. The friends of her parents that used to come over, howling with laughter, bringing steaming harissa and drinking cup after cup of coffee, vanished.  

“I’m just settling into this new position at work,” Abee said, on one of those nights.

Ommee was lying on the couch, her limbs floating on the stained, polyester-green couch, Abee far away from her on the armchair, like a student staring at the chalkboard in a classroom.

“What’s more important?” Ommee retorted.

“I’m the one taking care of the family.”

“If we go back, I’ll have a job too.”

For months after, even after sixth grade had started, and Aida was busy with geometry and graphs and number lines, Ommee could no longer hide her dissatisfaction. She told Aida at dinner, her own plate full and untouched, while Aida ate her shorbat addas with sha'riyya and brussels sprouts. 

“We need to sell the house,” Ommee said, matter-of-fact. “We need to book our flights. Now. This week. There’s more than enough room for us, Jidya keeps telling us.” This last sentence was directed only at Aida. “You can play with all your cousins!” 

“We can’t,” Abee said, before Aida could respond. 

Ommee started bringing it up to Aida, in private, when Abee was at work. Making plans. Aida saw a suitcase under the bed in the spare room. It was filled with socks and underwear and the old family albums. 

Finally, one evening, Ommee said to Aida: “The house has gone up in value. We can live off the profit while I look for work.” She said it as if Abee wasn’t in the room. Said she had been talking to a realtor.

“Ba3ad galbi,” Abee said, standing up. Ommee stood up too. He moved behind Ommee and put his fat arms around her, holding her in place. “It’s going to be okay, it just takes time.”

“I can’t stay in this house anymore. Not for one more second.” Her voice was harsh but the half-circle of her lower eyelids were slowly filling, threatening to spill. 

“Aida, go to your room,” Abee said. But Aida chewed each brussels sprout slowly, focusing on the soft crunch. After a particularly long bout of jagged crying, he said simply, “It won’t be better there.”

Ommee replied, “Anything would be.” She straightened up, swallowed the tears.

“I don’t want to look at the neighbours. Every time I leave the house for even a moment, I have this feeling like I can’t go back inside,” Aida heard Ommee sob to Abee, and again on the phone, to other people, when she felt he wasn’t listening. The cold, the unfriendly stares, the hills, no one would hire her; all cited reasons they should go back to Iraq. She needed to go back. “I can’t go in his room,” she said, referring to the guest room where her brother had slept. “We should have sent the body to Jidya.” They had donated his belongings, his bright plum shirts, his giant shoes, to new immigrants coming into the city. Ommee’s parents were still grieving the loss of their oldest son. Someone should be taking care of them. Who if not her? she asked. “We took care of your father,” she said, once, nastily to Abee.

Aida’s grandfather meant nothing to her, a man with a long face and long nose who lived on in ragged photographs brought back from Aida’s parent’s hometown. He had lived with Ommee and Abee before Aida was born. Aida listened to her father acknowledge and counter each shout and cry with soothing words like trickles of water in the ear, and he held her mother, his arms around her ribcage, pressing. 

Shortly after this, Aida noticed how her mother had given up asking to go home, started to get out of breath whenever she walked up the stairs. Her stomach became round like a ball, but soft. Aida tried to push a pencil into it but her mother shooed her away. When they sat on the couch, Aida could lay her head on it like a pillow, her arms around her mother’s waist, her fingers unable to touch. 

“Don’t crush your brother,” her father joked. 

Aida looked up at Abee’s own bulging stomach. “Am I getting two brothers?” she asked. Her green eyes kept her occupied, uneasily watching changes around the house. The pretty white crib against the wall in the guest room. Half-painted clouds on the ceiling. Her mother bought, then returned, and then bought more items, a whole manner of things in pale yellow: wool blankets, soft bedding, toys that lit up. Aida sat with her and helped to open boxes. They felt crisp when they ripped. Her mother exclaimed “Your brother will love this one,” hugging a pudgy yellow hippopotamus, or “This isn’t what it looked like in the catalogue” with a frown. Aida would press her palm against her mother’s swelling.

Abee decided to renovate the kitchen, to make it bigger, but Ommee got angry, said that she wanted to use the money so they could all go home the next summer. Jidya is getting older, she told Aida, and we should be there to help her. Instead, by the end of the winter break, they had new backsplash and a new stove, partially done hardwood floors, and a kitchen island. Aida liked the new floors and told Abee in front of Ommee. She didn’t want to go to Iraq.

 

*

Ommee was rushed to the hospital. 

Ommee and Abee were gone for six hours. Aida found bloody pads piled on top of each other in the bathroom wastebasket. 

No one had thought about a babysitter for Aida or dinner.

When Ommee stepped into the house, Aida was sitting on the front stairs. She took one look at Aida and burst into tears. 

When the swelling disappeared to nothing, Aida still played in the unfinished room, beside the painted roots of grass growing out of the white trim. “I’m glad he’s gone,” she said to her mother on a Sunday. Her mouth pouting, hands on small hips, angry that she wasn’t allowed to go to Kevin’s birthday party. Aida felt the red heat of the slap coming before it landed. “Ommee!” Stumbling backwards, Aida cried out and was told to go to her room while her mother lay down on the floor next to the crib. 

Aida thought about Martha, and how her little brother always held one of her fingers as they walked down the street.

This time, her father didn’t protest when Ommee put up a piece of black cloth in the living room window. In fact, one of Ommee’s new friends, another Iraqi woman, brought the cloth with her. Women came and sat on the floor with Ommee, cross-legged, hips against hips, and again ate food and drank coffee. They murmured while Ommee sat under the cloth, crouched like an animal, her face hidden. Aida asked Abee about the arrangements for the baby, but Abee was reluctant to talk about it. “Nafas roo7i,” he said, petting her head, “little girls don’t need to know these things.”

But she was not a little girl. She had outgrown her braids. She had lived through two deaths. When she was home alone with Ommee, she asked again, “Ommee, tell me about baby Hakim. Where will he go? Will we bring him to the mosque?” She wanted to see the baby, the body.

They sat next to the crib, where Ommee had been eating her meals. Her mouth was pale pink, and dried out. Her eyes were small and red. Words burst out of her and meaning was constructed from the looks she gave from half-opened lids: “Hakim was more than four months, so we have to do the same things that we did for Uncle. The ghusl, the ka-fan, but no Janazah salat. We will do aqeeqah for him.” Always, Ommee was crying. She cooked and cried, she cried while she ate. She sobbed late at night in the living room, after tucking Aida in. She cried when she told Aida that back home, after they wrap the dead and recite Qu’ran, the women and men who wash the bodies put a little bit of dust on the eyes: “The only thing man should take with him to the grave is dust.”

Aida wondered at the idea that the baby would bring anything to the grave when he never left the womb. She thought about him a lot. She began to wonder if everyone who slept in the guest room or was going to sleep in the guest room, would die. Every night for a week, after getting tucked in, she took her pillow and blanket and lay next to Hakim’s crib, listening for ghosts. Ommee was like a ghost too and never touched Aida anymore. She lifted the blanket on top of her to tuck her in without a kiss. Sometimes instead of crying, Aida bit her fingernails under the blanket, and wished for the baby to come back. Sometimes she took his yellow hippopotamus into her room, pretended to show him how it would move, how it would sound. That summer when she picked blackberries in the summer with Abee, Ommee didn’t join them. Aida pretended Hakim was picking blackberries too.

 

*

A week before her fourteenth birthday, Ommee and Abee were called into a dim office for a parent-teacher meeting. Ordinarily, they would be cooking dinner at this time, the kitchen warm and fragrant. Aida thought they looked nervous in their dress clothes; her mother in a loose black dress that resembled a western funeral outfit, her father in too-tight slacks. There were hard lines around Abee’s mouth that she hadn’t seen them before, like the fibrous lines in an orange, and for a moment, Aida’s heart fell. They sat in hard chairs, and the principal’s face across from them looked like she had eaten whole lemons. Her mouth puckered when she said “Aida forced Martha into a hole they dug in the woods behind the school. She told her she had to wail like a baby or everyone would know she was chicken.” The principal was silent, waiting for a response from Aida’s parents, and when they said nothing, she continued. “She said she was performing funeral rites. She said she was going to bring someone back from the grave.”

Ommee and Abee’s mouths and faces made shocked O-shapes. Aida looked away, down at her feet. 

“Oh my God,” Ommee said. She was blushing and stammering. Aida could see her upper lip was sweating. 

“Why would you do something like this?” Abee asked.

“We were just playing.” Aida stared straight into the face of the principal because she could tell the principal didn’t like it. 

Bewildered and persuaded by the principal to do something about their problem teenager, they punished her. They kept her busy: made her clean the whole house, every last nook, wiping the furniture down, and sweeping and mopping floors. They made her do odd jobs at their friend Bashir’s grocery store after school. Her friends were not allowed to come over, although Martha didn’t want to come over anyway. 

Abee slept on the couch downstairs that night.

He has a bad back, her mother told her when Aida asked why, and his back never improved. He slept there every night for years and Aida would watch him from the stairs to see if he would move late in the night after the television was off. She leaned against the bannister until she couldn’t keep her eyes open.

The next morning, they all came down at different times. Her mother, the early riser, made the coffee. Her father, at around eight, the last possible moment before he had to leave for work, made eggs. Aida had a bowl of cereal. She sat down and stayed until they were gone, watching in real-time as they drew away from each other, not touching as they moved around the kitchen cabinets and the dining table. Her mother hummed songs under her breath as if she was in her own world.

Lately, Aida saw the world more and more as a map of the deceased, each dead person in her life a particular color. Her uncle maroon, like a plum just before it becomes overripe. Baby Hakim appeared to her as a dull yellow, a day with only a shadow of sun. At first it had just been in the cemetery where she saw them. But now, everywhere around her, every piece of land, in a park, in a field, in a bathroom, they were all just places where hundreds of people, thousands of people since the beginning of time, had died. Auras of yellow, of copper, of scarlet, passing around and through her. Even when she closed her eyes, pressed her fingers against them, the colors that exploded against her lids reminded her of death. She saw the years of her life in an image like a track in her mind, deaths that had already happened, the deaths that were to come hovering in the air above her. The track curved at funerals, in the same way that the earth moved around the sun. Reality was weighted by this other dimension in her mind, the feelings of the colors, their moods, and their pain. Her father was starting to look like a soft blue.

 

*

When she had first arrived at her dorm, Aida found herself dreaming about the impenetrable thicket, full of brambles of sweet blackberries, next to the swings in her backyard. There was a chair with wooden slats painted pale blue like the sky. That’s where Aida’s mother drank her tea in the summer evenings in Newfoundland, the only time of year it was pleasant to do so. The three of them, she with her Ommee and Abee, used to pick them as soon as they were ripe, filling baskets.

“Soon you’ll be as tall as your uncle,” Ommee shouted at 19-year-old Aida, back for the summer from university, while Ommee unhemmed clothing to lengthen legs and sleeves. Her fingers whistled with the sounds of the old sewing machine, working by the sickle-shaped moon pouring into the window late at night. She seemed happy to have Aida home. Her thin mouth leaned upward in spite of itself.

“I hope I don’t get his wrinkles,” Aida said, thinking of his maroon haze and his jowls, watching and waiting carefully by mirrors for the droop in her skin to appear. 

Her mother laughed when Aida confessed to worrying about flapping eyelids. “He wasn’t always that way. He used to be the best looking boy in our village! You remember the pictures I showed you.” Aida told her she remembered, so that Ommee wouldn’t root around, looking for the album. She did remember, although what she pictured was a tall boy, awkward and skinny, with thin lips and big ears.

Unassured, Aida measured her legs with a tape measure while her mother’s voice trilled around her in circles.

“Once he lost his ball in Abu Ali’s yard. Oh, what a mean man he was. And it was our only ball. Your uncle promised to get it back. I was the distraction,” she said proudly, “crying at Abu Ali’s door and telling him I was sick and needed water … Of course, he wouldn’t give me even a drink! But by the time he was done scolding me, your uncle was halfway out of the yard, and had a good head start. Abu Ali chased us for 20 minutes …”

Aida tuned out her mother’s voice but nodded and smiled at her still. Her mother was remembering the weather, hot—the fruit, apricots and cherries were her favorite, juicier than anything you can get in Newfoundland—her parents, reading the great Iraqi poets every night. Aida wondered whether her mother would notice the crop top she had on under her tee shirt. She wanted to wear it downtown. Her mother sewed in the dead baby’s room now, which had been painted a dusty rose. The crib had been given to someone. No one mentioned Aida needing a sibling anymore—not her parents, not the ladies at the mosque. She noticed that Ommee no longer scrunched her nose, her eyes tearing, when she mentioned Uncle. 

Months before she left for university, Aida had been horrified with thoughts that the baby and her uncle were haunting the nursery, now a spare bedroom again, crammed with hand weights and an elliptical, and the sewing machine. The purple bags under Ommee’s eyes made her look more like her older brother. She had lost weight, her hair was lank. Her mother and father still slept in separate rooms, her father graduating from the couch to the second guest bedroom, Aida’s old room. She might have stopped crying, but Ommee was a skeleton, like uncle and baby were sucking the life out of her.

 

*

Aida found herself wanting to stay away from them, away from St. John’s. But that didn’t keep her from seeing the auras on campus, colors of people who had come before her and passed away into the air. Everyone around her would soon dissipate. She felt angry at her father. She remembered him holding Ommee tight when she was crying, and instead she saw a man squeezing out life. But maybe that wasn’t what happened at all. Maybe they all had just fallen apart. 

On a beautiful October day in fourth year, when the air was crisp, and the streets were littered with purple and red and yellow leaves, she saw a boy outside the grocery store that gave off a maroon aura. 

Inside, she arranged cereal, blackberries, and cans of kidney beans symmetrically in her cart. Her cellphone jingled in her coat pocket while she searched for the special kind of soymilk she liked. Ommee. “Aida, are you there?” Frantic, heavy breathing. 

“Yes, I’m here.”

Her father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. She considered two different brands of soymilk. Decided to try the one that was always on sale. She breathed in soft gasps, pushing her cart, as her mother’s voice swam too far away to be taken seriously.

“When can you come home?”

She made it home the next week. In her single bed late at night, Aida’s brain was tormented by prostate-specific antigens, almost like they had taken over her own body. Low-grade disease and high-grade disease. The wrinkles between her father’s fingers. The look in his eyes when he kissed her on the forehead. He was tucked into her mother’s bed, his fingers curling over the blanket. She wanted him to hold her like a child.

Her mother spoke to her as if they were friends when her father finally went to the hospital to die. Aida wanted so much to open up but had a feeling that her heart has rotted; it was like a mussel that wouldn’t broach the heat, but had died inside its small shell before being taken home.

She wondered who would wrap the ka-fan around Abee’s shriveled body. She wondered what if her brother hadn’t died inside the womb; what if he had lived to annoy her and played with her and picked blackberries, and been protected by her. What could she have done to prevent it? What alternate lives her family could have lived—her brother’s dull yellow presence invaded her mind, haunting and repeating in her head to no end.

 

*

She rolls over under the blankets, thinks about how great a night it was. It was such a great night. She calls her brother Hakim. “You’ll never guess what happened!?” she scream-laughs into his ear. 

But he isn’t laughing already along with her, intuiting the energy of the story she is telling.

“What’s wrong Haky?” 

“Aida …” He is crying, but so quietly she thinks the line has been cut. Then he is crying loudly on the phone, gasping, “Aida!” telling her that Abee has prostate cancer, that he has to have surgery and medication and radiation, and when can she come home.

And she tells him, “Right away—I’ll come home right away.”

And she comes home right away, and they hold each other in the hospital room, and they kiss their mother’s forehead that is bent in constant prayer. 

When her father is in remission, they go to his favorite restaurants, especially the Lebanese restaurant with the moussaka, they go there often. Aida re-enrolls at her university. She loves her archaeology class, has a small crush on the professor and so do all her friends. She calls home every day, and Hakim tells her not to worry, tells her he will take care of them, both of them, all of them, and that Ommee is knitting blankets for all the new babies at the hospital, to thank God for Abee, and Abee wants them all to take a trip together to see Jidya and to maybe go to Europe. Abee has never been to Europe.