Aisha and Ahmed’s fingers are interlaced and black with dirt. They trudge a pock-marked Syrian road, half pavement, half sand, that winds from Kafr Halab, the western Aleppo countryside, to the Mediterranean sea. Once in Latakia, their intention is to travel by boat to Cyprus. Dressed as boys, each wears a takiyah over shorn curls and a shemagh scarf to protect them from sun and sand. The children have dark almond-shaped eyes, the rich olive skin of father, and handsome cheekbones of mother.
Aisha, seven, is slight, feels rough road through sandaled feet and smells her own stink. She touches her pant pocket and remembers the cinnamon smell of Mama’s skin and her smile, a curve of kindness. Aisha sees herself tracing Mama’s nose and mouth with an index finger. Mama alive.
“Tickles, eh,” said Mama, who laughed and gave her kisses. Aisha nuzzled her soft neck and slept. She dreamt of Baba, her father, his wide smile and generous laugh.
“Baba. Where is Baba?” Aisha asked at morning meals of flatbread and goat’s milk. Ahmed gave her looks that said ‘do not ask.’ Mama brushed Aisha’s dark curls and helped put on her khimar, the headscarf worn by girls.
Mama said, “Go play but do not leave the yard.” Aisha spent hours in the grassless front with wooden spools and a cotton doll made from bits and pieces. She tended her pretend-baby as Mama cared for her.
Ahmed, twelve, tall with sturdy legs, thought of Baba as he milked the Shaami goat, gathered wood, and fetched water from the well.
“Ahmed, hold the blade like this,” said Baba. “Too close a cut and the whole tree suffers. Try again, this time further from the trunk.” Patient Baba, playful Baba. So strong he easily lifted both children, one in each arm.
“Mr. Strongman and my habibis, my loves,” Mama said. “come eat.” Ahmed wept remembering.
“To carry what is heavy in the world, Ahmed, is a curse and a blessing. “Months without word, you (and I) understand Baba is lost to us.” Mama’s voice caught. “Think on him, Ahmed, and when you do, be proud. Best father, farmer, fighter. So brave. Let Aisha sing story-songs of her Baba, and ask questions. She’s only seven, and we can be kind.” Mama looked into Ahmed’s eyes. “If anything bad happens here, you and Aisha must get to Cyprus and uncle, in Boghaz. The ferry will take you from Latakia.” She handed him a tan pouch with a few coins and a compass threaded on string. “Put this under your mat, Ahmed, for safe keeping. You are a good son.” Mama looked away to Aisha at play. “Allah has blessed me with you both.”
The weather turned cold. Mama closed the windows but her cough returned. Hard rain pinged off the tin roof and transformed the yard into a swollen river. Mama’s cough worsened as she stirred thin bean soup. Ahmed kept the fire going with the driest kindling he could find. Mama became too ill to make soup, sip tea or rise from her mat.
Aisha squints as dust dances above the road. She sees Mama shimmering in the heat, beckoning. Mama. Aisha squeezes Ahmed’s hand, adjusts her scarf and mouths ‘pee’. In the relentless heat, the two step from the road as an open Syrian army truck thunders past. A soldier raises his gun and fires wildly into the sky. A second Syrian soldier does the same. Ahmed shudders, positions his body, arms low and wide to block any curious on- looker. Aisha must remember to stand, the pee trickling and staining already filthy pants.
Ahmed pulls out the hidden compass from around his neck. Northwest. Yes. How far now to Latakia? A nearby sign is bullet riddled and illegible. Ahmed’s mind races. Goat jerky almost gone, six pieces of dried apple in the pouch. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
“A story of our blue boat and the sea, Umri? My life.” Ahmed licks his lips and begins as much for himself as for Aisha. “It sits for us in port where gulls circle the sky in welcome. The captain greets us with hummus, olives, and pears. We will drink only clean water. Washed mats and bright blankets are for the taking. We shall sleep well with the rocking waves. Uncle waits in Cyprus; our new beginning. We will see stars again, Umri, across the velvet night, hundreds of them, and sing stories of Mama and Baba.”
Aisha wants safe sleep and only good dreams. The covered head dips and nods as Ahmed speaks. Aisha’s lashes flutter and close. It is as if Mama holds her and whispers, “So brave, my loves.” Aisha smells cinnamon as her sleep deepens.
“Mama.” Her bird-like shoulders relax. She touches her mother’s lips. Ahmed stands, shades them both. A light breeze blows rustling nearby palm fronds. One arm supports Aisha as Mama leans toward Ahmed. She has noticed the tracings of a mustache.
“My boy is now a man.” Mama rises, covers their cheeks with kisses. The tears come. The oasis is cool, the air clean. The family moves as one to an expanse of green. Mama slips a water gourd from her shoulder. Aisha drinks, then Ahmed.
From her pocketed robe Mama produces three unblemished oranges. She separates each section. The feeding ritual is repeated until the fruit is finished. Aisha’s mouth is full of sweet juice as she chews and swallows. She drowses, leans into Mama.
“Rest, habibti, my love, rest.” Aisha flashes awake.
“My baby.” Aisha digs deep inside her pocket and pulls out the folded doll. It is as dirty as Aisha.
“Dolly needs a bath, too,” says Mama. “You all do.” Aisha moves the shemagh scarf, brings the doll to chapped lips and gives her a kiss.
“Ana bahibbak, I love you, Dolly,” her voice no longer hoarse. “Ana bahibbak.”
Deborah Trowbridge writes short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction in northwestern Montana. Her work has been published in decomP Literary Magazine, Corium Literary Magazine and Common Ground Review. Her short fiction, “Frigid,” was nominated for Queen’s Ferry’s “The Best Small Fictions 2016,” guest edited by Stuart Dybek.