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Choices From The Dead

Choice is a word they use for good things, here – choice day, choice person, choice book … but the word haunts my every dream and nightmare. My choice was not good and I live every day demanding of my God why I could not see past one day’s misery … why he didn’t warn me. Why, why, why.

The Day of The Choice began, for me, when the screams of my little sister belched down the school corridor. “They’re here! The men are here! They take mummy and daddy. They’re here!”

I knew what men and dashed from my desk to see my little Amena scampering towards me, arms and legs flailing as adults followed in a crowd, their bodies fuzzied by the sun’s scorching through the arched window behind them. When people yell that they’re protecting you, it’s always protection for them; for their shame, their cowardice. Never for us. Never ever for us.

I scooped my sweet, howling sister up and ran like a gazelle from a herd of lions, dodging many others with their arms outstretched. Our protection was our family, our neighbourhood, not these others. We fled down the street, around bomb craters, up back alleys and secret places only us children knew. Not the direct route home but the one to avoid the baying adults.

The gravel driveway had been torn up, a windstorm of flaying jeeps, probably, and the front doors hung open, one handle broken. I stepped inside onto the cool tiles, put panting Amena down and listened. Through the silence I heard a childish wailing. Our mother, oh Sweet Jesus, our mother. The guest room was empty of people but the floor was littered with rubble. The walls were blackened and much was missing. The wailing called me on and Amena followed, her tiny fist in mine.

The kitchen was empty and the wailing, I realised, was above us. We dashed up the stairs, Amena stumbling, me picking her up, and into our parents’ room. We stopped. My heart stopped. My brain stopped. All of my eighteen years slammed into me and I felt helpless, childlike. I turned Amena out into the corridor and slammed the door shut. She screamed but I couldn’t let her in.

I couldn’t take it in, I couldn’t describe it but I must. I must expunge the ghosts I carry with me day and night. I must say this for my silence, to date, has not pushed the horrors away.

Yes, there was my dear mother on the bed. Naked. Blood in many places. Not wanting to, I had to look closer. She’d been raped. Her throat was cut. I wanted to run. I wanted to hold her. I wanted scream at the cowardly Americans and their dirty collaborators. They came to protect our country, they said, and destroyed it. They destroyed us and called it protection. My mind was bursting like the grenade they’d tossed into our precious guest room.

Then the wailing arose and drew me to the cool, spacious bathroom. My father. My ebullient, chatty father who whittled wooden animals and played silly games with us and told us a thousand funny and sad stories. My father, duktur jamaea, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Aleppo, who enthralled his students with the history and beauty of words from twenty languages. My father, the advisor to governments and businesses on how best to write contracts in other languages and how to address foreign diplomats and businessmen. My hilarious, silly, erudite father … now huddled against the toilet. One shoe off, his shirt ripped, head between his knees and blood from his face and arm. He whimpered like a lashed dog. Amena screamed again and I was torn – this way or that?

I grabbed my father, all six foot two of him, and he rose as a dried leaf, my adrenalin-charged muscles like Sampson’s, tearing down the palace columns.

He stumbled after me, a puppet without a string, obedient and willing.

In the cool of the kitchen I sat them down and kept busy with drink and food preparation as I thought of my mother, that serenely beautiful woman; slower to smile and softer to love than my father, she kept the rules and routines.

When two people love each other as deeply as they did, that love bursts its banks and flows over everyone else. Their love was a cool, protective shadow that kept even the hottest Syrian sun’s glare from my face. Now that was gone. The rules were gone. The protection was gone.

I did not volunteer for this and was not built for this but God assigned me and I must become a girl acting as a man in a man’s world. I had to make The Choice.

We had heard of refugee camps and I shuddered. We had heard of people filling boats and rowing off to be picked up by Greeks; people with hearts bigger than the sun and generosity beyond the horizon. My father said that was the safest, the best way.

But, in my eighteen years, I’d ever heard of this bigger, faraway land, this Australia where people played on beaches, rode their horses and welcomed everyone. A Syrian sun and deserts and, in the north, mountains. Not as majestic or forbidding as the Jabal al-Druze Range but it all seemed so similar and happy and spacious. And they prayed to the same God in the same churches as us. I had to go there. It was The Choice I just made and, now, I’m not so sure.

My father, the academic, was no match for the hard choices we had to make and Amena, dear sweet twelve-year-old Amena, adrift in a world that wasn’t hers.

We hid in our house for three days; paralysed and uncertain while we feared the return of the Americans’ bully boys. But none returned. I made our food and taught Amena and father what I could. At night I snuck out to friends, defying the curfew, to find out how to get to this paradise, this Australia.

With friends and our local priest, our mother was buried one night. With her rosary beads and cross in her frozen hands, our hearts were buried with her. With her went our sentiment and softness. We became robots, doing what we must, pretending to be hard when we were brittle, pretending to be decisive when we were lost.

I had to raid my parents’ bedroom, when father was making haloumi and bread with Amena, and found wads of notes in secret places. These I had to part with as agents arranged our passage. It was two months and Amena and father still hadn’t left the house. Many came knocking but I shushed their crying and snuffles and the many went away. I trusted no one. I couldn’t.

The two months became six month and, while bombs continued to fall, guns rattled and the silences between them sucked us down, we waited, argued, cried, planned and huddled together.

As desert people in a vast land, the journey by sea was beyond our comprehension, beyond our description and, one day, I may be able to tell of it. Not yet, though, for my mind it too full of other choices.

From small boat to police boat to police cell to corridor, to queue, to police cell to waiting room to bus to aeroplane to caged cell … I don’t remember the hundred questions, the hundred commands, the hundred insults, the hundred twists and turns of our minds and bodies. But I saw no people playing on beaches or riding horses. No deserts or mountains. I made the Wrong Choice.

In a cage on an island, separate from father and Amena – we were drafted off into age categories like mother sorting dried peas – I knew I was not capable of Good Choices. I had failed my father and sister. I could have wept a monsoon but my tears were dry, burned by the anger at myself and at the fat men with pale, ginger-haired hands who ogled at us girls and “accidentally” touched us in those places. The shame is overwhelming and, try as I might, I could not summon that cool, protective shadow of my parents’ love.

I trust no one. Not even myself.

They put on their uniforms to scare us but it’s only scared people who wear them; fearful, broken people who must force their fear and brokenness on others. Once a week I can talk with my father, through the mesh fence, and he always says his bloody nose and bruises are silly accidents and his black eyes are lack of sleep but I knew better … no, I knew worse.

He’s denied a pen-knife for whittling beautiful shapes and his pen for writing beautiful words. His tools of creativity and beauty, they say, he could kill himself with. As if! His world has become very un-beautiful and un-creative.

I try to talk with Amena but she can’t stop crying. She misses all of us and I have nothing to give her to hold, to remind her of mother, father, I or Sweet Jesus. Nothing soft and comforting, nothing different from the hard cells, hard people and hard rules. To her, we are all so distant from her and the five-millimetre fence width may as well be five hundred miles.

They accuse us Christians of being heathens, bloody Muslims, towel-heads, terrorists and we’re none of those things. We’re just ordinary people wanting love and peace. Like all other people.

They stripped away my father’s tools and, without his big office and library, without his lecture hall with a hundred students, his walls of awards, he’s just a shaven monkey in a cage, a pacing animal with nothing to do.

This Manus Island is supposed to be a place for people to take a second breath but it’s become a place where wolves howl at us shaven monkeys, hoping we’ll take our last breaths.

Am I being harsh? Perhaps so.

There were, I recall, kind people along the way. People not in uniforms. People not scared of themselves. People with soft eyes and smiling faces who gave us clothes and trinkets. Food and advice. Assurances and the promise of hope. But these people were given to us for short moments before being pushed off by the uniformed ones, the suited ones, who shouted at us in a rapid-fire language that was supposed to be English but was more like dog-barking. We nodded yes to stop their yelling and moved this way and that, hoping it was the right way but often wasn’t.

Told that we were stupid, ignorant and a bloody nuisance, we lost faith in ourselves. And … look, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to depress you … I just need to get the facts out and let them stand – naked bone in the harsh sunlight, without the pretty clothing the suited ones would throw over it. Naked truth.

I knew I’d made the Bad Choice and knew I couldn’t make a Good Choice. I gave up choosing. I stopped listening to the living and listened to the interred. I could listen to the words of the dead! The words of Jesus. Of my mother. Their words came soft and swift in a hard, slow life and I hung on to every one of them.

“Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I forgave them – or tried to – and sympathised with their lostness, even as they grabbed at my breasts and between my legs.

“The only man who can be your enemy is the man you haven’t met.” I tried to know them, to talk with them, to see them as friends, even as I saw another bruise on my father’s face or arms. I really tried.

“The meek shall inherit the earth.” I tried not to be arrogant; to listen to their guttural speaking, to agree even when I didn’t understand, to accept they had wisdom they couldn’t recognise themselves, even when I saw Amena losing weight every single week and sores rose on her legs.

These were the only choices I could make – the ones that the dead stirred in me. I had no choice but to make their choices. Mine were not good enough.

Then it happened.

It was not a good day. My diarrhoea was worsening, my abundant hair was thinning, my nightmares … and there she was. Not in uniform. Not yelling. Not judging. Just asking what I needed.

We were, of course, waiting to be the next shipment of shaven monkeys to America. But that shipment would never go as the Americans were now building walls instead of bridges.

But there she was, saying her name was Anna with a smile as bright and sure as the sun. She asked what I wanted.

“My family,” I whispered, not trusting my choice.

“But they’re all dead,” she said.

“They’re there,” I said, pointing both directions from where my father and sister came to see me through the fence, each week.

“You have family here?”

I nodded, not trusting my words, my hopes.

“And you speak English,” she said. “You speak it well.”

“I learned English in school and at home,” I said. “I was writing my second book.”

“You’re a writer?”

My God, Sweet Jesus, did my tears flow at last – hot, salty, burning and exquisitely generous.

I cannot tell of the time, the complexity, the process – the days and nights of questions and negotiations and arguments, the waiting in rooms, the waiting in queues, seeing my father and sister, not seeing them. I will, in time, be able to unravel it all and put words to it but, for now, I sit. I smile a little. The loud Australian birds – galahs, kookaburras, cockatoos and so many others – are barking, the Queensland sun is rising over Mount Nebo. My father is snoring in the next room and Amena is humming to herself as she strokes the tabby cat.

I look at the small wooden kangaroo in front of me, the one my father whittled for me this week, and remember, from school, that the kangaroo is the only animal that cannot go backwards. Perhaps that’s why he made it for me. In my other hand I hold my new pen, the one Anna gifted me, and wonder what the first words are that it will write.

I have no idea what tomorrow will bring and I am afraid of making choices. I allow Anna, our guardian angel, to choose for me. She thinks I am uncertain but I’m not. I’m just afraid to choose and, when she doesn’t, I listen to the soft, certain words of the dead.

One day I will choose again but, for now, I only trust to the words of the dead. Naked truth and dead words are my guide, for now, and my smile widens.

This story is from My Whispering Teachers, available on this site.

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