White Birds by Jennifer Zeynab Maccani
What do the dancing white birds say, looking down upon burnt meadows?
I was reading Hafiz on the plane. I could have chosen al-Mutanabbi; I could have chosen Frost. I chose Hafiz because he has always opened my ears and made me listen.
Reading Hafiz was better than reading the papers: Children sloughing off the boats in Greece like dead skin, thickets of small, silent bodies. The passage of orphans through bus stations and border crossings. Families leaving behind hot stoves and stuffed animals that had fallen behind beds. Toddlers’ feet, boiled red with walking. Tiny shoes discarded on the roads, scuffed soles separating from polka-dotted uppers.
My sister was an aid worker in Jordan, and I’d decided to spend the summer with her there. I landed in Amman reciting my favorite poem, the one that hurt me the most. I was terrified; I hadn’t used my Arabic in so long. When Amira picked me up at the airport, she hoisted my bags with a ruffle of English and Arabic. For a few seconds, I didn’t know which one to use.
“You’ve adjusted well,” I said.
“You have to,” she said, slamming the trunk. “The children need to be comfortable with you.”
On the way to her apartment, we passed children with wheelbarrows, children with butcher knives, children with jackhammers and teacups and canvas sacks. Amira told me they were looking for work. We stopped in traffic, and the children stared at the car. Some brushed the chrome with the tips of their fingers, light as wings. The silence unnerved me the most.
“Don’t they speak?” I asked.
Amira turned to me, narrowing her eyes through her sunglasses. “Why, can’t you hear them?”
“Where do they come from?” I asked. “Where are their parents?”
“Most come from Syria,” she said. “We do what we can for them.”
“How do you know what they need?” I asked.
Amira didn’t seem to hear me. She turned the wheel with one hand and adjusted the radio with the other like we were cruising down the Cross Bronx Expressway at home. Then, just as I was about to turn away, she said, “Anyone with ears can listen, Muna.”
The next day, I asked Amira if I could come with her to Zaatari Camp while she delivered food and medicine. While she handed out the packages, I wandered the makeshift streets. Three white pigeons pecked at seedpods, taking flight and clucking when I drew near. I followed them to a spigot where a boy stood, filling a plastic jug with water.
I approached him, smiling. He backed away from me, shaking his head and pointing toward a group of tents.
“Is that where your parents are?” I asked him in Arabic.
“But I’ve come to speak with you,” I said. “My name is Muna. We can be friends.”
He shook his head again. He looked sad, but it was hard to tell because he wasn’t saying anything.
“Don’t you speak?” I asked him.
He didn’t open his mouth. Instead, he pointed away, wagging his finger up as though it was going over the high fence, over the hills, far to the north, away toward something he missed very much. His finger wagged higher and higher, and then he made a fist and popped his index finger out, and then I knew he was pantomiming a gun.
“Are you pointing at no,” I asked, “or are you pointing at, ‘I wish I could go back?’”
He stared at me with those black eyes.
“Both, then,” I said. I asked him, “Do you ever miss your home?”
The boy held his hands to the sky, cupping the clouds and the circling pigeons in his palms.
“I guess that’s yes,” I said.
The next day I followed an arrow of white geese gliding toward a small brown tent. A black garbage bag covered a hole in its side, rattling like a colony of bats in the wind. I went in and met a girl hidden away in a back room, sitting on a carpet in a red scarf. I expected her not to look at me—she hadn’t seen anyone but her family for over a year, her parents said. Why should she look at me? But she did. She stared at me, deep into me, and picked at the carpet in front of her folded knees.
I asked her how old she was. She said nothing. Her mother told me she was fourteen. I asked her why they kept her inside. Her mother motioned through the entrance to the tent, toward the broken window of a nearby building. She said, “A woman’s honor, once shattered, cannot be repaired again.”
I asked the girl’s mother, “What’s her name?”
“Hawa, would you like to go outside and play with the other children?”
She looked at me like I’d broken both her arms. She lifted her hand and pointed through the wall of the tent, away toward Syria in the north, just as the other boy had.
“No, then,” I said.
Hawa got up and tugged on my fingers. I followed her. She took me into the main room, where I’d found her mother sweeping and the younger children napping. She pointed at the dirty rug, toward a large brown stain in the corner of the room. A pillow half-covered it. I asked her what had happened there.
Hawa only stared and pointed, then rounded her belly with her hands.
Her mother came in. “That’s where her older sister, Nour, gave birth to her son,” she said.
“Oh.” Being American and not knowing what else to say, I congratulated them: “Mabrouk,” I said. I continued in Arabic, “Did her husband—is he here?”
Hawa turned away.
“No husband,” her mother said slowly. She stared at the stain. “It happened one morning. She was getting water. I never should have sent her out so early.”
Ashamed and suddenly stifled, I stepped out of the tent. I sucked in air through my too-tight throat. Hawa’s mother followed me. High above us, three snowy cranes languished on an updraft, silent. I wanted so much to speak, but Hawa’s mother and I just watched their wings, unable to find words.
One week later, I saw a pale shape against the sun. I shielded my eyes. It was a lone egret sailing toward the hills, flapping its wide wings. I followed it to the edge of the camp. A tent stood there, stained with mud and sun-faded. Inside, a young boy clutched a fig branch, peering out at me. The lobed fig leaves shivered. A man leaning on a walking stick tried to coax him outside, but he refused to come out. Chalk-pale doves plagued the tent’s threshold with their droppings and an incessant pecking. The smell gripped me with despair.
“Are you his father?” I asked. The man with the walking stick lifted his eyebrows at me—No, then, I thought. I tugged open the plastic flap of the tent.
“Why don’t you come out and play with me?” I asked the boy. He shook his head and clutched his fig branch.
“I found him in a park in Amman,” the man said from behind me. “He told me his parents had gone to the Garden, so he went to a garden to look for them.”
“I thought he didn’t speak?” I said.
The man tilted his head to the side, his brows wobbling. “Of course he speaks,” he said. “You only have to listen.”
The boy waved his branch in my direction. The fig leaves were bigger than his hands.
I started to walk away. I shooed the pigeons as I went, shouting at them, but they didn’t move.
The man laughed at me. Taking his walking stick, he slapped the ground and the birds scattered, dropping a handful of feathers as white as teeth.
“Sometimes,” he said, parting his parched lips, “it is better to use actions than words.”
The summer slogged by and the silence ground on, an invisible millstone. A few weeks later, two milky ibises lured me toward a part of Zaatari Camp I’d never visited. I followed them; they parted the air with their slender pink bills. They were so elegant that I held my breath, hoping they would descend and alight nearby. Instead, as I rounded a corner, the birds dove out of sight. I was alone.
That was when I noticed the girl. She sat crying beside a bag of flour that had ripped, dusting the ground with white. Green bruises dotted her brow and the hollow of her throat like an apple skin. She rubbed her belly and gestured to the broken bag until I took her hands and stilled them.
“Come with me,” I said. “I’ll buy you bread. Don’t cry.”
As we left the tents behind, she reached for my hand. I asked her what her name was. She pointed at her own tongue.
“Don’t you speak?” I asked.
She pointed to the north like a laser.
“I know what that means,” I said. I spotted a lettered necklace against her grey shirt—Hanin. I pointed to it and asked, “Is that your name?”
“All I want is to talk to someone,” I said. “My sister says the children speak, but I can’t hear a word.”
Hanin lowered her eyelids and looked through me.
“I told my sister I came to Jordan for her,” I said. “Really, I wanted to be near my parents again. They were born in Aleppo. That’s a lot closer to Amman than it is to New York. I think when people die, their souls go back where they were born.”
The brush of her fingers felt like a question.
“Maybe they’re nowhere,” I said. “Maybe they’re everywhere. They went to the Garden. To a place where they’re silent.”
She curled her fingernails into my palm. Low sun speckled the tents and caravans. Around us, vendors rolled up their signs and stretched their legs. Children crouched in the dirt, some tapping wooden planks or branches against the ground.
“Do we have a voice if no one listens?” I asked Hanin. “Are we all talking to ourselves?”
Her fingers were bony and cool, her knuckles delicate as glass.
I bought Hanin twelve flat loaves of bread and then approached a woman selling fava beans. I bought two small loaves of bread daubed with ful mudammas, the breakfast my parents made for me as a child. Hanin and I ate in silence on the way back.
I felt a compulsive need to fill the air with words. “I came to Jordan because I have ears,” I said, “and I wanted to listen.” I paused, but Hanin said nothing. Her eyes were wells. “I don’t think I know how,” I added to myself.
We stopped at the tent where the spilt flour had been ground into the dust. We shuffled our feet. I didn’t want to go.
“I hope the bread helps,” I said at last. “I hope it makes a difference.”
Hanin turned to me. She clutched the twelve loaves to her breast and, with her other hand, touched the tips of her fingers to my heart.
For the first time, I understood.
“How could I not hear you?” I said, my voice drawn and thin. “How could I not hear the bullet holes, the rapes, the hunger, the drownings? Why did it take me so long to learn how to listen?”
I lowered my eyes to the flour in the road. The spattered powder had fallen in strange shapes, forming white doves and ivory cranes.
When Hanin tugged on my fingers, I looked up. She’d taken out a black pen and written something on my hand. What do the dancing white birds say, looking down upon burnt meadows? I raised my palm to my face and squinted in the orange light.
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani is a Syrian-American freelance writer living in the greater Hershey, Pennsylvania area. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mizna, Sukoon, the Maine Review’s Juxtaposition collection and the Canton Writers 2014 anthology. She recently gave an invited reading of her short story “Mujaddara and Myrrh” at Mizna’s journal release party as part of the “Arab America at Home” project and also received an Honorable Mention Award in the Maine Review’s Annual Short Fiction Contest this year.