My mother and I exit through the black gate and cross the drain, which was once a stream (or does it look smaller because I’ve grown older?), leaving behind the empty house that has always been an uneasy home, and where at the moment strangers are speaking loudly. We walk to my uncle’s smaller, fuller, warmer-colored house a stone’s throw away, push open the tin gate – or, rather, lift the rectangular tin and wooden structure that blocks the entrance – and put it back in place after we pass.
A few steps along a cemented path lined with bean plants bring us to the porch where we leave our slippers neatly arranged on the lowest step like the several other pairs we see – except for the small black shoes, part of a school uniform, that lie haphazardly right at the front door, and have, evidently, been abandoned in great excitement.
We pull the screen door open and walk in. I had become familiar with the interior of the house years ago, and it has not changed. The same hallway – a staircase and door on my left and three more doors on my right. We walk down the hallway to a door hidden from immediate view by the staircase, and with a salaam we announce our presence. The kitchen, too, is unchanged. The woman of the house crouches behind the counter, doing whatever it is that she has been doing there for as long as I can remember. She returns the salaam, leaning over the counter to hug me. She looks like she always has; deep lines escape the corners of her eyes and spread over her forehead, yet the rest of her skin is supple, not old.
But the years do make their passage felt, forcefully; this house is familiar, but it is no longer a second home to me. The woman, a cousin, who made it a refuge has left it and carved a new life for herself in another house with a man and a little boy she gave birth to and adores beyond measure. She sometimes returns briefly to this house, as do I, but so far our visits have never overlapped. Without her, the family here is a group of strangers who have nothing to say to me after the salaam is done. We sit with cushions behind our backs and try to think of things to say.
There is a little stranger, though – he of the tiny black uniform shoes. He is too small to remember me from last year or too childishly shy to approach even if he does remember. He stays out of sight, beyond the kitchen door, poking his head in now and then, laughing uproariously as only a child can. He is so loud and inconsistent that we think there are two children at the door, not just one. Somehow, through my smile, a few words, and his curiosity, he is impelled to enter, but still remains out of reach. He looks at me and laughs uproariously again, hiding his face under the window shelf or behind his little hands. When he finishes, he raises his head, looks at me with big, wide, dark eyes, bursts into loud, excited, happy laughter and hides his face again.
But over the next hour, we get better acquainted. I help him finish his homework, and with his little hand in mine, we cross back over to my house; he spends the whole evening talking and running around with me. He brings a light rubber ball with “The Amazing Spiderman” drawn on it. Two other cousins, older than him, younger than me, also join in. While punching, kicking and hitting the ball to keep it in the air for as long as we can, we allow it to land on a sharp piece of metal at the top of the wall. The tin pierces through the fragilely thin rubber. Within seconds, the perfect, buoyant sphere becomes a limp, hanging shape-shifter. The two older brothers attempt to blow air into the ball to fix it, all the time desperately assuring the child that his Amazing Spiderman ball is well and healthy. But the blown-in air only gives it a mutilated shape that barely calls to mind a sphere and escapes within moments anyway.
He demands that the ball be given to him. We all prepare ourselves mentally for his cries of deep pain over the loss of his beloved rubber ball; children’s cries break hearts. We are afraid.
He holds the limp rubber in his hands, ready to cry. But then, his fingers find the little hole wrought by the sharp tin and he pulls at it. He tears the rubber into two nearly equivalent halves, and screams – in delight.
“Me che van zi nemaz topi! I now have two prayer caps!”
All of us older ones release the breaths we have been holding; we are suitably relieved, glad that all our hearts are safe.
He continues to exult over his two “namaz topi” for the next few minutes. He is blissfully happy.
Later, after he goes to sleep, I find both halves abandoned in a corner of the garden.