It was three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang. Sirena sat up in her bed when she heard the second trill break the quiet evening air, and an anxious feeling filled her stomach. There was only one place she hoped that call wouldn’t be coming from: Lebanon, the place her father called “back home.”
There was a war over there.
Her father had once stood with her and spun their globe. His finger covered the entire country. He pointed it out with the white crescent at the top of one nail. Sirena had squinted at the small blot, its name printed in a nearby sea. She imagined that the whole country was probably the size of her elementary school and pictured the blue and red hallways packed with tall men and women who looked just like her dad.
Sirena couldn’t remember when the war had begun. Her father said it started a long time ago. Her sister Aisha was ten now, two years older than Sirena. Aisha couldn’t remember when the war started either, but she said she was six when the first phone call came, and she could remember how things were before it happened. Aisha said Baba smiled a lot more and he used to read stories and sing songs before bedtime. Now he just tucked the covers around you and said, “I love you, baby. Sleep well,” before flipping down the light switch and pulling the door almost shut.
“The war,” Aisha had said, and she said it with authority, “changed everything.” In the last four years, there had been five phone calls, each reporting the death of yet another cousin, aunt or uncle that the girls would never meet. Of the calls, Sirena could only remember two. She was afraid this might be the third phone call she would come to remember.
Sirena knew about war because her Baba had explained it to her when she asked him about it a few weeks before. He told her that lots of people argued about God. He said that sometimes they had the same religion, but there were small differences between what they believed, and when they disagreed, the trouble would start. When people got really angry, they would try to hurt each other.
“That’s what happened with the Jews,” Aisha had told her. “I heard Baba say that if it wasn’t for the Jews there would be no war in Lebanon and we would be there instead of here. But the Jews are greedy and they want to kill everyone. I was playing spy and listening while he was talking to Mama, but she caught me and asked me what I heard. Then she told me that there was a bad man named Hitler and he hurt the Jews. Baba got mad and said it was no excuse. Just because the Jews felt sorry for themselves, that didn’t mean it was okay for them to hurt the Palestinians like they did. And now they’re hurting the Lebanese.”
“Then what happened?”
“Mama sent me outside while she and Baba had a talk.” Aisha put her hands over her heart and made sure Sirena was looking in her eyes. “Right now, Jews are over there hurting our family.”
Sirena felt sad and angry at those Jews. “Why?”
Aisha shrugged and flicked something from her fingers. “Dunno. Some people are just mean.”
“Do all Jews hate us?”
Aisha shrugged again. “Maybe. Joshua at school doesn’t like me, and he’s a Jew.”
“Oh,” Sirena said, and thought of a girl at school who was really nice, and wore one of those stars on her necklace.
Her father had talked to her about the war one other time. He said it was the reason their family had never been to Lebanon and might never have the chance to go. Baba had told her this over breakfast one morning, sipping coffee and scooping up eggs and beans in a folded piece of bread. Sirena had leaned forward, fist under her chin, wide eyes narrowed in concentration, the way she always did when Baba explained any matter of life to her. There had been a stack of buttered toast in the middle of the table. After Baba finished counting off his friends and family members who had been killed so far and whether by bomb or bullet, his face a mask of resignation, every piece of toast had become cold and wet, but it didn’t matter to Sirena because she had lost her appetite anyway.
The disturbed rumble of her father’s deep voice filtered into her room. Sirena pushed her yellow-flowered sheets aside and put her narrow feet on the floor. She peered over her shoulder at her bedroom door. It was open just a crack, and, if she squinted, she could see across the hall into the darkness of her parents’ bedroom. She inhaled deeply and held her breath, waiting for their doorway to light up. Light would mean nothing was wrong; that her father was going to use the bathroom and then go back to sleep. Maybe this would a prank call or wrong number. She waited until her eyes became accustomed to the dark before releasing her breath. Her mouth tasted like she’d touched her tongue to a battery, and her stomach was in knots.
There would be no light tonight. She’d known it from the second the volume of her father’s voice spiked—he had to talk at a near shout to be heard over a bad connection.
Sirena stood up and straightened her blue “Daddy’s Girl” nightgown, letting it fall down over her knees. Occasionally, in her dreams, she was the one bravely calling her father and hearing his courageous reply. She was issued a rifle like the ones in the U.S. Army ads and fought alongside her relatives whose faces she knew from the black and white photographs Mama kept in a music box on her dresser. She made the call with mud smeared across her cheeks and some faceless cousin lying dead in a puddle of blood beside her, one hand reaching up and grasping her own. These dreams made her chest tight and her face wet with tears. Mama said it was because she had a kind soul.
The cool material of her nightgown against her warm skin reminded her that she was awake. This wasn’t a dream. She needed to know what was happening. She pushed her wild, dark hair out of her face, and sinking one hand into the mass to hold it back, tiptoed around the corner of her bunk bed toward the doorway.
She heard Aisha moving around with their younger sister Hadeel in the next room. She stopped, listening through the silent wall separating them, glad she was alone to investigate. Sirena opened her door very slowly, stopping it before it creaked, and stepped onto the worn carpet in the hallway. She inched toward her parents’ brown door, halting suddenly. The crackle of whispers invaded her ears. Her mother’s lips were producing comforting noises, her hand rustling against Baba’s shirt, on his shoulder, between his shoulder blades. The places where Mama always put her soft hands to comfort seemed ominous and threatening as Sirena squinted at them through the dark. The sounds were uncomfortable. The air smelled wrong, night-breathing that had turned sour. She waited.
She heard a man’s voice—like her father’s but pitched higher. Sirena moved closer to their doorway, freezing mid-step. Was someone else in the house? She hadn’t heard anyone come in. She peered into her parents’ room. The streetlamp outside their window cast enormous shadows on their bare, white walls. Mama said they wouldn’t waste money on decorations when the family overseas needed it. Sirena pushed their door open a little further so that she could see the stranger who must have come with the phone call.
Streetlight fell across her mother’s solemn face. And her father’s shaking shoulders. Her mother’s hands worked rhythmically on his back as Baba’s shoulders trembled harder and harder. The stranger’s voice was his.
He turned to look at Mama, and Sirena saw a tear on his thickly bearded face. Baba put a dark hand up in the air, the palm facing his cheek, and shook it gently forward and backward in a failed attempt to slice away whatever pain had come with the phone call. He turned his face down and placed his hand on it. The stranger’s voice stopped for a moment. A deep breath rasped against his dry lips and soggy throat, then the voice came again, in whimpers.
“Froggy throat, soggy throat,” Aisha would have teased, but Sirena wasn’t laughing. With warm shame on her face for witnessing her father in a moment of weakness, Sirena stared at her feet, sundark and olive. She tunneled her toes into the thin gray carpet outside her parents’ door for a moment before turning away.
Aisha had come out into the hallway and was poised in front of her bedroom door. Her hair was like Sirena’s; thick and dark, and standing off her head from sleep. She had one arm around little Hadeel’s shoulder. Hadeel gazed into the darkness. Brown curls sprang angrily from her head in all directions. Her pink nightshirt was twisted around her small body and partially tucked into her ruffled panties. She kept her tired eyes wide open, and she looked at Sirena suspiciously.
“Who was it?” Aisha asked quietly, taking a small step in front of Hadeel. Sirena looked at her younger sister, who was now peeking around Aisha’s side, clutching at the hem of her oversized, tie-dyed Spring Fling T-shirt. This would be Hadeel’s first phone call. She was old enough to remember this one.
Aisha leaned forward and gently poked Sirena’s shoulder. There was a probing, unanswered fear in her eyes that Sirena responded to with a lone nod. The two looked at the floor silently for a moment, mourning the loss of yet another family stranger. Aisha’s eyes tightened and she ushered Hadeel, who stood tense with awareness that something was wrong, back into their room. Hadeel went silently but with a thoughtful look on her face, as though she were piecing together a puzzle in her mind, as though she almost understood and had suddenly aged past four-and-a-half as a result.
Sirena headed back to her own bed, pausing briefly to listen to her sisters crawl under the same set of sheets. Aisha would take the outside of the bed to make sure Hadeel wouldn’t roll off while sleeping. Sirena considered joining them but left them to each other when she heard Aisha singing Hadeel “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
A vicious anger took her so that she trembled with the memory of her own first phone call, of waking up in the middle of the night, cold because it was winter. Aisha had squeezed her hand and piled extra blankets on the bed they were sharing, but Sirena couldn’t stop shivering. The cold in the air wasn’t just from the frost outside. Now she felt hot and stifled. She wanted to bang on the wall and yell at Aisha to stop singing, or maybe to change the words.
It should be: “There’s a land that I heard of where all our family dies.”
Sirena bunched up her pillow and focused on the cool of her sheets blanketing her legs. She turned from side to side, pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped the covers around her head to block out the still sour air. It was just her and her pillow in here. Her sisters were already asleep. Her parents too. The apartment was again silent. No ringing phone, no muffled cries. It seemed even the crickets and cicadas had stopped chirping.
She thought of how she would go with her sisters in the warm, Texas summer morning and collect the cicadas’ shells from the back yard. They would gather them with spoons and forks and put them in empty ice trays, then crush them up just because they made a crunching noise. Later their mother would scold the girls for using her good silverware. It was a joyful game the sisters played every day. But Sirena wasn’t looking forward to the joys of tomorrow. She could still hear her father’s small cries in her mind. She stared at the empty bunk above her, wishing that it was Hadeel’s week to sleep in her room, and willed her father’s voice to fade from her ears. Instead, she fell asleep to the remembered rhythm of his pain.
When morning came and they were collecting their cicada shells, Sirena and her sisters were asked to please come back inside. In the dining room, where they could still see the small square of brightly lit, fenced-in yard behind their condo, Baba told them their great aunt was shot by a sniper. His words scratched at the air and he spoke between stilted breaths. They waited, standing side-by-side, oldest to youngest, staring at him. They waited for some sign that everything would be okay. But Baba just looked beyond them. His eyes were swollen and his face was hard. The girls stared until Mama ushered them back outside.
Sirena and her sisters began to file through the sliding door. Sirena went first, but paused. Hadeel bumped into her and Aisha whispered harshly, “What’s the hold-up?” Sirena toed the doorframe, one hand resting against the glass.
“What is it, baby?” her Baba asked.
Sirena hesitated, uncertain but needing to know. Finally, she said, “Was it the Jews?”
“What?” Mama asked, her voice a bit panicky. “What?”
“The person who shot Aunty Samira. Was it one of those Jews?” Sirena repeated.
Her father hung his head and shook it from side to side. Her mother stood away from him, the hands that had been quietly massaging his back now hovering uncertainly in the air, her mouth silently working.
“It probably was a Jew,” Aisha said matter-of-factly, ready to steer Sirena outside. “Everyone knows they’re a bunch of lunatics. It’s their fault there’s a war. All they want to do is hurt people—”
“It wasn’t a Jew.” Their father cut her off before Aisha could make the triangle on her face with her thumb and pointer finger; the secret sign she and Sirena had come up with for a big Jewish nose.
“Then who was it?”
He looked up at Sirena from under his bushy eyebrows and sighed, “A Druze.” At the same time Mama said, “It doesn’t matter.”
Sirena looked back and forth between them. Baba spread his hands, then straightened up. “Your mother’s right,” he said, “It doesn’t matter.” His voice became deep and resonant. “Go ahead, girls. Go outside and play.”
“We’ll talk about this later,” Mama called after them, already turning her angry eyes on Baba.
Sirena wanted to ask what a Druze was, but her mother’s voice had that edge of finality that caused even Aisha to shrink in on herself. She bit her lip, angry and confused, and followed her sisters outside. The three moved in a silent line, crouching forward like a small army. Outside, they collected more cicada shells, this time crushing them under bare feet and between fingers, pretending they were gunshots crackling through the air.
This story was originally published by ArabComment in March, 2008.