America doesn’t get stars anymore.
You can go anywhere
in any city and go
up to any roof
but no stars
You can drive out to the burbs
and get out of the car
and lie down in the cul-de-sac
with your head resting on the curb
and look up
but no stars
You can hike into the mountains
of West Virginia
and find that big telescope they keep up there
and you look up, and
you may see stars
But they are faint stars,
like airbrushed stars
speckled on a black shroud
too dull, too small
not brilliant and pointy like Kenyan stars
or Hungarian stars
or Mongolian stars
or Pacific stars
The truth is, America doesn’t get stars anymore.
We had them, once, when the republic was fresh
and man about town
and everyone had his business
and everyone had her keep
We had them, once, when the wars were over
and families moved to the burbs
like water flooding the great plains
and when we built telescopes in West Virginia
We had them, once, when you could
look into the sky and see mankind reach
far, far into the heavens
as sometimes we still do today
but, no one looks up
and when they do, no stars
Because America doesn’t get stars anymore.
Maybe one day, when the shroud is lifted
when the clouds are sifted
when the crowds uplifted
to look to the sky
and see through the veil
and welcome the pointillism of the stars
the diffraction of the stars
those brilliant stars,
those bright, white, piercing stars
those true stars that aspire
and make us remember
where we come from
Category Archives: Creative Writing
I was sitting in my reclined seat,
tray unhatched in front of me,
hearing the roar of the sputtering Soviet engines as they worked their payload,
smelling the ham sandwiches passed out by the heavily accented steward in the necktie,
while my shoeless feet touched the vibrating membrane of floor between me and a silent, endless fall,
and my body tingled with the sensation of levity
in the wholeness of the environment of this little air capsule
paddling in the invisible noodles of thinner air around us,
while it floated over those rolling clouds blanketing the infinite below,
where as I peered out the window I could see the farmlands and the cottages dotting the farmlands and the snaking highways and peppered forests and lake-puddles and ocean-ponds and,
far, far off the tip of the wing, the sun was making its final descent bathed in a fire of sky,
Many flowers we knew had their stems cut while blooming.
Two credits before graduation,
Or one year from the wedding,
Or commerce gone south,
Or to the selfishness of self pity.
We grieve for losses countable.
Yet in our always-on,
We monitor pixels
where our typing
would not be safe.
We see things in
our unbleeding eyeholes
and process kills notched off
ten by ten
in our unprogrammed brains.
We know of unsafe lives lived lividly under the
tyranny that is Statehood.
When those flowers are cut by the scores,
the wails of their weedwhackers are
stifled in the
Stifled by the sound of
us twentysomethings trying to prove ourselves
worthy of 9 to 5s.
Stifled by the ranting of
their captors perched smugly
on electoral thrones.
Stifled by the cacophony of
Greek voices hands outstretched
for more mana.
Stifled by the terror of wilderness
creeping out of the sandlands
to suffocate our civilization.
Many flowers we knew had their stems cut while blooming.
But still we do not understand,
Whereas our fields bloom aplenty,
Pedals droop blood red on foreign land.
This is a song for the labradors
Off the coast
Who swim with their wet necks
And paddle like the sun is going down real soon
This is for the wet dogs who lick their paws and don’t know all that is wrong with the world
The sea is calm tonight
Waves beating helplessly along the shore
The trains run quiet on the track
With just a spark in the darkness
Reflecting off the sea
The sea is wrong tonight
The calm before the storm
The place where fireflies lay low
Because the rapture may be coming
How are we supposed to know what the answer is
The cathartic snapping of the waves against the shore
The light from the train tracks
The sound of humming far off
And we wonder where the world is tonight
And where we are
And where we are going
And why we won’t get there any time soon
Facebook is the place I go to vent,
To share and sometimes smile, and to curse,
Though sometimes I must wonder where time went,
And whether saying naught might have been worse.
I find about my updates much ado,
With people calling foul and crying bull.
I see my friends and everything they do,
And wonder why my wall is much more full.
Sometimes it is fun to stalk my friends,
And browse through photos ’til the day is done,
But sometimes these means do not meet the ends,
Of finding that my friends have much more fun.
Each day I stare and think upon my wall,
That I’ve been lost, and never loved at all.
Note: This is a chapter from Isabella, a novel based on a true story about a woman who survived an apartheid-era marriage, a shipwreck, travel to a faraway land, and reunification with her Russian benefactors 25 years later. It is not yet completed.
The woman sweeps her arms against the current, feeling the wind whip at her washed worn hair. Her mouth is parched and her feet are shriveled. She clings to a knotted board, perhaps a broken door, as the waves sweep her away from where she think the shore is tucked, somewhere in the unknown. This was supposed to be the third day at sea, and the first day on land. Instead, it is their third day without any food or water, without the comfort of earth or life. She feels the waves close around her and she knows that their fate rests with a higher power. She watches the sky, and listens for the drone of a chopper or the tack of a merchant ship, but there is no answer.
She has, when she is dry, smooth black hair to match her eyes. Her lips are full and her skin is soft and darkened from the sun. In the brine of the sea, her clothes have become remnants of their former uplifting beauty, clothes that would have made her mother cry upon her return. Her round breasts float exposed on the ocean surface as the salt has eaten her straps. She can feel the stinging of the salt against her scarred back.
Floating with her on the waves is her husband. He is still alive. Clinging to the splinters of their ship, they struggle as the wind and the waves beat on. In the beginning, when they began their wayward journey out to sea, they found time to talk to each other, to soothe the pain of isolation. They found love with their voices, and comfort. But in time the voices became raspy and unfamiliar. They lost their thirst and lust, and only reminded each of their failing strength. It became difficult for her to listen to her husband dying so close, but with so little she could do but spare him the pain of listening to her die, also. They float on harsh waves like driftwood, hoping for a rescue in these empty waters.
During each day at sea, she can only think about herself and her husband, about the world she knows but knows nothing about. She thinks to herself what she is unable to speak: one must go mad to suffer the pain of silence so long. The hours of the sunlight are long, and dusk is so desperately needed to save them from the heat. But then, at night, the water is so cold and dark, and the dangers lurking in the unknown depths beneath their feet terrify her. She cannot sleep for fear of not waking up, for fear of letting her grip on her husband fail and losing him forever, for fear of missing the sight of land or a floating canteen or something to prolong their survival. So she must think all the time, so much it drives her mad, to think about her life and love and triumph and failure, to think about the years wasted as a child and the years of potential destroyed as a woman and a coloured in this forsaken land. These are the harsh years. The whites have let the country burn in oppression and no one is safe. The blacks take to the streets every day demanding change. These are the bad years. Millions chant for an end to the regime, for an end to whites. More whites flee every day. More coloureds feel their limited freedoms being challenged in the open. In the heat of the war, some men lie in the darkness waiting for the end of this era, so they may rise up and take control. It is the same old story under the storied African sun. Soon all things will fall apart.
It is the fourth day alone at sea, at dawn. Her husband is holding on to life. His arm has been broken by a falling iron, and now hangs lifelessly in a useless sling. She can feel his presence and can only sense his life. She knows he cannot respond, but she whispers a word to him which is lapped up by the rippling tide: “Olaf.” He can hear her but cannot respond. “Olaf, I think there is a boat.” He hears her stroke in the water as she approaches him. She has energy he can feel, energy in her breath and muscle pumping in the water. She has not eaten for days but she musters her strength to pull herself upright in the water, so she can peek over the horizon and see what she fears to hope. It is faint, but there is a sound on the wind, a deep blast of a horn and when she looks, she sees in the distance an outline of a small ship. She does not have anything but her arms and her voice, spared these last two days for only the chance to use for one thing. “Olaf, they have come to rescue us!” She finds his head on the waves and lifts it to her own, to kiss him on the forehead and nose and mouth, to embrace him with her half naked body and to hold his own crippled self in her own. “They found us!” Her arms fly to the air and she builds a voice, like the mating call of a lark in the spring, she screams and waves her hands in the air. She does not think the ship can hear her, and feels very lightheaded as her limited strength almost fails her. She musters the strength to breath and scream once more, for her, for her husband, for her unborn children and for her mother and family waiting, perhaps this very moment, at the dock for their arrival. And she screams again, “Help,” and sees the boat, perhaps, adjust its course, and hears once more the sound of the horn but cannot stay awake. Her voice fails her, it cracks, and like the collapse of the hull of Pieter’s ship, her body limps, hearing for the last time the sound of the ocean wisps and the seagulls cackling. She clutches for the darkness.
She does not dream but feels the time pass. It is an eternity. She can hear some voices but they are faint. She feels the touch of cold water to her lips and sputters. Someone is touching her legs and face and back and chest. Someone is wrapping her feet. Water is everywhere, floating between her and the air, raining down but never enclosing her. When she awakens, she can hear only men, men everywhere in a drowning sea of voices. She cannot understand their voices. They smell like cigarettes and salt spray and fish. She feels herself in a blanket on a scratchy cot or matte, like the ones she used to sleep with her brother in Baitanrivo during their escape from the war. Her eyes only can see dim shadows but she forces herself to sit upright, attracting the attention of one man who quickly closes his shadow around her and yells something in a sharp tone. The room which seemed so full of men suddenly evaporates, and she is being carried to somewhere else in strong arms. Her benefactor deposits her on a softer cot, and she hears the door close. He says something in a language she does not understand.
She can see his face now. He has a short mustache protruding from below his nose bridge, and orange teeth. He is wearing a sort of hat and a striped shirt, with a heavy yellow jacket like they wear in the firehouses. He asks her something again, punctuating his point with a boney finger. It is not English.
“English,” she says, surprised at the voracity of her own voice. “You speak English?”
He motions that he does not understand. “Anglisce? Anglisce?” He adjusts the blankets around her body and puts his finger to his dirty lips. He leaves the cabin—she can see now that she is in a cabin with just him and a desk and a bed, and a portal looking out to sea—and she feels abandoned again. He returns moments later with a limp fish in his hand, about the size of a dinner plate. “Pejousta!” He says, and thrusts the fish toward her. “Pejousta!”
She does not realize until just now her massive, aching hunger, but the sight of the fish makes her stomach grumble audibly. He sits down on the bed next to her, so she can feel the pressure of his weight, and starts to peel the scales of the fish with his hand. Inside she can see the tender meat. She knows from her childhood that the fish has been cooked, that it has been salted and prepared and is being handed to her as a gift. She struggles to sit upright in the bed, and the unknown man produces some pillows for her support. She takes the fish and starts to devour it, starting, as she learned long ago, at the head and working her teeth down the bone to avoid puncturing her mouth, and licks the scales clean. She can feel her body thanking her for the rejuvenation, but also requesting her reprieve. She has used too much energy for the day. She collapses on the soft cushions of the bed and feels the warmth of the man’s hand mold the blankets around her body. She knows this touch, and revels in the tender caress before she is devoured by darkness again.
She is awoken at dawn by a sudden jerk of the ship and instinctively reaches for Olaf beside her, but no one is there. She panics and sits upright, and takes a moment to remember where she is. She needs to find Olaf. She realizes that she is wearing men’s clothes that drape her body awkwardly, and no undergarments. Shoes have been carefully placed next to the bed, but these also fit too loosely and clunk as she rushes out of the cabin. She finds herself in a hallway with a swinging lamp, and she toes the keel line to avoid losing her balance as she races down the ship. She hears voices and follows them until she is in a spacious dining room filled with the odors of men and their loudness. They all turn when she enters, and the sight of her in her oversized sea-clothes must seem quite comical, for they all burst into laughter before the incomprehensible din starts again. She then sees the man who brought her the fish come out of the horde and approach her with a genuine, orange-toothed smile and motions for her to follow him. “Olaf?” she asks, “Husband? My husband, Olaf? Man? Tall?”
She hurries behind him desparate to find a word in English he understands, for it seems they are rushing back to her tiny cabin instead of to Olaf’s side. He hurries her along the corridor. Finally, they reach a new cabin and he pushes open the door, and Olaf is revealed, a tall, Belgian sailor overhanging the short, cramped bed. He is asleep, but he has been cleaned and she can see his arm is now in a proper sling. She rushes to his side and grasps his thick hair and kisses his neck as she embraces him. He awakens and she can feel his breath on her neck.
“Isabella. Darling, mon amour.” He whispers like he did out at sea, but now he smells like he has been washed and he smiles, revealing his perfect teeth.
“Olaf, I was so worried.” She kisses him again. “We survived. We survived.” She can feel tears in her eyes and sniffles. He is weak and cannot hold her the way she is holding him, but he, too, has a tear in his eye.
“Darling. I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” His English is affected by a slight Belgian accent. Because her own English has a heavier accent, she does not hear his most of the time but, right now, she notices every thing about him at once, and relishes in his healthy presence.
“Shhh, do not be sorry, do not be sorry. You did nothing wrong. Get some rest. Get some rest.” She strokes his hair. “I am here now.” She closes Olaf’s eyes and lets him fall asleep. She kisses him on the forehead and rises. She only now realizes the continual presence of the watchful sailor who has not left her side. She sees him standing by the door, staring at the floor as if ashamed of witnessing such a personal moment. He must be not yet thirty years old, but has aged on the sea. “Thank you,” she says to him, and he looks up with lit eyes and smiles. He understands her words.
Isabella sails onward with the ship while her husband recuperates below deck. In the night she gets into bed beside him and caresses his rising chest as they both sleep. Every day, she brings him fish and water and tea, taking care to wrap his forehead in a warm towel and massaging his shoulders and neck. During the day, after she has fed him and put him to sleep, she goes top deck and explores the ship. It is a fishing vessel with a crew of thirty, all young in age but aged beyond their years. From the Cyrillic lettering all over, she knows she is on a Russian ship. She discovers that her benefactor, a mate or officer, gave his cabin for her recovery, and when she started sleeping with her husband again he stopped sleeping in the hammocks with the crew. He takes her all over the ship and proudly presents her to his crewmates, who warm up to her (she has since taken in her oversized clothes to avoid ridicule), and enthusiastically crowd her with questions she cannot understand. She enjoys the company and the attention, and is acutely aware of her dark complexion and the Russian fascination with her exotic beauty. They know of her husband, so she does not fear for her body. She prides herself in her new clothes, as she made them with her own hand and washes them daily in the privacy of her husband’s new cabin.
She learns that her benefactor’s name is Petrov, and he is in charge of order on the vessel. He does not man the fishing nets himself, but commands the labor and reports to the captain. The captain is a gruff man much like Pieter, the doomed captain of her doomed ship, and she wonders if all ship captains are much alike. The captain shows her a chart on the bridge, which shows the Cape as she has never seen it before, with fishing lines labeled and breeding grounds highlighted in various colors. The lettering is in Cyrillic but through pronunciation lessons from Petrov she learns that the ship is headed for the port in Walvis Bay, where it will stop for five days, and then will turn around and head back to the Soviet Union for the winter, perhaps at Odessa. She deduces from the course deviations on the chart that she and Olaf were picked up far south of Durban, being swept toward the Indian Ocean and south of Madagascar. She points to Cape Town and to herself, and requests in this way that she and Olaf depart there after the stop in Namibia. The captain graciously agrees.
She marvels at the generosity of the Russians, who have always seemed like an enemy to her and her adopted country. The media of South Africa found every problem with the Soviet Union enticing and delicious, and jumped on every story, mocking its impending doom. She sees the denunciation of the terrorist blacks on television and their communist tactics, she hears whispers from the whites of Mandela coming out of prison and starting a Marxist revolution. And she knows communists, many of whom, back in Madagascar, forced her to leave home and start a new life. But she has heard, from everywhere, that the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, and she believes that this eroding fishing boat is a symbol of the era. She senses, from the demeanor of the sailors, that their pride is perhaps eroding as well, that their certainty in the future is shaken and they might believe that this is the last journey they will ever make for their country.
But these Russians are friendly, engaging, generous. She wants to know them and talk to them, and find out about their food and vodka and homeland. She is given a book by Petrov and she learns to read the letters, although they are difficult to understand at first with their similarities to Latin letters. She learns some Russian words but cannot understand conversation. The sailors show her pictures of their wives and girlfriends back home. These beautiful Russian women from exotic places like Murmansk and Vladivostock and Irkutsk beckon to her, with their dark, soulful eyes and proud, thin bodies. They are no younger than her, but await their mates halfway around the world in a foreign land. One sailor shows her a picture of a little girl and points to his chest proudly. He kisses the photograph and motions with his hand that she is this tall—then raises his hand to show she has grown since the photograph has been taken. The amount of human experience that can be conveyed through simple hand gestures—the amount of commonality in the world and what little language is needed in the face of universal triumphs like love and children—overwhelms Isabella. She thinks about her own new family and their path to one day have children, if the law one day allows. And the thought of these families back in Russia makes her hope for the faster recovery of her husband, so she may lie beside him again and feel his touch and strength, and the world may be righted again.
Olaf recuperates his strength slowly but soon he is able to walk about the cabin. She takes him up on deck before long, and he is excited to meet new people. He has been a sailor, so he understands and explains to Isabella how the ship works, the mast and cast iron cranes, the nets and ropes and crew positions. He does not talk to her about their wreck, or his pain, or his fears. When they are on deck while the Russian sailors are working, he tries to offer his help to steady a rope or tie a line, but he is always friendlily pushed away. He does not want to betray weakness to the other men on the ship, but at night when they are alone his body is limp with fatigue, and she must sometimes guide his feet out of his shoes and undress him for bed.
Then, one night when they were only three days from Walvis Bay, he awakens suddenly and sits up in the dark.
“Isabella! I want to go up deck.”
“It is cold, darling, tomorrow we will go.” She does not feel as if she has fallen asleep yet, but only has been rocking with the ship.
“I want to go now.” He gets out of bed and puts on his shoes. She follows him tirelessly, fascinated by his sudden energy. He takes her hand and leads her up on deck, where the moonlit night reveals a field of speckled waves shimmering before them. He takes her in his right, strong, arm and holds her close. She knows the touch of his hand, but it has been so long since she felt it and her back shivers with anticipation. He cannot use his left arm but strokes her back with his right, running his finger up her healing scar, discovering her body anew. He then runs his hand up her back, naked underneath her sailor’s shirt, and up to her neck, where he rubs the wisps of hair on her neck to her convulsing shivers. He then takes her hair in his hand and draws her face into his, and she feels the moonlight bathing her as their lips touch, and the deck and the ship and the sky melt away until only she and her love are alone in the universe.
“You do not know how much you mean to me,” he says in a deep, caressing voice, that rumbles her own vocal cords. “I was on the ocean completely alone, and the only thing I have in the world is you, Isabella.”
“Stop, let me finish. You care for me and I love you, mon amour.” He spokes these last words in French, but she knew them well.
“Olaf you have always been my strength. You believe in me and loved me when it was forbidden, when it is still forbidden.”
She takes his right hand in his and lowers it so it touches her breast, so her beating heart can be felt. She wants him at that moment, and she takes his face in her hand and touches his mouth with her thumb, then runs her hand to his chest, so their chests are beating as one with shared energy. This in Africa is the feeling of kinship, of Ubuntu, this is sacred energy. She leads him below the deck and takes him to bed, and bestows on him the wonders of a wife, and discovers anew the hunger of a husband.
Note: This is an excerpt from The Citadel, a dystopian novel about a near-future rise of a fundamentalist Christian political party in the United States. It is not completed…but it will be soon.
“Home” was a very obscure concept for me. Perhaps I had always learned from father that Afghanistan was our real home, or perhaps I just did not see the square cells in which we lived as a true home, at least how other children saw it. The colloquialism “Home is where the heart is” never made sense to me. My heart was with me, and never anywhere else. I did not feel like any place embodied me. Like a turtle, I carried my “home” on my back.
If, however, someone had asked me where “home” was, I would have immediately mentioned Kamal’s spacious apartment, where I went every day after school to sit and play for hours until father came home from work. Kamal was never in one of my classes, so I did not seem him except on the bus every day. His phone number was the first one I learned. His computer was the first one I ever used. His toys were my toys. When I was over at Kamal’s apartment, I felt at home as much as anywhere else.
Kamal’s father watched over us both, and when his wife came home in the evenings she made us dinner. Kamal’s mother, “Mrs. Kamal,” was wider than I was tall, and short like a pumpkin. She had fat, flabby arms, and liked to wear her apron all the time. She was a cook in the Afghani restaurant down the street, although I’m sure she was Persian. She liked to yell at Kamal, for not doing his homework, for not washing his hands before dinner, for not saying please and thank you, and all sorts of things, things which I never had a problem doing just to sharpen the contrast between me and Kamal. For this reason, she loved me, and took me in like a son (although I would never think of calling her mother).
Kamal and I loved to build fortresses out of his couch and chairs. We loved to pretend we were flying spaceships, and his flat screen television was the cockpit display. Sometimes, I even let him be captain and I manned the guns, battling imaginary villains with my deadly lasers and even deadlier accuracy. Sometimes we detached the wooden dowels off of mops and fought with them, like Zorro. Kamal had video games, and I could never compete with him because he owned them and I didn’t—but I think he let me win sometimes.
Sometimes, Kamal and I would just talk, for hours, about our limited perceptions of the world. We would talk about kids we knew, and our teachers, and about science, or religion, or politics. We of course knew nothing about the world, but we did not know what we did not know—so, we talked like we knew it all, like we were the wisest men on the planet. Our words were smart and concise; our thoughts were brilliant. I listened to Kamal more than he listened to me. He told me about what he was learning in school, but mostly about what he was learning outside of school. His father was a very smart man, and always had something to say as well. I was sure that most of Kamal’s education came from his father.
Kamal would talk a lot about being a Muslim in America. It was one of the things he was really passionate about, even at such a young age. He told me about how his father had experienced ridicule at work, and how it was hard sometimes to land building contracts because no one wanted to hire an Arabic contractor. Kamal would talk for over an hour sometimes without stopping, talking to me but sounding so passionate that it felt like he was talking to an entire audience. It was Kamal—not I—who made the room overflow with thoughtfulness.
I learned how to read and write really quickly. By first grade, I could read anything Mrs. Williams wrote on the board, and by second grade, I could pick most books off the shelves in the school library, even from the fourth grade section, and read most of the words. My favorite fourth-grade level book was about the Titanic. I was fascinated with the story of sunken dreams, with the tragedy of families and classes and children. The fourth grade book on the subject read like a fairy tale, almost, with pictures of the majestic Lady of the sea, smokestacks pluming, decks teeming with life. Then, the fateful night of August 14th—when the invincibility of a God was challenged and defeated by nature, and along with it, the arrogance of an age. I read the book so many times, the spine became white from creasing and I could recite the story from memory. I was afraid to ask my father to get me another book about the Titanic. I remembered too well how mad he had gotten when I asked him for baseball cards, so I did not dare ask him. But he must have seen me reading my little book, because for my ninth birthday he got me three advanced, detailed books about the Titanic. I could not thank him enough, but he just sat back with his cigar and said “Ahmed, read your books, always look for wisdom.” It took me at least a year to go through the two thick informational books and the detailed diagram-heavy one. I studied cutouts of the Titanic forever, trying to analyze, myself, how it was possible for the lower compartments to overflow. I learned about the pretentiousness of Bruce Ismay, and the kindhearted William Andrews, ship’s architect. I imagined what it must have been like to command such a ship from the bridge, a fearless Captain Smith, and how frightening it must have been, as a man, seeing his wife and children board the lifeboats without him.
In third grade, Mrs. Williams left me to get married. I was very conscious of the fact that, although she moved up teaching one grade a year from the time I was in kindergarten, I was the only student she had taught consistently all four years. In retrospect, I wonder if she had anything to do with placing the students in her classes. She focused intently on my education, clearly investing a lot of time in stimulating me, and keeping me out of trouble. When I was clearly bored learning about simple arithmetic, she gave me more challenging multiplication problems to do. When she saw my distaste in having to write words like “The” and “His” for hours until my fingers hurt, she gave me harder words to practice, and even had me help the other kids in the class learn the easy ones. I knew that the other kids resented me. I was too obviously different than they were, too above them academically, too superior to them—or at least I thought so. Mrs. Williams tried hard to instill in me a sense of modesty, to help me make friends, to guide me through those important non-academic steps in my education. I alternated attitudes towards her attempts. Sometimes, I looked to her for help, to defend me against the occasionally hostile opposition I faced from my peers. But I often resented her help, and took it as a patronizing attempt to subjugate my independence. I was very focused on my own work, but after a while, due to the attentions of Mrs. Williams and my peers, I became aware of my own preciousness as well. It became harder for me to simply read a noticeably advanced book in class without consciously trying to attract the attention (and admiration) of peers.
Whenever there was a project that involved groups, I found myself the instant center of popularity. Everyone, it seemed, wanted me to be in their group. I took their advances as genuine signs of friendship. But when I approached these same children during recess, they seemed to have no interest in being around me. They became distant and reserved. Jokes that were told seemed to only resonate in them and be directed toward others, not me—and when I tried to joke, or add to the conversation in any way, I was not listened to, and reacted to with scorn.
I realized quickly how much a part of my life Mrs. Williams had been when she was gone. My fourth grade teacher’s name was Mr. Dawson. He was a towering man with wild eyes, and large, strong hands. His pale skin flushed quickly, then cleared just as quickly, with no reason or warning. His face never seemed to alter expression—it was fixed in a look of pure focus and intensity. When he taught, he loved to face the board, then whip his face around quickly and fire a question at an unsuspecting youth.
He did not pay attention to me like Mrs. Williams had. On the first day of school, Mr. Dawson got very angry with me because I asked a boy next to me if I could borrow a pencil. He chastised me for my lack of preparation, and told me I would have to be as devoted to school as the other members of my class. I remember being embarrassed by the way he spoke to me. He did not know that I could read, by then, at a high school level. He did not know that I could do long division, or that I had written some poems that had been published in the elementary school “Viewbook.” From the beginning, I think, he saw me as smaller than the rest of the class.
That year, Lisa was in my class again. Her blonde hair she preferred let hang long and loose, now, and I had begun to notice her in a way I had not noticed anyone before. Her face was bright and clean, and she smiled with a warmth that spread from her petit lips and graced her neckline. I loved it when she tossed her hair, which she did whenever she was working very hard for a long time. Sometimes when I finished my work packets early, I pretended to look idly around the room, but I actually watched her, waiting for the moment when her rapt attention was broken by a snap of her head, and an alluring flourish of her sunshine hair.
Mr. Dawson seemed to take kindly to Lisa, too. She was the only child in my class that year, besides me, who stood out, both because of her blonde hair and her light skin. She was white, but I was only beginning then to understand the difference between races. At first, I began to associate the physical differences between people by facial features—white people had round, flat faces, with protruding noses, and blue or bright brown eyes. Black people had flat noses and more pronounced cheekbones and jawbones. Asians had slanted eyes and wavy hair and Jews had large ears and crooked noses. Those were the only “races” I knew—and everyone else was like me. (I also thought that every Muslim was Afghani, too, but soon I learned that Muslims came from everywhere.) I thought Juan Mandez, a kid in my second grade class, was a Muslim, too. I asked him if he wanted to come my mosque’s eid one year. I did not understand when he declined, until I learned that not everyone who looked like me was a Muslim. But that was later. Race to me was an abstract idea, and looking back on my childhood I can clearly remember who fell into which compartmentalization. But then, I would not have noticed that I and Lisa were distinctively dissimilar from the ethnic makeup of the rest of my fourth grade class. And I would definitely not have noticed what this meant in regard to Mr. Dawson’s affection.
Lisa and I noticed how she seemed to be favored, and I was equally disfavored—a far cry from my familiar relationship with Mrs. Williams. When it was cleaning time in the classroom, I was always assigned to clean the bathroom or scrub the floor tiles. She got to neaten the library or arrange the toys. Mr. Dawson would call on me to answer impossibly hard questions, and Lisa would be given a nod of approval, even if she failed to answer the easy question she was given. When I raised my hand, Mr. Dawson would appear to see right past it, as if it wasn’t there. He would look challengingly around the room until someone else’s hand raised, too. Lisa’s hand would always be the first one selected, when it was rarely raised. I don’t remember if this was a result of Mr. Dawson’s bias or merely symbolic of it, but Lisa sat in the front row, and I sat in the back, near the window. Sometimes, when I lost interest in a lesson or was merely distracted, I strained to hear the sounds of the city beyond the tightly shut window. I could always hear something if I tried.
Lisa and I never talked, but we understood eachother. She did not like to be singled out, and neither did I. For me, the greater part of my memory of fourth grade surrounds me and Lisa, struggling in that classroom for something neither of us could have. I wanted to be challenged; she wanted to be normal. And Mr. Dawson did not care about either one of us.
One day, a child refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance before school. Her name was Takisha, and she sat in the front of the room, two seats down from Lisa. Usually she did not speak during class, but I knew her because we had been paired up to d a Thanksgiving project together. She was a slight girl, with black hair that stayed in shape no matter how hard she shook her head. Sometimes her hair was done up with colored beads, so she looked like a stained glass window, impervious to shattering yet delicate as glass itself. Takisha always stood and recited the Pledge like the rest of us, mechanically, hand over heart, the words spewing meaningless from our indoctrinated mouths. For all my obsession with reading and words, I never thought about the block of words I recited every morning, or what they meant. They were a single entity, bodyless and meaningless, to be spoken quickly and solemnly, because they were required to know and recite and that was it.
But one day Takisha stood in the room, with the rest of us, as the American flag hung from the blackboard, and did not move her lips as the chorus of America was absorbed by the stuffy classroom. No one noticed she had not spoken, of course, and when we had all finished “Withlibertyandjusticeforall” we sat down, as did Takisha, and waited for Mr. Dawson to start the first lesson of the day by scratching Arabic numerals on the chalkboard. But he did not. He stared at the seated class, from his desk, beady eyes focused intently ahead. His pale face flushed red—the first time I had seen his face change color when he wasn’t speaking. Then, he stood, pulling his collared shirt taut over his beltline. When he spoke, his voice quivered minutely, like a faint vibrato in a distant overture.
“Takisha. Please stand up.” He looked right at her. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. There was a long silence, during which I could only imagine her looking up, timidly, at him, her small lips pressed nervously. She slid out of her seat and stood next to her desk.
“Yes, Mr. Dawson?” she asked. There was fear in her voice.
“Takisha, please recite the Pledge of Allegiance for the class.” Mr. Dawson’s lips folded over his gums, leaving the tips of his yellow teeth exposed. Takisha did not say anything. I saw the back of her head stiffen—her hair shook silently. Then she spoke, her voice cutting the air.
“No thank you, Mr. Dawson.”
Mr. Dawson breathed. I could see his big hands tightening against his pant legs. The tension in the room was unbearable.
“No thank you?” he repeated. “No thank you?” His voice gained a pitch. “No thank you?” Takisha mumbled something barely audibly. “What, Takisha? What did you say? Speak up for the class.”
Takisha breathed loudly, then spoke quickly and loudly: “My mother says I shouldn’t.” She stopped. The whole class seemed to tighten, bracing ourselves for the crescendo that was bound to come. Mr. Dawson’s eyes flared.
“Your mother says you shouldn’t,” he echoed. Then he smiled, suddenly relaxing his features. The interlude was dripping sweet but distinctively discordant. Mr. Dawson asked, so sweetly, so innocently, “Why not, Takisha? Why does your mother say you shouldn’t pledge allegiance to our flag?”
I waited. I hoped Takisha would not say something to further anger the teacher. I wished she would just concede and apologize so we could get on with the lesson. I did not understand how such a harmless stanza could deter Takisha from desiring to recite it, or her mother, for that matter. I watched, with every other child in that class, waiting for an answer we could not expect and would not be able to understand.
“We don’t believe in God.”
The words crashed like a cymbal. Any sense of calm remaining in the room was blown sky-high. Mr. Dawson’s face distorted. His smile vanished. His throat constricted, and his Adam’s apple rose to his chin. Then, muted, he whispered, “You will recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Takisha. You will recite the entire Pledge, without pause, and the entire class will wait here until you do it.” His voice escalated, gaining rhythm and tempo as he marched forward, toward the class, toward Takisha, toward me. “You will say the Pledge of Allegiance, now.”
I could hear, coming through the closed window, the faint sound of a jazz trumpet, playing a moaning, moderate melody. The notes glided wistfully through a scale of perfect aptitude, reaching peaks of hope and valleys of despair. The solo played the melody of happiness and the melody of rejection, the tune of kindness and the tune of cruelty, all at the same time. I was reminded instantly of the only music I really knew—the tempered moans of the muezzin every morning, reciting the call to prayer for all Muslims around the world. I thought of the vocalizations that remained so consistent yet fluctuated so wildly at the same time, like joy and death riding ocean waves—a history of pride in God and sufferance of persecution in the same sound. And I thought about Takisha, the small girl in the front row, with hair like a cocoon of protection, who just told the world she did not believe in God. I did not understand. How could I? How could I believe that any person would reject God, a concept so true and established in my mind, an idea I prayed to, an ideal I felt with me wherever I went?
Takisha was silent, again. I imagine the class was waiting for her to speak the words they had all just spoken. But instead she cocked her head and repeated, a little louder, “No thank you, Mr. Dawson.”
Mr. Dawson’s face was bright red, and now, as he pressed his hairy knuckles on Takisha’s desk, the back of his hands were red, too. “Say the Pledge of Allegiance, Takisha.” Takisha slid into her desk, sitting down, and crossed her hands over her chest.
“Please, Mr. Dawson, I’d rather not.”
I heard a whisper in the front of the room I could not comprehend. Then, another one, louder: “Come on, Takisha. Say it.” Another child urged her. “C’mon, say it Tee, say it.” Takisha shook her head, and I could see her hair bounce, then find its perfect place again. A boy next to me said “I wanna learn math!” Some kids laughed nervously. “You will say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Mr. Dawson refrained. “Say it!” His voice rose another pitch, and his eyes now looked like they were going to jump out of their sockets, like bullets from a double barreled shotgun. “Say it!” he said, louder this time. I saw Takisha shrink back. “Say it!” he said again, his voice breaking at the crest.
“Say it!” a boy said. I wanted her to just recite the Pledge. I wanted her to shout it at the top of her lungs. But I could not bring myself to urge her with the rest of the class. In her stance, I saw not only my own determination, but my opposition of authority. She was standing up to Mr. Dawson—and she was succeeding. I could not defend her, but I could not bring myself to vindicate Mr. Dawson. With every “Say it, Takisha!” I thought about Mrs. Williams, and what she would tell me to do, what she would do if she were in Mr. Dawson’s place. But Mr. Dawson was not Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Dawson did not understand about sharing, or fairness, or how to learn from others. He could not listen to a small girl in the front row, and he could not comprehend why she did not do what he wanted her to do.
And now, he is furious. “Say it! Say the Pledge!” he screams, almost hysterically. “Say it now!” Takisha jumps. “Say ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag!’” I see her hair shake, quivering, a tremolo. Mr. Dawson steps closer to her desk. His knees are touching the hard cream-colored wood. I hear the desk creak. His voice is low, but his face still breathes fire like an active volcano. “I will ask you one more time, Takisha. Your classmates are waiting. Will you please repeat after me. I pledge allegiance…” Takisha does not speak. He says, again, “I pledge allegiance…” His voice undulates, trailing up at the end. Takisha remains silent. I can hear Mr. Dawson breathe. I can hear the classroom breathe. Breathe.
Then, feebly: “My mother says I shouldn’t.”
Almost immediately, the temple of Samson crashes to the ground. The classroom shakes like the quakes of Mexico City—the sky explodes with the sound of a million firecrackers. And Mr. Dawson screams, with a furor coming from the depths of evolution, with a voice shrill and hysterical, hands gripping the desk of the little child in front of him with the bouncing hair, and then, with every syllable, lifting with his infinite might the desk off the linoleum floor: “I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE!” The desk crashes to the ground. Takisha bounces up, then comes down hard in her seat, her hair landing, disfigured, for the first time. I hear the somber sound of timbre trumpets coming through the window. It is a call. Mr. Dawson asks for strength to shake his temple—it is a call. The children hold their breaths because ghosts do not breathe—it is a call. I listen without protest, because slugs do not speak—it is a call. Takisha speaks the holy words of our great nation—it is a call. She speaks with fear, not heart, with sound, not music, with tears, not crying.
“I pledge allegiance…” Mr. Dawson takes a step backward.
“To the flag…”
“To the flag…”
“Of the United States of America…”
“Of the United States of America…”
“And to the Republic…” The Holy Republic…
“For which it stands…” …a house divided…
“One nation…” …cannot stand…
“Under God…” …without faith…
“With liberty…” …the angels freed…
“And justice…” …the demons jailed…
“For all.” Silence falls.
Breathe. It is a call.
The sun never sets
in the eyes of a child who sees the world
on his own level
he leans on his side, relaxing with the roses
on a bank, so he can see through one
drowsy eye the quiet cottage
where a pot is starting to
boil on the stove, and his
mother hums with
Wagner on the
a fly brushes into his floating free hand.
he nestles into the grass
and falls asleep to
Wagner, a soft
to find the sky is dark.
he rushes to the windowsill
and realizes that dinner is cold.
he eats alone, blinking the sleep from his
eyes and listening to the music wane.
I found a sprig of wood,
Of barky birch, like Robin Hood
Enshrouded in a ghostly cape—
Bowy as a spring, and tender as the rain.
I bent it with my small sprout hands
And saw the white wood strain.
I found a length of yarn,
Blue as fire tips, right on
My mother’s ceder desk—
Longer than my arm, and dangling like a braid.
I wrapped it round my thumb,
Then took it off—the notch remained.
I found a herd of bison high
Upon a plain ‘neath endless sky.
I galloped on a barkback horse—
Bow in hand, and arrows flung,
My sprite spirit, from
My treetop catwalk sung.