by Sana Mufti
It is late afternoon when we pull up to the old house on Brookhaven Crescent. As always, the grand sight of the pink bricked corner house fills me with a sentimental pride. We park by the main entrance at the side of the house, in front of the two trees I spent my childhood watching blossom and die. It is summer, so these trees are bright and green, aged like me. We greet each other like old friends, and I am relieved to see that time has not altered our relationship.
My family and I walk in a messy line; I am in the very back, trailing slowly past my old lawn, remembering the soft days of running around, climbing plastic porch railings only to jump off and roll around in the grass while escaping imaginary enemies in an intense game of Survival with the neighbours’ kids, my best friends at the time.
“Oh my god,” my sister, Alia, exclaims, pointing to the rosebush which has bloomed beautifully around the white column by the front doorsteps, “do you remember planting these?”
I chuckle, nodding. I do remember. I remember like it was yesterday, when Mom brought home a prickly looking plant and dug it a home with us.
“It’s so ugly,” I exclaimed, scrunching my seven-year-old nose as I watched her pat the soil around its base, “it looks dead.”
“It’s going to grow roses,” Mom replied, then, as if that was a satisfying answer.
It never was. As the days passed, the plant only learned to wither and die. Still, Mom watered it on schedule, changed its soil, spent time encouraging it to grow even despite the harsh Canadian weather. She asked me, once, to water it, but I always refused. Its thorns scared me, and there were always bees buzzing around it. I did not want to be near it. None of us kids did.
“I can’t believe it actually blossomed,” I remark, looking down from a safe distance at the beautiful red roses glittering like romantic rubies in the shade.
“Yeah, and all it took was our absence,” Alia laughs.
I laugh, too, joining her on the steps. We walk together through the double door entrance, slipping back into old clothes and mannerisms.
My other two siblings have scrambled upstairs to their old bedroom. Alia runs after them, her feet pounding loudly on the hardwood floors. Even being over a decade old, the floors shine like they are brand-new. I am barefooted, although I don’t ever recall taking off my shoes. I like the warm, orange smoothness of the ground.
Ami, my grandmother, bought a big brown mat for our front door. It covered a large portion of the main entrance, collecting the dirt our shoes would otherwise bring in. Ami loved prickly, ugly kinds of plants, too. She made sure that every corner of the house carried one, always forced me to go water them. I used to hate it, taking that heavy jug of water through the house, rolling my eyes when she would tell me exactly how to pour the water into the dry soils in the pot.
“Don’t be afraid of it,” she would snap from the kitchen, “it won’t hurt you.”
She was wrong. No matter how hard I tried to love those prickly, mean stems, my wrists and hands would always come back with small, itchy lashes. I never learned how not to be afraid of these wretched, flowering plants, and they learned to hate me, too.
I see my old Converse shoes lying rebelliously by the door—Ami used to yell at me when I wouldn’t tuck them in their proper place inside of the closet—the shoelaces look too white, though, and they are untied. The laces spill like noodles over the mat.
I can’t hear my siblings anymore, my eyes are on the big, gaping windows decorating the walls of the living room to my right. The sofas are still there, brand-new as the day we moved in. I stare at the brown, velvet sofa, the long one that we sold before moving—patches of it had turned green from being under direct sunlight for so long—Ami never sat on it. She sat on the small brown one-seater that hides behind the pseudo-wall and column separating the living room from the powder room and main entrance. Ami was a very selective person, there were few things she liked. She loved ugly plants, and that uncomfortable couch.
It is summer, which is how I remember these parts of my life. I walk down the hall towards the kitchen. Everything is the same. Green tiles mopped and shiny, sunlight streaming lovingly through the window above the sink. Even the white curtains Mom had later added flutter in the breeze. If we still lived here, someone would have been cooking. It feels weird that the kitchen is empty, that the kitchen table isn’t here, it’s in the new house now.
The family room is on my left. It is dark because all the curtains are closed. My siblings are suddenly behind me.
“Do you remember,” Husna, my sister, exclaims excitedly, “when that black cat came into the garage that night?”
“Oh, yes,” I chuckle, recalling it vividly.
I was barely ten, then, Husna must have been eight. The cat had made a home in our garage and wouldn’t leave. Finally, Mom took pity and brought it in. Mom fed it, while dad searched for who to call. The cat liked us, but it was sick, and we did not really know how to care for a cat. The cat loved my grandpa, Nana, the most. They became reluctant friends; the cat loved to sit with Nana, loved to be around him. Nana would rest and contemplate by the windows in the dining room, and the cat would settle on his lap like clockwork, stay there until it was dark. I remember my unwarranted adolescent jealousy; even then, I just wanted to be loved. It’s accidental disruption in my life felt like fate, but this fate was disappointing; it was not mine. I wonder what Nana said to it; perhaps he told it the stories that he could never tell us. Perhaps the cat sensed his sadness, something none of us really took notice of until far too late. I only learned of Nana’s sadness a week before he passed away, in the new house, with late-teenage eyes. Death always turns eyes old and dreary. My new house carries no light. I remember that the cat got really sick one night. It was sent to animal control just a week later. We never named it. I wonder if Nana did. I think the cat saved him without us knowing.
Simba was our family pet. He was an orange tabby, brown like most of our furniture. He used to blend into the carpet in the family room. I recall it with my siblings, and we laugh despite the growing lump in our throats. Simba loved me; Ami hated cats, but she learned to love him.
There was no cat in the new house where Ami died. Perhaps if there was, she would have been saved, too.
We walk into the family room where my parents are standing. They stare at the TV, but it is not on. It is the new TV we bought after a decade of living in the house. The first TV we had was this huge monster of a machine that took up half of the room. This one is thin and modern and hangs neatly on the wall over the gas fireplace.
“Remember when the electricity went out that week after our trip?” My brother, Ahmed, remarks as he stares at the black square.
“Oh, yeah, it was so cold that week!” Husna jumps in, her hair wild and disarrayed around her like a beautiful, brown halo.
“God, how long did we have that fireplace on for?” Alia asks, scrunching her eyebrows as she tries to remember.
I remember that night back from the airport after our trip to Mexico. There had been an ice storm here in Ontario, and all the electricity in big cities like Markham, Unionville and Richmond Hill had been out for days. We arrived home very late at night, and everything inside was nearly frozen. Dad started up the fireplace while the rest of us collected blankets and comforters. We slept together in the small family room, despite there being so many of us.
That storm was the most severe one I had lived through. Without access to electricity and no fireplace, many people froze to death that year. I remember watching it on the news. I remember ice skating on the street the next day. Dad videotaped us, and Ami worried through the window, waiting for us to return.
“Probably a couple of days, although lucky we had a gas fireplace, otherwise I don’t know how we’d have survived that night,” my dad smiles at the memory. His eyes are red. So are mine.
There used to be nine of us in the house. We come back as six.
A strange light catches my eye. It seems to be coming from the window, but the curtains are drawn tightly shut. I frown, trying to calm the sudden unease in my stomach. Everyone around me continues talking, remembering snippets of old things worth sharing. I walk towards the window.
“Hajra,” my dad’s cautious tone stops me in my tracks. I turn to look at him. His face is serious when he speaks. “Don’t open the window.”
“Why not?” I rest my hand on the edge of one of the brown velvet curtains.
Ami bought these curtains, I remember. Although soft to the touch, I hated them. They were beige like the rest of the furniture, like the walls, like me—everything in this house was brown, as if we couldn’t help but vomit up the only colour we knew. Ami did that a lot. She liked uniformity. We never really did have a good eye for interior design. Our house was a mix-match of everyone and everything. But Ami needed homogeneity. I was always slightly too colourful, too messy from inside. I don’t remember this when I look back. Home always feels like sunlight when I recollect it, it has no true colour. I don’t know why everything looks so over-contrasted, blaring to the eyes.
“Just don’t,” Dad says ominously.
I tighten my fingers around the edge of the curtain, contemplating my next course of action. My heart pounds, something feels inherently off about everything. The TV should be on. Why is it so dark in here?
Driven by an intuitive force, I spread the curtains apart just enough for me to peer through.
Outside, a fresh grave lies on the ground just by the backyard fence door. The sun drops its light over the grave, shining on the fresh pink petals that lie over the dark soil. I know, without a doubt, that this is Ami’s grave.
It bothers me that the composition of this view is beautiful. Everything feels wrong. Are these the right shoes? My Converse have changed, they feel too tight, too big, the soles have conformed to someone else’s feet.
“Do you remember Ami?” I ask too casually, turning around. Something is missing. I am afraid that the rest of my family might see; they cannot see. If they notice this, it will ruin everything.
I try using my body to cover up the rest of the window, but suddenly the curtains fly apart with a violent shudder. Everyone stops talking and looks at me with a strange expression. For a second, I cannot recognize them.
“Ami?” Mom asks me, trying to place the word.
“Yes,” I say, panic seeping into my voice, “Ami.”
“Whose?” Ahmed’s voice is confused and concerned.
“Ami means ‘mother’,” Alia says out loud to no one in particular.
“I know that.”
“Mom is right here,” Husna points to Mom.
“No, Ami…” I struggle for the word, “not our mother…”
“Grandmother,” Dad finally says, “my mother.”
“Yes,” my body slumps in relief. I remember.
“What about her?” Ahmed asks.
“She’s here,” I say.
Everyone looks out through the window.
"Oh yes,” Mom muses, “look at those pretty red rose petals. They really bloomed this year, didn’t they?”
“They are prettier without thorns,” Husna joins.
“We buried her,” I tell them.
“Yes,” Alia agrees, “I’m happy she’s here with us.”
“She’s not,” I whisper, a deep coldness emerging outwards from inside of me. It explodes from my heart.
“We’re not, what?” Alia is scared. I can tell because she twists her lips slightly to the right, bites the inside flesh nervously and looks away.
“She,” I correct.
“We, what?” Our hearts pound far too loudly. My legs chatter against my weight.
“Here,” I do not know who says this, but it silences us.
Suddenly, everyone disappears except for me and dad. I hear young laughter on the other side of the backyard, by the playground near the kitchen window. Alia is ten, Husna is eight, and Ahmed is only seven. The three of them are playing with the water hose, and Mom is watching with her parents, Nana and Nani. I look down at my hands in the darkness of the living room, and I am twelve. Dad looks nearly the same, except he does not have any grey hairs and his eyes are happier, unburdened.
“Dad,” I call out; my voice is youthful and beautiful again, “Where is she?”
Dad does not know what to say, or he does, but doesn’t know how to. He points at his chest, and suddenly there is a big, open space I can peer through. Here, he wants to say, but he is wrong, she isn’t.
I look out the window again. My heart stops. My body is ice, everything is wrong. I cannot remember how to breathe. The grave is upturned and empty.
“Dad,” my voice is hoarse and breathless. My lungs burn hollowly, “Where is she?”
This time my Dad’s face turns white as a ghost. He quickly suppresses his emotions in a paternal fashion, tries to hide his anxiety from me. I am twelve, so I believe his calmness. He walks over to me, rests his big hand over my shoulder and peers outside. His fingers dig into my skin tightly.
“I don’t know,” he says. His voice is unable to hide his panic; I hear it with adult ears. I am aging wrong.
We sprint outside. The grave is a mess of too many things, an unorganized library of painful memories. I cannot bear to look at it.
“There,” he says, running down the street where my siblings and I used to run all the time.
It is suddenly pouring, and I am drenched. I remember when my siblings and I would run outside into the storm. Water collects the most on our side of the street, so the curbs would be rivers. We dropped our slippers into the raging canals and chased after them barefooted. The slippers bounced over the wicked currents like sailboats. The water was always warm in the summer. Ami would watch from the front door with a towel ready in her hand. She would yell when we’d run too far.
“Come back!” She’d scream in Urdu. Her voice was thick and old with age, “Hajra!”
I would turn around, annoyed as she chastised me for not listening.
“Ami!” I’d whine. “We aren’t going that far, anyways!”
“No,” she was stubborn, “tell them to come back.”
“Just to the stop sign! Please!”
“Hajra…” her warning tone was one I had memorized, learned to smart-talk around.
“Please! Just the stop sign! It’s right there, you can see it from here!”
“Okay, fine,” she’d finally concede, her voice hard as stone, “but no further!”
I’d run after my slipper, resenting how far behind I was now from the rest of the group. I never noticed the distance growing between me and her. I moved away, past the bend in the street, growing out of sight, far from the bite of her strictness, smiling vindictively when I could no longer see her.
I follow the trail of water now. Dad splashes violently in front of me. Was running through the rain always this painful?
“She’s getting away!” Dad screams pointing, and I see a limp, grey body rolling around with the currents. I run faster.
I am on the other side of the neighbourhood. Dad is suddenly behind me although I don’t remember running past him. I find her foot. It is colourless and grey. I am frightened to touch it, disgusted by the sight; I am afraid to lose sight of it. I grab it with both hands. The skin yields to my touch, bends like the porous surface of a rotting cocoon.
Dad is beside me. He grabs her by the shoulders, but I cannot see past anything beside the bottoms of her feet. We carry her back to the grave.
It is sunny again, although the grounds are wet. Dad and I put her down on the ground beside the grave. We need to empty it out; it is brimming with trash. Dad starts by scraping out old, dry dirt and throwing it on the road. I stand still and watch. Wet, muddy books, a broken watch, golden bangles distorted and bent in ugly shapes. I wait for it to show. Any evidence of me. A lock of Husna’s hair, Alia’s favourite book, Ahmed’s childhood toys. I wait and nothing ever shows. Simba’s toy, a tuft of black fur. I wait and nothing shows. Nana’s sunglasses, Nani’s saris. Nothing ever shows.
“This isn’t right,” I tell him, gnawing viciously at my lip.
“Where else will she go?”
“She’s not here,” I tear through my skin. A thick droplet of blood splatters over my mouth. I lick it away. My lip immediately swells and tingles.
Dad is vehement. He empties out the hole, but it looks small and sad.
“This is wrong,” I tell him as we pick Ami up.
“Just do it.”
We stuff her in ungraciously, aggressively, forcing her bit by bit back from where she came. Her body resists us, fights us limply. We bite our tongues against the ache in our souls and shove harder. When we are done, we are devastated. She doesn’t fit. Her foot sticks out like rotted wood. My hands are ashy and grey. Dad says to say a prayer, but God has deserted me.
The prayer on my lips is in English, cruel and cold. Shutupshutupshutupshutupshutup
“Dad, please,” I sob, “not here.”
I place a gentle hand on her cracked heel, trying to comfort her with whatever is left of me. I know she doesn’t want it. Everything is wrong.
“Okay,” Dad whispers, “okay.”
We unbury her quickly. We lay her on the ground so that she can see the sky. If we open her eyes, I cannot remember. I do not see anything past the wrinkly bottoms of her feet.
“Where?” Dad asks me.
“There,” I point to the front yard towards the patch of grass connecting to the driveway; by the first and biggest tree growing resolutely just above the curb where all our happy childhood memories compile like fall leaves; by the place we can see out from the window of the blue room, our bedroom which she dedicated her heart and soul into decorating after we chose to paint it the most abominable shade of blue imaginable to the eye, where we held noisy slumber parties only to have her yell at us to sleep, where we fought and she would come into to soothe us, patching us up with tough, beautiful sentiments; by the patch of grass under the old wooden bench with intricate metal trimmings that had oxidized into a mint green over the years, that same bench that Nana loved to spend his summer afternoons; the same patch of grass which we formed mountains of snow to sled down in garbage bags, collected leaves in the fall to jump into, ran from vicious wasps while painting under the sun; the same patch of grass that Ami would walk past in her old-age but she didn’t have a limp back then, her knees were strong and healthy, and this was the first time she had family whole and united, and a heart still open to love.
“Here,” I tell Baba with such a ferocity that he can find no reason to argue.
We lift her up again and walk her towards the place. When the three of us return, walking backwards, everything is the same as I remember it. The sun is shining brightly, burning our head and shoulders, glinting off of the green metal of the bench. The bench itself is still as worn down as I remember it, and just as heavy. Dad and I lug it off to the side. Inside the house, I can imagine the rest of us, young and alive, laughing and complaining. Perhaps Husna would crack a joke, and Alia and Ahmed would laugh. Mom would holler out a name while she cooked, and Ami would be beside her talking as they made parathas and mango shakes. Dad would be working and hanging out with us in the kitchen. It would be hot, too hot, but it was summer, and everyone was brimming with happiness. Nana would walk up the stairs to join us in his bowler hat, and Nani would be cooking downstairs. The house would be loud and messy, but this was the perfection of childhood.
I do not remember the sad parts; Ami’s burial happens suddenly and softly. When I look back, there is no true grave, but I know Ami is below, embraced by the familiar roots of a growing tree, and there are flowers, bright shocking pink flowers, the same hue of the khaara-dupatta that Ami bought me for my Bismillah, whispering with the winds, saying the words I never had the courage to say.
Sana Mufti is a creative writer with a double degree in English and Psychology from the University of Toronto. She has published a poetry book, What We Left Behind, which explores the influence of emotion on growth and identity. Sana has also published her short story “In His Head” in Dreamer’s Magazine, and was selected to present her other short story, “Mr. Politician” at the Sigma Tau Delta English Convention (2020). She has also published a few of her poems in various magazines including the Eunoia Review amongst many others. Sana strives to explore themes of identity and the philosophy of time and motion. She comments on the personal struggle of defining the self and finding stability in a constantly changing world. More of Sana’s writing can be found on her online portfolios: Instagram: @mind.full.of.dreams | Twitter: @mind.full.of.dreams | Facebook: mind.full.of.dreams