Farah Ali is from Karachi, Pakistan. Her more recent work can be found in Kenyon Review Online, Ecotone, The Southern Review and others. She received a special mention in the 2018 Pushcart Prizes for a story published in the J Journal, and was the winner of the Colorado Review’s 2016 Nelligan Prize.
Last week we left our house in the city, and mama drove four hours to get us to this hotel by the sea. I wasn’t surprised by our leaving; I knew we would eventually have to become one of the boat people, or the people of the water. We change their labels according to their fate—“boat people” if they make it to the other side, “water people” if they don’t. Mama didn’t tell me what sort of sign she was looking for—they had got already baba and his brother a couple of years ago and there were no more men left in our family. We had stopped buying anything for the house, and the drawing room and the third bedroom had stayed shut for months now. In the time that I waited for mama to decide, I carried out my roles unattached to them. I had friends, and I studied, and mama and I cooked and we ate and watched TV and argued, but always poised to move; in the course of one night I could go from being a girl in university and a girl in love, to a homeless oarswoman with an insensate mother.
I think it was the news of the capture of the village mama had grown up in that did it for her, because the next morning she said to me, “Amal, today you are not going to the university. We are leaving.” She stood by our small, plastic dining table, gripping its edge. Her voice was teetering, and it was only seven in the morning. She hadn’t dyed her hair in weeks and now the orange and the grey were beginning to blend. I had learned some months ago to look at her kindly.
I asked, “What shall I say to them?”
“Tell them you cannot go there anymore. Tell them you have to do other things.”
“What other things, mama?”
She opened her mouth then closed it. “Swimming. You have to learn swimming.”
“Yes. Don’t argue. Call them now.”
I never called the university. Others before me had simply stopped showing up and the rest of us had carried on, learning and teaching. I put my clothes and some books into a small bag. I wasn’t sure if I would be allowed to take that onto the boat but I hoped I would. Before mama and I left the house, I thought about calling Mahmood. While mama was in our back garden picking up the tomatoes she did not want to leave behind, I stood in the living room and gazed at his number on my phone. At that moment, he would be teaching a class. He was an electrical engineer. I was his student-assistant. That was the most we had ever been out loud to each other, but after mama saw him stop by our house with a book that I had forgotten she asked me how old he was.
“Thirty-five,” I said.
“He is a teacher,” she said. “They will take him, just like they took your father.”
“He’s very careful…”
In the end, because I was tired of trying to understand how much he would like to know, or if he would like to know anything at all, I sent him a message on his phone. “Not coming in today.” He might think, at first, that I have a headache, and later, as the days would go by, he might think I have abandoned our people. When Arwa had flown to Turkey with her family, Mahmood had called her a traitor.
Today, mama met a woman on the beach. I sat on a long chair under a tree and watched the two of them walk toward each other slowly. They smiled cautiously and gingerly kissed each other’s cheeks, then stood staring at the Mediterranean. They were dressed similarly in brown linen pants and long, button-down shirts. The other woman’s sleeves were rolled up but mama’s were not. Mama had found a friend.
“Her name is Ruba,” mama tells me later during dinner. “Her husband wants to be with the fighters so she decided to be here.”
“Like baba,” I say.
“Your baba did not want to go with them.”
I shrug. I believe different things on different days.
“Anyway,” mama continues. “Aunty Ruba can teach you how to swim. She knows how.”
But I do not want to swim. In water a person is unsupported, with nothing to stop gravity from pulling her down to depths in which she could drown, unheard.
“I would be too far away from you.”
Mama sighs. She closes her eyes, then opens them. “Your worries, they are all in your head, my child.”