Bright Denizens

“The night sky is a woven masterpiece,” Hooyo used to tell me. “The most gorgeous tapestry I have ever seen.”

“Can’t you make one like it, Hooyo?” I had asked eagerly. “Like the one in the hall? We could have one on the ceiling!”

“That’s no easy task, Riyoon!” She used to smile and poke at the mole below her lip. “Allah is an expert weaver.”

“Just like you are!” I insisted. “Aabbahay would love to have a night sky in the house. So, he won’t go to sleep outside every night.”

The sudden transition in her eyes had been strange. She didn’t reply for some time, the silence broken only by the clatter of her colliding nail tips, as they drew blood from the inflamed mole. “I don’t think my night sky can please your Aabbahay enough.”

“Why?” I had asked. “He praised the red flower on that tapestry all the time.”

“That was before he found the one with the blue flower. Blue is his favorite now.”

“But the sky is also blue, Hooyo!”

Sitting on coarse alien sand, I missed Hooyo more than ever. The cold sea breeze impregnated my soft cotton dress and made me shiver. My tongue was parched with salt water we had had to drink to quench our thirst. Near me, a girl was crying. Dark rivulets of tears and smudged kohl trailed down her rosy cheeks covered by the bridal scarf she had fled in.

Our people were still being rowed onshore, torches from the lighthouse glaring at their anxious eyes. Men and women in night gowns, mothers clutching children in armpits, some dragging along empty bags, some injured family members, some just the Koran they had been reciting before the shots showered. Mothers were hushing unfed kids.

“Alone too?” I heard someone speak, and nodded when a plump lady in her forties sat beside me. “What’s your name, young girl?”

“Riyoon, Aayadaa.” I replied courteously.

“Beautiful name,” she smiled. “Where are your parents, dear?”

“My Hooyo died last year, Aayaadaa,” I told her.

“Your Aabbahay?”

“He left us.”

“Oh,” she said, as both of us went silent.

“Don’t you have anybody, then? Who takes care of you?” she asked kindly.

“Allah does! I had friends and classmates, Aayaadaa, but none of them were in my ship,” I replied. “I would love to have Mia with me.”

“Who’s Mia? Is she Somalian?”

“She was my best friend. Her Somalian father died in the front. Her American mother raised her,” I said, thinking about Mia’s blond hair and embroidered scarf.

I heard some tall men talking loudly amongst themselves in native tongue. One of them was chuckling, and there was something lewd about the way he was pointing at the bride near us. She hurriedly pulled down her hijab. A Kenyan fisherman hooted, another started singing in broken English. A couple of burqa-clad women took her inside a refugee tent.

“Poor girl,” the lady beside me said. “I wonder if she’ll ever get married now.”

“Why, Aayaadaa?” I asked.

“Fleeing from your marriage is bad omen.”

“But they would have shot her!”

“Better than running.”

“Isn’t that unfair, Aayaadaa?”

“The world is unfair, Riyoon.”

I felt pity for the young girl surrounded by her resentful elders. A small kid in front of us was throwing a tantrum. A beautiful woman in a blue kameez carried him towards a tent, where her husband was sitting.

I got the surprise of my life. It was Aabbahay!

He was patting and coaxing the boy. Instantly, the scene of my mother hanging by a noose of knitting silk plagued my mind, fresh as ever, and how Aabbahay had left me for this new tapestry he had woven.

He never noticed me sitting there. Or maybe, he ignored.

I kept looking at him now and then, trying to visualize him praising Hooyo’s artistry. This was wishful thinking, as he looked content with his new family, holding them like dear life.

“These stars make me happy,” I told Aayaadaa, fixing my wet eyes on the sky instead. “They’re like lights guiding us home.”

“This is our home now.”

I gasped. “Isn’t this just our refuge, Aayaadaa? We’ll go back soon, won’t we?”

“I don’t know.”

“We won’t be living here forever!”

She sighed.

“I know I wouldn’t,” I whispered. “We haven’t even finished our term.”

“I hope you’re right.”

This time, the silence stifled us like a heavy blanket.

“Tell me about your dreams, Riyoon,” Aayaadaa said, to break the silence. I told her that I wanted to become an artist. Like Hooyo, I thought.

“What are your dreams, Aayaadaa?” I asked her.

“Don’t you think I’m a bit too old to dream?” She laughed softly.

“What has age got to do with it, Aayaadaa?” I asked.

Hesitantly, she opened the last button of her blouse. I was confused about what she was doing, when she pointed at a mole above her belly. “See that?” she asked. I nodded. She hastily buttoned it up again, and said, “That’s supposed to be an omen of fertility.

“When young, I dreamed about having lots of children; but my womb betrayed me,” she continued.

I didn’t know what to say.

“That’s how unfair the world is,” she said. “It seldom lets you realize your vision, Riyoon.”

From a corner of my eyes, I caught Aabbahay steal a glance at me.

The natives started distributing rye and fresh water to the refugees. “The food trucks won’t be coming for the next two days,” someone announced.

“I hope Allah makes an exception for your dream,” Aayaadaa said later. I nodded and pulled down my hijab, when the natives came towards us.

Through the veil, my sight was blurred but the vision was clear: to go home and finish school. Bright stars studding the inky tapestry of the night shone brighter than the guilty tears in Aabbahay’s eyes.


• Hooyo-Somalian for ‘mother’

Aabbahay-Somalian for ‘father’

Aayadaa-Somalian for ‘aunt’


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