Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Silver Spring

 

 

If Sufis in the desert had seen their own spirits made plain before them the way an American winter revealed them in the cruel cold of the morning, Daud thought, the whole religion might have been different. His hand had fallen outside the covers while he slept and numbness woke him. He whipped the blankets off the bed and added a sweatshirt to the two he had been sleeping in. He slid his feet, already covered in wool socks, into slippers and headed to Helen’s room, trailing his blankets behind him. Her door was always open. She made him lock the front door of the apartment by handle, deadbolt, and chain every night before bed, but she kept her own door wide open. He crept as quietly as he could across her floor, although his feet were so numb he couldn’t fully control them when they landed. The morning light leaking through the curtains revealed Helen sleeping with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled around her face, a face flecked with scars pink like American chewing gum against her dark skin. Her sweatshirt said Howard University, although neither of them had gone further in Eritrea than the eighth grade.

He spread his blankets carefully on top of hers and left the room. He passed over the bald patch of carpet in the hallway leading to the kitchen and thought he could feel heat coming up from the floor. He thanked God that the neighbors below ran their heat. Maybe he could pay them to turn it up more. Helen could convince him to freeze to make her happy, but she couldn’t control the neighbors.

He sifted through the cupboards. They still had some of the instant oatmeal from the community food pantry. It came in different flavors: peach; maple and brown sugar; apple and cinnamon; and strawberries and cream. They all tasted the same to Daud: immensely sweet. The clock on the stove said 7:15. Every day of the week except today, they’d have both been off to the bus for work hours ago. On Sunday, she might sleep a bit longer. Forever, if she froze to death in her sleep. He probably had enough time to cook oatmeal on the stove.

She gave economy as her reason to keep the heat off, but Daud knew she was terrified by anything resembling fire. She could not be in the kitchen when Daud tried to cook for her. When he’d first turned the heat on in the fall, she’d shrieked at the smell of gas through the vents. She was still too much of an Eritrean to skip coffee in the evening, but as she wouldn’t heat the jebena or allow Daud to do it, Daud was forced to buy two coffees pumped from a carafe at the gas station around the corner every night and bring them home. So the traditional three rounds of the awel, the kale'i and the bereka were trimmed to one twelve-once polystyrene cup with a plastic lid.  Daud wondered if she showered in cold water, then felt ashamed of himself for picturing her naked.

They had pretended to be brother and sister at the refugee camp in Israel so they could stick together. He changed his given name, Daud, into the Ethiopian version Dawit (at work in America, he went by David now. It was all the same thing). His brother in Oakland had contacts in Addis Ababa who got him Ethiopian documents. It wasn’t totally a lie to pretend to be Ethiopian—he’d been born on May 23, 1991, one day before Eritrean independence, so he’d technically been born an Ethiopian citizen. He had added “Gebreigziabher Tesfamariam” after Dawit to fill out his name, because that was the end of Helen’s name. He had to have the most Christian name of any Muslim on Earth.

The Rashaida had captured her in Sudan a day before him. The Rashaida were ruthless, preying on desperate Eritreans. From Sudan, Eritrean refugees hoped eventually to make it to Israel or Europe, but the Rashaida were like grizzly bears feeding off the salmon run of the Eritrean exodus. Daud had heard stories about the risks, but when his third year of military service in Eritrea came and went with no sign of his being let go, the risks had seemed less important. He’d run into the Rashaida just across the Sudan border outside of Kassala. They took him to the Sinai desert in Egypt, where they’d dared him to run away.

“There is desert all around you,” they said. “Anywhere you go, you will die in a day.” They didn’t even bother to set a guard most of the time. They said they would hold him until his brother in Oakland gathered the 20,000 dollars to get him to Israel.

Daud warmed one hand over the oatmeal as it cooked in the dented pan donated to them by some unknown kind soul. He blew on his other hand to warm it, and felt his breath blow out the gap where his middle finger and half his ring finger were missing. The Rashaida had ways of getting families of refugees to pay up quickly, and one of their favorites was to make their victims scream while asking their families abroad for money on the phone. 

Helen emerged from around the corner to the hallway, her skin looking bluer than her usual color, which had always reminded Daud of the acacia tree he used to climb in Adi Keyih. She looked at the stove top, the coils of the burner still glowing red after Daud had turned it off, and she scowled.

“Haftey, do you want some?” Daud asked. “It will warm you up.”

Daud spoke to her in Tigrinya, although they were both starting to mix in more English. He sometimes got confused and switched to Arabic or Saho, especially if he had been talking to his brother or his mother on the phone recently.

Helen shook her head no. 

“You keep forgetting, Dawit. You’re not supposed to eat before church.”

Daud had tried to attend mosque in Silver Spring, but he felt his name was too difficult to explain. He was the first convert ever to change his name prior to changing his faith, and the second decision was caused by the first. His father had stopped believing in Allah during the struggle against the Ethiopians, and there were rumors that Muslims were not trusted by the government in Asmara, so he’d barely ever gone to services at the Mosque back home, anyway. He had a Christian name, now, so he might as well act Christian, at least on Sundays. Medhane Alem didn’t seem that different to him from what little he knew of Muslim services. There were chanted prayers. There was the smell of burning incense. Helen seemed to accept the lighting of charcoals at church. Daud was happy just to be warm, although it would take ninety minutes of shivering at bus stations to get there.

Helen showered first, and Daud turned the stove back on while she was in the bathroom to warm his hands. He wished the International Rescue Center had settled them in Oakland with his brother if he was going to share an apartment with Helen. Nassir had told him it was never this cold in Oakland. He repented for every time he had cursed the heat in the desert.

Daud showered after her, and while he warmed up in the hot water Helen came into the bathroom to fix her hair. Daud heard her hands wipe the steam from the mirror, and got an erection thinking about the touch of her fingers, although he knew her hands were calloused from scrubbing sinks and toilets at the Renaissance Hotel downtown.

“You shouldn’t run the hot water so long like that,” Helen scolded him. “It makes mold grow, and it costs money.”

He wanted to argue with her, but he couldn’t while he was so hard. What if she threw the shower curtain back and revealed his secret: that he could no longer think of her as only a sister?

She kept fixing her hair for what seemed to Daud like a very long time. If she didn’t want him to stay in the shower so long, she was going about it the wrong way.  She was arranging her hair into albasso: long, high rolls that seemed like waves. She was four inches taller than him, a result of growing up reasonably well-fed in Asmara while he went hungry in Adi-Keyih. When she did her hair like that, she looked tall enough to be his mother, and he felt embarrassed waiting at the bus stop with her.

They dressed in their rooms, threw on every piece of donated warm weather clothing they had, and headed to the bus stop. She was covered in two scarves of clashing shades of purple and a wine-colored Washington Redskins winter cap with a yellow pom-pom on the top. It smashed down all the hair she’d just worked to fix. Her coat was a brown frock that was too thin, but at least hung down low enough to cover most of her legs. She hadn’t found boots that fit her, and the wind bit into her ankles above her shoes and below the hem of her skirt.

She didn’t emerge from the mass of wool twirled around her face during the long bus trip. Daud wondered what she might have looked like in a festive netsela made of silk around a bright young face instead of a scratchy piece of twisted wool keeping the cold away from her pulpy visage.

He’d never seen her with the face of a young girl, not even in pictures. By the time he’d been brought to the desert and stuck in the same camp as Helen, the Rashaida were already beginning to worry she had nobody who cared about her enough to threaten. In spite of having two of her teeth punched out to force her to give up a name, she still could produce nobody. Angry at having human livestock on their hands they couldn’t take to market to sell, the Rashaida had set their most brutal captor on her. Daud remembered being surprised that the man the Rashaida used to enforce payment was so strikingly handsome. Moges, that was the word the man brought to mind for Daud. Gallant. Regal. He was tall and kingly, no blemishes upon his bright skin. There was another guard so ugly even the other guards made fun of him. Why was he not the one to torture the hostages? Why force someone so handsome to do something so ugly?

Gallantandregal made Helen call up an aunt in Asmara, the one who had taken her in when Helen’s parents had been sent to prison, then treated Helen with such hatred the girl had resorted to selling her mother’s wedding ring to pay a trafficker to take her to Sudan. While Gallantandregal flipped his cigarette lighter on and off on Helen’s face, Helen’s aunt insisted over and over she had no money. When Helen’s screaming became too loud, her aunt hung up the phone and refused to answer any more calls. Gallantandregal pulled Helen’s hands behind her back and spat in her blistered face. Then he set fire to her shirt, holding Helen as she writhed and squirmed. When she finally became too hot for him to hold, he released her, letting her roll on the ground until the flames were out. The back of her shirt melted to her back. That was Daud’s first day as a prisoner in the desert. The next day, they were cutting off one and a half of his fingers as he pleaded with Nassir to pay them, for God’s sake, pay them.

When they finally made it to Medhane Alem, Daud struggled to stay awake through the entire service. Helen was wide awake, it seemed, springing up and down at the right moments as though it was a dance at a goyla instead of church. He nodded toward Beyene in another pew when their eyes met. Remembering that they would have lunch at Beyene and Rahel’s house after church, Daud felt hungrier. He didn’t know how Helen managed to seem so content when she had skipped breakfast altogether.

He couldn’t follow much of the sermon. Tigrinya, one of the three languages he’d spoken in Eritrea, was the one he had the least grasp of. His mother spoke Saho at home and his father spoke Arabic. He only knew Tigrinya from the radio and school. He’d gotten better living with Helen, who, as a Christian from Asmara, knew only Tigrinya and a little bit of English. But after six months in America, his English was probably already better than his Tigrinya, and he’d never had much patience for sermons, anyway. It had something to do with Christmas being soon and preparing their hearts for the coming of the Messiah. He didn’t understand. Hadn’t the Christian Messiah already come long ago?

The food at Beyene and Rahel’s was as vast and interesting as the talk was narrow and dully political. They had adopted Helen and Daud (Dawit to them) after their first visit to Medhane Alem. They were kind, served sumptuous dinners, and were generous to the point it embarrassed Daud. Most of the clothes he wore to work were from Beyene’s collection. But Beyene was also a loyal member of the PFDJ, the ruling party in Eritrea. He narrated the one-hour “Voice of Eritrea” internet program every week, in which he railed in Tigrinya at the U.S. and its puppets in Africa. Today, as always, Beyene was scolding Helen and Daud, mostly Daud, for leaving Eritrea. 

“You young people. In our day, we were willing to fight and die for our country. Your generation was supposed to continue the struggle by building our country in peace. But you are too impatient. You want a BMW, Nike shoes and gold watches, like you see in these American music videos. And you don’t want to wait to build it for yourselves there, so you come here.”

Daud was enjoying the spaghetti sauce, sopping it up with injerra, too much to argue. Rahel ran the Eritrean store next to the church, and she made equally great Habesha and Italian food. Daud was the only one who mixed them.

“I’m not saying that everything in Eritrea is perfect,” Beyene continued. He wrapped injerra around the shiro in the middle of the table, then he put it on Helen’s plate.

“Eat more, gualey,” he said, with a surprisingly gentle shift of tone before just as quickly switching back to scolding.

“Not that everything is perfect, I realize,” he said again. “But it is your job to make Eritrea what you want it to be. Instead, your generation listens to promises of rivers of gold in Europe and America. You sell all you have to come west, sure that you’ll be rich in less than a year. And what happens? What do you get? A few less fingers before they finally let you come and clean toilets for the rich? Last week, another five hundred of our young people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to get to Italy. The few who stayed alive by clinging to broken pieces of the boat, the Italians don’t want.”

Rahel finally cut Beyene off at this point by putting her hand on his shoulder and shushing him.

“What’s done is done,” she said softly. “What’s important now is what they do from here on out. At least they have each other.” 

On the bus back home, Tupperware full of leftovers to take in his lunch that week, he wedged his half-finger into the carrying handle. Gallantandregal had hacked at random and carelessly left half his ring finger. A lost finger seemed like nothing to him in the desert. Of course he could part with it, if only he came out alive again to a better place. As long as he didn’t die there. What did a finger matter, or an arm or an eye? He had mentally bargained whole limbs away in exchange for his freedom.  

But after he made it to the camp in Israel, after realizing that his brother had really managed to find the money for both him and for the girl as well as passports for both, he started to take jealous stock of the inventory of himself. The half-finger was only there by chance, but Daud tried to make it meaningful, a fortunate turn of events. He hoped that by training it, he could make his half-finger useful in ways his other fingers were not. “A beggar dreams what’s in his own heart,” his mother used to say. We all see what we want to see. He still had some movement in the stub.  

What about Helen? What had she bargained away to God to be here now? That if God took her from Gallantandregal and his lighter, she’d never go near anything warm again? She had taken off her purple hat in the seat next to Daud. The hair that had been in neat plaited rows that morning was now ripped up like harvested sorghum.  

A woman carrying bags that seemed as heavy as she was lurched sideways down the aisle. Her bags bobbed in front of and behind her as the bus accelerated and decelerated. When the bus changed speed, the bags would reverse and whack into her shins. She collapsed into the seat across from Daud and Helen and swirled her bags in front of her on the floor, still holding onto the handles. Her arms hanging down between her legs, she leaned back, and her flanks and thighs spread into the seats next to her.

She puffed out an exhausted breath, then, still slouched against the seatback, asked, “You done your Christmas shopping yet?” 

Daud turned to Helen. “Intay ilatna, Helen?” What had she said?

Helen explained about Christmas shopping, what the bags beneath the woman’s feet meant.

“We cannot afford to buy presents this year,” Helen answered the woman.  

The woman’s face turned from grape to prune. Daud knew the expression. Sometimes, black-skinned people born in America would address him like they were old friends but shut down as soon as they heard his accent and realized he was African-African-American, not just African-American like them.

It was even colder that night. Daud struggled to get to sleep. The coffee from the gas station seemed to jolt him awake more than the coffee his mother had made in Eritrea after dinner. He wished he had a cup with him in the bed. He’d have huddled up with it beneath the covers.

In the morning, he woke Helen before he left for the bus stop. She was able to leave an hour after him. He cleaned at a college just outside the city, while she cleaned a hotel downtown, so her bus route was nearly a straight shot. In America, women cleaned hotels and were called “maids.” Men cleaned large office buildings and were called “janitors.” That’s why she got to sleep an extra hour.

He pushed the cart for four hours from one room to another, gathering a hickory-brown can silently at each stop and tipping its contents into the cart. He spot-mopped sticky spots on the hallway floors. He used the side of his shoe to rub black scuffs off the tile. At noon, he met Mahmoud for lunch in the breakroom. He heated up the leftovers from Beyene and Rahel’s in the microwave. They tasted even better the second day.

“Helen is cooking for you now?” Mahmoud asked him. “That is good. You paid for her. You’re still paying for her.”

Daud explained that Helen had not made the food. He did not tell Mahmoud that Helen would not turn on an oven.

“Ehhhi. She should be cooking for you. She should be doing whatever you say. You bought her.” 

In the desert, Daud was given a phone and told to call his brother. They spoke in Saho, so Daud was certain his captors would not understand. He had just told Nassir about the girl he’d seen burned the day before because she didn’t have anyone to pay for her. He’d only said it because he wanted Nassir to pay as fast as possible. But no sooner had Daud told Nassir about the girl than Gallantandregal smashed Daud in the jaw with an ammunition can. Who knows why he did it? Usually, the Rashaida didn’t mess with the hostages whose families were on schedule to pay for their freedom. They were running a business, and if someone died, they lost their $20,000. Maybe Gallantandregal had Daud confused with another hostage they needed to prod a little bit. Maybe he did it just because he liked it. While Daud was still reeling from being knocked half unconscious, he was aware of a sensation in his hand. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t determine what. He wasn’t exactly in pain; it was something so severe it was beyond simple pain. He felt he should scream out, but more as an acknowledgement than a pure reaction. Pay them. Pay them what they want. For God’s sake, pay them. He heard his brother’s voice in Arabic dimly coming from the phone: “I will pay! Don’t hurt him! I will pay for both of them! Forty thousand for him and the girl, the one you burned!” 

His brother thought the Rashaida were demanding payment for two people, and had agreed to it. If Daud had thought that he could let the girl die and save himself from having his fingers cut off, he would have. But Nassir misunderstood and paid for them both. That was how Nassir borrowed $40,000 dollars to pay for Daud to escape. That was why Daud would be paying back his brother for the rest of his life. 

On the bus home, Daud dropped off to sleep and snapped awake every time the bus bounced over uneven road. He held his arms close around him and his knees up to his chest, partly to keep warm and partly as an instinct to guard himself. He was twenty-one, just old enough to drink alcohol in America if he had the notion, and already he knew exactly the measure of how fragile the human body was, how every inch of it had the potential to hold the rest of the body hostage with its own crises.

Helen had arrived home before him and was straightening the cushions on the orange couch. Sharmuta. Evelyn was coming tonight to tutor them in English. All Daud wanted to do was pile everything he owned onto his bed, get beneath it, and sleep. Now, he needed to go back into the cold to buy coffee. They had to have coffee for a guest. On his way out the door, he asked Helen to cook something to go with the coffee, but Helen said she couldn’t, there wasn’t time.

Bejahi, Helen. We can’t give our guest coffee without something to eat. There is some popcorn in the cupboard. Just put the pan on the stove. It’s easy.”

“I have too much to do just cleaning,” she said, and moved all the cushions she had just straightened again to make her point.

Evelyn brought a cake, anyway. She said it was called a fruitcake, and that people ate them in America around this time of year. Evelyn taught them English by bringing movies she liked and playing them on a DVD player she brought with her. She pushed the buttons so that the words the characters were saying appeared at the bottom of the screen to help Helen and Daud to understand. She paused the movie every few minutes to go over what was happening. Daud hated when she did that. He’d rather half understand what was going on and keep watching the story than listen to Evelyn’s voice, which was, like the cake, too sweet and fruity.

The movie was hard to follow because it had a lot of characters and they all spoke funny. Evelyn said it was a British movie, which was why they sounded so odd. Evelyn kept her coat and hat on. Daud asked her if she was cold, but Evelyn insisted she was fine. Daud said she looked cold and he turned the heat on anyway, but Helen said it was too loud and she couldn’t hear the movie. At the end of the movie, all the characters went running to go tell someone that they loved them after spending the whole movie avoiding telling them.  

When Evelyn got up to leave, she said she wouldn’t be coming for a few weeks, not until after the New Year. She would be celebrating Hanukkah with her kids, and then she was going to visit her husband’s family for Christmas. She had to explain Hanukkah, and then she had to explain that she had one set of holidays and her husband had another and they celebrated them both. She left the fruitcake behind.

Daud didn’t always remember to brush his teeth before bed, but he brushed them long and hard that night. There were pieces of nuts stuck between his molars that he couldn’t ignore. He didn’t have any of that string you use to clean the spaces between your teeth. What was it called? He could not remember the word. So he kept brushing and brushing until the piece that was irritating him most came out with spit and blood in the sink. 

He was almost asleep when a call came in from his brother. Nassir wanted to talk about the boatload of Eritreans who had drowned in the Mediterranean last week, and the article he had written about it on Antsar, the Eritrean opposition website Nassir contributed to. It was Nassir’s connection to the Eritrean opposition that gave him his Ethiopian contacts, the ones who had taken Daud and Helen out of Israel. Someone who was pro-government always commented on Nassir’s articles, mocking him for being a slave to the old masters in Addis Ababa. Daud suspected it might be Beyene. Nassir always wanted Daud to become part of the opposition, to help bring down Isaias and his PFDJ thugs. Daud said he had to work. 

“Daud, God did not bring you to America so you could get rich. You have to help those who are still behind.”

“I’m not trying to get rich, ‘akhi,” Daud protested. “I’m trying to pay you back.” 

“Ah, yes, your expensive Christian sister that you bought,” said Nassir. “Tell me, is she still your sister? You paid the price of two brides for her. Is she still sleeping in her own room? Are you still cooking your own food, buying your coffee at the gas station? Ha.”

Daud said nothing.

“I still don’t understand why you brought her with you from Israel. The misunderstanding in the desert was one thing. But once she was in Israel, you could have left her there. You had already saved her life. If she rotted in the Negev, that was nothing to you. Why did you make me get papers for her, too?” 

Daud shook beneath his blankets. He clenched his body to stop shivering, but found that only made the shaking worse. He thought of Helen lying on the floor of the tent, melted bits of shirt stuck to her back. He had tried to encourage her, but nothing seemed right. There didn’t seem to be anything he could do. They had nothing in common, save mistreatment at the hands of the same people.  

“I did it because the people who cut my fingers off wouldn’t have done it.” 

Daud could not get to sleep. He should have bought one of the electric blankets that Mahmoud had told him about. He thought it was too much money last week, but now he’d have gladly exchanged that forty dollars to be warm. Nassir could yell all he wanted about Daud shorting him with his weekly installment.

Daud gave up trying to sleep and wandered the hallway between his room and the living room, passing the kitchen, the bathroom and Helen’s room as he went. Her breathing was barely audible. She’d make a good wife to someone, she slept so quietly. He’d never heard her snore.

When walking the floor failed to warm him up, he flicked the burner on the stove and cupped his hands around it. His patience with Helen was running out. He understood if she had promised God, lying crumpled on the floor of the hostages’ tent in the Sinai, that if He took her out of there she would never go near fire again, or whatever wild promise she had made. But she was here now. Whatever God had not taken from them in the desert was implicitly theirs to keep.

He started to warm up, fell asleep standing, then jumped awake when he let his hands drop and his left hand fell onto the burner. His pinky and his ring finger stub had stuck to the burner for a second. When he pulled them off, he actually caught a whiff of his own burning flesh.

Sharmuta!” he cursed.

He cranked on the faucet of the kitchen sink and jabbed his hand under the cold water. Immediately, he felt his whole body start to shiver again, and he cursed repeatedly, now directing it more at Helen than at the burner. This was too much. He swaddled his hand in a bread wrapper he pulled from the trash and headed toward Helen’s room. He yanked the covers back from on top of her and she sprang to a sitting position. 

“What are you doing?” she barked at him. She had spoken in English. Awakened from a dead sleep, and her instinct had been to burst out in English. 

“I am cold, haftey,” Daud said.

“Then put on more clothes.”

“I am wearing everything I can put on. My hand is burnt. Let me turn the heat on or I am coming in there with you.”

“You can’t, Daud. You promised. You promised we’d be like brother and sister.”

“I am so cold, Helen. And I burned my hand.”

“You shouldn’t have turned the stove on.” 

“Maybe, but it still hurts. And I am freezing.”  

Daud could not stand any longer, his hand throbbing from heat and cold. He slid over the mountain of blankets he had piled up, turned on his side next to Helen, and pulled the mountain back over them both 

“David!”

But Daud only shook in the bed next to her, saying nothing. He did not put his arm around Helen, or press his raging erection next to her. He had not come running to her in an airport to tell her that he loved her. But he had made a small advance to a position from which he would not retreat.

Whether from pity or just fatigue, she lay back down, facing away from him. They were both wrapped in layers of bulky clothing, hoods over their heads. Daud stuffed his burned hand between his thighs and waited for Helen’s heat to come to him.

At work the next day, Mahmoud told him that last night had been a record low temperature. Homeless people died on nights like that one. They were in the middle of a cold streak that would last for days, all the way up to Christmas.   

There was extra work, if Daud wanted it, which he did, of course. He and Mahmoud spent evenings buffing floors while the students were on break. He didn’t make it back to the apartment until very late. He switched the coffee he bought at the gas station to decaffeinated, but didn’t tell Helen. She seemed to enjoy it as always. He continued to sleep in her room, in her bed, next to her. They never touched, but they stayed close enough to keep warm. She was so tall, Daud thought as he lay next to her. Encheyti, she’d have been called in romantic songs in Eritrea. A tree. 

Work let him go early on Christmas Eve. He had forgotten what it was like, riding the bus in the daylight. They pulled up to the mall at Ellsworth Place, and a cluster of passengers got on, carrying bags. He got an idea as sudden and unmistakable as the stove burn. He jumped from his seat and shouted for the bus to stop, not realizing that it was still motionless.

When he returned to the apartment, Helen was not in the living room, and he quickly snuck over to the couch. He pulled the couch away from the wall and stuffed a large box behind. He left the apartment, shouting back toward Helen’s room that he was going to get coffee. She answered something muffled. She had probably been sleeping. The hallways smelled of old curry.

He bought regular coffee this time instead of decaf. He also bought some instant popcorn in a vacuum-sealed bag. He left a dollar in the tip jar of the man behind the counter. He had never left a tip before. He told the man Merry Christmas.

He presented his gift to Helen while serving her the coffee. It was a small microwave oven. Daud had put a red bow on top. He showed her the bag of popcorn.  

“We can heat it in here. You don’t have to use the stove. You can heat all kinds of things in it.” 

The scars on her face turned from pink to dark, or maybe her face had lightened up more in line with her scars. She turned from Daud and headed back to her room. Daud worried that he had offended her. Why had he pushed her so hard? He thought the microwave was a compromise, but maybe she had seen it as a rebuke.

She came back from her room smiling. She was carrying a small box wrapped with red and green paper. She handed it to Daud. It was a bottle of cologne, something she’d seen for sale at the shop in the hotel.

“The important businessmen use it,” she told him. 

She said they shouldn’t eat, because church was tonight. He didn’t have to come with her. But Daud said he wanted to.

“Maybe we can have a little popcorn,” she said. “Just to try it out.” 

Daud burned some of the popcorn, and the smell permeated the apartment. He’d do better next time. Daud ripped a hole in the bag and they ate together straight from it, taking turns thrusting their hands through the hole. Helen’s long fingers slipped easily through the gap in Daud’s hand. Butter lingered on the scars where his fingers had been.

On the bus to church, Daud asked Helen what the stuff was called that you used to pull food out of your teeth. He had kernels of popcorn stuck there.

 “Floss,” she said.

 They might get some while they were downtown. Until then, Daud listened to the droning chant. They were always in the language Geez, which was like Tigrinya only much older. Dawit understood only a few words, and he let it wash over him, the language seeming to change to Saho and Arabic and Tigrinya and English and languages he did not even know existed but were being spoken by families at tables somewhere in the world. David enjoyed rubbing his tongue against the pieces of popcorn sticking out of his front teeth. He liked the smell of cologne on him. He’d never thought of wearing any before, but now that he had it on, he imagined being the kind of person who would wear it from then on. The cologne mixed with the smell of incense and the faint but unmistakable hint of burnt popcorn that clung to them both.

 

Jacob Weber is a translator living in Maryland. He has an M.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published fiction in The Baltimore Review, Bartleby Snopes, and The Potomac Review. He blogs about the doubts, failures, and occasional triumphs of fiction writing at workshopheretic.blogspot.com. His collection of short stories, Don't Wait to be Called, will be published in fall 2017 by Washington Writers Publishing House.