Looking for Home

“Looking for Home”

by Siri Paulson

The house is theirs now. Saeeda cannot let herself believe it—this neat two-storey Canadian house with its peaked roof and pale yellow brick walls and big, unbroken windows, like something out of a Hollywood movie. Instead of an inner courtyard, it has a fenced area of grass behind with one big tree, and more grass in front but no fence. It sits on the edge of a sprawling city surrounded by fields that go on forever, as flat and empty as the steppe back in Syria.

Home, she thinks experimentally, every few days. Tears prickle behind her lids and she blinks them away.

She is the only one, it seems. The two older children run up and down the stairs thundering, stored-up noise from all those months in the apartment provided by the refugee resettlement agency. Even Abdul stands taller now that he can provide for his family again, though factory shift work and engineering are a world apart. So are they all, an ocean and a sea away from home.

This cold land is supposed to be home now. Saeeda has spent the winter shivering in the apartment. Now it is July and even Canada has grown as warm as springtime in Aleppo, but the house still makes her shiver at unexpected times.

She rises from her prayer rug early one morning and senses someone behind her. “Abdul?” she says, turning away from Mecca. Out of the corner of her eye she sees a motion like a fringed skirt, but when she finishes turning, the room is empty. Now she lets herself remember that Abdul is still at work, the children still asleep.

That is the first time.

Her family are the lucky ones and she knows it, reminds herself sternly every time things get difficult. She can’t find pomegranate molasses at the nearest store, can’t make herself understood to the young clerk to explain what she needs, can’t figure out the bus system to get to the bigger store while Abdul is at work. So she cooks without it and tells herself that her muhammara dip still tastes the same. If Abdul notices the difference, he doesn’t mention it; he’s too exhausted from the shift work and she doesn’t want to bother him with such problems.

One day, Saeeda is making bread, kneading the dough into a ball. She reaches, without looking, for a cloth to cover it for the resting period and feels a hand touch hers. “Stop it, Hamad!” she says. Across the room, Hamad says, “What did I do?”

Walking back from the store with the baby on a warm windy day—for here it is always windy—Saeeda passes the misfit house. Unlike the rest of the houses on the street, it is made of wood, with smaller windows and no porch, but much bigger trees looming over it from the backyard.

On the front step, an older white woman turns from the door and waves.

Saeeda glances around, but there is no-one else on the street—another thing she can’t get used to, how quiet the streets are even though there is no war here. By the time she glances back, the woman is hustling down the walkway towards her. Greying hair, solid body where Saeeda’s is worn thin, and an open face but watchful eyes.

“Hello! I’ve been meaning to come by and see how you folks are settling in. I’m Mrs. Thomson. Do you speak English?”

“A little,” Saeeda says hesitantly. She reads it well, so the grammar is only a small difficulty, but people here have trouble with her accent. “My name is Saeeda. It is nice to meet you.”

Mrs. Thomson says welcoming things and coos over the baby in his stroller. Then she says, “Is everything all right at the house?”

Define “everything, Saeeda thinks. But something about the woman’s tone makes her want to ask a question of her own. She is careful not to seem ungrateful. “Yes, thank you, the house is lovely. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason. I just wondered.” Mrs. Thomson smiles. “You must have so many questions about how things work here. How about you come over for tea later this week and you can ask me anything you like?”

To drink shay with a neighbour, as if she were back in Aleppo! Saeeda is touched, and agrees. But still she wonders.

One night, Abdul is gone again and Saeeda starts out of sleep to hear the baby crying downstairs. Panic flares—has he somehow gotten out of the crib and fallen down that long staircase? She plunges her hand into the crib next to the bed, and feels warm baby skin under the familiar blanket. The baby’s chest rises and falls slowly under her hand; his black hair lies over brown skin in the moonlight. Downstairs, the crying continues. She gets up and tiptoes to the top of the stairs. The downstairs lies in a thick pool of blackness, though the bedroom and hallway are well lit by the moon. A deep dread fills her. She can’t bring herself to turn on the light and see what is there. Instead, she returns to bed and lies awake until dawn comes and Abdul returns.

“I just wondered,” Mrs. Thomson says, watching her closely, “how the house is treating you. Have you noticed anything strange?”

“It is all strange.” Saeeda suspects what Mrs. Thomson is getting at, but she wants to hear her say it.

“Of course, of course. But… anything you can’t explain? Something frightening, maybe?”

Saeeda sips at her tea, debating how to answer. They are sitting in Mrs. Thomson’s house, the baby asleep in the stroller. The black tea tastes comfortingly familiar, except that to Saeeda’s amazement, Mrs. Thomson has put no sugar at all in hers, only milk. “I feel a…presence sometimes, yes. What is it?”

“Do you have ghost stories in your culture?”

Her mind goes to Hollywood. “Like Poltergeist?”

Mrs. Thomson looks startled and laughs. “I suppose so, yes.”

People back home don’t believe in ghosts. But Americans do, so maybe they exist here. Here, in this small Canadian city… and in the house around the corner, which she is pretending is hers. It’s a hard thing to imagine, the existence of ghosts, but it’s also a relief to be able to give her sense of unease a name.

“Is it trying to make us leave?”

The white woman fiddles with her teacup. “Not you specifically—everyone who tries to live there. I’m sorry. You couldn’t have known.”

No, Saeeda thinks, but as kindly Mrs. Thomson was, she hadn’t warned them before they bought the house. The real estate agent, the group of earnest people who had helped them with the down payment…they had all explained that the house was a very good deal, yet the wiring, the foundations, were all sound. Nothing was wrong with it, they had said. Had they known, or were they just glad to get the refugee family out of their hands? Everyone wanting them to move on, to go somewhere else. Even the ghosts, apparently.

Mrs. Thomson breaks into her silence, looking anxious. “It’s not the house that’s haunted, it’s the land. Your house is only a few decades old, but mine is older than the neighbourhood. My great-grandfather built it and claimed the land as a farm. We used to find beads and arrowheads in the vegetable garden, and that was right where your house sits now. My father would never let us go out there at night.”

Saeeda is trying to follow. “So the ghost is your great-grandfather?”

“Goodness, no. It’s the Cree Indians who used to camp here—First Nations people, they call themselves now. That was before the settlers came.”

Saeeda has a confused idea of Columbus and cowboys and Indians from the movies. “But why are their ghosts here?”

Mrs. Thomson looks uncomfortable. “Because we moved in and got rid of them, I suppose. Another cup of tea?”

Saeeda can take a hint, even in English. She declines politely and is soon back outside, walking home. Only then does she realize that she forgot to ask if these ghosts are dangerous, or just frightening. But by then the baby is fussing and there’s no opportunity to go back.

The two older children have made friends and are out constantly, or stampeding into the house wanting to be fed. Then there is school registration to manage, meetings and questions about how much English the children have, how much schooling. (Some, and none. Hamad was just a toddler, Zaynab a baby, when they left home for the camps.) Abdul has more trouble following conversations than Saeeda does, so he sits in uncomfortable silence at these meetings while she tries not to look as though she’s making all the decisions.

“Sometimes I’m scared here,” she tells him, hoping he’ll say that he is too, hoping he has seen these ghosts. But he only says comforting things and puts an arm around her. She lets him, knowing it will make him feel better, more like the man of the house.

Digging in the backyard flower garden one afternoon, she strikes something hard with her trowel. It flies out of the soil, straight at her head. She ducks, and it hits her headscarf instead of her forehead. Then it drops to the edge of the grass in front of her, a narrow triangle of stone.

What if the children had been here, she wonders. But they, settling in, seem unaffected. She feels very alone.

The school year begins. Zaynab’s teacher tells her about the public library near the school, where anyone can read books or borrow them. Saeeda goes as soon as she can.

“I want to learn about the Cree Indians,” she says. Then she has to say it again, for the young male librarian is staring at her, though she’s fairly sure she said it right the first time.

Two hours later, she has to go home, for the baby needs feeding and her head is spinning. Her English has been strained to its limit with so many unfamiliar words: Reservation. Smallpox. Indian agent. Residential schools. And Canadians think her people are the barbarians…

The librarian—bearded and spectacled—has been nothing but polite, but she senses his guardedness, recognizes the glances that some of the other library patrons give her. She doesn’t belong; for at least some of them, she’s not wanted. Just like in the camps. She thought it would be different here. Even Mrs. Thomson has been friendly enough, but why tell her about the ghosts if not as a warning, a suggestion to move on?

No wonder the ghosts are angry.

That night, Saeeda walks out of the house, barefoot, into the darkened yard. Abdul is at work, the children asleep. She is alone.

“Hello,” she says in English, into what suddenly becomes a listening silence. “I know you’re there.”

One breath, another, and she is not alone anymore. They throng about her, nearly invisible, but she catches the glint of light on shiny black braided hair, the jingle of tiny bells. She is standing in a crowd that does not breathe.

A terrible sense of loss knots in her gut. They are standing on the land where they used to live, but it has been taken away. She is standing on land where she never dreamed of living; she has been taken away. The Aleppo where she grew up does not exist anymore, though the city remains on the maps; the trails these people followed are buried under asphalt and crops, though the course of the rivers might be recognizable still. Which is worse, she wonders—to see the place of your family’s history before you and know it is irrevocably broken, or never to see the place of your history again? Traditions, kinship, the scents and tiny sounds of home…gone, either way. Adrift, ungrounded.

The heaviness of the loss presses her down and she drops to sit on the grass cross-legged. For all these months, she has not been able to cry; but she is crying now.

“I am sorry,” she whispers. “I am listening.”

A form coalesces right in front of her, broad-shouldered and still, but she can’t seem to focus on it properly to see details. Except the eyes. She can see the eyes, dark and haunted like her own.

She meets their gaze through her tears.

The ghost draws out of her the sound of rockets and donkeys, the smell of mint tea and ancient rock walls in the sun, the feel of explosions just down the street, the sight of endless mud and flimsy tents, the word Canada.

Canada is a place she and Abdul have chosen. A safe place, a place where Hamad and Zaynab do not wake from nightmares every night, and the baby will never be hungry.

For the ghosts, Canada is none of those things.

“I want to go home,” she says. She’s slipped into Arabic, but it doesn’t seem to matter. “But for my children, this will be their home. They will learn about you, I promise you that. I know it’s not enough, it doesn’t fix any of the wrongs that have been done to you…or to us. But it’s all I have.”

Another form joins the first. This one is smaller, willowy perhaps. It stretches out a hand to her. She feels its grief, and she knows it feels hers in turn. Together, somehow, they are lightened. The knot in her stomach loosens.

In the moonlit backyard, ghost horses shift and whinny, while other forms move among them, quieting them with a hand or a word. The smell of grilled bread meets her nose. Faintly she hears drumming and singing, a wailing chant that reminds her of women’s songs when she was growing up. A baby whimpers and is quieted.

Saeeda rises, her feet sinking into the earth that she is taking care of for a while.

It is, and is not, home.

_______________

Siri Paulson (she/her) loves nothing more than mixing up genres to see what will happen. She also wears the hats of non-fiction editor by day and chief editor of Turtleduck Press by night. Her other passion is contra (folk) dancing, at least in non-pandemic times. Thankfully, her long-suffering husband is good at keeping himself occupied.

After growing up in Alberta, Canada, she moved to Toronto and achieved her lifelong dream of buying an old house, dubbed the TARDIS because it’s bigger on the inside. Other lifelong dreams include publishing novels (one and counting), traveling the world (had a good start until recently), and becoming an astronaut (still waiting…).
Siri’s debut fantasy novel, City of Hope and Ruin, co-written with Kit Campbell, is available here .

Her work has also appeared in the 2017 holiday collection from Mischief Corner Books, in Queer Sci Fi‘s flash fiction anthologies Migration (2019) and Renewal (2017), and on Daily Science Fiction . More short fiction, poetry, and anthologies can be found at Turtleduck Press. Siri can also be found dabbling in photography and microblogging at http://www.instagram.com/siripaulson/.

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