Never mind their names, never mind how they escaped, let’s call it a covert operation, they know what they escaped, they know what they saw, what they lived. The television screen that a few weeks ago, told the world of their plight, today says it never happened. Just hysteria. The mother watches, her face expressionless, instinctively she reaches for them, her children who will never again be children.
How far they have come in these few weeks, not just in miles, but in years, ages, pain and horror.
They were supposed to die. They know that, they know that by refusing to do so, they have defied America, they have become insurgent cleansees, survivors of what they are now told did not happen. The children’s cheeks, and eyes, are less hollow now, less haunted, the youngest one has even began to protest his father’s arms. This is a good sign, and his father lets him down to run about. His sister, who had ceased to speak, has broken her silence somewhat, but she still will not talk about It. Counseling, maybe, suggests a friend. We’ll see, says her mother, braiding her hair. It is a complicated braid, a French braid, the girl calls it. A small smile from mother. A French braid is also counseling, for now.
They are not registered with, or receiving aid from any organization. Every so often they call some of the telephone numbers. They have never reached a human being, or been called back.
Yet they are lucky. Somehow, in another covert operation, funds have been raised sufficient to purchase a year of rent for them in a low end little cookie cutter town home. It will be cramped, the kids will have to share one of the two bedrooms, but at least they will have their own bathroom (and they will do their own cleaning of it, says mother) and it will be better than the four of them sharing a room in the house of a stranger, even though the stranger has now become family.
They have no possessions to speak of, to move in, but shadowy sleeper cells, in yet another covert operation, cause furniture to become present. Used, but usable. Here, says a plump terrorist matron, I never use these dishes, I will tell you a secret, my husband’s best friend gave them to us years ago, and I never really liked them. Place setting for 4. The mugs and dessert plates are decorated with colorful roosters. The little boy’s jaw drops. “WOW!” he breathes. His mother watches him, hugs the lady. I think they are beautiful, she whispers.
She does not cry, she has not shed one tear.
There is a scene in the movie, “In My Country,” where after hearing hours of testimonies of atrocity victims before the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Juliette Binoche, through her sobs, asks Menzi Ngubane, “Why aren’t THEY crying?” to which he answers, “They are not surprised.”
The halfhouse itself is a dull putty color. Mother and Father exchange a look. At the home improvement store, mother gently removes a satin rosette from a pocket in her purse. It is all that is left of their previous life. From our wedding, she says. Father holds it out for the paint technician to see. Do not touch it with those hands, just match it. By sunset, the little dwelling has a facade of palest apricot.
The sleeper cell conspires. The children, they decide, need more special attention than the local public school can provide. But there is no money. An operative goes undercover to make inquiries. The Enemy Within. The “progressive alternative” school is willing, but has no transportation, and it is far away. The Catholic School says no. The Mosque School says yes, and we have a bus. An old man in a turban arrives. We are Catholics, says the mother. Yes, I know, says the turbanned man. He nods to the little boy, soon you will be a Catholic who can read. The girl opens her mouth as if to speak, then closes it. The man smiles at her, reading her mind. Not required, just modest dress.
A knock on the open door, an elegant lady with snow white hair graciously whisks mother and daughter off to shop, courtesy of a previously unknown group of elegant ladies of interest.
Outside, a man so old and brown he could have been present for the founding of New Orleans is incredibly, planting pansies, masses of them, periwinkle blue, they sulk at the indignity of transplant against the apricot-kissed stucco. He says they will perk up. They will recover before you will, says the elegant lady, returned from shopping, the ancient man, it seems, is hers. Tea, she orders her driver, who is alleged to be her great grandson, and the terrorists who have been busy hanging curtains and inciting the aapplication to the innocent walls of art from every continent, having seen that the kitchen is now stocked with a similarly diverse selection of global edibles, plop down to enjoy a fashion show (It turns out that mother and the turbanned man are quite in agreement on what constitutes modest dress for school girls, but a few sequinned “tank tops” for weekend fun somehow slip into the mix).
A fearsome street gang of young men from Mexico and Central America arrive in a burst of shouts, tattoos and alarming automotive sounds. They demand beer and rides home, they are leaving what they claim is an automobile they have made for father to use to go to his new job at a printing company. Proudly, they concede that it may be the most hideous and noisy vehicle in three counties, but they give their word that it will go both forward and backward. “De puras partes, lo hicimos!” they exclaim.
The mother looks around at her new neighbors, her new family, some in soft white cotton robes of Ethiopia, some in saris, salwar kameez, jeans and tshirts, baggy pants worn low to reveal waistbands of underwear, the teenaged street gang to the antique couple, and all ages in between, and goes quickly to the kitchen, I don’t think we have any beer, she wants to say, she opens the refigerator, to find beer from Lebanon, from Belgium, from India, from Mexico and Palestine, and she leans against the open door, unable to stop the tears. Now she is surprised.