The Damascus Garden
Lina moved through the thick, warm air of her family home. It was morning and even in summer the house had to be shut-up each night before she slept. Lina felt stiff and her throat dry as she started her morning ritual. Her head hurt too, but she preferred the momentary morning discomfort to the lethal potential of sleeping with open windows.
She continued searching her bedroom. The dark colors of her room made it easy for shadows to hide things. Damascus, like her room, became a place of shadows where strange things could hide. Uncertainty lingered and clung like an unwanted lover to the walls, pillars, windows and doors of the city. No one dared to puncture the thin membrane of civility that remained of Damascus’ society for fear of unleashing something no one could push back into the darkness.
Lina’s movements were mechanical. This was not a new task and her moves reflected the monotony and repetitive nature of her chore. Her pale, green eyes were cold and lifeless as they passed over the contents of the room. Her skin was clammy from a night-long of perspiring in stagnant air. She kneeled down and lifted the duvet cover to search under the bed. As she did Bisbis the cat jumped onto Lina’s bed and began licking his paw.
“There you are,” Lina said to the cat in an emotionally flat voice.
She leaned over and picked up the cat without petting it. The orange tabby hung limp in Lina’s bony hands as she walked over to the window. She pulled back the heavy drapes with her right hand while holding the feline firmly against her body with the left.
This was the critical task of the day. Each time she performed it, she felt a little bit of her humanity slipping away. Once she had loved Bisbis. The tabby cat was a warm comfort when she lay awake at night worrying about being arrested. The purring of the cat use to lull her to sleep when her thoughts turned dark in the darkness as she imagined herself being arrested and tortured by the mukhabarat, the Syrian secret police.
Lina could no longer depend on Bisbis for comfort. She did not feel morally entitled to ask that of Bisbis after she gave him this new duty. Lina did not let the cat into her room at night because it only made her feel guiltier about valuing the lives of her family over Bisbis. Lina raised Bisbis since he was a kitten and every morning as she prepared the cat for his macabre job, she recalled how he felt and looked as a kitten, so trusting and small.
The light from the window trickled into the room filtered through jasmine and bougainvillea vines that hugged the walls of the court-yard garden. Rose bushes stood in rows and a large fountain in the center was covered in layers of dust. Lina took in the view momentarily and could faintly hear memory echoes reverberating against the window glass.
Lina’s right hand reached out for the window latch as she held her breath, heart thumping uncontrollably. She unlatched and opened the window only enough to feed Bisbis through the crack and shut it quickly behind him. Then she waited.
Ever since the Syrian government unleashed chemical weapons on Lina’s neighborhood it became the cat’s task to check the air before the family opened the windows. The government had tainted everything, even the outside air was to be feared as something Assad controlled. A reminder that Assad and not Allah, God, held power over life and death in Syria.
Lina watched Bisbis scale down the lemon tree that leaned against the wall of her home and make his way down to the garden to play. It was safe to open the windows.
“Kayfek habibti?” How are you my beloved, Lina’s mother called from the kitchen where she waited to start making breakfast.
“Al hamdulillah,” thank God, Lina replied as she pushed open the window she let Bisbis out of.
The sounds of the day started swirling around her. Her father and brothers went into the kitchen to help bring the food out to the dining table. The smell of foul, a hummus like dish made from fava beans and served warm, filled the room. Lina was not very hungry. She was just grateful for another day with her family.
Anisa Abeytia is a writer whose work is featured in The Hill, Brunei Times, The Dubai Sun, Orient.net and the Middle East Observer. Anisa traveled to Turkey, Serbia, Norway and Germany following refugees on their journey to Western Europe. She also worked on the short film, Children of the Rising Phoenix in conjunction with USC School of Cinematography. Anisa began her career working for the producer Fred Roos, one of the producers of the Godfather Trilogy. She is a published poet and author whose work is translated into over 14 languages. She has an MA in Postcolonial and Feminist Thought from Stanford University, as well as a Master’s of Science. She holds a B.A. from the University of Southern California in Creative Writing.
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