The Sky at Our Feet, Page 1Nadia Hashimi
For Mom and Dad—
for giving me the sky
Bring the sky beneath your feet and listen
to Celestial Music everywhere.
The sky where we live is no place
to lose your wings so love, love, love.
About the Author
Books by Nadia Hashimi
About the Publisher
Pigeons, no matter what country they live in, share a few important traits. They are smart birds that can learn aerial tricks and navigate their way back home. They will eat just about anything. Carrots, lettuce, bell peppers, rice, and crumbled-up bread. They’re not very picky. They do need grit to digest their food, though. That could be little pieces of gravel or ground-up oyster shells if you happen to have oyster shells around.
I do not. There aren’t many oysters in this overcrowded city in New Jersey. I can’t imagine that there are many oyster shells in Afghanistan either, since the country doesn’t touch the ocean.
But there’s plenty of gravel around thanks to the crumbling cement of the chimney and building trim, so the birds on our roof are doing okay. I put out fresh bowls of water for them. I change the water every couple of days. Sometimes the rain does the work for me.
I look up. An airplane has left a thin trail of white cotton behind it. Since I was little, my mother has tested me with riddles she learned as a child in Afghanistan. Each one is a mystery, and I like the challenge of unlocking them. I close my eyes and remember one of them.
What searches the skies without ever leaving its home?
I figured out the answer to that one quicker than she expected.
An eye, I remember saying.
I’m not really supposed to be up here on the roof. My mother wouldn’t be too happy if she knew I came up here almost every day to try to train pigeons. Our building is old, and the roof sags in some parts. There isn’t any kind of railing either, so I have to be sure I stay clear of the edges. But it’s safe if you know what you’re doing, and I’ve been doing this for about a year, after my mom told me about what some of her neighbors used to do back in Afghanistan, long before she moved to New Jersey.
“Leave him alone,” I mutter. Of the nine pigeons that live on our roof, Billy is the worst. He’s always shoving his way to the food as if he’s got more right to it than anyone else. There’s nothing that special about him, but he seems to think there is. There’s one that’s more tan than gray. He (or she) might be older than the others. He’s got a scar on one side of his face and doesn’t move as fast. The others are pretty timid. It took a long time for them not to fly off the rooftop as soon as I opened the hatch to climb up here. Now they gather around because they know I’ll bring something good for them.
They fly off but always come back. I haven’t gotten them to do any tricks like the pigeon trainers in Afghanistan have done, but I’m working on it. My mom told me her neighbor back home had pigeons who could do full loops or fly with their bellies up. They would fly miles away to deliver secret messages tied to their feet but still come back home. My pigeons are nowhere close to doing any of that, but if lots of other Afghans have been able to do it, I think there’s got to be a way.
I’m about to toss out chunks of buttered bread when a voice catches me off guard.
“What are you doing here?”
I drop the plastic bag I’m holding and spin around. Ms. Raz, our landlord and first-floor neighbor, has poked her head out of the hatch.
“I was just—”
But Ms. Raz is not your average silver-haired woman. She doesn’t knit or watch game shows or moan about her aching back. I never see or hear her coming, and yet there she always is, suspicious and cranky.
“Get off the roof this minute! You’re not supposed to be up here.”
Neither is she, really, unless she wants to have her other hip replaced.
“Sorry,” I mumble, trying to hide the bowl of water and rice from Ms. Raz’s squinty glare.
Ms. Raz is waiting for me when I climb down the ladder and go back into the building. She follows me as I walk, shoulders slumped, to our third-floor apartment. Each floor is one apartment with windows overlooking the street or the grocery store parking lot behind us. The roof is the only place that gives a view of Elkton. I can see the roof of my school to the east and the train station to the south. I see the road that leads to the laundromat and the park where I broke my arm on the monkey bars.
My mother is inside our top-floor apartment, about to be sorely disappointed by what I’ve just been caught doing.
“Ms. Raz,” I say, trying to find a way out of this. It’s October and winter is only a couple of months away. Maybe I could offer to shovel the snow off the sidewalk and steps again.
“Not a chance. Open that door so I can tell your mother where I found you.” Ms. Raz’s glasses hang on a thin chain around her neck. She’s looking at me, waiting for my move. The floorboards creak as I shift my weight and stall.
“Shah-jan, is that you?” my mother’s voice calls out from inside the apartment. “Come so we can cut this beautiful cake!”
The cake. This gives me an idea. It’ll only work if there’s a warm heart somewhere inside Ms. Raz’s chest.
“She’s been waiting for me,” I explain. “It’s her birthday today, and I saved some money and bought her a chocolate cake. Would you like a slice?”
Ms. Raz folds her arms across her chest and huffs something about bringing her plants in from the balcony.
“If I ever catch you up there again, I’ll have you out of this building in a heartbeat!”
I nod my head solemnly and wait for Ms. Raz to disappear before I open the door. I don’t want my mother to spot her standing behind me and figure out I took a detour on my way to pick up the mail.
“Salaam, Madar!” I call out. My mother is in the small kitchen with her back turned toward me. I can see her light-blue jeans, her ponytail frizzy from the humidity of the laundromat where she works. The evening news plays in the background. My mom always has the news on, as if there’s something she’s waiting to hear.
I never really learned much Dari from my mother, but she does insist that I greet her as all Afghans do, so I say salaam, which means peace.
“Salaam, jan-em!” she sings. She spins to face me, and I see a plate of seasoned drumsticks and stewed potatoes on our little kitchen table. There’s the tiny cake I bought too, with one skinny candle sticking out of it. “I make your favorite foods!”
My mom always wants to practice her English with me, so all our conversations are
in English. It’s my job to correct her pronunciation and grammar, though she’s not always happy when I do it.
“It’s your birthday, though, so you should have made your favorite foods,” I correct her without thinking. The cake is actually a cupcake, but it’s all I could afford. It’s covered with sprinkles and it takes a lot of self-control not to dip my finger into it for a taste. I’m grateful this moment hasn’t been ruined by Ms. Raz.
“How was your school today?” she says, ignoring my correction. She kisses the top of my head and points me to the sink so I can wash my hands.
“Fine,” I say. I turn the handle and water sputters out. I give the handle an extra twist and it comes off in my hand. It’s an old building, so something’s always cracking, leaking, shaking, or breaking. My mom and I have become pretty good at fixing most of it ourselves so we don’t have to bother Ms. Raz too often. I open the cabinet under the sink and turn off the water valve so the water won’t spray everywhere. Then I reach into our tool drawer and pull a wrench from the pile of dollar-store tools. I twist the tip of the faucet off and find a mesh piece inside. I scrub off some gunk and put the pieces back together. “How was work?”
My mother is standing in front of the television, listening to the news anchor. He’s talking about a rally against people who are in this country illegally. I see a picture of people shouting and waving signs around. The signs say things like America for Americans and Go Home.
I slip the small rubber ring off the inside of the handle. It’s torn and there’s no way to fix it. I dig into the tool drawer again and find a rubber band. I wrap it around the inside of the handle twice and slide it into place. I put the pieces back together and re-open the valve beneath the sink.
“Ha!” I say, happy to see the rubber band did the trick.
“Dear God,” my mother says in Dari.
“What’s the matter, Mom?” I say, drying my hands on a rag. I follow her gaze to the television screen and see the angry protest, the things they’re saying about people who snuck into the country. “They’re just mad at people who broke the rules. You get just as mad when I break rules. Remember what you did when I watched an extra half hour of television last Tuesday?”
I laugh at my own joke.
My mother does not.
“Mom, are you okay?”
She looks like she might cry. She also looks like there’s something she wants to tell me. As a matter of fact, she’s looked that way for the past few weeks. I suppose I’ve been waiting for this moment, though I didn’t know exactly what I was waiting for.
“Shah-jan,” she says slowly. “Me and them—we are the same.”
What can she possibly mean by that? She’s got nothing in common with those people. My mother doesn’t speak Spanish. She didn’t sneak into this country in the middle of the night. She speaks English and works a regular job.
“Sit down. It is time I tell you my story.”
Suddenly my stomach is on edge. I am nervous. I’ve asked my mom a million times to tell me stories about Afghanistan. Sometimes she describes a place that sounds like heaven.
The fruits taste like they’ve been sprinkled with sugar. People open their homes even to strangers so travelers are always fed and cared for. The mountains are tall and proud, more impressive than any skyscraper. Every home has a poet and every home has a musician because words and music give Afghans life. Afghanistan is home to the best horsemen—they can defy gravity on the back of a stallion. For honor and family, an Afghan will go to the ends of the earth. Celebrations are rich and festive—a time for new clothes and money handed to smiling children.
Other times, she winces and just changes the subject. I think that’s when she’s remembering the not-so-great stuff about Afghanistan. I have a feeling she’s going to tell me about that stuff now, and I don’t know if I want to hear it.
I sit down at the table. My mother joins me.
“Some things I never told you. But maybe I tell you now why I cannot go back. When I see this,” she says, pointing to the angry faces on the television screen, “I don’t know what is possible to happen.” She leaves the television on. My eyes float between looking at my mother and looking at the protestors.
I don’t know how, but I have a feeling that, unlike our leaking faucet, the problem my mother’s about to reveal has no quick fix.
My mother puts her elbows on the table.
“Shah-jan, there’s something you need to know,” she says, her accent becoming heavier. She and Auntie Seema are the only people in the world who call me Shah. It was my father’s name, and it means king.
I wish my father were here now for whatever it is my mother is about to tell me.
It’s strange to miss someone I’ve never met, but I do. I’ve grown up with only a handful of photographs, and most of them are grainy and distant. In one, he’s sitting on a sofa, his hair thick and wavy. Mom’s head leans on his shoulder, and he has his arm wrapped around her. He’s looking at her instead of the camera. This makes me think my father was loving.
In another, he’s sitting on a bench next to another man. The man’s laughing so hard, his eyes are just slivers. This makes me think my father was funny.
I often stare at the picture of my father on my nightstand. In the picture, he wears a gray dress shirt and jeans. He has his arms folded across his chest and a pen tucked above his ear. He is standing on a mountain road with his back to the steep drop behind him. This makes me think my father was brave.
“What is it, Mom?”
She takes a deep breath.
“I start in the beginning,” she decides. “Your father was a journalist in Afghanistan. This I told you. But it was difficult for him to make enough money to pay for rent and support his family. One day, a friend told us about another job. He told us the American soldiers were looking for people to translate for them. Your father was speaking English very good—much better than me.”
I imagine my father standing side by side with American soldiers. Did he wear a camouflage uniform? Did he ride in tanks? I’ve pictured my father a million times but never like this. These are new images floating through my head. My mom takes a deep breath and continues her story.
“He did this work for two years. He was with the soldiers always, and it was dangerous. I did not see him for one month or two months sometimes. I was scared for him. We were married only one year before he start this work. I tell him it is very dangerous but he told me we will have a chance in the future to go to United States and study there. He said the future is more important than anything. One day, there was fighting and he was hurt. We were lucky, though, that it was only his hand. The doctors did surgery to take out some metal and he was better, and we got very good news. The embassy said they will give me a student visa to come here. Your father was very happy for me. He said he will do one more job with the Americans and then apply for the special visa. He was helping them and then they will help him—like friends. I was in this country one month when I find out you are coming. I called your father and he was so happy with this good news.”
My mother looks over at my father’s picture then drops her gaze back to the table.
“He loved you from the moment I told him. He talked about you like he had been dreaming about you for all his life. He promised to teach you to play soccer and to feed you kebab and rice and help you with your algebra so you will get good grades. He was going to show you off to his friends and take you to the university where he was teaching. He wanted to carry you on his shoulders so the world will be at your feet.”
I feel a lump grow in my throat when she says all of this. I think of the time my mother took me to the park with a soccer ball under her arm. We’d passed the ball back and forth, nothing all that serious. She managed to kick the ball straight through my legs but slid on the wet grass and ended up on her backside. We both laughed so hard, but then her laughter turned into crying. I didn’t know why then. I think I get it now.
bsp; “He was excited to be a father—your father—but he was worried too. He wanted to give his perfect baby a perfect world.”
My father hated that bad people were in control of some parts of the country. He hated that money and drugs seemed to be more important than people living freely. He hated that there were women and children begging in the street while criminals drove around in fancy cars. He hated that men who had done really bad things could go on living their lives without even an apology when the people they’d hurt never stopped hurting.
“He loved to be a journalist. He wanted to write the truth about what was happening in Afghanistan. A house of lies was no place to raise a child. That’s what he said.”
My stomach balls up nervously when my mother tells me this even though everything she’s talking about has already happened.
“When his hand was better, it was time for the last job. He liked working with the Americans. He said they left their families so far away to come and fight for the people of Afghanistan. I begged him to be careful. Many people did not like that he was working with Americans. They called him a spy, a traitor. They said terrible things. But he was so stubborn, your father. I remember what he told me. ‘A father must give his child the best world and food to eat. How can I ask this child to call me Father if I do not do what a father should?’”
I have started to guess where this story is going, and I want her to stop talking. I like what I’ve believed until now. I don’t want anything to change.
I could shout at my mother and tell her to stop, but then there’s the part of me that needs to know how much has been hidden from me. I have my elbows on my knees and my head hangs low. I cannot look at her face. I don’t want to see her misty eyes. I think of the picture with my father’s arm wrapped around my mother as she leans into him. She looks like she could use someone to lean on right now.
It gets worse.
“He was waiting for the visa. There were some bad people in Afghanistan saying terrible things about your father. The Americans told him don’t worry. They said soon he will have the visa. Your father, he promised me everything will be okay and we will be together soon. The people who called him a spy . . .” She pauses to take a deep breath. “One day they showed him he was wrong.”