Those Who Burn
At the center of a city nearly emptied of its people, in a country already gone half dark, a young woman leaned her elbows against the deli case of a butcher who’d been her father’s closest friend.
“Nothing?” she asked the butcher again.
The butcher, a man with jowls that wobbled equally when he laughed and when he yelled, held up his hands and shrugged.
“No more of that tripe I got from you last Tuesday?”
The butcher made a show of cinching the ties of his starched, white apron. “Even that’s going.” He rested his hands on his once-robust belly. “Quickly.”
“Someone’s soup by now.”
The woman opened her canvas bag with the faded insignia of a foreign university on its side. She removed her wallet. “Any rations?” she asked, her voice a whisper, her gaze on the wallet not the butcher.
“I’d have given them to you, Yarah.”
She put her wallet away. “Tomorrow, maybe?”
Radi reached for a rag on the hook behind the counter and started buffing an invisible spot on the deli case. “If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t take those odds.”
He hung the rag back on its hook. “Why what?”
“Why open your doors if you have nothing left to sell?”
Radi stared at the counter; the silence hung. “On the bright side,” he looked down the front of his apron then up at Yarah, “have you ever seen a butcher’s apron so white?”
Yarah turned to the two large windows at the shop’s front. The early evening sunlight reflected off broken glass scattered on the sidewalk next to a bus stop. A man wearing a makeshift camouflage uniform poked his head out of a doorway across the street. He looked left then right, then ran in a zigzag across to an empty office building that used to house an insurance company. Yarah watched, puzzled. The snipers were in the villages. They hadn’t come this far into the city. Not yet, anyway. She turned back to see Radi sitting on a wooden stool, a newspaper spread across his lap. “How was the weather four months ago, uncle?” she asked.
“Let’s see,” he said, flipping the pages. “Ah, yes. June 12th. Lovely day that was. Lots of sun. A hot one.”
“And what did dear President have to say on June 12th? Are we still winning?”
Radi turned back to the front page. “Peace is on the horizon, Yarah.” He held up a finger. “And with peace, comes meat.”
“Speaking of which,” Yarah turned her head slightly away from Radi, “is El-Hashem’s shop still open?”
Radi closed the newspaper.
“I have no choice,” Yarah said.
Radi’s cheeks grew as red as his apron on a good day. El-Hashem had once threatened to tell the secret police Radi was passing along information with his cold cuts. “I know you have no choice.” He sighed like a bellows. “If your father were alive—”
The thought made Yarah’s chest tighten. Her father had been dead just over a year. Two years earlier, she had arrived home from class to a message her roommate had written on the chalkboard in their kitchen:
Call your father!
You have a father?
When Yarah called, her father told her, in a way akin to saying he didn’t want anything for his birthday, that he had the cancer and not to worry or come home. He repeated: Do not come home. So she came home. She told her roommate she’d be back next semester, that she’d see her in the spring. It wasn’t until she was in the deserted baggage claim of an airport in which the departures greatly outnumbered the arrivals that Yarah realized just how impossible that would be.
Her father Fareed was a hard man, made harder when his wife died shortly after Yarah’s birth. He was also an impatient man with high expectations. He would accept nothing but the best from his only child. The day Yarah received her acceptance letter to a university two plane rides away was the only time she ever heard him say he was proud.
So when she knocked on the door of the apartment she grew up in, Yarah expected Fareed to tell her to get back on those two planes and return to school. Instead, he answered and stood back for a moment, silent. When he finally embraced her, Yarah could feel the bones in his back, how the top of his head felt like peach fuzz. “You came,” he said, pressing his face against her shoulder. “You came.”
“But alas,” Radi continued, his face now back to its olive hue, “El-Hashem’s butcher shop is closed. He’s long gone.”
“Gone, gone?” Yarah asked.
“Not that gone.”
Yarah’s right hand reached for the back of her head. She pulled on a hair until it came out in her fingers. “What am I going to do?”
“That’s easy,” Radi said, taking off his black hairnet. He crumpled it into a ball, then tossed it toward the trash bin, missing. “You leave.”
As she turned the corner onto her street, no meat in her bag, Yarah looked up and saw her apartment building—a black silhouette against the evening sky. A scattering of tiny lights flickered in the windows of the few people she knew still lived there: Abdul-Malik and his young family in 3C, the widow Mrs. Farhi in 10D, and Dr. Zaman and his wife in 4B.
She scaled the six flights to her apartment with the feeling of cold stones rattling in her stomach. At the door, a white paw reached out from underneath, latching onto the doormat. “Just a minute, Sasha,” Yarah said, fumbling for her keys in the dark hallway. She opened the door and made her way to the kitchen, the small grey and white cat with a beige spot next to her nose running ahead. Yarah lit a candle, opened the cupboard, and took out the second-to-last dented can of tuna. “Just half tonight,” she said to the cat rubbing against her leg. Then she pulled out a box of stale cereal and poured herself a bowl.
Outside, the streets were quiet, the early moon framed between two empty buildings. Curfew was at eight, so Yarah had to get to the square and back quickly. En route, she passed only one person: a kerchiefed woman with a prominent nose she could spot from a half a block away.
At a distance, Yarah mistook her for a former classmate’s mother. In the space of a few seconds, her heart leapt then fell when she realized the woman was a stranger. They nodded to each other as they passed.
The square was vacant except for a small diamond-shaped arrangement of abandoned tents, a scattering of overturned metal tables that once displayed herbs and spices and bronze- plated trinkets, and the rubble from a statue of someone whose name Yarah had long forgotten. A newcomer, if there had been any newcomers, wouldn’t have known the statue was ever a statue, except for the head—perfectly intact but three meters away from its crumbled base, lolling on its side as if chopped from a guillotine.
Yarah made her way toward the bench in the square’s northeast corner. It was the same bench where she’d sat with Amir six months prior. On the back of the bench was a small, gold plaque: To Ula, My Heart. Yarah had memorized the inscription; it was where she looked, instead of at Amir, when he told her he was leaving with his family. He said other things too, but Yarah stayed focused on the plaque. Who was Ula? And was the person who dedicated this bench still here? And if he was, did he still come and sit and think about Ula? Yarah’s concentration broke when Amir placed his hand on her left knee. She pushed it off.
Yarah knelt and pulled the last of the tuna from her bag. At the sound of the can opener, cats emerged from their hiding places. They were all shapes and sizes and colors, but Yarah could tell which had been strays from the start and which had been pets—the former housecats cried louder. They knew what it felt like to be loved, to be full, and they howled at the memory.
A week after Amir met Yarah in the square to tell her he was leaving, he asked her to come to his apartment. Yarah usually came weekday afternoons to tutor his daughter, Mina, but Amir had asked her to come on a Saturday morning. The apartment was quiet, except for the refrigerator’s hum. They were alone.
“No,” she told Amir for the second time.
“I have no choice,” he said.
Yarah pulled on a curly, brown strand until it came out. She held it, then let it drop. “You do have a choice. I’ll take the cat.”
Amir got up from the table and poured more hot water into his teacup. “And who will take her in when you leave?” he asked, his back to Yarah.
“I told you.” She started picking at her hair again but stopped herself. “I’m not leaving.”
Amir stared out the window above the sink. He watched a pigeon catch an updraft of wind and coast from one rooftop to another. “You will.”
Yarah wanted to ask if he had an extra ticket, an extra set of papers, but stayed quiet. She knew to whom Amir’s three airplane tickets and new IDs belonged: one for him, one for Mina, and one for his wife.
Amir raised his teacup and drained it in two gulps. He set it in the sink. “I have something for you.” He left the kitchen. Yarah heard him open and close a drawer in his bedroom. He returned and sat across from her, placing an envelope on the table.
Yarah stared at the envelope but didn’t move to take it. She could see the outline and bulge of money inside. “What’s this?”
Amir pushed it toward her. “It’s for you.” Yarah pushed the envelope back.
“Please,” Amir said. “You will go someday, and I don’t want you walking out when you do. There are other ways. Safer ways.”
“I’m not leaving,” Yarah said again.
Amir sighed. “There’s nothing left here for you.”
Yarah heard someone get off the elevator and walk down the hallway. She held her breath until the footsteps passed.
Amir buried his face in his hands.
“I’ll take good care of her. Let her lick yogurt off the spoon like she likes. Throw her bottle caps to fetch.”
Amir looked up. “She can do that?”
Yarah stood and got a Coca-Cola from the refrigerator. She popped the cap off on the corner of the countertop and took a sip. Sasha, a small grey and white cat with a beige spot next to her nose, left the sunbeam she’d been lying in and ran into the kitchen. Yarah threw the cap into the adjacent room and Sasha barreled after it, almost crashing into a coffee table. She batted it around, then brought the cap back to Yarah in her teeth. “See?” Yarah said.
Amir gave a half-smile, which was quickly replaced with a grimace. “I just . . . I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Yarah didn’t break her gaze from Sasha, who had dropped the cap at her feet and was waiting for her to throw it again.
“I care for you,” Amir said. “Deeply. If we had met—”
“Why not just let her outside?” Yarah interrupted. “She’d be a fine little hunter.” She bent down and scratched the cat’s chin. “Wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know what else to say.”
Yarah wanted to ask what he remembered of the night they’d spent together. It had been so clear in her mind at one point. She had even gone to a café the next morning to sit and sip her tea and try to cement it all in her memory. But fragments came and went regardless, operating under some will of their own. While drawing a bath: how his beard felt pressed against her stomach. Waiting in line for rations: was the small scar next to his left eye or his right? Cleaning the toilet: how he slept without a pillow. Who sleeps without a pillow? But as she sat in that café, going over each moment frame by frame, she’d already known it would never happen again. Amir told her the next day it couldn’t. The only way Yarah could stomach the shame was to put it aside, somewhere separate from her, as if it were in a safe deposit box she knew she would have to open and unpack someday.
Yarah walked over to Amir and touched his right shoulder. Their eyes met for a moment. She reached for the envelope. She put it in her jacket pocket, then picked up Sasha. “I don’t know what else to say either.” She walked out of the apartment with the cat.
Years later, Amir’s daughter would email him, asking if he remembered their cat Sam. She’d be taking a creative writing class and want to write about her home country. Amir would respond, saying that the cat’s name was Sasha, not Sam. She had grey and white fur and a small beige spot next to her nose. Don’t you remember? Mina would reply: Are you sure? I’m positive it was Sam. Didn’t my tutor—Yarah?—didn’t she teach him to fetch bottle caps? Or did I make that part up? Mina would remember having a cat, but not her name. She’d remember her tutor’s name, but not what she looked like. She’d remember what her mother looked like, but not the sound of her voice. Mina had been so young when they left, and her mother had died in transit, never making it to their new home. She would rely on her father to fill in the blanks. He’d maintain an almost photographic memory of what happened, because he’d often spend his days going over all he had done, and all he hadn’t.
After the envelope money was spent, after the electricity stayed off and the city grew darker still, after Radi boarded up his shop, Yarah spent her days scavenging food and candles and batteries from abandoned apartments. She looked in people’s cupboards, their pantries, their refrigerators, underneath their bathroom sinks. Sometimes she found a can of pears or the metal shell of a used tea light. Most of the time she found mold, cockroaches, the occasional rat. Once, in an apartment in her building that used to house a young family, Yarah found two young girls looking for toys. The older girl was holding a stack of books; the younger, a stuffed giraffe with a missing eye. The two girls froze when they saw Yarah. She wanted to tell them that it was OK, that she was doing the same thing herself, but the taller girl dropped the books, grabbed her friend’s hand, and ran.
One afternoon, after another unsuccessful morning of scavenging, a knock came at Yarah’s door. Radi stood on the other side, holding a large cardboard box. Yarah opened the door, and he set the box at his feet, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “I want you to have this,” he said.
“What is it?” Yarah asked.
Radi squatted and opened the box with the jagged edge of his key. Inside were stacks of brown plastic packages. He held one up, inspecting the label. “Dried chicken catch-a-tore-ee.”
“Where’d you get this?”
“Fell off the back of a truck.”
“Where’d you get that? The Godfather?”
“Scarface.” He picked up the box and followed Yarah into the apartment. “It’s food. It’s yours.”
“I can’t take it,” she said, trying to give it back. “Your family—”
“I’d rather starve than eat the kind of meat you have to,” Radi lowered his voice, “add water to moisten.” He put his hands behind his back and surveyed the living room. He hadn’t been inside the apartment since Yarah’s father was too sick to leave it. Everything was just as it had been. It was as if Fareed would come out of the kitchen at any moment with a tray of tea. “Besides, we’re leaving tomorrow, Yarah.”
“Tomorrow, yes. You know this.” He scratched the back of his neck with his key. “And we still want you to come.”
Yarah caught Sasha, who was trying to run into the hallway. “She’s always doing that.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
She looked at the man who’d been her father’s closest friend, the man who’d become her friend. “Tomorrow’s so soon . . .”
“You have other plans?”
“No,” Radi said. “You won’t.”
“I won’t,” she repeated.
“And there’s nothing I can do or say?”
Radi tightened his lips.
“Thanks for the food, Radi.” Yarah embraced him before he could reply. “For everything.” Radi squeezed Yarah for a moment, then backed into the hallway. Yarah closed her door, waiting by it until she heard his footsteps. After she heard the stairwell door close, she finished scraping the melted wax from the previous night’s candles off her tables and counters and began melting it into jars for the night to come. When she finished, Yarah took a bottle cap from her cardigan pocket and tapped it on the counter. Sasha, lying in the corner, looked up, then laid her head back down.
Yarah looked over to her lamp—gold with a blue lampshade, now useless. Her father had placed a yellow sticky note on its side, noting the price he thought she should sell it for. “You can start selling the furniture now if you’d like,” he’d told her. She’d watched as he’d hobbled across the apartment, placing notes on the belongings she’d grown up with: four thousand pounds—a pittance—for the footstool with wooden lion’s paws for legs; three thousand for the oversized freezer in need of a new motor; one thousand for the lamp.
At the time, Yarah didn’t acknowledge the sticky notes. Instead, she’d put her energy into ensuring her father took his medication at the right time, that he’d finish his bowls of broth, that he’d wash his face and brush his teeth.
A year after the funeral, Yarah had to remind herself to wash her face and brush her teeth and get out of bed. She never sold the furniture or touched her father’s sticky notes, and the longer she stayed in the apartment, the harder it became to leave.
Her thoughts went to Radi and his offer, and her heart felt like it was being pressed between two books. She had a feeling she would never see the butcher again.
Radi and his family would settle in a new country, where, thanks to a cousin-of-a-cousin, he’d secure a part-time job in a kosher butcher shop in a part of the city people described as up and coming. Where they were coming up to, Radi would never know. He’d struggle at first with the language and high customer volume but would quickly improve with the aid of old Western films. He’d become fluent, albeit with an occasional expression unheard since the stagecoach era, be promoted to full time, and eventually made a partner with the small Jewish man who had inherited the butcher shop from his father and would live above it his entire life. When a restaurant serving charcuterie with hard-to-pronounce cheeses and olive oils that cost more than Radi charged for a shank of lamb opened its doors, he and the Jewish man would have to close theirs. But by that time, Radi would be ready to retire. He’d tell his wife he could use a rest, and he’d look forward to spending his days watching old films, walking on the treadmill at the gym, and calling his two grown sons on the phone, asking when he could expect grandchildren.
Two weeks after Radi left, four days since Yarah had a candle to burn, and three days since she’d scavenged anything worthwhile, she knocked on Dr. Zaman’s door. Dr. Zaman was a veterinarian, although it had been almost a year since he’d addressed himself as such. His office had closed when more people sought his medical assistance for themselves than for their pets. He couldn’t blame them: People were dying in hospital waiting rooms after waiting days to be seen by a doctor, a nurse, an aid worker, anyone. So when they started showing up at his office with shrapnel wounds and concussions and appendicitis, he’d wanted to help them—he did—but felt he wasn’t qualified. Eventually, the office was ransacked—people pushed passed his receptionist and took painkillers, dewormer tablets, plaster meant for tiny casts, even the medicated food for cats with bladder infections. When all was gone, Dr. Zaman sat on the edge of a metal exam table, staring at a canine anatomy poster while his receptionist rubbed her bruised elbow. Neither said a word.
“Yarah,” Dr. Zaman said, opening his door. The doctor looked at Yarah, then the cat poking her head out of the top of Yarah’s coat, and invited them in.
She took a seat on the couch, and Dr. Zaman disappeared into his bedroom. “Will it hurt at all?” Yarah asked when the doctor reappeared with his medical kit.
“A slight burn with the needle. Then she’ll sleep.”
Yarah took a deep breath. Her voice struggled to pass her lips. “She’s just so small. She won’t make it. These other cats . . . they’re different.”
Dr. Zaman put his hand on top of Yarah’s. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Yarah nodded but wasn’t sure she believed him.
The remorse and shame that would plague Dr. Zaman for not helping his city’s people when they needed him would take years to ease, and would never disappear. He’d open a new practice in a country that would take him decades to call home. On his first day of business, he would hang the same dog anatomy poster in his new reception area, so that when he’d arrive at work each morning, he would see it and remember.
A tuxedo cat followed Yarah as she approached the square. An orange tabby ran ahead, her tail vibrating with excitement. Yarah set the cardboard box down and a calico with a nub for a tail licked her right shoe.
More cats encircled Yarah as she opened the box, their cries reaching a fever pitch. Yarah crouched down and opened a bottle of water and one of the brown plastic packages Radi had given her. She poured in two capfuls, waited for the Styrofoam-like meat to plump into something that appeared edible, and flicked the pieces into the crowd. An all-white male jumped at her hand, nipping her thumb. Yarah put the bloody thumb in her mouth and continued.
An aggressive black cat leapt and caught the last of the meat from Yarah’s last package—a feat of acrobatics only a recently abandoned cat could have mustered. With the meat gone, the cats continued caterwauling. Yarah turned the box over, showing them she had nothing left to give. A Siamese with a crooked tail took off with an empty package. Others followed, and a fight broke out.
Yarah stood and straightened her back. She was alone in the square, under the low moon’s light in an otherwise darkened city. The catfight faded into the distance, and the quiet sank in. She reached into her jacket pocket and removed the yellow sticky note she’d taken off the gold lamp with the blue lampshade. She rubbed the paper between her fingers, folded it in half, and put it back. She cut through the square and continued walking straight ahead. It wasn’t until she reached the line of people waiting at the first roadblock near the city’s edge that Yarah realized she wouldn’t be going back.
Four years would pass before Yarah would make it back to the university she had once left to care for her father. During that time, she would lose her right pinky toe to frostbite and spend the night with an Italian aid worker who’d tell her she was one of the harraga—those who burn. She’d liked the word and would repeat it as he kissed the dimples in her lower back.
Yarah would think she’d seen Amir’s wife in a camp while waiting in line for the small toiletry bags distributed during entry. She would remember the photograph Amir had kept on his bedside table—of the couple taken at the ocean, their backs to the camera. She’d remember how she could tell, although she had been unable to see their faces, that they were happy at that moment. She’d remember holding the photograph close to her face, inspecting it for a sign that never came. The woman Yarah would think was Amir’s wife wouldn’t give her a second glance as she’d pass and disappear back into the crowd. Yarah would wonder if Amir had taken the photograph with him, if he had removed the frame and folded it in half for easier travel.
In her second year of graduate school, Yarah would date an associate professor from the School of Engineering. Once, after a dinner of Thai food, he’d show her before and after photos of her home country taken at night, by satellite. Before, an array of speckled lights, clustered in cities, lit up the photo. After, a country gone dark—just a few pinpricks of light near the borders. Yarah would think of the little grey and white cat with a beige spot near her nose, of the cats in the square, of Radi, and Amir. She’d think of her home, of that stool with the lion’s paw legs. She’d think of her father and his sticky notes—how she would have traded both pinky toes for one more day with him. And she’d think of the burning candles, melted over and over until there was nothing left.
But she would look at the satellite images for only a moment, before glancing down at her phone to check her email.
“What do you think about that?” the associate professor would ask. “Such mindless devastation.”
Yarah would look up from her phone. “You’ve never been.”
“Yes, I know,” he’d reply, clicking away from the photos. “I can hardly imagine what it was like.”
“No,” Yarah would agree.