All I Was Able To Do

All I Was Able To Do was published in Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s 2018 Visible Ink Anthology.

All I Was Able To Do

I’m a tall man so I had a good vantage point. An ocean of people poured out before me, around me.  No – not an ocean; there was no ebb and flow. We were a river, flowing in one direction: away from all we owned, all we knew. We may never go back. We knew this, but didn’t want to know it.

I noticed a boy running ahead, pushing past. A bit later I noticed him again moving in the other direction, against the flow, jostling an old woman as he passed her. I turned and looked after him, this boy of about five years, but he was out of sight in an instant. I thought, he doesn’t know any better than to try to go back.

In late afternoon we made our way to the banks of this human river. On the sidelines we could rest for a moment and spit the dust from our mouths. I rubbed the powdery layer from Nadia’s thin golden arms. While Anisa was emptying the pebbles from their shoes I watched the people flow by. Had their husbands been detained? Had their sisters been raped? Had their homes been bombed? Yes, they answered with their downcast eyes and plodding steps. It is not normal for children to see dead bodies everywhere they look. And so we also left.

Then I saw the boy again, first moving in one direction and then reversing course. From here I could tell that he was aimlessly moving through the torrent of people, utterly alone. He seemed to me a helpless animal, madly running in every direction. I dove into the migration and snatched him into my arms. “Don’t be afraid. I’m going to help you,”  I said, or something of the sort. He didn’t resist, just gasped as the tears began to flow.

His name was Sayyid. It was easy to fall in love with him and we did so instantly. Anisa used her hijab and Sayyid’s new tears to wipe away the dusty tracks of older tears.  Impossibly long lashes fluttered about his black eyes, casting wispy shadows on his cheeks. Like butterflies come to drink his tears.

We thought of his family – first losing everything by leaving, then losing Sayyid by having left. If we were his parents, what would we do to find a lost child? Would we go back, assuming he had fallen behind, or keep going, hoping he would move forward in his search for us? There were no authorities to ask for help, no competent ones. Anyway, we could not leave Sayyid with anyone. As I said, we’d fallen in love with him.

Our destination for that night was a camp seven miles away. We decided that of course we would find Sayyid’s family at the camp. He told us of his mother and two younger sisters. About his father, Sayyid had only one word: gone. I hoisted him onto my shoulders and we merged back into the human current.

Nadia announced her pleasure at finally having a baby brother, if only for a few hours. Her enthusiasm faded upon her realization that Sayyid would occupy my shoulders, soundly slumped over my forehead, for the duration. Anisa’s back was a poor substitute. “Too bouncy!” Nadia declared. But with miles still to go, she settled in. With our precious cargo we moved slowly.

I was unable to save my country. Forced to abandon my home, my possessions. I was unable to convince Anisa’s sister to come with us. I am unable to ease Anisa’s suffering, to erase the atrocities young Nadia has seen. There is so much I am unable to do. But I am able to help Sayyid. I am able to carry him on my shoulders. I may or may not be able to find his family. And if we do not find his family I am able to carry him to safety, and in my heart for the rest of my days.

It was dark when we arrived at the crowded, dirty camp. Urine soaked my shoulders and vomit soaked Anisa’s. A shadow ran to us, a baby in each arm. Sayyid’s mother gripped her son, wiping her tears with the back of her hand. For a moment, in his mother’s arms, Sayyid was safe. But I knew he was not safe, only found. It was all I was able to do.

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