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I Fall Asleep a Kurd

Kathy West

Papa tells the same story every night when we lie down, about sleeping in a real bed. My grandfather made the bed, back when he owned a farm before the war, back before they carved up Kurdistan and gave it to the rest of the world. Papa tells us that he used to lie in that bed every night, not even bothering about the blankets, feeling his back press into the mattress that held him up. The walls around him made of stone. The roof above him made of wood. I do not know how big the bed was when Papa’s story started; but now, that bed was as wide as the river and softer than sand; it smelled like new fruit. Even before Papa tells me to close my eyes, I do, every night, and imagine that his bed still exists. I fall asleep in that bed.

But tonight, he won’t tell it right. He starts to tell us just like always after we lie down on the ground and Mama tucks the big blanket all around us. And we close our eyes while he whispers about his papa and the feeling of lying down soft. It is the safest bed I can imagine. But Papa turns quiet before he gets to the colors of the sheets and the way he could stretch out his legs and arms and never touch the edges. I point my toes and stretch my legs straight, waiting for it to come, but Papa does not speak.

It is the rain. The water keeps coming in the plastic tarp and Papa keeps trying to tie it back up. The roof does not like to stay when the rain comes, even if we tie it up ten times. I can barely see Papa’s hands in the dark, and I can hear him pulling on our house and getting angry at it. I hear the roof shaking and then water falls on my face. I bunch up my eyes and rub my face on the blanket tucked up by my chin. When the rain stops dripping in, Papa stands in the middle of the tent with his palms pressed together and one ear turned up, like he is trying to better hear the tapping of the rain.

“Papa, please,” I say. I want to tug on the hem of his clothes to make him sit down, but my sister and I are already bundled in the blanket and my arms will get cold. It is the same every night. After we eat and pray and wrap up together in the blankets, Papa tells us of the bed and we fall asleep. It is the same every night and he should keep it the same.

It is not just the rain. It is the baby—Diyar. She is crying. We had a feast when she was born. Mama was upset that we did not have enough for tomatoes, but all our relatives and the neighbors pitched in. “This is not the right way,” Papa had said, when our friends delivered some vegetables. It was not the right way, but we were full. The baby is not full tonight and that is why she cries. Mama says it is because she is sick, but Mama is wrong; my sister and I are hungry, too, but we know that crying will not help.

I like Diyar: she makes noises and smiles at me when Mama lets me watch her. I teach her to crawl, and she is learning. But she will not sit still when I tell her a story. She is usually asleep when Papa tells about the big bed; she does not understand. But tonight, Diyar cries and the rain falls and Papa will not tell his story.

“The baby must be quiet,” he says. He stays in the same place, with his ear tipped up; I stare at where he is, but I cannot see what he does with his eyes. We all wait so quiet—me, Mama, my sister—trying to watch him in the dark. And Diyar screams and shakes. I do not like Papa to stop moving; it frightens me. When he stops moving, bad things happen.

We hear cracking up the hill. Someone shooting. Papa picks up his gun and leaves the tent; he is a village guard. I hear voices outside—the other men, the papas of my friends—shouting to each other, moving around in the muddy rain. I wonder if my brother is up on the hill, shooting; Aram left before the new year to fight Turks in the mountains. If they are fighting Turks, I do not know why they shoot so close to our home. I can hear Papa’s voice calling and then it is quiet and I only hear their feet running, running, getting farther away.

I hope Papa comes back. I wonder if Aram is there, and if they are both safe. They probably fight together. I close my eyes and see Papa finding Aram in the dark; I see them hugging and then shooting out into the rain at the people who are bad.

The baby will not stop crying.

*When I wake up, it is light and everything quiet—even the baby. Mama sits on the ground near the door, holding a bundle in her lap. I untangle myself from the blanket and crawl over to her. It is so cold this morning. She is crying so quiet and Papa is not here. When I put my hand on her shoulder, Mama says my name and wipes her eyes.

“Where is Papa?” I was scared last night, but not enough to stay awake. I do not remember seeing him since he left with his gun. “Who was shooting?”

“He is alright,” Mama says, and sets aside the bundle from her lap. It is not a baby—only blankets.

“Where is Diyar?” I look at Mama and she looks at me. She stares, though, like she cannot see me, like she cannot see anything, like I am not here. “Mama?”

“Diyar is gone,” Mama says, and then her eyes change and she sees me again. “When I woke up, she was not alive.” I do not know what to say. The baby is only a few months old. I wonder if we might be glad for her, if we might be grateful that her stomach does not hurt, happy that she will stop crying at night. Grandfather died, grandmother died, uncle died—Mama always tells me about them, but they do not make me sad. I wonder if that is how it should work with the baby. But I knew Diyar—she smiled at me, I taught her things. I wonder if I am supposed to forget her if she is gone; I do not want to. And I do not think Mama will forget because she begins to cry again for what feels almost all morning until my sister wakes up and Papa comes back.

“Where did you go?” I ask. Papa bends over his knees and lets out a long breath. He looks at Mama, she nods, and Papa breathes deep again.

“To bury the baby,” he says. Mama looks down at the ground.

“I wanted to go with you.” I did. I want to have watched them put the little mound of blankets and baby in the earth. We talk about dying all the time, but I have not seen it. I want to know if she is really gone. I want to know where she went, and I want to know if she is far enough away for me to forget her. But men and women cry apart. Mama asks me to come with her to the river.

*Mama always wears the pearls that Papa gave her, even when we go to get water. When Diyar was little, Mama wore her, too—in a blanket tied around her. But she just wears her pearls today. We go to the river with all the other women every morning. And even though this morning feels different, feels bigger, we do the same thing. I am getting big enough to carry my own bucket, and to help wash the clothes. Before I help, I splash with all the other girls who come with us. Mama usually laughs, but she does not splash with us this time.

We carry the buckets back to the village and Mama does not say anything. Sometimes, she tells me about the mountain she liked to visit when she was young. Or other times, she points to a pretty stone in the sand on our way back and I pick it up and carry it home. But when I look up at her on the walk from the river, she does not notice and she does not look back at me. I wonder if she will ever speak again. The baby is gone and I think maybe Mama is quiet so she can remember her. Maybe she never wants to forget. I wonder how long Aram will be gone; and I do not want to ever forget my brother, so I try not to speak either. We are so quiet on our walk home that we will remember them forever.

*Mama makes flatbread outside in her pearls while my sister and my friends play with me, hunched, squatting in a circle, tossing rocks at little targets we draw in the dirt. When it is not my turn, I get up to ask Mama a question.

“Do you think Papa will tell about the bed tonight?”

“Do not ask your father for anything.” Tears get in her eyes. I worry she will cry again, like she does so much now.

“I won’t ask.” I help Mama flip the big bread and put it on the pile she has started on the ground. She keeps working with her hands. “But do you think he will?”

“Go and play with your sister. Look, she is all alone,” Mama tells me. I look at my sister, pushed out of the circle by everyone else. She plays with her fingers in the dirt.

“Why does he never tell it anymore?” I poke my fingers into the dough and Mama pushes my hand away. She only looks at what she is doing—not at me. “He’s never told it since the baby.”

“There is more than just the baby.” Mama reaches for more dough. There is more than just the baby. Almost every night, Papa leaves us while we fall asleep. Most times there is shooting; other nights, I wait to hear a gun, but I hear nothing for a long time. Papa must listen too, because when nothing happens, he comes back and lies down grumbling.

“Who shoots?” I ask. Mama stops, with dough in her fingers, and looks at me.

“We never know who shoots,” she says.

“Yes, we do. There are only two sides.”

“Then they shoot at each other. It is both of them. They only shoot if the other is there.” Mama flattens the dough and puts it on the pan.

“Then why does Papa go?” I try to help her hold the big flat pan over the fire.

“To keep you safe from both of them,” she says.

“Aram keeps me safe.” I am sure that he shoots at anyone who comes near our tent.

“We do not know where Aram is. Papa keeps you safe.” Mama clears her throat and nudges my hand off the handle of the pan. She flips the bread. “Aram is crazy enough to think that he can make us Kurds.”

“But Papa says we are Kurds.”

“We are.” Mama flips the bread again and puts it on the pile.

“Do you think he’ll come home, Mama?” I ask.

She looks up to the mountains and keeps working. She can make bread without looking. “No. I don’t think your brother will come home,” she says.

“Then what is he fighting for?”

“Go play with your sister.”

I go. It is my turn to throw the stone into the circle. I hope Mama doesn’t really think Aram is crazy. How can he be crazy to think we can be Kurds if we already are?

I want Aram to come home. I want to tell him that nobody tells good stories anymore. The true ones only make people sad, but those are the only ones we tell when people want to know our lives. Papa used to tell me about his beautiful bed, but I have never heard him tell it to anybody else. Nobody knows but my sister and I—and my Mama, who does not want to hear about it anymore.

*Tonight, I look at Mama and ask her with my eyes if she will convince Papa to tell his story. She shakes her head at me again, like last night. Papa sits on the floor for a long time, holding a cup of meal and looking out the flap of the tent. Right when I start imagining the bed to myself again, Papa turns and opens his mouth. I am ready for the story. I am ready to fall asleep.

I watch him, waiting for it, but he only keeps his mouth open. He says nothing, then turns back and eats from the cup in his hand. He looks outside. I look to Mama. But she does not look back; she is staring at Papa and everyone is so quiet. I wonder who they are remembering, who they are trying not to forget. If Papa told stories about them, we could remember together.

My father once owned a bed and I sleep in it. Every day since Diyar died, I imagine it myself when it gets dark and I can see the sky through our plastic roof. I lie on my back and stare straight up and repeat in my mind what I will tell myself forever: I am a Kurd and I am sleeping in the biggest bed in Turkey.

Nobody who knows Papa knows that he had a wonderful mattress the size of the river; he never tells them. When I hear him talking outside, he talks about the girls the Turkish soldiers shot, about not enough food, and about his baby who cried and died in the night. Papa used to tell about his bed when I was about to fall asleep, but since Diyar died, he has not told it for a long time. Is that why Aram went to fight? If these are all the stories we have to tell, I think I will fight, too.