Home is a rectangle
“I can see the war in her eyes,” Samia tells Idriis one day, after getting a lashing from their mother Sagal.
“Maybe the old anthem possessed her,” says Idriis.
“Or maybe the war sliced her heart into smaller pieces of fleshy string?”
Idriis scrunches his face. “I think I want to vomit.”
“Do you think she’ll be good to us one day, Idriis?”
They both stare out of the window into another world.
When Sagal migrated to Australia, she completely discarded her old life. There was no way of knowing what she had done to get to the west.
Samia and Idriis return to their bodies. Samia remembers to go to the milk bar to buy dinner, and Idriis heads to the living room.
Outside their flat, hundreds of police officers have barricaded their street. Sagal is pointing frantically at the television when Samia bursts back into their apartment. “I just saw all these police officers downstairs,” Samia says. “They wouldn’t let me go to the milk bar.”
Sagal is distressed. “May Allah protect us!”
Idriis deflates in the corner. Samia walks over to comfort him and Sagal glares at her daughter. “You think you’re his mother?”
“Why are you saying that?” purrs Samia, sitting on the couch. She begins to brush her hair with her fingers.
“Hooyo! Why are you always picking on Samia?” Idriis scolds himself for interrupting: “Damn it, Idriis. Why did you open your big mouth? She is going to do bad things to you now.”
Sagal is startled, her lips sink into her mouth. Samia sees that their mother is only a moment away from smothering Idriis’s soul with her cold hands. The air in the room is bloody.
But Sagal stays quiet. Idriis notices that she becomes childlike, as if she is the one in trouble.
“Get the Koran from my room, Idriis,” says Sagal. “It’s in the front pocket of my bag. We need to pray to Allah. And didn’t I tell you to bring the mattresses to the living room, Samia?”
“Well, I’m telling you now, missy. We’re sleeping in the living room tonight. The Office of Housing has still not fixed the heating system yet; it’s warmer in the living room.”
The fire brigade and Woolworths trucks arrive outside the apartment. There are men and women with fluoro vests and police officers lined up under the building like domino blocks. They are passing packaged food to each other like a colony of ants.
Relieved that he has escaped a beating, Idriis feels a calmness in his stomach, a lightness in his feet. He glides to Sagal’s room. For the first time in his young life, he feels that he is the luckiest kid in this flat. He opens Sagal’s bag, unzips the front pocket and takes the Koran. He sees a photograph of himself and his youngest brother, Samatar, in her bag. A stain covers half of Idriis’s face. Grief steps past his brother’s side of the photograph.
Idriis thinks that this must be a sign from Allah that Sagal has the right to love Samatar more. He believes that motherhood is vicious. Sagal knows Idriis’s desperate eyes. She knows the lengths he will go to get her approval and it irritates her.
Sagal takes the Koran and shrugs when she sees the photo tattooed to Idriis’s hand. She turns to read, uninterested in him anymore. Idriis sits next to Samia on the couch.
Sagal rejoiced when she got the keys to her apartment in Flemington. “The war is officially behind us, kids,” she told them. But both Samia and Idriis believed she had brought the war with her.
“I reckon death feels like hooyo’s anger nonstop,” says Idriis.
“Nah, I reckon hooyo’s anger is more like the ocean on the attack,” Samia says. “You can’t see what’s inside the ocean, the same way we never know hooyo’s intentions for us.”
“God,” says Idriis. “I feel a bit faded, sis.”
Idriis makes himself comfortable under the sheets.
“I’m going to have a shower, bro,” Samia says, as Samatar walks out of the kitchen.
“I want to sleep on that mattress,” Samatar says, pointing at Idriis.
Sagal taps Idriis on the shoulder. “Sleep on the other mattress.”
“Why can’t he sleep on the other one? I’m sleeping on this one.”
“Listen to me now, boy! He’s your little brother.”
“No,” cries Idriis.
His throat dries up. The room begins to feel smaller. Sagal grabs Idriis by his arms and throws him onto the other mattress. He scrambles up, determined to win this battle, and throws himself on his Spider-Man mattress. Sagal grabs him and pushes him against the wall. He is a crumbling building. He drops to the floor and falls on his glutes.
Sagal gets up to turn off the light. The cold wind as she passes hurts Idriis as much as her hands. He sobs uncontrollably for more than an hour. This time his cry is given space: both Sagal and Samatar are quiet. That is how it goes in their household. When Idriis’s pain overtakes him, when his pain grows into a wild animal, he is given space.
In the corridor, their neighbour, a middle-aged Vietnamese man, is arguing with authorities to go out to buy his medication. Idriis walks over to the door to see what the noise is about. His neighbour is asking for an interpreter. Idriis is about to open the door when his mother screams at him to get to bed.
He covers himself with his blanket and curls up tight.
Samatar climbs over his mother’s body and nudges Idriis, but Idriis pretends to be asleep.
“Mum,” whispers Samatar.
“What is it?”
“Idriis isn’t moving. I want to sleep between the both of you.”
“Move over for your little brother, please,” says Sagal. “He wants to be around you.”
Samatar snuggles in. His heavy body warms the chilly mattress.
“Idriis makes me feels safe.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "Home is a rectangle".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial