Author: Olivia Drake
Educator: Lindsay Seelig
She was one and taking her first steps just outside the porch of her familiar little bungalow. The sparse grass tickled her toes as she waddled. Her steps were shaky as she trekked towards her father's shining face. Just a few steps away she could barely hear the encouragements floating across the warm summer air, she was completely focused. She collapsed into her father's lap and he scooped her up into his wide calloused hands. She smiled happily as his tan face cooed praises she couldn't yet understand. This, of course, was not a memory that was her own, but rather a factitious one woven into the fibers of her brain from years of her mother's bedtime stories. Every night she would stare at her mother’s figure silhouetted by stars filtering through the open window and plead, “Tell me a story from when I was little!” Her mother would laugh and say, “But you are still little,” before captivating the girl with one of her tales. The girl’s favorite had always been the story of her first steps because after she learned to walk, she learned to run.
She was five and sprinting out the door of her house small feet tumbling across the dry, sun-split earth. It was her first day of school. Her excitement became a tangible thing, tangling between her feet, and though she was more sure-footed now than when she took her first steps, she nearly tripped in her haste to arrive at the school and the answers to her endless questions.
“Papa, what’s school like?” she often asked.
“Well,” he would respond in his deep rumbling voice, “I haven’t been there in a long time, Ya Amar, it may be very different from when I was young.”
At this, she would always pout because she wanted to know. She wanted to know what she would learn, who she would meet, whether she would like them or not, whether they would like her. So many unanswered questions in her head made it hard to focus on anything else. Whenever she was on the verge of a petulant fit at her father's inability to answer her questions, he would answer with this: “I do not remember exactly what I learned in school, but I do remember what it taught me, Ya Amar. You must learn all you can. Learn from school, from life, from the people around you because a life without learning is not a life at all. You have a thirst for knowledge, and I am so proud. This is my advice, do everything you can to feed it because that is how you grow.” She was young and may not have fully understood the wisdom in her father's words, but she carried them with her always. She carried them with her in the back of her mind as she ran towards the courtyard of the school and as she drew nearer, she made a vow, a promise to her father. She swore she would learn. Within the walls of her school she would learn all she could, and when she was grown and had to leave, she would learn from people, from life. She ran and the courtyard came closer into view. She ran and the answers to her endless questions came closer into view, she would spend the rest of her life running for answers.
She was seven and her spindly legs flew through the bazaar--she veered around vendor's stalls and weaved expertly through the thick crowd of people. Bells rang in the distance, a call to prayer, but she barely heard the metallic ring that had been the accompaniment of her life. As she burst out of the suffocating crowds, she turned sharply towards her shortcut home. She sprinted, twisting through Aleppo pines and brambles, carefully avoiding trampling over pristine tangles of crocus and yellow asphodel. Elation expanded from somewhere deep and warm inside her-perhaps that was her soul mamma always talked about- it grew like a bubble until it filled her whole torso. She rushed into her house and for the first time since the day she started walking, her legs didn’t feel the unending buzz of molecules that needed to move, her feet didn’t itch for the feeling of dry hot earth rising and falling beneath them like the tide, and her lungs didn’t ache to pump air so fresh and fast it hurt. She was completely still. The bubble in her had popped and a tingling warmth spread like molten silver and gold running through her veins to her fingers and toes. It soothed the perpetual explosion of atoms crashing inside her. She was content to stay in one place forever because her eyes were fixed on a pair of wide brown ones that reminded her a shocking amount like a doe’s. She was in every sense of the word enamored. “Would you like to say hello to your baby brother?” Her father's stentorian voice that always sounded to her like rolling thunder, came across strangely diluted as if traveling through a thick fog spanning between them. The strangeness of it was enough to shake something loose. She stepped carefully forward without the usual urgency she seemed to carry. She reached for the smooth brown face before her and did not feel the need to run.
She was eleven and chasing her brother through the path of Aleppo pines they trekked so often. An unending summer stretched before them and their excitement boiled in the merciless sun. It bubbled over into races through the wildflower patches that always ended in her letting him win, and the pair collapsing among the wavering seas of irises. It bubbled over into secrets and giggles shared lying on their backs with stars reflected in their twin sets of brown eyes. It bubbled over into her teaching him the names and stories of the constellations that burned in the sky just for them. It bubbled over into summer picnics with mama and papa, their little bungalow yawning in the distance. At night, the girl and the boy would lay on the back porch. Despite the worried whispers that floated out from their parent's room, despite their papa’s haggard face with an alarming number of new wrinkles, and despite their mother's quick change of the television channel, they would lay there and marvel at the Milky Way dusted across the night sky above them. They continued to race through their Aleppo pines with troubles barely at the frayed edges of their vision.
She was twelve and running through the streets, but she was terrified because, for the first time in her life, she didn’t recognize them. The warm skin and muscle of her childhood's backdrop had been stripped away by bombs leaving only cold metal bones, bent and broken, twisting into the bottomless dark above. The miasma of war descended on her. Bloated dead bodies and rotting flesh, acrid smoke, and copper blood. The air was dense and crushing and her brain rattled viscously in her skull, sweat ensconced her body like a shell, and fear twinged painfully in her gut. She barely bit back the urge to keel over. There was a tug at her side and then she was looking into the eyes of her brother, enamored. For just a moment the gunfire fell away, and the bombs fell away, and the screaming, and the corpses, and the blood. It all dissipated into the stifling night air because there was a smudge of blood on his cheek. His skin is too young to be stained like this, she thought. And so, she wiped it off looking for all the world like a mother at the age of twelve. She fixed one wrong in her world that had spun so far out of control that her only explanation was that the Earth’s axis had been tilted just a little too far. She knelt down and wrapped the boy's small hands in her own and strained her voice above the raucous sound of her life being torn apart, “It’s just noise Habibi, just noise.” A tear slipped out because all she wanted was for her mother to stroke her hair again and tell her that she is still little, all she wanted was her papa’s rolling thunder voice and her bungalow. But she knows her home is as barren and unrecognizable as these ones in their graveyard of broken metal, so she directs the boy's eyes to the sky, to the constellations they so love, she directs his eyes to the sky and tells him, “We have to run Habibi. It will be a race, just like always, but we have to run.”