Zayna pressed the piece of chalk deep into the warm black concrete, the chalk melting in her sweaty palm as she drew.
She was thinking of the dream she had the night before.
Ever since they arrived here, in the land of in-betweens,
littered with fabric tents – like waiting ghosts,
Zayna’s dreams were rushed,
they were whispered prayers instead of honeyed lullabies.
She always woke up bewildered, mid-thought.
But last night, Zayna had a dream that looked like one of her paintings, stars and trees and light – and the smell of spices.
Back home, she used to paint her dreams with Mama and hang her pieces in her mustard-coloured bedroom,
right by her bed, so her art were snapshots for her mind to absorb before the colors lulled her to sleep.
That was before her bedroom wall became fabric sheets that flapped in the cold night, she cannot hang up paintings on these walls.
“What walls flap?” she asked Baba the first night they were brought here. “Will they keep us safe? Walls are supposed to be strong, Baba.” Baba closed his eyes and kept rocking his leg back and forth,
his eyebrows scrunched up in thought and pain.
“I am here to keep you safe, habibti,” he said.
She kissed Baba’s scratchy cheek. She tasted dust on her lips.
He smiled weakly but couldn’t look at her – Zayna thought it was because he still had dust in his eyes from all the dirt in this valley of in-betweens. His shirt hung loosely around his thin frame,
Baba used to have a belly that her younger brother, Haroon would drum as they sat on the porch on warm Syrian evenings.
He would laugh and pull Haroon up, tickling his cheeks with his rough red beard.
The neighborhood children would gather around their porch,
always ready to taste Baba’s meals.
He was a chef, an artist of spice, and his hands were magic.
“Not magic, habibti. Baraqa. God’s blessing,” he would say,
as he leaned down to give her a kiss before continuing to cook.
The spices filled the air with warmth as Baba
crafted his dish.
Sometimes hot baklava – the dense, syrupy pistachio scent in the air,
sometimes mansaaf – the hot meat and spices melting in their mouth,
but his specialty was his warm pita fresh from the oven with olive oil and cheese, and lots and lots of zaatar.
“A dish without zaatar is missing its soul,” he would say,
smiling and singing and adding more dashes of this and sprinkles of that. Now, all he does is weep in sujud in the odd hours of the night
when Zayna is pretending to sleep.
Zayna pressed the chalk deeper
until yellow sunrises sail into the starry night – singing.
She added music notes and hummed.
She drew sailors that climbed the stars like climbing a mountain,
reaching up to the moon
and then gliding into the turquoise seas beneath.
She drew a smiling face on the man with the red beard who could cook fine dining meals in a humble kitchen of few spices and vegetables, a few pieces of meat to spare. She drew Mama and her purple scarf,
Haroon with his toy car.
They were together again.
Before the valley of ghosts, before the nights of thunder and homes in pieces, before the sadness that broke Baba.
When Mama and Haroon come back from wherever they went, Baba will be better again.
She winced in pain as her finger scraped the concrete
realized she was out of chalk,
but her dream had ended anyway.
Zayna got up and clapped her hands as the dust fell around her like a cloud.
She ignored the calls and muffled cries and the tents flapping and the strange men in uniforms
calling people to get in line for food.
She spun around and around in the cloud of dust,
the drawings became a chalky blur as her feet scuffed them into a powdery mural. The dust filled the air, cold and chalky,
But when she opened her mouth,
she swore – the dust tasted like zaatar.