We build the fire high just as the frosted fingers of dusk start to creep through the desert, the horizon unobstructed by the city skylines that once stood here.
“Is it always this cold at night?” I say. I pull one of our blankets tight around me. Not even the pile of sunbleached bricks we camp near, threaded thick with saltwort, protects us from the sharp breeze. “I thought that was just something people said.”
My mother laughs, her face made orange by the flames.
“I’d forgotten,” she says. Her left hand draws patterns in the sand, but her eyes are on me. “There’s so much I’ve forgotten.”
She takes a deep breath and I follow suit. I’m greeted by the scent of soft sand and our own sweat, of soot and spent heat.
“Doesn’t it smell like home?” she says.
“I’ve never been here before,” I say. We’re surrounded by crumbling walls that jut like shards of glass from the sand every few miles, the sound of chittering caracals in the distance. All of it pulls at fibres of me that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know ached.
She chuckles, shakes her head, as if I’ve missed some point.
She cooks beans and okra into a simple stew over the fire, tells me the same stories she always does about her childhood here among the cities that were rooted in the sand. Her voice grows wistful telling me about heat rising off the pavement. She wipes her tears away and describes how the sun shone off grand places of worship topped with generous dollops of minarets.
Despite myself, I listen in rapture. Even when I was new into my teenage years and we used to fight mercilessly, I couldn’t resist the pull of her tales. Instead of fraying, the threads she wove grew into ever more vibrant tapestries. When we’ve finished dinner, the sharp tang of sumac still on my tongue and okra seeds lodged between my teeth, we curl up close and she hands me a cup of strong tea and some dates.
“I love this one,” I say, when she starts on the story about her dad sending her to school in a potato sack because she’d dirtied her uniform after sneaking out the night before. It was one I puzzled over as a girl. I could never imagine my mother in sackcloth. The fire plays tricks with her face, and I cannot tell what’s on her mind, so I say, “Do you miss it? Here, I mean.”
She frowns, chewing on a date pip.
“Of course,” she says. “Don’t you?”
“I’ve never been here before,” I say again, the frustration sneaking into my voice. It has been a long day of travel.
She looks at me sadly. “Do you remember, when you were young, you’d ask when I would bring you here?”
“And you said, we’d go when it’s safe.” And I had believed her.
“And then the war. And then the . . . everything else. And then this.” She gestures round. Sand has covered all the scars, but the bitter taste of destruction still carries on the wind. “Don’t you miss it?”
I tear date flesh apart while I think.
“Yes,” I say. I wipe my sticky fingers on my skirt, thinking of the hope that had since hardened to dirty pebbles. “I miss thinking I had a chance to see it before they destroyed it. I miss all the memories I thought I’d make here.”
She smiles. All the time that has passed since I was a girl is in the lines around her mouth.
“The heart yearns,” she says, “not just for what it had, but for what it almost had, too.”
We make bed for the night, right by the fire, side by side.
My mother tells me that while almost no wildlife survived, there will likely be people whose voices may wake us in the night. She says to not disturb them. We’re just visitors on their land, passing through, while they make their home anew. This will always be a place she cannot shake loose, but she’s been away too long to claim any piece of it that does not exist inside her now.
“Why didn’t they leave?” I ask, my back to the fire. “When it all fell apart, I mean. It must have been so dangerous.”
“Why would they?” she says. The blankets she’s wrapped in rustle as she moves. “How could they? This place is still beautiful. As it changed, they have changed with it. We do not grow out of home, sweetheart.”
I close my eyes. It’s a struggle to imagine growing so deep into the earth that I could not be uprooted.
“In the morning,” she tells me, her voice thick with sleep, “I will take you to where our house once stood.”
“The big white house with the chickens in the back?”
She nods and I can feel the cool walls of her big white house pressed against my fingers, hear my uncles and aunties laughing round a dinner table deep within, smell the dill and lemon and sugar-sweet mint tea wafting through the tiny kitchen window with the broken latch that my older aunts and uncles use to sneak out at night.
“Just wait,” she says. I can hear the smile in her voice. “I will show you all the places you have already been.”