Excerpt
Chapter 1
2004
On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father,
Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed,
who hadn't slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching
the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun
had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom,
looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed
him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street
before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. "Havaa, we
should go," he said, but neither moved.The snow softened around their
boots as they stared across the street to the wide patch of flattened
ash. A few orange embers hissed in pools of gray snow, but all else was
char. Not seven years earlier, Akhmed had helped Dokka build an addition
so the girl would have a room of her own. He had drawn the blueprints
and chopped the hardwood and cut it into boards and turned them into
a room; and when Dokka had promised to help him build an addition to
his own house, should he ever have a child, Akhmed had thanked his
friend and walked home, the knot in his throat unraveling into a sob
when the door closed behind him. Carrying that lumber the forty meters
from the forest had left his knuckles blistered, his underarms sopping,
but now a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken him months to
design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets,
all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky. And too were carried
the small treasures that had made Dokka's house his own. There was
the hand-carved chess set on a round sidetable; when moved, the squat
white king wobbled from side to side, like a man just sober enough
to stand, and Dokka had named his majesty Boris Yeltsin. There was
the porcelain vase adorned with Persian arabesques, and beside that a
cassette deck-radio with an antenna long enough to scrape the ceiling
when propped up on a telephone book, yet too short to reach anything but
static. There was the eighty-five-year-old Qur'an, the purple cover
writhing with calligraphy, that Dokka's grandfather had purchased in
Mecca. There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since
fire doesn't distinguish between the word of God and the word of the
Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur'an and telephone
directory returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke.The
girl's fingers braceleted his wrist. He wanted to throw her over his
shoulder and sprint northward until the forest swallowed the village,
but standing before the blackened timbers, he couldn't summon the
strength to bring a consoling word to his lips, to hold the girl's
hand in his own, to move his feet in the direction he wanted them to
go."That's my house." Her voice broke their silence and he
heard it as he would the only sound in an empty corridor."Don't
think of it like that," he said."Like what?""Like
it's still yours."He wound her bright orange scarf around
her neck and frowned at the sooty fingerprint on her cheek. He had been
awake in bed the previous night when the Feds came. First the murmur of
a diesel engine, a low rumble he'd come to fear more than gunfire,
then Russian voices. He had gone to the living room and pulled back
the blackout curtain as far as he dared. Through the triangle of glass,
headlights parted the night. Four soldiers, stocky, well fed, emerged
from the truck. One drank from a vodka bottle and cursed the snow each
time he stumbled. This soldier's grandfather had told him, the
morning the soldier reported to the Vladivostok conscription center,
that he would have perished in Stalingrad if not for the numbing grace
of vodka; the soldier, whose cheeks were divoted from years of applying
toothpaste to his adolescent acne, believed Chechnya to be a worse war
than Stalingrad, and rationed his vodka accordingly. From his living
room Akhmed wanted to shout, beat a drum, set off a flare. But across
the street, they had already reached Dokka's door and he didn't
even look to the phone that was without a pulse for ten years now. They
knocked on the door once, twice, then kicked it down. Through the doorway,
Akhmed watched torchlight move across the walls. So passed the longest
two minutes of Akhmed's life until the soldiers reappeared in the
doorway with Dokka. The duct tape strip across his mouth wrinkled with
his muted screams. They pulled a black hood over his head. Where was
Havaa? Sweat formed on Akhmed's forehead. His hands felt impossibly
heavy. When the soldiers grabbed Dokka by the shoulders and belt, tumbling
him into the back of the truck and slamming the door, the relief falling
over Akhmed was quickly peeled back by self-loathing, because he was
alive, safe in his living room, while in the truck across the street,
not twenty meters away, Dokka was a dead man. The designation 02 was
stenciled above the truck bumper in white paint, meaning it belonged to
the Interior Ministry, meaning there would be no record of the arrest,
meaning Dokka had never officially been taken, meaning he would never
come back. "Where's the girl?" the soldiers asked one
another. "She's not here." "What if she's hiding
beneath the floorboards?" "She's not." "Take
care of it just in case." The drunken soldier uncapped a petrol jug
and stumbled into Dokka's house; when he returned to the threshold,
he tossed a match behind him and closed the door. Flames clawed their
way up the front curtains. The glass panes puddled on the sill. Where
was Havaa? When the truck finally left, the fire had spread to the
walls and roof. Akhmed waited until the taillights had shrunk to the
size of cherries before crossing the street. Running a wide circle
around the flames, he entered the forest behind the house. His boots
broke the frigid undergrowth and he could have counted the rings of tree
stumps by the firelight. Behind the house, hiding among the trees, the
girl's face flickered. Streaks of pale skin began under her eyes,
striping the ash on her cheeks. "Havaa," he called out. She
sat on a suitcase and didn't respond to her name. He held her
like a bundle of loose sticks in his arms, carried her to his house
and with a damp towel wiped the ash from her forehead. He tucked her
in bed beside his invalid wife and didn't know what to do next. He
could have gone back outside and thrown snowballs at the burning house,
or lain in bed so the girl would feel the warmth of two grown bodies, or
performed his ablutions and prostrated himself, but he had completed the
isha'a hours earlier and if five daily prayers hadn't spared
Dokka's house, a sixth wouldn't put out the flames. Instead
he went to the living room window, drew open the blackout curtains,
and watched the house he had helped build disappear into light. And
now, in the morning, as he tightened the orange scarf around her neck,
he found a fingerprint on the girl's cheek, and, because it could
have been Dokka's, he left it."Where are we going?" she
asked. She stood in the frozen furrow of the previous night's tire
tracks. The snow stretched on either side. Akhmed hadn't prepared
for this. He couldn't imagine why the Feds would want Dokka, much
less the girl. She stood no taller than his stomach and weighed no more
than a basket of firewood, but to Akhmed she seemed an immense and
overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail."We're
going to the city hospital," he said, with what he hoped was
an assertive tone."Why?""Because the hospital is
safe. It's where people go when they need help. And I know someone
there, another doctor," he said, though all he knew of her was
her name. "She'll help.""How?""I'm
going to ask if you can stay with her." What was he saying? Like
most of his plans, this one seemed so robust in his mind but fell like
a flightless bird when released to
(Continues...)