“Wait for me,” he’d said, “down here beneath our house. I have dug a cave for you. It will be safe. By the time your provisions are gone, I will be back.”
The desert winds blew hard and dry filling my cave with their acrid odor. Breathing became a daily chore. Still I waited, long after my dates and water were no more, but Khalifa did not return. It was then I started smashing things, mostly mirrors that had been discarded as Kuwait fled the Iraqi invasion. Why would a refugee need a mirror? What an absurdity to haul a mirror when you could hardly haul yourself, your wife and children.
The mirrors were everywhere so I began collecting them. It gave me great pleasure to watch them crack, blow by blow, like the hearts of those to whom they once belonged, now on the perilous journey to nowhere.
I will make a house of mirrors, I thought, to light their way home, to light his way home, Khalifa, my husband of many years, gone without a sound, as if some ghost had captured him. Yes, the reflection would tell him I was waiting, that I was here to salve his wounds.
It was then I heard it, a kind of moaning or weeping outside my door. I was afraid to open it for fear it was some kind of animal that might leap inside, circle the house in a rage if I didn’t feed it. But the moans gradually subsided into a kind of keening. Now, I thought, such a creature could hardly be dangerous. Pressing myself against the door, I opened it slowly, just a crack at first. And there, staring at herself in the mirrored doorway was a creature neither young nor old. Her face had been so badly burned it was difficult to tell her age. But I knew she was female because her abdomen protruded from her ragged covering as if the fetus was struggling to survive regardless of the chaos beyond.
The woman was so exhausted she could hardly stand so I scooped her into my arms and lay her on the mirrored couch which I had just completed. I tried to place a pillow beneath her head, but she refused. It seemed the hard glass suited her. I offered some lemon water. She sipped like a cat licking the drops into her mouth. Then she fell asleep.
In the morning I tried to wake her but I could not. Her mouth lay open as if she were trying to call someone for help, perhaps a loved one, perhaps me.
I went to the bathroom, wet some towels with cool water and trickled the drops onto her ravaged face, slowly, carefully so the liquid would soothe her. Gradually, she opened her eyes, regarding me as if she wasn’t sure where she was or even who.
I continued to bathe her thinking eventually the water would bring her mind back. “They took me.” She squeezed the words from her lips as if each syllable was a kind of agony.
“Who took you?”
“They took me…” she repeated again and again until the words became a silent chant. Then she started to weep in that strange animal sound that I’d heard outside my door.
“Sleep,” I said, “sleep.” A vague smile distorted her burned lips. I shuddered to think of what she must have endured. I went to the cabinet and found some expired antibiotics that I had hidden when the Iraqis stormed Kuwait City. Stripping some old sheets into bandages, I spread a layer of medication on the cloth and pressed it to her face. She did not scream as I feared she might, but succumbed to the treatment like an animal grateful to have its wounds healed.
“How did you find me?” I whispered against her blood-soaked ear.
She turned her head slightly and tried to speak, but this time no voice came. Perhaps her vocal chords have been injured, I thought, perhaps—
Just then her fingers began to move as if they were trying to tell me something. I brought a pad and pen to her but she was too tired to write. I laid it on the table beside her, saying, “Write when you are ready.”
She began to howl like a dog. It almost seemed as if she’d become part animal. I petted her crusted hair, her slumped shoulders, her scabbed arms and legs. It seemed to soothe her.
In the days that followed she would not walk, but crawled through the rubble that had become my home. She lay at the foot of my bed at night, gently snoring her animal snore. We were as comfortable on the mirrored slabs as if they were filled with down. I fed her bowls of milk from the black market that had sprung up in Kuwait’s inner city. She followed me everywhere. However, I had to put a leash on her to keep her out of trouble. She had a habit of growling at dogs and hissing at cats if they came near me. I was afraid they might hurt her as she was still recovering from her wounds. Also, the child, if that’s what it was, grew larger by the month and would soon be too heavy for her to carry along the ground without injuring it. I worried, as well, that she might cut herself on the shards of glass that flew everywhere as I worked. But she somehow avoided them. Instead she gathered the shards into sparkling piles so that I could glue the small pieces into designs on the glass chairs, couch and love seat that I was constructing in hope of Khalifa’s return. I had been an architect in our early life together but this new-found skill would surely astonish him.
We worked day and night as if in a trance. The outside world had little meaning for us. It was the mirrors we wanted, the glass house that could not be destroyed because we would rebuild it.
As the house grew larger, more refugees came. We would find them in the morning outside the front door, lying there as if dead. They had learned that trick during Iraq’s invasion. The dead game was the only game left.
Gently I would nudge them, bring them water, drag them inside where she would stroke them, lie beside them until they slept.
“Did you see him?” I always asked as soon as they woke. “Was there any sign of my husband?
“Your husband?” they would reply in a daze.
“Khalifa, Khalifa the artist?”
“There is no such person.”
“There must be.”
“If there is, he no longer answers to his name.”