This past June, days after the Supreme Court lifted legal blocks on President Trump’s Muslim Ban save those with “bona fide relationships” to the United States, we asked writers to imagine creative openings and counter narratives as to what a bona fide relationship might be. The following story by Moez Surani is the first in a series of stories and poems published on The Margins that create new narratives and futures in response to the Muslim Ban. Keep up with the series and read more here.
After her husband died, my grandmother flew across the ocean and lived with us in our Toronto home.
I found I no longer had time alone. Her reticent presence was always in the room with me, supervising my self-involved games. She watched me build imaginary cities and destroy them with a toy that wasn’t part of the same set. While I whispered the narration of it all to myself, I glanced up to see if she was listening. I was never allowed to close my bedroom door and island myself away. And whether it was my colorful bedroom with the painted clouds and stars, the enormous hallway, or the stuffy sitting room downstairs, she would find me and anchor herself in the largest chair.
During dinners my parents were a go-between. They tried to teach me words from the language my grandmother brought with her, but I learned nothing. My little tongue couldn’t grasp those sounds. My parents would pass me different dinner items and repeat their name but my thoughts weren’t even at the table with them, but with my toys and their Manichean plots.
Through that fall and winter, my grandmother built up her store of English so we could have the briefest of conversations. At our lonely lunches, when my parents were away at work, we traded single-word phrases.
At night, I would lie under my covers until I had the courage to quietly climb from my bed and balance my weight down all of those wooden stairs, until I was in the sitting room again with my toys that my mother would not let me bring to my room at night. I pushed my toy truck around. It drove up onto the couch and over a coffee table and up the drapes as far as I could reach and across them.
Occasionally, my father would come down the stairs, creaking the wooden boards with his size, and I would freeze and then find a hiding place for myself. Like me, some nights he couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want him to catch me and end my illicit play so I crouched behind the sofa, holding my truck, or else still quietly playing behind a pair of potted plants.
In the winter of that year, my grandmother’s coughing lured me to the door of her bedroom. I heard her cough and cough and even when she was not coughing I could hear her harsh breathing. It sounded like her throat was cluttered up with layers of leaves. I looked down the hallway to my parents’ room while holding my own small throat, wanting to wake them so they could give her the syrups and medicines.
During the day, when my grandmother would find me and sit with me, I moved my activities closer and closer to her. She was no longer so foreign, and I wasn’t so afraid. I built my whimsical cities near her feet. One day, when she was sitting in the armchair with a blanket she leaned forward and said, “Airport,” and I showed her, holding the piece up for her, and she repeated, “Airport.” We ate our lunches. All through winter, she learned words, one day saying, “Store” and another day saying, “School” and I would hold the piece up for her and then put it back down in its rightful place. Soon, I thought, we would be able to talk.
At night, when no one else was awake to hear her, I listened to her coughing that filled our hallway and bothered me in the sitting room. I stared down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom where they slept, unaware of her anguish.
One morning while she was sitting in her chair, I watched her body shake with coughs. She leaned off the chair and swallowed water then smiled. Unsure of what to do, I pushed my truck over her feet and sat on my knees looking up at her.
That spring, while we were eating breakfast, I stood up on my chair and looked out of the window. I pointed to the soil. She couldn’t understand what I was saying. Using the table to help herself up, my grandmother came over to my side so she could see. “Beaks!” I said, pointing to them. “Beaks,” she repeated roughly. Standing on my wooden breakfast chair, I stared at the green, pointy beaks that were emerging from the dark soil that my parents carefully tended that year and I remembered all of the birds that winter made me miss.
“Why are there beaks?” I asked.
“Summer,” she said.
“But why are all of the birds underground?”
She shook her head without understanding me. “Beaks,” she repeated.
Each morning, I would eat kneeling on my chair, staring at the green beaks of birds that were emerging from the soil in our front yard. “Why are the birds under the ground?” I asked again, loudly this time, hoping she could understand.
“Sleeping,” she replied. “They sleep.”
“And now they come out?”
“Now they come out,” she said again, nodding. “Sleep in winter. Come out in summer.”
I ventured out one morning and, from the lawn, I stared at all of the green beaks. I tried to count all of them but there were more buried, slumbering birds in our garden than I knew numbers for. And I remembered how in winter they left us and the air was so quiet and empty. I stood rapt on our driveway until my grandmother would hold the door open, barking for me until I came running inside. At lunches too I left the house and looked at them. I slowly reached with my hand one day when I escaped outside, wanting to touch one, but the door flung open and I jerked my truant arm back to my side. She called and waved for me.
Inside, I turned my box of toys upside down and spread them over the carpet. I asked, but even on that sunny April day she wouldn’t let me play outside near those growing birds. When she pushed off from the chair with both her large arms and felt her way along the wall for the washroom I knew it was my moment.
I unlocked the heavy door and ran outside in my socks, and reaching slowly with my whole arm I touched the tip of the green beak and it didn’t bite me. I looked at it. I looked at all of them. They were sleeping under the ground and waiting to fly into the sky and sit on all the branches and wires like I saw them do all summer and fill that air with their endlessly burbling songs. I loved them. When she came out of the washroom and followed the wall and fell back into the blue chair, I was back in the sitting room playing as if I had never left. I glanced up at her to see if she knew what I had done, but her eyes were shut and she looked at peace.
One breakfast, I stood on my chair and looked out of the kitchen window. I saw all of the long green beaks that breathed the air into their underground stomachs all over the soil where I left them, except for one. I pointed at it. My grandmother got up from her side, heaving herself with the help of the weak wooden table, and came over to me.
With my finger against the cool window, I pointed at the red flower. “What happened?” I asked with distress. “What happened?” And I felt pinched with the apprehension of her answer. “What happened to the bird?” My grandmother wouldn’t respond. “What happened,” I said jabbing at the window. From single words, she cobbled a sentence.
“It die,” she told me, “and become flower.”
And I said “No!” and banged on the window. “No, no, no,” I cried and banged my hand on the table as she turned me forcefully from the window and pushed me from the kitchen and into the sitting room where I cried and banged my hands on the carpet, and repeated, “No, no…”
Late that night, I unlocked the front door and stood outside. I tugged that one stem from the soil, tore it into pieces and stood there not knowing where to put it, so I ran around the house and pushed my hand deep into a hedge and left the tattered flower there and ran back for the safety of the house. I stopped near the place I had pulled the stem from and I overturned a handful of the sacred dirt. I thought of all the birds nestled snugly together under the soil and the songs they would sing and of the summer and what we would all do and I thought also of their one dead friend who rested somewhere under the soil with them, just below my helping hand, and I climbed slowly up the stairs, and I rested too.
The following morning, I ate my breakfast with my legs swinging. “We can play outside?” I asked. My grandmother shook her head. I walked my plate to the counter and skipping into the sitting room, I spread all of the toys over the carpet. I sat with her all morning, talking to myself in sing-song until she said, “Post,” and I proudly held up my post office piece for her. I pushed my truck over the couch.
That night at dinner, when it was the four of us, and when my mother had her back turned, I stood up on my chair and I saw that one of the beaks was becoming red. I looked at that hateful flower and couldn’t help crying. I pushed my mother’s hands off me. I got up on my chair, and saw it again then I leapt from my chair—she tried to grapple for me—but I scrambled past her and out the door. My father came after me and hoisted me from the garden where I dug with my hands at the dreadful soil trying to let all of those poor, smothered birds free. I sobbed in his arms and banged my hands on his shoulders.
That night after they were all asleep, I was back in our front garden. I dug through the wet soil, helping them, loosening the birds’ escape. I was careful not to harm the beaks and careful with how I kneeled and where, but I dug around them, so their flight could be easier. I sat there on my knees clawing at that tougher, deeper soil, until I heard a scream and I turned and screamed at my father’s face and I leaned back from him and backpedaled from him and evaded but he corralled me firmly and brought me inside and thrust me under the kitchen tap, holding me and washing both my hands clean.
He sat in my room with me, looking concerned in my child’s chair, and when I woke in the morning he wasn’t there and my grandmother watched me during breakfast after we reversed seats. From that new vantage point, I couldn’t see the garden but I saw a school bus come.
That night my parents scrutinized me. And my father sat in my room again until I slept. I peeked at him while I tried to imitate sleep and he looked back at me and asked me to sleep. It happened like this for a few days. Me eating my meals on my grandmother’s usual side in the morning and at lunch and at dinner sitting in my old spot, and my father sitting in my room with me at night after my mother read stories to me and I climbed all over her lap, then her bathing me and afterwards me trying to trick my father with my sleep but waking each morning and discovering that I had slept through the whole long night. I woke and found my grandmother and showed her the new box that my parents bought me with the pieces that joined together so I could make huge, new creations. I emptied it all out onto the floor and was so engrossed my grandmother had to pull me by my shirt so I would leave my construction and eat lunch. I made a building that my truck went around. And then I put my rocket on top of the building, and playing there while I sat on my grandmother’s feet, I pushed the truck around the building and when it was ready I blasted it off and rose with it and turned around and put it on my grandmother’s knee.
“Spaceship,” I said.
“Spaceship,” she repeated.
And then I said “truck,” and then “building,” and she repeated those words. And then I said, “hair, watch, carpet, blanket.” I couldn’t imagine spending those days without her.
That night at dinner, I talked about my new toy set and what I had built. When my mother wasn’t looking, I reached for a potato that was hot then dropped it back onto the foil and my mother turned and I stared innocently at them. She brought a bowl of vegetables to the table, then the tray of potatoes, and then she opened the oven and I jumped up and stood behind her legs and felt the oven’s thick air unfurl over me. She pulled the tray of chicken out from the heat and lay it on the stove and closed the door and I stood there smelling it. She lifted them one by one onto a silver tray then put them on the table.
After dinner, I helped by carrying the bowls and cups one by one to the counter. My father carried all of the plates stacked together with one hand and the heavy chicken tray in the other. I stood near the oven and watched him carry it. Standing over the table, my mother scooped out a dish of cut up and spiced apples that I ate up two of and my father ate two of and my mother and grandmother had one. And my mother stacked the little bowls up and I said I would carry the dish back to the counter. She watched me lift it and I could. She went to the counter with the bowls and I came around the table and lifted it and my grandmother sat while my dad got up and took all of the leftover dinner things into his hands to put back in cupboards and drawers or the sink. I lifted the dish into the air and turned and saw them talking at the counter. I remembered something and, because I was curious, I climbed up onto my old chair and looked out of the window and shrieked. My hands went into my hair—the heavy dish fell—and my parents turned from the counter. I stood there screaming at all of the flowers. I unlocked the front door and was in the front yard, pulling them all up, stomping on them and crying. I escaped my father’s arms and trampled on some more but he pulled me away before I could get them all and I pushed against his chest and screamed and covered my eyes and screamed into his neck.
He stood there with me in his arms, whispering to me, and directing my chin, he tried to make me look at the hateful petals. He calmed me down until I was just sad then I turned and looked at all of them. They were red and orange and yellow. Masses of them, covering the soil beneath our window. They taunted me. All of my grandmother’s birds had died. Why? What for? And what good was the hateful beauty?
Holding my arms under the faucet, my father scrubbed my hands, soaping them and trying to get the dirt from my nails. Then he set me on the floor and patted my hands dry. I sat in my room with my parents without wanting to listen to their explanation and I looked dejectedly at everything in the room except for them.
And my daytime play was dull. With my head on my knee, I built my usual city. I put all of the pieces where I liked them then stared at it. Down the creaking stairs came my grandmother. She sat in her usual chair and in her hoarse voice she immediately said, “Spaceship.” I gave it to her and got up and went up to my bedroom. I heard my grandmother coming up the stairs after me, pulling herself up with the handrail that made noise because of her immense weight and I got up and went to the washroom. I washed my hands and opened the bathroom door and went into my room. She was on my bed with her blanket over her lap. My grandmother reached her arm out so I gave her the book I was drawing in and left the room and heard her asking what it was but I no longer wanted to talk to her.
Alone in the sitting room, I started over, knocking all of the stacked things aside with my arm and I built a new city. My grandmother came down the stairs and went into the kitchen. I watched her pass and listened to her in the kitchen until she called me and I obeyed and sat dutifully at the table and ate lunch.
The mail clunked in our mailbox outside. The mailman thumped away.
I carried my empty dish to the counter and washed my hands. My grandmother washed the dishes then came into the sitting room and looked at my huge city and asked me nothing. I looked for my truck. I checked under the couch then ran upstairs and turned the light on in the washroom too and looked and went downstairs and looked in the kitchen. As my grandmother got up to help me find it her blanket brushed over my city and scattered the many light pieces. She sat back down and tried to put them back. I watched her shaking fingers trying to fit the pieces in without moving the roads. She held the pieces out for me with a feeble expression.
I lay in bed that night listening to my grandmother’s snoring. It was as though there wasn’t enough air for her in our whole house. I turned over but could still hear it. I lay in my room with the door open and the light peeping in until I got up and, stepping so quietly across the floor and using both of my hands, I turned the golden doorknob and closed my door on her.
In the morning, I wouldn’t play in the same room as her. I found reasons to leave whichever room she discovered me in. She would follow me once or twice then give up and sit with her blanket in the armchair listening to her tumbling, ribbon-like music.
She called me for lunch. I didn’t raise my eyes to hers. I ate slowly until I pushed it out of my way then jumped and carried it to the counter and ran out of the kitchen. She stood at the sink, washing each dish one by one. Even the forks and spoons and knives, one by one, under the warm water. After she washed the dishes and set them to dry, she went back to her comfortable chair, rewound the tape and listened to the same music. Her afternoon’s coughing jarred me from my play and made me think of her sitting there, alone, surrounded by her anthems.
In those weeks before she died, I was cold with her. I evaded her, felt deceived by her, would not talk to her, and blamed her for my sorrow. I would hear her when she coughed, but after a minute or two I forgot all that noise and I talked and sang over it and sunk into my own fantastic realm. Silently vengeful, even then, when I was young, I let her sit and be sick in that room by herself.
The Bona Fide Relationships Portfolio was published with support from the David Rockefeller Fund and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.