It was agreed we would meet by the entrance to the park, where a young Mexican stood on weekends, wearing a sombrero, selling packaged ice cream. Mother, who was two months pregnant, was going to see a doctor, after which we were meant to shop for summer clothes. It was one day before Ramadan, three years after my family’s arrival from Saudi Arabia. Father, who owned a Halal butcher shop in Montreal North, had closed up for the holy month, much of which he would spend in prayer. That Saturday morning, though, he was only going to the bank and the barber’s, and so got talked into letting me tag along. I was six years old.
The spring day on which I was left in Father’s charge promised to be a perfectly ordinary one. It had rained all night but the morning was mild and sunny, with the sharp, almost painful, brightness that follows a stormy night. Father was holding my hand.
“Watch out, don’t get your shoes wet!”
We were walking past the vast park, dodging rain puddles. The air was fragrant with the scent of rain-soaked earth and flowering lilac. It was a windy morning. Every now and then, a gust would rise and Father, dressed in light corduroys and a sweatshirt emblazoned with a palm tree, would raise his hand to keep his kufi down.
There was a long row of whispering trees all along the park and, on the other side, several neighborhood stores: bakery, supermarket, pharmacy—and the barbershop we were heading for. I was skipping happily in my new red shoes, anticipating the singular privilege of watching my father get a haircut. Mother was the one who usually cut our hair, but Father had been disgruntled with her last effort and decided to try an Iraqi barber who had set up shop in the neighborhood.
I had never been to a barbershop before but had once or twice passed this new one while shopping with my mother. Although she still wore a niqab in those days, Mother went out daily to shop for food and, twice a week, to the government-sponsored French classes taught by our next-door neighbor. The school was in our own neighborhood, as was the new clinic where Mother had an appointment that day. Among the doctors was a young Pakistani woman, so Mother was permitted to go on her own, hoping to avoid exposing me to germs.
In the barbershop, an elderly man was seated in a large vinyl chair, head thrown back, scrawny throat drawn taut. He was about to be shaven but as we came in, the barber paused, nodded in our direction, and gave Father a long, appraising look.
My father was a slender, light-skinned Saudi with a dark beard and large hazel eyes. I was often told I resembled him rather than my beautiful mother, who had nutmeg-hued skin and dark, sleepy eyes. The barber—a hulking, big-bellied man—was holding a knife-like instrument to the throat of his elderly customer. He had on a short white jacket, much like one worn by the pediatrician who had given me a painful vaccine, leaving my arm swollen for days. Another man was sitting in the corner, invisible behind an open newspaper.
“Baba – I don’t want to stay here.”
Father, who had just hung his jacket, turned and stared down at me from beneath bushy eyebrows. “Eh?”
“I want to leave, Baba.”
“Leave! Didn’t you say you wanted to see me get a haircut?”
“Yes, but…I don’t want to anymore. I want to go home!”
“But why?” Father bent down, peering into my face. “What’s the matter, Malak?”
“Nothing.” The man in the barber’s chair seemed to be in a deep sleep beneath the protective black cape. “I just don’t want to stay here,” I whispered.
Father rubbed the back of his neck, as if testing for perspiration. “But I have to get my hair cut, you know. Ramadan starts tomorrow.”
When this failed to sway me, Father’s lips tightened; he turned his head sideways and drew a forbearing breath. “What’s wrong with you suddenly?”
“Nothing.” I said I would wait outside; it was a nice day, I hastened to add. Mother would never have agreed, but Father, untutored in the ways of children, finally sighed and let the barber move one of the waiting chairs outdoors. He set it next to the entrance, then pulled a red lollipop out of a side pocket.
“For you,” said the barber. He was smiling now.
“Sit here and don’t budge,” Father said sternly. He paused, still looking vaguely doubtful, casting a quick look up and down the street. “Call me if anyone bothers you.”
“Okay, Baba.” I unwrapped my unexpected treat. It tasted like strawberries. Father followed the barber back into the shop. He said something I did not understand.
I sat in the vinyl chair, licking my lollipop, watching shopping women and elderly men trotting toward the park, hands clasped behind their backs. The old men glanced my way and smiled vaguely; the women hurried on, bearing bulging bags, a child or two in tow. From time to time, I turned to look into the barbershop and saw Father waiting across from the wall of mirrors, absorbed in conversation with the other customer.
It was noisy on the street, what with the clamor of car horns, chattering children, buses trundling by. A few feet away, a girl my own age was chasing a younger, fair-haired boy outside the pharmacy. They ran about, squealing, stopping to watch a flower-bedecked hearse go by, followed by a long row of sluggish cars. Then a caleche turned the corner, drawn by a plodding grey horse. Suddenly, the tow-haired boy burst into shrieks of laughter. He was pointing at the road, where the horse’s droppings were falling one by one, dry yellow lumps onto grey asphalt.
A young woman in a denim hat emerged from the pharmacy, shooing the children on, while a sudden flurry blew her skirt above her knees. The little girl was quick to pat her mother’s skirt into place. She said something and laughed, then glanced back over her shoulder and, meeting my curious gaze, stuck her tongue out.
After a while, I rose and stood contemplating my own reflection in the barbershop window. I was wearing pink leggings and a matching top, my curly hair hidden by a red Mickey Mouse hat. Father was at last sitting in the barber’s chair. It was somehow reassuring to watch the familiar dark bits of hair fall onto the floor, but the silver scissors, flashing around Father’s lowered head, stirred up some of my former anxiety. I was still peering through the window when a sudden ruckus made me wheel around.
A McDonald’s clown was coming my way on stilts, trailed by a pack of children. The clown was clutching a large bouquet of colorful balloons. The children kept laughing. A small white dog was romping along, furiously wagging its tail.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle!” The clown had stopped directly in front of me. He bowed theatrically from the waist, eliciting cackles.
All this made me smile a little and drop my chin to my chest. I had, just that year, started first grade at the local French school. I could have easily answered the clown’s greeting but didn’t.
“I said bonjour!” said the clown, tugging at one of my Mickey Mouse ears. The note of faux malice sparked up a fresh peal of laughter. I, too, giggled and finally raised my gaze. A pair of small blue eyes stared back at me from within the chalky white face paint. The little dog was eagerly sniffing my feet.
“Bonjour,” I let out at length.
The clown chortled. “And what are you doing here all alone at a barbershop?”
“I’m…waiting for my father.”
“Are you now?” The clown stepped closer to the window and peered ostentatiously into the neon-lit shop. The barber was standing with his back to the street, bent over Father’s head. “And who is your father?”
“Hassan Yusuf Mohamed.”
“Mohamed, eh?” The clown put his hand to his brow, as if summoning all his mental powers. The children, who had tittered on hearing my name, laughed some more. “Don’t believe we’ve met!” said the clown. “Here’s a balloon anyway.” He grinned at me with his large painted mouth. “Au revoir, Mademoiselle – and don’t talk to any strangers!”
The last bit of counsel elicited a final burst of glee from the pack of children, and nods of agreement from two passing mothers. My own mother had issued similar warnings on more than one occasion. I was a timid child, but an intensely curious one, liable to wander off on my own. Having been punished for straying just before Christmas, I had made a promise, never expecting my resolve to be tested by a clown on stilts and a friendly dog.
While father sat, oblivious, getting his hair cut and his beard trimmed, I rose and took a few tentative steps away from the barber shop. The prancing children continued down the street along with the dog, their balloons bobbing above them. I followed gingerly, clutching my own pink balloon, still sucking on the lollipop. I had just passed three or four shops when another gust of wind rose, blowing dust in my face. This stopped me. I shut my eyes tight, and rubbed and rubbed, until the tears washed out the blinding dust. When my vision cleared, I noticed that the distance between me and the frolicking pack had widened. The clown was by now approaching the corner. I told myself I would stand by the bakery and watch from a distance.
And then the flaring wind blew my hat off my head and onto the sidewalk. It lay there, tossed against a lamp post, until I bent over and reached out to pluck it. At that moment, as if under the spell of some impish spirit, the hat rose again and, briefly spinning, landed farther down the wind-swept street. Once more I reached for it; once more the hat eluded me.
By the time this had been re-enacted several times, I was almost a block away from the corner that was to have been my boundary. My red Mickey Mouse hat was now lying in the middle of the road, directly in the path of a quickly approaching bus.
I burst into hiccupping sobs but, at the last possible moment, a merciful gust carried my hat across the street toward a large office building with a multitude of windows. It was where Mother had her weekly French classes. Could I cross the street on my own? I stood frozen on the curb, sniffling, fighting the urge to pee.
Suddenly, there were strangers looming above me; two large, thick-necked women with pale, tightly curled hair and red mouths pursed in solicitude. Dressed alike in sweats and white running shoes, they might have been twins, except for the color of their eyes.
“What’s the matter, little girl?” The green-eyed matron was leaning toward me, speaking in French.
“I – you see. My – ” I wanted to say that I was prone to earaches and needed to have my head covered on windy days; that I’d never had a Mickey Mouse hat before. Then I remembered I was not supposed to speak to strangers.
“Oh, don’t cry, little girl!” The second woman’s eyes were a pale, washed-out blue. “Where’s your Mama, tell us?”
I went on crying, shrinking back when a third woman reached out to stroke my hair. “Such a pretty little girl. Tell us where your Mama is. Tell us and we’ll take you to her.”
I did not answer. My eyes kept straying toward the lamp post where I had last seen my hat.
It was no longer there, but my tears were beginning to attract a crowd. I was vaguely aware of questions and exclamations; of the two matrons suddenly acting with the fierce authority of a pair charged with some vital assignment.
“We found her right here, crying,” one of them was saying. “All alone and – “
“She doesn’t even know where her mother is,” the second one chimed in.
There were vaguely solicitous sounds from the swelling crowd.
“Imagine leaving a child that age unattended,” someone said behind me.
“I never let my son out of my sight. Not the way things have been going lately.”
“But where could her mother be?” This was a new, gentler voice. “She must be in one of the shops. Maybe we should look?”
“The things you hear on TV these days. What’s the world coming to, I ask you?”
At that moment I spotted Mother.
She was coming down the street, niqab flaring, dark eyes flashing through the narrow black slits. “Malak!” she called out. “Malak!” Her arm was raised, as if to hail a taxi or ward off a blow. She was running toward us, shouting in her accented French. “That’s my child! That’s my little girl!”
I had stopped crying. The crowd, too, had fallen abruptly silent. We all stood and watched the tall, black-clad figure make her way toward us like a great swooping bat, while we – the crowd and I – all stood transfixed, speechless. Still hiccupping, I let go of my balloon and watched it float away, all but hitting the roof of a passing bus. The word Mama remained lodged in my throat. I felt rooted to the sidewalk, silenced by the crowd’s baffling hostility. As Mother approached, I could see beads of perspiration on her exposed forehead, a single tear sliding out of the corner of one eye.
The two matrons deposited themselves directly in front of her, blocking my view with the staunch finality of a slamming door.
“This is not a black child!”
“But she is my child!” Mother cried. “Ask her! Why don’t you ask her? Malak!”
My lips parted to speak. I was aware of Mother’s frenzied efforts to get around the two hefty women; of the crowd’s confused mutterings.
“Oh, go on with you!” A tall, balding pensioner turned to Mother with the look of someone who had just bitten into something sour. “We’ve heard of the likes of you! What are you doing here anyway? Out to kidnap our children and make soldiers of them?”
“Malak!” Mother tried to elbow her way toward me, stopped by the loud-mouthed pensioner, who had managed to grab her flaring niqab.
“Get lost, you black witch! Go, before the police get here!”
The word police, as much as the sight of Mother’s torn niqab, at last unblocked my constricted throat. “Mama! Mama!”
But the crowd, all fired up now, was deaf to my cries. They went on arguing with each other, hurling half-hearted abuse. Who knows how all this would have ended had it not been for a familiar voice rising above the hubbub
“Rasha!” It was my mother’s Arabic name.
Wheeling about, I saw Nadia, our Moroccan neighbor, bustling across the street amid crawling cars, a hand sweeping a strand of hair away from her eyes. “Leave her alone!” she yelled. “Leave the poor woman alone!”
Fresh tears flooded my eyes. The crowd, for the second time, lapsed into sullen silence. They watched, grim-faced, as Nadia trotted toward us on her high heels, her suede handbag swinging from her bare arm. Our neighbor was a Moslem woman my own mother’s age, but she lived with a Quebecois musician and wore western clothes. The green-eyed matron gave her the once-over.
“Is this your child?”
“I’m their French teacher,” Nadia stated flatly. She took a step toward me, shooting a glance in my mother’s direction. Mother was struggling with a man bent on preventing her from getting hold of me.
“You don’t say!” The two matrons stood staring at Nadia, looking undecided. She might be a foreigner but she was clearly a woman who could not easily be trifled with. And she spoke perfect French. “This is not a black child, is it?”
“She – “ Nadia hesitated for the briefest moment. “What business is it of yours anyway?” she snapped, shoving her way toward me. There was a stunned silence, then, all at once, the crowd shrank back, muttering amongst themselves. Another moment and they all began to shuffle away, looking vaguely abashed, like a pack of reprimanded children.
But these perceptions are, perhaps, sharper in recollection than they were to my child’s eye. At the time, flinging myself against Mother, I was above all aware of my urine-soaked leggings. And then of something else. which was that Nadia, whom my mother had until then kept at arm’s length, suddenly and immeasurably gained in stature. It was the beginning of an unlikely friendship with my reclusive mother, who was destined to lose her unborn child that week and, barely two years later, be divorced by my intransigent father.
Not that there was, as the three of us trudged away, anything to hint at what lay ahead. Mother was crying with apparent relief, while Nadia looked exactly as she did when the owner of the local convenience store tried to cheat, or when she came upon the janitor’s two sons engaged in a fistfight. Her glossy lips were set tightly, her crayoned eyes a shade or two darker. She reached for Mother’s shaky fingers.
“Riffraff!” she spat out, speaking Arabic. “Nothing but stupid riffraff, my friend!”
Irena Karafilly is an award-winning writer, poet, and aphorist. She is the author of several acclaimed books and of numerous stories, poems, and articles, published in both literary and consumer magazines, as well as in various North American newspapers, including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Her short stories have been widely published, anthologized, and broadcast, winning literary prizes such as the CBC Literary Award and the National Magazine Award. She currently divides her time between Montreal and Greece.
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