Jahan arrives as footsteps, the sound of worn leather chappals slapping against the wood floors of the corridor to his study.
This is new. Usually, he is shadowed against his trees or his now-empty bee house.
It’s early January, and Jahan’s raised vegetable beds are under a foot of fresh snow.
I sit down on the red and black checkered rug outside the closed study door and describe to Jahan the turquoise and red kingfisher Agra had posted on her blog. I don’t know if he visits our daughter.
Agra’s photo captures something peaceful, I tell him: morning light filtered through wintery clouds, woods slightly out of focus, the bottle-green edge of a lake, breakfast laced with jaggery.
She’s doing well, I tell him. She’s well.
By that January, I am already circling the idea of leaving my job as the receptionist and manager at Brookside Dental. There was no one reason for it. Dr. Nathan was going to retire in a year; I had been there twenty-two years. It seemed the right time.
By April, while scraping ice off my car, I am sure, and as I tap my brakes to a stop in the still-icy parking lot of the office, I wonder if the world would remain permanently stuck on freeze.
In between patients that day, I surf websites for earrings for Agra’s birthday in September. Lisa, the new dental hygienist, says that I don’t look old enough to have a daughter almost thirty. She’s twenty-five but looks older.
One earring catches my attention, the design a mix between a dreamcatcher and a jhumpka with green and red filigreed enamel work. “They’re not my style,” Lisa says, checking out the earrings over my shoulder.
In the waiting room, someone switches the TV channel to the local news, and a story drifts through about a terror cell that has been disrupted and a man taken into custody.
I show Lisa a photo of Agra on my phone. I took it five years ago at a celebration dinner for her master’s thesis defense. My daughter is dressed in a pink chiffon top that matches her silver-threaded pink hijab, and she’s cutting a cupcake with a single candle while her father looks on. Neither is posing for the camera, and even though the photo is grainy and the shot mostly dark, I had managed to catch them both in a moment of laughter I would not see again.
“Is Agra back then?” Dr. Nathan asks, walking in with a patient’s file. “She’s been gone a while now, hasn’t she? Has it been a year already?”
“No,” I say. “Two in May.”
At home that night I press “like” on a story posted by Agra’s friend Rachel about an Israeli army unit demolishing homes in a West Bank town. Two photos accompany the story: one of Caterpillar bulldozers, claw arms raised up against makeshift brick homes flanked by armed Israeli military and settlers; another of a barefoot child, snot caking his nose, standing expressionless among the rubble of his home. Across from him an old man sobs into his keffiyeh.
I imagine how Jahan would have reacted to coming home to our house demolished. He would have sunk like the keffiyehed man, down onto the rubble, and sobbed.
Agra would have thrown stones at the soldiers.
What would I have done?
Agra leaves a comment within the hour, and that surprises me; she’s so rarely online these days. “How are we not horrified that this is happening right now in real life in real time?”
“Right?” Rachel responds. “Are you following the Zayaad case, btw?”
“Kind of. Not really. I’m immersed in folk songs and lousy internet service here.”
“Crazy to see our town on the national news. Something’s off about this case though.”
“What else is new?”
I “like” Agra’s comments even though I don’t. Rachel’s page is public.
These days, after work and often late into the evening, I scroll through the news on my smartphone, standing in the kitchen, reading updates on the Irvine 11 case and that Ethnic Studies Arab professor denied tenure, occasionally pausing to take a bite of boiled egg and toast by the sink.
In a private message I tell Agra to “post photos of Bangladesh instead. Like that gorgeous mynah, that gold-crested one in the mangroves. Post fishermen casting nets.” Who’ll give you a tenure-track if other things—the wrong things—show up on you on Google, I want to add, but I don’t.
She replies instantaneously. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. While I have you online: I’ll be heading south to the Bay to check out your property. This is what I know so far from the paperwork I’ve tracked down: You’ve inherited about two acres. There’s a house on that land, built by your grandmother’s grandfather. Your grandmother first left it to an unmarried niece to then pass on to you. Most impressive part is the meticulous paperwork your grandmother left to make sure you eventually got the land. Did you know all this?”
I shook my head as I wrote back. “The first I heard of this property was last year when Rasul called. Nani died so long ago—forty years now, I think. It feels so strange to hear from her from another lifetime. But why are you headed there?”
“I put ads in papers listing the sale, like you’d asked. Then I thought I’d check the place out as well. It’s been in our family for at least four generations. All that history.”
“How will you get there? I don’t want you taking buses and trains.”
“How do you think I get around here?”
“What about all those bus rapes though?”
“One rape. And I’m not in Delhi.”
“How will you know to even find the place? There’s nobody of ours left there anyway.”
I imagined her sighing. “I know how to navigate around here,” she types swiftly, “I’ve been here forever.”
Two years ago, Agra dropped out of her doctoral program after finishing her second year to spend what originally was to be a six-month stint in the Kushtia region of Bangladesh researching the Bangla mystic poet Lalon Shah, whose songs filled our house on Sundays as Jahan made chappati, omelets, and green beans bhaaji for breakfast.
Agra set up a travel blog soon after arriving in Bangladesh. At first, she posted photos related to the poet every couple of weeks, mostly of music festivals or of late-night performances of his poetry: musicians with long hair and beards in white or saffron robes on make-shift platforms playing do-tara to rows of devotees sitting on jute mats eating puffed rice drenched in mustard oil and chilies out of cones made of newspaper.
In her rare personal entries, she posted meals of rice, fish, and chili pepper or panoramic shots of yellow mustard fields against grey intertwining rivers flanked by palm trees.
Soon the frequency of those entries faded, and she went for weeks without a word. Unlike in America, in Bangladesh Agra went weeks without logging into her email or other accounts. She occasionally mentioned coming back to visit me, but then never quite got around to buying a plane ticket.
I left her alone, instead tracking her online presence for vestiges of her life there.
It’s May when Agra posts a story of a car bomb in a marketplace in a predominantly Shia neighborhood in Pakistan. “What colossal coward do you have to be to bomb a marketplace full of women and children?” she adds.
I’m tempted to tell her to temper her tone. I look outside, and seemingly overnight there are pink and red blossoms on Jahan’s trees.
On her blog, Agra posts for the first time photos of her two-room flat, the east wing part of a larger family home. Her bedroom is minimally furnished: a bed, a couch, a glass coffee table. No rug. No wall hangings. The second photo is a close-up of a book—Li-Young Lee’s Rose—open, face down, next to a cup of milky tea and two biscuits, all bathed in soft yellow lamp light. Underneath the photo she quotes four lines:
he was going blind,
My father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.”
A sunset rain mists purple over Jahan’s trees, and I’m struck by the beauty of that transient splash of color. I want to capture it for Agra. In the walk-in linen closet by the kitchen, I find Jahan’s camera, and it’s only when I step out into the backyard I realize I’m in sandals, the wind is sharper, and the sky now almost night, and even as I try to frame a shot, the camera refuses to turn on, its display panel remaining obstinately blank.
I spend the rest of the evening watching DIY videos online from “help camera won’t start” searches, to the sounds of the house settling into the night.
Our house was brand new when Jahan and I first bought it over twenty-five years ago. We had been in the U.S. for only two years at that point. Agra was only three when we moved in. It was a standard split-level ranch in an equally new subdivision with rows of meticulous lawns, and two tree saplings per front yard. It was the house’s wide floor-to-ceiling living room windows that caught me the first time I walked in. They looked out onto an impossibly green garden, overgrown and out of control, and in that wintery November afternoon, with the threat of snow in the overcast sky, I felt as though I had been portalled back home to my mother’s garden in Dhaka, the one she made me tend with her on suffocatingly hot Saturday afternoons, the one I would help water or weed for half an hour at most before heading back into curtained coolness.
Soon after we moved in, Jahan started shaping our backyard into discrete areas, recreating in the new world traces of his old, etched from memories of his grandfather’s house in his ancestral village up north near our border with India. He installed an outdoor sitting area around a fire pit and a kitchen area with a barbeque and a stone pizza oven. Interspersed throughout, he planted trees—fruit: plums, nectarines, and cherries; nut: black walnut—and a sequoia.
Inside, Jahan tore down the wall that separated the kitchen from the living room and the dining, opening up the entire space so that in the evenings all three of us—Agra with her homework at the dining table, Jahan on the couch with a pillow against his aching back, and I in the kitchen—could be together, with the garden in view from every area.
Ten years ago, after getting hooked on green juicing, he put in some raised beds for kale, swiss chard, lettuces, and herbs. Later he added a perimeter of gravel on which tendrils of watermelon and melon snaked around the yard sprouting fruit. The year he got sick, six years ago, he added a bee house.
In a panoramic view of those decades together in that home, Jahan’s carvings of new spaces appear to me in such slow motion that I am left with a sense of stillness.
Ours was a quiet house. We rarely had visitors. We had no family in the US, and certainly not in our area, and we didn’t care to entertain. Except for our next door neighbor Richard dropping by to chat with Jahan, our doorbell rarely rang.
Agra was a silent baby who grew into an even more silent girl, a natural extension of the quiet of our lives in America. On our trips back to Dhaka every couple of years while my parents were still alive, Agra would get impossibly even quieter, her unblinking eyes not so much seeing as absorbing the humid air that seemed to not move, the sound of glass bangles as the cook washed fish, the smell of roasted chili in the bitter melon curry. It was a world where visitors dropped by unannounced from day-long journeys by ferries from family villages, their jute bags filled with spinach, cucumbers, and starfruit.
My childhood school friend Rokeya tells me over Skype that people don’t show up like that in Dhaka anymore. She reached out to me after hearing about Jahan. She and her husband were both doctors, and worked late into the night at the diabetes clinic they had set up twenty years ago. Their sons, both now in medical school in America, used to spend their days either in school or with tutors, and their evenings doing homework at the clinic where the corridors remained packed with patients until closing time. “No one just drops by like that anymore without calling first,” she says. “No one’s home, even if.”
Agra had a stillness, an even-keeled calmness, to her that made her appear stationary even as she picked up around the house or cleaned up in the kitchen after me, her need for neatness from her father. We were so used to that reliable, dependable quality that we were completely taken aback when she got suspended in sixth grade for shoving an eighth grader and pouring orange juice over his backpack.
“Why would you do that?” I asked as she quietly trailed behind me at the grocery store. “What if this ends with you expelled? Then what?”
She took an avocado out of the basket and handed me a different one. “This one’s ripe,” she said.
To Jahan Agra mentioned that Clay had been picking on the lone Sikh at the school, Hal—Harminder Singh—who had transferred mid-year. It had started with taunts of Al Qaeda, towel head, pedophile prophet. It had moved on to shoves and kicks. Agra complained to her teachers. Most expressed sympathy. Her English teacher mused how lucky she and Hal were to be in America, to get to be in school. In her home country, Agra would be married already, she said.
“During recess,” Agra told her father, “Clay had Hal in a chokehold. I had to do something. I told him to come after me instead. I was the one he was looking for.”
At work, Lisa watches the news in the waiting room during our lunch break, and as I tidy up the magazines in there, I pause to watch. Zayaad Anwar is officially charged with attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction and providing material support for terrorism.
In his mugshot, he is olive-mocha skinned and looks young for eighteen. In photos culled from social media, he is in soccer uniform high-fiving a teammate and a little boy in red pants with a wide grin eating birthday cake.
The news report is shot in front of the mosque his family attended, and it’s strange to see my city on the news. I’m surprised how little the mosque has changed over the past two decades. As the reporter speculates whether Zayaad is part of a larger sleeper cell, if Radical Islam has arrived in the heartland, I focus behind her on the thin but steady stream of men arriving, pausing first to take off their shoes before entering the mosque. I realize that it’s Friday; the men are arriving for Jumu’ah prayers.
The mosque is a forty-minute drive away from our suburb, on the northwest edge of downtown, near an immigrant neighborhood of mostly refugees from post-Soviet invasion Afghanistan, Sudan, Bosnia, and then Iraq, post-US invasion Afghanistan, Yemen, Congo, Syria, and more. It was a makeshift mosque, a three-bedroom residential home that had been converted to the Islamic Center in the eighties.
I went to the Center once, a couple of years after we had moved into our house. I recall the inside as dark with thick green carpet, and I felt lost among the Arab women in long black abayas and the Africans in bright blues and sequins. I hadn’t bothered to cover up my arms, and my hair slipped through the headscarf I had lightly tied on. My mother and grandmother had prayed in their saris, their blouse sleeves leaving most of their arms bare. They would throw their sari achols over their heads and shoulders; that was all the covering they needed.
I had gone in during a weekday, and the women there were older, mostly widows of wars. They spoke little to no English, and they gently patted my back with a smile, guiding me to line up, shoulder to shoulder, for the prayer. Agra was five or six then, and an old Iraqi woman stopped her on our way out to give her two pieces of candy and a hug, and I showed Agra how to curve her right hand into a salaam of thanks. I never went back. It wasn’t our custom to pray in mosques anyway.
During our first few years in the U.S., Jahan and I celebrated Eid. I bought new clothes for us, and made goat curry, Bangladeshi polau, and traditional desserts of shemai—vermicelli in milk with raisins, cardamom, honey, and rose water—but those efforts soon faded away.
I think it was sometime when Agra was eight or nine that Jahan and I realized we had missed Kurbani Eid by three days; it had fallen on a Monday. Out in this America, outside the immigrant hubs of New York-New Jersey-Dearborn-California-Dallas, there were no signs of Eid al-Adha, of early morning prayers, of sacrificial blood washing into open drains, of treks across the city to visit relatives, carrying in pistachio halwas and carrying out koftas and Eid-greeting cash from elders.
Instead, that year, that Sunday before Eid, Jahan had weeded his garden and then chatted over the fence with Richard about the gas mileage on his new Mazda. Inside, Agra did what she did every Sunday since she was six: she laundered and then set out her clothes for the week, reviewed all her homework due that week, and then, after a sandwich of sprouts, sliced green peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, and a squeeze of lime juice, sat down at the dining table with her homework for Monday.
For her thirteenth birthday present, Agra persuaded Jahan to sign her up at the mosque for classical Arabic and Quran lessons. Soon it became their Saturday tradition to stay for Magrib prayers that followed the lessons. On those Saturdays I found myself waiting for their return, stepping out into the garage to greet them, taking from their hands the cartons of pho or kung pao they would stop to get on their way back, telling them about the fresh lemonade with mint in the fridge.
During her junior year of college, Agra put on a hijab.
The process was gradual, starting her sophomore year in high school when she partially covered her shoulder-length hair with a scarf which she tied at her nape. Most of her hair remained visible in the Persian-South Asian dupatta style of my mother’s and grandmother’s, of sari achols casually thrown over heads during Azaans.
The scarves my daughter chose for her hair were beautiful splashes of color: orange flowers and purple leaves against cream; pink dots against blue; brown arabesque against black. By December of her junior year, she was completely covering her head, with no wisps of hair showing through.
“We don’t wear it that way. It’s nice, but that’s not how we wear it,” I told her, looking around the living room for my car keys so we could head out to my work’s annual potluck. Agra always had been my date since she was a little girl.
Agra swept her eyes over the counter for any sign of my keys. “Why can’t you put them in the bowl by the door? Walk in, put in the keys. That’s it.”
“Are you seeing someone? Is this what this is all about? Is he Arab? Is he into politics? You told your father about some Muslim students club you’re in. These things are monitored by Bush. You know that.”
“I’m not seeing anyone. I’m having casual relationships with lots of men though. Some of them Arab.”
“Be serious. This kind of visibility will get you on a list.”
“We’re all on lists. And I know how you wear it back home. Technically, though, the Arab hijab is now showing up throughout Asia. Migrant workers are bringing it back from the Gulf. If we want to get even more technical, there’s Salafi petrodollar influence—”
“We’re not migrant workers in the Gulf. And I don’t want a politics lesson. This is a small town. There are military families here. There’s Iraq going on—”
“There’s always an Iraq going on in a country of perpetual war. If Dr. Nathan asks—”
“You can’t go with me if you’re going to talk about politics there. The people here are simple, conservative.”
For a moment a quick flash of anger and then sadness passed across Agra’s face before she settled back into the familiar look she used with me: shuttered, bored, slightly wary. “I know the people here. It’s like I grew up here or something.” She headed towards the study. “I’m getting the spare keys. You have two minutes to decide if you want me to go with you. It’s not like I’m dying to eat potluck Jello.”
Jahan and I married at eighteen. We had met two years earlier as I was sneaking out of school to meet a boy who smoked cheap cigarettes and rode a motorcycle. Jahan was in his blue and white school uniform, his tie stuffed in his shirt pocket. I didn’t know why he was out in the backyard when he should have been in class.
He watched me struggle to climb up to the branch of a tree so I could scale over the school wall. Finally, exhausted, I snapped at him to help, and he came over, put his hand under my feet, and then gave me a boost and a push up until I could swing my leg over the branch.
He walked away without looking back.
The next day I found him in Miss Fatima’s geography class, and he agreed to help me with my math homework. The day after, with physics.
The first time he held my hand, it was clammy and he asked if my hands were “always this gross,” and then he reached over with a gentle kiss when I tried to move away.
His back pain started the year Agra began her master’s program. Technically the pain had started years earlier, and I used to massage his lower back and apply heat packs, scolding him for overexerting in the garden, for not exercising, for not better handling his stress. I had read that we needed to strengthen our cores as we aged. He needed to try yoga, maybe pilates. He would listen for a few minutes before pulling me next to him, squeezing me until I shut up, using his Boa Silencer move, as he laughingly called it.
I came home to find him pacing the kitchen, his face contorted with sweat and confused fear. “Something’s wrong,” he said. “Something’s really wrong.”
During the car ride to the hospital, I refused to look at him as he shifted, trying to find a seating position that eased his pain. I kept my eyes on the road, my hands at 2 and 10, the speed exactly at the limit.
The biopsies, x-rays, MRIs revealed a liver cancer that hadn’t spread. It was a rare kind, the doctors said. Highly treatable.
That summer, Agra and I took over the garden as Jahan watched us from under a blanket in the seating area. He had lost twenty pounds and most of his hair, and his face lit up as Agra brought him a freshly picked nectarine. “It’s like honey, Abbu,” she said, cutting him a piece. He closed his eyes as he chewed, nodding: “It is. It is.”
When I called Agra a year later, a few days before her master’s thesis defense, to tell her that Jahan’s cancer was in remission, she cried for the first time, sobbing as if she would never stop.
At Batteries ’n More, a young man with a nose ring, flesh plugs in stretched earlobes, and Maori tribal tattoos tells me that Jahan’s camera is fine, that the battery just needs charging. “It should have come with instructions. Did you get it used?”
“It’s my husband’s. Our daughter got it for him years ago.”
“Yeah. He just needs to charge it.”
He hands the camera back to me, watches me look it over, and then reaches again for it. “See here?” he said, pressing a slider with his thumb and springing out a small grey rectangle. “You’ll need to put this in the charger that came with the camera, and then plug it all in.”
“Hold on. I’ll charge it for you while you’re here.”
“How much could I get for it?”
“We don’t buy here. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with the camera. You should just hang on to it. It takes great macros. Just tell your husband it’s the battery.”
I spend the next hour strolling the strip mall, browsing Moroccan soup bowls, Japanese sushi sets, organic grain-free cat food, summer dresses on plus-sized mannequins in one store and on rail thin ones in another.
An hour later, I return to Batteries ’n More with a cappuccino and a croissant for the young man. He looks embarrassed when I hand them to him. “You didn’t have to. I mean—thanks. But, I mean.”
“I wouldn’t have figured out how to fix it without your help. I watched so many tutorials. Sometimes we realize ourselves so utterly alone that we want to die.”
The young man watches me, and then looks away. “If you need anything,” he says quietly, handing me my battery and camera but not making eye contact, “I’m here Monday through Friday 4-9. I’m good with most electronics.”
When the cancer returned two and a half years after it had gone into remission, it raced through Jahan, depositing silts of tumors in every imaginable organ. He was dead in six weeks.
In contrast to the pain that would make him cry out in the night, he passed away with a quiet smile on a sunny December morning.
Agra and I had moved the bed so that it faced the French doors and Jahan could look out into his garden, which was covered in a dusting of snow.
He turned to me as I walked in with some soup. “My grandfather played the oudh.” His voice was hoarse. “When we would visit—and it would take us all day to get to his village—he would sing some of his favorite Lalon geetis. I can hear the songs today.” He paused, gently moving his head as if listening to distant strains of music.
Agra came out of the bathroom with a bottle of Clorox and a bucket. Jahan had an accident there earlier. She didn’t say anything, as if sensing something different in the air.
“I never thanked you, Meghna,” he said reaching for me. “I never thanked you for finding me in geography.” He took my hand. “Take Agra to see the Lalon mazar, where we went for our honeymoon. Take her to our school yard, to that tamarind tree. We’ll have to meet there again.” A smile crossed his face as his eyes gently closed. “The sun feels good today, warm like home.”
Agra and I travelled with Jahan’s body back to Bangladesh to lay him next to his parents. I returned the day after we had buried him. I wanted desperately to be back among his clothes, his glasses resting on his still-open book on his nightstand. Agra stayed behind to get a headstone made, to hire the local imam to come in every Friday and give blessings.
After her father died, Agra disappeared—first behind her silence. Then, with no warning, the following May she took a leave of absence and left for Bangladesh.
There, her presence filtered through the internet, through her comments, posts, and private messages. Still, I heard her voice often from the home videos of birthdays and graduations that Jahan had made, realizing with sadness that I had rarely taken the camera.
Jahan appeared in so few scenes.
Agra posts three photos of my property, all three taken on a late June afternoon and all three dominated by a tributary of stems, branches, and roots of a massive Banyan tree that threads in, out, and through courtyards, windows, walls, and caved-in roofs of a once magnificent house that is now a mildewed ruin. It is an E-shaped house with three separate wings, six total across two floors.
One photo is of the inside: a second-floor room, part of its roof disintegrated, opening up to a cloudless sky. Dusty afternoon light highlights the blue of the walls and the pink of the arabesque moldings with startling detail as tree branches migrate through and across a faintly green mosaic floor.
Another is of the outside: a tin roof hut in the northwest corner of the property. This is where my aunt lived out her life as a midwife. Her kitchen was adjacent to the front entrance, an alcove area with a soot-caked mud stove and a stone shelf of pans.
Agra appears in the third photo.
She stands by a hibiscus tree, a now-dusky sun lighting up the red flower tendrils behind her. She’s caught in a moment of laughter, and I’m surprised to see her in a simple cotton blue sari, a dozen yellow bangles on each wrist. The teal edge of her sari loosely covers her head, early evening threading red through her long, loose hair.
I return to the photos—at my work computer, at home out in the garden with my laptop, in bed on my smartphone. This is where my grandmother grew up, where she was a child. These are the rooms and halls she roamed.
My grandmother had moved into our three-bedroom flat in Dhaka right before I turned thirteen, and I am struck now, decades later, by how little memory I have of her. I can only recall her in fragments: her threading a tasbih through her fingers, waiting to eat until after my mother had taken her first bite, brushing her teeth with neem stems, rubbing fresh turmeric on her hands and face before bathing.
Her room was originally mine. It had an attached bath to which my mother added handrails and a nonslip wicker chair by the water bucket. I moved back into the room after she died, and sometimes during my baths I tried out ballet moves using the handrails for support.
All I knew then was that my grandmother had lived her entire life by the Surma Basin of the majestic Meghna River, where my grandfather and his five brothers farmed rice and raised goats their entire lives. One night, a week before she would pass away in her sleep, I found her on our third-floor rooftop, leaning against the railing, looking out at the city. There was new construction all around us, sprouting high-rise luxury apartment buildings on the foundations of demolished villas that had once lined the bougainvillea-lined streets. Now the night-shift construction workers broke the darkness with sparks of weldings and drills.
“Your grandfather wanted to buy some land here,” she said as I walked up next to her. “He wanted a salary life, a city life. I was a new bride, and Dhaka was our first trip together. We took a ferry, then bus, then rickshaw. It was all rice fields or forests then. Dirt roads. Lakes.” She laughed. “I was only fifteen, your grandfather seventeen. It was so far away from everything, and the thought of being so isolated terrified me so I cried. Your grandfather couldn’t imagine being so far from home either, and he sat next to me while I wept. We returned to his village the next day.”
I told her that I had been sent to find her; it was time for her heart medicine and she needed to eat first.
She nodded a couple of times, her slight frame in a grey cotton sari barely visible in the dark night, her long grey hair mostly unfurled from her bun. “Of course now I know that nowhere is so far that you can’t go back.”
I scratched at a mosquito bite. “Okay.”
During the 4th of July weekend, Richard knocks on my door. Even at 82, he remains tall, his eyes sparkling blue. He tells me that he saw weeds in my backyard. He’d just finished weeding his lawn, and he thought he’d come over and tackle ours.
He comes into the kitchen afterwards, his face red from the sun, and asks how I’m doing, if I need help with anything. The last time he was in the house, paramedics were removing Jahan’s body. I tell him that the microwave had stopped working.
“Don’t know a thing about microwaves,” he says. “But I can read. Where’s the instruction manual? I can take it with me to try and figure it out.”
I point to Jahan’s study, and when Richard comes out with the instruction manual, he doesn’t return to the kitchen. Instead, he stands in the living room, quiet for a while. “So when’s the kid coming back?” he finally asks.
“I still remember her asking my Janey for some juice. We didn’t give her any, of course. Janey gave a lecture on stranger danger, like she always did with our kids. Then we carried your girl over. The way your husband grabbed her from us—that look on his face—I’ll never forget it.”
I try to process what he’s saying. “Wait—when was this?”
“Jahan didn’t tell you? This was the day you all moved in. The U-Haul was in the driveway, and we could see you two moving boxes. And suddenly there was this little girl in a red polka-dot dress knocking on our door, asking for apple juice.”
“But—where was I?”
“Don’t know. Your husband was out in the yard, and we could see him from our door. I mean, your girl didn’t look afraid or lost or even thirsty. She just wanted some juice, I guess. Maybe figured since you were busy, she’d try next door instead.”
I don’t know what to say.
“Maybe you’re busy this weekend,” Richard says, “but if Saturday works, I can come help you clean out the study. It’d take a coupla hours, max. His coats, shoes, books.”
“Agra will take care of it. She’ll be back soon.”
“You can get tax credit for donations. Just keep the receipts. His winter coats and boots—all that can go to Goodwill. I’d just need to be done by two. Church is at four, and I’d need to pick up my great-grandkids before then.”
“I’ll call you. I might be busy this Saturday.” I move towards the jade plant on the kitchen counter. Some of the leaves are wrinkled, desiccated. Maybe I was overwatering them. Maybe not watering enough.
“Maybe your priest at your temple can help? Maybe there’s community support.”
“I’ll call you, Richard. Thank you though. I’ll call.”
“Okay then.” At the door, he stops. “My father died when I was fourteen. He just dropped dead in the middle of our pasture. We didn’t even think to look for him until evening, and he was out in the cold all day, our cows trampling around him, maybe on him. My brother died, oh, about twenty years ago now. Died in a trailer way up in the Cascades. He was estranged from us. He had gotten into drugs and girls. I was the only one willing to settle his affairs there.”
I don’t answer, and he opens the front door to bright July heat. “I know how it is, is all I’m saying.” He steps out, raising his voice so it carries. “I know how it is.” He shuts the door gently behind him.
On a scan of the land deed Agra emails me, I discover my grandmother’s name for the first time: Medina Feroza. Her thumbprint in blue ink is her signature. No one had recorded her birth, her marriage, or the births of her six children. Her official existence appears only because of her guaranteed inheritance as a Muslim woman.
I realize that my grandmother had journeyed far after all, moving across the country from the Bay of Bengal to up north to her husband, then to the center to her daughter, and then back south again to rest in her grandfather’s family plot.
Two weeks after Jahan’s cancer had returned, he called me from a grocery store. He had stepped out for a walk and then had gone further than he had expected, ending up at a megamart looking through oranges.
“Do you want me to pick you up? It’s a long walk back. I can head out now,” I said.
“No. No, I’m only getting a couple of oranges. The walk back will be fine.”
“Don’t use up the cell battery then. Start heading back.”
“I want to talk to you. That’s why I called.” He paused. “I want to talk about Agra. I’ve urged her to do her doctoral work on Sufi poetry or bauls. Her preliminary research proposal is due soon, and she called for advice. I told her to move away from her master’s work. I want you to back me up on this.”
“Come home. It’s late.”
“Her master’s really drained her.”
“You were sick during. It was hard on her.”
“It was more than that. I know you haven’t read her thesis. She wrote on the indefinite detentions and extraordinary renditions of Muslim men after 9/11, on language used to normalize mass killings. How innocent causalities were labeled enemy combatants or collateral damage after the fact. About drone programs. Complicit collaborators across Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya. That’s a heavy burden—all this knowledge.”
“I wish she’d fit in. Blend in. She can pass easily here.”
“She doesn’t have that option.”
“Yes, she does. Look at Rehema’s children. Asif’s kids. They’re like any other American. Look at us back home. Did we know anyone who wore a veil or a headscarf?”
“It was different for us. The ground—it’s not as solid for her. When she was drafting her master’s research proposal, she called me one night. Chemo was bad that day, and I could barely focus. She knew that, but she said that she still wanted to talk. She had just finished watching an interrogation video of a 15-year-old Afghani boy locked up at Gitmo since 2004. The kid had been handed over to coalition forces for a bounty; he had been caught up in a dispute between neighbors. In the video, the kid kept asking for his mother. Agra couldn’t get that out of her head.”
“Come home. Please.”
“She said that she felt suffocated. She couldn’t believe that people were going about their day, not outraged. So I told her to go for a walk, to look up and breathe in the stars. I told her to take a warm shower.” He paused. “Who will she have to call ten years from now? Who’ll tell her to look up and breathe? I thought—I thought that maybe you could reach out to her.”
“I don’t know how to. I’m not brave like her.”
“She’s not brave, see? She’s terrified out of her mind.”
When Agra finally calls, I’m struck by how natural her Bangla sounds. Behind her are the sounds of traffic, long, extended musical honks, and I can picture the dense, almost black, August monsoon clouds hanging low over her. “I thought it’d be more efficient to just call,” she says. “Can you hear me all right? I’m outside, on my way to get some roshmalai.” She pauses and I hear the sound of a hand thud against a car and a long honk, and then she yells: “Ya!—I have right of way, you idiot.” She comes back on the phone. “So there’s a buyer interested. The asking price’s good.”
“Already? I thought it would take more time. Years maybe.”
“With sea level rising, any high land goes fast.” She sounds like Jahan—deliberate, to the point.
I’m happy to have her on the phone. “I’ve been thinking about your comment,” I say. “All that history. Nani looked Burmese, Thai, Chakma—.”
“I can dig through some records on her, if you like. So about the offer.”
“This is why I called—to talk.”
“Take it, even if it’s low. I can’t even keep up with the yard here. And the washing machine isn’t draining.”
“That’s why I called. I had an engineer check out the house. The foundation’s solid. The top floor will have to go but most of the doors and shutters—all teak—and the mosaic, all are salvageable. I’ve found the original floor plans, astonishingly.”
“I think—I think I have a job here. College teaching. The pay’s enough for now. I’ll move to a dorm, eat in the cafeteria. From here, I could go down to the Bay every weekend. I’ve already taken the job so let’s not argue about that.”
I rest my head on the table, the phone to my ear. I feel tired.
“I’m going to add plumbing to the hut, turn it into a studio. A gas stove is next. The gas line is already there. I could stay there on weekends and oversee the renovation. I’m in touch with a world heritage group in Chittagong. There’s a historical society in Dhaka interested in helping.”
“The washing machine stopped working mid-cycle. I had to take out the clothes and wash them in the tub.”
“The earliest deed I have found is a document from the East India Company. 1804. Isn’t that amazing? Boro-Nana bought the land with four of his brothers. All of their names are listed. Their parents are listed. Their wives and children show up on inheritance deeds. All these names I never knew. Some trace to Kashmir, to Karachi. Hyderabad. Barisal. We come from all over. Did you know all this?” She doesn’t pause to let me answer. “There are bird nests throughout this house. Last night I camped in what looks like a master bedroom.” I hear her open and shut a door, and the traffic sounds recede behind her. “I woke up—I woke to birds circling the ceiling inside.”
I remember that it hit 107 degrees the day Agra and I took a bus to the city for her debate tournament semi-finals. Which year was it? Was it before or after she was suspended for a week? She was in sixth grade, I think. Our car wouldn’t start, Jahan was in San Francisco for a tech conference, a taxi would have cost $75 one way, and it was too late to find her a ride with a schoolmate.
On our way home Agra took the window seat, dozing off occasionally. Her team had won, and she sat limp with exhaustion, resting her head on the backpack on her lap.
At the Marriot stop, an East African woman got on the bus. She looked Somalian, maybe Ethiopian. She was in tight blue jeans, a long sleeved top, and a hijab—a long blue scarf that draped over her chest, neck, and shoulders. She took one of the long side seats. She was stylish: silk top, stiletto shoes, a Chanel bag, her nails bright red. Her cell phone was the latest model, one of those trendy flips, and she started taking into the phone while taking a seat, speaking in a language that sounded vaguely familiar, soothing, blending in so perfectly with the movement of the bus that when a man’s voice rang out from the back, it took me a while to register his words.
“This is what I don’t get. Why cover up like that and then doll up like a slut?”
The man’s companion, an older woman from the sound of her voice, giggled.
The East African woman whipped around to the voice, the phone still to her ear. “Excuse me?” she said. “Did you just say something about me?” She was firm, assertive. She was young, in her early twenties. I felt an instinct to tell her to let it go.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” the man replied from behind me.
“What did you just call me?”
“I got nothing to say to you.”
“Fuck you,” she said. I was surprised by her accent—completely American, like Agra’s.
“You watch your mouth. I didn’t say nothing to you.” The man’s accent was familiar, too. I heard it at my office, at Agra’s school, the grocery store, the gas station—long, drawn out.
“Yeah, well,” she said. “Fuck. You.”
The man moved fast, a blurred rush to my left as the woman simultaneously stood up to meet him. In a flash Agra stepped over me, moving across the aisle to stop in front of the man, barring him from the woman. He was older than I had expected, grey hair, large. My daughter stood straight, her shoulders back, dwarfed by the man with whom her eyes stayed locked, and as the man moved towards her, the bus driver yelled at everyone to sit the fuck down or she’d call the police, and it was over before I could move from my seat.
At the next stop, the man and his companion got off, and two college-aged women—one blond and another brunette—offered to walk the woman home from her stop, apologizing for the “asshole racists.” The woman politely declined, turning her focus to the window and the passing houses, struggling her face into a semblance of normal nonchalance.
Agra and I never spoke about the incident. She didn’t look at me for the rest of the ride. She walked ahead of me from the bus stop, and by the time I got into our house, she was already in her room, her door shut. That night as I sat in our backyard, dimly lit by solar lamps and a faint scent of gardenia in the air, I recognized the knot in my stomach as shame. For what exactly, I never understood.
Right before the start of school, the office fills up with mothers towing their children behind them, and lunch break unofficially dwindles to 20 minutes.
“The problem,” Lisa says to no one in particular, her eyes on the local news on the TV, “is our open borders. I’ve no problem with Muslims. But Islam is not compatible with modern culture.”
I look up to see Zayaad’s face on the flat screen in the waiting room. “That makes no sense,” I say, before I can stop myself. I’m at my desk processing the morning’s billings, and I pause to look at Lisa in the waiting room, in one of the recliners, her swollen feet resting on another chair. She looks surprised by my response, and she presses her hands onto her eight-month pregnant belly, waiting for me to continue.
“Islam doesn’t exist without Muslims. It sounds less bigoted to say that you don’t have a problem with Muslims, but really.”
“I’m just saying that we need to watch our borders. We’re not screening these people coming in.”
Our voices are pleasant, friendly, low.
“This kid grew up here,” I point out. “He was born here.”
“You know what I mean. If we aren’t careful, we’ll have Sharia Law here, like they do in Europe. No offense. I just don’t want anyone telling me what I can wear.”
“How’s Sharia Law relevant here? Apparently, this kid was entrapped. His co-conspirator is an FBI informant, a 54-year-old Egyptian. Zayaad’s parents have released emails, texts, call records between the two. The parents are saying that the FBI came up with the plan, the money, the logistics, the so-called bomb, the truck, everything. All the boy did was agree to drive the car to the mall.”
“Even if that’s true, that doesn’t make him innocent.”
Dr. Nathan comes out of his office and stands silently in the corridor. Martha, his assistant of forty years, comes out of the kitchenette and turns off the TV. She’s silent, too.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“What about the shooting at Fort Worth? The marathon bombing? It’s time to stop making excuses.”
I consider going through Agra’s posts and listing drone attacks, covert operations, black sites, puppet dictators. But to what end? “We have a real problem with militarism, extremism—yes.” I try to sound calm—anything but deflated. “It’s a problem on both sides. Both sides need recruits, pointless wars.”
“We agree there. Bring our troops back. Let them kill themselves over there. They’ve been killing themselves for centuries. We can’t save the world. We can’t police the world. Seal our borders. We need to take care of our own here.”
I don’t respond.
Fall arrives with explosions of plums and nectarines weighing down branches. It takes me a week to pick them all, and I spend the next few evenings washing, drying, and vacuum sealing most of the fruit before putting them in the deep freezer for Agra. With the remaining fruit, I create some gift baskets for Richard, Dr. Nathan, and others. During lunch one day, I drive into the city with a basket full of the last of the plums. The mosque doors are locked, the street deserted. It’s in between prayer times. The motion-detector security cameras blink as I step on my toes to peer through the barred windows for any sign of movement inside. There’s nobody around. I stand in the autumn chill for a few minutes, and then I leave the basket outside the door, with a note on a napkin about Jahan and his trees.
That evening I scan a photo I found in one of Jahan’s boxes, and email it to Agra.
It’s of me and Jahan, a year into our marriage, in front of the Lalon mausoleum. We had asked a stranger to take the photo, and Jahan is captured reaching towards the camera as if answering a question on how to operate it, and I’m in profile looking towards the mazar’s entrance.
We are both dusty, sweaty, tired, and frowning.
We had arrived in the afternoon rather than the morning because our bus had broken down just outside of Dhaka. Once in town, Jahan rushed to see as much as possible before the last bus out, and I limped behind him, complaining about blisters on my feet and threatening to sit myself at one of the roadside stalls for some Fanta. When he reached the mausoleum, Jahan got quiet, and I remember telling him that my head itched because of all the dust and that it was all his fault when he turned around and called out to a fruit seller across the street to come take a photo of us.
We ended up missing the last bus after all, and we stayed the night at a guesthouse suite overlooking the river. That night we sat out on the balcony and watched flickers of flames from wood stoves and kerosene lamps on the river bank. The next morning a front desk worker asked us if we were there for the weekend baul festival, and Jahan turned to me with a smile. We stayed on.
There are no photos of the guesthouse or of us over the next two days. We had run out of film, and we only had enough money left for one more night, a few snacks, and two bus tickets. We spent those two days roaming through the festival grounds, sitting under trees listening to songs about the transience of life, walking among stalls of clay elephants and tablas, eating the cheapest roadside food we could find that wouldn’t make us sick.
On the ride back, Jahan held my hand, occasionally playing with the bridal gold bangles I still wore. That was our first weekend away from family, from the city—and it became our impromptu honeymoon.
Agra’s response to the photo is almost instantaneous. “Wow—I don’t know what to say. See attached. It’s of me there, exactly where you and Abba were standing. You both are so young. I can’t believe it.”
She writes again an hour later: “Thanks for sending me that, by the way. If you come visit, we’ll go back there together.”
I wake to early evening blue and Jahan in shadows sitting on his side of our bed.
Earlier that day I had packed up his clothes and shoes and dropped them off at a youth ranch.
I reach towards him. “We’ll be okay, Jahan,” I say, with a sadness that feels infinite. “You should go. We’re okay. I’m learning to prune your trees.”
He leaves for the last time, and in his wake, tributaries of sequoia-banyans sprout, seep, migrate through walls into a living room that opens to a kitchen of lemonade and mint, through wide open overcast mornings of hibiscus land deeds signed with thumb prints and hair streaked with dusk, bridal bangles of watermelon tendrils, birds circling ceilings—weaving, carving, imprinting all that history, all those traces of us.
Maimuna Islam is an associate professor of English at The College of Idaho, where she teaches postcolonial and immigrant literatures, fiction writing, and first year seminar. Maimuna has received a fellowship for fiction at the Vermont Studio Center, a PARC Faculty Development Seminar Grant, and an NEH Summer Institute Grant on Early Islam. She has written, presented, and taught on Islamophobia, the war on terror, encounters between the Western and the Muslim worlds, American immigrant experiences post-1967, and minority pedagogy. An intrepid traveler, Maimuna has visited over twenty different countries throughout Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. A first-generation Bangladeshi-American with roots in both countries, Maimuna is currently working on a novel as well as a series of articles on solidarity movements.