The only soft things to come from hard love are the children birthed.
Right now, and for as long as I can remember, there have always been two kids in this house—our brother and me. Sometimes I wonder if things would be better if there were more of us. My face is just like mommy’s and this brother looks just like daddy. But if you were born—if there were a third—you’d look like the both of them, like love was what brought you here. This brother and I look like handshake children, children made to close business and end war. We look like a neat compromise: one child for her, one child for him.
-Ye Barya Hisb!
A gust of words I can’t understand then saytan! from both sides. I can always depend on devilry in this house. I learned a few things from watching our parents love in their way. One: how to notice an argument kindling even when I can’t understand the language it’s yelled in, two: how to let its fire burn through different rooms, and three: how to split myself in two to clean the ashes from every corner of the house.
The first half finds itself to daddy.
His fire doesn’t hide behind doors like our mother’s. It’s a threat to everyone and needs to be tended to immediately. He sits, I hold his hand in silence but the quiet in the room, our mother’s absence, doesn’t stop him from roaring. Daughter! Your mom is…dangerous. You be careful—she will sell you. Evil! I will tell you more when you are matured.
I still can’t understand what he wants to save me from but I hold his hand all the same, hoping it will calm him and soften his voice into something that makes sense.
In another room our mother prays. This is her roar—quiet and fueled by the Holy Ghost. I hover in front of her door and can feel her feeling my presence. I don’t know if this means she needs me more or less. I linger for a moment and think of all the prayer that room holds. She’s been calling on God for half an hour. Who am I to intrude upon a woman and her Lord? Who am I to make her choose between crying at Christ‘s feet and crying to me? Mommy’s choice is always clear. Hello? I’ve been burned too much today and decide to go to my room without answering her call.
The next day I wake weighed down by soot. I wash, get ready for school, but cannot zip my uniform’s jumper-dress on my own. The door that’s always closed, to the room our mother sleeps in alone, is open—she’s gone to work for the day. I have to ask daddy for help. As I walk to the guest room he shares with our brother I wonder what it really means to have married parents, parents who are still together but on the verge of eruption.
-Daddy, wake up.
-OK, Daughter. Denah nesh?
-I’m fine daddy, how are you?
-Sick. Your mom made me sick.
-I stay for you kids. You kids are my life.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. What else can I be? When it’s my life keeping two people anchored to a marriage that does not serve them. These two people have only ever been in obligation and responsibility, never in love. I respond to this sad fact with nothing but guilt. More than seeing our parents laugh together I’ve said sorry and been sorry.
Daddy frantically writes dates on the wall, like there’s something he doesn’t want to forget.
-Daddy, what’s that?
-You could have had another brother or sister, gin enatesh eh-choo-pid nat.
-Can you not call my mom stupid, please?
-I would have 10 kids by now.
He says this with a laugh. Our daddy, who yells when his two sorry children joke, laughs at the thought of you.
Mommy doesn’t hear the slander, doesn’t hear him talk about how she “threw” you away. She is upstairs praying to her only Friend.
I silently stare at what would have been your birthday, sharpied onto the wall.
It’s selfish of us to wonder how you would have liked it here. Daddy thinks that the third time’s the charm and would have made their love work. Our brother doesn’t know about you—his second-ness, that “innocence,” spare him from needing to know what the dates on the wall mean. Mommy never talks about you. She hushes herself when daddy alludes to your passing or presence—whatever it was or is.
You’ve crossed my mind too many times today so I decide to put myself above God and stop our mother’s prayer.
-Daddy told me about the baby.
-He said you didn’t want it—
-That’s not true—
-—that you would have done the same to me.
-Your dad is lying! I had to—the doctor told me I had to…or…I would die.
And she cried to me instead of God. She cried not like someone who “threw” you away but like she was mourning her own death. Even though you were a blister in her—a parasite—she cried, and I knew she loved you and loves you and maybe even wonders if you would have been the child to make this man less bitter, less of a fire and more of a husband. I hold her how I imagine the Holy Ghost would, then reconsider: you are fine where you are—somewhere not feeling sorry, somewhere or nowhere, anywhere but in the heat of this home.
I think again about what it really means to have a family that is whole, of brothers and sisters, of the wealth our father feels has been stolen by our mother’s self-preservation, of self-preservation, and love. I think of how I’ve readily thrown myself into the fire for love. I think of all of these things and get hot. I am dreaming of ways to pull myself free before I am charred to death by this love.
I am grateful that you are not here to wonder and burn with us.
Hiwot Adilow is a writer from Philadelphia, a First Wave Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an alum of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement. Her poetry has been featured on CNN, NPR, and Wisconsin Public Television.