Crossing The Border

By: Regina Clarke

The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air. The days were hot in that desert place. It was not like home.

I was born in the hills above Firenzi, near the eastern coast of Italy. This is what they tell me. My mother was of Arabic origin, my father of British. My grandmother on my mother’s side was Turkish, my grandfather Persian, as he insisted, he had been from the moment of his conception. I speak all their languages fluently, as well as the words spoken in my birth country, but of course, now I use only one of them on a daily basis. The others stay in my blood.

For five years I lived in Firenzi, though we always spent the summer holidays with my mother’s family, where I learned how to make a very good breakfast, a traditional kahvalti. In the evenings we always had manti, which I could not get enough of, for it looked so pretty on the white plate that was reserved just for me. I remember mornings when we would all gather for prayer outside, the heat already rising though it was a dry heat and comfortable at that hour. My grandmother took me on many walks and told me stories about her life as a girl in Anatolia, for which I was named. She spoke with excitement of the discoveries at Çatalhöyü, where, she said, our true ancestors had lived. She insisted on doing everything for my mother, who I remember was always tired. It wasn’t until much later, I learned how ill she was, or why.

On these holidays, my father stayed at home. He and my mother’s family could not find common ground. I do not remember him very well, for he was killed when I was five, by a man who had lost his mind with grief at the death of his infant son and had gone out into the street and shot at passersby. It was an extraordinary incident, unheard of in my city. None were seriously hurt besides my father, who as usual had been reading a book while he walked to work. He loved his books. That is something I inherited from him. I have often let go of all my possessions, but not my books.

After my father’s death we moved to England, at the request of his family. My mother could have gone home and been cared for by her own people. I would have been raised by my grandmother amidst the conversations of my uncles and the general chaos of my cousins. But that was not the outcome. And so, we found ourselves one day standing on a path of flat stones, looking at a two-story, brick house and a front garden filled with pale, pink roses, just as the sun broke through the clouds. I remember how I turned my face up into the light, feeling the sudden warmth, welcoming its unexpected presence in that cold country.

When I was fifteen, and had my friends and English life, my mother felt I should know her people again. So, she sent me there to see them. I was excited by this, for I recalled vividly the clamor and loving framework I had once known with her family, and I had often imagined a reunion. It was not a visit, however, as I had thought. Instead, she had sent me back to marry. By then I was very different from the girl her family had known, and this perplexed them. My grandmother had long since died and the rest of my relatives devoted themselves to ensuring I became integrated into their culture. Their first act was to explain if I disobeyed my husband—for I was to be married without question—I would be killed. I didn’t believe this and laughed. I still did not understand what my mother had done or why. My cousin, the same cousin I had played with as a child, slapped me for laughing and I was put into a locked room, alone for many days, until the day of the wedding. I did not see the man I had to marry until the ceremony.

I lived with my husband for five years. When he died, poisoned by food prepared by a careless cook, I was pitied and for a short time, even given a certain measure of status because of my grief. That period—hardly likely to exceed a few days—would be my only opportunity for freedom, and I knew this, had known this for a long time. A married woman is worthless, but a widow is a potential partner and her husband’s property would be given to the next man who married her. They lined up. Some, I think, found me attractive, what they could see of me. My lack of virginity had a reasonable excuse. For these reasons, I could sometimes venture out into the main streets safely, wearing my grieving robes, and men would step aside when I passed by.

Near the end of one street was a field I had visited, walking there with my husband on the few occasions when he accepted my presence outside the house. It was a like a beautiful garden, unusual in that dry land. I loved it for its own sake, for its green and flowering existence reminded me of the life I had been forced to leave behind. Because of that field, I would not forget where I had been.

Someone once told me that worry was a form of half death. That makes sense to me, for it is useless to waste time in a state of mind that serves us no use whatsoever. When worry is discarded, there is only action and resolution. I knew two things: that if I stayed where I was, I would die in my heart because my mother’s family would eat up my soul, and that the only person I could count on for help was myself. So, I formed an idea of what to do.

It was a primitive course of action, drawn out of a desperate need, and so it was full of danger. Were I caught, too, it was certain execution, if not instantly, then slowly, day by day. Nor would they let me out of their sight again. Yet, as I look back now, I see the very virtue of my plan lay in its smallness, its directness, its anonymity. They would never expect me to be bold and take the train. They would naturally assume I was on foot, and at best they would think I was lost in the paths leading to the foothills of the border mountains. But I had no idea how to escape that way, and so I simply purchased a ticket for the town closest to the border, in fact, only a mile away from it, pretending to the ticket seller that I was traveling with a group of women in burqas.

I had studied maps when my husband was not at home. He kept them locked in his private room, and he never dreamed I would be able to pick the lock. He made a point of reminding me how ignorant I was, and unschooled. It was untrue, but if I objected in any way, I paid a price. I learned very quickly to keep all my thoughts to myself. I also knew where he kept his money, and removing a few coins was very easy to do. I had no temptation to take more.

On the train, in my grieving clothes, I could not be recognized. I kept my head down, as was the custom, only occasionally glancing out the window to see the territory we were passing through. It was much the same for most of the slow, three-hour journey, until we reached the last stop. There, in the distance, I could see a glimmer of the sea. I was very close. What I think of most now is how I had no fear that day long ago. Whatever I did, I knew I was not going to return to my mother’s family. That was the only danger I faced, going back to them. If I did not make it to the border, I would let the guards shoot me. That was my plan.

As I got off the train, a guard approached me immediately. He wanted to know where my family was and why I was traveling alone. I spoke to him in a fearful tone, explaining I had gotten on the wrong train at the last minute and must wait for a return train to the capital. He smiled in condescension. “Of course,” he said to me. “A woman would make such a mistake.” However, he was not about to let me travel alone on the return trip. He would find a chaperone for me. I was to wait on the station platform in the same spot for him to come back.

No one was about, for the train was gone and everyone had already departed. When he turned the corner of the station, I felt the change inside me, of something shifting, like an earthquake, but the ground beneath my feet was still. Hardly seconds had passed when I half climbed down, half fell off the platform and began to move quickly along the back wall of the station, bent over to avoid being seen. I felt the futility of what I was doing in that place, but I didn’t care. I stopped and tore off the veils. Beneath them I had dressed in my English clothes, which I had managed to retrieve from the trash, keeping them under my bed where no one ever looked. I threw the heavy black cloth under a stationary truck nearby. It wouldn’t be enough, of course. I was clearly marked. And there was nowhere to hide.

That was when I heard a voice.

“Here. Come here!” On the other side of the road a woman wearing a burqa was beckoning to me, only her eyes visible. She held the door of her home open. I could see it was hardly more than a shack. In an instant I understood she had perceived my danger and wanted to help me. That, or she was a trap. I didn’t stop to think but instead crossed over to where she was, knowing I had only a moment left before the outcry would go up and they would look for me. I was over a mile from the border still, and it was only midday. I could not attempt to cross the distance that remained until night. Just as she closed the door behind me, I heard the shouting of the guard.

“Follow me,” the woman said. She led me through into a smaller room where there were shawls and covers and cushions strewn about. Their sleeping quarters. She lifted a mass of the cloth and signaled me to get under it. I did so, lying down on the thinnest layer.

“How do you know English?” I said to her. She didn’t answer but merely touched her finger to lips in a gesture of silence. She threw so many layers of bedding on top of me; I felt as if I were suffocating.

The pounding at her door started at the same moment. I could hear her voice, and then a sudden scream. A man’s loud voice spoke in the local dialect. I nearly cried out. Another man was also shouting. I heard a slap and a whimper.

“If you see her, tell us or it is your own life,” the first voice said.

I heard another slap and the second man’s voice again.

“This one is alone. We can do what we want.”

There was another scream.

“Leave her. You want others to see us? Idiot. We can come here again at night. Her son is away for two more days.”

The wool and silk around me were filled with dust. I wanted to sneeze and was so desperate that I held my breath. But that was impossible. I knew I could last only a few seconds more. But God willing, it was enough. I heard a rustling movement and footsteps and then the sound of a door closing.

“Now. It is okay,” the woman said, lifting the covers off me.

I gasped for breath and sneezed at the same time. My clothes were covered with sand and multi-colored bits of wool.

“What are you going to do?” I asked her.

“They are just guards, boasting. They know my son would kill them if they raped me. That is why they only slapped me. Their anger needed to be vented, but it will not go further. I have known those two since they were children. That would not stop them, but my son is their age, and they know his temper is greater than anyone’s. Do not worry for me.”

“I don’t understand. Why are you helping me?”

“Because I have nothing else to do. Because I want to. It is very simple.”

“Where did you learn English?”

“You ask so many questions. Can you not just accept that you are safe?” The woman smiled at me. “All right, I’ll tell you this much. I married an Englishman. He died. He was border patrol, on the other side. That is where I met him. I returned to my village after he died, and here I am, still. I married again. That one was a good man, but he also died.”

I marveled at her ease. She was defying her own village in protecting me. Her danger was vivid and certain.

“Why aren’t you afraid?” I asked her.

“I choose not to be,” she answered. “No more questions. When it is dark you can go to the border. I will explain the best path to take. Until then, you need to eat. I have some food I was preparing for myself. You can share it with me.”

She never told me her name. “If they capture you—which I pray to Allah they do not—then you will not be able to name me, which is better for both of us,” she said.

By nightfall I was walking in the direction she had given me, a circuitous route that stayed away from the main road and avoided the guard posts. “They have guards only a quarter mile on the border in either direction. You have to cross at the half-mile point. A longer walk, but a safe one.”

I turned back to look at her when I was only a few steps away from her house, but she had already closed the door. A wave of loss came over me. I shook it off and went on. “Angels walk the earth.” That is what my father’s mother had told me often. “They will find you if you need them.”

When I finally managed to cross the border and make my way to the nearest town, I was too tired to worry about what I would do next. I had enough money left to stay one night in a hostel, and to buy one meal. No one paid any attention to me. It was a small town that many passed through and where none stayed for long. I, myself, I would find my way home, and see again the two-story brick house and the front garden filled with pale pink roses. And so, I did.

Now I believe that my mother, who had died in my absence, felt guilt, but of what, and why, I will never know. Whatever it was, it persuaded her to send me to her people and deceive me as to her intent.

If we dwell on the past, it is more difficult to forgive. Yet it is the shape of those memories that creates us. So, I don’t think we are meant to forget, but that’s not the same thing, is it? No, not at all. Forgiveness is essential, if we are to survive well. My father’s mother tells me this often. I listen and know in my heart she is right. The time for that will come.