To Whom We Return
by Jordan Alam
“Room in there for one more?”
The brown hand that had wedged between the closing elevators doors was attached to a heavy set South Asian woman who wriggled her way inside. She was wearing a paisley dress and a leather jacket, bejeweled flip flops on her feet. She had a slight Southern drawl.
“Ah! I see why you wanted the space – one or two?” she asked, her smile widening as Nadia moved her hand to her belly. Was she showing that much already?
“I’ve just got an eye for babies, hon,” the woman said, reading her mind, “Wish I had one for apartments. You happen to know who lives in 6D?”
Shit. Had she forgotten to take the advertisement down?
“That would be me,” she said in a heavy Indian accent. She blushed — it always came out when she was feeling shy.
“Great luck for me then! Are you still renting it? Looking for someone?”
“I was…” Nadia replied as the elevator doors opened onto her floor. She hesitated too long and the doors started closing, but the woman put her hand in the way and walked out.
“Sounds like you’re not anymore – mind if I ask how come?”
“I was going to move in with my partner but it didn’t… work out.” She cringed at every rounded vowel.
“A fixer-upper then? Happens to us all at least once. Hope you’ve got help for the little one. Pleasure meeting you.”
Nadia imagined the woman getting in the elevator and going back downstairs. It made her want to cry. The woman must have seen something in her face because, instead of turning around, she asked “Do you want to go grab some tea?”
* * *
Fifteen pills scattered across the floor, rolling away from their dropped container. Nadia got down on her hands and knees to follow them but once she was on the floor, she stayed there. Her hands kept shaking and she braced herself against the bed frame. The prescription the doctor had given her were for just these moments, but the weight on her chest held her in place. Slowly, she opened the storage drawer underneath the bed. On top of a pile of sweaters sat a tiny brass locket unfamiliar to her. It felt cold to the touch. When she opened it, a piece of paper the size of a fortune fell to the floor, printed all over in a language she could not read. She turned it over and over, but the lines and dots were indecipherable. Farsi? Arabic? She closed the locket and set it on the side table as she heard footsteps approaching.
She jerked upward and pushed herself onto the bed. The footsteps faded; another tenant crashing up the stairs to the next floor. She dreaded evenings like these, when her studio apartment became a crypt where every creak and rumble was suspect. She would stay out as late as possible, in bars or bookstores, until she was forced to come home and sleep. She didn’t invite people over often. She worried they would ask questions she didn’t want to answer. And who would blame them? She jumped a mile in the air every time the sound of a car alarm went off outside.
She drew a bath and sank down into it. The loose skin around her stomach floated up above the lip of the water. Her hair was long enough now for her to take a cluster of tan split ends between her teeth and her legs were covered in stubble of the same color. The classic teenage debate: to shave or not to shave? Winter was on its way, after all. She snorted. At the same moment, the radiator knocked in the other room and the two sounds together made her jerk and splash water over the edge of the shallow tub. When her heart stopped hammering, she clambered out and stood at the sink. The steam had clouded the mirror and hung in the air as if the San Francisco fog outside had rolled into her bathroom.
Where are you…? Where are you?
She had just toweled off her head when she heard it. She covered her face longer than necessary, not brave enough to remove the piece of fabric. The whispers began soft at first, then louder, then closer. She slid the towel off her head and hurried out the door. The bedroom was still. But when she shut off the light, she began to hear the noises again. Indistinct sounds, mostly. Mostly. She shut her eyes, but could still hear her bed creaking, and the whispers underneath. This time the footsteps were softer and near.
The silhouette of a head appeared at the end of her bed, traced by the light of the street lamp and outlined by a faint shadow against her light-colored sheets. It faced the opposite wall, unmoving but drawing in ragged breaths. She imagined its exhalations on her skin and curled into a fetal position. Fingers, like tiny icicles, skittered up her legs. She kicked but they kept moving upwards, tugging at the sheets as they clenched and unclenched. This isn’t real. Isn’t real. But she knew wishing him away only worked if he cooperated, and this time he would not. She opened her eyes and saw his red gleaming mouth.
Nadia woke up with her jaw clenched shut and her hands balled into fists. When she looked at her body in the mirror, there were tiny scratches and little red divots all across her shoulders and upper back; she had been clawing at herself while she slept. She pulled on a long-sleeved dress and leggings, thankful that the cold meant she could hide herself without too many questions. On her way out the door, she noticed a blinking light on her phone. How are you doing? Haven’t heard from you in a while, read the text from Radhika. It happened again, she texted back, then threw the phone in her bag. She took the stairs down.
* * *
“So this is how I was supposed to find my countrywoman!”
Radhika – that was the woman’s name, Nadia had learned over tea – had been living out of her car for the last couple of weeks. Jobs came and went. She had little money and lots of eclectic skills, but couldn’t hold anything down too long. She’d been driving around the US before ending up here in San Francisco, doing every odd thing from stitching up cuts as a traveling medical assistant to loading and unloading grocery store shipments. Nothing she loved.
“Figured this time if I could find a settled place to live, it’d be more incentive to stick with a thing. How’d you end up here?”
“I came here for college, then graduated and decided to stay. You know what they say — a girl with too much education doesn’t know her boundaries.”
“Must have been your favorite uncle with lines like that.”
“My family talks so little, even if they were displeased I wouldn’t know it until months later. No, that was just the feeling I got when I told them that I wanted to work in the States. It’s been a few years now, but they still don’t know much about what I do. I haven’t found an easy way to explain what advocacy is.”
“Do they know about…” Radhika stroked an invisible baby bump.
“No. No one does.”
“Even the father?”
She opened her mouth to respond but her throat had become thick. She took a big sip of tea and burned her tongue.
When they’d finished their tea and Radhika drove them back to her place, Nadia had made up her mind. She brought Radhika upstairs and moved all the laundry from the couch to the floor.
“You probably know more about babies than I do,” she said, by way of invitation. They brought her things in that evening.
* * *
“I don’t need someone to live with me again,” Nadia said. Radhika had called the minute she had read the text and hadn’t stopped until Nadia picked up. She was parked at a local diner that was mercifully empty of patrons.
“And what are you going to do instead?”
“I can figure that out myself. I’m sure there are more books on the subject that I haven’t gone through yet.”
“That’s not good enough. I want you to get help — doctor, herbalist, witch doctor, exorcist, whoever it is. You can’t keep on like this.”
She imagined Radhika’s hard stare. She pulled out the locket and played with it between her fingers. Even though Radhika was only about six years older, sometimes she made Nadia feel like a child. Sometimes Nadia regretted telling her a thing.
“I have to get going – they’re putting me on the early shift tonight,” she lied. Sunday was always her late shift, but Radhika didn’t need to know that. She hung up and finished her meal.
When they’d first lived together, she’d needed Radhika more than she’d expected, but all too soon the woman was on her way out. An ex-husband of hers passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, of a heart problem. Just like that there was an old farmhouse in her name in the Oregon countryside. Just like that there was an alternative to sleeping on couches and slipping leftovers from the restaurant she worked for into her bag at the end of the night. She packed up her hatchback and her dog and set off for Corvallis. Oregon suited her, she said over the phone, and Nadia could almost see her wink. She’d only visited the little yellow house once before, almost a year ago now.
By the time Nadia reached the shelter where she worked, it was after curfew and her co-advocate Marissa had already finished the room checks, which meant she could stay at the desk and wait for hotline callers. The calls forwarded to an old flip phone from the main line at the head office; it was so old and battered that it looked to be held together only by a strip of duct tape across the back. When she was a budding volunteer and they had asked her to go on the hotlines by herself, she had been terrified. Now that she was on staff, it was the most leisurely part of the job. She dropped a notepad on the desk and settled in for a night of paperwork.
At 12:30am, the phone buzzed.
“How may I help you?” she said slowly.
The line was quiet for a moment, which wasn’t atypical. Some callers to the hotline needed a few moments to collect themselves or get to a safe place to talk. Some of them had difficulty speaking English and needed to be transferred. She waited.
“How may I help you?” she repeated.
She was about to hang up the phone when she heard the slightest crackling on the other end of the line. It sounded like a whisper or a bad phone connection. She tapped the pad with her pen and opened her mouth to ask again when the line went dead. She flipped the phone closed and began to type up the report on the computer. Her partner in the office was watching a television drama on her computer in between typing up and filing case reports. They both had mugs of coffee the size of soup bowls to get them through the night.
“I’m going to the bathroom – are you going to be ok out here by yourself for a little bit?”
“Yep, that’ll be fine. We’ve been getting a lot of dud calls tonight, but I’ll let you know if I need any support.”
She sipped a bit of lukewarm coffee and looked over at the clock stationed on her cubicle desk. 12:39am. It wasn’t early, but it wasn’t late. She hoped she would get home so tired that she would drop off immediately to sleep and not have to worry about anything else until the next day. The phone buzzed again and she picked it up.
“How may I help you?”
“I need to get out of here,” said a cool whisper.
“Are you in a safe location to talk?”
“I need to get out of here,” the person said in the same even tone.
“Can you tell me your name and where you are currently?”
The line clicked.
“Another dud?” Marissa asked as she sat down at her station again. Nadia stretched her arms over her head and yawned, but her skin tingled.
“Yeah, sometimes I get a little creeped out by calls like that,” she said.
“You’re right – but nine times out of ten it’s just someone’s phone not working.”
She chose not to tell Marissa about the slippery voice. She was going to have to walk home and Marissa was one of those people to take stories like that and run with them. They had gone to see horror movies together a few times and Marissa would continue the story on well after it finished, like it was nothing. She added embellishments that were even more gruesome than the director had planned.
“Are you and I heading out at the same time tonight?”
“Looks like it. But I’m going over to Jamie’s house after this, so I don’t think I can walk you home. Sorry, hon.”
At 4am, Nadia bolted. Every shadow looked like the shape of someone; every small sound was heightened. While at work, she’d received another call from Radhika checking in on her, but let it go to voicemail. She couldn’t trust herself not to say what she really thought, that the visions had begun to follow her out of the apartment. When she got outside of the building, she was shivering. She fiddled with the lock on the main door, but her fingers were like ice and she dropped the keys. That was when she saw it. A small dark figure darted in between the garbage cans lined up in the alley next to her building, the unmistakable shape of a small child. She bent down, grabbed the key, and jammed it into the lock. Inside, the elevator was already waiting on the first floor. She leapt in and punched the button for the sixth floor over and over.
“I need to get out of here,” the whisper had said. It was no different when she heard it coming from behind her as the elevator began to rise.
* * *
She called in sick the next day and the next. She would wake up at 7am to call in and then fall back asleep, trying to keep herself that way for as long as possible. When it was Friday, she decided that she was going to go in and ask to apply all her vacation days to the next few weeks. Emergency leave. She tried to text Radhika about it, but the words never came out right. She sat in a community park across town for a couple of hours, watching people go past.
She walked for an hour to get home and by the time she arrived, her legs felt stiff. There was a car waiting outside, a burgundy hatchback with its bumper dipping low in the back. She passed by, pretending not to notice, but the driver honked the horn. She went to the driver’s side door as Radhika opened it and swung one leg out onto the street.
“We’re going to the farmhouse tonight.”
“Why did you come here?” Nadia asked, her voice tight.
Rather than answering, Radhika turned and honked the horn at several small children that were making faces at them from nearby. They scattered, giggling, and Nadia sighed.
Radhika let her go up to the apartment to pack some clothes and stood in the doorway while she rummaged around. Nadia opened and closed drawers that she hadn’t used in months, trying to take as much time as possible. She swept everything off of her side table – lip balm, coin jar, and locket all went into the bottom of a beat up leather purse.
“We have to get going,” Radhika said, leaning on the door frame.
“We won’t get there before four in the morning, even if we leave now.”
“Well, we’ll see what this old car can do.”
* * *
“I don’t think you should take it,” Nikhil said, pulling down a plate from the cabinet.
“What? Why? It has good pay and in my field of interest.”
“You will be out at all late hours and talking to strangers.”
“This is the first job they’ve given me with that kind of responsibility — everywhere else only wants someone to do the paperwork.” Nadia chewed her fingernail.
“Don’t you think they’ll try to take advantage of you?”
She went quiet for a moment and he could see her shoulders had twisted up.
“I’ll keep thinking about it, but I don’t know where all this is coming from. Temping after school can only last so long.”
“I’m not against the job in theory, I just want you to be safe.”
Safe. There was that word again. Most of their conversations had ended this way lately, shorter and shorter spats when Nadia couldn’t keep up with Nikhil’s bottomless array of comments. By his own admission, he could go on and on about a topic even if it was one he didn’t care about. Her period was late again and she felt tired, less inclined to engage. The rice cooker beeped and she dug out the plastic spoon to serve them both a hunk. They sat down at the table together and began pouring the heated leftovers out into bowls. She had wanted to tell him, about the period, about the pregnancy test she had bought but hadn’t taken yet, but from the moment he walked in the door they had been like this. She had just put a big forkful of fish into her mouth when his head shot up again.
“When are you going to move in with me?”
She swallowed. “I have to be settled in whatever job first. I don’t want to be looking over and over again while moving.”
“You’ll have fewer bills,” he said through a lump of rice, “Plus, this apartment isn’t any sort of palace.”
“Why do you want to fight tonight?”
“This is not a fight, this is a question. A very reasonable question for people who have been dating for a year.”
“You’re counting now?” The room temperature had risen noticeably. “It’s all irrelevant. I want to live with you. It would be more convenient. We could see each other more often. But if you’re not ready, you can take your time. We have a lot of that, I’m sure.”
He had tried to joke around on the last part, but something in his tone made it sound like a threat. It made her wonder why she didn’t just give in. After their meal, she cleared the table and asked him to go home. She wasn’t feeling well, she said, and her drowsiness wouldn’t make it fun for him. Mercifully, he just walked out the door to his car. When he left, she pulled out the home pregnancy test and closed her eyes.
* * *
They arrived at the farmhouse around 3:30am, just shy of Nadia’s prediction. It was a tidy little yellow rambler with a wraparound porch, unchanged save for the herd of animals that came out to greet them – Radhika had acquired several barn cats and herding dogs to follow her around. Nadia was alert and awake, having slept for part of the drive. Radhika heated up some leftovers and brought drinks and blankets around to the front of the house. From the porch swing, Nadia looked up and saw the stars spread out above them like beads on black fabric.
“You’ve still been hearing things since you went in to the doctor’s?”
And seeing them. Nadia wanted to say, but she just nodded.
“Did they give you something you could keep down?”
She hadn’t told her yet that she wasn’t taking any drugs, hadn’t even gone back to the doctor again after the initial visit. She had been doing research and the more she did, the more it terrified her. Seeing things was not so bad in comparison. She crossed and uncrossed her legs.
“Nadia, I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be,” she jabbed.
A sharp bang broke the air as Radhika’s hand connected with the porch railing. Nadia jumped so high she felt it all the way up her spine.
“I have a right to worry,” Radhika said, her voice a growl, “Arif is back.”
It was surprising even to hear his name.
“Yes.” She stayed stock still, “That’s true.”
They sat in silence for so long that even the animals started to fidget and make their way back into the house. At some point, Radhika got up and shut off the lights as she retreated to her bedroom, leaving Nadia alone on the swing. She rocked herself back and forth with one foot touching the ground, and stared into the patch of trees at the edge of Radhika’s property. He was here. When the wind turned, she saw his familiar shape standing at the edge of the woods, moving in and out of sight.
* * *
“I’m keeping it,” she’d said when she’d seen him holding the results of the clinic pregnancy test. She’d gone in to be doubly sure.
Nikhil had smiled in that disarming offhand way. He’d gone out and bought her things, something new each time he’d visit – a nice stroller, a crib, little baby clothes in all the wrong sizes (“Newborn, not toddler! He’ll be swimming in these.”) – and he’d laughed when she told him she felt spoiled. They had stood on her stoop and he’d kissed her on the forehead.
“I’ll be seeing you,” he’d said.
And then he was gone. She’d expected some sort of sign, another argument even. But his old green car had bumped down the hill and out of sight just like every other time. Weeks later, when his number had been disconnected, she dropped by his apartment and rang the buzzer. Someone else’s voice crackled through the intercom with a confused “hello?”
* * *
“I was worried you’d get eaten up by bugs out there,” Radhika said when Nadia walked into the kitchen the next morning, yanking at the knots in her hair.
“I was more likely to be eaten up by your little pack of animals,” she said.
Radhika laughed. “I shouldn’t be surprised that you’d pick up a few strays.”
She had fallen into a deep sleep on the porch swing, surrounded by the farm cats and dogs, their bodies warm against her chest and back. She woke up with a dark orange cat keeping watch, fixed stare on the empty field. He had followed her in, turned his big green eyes first towards her then towards Radhika, and cackled.
“Job well done,” she said, tossing him a treat.
She could smell the food Radhika was cooking, a heavy onion smell that made her stomach growl. There was toast and eggs with deep yellow centers, spiced with herbs and onions and peppers. She was handed a plate and an oversized mug of tea, which she took back out to the porch, gently moving the animals off the now crowded swing to sit down. They stretched their legs, yawned, and wandered off to perform their daily rituals. Radhika placed a cold hand on her wrist that shocked her.
“I saw him when I woke up once last night,” she said, “He was out on the porch with you, but you didn’t hear a thing. The animals were going mad.”
Nadia’s jaw tightened. She wondered whether Radhika was lying. “So you didn’t get to sleep last night,” she said.
“No, I did after a while. I figured the dogs could take care of you alright.” A faint smile came to her lips, “I haven’t ever seen a ghost like that. Felt one, maybe. But never seen. I’d hoped you would have been protected by that tabiz I left you. I had it blessed and everything.”
Nadia’s hand went to her hip where the cool edge of the locket met her fingers. It had migrated from purse to pocket during their car ride.
“How can I be protected by something that I didn’t even know was there?”
“It sounds like you didn’t want protecting,” Radhika said.
“He’s my son.”
“And you have to bury him.”
She fixed her gaze to the spot in the distance where she had seen him the night before.
“Leave me alone,” she snapped, then turned away embarrassed. Radhika went back into the house.
The tabiz was something her family would disapprove of. They believed wholeheartedly in rational kinds of ailments that could be remedied with gel capsules and exercise — everything else they refused to see. Growing up, Nadia had only known her mother’s anger when she would dismiss bua halfway through her tasks and take up the jharu herself. Clean bedsheets would be changed, straightened, and swept flat, the vigorous clacking of the instrument so loud that she could hear it in every other room. Perhaps if her father had been more forthcoming, then it would balance out. But Nadia’s parents were similar sorts of people, those who held their silences and expected the same from their children.
She stood and stuck her feet into the dusty sandals beside her. Leaving everything else behind, she marched out into the field, trampling the tall grass down in places to form a new path. The evergreens drew closer and closer in her field of vision until she was swallowed up.
* * *
“Do you want to hold him?” the nurse had asked.
The room, which had been a flurry of activity, was abruptly still. She opened her mouth to speak and realized she’d be clenching her jaw.
“Placenta,” one of the doctors said without passion, dragging a bloodied organ as discreetly as possible from between her legs and depositing it into what looked like a snap-top take out container. She said no.
When Radhika was allowed to come into the room again, the debris had all been cleared away. She had been stitched up and they were wheeling out the table of equipment.
“Where is he?” Radhika asked, squeezing Nadia’s shoulder.
“They’re taking care of it.”
Radhika gave her a long look but just said “Ok.”
She had stayed in bed till the next morning when Radhika came to pick her up. The apartment was barren of all the baby things; Radhika had been considerate and tucked them all out of sight. Nadia let her cook and clean while she stayed in bed. It went on that way for two months. Then the unexpected call from the lawyer, the house. Just like that. She rolled out of bed and called an old friend about a shelter position.
* * *
Nadia’s legs were burning. She had walked a long ways in one direction, turned, then walked long in another. It occurred to her that she would need to find her way back, now that the thrumming in her chest had eased to a steady tick. She stopped and leaned against a tree, its trunk now amber in the twilight. Soon there would be a chill in the air.
The thought came to her that there were dozens and dozens of stories out there more troubling than her own. She had heard many of them, on the phone with people in more desperate conditions than she chose to imagine. Instead she transcribed them into dispassionate case notes and filed away the paperwork.
She flinched when she looked down and saw the remains of a bird on the ground by her feet. It was fresh, unmistakable, with a pool of black blood seeping from one gash that spread from beak to broken wing, matting the feathers along its crease. The feathers were dark grey, fuzzy and maturing into the jet black of an adult crow. Its upturned eye reflected treetops and sky.
Fixated on the carcass, she felt trapped by the present moment. Nadia had become so adept at telescoping outward, hovering over her own life, that the mourning she felt for the creature had stretched the pinhole inside of her. She feared touching it. But her mind had snagged on the grey of the feathers, how much they looked like the ashes she had been given upon exiting the hospital. They were awarded to her in a discreet box because she had no nicer container. And they had remained that way; she had not told Radhika or anyone, but instead left them in some irretrievable place and tried hard to forget all about it. Hers would be a silent grief, she told herself.
She got onto her knees and swept away the leaf litter, digging an uneven hole into the moist earth. She took off her jacket, carefully wrapped the crow, and lowered it into the hole. It was far from beautiful. The last glow of the sun caught on a piece of metal that had fallen in — the tabiz locket, now cracked partially open, rested beside the crow’s body. With her right hand, she scattered the dirt and then heaped more and more on top of it. The sun had dropped and her skin was cold. But unlike the other times, when the visions had left her immobile and anxious, she felt soothed to know that she was alone.
Nadia knelt that way with her eyes closed for what felt like a long time. She heard barking at a distance, but all too soon they were upon her — a team of Radhika’s dogs nuzzled against her, sounding their victory.
“If you wanted to sleep in the woods, I could have given you a tent,” Radhika said, shining the flashlight in her face. They let the dogs lead them home.
* * *
Nadia was sitting in the living room when Radhika came out with two big bundles. She wore a white scarf and Radhika had pulled her hair back into a bun. They both put on their shoes before she grabbed one of the bundles and headed outside. They waded through the tall grass to the spot just at the edge of the woods where she had seen him standing. Radhika dropped her bag, then handed her a trowel and a slab of stone. Nadia dug a shallow hole and positioned the stone securely inside the upturned earth. Her heart was hammering. They both unrolled their prayer mats and Radhika began to call the azaan.
“Allahu Akbar,” she began, her booming voice rising against a backdrop of tree leaves shuddering in the breeze.
They knelt and rose in unison, praying and watching the sun dip lower in the sky. When they came to the end, sitting in silence on their knees, Nadia looked for the familiar outline against the trees. When she didn’t see it, she looked down at her hands and said, “I didn’t do anything – I didn’t even pray for him, not even after the forty days. Not one word.”
“I know,” Radhika whispered. Nadia felt her friend’s warm arms wrap around her, lifting her to standing.
Jordan Alam is a writer, editor, doula, and social change educator based out of south Seattle. Her short stories and articles have appeared in The Atlantic, CultureStrike Magazine, The Rumpus, and AAWW’s The Margins; she has spoken at events including the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Eyes on Bangladesh exhibition. She is currently writing a debut novel. Find more about her work at jordanalam.com.