Lois J Peterson


At first she was just an elderly lady like the many others here, except for her skin.. I don't think I had seen such skin before. It was unusually smooth, and I thought I could see a blue light beneath it. I could imagine death on that face, on that skin. But that's not surprising. Death is all that's left for many of them here. Some of them know it. Others don't. I couldn't tell you how she felt about it.

She wore some strange clothes, but don't they all? Their hands no longer follow exact instructions as they fold and tie and button, and many can't rely on their own eyes to tell them how they look. But the colors she wore were not those of the other old women who wear pale pink and mint green to go with their white hair. She wore clothes the color of jewels. Blood red blouses, silk or rayon that draped like water. Sometimes black or dark purple, long skirts and shawls, not soft ones in fine wool but heavy ones adorned with embroidery that looked as if it had been done by a foreign hand.

"I should have been a bedouin."

Those were the first words she spoke to me. I misheard, thinking she was saying she wanted to be in bed. When I went in, prepared to tend to her, I saw she had a book open in her lap that showed pictures of desert woman standing outside their dark tents, the black goatskin so worn, so smooth, it looked purple. The women's skin had been etched by sand and sun and it held the shape of their smiles and frowns long after they had left their faces.

She explained that before television and pick-up trucks, the bedouin moved with their flocks of goats from water to water, grazing place to grazing place, but now most of them are confined to the edges of big cities.

On many evenings, when I did the rounds on my soft-soled shoes, she told me about the desert where she had grown up. She spoke of it as the only place to which she'd like to return. As she spoke her gaze lengthened, it moved from my face to the window to the space beyond, and on.

What I know of the desert I learned from movies like Lawrence of Arabia; hers did not seem so different. There were camels with their drunken gait, women with dark eyes, hennaed hands and long robes. I had seen them in the movies; she had seen them as a child, passing from one place to another. Basra. Barjeseyah. Kirkuk. Sulemeneyah. Names that ring like bells in my head now, their shapes indistinct, but their sound clear.

I like working nights when the place sleeps under dimmed lights, full of sounds. As I move back and forth, opening doors a crack, checking beds for breath, I hear all kinds of things. Groans, cries, creaks. Old people's bodies are noisy, and their dreams are, too. I have often heard someone say, "Please excuse me" as if some maintain their manners, long after their teeth have gone, or their hair, their memories. Even in sleep.

One night very late I saw lamplight through her open door; she was sitting in a chair by the liquid blue square of the window. I thought she must be sleeping, she was so still, and I was turning to leave when she spoke.

"Come, please. If it's no trouble. I need a little company."

So I sat on the edge of the bed near her knees and she told me about the locusts.

"It was a school day and we were sitting outside, crouched under bushes with the lunches our mothers had packed. I remember apples, peeled and quartered in paper folded at the corners." She didn't need to tell me that this was in the desert, in great heat. I knew this by the look on her face. I sensed the long journeys she had taken since then, I knew she travelled a long way to return there.

"And the locusts came," she said. I put my hand to my chest. I have never liked the flutter of insect wings, their papery dryness, so susceptible to tearing. She was wearing a shawl and she pulled it up to protect her neck from the window's draft, to protect her skin from the heat. "I'd never seen them and could not see them now. The teachers flapped around us, hurrying us indoors. I think it was the only time I'd ever heard anyone say shoo." I liked her quiet laugh. "So we ran indoors, into the big room which was used for prayers and gym. It had tall French windows with deep red curtains. The teachers herded us inside and closed the curtains. But we wanted to see the locusts, so we crowded forward and parted them to look outside. All I could see was a great thick cloud, like the grey blanket that our houseboy slept on in his small courtyard room. Then the teachers closed the curtains and the room took on the color of blood."

She reached to the table beside her and took an apricot from a dish. Many old people take up sweets as a hobby, strong mints like white buttons, licorice, chocolates in colored wrappings. She ate dried fruit, and nuts which she could crack in her mouth, chew the meat and spit out the shell in one movement. Some residents here, mostly men, envied this skill. But when they tried it the shells caught under their dentures.

She handed me the fleshy disk of fruit and took another for herself, but she didn't eat it. "But some had got in," she continued. "Some locusts were in the room with us and I watched one climb up the curtain, up the thick ropes of fabric. It was not beautiful or frightening. It was big and dry and complicated. I shook the curtain folds and the locust fell onto the floor. The sound it made was dry and thin.

"We did not stay there for long. I peered past the curtain again, through the windows where I could see the locusts covering the ground, the dusty patch where we sat to eat out lunch and where we played games and ran. There were no trees but there were many bushes - acacia I think, do you know they have spines but the camels chew them their lips are so thick? - and the locusts shrouded these bushes and the ground was dark with their great numbers. But they soon began to shift, like a cloud's shadow changes its shape across the flat desert, and the dry ground and sparse branches of the acacia were again revealed and the locusts shifted and rose and became again a great cloud and were carried away to their next feeding place.We were used to the dry landscape, but now it was leeched of everything."

She sunk her teeth into the apricot and chewed slowly. I could see the her small white teeth.

"But they left behind one patch of green. When we were allowed outside again we crowded around that one piece of color. It was a child's shirt, someone had left it lying there when we'd all been sent indoors. It was all the locusts had left us." Her smile was wide, and I could feel the joy of the children, standing over this small patch of color.

I wanted to ask many questions about what the teachers told the children afterwards and what they told their parents later, but she had settled further into her seat and her arm was resting against the table, the tip of one finger against the brass dish that held apricots. I spread a blanket across her knees and rose from the bed to leave the room.

As I turned at the door her lips moved. I believe she spoke, but I could not make out the words; they were, perhaps, in another language.

There were other times we spoke after that, she told me more about her life in those years, about the desert and the women and the bloom of dark tents seen from the desert road. She told me the tale of the locusts many times, and it was always the same. The warm apple, the teachers saying 'shoo', the locust that fell from the red curtain with a whisper, the patch of green left after the locusts had gone.

Sometimes she lifted her head as if she still felt their shadow fall across her face, as if she expected them, any minute, to cover every surface and when they left, to leave an emptiness as if they carried everything away.

When I heard that bombs were falling on the places she had told me about, I wanted to comfort her, for I felt the shadow of the locusts returning.

But she was already dead, although I did not know this. That morning I drove to work in the dark, hearing on the radio that bombs were falling over the deserts and cities of Iraq. When I came onto the floor I heard the news and went to her room. It was tidy and bright and her books were still in the bookcase and her bed was neatly made.

Some staff help themselves to something that belonged to the resident who's died - an ornament, a mirror, something small enough to fit in a pocket. I have often been moved by greed but have always resisted. I fingered the dark green shawl draped across her chair. The brass bowl on the table still held a few apricots. I took one and bit into it.

It was very sweet. I took another bite, and felt my heart flutter in my chest like a small insect, dry and thin, beating against a window.

That morning I thought of bombs falling on the places she had known - Basra, Kirkuk, Salamaneya. She had been there when the locusts came, she had seen the one patch of color that remained when they had left.

I was ready to move on by the time she got here. But I shall stay here, now. I am like the bedouin women she told me about, confined to the edges of a large city, no longer wandering from place to place. Knowing that something is always left behind after the locusts are gone.



Copyright 1998 Lois J Peterson
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