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Like Fig Trees in Winter

Published: April 8, 2016

Six months ago, when my family moved to a new town, they chose a mostly Arab neighborhood — they just arrived too late.

All the Arabs had moved out years ago except for old Mr. Hajjar, who owned the corner store down the street from our apartment — or used to. I found out he died one warm Friday when my friends and I went to get ice cream. With Mr. Hajjar’s shop closed, we had to walk all the way downtown to get soft-serve. I missed Mr. Hajjar and his soft-serve ice cream, the way he always gave me extra pistachios. He was the only one who had pistachios at all.

On our walk home, we passed the shop, the pockmarked awning bowed with age, the usually polished doorknobs and windows, the rusty little bell. I ran my tongue over the rim of my ice cream cone and wondered why no one had removed the flyers the local pizza shop had stuck in the doorjamb.

“Do you know how old man Hajjar died?” Lizzy asked, sticking her face into mine. She slurped up soft-serve, coating her upper lip.

“I heard he fell on the train tracks,” Brody said, his ice cream dripping on his shoelaces.

“I heard he ate a bad tuna sandwich,” Lizzy said. She turned to me. “What do you think got him, Jamy?”

I put my finger to the glass. It was dark inside. A jug of milk had burst in the warm refrigerator, and grey fluid dripped from the door. “Maybe he just died of old age,” I said.

Lizzy crunched off a chunk of chocolate-covered cone, her face solemn. “Maybe,” she said. “He was really old.”

“Let’s get ice cream again tomorrow,” Brody said, stopping at the crosswalk in front of my apartment.

Lizzy shook her head. “My mom says tomorrow’s gonna be cold,” she said. “Too cold for ice cream.”

Brody shrugged. “Eh,” he said, “the walk was too long anyway.”

I shifted the weight of my backpack. “That’s why Mr. Hajjar was the best,” I said.

Lizzy and Brody crossed the street and disappeared around the corner. I wiped my sticky hands on my pants and peeked around the side of my building. “Mama?” I called. There was no answer.

I unlatched the wrought-iron gate between our building and the brick house next door and shuffled into the alley with my hands in my pockets. The gate snapped shut behind me, metal bouncing off metal. I blinked to scatter the sun in my eyes. In the tiny garden behind the building, Mama was burying the fig tree.

“Jameelah, come quickly.” Mama set her shovel down and took off one of her gardening gloves. Her honey-brown hair was flecked with dirt. She kissed me on each cheek, dusting me with soil. “Go in and set down your things, habibti,” she said. “You’re just in time to say goodnight to Zenobia.”

“What do you mean, goodnight?” I set my backpack down in a corner of the tiny garden and traced spirals in the dirt with my fingertip. “And don’t you think it’s weird to talk about the fig tree like it’s a person?”

Mama set her hands on her hips, and I knew I was trying her patience. “So many questions!” she said. “Tonight comes the first hard frost. Don’t you want to say goodnight for the winter? You won’t see her until next spring, after the chill is over. And I don’t care what anyone thinks,” Mama said, taking hold of the fig tree’s trunk at one end of its shallow grave, “I think Zenobia is a lovely name for a lovely tree.”

“But Zenobia was a Syrian queen,” I said. I helped Mama pull the root ball free from the soil, and we tilted the tree down together until it lay on its side in the trough she’d dug. “This is just a tree.”

“Stop your tongue,” Mama clucked. “Zenobia is a member of the family. She’s been with us since we came to this country. A friend gifted her to us as a sapling.”

Mama covered the fig tree with wooden boards, and then she shoveled dirt on top of the trough. I sprinkled on handfuls of dirt, feeling the weight of the earth in my hands.

“Did Mr. Hajjar die from a bad tuna sandwich?” I asked.

Mama stiffened and stared hard at me. “Mr. Hajjar died of a heart attack,” she said. “Why?”

I sat down on the moss. Even though Mama usually hated it when I sat on her “decorative” moss, she didn’t tell me to get up. “Where did it happen?” I asked.

Mama wiped her wrist over her forehead and patted the mound of dirt between us. “Outside his shop,” she said, and her voice sounded like she’d been running all day, her throat all tired and dried out. “While he was locking up for the night.”

“Oh.” The black dome of soil curved away from me in the shade of the brick building next door. The fig tree’s grave looked like a blanket over a sleeping woman. A rose beetle waddled out from under a clump of dirt.

“You’d better go inside and start your homework, habibti,” Mama said without looking at me. “Our fig is safe from frost now. Until spring, she’ll rest in the bosom of the earth.”

I got up and shouldered my backpack. Before I left the garden, I patted the mound of soil. It warmed my palm.

“Goodnight, Zenobia,” I said.

 

***

 

The shop stayed open a few more months, but no one went in there anymore. It wasn’t the same without Mr. Hajjar. Lizzy told me business was slow because his ghost haunted the canned foods aisle, but I didn’t believe her.

The winter got on. It was a cold year, and the snow came down in velvet curtains, ribbons of thick white silk. I didn’t hear anything more about Mr. Hajjar until the winter got thin and cracked at its edges. The shop was shut up by then, its windows boarded over, the milk all gone from the refrigerators. I passed its dusty windows on my way home from school. That day, when I came home, I heard the piano again. We’d heard it upstairs every day for the last three weeks.

“Who is that playing the piano all the time?” I asked. “Do you know?”

Mama shook her head and tossed a palmful of chopped onions into a hot pan. “Every day,” she sighed, clucking. “They play every day. In all my years living in America, I’ve never been subjected to such a racket.”

I looked up at the ceiling. “Whoever it is must be right above us,” I said. “Don’t they hear how loud it is?”

Mama threw up her hands. “We’ve been here six months and never heard a thing—and now it starts.” She shook her head. “What do I know,” she muttered. “I only have to listen to it two hours in the morning and four more in the evening.”

While Mama made dinner, I snuck outside and approached the door next to ours, the one that led to the apartment above us. I reached for the knob — it took both my hands to turn it, but to my surprise, it opened.

It wasn’t even locked, I thought.

The sound of the piano coasted down to me from the top of the stairs, smooth and loud. My heartbeat thudded in my fingernails. Should I go in? I shimmied the knob between my palms. I have to know who it is.

Inside, the stairwell was dark. Light filtered down to me through the music as through smoke. I blinked between the notes, shutting the door behind me.

“Hello?” I called.

No answer. The piano tugged on and on, rising up and cascading down, thick as water.

I tiptoed up the stairs, my red and blue sneakers creaking on each step. They’ve got to hear me, I thought. Even the piano isn’t loud enough to cover that.

But no one called out, and the music didn’t stop.

“Hello?” I tried again — nothing. I took a breath and reached the top of the stairs.

The music stopped.

The room smelled of Castile soap and lemon. My sneakers sunk into plush tan carpeting, overlaid in the center of the room by a scroll-embroidered rug. In the corner, by the window, sat an old woman at a piano. She stared at me, squinting, her fingers poised above the keys.

“Who are you?” she called, too loud, her accent familiar.

“I-I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I’m Jamy. Mama and I live downstairs.” I backed up toward the steps. “Your door wasn’t locked.”

The woman peered at me as though she couldn’t quite make out my face. She beckoned me over. “What did you say?” she asked. “That name — your name again?”

“Jamy,” I said, fidgeting. “Jameelah. I live downstairs.”

The woman kept beckoning to me, so I walked over to the piano bench. A smile of recognition came over her face. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Jameelah — in Arabic, it means beautiful. You’re the little girl who gets extra pistachios on her ice cream. My husband spoke often of how polite you were.”

Each of my hands white-knuckled the other. “You’re Mrs. Hajjar,” I said. For some reason, the idea that Mr. Hajjar had had a wife had never occurred to me.

Mrs. Hajjar pushed herself gingerly away from the piano and laughed. She had a nice laugh, and from this distance she smelled like rosewater and lentil soup, a sweet, comforting smell. “I am,” she said. “My husband ran the shop. I preferred a quieter life — cooking, stocking, labeling. I prized my privacy. Now I have more time than I know what to do with.”

I looked around the room. It felt too silent, too still. “Do you want me to jump on the couch and yell and shout?” I asked.

Mrs. Hajjar cocked her head. “Why would I want you to do that?” she asked.

“Because,” I said. “Because I figure anyone who bangs on the piano that much must not like silence.”

Mrs. Hajjar studied my face as though for the first time. She pressed her hands into the piano bench and lifted herself up, turning toward the kitchen. “Come,” she said. “I’ll make you a cup of sage tea, and we can talk.”

In the kitchen, I dangled my feet from a chair, swinging my legs. Mrs. Hajjar set out a plate of sticky baklava. The smells of warm, fresh sage and rosewater filled the whole room, sweeping across the brown tile backsplash above the sink, twining behind a rosary hanging from a wooden clothespin.

I reached for a diamond of baklava, sugaring my fingers. “Was it you who closed the shop?” I asked.

Mrs. Hajjar poured us each a cup of tea and sat down. “I had to close it,” she said. “After my husband passed away …” She gripped her teacup in her purple-spotted hands. “A boy worked for a while, but then he got another job —” She shook her head. “I haven’t been down to the shop since my husband went to be with al-Rab — the Lord. Some of his things are still where he left them.” Then she smiled and looked up at me. “You wouldn’t guess it,” she said, “but there was a time I won awards for my piano playing. That was why I came to America — to study music.”

“You did?” I asked.

Mrs. Hajjar nodded into the steam in her hands. “And I used to recite poetry when we entertained friends. I once memorized over a hundred poems. My mother would have been proud. She couldn’t read or write, you know. But she gave us everything. She would have given us the moon and the stars. She came with us to this country and passed away in this apartment.” Mrs. Hajjar lifted her head to the corners of the room, as though her mother’s spirit still lingered by the curtains or the cabinets. “That was a long time ago,” she said, “when this neighborhood was filled with other families like ours.”

“What kinds of families?” I asked.

Mrs. Hajjar waved away steam with one papery hand. “Some were Syrians, like us, but there were many others. We lived shoulder to shoulder with dozens who left their cities and their valleys and found a place here — both Christians and Muslims alike.”

I thought about that but didn’t know what to say. “You memorized a hundred poems?” I asked. The steam in my cup broke around my breath. “What was your favorite one?”

“Oh —” Mrs. Hajjar smiled down at her cup. “I don’t know that I could say. It would be difficult to choose — and unfair.”

I took a sip of my too-hot tea to show Mrs. Hajjar that I was grateful, hiding my burnt tongue. I licked sugar off my fingertips. “I guess so,” I said. A fan on the countertop set the rosary tapping against a cabinet. “Why haven’t you been down to the shop?” I asked. “Don’t you want to get Mr. Hajjar’s things?”

That was the first time Mrs. Hajjar looked truly old, even her eyes. “I don’t think I could bear it,” she said, and followed that with a string of quiet Arabic. “How can I explain it?” she said, and her eyes were wet. “His death was the death of all I’ve ever known. It might as well be the death of my whole world.”

I glanced through the kitchen door, toward the piano. I tried to picture Mr. Hajjar sitting on the couch and Mrs. Hajjar seated at the piano bench, reciting poetry. The last shop on a changing block, I thought, the idea arriving as though it had drifted out of the teapot. Who else on this block speaks to God in Arabic anymore?

“My family lives downstairs now,” I said. “Things are different, but not everything has changed.” I fingered the mug in my hands. “No one can chop the pistachios the way Mr. Hajjar did, but that doesn’t mean nobody will chop them at all.”

Mrs. Hajjar smiled. “You should get going,” she said. “I don’t want your mother to be worried about you.”

We walked together to the top of the stairs, and Mrs. Hajjar grasped one of my hands. Her skin felt cool and leathery.

“‘A young soul in my aging body plays, though time’s sharp blades my weary visage raze.’” She grinned, revealing too-white dentures. “Al-Mutanabbi,” she said. “The great Arab poet. If I had to choose, that would be my favorite verse.”

I let her hold my hand in hers. “I’ll go with you to the shop, if you want,” I said. “We can get Mr. Hajjar’s stuff. It should be with you.”

The welts of veins crisscrossed the backs of Mrs. Hajjar’s hands. “Perhaps,” she said. “Perhaps it should.”

 

***

 

The following week, Mrs. Hajjar and I descended her stairs after school while Mama was washing clothes. We walked the half-block to the shop, and Mrs. Hajjar unlocked it and pushed open the door. Spiders had woven their webs at the corners of the doorjamb. The aisles were dense with the scent of musty newspapers and dust.

Mrs. Hajjar shuffled behind the counter and rummaged beneath it. She laughed in triumph, pulling out old photographs, a broken bracelet, a handful of old coins. She arrayed her treasures in front of me, and I craned my neck to see over the counter, standing on my tiptoes.

“This is a photograph of my husband and me when we first arrived in America,” she said, tapping a yellowed Polaroid. “I broke this bracelet dancing at our wedding down the street.”

“You must have danced too hard,” I said.

That made Mrs. Hajjar laugh, and I laughed too. While we were still laughing, she reached under the counter again and pulled out a small, leather-bound book, the edges of its pages gilded. Mrs. Hajjar blew on it, fluttering rings of dust-laden spiders’ silk.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Mrs. Hajjar set the book down on the counter. She licked her finger and opened it, and the gold-rimmed pages sighed against each other. “I gave my husband this book of poetry as an anniversary gift,” she said, “one year after we were married.”

“Did he like poetry too?” I asked.

Mrs. Hajjar turned the pages, revealing tiny Arabic script. “He was the reason for my love of poetry,” she said. “He read me al-Mutanabbi. He read me Hafiz.” She looked up at me, her finger still in the book’s crease. “I memorized the poems for him.”

The idea of memorizing a hundred poems for anyone made me dizzy. “What a thing to do for somebody you love,” I said.

Mrs. Hajjar pushed the book toward me. “I want you to have it,” she said.

“I can’t take it,” I said, pushing it back toward her. “It belonged to Mr. Hajjar. You should— “

“Please.” Mrs. Hajjar laid the book down in front of me. “After all, I have them memorized. And I want—“ she cleared her throat. “I want them to be read. I want them to be loved the way I loved them.”

I lifted the book of poems, heavy as a stone. “Then they will.”

We left the shop, and Mrs. Hajjar locked up, her treasures in her pockets. I said goodbye to her at the door to her apartment. She swung it open — unlocked again.

“Why don’t you lock your door?” I asked. “You lock up the shop, but not the door to your apartment. Aren’t you afraid of getting robbed?”

Mrs. Hajjar turned with her hand on the knob. “I wouldn’t want to live in a place where I couldn’t trust my neighbors,” she said. She smiled.

After Mrs. Hajjar had gone inside, the door to my apartment opened.

“Jameelah? Is that you?” Mama stepped out in her apron, shivering. “I heard voices. Who were you talking to?”

“Mrs. Hajjar,” I said. “Mr. Hajjar’s wife. She lives upstairs from us. She plays the piano.”

“What?” Mama peered at the closed door, startled. “I never knew,” she said. “I never knew he had a wife.”

 

***

 

The ground thawed the following week. Mama prepared to dig up Zenobia for the spring. I knocked on Mrs. Hajjar’s door again a few days later, when the weather was fine and the goldfinches were on the sill.

“Mrs. Hajjar?” I called through the wood.

No one answered. I twisted the knob with both hands. The door was locked.

Mrs. Hajjar’s obituary was in the paper the next day. The whole neighborhood went to her funeral — Mama and me, Mr. Hajjar’s old customers, even Lizzy and Brody. I thought of the fan on her counter — was it still whirring, tapping the rosary against the cabinet? I gripped her book of poems inside my coat, and the spring damp traced rosettes into my cheeks.

After the funeral, Mama changed out of her good clothes and put her gardening gloves on. I watched from the corner of the garden while she shoveled off the dirt and removed the boards from over the fig tree. The toes of my patent leather shoes dug into her decorative moss. She didn’t say anything.

I helped Mama tilt the fig tree up until it emerged from its grave, shaking the crumbling earth from its branches. We packed the soil around the root ball, and I stood back while Mama circled the tree. I tried to imagine it with its three-lobed leaves, its bulging fruit. Mama lifted the tips of its branches, studied them for signs of life. She’d buried it every year that I’d been alive — she’d even transplanted it when we’d moved to this apartment — but she’d always told me one could never be certain that a fig tree would survive a harsh winter.

“Aha!” Mama waved for me to come closer. “See here?” She pointed at four dots of red buds. “Zenobia is alive. The earth protected her from another year of snows.”

I stroked the tight curls of the buds with the pad of my thumb. “There’ll be summer again,” I murmured.

“Incredible to think,” Mama said, removing her gloves, “that she’s lived through so many winters. She might not look it, but Zenobia is a wise old tree. Sometimes I wonder how she survives the movements and the frosts, as old as she is.”

Mrs. Hajjar’s book of poems sat warm against my rib cage, tucked into the inside pocket of my coat. I breathed out and realized it was the first time in months that I couldn’t see my breath.

I pictured again the glistening fig leaves, the summer that was to come. “Maybe time hasn’t changed her on the inside,” I said. “Maybe she still has a young soul.”

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  • kun sam cho

    Moving and touching.

  • albert

    great story. looking forward to reading more of your writtings

  • albert

    this aspiring writer is great. looking forward to more articles.