Crystals. Thirty-three sparkling, diamond-shaped crystals strung together. A string of lovely prayer beads that used to belong to my grandmother, swaying from my fingers. They had been locked in my drawer for a year. Perhaps they weren’t the only thing I had locked away for too long.
Today, I would be bold. Today, I would find a home for them.
I knew exactly where I wanted to put them.
I knew exactly where they belonged.
* * *
The little girl was flushed from running around the house with her cousin. Tired, she walked into the living room and sat next to her grandmother. Her cousin couldn’t catch her here for fear of being yelled at by her grandmother. She yelled if you made noise, and if you moved around too much, and sometimes even if you didn’t. The little girl understood in a way. She must be jealous that she’s so old and slow and can’t run ever again, she thought.
Her grandmother was hunched over, pale and white against the rich red sedari and the long, cream colored walls. The sedari was high- her feet didn’t touch the floor, but didn’t quite dangle either, clutched against the sides of the sedari. She was always in this position, huddled right against a stained glass window. She looked through it often.
“Grandma, how come you look out that window all the time if you can’t see anything through it?”
The little girl twisted to look at her grandmother’s serious face, and then back to the window. She stared at the window. It was very textured, overlapping with colors like red and gold and green. Pretty, but you couldn’t see the world outside because of the blur and distortion. But you could probably still feel the cold of the world seep through in the winter. From this particular stained glass window, you could see absolutely nothing, so the girl never paid attention to it. What a useless window, she always thought in passing. And, sometimes- what a useless old lady.
“Do you see something?”
The little girl asked hesitantly, backing her face away as her grandmother turned towards her. She had caught a whiff of old-lady smell. She hated old-lady smell. It smelled mostly like old skin, and butter, and lavender. The little girl didn’t like lavender because it smelled like car leather and she got car sick; she didn’t like butter because of its taste; but it was the scent of old skin that annoyed her most.
“Do you have to see something?” Her grandmother replied.
“Well it’s a window.” The girl sputtered.
“I can see. Colors. They make me think…” She trailed off.
“And…what else do you want me to do?”
* * *
That’s where my grandmother is frozen in my memory, hunched next to that stained glass window staring at- I think I used to know what but I have forgotten. A year ago, I had locked the crystals away, along with all thoughts of my grandmother, and lived in blissful avoidance…
This is where the crystals belong. The crystals would hang right above her head and a little to the right; they would catch the light and shine bright and clear-not at all like the hazy colorful window that never opened. I picture my grandmother looking up, eyes focusing on the clarity. Then she would turn around, eyes focusing on me.
* * *
The little girl was wearing a pink nightgown that read ‘Princess Girl’. She had refused to change out of it and was frowning at the breakfast table as she tasted her grandmother’s apricot jam.
Ew. “I hate apricot jam. I like strawberry jelly. I want a Boston cream donut with strawberry jelly for breakfast,” she insisted.
Her grandmother sighed. “I made this jam with my own hands, you know.” But the girl was repulsed by her grandmother’s hands- trembling, mottled brown and green with veins.
“I miss America,” the little girl said.
* * *
America. Far, far away from my grandmother and her glass window. I needed to find another place for the prayer beads. I walked into the kitchen, where my mother was cooking. My eyes rested on the counter, the dripping sink, the brown table, the white oven. There was nowhere to fit a strand of crystals. I didn’t try the bathroom. I didn’t try my parents’ room either, because I wanted the beads to be easily accessible to me. So I opened the door that led into the living room.
The front door was ajar, in all its white and chipped glory, the string latch broken long ago. I swung the door open impatiently and heard a loud creak in response, then felt cool air envelop me as the door closed. I smelled dampness and darkness and cats, and it was comforting. In front of me were the steps, many thick concrete slabs that curved into a narrow, steep spiral staircase. There was no light, no banister, and no help whatsoever; only my instinct took over as I ran up the long flight of stairs.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
I was back, like I promised.
I remember a dream I had recently. I was running down Casablanca, running because I was being chased by a man as tall as a telephone pole and wide as a door. But gone was the old mule pulling the cart of fresh oranges, gone was the vendor and his cactus pears, gone were the sly hagglers and their colorful abayas. All the Moroccans were gone, like rabbits fleeing from a fire, probably latching their own chipped doors right now. There were only the gray streets and the gray clouds, and a few clueless American tourists in dull blue jeans. Where was my door? Where was my grandmother’s house? The man got closer; and the closer he got the bigger he grew, and he swelled until his shadow was round and cold and threatened to swallow me. I finally found and fumbled at it, my bitten fingernails at the chipped door, pulling; my heart, pushing… The latch was broken, but if I made it in my grandmother’s building, I knew I would be safe. And I was. Even though the latch was broken, the man couldn’t follow me in, noe one could follow me in- I was safe in my grandmother’s house. I was safe in my grandmother’s house, but I would be safer in her arms.
I walked into the living room of my house. No sedaris, no elaborate table. American couches, American carpet, American table, and Moroccan curtains. I guess I could hang the prayer beads decoratively on the curtain rod…
I walked into my room. Should I put the crystals on a bookshelf- to join cheap bracelets that I bought on a whim and forgot about?
If only I had a stained glass window in my house.
* * *
A few days later, the little girl thought that other mysteries had to be cleared up, and sat next to her grandmother.
“Grandma, why do you always wear a kerchief on your head at home?” The little girl asked as she swung her feet against the high sedari. It was too high for her, and way too hard to get comfortable on. Thud. Thud. Thud. The girl peered at her grandmother’s face, which remained expressionless. Then she peered at the blue kerchief, which was as ancient and faded as the old woman.
“My hair used to be beautiful,” the old woman said tiredly.
“But why do you cover your head at home?” the little girl insisted. Thuthud. Thuthud. Thuthud.
Her grandmother still didn’t answer, instead slowly taking the kerchief off. Maybe I upset her, the little girl thought. She stopped with her feet, just in case.
Then she stared. The old woman had taken the kerchief off. The old woman had a bunch of hair at the nape of her neck. They tumbled halfway down her back- thick, long, and black, with only few white hairs, like the little girl’s mother had. But the rest of her head was bald. Completely bald, with only some sparse fuzz on top.
The girl looked away, disgusted. If I were her, I’d shave those other strands right off to match the rest of my sad head, she thought. If I were she, I wouldn’t end up old and ugly anyway.
“Once upon a time, my head was full of the black hair you saw. And it was even longer. At this time, this big house was full of my children- twelve joyful children, running and fighting and falling up and down my stairs, pleading for money, eating my bread and jam, getting cactus pear thorns stuck in their fingers…” The old woman chuckled at this memory.
“But now, the children have grown and gone, except for Zohra, and she went to France to visit a friend. Now, I’m counting the days until I’m completely bald. Now the house is empty. At this moment, this house is empty except for one old woman and one little girl.”
The little girl listened for a while longer, quiet, her grandmothers stories as vivid as if they had happened just yesterday. The little girl smiled and inched closer to this happy, animated, and funny old woman. And when her grandmother ran out of breath, she reached out to the little girl. Her thick arms approached the girl, heavy with fatigue and old-lady smell, ending in her mottled and veiny hands. The little girl paused for a moment. For one single intake of breath, and then she made her choice. But a moment was all it took. The hands came down, and her grandmother’s face turned slowly to the stained glass window. Staring.
* * *
I put my hand to my throbbing forehead. Perhaps I should forget it and put the crystals back in my locked drawer. There they were safe, I guess, and I wouldn’t have to think about them until I opened the drawer to put something else in. Blissful avoidance…I wandered over to the kitchen again, where my search had started. Maybe I missed the perfect spot for the crystals the first time around. My mom was preparing tea, and stood next to the stove absently as she waited for the water to boil. Slap, slap, slap. Her hands were hypnotizing as they tapped on the counter.
Slap, slap, slap. I finished going up the stairs. My heart was thumping because of the exercise and excitement. I was going to see my grandmother and show her that I wasn’t that spoiled little girl, strutting around in her pink Princess gown. I knew that my grandmother was sicker than last time, so I didn’t pound on the upstairs door and scare her. I knocked softly, then loudly, as I remembered my grandmother didn’t have the best hearing. No one answered. She must be sleeping.
I realized that the door was open. Zohra must’ve forgot to close it, but that was unlike her. I opened the door and rushed inside. Finally. Morocco and its sunny streets and colorful people were pounding in my ears and throbbing through my veins and the smell of safety- of my grandmother’s house- enveloped me. I wandered around the house, taking in everything I hadn’t seen for five years. I would visit the living room last, to let my grandmother sleep.
As I walked into the hallway I saw Zohra’s mobile on the floor. I picked it up. It was dead because, as usual, she didn’t remember to charge it. But why was it on the floor? I picked it up and looked towards the kitchen, hearing a noise. The faucet was on. Why was the faucet on? Moroccans paid for water, so not a precious drop was wasted. I spun around. The refrigerator door was slightly ajar.
The teapot screamed loudly- the tea was done- and my mom stopped drumming her fingers to turn off the stove. She set two glasses on the table. Clunk. Clunk. She put two glasses down and started pouring the tea.
The yellow tea tumbled into the first cup with the specific sound of pouring Moroccan tea- something rushing, something frothy, something hard to describe. The steam curled and lifted, warming my face and sending warm puffs of mint into my nose.
My mom finished pouring both glasses, and left the room.
“I forgot the sugar. I’ll come back in a second.” She called behind her.
* * *
Sweetie, you can come back next year. You can come back in five years. You can come back and our house is your house, and our door will always be open, her aunt had said after the little girl had suddenly started crying at the airport. I promise I’ll come back, the little girl had said, thinking once again about that afternoon with her grandmother. She had amends to make.
Now she was on a plane, on her way back to New York. The little girl should’ve been glad. Finally, princess girl, her aunt had teased, you will get what you wanted. She had forced herself to smile. But that wasn’t what she wanted.
She looked out the tiny window besides her. The view outside was so blindingly bright, she couldn’t see a single thing. But was there to see really besides the white clouds? What is there to see that she didn’t know already?
She exhaled a ragged breath and put her freezing hand on her hot cheek.
She felt like her grandmother, forever hunched over and staring uselessly, maybe destructively, out a window. But when her grandmother looked out, her face was very calm. Not bored, indifferent, but serene, slightly blissful. That was the face she had used when telling the little girl stories of her life and her kids, except that she looked even happier to- with company- reflect on the past.
That’s what her grandmother was looking at the whole time.
The little girl gasped suddenly. People turned to stare at her in curiosity, at the little ‘Princess Girl’ who had sat primly and silently until now. The people staring were all tourists- as clueless as she had been with their too-wide smiles and coffee stained teeth. She looked away from them, only to be stunned by blinding light from the tiny window besides her.
* * *
That’s what my grandmother was looking at the whole time. I jerked back from my warm teacup and its curling steam and dashed to the hallway. I knew where to put my grandmother’s prayer beads.
“NO!” I screamed. My body felt like stone, except for my mouth, wording silent prayers. Zohra must’ve left the water running, her useless phone on the floor, and the refrigerator door open in her rush to get an ambulance.
I looked at my grandmother’s face. It had aged in five years, more wrinkled and mottled. So did her hands.
I didn’t care. I clutched those hands.
I slowly reached out to her, like she had to me a long time ago.
I put my throbbing head against her knee and cried. Time was floating. I was dizzy and getting dizzier, hearing my grandmother’s words in my head.
At this moment, this house is empty except for one old woman and one little
I opened my eyes and saw a string of crystal praying beads beneath me. When had she last used them? Five minutes ago, five hours ago, five years ago? I held them, swiftly ticking off beads with my pleas and prayers. But my grandmother’s hands were only getting colder.
And then I heard murmurs of the paramedics, of wailing sirens, of Zohra’s cries. Zohra’s hands were taking me off my grandmother.
No. Give me five minutes with her. One minute. Just one moment.
They loaded her onto a stretcher. The last I remember, I was in the back of the ambulance staring at what was in my lap.
Crystals. Thirty-three sparkling, diamond-shaped crystals, all strung together with strong white thread.
The mirror in the hallway is plain. It has a sensible wooden frame and a not-so-sensible position on the hallway wall. But nothing else adorns the narrow hallway, and it fits there. I hung the crystals right there, on the corner of the wooden frame. I looked at the clear mirror and saw myself, what I was wearing right now, the current state of my hair. What did I see that I didn’t know already? I had no scars, no wrinkles, no brown spots- no physical, visible reason to stare, to reflect, to smile or to regret.
But I did stare.
There, at the top corner of my reflection.
Where the crystal beads hung, swaying slightly.
Romaissaa Benzizoune, Age 14, Grade 9, Hunter College High School, Silver Key