“I want to keep them in a box,” Zoya said. Everyone laughed, acknowledging their own bizarre desire to do the same at some time. Zoya could not bring herself to mimic their stretched smiles. The laughter dwindled and collapsed.
“You do know that would be child abuse, right?” said Karen.
Of course she knew. She was not really going to keep her children in a box. Especially with their brown skin. They felt isolated enough.
In fact she should take them out to see the world, see that they could blend in on many continents, with the color of their eyes and the angle of their noses. Right? She should take them out to learn tolerance and compassion, even for themselves. Right? But that box looked so inviting, with its flaps that tucked into one another, at the top and the bottom, layers of protection.
Zoya did take them out, all the way to Africa to the Maasai Mara. They saw lions and leopards and the annual migration of the wildebeest. The tour guide stopped at a Maasai village, and they met tall, lean families dressed in bright red fabric draped casually but strategically. Their small huts were made of branches held together with cow dung, baked and dried under the African sun.
“His house is so small, but he gets to have a pet,” Zoya’s son said and pointed a level arm towards a Maasai child’s eye, steady on Zoya’s son.
Zoya squinted against the sun to see. She lowered her head and lengthened her neck out towards the child, like a giraffe reaching for the lower branches. She saw a fly sitting there in the inside corner of the child’s left eye. He blinked, and the fly settled in, rubbing its feet, or hands, together. Another fly landed in the same inside corner. Two pairs of fly hands were now rubbing together in that little scoop of a spot. The child’s arms were still and hanging by his side. He smiled at Zoya and stuck out his neck to imitate her. Zoya’s eyes began twitching, and she returned to the jeep with her son.
They visited South Asia too, Karachi. The humid heat made them sluggish and faint in the outdoor bazaar. Three scoops of ice cream were piled into a one-scoop cup for each child. Zoya’s daughter enjoyed the balancing act of the lopsided scoops more than the ice cream itself. Soon her sweaty palms slipped the cup, with its two remaining scoops, into a trash bucket outside a pharmacy. A few steps passed the pharmacy, Zoya felt her daughter tugging at her hand. Zoya stopped and turned around to see.
Three heads bumped into each other as three children bent over the trash bucket. Six bare feet, grey-brown with crusted dirt up to the shins, encircled the bucket, and bony arms reached in, narrow shoulders shoving sideways. The bucket toppled over and spilled its contents like a cornucopia. All movements were hurried now, as the yelling from inside the pharmacy grew louder. One child grabbed the ice cream cup with the remaining puddle of pink creaminess, and all three ran away before the storekeeper stepped out to kick the bucket upright.
“Why do I have to wear shoes if those kids don’t have to?” Zoya’s daughter said. “My toes are so sweaty.” Zoya wanted to retreat to the box in her mind, to cool, dark safety away from the sickness in her stomach. While her children were nourished and nurtured by the African sun and an Asian city by the sea.
Photo by R∂lf Κλενγελ