- Published: 28 May 2014
- ISBN: 9780670920860
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $22.99
A House in the Sky
A Memoir of a Kidnapping That Changed Everything
We named the houses they put us in. We stayed in some for months at a time; other places, it was a few days or a few hours. There was the Bomb-Making House, then the Electric House. After that came the Escape House, a squat concrete building where we’d sometimes hear gunfire outside our windows and sometimes a mother singing nearby to her child, her voice low and sweet. After we escaped the Escape House, we were moved, somewhat frantically, to the Tacky House, into a bedroom with a flowery bedspread and a wooden dresser that held hair sprays and gels laid out in perfect rows, a place where, it was clear from the sound of the angry, put-upon woman jabbering in the kitchen, we were not supposed to be.
When they took us from house to house, it was anxiously and silently and usually in the quietest hours of night. Riding in the backseat of a Suzuki station wagon, we sped over paved roads and swerved onto soft sandy tracks through the desert, past lonely-looking acacia trees and dark villages, never knowing where we were. We passed mosques and night markets strung with lights and men leading camels and groups of boisterous boys, some of them holding machine guns, clustered around bonfires along the side of the road. If anyone had tried to see us, we wouldn’t have registered: We’d been made to wear scarves wrapped around our heads, cloaking our faces the same way our captors cloaked theirs—making it impossible to know who or what any of us were.
The houses they picked for us were mostly deserted buildings in tucked-away villages, where all of us—Nigel, me, plus the eight young men and one middle-aged captain who guarded us—would remain invisible. All of these places were set behind locked gates and surrounded by high walls made of concrete or corrugated metal. When we arrived at a new house, the captain fumbled with his set of keys. The boys, as we called them, rushed in with their guns and found rooms to shut us inside. Then they staked out their places to rest, to pray, to pee, to eat. Sometimes they went outside and wrestled with one another in the yard.
There was Hassam, who was one of the market boys, and Jamal, who doused himself in cologne and mooned over the girl he planned to marry, and Abdullah, who just wanted to blow himself up. There was Yusuf and Yahya and Young Mohammed. There was Adam, who made calls to my mother in Canada, scaring her with his threats, and Old Mohammed, who handled the money, whom we nicknamed Donald Trump. There was the man we called Skids, who drove me out into the desert one night and watched impassively as another man held a serrated knife to my throat. And finally, there was Romeo, who’d been accepted into graduate school in New York City but first was trying to make me his wife.
Five times a day, we all folded ourselves over the floor to pray, each holding on to some secret ideal, some vision of paradise that seemed beyond our reach. I wondered sometimes whether it would have been easier if Nigel and I had not been in love once, if instead we’d been two strangers on a job. I knew the house he lived in, the bed he’d slept in, the face of his sister, his friends back home. I had a sense of what he longed for, which made me feel everything doubly. When the gunfire and grenade blasts between warring militias around us grew too thunderous, too close by, the boys loaded us back into the station wagon, made a few phone calls, and found another house.
Some houses held ghost remnants of whatever family had occupied them—a child’s toy left in a corner, an old cooking pot, a rolled-up musty carpet. There was the Dark House, where the most terrible things happened, and the Bush House, which seemed to be way out in the countryside, and the Positive House, almost like a mansion, where just briefly things felt like they were getting better.
At one point, we were moved to a second-floor apartment in the heart of a southern city, where we could hear cars honking and the muezzins calling people to prayer. We could smell goat meat roasting on a street vendor’s spit. We listened to women chattering as they came and went from the shop right below us. Nigel, who had become bearded and gaunt, could look out the window of his room and see a sliver of the Indian Ocean, a faraway ribbon of aquamarine. The water’s proximity, like that of the shoppers and the cars, both comforted and taunted. If we somehow managed to get away, it was unclear whether we’d find any help or simply get kidnapped all over again by someone who saw us the same way our captors did—not just as enemies but enemies worth money.
We were part of a desperate, wheedling multinational transaction. We were part of a holy war. We were part of a larger problem. I made promises to myself about what I’d do if I got out. Take Mom on a trip. Do something good for other people. Make apologies. Find love.
We were close and also out of reach, thicketed away from the world. It was here, finally, that I started to believe this story would be one I’d never get to tell, that I would become an erasure, an eddy in a river pulled suddenly flat. I began to feel certain that, hidden inside Somalia, inside this unknowable and stricken place, we would never be found.
When I was a girl, I trusted what I knew about the world. It wasn’t ugly or dangerous. It was strange and absorbing and so pretty that you’d want to frame it. It came to me in photographs and under gold covers, in a pile of magazines, back-issue National Geographics bought for twenty-five cents apiece at a thrift store down the road. I kept them stacked on a nightstand next to my bunk bed. I reached for them when I needed them, when the apartment where we lived got too noisy. The world arrived in waves and flashes, as a silvery tide sweeping over a promenade in Havana or the glinting snowfields of Annapurna. The world was a tribe of pygmy archers in the Congo and the green geometry of Kyoto’s tea gardens. It was a yellow-sailed catamaran in a choppy Arctic Sea. I was nine years old and living in a town called Sylvan Lake. The lake was six miles long, a Pleistocene gash in the vast brown prairie of Alberta, Canada—well north of the Calgary skyline, well south of the oil rigs scattered around Edmonton, a hundred or so miles east of the Rocky Mountains, a solidly in-between place. In July and August, tourists came to float on the lake’s calm surface and toss fishing lines from the docks of their cottages. There was a downtown marina next to a red-topped lighthouse and a small amusement park where vacationers bought tickets to ride down a giant spiraling water slide or run through a play maze made from brightly painted plywood. All summer long, the sounds of laughing kids and the buzz of motorboats floated through town.
We were new to Sylvan Lake. My mother, having split from my father a few years earlier, had moved my two brothers and me there from Red Deer, the small city where we’d always lived, fifteen minutes down the road. Russell, her boyfriend, had come with us, and so had his younger brother, Stevie. His uncles and cousins and other brothers and second cousins often dropped in on us for payday parties and ended up in our apartment for days, camped out in our living room. I remember their faces hoisted in sleep, their slim brown arms hanging from the sides of our chairs. My mother referred to Russell and his family as “Native,” but around town, people called them Indians.
Our building was a white stucco fourplex with a pitched roof and dark wood balconies. The recessed windows of our basement apartment were small and narrow and let in next to no daylight. A green municipal Dumpster sat in the gravel parking lot outside. My mother, a fan of all things bright and tropical, hung a teal shower curtain in our new bathroom and draped a brightly patterned spread over her bed. Out in the living room, she parked her exercise bike next to our old brown sofa.
People always looked at my mother. She was tall and lean, with dramatic cheekbones and dark permed hair she kept fluffed up around the ears. She had limpid brown eyes that suggested a kind of vulnerability, the possibility that she might be easily talked in and out of things. Five days a week, she put on a white dress with red piping and drove back to Red Deer to work a cash register at Food City. She returned with whole flats of generic-brand juice boxes, bought with her discount, which we stashed in the freezer and ate after school using spoons. Sometimes she came home with a plastic tray of bakery leftovers, Danishes and éclairs gone sticky after a day under glass. Other times she brought video rentals that we never returned.
Russell worked only sometimes, signing on for a few weeks or occasionally a few months of contract work as a tree trimmer with an arbor company called High Tree, cutting limbs away from power lines along narrow roads. He was thin as a whippet and wore his dark hair long around his shoulders and feathered on the sides. When he wasn’t working, he dressed in thin silk shirts in colors like purple and turquoise. Etched on his left forearm was a homemade tattoo, a blue-lined bird with broad wings, an eagle or a phoenix, maybe. Its outline had begun to fade, the bird’s details washed into a pale blur on his skin, like something belonging on the body of a much older man. He was twenty-one to my mother’s thirty-two.
We’d known Russell for years before he became my mom’s boyfriend, since the time he was thirteen, our families knit together by some combination of bad luck and Christian largesse. He had been raised on the Sunchild First Nation Reserve. His father had disappeared early; his mother died in a car accident. My mother’s parents, who lived about an hour’s drive from the reserve, ran a Pentecostal summer camp for First Nations kids and ended up taking in Russell and his four younger brothers as foster children. My mother and her siblings were long gone at that point, and the Native kids offered my grandparents a kind of second go-round at parenting.
My grandfather was a welder, and my grandmother sold Tupperware—more Tupperware, in fact, than anybody in central Alberta, with regional sales records and a company minivan to prove it. For many years, they hauled Russell and the other boys along to church and prodded them through high school. They drove them to track meets and hockey games and to weaving classes at the Native Friendship Center.
When the boys brawled, my grandmother sighed and told them to go on outside and get it all out. She forgave them when they stole money from her. She forgave them when they cussed her out. The boys grew into teenagers and then into young men. One made it to college; the rest ended up somewhere between the reserve and Red Deer. What nobody banked on, what Jesus himself might never have foretold, is that somewhere along the way, coming home to her parents’ farmhouse for visits and holiday meals, my mother—with her three little kids and imploding marriage to my father—would fall for Russell.
She called him Russ. She did his laundry for him. She liked to kiss him in public. Every so often he bought her roses. Early in my childhood, I’d thought of him like a sideways cousin, but now Russell—having moved directly from my grandparents’ house into mine—was something different, a hybrid of kid and grown-up, of kin and interloper. He did kickboxing moves in our living room and ate potato chips on the couch. Once in a while, he bought stuffed animals for me and my little brother, Nathaniel.
“A funny little family” was what my grandmother called us. My older brother, Mark, put it differently. “A fucked-up little family” was what he said.
I’d been to the Sunchild reserve a couple of times to visit Russell’s relatives, always over the protests of my father, who thought the place was dangerous but no longer had any say. Russell’s cousins lived in low-slung tract homes built along dirt roads. During our visits we ate bannock, a sweet, chewy fry bread, and ran around with kids who never went to school and drank cans of beer out of brown paper bags. Every house, as I remember it, had walls cratered with fist holes. I recognized the shape because Russell sometimes did it to the drywall at our house.
My mother’s life with Russell might have been viewed as a kind of screw-you directed at all the white kids she went to high school with in Red Deer, most of whom still lived around town. My mother had left home at sixteen and gotten pregnant with Mark at twenty. Russell gave her an odd new cachet. He was young and mildly handsome and came from a place that people considered wild and unusual, if also dirty and poor. My mother wore beaded earrings and drove around town in a little white hatchback car, a feathered dream catcher fluttering from her rearview mirror.
There was also the fact that my father, her early-twenties sweetheart, the man holding her babies in the delivery room photos, had recently announced that he was gay. A fi t young guy with a big smile and a neatly trimmed beard named Perry had moved into my dad’s house. When we visited, Perry took us swimming at the rec-center pool, while my father, who had never cooked in his life, made us bachelor-style dinners. He rolled lunch-meat ham into cylinders speared with toothpicks and surrounded them with a few slices of cheese and some celery, adding a piece of bread on the side. He laid our plates on the table—all four food groups duly represented.
My father had begun building his new life. He hosted dinner parties with Perry and enrolled in college to become a rehab practitioner and assist mentally disabled people. My mother, meanwhile, worked on her own resurrection. She read self-help books and watched Oprah on her off days.
In the evenings, Russell poured rye whiskey from a big bottle into a tall plastic cup. My mother sat with her feet resting in his lap on our sofa in front of the TV. More than once, he pointed at the screen, at the moment’s hot cop or tidy-haired young dad. He’d say, “You think that guy’s good-looking, don’t you, Lori?”
It was a flicker we all recognized.
“I’ll bet,” Russell would continue, his eyes on my mother, “you wish you were with someone like that.”
A pause. The TV man’s face would seem, in an instant, to melt and reshape itself into something more aggressive and leering.
“Right, Lori? That’s what you’re thinking?”
My mother responded gently. He’d broken some of her bones before. He’d hurt her badly enough to keep her in the hospital for days. As the rest of us stared hard at the television and the air in the room grew electric, she’d reach for Russell’s arm and squeeze.
“No, baby,” she’d say. “Not even a little.”
In 1943, Jewish doctor Eddy de Wind volunteered to work in Westerbork, a transit camp for the deportation of Jews in the east of the Netherlands.
The day the police visited my primary school was the day that changed my life forever.
I’m on the highway a few miles out of town when the noise starts: a scraping, grinding din that jackhammers my heart into my stomach.
My favourite time of day is ‘magic hour’, when the sun takes a dive behind the craggy mountain ranges and the sky is painted a stunning purple-pink.
CINDY THOMAS FOLLOWED Robert Barnett’s assistant down the long corridor at the law firm of Barnett and Associates in Washington, DC.