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  • Published: 27 August 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761343872
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Translations

Extract

EXODUS

They became uncitizens. Aliyah ran the idea over and over in her mind, all down the highway splitting the bush either side of her like an emerald sea. She thought it in the prophetic tense, to frame it as a future so certain it was as though it had already happened. Her daughter, Sakina, slept soundly in the passenger seat, dressed in blue like a robin’s egg. Aliyah practised the belief until it became scrip­tural: they became uncitizens. They got out and away. There would be no roadblock.

Some women are difficult to belittle. Aliyah Asfoor counted herself among these echelons because she was in the habit of taking herself seriously. Across the years, disaster after disaster had sounded sirens through her life like a city wailing evacuation. After hearing those blares all alone, at last she had taken heed; she had draped the night around an escape; now the steering wheel warmed to her palms, the accelerator sighed under her boot, and her headlights slid into the blackness of a future she concentrated hard on like an idea she might forget upon waking.

She was done with the rabble, really, this time. Her daughter, Sakina, and only Sakina, would be an exception to the rule; and the rule, God willing, was that they would be the only two people they needed in order to survive. Aliyah had arrived at the understanding that, beyond reliance on the Divine, all forms of dependency were at best a risk, and at worst a waste of her precious time.

Her phone trilled in the cup holder. She fumbled in the dark to answer it so as not to disturb Sakina. Her ex-husband burst onto the line with a demand for a location.

‘Assalāmu ʿalaikum, Adam,’ she said dryly. Adam stuttered and babbled, groping as ever at her receding image from a place more like boy-panic than despotism. She pinned her mobile to the shoulder furthest from Sakina. In the days of their marriage, Adam Rifai had been a generous man. That his generosity may have been a by-product of his versatile and all-encompassing vanity did not discount it, so Aliyah did her best to repay him with generosity of a kind. He was saying, ‘You just do what you want! It’s not safe!’

‘Why isn’t it safe?’ she asked, to humour him.

‘You should be around people in case something happens, people who can look after you.’

‘Like who?’ she asked, and thought immediately that it should be Like whom?, and after that she considered his hypocrisy. He must have caught her old patronising inflection, because he spun in a moment from alarm to vexation. Those quick moods of his had only surfaced in the later years of their marriage, after a disaster so unnatural to his charmed existence; a disaster Aliyah remembered as a little blue shock coming into the world in the same state as it had left, wrapped in a cloth the size of a tea towel, lowered into a hole as small as a dog might dig for an old pair of shoes. The rest, she forgot. Afterwards, at home in the debris, she had defaulted to self-possession, become incomprehensible to Adam, and, worse, impenetrable. She had never needed him much. But if Adam was a generous man, well, he was also proud. What he hadn’t been able to withstand back then was no easier for him now.

‘Drop the pettiness, drop it!’ he spewed.

She turned the volume down on her phone. ‘You’re cutting out.’

He changed tactics. ‘Give Sakina the phone – I want to talk to her.’

‘She’s asleep.’

‘You’re grieving!’ he tried. Then he tempered his voice. ‘You’re grieving.’

Aliyah restrained herself. ‘It’s been half a year.’

‘He was your father.’

‘I’m used to it,’ she said.

His tone soured. ‘Well, then you’re running away from grief.’

I’m—?’ Aliyah took a moment to calm down. ‘Adam, where are you?’ There was an echo. ‘What country are you in?’ He said nothing. In his silence she heard his boyishness, his aloneness, and felt sorry. Thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of miles away, Adam breathed out at length through his nose, and Aliyah remembered his nostrils, how stretched they were and how thin, before she ended the call.

Sakina huffed in her sleep, fine hair dewed to the border of her face. The suggestion that Aliyah had not considered every facet of her child’s wellbeing was the kind of insult only Adam could pay. Her code for a wipe-and-reboot program of escape had been a lifetime in the crafting. The rest, once all ties were cut, was navigable bureau­cracy. She had sold her father’s home, sold his landscaping business to a wealthy cousin some way or another removed, Adam was as vain-generous in child support as he was in everything, and with those combined funds she had secured the only land for sale in the radius of her destination. It was providential serendipity.

Sakina asked not to see pictures of the place before arriving. She wanted to look at it with her own eyes. And with her own eyes, she would. Half a day and a full night of driving later, they were pulling up at the land. The sun was low in an amber-suffused sky, and Aliyah turned onto their gum-tree-lined drive, which had a windmill-shaped mailbox out the front. She lowered the windows to rouse her child with dawn air. It smelled of bark and rich soil, and beyond that the bush was wealthy and alive. Galahs rippled out on the wind like a fanfare welcome. Swathes of little fruit flies nourished the air, visible only in the channels of sifted and shifting sunlight. Their car rolled through dappled, canopy-filtered rays: down along the dirt track, down a short way, until the house rose into view.

~

Land is older than man, and man is older than a house, and it is diffi­cult to conceive that anything that did not exist at the dawn of things can possess spiritual power, in the sense that all things supernatu­ral must have always been possible rather than invented along the way; and yet a house has power. It entombs and excavates man. Or it becomes an extension of the land, a fertile outgrowth that gestates and propagates man. Anything that can invite or exile, incarcerate or release, that can be locked and unlocked, that can rot and be embalmed, that can be reincarnated and rebuilt, that can be pregnant with emptiness and then overfull, that can possess and be possessed and be a possession in itself – has life, has purpose, has lore.

Shepherd’s Mill was three acres interred in deep bush, which clicked and whistled and whirred as Aliyah and Sakina pulled in, whispering of their arrival. A corrugated-iron-roofed cabin hunched in the north-east corner of the property. Beside it stood a water tank and an old windmill that stretched just high enough above the canopy to catch a thread of the wind. Close to the windmill was a splintering barn, and, in the south, a house two storeys tall, encircled by the skeleton of a wraparound porch, and what might have once been a garden. The house was boarded with worn wooden panelling, roofed with lichenous shingles, and necklaces of ivy and wisteria fell around it like pearls. Further out were untended furrows over­grown with dandelions and sky-reaching reeds; and, beyond those, burgeoning pastures and neat rows of rotting apple trees. In the distance, opposite the cabin, barely visible to the naked eye, was a winking, glittering pond.

By the house, Sakina picked up a branch and stamped it like a staff to the ground, raising her other hand to shield her eyes from the sun. She spun around to her mother, exclaiming, ‘It’s like The Secret Garden! Let’s do a tour! Or an exhibition.’

‘An expedition.’ Aliyah saw drownings and snakebites in those Captain Nemo eyes. ‘Don’t go off without me,’ she added. ‘Not to the barn or through the weeds, not to the pond—’

‘What pond? I can’t see!’

Aliyah mounted her child on one shoulder like a man carrying a sack of flour.

‘Ah! Maybe there’s frogs! Where are the other animals? If we had horses—’

‘No horses, Kuns. Down we go.’ Aliyah lowered Sakina to the car bonnet then swung her arms out by her sides. ‘So? What do you think?’

Sakina leapt to her feet and flew brightly at her mother from the bonnet with arms wide and a cooee of excursional glee.

There was little to unpack: essentials, objects of sentimental value, and books (which fell under both categories). The house came furnished. Aliyah knew next to nothing of the previous owners; they had left scant evidence of their lives besides a shamrock velvet sofa, and chairs and tables with ornamental legs. They had left their emptiness, mostly. There were bare cupboards and an air of slow, involuntary dilapidation. The floorboards were dust-kissed, as were the empty bookshelves, the cracking windowsills, the brass door­knobs, the Persian rug and its gold tassels. A constellation of motes hung in the cosmos of a liquid sunbeam. Aliyah coughed. Sakina raised her hand to carve the prism of light like a rower trailing their fingers through a stream.

‘You can see the air,’ she said, looking to her mother for approval. Aliyah was overcome. Then a day was already gone, and the gloved hand of night covered them. The twilight was wide, and the house was alone, and the trees stood sentry. An entomologist’s orches­tra played a nocturne, and in the noise and the silence, Aliyah had no dreams.

~

Morning delivered confirmation that they had survived the first night, and that their lives had changed completely, so Aliyah rose with the honeyeater and picked out her uniform for a new phase of life. The clothes she had brought had been mostly thrifted from her father’s otherwise heirless wardrobe: sun-battered plaids and sweaters and washed-out denims. Everything smelled of him; the light scent of his cigar infused each sock, each vest – everything. She had a few of her mother’s clothes, but those had never left the trousseau-urn into which they’d been packed when Aliyah was a child, and were more like museum relics of a lost civilisation. The clothes Aliyah had left in the city were surviving outfits from the early years of her marriage to Adam, who, in all his goodwill and with the wedding money gifted by his dynastical Lebanese family, had taken it upon himself to buy her a whole new wardrobe ‘befitting her beauty’ – which, of course, had acted primarily as a testament to his own. Adam understood acquiescence as endorse­ment. A befrilled wardrobe had turned into a hired gardener for her veggie patch, which had turned into a penthouse apartment with a concrete balcony. Some days she had found herself standing before her chiffonier, swaddled, unrecognisable, degraded by a bone-deep depersonalisation. Then she would remember herself, remember the self she had known, move to Adam’s closet, and run the silken fabric of his button-downs and slacks and blazers between the pads of her fingers. Once, in a daze, she had undressed and tried on his clothes, which were long and loose on her, and had stood a while appreciating an exquisite feeling . . . and then she’d remembered Adam and what he would think. The rigidity of his understanding. Her shame came from a hermit’s innocence. But Adam had an innocence of his own, which wore a wounded pride. And in his eyes had been the questions, What kind of wife does this? What kind of mother? She knew no wife, she knew no mother. She had no frame of reference.

In a referenceless house at Shepherd’s Mill she now stood, and she dressed exactly as she liked, then made her way into the kitchen. From the window she could look directly out onto the property, which was still misted in the blue-gold break of dawn. She spooned coffee grounds into her father’s copper ibrik and set it to boil, then took two oranges from the supplies they’d brought along and tore them in half with her hands, boxing the scraps as a maiden contribution to a compost trove. Then she plated up some peanut butter on toast and, as the coffee was frothing, called her daughter down. Sakina, nine years old and precociously adolescent, made a show of having to drag herself and her anti-gravity nimbus of hair down the stairs. The moment she zeroed in on the breakfast tray, however, she discovered the energy to leap down the last two steps and join her mother on the porch. Sakina progressed from skipping along the deck to eating on the steps to hopping up onto the rail with her legs dangling, each new post prompting a careful, please from Aliyah.

‘It’s sunnah to sit down while you eat,’ the girl reminded her mother through a mouthful.

‘It’s sunnah to eat with your mouth closed,’ Aliyah shot back in play. Sakina gave a sheepish smile and dismounted. Having finished her meal, she ran down into the grass with a whoop and squatted next to a flowering weed in search of minibeasts in the pasture. She had her father’s love of attention and her mother’s love of being left alone, and in her these oppositions sat perfectly at ease; she paid a world of attention to herself. She was self-coronated. She had the bowing gum trees under allegiance, and the wrens studied her meekly from their village of leaves. Sakina raced through the undergrowth, and the murmured awe conveyed by every living thing that crouched out of sight anointed her face with a dangerous conceit. Aliyah loved the girl enough that she didn’t mind a little narcissism, even found it endearing. Her only rule was that Sakina survive. Conniving as the girl might be, obstinate and temperamental as she was, she was also ultimately (even if begrudgingly) respectful and never (despite her best efforts) effectively mean. This she had inherited from her father. Personally, Aliyah knew herself to be a spiteful breed.

That morning Aliyah deferred to the serene. She took a last swig of her coffee and threw the grounds to the soil. The air burrowed her out. The word surreal did not do the feeling justice. She was insulated by disbelief. She was dressed and ready for a voice to send down Word to a mountain.

 

NON-ANOMALY

It had been a long time since Aliyah had brought a thing to life. By the time she had sold her father’s house, the garden Muhammad had nursed for as long as she could remember had withered in places and run amok in others. She had let it go on purpose as proof of her legacy, which seemed always to be a difficult labour equilibrised by immedi­ate and random loss. While Muhammad had been alive, in the years she and Sakina had lived with him after Adam had left, Aliyah had spent most afternoons with her father, tending to their modest patch. They talked idly of leaving the city for a quiet piece of land. Then a series of personal disasters had culminated in Muhammad lying cool and prone on the deck. Doctors had tried to convince her that a heart attack could be both ‘massive’ and ‘painless’. Aliyah was stuck in the moment of finding her father on the ground. His lit cigar had fallen from his hand and rolled onto the grass, and was still smoking.

That was the city. Now, in town, at the agricultural warehouse, the soil of a strawberry plant was loose and fecund between her finger and thumb. Aliyah let her hands run along the tops of mint. She stroked the velvet sage. Mirroring her, Sakina smelled each plant and took a guess at its name, and Aliyah pretended the girl was not cheating by reading the labels, especially when she furrowed her brow and pronounced ‘makrut lime’. Excitement was too untarnished a word, and though it was too early to begin planting, Aliyah picked up a pot of mint for the kitchen windowsill as a sonogram of what she hoped soon to bear.

Before they left, an older woman watering kangaroo paws called out, ‘If you’re looking for seeds, love, we bring our stock out to the growers’ markets every second weekend.’ Aliyah raised her hand in thanks and the woman put a crimp in the hose. She appraised mother and daughter with a kindly curiosity. ‘Yes, I thought you two weren’t from around here.’

‘We are now,’ Aliyah supplied benignly, and her hand went to the top of Sakina’s head.

‘Shepherd’s Mill!’ said the girl.

‘Oh, is that right?’ The woman’s expression shifted to one informed by a history lost on the two newcomers. ‘Then I suppose you’ll be frequent customers. Shame, what happened over there. Been years on the decline.’ Sakina’s big browns darted unblinking between her mother and the lady full of information so tantalising to a child with a curious satellite on the tip of her nose, but Aliyah led the girl back to the car before anything could be revealed. Their own life’s luggage was enough, and their efforts to lay stake on new soil would be hindered, she felt, by knowledge of what prior boots had trampled there.

But in the car she meditated on the woman’s face; it had an unfazed openness, despite Aliyah’s sore-thumb headscarf, which suggested that, here, Muslims were a non-anomaly. Further sugges­tion presented itself in the form of a ḥalāl fridge at the supermarket. Aliyah stocked up on meats for the freezer, excited at what was a miraculous luxury here as well as back in the city. After a haul, they were all but set to go home. There was one final errand.

Outside the town hall, a communal message board stood shaded under an awning. On one side of the board were notices of local events. On the other, a sign read WORK WANTED. From her pocket, Aliyah unfolded a flyer she had printed with the address of Shepherd’s Mill, an email address, a time and date, and a description of the work required, and she pinned the page to the board.

~

Summer’s sweat soaked the linen of autumn and laid waste to Aliyah’s deodorant out in the field. Her scythe glinted up above a desiccated bay and shucked down with a shiver. Sakina bellowed ‘Mama!’ from the house. The girl was supposed to be hard at work on a cloze passage. Aliyah ignored her to send the message that if she was searching for distraction, she would have to set her sights elsewhere. Alas, a stubborn apple does not fall far from a stubborner tree, and when Sakina persisted in hollering, Aliyah knew the girl had forgotten her original motive and was now entertaining the pup of her mind with a chew toy. Cockatoos were startled from their perch, possums were jolted awake, but Aliyah was a firm-handed governor; she ignored her daughter completely.

She raised her blade. Grasses lashed her arms. Sun glanced across the bright metal. Sakina emerged from the thicket in a flash and the weapon came down with violence.

Aliyah screamed. The tool clattered dully to the ground. She stood for a moment, open-mouthed, unable to survey the depth of the disaster. A curtain of blood flowed across her vision and shook her soul from her body, which dropped to its knees, but beneath the red rivulet there was only a scratch on the girl’s arm, and still the poten­tial of the blade lodged in the dirt beside them made both mother and daughter whimper. ‘What are you doing out here!’ Aliyah demanded. She seized the girl’s shoulders, her own face smeared with clay, and terror and exhaustion made her breaths shudder and her voice break. First she continued to scold, electric with rage, then she turned on a dime and shrunk backwards, weeping, which seemed to frighten Sakina more than fury. The girl reached her hands up to her mother, who swept her into an orangutan cling and insisted deliriously: ‘You have to help me. You have to help me! You have to be careful around here, you have to look after yourself for my sake or none of this will mean anything. It’s okay, no crying. Don’t you know I can’t live without you?’

It was not the first time that so little had thrown them into so severe a panic. After insult, the body learns to pre-empt, it begins to generate pain centrally, even in the absence of a wound. It learns to launch a phantom defence. Aliyah’s body, too, wound itself into a tighter coil where her daughter was concerned. It took less and less to distress her, even less to prepare her for the possi­bility of distress. She was a bee ready to kill herself to deliver a sting, an asp poised to release the sum of her venom at once.



A SHEPHERD FOR JETHRO

In the wake of narrowly avoided disaster, all thought of labour was postponed until Friday, the day of the interviews. Aliyah set herself up on the desk in the study and revisited the rationale for ventur­ing beyond self-sufficiency: with help on hand, not only would she be able to make a start on landscaping, she would also be freed up to take locum nursing shifts at the nearby hospital for extra cashflow, and – more vitally – have extra time to keep a hawk-eye on Sakina.

On cue, her daughter descended, her hair water-soaked in an attempt to curb frizz. She was dressed up for the occasion. Chin raised, she inquired, ‘Is these jeans professional enough?’

Are these jeans. Yes, but since when were you inaugurated into the board of senior household executives?’ Aliyah spoke to Sakina with the hope that she would glean the contextual meaning of any words she had not previously encountered, but so far the girl was the world’s most avid user of ‘stuff’ and ‘legit’. ‘Inaugurated’ had yet to be incorporated.

‘I want to help interview,’ Sakina announced. She had a charlatan smile and luminous baby-cow eyes, and was a devious thing.

‘All right,’ Aliyah ceded, without having ever expected to succeed in deterring her. This ignited a spark in her child’s eye that raised some alarm, so she added, ‘On one condition: don’t ask about the old owners. And I’ll tell the interviewees not to talk about them either, and it’s not because anything bad happened, or because there’s some big mystery. It’s a small town, everyone here is privy to the goings-on of everyone else. But we don’t need to carry that on our backs. How can we make it all our own if the house is filled with old names?’

Sakina considered this rebuttal to curiosity. She said, ‘Like the old names carved into the door?’

Aliyah blinked. ‘What door?’

Taking her wrist, Sakina led her mother to the doorframe of the kitchen pantry, where a decade of heights had been carved in grad­uated notches up the length of the beam. The last notch was well above Aliyah’s head and had the same initial as all the rest – M, dated seven years prior. Without thinking, Aliyah raised her hand to it. She flinched from its energy.

‘Come,’ she said to Sakina, grabbing a knife from the kitchen on her way to the front door. She had Sakina stand tall against the door­frame, then she carved the girl’s initials and a date above her head, as had been done in the kitchen. ‘Our names will be old too one day.’

Empress-in-miniature studied her marking with exultation, her face so close to the wood it could not have been more than a blur. The sound of a car door slamming made her jump and cling to her mother.

‘They’re here!’ she whisper-screamed. Even Aliyah felt a frisson.

The men arrived in utes. She knew they would be men. She knew they would arrive in utes. Two stepped out and hiked up their belted jeans in unison. The third parked a way off down the driveway and remained in his car. Brusquely, Aliyah ushered the pair around to the back entrance and asked them to decide between themselves the order of the interviews. Inside, she and Sakina stationed them­selves behind the antique pine desk in the study.

In came their first. His name didn’t matter. He looked like a Paul or a Peter, was mild, slow-moving, ovular in his every protru­sion. Where once there had ostensibly been hair, there was now a legionnaire’s hat moulded at the brow with sebum. Even the man’s capacity for wrinkling was insipid; his skin had a crepe-papery look. Before he had time to lower himself into the chair with an early-onset arthritic groan, Aliyah knew. She humoured him with a few ques­tions. She thanked him. She nudged Sakina to show him the door.

The next candidate had more verve, at least. He made a show of surveying the room, chin jutting out, and sniffed with satisfaction as he slouched his bony frame into the chair. He intro­duced himself as Joe, stuck out a tar-stained hand, and shrugged without offence when the offer went unattended. He busied himself with looking around again, looking, looking, looking. Aliyah took him for a live-wire mid-fifties man, pointy grey goatee, straight-up-to-the-ceiling silver hair and all. The lines in his face were deep and abundant. He rested his hands on his belt, and smacked his lips together, at ease and prepared to prove himself a mighty fine contestant.

‘What do you want to know about the job?’ Aliyah asked after the establishing round.

He leaned forward on his elbows and raised his eyebrows skyward. ‘Here’s what I usually do. You take me around, tell me what it is you’re after. I go home, draw you up a plan verbatim. Come back, take you through, and anything you don’t like I give a little tweak. Then I get my crew to work and Bob’s your uncle.’

Aliyah sat with this for a moment before acknowledging her daughter’s expectant look. She gave a discreet nod, and Sakina retrieved a cardboard tube from under the desk and removed a bundle of architect rolls from it.

‘I have plans already,’ she told him. ‘No crew. I only need one extra hand.’

Joe carved a canyon between his brows. ‘You have plans,’ he said uncertainly. He picked up the plans and walked with them over to the window. He paced the room, tilting the papers, tilting his head, then returned looking resolute in dissent.

‘One extra hand.’ He shook his head and folded his arms. ‘Even if your husband is chair of the World bloody Tradies Committee and a champ Iron Man, there’s no way you’re gonna get all that done with only me and him on the job. You think it’ll be cheaper; it won’t.’

‘Those are my plans.’

Joe frowned deep into his soul and gathered the plans back up.

You wanna help do all this?’ He set the papers down again. ‘Even with a whole team, this is a full-time job. Here’ – he pointed to part of a page – ‘the digging alone for all this by the house in Zone One, do you know what that’ll do to your back? Your arms? Arms you’ve got full already.’ He nodded sympathetically at Sakina, who flushed at being referred to as a manacle. ‘The plans – the plans are impressive. That I’ll say. I’ve got men apprenticed in this permaculture business you’ve got sketched here. You’ve made a great start, something I could work off. Look, everyone thinks it’ll be nice to get a boot in. But have you ever taken on – physically taken on – a thing like this? No, take my word; this is not a two-man job, and it definitely isn’t a job for one-and-a-half.’

Aliyah rose and thanked him for coming. Joe accepted the dismissal and made for the door with a look between concern and relief. Aliyah went after him, telling Sakina to stay inside. At his car, she said, ‘I’m not naïve or miserly. I worked on this plan with my father for almost thirty years. I only need one extra hand. I thought I’d have his.’

Joe paused with one agile leg propped on the sill plate of his car. He sucked in a breath through his incisors and squinted at the disarray he had seen reformed by her hand on a few butcher’s sheets.

‘Whatever you get done,’ he said, pulling himself up into the driver’s seat with a groan, ‘it’ll be Babylon, compared. All this ruin, bloody shame.’ Then he sputtered the engine on, lit a smoke, and drove off with the thing between his teeth.

Joe looked like her father – had the same neat goatee, tobacco in his hand like an eleventh digit. But Muhammad hadn’t had so much of a body. He had already been old and fading when Aliyah was born, and he hadn’t been much older when, in the first and most absurd of Aliyah’s personal disasters, he had found himself widow­ered, stranded with only a long-lashed baby who smelled of children’s soap, and a cupboard full of things belonging to a woman he had long considered the only person in the world.

Shepherd’s Mill was a wasteland. Aliyah’s instinct was to wrangle it into being. Muhammad would have spread himself over it with a translucent guidance. If she had grumbled her way out into the world all hard-edged, he had slipped into life a gentle fog, shapeless, encompassing. Need only yourself – through God had been his only law and refrain after a lesson in love learned the disastrous way. She had been his daughter/son apprentice. He had made her useful. When he had often become withdrawn and depressive, Aliyah understood that this was because they had both been robbed of a woman who had been her father’s only non-self need. And though he had prized his daughter immensely, she could never have abated the tide of loneliness eroding his mind and body. Aliyah had made herself solid, grounded. She had bought a patch of land like he’d always wanted, and left the city. Outside the failing of finding Sakina vital to her existence, she had taken his advice and made God her one need. She countered and continued his legacy. She was like him. She missed women. She was estranged from one half of herself.

~

Redirected by the dust of a receding truck, Aliyah’s gaze panned to the last vehicle in the driveway like a camera to a lone survivor. The ute was a faded juniper green, scuffed and coated in a fine layer of earth tossed up from the tyres. Only once Joe had disappeared around the bend did the final driver emerge. He stepped out as though expecting assassination. A tall man, he carried a sheath of fat over the kind of unsculpted musculature accrued through incidental industry. He was perhaps her age or thereabouts, though he seemed younger in his stride, older in his low-gazing solemnity, in dire need of a haircut but not a comb, and was dressed head to toe in khaki green, like a picture-book drawing of a gardener. The fairness of his complexion was odd considering his apparent occupation, and the few freckles across his face – some dotted beside averted eyes, others shrouded by a short black beard – signified he was not given to darkening and took little precaution against the sun. His gait was unaffected, gentle for a man of his size, and he followed her in haste to the study. Touching his hand to his heart, he murmured, ‘Assalāmu ʿalaikum,’ then seated himself, looking unsettled. Other than that, he said nothing, did not acquaint himself with the room. He only flattened down one side of his beard and sat up straighter in his chair, bracing himself as though ready to receive difficult news or decree. Aliyah did not take him for a shy man. The set of his jaw rather revealed him as a man private in the extreme – so private that Aliyah felt it would be an intrusion to even think his first name – and so she dubbed him ‘The Shepherd’ in her mind. He suited Shepherd’s Mill, he could have come with the furniture. Not only that – something in his air brought to mind a long-haired Moses in the desert, incognito as a shepherd for Jethro; noble, irascible, humbled by exile and the heat.

When neither he nor Aliyah said anything, Sakina, now adequately versed in the interview process, took up the mantle of inquisitor. She began with introductions and an air of uncalled-for haughtiness that her mother saw through as a shield for timidity, then got a few things out of the way: they were looking for only one hand; they already had plans; and they really weren’t interested in discussing the history of the property or the past owners or anything else besides. The Shepherd listened, considered, and nodded in a soldierly way. Silence fell again.

‘Do you have any questions?’ Sakina tried, nose stuck in the air.

The Shepherd caught her eye with a subtle glint. ‘Questions from the interviewee,’ he said neutrally. His accent was sanded around the edges, almost Arabic, almost American.

‘What’s your background?’ Aliyah asked at last, cutting in, panning for evidence to support a thesis already drafted and submitted for print. She knew, just as she had known with the first and second candidates, what she would do.

‘Palestinian.’ When Aliyah’s silence probed for more, he added with reluctance, ‘I went to the American International School in Gaza until I was twelve. I came here in 2009, after the Gaza Massacre. We were part of the regional settlement scheme for, uh’ – he shrugged – ‘refugees.’

‘And your qualifications since?’

His gaze flickered to the printed CV in front of Aliyah, which he had emailed over the previous morning. She flipped it face-down. His eyes darkened with impatience that was guarded, though not rude.

‘I apprenticed on my uncle’s property while I finished high school via correspondence, then I went to Sydney for my degree. Agricul­tural sciences and Islamic studies, separately.’

He was overqualified, which made her anxious. Still, she asked, ‘What can you do?’

‘Anything. What I can’t do, I’ll learn.’

‘And you’re happy to accept my help – only mine?’

He almost laughed. Finally, he looked around. His eyes fell on the bookshelves, already half-filled with Aliyah’s collections, on the cornices freshly dusted of cobwebs, on the empty study cabinets and their polished frames, on the carpet, the pine desk and skirting, the two girls, one a dark woman, one an olive-limbed child, and his fine face went blank in truce. ‘Is this not your home?’

Shep, Aliyah thought – Shep for short in her mind.


Translations Jumaana Abdu

Jumaana Abdu is extraordinary and I will read everything she writes.HANNAH KENT

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The Lyrebird Lake Ladies Choir

Hannah stood in the wings, waiting for the actor on stage to finish his soliloquy.

Lies and Weddings

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever.”

Winter of the Wolf

The day Sidonie Montot buried her uncle was never going to be a good day.

Fourteen Days

Call me 1A. I’m the super of a building on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Lead Us Not

It was dark in the gym.

Radiant Heat

Alison was still alive.

Jaded

The Lincoln Room was at full capacity.

What I Would Do to You

Sometimes you find a piece of yourself you never knew existed.

The Berry Pickers

I sit with my back to the wall, my pillows flat.

The Tea Ladies

From the moment she steps out into the laneway before her morning shift, Hazel Bates, tea lady at Empire Fashionwear, has the curious feeling of being watched.

Pineapple Street

Curtis McCoy was early for his ten o’clock meeting so he carried his coffee to a table by the window where he could feel the watery April sun.

Compulsion

Robin notices her three times on the trail, nodding a friendly hello as friendly hellos are expected here, before she stops to introduce herself: Lucy.