Gaziantepe Turkey, February 5th, 2023
“You must keep quiet, little Ruslan,” said my mother, “they cannot know we’re here.”
I nodded, but I did not want her to go.
“I will be back soon with something good to eat. Just stay quiet, and do not move. Will you promise?”
I nodded again. She adjusted my mittens and checked that my coat was tightly closed, then stepped quickly out the door.
We had stayed two nights already in this room so full of dusty things. There was hardly any room for us among the crates and boxes, only enough to curl together and sleep.
“It will keep us from the snow,” my mother had said after she had broken the lock on the door, “and it will seldom be remembered here behind the busy streets. No one will come for days.”
I wanted to cry when I could no longer hear her footsteps in the alley, but I held my mittens against my cheeks to try and keep my promise. How long would she be gone? What would she bring when she returned? I thought of the day before, when she’d come back with borek, still warm and steaming with melted cheese so good I thought I would never be sad again. Then I remembered the day before that, when she’d come back afraid, and we huddled behind the crates and fell asleep with nothing in our bellies.
The light beneath the door began to go away, and the room felt even smaller in the dark. The shadowy stacks seemed to lean like looming men and I wished that they would leave. I listened for my mother’s footsteps, but they did not come, and I pressed my mittens harder against my face so I wouldn’t make a sound.
When my legs started aching from standing alone for so long, I let my mittens fall. Maybe she had forgotten where to find me. Maybe she was waiting in the alley, listening at every door to see which one I was behind. Maybe now she needed me to cry. I stared at the dark where the door would be, and I listened for the softness of my mother’s breathing on the other side. I held my own breath in my throat a little longer, though it swelled there and pushed the tears out of my eyes.
The strays in the alleyway yelped and whined and I wondered if my mother was coming now. But the strays ran past, and the door didn’t open and my mother’s safe arms did not find me. My hungry stomach bit at me, and my cold cheeks began to burn, but it was the throbbing fear of being only me among these things I couldn't see that finally made me cry.
As soon as I had broken my promise, the ground began to move. The floor heaved up beneath my tired feet and knocked me down. The looming stacks around me creaked in the dark, then fell on top of me, pressing me against the shaking ground. I tried to cry again, but gritty dust choked all the air I had for breathing. I drew my legs against my chest and wrapped my arms around my head. Then I heard a cracking in the walls, and a snapping in the roof as the ceiling crumbled in above me.
When I woke, I knew the sun had risen because a single ray found its way down beside me. I tried to move but the room had piled in against my back and against my head and against the bottoms of my feet. Every breath pushed my chest against my knees and hurt me where the crate had fallen on my side. But what worried me was my mother. She had always come back when I had been afraid before. When lights had torn the sky, and booms rang in my ears, she’d found me and held me to her chest. When men with evil faces carried my father away, she’d found me and ran with me till the men were far behind. When we came into this city, she always found me in our secret places, always came with food and something to keep me warm. I wanted her to find me now, I wanted her to lift me out. I wished that I had never cried and that the ground had never moved.
The dot of sun beside me slowly went away, and I heard the voices of men calling out in the street. I did not know what they were saying, but I pressed my arms against my mouth so that I wouldn’t make a sound.
When the dot of light returned, my mouth was dry. My mother always gave me water. I hoped she would bring some when she found me. I closed my eyes and thought of her.
The voices were loud and close to me. I listened, eyes still closed because they were so hard to open now. The words I heard did not sound like my mother’s words. I wondered though, if the men had water, and if they would share it if asked. I licked my lips and opened my mouth, but I remembered the look of my mother’s brown eyes when she said “you must keep quiet, my little Ruslan, they cannot know we’re here.”
The dot of light came and went and I didn’t move or make a sound, except for when it was so cold I couldn’t stop from shivering. The biting in my stomach slowly went away, but the dryness of my mouth was always there.
I woke when I heard my name. My mother was coming down the alley! I could smell the steaming borek and hear the water sloshing in her canteen! I tried to call her with my rasping voice, but it was too dry to make a sound.
I tightened up my legs, and squeezed harder with my arms. How could I have thought that was my mother? The voice was deep and nothing like hers. The men with evil faces knew my name!
“This is where the woman said she left him?”
I understood the words, though they sounded strange. I made myself even smaller, like I’d seen a rabbit do when hiding in a bush, even though it hurt me almost more than I could stand.
“Ruslan! Are you under here?”
I heard the sounds of digging somewhere above my head, and the dot of light grew a little larger. Dust fell down beside my face and I closed my mouth and tried hard not to breathe it in.
“Ruslan! Can you hear us?”
The voice was getting closer and the dust was getting thicker as the men dug down to where I was.
When I felt the hands pull on my arms, I did not dare to look. I did not want to see their evil faces. But as they took me from my hiding place I could no longer keep my promise. I cried because I would not be there when my mother came to find me.
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