Yara sinks her hands into the icy water and immediately withdraws them as her veins constrict. Slowly now; don’t rush it. She clenches her jaw and tries again, this time lowering the tips of her fingers in first and only then letting the rest of her hands follow.
Careful not to damage the fragile fabric, Yara picks up a few soaked items of clothing. Now on to scrub away the worst stains. She can’t hope to ever get the clothes fully clean; the water’s already been used by three other families and is filled with specks of dirt and loose blades of grass.
Yara’s stubborn fingers move reluctantly but she wills them to obey. At 42, she’s not so nimble anymore. She squeezes out the excess water and gives the clothes a final shake before throwing them into a plastic basket by her side.
Now repeat with a new batch.
Scrub, squeeze, shake. Scrub, squeeze, shake. The rhythm lulls and Yara’s mind wanders. Her headscarf comes loose. She catches its tip right before it falls into the water. Yara rewraps the scarf tightly and returns to the laundry.
When she’s done, Yara picks up the basket of clean clothes and heads outside, giving the next woman in line a slight nod. She shuffles past rows of families---mostly women and children---huddled on blankets along the walls of the cave. At night, the temperature drops to near freezing point. Sticking close together helps. The cave is home---temporarily, inshallah---to about a dozen families. It is damp and crowded but provides a sense of community and relative safety. Airstrikes can’t reach them here.
Yara exits the cave and squints at the sunlight. Several kids are playing by the cave’s mouth, jumping across trenches and digging in the dirt with sticks. Warning sirens blare in the distance but the children pay them no mind; the sirens hardly stop anymore, so it’s easier to simply tune them out.
When the sky isn’t all thunder and death, the site of their shelter is almost picturesque. The cave sits atop a hill offering an unobstructed view of the lush valley below. Sprawling trees dot the landscape, poking out through the sea of green like shipwreck survivors.
Yara trudges to the nearest pair of trees between which a long rope is strung. She puts down the basket and takes the clothes out one by one.
Aisha’s sweater bears marks of her energetic lifestyle: plenty of missing strands and an odd rip or two. Aisha is six, a wiry girl with hair black as coal and eyes to match. Aisha’s always in motion, laughing and stirring up trouble. Yet behind her radiant smile lurks a reserve of inner strength and unshakable will. Losing her arm to a roadside bomb hasn’t dimmed Aisha’s spirits. She’s a fighter.
Yara ties the left sleeve into a knot and hangs the sweater up on the rope.
Next come the wraps. Little Walid needs many of them. Yara has witnessed babies freeze to death. She won’t let the cold claim Walid. He’s a quiet boy who returns her gaze in a way that tells Yara he already understands more about their plight than any child should ever have to. In his own way, Walid is coming to terms with it all. Maybe that’s why the rumbling of jets and the aftershocks of explosions no longer wake him up at night. “The bombs are his lullabies,” Yara will sometimes joke during rare moments of levity.
Yara works her way through the wraps and reaches for the last piece of clothing; her most cherished possession.
He’d wished for a pair ever since he turned seven two summers ago.
“I want to be like baba,” he said then, “so I can protect you.”
“And Aisha,” he said “and the baby.”
The khakis Ahmed wanted were military issue, difficult to come by and costing more than Yara could afford. The family still lived in their old house back then but the money was just enough to cover the bare necessities.
Ahmed wouldn’t stop talking about the khakis. In secret from Yara, he began scouting out the locations of ever-shifting government checkpoints and reporting these to the local rebels in return for pocket change. Boys Ahmed’s age made for the perfect spotters. Who would suspect a child?
Yara was livid when she found out.
“You’d risk your life for---what---a pair of pretty pants?” she said.
“They’re khakis, mama!” Ahmed said in defiance. Then his small face turned somber, “Just like baba used to wear.”
Only then did it dawn upon Yara that it had never really been about the khakis at all.
“Aren’t you afraid of what’ll happen if the soldiers ever find out?” she said.
“I can't be afraid all the time, mama! When will I get to live if I'm always afraid?"
Yara made Ahmed swear he wouldn’t continue. But from that day, Yara had kept a secret of her own. She started to save up, denying herself a meal here and a sanitary pad there. It took months to scrape together enough money to buy the khakis. But it was worth it all to see Ahmed’s eyes light up.
Was it ever so worth it.
Ahmed sprinted into Yara’s arms and hugged her tight and said thank you mama thank you and laughed and kissed her cheeks and she held him close and the whole world stopped and---for a split second---it was just the two of them and the joy of the moment and the warmth of the embrace and the gunfights went silent and the war was over and nothing else mattered.
Yara’s crying now. They’re bittersweet tears. Ahmed’s khakis sway on the rope and the droplets falling from them sparkle in the sun. Ahmed did as he had promised. If it wasn’t for his quick reaction, Aisha would’ve lost more than her arm.
Ahmed has earned his khakis. They’ll look good on him as he’s laid to rest tomorrow.
“Just like baba,” Yara whispers.
In the distance, she hears the roar of approaching jets. By way of habit, Yara turns and hurries back toward the cave. But as she nears the entrance and sees the children---still engaged in their game of tag and seemingly oblivious to the danger above---Yara stops.
She turns around and ambles to the barren patch of dirt these kids have claimed as their playground. Their laughter drowns out the sirens and the planes.
Yara watches them. She can’t help but think that their refusal to acknowledge the war isn’t youthful carelessness or even detached apathy; perhaps it’s a special kind of wisdom the adults in the cave have long forgotten.
For after all, if you’re always afraid, when will you ever live?