The cool wind whistles through the narrow passageways, paradoxically causing a trickle of sweat to drip down my back. A storm is coming, and there is no way to predict the damage it will leave in its wake.The everpresent dust swirls upwards in thick motes, making me cough uncontrollably. I squeeze my eyes tight, knowing what is about to happen. This is a bad one. After nine weeks, five days, seven hours, twenty-eight minutes, and who knows how many seconds, I’ve learned to tell the difference between a brief stirring of the air around me and the passing of a shockwave through the catacomb which was currently my home.
I don’t have the time to run through any of the mantras that help sustain me because the small hand belonging to my son, Nakia, is tugging insistently at the hem of my fraying tunic. Already threatening to fall apart, it does not need the assistance of a reedy-looking but inherently wiry nine-year-old to hasten its demise. I gently unhook his fingers and lace mine through them instead, giving his hand a little tug.
“Come, hayati, we have to go,” I tell him, hoping the endearment will override the anxiety I know is imminent.
It proves futile. My sweet baby tenses up, and I can feel a tremor run through his body. “Mama, no, please. Please, please, please. We can’t. Not there,” he begs.
It feels like he has reached through my skin, passed the bones of my ribcage, and is winding his birdlike fingers around my heart. The fear in his voice causes an instinctive shudder to pass through my body, and my pulse spikes, knowing there is only ever one choice. I know this decision will further shake my child’s trust in me, his belief that I can keep him safe. Whatever is left of that trust is already a blessing that I do not deserve as the last few months had undoubtedly proven, and I am loath to erode any that remains.
But we both know how this will end so I say nothing and tighten my grip on Nakia, hoping beyond hope that somewhere deep inside, he will come to understand.
Another gust of wind whooshes past us and I drop to my knees. Our linked hands mean Nakia takes his cue from my motion and does the same. I hear his quick intake of breath as his shins scrape against the small fragments of rock and sand that line the ground of the catacombs, mentally reminding myself to use some of our precious store of water to wash out his cuts once the worst is over. Knowing the routine as well as I, Nakia pulls his scarf over his mouth and nose, tucking it behind his ear and attaching it securely with the plastic clip already harnessed to the side of his long hair. The same clip had been used on a clothesline earlier this year, and I remember struggling to pin up all the clothes that needed to dry without any overlap. It truly feels like a wisp of a memory, as fragile as the lace doilies I would string up, gingerly clipping the corners of the material so I wouldn’t have to stitch up any snags or tears.
Shaking off my tangential fog, I begin moving, wordlessly ushering my son to do the same. We creep forward steadily, stopping each time another flurry of cold air blows through the tunnels that surround us. The moisture contained in each arriving flurry had already turned the dry soil beneath us slushy, and the scraping sounds caused by the friction of our bodies soon transition into more unpleasant squelching noises instead. Our torturous movement yields result at last, and I reach out, fingers outstretched, trying to find purchase on the chalky limestone structure directly in front of us. Finding a divot wide enough, I hook the forefingers of my right hand onto it and fumble forward with my left, redirecting Nakia’s hand back to my distressed hem. Slowly scrabbling up, I wedge the tips of my fingers into the crack I know to find, hissing out a breath as yet another of my fingernails splinters off under the weight of the lid I am attempting to pry off. Using the weight of my legs to spring me upwards, I hear the familiar groan that accompanies give, and brace the heft of the tomb cover over my shoulders, shaking with the effort of it.
“Hayati, please hurry up. We don’t have much time,” I whisper urgently to Nakia, saying a silent prayer of thanks to anyone who might still be listening when I feel him wind around my middle and start to inchworm up, using my trunk as support. He reaches the lip of the tomb and I feel his weight redistribute as he leans forward and climbs inside. Summoning what dredges of energy I have left within me, I pull myself up on one hand, while still holding aloft the substantial lid with the other. Balanced precariously on the edge, I reach up with my now-trembling right arm, rejoin it with my left, and slowly ease the lid down while sliding my body inside the tomb to where Nakia lies folded up in a corner. Hearing the click that signals a complete seal, I release a tremulous sigh of relief, and open up my body to Nakia so he can make himself comfortable within the circle of my arms.
Now, all we can do is wait.
“It smells, Mama,” Nakia whispers.
“I know, baby,” I whisper back, my voice breaking. “I know.”
I curl my length around my son as I stroke his hair, his back, his arms, all while humming a soft lullaby in the ear closest to me, his right, praying he falls asleep. I take a deep breath, inhaling the scent of my son’s hair as I smooth my palm down the stringy strands that are as familiar to me as my own, and let my eyes flutter closed, waiting for the sweetness of slumber to take me.
Please, please, please let it take me.