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They were like winter. Dark. They were like the desert winds. Scorching and brutal. They were like clowns; amusing you as they glued posters to your apartment complexes’ walls. Afterward they gathered strength and sent million electronic text messages to your mobile phones. They increased the number of guards holding automatic weapons and intensified the number of security check points to rummage through your purses. They were like a breeze ruffling around the skirts at your ankles. Traveling upwards to the scarf around your face, pulling it loose. Threatening to unravel it.
The amusement wore off when they came knocking on your doors, asking to come inside. You allowed them. They stood in your living rooms, their fingers touching everything. They looked at you and smiled. You heard the rumors and now it has come true; staring at you in your faces, standing in your living rooms. “Oh my!” they said, when their stomachs growled. “We’re hungry. We hope you don’t mind.” No, you didn’t mind. Have a seat, you told them, but they followed you into the kitchen. They mentioned how your old curtains looked. “You should buy new ones,” they advised. When you poured the oil into the wok, they gasped at your choice of oil. “Oh no,” they said. “This oil is no good.” They threw it out and made you write down the names of the good oils you must buy. At the dinner table when you served the meal, their eyes narrowed and squinted. “Why must you always eat lamb?” they asked. “There are other things than lamb to eat. Here try a pig’s ear.” They reached into their bags and pulled out the ears. With great gusto they ripped the sealed packages apart. They chewed on the rubbery skins. “It is delicious,” they said. The juices ran down their faces. You tried not to vomit.
You made milk tea, the way your ancestors had drank for centuries, the way your mother had taught you. They spat it out and waved their hands in the air. “Plain,” they said. “Plain is best.” Tears were about to spring from your eyes. “Oh no,” they said. “We come in peace. We do all this for you. For your health. For the economy.” They handed you pamphlets printed by the government. “You must read these,” they told you, patting your hands, wiping the tears from your face. “This will explain everything.” You protested. Once. “And if I don’t want to read this?” You mentioned a man who was hit about by the police. They frowned. “Where did he live?” they asked. You declined to answer. “It was his own doing,” said one. “He had knives,” said another. And your heart skipped a beat for you had knives, too. You all did. It was your culture. There were knives in the kitchen and in other places as well, safe and hidden. They found those knives later and as they packaged them into plastic blue containers to be shipped somewhere you did not know, you hesitated to tell them the knife had belonged to your great grandmother. The one with the red rubies and diamonds decorating the wooden handle. It was that one. They snapped the lid shut. Your lips smiled tight across your face. The rubies and diamonds where fake. You knew this.
At night they came into your bed, snuggled besides you and held you tight. Holding you tighter, they asked if you were cold. If you needed another blanket. Wouldn’t you like to be warmer? Wouldn’t you like your children to be educated and have a good job and provide well for you?
Yes, of course you would, you said. Who wouldn’t.
They smiled. Of course you do. And yes who wouldn’t.
On the third day they rolled up your rugs and carpets. These things collect so much dust, they said. Superstitions lies in those rugs. There are no such things as magic flying carpets. Here they laughed. Magic is not allowed in these provinces. Here they frowned. You all know this except maybe your two year, who you now, silently and fervently, prayed the kid would keep his mouth shut. God forbid they know you watch Disney movies. By the end of the week they’ve moved on to books. Moved by habit, motivated by fear, desiring love, your lips moved and you whispered: Allah, Huda, Shangdi, God. Barely discernible. In a voice like this: Allah, Huda, Shangdi, God. But they heard you anyway.
“What was that?”
Your hands gave you away when they went to your lips. They rolled out the duct tape and strapped it tightly across your face. That is forbidden, they said. Do you understand? You nodded, but still your lips moved. They took thread, the color of blood, and sewed your lips. They took thread, the color of gold, and stitched up your eyes. They marveled their work. You like seeing unseen things anyway, yes? they said, laughing. You tried to laugh with them but the threads in your lips made you wince, instead.
Everything was related to terrorism. Don’t you want peace? Don’t you want security? Who would object to such a thing? You undressed. You took off your scarves and put on the clothes they deemed were better. Your houses, your hair, your bodies, your language. You gave them everything. It was not enough and soon you were bouncing away in a dark van down some unknown road to an unknown place, although this place was not unknown. Military trunks for years have driven through your towns. So, did the rumors, creeping and spreading. You ignored this. You sung lullabies to your children. You made your voice louder than those rolling tires. Your songs thicker than those walls put up. Now you have come face to face with it all. You can’t think of any songs. Your heart is dead.
There is a paper. A simple paper. It is your name they want. Your name. Their names. Your loyalty. You stand between those walls and hallways and doors and locks and freedom. A name is all we ask for, they said. They did not smile. Here they do not bother with the hospitality of smiling. It is useless. You know this. They know this. You stood before them. You cut out your right eye. The veins still attached. It rolled around on the desk. You cut off your toes. One by one and laid them besides the eye. You gave them your heart as well; shrived and dried, shrunken.
Look at what honor she has, said one.
The others chuckled, slapped your hand lightly. No need to be melodramatic.
The hallways seemed to be filled with a moaning that pierced your ears. These moans were the moanings of your aunts and sisters and uncles and brothers and fathers and mothers. These moanings will haunt you in your days forward, but as you leave, your mind surreal like the freedom in your hand, your feet barely grazing the ground, you realized nobody moaned. There was no moaning. No screaming. No crying. It was as if you as a whole didn’t exist. The compound so quiet, you didn’t even hear the doors opening. Your feet shuffled toward the promised freedom. Your hands twitched, eagerly awaiting to bleach your house from top to bottom. You walked thru town back to your house aware of the newly installed cameras at every corner. They are tracking your movements. Your face is memorized. You know the things in your house will already be tagged and inventoried; numbered to every last dust-speckled thing you own. You know they will come the next morning to check on you, to make sure you haven’t forgotten the songs they’ve taught you. Tonight you will gather your children. Together you will practice the songs. You will make the children stand tall as they sing even though every fiber of your being begs otherwise. You will sing the songs for three hours straight. You will make the children repeat after you even though they are tired. You keep at it because you want everything to be perfect. Your voices rises, higher and higher, and you know that even the cockroaches hiding underneath the sofas are singing as well. Their small squeaking voices joining yours. Their voices so small, so miniscule that shouldn’t possibly, technically, be heard, but you know otherwise. You will be heard. You will all be heard.
Xenia Taiga lives in southern China with a cockatiel, a turtle and an Englishman.