Shades of Sunset
I followed Leila down a dimly-lit corridor, our heels tapping on the linoleum floor. The light grey walls of the clinic were cracked. Everything looked a bit dusty, gloomy. The shutters were drawn, but as soon as Leila opened them, streams of light filtered in revealing paintings of red rooftop houses and mountains with deep shades of sunset on some parts of the wall.
“Those little monkeys have started using the walls as canvas,” Leila said with a small laugh.
As we passed the nursing station, I said, “Hello, how are you?”
“Exhausted,” a nurse answered while her colleague beside her just gave me a tired smile.
“The paintings make me think about the towns and villages outside Beirut. Do they remind you of home, Hanna?” asked Leila.
“Yes, a little. My village has those red roofs and, of course, the mountains,” I answered quietly.
“Who’s the artist?” Leila asked.
One of the nurses said, “A girl named Christina. You haven’t met her yet. She’s new. Only fourteen. It’s a real shame. She’s incredibly talented. Her parents just abandoned her. Poor thing was chasing after her father’s truck, but he wouldn’t stop. He kept going.” She paused then looked at her co-worker. “Isn’t that right, Nawal?”
“That’s right. I saw the whole thing,” said Nawal. “It was heartbreaking.”
“Who would abandon his or her child like that, especially after what she’s been through? Only a coward would do that. How is this girl going to recover without the support of her family? It’s a real shame,” the other nurse said, shaking her head in disgust. After, she gave a long and loud yawn.
“Maya, don’t say such things. We can’t speak like this. We’re here to help the girls heal and return to society. No discouraging thoughts, only hope.”
“Sorry, Leila. It’s just a real…”
“Enough. Go take a break. You’re tired.” Leila walked down the hallway and I followed her, trying to keep up with her fast pace.
The room was stark and cold. An autumn breeze swirled through the open window. Leila went to it quickly and closed it. A thin girl sat up on the hospital bed, her knees drawn to her chest. Her long hair was tangled and her cheeks had grime on them as though she hadn’t washed in days. Leila motioned for me to grab a comb. When I went towards the girl, she drew back, pressed herself against the headboard and started swatting me with her hands. “Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!” she shrieked.
“It’s all right. I won’t hurt you. I just want to comb your hair. Will you let me do that?” I asked softly. She buried her head between her legs and swayed back and forth. I inched away and waited. “My name’s Hanna. What’s yours?” When she didn’t reply, I glanced across at Leila who nodded for me to go on. “I saw your beautiful paintings on the walls in the hallway. You’re a very good artist. My niece Salina likes to paint and draw too. She’s almost fourteen. How old are you?”
At this point, the girl lifted her eyes. “I’m fourteen too,” she whispered.
“How long have you been painting?”
“Since I was six. Babba gave me a paint set for my birthday that year. He bought it at one of the marketplaces. I love painting sunsets. Love all the different shades. That’s the first thing I learned to paint. The sunset in my village is beautiful. At first, I used cardboard that I got from the shopkeeper in my village then as I got better, I started painting on the walls of some abandoned homes. The houses looked so lonely. When I painted some mountains, goats and sunsets on the walls, the homes weren’t lonesome anymore. But I stopped for a while when…” she hesitated. “I’m not a good painter.”
“I disagree,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’m ugly.” She sat up straight now and brushed her tangled hair out of her face. “Look at me! Am I pretty?” she asked angrily.
“Yes, I think so. You have beautiful eyes. I haven’t seen such blue eyes before. They are like the colour of sapphires.”
“I should mix that colour sometime,” she said calmly now. “My Mama has blue eyes too.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“In the village. She couldn’t even look at me anymore. Babba brought me here. Left me on the steps as if he were delivering one of his goat or cow carcasses.”
“Your father is a farmer?”
“No, he just kills cows and goats for fun.” She sneered. “Who are you?”
“I’m Hanna,” I repeated. “I’m a student at the American University of Beirut.”
“Near Hamra Street.”
“I like Hamra Street. I went there once with my Babba.”
“Maybe someday you can paint on the walls of those cafés.”
“Why? I’m no good.” She started to cry then.
My face crumpled.
Leila intervened. “Do you feel like talking about what happened to you, Christina?”
She shook her head.
Leila reached out to her, but the girl pushed her away.
“No, don’t touch me! No!”
“We just want to help you, Christina. We want to give you a bath, nothing else.”
“Leave me alone! Don’t come any closer or I’ll punch you.” She clenched her hands into fists.
Leila stepped back and said, “Okay. We’re going. You know where the bathrooms are. Go take a bath. You’ll feel better.”
“I’ll still be dirty!” she yelled.
I went towards the girl and tried to soothe her, but Leila gave me a look and whispered, “Yallah, Hanna. Let her be.”
In the hallway, Leila said, “She doesn’t want to be helped yet, Hanna. Give her some time. We can’t do anything until she’s ready.”
“But she needs a bath. We can’t leave her in that condition.”
“The nurses will give her a sponge bath. They work miracles. Maya’s a real pro that woman when she’s not so tired and grumpy.” She laughed and I tried to laugh, too, but nothing came out of my mouth. “Remember that this is our work. Don’t take it home with you, Hanna. If you do, you’ll never make it in this field. We’re only human, not God. There’s only so much we can do. Second rule of being a good psychiatrist, knowing when to step back and give the patient some space.”
I frowned, then nodded, accepting Leila’s advice.
Leila nudged me on the shoulder with her own. “Smile. It was a good first visit. Christina will come around. At least she spoke to you. And she’s painting. She hasn’t given up something she loves, which is a good sign. A very good sign.”
When we got back to the nurses’ station, there was a loud roar of thunder and Maya said, “Another bomb somewhere. My brother just called me and said it’s not safe to go anywhere. There have been a few bombs going off throughout the city. You’ll both have to stay the night. It’s just too dangerous to go outside.” She instructed two girls walking down the hallway to go back to the their rooms and stay away from the windows.
The night was cold. The girls’ cries tore throughout the ward. At first, I thought it was wild cats crying but when I got up from the bed Maya had made for me, I tiptoed down the hallway and realized it was some of the girls. My body shuddered, thinking of the horror they were reliving. Could I help them overcome the horrible acts that had changed the course of their lives? Who would marry them now as the people of my village would say as if this were the most important thing in the world. I had got out of my village because of my scholarship, but what about these girls? They were forced to become victims of this war in the most horrific way. Screaming into the night. I could only imagine what was racing through their minds. A lump formed in my throat. At Christina’s doorway, I watched her in her bed squirming and when she started to shriek, I raced to her and held her flailing arms down.
“It’s okay, Christina. Everything will be okay.” When I said those words, I felt my voice weaken. Would everything be okay? Could I help this girl get better?
Within minutes, she opened her eyes and when she saw me, she spat on me. I let go of her and wiped the saliva from my face. “Don’t touch me!”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Are you all right?”
“Why are you here?”
“I want to help you.”
“You can’t help me. My life is over. It was over when those men attacked me. I stopped counting after the fifth one. I think I blacked out. It was Babba who told me how many hurt me. He was in the room, you know. Mama was there too. They tied them up.”
I said nothing, my body trembling.
“There was a young soldier with blue eyes like my own. We could have been brother and sister. When it was his turn, he didn’t hurt me, just pretended that he was doing what the others had done to me. He whispered in my ear that he was sorry, but I couldn’t reply to him. I was stunned. I saw tears in his eyes too. He got up quickly and zipped up his pants, but then another man took his place and he wasn’t as kind.”
“You are strong, Christina. So strong.”
“If I’m so strong then why couldn’t I stop what happened to me? Why am I here?”
I felt my throat tighten because I didn’t know exactly what to say, but then I managed to murmur, “Sometimes things happen to us and we have no control over it. You couldn’t have stopped those men. But you can beat them now. You can get better. You can show them that they didn’t destroy you. You can show your parents too.”
“Why did Mama and Babba throw me away?”
I closed my eyes for a minute as if hoping to gain some enormous insight but when I opened them, I didn’t know the answer. I said, “I’m not sure, Christina. All I know is that you are here now and I want to help you. Will you let me help you?”
After a few seconds, the girl nodded and when I went to her, she let me take her hand and lead her to the bathroom.
I helped her out of the bathtub, wrapping her carefully with soft linen. Then I dried her hair and tucked her in bed. “Maybe tomorrow I can show you how to paint a sunset,” she said, giving me a small smile.
“I would like that very much, Christina.”
“There are so many shades…” she stopped then went on. “I guess like people. So many different people - kind, mean, ugly, beautiful.”
“Get some rest,” I encouraged.
“Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?”
“Yes,” I said gently. I thought about my niece, how she was no different than this child, how her circumstances could have ended up like Christina’s. I stroked Christina’s right hand and stayed by her side until she finally fell asleep. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was making a real difference. I looked out the window. The sunset was long gone, having fallen hours ago behind the mountains which appeared soft in the silvery-indigo tint of darkness. Silence surrounded me. Just then, I realized that the cries of the girls had been swallowed by moonlight and sleep. I sat on a chair and closed my eyes.
Sonia Saikaley's first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. Her first collection of poetry, Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter, was published in 2012 and a second collection, A Samurai’s Pink House, will be published in 2017 by Inanna Publications. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street, which was awarded an Ontario Arts Council grant. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa, Canada.