What Separates Them All

by Aanika Veedon
What Separates Them All Aanika is a ninth grader. She is an avid reader and Harry Potter enthusiast. She debates, plays soccer, performs Indian classical dance, sings in the New York City Children’s chorus, and also plays piano.

“The air around the harbor blows every which way, cool gusts of wind sending the waves that lap by the shore into a frenzy. The summer sun sinks into the sky, replaced by dark clouds that settle on the horizon, as a light breeze shifts to colder, increasingly high temperatures, frigid enough to make the hairs on Farah’s neck stand up. Everything around here changes in a fraction of a second.”

The air around the harbor blows every which way, cool gusts of wind sending the waves that lap by the shore into a frenzy. The summer sun sinks into the sky, replaced by dark clouds that settle on the horizon, as a light breeze shifts to colder, increasingly high temperatures, frigid enough to make the hairs on Farah’s neck stand up. Everything around here changes in a fraction of a second. The ripples in the water become choppy waves in a matter of minutes, the palm trees once static sway with such motion that they nearly blow over.

Farah detests it. The unpredictable weather breaks fishermen’s boats into halves, endangers the lives of the children swimming by the cove — making the entire village regard the sea with apprehension, despite centuries of the two living side by side.

She spends a month in the miserable seaside town every year. Any major city or outpost is hours away, and the nearest airport is nearly a day’s journey. The coastal village couldn’t be further away from any form of modern day civilization, isolated at the very tip of the Mediterranean. Neither is there any cellular service, and Farah quickly finds herself buried in boredom mere hours after her family’s arrival.

A clap of thunder startles her, and she turns away from the sea, just as a slow patter of rain can be heard as it drums against the roof of the house. Fanning an arm on top of her head to shield herself from the increasing speed of the downpour, Farah makes her way past the dock and up the coastline. Poor weather calls for hazardous conditions, and a night cooped indoors. She reminds herself that she’s only got twenty nine days left, and picks up her pace to make it back inside before she’s soaked to the skin.            

Farah can see the warm crackle of the fire and her family seated in a circle by the hearth through the window of the house, her younger cousin sitting below the easy chair as their grandmother weaves through Laila’s hair, her nimble fingers forming a neat plait that lies down her back. Her cousin enjoys their month in the village by the sea to an extent that Farah can’t understand. She holds a parallelled view — she can just remember the recent years of never looking forward to their summer vacation along the coast of Turkey.

The very truth is that when she’s here with her family, she never feels more out of place. Farah looks like them all, her tan skin and thick brown hair only a few shades lighter than the surrounding community. She can pretend she fits in all she wants, but she knows she does not. Her tongue can’t twist to form harmonized vowels or thick rolls of Ks and Rs, all everyone can hear is the voice of a foreigner. Her family attends the mosque every week, and Farah can merely hum nonsensical syllables that she strings together, can never blend into the way her relatives pronounce everything with such grace, as if the beautiful words can just roll off of their tongue. The fact that Farah is not bilingual is the defining factor that separates them all.

She wonders if her family is ashamed that she doesn’t speak the dialect like they do. They’d never fully accepted that fact that only one of Farah’s parents were Turkish, and her mother’s passing had made their relationship strained altogether. Farah’s grandparents had worked so hard to get Farah’s mother through her years of schooling, had risked so much to help support her when she moved overseas, and losing their daughter had left a heavy mark in their lives. Farah, the only child of her parents, was the last remaining bit that her grandparents had of their mother. Had she failed them for having the inability to hold on to what her mother had passed on?

When her grandparents looked at Farah, they saw the very same girl who’d stood in front of them decades ago, waves of dark hair framing her face, almond shaped eyes, exact matches to theirs. When they saw Farah, they saw the hope of the future their own daughter had had in her, the one who blazed trails and set a new path for herself, outside their bubble of home. But when her grandparents saw Farah, they also saw what they’d lost, and maybe Farah was too painful a reminder for them to see.

***

Farah greets her family and makes her way upstairs, her footsteps quiet thuds against the wooden floorboards. She shares a bedroom with her cousin, the very one that used to be her mother’s. The photograph by the bedside table makes her lips tug into a small smile — it’s one of her rosy cheeked mother, beside her two brothers, and Farah’s grandparents. If she looks at it close enough, she can see the resemblance of herself. When Farah’s mother was alive, Farah would share this room with her parents every summer. Her anne would sit by the floor of the closest and laugh with Farah, and the two would pour over old photo albums, and she’d show her the window that she’d rigged in her teens to sneak out at night without her parents knowing. Farah stands in the very same place she once did with her mother, seven years ago, thumbing through the old dresses of her mother’s that line the inside. She pulls one out and holds it to her nose, because if she tries hard enough, she can smell the familiar scent of rosewater and saffron, a comforting memory.

At the very back of the closet is a dusty pile of schoolbooks, ones Farah’s mother saved to teach her Turkish as a child. The covers are stained and pages are missing, but staring at the same images she did as a four year old help her formulate syllables she tries to sound out together. Learning Turkish isn’t too hard of a task, but only spending one month in Turkey doesn’t give her much time to learn the language properly. She forgets everything she learns once she gets back home, and she hasn’t met one person in her town who’s Turkish beside her. Farah knows that it’s hard for her father, but she’s caught in the middle. She looks nothing like anyone in the States, nothing like her father, and while her looks bear similarities of those around her when she’s here, she’s regarded as the yarim turk, the half-white Turkish girl.

Merhaba, Farah,” Laila passes a warm smile to her cousin, “wanna come downstairs with me? Baba brought new rolls from the market, and they’re toasty.” She glances down to where Farah flips a page of the textbook, “Hey, I remember those — Auntie Zehra used to teach us from them, right?”

She puts her back against the wall, facing Farah, “Here, I’ll help you — repeat after me! Baba will be thrilled to hear you say this.” She passes Farah a cheeky grin, “It’s, uh, merhaba kaltak.”

Minutes later, when Farah repeats the phrase to her uncle, his eyes go wide in surprise, and Laila’s brother has to conceal his laugh behind the table. He gives her a bemused smile, “Don’t let anyone else ever let you say that, Far. And don’t take lessons from Laila.” Laila is in peals of laughter, and Farah’s cheeks flame a bright red. But her uncle’s twinkle is bright as he tugs at her braid. “I’d be happy to teach you some — your mother would’ve loved to hear this.”

Farah rolls over on the bed that she and Laila share, just as her cousin nudges her. Laila’s voice is quiet, as to not wake the household, and her gaze drifts to the photograph that stands on the table, “What was his name, Farah?”

Her eyes close and her throat tightens, but she breathes a quiet response, “Imran.”

Laila reaches out to grip Farah’s hand, “I would’ve loved to meet him, Far.”

“Yeah.” The Mediterranean breeze flutters through the open window and blows stray hairs onto Farah’s face. “I would’ve, too.”

The warmth of her cousin’s embrace is comforting, and Farah lets out a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d holding. Seven years ago, Farah lost her mother, and her miscarriage had meant that Farah had also lost a brother. And the only thing she has left of them are the people with her now. If she can’t push herself to bridge that gap between the people she loves the most, then her family is going to be one more thing that she loses, too.

Her grandfather takes her out on his fishing boat the next morning, their quiet ritual of Sunday mornings. The salty sea air wafts through the breeze as he pushes the boat far out into the cove, as it bobs along the waves. Farah glances up towards the cloudy sky and hesitates before passing him the paddle, so that she can swim out to climb aboard. She wades in knee deep, and the fog settles across the sea, just enough so that she can still see where the boat floats on the sea.

As soon as she makes her way across the beach, the waves swell in size, and cascade abruptly against the rocks. Worry etches across her features as a clap of thunder echoes in her ears, and the summer sun seems to disappear under the expanse of dark billows in the sky.

Farah lets out a scream as the heavy seas overturn the boat, and her grandfather is swept under by the current. She keeps a trembling finger pointing at his exact spot, not wavering her gaze, to keep track of where he is. She shouts in broken Turkish and curses every bit of her bones for not taking the time to memorize the shouts of help. The calm sea seems to turn angry with rage, and the light hues of blue turn dark and stormy, reflections of the clouds overhead, the storm settling on the horizon. Farah doesn’t stop yelling even when her voice turns raw, consumed by the sound of waves crashing against the rocks — the dangerous, sharp landmarks that will kill any sailor if they’re thrown against them. Her knees buckle under her as the villagers run towards the water, her nails digging into her palms, and she sinks into the sand, a quiet sob escaping her throat.

Farah stays by her grandfather’s side through the night. The boat was torn apart on the rocks, and he’d washed up on the shore, bruised, bloodied, and battered, but with a wisp of a heartbeat still sound in his chest. They’d called the doctor and cleaned his wounds, letting him rest, but Farah didn’t dare to sleep.  She kneels by his bedside now, helping take shifts with her uncles and grandmother. The events of today register in her mind that the family she’s taken for granted for so many years, are the ones she could never imagine losing.

Her grandfather doesn’t stir for days, and neither does Farah, spending her hours tending to his needs and pouring over the dusty Turkish textbooks piled in the corner of her mother’s closet. Her uncle helps her, and her skills in the language increase more than they ever have in the past fifteen years. Because now, Farah truly has a desire to learn. When her grandfather wakes, he slips a wrinkled hand into hers, and she squeezes it gently, tears pricking her the corners of her eyes.

“You’re just like your anne, jaan,” he whispers. “You make me smile, just like she did. Your mother was wonderful. My Zehra was her own person,” his voice catches as he lets out a waver, “just like you are.”

Farah slides under the covers, next to her grandfather and wraps a gentle arm around him as he falls into a peaceful sleep, the warmth of his embrace just like her mother’s. The language that divided Farah from her family also brings them together, and as her eyes drift close, she realizes that just like the people she’s with, she might grow to love the idea of this home.

***

The salty summer breeze whips at her skirts, and Farah lifts her son up onto her hip, as they gaze out at the sea. “This is Turkey, jaan,” Farah smiles softly, and presses a kiss into his curls, ones very much like hers.

Where Farah stands is where her mother did, decades ago. And when little Imran’s fingers curl around Farah’s thumb in joy, Farah looks at the house behind her and down at the sands that seep between her toes, the water that washes against the beach. It used to be a reminder of what Farah lost. But now, it’s just a reminder of what has changed.

 

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