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Amaya sits among empty armchairs and fading curtains in a room brightened by plastic flowers. On each wall there’s a still life, and a grey carpet covers the floor. She stares at her yellowing copy of Bleak House until the words become black insects wandering about the page. Rob, her care assistant, keeps glancing over at her then at the clock. She gets up and walks towards the stairs. He tries to coax her into the lift but she grabs hold of the banister and begins climbing. He follows her up to her room in silence.

“No singing or bells tonight. We’ve had complaints,” he says at the door.

She doesn’t say anything, but thinks, Complaints are good. Shows there’s some fight left.

Rob closes her into a small room almost identical to the others on the floor. The framed memories of her son and grandchildren’s strained smiles from their last Christmas together let her know she’s in the right place. She begins to sing—a melody that sometimes stirs memories of happier times, or brings on tears.

On the floor she spreads out her map, a flowing patchwork quilt of the island where she lives. As she traces her finger over it, the song shifts from major to minor. Then she stands. Her right hand undulates in front of her like a rippling wave. She raises the other hand above her head and with fluttering fingers, circles her wrist down to her waist. Outside a gentle wind stirs and it begins to rain.

“Amaya, were you singing again last night?” Rob catches her after breakfast.

She smiles.

“Mr Laycock was upset, said he couldn’t—Amaya!”

She escapes into the garden, crosses the lawn, passes the regimented rows of roses, and lays her map on the patch of unkempt grass behind the trees. She explores the contours of the map with her wrinkled hands and sings thoughts she’s never shared, then stands, listening to a silent reply. She makes a circle over her head with her right arm, rolls up her map and returns inside.

“You wasn’t meant to be out there,” a woman with shaky hands and thinning hair says.

“Never mind,” Amaya says.

“It’s the rules. No one’s to go out at breakfast.”

Amaya sighs. Before Rob can say anything, a man bent like he’s spent a lifetime staring at the floor starts to cry, a small puddle growing at his feet.

Amaya goes through to the living room and sits with George.

“We shouldn’t be here,” she says.

“I know, but we might as well make the most of it.”

He offers her a paper and she leafs through the recent past, no longer concerned about its effect on the future.

It’s Saturday, but no one comes of course. Well they come, but not for her. Her son and his wife settled nearer the equator. Most of her friends have passed on. She’s used to it. She pretends to read and watches the families visiting their relatives. Sometimes a newcomer will notice and say, “It must be hard without a family” and she’ll straighten up, lift her chin, and reply “I have a son and a grandson and granddaughter, but they live abroad. My son’s a doctor. He’s very busy.”

Today there’s a new visitor, a girl of about eleven with glossy black hair braided into two thick plaits and skin the colour of toffee. She sits next to the woman with the rheumy eyes and colourful headscarves, who arrived two days ago and hasn’t spoken since. The girl doesn’t speak, just strokes the older woman’s hand. After an hour, she says something Amaya can’t hear, kisses the trembling hand, and leaves.

Amaya is in her favourite patch of garden behind the trees. The map spread at her feet, she sways from side to side, her wrists circling from above her head down towards the ground.

“What are you doing? It’s pouring!” Rob half-guides, half-pulls her back inside.

She’s soaked from her hair down to the tips of her toes. Once she’s dry, she’s called into a meeting.

“Your recent behaviour has given us cause for concern, Amaya,” Miss Shaw, the care home manager, says.

Amaya bows her head.

“What were you doing outside in this weather?”

“I love the rain,” she says.

“If it happens again, we’ll have to put you on restricted movement. Do you understand?”

Amaya nods and they let her leave. She goes to find George, but he’s already gone up for his mid-morning nap, so she sits with Mr. Morris. Morris smiles too much and his relatives, who are always coming to visit, are too loud. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were having a party in a community centre.

“So Amaya, how are you?” Mr. Morris says.

She resists the temptation to say, dying of boredom.

“Older. Hopefully wiser,” she says.

Mr. Morris leans in close. “Wiser? I saw you out there in the rain.” He laughs so hard it brings on a cough. “Was it a rain dance?” More laughter and coughing. He wipes the tears from his eyes.

Amaya smiles.

Amaya sits in the living room, willing the girl to come again. Mr. Morris sends one of his great-grandchildren over with chocolates. She smiles but declines, and the child pauses for a moment before scampering back to his family. Time drags on with giggles from the Morrises and stilted exchanges between Mrs. Hall and her son, whom she’s no doubt berating again for failing to visit more than once a week.

Amaya is about to go back upstairs when the girl walks in, glances around the room, and heads over to the corner where the silent woman sits. She smooths the older woman’s headscarf and wipes away moisture from the drooping side of her mouth. The woman nods, as if satisfied. The girl’s hands are very still, but she rubs one shoe against the other. When she kisses the silent woman’s hand and gets up to leave, Amaya says “hello,” but the girl raises her shoulders, drops her head, and leaves.

Amaya wakes between unfamiliar sheets. From the rows of beds next to hers and the antiseptic smell, she knows she’s in hospital.

“Do you remember what happened, Mrs. Hughes? You had another fall. There’s quite a lot of bruising, so you’ll be a bit sore for a while, but the good news is nothing’s broken.”

She expects George will be there waiting when she returns, just like the last time, but he isn’t, so she goes up to her room, closes the door, and climbs into bed. He isn’t there when she goes down to dinner. “Is George eating in his room tonight?” she asks.

“I’m really sorry, Amaya. George asked his family to come on Monday and he died in his sleep that night. It was peaceful, just as he wanted.”

Amaya returns to her room and sits staring at the rain streaming down the window. What little she eats is brought up to her and she refuses to venture downstairs, though Rob cajoles her every day. Saturday comes. Still she doesn’t go down, but she can’t stop wondering whether the girl will be there. She stares at the picture of the granddaughter she hardly knows, frozen at around the same age as the girl who might be downstairs. Her feet take her into the corridor and down to the living room, where the girl sits, her hand in the wordless woman’s. Amaya watches how she strokes the back of the old woman’s hand as though trying to coax new life into her veins. When the girl gets up to leave, Amaya waves at her again. She doesn’t wave back, but there’s the glimpse of a smile.

After weeks of trying, she’s rewarded with a goodbye wave. She goes straight up to her room, climbs onto her chair, and brings down her little velvet box. Inside, the silver bells on their silver bracelet tinkle. She holds it up towards the light, remembering the day she bought it, back when she thought her granddaughter would be coming to stay.

The girl waves at Amaya when she arrives the following week and when she gets up to leave, Amaya holds out the velvet box. “I’d like you to have this.” The girl takes it in her hand for a while, then hands it back.

“Go on, you can keep it,” Amaya says.

The girl shakes her head.

From then, when the girl finishes sitting with her great-aunt, she comes to sit with Amaya, who tells her about growing up on her small island, about picking stones from the river to build the new house, about the chicken who stole the saltfish from her plate, about the sweetest soft mangoes with juice that runs down your chin. The girl listens, nodding sometimes, smiling, occasionally laughing. After many weeks and many stories, Amaya is on first-name terms with Sagal.

As winter turns cruel, Amaya tells Sagal about her patchwork map, her songs and dancing. She tells her that when she sings the secrets she cannot speak, she can read the map with her fingers and knows what the weather should be; and once she’s read the map, she loses herself in dance and the heavens respond. She is, she says, a weather dancer.

Amaya doesn’t see Sagal’s great-aunt for a few days, but she assumes that she’s resting. After four days, Amaya asks, “Where is she?”

“Who?” Rob asks.

“The woman who never speaks. With the headscarf?”

“She’s gone. I’m sorry.”

Amaya starts to cry.

“I’m really sorry,” he says.

She locks herself in her room and doesn’t come down. Instead, Rob brings up food that she doesn’t eat that evening, the following day, and the morning after that. In the afternoon, there’s a knock on the door that she ignores.

“I’ve got someone here to see you,” Rob says.

Amaya opens the door and Sagal’s there.

“I’ve allowed her up on condition you eat something.”

Rob settles Amaya into her chair, pulls the table across, and puts a bowl of soup and a buttered roll in front of her. While Amaya eats, Sagal tells Amaya that her great-aunt is really a family friend from Somalia. She tells her about being the youngest child, about the rainbow that stretched over her block of flats yesterday, and about losing her mother. “How do you dance rain?” she says.

The next time Sagal visits, Amaya takes her out to the garden behind the trees and sings while tracing the contours of the map with her fingertips. Then she stands and circles the wrist of her right hand from above her head down to her waist. It begins to drizzle. She raises her left hand and circles it with the right and the rain gets heavier. Sagal tries to persuade Amaya to go back inside, but she stays there, circling her hands, her head tilted towards the sky. Sagal finds Rob and together they bring Amaya back indoors.

It starts with a cough, wheezing, and fever like the sun’s burning inside Amaya; then it’s as though the rain has found its way into her lungs. When Saturday brings Sagal to the home, Rob hands her a canvas bag.

“She wanted you to have this.”

Sagal doesn’t speak. She takes the bag outside to the wild grass behind the trees. She gets out Amaya’s patchwork map, lays it down, and kneels before it, feeling its contours with her fingertips. She starts to sing a melody that could stir memories of happier times or bring on floods of tears. Then she stands and raises her right hand, holds it in the air for a while, and then circles her wrist down to her waist. Her left hand joins in. Soft rain begins to fall. It dances into her hair and streams down her face.

Aisha Phoenix writes short stories and poetry. Her writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, the Peepal Tree Press Filigree: Contemporary Black British Poetry anthology, the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, Litro USA online, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Crack the Spine. She has a PhD in Sociology. She tweets as @FirebirdN4.
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20 May 2024

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