It was almost the Vernal Equinox and the warm spring air was dry and turbulent. Its signature tulip gardens, baby animals, and happy pastel hues notwithstanding, that most optimistic of the seasons doesn’t always come calling with a smile on its face. Nor was there one on a young woman's face as she auto-piloted her youngster along a windy Piraeus sidewalk. Oblivious to the plastic bag fluttering just above them and the dervish of leaves swirling above the gutter that delighted the boy, she fretted that the recent outbreak of what the Health Ministry had dubbed “a mild transitory outbreak of late-season flu,” might be neither.
Upon reaching the next intersection, a fierce gust of wind flipped back the boy’s hood to flutter behind his grey sweatshirt marked Property of Nobody in bold white letters, and proceeded to blow-dry his unshorn jet-black locks. The sudden torrent of air also blew away his mom’s preoccupations to deposit her in the moment. Thrust off balance, she clasped a spindly shade tree with one hand and clamped her beret with the other as her open fatigue jacket slapped at her torso. A baseball cap scudded by, tracing an erratic course that the young man pursuing it vainly mimicked. Invisible tendrils of wind frolicked through the street, banging shutters, pinning newspapers to lampposts, and piling debris into doorways, peppering it with grains of African sand.
Tousling her outerwear was Livas—known to her compatriots as Foehn, to the French as Mistral, and to Californians as Santa Ana—one of the insistent, pestilent airstreams barrel down mountainsides, often marking changes of season. One of several cardinal sub-deities of the Greek god of wind Aeolus, Livas was said by ancient Athenians to be responsible for southwest winds like this one, which yesterday he had gathered from dusty Libyan peaks and today propelled down the leeward slopes of the Peloponissos to harass the metropole on its way to agitate the fields of Thessaly.
Her fretting disrupted, she remembered the boy of whom she had let go to steady her beret, hoping he hadn’t been airlifted down the block. She found him planted behind her, rakishly canting into the gale, hood billowing, arms outstretched, burbling engines noises, a black windsock of hair fluttering in his slipstream.
“Ground control to Jay-Jay,” she announced, “turn around and fly us down the block.”
His motor stopped its purr. “Where we going?”
“To the doctor. Your cough isn’t getting better. He can give you medicine.”
He stamped a tiny Adidas on the pavement. “No, Mueter! No Medicine! Let’s go home!”
She sighed, took hold of an outstretched wing and rotated his fuselage northward. Livas obliged, propelling them up the sidewalk, the boy’s protestations unabated but unavailing. When they turned onto a sheltering cross street, he asked, “Mueter, does medicine taste bad?” A cough rumbled his chest. She squeezed his diminutive hand.
“Not at all, Ramadi. It might taste…like cherries, or grapes maybe. Sweet, like you, love.”
Their destination materialized around the next corner, a neighborhood clinic squatting in the former office of a failed real estate and insurance brokerage that had once employed a friend of a friend. They approached its glass door dressed in cardboard and duct tape, compliments of Livas. As they edged past a menacing pile of shards in the vestibule, the pesky demigod slammed the door shut behind them, barely missing Ramadi’s heel.
The doctor was out. Having volunteered there, she understood that finding him there was hit or miss. A new nurse practitioner in headscarf and scrubs greeted them in Greek accented unlike her own and solicited the boy’s symptoms. At the mention of a sore throat, she extracted a wooden tongue depressor from a jar and started gyrating it above the boy’s head, spiraling it toward his puckered mouth.
“Open please, boy. Airplane coming in to land now.”
Having recently been an airplane himself, he obligingly opened his hangar door for it to glide in. After peering down his throat while he sat stoically in mom’s lap, she stabbed in a cotton swab and deftly corked it into a tube before he finished flinching. “You brave boy,” she said, appreciating the lack of complaints.
The nurse clipped a thermometer on Ramadi’s thumb and after a moment pronounced the reading elevated but close to normal. She donned a stethoscope she applied to his chest with “Breathe, boy. Again. Cough please.” She planted the earpieces on his ears, telling him “Here, you listen yourself,” and to mom, “Might be virus, probably not flu, but we check for strep. Does boy have spring allergies?” Not that she knew of, came the replu. She scribbled on a pad and handed over two pages. “Go get these at apotek. First to relieve congestion, other to soothe throat. Get linden-blossom tea, give him morning and before bed.”
Then she swiveled around to a desk cluttered with file folders and cleared away enough of them to locate a keyboard and open a form on the computer lodged behind. “We make record for visit. Name please, first you, then boy.”
“We’ve come here before. In fact, I used to volunteer here. Last name is Burmeister. I’m Anna, he’s Ramadi.”
As the nurse hunted and pecked to locate the boy's file, Anna said, “Thanks so much. See, Ramadi, that didn’t hurt. You’ll feel better soon. Ramadi, tell the nice lady thank you.”
“Tank you nize lady,” the boy hoarsely obliged, and received a non-medicinal lollipop in return.
“Nice lady name Fatma,” the nurse said in stilted Greek. “I am from Turkey. Where you from?”
“No kidding? I love Turks,” Anna responded. “I’m Swiss, but I’ve lived here for, like, six years. His papa was Iraqi.”
“I see. You marry?”
Anna cast her eyes on the pink and grey floor tiles. “Never had the chance,” she said, “He was struck and killed by a car before Ramadi was born.”
“I am sorry. How bad for you. May Allah keep him. So that’s why boy has Iraqi name.”
“Yes, it was Mahmoud’s last name, same as his home town.”
“We let you know about troat culture. Call anytime. Say me how boy does.” She handed Anna one of the clinic’s business cards.
“Thanks so much. I’d like to stay in touch. Do you live here in Piraeus?”
“We wanted to, but no find place here,” Fatma told her. “We live up in Exarcheia in a house with many refugees.”
“I’m not surprised. The anarchists that took over that district go out of their way to shield them. You like living there?”
Fatma gave an affirmative Turkish headshake. “Evet. People are very kind there.”
Anna slipped her phone from her back pocket. “So, do you have email or phone where I can contact you?”
“Evet, gmail on cellphone and clinic computer.”
By the time mother and child took their leave, Ramadi had finished his lollipop, Anna had learned that Fatma was also a single mom with an eleven-year-old daughter named Irmak, and the two had exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. It seemed to her that Fatma could be a great resource for medical and maternal advice who might know other moms seeking empathetic solidarity. Making politically conscious social connections for various causes and motives was her former vocation and still a preoccupation. What currently moved her to connect was clear enough: a decade or more of child rearing stretched before her that she didn’t want to take on solo.
“Güle güle,” Anna chirped in parting salutation as they left the clinic, a pleasantry she’d picked up in Turkey. “Allahaısmarladık; seninle tanışmak çok güzel” came Fatma’s proper but not fully understood reply: Go with Allah; it was very lovely to meet you.
To foil Livas, Anna pocketed her beret and from her shoulder bag withdrew a ceremonial headscarf given to her in Turkey. She placed it over her head and tied it under her chin in the vestibule, but out in the street the demigod seemed to have relented a bit. Anna took advantage of the relative calm to escort her brave boy first to a pharmacy for the prescribed potions, and then on to a café she frequented some blocks away to refresh him with promised ice cream and for her some well-earned coffee.
The Choris Onoma Kafeneío, aka No Name Café, was a commodious but somewhat scruffy countercultural gathering place lovingly resuscitated from the ruins of a defunct hardware store. Its tan walls featured a miscellany of creative creations by local artists, poorly illuminated from the decorative tin ceiling that some anarchist had painted gloomy black. A plate glass window with a taped-over crack in one corner spanned the café’s frontage, generally affixed with announcements of concerts, film festivals, and community events. Inside the repurposed room, wooden tables and chairs of varying provenance were scattered about in ignorant disharmony. A vintage glass case of inviting confections near the door fronted a tiny but efficient kitchen. Of the five unoccupied tables, Anna chose the one closest to the window to distract Ramadi from his discomfort by observing passers-by, few of whom paused to drop euros into the paper cup beside the homeless man crouching out front.
She knew some of the people behind the enterprise, a co-op, envisioned as an anti-Starbucks. They comprised an anarchist collective of shifting composition as members dropped out and others shuffled aboard. The founders had stipulated from the outset that membership would be at-will and that the establishment should not trumpet their politics or anyone else’s. Any profits would be equally distributed and tithed to help those in need. They intended their humble eatery to be a melting pot in which people of all races, creeds, and persuasions could peaceably commingle, and it had been reasonably successful at that.
The morose young server calling himself Phaeton (strangely after the Greek demigod who had plunged to his death after ineptly piloting Zeus’s sun carriage) brought coffee and ice cream. To soothe Ramadi’s cough, she administered a spoonful of fudge ripple followed by one of chest medicine and then repeated the procedure with the throat medicine and more ice cream. “See, Ramadi,” Anna told him, “that wasn’t so bad. I’ll bet you feel better already.”
“Umph, mmph” he mumbled through a mouthful of ice cream.
A few tables away towards the back, two men were passionately discussing something in Greek, their voices rising and falling. Anna pricked up her ears to get the gist of what sounded like a political argument, an uncommon event within these nonpartisan walls.
“They shouldn’t be bringing those Arabs from the islands to camps here,” she overheard a burley middle-aged man saying. He wore a white dress shirt open at the neck to reveal brown chest hair complemented by a showy gold chain. “Too many get out somehow and overrun the city. We don’t need more people here who can’t support themselves. Our bums should be Greek bums.”
As Anna strained to hear, Ramadi slipped from his chair and crawled under the table. The man’s interlocutor, a younger curly-headed man in a black turtleneck with a hoop in his left ear, replied, “I get it, man, but you know Italy has the same problem with refugees from Africa. They bring most of them to the mainland and help them get settled. Sure, some people resent it, but for the migrants it beats being sent back home. They risked their lives and fortunes to escape from badass rulers, invaders, and brutal conflicts. They shouldn’t be treated as prisoners of war.”
“Look,” said the older man, “Greece has seventeen percent unemployment, much more in a lot of places. Shouldn’t we be getting them back to work instead of trying to be every foreign infiltrator’s best friend?”
Anna didn’t like where this was going. She hoped it would stay civil and that the two might agree that EU-imposed austerity policies were only making things harder for Greeks. Attending to their sharp words, she hadn’t noticed Ramadi crawling through the legs of his chair to visit the sweets counter, and from there to circumnavigate the room before coming to a standstill about a meter from the verbal jousting.
Noticing the boy, the older man growled “What do you want, kid? I bet you’re one of them. Are you begging? Well, I got nothing for you. Go away. Haul your immigrant ass out of here.”
Ramadi got the hint. Tears welling, he ran back to Anna crying “Mueter! Mueter!” She pulled him into her lap and glared at his tormenter across the room as she consoled him. The outburst attracted the attention of a bearded man with a black man-bun named Chris, the café’s democratically designated shift coordinator. He stormed over to read the riot act to Ramadi’s accuser, instructing him that his behavior was out of bounds and to quit the premises forthwith, and upon his way out, apologize to the boy and his mother. In solidarity, the man in the turtleneck arose, adding gravitas to the order by drawing his mouth and pressing his knuckles into the tabletop in a show of solidarity.
Abruptly, the ousted customer shoved his chair aside, walked off without paying, and stalked to the front. Taking notice of Anna’s headscarf, he snarled “Go back where you came from, Muslim pórni, and take your brat with you!” Café patrons ceased their usual chatter and some even put down their phones.
Their unwelcome accuser was heavy-set, not tall, old, or young, with a rounded midriff. A broad reddish mustache drooped over stubbly skin. A matching fringe of hair hemmed his scalp, symbolizing to Anna how his nativism circumscribed his worldview.
Anna had encountered even more pathetic exemplars of his type before. Her arms encircling Ramadi, she calmly replied, “You assume my son and I are from the Middle East. I’m not. I’m Swiss and proud of it. So, what’s your pedigree? Are you a hundred ten percent Greek or might foreign blood have crept into your lineage? I’ll bet your DNA’s part Turkish, Armenian, Bulgarian, or who knows, Arab. So apologize for looking down your nose at me and for terrorizing my son, please.”
He pulled back his shoulders, assuming a military posture that only served to accentuate his gut. Fists on hips, he reiterated his views. “Whatever. Look, we can’t help all these people. Greeks can barely help themselves. And they just keep coming. We have to put our foot down.”
“Send them back to whatever country they were last in. Pressure those countries to do the same. Or shoo them up north and let the traitorous Macedonians take care of them.”
In what was likely a futile riposte, Anna replied, “And lose their talent and energy? Refugees aren’t all simple peasants. Among them are architects, engineers, social workers, teachers, and a good number of doctors. Think of what they could contribute to our economy if it weren’t burdened by austerity. Why don’t you turn your anger on foreign bankers and bureaucrats instead of foreign victims?”
His mouth tightened to a line. “I’m angry at the EU too, but let’s keep Greece for the Greeks.”
She shifted Ramadi to her thigh to regard his accuser. “Greeks, immigrants, refugees, we all should be cooperating instead of scapegoating.”
“I’ll cooperate with whoever I want,” he snapped back, “especially Greeks who want to remove this plague of immigrants and foreign meddlers like you seem to be.”
Chris had followed the self-proclaimed patriot and had witnessed the exchange. Clamping his hand on the man’s shoulder, he reiterated his displeasure. “I thought I told you to leave! Stop hassling this woman and her son and get out!”
The man spun around with smoldering eyes, grabbed his accuser’s wrist, and shook off his hand. “Don’t you dare touch me,” he spat at the manager, “or you’ll live to regret it! I’m a police officer and would be happy to haul you in for assault.”
The manager took a step back. Ramadi, eyes dampening, buried his face in Anna’s bosom. “Come on, Ramadi, let’s get out of here,” she quavered with indignation. She fished a ten-euro note from her pocket and smacked it on the table. “Here, Chris. This should cover our treat and humiliation,” she snapped as she boosted Ramadi into her arms and got up from the table.
“This is what I get for trying to help people get along,” she continued, sweeping up her handbag. “And you a policeman. You should be ashamed of yourself!” She couldn’t remember when she last felt such anger. As familiar as she was with the dark animosity of nationalists, his petulant truculence seemed to penetrate her soul.
She stalked away with Ramadi still in her arms. Someone kindly opened the door to let her take leave. Outside, she deposited Ramadi’s sneakers on the sidewalk and turned back to see the two men still confronting each other behind the window. Relieved not to be followed out, she dug some coins from her pocket and dropped them into the homeless man’s cardboard cup and took her son’s hand. They crossed the street to catch a ride on Livas’s broad Aeolian shoulders up the steep hill to the two-room flat they called home.
She hastened the four endless blocks clasping Ramadi’s hand as if he would waft away without that anchor, glancing over her shoulder. More than just another swaggering bigot, the mustachioed man’s incivility bespoke contempt for all that she stood for. She knew his kind from past confrontations with nationalists, with whom she had tried to reason until escalating threats on her person forced her to take drastic action. Her fear of karmic retribution had slowly subsided, but this afternoon’s altercation put it on simmer. Any man like him could be an envoy of the angel of death, even after all these years. She shivered, wondering why that fear had surfaced. The answer would not come for a while, and even then would not settle the matter.
Knock as long as you might on the front door of the two-story stuccoed house five years ago, no one would ever answer. The humble dwelling abjectly cowered between residences thrice its size, exhibiting cracks in its chipped mortar that betrayed its glacial subsidence down to Dimokratias Boulevard. Were its front shades not drawn, it would be easy to assume from the jumble of old furniture and building supplies gathering dust in the front room that the building was unoccupied. Day in and night out, the anomalous abode squatted on a Piraeus side street, its decrepit dignity undisturbed. It would have long ago been torn down to serve a higher and better purpose were Piraeus, like most of greater Athens, to have a more robust residential real estate market. In any case, its frontage was too small and its neighborhood too seedy for its owner to rehabilitate it or developers to bother bidding for it.
And when half a decade ago people were seen entering the alley to the left of the house with building materials and leaving with assorted junk, people who did not seem to be construction workers or tradesmen, it seemed to its neighbors as if the little dwelling might have been taken over by squatters, of which Athens had a seemingly infinite supply, both domestic and imported.
Before long, two youngish women, one thirtyish, slim and fair-haired, the other fortyish, stout and henna-headed, were observed coming and going on foot or bicycle through the alley, but never by the front door. When a vigilant neighbor suggested to the police that the place had become a squat, they dutifully informed its owner. Not really, he told the investigator; Anna and Penelope are my legitimate lessees. Having researched the building to find it was about to be confiscated for unpaid taxes, they had sought him out and then made a deal with him and the tax department to let them make the place habitable and live in peace in exchange for paying off the tax levies. It was an offer their counter-party couldn’t refuse, especially after the women intimated they would advertise the building as open to unhoused refugees if they couldn’t come to terms.
The one named Penelope minimally renovated the rear upstairs unit, but being an art teacher, garishly repainted every vertical surface; Anna, the other, made similar but more subdued updated three meters below. Originally, the house had but one flat per floor, but somewhere along the way the rent-seeking landlord had boarded up doors to split each unit into two and then jerry-rigged kitchens and bathrooms for the front ones. So lacking in amenity were those slapdash improvements that the anticipated rents never materialized, hence the landlord’s financial plight. It was thus the smaller but better-equipped rear units with their sunny and commodious kitchens that the women chose to occupy.
To access their refurbished flats, the new tenants had to negotiate a meter-wide dimly-lit, claustrophobic alley, above which they rigged a second-hand security light with an unreliable motion sensor, the best they could afford. A door in the rear with double latches opened into a cramped vestibule featuring two newly-painted doors. The soothing saffron one straight ahead led to Anna’s first floor kitchen, and the red, green, and purple one to its left opened on a stairway to Penelope’s kitchen upstairs. It was through that gaudy airlock that the residents typically communicated face-to-face, frequently at first and then less so once they had established routines and went about their respective lives that only occasionally intersected.
The women wryly named their liberated lair the Winter Palace, commemorating the Bolsheviks who had stormed and occupied its St. Petersburg namesake in 1917. Truth be told, neither one was a Bolshevik or even a Menshevik, and didn’t cotton to being politically pigeonholed. The extrovert upstairs was of the socialist persuasion, disaffected by the ruling coalition’s complicity with austerity who hoped to re-energize its leftist roots. Achieving reform sometimes requires putting one’s body where one’s mouth is, something she had done more than once but hadn’t in a while.
Her less gregarious housemate self-described as an anarchist of the community-organizing sort who left bomb throwing to others. A student of the theory and practice of achieving self-reliance, she emulated the American refusenik Thoreau, the Russian anarchist Kropotkin, and, to bring their thought up to date, the imprisoned Kurdish separatist Öcalan. All three had done hard time for their beliefs, not that she considered a criminal record a badge of honor. Her revolutionary ambition was to some extent self-limiting, as she shunned notoriety, adopting a nom de guerre that let her shine her light from the shadows through online exhortations and offline organizing. In such a fashion she fanned flames of revolt from behind her saffron door, cataloging threats to civil society by voice, text, and blog, organizing and sometimes involving herself in countermeasures.
It was during a fallow but fraught period a year after moving in that her activist lifestyle began to unravel. She had been polishing her thoughts and her Greek under the alias Katrina on a blog she called Ελλάδα για όλους (Greece for All). Despite making earnest and sensible arguments suggesting ways in which leftist and rightist elements might find common ground, her posts came to be roundly trolled. She was particularly vilified for pointing out that some of the same blood runs in nationalists’ veins as through those of the swarthy immigrants they despised for not being Greeks. “We’re all mongrels,” she had written in response after looking up the noun’s Greek translation; “Get over it.” They didn’t take her advice, and the flood of vituperation that ensued forced her to delete the post. But then two death threats arrived, one to her post office box and one to her inbox. She hoped her potential assailant didn’t know her real name or where she lived, but if his threat wasn’t idle he could probably track her down. And so she sought protection, but not from the police.
She greatly valued her independence and took considerable pride in her capacity to take care of herself in dicey situations. Every one of them had made her stronger, she believed, especially her stint as a medical worker in the African outback. But remembering that she had quit the that job and switched continents when the going got too tough hinted that her luck and pluck might not be unbounded.
The fear and loathing that seized her turned her thoughts to a shy, mysterious immigrant whom she’d chanced upon. Without even trying, he had magnetized her on the spot, making her wonder if he had felt something too. Surprising, because romance hadn’t been on her agenda for a while. And while she realized that it was crazy to seek the love and protection of a displaced person she knew nothing of who had major problems of his own, the possibility never quite quit her mind.
Yet, that was just what she had done, god help her: field a campaign to capture his heart. She housed him when he was on the run. She texted invitations, and when he at last accepted one, her expressed need, persistence, and possibly her cooking overwhelmed what little remained of his defenses. But her new lover was also in the embrace of furtive male comrades who were dubious of her agenda, unwilling to share theirs, and didn’t fancy having a girlfriend hanging around. Regardless, on the cheeky presumption that whatever it was that they were be up to should include her, she proceeded to demonstrate to them her worthiness and warrior qualities, including some she didn’t know she had.
Thusly, over the objections of half its members, she wormed her way into a terrorist conspiracy, an impetuous move that would see them transported to fraught foreign shores, an act that would radically rearrange her life’s furnishings. Among other life lessons, the experience taught her to expect the unexpected, the most of which turned out to be expecting a fatherless child.
She returned from those fraught foreign shores alone, bereft, unaware of being with child, to reassemble her life. The few pieces she had to work with didn’t fit the new one inside her very well, and solving that puzzle begat anxieties. In an attempt to stifle her unproductive self-absorption, she volunteered at a street clinic that had a part-time obstetrician, booking appointments and filing paperwork. At work she now and then encountered other prospective moms and, seeking solidarity, befriended one or two. Anna especially liked Cassie, a practical woman with a decent husband who lived nearby and taught her to make apple and rose hip tea, good to know now that she was off caffeine. Still, it was all she could do to forego her morning shot of espresso.
While making new friends helped, Anna’s despondent sense of isolation abided as her belly swelled. And so, after marking time for two and a half trimesters, she retreated to her home country in pursuit of superior sanitation, community support, and a natal passport. The bus that transported her from Athens to the Ionian port of Patras was packed with easily differentiated tourists and refugees. She was forced to stand until, noticing her condition, a young man in a stained polo shirt and tattered jeans persuaded her in Arabic to occupy his seat. She saw him again on the ferry from Patras to Bari in Italy where they exchanged shy smiles but, perhaps having been denied entry, he failed to materialize at Bari Centrale where she boarded a train for the 15-hour ride north to Zürich plus another hour to Basel. All told, taking that slow road home would consume some 32 hours, time she intended to use meditating on her future but was mostly spent sleeping off her exertions.
She was shaken awake by the train lurching to a halt at the Swiss border. It stayed put for a long time for passport check, and when it finally started to roll her window displayed a panorama of a dozen or more people who had been ejected from the carriages, minded by border guards in fatigues sporting side arms. One of the detainees, a pretty woman in a headscarf with a young girl clinging to the folds of her long skirt was, like herself, obviously pregnant with no mate apparent. Winding through the Alps, as wind buffeted her car, she meditated on the woman and others like her she had seen confined to rude alien camps around Athens, unsure whether to bless or curse her own privilege to travel freely throughout the continent with a house to come home to.
Even in Piraeus she had continued to wear the headscarf given to her at his funeral in Izmir. She wore it out of respect, because she wasn’t done mourning, and to express solidarity with women like the one on the train platform. It both fascinated and frustrated her to see how the affectation affected interactions with people in the city; fascinated by how it caused strangers to profile her in a sweep of an eye, frustrated when they expressed hostility to her mere presence, and furious when once spat upon. But presently she kept the scarf stowed in her backpack, instead covering her curls with another precious relic, his venerable black baseball cap advertising a Turkish football team.
All she had let on to her mother in Basel was encapsulated in a text message bearing her ETA and telling her to expect a surprise gift. It wasn’t as if her parents would recoil at her pregnancy—indeed, they would fairly rejoice. She hadn’t divulged her secret simply because she couldn’t find words to explain how, where, or why it had come to be that wouldn’t appall them.
But when she staggered stiff and weary from a train at the Basel Banhof, there were Mama und Papa standing expectantly at the head of the platform as commuters squeezed by. Wide-eyed, they hugged the woman carrying back-and-fore burdens, kissed her three times each, and escorted her to a tram and home.
Asking no questions for now, her mother bedded her down in her guest room, Anna’s old room having been transformed into a command post for her father’s office equipment leasing business. “I’m okay,” she said through hooded eyes as the cuckoo clock chimed eight. “It’s what I want. Please don’t judge me until you’ve heard the whole story.”
Nestled under Eiderdown, she dreamt of being a concubine confined to a Persian potentate’s palace with, not coincidentally (for he was her favorite poet), only a book of Rumi’s poems to comfort her. “Seek the wisdom that will untie your knot; seek the path that demands your whole being,” nudged her awake thinking, well, if giving birth isn’t squarely on that path, what is?
The late summer weather being splendid, she walked the quays along the Rhein and shopped with her mother at thrift shops for baby clothes and the requisite paraphernalia of motherhood. During those outings and at home Anna slowly unwound the story she had polished toward the end of her journey that elided everything her family didn’t need to know: How a couple of Turks they knew had invited her and her Iraqi boyfriend for a holiday excursion to Turkey, only to lose him when a wayward motorist struck him after stepping off a city bus in Izmir. Introduced by one of the Turks, she and the refugee late of Ramadi had only been together for a couple of months. She described his chiseled face, his steadfast yet gentle demeanor, how he had to flee his country after ISIS brutally murdered his parents and abducted his brother, and his hopes for becoming an environmental engineer, all true. It wouldn’t do, Anna knew, to divulge the clandestine purpose of their trip or her unwitting complicity in her partner’s demise, not that either parent would believe it.
Nor, to her relief, was that necessary. Beyond wanting to know more about the father, all that they seemed to care about was the health of their daughter and their unborn Enkelkind, and took her to interview obstetricians. As she had assumed, her parents held no brief against Islam or premarital sex, freethinkers that they were and had raised her to be. But they did ask about her Turkish friends. Anna hadn’t fabricated them, and simply described the two, more or less accurately, as political dissidents studying and working in Piraeus. What the four of them were up to over there exceeded Mama und Papa’s need to know.
Time, measured out in cuckoos, passed slowly now. Her weekly checkups and sonic scans detected no fetal abnormalities, and Anna’s blood pressure, while elevated, was nowhere near the danger zone. Herbal compresses and teas administered by her mother seemed to allay her occasional morning sickness. Strange cravings, such as for schnitzel and cigarettes, came and went.
Baby Ramadi, the patronymic she chose to dub him, took his sweet time to greet the world. It wasn’t until her 277th day that she broke water at 11 PM and duly panicked. Rushed by her parents to a lying-in hospital not far away, six hours later and with minimal medical inducements, she gave birth to a Virgo like herself, on the cusp of Libra, who—as she had predicted—featured male genitalia.
“Perhaps he cries for his daddy,” Anna’s mother offered when Ramadi squalled for half an hour after delivery. He had emerged looking quite ruddy, and his lusty cries weren’t improving his complexion. Worried, the nurse and obstetrician removed him from Anna’s arms for observation just as she was getting used to feeling his tiny body squirm against her weary one. Under his reddish complexion they found fluid in his lungs and whisked him into an incubator with extra O2 for a couple of days, requiring her to visit his climate-controlled Plexiglas prison to adore and nurse him.
Incubation did the trick, more or less. With oxygen levels normalized and his rash now confined to both sets of cheeks, Ramadi and his Mueter were sent on their way with a tube of salve and an assortment of neonatal goodies. Back home, Anna’s mother—now promoted to Oma—took over to liberally administer folksy remedies for whatever ailed mother and son.
Ramadi’s natural complexion turned out to be a light shade of beige, nicely set off by a shock of obsidian hair that didn’t run in the family. He wasn’t skinny or pudgy, tall or short; just right, according to Anna Goldilocks, who weighed him on a platform scale in his bassinet and stretched him alongside a meter stick daily to tabulate his progress into childhood in a baby book a neighbor lady had gifted her with. When he cried, it wasn’t full-throated, as one would expect. He sounded more like a lovesick dove, causing Oma to coo “Was macht dir Sorgen, meine Taube?” as if expecting him to say what ailed him in bird language.
As weeks passed measurements were recorded with decreasing regularity, as the baby appeared to thrive even without breast pump or formula. A handful of relatives, including her favorite Uncle Max and less favored Aunt Mimi, day-tripped from home cantons to admire the child, bearing casseroles, cute outfits, and infant accessories. Each new visitor obliged Anna to describe Ramadi’s daddy and explain his absence. She duly praised his intelligence, moral fiber, and rugged good looks and stuck to her car accident cover story. When further interrogated would say it was hard for her to talk about and tactfully change the subject. As far as she knew, only five other people knew his true story and she intended to keep it that way. As for telling Ramadi, she appreciated having a while to decide.