I looked to my phone when the game displayed on the television instructed me to. I cupped my hands around it, hiding the screen from my friends around me. The phone screen read: ‘You’re the Faker! Blend in!’ I tried not to let anything show on my face. I bit the inside of my lip as I looked around the living room of my friend’s basement apartment. Everyone else was looking at their screens, their bodies covering each of their phones sufficiently. I swore in my head.
We were supposed to hold up fingers this round, the second easiest game mode to get away with a lie. The television screen started a countdown. Three, two, one—
I held up four fingers.
I looked around. Most of my friends were only holding up a single finger. Jose, eying my four fingers warily, was holding up three. Andrea, next to him, was holding up four.
The television screen finally displayed the prompt, the one that everyone else got to see on their phones: “Hold up as many fingers as siblings you have!”
I tried not to wince. I was the middle child. I had two sisters and nothing else.
Jose, ever painfully perceptive, asked, “Four?”
I scrambled to come up with an excuse. I blurted out, “I’m counting the dead ones too.”
There is a curse on my mother’s side of the family. There are no brujas in my family or really any sort of Assyrian equivalent that I had ever learned about. The closest I could remember was the auntie who worn dozens of bangles on each arm and would come to my paternal grandmother’s house to read palms and coffee grounds. I was too young to get through a cup of Turkish coffee, but she read my palm on one occasion. I was never fooled. I thought it was all bullshit, but I was a small, lonely child. I enjoyed the gentle touch of another human and the intense focus, that, for a brief moment, I was looked at as if I was the most interesting person in the world. There was something magical about a sad child being told her bright happy future was hidden in the lines of her palm.
This curse is not the happy kind of magic.
My mother’s father was a horrid abuser. He beat his wife and his children, only ceasing when his sons finally got too big and their anger too explosive, too temperamental. They escaped him through their strength. My mother escaped him through her marriage to my father. This wasn’t a surprise to me. No matter what the cultural messages said, young teen girls do not get married to men twelve years their senior out of a real autonomous choice. My mother, on the other hand, failed to connect the dots between the way her father treated her and her brothers and the way she treated her own daughters a generation later.
After my uncles’ muscles and before my mother’s marriage, my grandfather kicked his wife and children out, declaring that the lease to the apartment only had his name on it. The police, apologetic and hating where the law stood on this, politely told my grandmother, with her six children—including a mentally and physically disabled son—that they had to leave.
Despite being the one to kick them out, my mother’s father was eternally bitter that his children rightfully hated him, removed him from their lives and refused to allow their children to see him. My only memory of him remains a blurry half-dream of an old bearded face that came to me once as a child playing in my uncle’s apartment.
In his anger, my grandfather cursed them with the worst thing an old-fashioned Assyrian man could think of: that none of his children would be able to have sons. This, too, was bullshit. I was incensed that the girls in the family were so devalued, but the words of a dying man abandoned by the family he abandoned didn’t bother me.
Still, the dots connected.
My older sister came first, the very first grandchild my grandmother received. I was next. One of my mother’s brothers had his daughter, Juliana, next. Then came my little sister. Then Juliana’s sister, Diana, and another uncle’s daughter, Gabriella, within months of each other. Six years would pass before Georgie, Juliana and Diana’s little brother, came into the world, thus finally breaking the curse after thirty years.
But before that, my grandfather’s curse claimed two boys.
Gabriel Malham was born in 1991, a year before I was. He lived for perhaps a few minutes before the umbilical cord strangled him. I never knew what convinced my parents to try again for a child so soon after his death, but perhaps I was a way to heal the wound. When I first cut my hair short, a ‘boy cut’ as my mother called it, my father smiled and called me his son and I wondered if that, too, was a form of healing.
Neesha Malham was someone we were all ready for. We had all picked out his name from a list of suggestions from my father. My little sister, Nouhara, was only seven years old when the pregnancy was announced. Luckily she was well past the age where losing her title as the youngest would upset her. She was excited for a little brother, the change in pace from a household of mostly women. I was twelve-turning-thirteen and a little too serious for a child. I immediately asked where would we put another kid. Nouhara and I already shared a room and, once Neesha could sleep on his own, he’d want privacy we didn’t have room for.
We speculated on who he would look like. My two sisters were spitting images of our mother, whereas I had always joked I was adopted. I look like neither of my parents, but well-meaning relatives remarked how much I looked like my father when he was young. I had inherited his hair—thick and curly—and his figure—thin and gangly.
One night, my parents came home from a doctor’s appointment. I was far too engrossed in one of my video games to notice my older sister had migrated from her room to the living room and hadn’t returned for some time. Nouhara followed her shortly after and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize I was alone and that something in the air was very wrong.
I found them all in the living room, huddling around the couch. My mother was crying, my father was next to her, rubbing her back. Nouhara sat at her feet, her face in her lap. My older sister, Ninweh, sat on my mother’s other side, holding her hand. My mother was five months along and there was something very wrong with Neesha Malham. His heart had too few valves. The only solution was to perform heart surgery immediately after birth. My very serious twelve-year-old mind thought, A newborn has no chances of surviving open heart surgery.
The emotional display scared me. I turned around and went back to my room. I looked up the condition online. At the time, survival rate for newborns with this condition was put at 25%. What a horrible chance. He’s as good as dead.
For me, Neesha Malham died months before his birth.
Neesha Malham was born in early February 2005. He was immediately whisked away to surgery and later hooked up to countless tubes and machines. We would brush our fingers against his cheek, careful not to hit our knuckles against the tube taped to his mouth. My mother’s brother, the only childless one among them, would inspect the urine drainage bag, often full, and marvel. “He’s a pisser, this one!”
Nouhara gave him her stuffed, lavender plush bunny. The purple matched the paint of his room and we all decided as family that this soft, light purple would be his color.
I waited for the other shoe to drop. I didn’t tell anyone about my fears and reservations that I held onto for months. My mother didn’t leave the hospital. She made herself a bed out of the couch in Neesha’s room, until the nurses got her a proper cot. My father spent his days at work or at the hospital. My grandmother and aunts took over the job of making sure we all got to school and back home and that we were all fed.
When I woke on the morning of February 14th 2005, two weeks after Neesha’s birth, something was wrong. I still hadn’t mastered the art of getting up for school. Someone would always shake me awake but this morning, I woke up by myself, to a silent house. I was immediately frustrated. Today, I was supposed to buy Valentine’s snacks for my friends and we were going to share candy and goof off for most of the day.
I found two of my aunts in my parents’ bedroom, one perched on the bed, the other standing over her. They turned and stared as I watched them from the threshold. It wasn’t long before one of them finally croaked out, in her mildly accented and eternally incorrect English, “He dead.”
Neesha had survived the surgery, but not its complications. One of his lungs had collapsed. He had been too long without air. His chances of survival were dismal, the quality of his life demoted to vegetable. My mother was the one to make the decision to remove the life support. At least then, my mother could hold him properly, without the clutter of tubes and machines.
I knew she had come home when the wailing started. It came from behind the front door, out on the stairway leading up to our apartment. My aunts ran to the door and I followed, sticking my head between their bodies, watching my mother being dragged up the stairs by other relatives. The older Assyrian woman living in the apartment upstairs came down and threw herself into my mother’s arms, the two of them sobbing together.
I retreated inside.
People filtered in and out, trying to get my mother to get to bed in one piece. Ninweh, who had gotten up by herself for school and took the bus, didn’t know yet. I envied the easy way her emotions came. She came home to a house full of relatives, face tinged with confusion. My mother had emerged from her bedroom at that moment and the two of them made eye contact. They had clashed numerous times, loudly and sometimes violently, but that all disappeared when they both started sobbing, clinging to each other. In that moment, no one could have guessed that Ninweh would be gone by the end of the year, having ran away only a few days after her eighteenth birthday.
Nouhara was a bit too young to fully understand, the intensity of everyone’s emotions confusing her. I made sure she wasn’t going to leave our room before I hid in the bathroom, pressing my body against the door. I wondered why I couldn’t cry. I wondered when life would go back to normal.
Neesha and George Malham were buried within one hundred feet of each other. My parents hadn’t expected to bury two children in their lifetimes and didn’t think to have two plots next to each other. The cemetery staff did the best they could.
It was a cold winter day. There was no snow on the ground, but it was too cold for me to be outside without a jacket. Nouhara timidly tossed in her purple bunny alongside the handful of dirt I had thrown into his grave, landing atop the small white casket with a small thump, a barely perceptible sound against the harsh thuds of frozen clods of dirt. I went to the car as my mother and her procession of family members migrated from Neesha’s fresh grave to Gabriel’s in a sea of shimmering black.
An uncle and aunt arrived late and stood by me as I sat in the car, door open, watching the mourning.
“He’s in a better place now,” my aunt said. Is he really? I wondered. What part of this was worth it? How was a life lived for two weeks covered in tubes was a life worth living?
Before my mother went into labor, she had asked for her tubes to be tied. Whatever Neesha’s outcome was going to be, she was done. She was protecting herself; her body may have been capable of bearing more children, but her heart couldn’t take anymore. When Ninweh ran away in late August of 2005, the culmination of a childhood filled with beatings from a mother who learned how to do it from an old bearded face, my mother said it the worst year of her life.
I wondered if maybe my grandfather left behind another kind of curse.
A therapist provided by my father’s employer told him that he might feel neglected, that his wife would feel this loss infinitely more, having carried the baby inside her for months. She cautioned him that his wife would likely have fluctuating moods, that she would say things she didn’t mean. I liked to think this therapist’s advice saved my parents’ marriage when my mother inevitably demanded a divorce from my father during a heated argument. He gently talked her down and went back to tidying up the house and cooking dinner for his living, remaining children.
In the following years, as I finished elementary school and entered high school, my parents seemed to have forgot I existed. It was a normal thing, a typical middle child experience, but when they finally remembered I was there, they found someone they didn’t particularly like. They thought this stranger I had become was my rebellion against them; that this rebellion was also some sort of punishment God was putting them through for some arbitrary reason. I was too boyish, too loud, too vulgar. I hung out with too many boys. I didn’t do well enough in school. I was too ugly. I cut my hair short, finally convincing my mother after endless arguments. Her hands carded through my freshly cut hair and she smiled and giggled at how much younger it made me look.
“Like a twelve-year-old boy,” she said. “My son! Here you are!” Something about it stung. I had fought with her tooth and nail for the haircut and her positive reaction eased the tension in me. Would this be a non-issue were I a boy?
George Odisho broke the curse. I never found out from my aunt if she named him so in honor of George Malham, but it felt fitting. There was some tsk-tsking over whether my uncle or aunt could afford another child, but there was certain smugness in my aunt that she had proven her father-in-law wrong. At that time, I was torn between being frustrated that her daughters weren’t sufficient enough for her, for them all, and trying to protect the softness I saw in George, the softness that would surely be stamped out by his father and uncles, whose domineering masculinity had protected them for so long.
I felt I was left as the natural role model for my cousins. I shaved most of my head and stopped shaving the rest of my body. I wore pants and suits and baggy clothing that obscured my figure. Makeup, already a sparse presence, disappeared entirely from my face. I didn’t have to encourage defiance from my cousins. I didn’t have to convince them to rebel against their own fathers telling them that they were less than boys. Every little girl comes to that path eventually. My job was to make sure they never lost steam and to show them that there was a different way to be a girl, to become a woman. I encouraged George whenever I saw him pick the baby stroller over the monster truck.
But even now, I’ve never been sure if it was enough to break the curse.
I won the round. My lies carried me through the entire game to victory, despite one of my friends persistently claiming I was the Faker. I didn’t think about what I had said until I got home and stood alone in my bedroom, the room that used to belong to Ninweh. The window she escaped out of was partially blocked by my dresser.
Valentine’s Day comes and goes. Among my family, there was no celebration of love or friendship in the first few years, or even an acknowledgement of what day it was. We walked on glass around each other, waiting for the day to finally end. There was an uncomfortable feeling in my chest when I eventually decided that it was alright for me to give chocolate to my friends. Earlier this year, my friends and I went to dinner together, celebrating the relationships we had spent almost our whole lives building. I can’t recall the exact day Gabriel passed away without asking someone else. I haven’t visited either of their graves since Neesha was buried.
Ninweh’s first child was a son, Daniel. He is the spitting image of her. I was disappointed it wasn’t a girl. I was more disappointed that she didn’t name him after me. But she is planning for four more, so I still have my chance. I watched my sister care for him, gently grasping his tiny fists whenever he got rowdy, reminding him that hitting people is wrong.
Daniel has a sister now: my niece. He sometimes is so overwhelmed with affection for her, he lifts her up, her body nearly as big and heavy as his, and carries her around the house. He has found a new outlet for his frustration with her, nuzzling his face roughly into her head. It musses up her hair, but she is otherwise unbothered. Whenever one of her hands comes swinging out and hits him, unaware of her actions other than the loud and interesting reaction it gets out of people, her brother does not hit back. But Daniel reminds her, holding her fist in his hand, in a tone mimicking his mother, that hitting people is wrong. She is too young to understand, but he isn’t. I’m not.
In my heart, I feel it. It’s enough, it’s enough, it’s enough.
About the Author
Nergal Malham is a tiny Assyrian born and raised in Chicago. She spends her days wishing she were napping and her nights not napping at all. She received her MFA from Roosevelt University. She dreams of one day becoming a pug. http:///www.nergalmalham.com