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"The Calisia"

by Carmel Mawle 




          Mama used to say music belonged in the light. She would rise early to help me wash, recite the Surahs, and pray, and then she would open the blue curtains, waiting for the sun’s rays to hit the piano before settling her fingers onto the keys. She began with a waltz, sending Schumann swirling up into the illuminated dust. I watched her fingers move in black and white piano key patterns, anticipated the rhythmic stretch and curl of her thumbs. Baba teased her. He said too much sunlight would crack the Calisia’s soundboard, that the piano would dry out and crumble into dust, disappear into the poison wind. But then he would rest against the polished hardwood as Mama played, listen with his eyes closed. My brother and I danced, Hassan’s black curls shining and little feet slapping the clay tiles, safe inside our walls.

          Baba had salvaged Grandfather’s Calisia from the rubble after the Israeli bulldozers demolished the community center. Boys had already taken the wheels, so the men tilted Jiddo’s piano onto boards, lifted it onto their shoulders, and carried it through the rutted streets to our home. As they passed by the shops where men and boys dug through debris and through the ruined neighborhoods where old women picked through shattered crockery, the people first stood and watched the piano go by, and then they brushed off their hands and joined in the parade.

          Alhamdulillah, our house still had its roof and three and a half walls. When Mama and Baba pulled us from under their bed, we stood where our wall had been and looked over the smoking city.

          “We are safe,” Baba said, “the missile only grazed our house. Only a graze,” Baba said again, his arms around all of us.

          Later, after the sirens and the pulsing roar of helicopters had faded, I heard babies crying, dogs barking, neighbors calling to each other, pleas to Allah. Baba kissed each of us and left to find survivors, inshallah.

          At home, we sorted through the wreckage of our wall. I was only eight, strong enough to help Mama stack the biggest sandstone blocks in the corner, and the jagged medium stones beside those. Hassan was only four, not as strong as me; he built hills from the smaller stones and traced roads through the dust with his perfect fingers. Dust covered our skin and coated the insides of our mouths.

          Mama was sweeping when we first heard the parade. “It is a funeral,” she said.

          But it didn’t sound like a funeral to me. We went to the door and looked out to see the Calisia floating toward us on a carpet woven of men and women and children, all shades of ashen sand, as if the road had sprouted arms and legs and heads. Children carried fistfuls of crimson wildflowers; dust covered donkeys were mounded with lentil greens; a boy blew a whistle.

          Mama helped me cover my head and scars, hide my crooked hands inside my sleeves. I watched through my veil as the men carried the piano right through the broken wall, set it down on the tile floor, and tip it upright. First the elders, and then the children grew silent, while Baba used his handkerchief to wipe off the keys. Mama’s lungs slowly pulled and pushed, her head pressed down against the broom handle; she would not cry. “Put it by the window,” she said.

          Mama said the Calisia was a gift to her Baba, my Jiddo, from an old woman who heard him singing in an olive tree and fell in love with his voice. This was back when he still lived on our family’s land. Jiddo would leave his sisters sleeping and, under a starlit sky, cross the field to the orchard. There, he would climb the tallest tree and wait with the birds for the indigo light before he burst into song, praising Allah for the rain and sunshine and the gentle breeze beneath the woodlark’s wings.

          One day, when he climbed down from his perch, he was surprised to find an old Jewish woman knitting at the base of the tree. How she came to be walking through the orchard in the dark, Mama couldn’t say, but I know why she stayed. I still remember how Jiddo’s deep baritone rumbled in my stomach. The woman had been visiting her family nearby, but for nearly a week he found her knitting under the tree, listening. On the last day, she set her needles down and invited Jiddo to return with her to Warsaw.

          “If you come,” she said, “I will enroll you in the music conservatory there.”

          Jiddo went to live with the old woman in 1946, the city still in a shambles from the war. She prayed to Yahweh, and he prayed to Allah. “One and the same,” said Jiddo. Mama told us often how Jiddo studied hard at school, how he completed his education, and performed in concerts all over Europe. When it was time for Jiddo to return to Palestine, the old woman first took him to the piano factory in Kalisz. She wanted him to meet the craftsmen; the men who once again were building the world’s finest pianos, who never lost hope when they were forced to build crude boxes for Nazi gas masks during the war. She bought Jiddo the Calisia there, built of wood that had survived German bombs, because they knew there was no orchard for Jiddo to return to. And so he brought the Calisia to the refugee camp, and his music filtered through canvas walls for many years before he could move it to the community center. That’s where I remember first seeing the Calisia.

          I used to go with Mama to the community center, playing with blocks or finger-painting with the other children while she practiced or helped Jiddo teach. We were walking home from the center on that day when I was three, the yellow car passing slowly by us. In my memory, the two explosions are one, although Mama said a missile hit the car first, and another hit the building next to us. When Mama saw the yellow car slowing down, she had picked me up. First fire and then darkness, pain, the hospital where Baba works, bandages tearing my seared skin. She had some burns, too, but I had protected her, shielded her with my young body. Her burns healed quickly, the scars barely visible. My hands and feet and scalp were burned. My right eye, the fingers and toes on my right side, all gone. She stayed with me until Baba brought us home, and after that she changed my bandages and applied ointment while my flesh scarred over and my hair grew back in patches.

          Mama sang and held my hands to teach me how to dance on my toeless foot, but I believed I would never again walk into the village. Not even to hear the Calisia. I was afraid the other children would laugh or stare. I was afraid of another explosion, or a sniper’s rifle. I was always afraid. “Maybe you are not yet ready,” Mama used to say, “but one day you will be, Jood. You are my daughter, and you are strong.”

          So when the Calisia came to our home, she rubbed beeswax into the dull grain and draped a piece of embroidered lace across the top to cover the gash where the ceiling had fallen. “I will teach you to play, Jood. The music will be a shelter for your heart that you can take with you out into the world.”

          I told her, as I always did, that I would never leave these broken walls, and Mama responded as she always did, by kissing my fingers.

          When Baba came home from his shift at the hospital, he and the other men piled the stones of our wall back on top of each other. Hassan and I slept in Mama and Baba’s room, and the Aunties slept in our beds because their building had been hit. Some of them would stab at the Calisia’s keys with arthritic fingers, but most drank tea while Mama played, wiping their noses and eyes on handkerchiefs pulled from tattered sleeves, and telling stories about Jiddo.       When we could no longer see the light between the white stones, Baba went to work with the men in the city to clear the rubble there.

          Almost every day, Baba brought sheet music home. He said he found the music beneath piles of salvaged building materials, amid broken concrete and twisted metal, under burnt-out cars. It seemed that every piece of music in the city found its way to our home, and Mama would go through each page, smoothing the wrinkles, setting the torn edges together with flour paste. Where the notes were faded, she traced the lines and circles, and then she formed her slender fingers into scales and arpeggios. From outside, we heard the rumbling of helicopters, tanks, and bulldozers, but in our home we heard Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven, Chopin, Bartok and Liszt. She would pat the bench for me to sit beside her, and show me where to place my hands.

          One day as Hassan clapped his hands at my efforts, Baba stood in the doorway. The sun shot bright rays from behind his shoulders. “The madrassa is repaired,” he said. “Will she go?”

          I hid my face in Mama’s kameez, and felt the same rumbling relief as when Jiddo used to sing to me when she said, “Not yet.”

          Baba took long steps, and caught Hassan up with his broad smile, flinging my brother over his shoulder like a bag of lentils. “My son,” he said, “tomorrow you will begin your education.” As Hassan kicked and laughed, Baba knelt before me. “Jood,” he said, “one day you will join Hassan and the other children. You do not need a strong body when you have a strong mind.” I did not answer, but I knew that I did not need school to have a strong mind.

          The next morning after prayers, my brother followed Baba to the madrassa. When Mama went to the market, there was no Hassan to fill our walls with his games and happy noise. There was no one to make up silly songs and sing them like bellowing camels with me, or to laugh when I played the Calisia with my elbows and the heels of my feet. Hassan never told me to behave like a proper lady. Now there was nothing to do but my exercises. I did my studies, my stretches, and practiced my scales. When Mama came home, I swept the floor, chopped the lemons, and then she taught me to play the Calisia like a young lady. Through everything, I waited for my little brother to come home.

          One afternoon Hassan returned late from madrassa. He said he had been with a group of boys who did not go to their homes after school. Instead, they played in the village, building pyramids of stones in the alleys and ditches, and watching the Israelis build their wall. Mama stood and pulled the blue curtains closed. She closed her eyes, grabbed fistfuls of her black hair with a slow deep sigh, and then she knelt before Hassan, took his hands, and kissed them. “These are not hands for stones,” she said. “These hands belong to the Calisia.”

          So Hassan came home after madrassa, and I placed a pillow on the bench for him. With his feet dangling below, Mama showed him how to curl his fingers and press the tips into the keys. And when the sun went down, Baba helped us memorize surahs by candle light, because the electricity was still down. Hussan quickly learned the scales and arpeggios that my crooked fingers struggled with. By the end of one year, he didn’t need the pillow anymore. The aunties still came to drink tea and nod their heads, but they slept in their own building.

          As time passed, Hassan’s playing grew strong and sure, his feet firmly placed on the tile floor. His sweet voice deepened until sometimes we heard Jiddo’s textured bass. Mama said I was making progress, but Hassan had Jiddo’s gift for music, so when he came home from madrassa, I would get up and let him practice. At thirteen, he had mastered all the pieces she taught him. Because of Hassan, the village remembered our Jiddo. Hassan would follow Jiddo’s footsteps to the conservatory, Mama said. But Hassan loved our traditional Arabic music. He transcribed the oud, kanun, and kamanjah, pounded and spun the music of Kulthum and Sayed Darwish. When Mama complained that he neglected his other studies, Hassan stood up, already taller than Mama. “This is the music of our people,” he said. “It’s our music. Your music.” He slammed the door then, left us. I thought Mama might cry this time, but she only went to bed and left me to prepare Baba’s dinner.

          Later, after Mama and Baba were asleep, Hassan braided my hair and arranged it over the bare spots. He told me I was a pretty princess, like he always did, and confided that he was practicing a secret concerto at school.

          “Mama will never again accuse me of neglecting my studies,” he said. He lifted the braid and whispered the name of the concerto in my ear, made me promise to keep his secret.

          On the day the Israeli army shelled the madrassa, Mama ran to find Hassan. From behind the blue curtains I watched the clouds of black smoke and dust swirling over the city, and waited. When they came into view, Mama held Hassan by the wrist. Her hijab had come loose, her black hair sweeping over her face, while Hassan yelled and fought against her. Mama pulled toward our house and Hassan pulled in the other direction until he broke free, and sprinted away. She stood in the road and watched him go. Mama could not hear me calling to her over the sirens. I left the house and went to her; I grasped her hand and led her back up our path.

          Mama pulled the curtains open again and we watched the smoky gloom growing over the city. Helicopters circled, rattling the windows with their throbbing rhythm. The sounds hurt my head, made me see the flash again, my explosion. I cried for Baba and Hassan. I cried for the children at the madrassa, and for their families. My legs did not support me. Mama held me and rocked me and sang to me, but it did not help. No matter her kisses and please darling baby girl, I could not stop my tears, so she went to the Calisia and began to play. When her fingers touched the keys, it was as if Allah put a finger to His lips, ssssshhhh. Rachmaninoff. How did Mama know that Hassan was learning Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3? He could keep no secrets from her.

          I pulled myself onto the end of the piano bench, watched the smoke and flames in the distance. And then I saw Hassan running, the jeeps and their billowing dust clouds close behind. I could not speak; I could not tell Mama what I saw, so she played on as Hassan scrambled off the road, the Jeeps’ doors flew open, and the soldiers emptied out, yelling. She leaned into a crescendo as they chased Hassan up our path, he opened our door, turned, and hurled the stone in his hand. Mama’s fingers froze on the keys as the soldier lifted the rifle to his shoulder. One shot. Mama’s and my scream, the sound of Hassan hitting the tile floor. Just one shot.

          The soldier pushed through the door, stooped over us. He lowered his rifle to the floor, while the others watched from the outside.

          “I bear witness that,” whispered Hassan, his lips twitching around each syllable.

          Mama laid her head into the red palm of Hassan’s hand.

          “I bear wit,” Hassan’s voice was a sliver. Blood pooled along his side, spread toward my feet. The soldier had Hassan’s blood on his pants.

          “I bear wit,” Hassan said again.

          “…witness that there is no God but Allah,” Mama said, “that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is his messenger and prophet.”

          The soldier took in a jagged breath. Mama lifted her head, and showed him Hassan’s smeared handprint across her face. He became small, backed out the door.

          After the funeral, Baba pushed the Calisia away from the window. It rests in the shaded middle of the room, covering the blood-stained tiles. Baba had been wrong. The sunlight never cracked the soundboard; the piano hadn’t crumbled or blown away in the simoon. Still, it is silent. Mama doesn’t play. I don’t play. The poison wind blows through our home as if there were no walls at all. Now I know that I am no safer here than on the roads that take me to their wall.

          The stone. I combed the ground outside our door until I found it beneath the jasmine. Now I keep it with me wherever I go. I imagine it is still warm from Hassan’s fist.  

KNOT Magazine Fall Issue 2014

Carmel Reid Mawle is the founder of Writing for Peace, and serves as president of the Board of Directors. Carmel lives inColorado, where she and her family enjoy hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park.  She is a member of the Denver Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where she is focusing on completing her first novel.


Mawle has an English Literature Degree from the University of Washington, and a varied career that includes piano instruction, as well as operating a martial arts school, teaching women’s self-defense, child safety awareness, and traditional Hayashi-Ha Shito Ryu Karate.  She served as executive director of a youth orchestra, and as president of a chamber music organization.


Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly Review, Contemporary World Literature, SPACES Literary Magazine, Rocky Mountain Scribe Anthology, and is forthcoming in KNOT Literary Magazine.

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