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Lit Thursday: The Map of Salt and Stars

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's debut novel tells the story of a modern-day Syrian refugee following the footsteps twelfth-century girl who aspired to be a mapmaker.

Map of Salt and Stars cover

“Mama?”

The booming is thunder in my bones. The room gets real still, only the beetles twitching at the cracks in the windows. My pulse pops in my wrist. On the table, my knife shakes against my napkin. The lines on Abu Sayeed’s forehead are thick and deep as tree roots. “It must be coming from another neighborhood,” Mama says, but she stops eating. She holds her fork in the air, a bite of cucumber salad dripping yogurt sauce. The light falls across the triangle of her nose, as straight as Baba’s T-square.

“Are you sure?” Abu Sayeed says something in Arabic. I strain forward to listen, but it’s too fast for me to understand. Huda and Zahra look at each other. Now I know for sure that something is wrong.

Zahra’s phone buzzes on the table, searching for a signal.

Mama snaps back at Abu Sayeed: “Don’t be ridiculous.” Her cucumber salad just hangs there, like she’s not sure whether to eat it or put it down, like she’s not sure which language to use. “We just got here,” she says, huffing out the words. “I was born here. I moved my family. Business will be good again. We’ve been through too much already.”

“It would only be for a week, two at most,” Abu Sayeed says. “This will pass.” Mama lifts and lowers her fork. She purses her mouth, curling her lips between her teeth like she’s trying to trap the words. “We have no part in this. I want to buy bread. I don’t want to worry about my girls walking to the market. I keep my head down. I work. I have three children to feed. Where should I go?”

Abu Sayeed dips his head at that, lets his shoulders sag down. Outside, the whumping of a helicopter fills the street, and a cat yowls. “Eat your dinner.” Mama gets up, her long skirt swishing when she dips across the room. Baba used to say Mama was always a lady, that she could run a marathon in high heels and wrestle a lion without ripping her pantyhose.

She stands at the window now, peeling back the yellow curtains, and the helicopter blades pop black and purple over our heads before they move on. Something is happening outside, people starting up cars, babies shrieking. The neighborhood crackles and hums with electricity, like a nest of wires. The fear is a knot in my thighs, my elbows, my thumbs.

Abu Sayeed clears his throat and smiles, but his mouth is crooked, his gray eyes all wrong. He says to me, “Tell me. Why did you say today was special?”

I stare at him, trying to make sense of the words. Somewhere down the alley there are voices, shoes pounding the road. The wind rises, and it pours through the open window, cracking ceiling paint onto Abu Sayeed’s plate, dusting his sfiha with gray.

A new sound comes, whirring high as a broken fan. It drowns out everything, even the sounds of car horns and shouting. It reminds me of the day they buried Baba in the earth, the day I lost my voice.

Another boom, closer. The house shakes like a car going over a highway rumble strip, rattling my jaw.

“Why today?” Abu Sayeed is trying to smile, distracting me from the lump in my throat, hot and hard as a coal.

I know I shouldn’t tell him, not on a day like this. I know there are some things you can’t forget, no matter how long it’s been.

Mama stiffens at the window. The beetles rush out and over the windowsill, running on their eyelash-thin legs.

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“Get your things,” she says, and Huda and Zahra push back their chairs, half-up, half-down, knocking their crumpled napkins and Zahra’s phone to the floor.

Mama shakes hard, yanking on the yellow curtains. The rod rattles. “We have to leave. We have to get out now.”

I turn back to Abu Sayeed. His smile has slipped, what’s left of it locked on like there’s not enough time to take it off.

My voice makes sharp yellow triangles. “Because today is the day you lost your son,” I say, and something soft cracks open behind Abu Sayeed’s eyes.

Mama dives from the window. I don’t hear her scream.

It happens fast. That angry high-pitched whirring, like an air conditioner falling from a window or an overstuffed washing machine. A shrieking thrum. Then the weight hits like a slap on my back.

Silence. Red goes black. There aren’t any colors anymore.

Excerpted from The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.