Mai sat on the floor – well, the ground really, covered by some rough plastic sheeting – and stuck her tongue between her lips and focused on the page in front of her, gripping the man’s blue pen tighter in her hand. After some thought she added some extra lines to the drawing of their old house.
At home in Syria she’d drawn all the time, but it had been ages since she’d had a pen and paper, longer than she could remember. Or at least a whole week, anyway.
Behind her, the nice man who had given her the pen and notepad was talking to her daddy. Mai wasn’t really paying attention, and anyway it was all the same stuff her daddy and his friends always talked about these days. She didn’t really remember them talking about anything else.
“… no clothing, not for winter. And wood for the fire – we have some, but never enough, and I don’t know what we will do when…”
Mai stopped listening completely as she reached a difficult bit with the tanks. She especially stopped listening when the grown-ups talked about the bad men who had made them move. Mai didn’t remember the men, but she remembered the tanks.
After a few minutes the nice man knelt down beside her and looked at her drawings. “Those are really good. What’s this, a house?”
“Yes. This is our old house in Homs, but we had to leave. That was my room, and that was Karim’s room, and that was mummy and daddy’s room. And this is all of us, standing in front of the house.”
“And what’s this, are these… tanks?”
Mai nodded. “They came and shot at us.” She and the man stared at the blue-ink drawings of the tanks and the people running away from them for a moment. Then she turned back a page. “I like this drawing better, though.”
“Wow, this is… is this your house too?”
“Yes. But it’s our new house, not our old one. And it’s not finished yet.”
“It’s very good.” The man pointed to the only figure on the page. “Who’s this?”
“That’s my friend Fahed, he lived next door to us. But the tanks shot at his house.”
“Oh.” The man stared at the drawing of Fahed. “He looks… happy.”
“He is. He’ll come and live in our new house as well.”
He tapped the image of Fahed with a finger, and looked thoughtful for a while. Then he turned and smiled at Mai. “It sounds like it’ll be really great.”
She beamed at the man, her wide smile going up at the left. Then her daddy said it was time to go and feed the rabbits and dogs, so she and the man got up and went outside and played with the animals for a bit.
The next day, the snow came.
Mai used to love it when there was snow, going outside to play and build snowmen and throw snowballs with her brother and her friends. But this snow was colder than the snow she remembered, and the wind cut through her thin jumper when she went outside – so mostly she just stayed in the tent, as near to the stove as she could get.
She’d just finished the drawing of the new house yesterday when the man had said he was leaving, and needed to take his notebook with him. He’d seemed very sorry about it, and gave her a brand new notepad and two of his blue pens to keep.
Mai said it was ok. “But will you look after the drawings for me?”
Of course he would, the man told her – said he’d keep the notepad in a special drawer in his desk, so it wouldn’t get lost. Mai had beamed at him again.
Now she was drawing a rabbit in the new notepad, and trying to ignore the feeling of cold in her arms and hunger in her belly.
One of the rabbits had died yesterday – she’d stared at it for a long time, the still pile of fur on the ground. Then one of the adults had picked it up and taken it away somewhere.
Mai missed that rabbit. It had been one of the nice ones, not one of the ones which tried to bite people, or wee on their shoes. She stuck out her tongue again as she tried to get the ears right. The ears were really hard to draw.
Her daddy was next to her, holding her baby brother Samer. Samer kept coughing and coughing. He had been coughing a bit for a while, but now it was all the time. At first it had been really annoying, but Mai didn’t notice it very much any more.
Whenever she looked up at her daddy, he was staring at Samer, with a strange look on his face. Eventually her daddy noticed her turning to look at him all the time, and smiled at her.
“Dear… are you ok?”
Mai nodded. She didn’t really feel ok, but she somehow felt it was best not to say so.
“Can you get some more wood for the stove? There should be some in the corner, over there.”
Mai stood up and went over to the wood pile and picked up the last big log. She had to carry it with both arms, and shuffle back to the stove.
“Very good, my dear. Did you see how much wood was left?”
“There are four big sticks and lots of little sticks.”
“I see. What about logs, like this? How many logs?”
“Daddy, this is the last log.”
He nodded, looking towards the entrance of the tent. “I see. Ok. Thank you, Mai. Can you hold Samer for a moment?” He passed the baby to his daughter, then opened the stove to put in the last big log. “Now we’ll all be nice and warm, won’t we?”
Mai nodded as she handed back Samer to her daddy. But she didn’t think they’d all be warm.
Later on her daddy gave the baby to Karim while he went out. While Samer coughed and Karim sang some stupid pop song, Mai stared at her notebook. She wanted to draw a picture of her mummy, but every time she started she would get stuck when it came to the face. It wasn’t that she couldn’t remember what her mummy looked like… it just didn’t come to her mind.
As Mai petted her lip and folded her arms in frustration, she heard shouting outside, and the noise of heavy things falling to the ground and someone running away. She stood up and went towards the tent’s door, but just then her daddy came back in, carrying an armful of logs which he put in the corner.
“Are you ok, Daddy? Your eye is all red.”
From outside the tent, Mai could hear another sound now – a low groaning, and the faint noise of movement.
“I’m fine, my dear. Just fine.” He sat down on one of the makeshift chairs and let out a long sigh. “Sometimes… you know there are bad men, yes?”
“Like the ones who made us leave?”
“Some are like them, but some are… sometimes people who aren’t bad, do bad things. Do you understand?”
Mai thought for a moment, then nodded. “Like when Karim steals my food or pulls my hair, and he’s not really bad but he’s just being mean.”
Karim looked up from the other side of the stove. “Hey!”
“Yes, a bit like that.” Her daddy smiled at both of them. As he looked down at the ground, his smile faded. “But sometimes they do it not to be mean, but because… because they have to. They have to do things to survive. You understand?”
Mai nodded again. When she looked at her daddy’s face, she felt like she was on the edge of a tall cliff, looking down, too frightened to speak, too frightened to move back to safe ground.
Her daddy sighed, and stood up. “I’ll be back in a moment. Just stay by the stove for me, Mai.”
He shuffled back outside. There were more noises, but Mai engrossed herself in her notepad and didn’t listen.
The next day the snow had stopped, and Mai and Karim walked to the only solid buildings in the camp, near the edge. They weren’t really proper buildings, but after so long in tents Mai thought they looked like the best buildings ever.
They had gone to see if there was anyone giving out food or tokens, even though they knew there wouldn’t be. Word got around much earlier if they were giving out food and tokens, and for the last week there had been nothing.
Mai and Karim walked around the building once, just to make sure. Everything was shut up, and no-one else was hanging around, apart from two men arguing about who had stolen a rabbit. The brother and sister stared at the dark windows in silence for a few moments, then walked back towards their tent.
As they got close, they saw three men run out of the tent, holding some logs. As they sprinted away they didn’t look back.
Over the sounds of the camp Mai heard the noise of a baby, wailing.
Inside Mai found Samer lying on the floor near to the stove, crying and crying and crying. She picked him up and held him and rocked him until he started to calm down. On the other side of the tent she saw Karim kneeling next to their daddy on the floor, then running out of the tent.
She didn’t look at her daddy. She just looked at the baby and rocked him until he stopped crying and started coughing again.
That night there was no more wood for the stove. Mai’s daddy sat staring at it, but not really at the stove – it was like he was staring through it to somewhere else. Nice Mrs Abbas from a few tents down said daddy was hurt a lot, and he shouldn’t move – and would Karim and Mai be good children and help their daddy out for a few days until he was better?
Mai had asked if there was any more wood for the fire. Mrs Abbas didn’t say anything to that for a while, and then started fussing over Samer.
Now Samer was in their daddy’s arms, being rocked from side to side. He wasn’t coughing or crying any more – his breathing was quick, and made a strange whistling sound.
Mai sat on a blue plastic crate and stared at the fire inside the stove as the embers faded. There was no more wood left to burn. She watched as another glow faded into darkness. She felt the cold, deeper inside her bones than ever before.
As another spark died, Mai looked down at the notepad in her hands, and stared at it for a long moment. Finally she ripped out almost all the pages, all her drawings, all but a few of the blank sheets of paper – and thrust them into the fire.
By the bright light of the new flames, Mai took up one of the blue pens that the nice man had given her, and started drawing.
Mrs Abbas hurried over to the tent as soon as she could the next morning. She’d barely slept for worrying about Fadi and his little ones, after those thugs had beaten him up so badly, and all over a bit of firewood. She’d wanted to give him some of theirs, but they barely had enough as it is, and Kamel would have been so cross if she’s even mentioned it, so where was the point?
She could see there was no smoke rising from the makeshift chimney, and no noise, and, oh please God, let them be alright, let them…
She prepared herself for the worst as she opened the tent, but as the light streamed in she saw… nothing?
There was the stove, and there were the crates, and there was the bed that was nothing more than sheets on the floor – but there was no Fadi, and no Mai, and no Karim, and no Samer. It was as if they’d just walked out.
Mrs Abbas looked down at the ground by the entrance to the tent. More snow had fallen overnight, and there were no footprints other than her own. So they hadn’t left this morning – but surely Fadi wasn’t foolish enough to go out at night, not with three little ones, and him all battered and bruised?
She looked around the tent again. Everything still seemed to be there – bags and cases and what few possessions Fadi owned were still in their places. Fadi would never leave all this.
Over by the stove, on top of a blue crate, Mrs Abbas spotted something strange and white – as she came closer, she realised it was Mai’s notepad. Or what was left of her notepad – most of the pages had been torn out.
She flicked through the few remaining sheets. They were all blank.
Mrs Abbas put the notepad down carefully, back on top of the blue crate. She had gone from worried, to puzzled – but now she felt scared.
Six months later, the journalist who had interviewed Fadi and his family was clearing out his desk, leaving for a new job at a big international paper. Between mugs and pens and press giveaways and random keepsakes, he was filling several boxes already – but the bulk of the space went to his notepads, three years’ worth of collected, mostly indecipherable scrawls.
As he emptied out the bottom drawer, he found one pad tucked away by itself to the side of all its fellows, and carefully wrapped in a brown paper bag. He pulled it out – and remembered.
This was the pad that little girl had been drawing in while he’d talked to her father. What was her name… Mai?
He flicked through the first few pages of notes, looking for the drawing – and remembered how puzzled he’d been at the time. On the journey back to Beirut he’d stared and stared at the picture Mai had drawn of a house, her new house, she called it, and her friend Fahed.
The house, and Fahed… there was something wrong with them. It took him a couple of hours to figure it out.
He’d given Mai a blue pen to draw with, a standard-issue biro from the newspaper’s stationery cupboard. He’d seen her drawing the house with that pen, in blue in. But Fahed and the house were both in colour.
And then there was the rabbit – he hadn’t put the pad away immediately when he got back to the office, left it sitting on his desk until the next day when he remembered his promise to Mai to keep it safe. He’d opened it up again then and looked at the picture – and this time saw a rabbit, very lifelike, except perhaps for the ears, at Fahed’s feet.
He’d blamed it on stress at the time – too many emotional stories, too much time in front of a screen, mind playing tricks.
Finally he reached the page with Mai’s drawings, and almost dropped the notepad.
There was Fahed, and the rabbit – but there was also Fadi, and Mai, and Karim, and the baby in Fadi’s arms. All in colour.
Behind them stood the house, bright and clear as before. But now it was in a small garden with trees and rose bushes and bright flowers. All in colour.
How… this can’t have been there at the time, he thought. It wasn’t. He remembered, he’d talked to Mai about the drawing, he’d…
He stopped, and looked at the drawing again. They all looked happy, especially Mai, with a wide smile on her face, going up at the left like he remembered.
He smiled back, and closed the notepad.
You can donate to the United Nations refugee agency’s Syria appeal here.
This story was inspired by a December 2013 article by Kareem Shaheen in The Daily Star: A cold night with refugees in the Bekaa Valley