Fiction writing from Hollyhock

August 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

When Carla stepped into Amina’s living room she saw many things she had left behind:  A narrow cast iron coffee table was  placed exactly as she had left it four years earlier.  In the kitchen, the dishes, mugs, pots and pans she had once used sat on the countertop; in the bedroom, unsent post cards she’d wanted to throw away were displayed on Amina’s dresser, next to a large photo of Carla, who Amina always warmly called “ma fille canadienne” (my Canadian daughter).

Carla remembered an email Amina’s nephew Nabil had sent a few weeks after she returned to Canada. She regretted that at the time she had shrugged it off as her life had become more busy:

Dear Carla,

You cannot believe how much  Amina has been thinking of you.

Yesterday she enlarged a little photo of you that she has hung in her room.

Each week she asks if you have written.

So this time she will be very happy to have heard your news.


The objects startled Carla.  A life that had been transitory for her seemed memorialized, a testament to small piece of her personal history.   The objects signified to her the depth of the impact she must have had on Amina’s life.   In four years, Amina didn’t have the money to purchase new belongings, but Carla felt that her own life had expanded and changed with a steady inflow and outflow of objects in the way that only wealthy western people can experience.

“You’re going to throw nothing away,” Amina had told her on the day she packed up her belongings four years ago, leaving Casablanca, which had been her home for nine months. Carla had collected many souvenirs she realised meant very little to her.  So she filled a few cloth sacks with piles of things she didn’t want to take on the plane.

If she hadn’t realized it before, this time, coming back into her life, Carla noticed the impact of what she’d left behind.  She felt for a moment self-conscious, feeling she had left a mark on this person that must have also gone beyond that of objects, and that Amina may have been more fragile in her poverty than Carla ever understood.  Carla thought about how people constantly impact one another, not only through the objects they leave behind, but through invisible things like gestures, words, and reactions like love and anger.  She thought about the traces of herself she must have left upon everyone she had ever known and how others must have left traces of themselves on her, like souvenirs either cherished and held onto or stowed away and forgotten in basement boxes.

Looking around Amina’s apartment, Carla experienced her own unintended power and felt she had some kind of advantage on this aging Moroccan woman, by virtue of her youth, education, western heritage and relative wealth and freedom.  Carla felt embarrassed: there was nothing inherently strong or special about herself, she thought, just simply, she had been born by chance into a luckier time and place in the vast trajectory of women’s history.


When she left Morocco in 2005, Carla gave Amina her pet bird, a shy yellow budgie she had affectionately named Habiba, which means “sweetheart”.

Carla had purchased Habiba the first month she arrived in Casablanca, traveling to buy her at a popular market on the edge of town, in a dusty poor neighborhood where the streets were wide and hazy.  A friend and she carried the little bird across the four-lane busy road where they’d parked, put her in their car and drove her back to Carla’s new apartment.

Dear Carla,

Amina has been asking about you

And since you haven’t written in a long time

I told her that you probably aren’t anywhere near the internet

Since you live in the mountains

Surrounded by snow

Amina has bought a large cage with a suspension for Habiba.

I still love you, as always

And Habiba says hello

Be happy.


Habiba the bird looked exactly as Carla had left her four years ago.  Sweet, yellow and gentle, as she had always been, she perched in her new blue-latticed cage, staring at Carla from one cocked eyeball.

Amina didn’t have children.  “I adore nature and animals,” she had told Carla often.  Habiba had become her little daughter, she said. She bathed her with a soft cool shower once a week, leaving her out to dry on her wide sunny balcony that overlooked the neighbourhood.  Habiba gazed far into the smoggy horizon.

On the balcony, pigeons flocked to look at the shy little bird and communicate in a different language.

In the afternoons, Amina closed the doors and windows and left the cage door open for Habiba to fly around the apartment. This was a tradition Carla had started with the little budgie in 2004 and one she asked Amina to continue with.  Carla didn’t want a caged prisoner of a bird, she said, but a real pet with her own freedom and volition.

Carla, herself, had loved the bird dearly. And even though she was just a budgie, Habiba had kept Carla meaningful company during the many months she had spent alone in Casablanca four years earlier.

Sometimes and at unpredictable moments Habiba dramatically swooped out of the cage with a piercing cry of delight, spread her banana yellow wings and flapped them uneasily around Amina’s living room, circling high and low, then coming in for an awkward landing on top of the birdcage, her heart rapidly pounding, her little body trembling with excitement.

This would be excellent footage for the documentary on Amina’s life that had brought Carla back to Morocco.  She hoped freedom would be a theme in the film, and that flying birds would appear as metaphors throughout the final edit.

One sunny day Habiba was perched out of her cage so they set up the film equipment and closed the crimson curtains of the living room to not flood the camera with sunlight.  Everyone waited for Habiba to fly around the room.

The first time she did it, the camera swerved and the image was shaky.  To keep her flying, Carla nudged her with the poll of the sound boom, and off she went again around and around the living room, intense sun illuminating the red curtains, creating a glowing light that warmed the white plaster walls.

But the images still weren’t good enough.  So again, someone nudged the bird with the boom poll, this time a little more forcefully, and off she flew again in a shriek.  The whole film crew and Amina laughed and shouted as they watched Habiba.

“Fly Habiba, fly!”

They did this over again until they had the shot they wanted.   Then Habiba fell one last time, now exhausted and frightened, on top of her cage.

After that day Carla noticed that Habiba stopped leaving her cage.

When Carla got back to Montreal, a few weeks later, she wrote to Amina’s nephew for an update on her life.  Nabil told her that Habiba had died shortly after she left Morocco.


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