by Hajer Almosleh
I was born in the middle of summer, in the desert, in the humiliating aftermath of a lost war. My mother gave me a restless name. A harsh name. A name that plays games, seduces, and hurts. In Arabic, my name is only four letters. It doesn’t have the softening effect of a second vowel. You don’t need to dig deep into its roots to find embers, midday scorching heat, the ruthless desertion of a loved one, and an endless migration to nowhere. Mispronounce one letter, the opening sound to my name, and you end up with stone. Arid. Hard.
I have lived up to my name. I migrate with the seasons. I adopt new countries and discard old homes. I decamp from the arms of one man and land on the breath of another. The sun is inside of me. Every summer, I crawl out of my mother’s womb again and exhale its fire.
In two months exactly, I will turn fifty-two. The roots of my hair are what’s left of a once blazing campfire – ashy grey. Here, alone with a ten-year-old husky up a hill in California, I have time to listen, to reflect, to observe. I listen to the silence around me and inside me. I reflect on the quieting pace of my unrushed thoughts. I observe my face. Reacquaint myself with my body. To accept it. To memorize it in its present form. I have more wrinkles than I have smooth skin. My beauty marks are not blemishes. My cellulite doesn’t need treatment. Nor do the varicose veins on the back of my left leg, shooting up from the middle of my calf all the way to my mid-thigh like an elaborate crochet pattern woven from the inside out.
I trace the dark V-shaped line marking the hem where the straps of my swimsuit have rested on my breasts and shoulders since the beginning of June. The burnt caramel tan on my arms and legs is beginning to hurt. There are spots on my skin I haven’t noticed before. One on my sternum. One on my upper lip. One on my vision.
But who is to blame? I have thrown caution to the wind. Having landed this enviable house sit in Upper Happy Valley, Lafayette, California – a majestic house perched on top of a hill, with Romeo, the most adorable Husky, for companionship and a curvy pool attached to a jacuzzi – I don’t even feel like leaving the grounds to explore the rest of my surroundings. Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco are all a stone’s throw away, but nothing compares to the view from the lounge chair, or from the kitchen doors overlooking the rolling green hills and valley below.
Nothing else competes with the song of birds, the sound of water cascading from the jacuzzi into the pool in the morning, the airborne scent from the magnolias, and the sight of the meticulously pruned English garden in the front. I don’t want to miss a single sunrise or sunset from this spot, where I am sitting now, the tops of trees at my eye level.
I sit still, a vigilant witness to the earth full rotation around its axis.
Only Romeo can get me to move.
This is a place you want to share with others but don’t want others around to spoil it for you. The early morning jog with Romeo down the hill and onto the winding road is an exercise in oneness, in quietude. 24 hours a day are not enough, but still… they are 24 hours, here, in this parallel universe where time is punctuated by the not-so-distance cries of coyotes at night and the gobble of wild turkeys strolling on the lawn in the early hours of the morning. I am in awe of the opulence of this place and its surroundings, the heart-gripping charm of Romeo.
I understand what it feels like to be chosen. This must be how prophets felt when they were signaled out by their respective Gods to be worthy of their trust.
I have been chosen. I am the chosen one.
I receive my housesitting commandments. I save them on my Samsung Galaxy tablet and carry them with me everywhere I go—in and out of budget flights and crowded airport terminals, along shared Lyft rides, through discounted matinee theater shows and TripAdvisor recommended sightseeing tours—I preach the gospel of housesitting.
Thou shalt feed the dog.
Thou shalt walk the dog (at least) twice a day.
Thou shalt give the dog his treats.
Thou shalt play with the dog.
Thou shalt brush the dog.
Thou shalt respect our house.
Thou shalt enjoy our house.
Thou shalt not allow anyone else to sleep in the house.
Thou can help yourself to anything you want in the house.
Thou shalt eventually be reviewed, judged, and rated.
I am on a mission. I have purpose. So even when I receive the tenth rejection of my poetry collection, it hardly registers. There is another form of poetry gushing in my veins. The poetry platelet count in my blood is high. I am immune to criticism. Who are those editors sitting in their leather chairs inside tiny crammed rooms, deciding that my poetry isn’t good enough for their publications? I am here. I had poetry for breakfast. For lunch, I squeezed its sour-sweet taste on my salad. All I had to do was walk barefoot to the Meyer lemon tree in the garden and pick a poem, a perfectly formed juicy poem. Romeo barks poetry.
The stars last night. Did those editors see the stars last night? Did they witness the irreverent seconds before the sun rose this morning, as the clouds burst into a seductive shade of deep magenta, like the beginning of time absolute, right before the redness dissolved into light? I was there. I witnessed the birth of morning. The emergence of color. The magnanimous doling out of poetic confetti.
It is a full moon tonight. Romeo is restless and so am I. He takes me on a late walk around the hill, the round face of the moon guiding us. Romeo sniffs for deer, or coyotes, or maybe a mountain lion. I am not afraid. I put my trust in Romeo. He will protect me. He has put his trust in me. He knows there is a treat waiting for him at the house up the hill.
Back home, Romeo and I sit on the grass outside facing the moon, the wolf in each of us is wide awake. I wait for him to howl, and when he doesn’t, I do. He turns his head and looks at me. I imagine him shaking his head. A coyote in the distance echoes my cry.
We stay there. I light the fire pit.
I don’t want to leave this place… and yet…
Two weeks from now, I will be in Santa Cruz. For another house sit. There because I have been chosen. Out of the seventy plus applicants, I am the chosen one. It is a house overlooking the beach, the sound of waves promises to lick my ears constantly from the front porch. The image fills me with peace, with longing for a place where I have once been, inside my mother’s womb, surrounded by water. I want to breathe the ocean and store it in my lungs. I want to continue this journey of house sitting. That I can do this is truly a blessing, a privilege. I pack light. I travel light. I move with light steps, and when I leave, I take the place with me. I store its poetry in my pores, forever.
The spot on my vision is nothing but a humming bird which has mistaken me for a fixture in the uncompromised landscape and started buzzing in front of me daily. The spot on my sternum and the one on my upper lip are all benign. I look at photos from months before and realize that they’ve always been there. I’m just beginning to notice them on this hill in California, the way I am beginning to notice the constellation, the difference between Grand Fir and Western Douglas Fir, between Box Elder and Monterey Pine. Between the howl of a wandering coyotes and the gentle growl of the ten-year-old husky by my side.
In my fifties, I am living the summer of my life, not the third and last act of my existence. My spirit soars with eagles. The fire inside me still rages.
And right now, it is summer and I am in California.
Hajer Almosleh has house sat in Santa Cruz, New Orleans, and Raleigh since writing this piece. She is now in Austin, Texas, housesitting and writing and will finish out the year spending time in California and Washington, D.C. As long as her fingers can spin a globe, Hajer will continue tracing a fluid place of utter magic and poetry somewhere on the other side of stillness, pack and head there and dream.