“Hafsa, my beautiful girl,” Mum said, her voice only just audible through the soft crush of static. “Are you excited for your journey to Mars? Your Dad and I are so proud of you, ma’shallah.”
Hafsa pushed her fingers against the soft bud in her ear, bringing her mother’s voice closer. This was her favourite room in the space station, with large windows looking out over the Earth, the impossibly blue ocean stretching forever. She could see herself reflected in the glass panes, all frizzy hair and acne and sad eyes.
“The ship will be here soon to take us away,” she said, trying to sound excited. “Only three more weeks.” With a careful finger, she traced the gentle curve of the Earth, leaving a faint smudge in the pristine glass.
“My bright Hafsa.” Mum’s voice was thick with pride. “When I was a little girl, I would look up at the moon and think, someone walked there once. And now when I look up, I’ll think of my beautiful girl – walking on another world.”
Hafsa had rolled her eyes at Mum’s ‘when I was a little girl’ stories dozens of times in the past. Now, she clung to each word. “I wish you could come with me. You and Dad and Mr Oreo.”
“We are all safe here, in’shallah. Mr Oreo loves it – he keeps finding rats to bring us as gifts. Your Dad is getting bored though – he is itching for a network to sell to someone.” Mum’s deep laugh rang out, unmistakeably hers even through the bud.
“But Mum – I heard about the president. And the bomb in the South China Sea –”
“Hafsa, it will be okay.”
“A nuclear bomb! No one expected –”
“Hafsa.” It was the same tone of voice Mum would use to tell her to finish her homework and no, she could not go to her best friend Molly’s house to play Xbox.
“Hafsa, the war will be over within the year, in’shallah – we all know it. And knowing you are safe on Mars, far out of harm’s reach – you know how your father worries. It will be good for us.” Mum took a deep breath. “And such an opportunity for you.”
It was something Hafsa had been hearing for months now – how incredible Mars was, how she could learn asteroid mining, or how to pilot a ship, or how to grow plants on alien terrain.
All Hafsa longed for was the old gumtree she would climb as a child, or the faded green couch on which she would curl up while petting Mr Oreo. Sometimes, she felt almost light-headed with homesickness.
The image of her denim backpack, hidden under her tiny bunk, flashed to mind. Her plan off this space station.
“But what if I’m not ready to go?” The words tumbled out unintended, and as soon as she said them Hafsa felt the guilt lurch in her stomach. Mum already had enough on her mind.
Mum was quiet for a moment. “Remember your Bapa and Dadi – they came to Australia barely knowing English. They had to carve out a new life for themselves where everything was completely different – the way of living, how they spoke, everything.”
“But that’s different,” Hafsa said. She thought about the aftertaste of foil she now always wore on her tongue, the ill-at-ease sleep she had in pseudo-gravity, the way her body sometimes itched to run or swim or just stand outside in the breeze. She thought about those summers back home at the lake, water so abundant she could spit without thought and let it dribble down her chin in the heat. Her chest hurt with longing.
“Hafsa, you are a voyager, just like them,” Mum said. “You will do us proud, no?”
“Good. I’m so proud of –” Mum’s voice cut off abruptly, enveloped by white noise as the line dropped.
Hafsa wrapped her arms tightly around her chest and breathed as deeply and evenly as she could. It was okay. Mum was safe. The war would leave soon.
The thoughts sprang unbidden to mind – the way the summer air had been heavy with dread, the way Mum had held her close as they hid in the pantry, the shadows of masked men with guns leeching through the slatted doors, the way they spat and laughed and cursed as they smashed whatever they pleased – the framed photograph of Bapa and Dadi in the living room, the pot of daal on the stovetop –
Her mother’s hands smelling of bay leaves and cloves as she held her down in the crush of rubble –
Hafsa pushed the thoughts away and breathed steadily, scrolling through the photos on her phone. They couldn’t hurt her here. She was safe now.
And there was a photo of Mr Oreo as a kitten, curled up in the orange blankets on the couch. There was Dad looking sheepish as he posed in front of a dolphin statue at Sea World. There was Hafsa with Molly, both pouting at the camera and sporting red lipstick borrowed from Molly’s mother.
There was a video from Hafsa’s last birthday party. After a moment of hesitation, she pressed play.
Immediately, the chorus of voices began – “– birthday to you, happy birthday to you!”
The living room was lit by the warm glow of candles on a giant chocolate cake. The camera panned across a sea of laughing faces – Molly giving a cheeky wink, Hafsa’s baby cousins Sheba and Samara giggling, Dad with an intense look of concentration as he gently set the cake on the table.
“Close your eyes, Hafsa.” Mum’s voice came from behind the camera. “When you blow out the candles, you have to make a wish.”
Hafsa remembered closing her eyes and wishing furiously, with every cell in her body, that Mum would let her go to the end-of-year school dance.
It was a wasted wish – she never could have gone even if Mum had let her. School closed after the war came. Hafsa wondered what she would wish today if she could go back.
In the video, Hafsa’s eyes were screwed shut in intense concentration, and she blew out all fourteen candles in one breath.
“You’re from the camps?”
Hafsa froze in the act of tucking three meal bars into her pocket and looked up, her face burning. “Y-yes. Australia.”
She was in the small mess hall, queuing up for her ration of nutritionally-dense meal bars and recycled water.
The other woman’s eyes were crinkled in amusement. “It’s okay,” she said. “I understand how it is with food sometimes.” She nodded at Hafsa’s hand, now buried in her jacket pocket. “Life at the camps is another world – you’ve got to take what you can get.”
Hafsa glanced around. “You won’t –”
“I won’t tell. But a few stray meal bars won’t get you far.” The woman smiled. “I’m Sakina.”
Sakina nodded. “You’re off-world soon?”
“A couple more weeks.” If she said the words often enough, she would believe them.
She thought of the denim backpack under her bunk, the supplies she had collected over the last few weeks. Meal bars, a torch she had stolen, petty cash. Enough to get her off the space station, back to Earth and just maybe, she could find some work, keep afloat until she had enough to get back to Mum.
Mum, who would be so disappointed to learn that Hafsa had not gone off-world after all her planning, after using all her savings and risking everything –
“Me too,” Sakina said, interrupting her thought stream. “Sooner I’m off this planet the safer I’ll feel.” She gestured with her head at the corner of the room. “Come sit with me?”
Hafsa had barely spoken to anyone since boarding the space station. She didn’t need to get to know anyone if she wasn’t planning to stay. With some hesitation, she sat down.
“I’ve heard there’s nothing quite like being in space,” Sakina said. “Seeing the Earth, your entire life, as a small blue dot in the distance.”
“Like the view from the look-out room,” Hafsa said.
“You go there a lot?”
“Sometimes… It’s just – I know I’ll miss it. Earth.”
“How could you not?” Sakina said. “It’s everything you’ve ever known.” She sighed. “But I just know things are better out there.” Her eyes lit up. “The giant habitation domes on Mars – I’ve heard they are beautiful in person. Massive structures, and inside you wouldn’t be able to tell you were on a different planet except for the red skies.”
“My Mum said it’s like no place else,” Hafsa said. “But she also thought earbud implants were the most incredible thing when they first came out, so I don’t know. She gets excited.”
“I think your Mum’s right on this one,” Sakina said. And then, “What was your home like?”
“Hot.” Hafsa laughed. “Flies everywhere, it’s disgusting. Swimming in summer is the best though. The cool water all over you.” She paused to unwrap her meal bar and took a bite, wincing at the bland, grainy taste. How she longed for her Mum’s cardamom cookies, or the onion omelettes her Dad would fry for breakfast on Saturdays.
“What about your home?” she asked.
“Nowhere.” Sakina shook her head. “Nowhere that exists anymore.”
Hafsa froze, her food stuck in her throat. Her heart was pounding.
“Nothing left,” Sakina continued. “It’s just all dust. I see it sometimes in the news, my old town. Light flashes, like candles being lit and snuffed out, over and over. Just dust and candles.”
“What else?” Sakina shook her head. “Far as I’m concerned, this planet is already a wreck. Mars is our only hope.”
Hafsa’s fingers curled around the meal bars in her pocket. “Yeah,” she said, her voice hollow. “I guess.”
The breath tore out of Hafsa’s lungs as she woke with a gasp, sitting up in her bunk. Almost by instinct now she reached underneath the bunk for her denim backpack, the comforting slide of the zipper in her palm.
In her dream, Hafsa had walked for hours across the red, windy, alien terrain of Mars. And then Mum had been waiting, opening the door to their old home, the one that had been blasted beyond recognition. In the dream, the door was whole and welcoming, and Mum was smiling, arms open, saying Hafsa, you have walked such a long way. You did as I asked, my little voyager. I am so proud.
Mum hadn’t called in almost two weeks. Hafsa tried not to think about why.
She could see Mum in her mind, so vividly it had to be real – tipping Mr Oreo’s feed into a bowl, the rustle of her book pages turning over breakfast, the way her hands smelled of cloves. She had to be okay, she just had to be.
Sakina’s voice rose unbidden in her head. Dust and candles. Nothing left.
Somewhere in space, her transport ship to Mars was on its way, steady and true. Her time was running out.
Passengers with identification numbers 2051 to 2500, your transport ship has arrived. Please make your way to level four for processing immediately. The cool voice sounded throughout the space station.
“The ship is here.” Sakina’s voice came from behind her, but Hafsa didn’t turn to look. She was standing by the window of the lookout room, transfixed by the endless blue below. The gentle, ever-so-slow turning of the Earth, the drift of clouds. Everything looked so peaceful from above.
“I’m not going.” The confession she had hoarded so close for so long fell away from her mouth as easily as breathing.
“What do you mean?”
“I want to go back home.”
Even though at home, there was nothing left.
Hafsa had seen holovids of her home city, the burned skeletons of buildings and the people fleeing through the streets. Even then, she couldn’t help but picture the Canberra she loved – the streets lined with maple trees, the red brick walls of her high school, the gumtree in her backyard. Sitting on the porch with Mum and Dad and Mr Oreo, eating mangoes with her bare hands in the summer. It was impossible to think it could be all gone.
“You know it’s unsafe now,” Sakina said.
Hafsa stayed silent.
“Hafsa, this is madness. Please.” Sakina reached out, grasping Hafsa’s arm. At the touch, Hafsa felt a jolt like a hook in her stomach. And for a moment, she saw –
Masked men in black, shouting. Mum’s fingers digging into her arm as they hid behind the wooden slatted door of the pantry. The musty smells of lentils and stale biscuits.
A crash and the shattering of glass. Shadows of men carrying guns bigger than their bodies. Footsteps. The heat of her breathing. In. Out.
Keep quiet, Mum’s unrelenting grip said. Don’t move. Don’t make a sound.
Hafsa felt her breathing came in sharp, painful punches. Her body felt hollow and shaky, pressed into the cool metal floor. Nausea burned in her stomach.
“Don’t touch me.” Her own voice was alien to her, as bloody and guttural as a heart held in a bare hand. It echoed off the metal walls.
“Hafsa – I just want to help you. Please. I don’t want to see you hurt –”
“Stay away from me.”
Sakina turned helplessly to the doorway even as the loudspeaker continued to repeat itself. Passengers with identification numbers 2051 to 2500, your transport ship has arrived. Please make your way to level four for processing immediately. Hafsa was dimly aware of a swarm of activity, of everyone grabbing their belongings and shuffling down to level four.
“Hafsa, we can talk about this more later. Just come with me to level four. Please.”
“Leave me alone.”
Sakina’s cheeks were wet, reflecting the rich blue streaming through the window. The pain on her face reminded Hafsa so much of Mum that her chest hurt.
“I’m going to get help,” Sakina said. “Please, just wait here for me.” And then she was gone.
Hafsa was alone.
Thoughts circled uselessly in her mind. The denim backpack under her bed. Her mother’s voice, drowning in static – Hafsa, you are a voyager.
You’ll make us proud, no?
She could hear the pounding of footsteps below – impatient now, unstoppable. The ship wouldn’t wait for her, she knew it.
Her heart pounded. She had to choose.
Close your eyes and blow out the candles. Make a wish.
Saba Vayani-Lai is a Canberra-based writer who likes to explore the personal and the political: gender, race, family, and everything in between. She lives in Canberra and can be found doodling or growing her repertoire of lentil recipes. Find her on Instagram: @morningsaba
Saba was the recipient of a Scissors Paper Pen mentorship with mentor L.J.M. Owen. L.J.M. Owen is a trained archaeologist and qualified librarian with a PhD in palaeogenetics and is the author of the archaeological mystery series, Dr Pimms, Intermillenial Sleuth. This piece was developed as a part of the mentorship, which was supported by artsACT. For updates on future mentorships, follow Scissors Paper Pen on Facebook.