The Birdhouse in the Argan Tree

Nadia Rungger
The man looks out of the train window, his jacket across his lap and a black bag between his feet. He lets the villages, church steeples and apple orchards pass by. He knows where he comes from and he knows where he is going and how one enjoys life. I am sitting across from him and stare at my blurry reflection in the dirty window pane. Behind it is a world that doesn’t know me at all. Salut, I say. Nothing. No answer. No sign that it was the right decision. I play with a cord on my backpack. Whatever. Here the people have nothing against strangers as long as they don’t stay, someone told me. I don’t want to stay anyway. Or do I? I don’t know. Anyway, people say the further up you go, the better your life becomes. Maybe that’s a lie though. I sometimes ask myself if it’s ever gonna be as good as back then. Not that it was all that good in Morocco. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But to leave your homeland is always difficult.
In front of our home, there was an Argan tree. And for as long as I can remember there was a birdhouse between the branches. And when I came from school in the afternoon, bird song accompanied me to the front door. My mother always said: how could such small birds make such a racket? But really they didn’t bother her. The birds were our watchdogs; they chirped whenever anyone came near the house. The birds belonged in the tree. And the tree to us. And we are bound to one another, my father said on that day, after supper, to me and my sister while in the background my mother cleared the dishes with a clatter. We stay together, that is certain, he said. We are bound together like the birdhouse to the tree. He repeated this so often until the word together, ensemble, became individual letters randomly following one another. As my mother dropped a glass, he bent over and gathered the shards. That is certain. Tous ensemble. All together. Ha! In spirit perhaps. I laughed with doubt. “Why me?” I asked. “Why me and not all of us?” My sister looked at me and then it wouldn’t have mattered to me at all if she said boys shouldn’t cry. She didn’t say that though. Only this: “You know why, we don’t have enough money.” “No,” I said to myself and her and my parents, “I won’t go. There is so much money involved. I can’t do it.”
Somehow I did go. I wouldn’t be here otherwise – but where am I? Here. Such a broad word. Here is everywhere and nowhere and for me today it is simply the seventh compartment in a train from Verona to Brenner. At least, I hope I read the signs right. A seat covered in blue cloth. A square meter. The train is loaded full with refugees, I can be glad that I got a place to sit and that I don’t have to offer it to a pregnant woman. The air is so thick and full of strange smells. The people are foreign to everyone, to the man with the jacket on his lap and to me. At first glance they are always foreign, but that does not bother me. A boy with a big backpack earlier tripped me and pushed me back in order to get on board before me. Another boy offered me some of his bread. But then a muscular man snatched it out of his hand. We didn’t say anything. Better that way. Later, I shared my snack with the boy. He is thin, with black hair and eyes so dark that I could not make out the pupils. He didn’t say a word. I don’t know who he is, or if he still has a family. Or if he has a train ticket like I do. Or if he knows where he is going. I don’t even know his name. But I do know what it is like to be here now. Some of my best friends are now foreigners.
Like the man across from me, I ask myself where this is all going. And I hold the cord on my backpack tight in my hand. I ask myself who will look after my family when the birds are not there.
“So that you never forget that we stay together.” My mother bound the cord that held the birdhouse to its branch onto my backpack. I saw the birds fly away, scared that my father took down the small little wooden house, their home. My home. One, two, three flaps of wings. With a new lightness I jumped over the fence, with a backpack and a heart full of fear. And curiosity. And hope. My mother watched me leave. Au revoir, Arganier.
The tree seemed empty as I left. The wind blew through the long branches. The birds had to take care of themselves now.
And so do I.

Translated from German by Shan Wardell
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