Was the graphic story of shipboard birth and death just an invention? Why would Grand-mère tell me such a horrific tale if it weren’t true? The thought of my young mother fearing for her baby as she lay bleeding to death on a filthy boat has always hung over me like a shroud of guilt, an obligation to make something of the life she sacrificed everything to give me. Assuming such a vivid story must be true, maybe the mother was just a stranger Grand-mère befriended, a fellow refugee whose orphaned baby she took as an impulsive act of pity. Maybe she always wanted a child and I was her chance. But what was she doing on the boat, anyway? How did she manage to care for an infant in such dire circumstances? If the aunt died and Algiers was dangerous, why didn’t she return to Kabylia? Why would she go to Spain? Nothing makes any sense.
After three days of moping in my hotel room and wandering the suqs of Algiers, mulling this crisis of identity, I decide that the most plausible answer is the one involving the fewest lies and inconsistencies: Grand-mère had a secret daughter who grew up in Algiers and gave birth to me on a boat. Grand-mère couldn’t go home with me and admit the long-passed pregnancy, so she went to Canada to start a new life. Once I realize this must be the truth, I rally enthusiasm for my project and throw myself into library research and interviews. Four months fly by; I find no trace of Grand-mère’s aunt.
Back in Berkeley, my thesis advisor is excited about my research and urges me to apply to the doctoral program, bypassing the master’s. “As far as I know, you’d be the first Berber scholar in the English-speaking academic world,” he says. “With a foot in both cultures, you’d bring authenticity to Berber studies and attention to a neglected ethnic group. There’s a guy here doing original research on the Okinawan diaspora. He’s third generation Okinawan from Hawaii. I think he’s the first ethnic Okinawan Ph.D. in sociology to specialize in Okinawan studies. You know, Okinawans consider themselves a separate nationality, culturally and linguistically distinct from Japan, where they’re an oppressed minority. But most people in the West don’t realize that. You could do for Berbers what he’s doing for Okinawans!”
Then one dank November day I get a call from Claudine, the girl who dumped me for a realtor. “I saw your picture in the paper – you’ve really come up in the world!” she gushes. “Look, I know we lost touch years ago, but I have something that you might want. I found a letter addressed to you from your Grand-mère in a book that got mixed in with mine when I moved out of our place in San Francisco.” Claudine doesn’t want to trust the U.S. Postal Service or even FedEx, so I agree to meet her in the city for afternoon drinks.
“Krim, you look fantastic! I don’t think I ever saw you in a suit before. I looked you up on the internet – your book, the UN, wow! If I’d known you’d be famous I might have stuck around.”
“I’m not famous, Claudine. But I like my work and it’s nice to get a little recognition for it, that’s all.”
We order Canadian beer for old time’s sake and she rattles on for 20 minutes about her life since we parted. I gather she’s become some sort of interior decorating consultant who “stages” homes for sale to make them appealing to prospective buyers. She married and divorced the realtor, her second marriage is rocky but they’re trying to work things out, for their daughter’s sake. She asks if I’m married and I murmur I’ve been too busy, never found the right girl. She presses, and I admit I’m seeing a very nice journalist, could become serious, we’ll just see where it goes.
“So Claudine, what’s this about a letter from my Grand-mère?” We’re on our second beers and I want to wrap this up and get on the freeway back to San Jose before rush hour traffic.
“Oh yeah! I almost forgot.” She reaches into her enormous tote bag and pulls out a thick book bound in worn, dark green leather. I recognize the French-English dictionary Grand-mère gave me when I started high school. She probably had not gone past the equivalent of fourth grade herself, but she incited me to study hard and always keep the dictionary to remind me of the importance of education. Apparently I internalized the message but lost track of the book.
“Inside front cover,” Claudine prompts as I stare at the mildewed tome.
A blank envelope slides out onto my lap. Folded inside are three sheets of the lined notebook paper I used in high school, covered with Grand-mère’s labored, child-like printing, a mixture of French and Tamazight in Latin lettering. I start reading and halfway through the first page, the room is swirling and my head throbs. I think maybe I’m coming down with the flu and not understanding the words right. I don’t want to finish it here in this bar, with Claudine, so I look at my watch and mumble about needing to get back for a faculty meeting. Cheek kisses, a perfunctory hug, “great to see you, thanks for tracking me down, all the best of luck” and I lurch out the door in a daze.
Outside, the first drizzle of the winter has started. The roads will be slick with accumulated oil. Californians always forget how to drive in rain over the long dry season and it takes all my concentration to get myself home without being rear-ended or slamming into the median fence. I don’t bother to return to work but head straight for my apartment and crawl into bed. After I sleep off the beer, I should be able to translate the archaic dialect and grammar of the letter correctly.