Between Tenses


I blink and you stand before me. I blink again and I am standing in an empty room. You are dead. I vacillate between the past where you are alive and the present where you are nowhere to be found.


It starts with a police car in the driveway, shiny as the inside of a mouth. It starts before that with a bang, a spectacular collision. This is how the world ends: no Jesus descending the sky like a spider. It ends in a flash of light and the acrid smell of burning rubber.

There is a cop in my living room. He tells me there was an accident. My stomach is hollow as a pitted fruit. I put my hands over my ears. This man is a liar. He has taken his shoes off to be polite, and I cannot stop staring at the hole in his sock. I wonder if his feet smell. He’s wearing a wedding ring, and I wonder what his wife’s name is. If I took her heart in my mouth would a new language erupt in my throat?

I’m sorry, the cop says, and the world ends in an apology. Mouth open, a caught fish, my mother wails.

We are eleven and eight years old and we sleep on bunk beds. We share whatever secrets we bring back into this world from our dreams. Do you remember the doorframe where we carved our initials? Do you remember the honeysuckle that covered the backyard trellis like stars pulled from the sky?  

Each morning was a promise God made and kept, each morning dawn broke and the moon surrendered to the sky. The world was bright, and the sun cast a beam of light wherever we stood.


In the animal kingdom a mutualistic bond refers to a relationship where one or more species depend on each other for survival. I am nothing without my grief. I am host to its enormous hunger. I take it to bed with me night after night; it is the only thing that has stayed, the only thing that has not left me. It does not pretend to be what it is not. Wild and growing, dumb as a child, it is the thing that I know best.

At night I do not dream of my sister; I dream I am pregnant, my flesh tender and swollen. There is blood between my legs. I give birth to a black mangled clot that weeps in my arms.  

I am in fifth grade when my friend Michelle dies on her way home from a sporting event. I think she played tennis. I think it was a car accident. She had black hair that she kept short. I remember the shock, the incongruity. I am ten and death is as impossible to make sense of as negative numbers. How can there be anything less than zero? I cannot imagine what is not.  

There is a cop on the other end of the phone. He tells me there has been a terrible accident, and I must get to the hospital immediately. The car is totaled, but my sister is alive. Do I find her in a coma? Do I find her with a shattered leg and good spirits? What do the details matter? Her heart is beating. Her body is warm and heavy, the way a body is supposed to be.

This is not the way it happened, but what if it did? 

I am standing next to my father and uncle, and we are huddled around my sister’s dead body. She has been washed and wrapped in white. It is my turn to lean down and kiss her forehead. I lay my cheek against hers, and we stay like that until the mortician wheels her out of the room, down a long hallway, and into the back of a van that will travel an hour and a half to our state’s only Islamic cemetery. She is suddenly, for the first time in my life, where I cannot reach her. She is where I cannot call her name.

Is this the way it happened? Memory is crude: it is a cobbling together. A glass that cuts, a lie that bends under certain light, a trick mirror that holds no truths.  

To talk about you in the past tense is a betrayal. You are not finite, a verb peeled back like old paint. You are everywhere at once. I look in the mirror and see you standing over my shoulder. I go to grab a coat because it is winter and cold again, but I accidentally reach for yours. In the afternoons I visit the cemetery and sit at your feet. I read somewhere that it takes a body eight to twelve years to decompose underground. I can think about you as a skeleton: there is something dignified about bones. But my heart feels too big for the cavern of my ribs when I think of your rotting flesh. The illusion of growing nails is only the fingers drawing back. The hair does not grow longer, the skull recedes. A cemetery is not a salvage yard: here no one dead or alive can be redeemed. I am sitting at your feet but I cannot save you, I never could. Not from God and his wisdom, not from the truck that barrelled into you on Highway 42, not from the earth and all it claims. 


In Somalia we learned to bake bread in clay ovens. Mama Safiya leaning against the counter, pink from the heat, sifting flour like each gram was gold because it might as well have been. Remember how the flour formed half moons under our fingernails, how it clung to our hair and the thin cotton of our shirts? The kitchen window thick with condensation, you rubbed your palm against it to make way for the light. We blew plumes of flour in each other’s faces. Did we pretend to be clouds or pillars of smoke, snow or ash, the world together or coming undone?

I return to Somalia to find you. I look for you in a kitchen of rotting things. The milk is thick and glutinous, the water from the tap is a muddy brown. I light a match and set the kitchen on fire. I bake loaves of bread that turn to ash in my mouth.                  

I am alone in this city. Each night I set the table and eat with your ghost. 


You rise from the dead. You walk out of your grave. You catch a bus home, maybe you hail a taxi with one skeletal arm. You ring the doorbell three times in a row because you know it annoys me. I let you in and we catch up over coffee.

This is absurd, true, but no less absurd than a girl of nineteen splayed on the pavement of the street. No less absurd than a girl spending an entire week studying for a chemistry exam she will never have to take. 


We sit on the couch facing each other. I stare in the general direction of the front door. I am a bird in a cage: wild-eyed, wings clipped. I am, like many women, always a girl in the presence of my father.

“How many days have you been like this?” he asks me. My father the engineer, the scientist, he would number the world and catalogue it if he could. I am his oldest child, and I imagine what it must have been like to raise me. I have always been an unexpected storm, a wild thing of a girl who acted on impulse, and blurted things out without foresight.

I do not answer him because I do not know how. “You look awful,” he says, and I chuckle without humor because he is right. I know there are dark circles under my eyes. My face is pale and thinner than usual. This grief trails me, a serpent made of smoke. I will wear black for the rest of my days.        

I have not eaten in days, have not slept in as long. I have no appetite. I gorge myself on all that death has left behind.  


That day spins like a reel in my mind, but each time the recollection is slightly different. What do the details matter if the story always ends the same way? What’s the difference between a car accident and a suicide I ask with a razor blade against my wrist. What’s the difference between entering this world and leaving it? Either way, the story ends with my mother in tears, one hand over her heart.

I don’t return to the phone call, shrill and out of place in the quiet of the night. I remember the dream it pulled me from, the night that loosened me from its darkened arms. I can’t remember a time before grief tailed my every smile, before I saw death hankering like a bad tooth in the mouth of everyone I know and love. I can’t remember a time when each moment still pulsed with the possibility of joy. 

It happened during the day. A spring morning in early April. There was no phone call in the middle of the night. My mother wasn’t home.

What does it matter the way it happened? The ending is the same in every retelling: dust, suspended in air, settles over a bed you no longer sleep in. What is the difference between a memory and a lie? Between God and my imagination? I am the one that is left. I am the one that gets to tell the story, I can make myself into a martyr. I can make myself braver than I was, there is no one to contest the truth. I can let the story take whatever shape I choose. It is a frightening and dazzling power. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up with a start and I ask myself: did you exist or did I made you up in a fit of wild desperation.  


I was ten when my teacher first explained the concept of negative numbers, and I couldn’t make sense of them. It is clear to me now: I will always be less than the sum of my parts. 

My sister is dead, but I am the ghost.


Jamila Osman Biography

May-June 2016 Issue, BOAAT