As he watched the militia set fire to his mother’s house, he believed the roof would be the first to fall. It was only when the wooden beams had burnt to spindles, and the entire structure could no longer be supported, that the roof collapsed in a crackling heap. Flames rose, bright and rapacious, a bonfire where eleven people had lived. Somewhere his mother and brother were weeping, but he could not see them nor the soldiers who had taken them.
Later, as his captors beat him, as he was freed and taken to Mundemba, he dreamt of the ruined house becoming a luminous, burning skeleton against the night sky. At the border town Mercy, his wife, was already waiting. Together they travelled on foot into Nigeria. In Port Harcourt they could finally rest and decide what to do. An immigration agent told him that with his Master’s degree, there was a good chance Canada would grant him asylum as a refugee.
On the morning of his departure, he promised his wife that he would return. Upon landing in Montreal, he took out the address he had been given on a slip of paper. It was a men’s shelter downtown. He ate meat for dinner for the first time in weeks. Afterwards he tried to sleep amongst the snoring and shifting of other men in the dormitory. In his dreams his mother knelt before a pile of ashes with a bowl of water, and Mercy hid her face.
The next day he used most of the money he had to buy a cheap used cellphone. He walked block after block until he came to a McDonald’s, connecting to the free Internet to call his wife. She assured him everything was fine. With no direction in mind, he wandered up and down the streets of the city. At dusk he went back to the shelter.
“You have come too late,” he was told. “All the beds are taken for the night.”
Head bowed; he turned back to the street. The windows of houses have become lit now as families sit down to dinner. He wondered whether his mother, his uncle, his brothers were still alive, whether they were in jail or have been freed. When he could walk no further, he laid down on a bench by a three-tiered fountain. Orange floodlights illuminated the cascading water from below. Nearby, a flock of pigeons pecked at the ground, the white of their feathers a deep blue in the dark. He dreamt of the roof of his mother’s house burning, the orange flames rippling like water, cool upon his hand. In the morning, he woke to someone tapping his shoulder. The man introduced himself as Jean-Pierre.
In the YMCA where Jean-Pierre worked, they talked of the many languages spoken in the city. He told Jean-Pierre about the decades-long civil war in Cameroon between the Anglophone and Francophone peoples. He spoke of meeting Mercy, and how he fell love in with her because she allowed him to bring her strawberries. He started to speak of how he had lost his home, but he could get no further than the flames.
“I am free in this country, but life is still difficult,” he said.
“You can stay here,” replied Jean-Pierre, “until you figure things out.”
He was grateful that instead of asking him questions, Jean-Pierre gave him things to do. He cleaned the kitchen and sorted clothing and books. He listened to people talk about how he could become a member of Canadian society, of Quebec society. He helped to cook for the other residents and received two free meals a day. The people he met were kind and did not ask for his time.
Between all his new activities he continued to walk around the city. A listlessness settled in his body. He could not understand how the people lining up for busses could go to work, how children could leave their parents for school, how each day people parted from the ones they loved and still expected to return to them. It all seemed to require a faith that he did not have. Calling his wife no longer brought him comfort. He heard fear and dread in her tone, yet she assured him that everything was fine. “It’s just the stress,” she explained. She would not say more.
As days passed, he rose from bed with a leadenness in his limbs. Nightmares still visited but now he could not remember what they were. He struggled to eat. Mercy’s voice remained tight over the phone, and he heard in all she was not saying a thousand possible calamities. On Friday when Jean-Pierre told him he had received official refugee status, he burst into tears.
“What’s wrong?” Jean-Pierre asked over and over.
He could not answer.
“I can’t go on,” he choked out. “I need hope, but everything is lost. If something has happened to her, I don’t know how I can live.”
Later Jean-Pierre would bring him to the hospital. He waited, exhausted and heavy with shame, amongst the moans of fellow patients, the smell of urine, vomit, and drying sweat. When the emergency room doctor came to see him, he was shivering uncontrollably. They asked him what his name meant in the language of his country.
“Beauty,” he replied.
Before sending him out of the hospital, the doctor gave him a prescription. “You have lived through disaster,” he said. “You have a very long journey ahead of you.”
Back in his room, he found a thick, red sweater folded and placed on his bed. “For your first Canadian fall,” Jean-Pierre later told him.
He signed the documents that would make him a legal person in Canada. He continued to clean the kitchen and to make the meals. Jean-Pierre encouraged him to start looking for paid work, to consider perhaps continuing his studies here. At the church group he listened to other refugees talk of what they had left behind, and wondered when he would ever be able to speak his own story. One evening, his wife broke her silence.
“I am pregnant,” she said, taking a shuddering breath, “because I was raped.”
Hearing her voice crack, he began to weep silently.
“I could not tell you before,” she continued, “because I was afraid. I could not talk to anyone, but today I went to the center. They examined me. They asked about the father. They offered abortion. They said the law allows it, because it was rape. God will not judge me, they said. But I don’t care what the law says.”
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I want her to live,” she answered, crying. “Against everything I have wanted for myself, for us, I want her to live. She is a child of war. She is a child of disaster. Her father is my attacker and I hate him. But I want her to live. Can you forgive me?”
“Oh, my love,” he whispered, “there is nothing to forgive. But I must think.”
The next day, for the first time since his arrival, he did not call her in the evening. Nor did he call her the next day. On the third day, he resumed his walks around the city. At night he returned to the fountain and, sitting on a bench, fed the pigeons the bread he had carried in his pocket. He watched a young girl wearing blue ribbons in her hair walk beside her mother. When the pigeons had finished their meal, he got up and headed back to the YMCA.
He decided to take the longer way. The tightness in his chest had lifted, and he felt an urgent desire to walk alongside the other inhabitants of the city. He glanced at the faces of the men and women eating at café tables. He nodded to the homeless man sitting cross-legged on the stoop. Tomorrow he will tell his wife that he would like their daughter to be named Hope. He will say to Jean-Pierre that he is going to be a father and ask if there is any way he could bring Mercy to this country. In time he will look for strawberries at the market, and together they will tell their daughter of their journey.
A sound he had never heard before, neither a voice nor a machine, stopped him. He followed the lilting tune to a balcony on the street opposite. In the dark he could make out the figure of a man playing a flute. He raised his arm tentatively in greeting. Through the darkness he saw the flute player raise his right arm in turn, heard the tune pause as the man took a breath. Standing upon the sidewalk, he let the melody flow through him, rising and falling as a buoy bobbing upon a dark sea.