About the Feature

Photo by Ashley Van Haeften

Winner of the 2018 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction
Selected by Margot Livesey


Her dreams are simple, but unpleasant—bang she is shot, the bomb explodes, crash goes her home, caving in upon her. Yet she does not wake crying, because there at the foot of her bed is her very own Good for Nothing Cat. And there is the sound of her father talking quietly to Yaser in the kitchen. There is the smell of coffee. There is the knowledge they have returned.

When she feels the cool tiles of the kitchen floor, she knows she is awake, that her dreams have ended and she must look at the clock on the wall and not panic. No. Yes. Wait, no. She is not yet late. The Good for Nothing Cat is in the corner with Aisha’s string of cheese, head tilted, jaws digging like a backhoe to break the soft cheese into manageable gulps, the plate Baba left for her on the table empty.

Perhaps her father kissed her on the crown of the head before he fell asleep. Aisha tucks the idea into her pocket to save for the long walk to school, filled with the sound of gunfire, as intermittent and random as the call of birds. Perhaps Baba set his lips carefully upon her head the way he’d done since the beginning of her days. It is this idea that gets her through the early hours of her day.

During a rushed morning recess, she recites poems to her classmates in the rubble-filled schoolyard:

Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.

Twenty girls from chubby to thin—some quick to laugh, with a silliness that propels itself forward in direct proportion to the ridiculous tragedy of their lives; others furrowing their brows in contemplation, premature lines digging permanently between the dark eyebrows, as if the power of their still-developing minds is enough, their desire alone enough to alter reality. Twenty girls whose parents have allowed them five hours a day, most days, away from home in a makeshift school, despite the danger there, the danger everywhere.

Nineteen girls orbiting in the schoolyard around her—one with braces, two with glasses, three with ballet flats, four in sandals, one whose mother teaches at the university, another whose parents are both doctors, Aisha knows because her parents were friends with them. Aisha starts the recitation over because three more girls have rushed over to listen:

Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.

What does it mean? interrupts one of the younger children. Aisha ignores her and continues:

I remember madness
leaning for the first time
on the mind’s pillow.
I was talking to my body then
and my body was an idea
I wrote in red.

Aisha recites stanza after stanza of Adonis’s famous poem “Celebrating Childhood” while the children listen around her, licking their lips or dragging their fingers in the dirt, trying to figure out what it all means. She sees the teacher pacing nervously on the other side of the long and narrow empty lot they refer to as the schoolyard. Red, another girl says at the end of the recitation, is my favorite color, but I don’t see why the wind would need to be pulled by anything?

And then they are back in the dimly lit basement. At lunch break, Aisha tears her bread into bite-size pieces, then peels her orange, tucking the rind into a piece of tissue she has set upon the carpet. She takes her purple notebook out of the backpack beside her and opens it to a fresh piece of ruled paper. She waits for her favorite subject patiently, her mind turned inward as girls around her retie shoelaces, stand to sharpen pencils at the teacher’s desk, float in and out of the room from the bathroom on the first floor. When everyone is finally settled, the lights flash off, then on, then off. Darkness. No. Aisha cannot have darkness. That is too much for her to take before her favorite subject. The children wait. And wait. The lights do not turn back on. Go, the teacher tells them. And they all grab their belongings, elbows jutting like wings in the dim room, light spilling in weakly from the stairwell, from a window, from the sky.


Two days later, the power returns. Aisha sits on the soft carpet of the basement classroom, her purple notebook opened to a fresh piece of paper. The teacher writes each problem for the day’s math quiz on the board for them to copy. As Aisha begins her calculations, numbers march orderly inside her head because she is an orderly person. Numbers can get you places. They are like airplanes and bicycles, buses and trains. They can tell you how much you weigh and what your temperature is. They can tell you about the cost of some things and the balance of others, like ratios of sugar to flour in a recipe for cake. They can explain the laws of motion or the passing of time, the aerodynamics of specific birds based on their wing structure, why the lift of a seagull is different from that of a hawk, or an owl, or a duck. They explain why she herself cannot fly, and can prove which girl can run fastest from palm tree to palm tree because a stopwatch doesn’t lie. Numbers prove what is there in front of your eyes, what you want to see and what you wish were not true. She keeps them close to her heart and requests nothing for birthdays except more pencils, paper, and a book on algebra.

Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.

This is the image she has gifted her schoolmates for the day, Aisha the workhorse, the smartest girl in class, the one who lassos numbers, lines them up like soldiers to do her work, the one who memorizes poetry each night, as she sits alone with the Good for Nothing Cat in the cold apartment, waiting for Mama and Sara, who may or may not return. The remnants of the morning’s cheese string is covered with ants in the corner of the tiled kitchen floor by the time she slips under her blanket, the Good for Nothing Cat curled beside her on her pillow, kneading her hair as he has done since the night she found him and took him in, a flea-ridden kitten with teeth as sharp as needles and a pitiful meow.

She does not ask Baba what happened to Mama and her older sister, who left for the market months ago and did not return. What is there to say other than he does not know because, yes, there was a bomb at the market, but also people were pulled into vans and kidnapped that very same day. Mama and Sara, who left for the market without her because she had a cold. What is there to say when their bodies cannot be found, the candy Sara promised to bring back with her shot into the air and shattered like glass, then buried in dust, the entire candy stall gone, along with the gentleman who owned it.

Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.


Now, if Father should not return, she is to tell Fatima, the schoolteacher, and the schoolteacher will have pity on her or the schoolteacher will not have pity on her, only God can say. Aisha has cousins in far-off cities, but the cousins in far-off cities may already have fled. The cousins in far-off cities may be dead. Fatima walks with a cane, the bones in her leg shattered and put back together with screws and metal plates. Fatima, who was engaged to Aisha’s older brother before the car accident, before Yaser decided it wasn’t a good idea anymore, this marriage. She can see it, this anger Fatima holds for her, swelling and rising like a wave, then receding, only to rise again, her young schoolteacher eager to embarrass Aisha, to call out any mistakes she might make, to reprimand her for the dirt under her nails, or tell her she should have washed her armpits before she walked to school that day.

Every child in the classroom knows the story of Aisha’s brother’s betrayal, because gossip this good is hard to come by. It’s the stuff of fairy tales, and everyone loves the play of good against evil, the thrill of what may happen next, the anticipation of how far Fatima may go to get revenge. Aisha, like poor Cinderella, whom a few of her classmates would like to see suffer because they, too, are suffering, and somehow, seeing this play out before them makes their own lives a little more tolerable. Even Aisha, the smartest girl in school, is a victim of a shameful inheritance.

Yet like Cinderella, Aisha has a way of overcoming small misgivings. Instead of bluebirds coming to her rescue, Aisha finds solace in poetry’s simple truths, and in the ability of numbers to organize themselves in mysterious ways, like pi, never ending, others unable to be divided by anything other than themselves and the number one, as if this itself is a protection against being subdivided against their will. Besides, she understands Fatima’s sorrow because Fatima’s sorrow is her own, the shame she herself feels for what her brother has done, his shallowness in the face of adversity, and her own diminishing admiration for who she once thought he was.


Early morning happiness hoists her out of bed, a rolling swell of good feeling rising like threads of smoke in the chilled air, even as she must shimmy her way past snipers stationed along the bridges.

Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.

Today is her twelfth birthday, and the first day of winter. A nest of throats hunches up in the hedge as she skips past, their voices rising as if to greet her. Frost lingers, drenching her sneakers as she takes the shortcut through the park, the wind fanning the fronds of each palm as she passes. It is as if they are waving to her, she thinks, welcoming her as she strolls to school, accompanied today by two younger girls who aren’t usually allowed to go. The week, somehow, has been quiet. There has been a cease-fire that Aisha knows about because she heard Yaser talking, telling Baba he would go back to his old job at the market for the rest of the week, so they could eat like kings again, if only for one or two nights.

Hot alphabet soup. Her mother fed to her little schools of letters, spoon-fed to her letters to decipher, alphabet letters spewed hot and piping. They leapt from the broth into her mouth before the war.

Mama and Sara lost. Or maybe stolen, as if they were goats or dogs found on the side of the road. Or else. She cannot think of what else. She holds the image of her father kissing her softly on the crown of her head, the younger girls still tagging along behind her through the park, one with a loose front tooth hanging crooked, about to fall out, the other jabbering endlessly about nothing at all.

The race goes from palm tree to palm tree into the bright sun and then toward the low stone wall. It has always gone this way. And the one who gets caught is the next one to chase.

Now, if Baba should not return, she is to tell the schoolteacher who lives in the building across the street, though she is nothing but a reminder of everything the schoolteacher has lost, the opposite of a talisman, a very bad-luck charm. She will do what Baba tells her to do because she is a good daughter. Even if she weren’t a good daughter, what other option would she have? But she will not go anywhere without her Good for Nothing Cat.

Numbers can get you places, and so can words. They are like airplanes and bicycles, buses and trains, parting the air with their sound. The present may whisper secrets that are not true, and the future is full of lies, but numbers ring true each and every time. Seven is always seven, not seven and a half or six and three quarters. Apples set upon a scale weigh what they weigh and that is that. The finality of the answer is what is so glorifying.

Aisha sits outside in the courtyard of her apartment building that afternoon after school, fingering a pinwheel, its red petals broken loose from their plastic rigging. The sun burns low in the sky, and soon, darkness surrounds her. Baba is home, for once, cooking lamb and rice in their second-floor apartment, the light burning above the stove, shining down upon her.

Her father kisses her on the crown of her head, something hidden behind his back, and the blood rushes excitedly through her. He makes her chase him around the apartment and only if she catches up to him can she have her gift. The race goes from daughter to father and ends with his fingers digging into her, tickling her under the armpits as if she were a young child.

That night, she is full and happy, cuddled beside Baba on the sofa, encased in a scallop shell of quiet, the Good for Nothing Cat heavy in her lap, shedding his striped orange fur all over her new algebra book.


The next morning, the gunfire returns like clockwork, after the agreed-upon cease-fire. Once more, Baba and Yaser clean their semiautomatic rifles at the kitchen table, the smell of gun oil spilling into her milky coffee.

All that week, she slips on her violet galoshes and skips to school in the rain until the morning the Good for Nothing Cat wakes her, leading her into the kitchen to complain about his missing breakfast. It is a Friday. There is no string of cheese on the table, or in the corner of the kitchen, half-eaten on the tiled floor. She is afraid to look at the clock because it will not lie to her. It will not tell her what she wants to know.

She does not take the shortcut through the park, but instead searches for Baba and Yaser in roadside ditches before descending into the basement schoolroom. Her father and brother have always returned home. They are like the clock that does not lie. The idea that she will never see them again makes her chest tighten. She feels as if she is suffocating, even though she feels the air slip into her nose and back out it in a steady rhythm.

For the three months since her sister and mother disappeared, Baba and Yaser have fought nearby and come home to care for her every morning, their shoes moored like sailboats in the tile harbor by the front entrance, their bedroom doors left open so she can witness for herself the rise and fall of their chests as they sleep, bodies folded into themselves like rhododendron leaves.

Still, she waits for them to return, finishing the last of the milk and the string cheese, buying falafel and tomatoes and bread and soda and more cat food for the Good for Nothing Cat with the money her mother always kept in the kitchen drawer for treats. She does her homework and washes the dishes in the sink before she brings the cat back in from the courtyard for the night. She locks the door and sets her dreams to the rhythm of gunfire, intermittent and as unpredictable as the blackbirds that arrive in droves all over the city, only to disappear minutes later in an enormous batting of wings.


Another Friday finally arrives. The students gather their belongings at the end of the day and begin to walk home. Aisha finds herself in the schoolyard staring up into the cloudy sky. It is time to make a decision. She stares blankly into the distance, feeling the wind pass across her face. Then she turns around, not realizing she has already made her decision to do what Baba always told her to do if he were not to return. She has made her decision because she is a good girl, or simply because she has no other choice but to beg for mercy.

Go, she tells the two girls who wait to walk with her that Friday. They stare back, uncomprehending, while she points in the direction they always travel after school. The one with the snaggletooth runs a few feet ahead, looking back, thinking it is a game of chase, and she is to get a head start, but Aisha’s feet remain planted beneath her. Go! she shouts with as much authority as she can muster. Go! Go on without me! I am not your keeper anymore! Aisha lifts her hand in the air as if to hit the girl staring up at her, though of course she will not hit her. The chatterbox begins to back away from Aisha, her eyes welling with tears because she is afraid to go alone. Aisha does not know what happens next because she returns to her spot on the carpet on the basement floor and waits alone in the smell of milk souring in the trashcan behind her.

Fatima takes a long time to navigate the stairs from the bathroom, her cane landing first, then a half step with her injured leg and a thud as she plants her good leg down onto the riser. Cane, half step, thud, cane, half step. She looks curiously at Aisha, sitting cross-legged, head bowed on her space on the carpet, alone in the dimly lit room.

Is it your first period? Fatima demands. You stupid girl not to tell me before. What were you waiting for? Everyone to go home? She begins to walk over to her student, cane first, another half step with the injured leg. Cane, half step, thud, cane.

Have pity on me, Aisha whispers, her fingers curled into the hem of Fatima’s dress, head still bowed in her lap. All the tears she has never shed flow. Aisha is blinded like an old woman as she spills out her story, word after excruciating word. She leans on Fatima, shoulders heaving, the entire way back home, the cane between them leading the way through the empty street.


All that night she stays in Fatima’s apartment with the Good for Nothing Cat and the schoolteacher’s parents. Fatima’s mother spoons her alphabet soup like before the war, the one can left in her pantry, little schools of letters, spoon-fed letters to decipher, alphabet letters spooned hot and piping, she feeds her letters, all the while Fatima asking what they are supposed to do with this useless girl.

It is almost midnight when she tucks herself into the sheets laid out for her on the sofa, the Good for Nothing Cat as afraid as she is, hidden deep under the parents’ bed in the other room, lashing out at anyone who tries to reach in.

Aisha recites a simple nursery rhyme to steady her nerves. She takes comfort in the words spilling from her mouth the same way every time:

When is Daddy coming home?
6 o’clock.
Riding or walking?
Riding a bicycle.
White or red?
White, like cream
Open the gates for him
And welcome him home!

She repeats this over and over as she stares out the window of Fatima’s apartment, overlooking the Queiq River.

When is Daddy coming home?
6 o’clock.
Riding or walking?
Riding a bicycle.
White or red?
White, like cream
Open the gates for him
And welcome him home!


When she wakes in the morning, the first thing she does is look at the alarm clock. Her dreams lift slowly like fog, and she returns to her new life in America with Fatima and her husband, Ahmed. Four years have passed since Aisha has seen Fatima’s father, but even now she remembers his fat hands, the droop of his double chin, the gentleness in his voice when he sat her down on the sofa and told her he’d found the bodies of her brother and father at the morgue. Later that day, he led her to see them. She stayed calm while they unzipped the bags. It was quick, he tells her. Thanks be to God they did not suffer much. A shot to the heart and her father was gone, Yaser in the neck, then the stomach. Thanks be to God, she repeated to him, and she was relieved with the finality of it. A lightness carried her back to the apartment, a thankfulness that at least they did not suffer much, at least she could move on through her sorrow and come through one day on the other side. At least there was an answer as to why they didn’t come home.

Aisha has not yet lifted her head from the pillow. The clock stares back at her with angry red numbers made up of evenly spaced lines that reach toward each other but never connect. A nine followed by a one and a five. It is 9:15 a.m. It is 9:15 in the morning and I am late, she announces to no one. She looks up at the ceiling, thinking how Fatima will scold her for the trouble of having to write a tardy note. Please excuse this useless girl for her carelessness. It is not my job to wake her every morning, because she is not my daughter. She is an albatross upon my neck. If I could throw her to the bottom of Lake Michigan, I would! Sincerely, F.

Aisha spends more time looking at the ceiling, until she remembers it is Saturday. From the other side of her wall she can hear Fatima dry heaving over the toilet.

She bolts upright to search for the Good for Nothing Cat, curled into itself at the foot of her bed. Come here, she says, pulling the cat awake and into her chest. Do you know what day it is, she asks her companion. No. I mean, yes, it is Saturday, but do you know what day it is? What do you say, you stupid cat?

The Good for Nothing Cat leaps out from under her reach and paws at the closed door. He has killed seventeen mice in the apartment since Ahmed brought him home for her at the beginning of the school year, after a mouse gave birth in the rice bag overnight and Fatima shook her hands in despair, screaming at Ahmed to find a way to make more money and get them out of this hellhole.

Ahmed keeps various tallies on a calendar on the wall because, like Aisha, his mind is calmed by knowing the exact time, how many days have passed, how much he must save each month from his job as a cabinet maker and furniture upholsterer to move into a better apartment. Each morning he recites how many days until the baby is due, which makes Fatima burst into tears at the torture of her severe morning sickness, unsure it will ever end.

A light snow falls slantwise in the wind outside. Aisha opens the basement window to feel the snow upon her hand, to embrace the cold Chicago wind, which fills her with a gladness that is hard to describe.

Yes, Fatima sometimes finds it in her heart to be kind to Aisha, to thank her for cooking dinner or cleaning the apartment, to praise her for being on the honor roll at school. But Aisha will always be a cruel reminder of Fatima’s accident and the called-off engagement. Aisha will always be a burden, an albatross around her neck, until the day she finishes college and gets a job or gets married. Or, what?

Setting the frying pan on the stove to warm, Aisha thinks back to the girl with the loose tooth and the one who talked nonsense the whole way to the makeshift school in Syria, how much Aisha hated to escort them because they were slow, or one of them fell and cracked open a knee, or simply distracted her from preparing her mind for her studies. Even a few minutes with those little girls had felt like a year! And often, she lost her patience along the way, telling the one to hush up and the other to hurry along already and please stop smiling because Aisha didn’t want to see the tooth dangling anymore from its single thread.

Aisha cracks open three eggs and sets toast in the toaster. Sara herself had been so patient with Aisha’s own antics, Aisha bursting into the room they shared unannounced, spilling Sara’s new bottle of nail polish, borrowing her novels and reading them in the tub, returning them waterlogged. Aisha scrambles the eggs in the sizzling butter, wondering what it would be like to have Sara here, what Sara would think of America’s Got Talent, deep-dish pizza, and school in a class with kids from China, Iran, Mexico, Guatemala, Miami, California, all here living together inside the old brick apartment buildings separated by one-way, potholed alleys.

After bringing Fatima tea in bed, Aisha calls Ahmed over from the sofa and serves him breakfast. When he is finished eating, he kisses her on the cheek and wishes her a happy birthday without having to be told. How she swells with happiness! Even her friends from Sullivan High School have texted her messages with balloons. And while Ahmed doesn’t buy her a present, she understands because they are saving for a better future. Every penny counts when a child is on the way, he tells her. Every penny counts. Yes of course, she repeats. And besides, he already gave her the Good for Nothing Cat, to replace the one left behind in Syria, abandoned and impossible to forget. At least that is the story she tells herself, though she knows the cat is there only to eat the mice, and Fatima does not want to keep it once the baby arrives. By then, they will be in a new apartment without mice, and Fatima has made it clear the Good for Nothing Cat will have to go.


All these years, Aisha has written letters to her mother and sister, but not every day. There are weeks in a row when she finds herself too busy, too tired, too consumed with growing up to bother. And anyway, sometimes, it is like writing a letter to nobody, and it is a useless exercise, a stupid idea that can put Aisha in a terrible, stormy mood.

The binder under her bed is filled with letters from auspicious days: the day the school bus galloped to a halt on the dusty road outside the refugee camp in Jordan and she scrambled inside, returning after months of waiting to a classroom filled with the smell of old wood and chalk and her teacher’s strong, eye-watering perfume; the day they were told they had two weeks to prepare for their flight to Chicago; the day they arrived at O’Hare International Airport, the anniversary of her father and brother’s deaths. She even wrote of the day Ahmed took her alone to help him pick out the new Good for Nothing Cat at the shelter, lying to Fatima so she did not seethe with jealousy at the thought of their camaraderie, this decision they were making together. Since Ahmed married Fatima, he’s become like an uncle to Aisha, admiring her for her hard work at school and the thoughtful, courteous way she has about her. Fatima, he said one day when he saw her knitting her brow in worry and shaking her hands, you need to be more steadfast, like Aisha. When has a tornado ever fixed a broken sink?

Fatima might be able to throw away her cat, thought Aisha, but Ahmed would never let his wife get rid of her.


Hot alphabet soup. Her mother used to feed to her little schools of letters, spoon-fed to her letters to decipher, alphabet letters spewed hot and piping. They leapt from the broth.

The race goes from palm tree to palm tree into the sun and then toward the low stone wall. It has always gone this way. And the one who gets caught is the next one to chase.

When she wakes in the morning, the first thing she does is look at the clock. She is late for school. No. Yes. No. She bolts up to search for the Good for Nothing Cat, which has survived the battle to be sent away after the baby’s arrival. Aisha got a job that summer at a deli on Devon Avenue, just around the corner from their new apartment, making sandwiches and slicing cheese and meat. She was hired a few weeks before the arrival of the baby, in time to pay for the baby’s crib, which she put together all by herself with a Phillips-head screwdriver while Fatima was with Ahmed at the doctor’s office. She had just enough time to place the mattress on the metal coils and cover it with a waterproof pad and new sheets before she heard the key in the door.

Fatima comes into the new apartment scowling, complaining to Ahmed about her leg and her stupid cane, when she sees the white, slatted wood through the open bedroom door and falls into a fit of joyful tears.

My wife, the tornado! Ahmed jokes happily, squeezing her arm. Is there anything you don’t cry about?

Aisha stands to greet both of them, the Good for Nothing Cat trotting behind her, like a dog. And in that moment Fatima accepts Aisha, once and for all. Aisha will spend weeks waiting for Fatima to lash out at her, for the old pattern to emerge. But the crib has tipped the scales in her favor. Her patience has paid off. Though she doesn’t know it yet, she is no longer assigned to the role of Cinderella. As quick as the gunshot that killed her father, a weight lifts off her and she is free.

Aisha stays up late that evening, writing a letter to her mother and Sara, a letter explaining a little about her new job at the deli, how next year she will finish high school, apply to college, how things are working out okay for her in Chicago, though she will never forget the last time she saw them close the front door, their hands fisted around empty shopping bags. I’ll bring back a treat for you, Aisha! Don’t you worry!

Fatima walks into the kitchen to get a glass of water before bed. Cane, half step, thud, cane. She sets the glass of water on the table and places her hand on Aisha’s shoulder, leaning over her from behind, her big belly brushing up against Aisha’s sweatshirt. I love you, she tells Aisha for the first time. I love you too, Aisha returns, dumbfounded. Love, what does it even mean? Does she even love Fatima? And if she does love her, how has this emotion seeped inside her without her knowing?

She stays up late finishing a paper for her honors English class, a biography of Maya Angelou. She’d checked out several books about the author from the library, as well as two of her poetry collections. When she finally crawls in bed, she pulls the cat close beside her and goes searching through the pages she’d marked until she finds the poem:

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

That’s it, she tells the Good for Nothing Cat, who has sneaked up onto the kitchen table looking for food. He flicks his tail impatiently. There’s so much I don’t know, she tells him, so much I’ll never understand about my life.

She stands up, stretches, and goes to the pantry, where they keep the bag of cat food. Why do I like you so much when you’re such a dumb, useless cat? Then she shuffles in her slippers off to bed, thinking back to the nights when her father used to kiss her on the crown of her head, his hands cupped around the soft edges of her face, the sun just beginning to rise the way it always does, each and every morning, like clockwork.

About the Author

Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based essay and fiction writer whose work has appeared most recently in the Chicago Tribune, Terrain.org, Cleaver Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Literal Latte, the Pinch, Crab Orchard Review, Nano Fiction, and Georgetown Review. She is the winner of the 2016 Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Contest, 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, and two Illinois Arts Council grants. A realtor with Berkshire Hathaway, she plays competitive hockey and polo in her spare time.