The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“Habibi” by Sage Hoffman Nadeau, South Eugene High School
Second Place, High School Level, 2022
By Sage Hoffman Nadeau
South Eugene High School
Water drips from the sky and beads on my skin, sliding in fat droplets that leave trails of cold wherever they touch. Flashing neon reflects in dark puddles, painting the slick asphalt a kaleidoscope of colors. I shiver, ducking my chin into my collar as a drone whirrs above me, the roar of a hovercopter’s rotors vibrating through a sleek chrome and glass skyscraper.
The sound of the ‘copter burrows into me, striking off the hard edges of emotion in my chest. I’m tired to my core, so tired I could close my eyes and sink into the cold ground to become one with the rain, working its way across streets and trolley tracks drop by drop, traveling forever downward until it meets the sea.
Autocars roll down the street beside me, glinting exteriors and carbon-tinted windows veiling their passengers from view. This whole street, the sky, the air is full of people, hidden behind gleaming masks until one by one, they separate, breaking apart like droplets of oil in water. Where does this leave me, I wonder, thoughts punctuated by the rolling ”one, two” of my footsteps.
I watch my boots, their oiled leather shining with water, sending drops flying into the air until they plummet back to earth with the rest of the rain. One, two, one, two. I pause midstep as a warm yellow glow casts itself across the ground before me. I stop, the city roaring around me, the rain pouring down. I close my eyes.
Have some more shay, Habibi, and some baklava, come now, take two, don’t be shy.
All of the sudden, it feels as though my heart is attached to a string pulling it toward the yellow-lit entryway of the little restaurant, its name spelled out in cursive neon.
I turn, and my boots stride across the asphalt. I reach out my hand, and pull open the door, a delicate chime of bells ringing through the air.
The interior of the restaurant is dark, illuminated only by a handful of overhead lights, dim and orange against the ceiling. An older woman stands at the counter, swiftly entering numbers into a little handheld calculator. She has worn brown skin, smile lines creased into her face. Black hair threaded with silver falls around her cheeks, the curls tight and shiny. Despite her age, her eyes are sharp, onyx and gleaming behind her wire-framed glasses.
She glances up as I enter, one eyebrow raised.
“We’re closed for the night, honey.” She points one to the sign taped to the door, declaring that the restaurant closed twenty minutes ago.
“Oh.” I stand there, dripping water on the floor until I come to my senses. “I’m sorry, I’ll come back another time.”
“La’. Wait.” Her voice has softened, melting like syrup over dark chocolate.
I turn back to face her.
“Sit.” She gestures to a small booth next to the register. “The ovens are still hot, and I just put some tea on.”
“Shukran,” I say in my broken Levantine Arabic, bowing my head gratefully.
I hear her in the kitchen, talking to what must be her cooks. It sounds as though they are family, two grandsons and a niece.
I lean back against the upholstery, losing myself in the warmth of the restaurant, the easy way the family converses with each other. The noise of the city has faded, softened, the hovercopter long passed.
“Honik, drink some shay while you wait.”
The woman has returned, bearing a cup full of steaming mint tea.
I take it from her, wrapping my cold palms around it and taking a sip. Fragrant steam playfully curls around my hair, weaving through the waves of ebony and soothing my tired eyes.
I glance back up at the woman. She smiles, nodding.
“Food will be out shortly,” she says. “Azur and Aimen will bring it.”
Moments later, I hear footsteps, and two boys who must be her grandsons appear. They’re the spitting image of each other, tall, with light brown complexions, straight, chestnut hair, and dimples. The one in front smiles shyly, and sets his tray on the table, bowing his head before backing away. His brother, or twin more likely, places a white plate, napkin, and utensils in front of me.
“Enjoy,” he says with a respectful smile, treating me like an elder even though I can’t be more than a few years his senior.
“Shukran,” I say again, grateful for the dark that hides my face.
As soon as they’re gone, I uncover the tray.
The scent of roasted eggplant hits me first, chased by warm bread. I tear the bread, and bring a bite of it to my mouth, loaded with baba ghanouj.
My eyelids fall closed and flavor bursts across my tongue, the warmth and smokiness of the eggplant, the creaminess of the olive oil, the slight give the bread provides as my teeth sink into it.
I eat until the bread is merely crumbs, the dish of baba ghanouj almost agleam. I reach for my tea and take a sip, and find, to my surprise, that my cheeks are wet.
I look up at the restaurant owner, wondering if she’s noticed. But as I watch, she sets down her calculator and picks up a book, settling in against the wall with a kind of familiarity that only comes with feeling perfectly at home in a place.
Unexpectedly, my throat tightens.
I turn at the sound of the voice, blinking as though I’ve been caught watching something I shouldn’t have. One of the boys smiles at me kindly, replacing the tray with a new dish.
A little gasp escapes me at the sight of the fattoush, all lush lettuce and ruby tomatoes, glints of dark sumac and olives.
“It’s one of my favorites,” the boy says. “I hope you like it.”
Habibi, I see you sitting out here all alone, in the cold. Who broke your heart so much that you will not come inside?
The rich tang of sumac, tomato bursting with flavor. Olive oil drips from the curls of the lettuce, settles in the pita croutons. My heart is full but my eyes are fuller, brimming with tears unshed.
You tell me you are the one who has broken your heart, but I do not see how this can be true.
My fork drops from my hand, and, trembling, I reach for my tea. The next portion comes faster now, and I turn my face into the crook of my arm so the boy cannot see the ruin of emotion splashed across it. Against my better judgement, I reach for a stuffed grape leaf, my teeth sinking through the tender, lemony outside and into the richly spiced lamb and rice inside.
You are a million wings taking flight, my love, but now you claim to be broken. You ask me to heal you, but you cannot identify the source of your pain. You have said you are loveless, and broken and flawed. That it is not your heart that is the matter, but your mind.
I’m openly weeping over the bowl of dolmas now, my tears dropping into my food as it makes its way between my lips. The rice is soft, mint and cinnamon flavoring the lamb. My napkin is crumpled in my hand where I have squeezed, wrung it like a cloth full of my sadness.
I am afraid I cannot love, grandmother. I cannot love the way I am supposed to, and I am afraid this makes me heartless. I have no heart to be broken.
There’s manakish in my hand now, and my tongue is flavored with cinnamon. A pine nut crunches between my teeth, allspice spreading in an earthy cloud. It tastes like home, like darkness and firelight, voices raised in laughter and a thousand more in grief.
Nonsense, Habibi. Place your hand on your chest. The other side, now. Feel the drumbeat of your heart beneath your ribs. I have seen your love, granddaughter, I have seen it like the rose of dawn and the sweetness of honey. I have seen it in your eyes when you laugh, when you behold a sunset or a storm being born. I have seen it in the way you smile when you think no one is looking, when you hum while you cook or braid your ‘rayeb’s hair.
I am sobbing, my head in my hands, completely undone over a platter of manakish. My whole body feels warm, with the scent of my tea and the memory of my teta’s eyes, so full of certainty when she smiled at me. Dimly, I am aware of other people around me, of Azur and Aimen taking my dishes, replacing them once more. I am not sure I should eat another bite. I am not sure if I could.
But I open my eyes once more, a need crouched behind my skull.
When I look down, I see a single piece of knafe, golden brown and soaked in syrup. Sniffling, I pick up my fork.
The sweet cheese soothes my throat as I swallow, the slight crunch of shredded dough fading as I chew. It tastes like joy and love and family. I have stopped sobbing, my breaths receding back into hiccups. The world feels clearer, narrowed down until it is just the booth and me.
You are full of love, Habibi. Hon, have another baklava. Honik, do you see? Everything is going to be all right.
There is baklava in front of me now, and another steaming cup of shay. The flaky pastry dissolves in my mouth, honeyed and grounding, with little bursts of green as pistachios break between my teeth. There is a smile on my face, my heart thumping steadily as I eat, the tea warming my chest all the way through.
You are love, Habibi. You are magic, your eyes, your smile, your laugh. You are enough just as you are.
I eat until all that’s left is my mint tea, warm and yellow like the rays of the sun. I sip in a contented silence, glowing and golden in the aftermath of the storm.
The woman returns, sliding into the booth opposite me.
“I am Emine,” she says.
“What was that?” I ask, completely forgetting how to be polite.
Emine’s eyes sparkle. “Food is love. When you are hurting or tired, your feet take you to the place you most need to be. Our food is simply a mirror when you feel the most lost. It helps you remember what you have forgotten, what you need to get you through surviving so that you can discover how to live.”
“Are you magic?”
“I suppose it is a magic of sorts, the thing that makes me tick. To me, there is nothing more beautiful in creating for someone a safe space to breathe, to become more of who they are.”
“Thank you,” I say quietly.
Emine reaches across the table. “Ntebeh aa halak,” she says seriously, onyx eyes aflame. “We will be here when you need us.”
I pull my hair pack into a ponytail, rolling up my sleeves. The twins are jesting with their cousin, and Ala shoots me a bemused smile as Azur chases Aimen around the great wood-fired oven. As the twins come around the other side, she snaps Aimen on the back of the head with a dish towel.
“There’s a pile of dishes calling your name, dear cousin mine. It’ll only get louder as the night goes on.”
Aimen slumps, dragging his feet on the way to the sink in exaggerated despair. I laugh.
Ala tosses me a cloth to wipe off the counters, and we work in silence to the comforting sounds of the twins bickering and Emine closing up shop. I’m just about to take off my apron and sit down, when I hear the front door open. A moment later, Emine comes into the kitchen.
“We have someone in need of a meal,” she says. “Do you want to take this one?”
I nod, pushing my sleeves up.
I enter the main room, and walk over to the person hunched at the booth. Their hair is a deep blue, almost midnight, and it cascades around their tired eyes.
I slide into the booth across from them, the scent of their cup of shay wreathing through the air.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say, with a gentle smile.
“Thank you,” they say. “Shukran. What should I call you?”
I feel a warmth in my chest, as though all the shay and knafe in the world have taken up residence in my heart.
“You can call me Habibi.”
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