In Our Midst by Kim Farleigh

The box-like houses the camp’s children drew had slanting roofs and picket fences under ice-cream clouds, cows, farmers, machinery, paths, roads, cars, tanks, corpses, and flames–The Seen–reproduced unoriginally on mass.  

Hashim was the exception.  

His works boomed with chance, clouds checked by yellow, red disappearing into yellow, red reappearing around purple, the permanent-recreation cosmos a work of abstract expressionism from his perspective.      

The boys often fought: Imitation, creating limited entertainment, quickly bores. A Kosovan teacher screamed to halt the fighting.   

A Viennese girl recoiled as Hashim returned her pencil. Fighting boys had knocked it off the table. She and her Albanian parents, visiting Kosovo just before war’s eruption, got herded, without documents, into the camp, her dignity strained further by having to be with that “subnormal doing weird drawings.”   

That “subnormal’s” vision of the camp focussed on one tent. The world outside this tent–outside our story–is chaotic, most tents blurred.   

The Viennese girl pointed to her head while sneering at Hashim who worked on undeterred. He acknowledged my stamping foot. People thought he was deaf; but he detected sounds. The girl hadn’t noticed my experiment, her stick-leg depiction of a sheep intriguing her more than Hashim’s peaks that split open slope skin to soar above blurring chaos.  

A five-year-old girl, whose mature anguish belied her age, was saying goodbye to Jordi at the camp’s hospital, her parents observing her anxiously, Jordi’s black hair vivid against hospital whiteness. 

Buenos díasseñor,” I said, after the child had left with her parents. 

His azure eyes consistently gaped with startled alertness.    

“What’s up, chaval?” he asked.      

“There’s a kid here,” I said, “who seems deaf. But he detects sounds. What do you think the problem could be?”   

“Ear-bone deformities cause hearing distortions,” Jordi replied. “Why?”   

“Is it curable by surgery?”  

“In Geneva. Why?” 

I showed him what I was carrying.  

Vaya!” he gasped. “He did this?”  

Si.”  

The five-year-old girl’s artificial legs swung like awkward pendulums between the crutches supporting her, her parents walking watchfully on either side of her as they disappeared amid canvas pyramids.          

“A mine,” Jordi said, patting me on the back as I looked, gritting my teeth.   

She had refused to be carried while descending the slope. 

Red peppers on tent ropes pulsated against white canvases in the stark light. The wind, whining between tents, shrilled, walloped, cracked, blustered, and cried, heat-created abeyance amid whine-crying.  

“Prepare for a miracle,” I said. 

Zyrafete’s amused eyes glowed.      

 “Do miracles exist?” she asked. 

“Life isn’t a miracle?” 

“The only one,” she replied.   

Hashim cackled upon his father’s lap. Gratitude for just being alive–for living this “miracle”–had been imbued into father and son.     

A cooking pot sat in flames before Hashim’s tent. The surrounding peaks exuded longevity, defying death, the heat suggesting that steam was rising through fissures in the earth. I didn’t even know what day it was, camp days blending sensually, reflecting life’s real pulse.          

My smile indicated good news. Expectation hummed like spring under the blue radiance that capped the valley. The saw-toothed, summit jaws that enveloped the valley seemed to be dining on the truths that nature feeds to the gifted.  

“The UNHCR have agreed to fly Hashim to Geneva for an operation,” I said. “You can go with him.” 

The gap in Hashim’s father’s beard released yelping stupefaction. He slapped his hands together. His wife wrapped her arms around his neck. Hashim’s green irises, under his milky follicles, resembled emerald fires of delight.       

“The UNHCR,” I continued, “does this in special circumstances, and these circumstances are special. Your son is possibly the most artistically gifted child in Europe.” 

Zyrafete stopped translating; her head spun to face me. 

“Go on,” I said. 

She spoke. Hashim’s father’s hands rushed up to his face. His wife put her arm around his waist. Smiling with crazed bliss, they huddled, Hashim in its core–a human statue of tearful joy. 

Hashim’s father’s features quivered as he wiped tears from his face. His Adam’s apple wobbled. Choked “thank you’s” emerged from his quivering mouth. 

“And soon,” I said, “he’ll be speaking to you for the first time.” 

Zyrafete wiped away tears from her cheeks.    

“It’s a miracle,” she said.   

Hashim’s father said something that Zyrafete told me meant “incredible.” 

“There’s a doctor here,” I continued, “whose father is an international art dealer. He sent photographs of Hashim’s paintings to his father. The response has been tremendous.” 

Hashim’s father stared with gob-smacked bliss. His wife and child leapt upon him. Paramilitaries had burnt down their house. All their work had gone up in smoke–literally.   

Jordi removed the bandages, exposing Hashim’s swollen ears.    

“Hello, Hashim,” Jordi said.   

Sound! Hashim’s eyes said from what I saw in them. Auditory jewels, like poppy gems in spring fields! Soprano trees singing, the brain hearing what it was supposed to hear. A gift! 

His mother’s blue eyes matched the sound emerging from her mouth, a sound blue should have.   

“The pictures I took,” Jordi enthused, “of Hashim’s paintings my father showed…how is said in Ingleesh…the people controlling a museum?” 

“Curators,” Zyrafete said. 

“And,” Jordi continued, “they want to see more!” 

“Who?” I asked. 

“The Picasso Museo.” 

Hashim’s father’s hug lifted me off the ground. Journalists were taking photographs, the regional imagination set ablaze by the “new Picasso”. 

Hashim’s eyes radiated contentment, his hair, tinted orange, embraced by the arms of a late-afternoon star. 

His voice, older than I had imagined, had surprising volume, like an announcer’s. Zyrafete’s chuckling contained amazement. She bent down and kissed Hashim on the cheek, clutching his head. 

She and Jordi followed the prodigy into the tent. I stayed outside, observing the victims of war who covered the slope the camp was on. The girl with the artificial legs was down there, bearing memory’s burden of when she could play and run, a victim of fate’s vicious grandeur. Her life had been badly affected by war, while Hashim’s had been lifted out of its obscurity by the upheaval that had redrawn the region’s map, likely that his talent would never have been discovered had the major powers not stopped his people’s oppression, the girl’s story probably going to disappear untold. Such are war’s fortunes.   

Vapour from cooking pots rose into nothingness. The mountains facing the camp fell into fertility. The details light revealed disappeared under cloud shadows that glided over the valley’s cornfields and sugarcane, changes made striking by sharp visual transformations happening silently.   

Conversation hummed upon the slope. White islands dotted sea-blue sky. Sudden increases in light revealed the colours of rocks on the facing slopes. The laughter coming from Hashim’s tent emphasised my self-contained lightness. Until then, I hadn’t realised how private elation could be. I felt as if I didn’t need anything–as if I had done it all–had won something vital–had broken records–had defied vast odds–had entered a treasure chamber of sparkling rewards.  

Forming part of history associates your name with a layer in the accumulating tiers of consciousness; and it happens by blooming-blue chance.  

In the nearest village, I ran into someone who had worked for years with underprivileged children.  

I said: “His parents heard him speaking for the first time! It was…” 

 “Ohhh,” Ruud replied. 

His chin rose; his mouth shot open; his head rotated with wonder. Astonishment, in the shape of an invisible cylinder, had been inserted between his lips.  

“There isn’t enough…mun…ee…”  

“Ohhh,” Ruud marvelled. 

“Nothing,” I gulped. 

“I know, I know….,” he said. “My God, I know.”  

A TV camera faced Hashim’s tent. Light shone from silver-backed, fluorescent bulbs. Hashim’s father spoke into a microphone, his son’s hair ringed by light. 

Hashim smiled when he saw the Viennese girl. Elation, like a candle of delicacy and strength, sparkled in his eyes as she waved–shyly–a fragile movement. Her yearning eyes looked remorseful. He waved back. His eyes’ uncritical sheen surprised her. The unexpected gravity of recent events had caused miraculous shock. Something talismanic in Hashim’s forgiving magnanimity had smoothed out the wrinkles that troubling considerations had laid upon her thoughts, her awkwardness evaporating under the warmth ejected by those emerald disks that randomness had inserted into the eyes of the acclaimed. 

Her cheeks flushed red. Ebony hair cascaded onto her shoulders. Her carbon eyebrows highlighted her skin’s translucence.  

He indicated that she should sit beside him. Her expression suggested that this might have been intrusive; but he insisted. A journalist asked her to join us. Hope defeated timidity when Hashim’s father waved her on, fortune providing the chance to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable. 

She sat on a cushion, crossed legged, elbows on her knees, her white teeth in a cherry loop of lips. 

She whispered: “Sorry.” 

Her black cascade, falling past her alabaster neck, contrasted gorgeously with her pale skin, and with the whiteness of her blouse, black and white enhancing each other. 

“Love begins with hate,” Hashim joked. 

She giggled at this felicitous irony. 

“Your voice is beautiful,” she said. 

“Yours, too,” he replied. 

Cameras flashed. 

“We’re going back to Vienna tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll never forget—.”  

Her eyes watered. 

“I, I….,” she tried saying, “….hated this place….now….I don’t want to…leave.” 

The TV cameras rolled. Fraught gasps left her mouth. Forehead lines appeared above her raised eyebrows. The sudden surprising distance between her eyes and her eyebrows revealed a white delicacy like the insides of shells. 

She rested her head on Hashim’s shoulder. He put his arm around her. 

“Never,” she gasped.   

Hashim’s mother placed her arms around the clutching children. Silence engulfed this intimacy. Cameras flashed. Tears wet the girl’s face. War victims don’t realise how shocked they are until time allows reflection, the spring’s hard events returning as tears and art on humility’s reconciling waves.         

You can forget a beautiful street in a medieval village, but you never forget a refugee camp.  

Chatter rumbled up the slope. Above my NGO’s fenced-off sanctuary was the hospital. Light shone from a Jeep’s windscreen beside the hospital’s canvas doors. Jordi was putting something into the Jeep; light burnt a white hole into the Jeep’s black windscreen. Radiant arms emerged from that starry luminosity. Jordi looked humble and secure against that ivory flame. 

“Jordi,” I asked, “can you ask Zyrafete to ask the girl who lost her legs if she would like to be a model for Hashim?” 

Jordi’s chin rose, his eyes so vast that white ringed his irises, creating azure iris islands in milky seas. 

“Great idea,” he said. 

The facing slope resembled a canvas upon which solar brushstrokes magnified reality. Hashim’s father smiled at Hashim’s responses to a journalist’s questions. Reading with his father helped Hashim connect sounds to words.  

The girl’s father carried her from Jordi’s Jeep to a seat before the canvas that Hashim had placed on a stand, the girl’s eyes bright with gratitude. Gone was despair. The situation made her focus on now–like young children should do–loss halted. 

A photographer held her hand and started speaking. Everyone listened, the girl’s eyes and mouth widening, her irises seemingly being pulled out of their white enclosures by the magnetism of speech; then Hashim started painting.   

The photographer’s shutter swished. The girl’s father stroked her neck. His lips were turned down, but he wasn’t scowling, his demeanour too pleasant for that. 

Hashim’s brush, whispering on canvas, produced a tranquillising tingling on my neck. The world’s repetition’s felt new, sounds like caresses from soothing hands. 

The girl’s face was being reborn, Hashim’s talent flooding hope back into her life’s previously dry valley. She now had a future–gripped by absorbed forgetfulness. 

“What did the photographer tell her?” I asked Zyrafete. 

“That she was going to be linked with greatness,” Zyrafete replied. “That many people were going to want to visit her; that her name was going to get etched into art history. Amazingly, she understood.” 

Because of the maturing gravity of her experience, I suspected she would.    

Kim has worked for NGO’s in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and Macedonia. He likes painting, art, bullfighting, photography and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. 185 of his stories have been accepted by 108 different magazines.