‘Are you awake?’
I’m dreaming of Mamma. She is standing at the stove with her back to me. Her weight is on one foot, bare heels grubby with red dust, the ties of her apron dangling loose at her sides. The kitchen is golden with sunshine – golden floor, golden walls, golden Mamma. I smell cumin and coriander and the knife-sharp scent of lemons. My mouth begins to water. Mamma’s hair is falling from her scarf, a tail as brown as Pappa’s leaf tobacco.
Mamma turns from the pot. She’s speaking but her voice is muffled, as if she has a lump of bread dough in her mouth. I see her chin, her cheek, the tip of her blunt nose …
‘I said, are you awake?’
Pappa nudges my side. He’s leaning over me, the stubble on his cheeks making his skin look grey. His hair used to be brown, I think.
‘Come, little bird,’ he says, pulling the blanket from me and folding it. ‘They’re coming.’
Cold snaps me fully awake. My breath rises in clouds and my memories of Mamma rise with it. I only ever see her in my dreams – it’s as if she can’t come when I’m awake.
I pull on my boots. The lace has broken on the left one, so it only takes half the time to get ready. I get to my feet, totter towards the tent flap, heading for the stand pipe to rinse my face. Pappa takes my arm.
‘No time,’ he says. ‘Gather your things.’
Already I hear them. The vibrations tremble through my feet, judder my stomach which groans and rumbles as if answering a call.
‘Ready?’ he says.
He smiles but it’s only his mouth that moves.
I clutch my doll Sookie to me. The stitching is coming undone on one shoulder and I’m sure soon her arm will tear loose. But at night I’ve held her close to my mouth, whispered that I’ll still love her, even if she vanishes bit by bit and is lost to the camps.
I look up to Pappa, at his grey, worried face. ‘Where shall we go now?’ I say.
He takes my hand and we step out of the tent and into the chill morning.