Ashir’s feet stank when he went without socks, but he walked across Waterville in his outsized clogs anyway and clambered up the back steps to Swede’s white frame house. He knocked softly. When nobody answered, he peeked in. As usual, Lena, the furry yellow dog, was lazing on a sofa, which she knew to stay off of but never obeyed. Big as a lion, he was thinking about her, when Swede, a scraggly oldster with tattoos, appeared. He gave a gruff command to the dog, who yawned but didn’t stir.
Swede turned to the door and gave a casual nod, so Ashir let himself in.
“Little Ashir, good to see you.”
“I’m big Ashir. Remember? Little Ashir’s my brother. He’s older than me, but I’m bigger.”
Swede gestured nonchalantly, meaning sit down, you’ve come a good way from home. Ashir grabbed a wicker chair and waited for the next move, which came kinda like he expected. Swede sat down beside Lena, who muzzled him till she broke wind. Swede nudged her off, so she plopped down on a fake afghan and sighed. She blinked up at Ashir, but his fear made him hesitate. The lions came at us before the hyenas. They were huge and mangy and starving. We knew to stay away.
“Ok to pet her?” Ashir asked after screwing up his courage. Without waiting, he rubbed the pooch’s head and talked to her softly, mostly to soothe himself. Ashir knew her needs were simple like his, except for one thing. He needed a Galaxy iPhone bad. “Listen, watch, and game,” an excited voice on commercials had told him about the JE Emerge. “Just the thing for YOU!”
“Yeah, Lena’s nice,” Swede answered. Talking about her was his way of acting friendly, and Ashir reminded himself any canine a Somali boy like him had the nerve to approach wasn’t about to bite. Still stroking her, Ashir waited for the right moment to turn the talk his way, unless Swede beat him to it.
“So what is it?” Swede asked, beating him to it. “You here to do the yard work?”
“My dad doesn’t work here. He had a job but they let him go ‘cause his car break and we got no transportation. Ten miles to there.”
Ashir saw a sad smile cross Swede’s face, so he knew he’d answered wrong. That happened because Swede didn’t talk like other people in Minnesota, his sentences sounded like he was singing. Ashir’s father said Swede had been in America for thirty years or, who was to say, maybe a whole lot longer? Put that against Ashir’s two, and their wires could get crossed, just like now.
“So your dad has a job now or he had one before? Which?” Swede asked.
“Back in Somalia, you mean?”
“Either way,” Swede replied with a note of impatience.
“He drove truck and gave haircuts at home, but this is our home now.”
“So you still live way down the street here in town, same apartment as before?”
“Yeah, it got cold till we learned about the heat.”
“How to turn it on or that you even had any?” Swede wondered.
“Both. Our neighbor comes over and shows my dad the thermostat. Then we got heat.” But nothing like summer in Tieglow and then Baidoa. The soles of our feet burned when we ran out of sandals. Then we had to stay inside, only come out when the sun was gone. Or in Kenya. We found coconuts and played soccer with them in the hot sand, barefoot. Next the rains came and then quit, for good. The grass died and the earth cracked under our feet.
“So what does your dad do here these days?” Swede wondered.
“He work at a company putting things together, but he’s laid off ‘cause of the car. He was a farmer till our cows starved to death, we took them down to the river, but it quit flowing. Then he drive a truck.”
“Like you said.”
“He’s looking to be a barber here, but they say he needs a certificate. Where does he get that?”
Swede shook his head and raised an eyebrow toward his wife in the kitchen. “No idea. She cuts my hair these days,” he explained.
“At the refugee place in Kenya guys came to our tent or sat outside while my dad trimmed them.”
“Tough times. Like where I came from, too, way back when,” Swede said with a slow shake of his head.
With those words, the two fell silent, except for a drawn-out “Ja” from Swede, which meant he was trying to think of something else to say. When Lena fell asleep on the rug, Ashir got up and sauntered around the room. He stopped in front of a console with an ancient Dell. He booted it up and saw a flicker but no desktop display.
“Do you want this?” Ashir asked.
“It’s hers,” came the answer. Swede spoke over his shoulder to his wife again. “Dagmar, do you want this PC?”
Dagmar, a heavy harsh-looking woman, stuck her head around the doorpost and asked in a surprisingly mellow tone, “Why, heavens, no. That old thing? Does it even work?”
“Mr. Foster, my shop teacher, can fix it. He makes this kinda stuff work,” Ashir said.
Swede shrugged with a tired smile. He used to have an important railroad job flagging and guiding locomotives, except he was too old to work now and had no use for anything electronic. “Just gadgets, for kids of all ages,” Ashir remembered him saying the last time he was there. His dad said Swede still lived back in yesterday, when they switched engines with hand signals, like some places in Africa nowadays. We heard about trains in Somalia and our grandparents talked of seeing them in Mogadishu when they were little. We imagined they were dusty and hauled freight across the desert. But the trains disappeared. Supplies arrived on trucks, big wheelers. Armed guards sat astraddle the freight. They looked mean and never talked. We didn’t know if they were government troupes or belonged to chieftains, who Dad said ran the clans. They held rifles, like they had grown to them and stuck out like rhino horns. Little Ashir said, stay away, don’t say anything. They’ll think you want to steal the food.
Swede liked fiddling with his hands, which was why Ashir went there to begin with, helping out around the house, but in no hurry about it. He could check out what Swede had he’d never use again, like Little Ashir needed an air pump for his bike. Being good to Lena might help. That’s what Ashir had learned, even though Little Ashir warned him “beware of the dog,” like the lawn signs said.
“Can I have it?” Ashir asked and pointed at the computer. “It helps me.”
“How’s that?” Swede wanted to know. He raised an eyebrow in wonder.
“If Mr. Foster gets it working, I can see TV on it. That’s how I learn English. Red Dead. It’s about America. I love America.”
Ashir waited. Something was clicking in Swede’s head, like a distant memory had sprung to life and taken him by surprise.
“Red Dead,” Ashir repeated, nodding yes as if that would cause recognition in Swede. “You know how they talk tough, like ‘there ain’t no civilization here’ ”.
“A video game?” Swede asked.
“Yeah, you make your own morality. You get rewarded for doing good stuff. Or bad. You decide yourself. Like saving somebody from being kidnapped, or you can be the kidnapper. I know ‘cause my buddy saved a lady from a gang of carjackers, on his own.”
“No videos in my day. Myself I learned the new lingo honest-like,” Swede said. “The railroad section gang was all mixed, so I talked English to the bosses. They were born here.”
“Where you born?”
Ashir caught Swede studying him now, until the old man said simply, “The Old Country. Way off, across the sea.”
“What sea was that?”
Swede sucked in air, which seemed to mean yes or maybe wait. “Two weeks it took,” he finally said without naming the sea. Ashir saw him retreat within himself, like he was reliving those fourteen days in private. Something back in the day, like kids at school said.
Getting no more response, Ashir sat down by Lena again. Now he had his mind set on the computer more than the Galaxy, but Swede would insist it was Dagmar’s, like he did any time Ashir or his brother asked for something. The old man didn’t want to be bothered talking about clutter, so he always nodded his wife’s way. She gladly gave the boys whatever they wanted, but she waited for Swede to give the final okay. It could take forever. This time, though, Dagmar hustled away to shop and left Ashir and Swede facing off.
Ashir glanced up every moment or two at the skinny man, who had nicotine fingers on one hand, like the foreign aid workers in Kenya. Somewhere, Ashir knew, there was an ocean wide enough to separate forever Swede’s mysterious country from his own sandy desert. Yet something else existed, which was harder to understand. It was what made this wiry man gruff on the surface yet so soft-hearted inside. Here he and Swede both were, halfway around the world from where they started out, with just a drowsy dog between them, who knew them only through her nose and worried not a minute about where they came from or how they got there. Ashir wiggled his toes. Lena sniffed them and licked his smelly feet.
“So how’d you get across that sea in two weeks?” Ashir asked, as the dog’s rough tongue tickled him and Swede emerged from his thoughts.
“Cargo ship. Carrying Swedish steel. Icebergs like mountains. Cold. And you?”
“Airplane. From Nairobi.”
But we started in Tieglow and walked for days. Barefoot, to keep us from wearing out our one pair of shoes each. No socks. Me and Little Ashir tied the laces together so our boots hung around our necks and down our backs. Mom walked with big sister Axado. Her name means Sunday, the day she was born. Dad carried little Hani, “the happy girl.”
The first truck in Baidoa wasn’t the grand ride uncle Abdi ordered for him and us. It looked like a dumpster and smelled like garbage but was loaded with people, who cried it was a dirt loader, they were going to dump us. It left us at a crossroad. We waited in the sun till our water ran out. Lots more people came, too. They whispered about lions. Nothing scared us, not the heat or the dirt or having no place to sleep, but the lions, even hungrier than the starving babies. The first ones came out of the bush. One guy said our smells attracted them. Others figured it was their hunger driving them till they bumped into us. The men and boys threw rocks and shouted at them, but desperation drew them closer. Then came the hyenas.
We got more scared at night and had empty bellies. Then another truck showed up. It had side guards and a canopy, more like what Abdi and Dad paid for. The road led west and was full of people walking to Kenya. They slowed the trucks down, women with small kids, no food. Lots were naked because they gave bandits everything they had, to stay alive.
“Bandits came after our truck, but the driver stepped on it. Then he picked up a bunch of women with tiny kids that’d run from hyenas for days and nights, they were too tired to walk any more and were sitting by the road waiting to die,” Ashir blurted out.
Swede listened without blinking. Only slowly did his face show he understood Ashir was talking about a trip he was on before taking an airplane across the ocean.
“Surely some didn’t make it,” Swede replied.
“No, the hyenas wanted to eat them, it’s like they’re laughing at you, I can still hear their cackle, they went for the littlest or weakest, but the women by the road said they stuck together and surrounded the little ones. ‘We were like mother elephants,’ one lady said. ‘We kept the hyenas away.’ ”
“So you were refugees in Kenya,” Swede guessed.
“Our truck gave the ladies water so they wouldn’t die. Then we took another truck to Dadaab, that’s in Kenya,” Ashir went on. “Next year I can drive, I’ll be sixteen.” He got up again and stood by the computer, clicking the power button on and off. “I have to read the driver’s license manual at school, nothing to read from at home.” He paused to eye Swede, who was now sunk in thought again. Ashir was sure he was still remembering his own trip across the sea or maybe figuring what to say about the PC. “If I only had a computer,” the boy started again.
“Yeah, you wish for your heart’s desire, don’t we all,” Swede interrupted, like talking to himself. “The north Atlantic in December, waves higher’n a skyscraper.”
Swede clucked his tongue at the horror of it, but came to his senses. “Leaves. You here to work or not? Ten dollars an hour?” he asked Ashir.
“You bet,” Ashir answered. “I’m ready.”
With a computer I could study the driver’s manual at home, he repeated to himself. But still, a Galaxy! Gee!
The old man didn’t forget a Somali kid knew about green grass. Or that leaves fell in the fall and how to bag them. It was true nothing had grown in Somalia for most of Ashir’s lifetime, but he wasn’t born yesterday. Three years in a camp in Kenya and two in a lousy Minnesota apartment. Heat, cold, bedbugs both places, he thought as he and Swede headed toward the garage. Ashir went ahead to get rakes and a box of black garbage bags.
“Drawed string?” he said to Swede while holding a bag up to view.
“You betcha,” came the reply. “Remember last time, cleaning gutters, I sent you to Harry’s Hardware three times before you figured out what that was?”
Swede jerked at the bag’s yellow draw string and chuckled. He made a sweeping gesture across his lawn at the heaps of yellow, blackened, and red leaves. But then he nodded at the wide driveway, which meant that’s all they needed to clear today.
“Let’s do it,” Swede grunted, trying his best to straighten a stiff back.
Ashir bent his own back to the job. Rake up a batch of leaves and stuff them in a bag. When it got full, Swede stuck a foot in and pressed the leaves deep down. Ashir watched him take his leg out of each bag slowly, trying not to punch a hole in it. When Swede judged a bag was full, Ashir pressed the leaves even deeper and added more till it was bursting. Then he yanked the yellow string and knotted it.
After a while he handed a gaggle of bulging bags to Swede, one at a time. The oldster could stack them neatly and feel in charge, while Ashir’s mind drifted back to a Galaxy Emerge. He wouldn’t get it for free, like Swede’s funky PC, but everybody had a phone at school. Forty bucks it went for, student discount plus payments. Home screen and apps. Visual voicemail. Instagram. Worldwide calling. Guys punched calls to Somalia, where every thatched hut had Wi-Fi. Forty bucks and he’d help his mom talk to her ma in Tieglow.
The sun warmed the afternoon but it tired Swede out, so he wiped his brow and went to the porch. He came back with two bottles of water and Lena at his heels. She frolicked in the leaves, which meant they’d have to rake them again, but so what? Ashir and Swede slaked their thirst in contentment and Lena, tired out, plopped down between them on the lawn.
“Not good,” Swede said to the dog in mock irritation. He turned to Ashir. “There’s spiders. Terrible bites. They itch and burn for days.”
Ashir took a swig. Then he jiggled what was left, so as not to waste any, though he knew water had no meaning here. It rained and water puddles laid full and nobody paid any mind. Kenya had water. It came from a single faucet on the opposite side of the camp, but there weren’t any containers for carrying it. Mom made do with any flask. She walked there every morning, three or four trips in the blazing sun. If she didn’t have a container, she hoped someone would loan her one, which she knew they would, but it was still life and death, so she hoped the jug didn’t spring a leak. Then it’d be two families left out on the next walk for water.
“Lena gets spider bites from the leaves,” Swede continued. “Here, under her right shoulder. Feel that? It swole up, so they drained it. The Cephalexin cost me a mint.”
“Mr. Foster says nobody values a bottle here,” Ashir added. He pretended he didn’t hear Swede but reached out and patted Lena by her right shoulder. “Plastic floats in oceans, he says, like the one you crossed, and strangles whales. One had sixty bottles in its belly.”
Swede listened but soon nodded off in the sun, which reminded Ashir how slow time moved in the refugee camp. Three years of roaming tent city. Nothing to do but get in trouble. Like when I tripped over a coconut shell at soccer and ran a ballpoint in my pocket through my belly. The camp docs removed it, but put a tube in wrong. Infected for months.
Seeming he could hear Ashir’s mind working, Swede mumbled to himself in a strange tongue, then jerked awake.
“Was it hot?” he asked in English. “In the camp?”
“The sun,” Ashir sighed. Unused to telling his stories to Americans, he hesitated. But knowing that Swede came from way off, like him, or Swede talked to himself in a strange language, and never kicked his dog, that caused Ashir to relax.
“The camp had nothing,” he continued, smiling sadly. “Dad said, just wait, we’ll be in Dadaab before you know it. We saved the women and kids from hyenas, but all Dadaab had was zero stuff, plus millions of people. My uncle Abdi had money. The millions had nothing.”
“Just empty bellies?”
“The camp ran out of tents, so we cut trees and stuck branches in the sand. We’d get little kids to lean on them and bend them. When the branches bent over toward each other, the men got covers and hung them across the poles like a tent cover.”
“So that’s where you lived?”
“That’s where our neighbor lost his boy. He wandered off one day. Guys said hyenas took him.”
“You mean nobody chased them? Nobody cared?”
“Or maybe a lion. Guys said, don’t be a hero, or the lions’ll take you, too. Who’ll feed the rest of your family from then on?”
“My people came here because they were starving, too, but no lions,” Swede said. He finished the water and wiped his mouth with a shirt sleeve. He said something to Lena. The dog rolled over on her back and wiggled in ecstasy. The sun had started tilting to the west when Ashir followed Swede and started bagging again.
“Swedes came a hundred years ago, or more,” Swede continued, “leaving for Minnesota. Not a pot…”
Ashir took the new filled bags and leaned them against the garage. He pulled the yellow string on one.
“Trawed string?” he asked.
Swede corrected him, so Ashir repeated it, “Traw string?”
When Swede didn’t say anything, Ashir wondered if he’d pronounced it wrong again or if Swede couldn’t say it right either.
“Three years in Kenya felt like a hundred,” Ashir said, as he heaved the bag on top the others.
“Imagine, losing a kid to lions,” Swede whispered in awe at Ashir’s story.
Not one, two. We named the next baby Hani, too, after Dad’s Hani, who he carried across the desert, and she never cried. Then she was gone and so a new Hani. But that one only lived a week. After she was born, Mom didn’t know she was dead and thought the European nurse was stealing her baby. An aid officer came but she screamed like crazy, then grabbed him and bit his arm. It took forever to calm her down, so they arrested her. After that she got mad at Dad and smashed his phone on the floor. That got her a week in camp jail. We waited a year for her papers to clear. Two Hanis in two years.
“My uncle Abdi was gone by then, to Minnesota,” Ashir announced.
Swede scratched himself under an arm, kinda like Lena. Ashir realized the old man needed time to make sense of what he’d said.
“Abdi had to send us money and a letter saying we could come to America.”
A slight breeze blew up and scattered the remaining leaves across Swede’s driveway. Ashir swept them up and waited.
“That’s two hours work for you,” Swede said.
Ashir looked out over the lawn, where weeks of fallen leaves lay deep, some driven a foot high against the garden wall or around an oak tree. New leaves were falling by the minute, but Swede stuck by his driveway limit. Just as stubbornly, Ashir held onto the rake.
Breaking the impasse, Lena scooted up against Swede and then sat down by Ashir. Swede glanced at her but studied the boy’s sockless feet like he wanted to ask why.
No socks? We went years with no shoes. In Africa the spiders hid in the sand. We flew to America with the boots Abdi bought us, but no socks. Once we got here, Dad found us clogs from the relief money and bargained for our apartment here in town. Seven people, one bedroom. Some guys showed Mom the dishwasher and garbage bin, she’d never seen any before. Trash mounted up and cockroaches with it. Me and Little Ashir slept on the kitchen floor with bugs, just like in Kenya.
“You don’t smell the trash when you’re it,” Ashir told Swede. He didn’t want to look mad, but he longed for the gentle love the yellow dog understood by nature. He flashed Swede a smile, knowing how few people had that love in them.
Swede listened and watched, but words abandoned him. He lumbered across the driveway while motioning c’mon, like he’d done when Ashir first arrived, and then stopped by a sturdy cottonwood.
“Needs trimming,” Swede said.
Wearily he turned toward the house, leaving Ashir to study the cottonwood and Lena to laze in her leaves.
Ashir found a ladder and handsaw in Swede’s garage. Shedding the clogs, he approached the tree’s lower branches. He snapped them off neatly. Then came the middle limbs, which he climbed up to. He sawed, then twisted them off. In the top limbs he sawed awkwardly but created an opening. Out through it, he viewed the blue sky deepening. The sun beat down. A few wispy clouds floated by. When the last limbs lay on the ground, Swede came out. He wanted to burn the whole bunch, but Ashir piled them by the curb instead.
“Mulch,” he said, unsure of the word. “The City’ll grind ‘em up for you.”
Swede agreed but looked embarrassed that Ashir knew more than him about City street crews. After that, they looked steadily at each other. Work was done. Ashir felt money hanging in the air almost so he could touch it. He needed to get it. Swede wanted to keep it.
“I got my computer inside. Still want it?” Swede asked.
Guys did that in Kenya, too, bargaining in the dust, patient but determined, haggling over things they traded or how much a haircut cost. Then in America, Abdi and Dad stood with the Americans planning where the family would go and hearing how you had to have somebody waiting for you there, wherever it was. In Minnesota the grownups gossiped how Mom didn’t have the same papers as us, and others whispered about her screaming at aid workers. People wondered if she’d ruin it for them when she rambled on how workers stole kids and sold them, like at a market in Djibouti.
Ashir wanted nothing to do with the PC any more, but here he was, ready to bargain for forty bucks and nothing less. He shifted his feet, never taking his eyes off Swede. “Where’d you get those tattoos?” he asked.
“I was a merchant sailor in the Old Country,” Swede answered. Relieved to avoid talking money, he showed the tattoos on each arm. One showed a three-masted sailing ship, the other a curved sword, like from Arabia.
From a school book Ashir knew Arabs sharpened the inner curved side of the sword, not the broad outer edge. “Ever kill anything with it?” he asked.
“We weren’t pirates,” Swede answered with a smile. It showed he was making light of himself but proud, too. “Got tattooed in ports. I jumped ship in New York and headed for here, after my troubles.”
Swede shrugged, as a signal to let it be. “Never owned a sword.”
Me and Swede, Ashir thought. We’re like mongrels in Kenya. People said they were dirty curs, but some found good people and hung around them. They barked at hyenas.
“The computer’s yours,” Swede announced suddenly, beating Ashir to the subject again.
“Old PCs are junk,” Ashir replied. “Mr. Foster said so.”
“Two times ten dollars an hour then? We agreed on that,” Swede announced. He shifted his feet. “Twenty bucks.”
“I need forty,” Ashir said. Now or never.
“The PC, too. I’ll throw it in.”
“I know what I need,” Ashir answered.
“You’re a kid,” Swede hesitated. “Grown men work for less.”
“I climbed your tree for you. Barefoot.”
Swede looked up, so Ashir knew he couldn’t miss the open space in the cottonwood. In Somalia the sky got dark and mean and blew in sand, and Dad prayed each grain would turn to a drop of rain so our cattle could drink and not turn to skin and bones or die.
Swede didn’t speak, so Ashir went and got the sawed-off tree limbs. Using the saw handle, he awkwardly pounded a few in the ground. Then he bent them together. He draped some empty garbage bags over them, like a makeshift tent. Ashir glanced at Swede and asked, “Could you sleep in there for three years?”
Swede placed a hand on the structure. “Out on the treeless prairie, my people lived in sod huts,” he said.
“Sawed huts?” Ashir asked. Confused, he waved the saw. “No trees, so what’d they saw?”
“No, no, sod, like dirt. They dried the sod and cut it into bricks.”
Ashir nodded. “For houses?”
“You got it. If they went to town for lumber, loan sharks hooked them for 35-40 percent. Know what I mean?”
Ashir nodded again, but he was still thinking forty dollars. The Kenya camps were like in Red Dead. Some of us stole from the poorest, others had next to nothing but helped out anyway.
“So your people never got to choose?” Ashir asked.
“Choose?” Swede asked. “Means anything you want it to.”
Ashir lost the energy for quibbling. He needed a Galaxy. With the right apps, I can doanything, he was thinking, when Lena woke from her slumber and plopped down between the two of them, yet again. Swede reached down to pet her, but she scooted out of reach. Like he was ashamed, Swede stuffed a hand in his overalls and pulled it out again. No words. Two twenties.
Ashir made for the phone store. His gym pants didn’t have any pockets, so he clung to the cash. He walked slow and measured, like in Somalia. Dad walked ahead and carried little Hani. “My baby,” he called her. She kept smiling at him. Sun there was like water here. Too much or too little will kill you, like little kids burning in the heat or mothers with no milk to give. The women we saved. Mother elephants, with no tusks.
Ashir knew his dad would want the forty bucks. He and Little Ashir had no real pants. Axado needed new shoes for school. Dad thought if he didn’t look back at us when he carried Hani, we wouldn’t see him crying. He slept on the ground in Kenya, and gave us the cots. But Swede said his folks were bad off, too. Funny, they sawed dirt?
Through the store’s display window, he saw two or three Galaxies. Way far back in the background flickered a trailer of the new hit Red Dead Redemption. He wondered what redemption meant, something good probably, like Swede coming through his troubles, whatever they were. Or Somali women braving hyenas and living.
Reaching for the door, he noticed the store lights brightening in the dusk, like the opening in Swede’s tree top, where the sun shone. In Kenya, the days I laid with the ballpoint stuck in my gut and pain shooting through me like lightning, while the folks sat with me, minus two kids already, praying I wouldn’t be the third.
All that was then, he thought, but so’s this. Sometimes now’s like then. Slowly he released the door handle and adjusted his clogs. He folded the twenties, then started to stuff them in his pants, but remembered he didn’t have any pockets. He headed for home. No socks. Smelly feet. Pretty sure of the way. Almost sixteen.
Roger McKnight is a native of downstate Illinois. He now lives and works in Minnesota. He has studied at Southern Illinois University, Gothenburg University (Sweden), and the University of Minnesota. He has taught English and Swedish. In Minnesota he has met and interacted with Somalis and a great many Minnesota Swedes, experiences that inform his story "Sixteen." Roger has published a book of creative non-fiction, a novel, and 13 pieces of short fiction (details available upon request). His only experience of WWU came as a college baseball player in the DII College World Series against WWU (can't remember who won). In Sweden, Roger experienced a society devoted to gender equity. Living in Puerto Rico, he saw the dignity of Puerto Ricans on their home island, before Hurricane Maria.