She had never wanted any of her children to go to war. She’d had long, harsh, whispered discussions with her husband under cover of darkness when she’d said as much, but he’d told her their sons were grown and it wasn’t her decision to make.
“It’s not even our war,” she’d whispered furiously, “they could die just trying to get there.”
But Yusuf had always been so convincing when he thought he was right, even as a child, wide eyes and expansive gestures and an uncanny ability to convince adults who should have known better that he had meant no harm. Especially his father. And when Yusuf, fully adult at thirty, earnest and well-intentioned, turned to them and said, “It’s the right thing to do, the people in Jerusalem don’t deserve this,” it had been settled.
In the end, of course, she couldn’t have stopped them and so she watched them leave and didn’t cry until they were out of sight.
When Yusuf had returned alone and two years too late, carrying his brother’s scimitar, she had cried again, and again and again and again, until it had been time to take her widowed daughter-in-law and fatherless grandchildren into her home, and then she had put aside tears for those who needed them.
Between her sons, Yusuf had been the fighter, she knows. He had been her bright star as a child, racing through the house, excited about everything he learned. He’d learned swordplay like it was a science; learned science like it was poetry; learned poetry like it was breathing. Ibrahim had been her steady pair of hands, hiding behind his brother when strangers knocked on the door, handing her spices while she cooked, always the voice of reason to back up his brother’s verses.
He leaves an empty, carved-out space in their home, and in his place, Yusuf has brought home a ghost.
She doesn’t meet him for many weeks, barely even noted his tall, pale presence shadowing her son’s footsteps when Yusuf had given her Ibrahim’s scimitar, face drawn and eyes downcast as they should never have been.
Her sons were never a great mystery to her in matters of the heart. When she had met Sahla, she’d know Ibrahim would appreciate her directness and her warmth, especially since he was so reticent himself. She had been right, and the marriage was a success. When Yusuf had devoted a hundred poems to the sunrise and the starlight and not a single one to a woman, she’d considered that perhaps there was little purpose in arranging a marriage for him.
This, though, she had not expected, and it leaves her wrong-footed. Yusuf should be at home, filling the absent space at the hearth with stories of his adventures, with poems and songs. Instead he comes and goes, choosing to sleep elsewhere, lingering in doorframes like it’s no longer his home.
“Perhaps it’s not his home anymore,” her husband says, tone weighted, when she says as much in their crisis summit under the covers.
“It will always be his home,” she argues harshly.
“And if the floods came tomorrow and carried this house away with it?” He asks. “Where would our home be then, my love?”
She doesn’t answer, too irked by his placidity.
“You would be my home till the end of our lives, no matter where we live,” he tells her, too earnestly for her to stay angry.
Still, there is a difference. “You are saying this crusader is my Yusuf’s home?”
He shrugs. “I haven’t even met the boy.”
Of course, then she has to meet the boy.
Because he rudely does not come to them, she seeks him out when she knows Yusuf will not be there, trapped as he is in a long game of chess with his oldest nephew. She brings food, because what else is she to do?
The Crusader answers the door barefoot.
He doesn’t look like the kind of man to ride across the world to drive people from their homes. He looks like a boy even younger than Yusuf, surprise and terror clear on his face when he sees her standing there.
“I brought bread,” she says.
He steps aside to let her in. “Thank you,” he says.
“You speak Arabic?” She places her bread on the table, peering around the room. The bed is made, and that must be the Crusader’s doing. Yusuf has never made a bed of his own free will a day in his life.
The Crusader runs a hand through his hair. “Yusuf is teaching me,” he says haltingly. “I learn very slowly. Your son is very patient.”
Yusuf is not patient. Yusuf cried and yelled and ran himself into exhaustion waiting for sunset during Ramadan as a child. Yusuf tiptoed into the kitchen the night before his birthday to see what treats he would be getting. Yusuf went haring halfway across the world to fight in a war that was none of his business.
She thinks then of Yusuf sitting across from his nephew, explaining for the fourth time why the knight couldn’t capture the queen. She thinks of how he’d spent hours with Ibrahim, repeating movements with their practice swords he’d learned the first time so Ibrahim wouldn’t fall behind him in their lessons. She thinks of how he would explain each line of his poems to her because she had never had his knack of understanding symbolism.
“When he wants to be,” she allows.
The Crusader’s eyes crinkle at the corners, and she understands, unpleasantly, that he must know this about Yusuf as well, how he races through life unless love has convinced him to slow down.
She invites him to come for dinner.
She takes some pleasure in Yusuf’s shock when he sees his ghost standing in front of the door, with a gift of honey that she accepts somewhat begrudgingly. They speak to each other rapidly, in words she doesn’t understand. Her husband shakes his head, to indicate either that he doesn’t know the language or that he thinks it’s rude to translate.
It’s rude to speak foreign languages at the dinner table. She says as much and Yusuf apologizes, sheepish. His ghost nods agreement.
He remains quiet throughout the meal, taking cues from Yusuf. She keeps an eye on them, notes how Yusuf refill his rice before he’s finished it, how the Crusader passes Yusuf more chickpeas before he opens his mouth to ask. How the sudden clash of the children knocking something over upstairs has them both on their feet in seconds, the Crusader standing in front of Yusuf as if to shield him.
“Thank you for inviting Nicolò to dinner,” Yusuf whispers into her ear as he bends down to hug her goodbye.
She supposes she will have to call him by his name, now.
“I like him,” her husband says that night. “Nicolò.”
“Hm,” she says.
“His Arabic is alright, for a European.”
“I don’t know many Europeans,” she says, but she knows she is running short on arguments.
He laughs at her, but he does it nicely.
She can’t deny that whatever drew these two together, thousands of miles away from her, it sticks. She can’t deny that when Nicolò isn’t with him, Yusuf is always looking over his shoulder for his other half. More than that, she likes the way Yusuf’s eyes crinkle when Nicolò does or says something that amuses him, the way the lines on his forehead smooth out when Nicolò touches him. He looks, with Nicolò, as if he hasn’t aged a day since he left for Jerusalem, even if his eyes are sadder than she’d like. She had always imagined Yusuf’s life bathed in laughter and shining bright like the stars he couldn’t stop writing about, and when he is near Nicolò, she can still see that future.
When Yusuf tells her gently that he will be leaving again, and soon, that he can’t stay here with her where he belongs, she swallows her grief for him again and lets him go.
“They’ll be at home wherever they go,” her husband assures her. “They have each other.”
“I feel so old,” she complains. “All my sons gone.”
“Yusuf will stay young enough for the both of us, even when we’re gone.”
She sighs. “I suppose you’re right. He would never have had enough of life, here with us.”
He presses a kiss to the back of her hand. “I have had enough life, here with you. You should be proud you raised such wonderful, curious, intelligent sons.”
“You are incurable,” she tells him, but his words are a comfort nonetheless.