Phantom Limb

Kait Heacock

I recently read statistics that startled me: “One in 90 live births result in twins (fraternal and identical), but one in eight begin as twins…[A]dvances in technology mean that fetuses can be tracked earlier and earlier, and it’s now clear that many humans born alone may once have had a sibling in the womb.” Many of us are born with loss sewn into our bodies. I will never know if I had a phantom sibling once, but I do know what it feels like to lose the real one I did have.

I like to tell people that if I ever choose to have kids, I’ll be the one to have twins; I can feel it. They laugh at the improbability. Then I back it up with evidence: my mother is a twin. Her mother was a twin. My cousins are twins, I add to rub in my good odds. My siblings and I are not twins; our generation was skipped. But twins are in my makeup, I like to think as much as the blue eyes I inherited from my dad or the left handedness I shared with my brother.

My brother died five years ago. He was seven years older than me, lived in Alaska, and I had not seen him for about two years before he died. The concept of a twin being assimilated into its sibling feels more profound now that I am left with nothing but the memories of my brother to sustain me. Who he was and the life we shared are intertwined with my experiences and memories. We are intrinsically connected. I carry him with me.

My brother and I were destined to be close. Sure, my sister was only four years older than him and they had that special bond of being the first two, completing the family unit before a third kid shifted it off balance. But he and I had the protective older brother to the baby sister relationship. Together we experienced the move to a new town during the school year, me to become a shy version of my previously outgoing self and he rebelling against curfews; my father. We bonded over the connection of shared anxiety and fear of the unknown.

We were far enough apart in age that my childhood was in full swing when he abruptly left his behind for a life of alcohol, drugs, and petty crimes. My memories of him are divided in two, before I was nine and after I was nine. Because it’s after nine, living for about two years in the new town that would mark my adolescence, that my brother fragmented. He went from being a lively and gregarious teenager who played hockey and told his little sister bedtime stories with a different voice for every character to someone who slipped in and out of juvie, rehab, and jail, each time emerging with religion or the promise that he had changed.
I have memories of him from when I was a kid and we were still close—friends for a time, not just blood. There was the truth or dare game we played standing in the kitchen and the tangy and sour taste of the spoon of mayonnaise he dared me to eat that made my stomach curdle; the sound of the radio we listened to that weekend we spent playing Zombies Ate My Neighbors on Super Nintendo; the smell of the patchouli that stunk up the car when he dated the hippie girl. There was the time we pushed all the couch cushions together and jumped from the top step onto them, and he told me not to tell Mom, but I did.

My memories are mostly 2-D images, flat as vacation photos. Not even the vacation memories are fully formed, despite being forever crystallized on photographs that exist on actual paper—my long hair windblown across my face and my brother peering through sunglasses as we stood in front of the Grand Canyon; the two of us during a trip to Hawaii, where we fell victim to bad 90s fashion, a vinyl jacket for me and one of those floppy hats typical of fishermen or stoners on him.

Then the middle part blurs. There are only flashes, little lightning strikes, like when you wake up from a bad dream but the images stick before you completely wake. What do I do with all the happy early memories of a person who changed so drastically as he aged? It’s difficult when most of the memories are intertwined with those I’m trying to forget. I can’t remember our hallway once filled with chairs and cushions we built into an obstacle course without thinking about my brother stumbling drunkenly down the same hall towards me, swearing he was running away from home and mumbling nonsensically. I can’t hear The Doors—god, he loved that band—without thinking about how he insisted Mom play the CD when she drove him to meet with his probation officer. I sat in the backseat, hating the music and hating him.

With my eyes closed, I picture my brother in rehab when I was in my early twenties—not months into it, when he looked like he had been sleeping and exercising regularly, but how he looked when he first went in. I picture the closely shaved head, the dark circles under his eyes, and the pale skin with patches of acne on his cheeks. I can see the way his clothes hung off his tall and gangly body. I remember the silence in our parents’ car on the drive, how sitting in the backseat with him again made me feel like a kid even though what we were doing felt decidedly un-childlike.

I hate our childhood memories, but I need them. I use them to go back to before because there is no now and no later, no someday with him. There are only the same weathered memories as worn as the videos from Dad’s old camcorder, loops of our smiling faces at family gatherings. I have to recycle the same memories. What if I use them up? If I run out of memories, what will become of him?
He still exists in my dreams; they almost always occur at the house on Summitview Avenue where we grew up, and they almost always lack the realization that he is dead. In my dreams he is laughing at the dinner table. I wake in the morning and watch his image evaporate before me as I rub sleep from my eyes.

Living with a lost sibling feels like an emptiness that has taken physical form. It has a shape and a texture. Sometimes it constricts and I push it down to deep corners meant for storing hurt; other times it blossoms and grows tendril like through me all the way to the tips of my fingers. It is there always. He is there always. He is an amalgamation of repressed memories and those so fuzzy I can’t tell if they’re just stories intermixed with the small number of images that have remained after all these years, clicking through my brain like a slideshow of long ago times. The brown waterbed he owned when he still lived at home, his Nirvana-style cardigans, that disgusting snack he used to make with ramen noodles, Doritos, and hot sauce.

There are days when I make it to the end and realize I haven’t thought about my brother, not once. Sometimes on those days I take pride in that, as though he no longer counts as a person, only a bad memory I must attempt to forget. I struggle with deciding which is more important: enjoying a good memory or erasing a bad one at the risk of losing the good one too. A casualty.

My brother is gone in the same way my childhood is gone: irretrievably. I can look back on my childhood and think about that vacation to Disney World or the embarrassing school play, even my favorite memories of my brother when we created fantasy worlds to act out video games, but I can’t have those experiences again. The remembering is not as good as the doing. It is a cheap consolation prize. But it is all that I have.



Kait Heacock likes to think of herself as a literary organizer; she builds community around books as the Pacific Northwest editor for Joyland, on the Advisory Board for the Mineral School artist’s residency, and as a publicist for feminist publisher Dottir Press. Her fiction has appeared in Esquire, Joyland, KGB Bar Lit Mag, Portland Review, Tin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in Crab Creek Review, DAME, Largehearted Boy, Literary Hub, The Millions, The Washington Post, The Women’s Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her debut short story collection, Siblings and Other Disappointments, is available now.

Wood Houses

Themba Lewis

Scholars and policymakers rarely examine the liminal spaces at the fringes of the refugee discourse, or those ill-defined transitional zones between the three ‘stages’ of displacement, linearly defined for institutional convenience as flight, exile, and ‘durable solution’. Those researchers that do find their task challenging and their audience limited. Very little data exists on ‘failed’ asylum seekers after deportation for example, or self-settled refugees that forgo affiliation with humanitarian assistance organizations, or refugees that survive on border crossings, often and ‘irregularly’ passing back and forth as a survival strategy to avoid dangers that do not so clearly adhere to geopolitical boundaries.

What about those refugees that voluntarily eschew the confines of camps, the depravity of their dignity, and the worthlessness that comes with unending structural dependence, and instead go underground or return ‘home’, prepared instead to face the consequences or die? Very little is written of them, or life in a twenty-year-long resettlement queue. That queue is not so long for the politically attractive or nationally indebted, of course. Many are Iraqis, for example, so recently resettled to the United States in large numbers. But even these have begun to return to the Middle East, defeated by the social and financial humiliation of menial labor and Islamophobia that awaits them in the remote towns to which they are sent. These populations do not receive the spotlight. These are the realms of our failure, and they undermine our own humanitarian righteousness. For that reason, these are the areas towards which we need to guide our eyes. What acuity can we expect without the context of ‘peripheral’ vision? Perhaps ignorance is institutional bliss.

I have walked through the blood-soaked streets after states respond with lethal force to refugees that rise up against the abuses they suffer in exile, and I have maneuvered the Kafkaesque spectacle of ‘justice’ in the international asylum adjudication process. I have tended to refugees who have set themselves on fire to escape the horrors of unlimited detention on Europe’s ‘frontier’. More recently, I have watched refugees in the world’s largest refugee camp cling to their chain-link cage, waiting for hours – sometimes days – for the opportunity just to be noticed by a resettlement representative.

Only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees will ever see a resettlement screening interview, let alone be considered for the process. Of those that are, just over half – if that many – will be approved for resettlement. Of those approved for resettlement, many will fail the rigorous and impossibly staggered requirements for final travel approval, caught in a perpetual cycle of fingerprinting, security checks, medical approval, and bureaucracy, the first expiring before the last can be completed. Those that succeed in passing the various stages are offered, by some resettlement countries, the opportunity to attend ‘cultural orientation’ classes aimed at preparing them for the challenges faced by refugees resettled in the West.

The following is a first hand account of a cultural orientation session in March of this year, offered for a group of Oromo refugees due to be resettled to the United States from Kenya.

March 5th, Nairobi.

We sat in a dark room in silence. I was here as an observer, and a novelty. It is rare that Americans attend cultural orientation courses for refugees traveling to the United States. Access is restricted, and despite a policy that allows only for the hire of US Citizens in resettlement interviews, an opposite policy applies to cultural orientation courses. In sub-Saharan Africa, these can only be taught by Kenyans, many of whom have limited – if any – experience living in the United States.

At the front of the room was an assembly of maps, a white board, a television, and a desk, behind which sat the instructor, writing intently without offering any indication that he was aware of his audience. I looked around the room, Posters were curling and peeling from the walls: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington. Everything was labeled in multiple languages, including the photographs of objects to be encountered during the resettlement process or once in the United States. These included pictures of police cars and fire trucks, the inside of an airline toilet, and an IOM bag, laminated and tacked to the wall. The Pledge of Allegiance was posted along the far wall in Comic Sans font, each letter a different primary color. Above it was a clock that read 9am, our start time. ‘PUNCTUALITY’ was written over the entrance. We waited while the instructor tended to his business, yet to address his audience.

45 minutes passed. I pondered a set of three airline seats balanced against a near wall. Each seat was clearly labeled: A, B, C. I though back to a charter flight I had recently taken to Nairobi from Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp – with a number of Somali refugees who had been approved for resettlement. They sat in the back rows of small plane in silence, wearing heavy coats in the heat and carrying everything they owned on their first flight. They spoke out only when they could not understand how to unfasten their seatbelts, panicked they would be trapped as all the others left.

The instructor finally rose. ‘These are your name tags’, he announced, before calling out names. He had spent these 45 minutes just writing names down on tags while everyone waited. The majority of the refugees placed them in their laps, unable to read them and unaware that they could be pinned to clothing. ‘You are supposed to read these workbooks’, the instructor then instructed, casually acknowledging that the handbooks were only in English and Amharic, and his audience was Oromo. I wondered how many were illiterate, let alone how many could read in a second language. There weren’t enough handbooks to go around. I hadn’t noticed an interpreter who had been sitting quietly in the front corner of the room. He rose and began echoing the instructors thick Kenyan English in Oromo.

‘We will now have a short skit about refugees in the United States’, he interpreted. ‘We need two volunteers’. An outgoing young man and woman rose and walked to the front of the room. Each was handed a piece of paper. ‘You will be refugee number one’, the instructor told the man, ‘and you will be refugee number two’. They read the script dryly, with the awkwardly placed pauses natural to readers of a language foreign to their own. It was an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the audience that they had been educated. ‘I have learned English and I have a job now’, refugee number two boasted, ‘I have not learned English and I do not like it here,’ refugee number one replied, ‘I do not have a job and I do not have any money. Life was better for me before. I want to go back to Dadaab’.

‘You need to learn English and take any job that you are offered’, the instructor said, ‘or you will be like refugee number one. You don’t want to go back to Dadaab, do you?’ If the audience was offended by the insensitivity of the question, they did not let it show, continuing to sit in silence. ‘In America both parents work,’ he continued, ‘and the work may not be what you like to do or the hours that you like to work, but you will need to do it to pay back your tickets to America. You are required to pay back the tickets for you and your children. How many children do you have? How will you pay for each of them?’

The instructor shifted focus. ‘What do you know about the USA?’ One by one hands went up and the answers came, some in English, some through the interpreter: Both husband and wife have to have jobs, and nobody stays home with the children; Some places it’s hot, some places it’s cold; it’s a different continent than Africa; There is democracy; In contrast to Africa, it is a peaceful country, for everybody; In America the president is changed every five years, in Africa presidents are for 30 or 40 years; There are job opportunities. ‘Good!’ he replied, ‘these are all true!’

The refugees spoke among themselves in Oromo. Something had dismayed a man in the corner. He raised his hand. ‘If both parents are working,’ he asked, ‘who will take care of the children?’ They work in shifts, the instructor explained, so that when one is at home the other works. The man looked puzzled. ‘How will reproduction take place, if there is no interaction?’ The question was genuine and another refugee raised his hand to answer. ‘For reproduction,’ he explained, ‘I suppose it will not take much time. Even one hour will suffice.’

We continued to sit as the instructor lectured on the origins of the American flag, George Washington, independence from the British, and winter. ‘You will need to wear very heavy clothing at all times’ he said, ‘even when you are in your house you should have coats on – otherwise how will you pay for your heating?’ He showed a photograph diagram of layering clothing, with arrows from t-shirt to button-up, to sweater, to scarf, to coat, to winter jacket. ‘But don’t worry,’ he continued, ‘winter is only about one or two months long.’ I thought about the winters in my hometown that don’t relent for months on end, and that one of the largest resettlement destinations is Minnesota. Questions began to come more quickly from the refugees now; Do the thirteen colonies still exist? Are the borders from the British still there? If I don’t get a job, what will I eat?

And after the questions came the fears: I think when I go there I will meet challenges that will hinder me in making a new life – I have high expectations; I have children, and I am afraid to punish them there; My age is old, and I fear I will reach the maximum age allowed to work and I will not be able to have a job; I fear that in the US you are very busy and I will lose my time to pray. I will lose my praying time.

And the expectations: To get a better education; To improve my knowledge; To have a better life; To rebuild my life; To tell the truth, frankly, in Africa we are living a life of misery, and in America we can get a job and a better life; In Africa I am illiterate, but in America my children have the opportunity for a better life; To contribute to US development; To work hard for life to be better; I expect that in America there is equality between human beings, and respect for human rights. The last point caught the instructor’s attention. ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, ‘you will be pleased to know that in the US there is no discrimination!’ I sighed. ‘And another thing you should know about America’ he continued, ‘when you are there, you cannot wash your floors with water like you do here. The water will just spill into the house below yours. This is because in America all of the houses are made of wood.’


[Postscript note: To put refugee resettlement into perspective, consider that the United States conducts the most rigorous resettlement operation in the world, resettling more refugees than any other country. Then consider that the 2012 target goal for resettled individuals from all of sub-Saharan Africa was less than 9,000 people (if refugees have families on average of three per applicant, that means a total of about 3,000 refugees being considered in total). Now consider that Dadaab, one of two refugee camps in Kenya alone, hosts nearly 500,000 people, all technically eligible for resettlement under United Nations guidelines. Now consider that all the refugee camps combined hold a minority of the world’s refugees. Add to this number the refugees throughout Uganda, DRC, South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Chad, Cameroon, Ghana, Sudan, Tanzania, and elsewhere. 9,000 people is a miniscule number.]

The Green Bean

Themba Lewis

In 1982 I was a diplomat’s kid in Kathmandu, Nepal. I lived in Kalimati, opposite Lincoln School and down from the Rana Palace that now housed the Nepal office of USAID, hundreds of murmuring pigeons, and the occasional predatory owl (and requisite rodent prey). I lived in Takura House, an awkwardly architectured concrete and brick block, painted yellow, with a flat roof perfect for kite-flying and housing our rabbits, Lopsy, the tough one, and Funnybunny, docile and lacking in personality, but easier to catch and pet. Continue reading “The Green Bean”

A list of creatures I have hurt (in no particular date order)

Clare Bakhtiar

I swatted two flies in my bedroom.

I once hit a cat on the top of the head with a piece of kindling – it wasn’t hard, but enough to make it scarper.

I swatted loads of flies on a rocking horse ride in Tenerife and enjoyed it because it was satisfying, until my aunty stopped me. I then knew it had been wrong to do and and was worried that I enjoyed it. Continue reading “A list of creatures I have hurt (in no particular date order)”


Grace Campbell

The day after I get kicked out, Camille and I go back to test the legitimacy meter since our mom comes through on threats like cheesecloth holds water. Through the glass of the side door my mother agitates the thin curtain until her face appears along the edge of the frame. Get off my property. You girls don’t live here any more. She says this with a glazed-eye rage that tips the meter toward Not Looking Promising. Continue reading “Home”

Suitor Saturday to Tinder Tuesdays


We met at Nightjar, a speakeasy on Old Street. It was late August. The bar was dimly lit and Randall Monroe, an acoustic jazz duo, was playing. All I knew about him besides his first name was that he was 5 foot 9; a professor of economics at one of London’s top universities; educated at an Ivy League school; 34; and Turkish. I’d ambitiously assumed, based on these facts, that this would be one of my more promising Tinder Tuesdays. Continue reading “Suitor Saturday to Tinder Tuesdays”

Summer morning

Themba Lewis

Today I woke up in Maastricht, on the floor in Ayla’s living room, as she held a telephone meeting in her bedroom with a student she is trying to send to me as an intern. The walls were covered, but tastefully, with framed photographs, maps, and paintings. Some charted the direction of Mecca through longitudinal lines over unidentifiable landmasses. Others were bold coloured abstract paintings. Continue reading “Summer morning”

Safety procedures


Safety Procedures
Themba Lewis

According to Xhosa and Zulu legend, a giant carnivorous sail-finned eel called the Inkanyamba controls the powers of the wind and sky. The Inkanyamba needs to be regarded with constant measures of respect and caution, for fear of its tendency towards massive destruction when angry. As children, Xhosa elders ‘were not even allowed to use the word inkanyamba, for the inkanyamba might hear its name and come’.[1] Through these Inkanyamba-controlled skies, Air Lesotho briefly navigated a tiny fleet. Continue reading “Safety procedures”