by Ahmad Alhomsi
Run, like Lot’s wife, forever cursed you will be if you look back. Run until the air no longer carries the smell of flesh and the sky is blue again. Run until your footprints are no longer the blood of your brothers and your cries are the only sound you can hear.
Untangle my cold fingers. Leave the hand that does not want to leave you. Be a coward. Resist the gnashing of your teeth. Resist the urge to tear apart the faces of those who smeared our house with the red of our insides. May the strength that kept my trembling legs standing leave you. Live; not to write our story, not to carry our names, not to seek vengeance, but because your breath itself is a rebellion.
It was always the six of us: the sky, the river, the lemon tree, my friend, my brother, and me. Like miniature accessories trapped in a snowglobe that no one ever flipped upside down. We lived in our own small world inside invisible walls that seemed unbreakable to us.
The sky was far and big. Big enough to soak up all our worries just by looking up at it. Big enough to absorb our laughs without an echo. Big enough for us to breath.
The river was the wise storyteller. Its stream carried souvenirs from worlds we longed to know. Like the pink bra my brother Noor picked with a stick and hid somewhere, or the magazine with the foreign title and pictures of shoes. The river’s water also ran through the seeds of watermelons and the veins of oranges in our farm.
The lemon tree was the oldest of us, even older than the sky. It was always there with its hunched trunk and arched branches waiting to be embraced.
It was a day like any other. Like firemen who instinctively descend the pole after hearing the siren, we climb down the water pipes of our middle school walls after hearing the bell at break time. We flee–forming a cloud from the sand beneath our torn shoes to cloak us. We stop at cousin Rami’s restaurant to eat the leftovers from last night, and we clean his ovens to keep it a secret from our parents. My brother Noor forces us to take the long road to the river. He says it is a good way to kill time, but we know it is an excuse for passing by the girl’s school. Maybe he hopes to glimpse Zeen’s shadow through the tinted windows, or hear her laugh from over the walls. He never did.
We finally reach the river after explaining to Amjad that he cannot feed flowers to bees, and convincing Noor that circling the girls’ school for the third time will get us in trouble. Each of us goes to his spot. Amjad takes the banks of the river, Noor wanders around, and I rest under the branches of lemons. I watch from behind. I look at Noor’s broken shadow as his body stands erect. At the loneliness that Amjad’s back carries. I day-dream about having a watch that can control the flow of time, and I use it to stop the hours before my mother wakes me up to school so I can sleep more. The sun drowns in the distance, smearing the sky with fire. Then our day ends, and god’s finger presses repeat. However, that day, god’s fingers decided to do something else, and so, they flipped our snowglobe upside down.
Amjad was caressing the river with his fingers creating miniature swirls and smiling at a little frog as it tried to climb the crumbling banks. He sat between the grass as if he was part of it. Sharing its roots and sprouting from the same mud. He smelled like mud. He was practicing what he called “cerebral writing,” where he pens his wordless thoughts on the pages of his mind. He talked with butterflies and strolled with trees more than he did with humans. I left my place and went to his. Approaching him was a scary business. It is as if there was a holographic sign implanted behind him with flickering red lights reading: Do not interrupt my silence, I am dreaming. I jumbled the sign with my hand and said, “Writing a poem?”
His freckles wrinkled as he smiled at me. “No.”
“Why not? No inspiration today?”
He curled a leaf with his finger. “Dear friend, a poet stops being a poet when he thinks that everything he thinks is poetry. Some feelings are as messy as the prose they should be written in.”
Yes, he was that type of person. The one that calls people dear friend instead of their names. The one that will never say a sentence unless he shuttles it around the coils of his brain, filtering it from any fault. The one that if told to look at a clear river will only see the suffocating pebbles beneath. I did not know how to converse with him, and that irritated me.
The slimy frog was still attempting to climb the bank. “What an ugly frog,” I said.
He glimpsed at the frog, and returned his gaze to the grass. “If it exists, there is beauty in it.”
Yes, he was that irritating. “Not in this frog. Look at its decaying skin!”
“It is sad to relate beauty to appearance. Beauty is never what is seen, but what is felt. The most hideous…”
“Why can’t you talk like normal human beings?”
He frowned at me. “What if you’re the odd one?”
I plucked a handful of grass and threw it at his face. “Amjad, I swear you drive me crazy sometimes.”
The leaf he was curling tore apart. “I’m sorry.”
This was always the scenario. I see him from afar, I feel bad that he is alone, I go to him, he opens his mouth, I regret my decision, I get mad at him, he apologizes with a whisper, I feel bad, I start talking poetry with him, and he wins.
“What about death,” I said.
“What about death, where’s the beauty in that?”
His eyes glittered. “Well…the relief from life, the immortal stillness, the uninterrupted silence.”
I chuckled. “Amjad, I genuinely believe that you are the only person in the world who would say something like that.”
His eyes looked away in dismay. “…maybe.”
I looked at my brother, or at the shadow of him. He was standing on top of the hill looking at the sky. Maybe he was trying to find the cloud she was looking at, maybe that was his way of feeling close to her. Maybe he was imagining her imagining him, and so his mind traveled, refusing to come back to a reality that lacked her.
“They say if you look at the sky enough, your shoulders will grow wings,” Amjad said.
We were both staring at Noor. “We should talk to him about this.”
“I don’t think it will do any good. Blind eyes always carry the hope of seeing light.”
“Argh…let’s go, dinner time is soon.”
I lived in a neighborhood called Happiness Grove. The walls in the street were draped with jasmines that climbed over everything it touched. They even say if you stand there for some hours the jasmines will creep on you and cover you. Our house had been built in the style of old Arabic architecture. The rooms accumulated into a circle surrounding a big hall that had a fountain in the middle of it. The hall had no ceiling and so the water of the fountain reflected the clouds. The dinner table was like no other table. Dinner, perhaps, is the wrong diction. It was a feast. The table contained thirteen chairs, two for my parents, one for Noor, one for me, and nine for my other nine siblings. I had three sisters and seven brothers, and I was the youngest among my brothers, and the second youngest of them all. The table offered what our farm gave us. We ate what we reaped.
It was impossible for a meal to pass without a brotherly fight. Sometimes, even my mother participated. She once sneaked pepper into my oldest brother’s soup just for fun. It became tradition to prepare one bowl with spice, and the one who received it had to clean the table. She was a sister before a mother. Her voice never carried a tone of authority. Her smile was an inseparable part of her features. Even when her knees could not bear the strain of work. Her eyes carried a sly, scheming look that was constantly planning the next prank. When she was fifty years old, father told us, “Your mama is like blueberries. They are my favorite dessert, but I don’t know how to make them grow.”
However, that day, the clanking of our neighbors’ forks was heard, the crackling of the baker’s oven reached us, and even the wind was louder than our table. Everyone was silent. It was the first time I noticed the grey in my mother’s hair. My father rested his fork on the plate and stared at it. He then looked at us and broke the silence. “So…I guess you all heard the radio today.”
“Baba,” one of my brothers said, almost interrupting, “I don’t think anything will happen. This is their methods of scaring us, and even if they come, we’re not hiding anything.”
My oldest brother, Omar, squinted at him. “Don’t speak of what you don’t know. Take your sisters and brothers and go eat in the kitchen. We will talk privately about this.”
We all slept in the same room that night. My father and Omar sat on the door with rifles in their hands. I heard them whispering about men who disappeared from town, about neighboring areas getting bombed. My mother was fondling my sister’s hair, singing a lullaby.
Under heavens and a moon so bright
Sung a girl to the night
She kissed my sister’s brow, and scanned the room, nodding at each one of us. Like a shepherd counting his sheep before sleep.
Dear moon won’t you stay
Forever keep the dawn away
My father looked at her, and I saw the reflection of her smile in his grey eyes.
Omar started whistling.
Let me sway under your spell
In this silence let me dwell
Everyone that was awake chuckled as one of my brothers interrupted the melody with a loud snore. My mother resumed the lines after throwing a pillow at him. She sang the last lines slowly, softly, and with her soul entangled in every word. It was more of a wish than a song.
Menacing is the world of day
Keep me away, keep me away
The next morning, we woke up to the sound of explosions. My mother screamed, “They’re here, they’re here!”
My father cued Omar. He took my three sisters, Noor, and me to his room. The room smelled like him. The tickling scent of cigarettes was helplessly covered by a cheap lemon cologne. A pile of papers and books concealed his desk. A quote was clumsily carved on the side of his closet. He lifted his bed with one hand to reveal a small door in the ground. “Noor, open it.”
Noor obeyed in disbelief. “Omar, wait please. Can you tell us what is happening?”
Omar looked at my sisters. “The truth is, Noor, no one really knows.”
Noor opened the door to a hole that seemed abysmal. We gawked at Omar, waiting for him to laugh and tell us that it was just another prank my mother planned. He hugged us all and helped us down the creaking wooden steps. The muscles in his hands were trembling. “Here, Noor. Take this rifle. If anything happens…you know what to do.” And then, complete darkness.
We did not know how many hours we spent down there. My sister found a lantern, matches, oil, and food and water that would last us for some days. We even found playing cards, which must had been my mother’s doing. The door of the hole did not allow anything to sneak in, not light nor sound. None of us dared to open it, because an older brother’s word is an absolute order. My sister placed the lantern in the middle of the hole, forcing the darkness to recede to corners.
“Why would Omar have a hidden room under his bed?” Noor asked as his eyes adjusted to the light of the flame.
“And apparently, a hidden bathroom,” my sister said, pointing at a small hole in the corner covered with a plastic bag.
“How are we supposed to breathe?” I asked.
My sister stood on the edge of her toes. “There is air flowing. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I can feel it. Still, I think we’ll only be hidden here a short time.”
Our shadows danced on the clay walls as the flame of the lantern dropped and rose. After some hours, we fell asleep on each other’s shoulders.
We woke up not knowing if it was day or night. I felt fire creeping in my nose every time I inhaled a breath. My youngest sister started crying.
“Didn’t Omar find a better way of saving us than burying us alive?” my oldest sister asked.
“Sarah, Hind is crying, and you’re not helping. We must stay calm,” Noor said.
“How can we be calm if—” A deafening thud echoed in our ears and the walls shook. We all screamed, pulling closer together. Explosions fell. I wondered, if Amjad had been there, how many poems that scene would have inspired him to write.
“I can’t. I’m going out.” Noor broke down.
“What! Go out and do what? Omar will kill you!” I said as dust was raining on my face, forcing tears and coughs.
“Who said I’ll look for him?”
“Where will you go then?”
“I can’t stay here anymore. I have to get out!”
“Noor, please calm down. You’re the only one who knows how to use a rifle.”
“I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t!”
“NOOR!” My scream was barely heard amid the echoes of explosions. Noor turned around and started climbing the stairs. I grabbed his leg and pulled him down to the ground. “What the hell are you doing?”
He wiped the dirt from his brow. “I can’t.” He spoke slowly and carefully, almost crying. “She’s alone. Her father is out of town and she doesn’t have any brothers.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Zeen. She has no one!”
“What…WHAT? Zeen? You’re thinking about Zeen when your sisters have no one but you!” It was the first time I hit my brother. I punched him in the nose, but I was the one crying. I knew Noor more than anyone in the world. I knew that he wouldn’t hesitate to pluck his heart out, if someone he loved asked him to. But what about us? He loved us too, didn’t he?
He looked at me with dead set eyes. His teeth were churning the blood from his nose. “I’m sorry brother.” He pointed the rifle at me, and climbed the stairs slowly. He opened the door of the hole, but Omar’s bed blocked it. He was thin enough to roll through the gap. I stood motionless. The whole world was shaking, or maybe it was only my eyes.
“F…H.” I heard a faint sound. “Fo…im.”
“FOLLOW HIM!” my sister was screaming in my ear. “He will get himself killed. Follow him.”
I ran, not fathoming what I was doing. I was mumbling to myself. “He pointed a rifle at me!” I sneaked through the gap and crawled under the bed. From Omar’s window, I looked at the hall. No one was there. The sky was grey and red. We were not the only ones who did not know day from night. For some reason, I decided to shout. “Baba, Noor left the hole. Omar, Noor ran away from the hole.”
My mother came out of the kitchen, screaming things I did not hear. I ran to her only to receive a slap.
“Why are you out?” Her hands were clutching my shoulders.
I tried to gather my voice. “Noor went to Zeen’s.”
Omar grabbed me by my hem. “What? When?”
“Did he take the rifle?”
Omar was already outside the house, running. One of my brothers tried to follow but my father stopped him. My mother told me to go back to my sisters and assure them that everyone was fine. I went to Omar’s room and talked to them through the gap, and while I was talking I heard Omar shouting.
I ran out again. Noor was hanging on Omar’s shoulder. His arms and legs were dangling and he did not make a sound. Omar’s shirt was blotched with blood. I heard fear in my mother’s gasp, and before anyone said a word Omar mumbled, “They saw us. They saw us.”
“Is he hurt?” my father screamed at Omar.
Omar looked at Noor as if he had only now just realized he was there, on his shoulder. He laid him down on the ground. “He tried to run. I punched him in the nose. He’s fine. His nose…they saw us.”
“Who saw you?” my mother asked.
“Them…they saw a rifle in my hand and they started shooting at me.”
My mother took Noor to the fountain and washed his face. He regained consciousness. Crying and scared, he hid his face with his arm and kept repeating the same word. “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!”
“You must go back to your sisters. Take him and go,” my mother said to me.
I helped Noor up, but before taking a step, the door of our house flew and slid across the hall. I instinctively ran to my mother, and she instinctively hid me under her yellow dress. Her legs were trembling. The white thin long socks she wore underneath were damped with sweat. She propped my body between her legs to keep me from moving. I was on my knees. Her dress was long enough to wipe the floor with its ends. I heard men screaming, and Noor was still saying “Sorry!” All I could see through my mother’s dress was yellow. I saw eight yellow shadows lined on the wall. I saw yellow sticks pointed at them. I saw a yellow torrent flying towards them. Like yellow domino stones, they fell one after one after one. I saw yellow going out of them, yellow flowing on the floor. My mother’s legs trembled. Every time her knees bent she stood up again. Her legs squeezed my shoulders until they touched my ears, and then, one more thud, and she became motionless. Everything became silent, Noor was not sorry anymore, and my mother was still standing.
I stayed underneath my mother’s dress. Was it for hours? Was it for days? Was time even moving? My hands were clutching her legs. There was no sound but the dripping of her blood outlining my hair and cascading down my face. My eyes were blinded with red, but I did not close them. I could not move. I was waiting to wake up from the nap I took under the lemon tree. I was waiting for the shadows to move again. I was waiting for my mother’s legs to either shake or fall, but none of that happened.
I closed my eyes and moved her dress. My mind forbade me to look at them. I stood next to her waiting for her to put her hand on my shoulder. Waiting for her to wipe my tears. She was standing—I felt her figure standing next to me. Why wasn’t she moving? I searched for her hand. My fingers found hers. They were cold and relaxed. I heard the clanking of her bracelet as my shivering hand held hers, the silver moon hitting the stars, and the sun pounding the planets. Even in the miniscule universe that was hanging from her bracelet, the world was coming to an end. I stood beside her, grounding my lips on the wrinkles of her palm, leaning my shoulder on her hips, refusing to open my eyes, weeping and shaking.
I ran, not looking back, to the place that will bring everything back to normal. I knew that Amjad was waiting for me on the banks of the river. Waiting to tell me a poem about a flower that was born in the desert, or a story of how wolves came from the moon. I knew that Noor was there too, waiting for Zeen’s shadow to pass miles away from the hill he stood on. I ran between red streets and red skies. I ran imploring my eyes not to believe what they were seeing. I ran begging my stomach to keep what is inside inside. I climbed the hill crawling, but there were no branches to hug me, no trunk to rest my tired back on. There were only ashes. I looked at the sky, but it also was not there. It was replaced with something else, something that was close and bounded. Something that was suffocating and dangerous. I looked at the river, but it was not blue. It was not the clear river I knew. I searched for Amjad. I was sure he was there, because this place was more home to him than his home. I saw the wind harassing a black shadow. I approached it slowly, hoping for it to be anything, a cat, a garbage bag, or maybe just a work of my imagination, but it was him. I rested his head on my knees. I shook his shoulders and asked him, “Where’s the beauty in this…Where’s the beauty in this?”
I carried his body and nestled it where he belonged. I could not tell which of them was the river. They swayed together as one.
And at that moment, I looked around, and there was nothing more than me.