By the Pale Blue Sign

The wind tickled her hair as she flew.

The chirp of birds was distant and low, like it had always been here in the park. Was it because it had always been either too hot or too cold for the birds to sing louder than they did? The desert climate had always been one that resided exclusively at the extremes: blisteringly hot so that the heat scorched the skin for a few months, then so cold the blood seemed to lodge frozen in fingers and toes another few. She had often observed, like she did today, that the birds’ song was insufficient somehow, soulless, like the birds were singing out of some innate biological obligation than genuine will. This was a summer day, but it was also early morning, and as the dawn took its first breath for the day, the sun was at its gentlest, the air at its crispest, coolest. Sacrificing the hour or so of sleep was a necessary measure, she had often supposed, to enjoy the park at its most accommodating.

They made for the park at the usual time, taking the faded black-and-white zebra crossing as the traffic light blinked red and a sole car stopped to await its green turning. Only one car had stopped as they crossed from one blue-and-green painted end to another, and scarcely more than one could have been expected: it was early, and the streets hadn’t yet been filled to suffocation with cars, as they will surely be in little over two hours’ time. They will scream, their drivers will curse, their horns will roar, and it will be another day in the city. Between two fingers he clinched his book awkwardly, and with his free hand reached for hers, dainty and swaying at her side as she walked. Their pace was deliberately slow. Her eyes met his as their hands touched, and a whimper of a giggle escaped them. They were subdued laughs, small and awkward ones, like those made by minds still half drenched in the thick residue of sleep.

A short walk lead to a metal gate that was always open, and as they passed through it, concrete slab became green grass and bush spotted with small purple flowers. The park was a modestly sized one, tucked between a car park, a hotel, and a residential complex, more than probably built, they had agreed, so that residents could enjoy a serene view when they push open their windows. She hurried to the swings, and he took a seat on a wooden bench to her left. The dawn sky was a low-hanging grey belly with red mists floating inside and across, crimson, the deepest red. The park was empty. Theirs were the first feet to meet its freshly dew-lined grassy floor that day. The week before, they had been too. And the few weeks before those. Two years had passed since their ritual began.

The swings were by the blue sign that split in three sides, one saying NO TENTS ALLOWED, NO PICKING FLOWERS, NO BARBEQUE ALLOWED EXCEPT IN DESIGNATED AREA, the second was a white painted arrow pointing toward the restrooms, and the third was a NO LITTERING sign, with a simply drawn hand throwing aside a piece of trash, with a red circle around it, and a red line running across the circle, end to end. The signs were dimly lit, but they knew them enough not to need to see them sunlit.

She declined his offer to push her when she seated herself on the right swing, one of the two mounted on the iron frame buried into the floor at the ends so it was fixed in place. She pushed forward and swung, while he read, the book’s pages palely lit so they looked, not white, but grey, like the sky above. Having someone push you defeated the purpose – being pushed was good for speed, for the thrill of playing on swings, but she hadn’t wanted that in a while. She had come to prefer the solemnity of slower swing-strokes: fast enough for a decent swing, not so fast as to exert that pulling feeling on her stomach as she hurled back and forth. The only sound was that of their breathing, their earth-muffled steps, and the lulled song of birds hanging above their heads, descending from high treetops.

There are three distinct phases to continued swinging: the first phase is pushing forward, and that stops at the apex of the forward swing, giving way to the second phase. Phase two is the short length of time, a second or so, when the body is suspended weightless, before gravity pulls it back down and backward, into the third phase: the backward swing, which also ends with a slowed momentary stop. The cycle repeats, as long as the person in swinging. Forward, still, backward, still. Forward, still, backward, still. She liked the short stops most. From time to time, he would let the book down and glance over to her, hoping she would be in her backswing and see him. The times she did, she smiled, and he did too.

It was at one of the stops that the question came to her. She settled to a halt, her feet scraping against the floor until she stopped completely. He noticed her stop. “Something wrong?” he asked. “No, no,” she answered. She took a moment before asking the question on her mind.

“What would you do if I die?” she asked.

“Eh?” he asked, peering up from a page.

“I’m wondering ya’ny.” She stuttered, found a word and lost it just as quickly. She had never been able to pronounce R’s, so her wondering was a wondewing. The first time he heard her lisp, he had laughed like the others, but it was a warm laugh she didn’t mind, it was seeped in kindness. “Nev – Never mind,” she said.

For a while, he did as she asked, finding the words on his book again.

“If you die?” he asked, setting the book aside. She nodded in answer, unassumingly and innocently like she does, with three quick shakes of her head.

“If you die …” his voice was frail with uncertainty.

The expectant question, “Aywa …?”

“I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?”

“How I’d feel. I don’t know. It’s not something I want to imagine. If you die, I … I don’t know.”

It was a few minutes before he spoke again. Having been given no answer, she had resumed her swinging.

“Reem,” he called. “Reem.” She dug the tips of her running shoes into the dirt, forcing herself to a stop. “Reem. I think I know.”

“What do you know?” she asked.

“How I’d feel, if …”

“How would you feel?” she asked, cutting his sentence short.

“You know,” he said, “before I woke up today, I’d been dreaming. I don’t remember what about now, mesh faker khales, but I remember it was a good dream, one of the calming ones. The colours in it were soft, opaque, like the colours in good dreams, not like nightmares. Nightmares have deep, shocking colours. Colours like … well, like the images of a nightmare! Hahaha. Wait. I remember an image. I think it’s … a table. A wooden table. In a room that I think was brightly lit, sunlight everywhere. It was too bright, but not in a bad way. It was … unusual. It was a dream, of course it was. Anyway, mesh mohem, that’s not the point.” He gestured as if dismissing the unneeded details. “I remember waking in the middle of it, the dream hadn’t ended yet. I was so happy during it that its ending upset me. It was so abrupt and sudden, and it upset me. Do you know the feeling? The dream hasn’t ended, not properly, and that upsets you. I think I’d feel like that. I think it would feel like the end of a beautiful dream.”

His eyes fell downcast, and he looked away silently. He didn’t reach back for his book. She pushed forward again. The sun had risen higher in the morning sky, lifting the grey sky and replacing it with a blue one, bright and clear so the greenery below looked its true colour, not a dimmed, darkened version. She was smiling. The wind tickled her hair as she flew.

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