Short Story

Vive le Déluge Rouge

The most intimate relationship you will ever have with a part of your body will unfailingly be with me, although not without deserved competition. The lover may caress the small of the back, and you might think it is your skin that you are most intimate with. And the organs may ache, and you might make the mistake of thinking it is your heart, your lungs, your brain, your anything but me with which you develop the most fruitful relationship, though with heart you come closest to divining which part of you is most important. For it is with me that you have your most viscerally meaningful relationship. If matchless importance, sheer indispensability of oeuvre were your criteria of assessment, then I am foremost musician your world, composer of your life’s music, whose indelible loyalty makes possible to accept having a necessarily small audience of one. You. If you do not believe me, then answer me this: who floods the walls of your neck when you afraid? Who is it who excites in its streams when you are happy, who placidly washes through when you are asleep? Who nearly tore apart your heart as your first kiss ensued, and who does the child calm to hear, beating softly, affectionate and regular, as he is nursed by his mother? Yes, it is me, was me when you were a frightened, gurgling child, and it remains me now, eternally paired with importance itself; and my position, immortally loftiest of all, shall not be compromised.

The cries of “Vive la France!” shock the somnolent air of the sea, and, absorbed as though a rock hurled into a river, dissipate into the Mediterranean climate, but only until the perpetrators decide it is time to offend the temperate weather again with their exaggerated, though admittedly encouraging jingoism, at which point their shout their country’s supremacy with such prolonged, earnest strain on the vocal chords that I feel their necks will rupture and I will—as ever, reluctantly—find gushing, brilliant escape through their torn-open skin. Boosting as it may be for them, the shouts of the soldiers scare me. The ship galumph in the water, obeying the long-awaited order to advance upon the coast. The soldiers are riveted by the prospect of action, and now that their long trek and inaction has ended, a beat of excitement—or is it fear?—strikes their chests and they wish the call to acction had not come so soon. I trill the tune of their in the palms, in their necks, in the ears. The more fearful of them go deaf as I pound their ears mercilessly, until their terrified hearts wither, too fatigued to continue, and I drop in pace. Lub-dum. Lub-dum. Lub-dum. The performance continues with each member of the audience oblivious to the thousand others simultaneous in immediate composition and execution. Were they me, were they able to hear it all at once, they would have fallen to their knees in awe of my entirely percussionist grand orchestra.

He feels the ship suddenly lurch forward. The sails have been lowered. Wiping his bayonet with a handkerchief to distract himself, Philippe lies to himself and tells it he is not afraid. Well, that is one thing we share: we are both afraid.

But I am only afraid because of them. They fear my sight, bemoan its every instance and reveal, and grimace and cry when, entirely at their behest and never willingly, I am forced to show myself; and those of them who enjoy my sight are the hated ones, the savages. I cannot say I do not understand their sentiment, but it is another matter entirely to accept my largely hated status. And yet, to be fair to them as well, they do write about me, romanticise me in story and verse and lyric, if only with danger truncated in the controlled environment of creative creation. So it is not all bad. Still, it is cause for fear that I will soon make an appearance. For I will, and soon. It seems that when people gather in large numbers, often my crimson presence is not too far behind. Philippe polishes Catelyn’s image in his memory, revises it and studies its nuances. He travels down her spotted back and I drum a regular melody, . He kisses her stomach many times, every other kiss the inevitable corollary of the inadequate so many before it—to kiss Catelyn once and stop, how absurd! How impossible!—and the feeling he conjures from memory almost feels like the real thing. He wills her eyes before him and that too feels like a daydreams teasing itself into beautiful reality—and I am providing the soundtrack. “You find me.” He hungers for her. His bones ache with it. And he is afraid.

 

If he had not grown up around them, Mustafa imagines the large fields of corn and cotton would have terrified him. There is row after row of high plant that looks almost identical, and there is silence in the night and even in the day, though then it is watered with the bovine opera of cattle, and tucked behind the song of birds, the flutter of little humming birds. He thinks to himself that had he not grown to be familiar with the land, his father’s livelihood and that of his father and his father before him, he would be afraid of it. But this, his sole inheritance, is nothing to fear. You cannot love black soil, yet you can love the black soil you played in as a child, and you can savour its fruit and, old enough to, tend to it like a loved one; like father and grandfather had done since the first yellow sun rose in the heavens and broke the first darkness.And he loves it, this land of his fathers, all the more because she walks on it, because she eats from it, because he shares it with her; he envies the land that her dainty feet step on it, and, if he could, if they did not grow their sustenance in it, he would line it end to end with jasmines for her.

He knows she will pass here on her way to the old brass fountainhead, and he infers—no, believes—of her not changing the route that she loves him too. Zeina could carry the clay pot to fill it with water, but she chooses this one, the one he meets her at.He doesn’t remember when Zeina became his Zeina, for now she is just that: she is his Zeina. As far as he is concerned, no one else could fill her spot, nor does he want anyone else to. She simply entered to clear the scene completely, and rose to unparalleled prominence in it. He considers this even more validation of his love for her: it was a furtive kind of love. It snuck up to him, warily like it were guilty of something, and he only felt it when its mallet banged him on the head. It was a strike without foreseeable recovery. He waits and he waits and she never fails to arrive, her long black hair restrained in a plait that detracted nothing from its serpentine beauty. He hears her diffident footfall a while before she is before him, and he immediately makes to take the pot from her hands.

“’Annek,” he offers, but she doesn’t accept. Instead she lets the pot rest on the cool floor.

“I fear you’d grow tired of carrying my weight,” she says.

“Never,” he says. And she believes him because no lie sounds like that.

 

He strides out of bed. He is worried but deployment is still days away. Catelyn is still in bed, and having felt his absence from the bed, she stirs. She moans her pleasure with him. “You still are,” she mutters into the pillow.

“I still am what?”

“The best one,” she says, as if it were obvious and his question was stupid. “The best lover I’ve had.”

He is perturbed by this, but it is not what she meant. “You know I don’t like talking about this. Those days are over, we agreed, no?”

She nods. “’I’ll never have to do it again,’” she intones, remembering his words. Then she adds, “I’m all yours. All of me.”

He is moved but says nothing. He returns to her side. She sits up in bed, and her naked breasts rise uncovered from behind the sheet. “I will have to move,” she says. “I can’t stay here much longer. The rent is too high.”

“Where will you go?”

“A friend. I’ll stay with her for a week or two.”

“And then what? You will not start again, will you?”

“And then I don’t know. I don’t know. I will wait for you. You come back. You come back and you find me. You find me.”

He remains silent. Catelyn lays back down in bed with a sigh.
“I’ll be late,” she protests. “Yoh! And then what will I tell my mother?”

“Simple. Tell her the water ran out. You were waiting for more to come.”

“What do you mean ran out, you crazy? The water doesn’t run out. It never has.”

“Then it is like how much I love you.”

She looks away. “You’re crazy.” But Mustafa knows better than to believe those words: he notices me bright and red in her cheeks. Like a flower. And he thinks it is beautiful.

“I’ll marry you,” he says.

“Really? When?” Her breathless interrogation embarrasses her—but she wants it as much as he does. She looks away shyly again and considers the tall greenery surrounding them. I smear her cheeks again. He cannot resist kissing her. It is a solitary kiss, short like an apology. And perhaps he is apologising: he would kiss her until his lips cracked and bled. After a long, serene flow, I ring in his veins.

“You just point with your finger.” The thought titillates him. I run faster and faster.He hungers for her. His bones ache with it. And he is afraid, but for now he forget it. He is always afraid, even though he never admits it. He is afraid for the land and for his family, and for Zeina. Word of the French soldiers comes fast and frequently, and he doesn’t know what is true and what is rumour. But it is all frightening. The talk of rape scares him most. These French soldiers must be devils.

In five days’ time, Zeina’s younger sister, Layla, scampers towards Mustafa’s house. She has tears in her eyes and cannot see the road ahead of her. She runs a fast as she can, calling his name frantically. She finds Mustafa sitting outside in the moonlight, and her panting scares him. If he were younger, he would have thought the Naddaha had come for him. But he was not so fortunate, and instead he was terrified. She tells him Zeina is injured. She says her mother said it was the best thing. She said something about French soldiers, and attacks, and the other mothers doing it to their daughters who were “old enough.”As she is done to him what had happened, my long tenure with Zeina is nowhere near ending: her mother dabs away the last of me with cloth, but the cuts where the needle pierced the skin are too many and the cotton string, itself soaked in me now, is pulled tight and hard, forcing the opening shut. I don’t think Zeina has felt so much pain in her life, and I am certain she has not bled so much in her entire life. In fact, this time she bleeds more than all the times she had ever bled combined. I trickle down the side of the stitching, onto her thigh, soiling the blanket. But it has been long since she has been afraid enough for a quickened heartbeat—now there is acceptance. Now there is embarrassment. And yes, this too is more than she has ever experienced. Far enough for Mustafa not to have heard Zeina scream. Layla is telling him not to follow her home, she says. Zeina is begging him not to, she says. She doesn’t want him to see her like this. But Layla doesn’t understand this; she is only repeating what she has been told to say. “Stay here,” she urges him, and she cries some more. Mustafa considers that this might be divine punishment for kissing Zeina. He quickly banishes the thought.

I smash against the walls of their necks as the boy gives up his ambush. He had been waiting behind a tree trunk for the passing soldier and then—it was so fast, he does not even remember it happening. But it must have, because the Frenchman is with a knife in his heart. “French dog,” he spat as he did it, and spurts of me, washed in hot saliva, punctuate the vitriol of the words. And what is there more to say? Nothing, nothing but invoking the same god Philippe must have prayed to that he may return and search Paris for her. He would scour every house, every street, every brothel that her friend might be known in. He would find his true love. If only he were to go back. The knife is in deep and Philippe shouts in pain. I stream down his chest and feel the hot, sharp blade on my exit. The brown boy pulls the bayonet from his chest. The Frenchman stabbed him in his panic. I am everywhere. I am in the houses and in the great blue river, and the river—they are throwing themselves into it. Entire families. They are drowning, and I am thankful that drowning is a bloodless death, for I could not bear so much.

They are without their land, they are without their dignity. The war has taken both away, and what is left? Nothing. Somewhere a general with a name for the history books proclaims freedom and shouts liberation, and his soldiers march forth in legions. I dare you to have found a difference between them, those two boys. If you had seen them, if you had seen them like I did, you would not have seen a soldier and a savage boy. That’s what they called them, the Liberators: savages and brutes. You would have seen something far more true. You would have seen two boys. And you would have seen fear, and longing, and disappointment, and disbelief. And then you would have seen fear again, and you would have felt it in your own heart.

Like Zeina, the two boys bleed until their final breath. I feel them die.

And I, I am everywhere, like a sea of brightest red. And for a long time,far longer than it took for the dispatch of soldiers to overtake the village, I feel almost like a deity, like a god that they are paying bloody tribute to. They are whispering it now as they die, and they have been shouting it all along. It is even in their silence, in that cold sound of death itself. They have been calling for me. And now I am everywhere.

Vive le déluge rouge. Vive le déluge rouge. Vive le déluge rouge.

The Alleyway Seemed Endless and He Waited At Its End

The alleyway seemed endless. It seem nearly an impossibility to reach its end, like it was some road made infinite by the gods as punishment for someone’s insolence, and he was forced to walk it. It was a cold day and so was he, and the rotting brick of the buildings between which the alley was wedged were a familiar sight, broken here, halved here, crumbling from old age here, damaged by the rain here, the colour faded and washed away.

And he walked.

The Man would be waiting at the end of the ally, beside the big metal trash can that no one ever bothered to empty out any more, that festering sink of the filth everyone wanted gone but didn’t deign to remove. It seemed an appropriate place. The Man would be waiting where he’d always waited, there by the trash can. Only this time it wasn’t as easy to walk. Not like the first time. Not like all the times before when he’d walked up to the very end of the alley and met The Man with that eager look on his face, his eyes screaming for more but his words betraying little more than casual interest, so The Man wouldn’t think to raise the price.

And he didn’t.

For the six months The Man knew him, he didn’t raise the price, he lowered it. Perhaps he thought he’d found a reliable customer, one who’d return, one who’d come back for more. If he thought that, he was right. Maybe there’s a flicker in their eyes, the ones who get addicted beyond any possible remission, beyond any possible relief of the habit. Maybe their voices crackle with the urgency of their need, their want, their love and their death. Maybe the itches they scratch show it, the twenty ants their frantic nails can never seem to bite off their bodies declaring their condition: hopelessly involved. He finally found the end of the alley, surprised that his heavy feet took him this far, and for a moment stood glaring at the trash bin. Yes, it was appropriate, it was fitting, he thought to himself. He fell on the floor and waited for The Man to saunter in with his last dose, and while he waited the trash bin wasn’t there anymore.

And she was.

It was the first day they met again, it was warm outside and so was he. It was the sunlight, it was the sunlight. Her hair glinted a golden shine, the sunlight filling it whole and making it clear to his eye that he thought that, if he wanted to, he could count every strand of it and know their exact number. It’s often those small things, those details that repeat because there’s only so many ways you could first meet someone. She had asked for a light, and he had offered her one though he didn’t smoke, but had started carrying a lighter because he enjoyed flipping open and throwing closed the lid. Open, closed, open, closed, he explained to her his obsession and she laughed, a small sweet laugh. She laughed and he did too, and he thought that if she told him that she’d fallen from one of the clouds above her head, he wouldn’t have been surprised to hear it. He would believe her. He remarked that she shouldn’t smoke, that it wasn’t good for her, and now he thought it was funny. He looked at himself and it was funny.

The Man’s boots ticked on the floor and the trash can was there again. The Man wasn’t disposed to speak much, but he was efficient, quick, punctual and precise. The Man held out the small bag to him, and he took it with calm hands, and by the look on The Man’s face he was surprised that the grab wasn’t as extreme as ones before it. But that didn’t concern him, and The Man only cared for what concerned him, the rest was nothing. He looked at The Man and reached out a hand to him, in it nestled the note of money he owed him, and, as if for the first time, he truly saw The Man, and saw that he was barely so. He was young, very young, with pale skin and a paler wisp of facial hair that betrayed his age. The Man, saying nothing, left him there by the trash can.

He reached into his pocket for the phone and dialed her number. The bag looked made of the kind of plastic you’d find wrapping sandwiches or inside cardboard boxes of cereal, and he thought that was appropriate too. In it the syringe was already filled, full and still warm from the heating. He had asked The Man to prepare it for him. He pressed the sharp tip against his skin, beneath the green vein, and pushed until the syringe was empty and he felt the fire pushing through him, against the walls of his body, smashing them wherever it could, pushing holes through his fabric that he couldn’t recover from. He wouldn’t survive this one. He knew his limits and he knew how much could handle taking. The syringe had triple that amount, and now it was inside him, fighting him again, and this time he would lose to it. He pressed the phone to his ear and it was beautiful. It was her voice and she called his name, and for the last time he heard how beautiful it sounded, smooth like crisp wind and calling his name. He needed to hear it again. It made it easier. When the phone fell, it clicked against the asphalt and fell into the dump of trash, as he did.

Her voice became panicked.

July 23rd, 1848

Diary Dearest,

What is it about death that prompts such abject hatred and fear from us? Why does the sight of blood, a throat slit so only torn flesh is visible or a body motionless in the dirt of a battlefield,have so tormenting an effect on us? I suppose that apprehension differentiates us from the insane –although I must contend that I have my reservations about the arbitrary use of that label– but the question is no less warranted. Is not death just the cessation of biological activity, and as such is only just as process, and little more? It is so, yes, but it is undoubtedly more. To relegate death to a position of trivial inferiority is a pernicious act, and one thoroughly faulty, for while it takes into consideration death’s aspect of functionality, it negates the forces set around it, those of emotion – a driving force so intrinsic to our life as a species I can hardly conceive of life without it. I would even deem it impossible for the human race to survive without its emotion, not out of some grossly romanticised view of emotion, but out of established knowledge that humanity’s survival is inextricably linked to the feelings that drive us, and the convictions that result. I have not had many encounters with death; indeed in my years I have been fortunate enough to encounter it only a few times. But today I was in death’s presence once more.

I have found it to be true that as one grows older, one is driven to care less about what in youth seemed imponderably important. In my younger years, before the bones of my back started to feel as though molded out of water and before it became –oftentimes– an insurmountable chore to command my legs and push out of my bed, I had cared about my birthdays. I would feverishly await the days I would be referred to as one year older, and thus more mature and worldly, as if by a single day’s passage I would inherit some previously concealed knowledge that I would boast to friends and family as my age-given right. The day itself, naturally, would, in what little way I could manage to make it, be majestic and festive. My families, both old and new, could scarcely spare the coin for gifts, and so if I couldn’t make my own, I would reward myself with something – frequently, something beautiful. A young boy likes nothing more than a thing of beauty, and in that young boys and men are not much different. I cannot recall a day when I didn’t have the most sincere and awed appreciation for the beauty of nature, natural life, and, if it isn’t too outrageously romanticised a statement, life itself.

Out of the fishing village where my old family lived was, at one end, extended a muddy walkway that I was sure (though now I am less sure) was moistened by an underground waterway of some sort. At the very end of the walk of mud was a small shrine of mossy earth where the mud stopped and small flowers peppered the ground. “Small” here is no exaggeration: the flowers were scarcely bigger than the division of a finger, and were predominantly a bright scream of blue, although some rebellious reds and whites shared the space too. I spent a few of my birthdays there, drenched to the ears in my adoration of the scenery (insubstantial to the objective observer as it was) and the false greatness of my now slightly older self. Oftentimes, at the muddied patch where no one treaded, I sang: there was no one around to criticize my less-than-good singing voice, and there I could overcome my debilitating shyness. That was before my mother’s death. After that, I could hardly find it in me to sing to myself, or to sing at all. Her death stripped that blithe stupidity from me, and I found myself speaking less, and inspecting the elusive threads of my thoughts more scrupulously. But I might be wrong to think that. My newfound profundity of thought might have only been a result of natural progression: merely an effect of growing older, only this time it wasn’t an imagined effect. I cannot say I am grateful for her death, but I acknowledge that it might have had a favourable effect on me.

But I was only just a boy, and boys grow older and suddenly what enraptured the imagination and enamoured the mind isn’t so amazing any more. At the age of twenty-four, in the city where I took reside with my new family, I found another object of beauty. I believe I make no indiscretion or err of the overly emotional kind when I say that my wife’s beauty is like that one nothing other, and has not yet failed to wholly captivate my interest despite our long years together (if anything, the time has only made my love for her more animated, and my appreciation for her more profound). Beauty is a word that has had its meaning savagely defaced and now carries artificial and incomplete connotations of the physical: beauty is not just that of the skin and face and body – that is both outrageous and erroneous. I see beauty in every one of Sara’s little quirks, in every way she is the person she is, in the way that, however much she tries, she can never keep her hair from her brow and has to brush it away, in the way she sets her spoon on the very edge of her plate once she’s eaten and the game of concentration she makes of that, in the way , in the way she often laughs when I wear my shirts backwards (often because in my absentmindedness I so frequently do), in her childlike excitement that hasn’t waned with the years like I fear mine has, in the way her kisses now are as vibrant and full of life and love as the first one she gave me.

But I find I have digressed severely, and strayed from what I originally intended to write about. Today I paid witness to a hanging. Three men convicted of treason had been tried, condemned, and set to hang. I am of the habit of subjecting myself to the unpleasant, perhaps out of some masochistic inclination, but more likely motivated by the promise of inner growth from the trauma that ensues. On the self it surely isn’t the kindest of methods of self-improvement. It was that tendency that saw me stand a small spec made invisible by a jeering crowd after whom the wretched three were to be executed. The sound of the crowd’s collective derision filled the air as if a thick smoke stretching everywhere and in all directions. To my right a boy barked insults and exclamations of love for king and country with equal vehemence, in a voice as crass and insolent as he was. I watched as the men, shivering with fear and sweaty, were recited religious consolations of redemption, to which the boy laughed incredulously.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked him.

“There’s no redemption for them. Not for these men. They’re bad men.”

Soon after the men fell. They swung silently below the thick stretches of rope, and the crowd dispersed having watched the scene to completion. The boy scurried away harmlessly with the crowd.

Perhaps it is all about the beauty. Perhaps the power of death emanates from lost beauty. Perhaps by dying, the potential beauty of the person, the beauty that could have adorned them if only they had not died, is effaced from existence. Perhaps in lamenting death we lament the possibility of great beauty lost, that we are continually searching for things of beauty, and that one death is one less chance that we will succeed and will find our want, our need. Perhaps once that potential beauty is killed, death loses importance, and we can then call for the death of bad men.

“Hang them!” they cried. “Kill them!” they shouted.

“They are bad men.”

Case Record no. 49, Aydah Adam

Sunlight spilled through the open window and filled the room, so bright it shone that it must have been one of the brightest days they had ever lived to see. The file lay on the table, his file, she’d brought it with her as she entered. He wondered where they were made, the folders that hold the patients’ documents were manufactured, the ones that hold their case records, their nurse reports, their statements of release. His file was altogether an insignificant one: a light, thinly filled file, with only four sheets of paper inside. He was a new patient, and a young one. As far as she could tell, his wasn’t a case that exuded anything out of the ordinary. The boy smiled again, tapping the table lightly and incessantly, like it calmed him to do it. His moving finger was a blur as it drummed a hollow rhythm into the wooden desk.

“Good morning,” she intoned, like the statement bore little importance. He only smiled in answer. She took her seat opposite him, and with her there it would begin. She glanced at his file, a fleeting look – more out of force of habit than any actual need, she had already read his file and knew its contents –then back at him.

“Do you understand why you’re here?” she said.

“Of course I do,” he announced through a smile, almost pompously. His forefinger still tapped the desk. “I’m here because I have to. I’m here because I committed suicide.”

Attempted,” she corrected. “You attempted suicide, Aydah. If you had succeeded, would you be here?”

He grinned. “Of course I wouldn’t.”

“But that shouldn’t concern you now,” she said. “The reasons why you’re here shouldn’t concern you. What should, Aydah, is leaving. Do you want to leave?”

He grinned, but in it was a slight nod. His finger still rapped at the wood.

“You know why you’re here, Aydah,” she said, “and why wouldn’t you? You’re a smart young man. Now let me tell you why I’m here. I’m here because you can trust me. You can tell me how you feel, and I will help you. That’s why I’m here, Aydah. To help you.” Reciting the lines almost felt a chore.

He laughed, his head tilting backward at first so he looked up to the white false ceiling, then toward her again. His look was assured. “I don’t trust you.”

“Why don’t you trust me?”

“You’re not here to help me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You’re not being honest. I value honesty, and if you value something you know what it is. I know what honesty is. And I know you’re not being honest.”

“But I am, Aydah. I’m being honest with you.”

He laughed again, louder now, the same shrill and hearty laugh that had him heave all the air in his lungs out.

“Adding more lies to the lie doesn’t make it a truth.”

“Let’s address this then, Aydah. Why do you think I’m not being honest?”

“What did the last guy think of them?”

“Think of what?”

“Your lies.” He gulped as if swallowing. “What did your last patient think when you said you were here to help him? What did the last guy think of your lies? Did he believe them? Did he believe you? Assuming there was someone before me, which is likely. A prestigious institution like this is nothing if not an old one, and you seem experienced … what did the last guy think of them?”

“My last patient trusted me. She believed me. I helped her.”

“No doubt she thinks you did.”

She looked deeper into him, searchingly. She probed his eyes and found contempt and happiness, melding into one. “You didn’t answer my question, Aydah.”

“And what was that, helper?”

“Why do you think I’m not being honest?”

“Are you familiar with bartering, Miss Helper?”

She looked perplexed. When she didn’t answer him, he did.

“Bartering is an act, you see, that has you exchange things of equal value.”

“I know that, Aydah.”

“I give you a cow, you give me a cow. I give you three green apples, you give me three red apples. So long as the two colours of apple have the same value. Long ago, people did that. They bartered. Equal exchange, Helper, and equal benefit.

“I know that, Aydah. I know what bartering is. Why is bartering important now?”

“It’s not. But what it represents is.”

“What does it represent?”

“Fairness.”

“I appreciate fairness.”

“Evidently not. You came to meet me and offered me lies. That doesn’t seem fair. Or do we have varying definitions of fairness?”

“We don’t, Aydah. I’m not your enemy. I’m here to help you. Why don’t you trust me?”

“Do you trust me?” he asked.

“I do.”

“All the same, I don’t trust you. I could, but I won’t. And I won’t answer your question until I’m given what I want.”

“What do you want?”

“A truth. You give me a truth, and I’ll answer your question truthfully. You trust me, so you’ll trust me to ask first.”

“Ask, then.”

The  sound of his tapping became the background of the room, low, almost imperceptible, blended with the sound of the room.

“Good,” he said. “Do you remember when you entered this room, Miss Helper? I’ll remind you. Bright room, boy sitting a chair opposite you. You said ‘good morning’ as you entered, and you lied to him, even as he had been just honest with you. It was the first time you lied to me, and you said ‘I’m here to help you.’ Do you remember, Miss Helper?”

She nodded. His smile widened.

“Why are you really here?” he asked.

“You’re my patient. I’m here to treat you.”

“Wrong. Try again, Miss Helper. Why are you here?”

“Aydah, I’m here to treat you.”

“Wrong. Again. Why?”

“I’m a psychologist, it’s my job.”

“That’s it!” He laughed ecstatically, and his finger lifted from hammering the desk and pointed, as if pointing at the truth, now uncovered. “That’s it, Miss Helper. Your first truth of the day. Congratulations. And you’re right, you’re finally right. You’re here because it’s your job to be here. And who does your job serve? It serves you. Puts food on the table, numbers and letters in the children’s notebooks. You’re here because of yourself, Miss Helper, not because of me. You’re here to help yourself. I’m a byproduct. However you help me, if you do, will only be as a result of helping yourself first. That’s why you’re here.”

He tapped the desk once so it clicked.

“Now,” he said, “I’ll answer your question. You trusted me, it would be terrible manners not to do the same. Why don’t I trust you? I don’t trust you because you offered me lies. Would you trust someone if the first thing they told you was a lie? You wouldn’t, so I didn’t. A truth for a truth, and the transaction is complete. Mago the Caveman would be proud.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” she said.

“Don’t apologize, you couldn’t help it. All you do is lie, Miss Helper, with occasional lapses of truth. But they’re small and few, and the truth gets buried under the lies. But that doesn’t mean the lies can’t be fished out. They can be recovered.”

“I have another question, Aydah.”

He clicked his tongue, tsk tsk tsk. His finger swayed sideways, as if saying no. “Oh, don’t get greedy now. All in good time. I don’t trust you just yet. If you have another question, you’ll have to answer one of mine first.”

“Fine.”

“Do you consider yourself a kind woman, Miss Helper?”

“I do.” He stopped her just as she started her next word.

“That wasn’t my question,” he said. “This is: Who are you kind to?”

“I’m kind to those I love.”

“Good. A correct answer on the first try, last time it took you three. You’re getting better. Granted, it’s not completely honest, but in this case it’s a lie you yourself believe. You see, you tell people you love them, but you don’t. You love how they make you feel, the satisfaction they bring you. Love itself is a lie. The greatest lie in history. We’re only ever kind because we want to benefit ourselves. Those who are kind do it to be loved, either so those around them will love them, or so they can love themselves. Kindness is an act of selfishness. So you’re right to say you’re kind to those you love. And you love yourself, Miss. You’re kind to yourself, for yourself. This is what you care about.”

He pointed at her.

“Your turn now,” he said. “Ask your question.”

“Why did you try to kill yourself?”

“It’s funny. The answer to this question is like the answer to the last. It’s a long story, but you asked, so I’ll tell it. It begins with a boy, a boy being told many lies. The boy is brought up and entirely fed lies. He’s told many things, not the least of which is a false idea of how his life will be. He’s given a false identity and he believes it completely. The boy grows up expecting the lies to be truths, and thinking that what he knows who he is. But lies … they’re like badly tied shoelaces. They have a way of unfurling in the end. Eventually, the lie falls apart, but not until something destroys it, and here, what will destroy the lie almost destroys the boy in the process.

“The boy grows dissatisfied with life, seeing that it isn’t happening the way he’s expecting it to, doubtless because he was given a faulty frame of reference. He’s comparing his own to lives imagined, and his life falls desperately short. He is disappointed. Look in your file, you’ll see that listed as Identity crisis. He grows upset. He feels inadequate, when really he isn’t, but that makes little difference, the feeling of inadequacy remains. That’s listed too, Extreme depression in your papers. He feels … he feels like a child. That’s it. He feels like a child sitting in a moving car, looking out of his window. Out of his window are the happy ones, all the people content with their lives. He can only see them for a moment as the car drives by. Only a fleeting moment that’s enough to depress him further. He waits for life to happen, to truly begin. He can see them, the happy ones, but he can never be like them. Never love like them. Never kiss like them. Never hug like them. Never live like them. He’s not them, only the kid looking out of the window of the moving car. If he’s lucky enough, he thought, the car will take him where he’ll truly live. Where he’ll be like them, dancing like them, loving like them, finally having what life has to offer. So he waits and waits again, until one day he grows too sick of waiting and drowns thirty valium tablets.

“The lies had become his truths, and the truths, and his own life, had become his inadequacies.” A moment of silence. “So you’ll excuse the boy, Miss helper. He has great reservations about being lied to. That’s the answer to your question.”

Her watch rings, and the alarm tells her the session is over. The beep beep beep shocks her into focus again, her taken aback gaze and distraught look subside. She gathers the file from the table. He resumes his tapping after having stopped as he told the story. He smiles at her as she stands to leave.

“Our time is over for today. I’ll see you tomorrow, Aydah.”

“Bring your truths with you, Helper. Truth is the only currency.”

July 22nd, 1848

Diary Dearest,

The dream had been a haze, an opaque set of unconnected images as they often come to me now. I wonder if my mind, too, is floundering as much as my body, if it can no longer sew together enough of the fabric of dreams to sustain a night’s slumber. Sara and my friends assure me that in my youth my dreams had been equally hazy, and the adversity I claim is imagined, but I do not know to believe them.

I woke to my usual great and debilitating back pain. I suppose this is the culmination of my long days of working alongside my blacksmith father – many would not deign to take up the order of the blacksmith, if there were a list where jobs are ranked in order of the comfort and wellbeing they bring those who work them, not only would the Blacksmith not find a place at the very bottom, it would not be featured at all! But my back pain is no pain, it is profoundly not so; in that, it is wholly unlike my notion of what pain is – it is clearer, more asserted and assured, as if an emboldened soldier with emotions vehement and heart irreclaimably ablaze with volition, bent ever so intently on my harm. The pain’s new different nature renders it both potent and exceptionally long-lasting, though I might also assign the latter attribute to my old sore body; surely, I do not presently deal with pain as I did when my most common of habits was running, jumping onto and off all manner of brick structures, and seldom standing still long enough for my hair to settle back down and tousle over my forehead. Now that I look on them, the events of my life have not been wholly unlinked to the act of running. And not only in the obvious way: my long journey from the village to the City gates. The skill of sustained running must have been useful then, but it was not only then that is was useful …

When I first laid eyes on Sara, I had been running. It was a bright subdued day, far from being distastefully hot but never the less brilliantly illuminated, as those of the spring are. My blacksmith father had sent me to an acquaintance of his, to deliver a written message that he regretfully could not deliver in person. My father’s friend’s son had passed, and the letter –penned on fine paper and bound in a silken band– was to be delivered immediately, a token of my father’s consolatory efforts. I had found it tragically funny that I would deliver such a message, when my own blacksmith father’s son had passed little over a year earlier, and in my blacksmith father’s eyes, I had been a somewhat solacing, if not wholly identical, replacement.

Perhaps fittingly, my father learned of his friend’s son’s death due to an absence. Before his death, the friend’s son, Laris, had frequently visited my father. Every week, rolling ahead of his a cart, he would deliver my father various sums of metal, as per his orders – if the blacksmith required, say, a thousand apothecaries’ ounces of iron for the breastplate of a suit of armor a high-born customer had ordered, the blacksmith would inform Laris, who would in turn – for a fee, of course – fetch the desired material from his father’s stores on the outskirts of the city where the rates of rent were least. The week before Laris had not paid my father visit, and when another young man in his stead, my father was informed that Laris had been raided by bandits and, resisting them, had received a mortal wound to the chest that left him breathless, delirious, and eventually, sprawled on a city street in a small pool of innocuous light-red blood.

The new boy looked younger and his face was warmer, his demeanor more welcoming, his words and gestures polite and considered. Unlike Laris, who had been a hasty one, and quick to joke, even at the expense of others. Never the less, Laris’s absence had left a discernible mark. “I’m sorry,” the new boy said. “Laris won’t be coming any more, but I’ll do my best to fill his shoes. I’m younger, but I’m every bit as quick and strong, you’ll see.” Where Laris was cavalier and cared for it little, the new boy exuded passion for their line of work. “Go ahead and tell me your needs, and I’ll see they’re delivered, earlier and faster even that Lar–” the faltering at mentioning the deceased “… earlier and faster, uncle, you’ll see. It’s a pleasure to meet you, uncle, I’ll see that I never disappoint you, uncle, you’ll see.”

Time would prove his pledges true. But now back to letter and Laris’s grieving father.

Laris’s father lived on the farthest edge of the City, so that though I started my journey to his old house in the early morning, I only arrived as afternoon broke. “As fast as you can,” my father told me, sliding the letter into my hands. “Don’t let it distract you. It’s big and busy, but you’ll see it all in good time.” I obeyed to the best of my ability: I ran and ran until I strained to pound air into my lungs, and then I ran farther still. Even a year later, the awe of big city had not worn thin, and I frequently caught myself with my mouth agape at the sight of it: so many people, such vastness and diversity: the men wheeling carts, the vagrants, the beggars, the rich: impeccably dressed and flawlessly groomed. As much as I wanted to deny, to wipe clean my past and pretend to start anew, I was still the boy whose origins were a small fisher’s village the population of which was scarcely larger than a hundred. But here were thousands upon thousands of complete strangers! The mild danger of the new and unfamiliar excited me.

I followed the route prescribed to me, running so quickly heads turned at my passing, when ahead of me stood a towering giant of a stone building. Out of its metal gate poured men and women, nestled in their grips books and pens and pads of paper, and she was one of them. I approached her, my head tilting to the side to catch the glint of her large unperturbed eyes, I ran and my head titled even more, tilting still, until …

The cart and its contents had upturned and the melons fell to the floor, and when I disentangled myself from the wooden cart I’d hit, I did my best to right it up again, lifted the melons back into it. Most didn’t break, much to my fortune.

“What’s that place?” I asked, handing the man all the coin I carried to pay for the two melons that burst red upon on the floor.

When his face calmed, he said, “The University. That’s the University.”

“And who can I enter?”

“Oh, you need much more than this for that,” he said, shaking the coin I gave him with a chink of metal. “But I’ll tell you what: your pair of browns will be here tomorrow at the same time. The students leave in the afternoon, every day, right through that gate.”

“Pair of browns?” What do you mean?”

He only smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and walked away, gentling his cart forward with frail arms. Only later that day, after I had delivered the letter and watched Laris’s father’s eyes water at reading it, did I understand that he meant her eyes. Lying in my bed that night, I resolved that nothing would stop me: tomorrow, I would cut across the city again, arrive at the University gate, and meet Sara. Of course, I hadn’t known her namethen. The next day, enamored by the very thought, I finished my work and set out to the University, and it was here that running served me well: I hadn’t started at early morning as I had the day before, so I had to run even faster if I was to arrive before she had left for her home.

So I …

Three knocks on the door. It’s her. “Come in,” I just said to her. Of course it’s her. She still is too good to disturb me in my study, a courtesy only extended to me by her. Three knocks, that’s how she knocks. Three slow raps at the wood, too tender and unmistakable to be misconstrued for the careless hands of anyone else. She slides the door open and steps through. Though she doesn’t believe me when I say it, she’s still as beautiful as the day I blithely ran to her University’s gate. She is walking toward me, silent like she always is in my study. Is she standing over me now? Is that her sweet breath against the back of my neck? Is she looking over my shoulder now, reading this as I write it? Is that a smile I see? She must be reading, then. Well, since she is: do you remember the first time I spoke to you? Another smile,  but no words, seems she doesn’t want to speak. Very well. Take the pen from my hand, write it down. What happened?

You stammered stupidly and said I reminded you of your mother. I thought to myself, Who is this maniac? But something told me to believe you. Was it the earnest eyes? You looked so helpless, you were close to tears, remember? I thought I really must have reminded you of her. But then you ran off, embarrassed, and I thought I’d never see you again. But then the next day, and the one after, and those to follow, at the university gate, there you were, stammering stupidly again. Is this the pen Syres got you for your sixtieth? Anyway, take your pen back now.

My thanks. And no, that is another pen, this one is Syres’s gift, see? The engravings are different. And that was told better than I ever could, truly a fine job. I wonder, now, if the good lady would grace me with a kiss …

July 21st, 1848

Diary Dearest,

It has been a most undesirable month, I should have to say. My days have continually melded to a coherent and boring structure: I have had neither entertainment in anything nor enjoyed that unparalleled excitement of living that so frequently characterized my more youthful years. I fear I am becoming an old man, I am joining the ranks of those whose feeble bodies and cautious strides I once mocked, once laughed jeeringly at in my more vain years. I suppose it is always so with the young: they think themselves all-knowing and all-powerful; ah, the delusions of youth. Delusions, I dare say, that are swiftly and rightly beaten out of them in time, though sooner for some than others. I was not as fortunate as to have my imagined greatness deconstructed in my teenage years, and have carried them with me until I had grown to twenty-and-some years of age. But, as it seldom fails to do, time caught up to me, and upon its arrival my edifice of grandeur was demolished, leaving me with a clear vision of my own self and the world around me which I had so vainly inhabited. Truly, I cannot say I am an avid admirer of the month that has passed, but as they say, there is redemption yet.

Today, on a day I would have otherwise deemed inauspicious and unbecoming, and comprising in its width a considerable ration of boredom, I was approached with a proposition; one thoroughly fitting and most delightful, I promptly contended, after agreeing to what was asked of me in a manner I can only describe as being of extreme interest, acceptance and excitement. It was a man who approached me with the idea, and through his mustached lips poured forth words of colossal integrity. I was bidden by him, a literary connoisseur of some considerable stature and expertise, to undertake one of his tasks in his stead, for he thought it most appropriate (and I could not but agree). He asked of me that I provide a synopsis of my latest and yet unpublished literary work, as well as provide some information concerning my early and more obscure years, to help him in writing my biography. It is true, accounts of my younger years –those before I rose to prominence and into the view of the public eye– are scarce and all but entirely absent. So, after serving the man a cup of tea (lightly sweetened for he thoroughly disliked the over-sweet), and considering his proposition for some time, I agreed and he was on his way before finally stating that he would visit once more in a week’s time, to collect the written aid.

I shall make haste in writing this, for at the mere thought of penning this chronicle my metaphorical writing-mouth waters wetly and heavily. Tomorrow I shall write it, and in this journal entry I shall write a brief overview that I may not forget any of the details my mind bears presently. I shall write the man a detailed account –as the connoisseur himself asked– and the synopsis of my work, The Man with the Rose Garden, shall follow. I have come to harbor a morbid fear of forgetfulness in my old age, and this is but a measure to calm my screaming worry that I might forget the details of my own life. Truly, it is not easy being old, still less easy being paranoid about it.

Of my childhood I remember very little. Indeed, of the years until I turned ten, I have but a few indistinct memories; these have ever since become increasingly pale and hazy, indistinct as only memories of childhood can be. I was born to a fisherman husband and a homemaker wife, and for all purposes my lineage was not any source of pride, and among the children of the fishers’ village I was mocked aplenty, for my father had not been the best of the village’s fishermen – indeed, he had likely been the worst, and his produce of ensnared fish had been humble, too humble to feed my mother and me regularly, much less be sold sustain a household; but where my father lacked, my mother exceled. My mother was beautiful, truly the image of both womanly and motherly splendor and greatness. She had been married to him, my father, on account of her father being a nasty drunk who sought to free himself of having to clothe and feed his only daughter that he may have more coin to –forgive my crass wording– piss away on drink. I have always thought that my mother, were the circumstance different, would have married a prince, or someone of similar stature and height.

My younger years were insignificant, and perhaps only what is worth noting of them is that during them my literary inclinations had not shown the slightest presence, and I thought myself as much a writer as king or mighty trader – it needs no saying, of course, that I was neither royal nor particularly rich.

My teenage years were more of the same, with the exception of my heart heating and pounding a hole in my chest over the image of many a fair maiden. I found myself enamored with many a young girl, and in that respect I think I was much a typical boy. By then, like most of my friends, I spent my days raising the hackles of my elders, favouring boyish instincts over maturity, and generally engaging in all manner of mischief. In that, too, I had embraced conformity. It begs mentioning that during those years my mother passed, by then I had scarcely turned sixteen, and after that there was no more mischief, and none of the village girls received the least of my attention, and I felt wronged in a way most unforgivable – wronged by life, chiefly, but also by my father: in his exceptional foolishness (such are ingrate wretches), he had not deigned to treat my mother as should be in her living years, as I treated her. My anger at him, and at the circumstances in which I found myself, grew so insurmountable that I finally decided, after much inner debate and deliberation, to leave my home.

I ran and ran, longer than I thought I could and farther than I ever thought I would lay eyes on in my lifetime, much less at the tender age of seventeen. I survived primarily on the kindness of strangers who fed me along the way (doubtless moved to do so by my pitiable nature), but instrumental, too, to my journey’s success was a few albeit key instances of theft. I thieved rarely, though, and took to care to steal only what the house concerned seemed to have in abundance, so that a minor reduction of their supply of beans, bread, cheese, water, vegetables and –once– meat, was not affected a great deal. I thought that very altruistic and commendable on my part.

Eventually and after exceeding hardship, I arrived at the City gates. To a fisher’s boy like me, it had been a sight unmatched, and for my first few hours inside it I walked its streets with what surely must have been a look of  marveling. It was so big and the markets and streets so busy, and not only was I fortunate to witness them, I was further fortunate to find work within a small window of my arrival: a blacksmith whose son had recently died of disease was in need of a young man with whom to work, who would help with matters of the job, and I was offered the blacksmith’s son’s place. He had called out to me as I blithely walked under his awning and offered me the job, saying that I looked like his passed son: tall, straight-backed, sinewed in arm, leg and shoulder, and not without a handsome face. “You’re not like the city boys,” he told me. “They couldn’t lift a slab of steel if you promised them a mansion and the fairest maiden in the lands. They couldn’t life one to save their lives!” He grabbed my arm in hands grown strong and deft. “No, you’re different, you’re like my Ahmos. He was like you. You have an arm on you, yes you do.” My being a brawny village boy had finally brought some good. I gratefully accepted the job, and for the years to come I had coin in my pocket, food in my belly, and a blacksmith father who cared for me. I made no attempt to contact my fisherman father, and to this day his whereabouts and condition remain a mystery to me – though it is likely he has passed like my mother, for it has been a great while since I parted from him.

My blacksmith father saw to it that I be taught to write and read, even do the sums (though with that I had much difficulty), but such a prodigious learner was I that soon I started writing my own literary work, much to the awe, pleasure, and admiration of my instructors. My first novel-length work, completed at the age of twenty, was The Day Horus Went Blind, a moving tale imbued with a fair measure of mythology – Horus, the Ancient Egyptian God frequently portrayed in the image an eye, and his going blind, was a metaphor I employed to pertinent effect, comparing the ungrateful nature of those lucky and fortunate to the blind. It was, by my present standards, a modest success, but one that delighted my young self like nothing other.

The Spring of My Life was my second offering, and was mainly a byproduct of falling irredeemably in love with a woman who I have since taken to wife, and who upon seeing reminded me strikingly of my long-dead mother (although whether the similarity was real or imagined I do not know). Never the less, I had come to love Sara, and wanted nothing other than to continue to love her for as long as I breathed upon this earth. To this day, I can name no greater joy than that of the day she professed that she loved me as much as I did her. A novel whose author could not have been more love-struck, The Spring performed remarkably well, perhaps because by then I had honed my skill well, but as I like to think of it, its success with the readership was a testament to my great love being true.

I would have this journal entry be longer, I would, but I grow weary and the day has been a long one. I shall retire to my chambers and continue in the morning. I note that I fall to sleep much earlier now, and that is nothing short of another reminder that I have grown weak of body and mind. Until tomorrow, then …

 _

To be continued. Maybe.

The World with No Name

Note: this story borrows precedent from, and is a continuation of, another story I’ve written, called In the Temple They Were Singing (you can read it here). You’ll need to have read that to make sense of this.

Slaves No More

It’s always been the sounds, they are the most striking. The power of sound has always been their favourite, their most versatile, and their most powerful. They wield it like warriors do spears. Back when they spoke and sang and prayed in the language we taught them, I used to visit their world to listen to them, to their ancient song.

A long time ago, during his reign, Ra, thinking that the heard trumped and dwarfed the seen, tried to diversify, to give the visual element of life more importance. Beauty pleased him. To do that many monuments were built, some of which survive to this day (Khephri is especially proud that his pyramid is of the three that remain).

In the temples they were always singing, day and night, flood and drought, happiness and sorrow. I enjoyed visiting, to listen to them at their song. Sounds are a specialty here in the … well, it hasn’t been the slave-world I knew it to be for a long time, has it?

I do not know what to call it. I must call things as they are, mustn’t I? And this is no slave-world any more: the name does not fit. I do not know what to call it now. Perhaps now it is a world with no name. Or at least, no name that I or any of my kind can dictate. They are free now. Free of us. Perhaps it is this detachment, their agelong detachment from us, that prevents me from easily naming their world.

And yet their world is not alien to me.

Things are different now, and my kind have witnessed them change. The Black Walk has seen more usage in the last thousand or so years than it had in the millions of years before. We visit their world much more often now, have been for a fair while now. You see, before they turned their attention from us, they had worshiped us. But the people of Kemet have not worshiped me and my family for years, and in that time much has changed: unworshiped, neglected, and paid no attention any longer, we deserted the Country of Kings, left behind what then became relics of a bygone age. Time is nothing if not ruthless, and even the gods suffer at its hand.

The dynasties of the pharaohs crumbled, and the people started ruling themselves: the Romans gave way to the British (with many detours along the way), and the most recent and noteworthy of historical happenings here was a bloody revolution against the ruler of the time: a man who wrongly thought himself one of my kind. Trouble comes when one forgets where the lines are, and trespasses on territory that need not be treaded upon. What’s more, Kemet, once proudly called so, found itself designated Misr, or Egypt, depending on where you hail from.

You will forgive me, I forgot to elaborate. (Yes, even gods’ memories fade and etiolate with time.) I must explain: The Black Walk is what I call the road from my home to this world. The black is that of the dead expanse of space of which it is made. The road is as follows: a long stretch toward this specific world’s galaxy, and a final swerve in the planet’s general direction, indicated by a constellation of stars resembling two lines of stars in the winter sky (they call this Gemini), from there the shining planet is easy to spot. The journey is a smooth one: my kind do not find difficulty in travelling long distances.

Though it started with mere fascination, I have come to love their kind.

These days, crossing the streets here is a perilous undertaking. I push along with the crowds traversing the crowded urban Cairo landscape. That’s what they call it now: Cairo. On either side of me are men with briefcases, hurrying, women carrying the same, also hurrying, and others lugging handbags, lively children with their signature smiles, a man steering along the sidewalk a cart lined with gold fresh bread, he too is hurrying. They are all in a screaming hurry. People have become faster. In the Golden Age, things, and people, were much slower. There was cadence to action, and to speech.

Now, I say Golden Age both metaphorically and literally: it was the period during which my family was most active around these parts (indeed, back then, every action and prayer was done in pursuit of our satisfaction, and in avoidance of our scorn and displeasure); but I also mean it literally, the time period was most characterised by one of a few things: there was plenty of gold everywhere.

It’s as though the further along the river of time they advance, they gain speed, as though slightly more conscious of the impending running out of time. Just as I arrived, another man, in narrow eye-glasses and the now ubiquitous jeans, almost bumped into me, but quickly turned out of the way before impact. (In a hurry again.)

“Sorry,” he hissed, a spit of a word, not so much an apology as a mere acknowledgement of the incident. I didn’t respond, I kept my silence. By then, he wasn’t close enough to hear my reply anyway. Rather, he’d already reached the end of the long street – even to me, that seemed fast.

Another thing I have neglected to mention: this time, contrary to my usual practice of appearing in their world as an old man, I appeared as a young man. Tall, brown-eyed, dark-haired, skin not quite dark and not quite pasty-white.

A few years ago, I hear, something slightly similar, though not nearly as inconsequential, happened to Anubis, in the east:

He’d been walking a busy marketplace along the coast when a stranger dashed toward him, bumped into him, and threw him to the floor. On the floor, the strange man picked ferociously at the shirt and trousers Anubis wore. Then the strange man darted away, leaving Anubis on the floor, still shocked and wondering what in the world had just happened. Anubis later learned that the bizarre incident was little more than an attempt at robbery (the run-drop-and-grab was at the time a technique only recently invented by local thieves). Of course, before he’d realized that the stranger meant no harm, Anubis, hot-tempered, haughty, and perpetually outraged at most things, had thought that the incident was an attack upon his being, and before angrily retreating to our home he had leveled much of the Indonesian landscape with a tsunami so big, it is still talked about years on.

But he soon returned. Truth is, we have all grown bored in the long years since presiding over the thrones of Keme … of Egypt. That is precisely why The Black Walk has been used so much: it is frequented by gods of a time long gone, seeking refuge from a mind-splitting, tedious, and monotonous life. In their world it is easier.

But, as much as it pleases me to recount the voyages and misfortunes of my brethren, I must digress. It is not my purpose to tell of these, rather to tell of my own. I have seen so much, perhaps my loquacious self just wants to share what it has seen: there is a natural urge to tell of what you know, to share what you know (that is funny, I’m sure you’ll understand, because I am the farthest there is from nature – I am not of it, I am of a different field). All the same, now is not the time. Back, then, to the man I had almost met foreheads with, and the busy street:

Between the monster of the ear-piercing sound of traffic, and the beast of fast-moving mass of human quickness brushing past me, around me, and almost through me, I felt at home. I had often visited this Egypt, the one of speed and modernity, and the changes had come to perturb me little. I thought that, by then, having spent so much time in their world, that nothing of them or their world would shock me.

I was wrong.

 Hathor’s Double

Some sights take you by surprise, like a hot brick to the face. You must understand, it was no regular sight; it was not even a regular shocker of a sight. It was more. It startled me, on two levels, the first of familiarity: at seeing her, I almost called out, “Sister, is that you?” “Hathor, are you here?”

It was entirely justified, I’ll have you know: her eyes were the same deep, luminous brown, and her spread of hair was the same earthy dark-amber. This was exactly the form that Hathor took here in this world, she thought it the most beautiful. I cannot but agree, and in that I am not alone: in the depictions of her in their art, our then-slaves depicted Hathor very accurately, noting every illusive detail. (One of the few things they impeccably recorded of us is the immaculate beauty with which we appeared, which doubtless says ample amounts about them as a species.)

The second reason (and I struggled to pinpoint which was the more effective) was that while those around her ran and sped, she seemed to undertake the opposite: she slowed. She bifurcated from the crowd, in the way that water is repulsed by oil, and in the way that both separate from each other. They, the inattentive and absent majority, chased down their imagined who-knows-what, and she, with deliberately slow steps and a peaceful pace, and a backpack on her shoulder that looked half-full, slowed still, as if she were swimming against the tide, trying not to be pulled along by the others. She was easy to spot: she was an almost-still light in the fast-moving haze.

Disinterested in those around her, and seeing sense in little else, I followed the Slow Walker along the sidewalk of the street they call Salah Salem. (There, in that exact spot where I first saw her, exactly where that concrete-lined slab of road is, three thousand years before, a family of four had lived, and died of the Black Fever. The son was the last to depart. They were good people, not uncommon then.)

It was a few minutes later that she’d entered a park called Al Azhar. I trailed her cautiously: not so fast as to arouse her suspicion (the last thing I wanted was to have her lose her serene ease), and not so slow as to lose sight of her anomalous demeanour. Inside the park, she found her way onto a bench that was more a painted-white slab of rock than sitting utensil. I waited until she’d sat and settled (hiding behind the body of a palm tree), then I moved over and sat at the farthest edge of the bench.

She flipped to the inner leaf of the last page in the paper, folded it to the desired page, and smoothed the bent edges. With a pencil she worked at the crossword, decoding word after another: Two down, the word was: Nameless, Six across: Babble, Nine down: Intelligence, Five across: Constantinople.

She burned through the grid, until on the second last word she stopped and bit her lips as if straining to remember the word, the name. The clue read: “Melkite patriarch of Egypt, last Byzantine prefect – five letters.”

“And as is my duty,” I said loudly and triumphantly, to no one in particular, rather reenacting the words, “I will bring life and I will bring death, and all shall be in God’s glory. There is none but him.”

She looked at me, half-startled, peering away from her paper through squared angular eye-glasses. “Eh?”

“He said that. It was a cold day, not a bird in sight, and Cyrus of Alexandria said that. He’d had a slight cold, so he struggled a bit with that last part. Cyrus, nine down.” I pointed at the crossword in her hand. “It’s Cyrus.”

“Oh,” she said guardedly, in the way that strangers are spoken to. “Wait, so you peeked? From there? Far away …”

“Good eyesight,” I said. “I got it from my mother. Long-sightedness runs in the family.” That was true enough.

She flashed a half-smile. “Lucky,” she said. “The only things that run in my family are bad hair and diabetes.”

She laughed and I did too. She tucked the paper in her bag, and thumbed into her book for the page with the wedged-in bookmark. For a while she read, and I dared not interrupt her. Though I didn’t look, I knew what she was reading: my kind see what they want to see, we do not strictly have to look. Still less do we have to do anything, for that matter, we will what we want to happen, and it … does.

There was a long pause as she read a page, during which I read the whole book. Unexpected ending. She snapped the book shut, and looked back at me. “So who was he?”

“Who was who?” I said.

“Cyrus,” she said. “Who was he?”

“Well, he was a Melkite patriarch of Egypt, and the last Byzantine prefect … five letters.”

Another half-smile.

“But who was he? You know, don’t you?”

“I do,” I said. “That’s the history book version, but -” I pointed matter-of-factly “- he was really a nasty ruler and a drunk. Took a great liking to women, inflicting pain and suffering, and died shortly after losing Alexandria to Rashidun army siege. But he was committed. He liked the idea of being obeyed. He liked being great. Men, like gods, like power.”

“Are you a historian?”

“I try to explore time. You could call me that, yes.”

Silence. I noticed her guarded demeanor liquefy a little then, slightly give way to a more welcoming being. Her face relaxed, and I think, so did mine.

“He wouldn’t have liked that, you know,” I continued. “You forgot his name. He wouldn’t have liked someone forgetting his name: he thought too highly of himself. In a way, by forgetting his name, you were punishing him. Tormenting him. I can’t say he doesn’t deserve it, though. Nasty man.”

She nodded, as if saying that’s interesting. “Illusions of grandeur are … silly. Greatness itself is selfish. So is power. It’s basically stealing other people’s will, and commanding that yourself. It’s selfish and ugly.”

“I suppose.”

“There’s little to life that actually has importance,” she continued, “and living life on the run, you can’t possibly find what that is. It’s not power, or money, and it’s not being called great and mighty. It’s simpler than that.”

Silence. Her shoulders loosened from a stubborn lock. Humans have a way of locking joints when they’re approached by possibly hostile individuals or situations. They freeze. If there is no danger, they acclimatize and unwind.

“What about you?” I asked. “What do you like? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I don’t,” she said, sliding her bag to her side. “I like words, that’s one thing.” She held up the book so I could see. “I’m sure a historian can relate.”

“Historian certainly does.”

“What else does Historian like? Other than reciting the words of drunk megalomaniacs? Of course, if you don’t mind my asking.” The words were somehow nicer the second time round. Her humour carried an nearly imperceptible, but nonetheless present, undertone of sincerity. Like that of an old friend.

“I don’t,” I said. “I like song.”

I could’ve sworn she really was Hathor then. It’s the elated smile. Warm. Endearing.

“That’s good,” she said, trying to contain herself. “Song is good.”

“Good,” I said, “and pure, and eternal. Languages change. They die out and so do people and most other everything else, but songs don’t die. They can’t die. Songs are like gods: You can’t kill a song.”

“See,” she returned, “that’s what I meant. Song is selfless. The only purpose to music is to soothe the soul. It’s sincere to sing. It’s honest. You only bring happiness when you sing, and you become happier yourself. It’s the height of benevolence. Yes, singing, that’s the key to life.” She grinned to herself, as if in accomplishment.

“Do you ever want to sing your lungs out?” Her question was earnest, I felt like I’d known her for years. No easy feat: my kind form agelong relationships, and to establish the likes of that in a matter of minutes is a great accomplishment.

“Always,” I said. “But I don’t strictly have the best voice.”

The smile again. I had assented, so she elaborated.

“Who cares! I don’t, too. But I want to sing my lungs out. It’s one of those days. And do it from a mountaintop! So my singing can soak up to the clouds.”

Silence again. That was her grandfather’s line, “So that song soaks up to the clouds.” He’d said that on a cold winter day. He was telling her, her seven-year-old self, about a day he’d spent in sunny Lebanon. She and her grandfather had been romanticizing the sun and the summer months, on account of it being so bitingly cold outside. “It’s true,” he’d said, “it does feel like the sun is kissing your skin. And we sang so much, Lara, and on the mountaintops our voices soaked up to the clouds.” (That was also, interestingly, a day on which he made a friend for only a day, but one of whom he still talks to this day. Also interesting: her grandfather shares his name with the street she walked: Salah.)

Silence still. I stood up, as unthreateningly as I could.

“Stand up and walk five paces,” I said to her.

“What? Why?”

“You have no reason to, but trust me. Walk with me.”

Silence.

Amazingly, though, after a moment of disbelief, she did. I was thankful that I could be so convincing. She started up, and at seeing me take a step forward she did the same. One. Two. Three. Four. The floor was lined with red brick.

Relocation is always more of a gradual shock than an outright one. The sky above is usually similar, and it doesn’t feel like anything, so realizing that you’ve been transported somewhere else is often a slow process. But the realization eventually happens, and there’s usually a small thing that triggers it. This time, it was the feel of the coarse rock under her feet. The top of my pyramid hasn’t changed much.

On her fifth pace, she realized it. I suggest five paces for the added effect: it feels like you traveled a world in a few steps.

She looked at me.

“Sing,” I said, standing beside her atop the golden beast. “It’s no mountain, but it’s close. It’s best not to trespass upon others’ property, and the Mountain Gods aren’t the nicest of folk. But here, this is mine.”

Shock. They breathe heavily when they’re shocked, and they become animated. Their eyes widen. Sometimes their lips quivers. Some even fall, their knees give way. “How did you do that?”

The screaming disbelief.

“We can go back if you want to, I can explain how I did that perfectly fine on that horrible bench. But here …  here we sing.” I moved closer. “Sing,” I repeated. “You don’t mind my request, do you?”

She smiled again. “I don’t,” she said.

The Way Back

Like I said, it’s always been about sound with them.

Along the Black Walk, on the way back home, I passed by Isis who was taking the same route, except she was taking the opposite route, the one to the world with no name. We conversed for a short while, and she told me of her most recent excursion (involving a big boat, bad shrimp, and a stroll along the Nile), and in turn I offered a detailing of my own: Though I never asked, I know her name was Lara. Lara sang, Lara read, and Lara forgot the name of a drunk megalomaniac.

“So, what happened?” asked Isis. Her motherly voice.

“I watched clouds smile.”

She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“They were happy. They were soaking up beautiful song.”