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.