By Sakina Fakhri
A line branched into two, four, six, eight…each node a horrible altercation, a quiet death and a hundred beginnings—creased and individuated, creased and individuated. The heavy brushstroke of a smile ebbs gently over an old man’s skin, is removed, is repeated, and settles into a soft complacency: such is the rippling Sahara, suggesting infinity.
In his mind, the number had been taut, self-contained; like a capsule, it had retained the integrity of its finite importance, nestled safely between this fact and that one. While the number existed in silence, there remained hope: in one’s mind, things may fade. In the mind, numbers can erode—forty-five thousand today, yes, but soon to be only forty–and, oh, wasn’t it thirty-five thousand who died in that war? Yes, I believe it was around thirty. Fifteen thousand lives reduced to an ephemeral fiction, ravaged by the silent excesses of memory…
But now, here, the number had been spoken; and now there would be the memory of it being spoken. That was undeniable, irreversible. The words that had entered his throat were solid—Astor had coughed, as he spoke them—but once reaching his tongue, they evaporated at once. The echo of forty-five thousand spread through the air by degrees.
Seeking to constrain it, Astor repeated it, “45,000 casualties.”
He reclined in his office chair. Maybe then they wouldn’t notice—how it hardly affected him, how the number was too large for even him to believe. How forty-five thousand could not fit in this cubicle, could not populate even the whole office. How one, or two, maybe a son, an uncle, how those were real numbers that one could understand. But not this—this forty-five thousand.
I wish they would leave, Astor thought to himself. His coworkers looked to him like amorphous puddles, carved briefly into men. They had seeped into his cubicle—a trickle at first, faces distinguished, and then a flood indiscriminate. They offered phrases, “It’s just a matter of time now…” and “It’s all over the streets” and then—it was the man in the back, quiet once but thundering now—“We’re looking at surefire war!” They covered the forty-five thousand in layers, like sheets, in predictions and convictions, until its edges did not sting.
It won’t end, Astor realized, and though he knew not whether he referred to the exposition or the nuclear combat, he knew with utter certainty that it was true. He knew it more deeply than they, because the feeling of doom had settled heavy in his gut, while it pirouetted briefly along the outlines of their lives. But that, what was that, that flickered in their pupils? They are in awe of me. They wish they had been at fault.
Their nation was ready for war; it had been for generations. It lacked only a reason. They all knew their jobs; the boss had made those clear. Their office was a model of military efficiency. They would collect the military wires, international telegrams, suspicious packages that entered the country. Those that might have held promise of provocation—an offensive phrase, a nuclear taunt, an indecipherable language—were quickly shuffled to Astor’s desk for decisive vindication. Astor’s job reeked with its own sustainability.
And it had been Astor’s good luck, that morning, to chance upon the stray insult—“dogs.” That was what the telegram in question had called his countrymen. The insult lay buried amongst tedious pages of stock market agreements and credit checks. Astor himself had paid little attention, had not in fact caught this supposed “call-to-arms,” until his boss had called him into his office, and had presented his own translation back to him, accompanied with smiles and a hefty pat on the back. “This is what we have been waiting for,” his boss had said, eyes gleaming, “Now we can attack.” But it wasn’t Astor who had found it, not really, so it was not Astor’s victory, not his victory at all…
As a translator, he occupied that essential space, that space between the one who sees and the one who is seen. It was no matter that the war had become a reality, that ever-increasing nuances of hatred had escalated past mere taunts, had glided so smoothly, almost inevitably, into incarnate tanks. And of course Astor’s footsteps would never cross paths with a single soldier; no, each day, he would walk home through the store-fronted avenues, past the rubbish bins that lined the curbs, and turn onto the tree-lined side-streets. It was all very perpendicular, of course, daubed boldly in grays and greens and browns. But somehow, palettes of square lawns screamed of mass infertility.
Now, as his coworkers stood above him in their wonder, Astor’s face dissolved in indifference, a softened reproduction of tragedy, a baited muddle that contrasted with the bold diagonals of his collar and tie.
The flowers on his windowsill leaned gently towards the rain, resting against dry glass.
The country had mobilized fairly quickly. The translation had drifted from Astor’s idle hands to his boss’s desk, then sped off to the capitol, and then the insult—the provocation—the incontrovertible detritus of a verbal attack—was tucked comfortably into the mouths of politicians, reproduced through the rhetoric of the media, and espoused proudly by the country’s bold citizenry. It was everywhere—they were being attacked—and in the worst way. Their race had been defamed, reduced to a meager canine consistency: “Dogs.”
But what had Astor been thinking, that fateful morning, as he penned the word into his translation? What feral thoughts raced through his head as he shuffled through the pages? No, they weren’t about stock markets, and they weren’t about averages…they were about her, always her. Her face would emerge beneath the numbers—first scattered in the white, in atoms—then coalesced, above, until he could see nothing but her. He could never account for her; and once he had added her to his column of numbers, she would again dissolve, and he would be forced to recalculate it without her.
He knew why she had left him: She left because he put his trousers on one leg at a time and because he had to have his coffee slightly lukewarm (microwaved, then placed in the freezer for just under a minute). It was clear that it wore on her. She left because he cooked chicken curry for dinner three days in a row—he hadn’t noticed, his papers hadn’t been moved off his desk in quite some time and clearly he was in a stasis—and how was he to have known that chicken curry two days in a row was perfectly fine but that chicken curry three days in a row was fatal? He knew now, of course, and now it became his habit to eat chicken curry twice in a row, or four times, but never three. And he had never learned to cook for one. There was no ecstasy in that—only the pain of waiting for broiling, marinating, cooking, and further cooking to end, so that he could eat his dinner, so that it too could end.
But now, day after, he would get ready the same way. He would sit between the three walls of his cubicles and would watch the numbers rise and fall: rise, fall.
He would have liked variety. It might have been quite bold for her to buy him that magenta tie, and surely it was pretty, but what a distraction! That’s the sort of woman that she was. She would buy him a magenta tie and expect him to wear it just because it was beautiful. There was an excitement in beauty, she said, a special sensation that began in the eyes and reverberated through the heart. And he would wear it, of course, wear it because she asked him to. Because it was her pleasure, it became his.
He had become utterly unable to manufacture desire—it came so prepared in this beautiful human being, so open and so loving. They would watch the comedy shows on television after dinner and she would laugh, a deep chuckle, and he would laugh. It was always that way. She would laugh, then he. When she would smile, the corners of his mouth would instinctually begin to crease.
He told her it was bad luck to break a mirror. He had only been joking, but she asked him what he wanted. “Whatever you want…” That was the wrong answer, she told him, the right answer was “you.” How could he love her if she wasn’t a person, how could she feel for him if all that he felt was some mangled reflection of what she felt? That was narcissistic, she said, if he was her and she loved him then she was loving only herself, and this made her feel alone. But even in this they were together, for she felt alone, then he. It was always that way.
She cried when she reached the other side of the door. Astor never knew, so he never cried. And now it had been months.
“Astor!” It was his boss. “Astor, how are those numbers looking?” The barrage of words dispersed Astor’s reverie, seized him into deadlines and numbers. “Do the numbers check out, or what?” his boss demanded of him.
But they weren’t all numbers; was that fact immaterial to these men in suits? This translation was a simple task, perhaps, but taxing nonetheless. Taxing because they were not indeed all numbers: amidst the numbers there were paragraphs, and within the paragraphs there were letters, letters in a foreign script, phrases in the old language. The ancient calligraphy dipped beneath the lines, elegantly, nimbly, like women dancing in red dresses, locks of hair swooning beneath the surface… they transformed suddenly into the new language, all acute, all edges, groupings unconnected but isolated alongside one another, just close enough but never touching though firmly interconnecting. The new language, which plows through, within, deeper and sharper and yet farther within until light—the window, the door, the bed—illuminates the boy in the doorway, the unexpected son of love, but the room grows saturnine, flayed of brightness, graying and graying into blackness…
Astor traced the paragraphs with his pen—they danced from confusion to clarity, clarity to confusion. It hardly matters what I write; what matters most is that I write. They will check to see that I have written. And they will check, to ensure my thoroughness, that enough time has passed. So perhaps he could spare a few seconds, a minute perhaps, to remember that her eyes had gleamed—he had seen it!—as she packed her things, that she had been content to leave, even ecstatic.
Though he had belonged to her, in a sense, it had been unsettling to watch her not take him with her. She had not packed him with her novels and her showpieces and her curios—Jacob’s Room, a statue of Ishtar, and a metallic model of a Roman obelisk—all luckier than he, all because they were close to her in a way that he was not. He knew only how to copy; but she knew to create—like his mother, she knew the horror and the pain of new life.
He thought he would never be a mother, but perhaps, perhaps it was now time. Quitting or kissing, no matter, no matter, how could it matter…A boy’s mother and his vessel for life holding blackness, admitting hate, satiating desperation, that could only matter, that could only ever matter…
And now Astor would spare a few seconds more, minutes perhaps, to follow the groove of this tired thought, of a childhood memory sharpened dangerously by years of recollection.
As Astor’s pen touched the paper, his mind floated far, far above. Invisible torrents threatened the steady platform of his thoughts; tremors escaped through his hands. Wavering, bloodshot eyes led him through a worn mental graveyard that sprawled aimlessly within his skull. Here were not graves of forty-five thousand—no, how could those be real, after this?—but of one, of the first. The weeds curved wickedly into one another. They made it clear: they owned her stone. They dared him to touch the memory of his mother, to relive that memory of her.
It was happening again, and it would happen again and again.
He could walk past her stone a million times and his crime once remembered was thrice relived. This rape is not mine, and he would walk by somberly, holding his head up high—to keep her from seeing the tears, tears it was not his right to cry. It was not he who had been raped; but he had done nothing to stop it, and now, it being done, he never could.
A trickling of wind upon his cheek made Astor turn, and wiping the water with his hand, he found a lingering finger under his left eye, wiping the darkness from his face and beckoning, curving its gentle, lithe digits somewhat fiendishly—somewhat hypnotically—slight enough to forget but too soft to ignore. The hand led him to the flayed image of his mother trapped inside her burnished sheets, laid flat now and laid flat once long before…
Astor saw himself—a young boy—standing stock-still in the dimmed doorframe. He looked in: the whitening flesh, splotchy with fearful blushes, that must have been her. Her body didn’t seem to have enough breath, interspersed between those swarthy logs. Rough, grating, hungry weights pushed his mother so deep into the soft blankets that she nearly disappeared. Devoured simultaneously by the pressure and the cushion, she seemed buried in both.
That man created a corpse of a heaving woman; this woman had once created a man. Blanketed in the deepest place within her, Astor imagined himself, harboured and waiting to burst forth. I am a boy, he had thought from the doorway, as the intruder inside fashioned himself a man.
But even Astor, however unintentionally, must have possessed the ability to make a thing happen. Holding his pen, he watched the old language shift and sway before him. It swam in waves; it breathed in fluctuations of light. Here, in this moment—the moment of translation—would be possible the multiplication of beauty: the transference, of the pitfalls and affluences of one culture, deposited into the vessel of another. The moment of the greatest possible creation; the opportunity for a most personal violence.
Astor rolled up his sleeves. The afternoon marched on. He looked down at the untranslated wire, one which yet remained undecipherable to those less vigilant than himself. Concentrate. Time is running out. “Quelb,” it said. He knew it meant “heart.”
But why had his wife been so quick to leave? “Understand, honey. I am here to create.” It had developed far too long to remain gliding about inside of her, and he supposed it had been the right time.
He didn’t want to watch her leave, and after she had fled, he didn’t want to watch her be gone. He could feel her when he sat in every empty chair, and he could hear her laugh faintly, always, coming from a distant room. She was never in any of the distant rooms, however, and logic had conspired to make it completely impossible for him to reach the place that was “away,” the place where she might be waiting for him. Wherever he would deign to be, she would be not there.
He slept for a long time, hoping that in his dreams he would defy reality and he would find her, and she would want to be found, and the bends of time would catapult their existences into the same crevice where the lovers would become themselves over and over, forever, together. But he woke up, always.
Time will kill the dying one, and now Astor blew into his lap and picked up his pen, motivated to salvage the lifeless remains he could find floating on the surface of his mind. That should be sufficient.
Sufficient indeed, but approximations can kill legions. Astor paused at the word “quelb” and faded away into himself once again. He knew he had to move on, that time had passed, because there had suddenly appeared irrefutable evidence that something had moved. What had changed in this small interval? A teardrop expanded on the text, wetting but not overpowering Astor’s dreary occupational nightmare. It must have taken a few seconds to form, a few more seconds to secrete, a few more seconds to roll out of the ducts and alongside his face, a few more to drip hesitantly off the chin and plummet like kamikaze rain onto the page and into his line of sight.
It obscured the word, so that where the line once read with the word “quelb” at its center, it was now replaced, by Astor’s unthinking hand, with the slightly different “kelb”—a word which meant, to Astor’s accidental misfortune, “dog.”
The villainy of an idle footstep might graze this gentle sand in innocence, but such alteration, once made, would never come undone. Dry sheets of grains would coagulate in layers upon such an imprint, days and years and centuries of sand would come to rest on this irrevocable evidence of an uncertain movement, and would take as their foundation an instant—a mere instant—in which the sacred grave of a molten earth relented, absorbed, inhaled the palpability of an action.
So many miles from where his wife lay squatting in a courtyard, scribbling the final words of her masterpiece, Astor sifted through pages. Above him, elaborate domes dissolved into clean white ceilings, blurred into the rectangular vacuity of a fallow cubicle. He found her in his hands. He, too, wrote to completion—
The office clock ticked smoothly towards 4 pm, showing no remorse despite its vicious, constant message of momentary death. From Astor this time was taken, gleaned vaguely from his existence, while she—scribbling all the while—actively offered up her brimming moments in golden tea-cups. Her moments nimbly rearranged themselves into a glimmering temporal lattice until, though complete, they promised to resonate indefinitely.
Dead lines of prose waltzed through her blood, vanished beneath her eyelids and then revealed once more, reposed momentarily between the ridges of her throat. They flitted here and there, unsettling every quadrant of her being until she breathed once more; she inhaled and they rearranged–no, she rearranged them–they flew into their positions with a gustatory certainty, and then she exhaled, and it was beautiful. Like this, she had composed her masterpiece, like breathing, ever mindful of the rhythmic pattern of inhaling and exhaling…
He imagined it was thus; she had never told him. And could he have known? He closed his eyes and he was again sleeping next to her warm body, his consciousness slowly withering away into the sweet hum of her circulatory system and the low whirring of her respiration. How many times had he watched her lift her pen? How many times could he have inquired, sheepishly, what she was writing? How many times had he watched her silently, as one watches a fluttering bird, terrified to intrude into a private, superior world, petrified of tainting it with familiarity, normalcy, mediocrity?
She now lay in yellowing fragments all over his desk. He asked questions, now, of them all, of journalists and writers and women and men and soldiers and publishers—he researched—researched!—his wife, collected clippings, until finally his desk became a mosaic of her memory and a mausoleum of his life. Now she lived as a metonymic goddess beneath his nose but he would never hear her blood, would never hear her breathe.
“Blistering narration…” they would write of her words—
She wafted, mindful of every crevice of the verbal terrain beneath her, but never alighted. This was her genius.
“Four thousand Argani children dead from accidental fire…” Astor would read, for that was his work, to spread news of horror, and to reveal in an entirely new script that which already was unchangeable.
Reviews poured in, cluttered Astor’s desk: “An immersive journey, a romp through sanctuaries of the eye and heart, a formal masterpiece!”
“One thousand troops charge into Depli death camps, regiment now missing…” He only could watch, as he always had done—he created, but it was nothing, it wasn’t his, it was someone else’s tragedy—
“Ablaze with brilliance!” they all wrote. Ablaze!
They knew about fire. Entire nations stood ablaze under their flames.
He had walked home that day, past the store-fronts and the rubbish bins, along the moist-green lawns, thrilled to have bested her. She had not thwarted his deadline; he had swept her away—yes, sure, there had been some tenuous moments somewhere along the middle—but that she was out of his thoughts now, that he had accomplished the passage of time without her, that his boss had smiled—that was Astor’s victory.
It had been he who had made the mistake; but it was they who had forever waited for it. He said this to himself that evening, and then again the following morning as he unwittingly spilled his pens all over the floor. He was crouched on the ground, picking them up like matchsticks from rubber, when they had barged into his office—they were different than he, he was different than they—and filled his cubicle.
“They think we’re dogs!”
“We are being watched; we are being hunted!”
“Attacked? Attacked?! Attack!”
“Yes, they have been gunning for us, for as long as I have known it. In fact, I have known this for as long as they have thought it!”
“They lack ingenuity, intelligence, and determination. Nevertheless, I can say with certainty that we may all die.”
“I can think of several social, economic, and political reasons for this onslaught upon our innocent country. I will proceed to expostulate endlessly on these matters until you are lulled into a quiet state of war.”
“The threat, I find, is questionable. But who am I to say so?”
With the idea long forgotten, the skin begins to speak, and here we witness the perpetuation of staggering facades of power. Each heart deemed free to speak turns tacitly away—for the gift of speech is so precious, never to be endangered—one best say nothing while in possession of this endowment!
Suddenly there came a shatter that rocked the earth—
The desert now was spent, littered with infinite shards of a newborn golden perfection, the pristine egg!—
somewhere a man stared at the peculiar curve in the worn Victorian paneling on his bedroom ceiling and wondered if he would return alive enough to follow that pattern once more—
if one looked closely at the shards, one might see words—
another man looked wistfully at his scuffed dancing shoes, then at his feet, which later were to be scuffed beyond belief at least 25 feet from his body—
words that intertwined into delicate interstitial networks—
and yet another young soldier remembered his mother’s last advice, “always give thanks for your life,” realizing moments too late that she had not advised him about what to do in the event of sudden death—
networks that would form a linguistic lattice of unimaginable strength—
one uniform vomited into porcelain, dreaming that he might be devoured before morning came—
this ephemeral lattice cohered only by the powerful nations that willed it so—
a single finger pulled a trigger—
and now a smaller shatter, barely noticeable but to the attuned mother, left her moment in severed fragments all over the desert floor.
The conglomeration of insignificant destructions became, at once, responsible for the birth of the vast Sahara.
And so Astor came to be where he was, reclining slightly backwards in his chair, announcing the day’s results, a number which would line every newspaper and every café forever, in languages that had not yet been spoken, while her masterpiece lay a dusty relic of a dead language, shoved into forgotten corners of academic towers, its pages plastered on gray museum walls like dead blue butterflies.
“45,000 casualties.” Meager pleasantries.