Marhaba, my friends.
Entirely bogged down on another piece of flash fiction (in which I am reminded that a vivid visual idea is almost always going to get me mired in static description) I wrote this one to break the deadlock. This kind of thing is both good, and annoying: I’d like to arrive at the destination — thank you — but sometimes it turns out I wasn’t entirely sure where that was in the first place.
ackstreet Cairo: behind the school and mosque, crushed up to the Fatimid walls. Corroded stone, unkempt arches, narrow alleys, broken wooden grilles, the occasional golden stone with pharaonic inscriptions quarried from an old monument, electrical wires hanging to neck height, dead potted palms, a few peeling signs in Arabic, a smell of disintegrating waste water and the buffed, slippery grease of human traffic.
And in this house – a little bit back, a little grander with a gnarled gate of rusty iron irises; a second floor, slatted shutters securely fastened – the Cult of Dumua sit on rush mats on the red tiled floor, in the flicker of oil lamps, and watch the passage of the small, crystal vial from hand to hand with a mixture of hope, deference and fear. Fingers are cupped around it in a convenient position of prayer. Occasionally, a forehead is touched to the layered leaves of palm and thumb and vial; a catechism on dry lips.
A hand with blackened fingernails grasps the delicate flower of glass. It is as if well-stuffed sausages have embraced an orchid. Abasi pulls down his eye lid, rubs a little beneath his eye with a fingertip – smudging the kohl that defines its shape – concentrates, looks remorseful, moues an almost theatrical caricature of sadness. For five minutes he looks downcast and crestfallen, but still the vial is empty. He shakes his head. This is obviously not a man who can conjure his own feelings. Perhaps he is unaware of any at all. There’s a bellicose groan from a toothless old man in a turban, and a squeak of agitated sandal on tile.
To the next man – Chibale – swarthy and still covered in chalky, dusty clothes, from where he has undoubtedly just stepped from the desert. His eyes are hard, standing out on his dusted face like syruped fruit on almond flour. A moment and he merely waves the vial on, staring into the middle distance, chewing his cheek flesh.
The vial finds the men who have known loss: Funsani, whose wife was run down, mid lunge, by a workman’s truck – all crashing panels and screaming plasterers – too fast and angry to note the children playing; Hanif, whose great friend, beyond the brotherhood, was gored when scaffolding collapsed like a jumble of sticks, one pole piercing the top of his skull in a perfect circle.
The vial passes amongst those that have known the death of children; those who have known mothers or husbands to die on the want of a handful of bread. Each with the vial pressed beneath an eye, each concentrating on what has pained them most – beyond, they hope, endurance and the dam of tears – and each leaving it as dry as the next. These men have all cried in their time, rinsing almost to blood, though none would admit it. And yet now, when life depends upon it, they rail against those hard-bitten memories and nothing will come.
I hold the finger-ting of glass there a moment, beneath the shadow of my winding scarf, still as the rest. Feeling foolish. I am the only woman here, waiting and wanting a solitary gathering in that corner of parched muscle. But I can never bring what others can bring. I look around to roof fan – hear the whuf, whuf, whuf of moving air – to hangings, to floor and chalked symbols, to the grim beards and faces of the circle of facing men.
Some hands raise at some unconscious movement I make; a seeming suggestion I have given, perhaps, of a clever and industrious way of raising a tear of true sorrow.
I’m intrigued by the empty shape of the glass, feeling the cool curve of it beneath my eye. I can hear the flutter of my own eyelids upon it: a moth, not moisture, at the precipice. But it is soon clear to all: I’m as empty as the rest of them.
“Ach,” I say, the sound jerking a few heads from the silence. “Those men that wish to survive the night would do better to find forgetfulness.”
Another old Bedouin pipes up, voice quavering: “Surely, this monster will suspect crocodile tears?”
Chibale spits, his face pockmarked from childhood tragedy and smallpox. “Any tears – any – would do. Crocodile?” he shrugs, “excellent.” But to follow this, he simply pushes up-and-on his large sunglasses.
The others murmur and nod. “Mayhaps you should have spat in the glass instead, old man, for all the use you are.”
Chibale’s hooked grimace, cheeks pouched.
I pass on the glass in an upturned palm, fingers like bars, nails giving it over with a sharp squeak, wondering at what they see in my dark, Arab countenance: this scrappily bearded face and two milky eyes.
Sad stories ensue. Surely this will make them cry? Envisaged deaths and loved ones lost to imagined disaster, picked at and bludgeoned by a hundred tailored catastrophes: gulping, falling, strangled, smashed.
Then to slapped faces; yawns; anything to raise a tear.
A poke in the eye.
The tall glass of white sand says four past midnight and it pours on like a torrent. There are bloodied eyes, some rubbed with mashed onion – even chilli – and yet, not one dishonest tear will fall.
The chalked symbols and circles are rubbed, the priest hesitant, the voices falling to blame and recrimination, even a forceful rattle at the lead seal on the chained door. But the wood is solid and massive and – regardless – heavily bolted from without.
Some give to worried moans.
At last the cock crows – a thin, reedy and altogether early crow, from a gizzard as tight as walnut.
Thin or no, it is still enough to cry an end to the Cult of Dumua (the Seekers Beyond Torment; followers of ‘Our Lady of Tears’). Alas, for the easing of all earthly cares, a true tear is the one and just payment for my attentions, and if not… well… as their women and children break down the medieval door with road working hammers, and break the seal with a jangle of chain, they find only a fine, grey ash and a pale blue scarf puddled upon it – silver thread shimmering – as if it were, in itself, a ribbon of tears.