Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Dumua

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. 

***

B

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.

To me.

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.

Pained laughter.

Try again.

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.

A mirage.

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.

Reddened flesh.

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.

17 comments

1 Steve Green { 09.23.12 at 6:02 pm }

Once again I find myself carried along by the sheer elegance and poetry of your wordcraft Stephen.

It would seem tears fall freely, until they are a matter of life and death.

2 Icy Sedgwick { 09.23.12 at 8:24 pm }

I never cease to be amazed by the way you sculpt words into pure poetry. Beautiful imagery here.

3 Stacey { 09.23.12 at 11:19 pm }

Echoing the previous commenters. Your imagery is beautiful. You made me feel and hear and smell and see. Intriguing flash!

4 Helen { 09.24.12 at 8:33 am }

You are a true wordsmith, you words dance upon the paper as you yet demonstrate again your ability to write. Why do tears fall so easily when one doesn’t want them too and yet when needed they cease to be.

5 Peter Newman { 09.25.12 at 9:15 am }

Hey Steve. Top work as usual! I like the way the narrator reveals themselves partway through and the transition felt smooth to me. As others have said you do a great line in atmosphere. So many good lines in there. Good luck with the other flash!

6 John Wiswell { 09.26.12 at 4:06 am }

It’s a minor thing and is perhaps petty of me to get annoyed, but by starting with “Backstreet Cairo” you gave a very general setup, rather than a personal one, and thus saying “the school and mosque” bothered me as there are several of both there.

I deeply appreciate your aspiration to craft, such as your qualms against static description. Yet the trickling description that the piece unfolds into at the outset, and then almost closes upon, are very evocative and easy to lose myself in. For whatever that’s worth.

7 Stephen Hewitt { 09.26.12 at 8:24 am }

@Steve — thanks Steve. That old warning springs to mind: ‘It’ll all end in tears.’ Both yes, and, alas… no. St.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 09.26.12 at 8:31 am }

@Icy — I use a tiny noun to gently tap the end of a sharpened verb when sculpting the trick bits. Thanks Icy. St.

9 Stephen Hewitt { 09.26.12 at 8:34 am }

@Stacey — thanks Stacey. Glad I got the senses going and intrigue is always good. Thanks for dropping by the Café and popping on a comment. St.

10 Stephen Hewitt { 09.26.12 at 8:36 am }

@Helen — mayhaps tears are like buses: none when you want them, then a flood all at once. Unfortunately, a flood too late in this instance. Thanks, Helen. St.

11 Stephen Hewitt { 09.26.12 at 8:43 am }

@Peter — thanks Peter. A little bit in and I realised who was telling the tale — after all, who was going to be there to comment on the ending.

I do so many diversionary flashes in allergic reaction to others that are refusing to work, that there must be one, *really* intractable, half-written flash at the start to which I’m probably never destined to return (or it will destroy me). On the plus side, a diversionary flash feels like a miracle of ease after the hair-pulling involved with its evil twin. St.

12 Stephen Hewitt { 09.26.12 at 9:09 am }

@John — hi there John. Hmm, that’s interesting. You’ve made me have a wee think about my intent, here. In my head, the start with ‘Back Street Cairo’ was then enumerated with more concrete detail (so not to leave it hanging in generality, or have it seem abandoned through laziness) and yes, while there are several schools and mosques in the area, only those two close to the area of the house were of concern, and only named in function (in the way that I have ‘a school down the road’ from me, here, rather than ‘Westwood High’, or whatever — that’s how I’d say it). But, I do think I was seguing from a general opener to a specific area description without necessarily ‘saying’ what I was doing (those details are around the house within the larger area) and that’s probably a bit confusing. And also, more concrete naming could be interesting. Doing an enumerated opening did give me pause, but I quite enjoyed the rough brushwork of it and let it lie. Sometimes these things work, sometimes not — and often, not for everyone. Mostly, they are ‘as arrived’ or follow my mood.

The above is not to avoid the need for change and is just my intent: if anyone gets annoyed, confused, or whatever, then I *always* assume things haven’t worked on some level. Very much appreciative of you bringing up this observation: it’s given me something else to consider and that’s always valuable.

If you found yourself lost in there (in a good way), that’s worth quite a lot, and I thank you :)

St.

13 Sonia Lal { 09.30.12 at 10:36 pm }

Gorgeous imagery. Pretty words. I had to read to twice.

14 Joan { 10.02.12 at 2:54 pm }

Ending unexpected.

Story full of strength and force.

The leading in from Cairo – could be seen as sort of cimenascopic – you know, going in with a camera.

15 Joan { 10.02.12 at 2:55 pm }

cinema, I mean.

16 Stephen Hewitt { 10.19.12 at 8:24 am }

Hi there Sonia — really glad you enjoyed it. A double read is all for the good. :) St.

17 Stephen Hewitt { 10.19.12 at 8:27 am }

Hi there Joan — I’m glad you found the lead-in fairly cinematic. That was kind of the effect I was going for. Start, large, go small. And if the ending was unexpected in a good way, then I’m a happy man. St.

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