The pores of life are clogged in this room. Making it difficult to breathe. There’s a hanging smell of death that’s impossible to miss. Visitors are unnerved by it. Except those visitors whose nerves have been hardened by the tedium of their dutiful weekly visits to the woman at the far end of the room: boredom and emptiness compressed into no more than half an hour.
It was raining nonstop, and the flowing stream of rainwater collected anything it met along the dirt track. As if this apocalyptic scene weren’t savage enough for God, the rain brought with it thunderstorms and gales that threatened to uproot the streetlamp and thin cypress trees dotting the neighborhood.
It was freezing cold, and my grandmother crouched in a corner of the house near the dakhoon, which no one had lit, shivering under her black woollen shawl. From time to time, she muttered, “Oh, Mary, mother of Jesus, protect us!”
Slowly, we raised our heads as hellish cries echoed in our ears, and we looked up in awe and fear. The sky was a summery blue with no trace of a cloud, and the sun had spread out, occupying every corner. We lowered our gazes, licking our bluish lips as we exchanged panicked glances. Our cracked feet were rooted to the furrowed mud, as if our slightest movement might stir up the screeching. We chewed over our terror for a few minutes, our parted lips emitting silence. Our mounts were as terrified as we were, and they scattered around the courtyard at the inn, fear spurring them to shake off the torpor of the midday heat.
Drowsiness weighed down my eyelids, so I stretched myself out on the mattress, swimming in the shadows made by the light of the single candle, lonely in the cold, rugged corner where it stood. My friends had been sleeping for an hour or so. I nodded along to their continuous, flutelike noises, a steady chaos.
Abdelghaffar, owner of the tallest building in the quarter—built by the sweat of his brow, as he reportedly doesn’t tire of saying—is pacing up and down his rooftop, stressed about the stray dogs that have been disturbing the neighborhood’s sleep with their nonstop barking every night—Abdelghaffar’s sleep is more affected than anyone’s, his home being the highest in the neighborhood and receiving the noise from all directions at once.
“Let’s see if he’s working now. Yes, there he is.”
Ayed heard these sentences inside the shawarma shop where he worked on Calle Elvira. As he turned around, he recalled what had been uttered just previously, in the middle of the evening rush: “Assalamu alikun, Ayed!”
“Wa ‘alaykum as-Salam. How are you, Tony?” he answered in Arabic.
Antonio, Ayed’s friend, was an amicable young man who joked quite a lot in a manner that erred on the sexual side. He also was learning Fuṣḥa at one of the many language centers in Granada. Ayed liked him for his good nature and because he was Ayed’s umbilical cord to the happenings in Granada’s nightlife. Often Tony came accompanied by one girl, or several—for the most part, tourists—to say hi to Ayed at his workplace. He would then ask him, before throwing him a knowing wink, to join them after his shift. So, Ayed was puzzled when he saw that Antonio’s escort was a lanky, short guy. The guy’s face was smeared with an obvious awkwardness, camouflaged under a half smile. The young man greeted Ayed with a nod and said, “How’re you doing?”
Cassie knew she could make extra money selling vintage clothing on the internet, so in her first semester out of grad school, she drove to Chulas Fronteras Ropa Usada, down by the border in the maquiladora district. The bouncer at the door weighed Cassie on a scale as a shoplifting precaution, and handed her a ticket, along with a map of the enormous warehouse. She was originally from the border, and so she said “No, thanks” to the map, since she knew her way around well, and walked inside. There were hills of denim, with polyester, wool, and old jeans compacted, forming different roads. Fans as tall as Cassie were blowing everywhere like electric windmills, creating metallic cyclones that howled over the exclamations of people—mostly brown women like her, but many with young children—picking through the used clothing.
The first time Ellis saw the girl, she was sitting on the front stoop of his building. She had a mop in one hand and a broom in the other, like she was using them to guard the place. The packages of Charmin stacked beside her looked like they were at attention too. She can’t be more than five or six, thought Ellis. And instead of climbing the stairs and passing her to let himself inside, he stopped, took off his Yankees cap, and with a smile said, Hiya. Hey kid. Hello there.
The girl did as he expected and gaped at the wine-spill of a birthmark on the left half of his face. She sniffed her runny nose up and blinked through her too-long bangs. Her mouth made a little frown and she said, Hi. My mom forgot the Windex.
The following is an excerpt from Here Lies by Oliva Clare Friedman, out now from Grove Press. Click here to purchase.
From before I began, I loved her. This was what I knew. Before the beginning, before I was born from her, before bones and blood and body, before egg.
My mother Naomi was dead and not buried. Dead in fact for half a year. Her body burned to ashes by the state, bones, heart, feet, eyes burned to dust, against her wish, against mine, and that was that. I was trying to understand.