An extinguished cigarette is suspended between my fingers. I don’t know who put it there, but I feel worms moving inside it. When I look at them I imagine I’ve seen them before, tens of small bodies—identical, without any features.
The cigarette is a large worm ingesting and regurgitating the smaller worms inside it. They slither into my mouth, filling my lungs, and after a short, loud party there, they begin to flow with my blood.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to jump from the third-floor window. I don’t know where that tree shot out from on my way down. And I don’t know what made our neighbor go outside to hang her laundry at the moment that I fell. I don’t know why I imagined that I died when I collided with the ground. I was happy at that moment of collision; I closed my eyes tight and slipped into something like a delicious nap.
It took only a few moments until I heard our neighbor scream and realized something was wrong. I hadn’t really died; I could still hear the honking of cars driving by.
When I stood up and dusted off my clothes, the crowd surrounding me started to back away. Maybe I scared them. I heard one of them tell another, with fear in his voice: “There are worms coming out of his nose.”
“They are not coming out,” I corrected: “they are spilling.” I left them and walked up to my apartment.
You may wonder how old this sleepless face is. You may put him to bed in a long-gone mountain garden. Or revive him in the gardens of years to come, centuries from now. That’s where I live, in a dimension unseen by your future eyes, where feather-light cars drive by, and words freeze in the air.
This face appears on the other side of the table from me, in a bar suspended at three hundred meters. We sip our drinks in their feather-light glasses: neither raising them up nor setting them down nor clinking them together makes a sound to be heard. We hear no motors grinding or jet engines screeching on the trails wrapping around the mountain lodge. We are immersed in what scientists call the hush void, a space of near-utter silence. Here, voices fall mute when they pass beyond the scant inches of one’s hearing range. In the hush void, words can always be heard by the ears of the person meant to hear them. But if they escape beyond the void, into the vastness below, even a softly-spoken syllable could set off an avalanche in a solid rock face.
They were first brought together digging up other people’s trash, trying to keep starvation at bay. And since that first encounter at the public dump on the outskirts of Marrakech, the two were inseparable.
Abbas gave him the name Minouche and saw him as the son he had never had. Abbas, whose mind was addled with the blind fog of hashish and such obscene quantities of alcohol as would have been enough to wipe out an entire building, was also a bohemian painter whose days blustered by in anxious gusts.
Your games are upsetting; they always seem like they’re going to end in tears. Like this one you’re playing right now, for example—I’ve just woken up to find myself blindfolded, with my hands tied to the chair I’m sitting on. I don’t like it at all. But I’m smiling at you anyway, expecting you to come toward me. I’m only smiling because I’m frightened that if I don’t you’ll sense how weak I am and do me even more damage.
The muscles stretching this desolate smile across my face are cramping now, and I give up; I’m going to call out for you, even though I know it means I’ve lost.
When the boys playing ball saw the fancy automobile approach, they stopped their game and fixed their eyes on these strangers visiting their neighborhood.
Shepherded by her husband, Ali Jibran, Tha’ira descended from the Mercedes in front of a dilapidated three-story building. They left the driver in the car to wonder what could have brought them to the most renowned center for Qur’anic healing in the city.
The couple disappeared through the low entrance, which was enveloped in shadowy gloom. Their driver took a deep breath and replaced the cassette of Qur’an recitations by al-Qariti with a cassette of songs by the singer Ali al-Anisi. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from under his seat. With intense satisfaction he began to smoke and sank into delightful daydreams.
Like everyone else on the train to Roskilde, his eye was caught by the woman in the tattered dress handing out candy to all the children in the carriage. When she reached him she gave him a piercing look and said, “Although I usually give candy to children only, you deserve a piece, because you’re just a big child yourself.” He took the candy and stuffed it in his jacket pocket as he stared after her until she vanished into the next carriage.
A few days after the sunset-to-sunrise curfew went into effect, the members of this jolly family began to feel run-down. Their apartment had all the needed emergency supplies—food, water, first-aid kit—in addition to entertainment options such as reading materials, television and video programs, and Internet, not to mention a landline and a personal cell phone for each. Still, something kept irking them and leading them to feel that they were leading a prison life. They felt as if they were living in a rather spacious dungeon, yet a dungeon all the same. Inside that dungeon, in a matter of days, they began to notice that their weight was steadily increasing. Their bodies grew heavier as time weighed down on them. None of the entertainment options could lighten them up. Besides, the sounds of gunshots and explosions were within earshot, inviting gory images of sniper operations and assassinations. They intimated to each other in a variety of ways their fear of unconsciously slipping from despondency to despair.
It’s the quality you know me by—not just you, but my neighbors and the people on my street.
Come closer. Don’t move away, and don’t cover your ears, because talking comes instinctively to me, and I get no relief from my exasperation or sadness unless I talk to you. Come closer—don’t sit so far away. The day I told you I was going to leave you, you laughed, and I saw in your eyes a confidence I can never erase from my memory: you were confident I’d never do it, because I’m weak before you. But I’ll conquer that weakness and attempt to forget the memories I have with you.