zahra

birds
Illustration by john darley

Z A H R A

Alban Miles

*

The night before the children left, Zahra’s mother made injera bread and her father gave a speech asking that god protect his children on their journey.

Zahra could not sleep. She looked at her youngest sister Sofi, who slept beside her, and told herself to be glad: she would listen to her father snoring in the next room, to the crickets in the dry grass, to the howling dogs, to the vehicles passing on the road. She would stay awake to watch over Sofi, as she had always watched over her since the day of her birth.

When her mother put a hand on her shoulder and whispered that it was time to get up, Zahra realised that after all she had fallen asleep. After all she was still a child who would be woken by her mother. For a few moments, she lay still in the darkness and thought of Rahayata Street at a time when the jacaranda trees were in bloom. On the pavements, blue flowers had fallen with the yellowing sepals that bore them, like strange, fragrant snow.

*

As she helped to prepare breakfast, her father updated them on the progress of the section of mountain road that his gang was repairing at that time. Zahra began to feel better. She joked with her mother about the washing and who would do it now. The twins ate their breakfast and watched her with shining eyes as she spoke. It had been agreed that the other children were not to be woken.

When the meal was finished, her mother went to wrap the injera; Milena and Kibrom were sent to wash their faces; her father sat in his deckchair outside in the pre-dawn. The chair’s metal frame was rusting. Through the doorway, she saw the screen of his phone reflected in his eye glasses. His lips moved. Beyond him, the lean, dusty garden was stretched out in shadow like a pack of sleeping dogs. The first light of dawn crept to the grey soil under the bushes at the roadside.

They walked to the top fence to say goodbye. On the path that led to the road, bathed in orange light from a sodium lamp that hung from the fencepost, Zahra saw a purple flower that had fallen from the bougainvillea. She hesitated, then urged the children down the path and told them not to look back.

*

The jeep was driven by a man with white teeth who spoke loudly on his phone, laughed and sang along to the Tigre music that played. Within two hours they arrived in a dusty field full of people and vehicles. Along with a few others, they were loaded into a truck carrying bales of hay. In that way they crossed the border and late that night arrived in the city where they were to stay with their father’s relative.

Her father said that Ismael was a respected man, a tailor, whose wife had died and left him no children. When he came to meet them, Zahra felt her father was wrong about Ismael. He was a red-eyed man with ravaged cheeks and a bald, gleaming head. He was no tailor. He sold cheap, transfer-printed T-shirts in the souq in the northern part of the city. He did not have a favourable position and was not hard-working. He lived in five crumbling rooms nearby to which he would return hours before dark and sit in the chair by the television. Some days he brought vegetables past their best, rice, bread, sometimes meat. The meals she prepared he ate desperately, without speaking, as if he was starving. He did not pray at sunset, like the women who fell down in the street.

The twins slept in a room filled with old T-shirts in glazed plastic packets and heaps of damp woollen blankets. She slept on the settee between the kitchen and Ismael’s bedroom. Some nights she woke and saw him standing in the doorway looking at her.

In the mornings, Zahra made preparations. She bought warm clothes because the desert was cold at night. She bought packets of biscuits and thin bread that the men called kissra. She split the money from her parents three ways and gave one part to Kibrom along with his own bag because at the next border the Arab men would separate women and girls from men and boys. She told the children this: they nodded, and fell silent.

Through the hot afternoons she lay on the sofa, waiting. The twins sat on the floor and watched television. Ismael had pushed magazines and newspapers between the closed window shutters and the strips of cheap wood nailed across them, because thieves walked in the streets. She watched those sun beams that found a way in move along the dark wall on the other side of the room above the little table, changing shape and hue from tall white rectangles of light in morning to yellow bars in the afternoon and, towards sunset, fine lines like golden thread, when he would come home and she would begin to cook.

She imagined what he would do when she refused to become his wife. He would forbid her from leaving. He would pin her down in the kitchen, or on the sofa. She imagined the ways she could prevent it. But when the day came, Ismael arranged for a friend to drive them to the compound and wept as he kissed the twins on the crowns of their heads and said that the children had brought him great joy and that Zahra’s cooking was the best he had ever known. He gave her two hundred dollars in crisp $10 bills.

After he was gone, they waited in line as the sun set behind the low brick wall. Through a rusting wire fence, Zahra could see a man and two mules together drawing a plough across the furrows of the land between the stands of low trees and the darkening, cloud-heavy horizon. Kibrom talked about the house he would own one day and about the suits that Giorgio Armani would make for him.

The truck carrying men and boys left first.

They saw him get on, then lost sight of him. As the engine started and the great metal gate was secured, he forced his way between the shoulders and hips of men and gripped the bars of the truck gate. Kibrom raised his hand in an open palm and held it through the bars, not as if he was waving but as if he had forgotten how to wave. Then the truck drove away and he was gone.

*

The truck carrying sacks of Chinese rice, women and girls left the compound after dark. Zahra looked at the many women left behind, sitting with their possessions in the dusty compound under their hoods like heaps of rags. One of them looked back at Zahra, her face illuminated by the brake lights, and shook her head.

In the truck, Milena would not stop crying. At first the other women were sympathetic but then one not much older than Zahra with a gleaming golden stud in her nose made it understood that the child was to stop. Zahra lay her sister down on the rice sacks and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. As the truck drove on in the darkness, she listened to the other women speak in the way families did; easily, without affectation, anxiety, or cleverness.

She thought of the contents of her bag. Warm clothes. A change of underwear. Sanitary pads. Dry fruit and biscuits, bottles of water, medicines. One third of the money was hidden in the lining, the other in her undergarments. There was her mobile phone and charger. And there was the blue envelope containing her elder sister’s letter.

Already the folds of the blue notepaper were wearing thin. She thought of the words, of the shape of her sisters’ writing, like loops of thread or little branches and leaves. Saba was twenty: twice she had refused to marry. She worked in a macchiato bar in the city centre near to the tourist hotels and did

not always come home at night. At the end of the letter, one of her friends had written an introduction for Zahra in Italian.

Zahra did not want to live in Italy.

Folded inside the envelope were her pictures. One was a colour plate torn from a book that showed green mountains plunging into blue water; a fjord in summer weather. Her friend Ghebre had given it to her last summer before he began military service and his family moved away.

The other was a colour photograph showing the quayside of a port town that she had cut from a magazine. It had been taken from a high place looking back up the curve of the quayside towards the open sea. Two fishing boats were moored in the black water. At the edge of the land, in the distance, cranes and metal gantries rose like little Eiffel towers into the grey sky. It was empty, yet full of light, as if it wanted to protect for a few moments longer those few people who stood in coats at the quayside looking out to sea, or hurried past shop fronts and parked cars.

*

The next day, the truck broke down. They heard the drivers try the ignition and argue. Other vehicles arrived and the back door of the truck was opened: a tall, light-skinned man looked in at them. He wore an immaculate white turban; a pale blue scarf of exquisite quality was wrapped around his throat and mouth. His green eyes were fluid, beautiful and cruel, like water being spilled in the desert. Behind him the light of the sky dazzled her, but for a few seconds Zahra held his gaze. She looked away, feeling her heart quicken; when she looked again he was gone. Through the open doors, cool air entered.

It was afternoon. The light of the falling sun struck the clean shoulder blades of the dunes, which swooned to their crests, full of wind and sun, and fell over steep precipices into swathes of shadow. They looked like women praying. She stared at one pristine slope and felt that she would like to run up it then tumble back down to ruin the smooth surface, to feel the sand get into her hair and her clothes, stick to her skin, grit in her teeth.

The truck’s engine came back to life, setting her body shuddering.

*

That night, Milena asked Zahra to tell a story.

They had eaten the last of the bread and argued, because Milena had drunk too much water, until the other women hissed at them to be quiet. Zahra told Milena to go to sleep but she said she wasn’t tired.

‘You are too old for stories,’ said Zahra.

‘I’m not too old,’ said Milena. And Zahra could not think of an answer to that.

‘Our father’s father, she began, staring down the curious, half-mocking eyes of the women on the other side of the truck, ‘was a fisherman of the Red Sea. The Red sea is not red, but the water is as warm as the air at noon and it is always full of fish, and our grandfather was blessed by God. But at that time he was headstrong, as young men are, and he lived alone and for himself. But his father and mother were pressing him to marry.

One day he caught a little seahorse in his net. He placed her in a bowl of seawater, carried her home and set her on the table. He was very happy because she was beautiful, and he laughed because he had been so clever.

But the sea horse would not talk to him. He became angry and shook the bowl so that some of the water spilled onto the table. Then she cried, and he asked more kindly why she was sad. So the sea horse told her story.

She had fallen in love with the green sea grass on a quiet part of the reef where sand covered the rock and the current was gentle. They whispered to each other and he held her in his emerald arms. When great creatures came the green sea grass would lie down flat as if it was dead. And the great creatures – like the sea turtle and the dugon, who are not very clever – were fooled.

Then one day there was a disaster on the reef down the coast. All of the great colourful cleverfish – as well as the stupid sea turtles and the even more stupid dugon – were forced to flee. And one cleverfish – he had no family, he didn’t need it, he was a tyrant – said to himself: ‘No matter! I will find a new place to be overlord.’

So he came to be swimming past the quiet part of the reef where the little sea horse lived with the green sea grass. The sea horse spotted him and the sea grass lay down flat.

But the cleverfish was not so easily fooled as a sea turtle, and nowhere near so easily fooled as a dugon. He began to tug at the sea grass, to uproot it, and the sea horse was terrified, but there was nowhere to hide. And when he saw her he opened his mouth and tried to swallow her whole!

Oh, she was too fast for him! But as she fled she turned around and saw the tyrant cleverfish feeding on the green fronds of her love. And it was at that moment that she was caught in our grandfather’s net!

‘Pour out the water,’ she said, to our grandfather. ‘I will dry out and die in the sun, for nothing now that he is gone can ever come to any good.’

Our grandfather was terribly moved. He said that he would return her to the sea that very moment; she would find love again.

‘Milena?’

Zahra looked down at her sister and saw that she was asleep. On the other side of the truck, the sharp-eyed woman with a golden stud in her nose was watching her. In the darkness, her eyes glittered.

*

Next morning the truck broke down for a second time. One of the drivers came to say that they could fix it, but it would take time.

By nightfall the truck was not fixed and the other women had run out of water. Rather than tell them about the bottle she had hidden, Zahra agreed to go with the sharp-eyed girl to ask the drivers for water.

One of them was working on the truck while the other sat up in the high cab, smoking a cigarette and singing to himself. They shouted in Arabic that they needed water but the man looked down and cursed them in words Zahra did not understand. They repeated the request. The man opened the door of the cab and undid his trousers.

Zahra moved in time but the girl turned too late and the first, powerful spurt of the man’s urine hit her shoulder. The man laughed and together the three of them watched the declining arc darken a patch of moonlit sand. It sounded like tea being poured from a height into a cup. He shook himself dry and spat into the sand.

‘There is my water for you,’ he said.

They went back to the others and said that there was no water. Zahra took out her last bottle and shared it with them. When it was finished, they lay down to sleep.

*

She woke at dawn, thirsty and breathless. Her head ached. One of the women was shaking her, saying another had fallen ill.

By mid-morning, the woman was dead. Grief and panic swept through the women. When a jeep arrived close to noon some of the women ran towards it assuming the men had come with water. Zahra held her sister back and they watched from the shade beside the truck as an Arab man struck one woman in the jaw with the butt of his rifle and she fell unconscious to the orange sand.

The men in the jeep were frightened. They told the drivers to abandon the truck; armed men were nearby. Rivals.

The women were marched away from the road to a ditch in the shade of a stack of black rocks. The drivers told them to get in and covered them with a tarpaulin. Then they began to kick sand over the tarpaulin, darkening it, and some of the women screamed that the men were burying them alive.

Toward sunset, the armed men arrived. Engines could be heard and shots were fired; then there was silence. Then again the engines.

Darkness fell. It was silent except for the quiet wailing of women. In the time under this tarpaulin, three women had died. Milena began to say that she was tired and wanted to sleep: Zahra forbade it and went to find water.

The truck was bathed in moonlight. It looked strange and magnificent, like the skeleton of a giant animal excavated by the full moon. Sacks of rice had been pulled out and slit open; grains had spilled into the sand. The arms, head and torso of one of the drivers were slung out of the open cab window, like another sack. Blood dripped from his index finger, which pointed at the sand.

In the glove compartment she found a canteen of water almost half-full. She took it back and shared it with her sister and the other women. With their hands, they buried the dead in that pit beside the black rocks. Then they set out in the light of the full moon: eight women and one girl, headed north beside the empty road through the desert.

*

At daybreak, two older women said they should wait at the roadside for a vehicle. In two hours, one truck passed by and did not stop. When the next vehicle came, three women joined arms in the road to force it to stop, but it did not. Two of the three women were knocked down and killed.

They buried them at the roadside and walked on in the heat of the morning.

Milena kept stumbling and falling: finally, she said that she could not walk any further. In this part of the desert, low trees grew at the roadside and gave some shade. They had been in the habit of stopping to rest at these trees when they became tired. Now the three remaining women sat under the tree with Zahra and her sister. All the women sang wedding songs. Finally, when they could not sing any longer, the three women stood up and said goodbye. As they became dark points in the distance and vanished in the mirage, Zahra sat against the tree with her sister’s head in her lap, stroked her hair and hummed the tune of a song she knew. It became dark. The stars came out. She understood that her sister was dead.

She buried her under the tree and broke sticks to make a cross which she tied together with a piece of her shirt. Then she said a prayer and knelt for a long time with her face in the sand, trying to find the strength to stand. And then she did, and began to walk away.

She told herself not to look back but could not do it. She saw the pile of sand and the little cross twist in the breeze. And she walked back and lay down at the tree’s roots beside her sister’s grave.

*

The next morning, a ghibli began to blow from the south. It licked the backs of dunes and stripped the beds of valleys and threw itself at any tree or man or upright thing that dared stand against it.

And the ghibli stung her back to life.

She turned away from its assault and opened her eyes. In the dim orange light, she saw a branch snagged by its fork against a grey stone the size of a fist, longing to be taken by wind, twisting this way and that way. She felt the hands of the ghibli guide her towards it on her knees, took the branch and chewed its spiny leaves. It made bitter liquid in her parched and swollen throat.

Then she stood on the edge of the road that was beginning to disappear, took off her blouse, stood in her undershirt and waved and waved in the sandstorm as her arms and legs burned. When a grey car came out of the brooding shadows, she knew that it would stop.

In the backseat of the car the two men gave her milk and rice cake, then a little water. It smelt of kerosene and oil. She ate and drank a little but could not continue. The driver took a knife, cut the bottom off a plastic bottle and poured warm tea from a flask. He tore open a sachet of sugar and added it to the tea and stirred it with the blade of the knife. It was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted.

She managed to tell them where she was going. The driver said that they could take her, God willing, but she must stay hidden. He pointed to an oil-smeared grey blanket crushed into the foot well. And the younger, lighter-skinned passenger laughed as he took it up and threw it over her.

*

When she woke, the car was not moving and it was dark. She felt hands pull her ankles and calves, as if someone was trying to drag her out of the car. She kicked out and made contact with the soft belly of a man. He cried out and fell upon her, pushing the wind out of her body. It was the passenger, breathing heavily. She felt his bristles in her neck. With one hand, he began to push her legs apart.

The man began to shift more violently and push his hips into hers; she could feel the hammering of his heart and the sweat beginning to drench his soft, hairy body as he whispered to himself hoarsely. She laid her hand on his sweating face and felt his body tense and recoil in shock. Then, with all her strength, she dug her nails into his skin.

He howled with pain, tore her wrist away and clumsily brought the heel of his hand crashing into her chin and neck. He tried to repeat the blow but she saw it, twisted her neck, and he drove his hand into the door. Again she felt him pressing on her, with more conviction this time, more anger, but then the weight of the man lifted; through the open door saw the driver shouting at the passenger, who was trying to do up his trousers and shouting back. Then the driver got into the car.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said in Arabic. He too was breathing heavily.

For a few moments, they sat in silence. The driver’s breathing returned to normal. Then the passenger got back into the car. They drove on in silence through the night.

They stopped on the outskirts of the city at dawn to drop off the passenger. After he had gone, the driver asked Zahra to sit in the front and explained that there was an international film festival in the town that week. He wanted to be a filmmaker, he said, though at the moment he worked on an oil well. God willing, he would meet people here who would help him to achieve his dream. Then he pulled over in a dusty layby, took her hand and asked her to tell him her story. Her story could be part of his film.

Zahra pointed again at the address written in Arabic on a grubby blue envelope.

When they found the rubble-strewn avenue close to the seafront where people from her country waited for boats, she tried to pay him and he became angry.

*

She waited at the house for nine nights. There were no free beds or mattresses so she slept on a blanket in her red storm jacket near to the open door where the guards sat beside a generator that hummed day and night. Sometimes she saw the flames of their fires in the street. In the mornings men came with trollies to sell things. Some came with dates, fried boureek, black tea or bottled water. Others sold mobile phones and credit for local networks, headphones, DVDs. A few sold tickets for the top decks of the boats.

In the afternoons they were allowed to charge their mobile phones and speak to family members: no phones were allowed on the boats. Often she thought of calling her parents, but she had failed them, or else something to do with her relation to them had failed. She tried her brother many times but his voice had become the voice of a stranger who told her to leave a message.

On the ninth day, before sunset, Zahra slipped out and walked along the ruined seafront esplanade. Boys rode bicycles in circles around craters blasted in the red and grey brick patterns of the sidewalk. One stood up straight on his pedals and looked at the red-brown earth, the shattered sewage pipes and the severed cables. Veiled women walked with young children. Old men sat on the white block benches in shabby coats, kicked off their sandals, smoked and spat at the ground. A man in suit trousers talked on the phone and leaned against one of the elegant old black lampposts that did not work.

She joined a crowd that had gathered to watch a doll dancing on an upturned cardboard box. Her hips moved to bhangra music that came from a speaker inside her as if she were singing. She had blonde hair, white skin and a skirt made of neon-green strands of wool. In one place, the strands parted. She did not have legs but a conical white plastic base inside which a battery could be seen.

Zahra walked to the railings below a date palm and looked out at the calm water of the bay. It glittered in the evening sun. Once more she tried to call her brother. When she heard the answerphone, she offered the phone to three men sitting on a bench a few yards away. They did not answer, but only stared at her open-mouthed, as if she were a curious, remote thing – not to be pitied, not to be feared, not to be desired. A cause of momentary disturbance, like static electricity or indigestion.

She put it on the sea wall, and walked away.

*

In Stavanger, snow is forecast. It is palpable; the sky is heavy with it. At the quayside, a single trawler unloads the afternoon catch – two boxes of herring and some cod are all they have to show for three hours on the frigid North Sea. One man who seems to be the skipper stands on deck with his hands on his hips watching his crew pack away the nets, close the hatches and clean down the decks. On the quayside, an elderly couple in matching red mountaineering jackets take photographs of the sky, the

boats, the winches and the rigs that grow smaller and more distant up the quayside, toward the widening mouth of the harbour.

In this moment before the snow falls, it is not as cold as it has been. The temperature rises slightly, releasing the clouds from the grip of suspended animation, like a photograph looked at for so long that it begins to move. On the pavement, across the road from the quayside, people are walking – mothers with children, homebound, or workers with briefcases or rucksacks from shops and offices, the market place, schoolteachers and bus drivers, nurses and security guards, drinkers, gamblers, adulterers. The streetlamps bloom.

On the hillside, a black African woman in a red jacket looks down on the quayside. She arrived two weeks ago and lives with Kadijah, a young woman from her country who arrived three months earlier and has two jobs and an apartment. Some evenings they go next door to watch the television with two Polish men who laugh, drink beer and ask questions in English. Every night she learns more words.

Last night, the weather report forecast snow.

It begins to fall. She closes her eyes, tilts her head back and opens her mouth. A single, slender ice.

*

Alban Miles lives in London and works as a teacher. His work has been published in Best New Writing 2013. He is working on a collection of short stories.