Featured in Colorado Review
Anything Good Is a SecretFeatured, Fiction
Published Fall 2014
Winner of the 2014 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Kent Nelson
In black and white, two men as silhouettes at a distance across a sea of sand. A donkey between them, their outlines hazy in the blaze of day.
The sky is a solid mass of barely blue, and a blur on the horizon becomes two men leading a donkey toward George. They wear turbans loosely draped over their heads for shade. The first man looks to be a few years older than George. He has pockmarks across his cheeks and wears a gelabiya. Of course George has seen men wearing them in cities, but for the first time, he envies the apparent coolness of the light fabric, the flowing skirt.
The younger man is nearly as tall, but not older than twenty. He wears jeans and a faded T-shirt with a bank logo across it. His name is Sahel, he says, and the other man is Abu Sahel, “father of Sahel.”
Their dialect is somehow harsher than city Egyptian, which George once spoke with some fluency. He tries his formal Arabic now, a language he comes across in the books by ancient Arab travelers that he relies on while lobbying for Middle Eastern governments, work done in an office thousands of miles from here. Gradually, the men understand each other.
“Are you a tourist?” they ask. “Are you lost?”
A stranger alone in the middle of the desert where their people have lived for hundreds of years, George shrugs. These last few days, he’s spent hours and hours on cars and airplanes and buses.
“What is this box?” Sahel asks.
“This is an old camera, really just a box with lenses,” George says. It was a good find, an old Agfa from the fifties in excellent condition he bought yesterday from an antique seller in Cairo, going for one-fifth as much as one he saw at a camera shop in Virginia. The seller even threw in twenty rolls of the right kind of film for half-price.
Abu Sahel’s eyes shine. “Come, you will take pictures in our village,” he says, pulling on one end of his dramatic mustache.
They are walking through town when the dusk call-to-prayer sounds, out of unison, from every side of them, loudspeaker voices emitting, invisible. When they pass a small mosque on a busy corner, George is surprised to see a man standing on its terrace, his hands cupping his mouth; the singer’s syllables, heavy with mourning, cling to the new night. George never saw anything like this the last time he was in Egypt, ten years ago now.
* * *
A slim young woman wearing a striped blouse and wide-legged pants leans against a gate of old metal filigree. The sun is strong. She holds a hand above her brow, casting a dark shadow over her eyes. Her mouth is sharp and clear, the corners upturned in evident delight at her photographer.
George has only one of the photos of him and Mona from their bell-bottom days in Cairo. He thinks of all the others—hopefully not long gone, but hidden from her new husband somewhere in the forgotten corner of their new house—and he wonders, does she ever look through them? He can hardly recall his life from the time of those pictures, just after they met in their intensive Arabic course at the American University. She was pursuing a PhD in agricultural history, and he was grooming himself for a career in Arab-related nonprofits. They were two Americans who fell in love with a foreign culture. Most of the pictures were of her, with her shy, young smile, posing in front of an ancient wall, or a pyramid of oranges, or a camel.
Because of her name and her dark features, Mona was often taken for an Arab, a useful misconception when patronizing taxi drivers and neighborhood vendors—all men who dealt in both foreign and local prices. Her accent was that good. It had been part of what made George fall for her, the way she sounded a kha, or rolled a ra off her tongue, the rumble of a hha in her throat. Or at least that’s how he recalls it.
Since George was looking for a place anyway, and Mona’s flat was huge and in the center of town, he moved in with her soon after they met. They told her landlord they were married because it was easier that way. They said it for a year, to the doormen and the corner grocer and the taxi drivers. They said it even after they moved back to the States together, to the suburbs of D.C. Lucky that interest in their field was growing, he got a job with a Palestine peace initiative and she became a lecturer at Georgetown. They got a house, and naturally, a civil ceremony came next, and, finally, officially, they were man and wife.
At first there was a novelty in their life together, an air of playing grown-up, but as the years passed, their days became indistinguishable, their habits predictable. They fell into a swirl of semesters and promotions and vacations, and they stopped talking about what they wanted and needed. George had been blindsided when somewhere in a smear of days, Mona asked for a divorce. “We don’t share anything new anymore,” she said. In hindsight, George knows he suppressed his wanting and his needing, but Mona took those urges elsewhere. It only came together after she left him and moved in with the half-Saudi graduate student she’d been talking about. She had told him once, “He’s so brilliant, probably because he is disassociated enough from the culture and yet the language is in his blood.” Then she looked away. He should have known it then.
They had given up trying for children and Mona didn’t like pets, so there was no one to fight over, which was perhaps part of the problem. All they had was their small house in Arlington, which they sold for four times what they’d bought it for, dividing the profit.
He rented a shabby room in another neighborhood and finished out the month, holding the same meetings he’d had for years. Then in the slow lull of late summer, George was suddenly stung by the undeniable urge to leave. Times were tight, and his boss was happy to give him an extended vacation at quarter pay. Even though he hadn’t been to Egypt in over a decade, George knew he could travel quite comfortably with that money. He’d always wanted to go to the deserts there, and he hadn’t had cause to take a photograph in far too long.
* * *
A pair of photographs—the first shows a dwelling of cement bricks and a palm-frond roof surrounded by rocks and sand; the second, the interior of that same place. Electrical cords crisscross a gray wall, paint peeling to show white. A turbaned politician is caught mid-gesticulation on a television; in the foreground, a large can set upright on the carpet blooms with flame.
The village is about an hour’s drive from town. Abu Sahel’s son and the donkey are in the back of the jeep, and steering with one hand, Abu Sahel gestures with the other as he explains to George that when he was born his people were still nomads, and when he was a small boy, the government granted them land at the edge of the desert near a very good well. The area had been settled once before, he says, but those first inhabitants were driven away by Abu Sahel’s marauding forefathers. And now the marauders had become villagers in their own turn.
“Things are different here than in most of the country,” Abu Sahel says. “Though our lives have changed since we came to the village, our ways are from the desert.”
George can’t be sure he understands, and only nods, then asks: “How?”
“Our strength comes from staying together, from taking care of each other,” Abu Sahel says, using the Arabic word that literally means “tied,” as if each member of his tribe is a piece of string and they are all joined in an eternal tangle. “A man might tell you the same thing in Cairo, but the difference is how close we are to the desert, so close that it is inside us.”
George looks out the window at the moonlit sand fields everywhere around, and for a moment, he is paralyzed by the feeling that he is too far from home. Then asphalt gives way to dirt and sand, the road softens under their tires, and Abu Sahel is like a sailor at sea, cutting his path through the swells, moving easily with the habit of years.
* * *
George’s first meal in the village is a raucous affair, a bonfire in front of Abu Sahel’s modest house lighting their faces as they eat strips of succulent goat meat atop piles of rice. And when the tea comes out—far darker and sweeter than the tea in Cairo—the women who are sitting off to the side begin to sing as Abu Sahel strums his guitar and another man drums.
The music lingers and the women’s voices are shimmering, slicing through the night. George gets lost in their voices, the stars.
And at the end, the women raise themselves to ululation, their tongues flicking quickly back and forth, a tremulous wail rising above them all. The women are like beautiful, warbling birds and the sky is brilliant with its spray of stars, and George thinks that he may have found a place worth staying, for a little while at least.
When the women are quiet again, when the night has worn on nearly until morning it seems, Abu Sahel barks at Sahel to take George to an empty one-room house at the edge of the small village where he can sleep. The shack is at a distance from the rest, except for an identical one next door. The doctor and Aya stay there on their monthly visits, Sahel explains. With a soft chuckle, he warns George the doctor is a city man, and city men get a little bit funny out in the desert. Sahel twirls his finger in a circle around his ear when he says it. George wonders if Sahel’s talking about him, too, warning him he might get funny out here, but welcoming him to it all the same. The bedouin boy says good night: “Masaa’ al-khayr, ya daktoor.” Evening of peace, oh doctor. Not missing a beat, George hollers back, “Ya daktoor! Masaa’ al-noor.” Oh doctor, evening of light.
On a small cot, covered by a stiff camel’s hair blanket, George sleeps like he hasn’t in years.
* * *
A tangle of goats—the shades and textures of their natty coats—stands against a swath of sand. Of their master, only his outstretched arm and gnarled wooden staff extend into the frame.
Days pass and George takes to wearing a gelabiya of his own. He offers to pay rent to Abu Sahel. Weekly, the amount George pays is the same as a decent lunch back home, while for Abu Sahel, it is a generous addition to his income. His keep includes a daily lunch from Um Sahel’s kitchen. Abu Sahel’s wife is stooped from a lifetime of a woman’s physical labor, though her skin is smooth. She brightens at the sight of George, talking slowly as she explains what she cooks in the massive pots she hovers over. The food is heavy and oily; still, George can be nothing but thankful.
Abu Sahel is this village’s chief, and his family makes George feel welcome, but the others in the village keep their distance. George wonders if this will wear away in time. When he walks down the lanes of the village, those same women whose voices entranced him on that first night ignore his greetings. Soon he learns that if he turns back, he will catch their looks. The women weave and tend to their children and their homes, sitting outside their doors in the early morning and evening hours, stooping in front of trays of grain, or beans, or sugar, to clean and peel and sort.
Mostly, the villagers raise goats. The children tend them and the men deal them, and often they pile into jeeps, making trips to the town, to neighboring villages, into the desert. The older children tend the goats, and the younger ones run in groups along the dirt-packed lanes of the village. When they see George, they shriek their version of his name out of unison—“Jor!”—and keep running, crisscrossing around him, like flies, buzzing.
And so, slowly, George comes to know the village of thirty or so small, mud-brick houses, staggered against three sandy hills. Somehow, Sahel becomes his constant companion, his guide, offering the things he knows about the place. The young man tells George, for example, that when they made the bedouin settle, the government brought electricity here and some of the families have televisions, some have small refrigerators.
Sahel shows him the small grove of date palms near the well the government dug for the village. Past that, a large watermelon patch creeps toward the nearest mountain’s edge. George has seen ancient hieroglyphs that tell of desert harvests of the pink fruit at the time of the pharaohs, and it was Mona who told him that watermelons are easy; you don’t have to pay them much attention and they will grow.
* * *
Close shot of three village women walking, pots balanced on their heads. They are wearing dark dresses, dark scarves covering their hair. One looks directly at the camera and another uses her free hand to hold part of her scarf up to her face so that only her eyes show.
The first time he meets the doctor, George is astounded by how crisp and clean he is. The doctor wears a bright white button-down shirt and khakis with a perfect crease down each leg. “Nice dress,” the doctor says, laughing at George’s clothes.
There is no time to react, as the doctor begins telling George that Iraq has invaded Kuwait and that George’s countrymen will be coming “to save the day.”
George heard this on the radio earlier, and asks, “What do you think of that?”
“I think we should play chess,” the doctor says. “You can be Kuwait, and I’ll be Iraq. Do you play chess?” And so begin George’s chess games with the doctor. They talk while they play and during that first game, George learns the doctor has two young sons by a wife who is happy to see him for five days each month. The doctor forces a chuckle and says, “No more, no less.”
The chess playing is a nice change from being slaughtered by Abu Sahel in backgammon. For every game the doctor wins, George wins another.
Every month when the doctor and Aya come to the village, she sweeps the clinic’s earthen floor clean and arranges their supplies. She is young but old, a girl with lines across her forehead, a slip of a woman, silent and slim. George wonders why, in such a culture, she hasn’t married, what sort of person she must be to follow the doctor around from nowhere to nowhere to nowhere. Is she the one who presses his pants? George wonders if she keeps the doctor warm on the cold desert nights.
One night, the doctor tells George that he thinks of Aya as his daughter, that she has no parents to please by marrying, no dowry to tempt possible suitors. A fantasy flashes through George of marrying Aya, of making her his own. The doctor is the only person George speaks English to anymore—George realizes this when the doctor says, “Maybe she believes in love,” his distant look focused on that thing we look at when we are not looking at anything at all.
Aya and the doctor bring antibiotics to the village, and during their monthly stays, George hears the cries of small children echo through his tiny window, the result of a stick of a needle in an arm or a behind, one of a number of the requisite immunizations: diphtheria, polio, MMR, typhoid, meningitis, hepatitis.
And before the mosquitoes’ appearance during the desert’s fleeting spring, the doctor and Aya bring malaria pills for everyone. The drugs can be disagreeable to the system but the disease is worse; it’s a fact the villagers have learned from seeing it play out in a feverish blur of sickness and death. The doctor also offers cures for parasites, for skin rashes, for sour stomachs.
After administering treatments, he smiles and nods, grasping with one hand at the stethoscope around his neck and pushing his spectacles up his nose with the other. Each time, his patient thanks him, raining the blessings of God upon his head.
* * *
Black ink sky pierced by stars, clear points of white.
Though the villagers are few and it feels like nowhere, they know that the town and the country are behind them, that there are other villages beyond those hills, and that the mountains to the south yield to more mountains and finally to the tourist resorts that line the edges of the sea, its water blue and sometimes purple, sometimes green. And past the sea there are countries where millions of people are living other lives.
George is happy to forget those places, those lives. Sometimes he walks with Sahel to the well and they perch on the edge of it. Shaded by a piece of corrugated metal, they talk about life here, Sahel telling stories about his pillaging grandfathers, George asking questions about bedouin customs—about tents and camels and moving from sandy place to sandy place. Sometimes Sahel has no answers. Sometimes Sahel throws rocks to the well’s bottom, waiting for the definitive plink against the water. As time passes, Sahel becomes bolder about asking George things like:
“Why did you leave your country?”
“I wanted to return to your country,” George answers.
“Why are you alone? Where is your wife?” Sahel asks.
“I had a wife. I had a wife for many years, but . . .”
“Did she die?” Sahel asks, eyes widening for the potential tragedy.
“Not exactly. We divorced because we could not be happy together. We couldn’t even try anymore,” George says.
“And that’s when you left?” Sahel seems confused. “Here a husband and a wife who are not happy might divorce, but the man would never leave his village, like you did. You left everything.”
“Yes,” George says. There had been nothing left.
* * *
A woman from behind, walking away. Her modern clothes are fitted to her slender frame and contrast with the stone walls around her, the donkey in the distance. She holds an attaché case at her side and her dark hair escapes from the bottom of her headscarf.
Dusty sandals grace the women’s feet, but Aya wears brown shoes laced tight. While the fabric of their dresses flows softly to the ground, and they wrap and rewrap the generous fabric of their scarves across their heads and around their faces, she wears a straight skirt to midcalf, a buttoned shirt, and a small scarf affixed to her hair with pins. While the women of the village wear bracelets that jangle at their ankles and wrists, dark lines of kohl around their eyes, and stain across their lips, Aya is unadorned.
Maybe this is why Sahel fell in love with her.
It began one day as she stitched a small gash across the fleshy part of his palm. He’d been leaping for a ball while playing soccer with his brothers, and he slipped, grasping for the ground beneath him, catching a stone against his skin. Luckily, the doctor and Aya were in the village. When Sahel found them, the doctor was napping on a cot in the clinic. Aya held a finger to her lips and beckoned Sahel inside, where she worked quickly, quietly.
Sahel tells George this in whispers, holding out his palm, where three perfect stitches mark the origin of something new.
“As I sat there with my hand open in her lap, my skin felt suddenly hot and a warmth spread over me,” he says urgently, his eyes wide. “I could smell her—she smelled so clean. I could hear her breathe.” He breathes in deeply, as if to demonstrate. “And I looked up at her face and saw small drops of sweat on her upper lip and the fine hairs above her ear. She has a scar under her eye. It is so faint, it must have happened when she was very young.”
“You are both still very young,” George says, and wonders if he’d felt like that about a woman. All at once he knows he did—maybe not Mona, but Rose, a girl he knew in college. Yes, he remembers; the feeling is clear; it is an ancient moment, trapped in amber.
Sahel breathes in deeply. This seems to calm him, though his knuckles whiten as he grasps at the edges of the wooden stool he sits on. “It hurt only for a second. Can you imagine? The doctor sleeping there the whole time! We went outside and she told me that I could use my hand but that I should be careful, and she pressed her palm to mine, so softly.” Sahel holds his palm up, again. “She looked at me as I was leaving and her eyes shot straight to my heart.”
The word for “heart” in Arabic is kalib, with a deep, guttural “k” sound. And the root of kalib is kalaba, which means “turn” or “flip.” Aya has flipped Sahel’s pages, George thinks.
A gasp escapes Sahel’s lips, and he slumps against the wall.
“She told me she would like to check on it before they leave, that I should go see her in the morning. And without even thinking, I suggested that we meet tonight instead.”
“Sahel . . .” George begins, hesitating, “if anybody sees you—”
“Don’t you think I know?” Sahel says, shifting his weight and pausing for a moment, as if to consider the shame and guilt that the villagers would stone him with if they knew. And then he says, “We are going to the watermelon grove.” He steadies himself as he stands to leave, and George is suddenly conscious that the boy is taller than when they first met. “Thank you for your time,” he says, backing out into the falling dusk. “You are a true friend, a good man.”
Before George can respond, Sahel is gone.
* * *
That night the moon rises full above the village, and the doctor and George set up their chessboard on a table between their houses. The doctor is Saddam Hussein and George is Norman Schwartzkopf.
“Strange thing tonight,” the doctor says. “Aya went to visit Abu Sahel’s nieces . . . the daughters of his youngest brother, I think. She’s gone over to ask about their children before, but never visited in the evening.”
“Strange thing,” George says. He imagines Sahel and Aya walking among the vines and the weeds of the expansive watermelon grove, light from the same moon glowing down on their entwined hands.
As their game nears its end, the doctor points out that no matter who takes the role, the dismal truth is that Saddam most often wins.
“What’s funny?” the doctor asks.
“You are more of an American patriot than I am,” George says.
The doctor looks at him quite seriously. “Without his country, a man loses his meaning. Country is a natural extension . . . of family, of tribe, of whatever group. What do you have?” he asks. “I simply don’t understand why you’ve been here so many months. When is it enough?”
The doctor’s never talked to him like this before, and George stares down at the game. “Checkmate,” he says.
The doctor moans.
“Saddam lost this time, and I’m pleased,” George says.
The doctor smiles, though a tired sadness shows on his face. “I’m sorry, my friend. Sometimes I get carried away. Trouble at home, you know . . . And the sun here makes me feel so tired. Shall we play again?”
As they begin their new game, a figure emerges out of the darknesses layered around them. Leathery skin shimmering in the lamplight, fast-moving eyes, fabric draped around his neck: Abu Sahel. “Have you seen my son?” he asks.
They have no answers, but they make him sit, invite him to play. He insists on backgammon and they relent, him beating each of them in turn, telling them stories of when the place where they are sitting was the ocean floor. It was so long ago that any memory belongs utterly to the realm of myth; it was a time when the fossils of shells they find now were not stone but living, vibrant with color. Yes, in the time before time, a breed of sea people made this piece of desert their home; they hunted and loved and died here, and the water rose up all around.
* * *
A rock wall in the desert. Midday, the many stone protrusions and their shadows across its surface suggest human faces.
Nights in the desert can be colder than nights George remembers anywhere else, even the small farm town where he was born. It is as though a frozen knot grows out in the sands and radiates toward the village, shooting arrows of icy wind that come through George’s windows and under his door. When the cold wakes him, George feels helpless, his aging organs useless. What could warm him? George thinks of the son he wanted once, and of Mona, of the version of her in the old photographs. George thinks of Aya.
And like that small town that used to be his, the village is an island, where whispers permeate like shadows and become voices that ricochet off walls and tumble across the sandy hills. If a woman makes her bread the wrong way, there is talk. If a girl defies her mother, she will suffer as a woman. If a man’s goats do not grow fat, he has failed. If a son does not marry and produce a son, his father will take him aside: perhaps he should take another wife, perhaps he is doing something wrong. Everyone knows. Everything.
Time passes and George hears more and more whispers; they are everywhere washing over him. His days become restless and he walks out toward the watermelon grove and thinks of Aya and Sahel. He summons the fear that must stir in them each time they come here, if they still do. If found out, she will be banished, asked never to return, and he will be beaten, reminded he can only marry one of his own. Do these imagined scenes hang heavy over them when they are together?
George finds the places where the vines climb up the rock walls at the base of the mountain, where Sahel and Aya lose themselves between the boulders, places where everything else disappears.
* * *
Another rock wall in the desert, this one smooth and low.
One afternoon, George is reading on his cot, and he is jarred from his reverie by three sharp knocks. It must be Sahel; he is the only one who knocks like that, and he hasn’t been by in days.
But it is Aya, and with no preamble, she says, “It would be my honor if you could take my picture . . . with Sahel.” George has never heard her speak before, never looked into her eyes, which flash briefly before she looks away. Her lips part in a smile she directs toward the ground. On her cheek, he notices the scar Sahel mentioned to him, months ago now. It is the only imperfection on her delicate face.
“Of course,” George says, realizing Sahel does not know yet. As Aya turns to go, he wants to say something else, and says, “This thing cannot go on forever . . .”
“I know,” Aya interrupts. “And I know that you are involved, just by knowing, but you are a foreigner, so in your own way immune.” For “foreigner” she says khawaga, a word that’s always irked George, with its harsh consonants. She is speaking fast, her voice deeper than he had imagined. “Our culture is unforgiving.” She stops, steadies herself, but cannot hide a tremble. “Anything good is a secret,” she says, looking straight at him again. There is so much more to say, but she turns away.
* * *
A father and his children stand outside a window with wooden shutters. The man is seated and his boys flank him, standing, all of them wearing white skullcaps, their mouths open in laughter. His young daughter sits on his lap, her small hand on his shoulder as she looks up at his face.
One evening, a few weeks before George leaves the Sinai, he meets the couple at the watermelon grove, just as the sun is getting low and striping the sky with new colors.
Sahel’s clothes are formal and freshly laundered, and Aya wears what seems to be a nightgown, likely bought cheap at a market in a town she passed through recently. George remembers that Mona bought underwear at a market in Cairo once, blue polyester panties that covered the tops of her thighs and most of her stomach. The memory catches him off guard, as if it were someone else’s, but it is there, undeniable, and then he conjures the high-ceilinged room in central Cairo where they made love, the street’s cacophony calling up to them through the wooden-shuttered windows when they lay still in the afterglow.
And then George is back in the watermelon grove, where the nylon brightness of Aya’s gown colors her face, and it fits her as though she were a queen. She holds Sahel’s elbow as they walk among the plants. When Sahel puts his hand over hers, George looks away and then turns to look.
Sahel leads Aya and the pair of them lead George, Sahel stopping to point out new fruit that soon will be ripe with pink, watery flesh. They near the mountain and stop. His back to the mountain, George pulls out his tripod.
As he sets up the shot, George is frozen by the feeling that they are—each one of them—imprisoned under the endless sky, pinned to a parched earth that may, at any moment, swallow whomever it chooses.
After shooting nearly twenty frames, George waves at the couple in the distance, then looks down to concentrate on what he is doing, on putting his camera away.
* * *
A tangle of vines across a hill of sand. Leaves and shadows of leaves.
The next time the doctor comes, Aya is not with him. Over chess, George asks him, as casually as he can, why.
“She said that someone got in touch, a distant cousin in Cairo she hadn’t seen since she was a girl, that he was interested in the possibility of marrying her. I told her to go, to see . . .”
“But I thought she had no family,” George interrupts.
“Everyone has some kind of family,” he says. “And any family she finds is better than the life she has following me around the desert.”
“What will you do without her?” George asks.
“Life will go on,” the doctor says, as if nothing seems sure but those words.
They play on in silence, and then George offers his own news: “I’m leaving soon. For Cairo, too . . . I need to print all the photos I have taken, sell some maybe . . .”
The doctor nods. “It’s about time you got out of this dump,” he says, forcing a smile.
* * *
Sahel is the hardest to say goodbye to. He drives George to town in his father’s jeep. In a stranger’s voice, Sahel tells George that he has been learning more about the goats and that he has ideas for ways they may be able to increase their profits. Not turning once to look at George, he says also that he’s thinking of trying to convince some men in the village to go in on a tourist business, board people in the village and take them into the desert for one night, two, three. Sing them songs and show them dunes, for a price. He thinks his father will be against it, but it might be worth insisting on. George thinks back to his first days in the village and wishes him luck.
There is something George wants to ask him, but it seems beside the point now. Still, the words repeat ceaselessly in his head and finally George asks: “What happened with Aya?”
For a long time Sahel doesn’t answer, and George doesn’t think he’s heard him, even though they are right next to each other. Yes, he hasn’t heard him, but George can’t ask again.
George looks out the window, rolls it down, lets the wind whip at him. Sahel is driving fast, and the trees lining the road fly by them, as if the wind were blowing them away, but it is the two men. They are what is moving.
And finally Sahel raises his voice, and says, “We were planning on leaving together, but then she said she couldn’t let me lose my life.” Sahel slows the car as they near the town. He looks aged—maybe it is something about the shifting shadows and the new angles of his face. “She told me so that night after you photographed us.”
George wants to say he’s sorry, but every word that comes to mind is stupid. Then the car makes its final turn and the bus station comes into view.
* * *
The smells and the clamor used to excite him, but now Cairo is simply where he is. Even though the day he promised he’d be back at work is approaching, he feels no urgency to plan his return. There are things to do here.
The camera shop he used to go to downtown is right where he left it, in some other lifetime. He walks to a square where spokes of road radiate from a pointing statue, and the same old man with the thick glasses and the khaki pantsuit who used to help him years ago is behind the counter. George gives specific directions for his prints, not saying a thing about the past, but the old man—Abu Adel—says, “I remember you. You’re the foreigner with the pretty Arab wife.” Khawaga. George wonders if he could possibly mean Mona, if he really remembers. He shrugs.
* * *
George knows where he can go to be with the other foreigners in Cairo, to drink beers and eat pizza, or to sit in the serene, green and pink gardens by the Nile, but instead he manages to rent an apartment in Hussein by the week. There is no refrigerator, no glass in the windows. The market is a fifteen-minute walk through twisting alleys papered with litter, crisscrossed by stray cats and small children, tiny shops selling one thing—soap or tea or detergent—around each corner. Stalls on the widening path signal the beginning of the market, then more stalls—with liver sandwiches and sweets and then fabric and produce—echo out into a large courtyard, where there is nothing but buying and selling, men and women, yelling and asking. The twin mosques shine above them at each side in their marble glory.
One impossibly bright afternoon, George finds her among the fruit stalls. She is standing at a distance, standing before a pile of apples, picking one up before putting it down to pick up another. When he first notices her he thinks she is a woman who simply resembles her, that it couldn’t be her. Besides, she is not wearing her uniform, but a long dress and headscarf, like most of the women here. He looks and looks, moving closer, each eternal second waiting to realize it is someone else, but then he knows it can only be Aya. She turns, sees him with widening eyes, and he walks up to her.
“You look different,” she says, indicating his pants and shirt.
“So do you,” he says. When he notices the scar Sahel told him about long ago, he suppresses the urge to touch her face. She must have cut herself when she was very young, he thinks. “How are you doing?” he asks.
“Thanks be to God,” she says, in automatic reply.
No, really, he thinks. How are you? “Where are you living?”
“With my husband in an apartment nearby. He drives a taxi.” Her face darkens, and George wonders what to say next.
“I have something you might want to see,” he says, “something from the desert.”
* * *
A woman and a man stand close to each other at the center of the frame, their hands at their sides. His clothes look crisp and clean: a black robe over a white gelabiya, a white turban folded neatly back from his handsome face. He faces the camera, his expression still, and she smiles, turning toward him. She is wearing a bright pink dress that ties at her neck, her dark hair coiled in an immaculate knot at the back of her head. Vines and leaves sprawl at their bare feet, dusty and green, and behind them the brown land stretches, stretches.
A few days later, George is shocked by a loud knock at his door, even though he is expecting Aya. He knows it isn’t proper for her to be here, a married woman calling on a foreign man in his apartment.
Immediately, she lets her scarf fall to her shoulders, and her hair, chestnut colored and bright, is like a revelation. She still wears no make-up, no jewelry except for a gold wedding band—mahbas, in Arabic, close to the word for “prison.” Her perfume smells like jasmine, and a small wave of desire washes over George.
He offers her tea, and they sip the hot liquid from small glasses as they kneel on the carpet at the low table in the main room. He pushes the new, thick album with the green vinyl cover toward her. He’s been going through it all morning, examining the desert images he made, doubtful if he honestly captured the experience.
She looks slowly, intently, and she traces her fingers over the plastic, whispering things under her breath. He hears “S’mullah”—the name of God—and “gamilah”—beautiful.
George thinks of Mona, who would page impatiently through an album like this, making an effort to appear she cared about each print. But Aya is actually looking; she is absorbing; she is transfixed.
“Do you like them?” he asks her, eager to break the silence.
“I do,” she says, looking up at him.
The last image Aya reveals stills her completely for more than a minute. The print of her and Sahel in the watermelon patch is the only one George shot in color. She kisses her fingertips and puts them to Sahel’s face, then moves him to arm’s distance.
“This picture is like something I dreamed once,” she says, laying the album, still spread open, on the table.
George wants to smear the tear from her cheek and press her body against him, but he only says, “Thank you.” He takes the album from her, removes the print from the sleeve and holds it toward her.
Aya takes it from him, putting it face down on the table. “I will always remember Sahel, the desert, my doctor. I will always remember you,” she says, closing the cameras of her eyes and bringing her face close.
* * *
Close up like this, a woman looks like a flower, the darker flesh of her petals full and bright.
Amira Pierce was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She teaches in the Expository Writing Program at nyu-Polytech in Brooklyn, works as a literacy volunteer with the Program for Survivors of Torture, and is an editor for failbetter.com and the Blue Falcon Review. Her short fiction has received various honors and appeared in publications including Cream City Review, the Asian American Literary Review, Makeout Creek, and miraclemonocle.com. She received her MFA in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University and is at work on a novel.