Featured in Colorado Review
Night in Erg ChebbiFeatured, Fiction
Published Fall 2013
Winner of the 2013 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction
Selected by Jim Shepard
In July, seven months to the day after her brother’s death, they arrive in Merzouga, Morocco, gateway to the dune sea of Erg Chebbi. The trip is meant to be a healing interlude, a brief escape; by immersing her in this place of exotic sights and sounds, he has hoped to give her a short respite from her grief. But everything has gone wrong—a missed connection in Frankfurt, his billfold stolen in a Casablanca hamam, a bout of diarrhea that kept them from enjoying the lavish riad in Essaouira. The grinding logistics of travel have steadily overwhelmed their interest in their surroundings. Now, in the sand-blown streets of this tenuous little Saharan town, its mud-brick houses strung together with exposed electrical wires, they have lost the energy to keep talking. For more than an hour they’ve walked in the killing heat without exchanging a word. Even the effort of silence is draining.
They pass a horse cart carrying four women in black burkhas, jumbled against one another like quarry rocks; earlier in the trip they would have taken a furtive snapshot of the scene, but it no longer matters. The bucking road trip from Erfoud has defeated them, and the heat that permeates everything, and the extreme dryness of the air, and the blackflies that seek out the eyes for the meager moisture they offer. Eventually they head back to the hotel, shut themselves in their spartan room with the clattering air conditioner turned up high, and fall asleep in their separate beds.
When the phone jangles to announce the departure of the overnight excursion into the dunes, they wash quickly, zip up their bags, and head down to the lobby to meet the driver, a gloomy young man in camouflage pants, a Michael Jackson T-shirt, and a burnoose.
Desert? he asks by way of identifying himself, and Wilson nods, extending a hand that the man ignores. Hassan, he says brusquely, and the formalities are concluded.
Aren’t those American issue? Anna asks the driver, pointing to the desert-toned camouflage pants, but he either has no English or pretends he doesn’t. Hassan heaves their bags into the back of a dented Jeep, and a moment later they set off down the rutted piste, passing through the cracked keyhole of the town gate, portal to the Sahara. The radio blares out a caustic blend of heavy metal and Bedouin keening until Wilson leans forward and covers his ears to ask that it be turned off. The rest of the trip will pass in hostile silence, the driver taking every opportunity to harry plodding camels and carts and the occasional decrepit Fiat.
They are heading straight into the desert and the scenery unfolding before them is spectacular—the setting sun throwing long shadows out from every dimple in the sand, the endless smooth flanks of the Sahara taking on the look of a woman’s body—but the driver’s anger makes it impossible to focus on what isn’t within the Jeep’s impact zone.
You shouldn’t have provoked him, Anna tells Wilson, looking back out the dusty window.
A few miles outside Merzouga they pass the body of a juvenile camel festering by the roadside, dogs and blackflies bickering over the remains. Anna pivots in her seat to track it as they drive past.
Takes the art of roadkill to a whole new level, she says, perhaps intending humor, perhaps not—it is hard to tell with her lately. A few more miles reel by; she rummages in her shoulder bag and comes up with the bottle of mahia they’ve brought from the hotel. In just two weeks she’s developed a passion for the date-anise spirits, and the flask with its ornate label is never far from her hand. She takes a deep swallow and offers the bottle to Wilson as an afterthought. He demurs, stomach shaken by the ride. Soon after, the road collapses into a sketchy trail, little more than a scratch across the desert, and the Jeep slows as its fat wheels grind through the sand.
At a certain point Wilson becomes aware that they are being watched, and meets Hassan’s gray eyes in the mirror. The driver should be watching the way ahead, but he has been watching them—more specifically, watching the American woman drinking straight from the bottle in the rear seat. Wilson widens his eyes slightly, sending a question forward, but Hassan merely looks away, punching the accelerator as if to make a point. When the Jeep bucks, the bottle snaps forward and a splash of mahia is lost. Shit! she snaps, but the driver lays into his horn for no apparent reason and her complaint is lost in the unruly commotion of the late afternoon.
By the time they reach the camp, the light is failing, the towering dunes indistinct but massive, the atmosphere fading from brick red to faint blue. The land has cooled suddenly and there is a tang of smoke on the air. As they approach they see a play of torches throwing shadows on a cluster of Bedouin tents, the squat forms of camels hunkered down at the edge of the camp. When Hassan kills the engine, a rataplan of drums rolls out to meet them with what they assume to be a traditional greeting; they search the dusk for the drummers and discover that it’s just a tape player hooked to a car battery. The drumming stops abruptly and it is instantly silent, the desert vast enough to absorb all sound. But then there is a tinkle of crude bells: tan and white baby goats arrive and scuffle around the Jeep, making childish noises.
I hope you aren’t dinner, Anna tells the animals.
Over there, snaps Hassan, pointing toward the largest tent, and they are handed off to a turbaned, long-faced man in scarlet regalia who introduces himself as Tahnoon, a sheikh of the Bani Kinanah. Wilson tips the driver, guessing at the right amount and then halving it, and nervously consigns their bags to two boys who are smiling a bit too energetically. They have arrived.
Within the hour they have taken tea in Tahnoon’s tent—a bit of bad theater involving weak mint atay served by a grim, sweating girl in stained harem pants—and are installed in their own bivouac filled with tribal rugs and pillows, a hammered-brass tea table, a dented hookah, and plastic-covered twin mattresses that might have come from a Sears warehouse in Ohio. At the sight of these, Anna and Wilson catch each other’s eye and smile tiredly. The trip is beginning to take on an absurd edge that will, with luck, be its charm when they relive it later.
Blankets, says Anna. Find blankets. Mind the lice and scorpions.
As he leaves the tent she takes out the bottle of mahia and places it on the low table, settling in. He roves the small camp, comes upon the servant girl, and manages to communicate his request through sign language and broken French, hoping she does not misunderstand his intentions when he pantomimes the act of lying down. As he returns to the tent, crossing between tall torches thrust into the sand, he decides not to tell Anna about the two baby goats roasting on spits behind a makeshift rug curtain.
There do not appear to be any other guests in the camp. The other three sleeping tents are empty, their door flaps tied back. Since arriving they’ve seen only the sheikh, the driver, the servant girl, the bag boys, and one or two other staff. Presumably a cook or two are working behind their blind, but there is no sign of any foreigners other than themselves. Tagines steam over a low charcoal fire and the scent of cinnamon-spiced meat fills the crisp air. Against the radiance of the torches, the dunes are just shapeless giants somewhere out in the night. One of the boys reappears with an oud and sits down cross-legged next to the fire pit, beginning to pick out a wandering melody with surprising skill.
Dinner is laid out on rugs. Wilson knows it’s goat but tells her it’s lamb. The sheikh directs them to their cushions with a grand gesture, and as they get settled a vision appears from the shadows, or perhaps it is from a distant past: they make out a dark, lanky man costumed as some sort of Zouave soldier, complete with ballooning red trousers, sash, tasseled fez, and blue brocade jacket. He lurks at the edge of the firelight with an automatic rifle cradled in his arms, apparently to stand guard over the proceedings. The costume might date from the Crimean War, but the assault weapon is real enough. Morocco is supposed to be safe and at peace, but it is impossible to look at the weapon and not think of tribal militias, bandits, rebels, jihadis, desert fighters with nothing to lose. The evening takes on an unwonted gravity, a strange density, as the rifle and its keeper lurk in the half-light.
While they dine, the sheikh expounds on Bedouin culture in an English that is three parts American television and one part phrasebook, then begins asking them bluntly personal questions. How big is their house? Are their families rich? When he asks why they don’t have children and then asks twice more, not satisfied with their vague answers, Anna pointedly turns away, suddenly entranced by the oud. The sheikh lets it go and lights a hookah, smoking noisily and staring at her with no effort to conceal his pique. All the while the costumed guard stands close by, weapon at the ready.
After dinner and sticky sweets, they decide to retire early, washing and relieving themselves in the convenience tent, as the sheikh calls it. Their host manages a brief show of obsequious courtesy and the awkward evening is over at last. As Wilson ties the tent flap behind him he catches a glimpse of the driver Hassan and the servant girl, who has exchanged her harem costume for tight jeans and a fake leather jacket: they climb into the Jeep and churn away into the night, headlights off, a ghost ship trawling a dark sea.
Someone has lit an oil lamp on the low table and the interior of the tent glows warmly. Anna puts it out immediately, casting everything into darkness.
I liked the lamp, Wilson says.
They put that there hoping for a strip show, can’t you see? To put the Western lady on stage.
She busies herself smoothing a scratchy blanket over one of the mattresses, making up a pallet, while he lounges and listens, taking in the woolly smell of the place. Anna is too preoccupied to notice such details. She has gained some weight since her brother Danny’s death; he finds it attractive, but she hates herself for it. It has given her a perpetually nervous edge. Eventually he hears her settle on her mattress, then hears her ease out the cork of the mahia bottle.
We could push the mattresses together, he says to the darkness.
The blankets won’t fit. Too small.
So what? We’ll make it work. I would like to sleep with my wife again someday.
This freezes her, her busy nest-making abruptly stilled. In the absolute darkness he pictures her kneeling beside the mattress, uncertain how to respond. Finally she says:
Would you, Wilson? Want to sleep with me?
I miss you, Anna.
I do too, she says faintly, and then she is on his mattress with him, her arms around his neck, the Sahara slumbering just beyond the walls of the tent. Her breath is heavy with the anise of the mahia; her hair smells of smoke and meat and sand. But there is no one more familiar to him than the woman in his arms.
After receiving news of Danny’s death seven months before, she had pitched camp in the darkness of the basement guest room. He stayed with her for several nights but eventually moved back up to the master bedroom, finding her grief impenetrable; she would not allow him to console her or even touch her, rebuffing his every approach. She told him again and again to leave her alone, and eventually he decided he should do so. He would kiss her impassive face, ask her if there was anything she needed, and head upstairs through the silent house, deeply worried for her yet also relieved to escape the dark field of her grief.
But even as the initial shock began to ease, as she began to talk to him about Danny, she said she preferred to spend her nights downstairs. She gave various reasons—the firm mattress, the coziness of the room, the quiet—but it slowly became obvious that she no longer wished to sleep with him. And so they drifted into sleeping apart. He raised it with her more than once, pleading with her to tell him what was wrong, but she held doggedly to her implausible reasons, leaving them at an impasse. It was on the eve of the Morocco trip that he finally confronted her outright and she admitted it: since her brother’s death she could not imagine herself making love to him. It wasn’t about him; she had tried to masturbate more than once, but her sexuality was simply absent—vanished. She felt nothing at all.
She didn’t understand what was wrong. It made no sense that the two things would be connected, but somehow in her heart they were. It had all ended in tears, an unimpeachable anguish on her part, and he had let it be. Neither of them needed to say that they hoped Morocco might give them the breakthrough they needed.
And so now, as she slips a chapped hand beneath his shirt and begins to stroke his chest, he is excited and afraid at the same time. They have not made love since the Christmas before Danny’s passing, have barely kissed. Her hands explore his body as if they are sleeping together for the first time, and suddenly he finds himself urgently aroused. They are out of their clothes in a heartbeat and he reclaims his place in the great hush of the desert, not caring what the rest of the camp might hear.
When it’s done they lie in each other’s arms, exhausted and profoundly relieved, listening to the small sounds of the camp being buttoned down for the night. The camels are fussing at the edge of the sea of dunes, chuttering at one another in the darkness. Somewhere a pot bangs, is silenced. He picks up the scent of a cigarette, strong enough to be just outside the tent, but in the next moment falls into a heavy sleep, la petite mort overtaking him. It’s possible that she is crying when he drifts off; he can’t be sure, and can’t stay awake long enough to investigate further.
Sometime later, perhaps deep in the night, he is roused by the sound of voices. One is hers, and he hears a brittleness in it that worries him. The other voice is indistinct, but he soon realizes, by process of elimination, that it must be the Zouave guard’s. Easing back the tent flap he sees his wife sitting crosslegged under a blanket at the edge of the firelight, smoking with the Zouave as they stare into the black desert, the guard’s assault rifle resting casually in his lap. He sits apart from her at a respectful distance, an act of courtesy that forces her to speak more loudly than the setting might call for. The bottle of mahia sitting beside her in the sand may also have something to do with it. He wonders how long she’s been up drinking. When she speaks again he hears the slur in her voice.
—on his last day of leave, damn it. What kind of assholes would put him on a plane back to Afghanistan the day after Christmas?
Very good, madame, says the Zouave.
There is a long pause. Wilson sees her exhale a spool of cigarette smoke, then look over at the Zouave as if to size him up.
What the hell kind of uniform is that, anyway?
Very good, madame.
Did the circus come after you when you ran off? That why you have the gun?
Yes, madame, the guard says uncertainly. Anna laughs roughly at her own joke and coughs into the night.
Guess your English isn’t any better than my Arabic.
Anna watches the Zouave, and Wilson watches the pair of them. The Zouave pulls his knees up to his chest, discomfited by the American woman’s unflinching stare. Wilson has a bad feeling about what’s going on and considers leaving the tent, interceding in some way, but she begins to speak again and he can’t afford to miss a word. Her voice falls now and he can barely make out what she’s saying.
Danny spoke Arabic, she says. Spoke it fluently. They had him as an interpreter when they’d go into villages. He was the one who’d calm everyone down, pave the way, bridge the gap. You know? Build trust because he spoke the language. My little brother was the only kid in our high school that took French and German and Spanish. Smarter than you and me put together. Why he joined the army is beyond me. He could have done anything. We all thought so.
Very good, madame.
It wasn’t good at all. It was dead stupid. We were already in Afghanistan and he has to go and join the fucking army.
The Zouave watches her carefully, hearing the change in her tone even across the chasm of language and culture. He says nothing now; she is really talking to herself anyway.
I’ll tell you something. When I opened that door on Christmas Day and saw him standing there in camouflage fatigues, it just brought it all home to me, brought the whole fucked-up situation down on my head. All of a sudden I went, like, political. What, was he proud of himself to show up for Christmas dinner in camouflage? At his own sister’s house in Kearney, Nebraska? Merry Christmas, Anna Banana! he says, and hands me this half-frozen scarlet poinsettia. And you know what I say back?
The Zouave watches impassively as she answers her own question:
Don’t you wear fucking camouflage into my house if you want to get fed.
That’s what his bitchy big sister says to him as he stands there in the cold with his hopeful red face. I remember him tilting his head to make sure he heard me right—he’d been wearing a hearing aid since an IED blew his eardrum out. He tilted his head and in that moment it reminded me of this German shepherd we grew up with, Rudy, and for some reason that’s what broke my heart. But I didn’t show my heart to him. I just closed the door and sent my own brother away from Christmas dinner, sent him out into a Nebraska snowstorm with his frozen poinsettia in his frozen hands, twelve hours before he shipped back to the kill zone. What kind of a person would do that?
She stops as if expecting an answer from the Zouave, but the tall man has retracted into himself now, his long limbs folded neatly against his blue brocade uniform jacket, his turbaned head on his knee. Wilson thinks he sees Anna nod as if acknowledging a response that has not come. She takes a long pull from the mahia bottle and continues:
My poor husband’s out picking up the wine while all this happens—to this day he doesn’t know what I did to my little brother. I’ve never told anyone. Danny must be running late, he says when he gets home. Must be the lousy weather. And I don’t take that opportunity to correct him. I owe it to him to tell the truth, but I can’t. I owe it to Danny, too.
So Danny’s gone and we sit a long time drinking red wine and finally we eat, just the two of us, and I have to pretend I don’t know what happened. I actually have no idea where Danny is or how to reach out to him. We’d only talked once since he got back and he didn’t say where he was staying this time. But I knew he sure wouldn’t be back for dinner. He’d killed people over there, but what I said hurt him just like he was a little kid. I saw the little boy in him that night, the boy with freezing cold hands and a frozen fucking houseplant and a sister who’d just thrown him out on Christmas night. A heartbroken kid is what I saw.
So by now Wilson’s pushing me to call the police about Danny. The snow is nasty and he’s afraid Danny’s been in a wreck. I start to wonder too. Fortunately for me the phone rings and it’s a telemarketer, but I pretend it’s my brother. I carry on this whole imaginary conversation saying I’m sorry he’s got the flu and feel better and so on, and when I hang up the phone I look Wilson right in the eye and repeat the whole lie. Improve on it. Say Danny’s pissed because they’ll make him ship out even though he’s been puking his guts up, et cetera. I just bald-face lie to my husband and pour us both another glass of wine. I think about Danny’s frozen red poinsettia and it’s all I can do to hold it together.
Hmm, says the guard, nodding in his turban as the agitated American lady blows smoke into the dunes. Suddenly she stands, flicks the cigarette into the sand and buries it with her bare foot. She raises her voice, speaking not to the guard now but to the open desert.
And then they fucking kill him. Ten days later he’s on patrol in Helmand and some kids lure him into a Taliban ambush and they grab his service pistol and shoot him in the head, like a Mafia hit. They execute my little brother with his own weapon behind some fucking mud hut. I’m sure he’s wearing that same camouflage and I’m sure that’s part of what gets him killed. It gets him kicked out of his sister’s house on Christmas and then it gets him killed on the other side of the world.
Anna pauses to catch her breath, then steps toward the dunes, passing beyond the firelight’s ambit. Her edges waver in the murk, the volume of her body becomes indefinite. All at once she is half apparition, half mortal.
Madame! says the Zouave anxiously, scrambling to his feet, sensing that something is wrong but lacking the English to comprehend what it might be. The American lady is sobbing now, clawing her fingers through her hair, and the blanket drops to the sand, abruptly revealing her ghostly nakedness. She turns and steps back into the circle of firelight, her breasts and belly and sex on full display. Instinctively the guard reaches for the blanket and drapes it around her, then turns his back modestly. She makes no effort to secure the blanket and it falls to the ground again.
Anna notices that the Zouave has left his rifle on the sand. She stoops to take it and turns back toward the invisible dunes. The guard is still turned away, averting his eyes, unaware that she has taken up his weapon.
When Wilson sees his wife direct the barrel of the rifle upward toward her own face, he bursts from the tent and runs to her, crossing the encampment in five bounds. At the sound of his steps she pivots to confront him, the rifle awkward in her arms, her face contorted. When she sees it’s him, she begins to move away, retreating into the open hand of the desert.
Anna! he shouts. The Zouave is at his side now, the two of them watching the vanishing woman in her nakedness. She begins to sob compulsively, disintegrating, losing control in a hot cascade of tears.
You should leave me, Wilson, she calls out in a choked voice.
He begins to walk toward her, but stops when she lowers the rifle and shakily targets the Zouave at his side. The tall man says something in Arabic, perhaps a prayer, perhaps a curse. Together they watch her struggle through the deep sand, dragging herself backward, a white cloud dissipating into the dunes. Eventually she stumbles against a low hillock and glances over her shoulder, then turns to scramble up and over it. Only her head and shoulders remain in view, the rifle hidden by the dunes. In another moment she has vanished completely.
Wilson bolts from the torchlight toward the place where she disappeared. It is freezing in the desert—he’s wearing nothing but pajama bottoms—and he can no longer see the sand at his feet. The moon has long since set and the stars are gauzed over with cloud, or perhaps a distant dust storm. He labors forward like a man lost in a catacomb.
Anna! he calls, already winded by the sand’s resistance. Anna!
Right here, Wilson.
Her voice is startlingly close, just off to his right at ground level. She must be sitting in the sand.
Where are you? He extends his hand in the darkness, probing for her, scenting her.
Stay where you are, Wilson.
Anna, he pleads, just let me sit with you.
In the distance he hears a commotion brewing, sounds of voices and brisk activity, but the space between them is very still.
Wilson, my love, I think I have to leave you.
Her voice is calmer now, burred with the liquor. He drops to the sand, drawing his knees up against the cold. He judges that she is not more than ten feet away.
What do you mean, leave me? he pleads. What have I done?
You’ve done everything right, Wilson. Everything. I don’t deserve you. That’s why I have to leave. There are things you don’t know. Things I’ve done that disgust me. I’m not fit to be with anyone.
He thinks he hears a metallic sound, a meshing of metal parts, but the sound is indistinct.
Anna, he continues, his mind racing, but then a terrifying burst of gunfire breaks out, deafening and brutally physical at such close range. On reflex he rolls onto the sand. In the next instant a blinding electric light snaps on from the dune above and reveals his naked wife kneeling very close by, her back to him, the squat assault rifle in her arms. The weapon is in firing position. Another burst of gunfire rips through the desert’s emptiness as she shoots into the empty dunes in a haphazard figure eight, sending up tiny explosions of sand in the harsh electric light. She screams as she shoots, and when the shooting stops she screams still louder, the sharp peal of her pain careening out into the Sahara like a raven hurled from a sandstorm.
The electric light snaps off as suddenly as it snapped on, and all is once again in darkness. Wilson is afraid to approach her, uncertain what she will do next, uncertain of the source of the bright light. Blinded, he feels threats on all sides. His ears are still ringing from the salvo.
Then the light reappears and he sees his wife laid out before him. She lies facedown in the sand, thick hair fanned across the desert floor, one leg hitched up as if frozen in flight. He thinks of Pompeii, of the stricken bodies. No blood is visible; Anna’s muscular back heaves in the harsh light, her breathing fast and rough. The assault rifle lies discarded in the sand a few yards away from her. All this Wilson absorbs at a glance, trying to make sense of the scene before him.
From atop the adjacent dune, a snort and a spit announce the presence of a camel. The rider sweeps the odd scene with a powerful handheld spotlight, lingering on the American woman’s ghostly white skin, the arc of her body, her splayed leg. Behind the blinding beam Wilson can just make out the sheikh on his mount and the Zouave standing beside the huge animal. The two men exchange words in Arabic and the sheikh laughs mirthlessly, sitting back in his rug saddle and toying with the reins. His camel stamps the sand and tosses its head in irritation, eager to get back to camp, its pruney scent rolling down the slope of the dune. Then the spotlight snaps off again and the desert closes in suddenly. The Zouave moves effortlessly through the complete darkness and retrieves the discarded rifle, the sound of its swinging strap the only indication that he has taken it. With a dismissive snort the camel lumbers down the far side of the dune, the Zouave presumably following, and Anna and Wilson are alone in the desert, shipwrecked on an invisible sea.
Wilson feels his way across the dune toward Anna and comes upon her soft thigh, a thing of great delicacy next to the gritty sand. He lies down beside his wife and embraces her in the impenetrable Moroccan night, the two of them shivering in the cold, her nails digging into his back. When they get to their feet some time later, the sky has cleared and the firmament above is exploding with stars, a celestial firestorm as suffocating as it is beautiful. Though they are freezing—though the hulking dunes, visible again in the starlight, are terrifying in their mass—they stop and look upward, unable to ignore the spectacle above.
Take me home, Wilson, Anna says quietly. I think all these stars might kill me.
Edward Hamlin is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, In Digest, New Dog, and Cobalt, and has been produced theatrically in Chicago and Denver. His story "The Release" was named runner-up for the 2013 Nelson Algren Award. He has recently completed a novel, “Sleeping with Her,” which explores dream life and the unconscious in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.