ISSUE #4 FOREST, AUTUMN 2014
CREATIVE WRITING
The Road to Damascus

Two people were waiting for them at the gas station when Anna and Patrick finally arrived. Maral, as sleek and well-groomed as she had been when they’d met her two nights before in a Gemmayze Street bar, pointedly looked at her watch when she saw them approaching and pursed her lipsticked, carnation- pink mouth at Anna.

“Sorry sorry sorry,” said Anna in a rush, taking Maral’s hand and pressing it between her own. This time, she was prepared for the feel of the too-few fingers, the puckered sausage-pinch at the end of the knucklebones. Maral’s maimed right hand had come as a nauseating shock the first time she shook it: perfectly manicured nails crowned three tapered fingers, the last two simply missing, vanished away, evidenced only by a pale, gathered scar. Anna had tried not to stare as Maral animatedly gestured with her hands, scrolled through her phone to show off her pictures, gripped her vodka glass, and brushed her glossy hair out of her face. Not a word of explanation had been offered, and Anna had been careful to avoid any words that might offend or even imply that she had noticed anything amiss: scar, pain, accident, loss, wound, disfigurement, catastrophe, damage.

Maral leaned forward and gave her three kisses on the cheeks, her lips never touching Anna’s skin. She extricated her hand from Anna’s and slid it into Patrick’s palm, giving him the same three kisses and murmuring that it was fine but that they had thought they weren’t coming at all.

“Oh no, we’re so excited,” said Anna. “We’re so grateful you waited.”

Maral turned to the man who stood farther back, leaning against the paint-mottled four-wheel drive car that appeared to be their ride.

“Usayd,” he said. Tall and lean, he had deep-set, long-lashed dark eyes and skin so dark that Anna, despite herself, could only think of the word swarthy. He shook Patrick’s hand, but Anna’s he ignored, instead placing his own on his chest and nodding at her. She smiled a little too widely, blushing at both the rejection and the sudden feeling of shame that overcame her.

Loudly she asked what kind of car it was, but Maral was already climbing into the front seat.

“Lada,” replied Usayd. “You don’t have them in America.”

He sucked all the vowels out of it, so it came out Amirkuh, and Anna blushed again.

She took the window seat, fiddling with her shoe until Patrick folded himself into the middle. The driver – the smuggler, Anna corrected herself with a thrill – handled the car aggressively, winding his way through the bottlenecked traffic by switching lanes and angling into any narrow opening he could find. Above the hills, the crescent moon stood out next to the late-afternoon sun, its edges sculpted like a drawing out of a children’s storybook. Windows glowed blindly in the dull glare, and Anna narrowed her eyes against it. Everywhere billboards and buildings climbed over, above, and around one another, so many that she couldn’t distinguish anything amid the impressionistic blur.

As she took in the dense city, another one unspooled behind her eyes: minarets rising above an ancient souk, old houses with ornately carved wooden shutters, a lone, veiled figure fluttering up an impossibly narrow, winding lane. Its three syllables beat a steady rhythm in her body, the first an open exhalation, the second and third ending with sibilants that caught it and pulled it back into a sigh of lament, of desire, of finality, of exhausted resignation: Da-mas-cus. In her mind, she shuffled through the photographs Maral had shown them on the night they’d met her. She populated the city with imaginary bodies, fists raised, faces set, mouths open with the vivid triumph of a demand for freedom. Day of rage. There was a power to it, like a witch’s incantation, bringing to life in word before bringing to life in deed. Day of Rage: what Maral was going to document, what she – they – were going to witness with their own eyes. No longer would Anna watch the world make and unmake and remake itself through books and textbooks, newspaper articles, and photographs. She would now see with her own eyes, have her own truth to tell. She leaned her forehead against the window and shut her eyes against Beirut, the better to see Damascus.

When she opened them again, for a second she thought she had gone blind. Their car was suspended in the midst of a vast white nothingness, and she could hardly tell if they were moving or not. Inside they appeared pressed closer together than before, their bodies the only reference points. She looked about wildly and found the driver’s oil-black eyes staring back at her in the rearview mirror. There was something accusing in them. She gripped Patrick’s hand, grateful for its well-known solidity and warmth, waiting for someone to answer a question she was almost afraid to voice.

And then, in a dissolve that seemed to happen both slowly and all at once, shapes rose out of the murk – a bare, spine-knobbled back, a curve of hip, a scar-spangled stretch of stomach. Anna barely had time to register the images before they congealed again: a stark mountaintop with scrabbles of tree and bush, descending into a long, flat valley, crisscrossed with fields and roads.

“That was some fog,” said Patrick, letting out a long whoosh of breath.
“I thought we might either crash or fall off the side of the mountain.”

“Usayd can drive this road with his eyes closed,” said Maral.

She turned her face in profile, and Anna noticed her nose was slightly too large for her face.

“Now,” asked Maral, tapping her three fingers against the dashboard, “who’s hungry?”

 

A short while later they were stopping in a place called Chtoura for sandwiches. Anna’s legs prickled numbly as she stepped out of the car.

In the deli she stood at the counter and stared as the men – they were all men – assembled, twisted, and wrapped up the sandwiches so quickly she couldn’t keep track of the individual movements.

“What do you recommend?” said Anna, choosing the youngest of the men to ask. His smile was kind and his eyes a clear blue. “What’s the house specialty?”

“Definitely labneh,” answered Maral. The young man behind the counter just continued to smile.

Labneh,” repeated Anna, relishing the unfamiliar word.

 “That sounds good.”

“The best in the world,” declared Maral.

“Amazing,” declared Patrick after a few bites.

“Tastes like yogurt, but richer.”

“It’s labneh,” said Anna.

He had a cheerful literalism about him that found pleasure in contracting things into the most obvious, or rather the least interesting, versions of themselves. Anna was afraid sometimes that he saw her the same way, that he loved her because she was – and not despite her being – a mousy-haired schoolteacher pushing past childbearing age, whose dreams of making a difference in the world were now resigned to brokenly transmitting themselves to a new group of disaffected teenagers year after year. Well, no more.

“Actually,” said Maral. “It’s pretty much really thick yogurt.”

Anna cleared her throat and turned to Usayd. The labneh was too sour for her taste.

“You’d think we were just on a regular road trip,” said Anna.

“It’s better to think of it that way,” said Usayd.

“The special express route for those with passport troubles,” laughed Maral. “He has none,” she cocked a thumb at Usayd. “I have too many, and yours are … a little too loud for their own good.”

“Goldilocks and the three passports,” grinned Patrick.

“Yes,” said Usayd, chuckling and clapping him on the shoulder. “We too have to run from the bad big bears.” His clipped accent made this sound ominous, and Anna saw how his eyes narrowed over his sharply hooked nose, but Patrick clapped him right back and called him “buddy.”

“Aw, don’t worry,” said Maral. “If worst comes to worst, even the secret police can be bribed. But more likely they’ll be too busy drinking contraband whiskey to notice our car passing through the woods.”

Usayd turned to Maral and said something in rapid-fire Arabic, and she replied, spitting out a hard little laugh at the end.

“What was that?” asked Patrick. He was so well fed, so trusting, Anna felt at once protective and slightly embarrassed for him.

Maral paused a few seconds before answering.

“He said he hopes the trip is worth it and you find what you’re looking for.”

Patrick tried to find Anna’s face with his eyes, but she wouldn’t let him. That night back in their hotel room in Beirut, after they’d met Maral and heard her stories, after Anna had decided that they absolutely had to go to Damascus, even if it meant risking capture or deportation or worse, Patrick had kneeled before her and taken her hands into his and said: “Just tell me what you’re looking for, babe. Tell me what you need, convince me, and I’m there. Just convince me.”

But because she couldn’t say, or couldn’t bring herself to say, what she wanted to say, she had instead reminded him of what he’d said two months earlier, when he’d got down on his knees and began: “After seven years, honey, it’s make it or break it time.”

“When you asked me to marry you, you said you’d follow me anywhere,” she said.

But what she had wanted to say was: “I want to experience something real.”

 

They arrived for their scheduled stop in the town of Anjar just as dusk fell on it. Usayd pulled the car up beneath a withered grape trellis in a narrow driveway.

“He needs about an hour to load up the car before we cross the border,” said Maral. “My grandmother is expecting us for coffee,” she said, gesturing at a small red-roofed house a little way farther down the road. Anna imagined the house would be small and cozy on the inside, stiflingly warm with the smells of baking and coffee. And suddenly she couldn’t bear the thought of sitting around a table with Patrick, Maral, and her grandmother, introducing herself in translation, presenting highlights of her personal history, and making small talk that might be palatable to all.

“I think I’d like to take a walk,” she said.

Patrick yawned, almost theatrically.

“I think I might need some of that coffee.”

He gave Anna’s shoulder a tender squeeze. “You’ll be OK?” he whispered, and she nodded, impatient to be off.

She was so lost in her thoughts she didn’t notice the ruins until they suddenly loomed before her. Huge arches rose high in the gathering darkness beyond a stone wall. It reminded her of visiting the natural history museum as a child: she’d stood before the mounted skeleton of a blue whale and imagined her tiny feet dangling in a vast ocean while something immense swam beneath her. She felt suddenly that she wanted to touch the stones, to register her pre- sence. She circled around the wall, trying to find an entrance, but the gate, when she came to it, was locked. There was no guard. She stood there for a while, wondering if she dared scale it, when she saw a shape moving among the ruins inside.

“Hello?” she called. The shape came toward her.

“Hi,” she said, as cheerily as she could. Then digging through the memory of their guidebook: “Marhaba! I’m trying to get in. Can you help me?” Hoping to communicate her friendly intent at least by tone if not through language.

And the shape came together into the form of an old woman. Hunched and veiled, she moved with great difficulty, as if her age were a tangible weight she dragged behind her. She lifted up her head, and the twilight illuminated her face: ancient and wrinkled like some old topographical map. In the purple light, her eyes seemed only empty sockets, dry, bottomless wells with no reflecting glint within. Anna drew back from the gate, the smile frozen on her lips.

The woman raised her arms out to the sky, her lips drawn into a silent “oh” shape. Then she beat both arms against her breast, so hard that Anna flinched. The woman fell to her knees, still beating her arms across her breast, and a loud keening came through the air, so sharp Anna could feel it lashing her skin, reverberating in her own throat.

“Do you need help?” called Anna.

The woman rose and was lost among the ruins once again. Her keening receded but could still be felt, like a door being half shut on an argument whose violence remained even after its words were lost to understanding. Anna looked up at the arches, feeling, more than ever, like a mere speck before them in both time and space, so small as to be utterly negligible. She could see a long line of people stretching out before her, countless generations of dead between her and the ruins, each with their own unspeakable histories. The wind picked up, and the keening rose again on its crest, the formless, open vowels taking shape, being pinned down by one percussive sound.

Anna started; she lifted her head.

It came again. It was unmistakable.

The woman was calling a name, over and over again. The name was Anna.

Anna turned and ran back to the road with the houses. She nearly fell twice; the road was stonier than she remembered, but finally the rocks and earth gave way to pavement, and she recognized the lane they had pulled into. Her heart seemed to be trying to beat its way out of her ears, to expel the sound of her name, her name as lament: Anna.

She was almost at the driveway when she noticed a figure kneeling at the trunk of the car, his forehead lowering to meet the ground like a crouched animal waiting to pounce.

Anna uttered a little scream, and the figure sat up, meeting her eyes. It was Usayd. Her feet felt bound to the ground as she stood there, shaking, then finally he summoned her with a crook of his finger. “Come,” he said.

She wondered what he would do if she complied, then wondered what he might do if she didn’t. She went to him.

He stood up and rolled up the small rug he’d been kneeling on and tucked it into the trunk of the car atop a crowbar.

“What … what do you want?” she asked, her voice tight and small.

“Help,” he said, gesturing at three large crates sitting on a wheelbarrow next to the car.

Wordlessly, she followed his lead, grabbing one end of a crate and lifting it up. Her hands were still shaking from her earlier encounter, and she gasped, hesitating, taken aback by its unexpected weight.

“Please be careful,” he barked. “You must not drop it.”

After they had loaded all three crates into the trunk, Anna leaned against the car, panting – from fear or exertion or both, she couldn’t tell.

“Usayd,” she said finally. “That’s an interesting name.”

“It means ‘little lion,’” he said. “It’s very common in Iraq.”

“You’re Iraqi?” said Anna. She couldn’t get her voice to sound normal, composed.

“I am,” he said. “I was born and grew up in Baghdad.” He paused and then continued. “I moved to Beirut after I lost my family in the war.” Again there seemed to be an accusation in the slick black depths of his eyes. Anna willed her body into stillness and returned his look with as much ferocity as she could muster.

“What’s in the crates?” she asked. He looked away.

“Help,” he said. “Don’t you read the news?” It was almost a snarl. “It’s help for people in times of trouble.”

And Anna understood exactly what was in those crates.

Just then, Maral and Patrick appeared at the other end of the lane, deep in conversation, close, their hips almost touching, and Anna saw Maral draw back with a laugh, hiding something behind her back. Then she stepped forward and placed that something in Patrick’s mouth. He closed his eyes, exclaiming with surprised delight as Maral nodded approvingly.

A quiver shuddered through Anna’s legs. She wanted to run to Patrick and ask him to hitch a ride back down to Beirut with her, to forget the whole idea of Damascus, but she was the one who had insisted that they go, and it was exactly for that reason that she couldn’t back out of it now.

Instead she forced her arm up into a cheerful hail. She saw the shadow of the old woman pass before her eyes but quickly dismissed it as she walked briskly to the little group now all gathered around the Lada.

“Hey!” said Patrick. “Did you have a nice walk?”

She nodded without saying anything as Maral approached.

“I have something for you, Anna,” she said.

“What is it?” asked Anna.

“Open your mouth!” commanded Maral. Anna noticed her lipstick had been freshly reapplied. “I saved this one just for you,” she said.

Anna closed her eyes against the sight of the three lone fingers coming toward her mouth and took it, careful not to let her lips touch Maral’s hand. Instantly a taste of flowers bloomed on her tongue, lavender and rose, and a taste she couldn’t quite place.

“Isn’t it amazing?” asked Patrick. “Maral’s grandmother made these.”

“An old Armenian recipe,” said Maral, “or it could be that she just made it up and called it that. She does that sometimes.”

“She’s one cool old lady,” said Patrick.

Anna smiled as she forced herself to chew and swallow, nodding like she agreed. The floral flavors were nauseating, completely unsuited to food.

Maral turned to Usayd, who lingered by the car door, and spoke something to him in Arabic. Anna wondered if Maral was in on it too, if she, too, knew what they carried in the trunk.

Yalla,” said Maral. “We have to leave now to avoid the patrols.”

Anna heard her heart beating in her ears; she had to force her legs to climb into the car after Patrick.

 

Soon they had left the glow of the town behind, crossing the lightless valley and entering a grove of trees. Dark, furry masses of evergreens, scattered here and there in small clumps, so different from the dense forests Anna knew from back home. They stood like lone sentinels, and occasionally one reached a dark, feathered branch down to brush against the windshield.

Maral had made it sound so easy back at the bar in Beirut: an unguarded border, an easy clandestine crossing by night, a simple and often-used option for those who, like them, couldn’t get visas. And Anna had believed her, because Maral had seemed to know something she didn’t, something Anna wanted to know so much she hadn’t, she was now realizing, thought things through.

To fill the silence, she launched into a little story about her walk: how she had found the ruins but no gatekeeper, how she had encountered a lame old woman within. In her story, she tamed the woman, made her seem less terrifying and otherworldly, and made more of her own comical stumbles on the rocks as she headed back, omitting the part where she had helped Usayd load the crates of guns into the car.

When she finished talking, her mouth was dry, as if filled with desiccated petals.

“Does anyone have any water?” she asked.

Maral handed her a bottle from her purse. Anna inspected the bottle: a few sips were missing. She opened it, took a few sniffs – oh, but she was so thirsty; she tipped it back and swallowed half of it in two gulps.

“So you met old lady Taline,” said Maral.

“Who’s that?” asked Patrick.

Majnounet hareb,” said Maral. “Literally, a ‘war crazy.’”

Anna thought she could hear Usayd shift beside Maral. She stared out the window. Her eyes seemed to catch a long, loping shape shifting through the trees outside, keeping pace with the car.

“Except in her case it’s not exactly that,” said Maral. “She’s one of the old folks, the ones who were forcibly removed from their village in Turkey at the end of the 1930s and plunked down in Anjar when the Turks decided the onset of the Second World War was exactly the right cover to rid themselves of more Armenians. Her parents and siblings died on the way, which wasn’t all that remarkable really. And then, one day in her forties, she just snapped. She started wandering the town and crying for her lost children, wailing for them by name, and their names always changed. But the thing is, she never had any children. She never married. My grandmother says that’s what drove her nuts. That if she’d had a family of her own, she would have been able to forget the old one.”

“Not letting go of the past is a form of madness in itself,” said Anna, her newly irrigated voice finding its teacherly authority once more.

“So is letting go of it entirely,” said Usayd.

A faint glow came from up ahead in the trees. He brought the car to a gentle halt and spoke urgently to Maral.

She brushed her hair away from her face with her maimed hand; it looked like some prehistoric claw in the gloom.

“We’ll have to continue on foot for a little way,” she said. “I’ll lead the way.”

Patrick looked at Anna, and she could hardly stand to see the concern in his face. All of it was for her, and she hated him a little for it.

 

The woods were dark, shadow upon shadow. The moon, sharp and curved as a scimitar, offered very little light, and Maral insisted that they walk in the coal of night. It was “safer this way.”

Maral led the way, Patrick and Anna following, gripping one

another’s hands and stumbling on pinecones.

“Have we crossed the border yet?” whispered Patrick. Maral shook her head and pointed. Up in the distance, barely visible against the low crest of a scrub-covered hill, the silhouette of what appeared to be a long, low building.

“The Onion Factory,” said Maral, and Anna wondered why such an incongruous thing might exist. Still, the sight of a building offered some idea of shelter that comforted her.

“Usayd will pick us up from there,” said Maral.

Swells of nausea crested through Anna’s chest as she walked, threatening to overspill. The smell of flowers was too much to bear, and nothing she did, no deep gulps of air and no amount of rubbing her nose on her sleeve, would help.

“Patrick,” she hissed, drawing him back so Maral wouldn’t overhear, “I think … I think there was something in those cookies.”

“Something like what?” he asked.

She shook her head, afraid to voice the words aloud.

In answer he just pulled her along in his wake, half hugging her along the path, trying to catch up to Maral, who had begun climbing the hill toward the building.

 

Anna could hardly breathe; the climb had taken what little air was left in her lungs. As she steadied herself against the concrete, her vision starred with electric amoeba shapes, she became aware of a long line of veiled figures marching up the hill from the other side. Women, hunched and shuffling, some of them startlingly too tall, carrying bundles, some of the bundles shifting and crying, some of the women not women at all but men dressed as such, all of them silent, moving swiftly, their veils fluttering in the wind – she looked up, searching the others’ faces; they had seen them too.

“The exodus has begun,” whispered Maral.

Suddenly the ranks broke. The women, the men-as-women, their huddled children, began running, breaking off into opposite directions. A light shone in the distance, it bobbed toward them, shouts accompanied it, and above it, Maral’s voice, commanding them, “Run! Hide!”

Maral dashed into the woods, Patrick following, and Anna let them get a head start before turning and moving in the opposite direction, toward the Onion Factory. She didn’t look behind her. She heard Patrick shout something, but she left him behind, her feet carrying her to a black doorway in the side of the building. Inside, the high windows left a faint trail of gray checkers – she followed them without thinking, forcing her feet forward, until something hit her in the head and she fell, the darkness sweeping over her body and shrouding her in its thick veil.

When Anna came to, she was alone, her cheek resting on concrete. For a moment she seemed to hover above her body, seeing herself lying there in a dark room, in a dark wood, and then she was seeing another fallen body: a woman’s.

Her mother’s.

She was five. Left alone, again. Flipping through her favorite book of fairy tales. Tracing the pictures with a finger. Wishing her way into them. Imagining a life surrounded by magic. Then a thud, a scream, her name: “Anna!”

She’d rushed to the bathroom, no one else at home. And saw: a fallen body, fish-belly white, breasts flopped to either side, heavy and long-nippled as cow udders. A scar-path gleaming silver down a stomach, running right into a forest of shockingly dark pubic hair. Blood pooling black beneath her mother’s head, thinning to pink where it met with the still-running water. The heavy smell of rust – and of lavender and rose, the bowl of potpourri on the toilet smashed on the floor, the dried petals caught in the thick blood like drowning insects.

“Anna,” her mother had moaned. “Get help.”

But Anna had just stood there and thought one phrase over and over again, the first, she would realize later, adult thought of her life: This is real. This is real. This is real.

She didn’t remember who had called the ambulance and how, only that later, when her mother came home again with a bandaged head and reached tiredly for her, she’d flinched, her mother’s familiar countenance now overlain with that of that other, monstrous, wounded creature.

“This is real,” she said aloud, her voice echoing in the room.

She sat up and rubbed her elbows, her knees. Above her in the wall of the room, she could see just enough to make out chains dangling from the ceiling and thick, rusting hooks sprouting out of the raw concrete. In the corner, a metal chair with a spike protruding upward from the seat. It gleamed in the pale light.

The Onion Factory. Of course. There was so much she had never let herself understand.

The calm continued with her as she made her way out of the building.
Out in the forest, there was nothing and no one, only her and the trees. They had run off together and left her. Even now Patrick was pushing Maral up against a tree somewhere, groping under her tight shirt, and she was thrusting hungrily back at him, rubbing the stumps of her missing fingers against the bulge in his pants.

And Usayd – Usayd was probably after her, seeking vengeance for his dead family, targeting her for revenge only by virtue of who she was and what she represented to him. Anyone could be after her – the shadowy patrols, that shape she’d seen following the car, or one of those fleeing men in disguise, so crazed by war they would target anyone who got in their way. Was it that hard to imagine? It was so common they had an actual word for it in their language.

As if to confirm her thoughts, she heard a twig snapping behind her, movement drawing closer. She ran. She ran, her feet light and springy on the carpet of needles, pinecones occasionally crackling underfoot like whips that urged her on faster.

Whatever moved somewhere behind her picked up the pace as well, its feet galloping as fast as her heart, and suddenly there, in the distance, the car. They had waited for her. She ran toward it, relief exploding her lungs, but as she drew closer, she saw that it was empty, its doors and trunk flung open.

But the crates, the crates were still in the trunk. All was not lost.

She heard footsteps slowing down; whatever it was was close enough now that she could hear its deep, heaving animal breaths, but she focused on prying the crate open with the crowbar. She knew the basic idea behind using a gun: her father had insisted that women should know how to protect themselves.

“Thank you, Daddy,” she mouthed soundlessly.

The crate lid came groaning off. She reached in carefully – and found her hand closing over a cylindrical shape. A can of baby formula. Dozens and dozens and dozens of cans of formula, carefully packed, and beneath them glass baby bottles and nipples, and more cans and cans of formula. She giggled. And the giggle turned into heaving laughter, tears flowing down her face, as a pinecone snapped right behind her now, and something stood there, waiting.

And as she turned around to face it, she knew suddenly, with perfect clarity, that whatever it was, it was exactly what she had come to this place to find.

motilium click motilium eureka
  
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