Desert (A Short Story)

In the biggest desert in the world, there was a candle; cream-colored, forever lit, and unmelting. It stood on a copper plate that was placed in between two, red sand dunes. Every night, Jawaad watched the flame through the flaps of their tent, that small bead of light reflecting in his bleary eyes. It was only by watching the steady burn of the candle that he could get to sleep. One night, he and Aminah – his little sister – had bickered before bed, and as punishment their mother had them turn away from each other on the narrow, embroidered mattress which they shared. Jawaad had no choice but to give his back to the candle, and as a result did not sleep soundly all night. In fact, he kept discreetly peering over his shoulder to make sure it had not been snuffed out, as if his constant watch was what had kept it burning all this time.

His grandfather, who always slept with his eyes open on a mattress at the mouth of the tent, noticed Jawaad’s unrest. “It won’t go out, ibni,” he said, voice strong like timber. “It does not go out.”

Jawaad, who was startled that his grandfather was awake (and slightly afraid that he would tell his mother he had been looking over his shoulder) asked for the very first time, “Why not?”

Jawaad waited a few moments for his grandfather to reply, but the old man simply stared off, unblinking, and began to snore.

Although his grandfather was right and the candle was still lit when Jawaad woke the next morning, he was struggling to believe that the flame could never be extinguished. All fire went out – it was what fire did – and so Jawaad’s fear never truly subsided. He gazed into the candle all through the night, and checked on it periodically throughout the day. Its presence gave him peace of mind; it allowed him to enjoy his meals, to focus on games, to laugh – it allowed him, essentially, to be a child, secure and unbothered.

That security shattered the day of the storm. Clouds accumulated above their tent all morning, dark and looming. Jawaad was so overcome with worry that he could not eat or play or even talk. He wrung his hands like laundry and hovered so close to his mother that he could smell the oud in her perfume. No one noticed his uneasiness. His mother cooked and washed. His grandfather sat confidently in his throne at the mouth of the tent, watching the landscape and feeding prayer beads through his calloused fingers. Aminah, having given up on trying to convince her brother to entertain her, played silently with her invisible friends. And all the while, a single, irrefutable fact repeated ceaselessly in Jawaad’s head: it will not survive the rain.

Thunder erupted throughout the swooping dunes, shaking the first raindrops from the clouds. They fell silently at first, leaving dark spots on the sand, but as the rain grew harder and louder, Jawaad’s panic climbed higher. It occurred to him suddenly that he would not be able to bear life without the candle, and was certain that the sight of the smoking wick would kill him. Feeling close to death, he began to sob and hugged his mother hard. She held him, both confused and concerned, and whispered God’s names into his hair.

“Jawaad,” it was his grandfather’s voice, “Jawaad, leave your mother.” Jawaad felt his grandfather’s seismic hands pry him away from the warmth of his mother’s breast and drag him outside the tent. “Ibni, open your eyes,” he said, firmly. Jawaad sobbed and pleaded, eyes shut tight. His grandfather shook him violently, “Open your eyes!”

The fear invoked by his grandfather’s voice forced Jawaad to obey. What he saw before him made his breath catch in his throat, for reflected in his big, wet eyes was the warm light of the still burning candle.

Tearful, Jawaad looked up at his grandfather, “But how?

His grandfather released him and crouched down to meet his gaze. With every syllable, he prodded the place on Jawaad’s chest where his heart lay, “It. Does. Not. Go. Out.” And then, pushing off his great knees, he stood and strode back through the flaps of the tent.

Jawaad sat there on the ground for a long while, massaging his chest. Thunder and lightning crashed above his head, rain soaked him through, the sand turned to mud beneath him, until at last, with a final glance over his shoulder, he stood and walked back to the tent, leaving the candle standing in its copper plate: cream-colored, forever lit, and unmelting.

Phantom: A Short Story

When I was sitting with my legs under me in the grass, covered in a shiver with the wind at my neck, I was at first confused. How did it find me? And how could it have overcome me so quickly, and quietly? I put the heel of my palm to my head and rubbed it furiously. There was a voiceless, unbelieving sob (my own) as I asked—

How?

And then as it all gathered, I began to remember. He had been planning this for days. He had been there. I remember. I should have known.

Perhaps I did.

I remember the green glow at the edge of the window, and as I lay in the dark I felt lulled by it. It was like a lighthouse, fading, and I was meant to close my eyes before it had a chance to swing back again. I was meant to. I would have outsmarted it. I would have evaded it.

And then in the evening, when I was with the others, I tore and aligned twigs in straight rows as they spoke of their nights, nights they kept in lockets at their breasts. I pulled up my collar. I could not speak.

In the morning when I woke and went to fetch the water, I found myself led far from the path of the house. I was down a divergence on ground that has since been grown with green, and the blades of grass gave shocked, silent gasps as I broke their spines. The sky was gray like ash and I could see its glow from behind a tree. It throbbed, and I placed the water down and walked towards it—all on my own, too. It took me by the waist.

It was not pleasant and yet not unpleasant. I did not push it off, and when it lined my jaw with its green fingers I let it. It did not last, but it happened more than once so it must have taken a while. 

And then it lifted off of me, swirled high into the tree and watched me lying on the floor, with my arm over my eyes and my heels in the dirt and a scream in my throat. I took the water pail and lunged it at the tree, but it splattered back and made mud at my feet and on my hem.

I breathed heavy and hot. The sky rumbled. There would be rain.

I walked away, determined and pulling my hair back and up and tying it with a steadfast flick of my ribbon. I made my way back down the path, walking around the grasses and trying to ignore the corpses of the blades I had crushed. The clouds rolled. I went home and, in my fever of determination, fell fast asleep with my hand against my cheek.

I woke normally at first, stirring in the dark of the clouds. Still no rain. But I could smell it. I meant to sit up — really I did. I meant to sit up and retie my hair and go fetch fresh water for my face, but there was a whispering at my back, and from the corner of my eye I could see the glow behind me. It was pulling at my ribbon, my hair was falling out. I turned to face it.

Its glow was frightening and endlessly moving, like sick steam. It wrapped around my waist and I breathed it in, until it reached the end of my lungs. It was still swirling when I turned around again and bit the edge of my pillow. My chest was burning.

“Be gone, be gone—”

But it would not go unless I made it. So I swung myself out of bed and faced it.

“Come with me.”

It listened. It always listens when you want something from it. It will give you anything you want. I led it through the house, and had to keep down my cries as it moved around the furniture and shadowed the flower vase by the window. When we reached the front door, I turned to it.

“I’ve had enough.”

It was sometimes soft, and it placed a hand on my cheek. I held my breath and turned away from it. Then I waited until full darkness had returned to the house and I could hear only the pounding of my heart.

Soft twinkles started on the window pane. The flowers shivered.

I closed my eyes, slowly, and waited for the thunder. When it came the twinkling became excited, and my chest softened. I walked towards the window and pulled it open. Chilled wind and water came in. I slipped my body out, just until the waist, and lay with my face upwards. It was uncomfortable, but the water ran down my cheeks and broke on my lashes and slipped down my hair and chest. It tickled on its way down my collar and onto my stomach. I let it wash me.

‘Good’ Writing

Today in Writing 3 we were asked to turn in a reflection of what we believed was ‘good’ writing. Our professor gave us complete freedom and told us to choose any format we liked. I went for the creative-fiction-prose approach and wrote up a scene of a mother who discovers the body of her son. Pretty dark, I know, but I wanted to test the emotional impact of the writing.

To do this, I drew up two samples. One was the scene written in a way that I felt was ‘weaker’, and one was written in a way that I felt was ‘stronger’, i.e. the way I would ideally write it. Here are the two samples:

Sample One: 

I entered the house and took note of the silence. But then again it was always this way. My son, who was always home when I arrived from work, was not one to make noise. Usually, I would walk by his room to check on him. He would greet me with a weak smile, and I would look at him and think about how much brighter his smile used to be before he was diagnosed with depression.

“Hi mama,” he’d say.

“Hi habibi,” I’d reply.

Today was no exception. I walked up to his room to check on him, but things were different. My son was not in his bed. I took in the sight of him hanging. He had taken his own life.

Sample Two

Let me tell you about the moment my son became a statistic. I walked into the house, and all was quiet. But that wasn’t odd, really. Rami made as much noise as someone who spent all day swaddled in bed scrolling through Instagram could make. Every day when I’d come back from work, I’d pop my head into his room to check up on him. He’d look up, pull out an ear bud, and try to smile in a way that was meant to fool me into thinking he was doing better. Just once I wish I could’ve fallen for it.

“Hi mama.”

“Hi habibi.”

Today, I went to check on him as always. I walked across the hall, pushed open his door, and there he was. But he wasn’t on his phone. In fact, his phone was on the side table, and his ear buds – much like Rami at that moment – dangled off the edge, hanging silently in midair.

Okay, which one hit you harder? My intention was that the second one would have the stronger impact, and I thought without a doubt that my classmates and professor would agree. But they didn’t.

I explained my reasoning for why I originally believed the second one was stronger; I gave the characters more of a personality, tried to show readers what kind of relationship the mother and son had… The grief, I believed, was in the details. But, according the class, the details served more as a distraction.

My professor said that because the first sample was so stark and mechanical, it reflected the chilling nature of the truth this woman was about to uncover in her son’s room. It reflected the general ‘wrongness’ of the atmosphere, and ultimately the simple, blunt language pierced the heart more acutely than sample two.

It’s never easy to take criticism, but having heard their thoughts, I do sort of agree with them. There are strengths in the first one that the second one could have benefited from. Perhaps it would be better to write more in the style of sample one. Or, maybe I should try to merge the two styles and apply the strengths from both?

I’m not sure yet. I’ll definitely need to think about it more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t be afraid to place your work under other people’s microscopes. Feedback does help you grow, as a writer and as a person.  Learning to let go of your ego and listen to what others have to say is actually really humbling once you surrender to it. So bring your work to class, show it to people, and take what they have to say into serious consideration. It’s worth the risk, and you’ll probably end up discovering weaknesses in your writing that you never noticed before. (Also, nothing equates to seeing people get emotional over something you wrote, so if it does goes well, it’ll be really nice and you can feed off the validation for a while…just saying).

If you like, let me know which sample impacted you more and why. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

See you soon.