My wife opened her eyes. I tried not to look at the tubes coming out of her nose and said, “You’ve always had a beautiful smile.”
She closed her eyes and whispered, “I’m exhausted, Paul.”
I wondered if I would encounter her again, out in the world, in another body, and laughed when I imagined an alternate version of her failing to recognize me.
She looked up and asked, “What’s so funny?”
I told her, and she sighed, “I wish I believed that you actually remember past lives...”
I said nothing. She continued on, “Matter of fact, I wish I believed in past lives...”
“It’s not always pleasant,” I offered.
“I think,” she whispered, “that when you die, that’s it. And, to be honest, I find that thought very appealing right now.”
I walked to the window and looked down at the circular road that led to the hospital’s main entrance. A fountain in the middle of the circle triggered an obscure memory: I vaguely recalled having a large stomach and a thin neck, searching in vain for water.
“Do you think I’m delusional?” I asked Sandra.
She didn’t answer, so I turned around. She had fallen asleep with her mouth open.
# # #
I woke up naked in a stable. I walked from stall to stall, past the wooden pillars, running my palms over the stone walls, crunching hay with my bare feet, looking for anything: clothes, water, food. No animals, but in one stall I stumbled upon a stack of brown sheets, which I wrapped around my waist and shoulders. A business card fell to the floor: PAUL FIORE, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR.
That’s it. No address or number. I closed my eyes, trying to remember whether the name should sound familiar. I had only a vague recollection of.... My name was on the tips of my teeth. Outside, people were screaming.
I ran outside. For a moment, the sun blinded me, but I soon adjusted to the light. A man in a turban and a striped robe walked in front of four or five donkeys, each weighed down by sacks that — for only a moment — looked like people. He was leading them to a well, where a crowd had gathered. I walked to them, trying to step on the soft patches of sand between the rocks, pebbles and strands of grass.
It took me a few minutes to reach the well. A woman stood in the center of the circle, straddling a newborn baby. A bearded man — they were all bearded — wearing a sky blue robe, the only man with nothing on his head, pointed the end of his staff at the woman, who placed her palm on her mouth.
“What does that mean?” I asked a turbaned man next to me, placing my hand on my mouth to mimic her gesture.
“She has taken a vow of silence,” said the man. His response seemed automatic, instinctive. It took him a moment to consider my question, after which he turned to me and scrunched his nose. It was difficult to determine whether he thought my question absurd or merely found my appearance appalling. “Where are you from?” he finally asked.
It dawned on me that he had been speaking Aramaic, and that I understood.
“Nazareth,” I blurted, hoping that my answer was appropriate.
“Nazareth?” the man stroked his beard. “Never heard of it.”
The woman pointed to her baby.
“What are you trying to communicate, Dinora?” the man in the sky blue robe demanded. “We see that you have an infant. Is it yours?”
She wore a robe that seemed to fluctuate between red and orange against her black skin. A navy blue shawl was wrapped around her thick, tight curls. Again, she placed her palm over her mouth and then pointed at the baby.
“What?” the man shouted. “You cannot use your vow to deny responsibility. Explain yourself!”
“Do not accuse my mother,” said the baby.
# # #
Penetrating the layers of the Earth’s atmosphere did not generate any heat, or at least none that I could feel, although that may be explained away by the fact that I didn’t — at that particular moment — have a cerebral cortex, which rendered any kind of tactile sensation not only illusory, but also somewhat absurd. Nevertheless, upon departing the exosphere, I was conscious of the particles of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide escaping into space.
The darkness here is not foreboding. It is uniform, and permeates everything like an energy that is neither visible nor invisible, but rather transcends the sense of sight. Perhaps it is a type of energy, rather than “like” energy, but it was difficult to care too much about the proper taxonomy of things, or about naming strategies that reflected some kind of agreed upon accuracy or illusion of objectivity.
As a giant red planet passed, I recalled how I used to think of Jupiter as a child: A behemoth of a planet, the largest in the solar system, made almost entirely — or so I imagined — of ice and gas. I couldn’t fathom such a vastness, one that provided no footing. The idea of Jupiter altered my professed career choices as a child: Instead of saying that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, I insisted that I would become an astronomer, much to the amusement of my elders. My rationale was this: In the safety of my home planet, I could impose my knowledge on the universe and name celestial bodies I would never perceive or interact with in any tangible way.
# # #
The man in the sky blue robe stepped into my tent and sat cross-legged in front of me. “Speak,” he said.
“What should I say?” I asked.
“Why do you wear nothing on your feet?” he sat up on his knees and leaned forward.
I leaned back and told him that I had woken up in the stable, disoriented and unsure of my surroundings.
“What do you know of Dinora’s child?” he asked.
“I only saw what you saw,” I told him.
He got up and started to pace back and forth, stopping to pick up a saucer and dip it into a bucket of water. After swallowing the water, he muttered to himself, “You must be the father.”
I said nothing, and he repeated that phrase several times, “You must be the father…”
“I may or may not be,” I said. “I honestly cannot recall. But I don’t feel that the girl is my daughter.”
“Tamas tells me that you are from a place called Nazareth?” the man sat back down and crossed his legs.
“I suspect that I may be,” I admitted, “although I cannot be certain.”
The man closed his eyes and rubbed his eyelids with his thumb and index finger. “How can a man not know where he is from or whether he has impregnated a woman?” he asked.
I lowered my head, trying not to make any sudden gestures that could be construed as threatening or confrontational. “I cannot recall anything before this morning,” I said. “Perhaps I struck my head on a rock…”
“This scroll,” he said as he produced my business card from his sleeve. “Is it yours?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Where did you get it?” he squinted. “These type of scrolls are ancient.”
# # #
Jupiter, which had embedded such fear in my psyche as a child, now seemed small and insignificant, like a giant bubble that was merely reflecting colors due to its proximity to the sun. If I could have, I might have smiled or even laughed at the prospect of Jupiter bursting into nothingness, a vanishing not caused by some sinister violence, but rather by an expansion that grows inexorably into oblivion.
# # #
It occurred to me, as I ran my fingers over my scalp, that I seemed to have lost my hair in a matter of minutes, rather than years. As I lost myself in these musings, her image flashed before me, in the form of a young woman.
“Please!” I cried.
She turned to me, her eyebrows raised.
“Dinora?” I pleaded.
“No, lord,” she lowered her eyes. “My name is Zandra.”
My eyes watered as I recalled that day at the well, many years ago. All the memories now seemed dim, as if viewed through a glass, except for that woman and her child.
“Is Dinora your mother?” I asked, wiping away tears.
“No, my lord,” said Zandra, and walked away.
I walked to the temple, where Komaki and the other members of the council awaited me. When I walked in, they all stood except for Razy, who pretended to busy himself with a stack of business cards.
“Welcome, lord,” said Komaki as he embraced me.
Razy stood up, poured me a glass of wine and stood next to me. I pretended not to see him, but I believe that both of us were aware of the fact that I merely wanted him to stand for a few moments.
“Drink, lord,” said Razy through his teeth.
I took the glass from him and took a sip. “Let us continue with the investigation,” I commanded.
Tavish took out a stack of business cards and began to read names off of them. Finally, he arrived at that name: PAUL FIORE.
“Does that name sound familiar, lord?” asked Komaki.
# # #
I had long thought of light as a substance whose speed was insurmountable. The speed of light was the reference point, the standard by which everything else was measured. Yet as I drifted, I could sense that notion floating away. To me, at that moment, in that space, the idea of light as I understood it seemed restricted to an infinitesimal plane, one which I convinced myself that I possessed the tools to understand.
I had heard of the “coma wall,” a great wall of galaxies, a superstructure that threaded the boundaries between voids. Words like “web” and “strings” had appeared in books I had leisurely flipped through before placing back on my mahogany shelf. Only now did it occur to me that the language used to describe the largest “known” superstructures in this universe was nothing more than a rudimentary set of metaphors: Matter which humans believe dictates the structure of the universe on the grandest scale is “like” the silk with which a spider erects its architecture.
This thought reminded me of that distant planet I had once inhabited, a rock full of green, brown, blue and other hues, and of living things that dwelled on it. Merely conjuring these vague recollections were enough to effect a movement amidst the sea of silence. Since I had no muscles, nor indeed a body, my movement was not that of a solid entity, of matter, but rather something that seemed to me to be of that void. As I hurtled back towards that speck of dust, moving like a gamma-ray burst intruding on the uniformity of the darkness, passing meteors that drifted aimlessly around mass, comets creeping in the distance as if barely escaping suspension, I found myself conceiving of an ocean, a body of water that seemed minuscule at first, but which eventually, as my perspective and reference points shifted violently, appeared to me as mammoth as Jupiter did to my child self. In the water and salt, amid vegetation, close to the soil of a fresh Earth, a being of insect-like tendencies slithered into existence, excreting tiny balls of feces, lacking awareness of its own insignificance. I lost all perception of time, but as I glanced at a puddle, a pool of molten red and white liquids intermingling, I had a vague sense that this was where I had once been, or perhaps where I might be at some point in the distant future.
# # #
Only when the train came to a halt did I get up from my seat. I followed the crowd through the tunnels, walls strewn with advertisements for small European cars and subtitled American films, past the gates, up the stairs and into the street. I followed the sound of what seemed like a carousel to where the sidewalk gradually turned to a chalky dirt path. Children run past me toward a bubble-like structure; lined-up customers were strapped in, two by two. The bubble thrust itself shriekingly into the air. Those on the ground laughed in delight at the apparent terror of their airborne friends, cousins and classmates.
I stood by the bumper cars for a few minutes, watching the children crash into one another, inexplicably overcome by the sensation that this particular ride held some special significance. As the moments passed, the sensation dimmed. I wondered why my inability to attach a particular meaning to the ride had troubled me only minutes ago.
A small ice cream stand had gone unnoticed, but since my attention, which had previously been occupied by the bumper cars, was now sharper, I noted the comely young woman manning the machine, one of those contraptions where you pull a lever and wait for soft-serve ice cream to come out. She noticed me looking at her stomach, trying to determine whether or not she was in the first blushes of pregnancy. I smiled.
She smiled back and said something in French. It had been so long since I had heard a language I did not understand.
“Je ne parle pas Français,” I said with a sheepish shrug.
“Fraise?” she asked, and I was relieved to have recognized the flavor she was referring to.
“Oui,” I nodded, fishing my pockets for coins.
The sound of laughter distracted me for a moment: children aboard mechanical horses going around in circles. The horses were painted green, orange and blue, with steel pillars penetrating their abdomens. They stared unblinkingly ahead, all four legs airborne, suspended in a perpetual gallop. The children laughed as they clung to the metal manes for a song before dismounting, leaving the violence of the merry-go-round in search of other games.
“Parlez-vous Anglais?” asked the woman.
“Yes,” I said, turning back to her. “My name is Paul.”
“I am Dinora,” she handed me a cone with a little tissue wrapped around the base. She had created a strawberry-vanilla swirl with such a solid constitution that you could almost see the little ice crystals. I imagined that the ice cream would never melt, even if left in the sun….
Tariq al Haydar's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Down & Out, Crab Orchard Review, Juked and others. He is an Assistant Professor of English at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.