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That Is The Question

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Mid-May in Berkeley, after his graduation, Joey asked his older sister, “Marwa, what happened in Mecca?’

Marwa sidestepped. Joey knew her expressions and was not deceived by rising brows nor the widening Nefertiti eyes she had always used to communicate her teasing approval of him. He also knew her synesthesia caused her to see things differently but not unreliably. What color was his question to her?

“Funny you should ask, Joey,” Marwa said. “Only this morning, I read that the world’s largest hotel is being built in Mecca. The Abraj Kudai will have twelve towers, forty-five floors and 10,000 bedrooms, seventy restaurants, a shopping center, and helicopter pads. Five floors for the royal Saudis. 3.5 billion dollars, and completion in 2017. Another edifice to eclipse the Grand Mosque. People are praying in the wrong direction because they don’t know which way the mosque is any more. The house of Khadijah has been turned into a block of toilets.” His question was Crayola Vivid Tangerine.

Joey stopped walking. He took Marwa’s hand and said, “You never let go of mine that whole day.”

He meant Sept. 11th, when he was in third grade nearby her high school that shook when the planes hit the Towers. At twenty-two, he now was at least six inches taller than her 5’8″. She had to look up to him.

“Ummee’s repatriated to Alexandria,” Joey said. “Dad can’t leave his “Mansion of the Sistrum” concert in New York. You’re the only one here. I was in China last summer, and now I’m going back, but you never did. So I need to know what happened when you went to Mecca.”

Marwa recited from the libretto of the symphony their father had composed at Julliard, being performed at Lincoln Center this same weekend in May.

“I am Praise; I am Majesty; I am Bat with Her Two Faces; I am the One Who Is Saved, and I have saved myself from all things evil.” She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed Joey’s palm, but she didn’t answer.

Nine years older than her brother, Marwa had preceded him at Manhattan’s magnet Stuveysant High School. Both of them had demurred their father’s generous offers for college money, preferring scholarships and loans which they quickly received.

In 2005, before her last year as a Presidential Scholar at Fordham in the Bronx, before that summer’s elite placement in Mecca when she was twenty-one, Marwa had become aware of being a pawn when she met with her advisor in a Fordham office. It was a Blue-Violet memory.

In early March, her advisor scheduled a meeting about Marwa’s summer and senior year plans. Crossing the campus on a windy March day, Marwa saw crocus poking through cold-crusted earth. Blackened heaps of snow were shrinking. She could feel softer threads of Spring in the cold sheets of air tossed and spread about the college grounds. At her advisor’s office door, Marwa tapped politely. A woman’s low voice replied musically, “Entrez!”

Madame Professor Erisa Toto looked up from her crowded desk. Above were bookshelves Marwa worried might one day collapse and knock the woman senseless. Prof. Toto never stood to welcome students; she was over six feet tall and very thin. On another wall, catty-cornered with a window, were arranged African masks from Burundi where the professor had family.

“Ah, Mam’selle al-Hal, bienvenue, asseyez-vous,” Prof. Toto said.

Marwa sat down and from her backpack removed her Prez Folder.

“’02, ’03, you plan to return to Alexandria for a third summer, coming up?” the professor asked.

“I will be in Alexandria for my brother’s wedding in July, but I hope to go to Mecca before – and after, with your help,” Marwa said. “There’s a high school in Mecca. Meccans see themselves as an antidote to extremism; if I could work there, maybe science and Latin, the U.S. Constitution. They’ve got this program for gifted students – Mawhiba — my mother’s cousin in Jeddah is a teacher there, she recommended –.”

Prof. Toto raised an already arched eyebrow. “But you wanted work at the New Library in Alexandria.”

“I did.”

Prof. Toto pursed her dark, glossed lips. “I see.” She hesitated, then, “There is interest in your plans. The Alexandrian Library is encouraged. There is a fellowship for you.”

Marwa frowned.

“When we were all arrested, end of last August, and herded away from the GOP convention – was that why I was released so fast?”

Prof. Toto sighed. “One is fluent in Arabic with family in Egypt. The State Department has a Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs which includes the Fulbright Program and other foreign exchanges. An Egyptian-born woman has been appointed its director.”

“No one told me.”

“And I am not telling you.”

“I can’t believe anyone cares if I’m in Alexandria or Mecca this summer.”

“I can never believe anyone cares about my pitiful contribution of taxes, and yet, each year, they are quite emphatic about it. Between belief and –” Prof. Toto shook her head back and forth, “– reality, a chasm.”

“This director, she can’t make me go to Alexandria, can she?”

“Mecca may even be preferable. I will see.”

Marwa looked at the African masks. “Why can’t I see?”

“You will prefer if arrangements are smoothly made for the school in Saudi Arabia?”

Marwa zipped her folder into her backpack and took her coat from the back of her chair. She put her hand on the doorknob.

Prof. Toto rose to her full height. “Now to discuss your senior fall fellowship applications –”

“Not now.”

Still standing after Marwa left, Prof. Toto looked into the empty eyes of one of her masks.

***

Still cloudy and windy, at least the Berkeley graduation had not been rained out. Weather and the ceremony began as the topics of chat in the large SUV Joey’s girlfriend’s parents had driven down from Seattle. There were seven in the vehicle, Joey and Jennifer seated in the middle with her younger sister June. Dr. Lily Cheng was driving them over the Bay Bridge and Mr. Cheng was beside her in the front seat. Marwa was entirely content sitting on her own on the upholstered rear bench.

They were heading for lunch reservations at a San Francisco restaurant named Benefit by its young Rhode Island owner. The exterior imitated the 18th century Providence street it was named for, but nothing prepared the group for its interior. Entering was like clambering aboard a whaling ship. Unmellow Yellow colored the scene.

“I feel seasick,” June said.

“We are neither in California nor Kansas anymore,” her father agreed.

“Have you ever been to Rhode Island?” Dr. Cheng asked Marwa.

“I went to a wedding in Newport. I’ve been going to a lot of them recently. I saw my best friend in high school get married in LA last year. I’ve got another one in upstate New York in August.”

“Maybe I’ll go to Brown in two years and get you and Daddy to fly east,” June piped up.

“First you have to get in,” Mr. Cheng said.

“Maybe by the time you apply, you’ll float away to a college on the Cloud,” Jennifer teased, referring to the CEO guest speaker at graduation, a Silicon Valley creator.

Passing a full wall mural of the parts of a whaling ship, June started reading aloud: “Buntline, bellyband, jib of jibs, fore sky sail, fore royal, fore play –”
“– There’s no foreplay,” Jennifer scolded.

“So you say,” June said.

“Siblings!” Dr. Cheng silenced.

The seven followed the restaurant hostess up wooden steps to an area like the raised quarterdeck of a whaling ship that looked over the lower dining room.

Dr. Cheng squeezed Marwa’s elbow. “Family can be cloud cuckoo land, can’t it? What a shame your parents couldn’t make the trip.”

“Well, my mother cares for our older brother Sharif’s children so that his wife can maintain her career, and my father’s musical success – after he retired from the bank, he thought he’d finally get a chance just to take a course in composition. I think no one is more surprised by his success than he is.”

They were seated at a table and ordered drinks. Beside Marwa, Dr. Cheng continued as if uninterrupted. “Are they separated, your parents? Joseph said nothing about divorce. About anything. But I didn’t raise boys, so I don’t know.”

Joey looked across the table at his sister.

In unison, Jennifer and June hissed, “Mom!’

“Marwa doesn’t mind,” Dr. Cheng said, “do you, dear? Your brother married an Egyptian girl? And your mother returned to her family?”

“This is all because I’m also going to China,” Jennifer explained. “But not with Joseph and not back to family. No matter how many times I say it – in English or any of the seven Chinese dialects which is what I study. He’s going to Fudan in Shanghai. I’m going to Zhejiang in Hangzhou.”

Marwa had finished her glass of prosecco. “My best friend in high school was Jewish/ Japanese-American. Cal Tech astrophysicist Judy Yamaguchi! Joseph and I take after our father, I suppose, more than our mother and Sharif. All emphasis on the American side of the hyphen.”

Mr. Cheng emptied his daiquiri. “I’m not driving,” he said, refilling Marwa’s glass of bubbling wine which she then raised to him in salute.

“Don’t Moslems abstain?” June asked.

Marwa enjoyed a long swallow, considered, and answered, “Even the most devoutly religious are atheistic with regard to the countless other religions throughout history. Atheists simply go one step further.”

“What do you believe in?” June said.

The waiter brought Mr. Cheng another daiquiri, and he ordered a new bottle of prosecco for the table. Marwa lifted her glass in a toast to her brother and Jennifer, echoing the graduation speakers, “Go Bears!”

***
The next evening, en route and at LAX, Joey couldn’t stop apologizing. They stood on a long check-in line. The wide space was Misty Moss from the Silver Swirls 24 Crayola pack.

“Dr. Cheng is not my first Tiger Mom,” Marwa assured him. “I don’t even know if she’d merit a spot in Stuyvesant’s PTA branch. When I think of my nationally ranked saber-wielding classmate Vivian-another-Cheng-but-no-relation, I am betting — her parents were from Taiwan. She got a perfect SAT Verbal in eighth grade. We worked on the Intel together. She had synesthesia like me. Dr. Cheng wouldn’t have a prayer against Vivian’s mother!”

“She’ll do. Wasn’t Vivian’s brother in my class? I can’t remember his name. Weren’t we all on that tugboat with giant firemen – in big black helmets — crossing the Hudson that day? It felt wider than the Nile, but maybe that’s only in Alexandria. Or because I was eight. Your hair was long, like an open, waving fan. We wound up in New Jersey, but I don’t remember going home. The wind was blowing,” he paused seeing the dark towering cloud in his mind’s eye, now making sense of it, “southeast, toward Brooklyn and Long Island. So must’ve been from the northwest. Your eyelid was bleeding.”

The line moved slowly forward. He rolled her upright carry-on.

Joey’s memories evoked Marwa’s of a movie that was set in this airport, but it must have changed in more than fifteen years. Or it had been shot altogether on a movie set. The California sunset filled a high window wall and angled a three-dimensional block of light onto the wide concourse floor. People wore sunglasses.

“The Langoliers!” Marwa blurted.

“Steven King! You’re right, the jet landed right here in LAX ahead of monsters that eat up the past. They looked like vagina-dentata Pac-Men. Dean Stockwell was in it. From Quantum Leap. March 1989 through May 1993. Year I was born. He was at Berkeley for a year. I streamed them at Hulu. I’m a sucker for anything about Time.”
“Ummee was forty-seven when you were born.”

“Thirty-three for Sharif and thirty-eight when you were. So you’ve got time,” Joey said. “Anyone in mind?”

“I spend my nights in the lab. Jennifer reminds me of Mei Li,” Marwa said, referring to Joey’s high school girlfriend.

“Don’t tell Jenn that.”

“She actually lived in Chinatown, didn’t she?”

“‘And lectured me that Chinese was the best language for mathematics,” Joey remembered. “Chinese has just nine number names, while English has more than two dozen unique number words. The trouble starts at eleven. English has a unique word for the number, while Chinese has words that can be translated as “ten-one”—spoken with the “ten” first. That makes it easier to understand the place value—as well as making it clear that the number system is based on units of ten. You’re never going to answer me, are you?”

“I’m a scientist. You’re a mathematician. Define ‘answer’.”

“The Hudson is one mile wide, the Nile on average 1.7. A mile equals .62137 kilometers.”

On the return flight, Marwa had a window seat. Feeling as fragile as an egg in a carton, she saw that lowering the shade made more sense than keeping it up. Since the plane’s ascent, she had seen no more than cloud cover and nightfall heading east. Without her colors, night’s dark was always calmer. She edged as far away as she could from the man beside her and closed her eyes. She imagined the neural map of her brain firing the memories that the weekend with Joey had stimulated.

They had lived in an apartment building in Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River. Chinatown was not far; Greenwich Village was uptown. Just before 9/11, the international model Denim Prix, who lived in the same building, had lost his competition with Marwa for innocence. He had longed to regain his, but Marwa lusted to lose hers more. Prix had been on the flight from Boston to LA that crashed into the North Tower while she had been in math class at Stuyvesant five blocks away.

Marwa thought of ecstasies: Mohammed’s 766 mile one-night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, including the trip up to heaven and return to Mecca by morning. Sura 17.1: Glory to Allah/ Who did take His Servant/ for a Journey by night/ From the Sacred Mosque/ To the Farthest Mosque,/ Whose precincts We did/ Bless;
Buddha emaciated, then enlightened under the Bodhi tree: I will not move from this place until I have solved my problem. As the morning star appeared, he roared like a lion. The heavens shook, and the tree rained down flowers. He surrendered to the reality that has always been there. Well, wasn’t that Islam – submission?

And Moses at dual-authored Exodus 3:5 was directed to remove his sandals by a Shakespeare-worthy pun on Sinai/seneh/burning bush in which the angel is an Adonai vision and God is an Elohist voice. Either way, the terrified shepherd hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

And the passion of Jesus, not the Why hast Thou forsaken me despair without which he could not be human, but the divine Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Those were their ecstasies. What of her own? Her body had been wise to choose Prix first. Unromantic, fine, and fierce. What had she learned? That orgasm, while great, was not God. Her clitoris stiffened in memory, and she moved slightly in her seat away from the man beside her.

Was she unintentionally emitting pheronomes? She scanned him though thinly opened eyelids. He was still focused on his laptop under the narrow spotlight above. He could be gay.

She felt her muscles relax and closed her eyes again. James was next. Towering, tall, black James, another Presidential Scholar at Fordham a year ahead of her, arrested and herded with her at that 2004 GOP convention protest, but he’d been handcuffed with others and kept in custody for three days.

Marwa would never forgive Mayor Bloomberg for that. After she and James broke up, he sent her a copy of DON QUIXOTE for her April birthday, inscribing it with a quotation: “I’d like to send your grace something, but I don’t know what to send, except some very curious tubing for syringes that they make on this insula to be used with bladders; though if my position lasts, I’ll find something to send to you, one way or another…Let us go slowly, for there are no birds today in yesterday’s nests.” Happy Birthday, every day, always.

Dr. James Beekmans, now in Doctors Without Borders, and married. How entirely James and well-deserved to send her an enema.

“Good thoughts?” her seatmate startled her.

Marwa opened her eyes.

“I’m sorry, were you dreaming? You were grinning,” he said.

To avoid any further smiles, Marwa turned and opened the small window shade. A cloudless night sky contained more starry lights than she could see below where the Midwest translated its dreams into luminous hieroglyphs on black papyrus. They were flying at least 30,000 feet and 600 mph over the invisible curvature of the planet. How many degrees of longitude away were her mother and brother and the rest of the family in Alexandria? Were there Cartesian coordinates for the four years between her eventful high school and college junior years? In NYC, on the hottest day at the end of August, 2001, Judy got a tattoo and Marwa had her ears pierced. On a much hotter August day in 2005, Marwa left Mecca behind.

The past ten years had been a decade of departures. She thought of Roger. After her first post-grad year at Rockefeller University in NYC, she spent the subsequent two in Cambridge in a genetics lab with the Englishman she had thought she would marry. Together they looked like the image of biplicity, his straight white-blond hair and white-blue eyes, and what he called her “Nile waves” and Egyptian skin. Or so she had thought until career demands reversed their polarities, repelling them. She had returned to Rockefeller in New York, and Roger remained at the Cambridge lab.

And then, perhaps she was asleep as the jet eased east because she saw herself on the bench in Battery Park City facing the Hudson. She was back in college then. Had a seizure of some sort on that bench, taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, all colored Ruby from the Gem Tones 16 pack when she was ten years old. Thereafter, she went by subway down from Fordham to see a psychiatrist midtown. She’d cracked in his office, ‘redacted’ Prix’s plane hitting – her Muhammad’s flight, Siddhartha’s roar, Moses’s incandescent acacia. Marwa shuddered, and her dozing seatmate just caught his laptop before it fell.

“What happened?” the stranger sighed.

“I’m so sorry,” Marwa said, but he was not her younger brother.

Another August. Marwa hadn’t seen Judy for exactly a year. She’d been maid of honor at Judy’s Pasadena wedding. Judy’s husband Edward had stayed back in California with their five month old Eleanor. Now the BFFs were together again at another Stuy classmate Biren’s nuptials in upstate New York. First, they found themselves in a motel in the New York Catskills where Marwa satisfied some but not all of Judy’s curiosity about Joey’s Berkeley graduation as they walked the single perambulation it took to see the one street town named Thebes along the Lenape Creek, part of the water source for New York City 125 miles to the south. As always with Judy, Granny Smith Apples colored the world green.

Lookout Lenape, implying a mountain and river view but instead an exhortation, had begun life as a line of garages whose unairconditioned, uncurtained bays had evolved into ant-infested bedrooms. A last minute cancellation enabled their escape to Dawn Star Lodge, one of the converted houses on the wedding site at Munsee Mountain Resort, just west of Woodstock of yet another August, the 1969’s rockin’ muddy drop-out love-in. Luckily, this August of 2015, though blisteringly hot, was cloud-free.

“Which means,” Judy told Marwa as they unpacked, “if we dance the night away, before dawn we should get the best view of the Perseids tonight.”

“What?” Marwa yelled over the blasting music beyond the wall-papered, paper-thin wall.

Judy belted the wall, and their door was quickly opened by a handsome, bearded stranger, lowering the volume on his iPod.

“Sorry,” he said, “That’s Ten Years After’s I May Be Wrong, but I Won’t Be Wrong Always. They played it at Woodstock. Which was in Bethel, actually. According to legend, a Count Basie original. I’m making a mix for Biren and Charlie to keep. Last minute as always. I’ll keep it down!”

He disappeared just as quickly.

“Who was that, Rumplestiltskin?” Judy said.

“You remember when Mr. Haddam had us bring in our ethnic fairytales?”

“And you brought in the lusty Joseph-Potiphar’s wife story –”

“No, that was Sunny’s, and it was Yusuf and Zulaikha –”

“Oh, you got all mad at me when I said it sounded like Adam and Eve, only Yusuf was the apple and the snake and the tree wisdom all wrapped up together – like a trinity! And Zooley was humanity, was Job, and had to suffer all sorts of ways until she gained the know-how how to get back to Paradise.”

“I got mad because you called her Drooling Zooley.”

“No, it was because Yusuf was the gorgeous Prix and you were Zulaikha.”

“Mr. Haddam’s supposed to be here for the wedding with his husband,” Marwa said.

“I heard Sunny lives on Long Island, very religious, married with multiple children, works in a Whole Foods or Trader Joes,” Judy said.

“Sounds more like rumor than fact.”

“She was always a follower. Followed you like a guru.”

“And look where that led her!” Marwa said. She turned to the dresser and put clothes in a drawer, then stood still with her back to Judy.

“Where are you, Marwa, under the Bodhi tree again? I remember tenth grade, you refused to move until you had a reason. Which your bladder, unlike Buddha’s morning star, provided.”

Judy was sitting on her twin bed, nude, pulling on a bikini bathing suit bottom. Marwa moved from the vulva view to the back of Judy’s right shoulder. Judy touched the tattoo there.

“That was another hot August,” Marwa said. “Did you ever tell Edward that story of Shakespeare Jimmy Wagstaff?”

Marwa met up with Judy midway between Greenwich Village and Battery Park City, at Adonis Piercing & Tattoo on Canal Street, where Judy had made an appointment to have a boat tattooed to the back of her right shoulder. A brief, electronic melody sounded.

A muscled black man with a shaved scalp passed through a doorway of hanging beads. “I’ll be right with you, Ms. — ?”

“Yamaguchi,” Judy said.

He checked a schedule book. Then he looked at Marwa.

“I’m not sure yet,” Marwa said.

“Never let anyone talk you into doing anything you don’t want to do. That’s the sign of a disreputable shop. People call me Adonis. Choose something from the wall, perhaps, or just take a seat.”

Adonis parted the hanging beads and returned to the back of the store. Judy and Marwa examined the framed images of tattoo possibilities, flowers, animals, names, and an array of vehicles: rockets, motorcycles, jet planes, boats.

Judy pointed out a miniature of a high-prowed, small yacht. “Shakespeare and I went around Baltimore harbor in one just like that! It’s exactly what he got tattooed on his right shoulder.”

“Why are you having a boat engraved on yours?” Marwa said.

Judy’s Eurasian complexion darkened. “To make a blood memory. My mom took me to have my ears pierced when I was thirteen. I thought it was for my birthday. I didn’t know she was dying. Shakespeare had it done down in Baltimore right after. ”

“After the boat ride?”

“No,” Judy said.

“You didn’t.”

“We did.”

Marwa felt dizzy. “Stop calling him Shakespeare! He’s giraffe-Jimmy-Wagstaff!”

“Keep your voice down! So he’s not on billboards like your Prix. His eyes are pale as vodka.”

“Vodka? ‘Amantes sunt amentes,’” Marwa quoted Terence. “He’s not my Prix.”

“You want him to be. Who’re you calling a sunt?” Judy grinned.

“‘Lovers are lunatics.’ You’re crazy about him,” Marwa said.

“I am. He leaves for college in three days. It hurts so much.”

“Did it?”

“What?”

“Hurt so much?”

Judy whispered, “You know how your mouth waters when you see and smell something delicious? It’s like that. Women have two mouths. The better to eat you with!”
Marwa swatted her away. “You are awful!”

Adonis appeared with an androgynous client who waved them all farewell with a slim forearm covered in a new, white bandage. Adonis led Judy and Marwa to the back of the store, which was like a beauty parlor. There were two other tattoo artists at work. Once Judy showed Adonis her choice, he sat her in a barber chair and prepared “the operating field.” The needled instrument buzzed like a dentist’s drill; at its first touch, a bead of blood appeared which Adonis dabbed, then injected ink. Marwa swayed.

“Relax in the waiting room, hon,” Adonis advised.

Marwa passed through the hanging beads in a daze. Later, it was sweltering when Marwa and Judy stood on the deck of the fire-engine-red tugboat Helen McAllister at the South Street Seaport. Both girls were sucking at cold bottles of water.

Judy swallowed and said, “Isn’t it against your rules?”as she reached out to touch the tip of one of Marwa’s newly pierced ears. “How do they feel?”

“I didn’t mutilate Allah’s creation with a tattoo. Ear piercing’s allowed for females because the Prophet told some women to give up their earrings as an offering, so he was okay with earrings. How do you feel?”

“The heat’s baking it, but I’m sweating so much, I hope the boat won’t float away. Sweat makes it burn more. But I like the hurt.”

It scared Marwa that she knew what Judy meant.

“You’re drifting again, Marwa,” Judy said. She was all ready for the pool.

“Did you ever tell Edward the tattoo story?” Marwa repeated.

“Didn’t want to hear it. ‘No one leaves life without scars,’ he said. ‘They’re medals.'”

“Whatta guy. What would our boy band crush initials for him have been when we were in ninth grade? We thought we were so smart, talking about the boys right in front of them and we thought they never knew.”

“Oh, definitely LB, he looks like Lance Bass!”

“What zealots we were at fourteen. You’d think we could’ve come up with better demigods than NSYNC.”

“We’ve got wolf pack and/or sheep herd in our genes. Culture implies conformity, especially for kids. Remember Joey calling us ‘Muggles’? Now conform and come for a swim.”

“It’s a free country. You’re not the boss of me. Whatever happened to individuality?” Marwa said.

“Did you ever answer Joey’s question?”

***
Dinner was in a huge renovated barn. The next morning, breakfast was in the main building’s basement café. A banner was draped across a knotty pine wall proclaiming LOVE CONQUERS ALL. Couples holding plates of eggs or bagels or juice were photographed beneath the sign, and coupling was an entirely fluid definition. Marwa and Judy selfied framed together.

Mr. Haddam and his husband made a foursome with Biren and Charlie. The wedding was scheduled for the early evening after an afternoon of swimming, mountain climbing, reminiscing, and making new acquaintances. The outdoor sunset ceremony in a lovely Maize glow was followed by a musical cocktail hour at a bar and clothed tables on the wide lawn. Everyone was high and sunburned and happy. Under a large reception tent as chamber music gave way to reggae and rock between dinner courses, Marwa led when she danced with Judy and followed when Mr. Haddam tapped her shoulder.

An elderly woman called to Biren’s parents,” I always hoped we would dance at his wedding, and here we are!”

Well before dawn, Judy found Marwa. “Come see the Perseids! There’s no moonlight tonight to upstage the shower!”

They were both exhausted but still inebriated as they left the tent and walked under the falling stars. The summer country air was a concert of crickets and frogs and the wings of bats and owls. But sight took precedence as above them meteorites flashed across the Milky Way.

Marwa craned her neck. “It’s like looking at a cosmic brain scan. Meteorites as divine thoughts.”

“Except you feel them scrape your chest and fall into your stomach,” Judy said.

“How could primitives understand the sky actually falling, Chicken Little, sending fire down on them as a gift? a judgment? a warning? And if they found a relic, cool and shiny with bits of likely obsidian?”

“Tektites,” Judy agreed. “Maybe Libyan desert glass. There are at least six recognized geographical distributions of tektites on Earth, and Mecca’s in the pathway of one.”

Marwa looked away. “The shock of it. The shock of it,” she repeated.

Judy looked at the sky as if it belonged to her “Those are remnants of this year’s trip into the inner solar system of Comet 109/Swift Tuttle. The Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus because that’s where the meteors seem to come from. Up there,” Judy pointed to the northeast. “There’s Capella and Aldebaran. And Perseus holding decapitated Medusa.”

Another blazing line streaked across the sky like a match struck by an invisible giant.

“Perseus,” Marwa said, “son of Zeus. Per-zeus. Son of God. Cutting off the head of the Goddess who turned men to stone.”

“Made them hard, you mean,” Judy laughed.

Humorless, Marwa continued, “A celestial history of the cultural shift from matriarchy to patriarchy. In Arabia, Allat became Allah, and her shrine became his. In Ireland, St. Patrick drove out the sacred snakes that wound around the arms of Minoan priestesses.”

“Same old story,” Judy agreed. “What happened in Mecca, Marwa?”

Marwa shut her eyes and rubbed her sore neck. “Is there a place to sit down?”

Judy looked around. They had walked away from the resort houses and the wedding tent, but there was enough light to see a group of Adirondack chairs and table nearby. When they sat down, there was dew, but it was pleasant, cool in the warm August night. A pine nearby breathed on them. Lights streaked overhead. Marwa closed her eyes again. Everything was moving. Colors swirled.

“I didn’t live in Mecca. I was assigned to a high school in Jeddah and placed in a women’s dorm. My mentor wouldn’t take me to the Sacred Mosque right away. First, she said, we’d go to my namesake, the walk between the mountains Marwa and Safa because it was air-conditioned indoors. However hot it was here today or it gets in Pasadena – that’s nothing to August in Saudi Arabia. The walk you do back and forth in honor of Hagar searching for water for Ishmael – it’s in an enclosed space like Grand Central on steroids, all marble and huge columns. The chatter of all the people, languages, adults and children, it’s like – birds at dawn or twilight. But they’re not mountains, they’re mounds of rock protected with transparent barriers. So much smaller than expected. Like when you first see the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, for what it means, it couldn’t possibly be that small. I wish we’d brought a bottle of champagne along.”

“We can’t think of everything. You know what else’s size mocks meaning? That the universe expanded from just twenty pounds of matter in the Big Bang. Inconceivable conception. We morons began in an oxymoron,” Judy said.

“You still sound drunk.”

“Entirely possib– probable. Probabble,” Judy dozed.

Marwa swallowed. “When I was finally taken to the Haram Mosque …you begin the tawaf, circling the Kaaba from the eastern corner…set inside a large convex silver collar about five feet above the ground, the Hajar al-Aswad.”

Judy snored herself conscious. “What?”

“The Black Stone isn’t inside the Kaaba. It’s set in the eastern corner where you begin. It was worshipped there long before Islam, a site of pilgrimage for Nabateans who visited the shrine once a year to perform their pilgrimage. The Kaaba held 360 idols of the Meccan gods. Tradition says that it fell from the heaven as a guide for Adam and Eve to build an altar. The Prophet placed it in the Kaaba wall in 605, five years before his first vision. In 930, the stone was removed and shattered by Iraqi invaders, Qarmatians, but the pieces of holy relic were later returned and sealed in pitch, held in place by silver wire in the well of that silver…opening. They say that the Black Stone was once a pure and dazzling white, and it turned black because of the sins it absorbed over the years. The concave center diameter is under twelve inches.”

Marwa shaped her hands to the size for her sleeping friend.

“If it’s too crowded to kiss it during the seven times you go around, you’re supposed to point at it. But I was only there for a random umrah, not hajj, so I got close enough.”

Marwa shut her eyes again and saw the scene. “There’s a semicircle where pilgrims sit on rugs, praying,” she whispered. “Like a skyscraper above the bowl of the Mosque stands the Royal Clock Tower keeping mortal time as an erect lingam with the Kaaba at the center as eternal yoni. You walk around the Kaaba counter-clockwise. When I saw the — thing – at the starting cornerstone – all the people around me in a palpable state of near ecstasy, I was – struck. Terrified I’d have the same sort of seizure I had on the bench in Battery Park City that sent me to the hospital and a psychiatrist. Terrified I’d lose my colors again.”
“The way you did after the Towers fell—”

“You’re awake. I thought –”

“It’s okay.” Judy whispered back.

“I was so relieved when my synesthesia returned…after seeing Dr. Rawi…”

“It was just the opposite for me,” Judy said. “I saw my mother.”

“We never talked about this.”

“No one talked after it happened. You moved to someplace in Brooklyn, we were all going to our classes in split sessions at Brooklyn Tech.”

“You didn’t need to move?”

“I guess not,” Judy stopped whispering. “We stayed in our apartment in Washington Square Towers. Commuting to school in Brooklyn was part of the confusion. Taking the subways. I don’t even know where my sister went to school. Jody was in third grade. Joey was in second.”

“He went to a private school in Brooklyn till we moved back.”

“I guess we were all shut down, in on ourselves. You remember all the school psychologists wandering around? Everyone always asking us if we were okay. It seemed impossible when the World Series began in October. Liza Minelli sang the Star Spangled Banner. All that time, I thought I was seeing my mother again, not hallucinations exactly. I kept smelling her as if she were right beside me. It was wonderful, I could almost believe it, it made me to so happy. Shalimar. Of course, it could have been other women, it was a popular scent, but I felt she was there holding me and I was only terrified I’d lose her again.”

“Did you?”

“Of course. And Jody followed her college boyfriend to Silicon Valley where they work and will marry. My Dad lives with a woman a few years older than he is, actually. Different apartment, same NYU building. And your father turned into a composer. What happened in Mecca? What color was it?”

A spectacular burst brightened the sky above and silenced them. When it had passed and smaller lights like straggling sheep followed, Marwa said, “The nausea, I nearly fell, and two completely covered women who moments before had been stroking the uncovered –, the blind denial! – what did you call it in ninth grade – ‘pud’? and trying to kiss it –

“My mother’s nickname for ‘pudenda’.”

“They moved in their chadors like big black-winged birds, holding me up. I felt like I had no skin, like Hypatia of Alexandria and the 4th century Bishop. I was shaking, which they misunderstood as religious ecstasy greater than their own, and they led me to a wall of water fountains insisting I keep drinking while they bathed my face and wrists in Zam Zam water that sounded like Bam Bam to me, and I wasn’t speaking Arabic anymore, I was babbling in English about The Flintstones and fortunately no one moving past us understood my blasphemy.

It had been bad enough at the Jeddah school where I had to wear a uniform and censor everything we’d learned at Stuy. Outside the school, at first I liked being greeted by strangers, including men, as ‘Sister’ or ‘Daughter’. But the climate mirrored the claustrophobia – cruel and unusual and Crayola Burnished Brown for me — unConstitutional solitary confinement worse for being in the crowd. I didn’t – couldn’t — belong. As arranged, I stayed till mid-August – like a zombie. When I left, I knew there was no going back. To any of it. All meaning had dropped out of it. Its colors were gone. The beliefs were words as sounds, like a foreign language, like birds. Receptive aphasia.”

Judy was wide awake now. She read the sky and knew the last sliver of dernier waning crescent moon would soon rise. The Perseids continued to stripe the dark bowl above with light.

“How very strange,” she said. “I’m on the other side of that parabola now with Eleanor at five months making sounds on her way to speech.”

“It’s good you named her for your mother.” Marwa sounded exhausted. “Maybe it’s time to find our beds.”

Judy stood up and was momentarily taller than her friend. She offered her hand which Marwa took, rising.

They walked silently back to their room until Judy said, “So what happened in Mecca was what didn’t happen. You didn’t find God. And now what?”

“That is the question.”

As if on cue, one silver horn of the last sliver of waning crescent moon pierced the brightening horizon.

“It will be dark new moon for the next three nights,” Judy added. “And then, what.”

****

Author LS Bassen

 

L. Shapley Bassen’s “Portrait of a Giant Squid” was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. She is Fiction Editor for http://prickofthespindle.org/ , 2014 author of Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media), Lives of Crime & Other Stories (Texture Press), and January, 2017, new novella/story collection, Showfolk & Stories [Inkception Books]. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, was a 1st reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is poetry/fiction reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, and others. Visit her online at http://www.lsbassen.com/

https://www.facebook.com/ls.bassen
https://www.linkedin.com/in/lois-bassen-11482a5/

 

 

What the reviewers are saying

Summer of the Long Knives is impeccably researched and deftly rendered. Set in the murky divide between history and fiction, the novel is as interested in the question “Why not?” as it is in the more familiar “What if?” of speculative fiction

I just loved this poetic, philosophical novel that had me as glued to my seat

Bassen writes with a clear, sharp style that leaves nothing essential out and puts nothing excessive in

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Books by LS Bassen

 

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