Any Number of Stones


I suppose this seems like the right time for a cigarette and some valiant fumbling: I do enjoy the way you shake your head and laugh as I light the cigarette the wrong way. The filter doesn’t hold a flame—is this because I like to do things backwards? Like my inverted shins, comma-like hands, splayed against the glass, splayed like my tall tales. Yes, I am a liar to the letter. At my brother’s funeral I cried, as was expected.

You don’t feel tired. I do, a little, but I’d rather not sleep. My mind isn’t at ease just yet. On the way to my brother’s funeral, you had the radio on. They were discussing a mass murderer at a nursing home in Japan. A former employee of the nursing home broke into the building and stabbed twelve people to death. I can’t help but imagine their final moments. What were they thinking? Did they look up, look up at God, and ask why?

I’m rolling a cigarette for you. I know I’m no good at it but I can do this. I’ll roll you a loose cigarette that goes out too soon. If I didn’t self-medicate specifically against desire, I’d recognise this to be a metaphor. Instead, I pepper you with questions: what if the ash falls on the sheets? What if your bed catches fire? Should we be smoking indoors at all? This shot glass we’re using as an ashtray is too small a target.

You get out of bed to go to the bathroom and as soon as I am alone I reach into my mirror-self: a black-red globule of self-recrimination erupts out of me in a convulsion: out of my lungs and into the air: into the air: until the air is full of ill-thinking. I feel like I have just moved here. I feel like I am new. I feel like I am back on the train, just past Jolimont Station, when Aysha texted me to tell me that something had happened to Idris. I feel like I am back in the Hospital, holding my mother, locking my knees in an attempt to stay upright. Already Idris’s face is beginning to fade in my memory. Already he is only a memory. Already he is becoming dust in the corners of a seldom visited room. I hack a cough and swallow back these thick thoughts; these pulsating things.

There’s a mirror by your side of your bed. It’s turned away, towards the wall. I pick it up and peer at myself. I think the same thought I always do when I see my own reflection. I think: does this person who is wearing my skin know that he is just flesh and viscera and almost nothing else? Not good or bad but just a collection of organs arranged?

You return with a notebook and you draw and I watch you draw. The conversation is one-sided now, since you are distracted. You don’t even notice the games our feet are playing under the covers. I am okay with this since your attention has always been a difficult thing for me to deal with. I am thinking I might get a tattoo of the sun turning its back to me. You say, ‘Hmmmm.’ I watch your hands the same way I watch all of you: as if you are a car going too fast on a back-country road, the narrow black road suddenly illuminated, my eyes frozen by your acceleration, by your volume. I don’t know how to draw the way you do: I never learned: I never even thought to do it until you press the notebook into my hands while you busy yourself with a glass of red wine.

~

Three stones were pressed into my hands by the Shaikh—three fist-sized clay stones. They were strange things to me. I looked up at the Shaikh in confusion, and he guided my hands down to the body of Idris, wrapped up in white cloth in his little alcove at the end of the ‘L’ shaped hole, and showed me where to place them: one under his chin, one under his right shoulder, and one under his head. It was then I was hoisted up by two strong hands, and it was then I turned away from Idris. I want to tell you about this: about the stones and the hole and the Shaikh’s murmured words as Idris’s grave was filled in with loose soil.

~

I hold up the picture you drew. It’s of an elephant. A swirling, incandescently organic thing, old and weary looking, full of thick and thin lines. You ask me what colour you should make him. Why an elephant, I wonder? You shrug. You’ve always been entranced by elephants, ever since you went to India as a child, where you begged your father to let you ride one and he grinned and said, ‘Why not?’ and your mother told him off in full-view of the tour-group for endangering his only daughter. You mimic your mother’s voice, ‘They’re dangerous animals! What if she fell off it?’ So when I was talking about tattoos earlier, you got the thought that you might like to get a tattoo as well, and the image of the elephant was the first that sprung to mind. Make it white, I tell you. A white elephant, just like Abraha’s. You disagree. You want to make him blue. I know you are trying to help me forget, at least for now. You are trying to occupy my thoughts, but you don’t need to try, do you? I check my phone. It’s just after three a.m. Our funeral clothes are where we discarded them at the foot of the bed.

I think of Abraha, birdshot and still, tethered to the barest sinew of life because God wanted him to look upon his ruin and recognise his folly. I tell you that I would like to die as Abraha died, pinned against the pebble-riddled body of his famous white elephant, Mahmoud, the glare of the Levantine sun turning his spilt blood brown against his armour, brown against white hide, with the Ka’ba squatting in the distance like a child’s vision: bigger than it seems, but only because he was in that moment so small.

You give me a look like I am being purposefully vague: Who is Abraha? You set down your cigarette and then I remember that I have never told you this story before. So I sit up on the bed, cross my legs, and I begin the story: Abraha was a cruel King of Abyssinia who marched on Makkah in the year of the Prophet’s birth. He rode with forty thousand fearless men and horses and elephants all trained in war. He himself riding in the van atop Mahmoud. On the road to Makkah, he noticed God’s gaze upon him and when God commanded him, through signs, to turn back, he refused.

So God, descending in a fury, commanded a black cloud of ravens to drop on his army pebbles the size of peas, endowed with such power that a single pebble would enter the crown of an elephant and exit at its foot. There were thousands of birds, dozens for each man and horse and elephant, so many the sky was darkened by them, all of them foaming with purpose and God’s own desire. And in the bleached bones of this miracle, the Prophet was born.

I finish my story with a reflexive urge to avoid your gaze. I am engaged in one of my many small pilgrimages to the altar of self-abnegation. I think: there must have been space inside Abraha and his men and his elephants because the pebbles that fell from the sky, dropped out of the beaks of those ravens, broad-winged and filled with despair, found their way inside the cavities they created by means of physics and also the God of physics. So as long as there’s space: there’ll be something to fill that space. Just like there was a hole at the funeral where they put my brother: it dug it out for him specifically: he was lowered into it specifically: and now that’s where he will be: a fixed point for someone who is now unfixed from the world. I think it strange how God’s will is in reality an autodidact’s vision of eternity: full of methodical recrimination and the belief that truth comes through the subjugation of all other things, including desire, through the lens of understanding.

You smile and give me this look like you either want to kiss me or you want me to kiss you and we meet in the middle. When you pull away, you look at me: your bright, hollow, won-over eyes. You don’t say anything and your gaze trails off midway through its sentence, but I fill in the rest. Your hand is still cupping my face. That is enough for now.

 

Khalid is a writer, fiction editor for the quarterly literary journal The Lifted Brow, and Co-Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival.

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