The Follower

The Spell of the Night

Thuraiya shivered beneath the tattered rags she used as blankets. It was always coldest at this moment, when the near endless night was the darkest, except for the brilliant orange flares occasionally flickering through the clouds, and at the edges of the skyline.

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Fire ©JL Colomb

Booms thudded in the distance. Flares in the sky. They faded. The night returned to black, and there was no difference between night and her body. Her limbs stretched over the horizon, and she floated over the notion of cities and mountains, drifted through doorways, hovered over graves. The arc of the atmosphere prevented her darkness from slipping into the galaxy, where there was something; where satellites spun around the earth and planets orbited a sun, where the moon was, glowing its pale radiance, and where stars still existed. Long ago and far away, but still alive in the way they speckled the night sky, fueling our dreams and our myths.

It had been a very long time since she had seen the stars.

Another boom. And there it was, the light, a flicker of orange. It was just enough to see the faint outline of her hand, her arm, the edge of the floor where it dropped off into nothing. She smiled, even as her eyes stung from keeping them open for so long, because the afterimage stayed, reminded her.

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Night at Plaskett Creek ©JL Colomb

“Why are you still here?” she asked herself out loud. Her voice didn’t belong in this place, though, where the only other sounds were of crumbling concrete, wind, dust particles, and detonations. All dead sounds. Except for her sound, which reminded her of so many things. That her family was gone. Her friends.

She pressed her face against the concrete floor, felt the grit there. This was the day. It was time to leave.

She waited for the daylight to come.

 

The Spell of the Dawn

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Desert Sunrise ©JL Colomb

There was silence and dust, and colors beginning to burn the sky in the east. In these brief times of light, she gorged herself on everything there was to see. Pressing her cheek against the jagged wound in the concrete, she looked out over the city. It sprawled across the valley like detritus washed upon the beach after a storm.  Tiny square plugs of buildings made up the flesh of the city. And the gorges of its streets channeled the flow of life living there.  At least, they used to.

There on the corner, beneath tons of concrete and bodies, she had enjoyed the most succulent kebab, which was rivaled only by the kibbeh they made each day. Apaya sold lavash next door, fresh and hot enough to burn your mouth, but you’d eat it like that anyway because it tasted so damned good.

These ghosts lingered everywhere she looked, even though her city was awash with rubble.

Cities weren’t supposed to vanish so easily, and the roots of home weren’t supposed to be so fragile. But there Thuraiya was, perched on a middle floor of a building, the exterior walls of which lay scattered in the street below. A great portion of its height had collapsed on itself.

But the silence; it was just as consuming as the darkness.

Thuraiya listened. On a normal day, she would have heard motorcycles and dogs. Vendors would have called out the delicacies they had as they wheeled their carts down the street. Adhan would have sung from the heavens, and enticed followers to pray. On a normal day. Before this.

She curled up against the column, wrapped her arms around her legs, and rocked herself as she stared. Her lips twitched in constant movement, but she wasn’t chanting Allahu Akbar. “Today is the day you have to move go go go get up you stupid girl.” These words. Again and again.

“Move,” she shouted as she slapped her hands against the floor. Plumes of dust rose, and her voice echoed in the ruined city.

She slid against the column as she stood, as if it propped her up and kept her from falling. Her first step came next. The world twisted, righted itself, and she shuffled forward to the place where slabs of her building sloped down to the street. Her face twisted out of her control, and tears dripped down her face. This was the place she had played with her sisters, sung, hugged her mother and father, and marveled at them both.

“Go.” She screeched out the word, clenched her fist and beat her chest with it.

Inching down the concrete, the rebar groaned and trembled, and the whole building swayed like a boat. When she was finally on the street, she tried not to breathe too deeply, or look too closely. She followed the long deep chasm of the street to the north, to Jabal Qasioun.

Already the sky dimmed, heralded the coming of the night; but the city still loomed around her. She gathered up the rags draped about her, and ran as fast as her wasted muscles would carry her.

 

The Spell of the Wandering Souls

Jabal Qasioun had as many caves as grandmother’s tea had sugar cubes. From one of them, Thuraiya peeked her head out into the waking world. The day came much sooner than it usually did. And instead of the slow dim crawl through sunrise, the sun was sharp and bright in the sky, like a magnifying glass to scrutinize everything in its domain.

Her city stretched out in front of her, took up too much of the horizon.

Then the shadow of a helicopter twirled over the rubble, and two canisters tumbled from it.  They started off silent.  Their bodies gyrated through the air like falling maple seeds.  As they approached the city, they whirred, and hit and exploded. Those last two things happened almost simultaneously.  What was left of the city shook.

She waited for the helicopter to drift on to another target. Only when there was silence did she tiptoe out of the cave.

Above her, a man stood on the ridge line.  A real man wearing a hem-stained thawb.  He was squinting his eyes against the sharpness of the light cutting across the valley. Wind ruffled the thawb against his ankles, and teased tiny granules of earth up from the ground, called on them to dance in the air.  They nestle into the weave of the fabric, and joined the other rich tawny particles of dirt.

Thuraiya gasped, and ducked back into the cave just as he looked in her direction.

Blood surged in her veins, threatened to burst through its channels. She had not seen a man in weeks. Or maybe it was months. And she knew well enough that just because he was flesh and blood, real and breathing and living, that did not make him good. It didn’t make him worthy of trust, or safe.

Sweating and shivering at the same time, she paced in the cave on careful silent feet. She had to stay hidden.

She listened for footsteps, displaced pebbles, and prayed for him to disappear. After peeking out again, relief seeped through her. He was gone. She waited a little longer. Thankfully the sun did not gallop through the sky, like it usually did. It strolled upward, slowly climbed to its crescendo before it would slip back down.

When her feet tingled from their constant worrying, it was time; she peeked once more and saw no one. Breathing deeply through her mouth, she called on the air to give her courage and overcome her inertia. She started up the path, to get to the top of the mountain, to go over it and move ever steadily westward.

She turned a corner, and almost collided with him. Screaming, she stumbled backward, turned and ran.

He chased her. “Wait,” he called out, his voice hoarse as if he hadn’t used it in an epoch. His hands grabbed at her trailing rags and tugged. They tumbled, and scraped themselves bloody.

Thuraiya cowered on the ground, pressed herself into the hard rock despite the pain. Melt. She wanted to melt, and disappear into it. His hands hovered in air above her, descended, hesitated and scattered.

She scurried away from him.

The man didn’t come after her. Instead, he backed away, sat cross legged and looked not at her, but the ground before her.

“What do you want?” she asked.

No emotion trickled into his features, but he said, “For the world to be right. To have back everything I’ve lost.”

She stared at him.

“For now I would settle for a friend.”

 

The Curse of the Survivor

“I am Aldebaran,” he said, still not looking at her.

She inched herself to the edge of the path, where it would be easier to throw herself from the mountain.

He winced as she did it, and scooted further away from her. Blood dribbled from his temple, brilliant red against the grey of the city, and the sulfur-colored mountain.

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Anza Borrego Desert ©JL Colomb

It was the most beautiful thing she had seen in a long while.

“I come from the North,” he said, as if that explained everything.

And it almost did. She had to stop her head from nodding, and fight to keep the frown on her face as empathy warred to take its place.

“My home. Gone. My family. Gone. I’ve almost disappeared, too. And maybe I have, because I’ll never be the same after all this. It’s impossible. To go back.”

Yes. That was it exactly. “Do you want to go back?” Thuraiya asked.

His hands twitched on his knees. He examined them, and rubbed them together, skin rasping. “I don’t know how I can.”

The sun hovered overhead. It felt like it had taken two whole normal days and nights for it to reach its zenith. And more, it gave warmth, just enough to cut through the sting of late autumn.

“What are you doing out here?” He asked. ‘Alone’ was implied in the question.

The truth came out of her mouth, whether or not she wanted to speak it. “I’ve lost everything, too. For a while, I wanted to stay. To wait for them. But the longer I stayed and didn’t go anywhere, the more I wondered.” She dabbed at the scrape on her chin. “But they are gone. And the pain of staying has outweighed the pain of leaving.”

“Two lost souls,” Aldebaran said.

 

The Spell of the Follower

Thuraiya glanced over her shoulder at Aldebaran, who trailed behind her. He had insisted she walk far enough ahead of him that she felt safe. Now the distance felt more like a burden. She could hear only her feet scratching against the ground. Only her breath marred the silence of the air.

“What do you wish to do next?” he had asked in his quiet voice.

“Leave this place.” More helicopters had come to bomb what was left of the city. They flew closer to the mountain, as if they could destroy it, too.

She did not wish to go alone, and he did not wish to see her leave. So they left while they still had the daylight. The sun now approached the horizon in the west. Color soaked the sky. She spotted an alcove just ahead. The carbon of fires past stained the floor and walls and ceiling black.

“There?” She pointed at it.

He bowed to her.

Once they arrived, she nestled into a crook in the alcove, but he stayed outside.

“I feel safe now,” she said.

“Still, I stay here.”

The night descended, and left them blind.

Just as she thought he had gone, or perhaps had never been there at all, he said, “I heard a peculiar thing about crossing one’s fingers.”

“Oh?” She curled on her side, rested her cheek against her hands, which were pressed together, as if in prayer.

“You cross them for luck, you know. But originally, it was two people. Not just one.”

“Why?” she asked as her eyes drifted closed.

“Because every wish needs two things. Someone to want it; and another to believe in it.”

 

Fingers Crossed

When Thuraiya woke, Aldebaran was standing, looking away from her to where they had been the day before. Even laying on the ground, she could see the plumes of smoke rising from the city. She stood, walked to him. “I didn’t hear the bombings.” Nor did she feel remorse over missing the glimmers of orange. There was more light in her life now. Real light.

“What is your wish for today?” he asked.

She turned to the west. “I thought I wanted go to the sea, and sail north. Now I understand. I just want to see the stars again.”

“I will try to make your journey safe. I will leave when you ask me to.”

She held out her hand.

He hooked his index finger to hers.

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Anza Borrego Desert ©JL Colomb

 

~~~

DISCLAIMER: “The Follower” is not meant to be a faithful reproduction of the world we currently live in. It is a shadow land, a patchwork.

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