“Eleazar”—a short story by Karim Kattan

15 November, 2022


Karim Kattan


Dawn is tru­ly strange, isn’t it? Such a pow­er­ful­ly weird moment. Even amid grief, one feels hope­ful at dawn, doesn’t one? It’s like a take-off. Mari­am was hap­py to tell her guests what­ev­er they wished to know. She wasn’t one for hid­ing. She nev­er real­ly under­stood the urge to do so. And now, any­way, what did she have to lose, she won­dered, look­ing out­side the kitchen win­dow at the patio, shad­ed by the fig tree. Well, yes – there was the small mat­ter of how their par­ents had died. Mari­am real­ized this. It was eerie – upset­ting, even – how sim­i­lar it was. The brutish man­ner; one felt it was the work of some­one who had no idea what they were doing. Sur­pris­ing, this sim­i­lar­i­ty. She’d be lying if she pre­tend­ed oth­er­wise; and she’d be lying if she didn’t say out­right that she felt like she’d been punched in the gut when the police called her.

But these things – they hap­pen, often. She’d heard some­where, or per­haps read in the paper, that it was the lead­ing cause of death in this region. Well, after get­ting shot in the head by a sol­dier, that is. But that’s anoth­er mat­ter. Some­how, that felt habit­u­al, less sinister.

Is the chair com­fort­able? Mari­am is sor­ry, she didn’t expect them so ear­ly in the morn­ing. Would they like some sage? She brews a pot every morn­ing. You know, that’s why her par­ents called her Mari­am because all her moth­er want­ed to drink when she was preg­nant was sage, maramiye. Isn’t that fun­ny. She’s always felt very, she paused, fum­bling for the word, con­nect­ed to this herb. She miss­es her par­ents very much, espe­cial­ly now. Now she’s all alone. She’d nev­er been so alone.

When Zar and Mar­ta were still here – sure, there was a lot of noise, and Mar­ta could fly off the han­dle at any moment, but at least it was – well, fam­i­ly, right? And in the evening, she’d pour sage in these lit­tle rusty cups and Zar would drink it silent­ly and Mar­ta would be too busy doing this and that and her tea would go cold and then Mari­am would have to brew a new pot but Mar­ta would end up nev­er drink­ing it because she could nev­er real­ly just sit down and drink sage; that’s what she was like.

The sage is from the gar­den. Yes, of course, Mari­am said, she can answer any ques­tion. She does not have any­thing to hide. She knows that every­one around town thought Zar was dumb. He was slow, he stut­tered some­times; and when he was excit­ed (how odd, only then), he lisped a bit. He smiled eas­i­ly, and only rarely showed anger. A sweet kid, a sweet sweet kid. He didn’t yell when some­one cut in line in front of him at the bak­er. He wait­ed patient­ly when per­son after per­son, at the phar­ma­cy, squeezed past him, shoved him aside, even though he had been there for more than fif­teen min­utes. Peo­ple felt this was an unfor­giv­able sign of weak­ness. Mari­am, how­ev­er, dis­agreed. Zar was meek, per­haps. Yes, that’s the word, and isn’t that a qual­i­ty, she asked. He drifts away some­times, just like that.

Mar­ta, on the oth­er hand, didn’t think that Zar drift­ed. Mar­ta thought that Zar was a good-for-noth­ing. She nev­er said so, but she made it abun­dant­ly clear. (Mari­am thought that Mar­ta didn’t show it on pur­pose; she just loud­ly embod­ied every­thing Zar was not.) She would swoop in at the super­mar­ket, as Zar wait­ed, and she would cut the line, yelling and scream­ing, and drag Zar along with her. She’s – well, you know – she always knew what she want­ed and what she thought was best for every­one and he’s … well – Mari­am ges­tured with her hand, as if swat­ting flies away. He’s Zar, you know. Now, it’s not that they hat­ed each oth­er. They sim­ply… well, I’d say they didn’t get along, yes. Some­thing like that. Mari­am pursed her lips regretfully.

Mari­am had learned, ear­ly and fast, that to sur­vive one need­ed to blur the bor­ders of one’s knowl­edge. Pre­tend you don’t know; pre­tend you weren’t exact­ly there and didn’t have an opin­ion to begin with. She had learned this, as a child, when both her par­ents – and often Mar­ta with them – would erupt like vol­ca­noes and Zar was off some­where in the woods. (To get to the woods, from here, was quite the walk. That he did it every day was a tes­ta­ment to Zar’s flash­es of stub­born­ness.) For Mari­am, it was eas­i­est to stay still and nev­er get involved. When she did inter­vene, it was in the most inno­cent of ways; with a voice like a mas­sage to the tem­ples, like a hush to the soul, a refresh­ing pedi­cure con­tained in a cou­ple of syllables.

Mari­am had con­scious­ly devel­oped this voice. She had shaped it, through tri­al and error. Her nat­ur­al voice was actu­al­ly a monot­o­ne, much like Zar (but Zar’s monot­o­ne was dis­con­cert­ing, it’s true, like a voice not quite human). She’d learned to mod­u­late it into a reas­sur­ing shape.

Mari­am thought of her­self as a sur­vivor. Zar and Mar­ta, on the oth­er hand, for all their dif­fer­ences, were not. And then there was the busi­ness of — you know. Of when Mar­ta flew off the han­dle, that time, when it was real­ly bad. Yes, that was some­thing. Mari­am sup­posed Zar knew it wasn’t Marta’s fault; that’s just the way she is, he said, she said, every­one said so. As if her very being was a howl. But he also nev­er for­gave her.

As for Zar, well, he was fan­ci­ful, you know. He saw things. Their par­ents, they were very nice, yes, they did the best they could, like all par­ents do, she said thought­ful­ly. All any par­ent can do is the best they can. Did you ever stop and think about how bad the world is, that humans must be par­ents? What if, for instance, we had anoth­er species, much bet­ter than ours, much more evolved, who could serve as the care­givers and guardians of chil­dren of humans until they came of age? You know? Every­one would be bet­ter adjust­ed, wouldn’t they? Mari­am often thought of that; this was the fun­da­men­tal flaw in soci­ety, that we had to rear our own.

She was sor­ry for the strong smell. Musk­root. It’s a smell she enjoys, she sprays some in every cor­ner of the house each morn­ing. It viv­i­fies the air. Cleans­es. That word, she rel­ish­es it: to cleanse. Yes. She enjoys the smell of musk­root but she knows peo­ple who don’t like it. She usu­al­ly sprays it ear­ly in the day, as the smell will have evap­o­rat­ed by the time she greets her first guests. She didn’t expect them to arrive this early.

And yes, well – now, there’s no-one at home to drink the sage with her. But she has all her neigh­bors. Mari­am enjoys a qui­et life in her gar­den, but it’s nice to have habits shared with oth­ers. It cre­at­ed a sense of com­mu­ni­ty, you know? And this town, this house of afflic­tion (or was it figs? She nev­er could remem­ber where the name of the city came from), this val­ley of vice where they lived, where nei­ther the bald-head­ed, smug con­suls nor their servile assis­tants; nei­ther the gen­er­als nor their min­ions dared step foot except to buy a woman or a cheap part for their cars, it could reveal itself to be quite wel­com­ing some­times. The neigh­bors took care of her. Not that she need­ed it, mind you, but it was nice nonethe­less to be cared for, you know?

Any­way, what she thinks, most of all, was that it was extreme­ly unfor­tu­nate that Zar was a man and Mar­ta a woman. If it had been the oth­er way around, Mari­am feels, things would have gone dif­fer­ent­ly. And she thinks they both knew it. They knew some­how, they had been switched right before birth, some sort of cos­mic flaw, a bug if you will, had occurred. And some­times, when Mari­am thinks about it, she fig­ures that this fier­i­ness, this elec­tric­i­ty, that Mar­ta radi­at­ed was the resent­ment she felt that Zar some­how had tak­en her place. A usurp­er. This was the root of her violence.

Well, you know, Mari­am feels like she has to insist on that, the guests would not under­stand oth­er­wise. Vio­lence, she said, again. You know where we live. It’s all around us. It’s in the air we breathe, it’s in our mus­cles. So, yes, nat­u­ral­ly, our par­ents were, and Mar­ta too and so was Zar some­times and – well, she her­self, Mari­am, she was not beyond it, she did yell occa­sion­al­ly, why, in fact once she yelled at Mar­ta so loud­ly you should have seen the look of sur­prise in her eyes, that shift­ed into fear, then out­rage, yes, out­rage that Mari­am would yell at her; Mar­ta she was like that, but she didn’t mean any wrong, she didn’t know (Mar­ta, didn’t) what she want­ed; you know she just did every­thing force­ful­ly bare­ly know­ing what she was doing, and her whole life had been like a Band-Aid to her child­hood. Yes, that’s right a Band-Aid to a child­hood being born not a boy, and bow­ing her head when she walked by sol­diers, and swal­low­ing day in day out the intox­i­cat­ing mix of shame, vio­lence, fear, in front of these sol­diers and – 

My, she’s been blab­ber­ing for a while now. When she starts talk­ing, it’s true, she doesn’t stop. Not only that but the more she talks, the less she feels like she makes sense; and then the next day, she feels very stu­pid, and so inar­tic­u­late. You know, she often thought about how pitch black the night was in these parts. Sure, the city folk had built all these roads lead­ing into town, and had lined them with these great lamps. It was all very mod­ern. So mod­ern that it felt like it belonged to anoth­er coun­try. (The high­ways! So clean, so infi­nite, a promise of eter­ni­ty. Who has high­ways like that?) Any­way, the boys of the town had already start­ed steal­ing the elec­tric cables from the lamps, and some­times climbed up to unscrew the bulbs and sell them on the mar­ket. And sure, the check­point at the entrance of the town beamed a search­light which intrud­ed on them all the time. Yet, the night remained pitch black. How this was pos­si­ble, she could not say. Some sort of strange mag­ic that pro­tect­ed, at night, the boys from the soldiers.

Mari­am would like to insist on the fact that what the sol­diers do is not arrest boys but abduct them. She hopes the guests don’t mind her being so emphat­ic about this, it’s impor­tant. It’s impor­tant also to under­stand she and Zar and Mar­ta had grown up with the fear of being abduct­ed by sol­diers with high-tech weapons that shoot lasers in the night sky and tak­en some­where where the search­lights and the flood­lights nev­er stop burn­ing their eyes, drilling their souls. Any­way, she was say­ing how eerie it was, that all the night lights seemed self-con­tained: the sol­diers’ search­light could not dig into the solid­i­ty of night. The dark was of anoth­er essence than the light. And so, she’d tak­en the habit of spray­ing musk­root to greet the day­light and thank the night for its small graces.

There’s a nice breeze this morn­ing. Mari­am is avail­able until ten, then she has some oth­er guests who are sup­posed to come. Imm Nabil, her neigh­bor. This one, she comes dai­ly. It’s awful­ly nice of her. Any oth­er vil­lage or city here and she would have been shunned, she knows, for her work and the mat­ter of her par­ents, and the mat­ter of her broth­er and sis­ter. Real­ly just a run of bad luck; but oth­er vil­lages would have thought Mari­am deserved it, that some­how it was all her fault. But not here. Here, there was a sort of safe­ty. Any­way, Imm Nabil wouldn’t be here before ten. Mari­am thinks the guests will real­ly enjoy the shade of the fig tree, let’s sit out­side for a bit.

A fun­ny thing about Zar and Mar­ta is that they both had a very pecu­liar rela­tion­ship with this tree. Zar talked to it, in whis­pers, when he thought no-one was watch­ing (often, it was in the dead of night or just before day­break). But Mari­am saw every­thing. She spent her life see­ing and attend­ing to oth­ers, so yes, she heard Zar, that hulky, mas­sive man, with his big biceps, his enor­mous, mus­cu­lar back, his curly hair (some of it white; can you believe that the man she’s talk­ing about is in his ear­ly for­ties? It feels like she’s talk­ing about a teenag­er); that man, on all fours, whis­per­ing things in his sing-song voice, his slight lisp, to the fig tree. As for Mar­ta, she hat­ed the tree. She refused to eat its figs. When she was angry, she even threat­ened to have it felled. Felled!

Mari­am had hoped, always, that both Mar­ta and Zar could heal. Their wounds were so deep, so unfath­omable; she thought that they them­selves couldn’t under­stand them. Prob­a­bly had no idea that they even had these wounds. They thought they were two war­ring con­ti­nents but in fact they were just two gap­ing wounds unable to see or under­stand each oth­er. Mari­am knew they were both slight­ly crooked inside, and this crooked­ness gave them so much pain. You know, some­times things are impos­si­ble to heal. How can one live with­out any hope like that?

The three of them, always on edge, always about to erupt. Well, Mar­ta most­ly. Zar was absent, and Mari­am tried to smooth things over. In her good days, Mar­ta was love­ly – though self-involved. But on her bad days, she was so utter­ly ter­ri­fy­ing – Mari­am doesn’t even have words to describe it. And then, one day lat­er, she’d be back to nor­mal. As if noth­ing had hap­pened. Mari­am real­ly believed that Mar­ta for­got. She could say all this now, but back then. Well, Mari­am had become sort of like those machines that can pre­dict earth­quakes, you know? She picked up on the slight­est vari­a­tion in Marta’s tone, any, micro­scop­ic edge; and she knew when it was time to hide.

There’s still some time before Imm Nabil comes. It’s get­ting a bit warmer, but it’s still delight­ful­ly cool under the fig tree. Ah, Zar had a pecu­liar rela­tion­ship to time. He float­ed in it. Mari­am thought it was eas­i­er when their par­ents were alive. Much eas­i­er, yes, because they seemed to orga­nize their time, Zar’s time, espe­cial­ly; and they cat­alyzed Marta’s ener­gy. When they died, Zar didn’t cry. He was a sen­si­tive boy, he just didn’t know how to show it. So, obvi­ous­ly, here, peo­ple thought he was a stone-faced, cold-heart­ed mad­man. But Mari­am knew that was not the case.

Mar­ta, on the oth­er hand, was dev­as­tat­ed. She had spent her life in an ongo­ing con­flict with them, yet their deaths had made her com­plete­ly unrav­el. Yes, some­how, Mari­am guessed, both of them unrav­eled after that. When did the rela­tion­ship between Mar­ta and Zar become ven­omous? She mused a lit­tle while. It hap­pened overnight. Human lives are such mys­ter­ies. Prob­a­bly after their par­ents’ death. Some­thing went amiss; some secret equi­lib­ri­um was dis­turbed for good.

But we live in such a ven­omous place, too, Mari­am added. You know, we pre­tend it’s not a prob­lem, we make believe that we’re fine with it and that we found ways to sur­vive but real­ly, see­ing these sol­diers, these rifles day in day out; this con­stant threat, it’s bound to make you go a bit mad. In this lit­tle cor­ner – for­give me, it’s true – of an empire, real­ly, how is one sup­posed to not be vio­lent? You see the thing is, she’s been think­ing about vio­lence for a long time. And it seemed to her, now, that vio­lence seeps into every sin­gle aspect of one’s life. Vio­lence against the sol­diers, but also against the house (some days she just wants to grab a pick­axe and hurl it at the stone walls), against the neigh­bors, the broth­er, the sis­ter, against one­self. All of it is just one big web of vio­lence, real­ly, and one should be care­ful. Mar­ta was like that, she had vio­lence coiled up with­in her, ready to spring at any giv­en moment. Even at its calmest, her voice car­ried the promise of storms. Zar, on the oth­er hand, well, Mari­am guessed his vio­lence was a bit more insid­i­ous. Zar would tar­get him­self, his very soul, but no-one else. His out­bursts would shred at his spir­it. He told her once – she remem­bers that dis­tinct­ly – that he some­times felt like a hand was clench­ing at his chest, at his lungs, and he couldn’t breathe. She thinks that he said “some­times” out of a sense of decen­cy, but real­ly, it was always.

It’s not like Mari­am was inno­cent or naïve, not at all. You can’t sur­vive here like that. No, but she knew where atten­tion was want­ed and where it wasn’t. She knew – her job taught her that – when to close her eyes and why. And she nev­er sec­ond guessed her­self or her intu­ition about those things. She’d learned it, over long and dif­fi­cult years. You see her sit­ting here, pour­ing sage in these old cups, look­ing rather peace­ful though, grant­ed, a bit flus­tered, and you think she’s always been like this. But she has not. It required dis­ci­pline; to squelch every burst of anger inside and every time she want­ed to let loose and bang her head on the walls. Per­haps she was luck­i­er than both Zar and Mar­ta. There was some­thing the gods had made crooked there. She doesn’t judge, it’s not her place. Besides, it wasn’t evil. It was a deep-seat­ed inabil­i­ty to adapt.

She knew peo­ple tend­ed to think of her as sub­servient. She wasn’t. She sim­ply knew how to bend when need­ed. Mar­ta and Zar, they couldn’t bend, they wouldn’t even know how to try. That’s why, even­tu­al­ly, they broke. Mari­am was wor­ried and upset often, too, of course; but she knew how to bide her time until the tides sub­sided. She knew how to wait for the calm to wash over.

Zar – she paused again. We shouldn’t make much of it. He was moon­struck, he lived in some dark, noc­tur­nal cloud cuck­oo land; some­one who’d spend his days whis­per­ing things to a fig tree wouldn’t do that. Mari­am thought that peo­ple read too much into Zar’s atti­tudes. She knew him best, and knew there was noth­ing sin­is­ter about him. He was soft, a lamb real­ly, not a viper. Of course, lambs could kill, yes, they could. But not Zar.

Once she had been watch­ing him, as he sat under the fig tree, right here, where they are sit­ting, the moon shin­ing on just one half of his face and she thought to her­self, she had nev­er seen him truer to him­self. Did she men­tion she thought he was prop­er­ly moon­struck? She thought about that often, these days. When he was born, a wan­der­ing priest had come into the house and said the child had moons in his eyes. Of course, no-one should believe wan­der­ing priests, espe­cial­ly not in these parts (and if they wan­der, it means that some­one is allow­ing them to. Priests who are in cahoots with sol­diers? That doesn’t sound too saint­ly to Mari­am). But Zar did have them, she saw them often, these lit­tle danc­ing moons in his eyes. Some­times they were beau­ti­ful, some­times scary.

No, Zar would nev­er do such a thing. Not her Zar. This she could tell the guests with absolute­ly cer­tain­ty. Didn’t they think, that she want­ed her sister’s mur­der­er to be brought to jus­tice? Yes, she did, though in this coun­try, she was not sure what jus­tice was worth. But what she knew, what she want­ed to tell them, what she hoped she had shown them, what she tru­ly believed, was that Eleazar didn’t do it.



The sound of water. Gur­gling, free flow­ing, streams far and near. He crouched in the tall grass and closed his eyes. A com­plex sys­tem of canals, small, lush gar­dens, and bridges extend­ed all around him. Up here on this cliff, far removed both from the town and the city. This is where they came to get water when the sol­diers cut off the sup­ply. This was the only place they had, all three of them, had gen­uine fun well into adult­hood, laugh­ing, danc­ing in the water, spray­ing each other.

Eleazar didn’t dis­like his home, a town where the pros­ti­tutes, the thieves, the drug deal­ers, gath­ered and where their clients came to exploit them. It was no-one’s fault that they lived in such a ter­ri­ble place. It was a place that laid bare how deeply flawed the world was. A den of iniq­ui­ty, it was called. That was true. Except that every­one else (the johns and the rich in their near­by vil­las who some­times sent a bit of mon­ey, a bit of food, a bit of good­will) made it iniq­ui­tous. It had seemed evi­dent, to Eleazar, that the skies would always be dust-yel­low and that always, he would live in that half-town, the garbage of a nation that nev­er came to be. Mari­am some­times talked about ven­om but he thought, rather, that it was dust. Just dust, and trash.

Mar­ta and Mari­am called him “Zar.” Mari­am said it with ten­der­ness, Mar­ta with some­thing that sound­ed, some­times, like scorn. They had called him Zar for so long that he felt he had lost his name. He was sit­ting cross-legged now, his back against a tree, and he whis­pered: “Eleazar.” His name, res­onat­ing in the hills, felt like a lit­tle song, a bit of night music. Some­thing mys­ti­cal about it; a grand name real­ly, the name of one who sur­vives; one who dies and is born again; and again; and again; and again. One who tes­ti­fies to miracles.

Most peo­ple, he felt, lived with a kind of will to exist, a will to do. They lived force­ful­ly. There was a rage in them. He had a hard time under­stand­ing how it did not exhaust them. He was born in a coun­try that does not exist, in a city that itself is unsta­ble, always quiv­er­ing and on the verge of van­ish­ing; and he was born – he saw that now – mal­adapt­ed for the fight this implied. It had drained him of all will to enact change in the world around him. He had learned – from Mari­am, most­ly – how to leave the world alone, so that the world left him alone. It was tricky; it did not always work. Becom­ing a shad­ow, some­times, was a gam­ble. But it had been his life.

Eleazar had thought, often and long, about life and death and had come the con­clu­sion that some peo­ple deserved to die. They deserved to be put out of their mis­ery. It was a noble gift to give, and to receive. He won­dered what Mari­am would think of that. Mari­am was well-adjust­ed, hap­py. Or, at least, she could be hap­py. She will be hap­py. Mar­ta, on the oth­er hand, was exact­ly like him. She was filled to the brim with mis­ery. Any more and she would have start­ed spilling mis­ery, like a liq­uid, out of her mouth. No court in a just world would ever hold against him that he did to Mar­ta the thing that he had hoped, his whole life, some­one would be brave enough to do to him.

He had decid­ed to do it a long time ago. After their par­ents died. Years ago, when she went crazy for a day and a half. She was scream­ing, threat­en­ing to slit his throat like a pig. Her skin sal­low and her eyes dark. It was all he could do not burst into tears at how piti­ful she looked. And he had decid­ed, then, that per­haps it was bet­ter for every­one, her includ­ed, to help her – well, get over life, real­ly. That is all there is to it. He won­dered why humans made such a big deal out of mur­der. What a very ugly word, too, that gave no jus­tice to what he had done. There should be a new word for it, to dif­fer­en­ti­ate this from that. The crime from the kindness.

The word for what he did was soft as a feath­er, and heavy like love. It was a bot­tle full of stars, a light kiss on someone’s fore­head when they’re deeply asleep. It was the only act of real self­less­ness he had ever done in his life. It was an act so inex­haustibly kind, so beyond any­thing Eleazar ever thought him­self capa­ble of doing, that it made him dizzy.

Eleazar, mouth agape, looked at the trees that lined the banks of the lit­tle canals. It seemed to him that the qual­i­ty of the air was dif­fer­ent; it was charged dif­fer­ent­ly, its tex­ture made of atoms from anoth­er, bet­ter plan­et. And in the dead of night, the boughs were all aglow, pink and blue, as if a thou­sand mag­i­cal fire­flies had land­ed all along them and were doz­ing off.

From where he sat, he could also see the city lights dot­ting the hori­zon like some sort of mag­i­cal paint­ing. The city, so close to their town, yet a mil­lion miles away. And there, a mil­lion lives; some of them full of mis­ery, oth­ers bet­ter adapt­ed to this, all going about their evening activities.

What he learned today was that he loved Mar­ta more ful­ly, more beau­ti­ful­ly, than he did Mari­am. Because he had been able to give Mar­ta what he could nev­er give Mari­am. A chunk of his life. He did not wor­ry about Mari­am, she would go on, drink­ing sage, clean­ing the house, liv­ing mod­est­ly and com­fort­ably off what was left of their par­ents’ inher­i­tance – and his, and Marta’s – until they all became mere specks, mem­o­ries of pain in old Mariam’s mind. We for­get. It is the deep­est gift that the gods gave us; to for­get. She will for­get them; per­haps senil­i­ty one day, in some decades, will final­ly free her from the mem­o­ry of her crooked, pained, sib­lings, and she will then be free.

He won­ders, for a sec­ond, what the funer­al was like. Just half a sec­ond, not more. The whole vil­lage must have attend­ed and Mari­am must have looked very dig­ni­fied in black, stand­ing all alone, aban­doned by every­one in her fam­i­ly, every­one dead or van­ished, just like that. The wid­ow of an undead coun­try. She must have smelled of musk­root, which she wore like a pro­tec­tion. He didn’t know if there was much of a body to bury but – he’d rather not think of that. It had been a hard task to accom­plish, one he had forced him­self, eyes wide shut, teeth clenched, to car­ry out until the end. Just like he had, a few years pri­or and – no, real­ly, there was no use to think of that. Acts of self­less­ness. He deserved some peace of mind now. He owed it to himself.

He had a gar­den, pink and blue at night, to tend to. He had at least that. There was solace there. Mar­ta, she had had noth­ing inside. Her soul (he knew! he knew it, and when she looked at him with eyes dark and full of the fury, he under­stood what she was ask­ing him to do, and Mari­am was too inno­cent to ever under­stand him and Mar­ta), her soul was a desert, a very ugly, bar­ren desert and per­haps in anoth­er world, some oth­er uni­verse, she would have been able to tend that desert, to make it a pret­ty lit­tle place, but she could not and all he did was help her. All he did was car­ry out what she had asked him to. It had been, he reflect­ed, her last cru­el­ty, to ask him to car­ry this weight for her.

The city, far away and below, glit­tered invit­ing­ly. And behind him, the town was in dark­ness (the res­i­dents had, recent­ly, tak­en to steal­ing the street­lamps; it felt like a joke, the ulti­mate snub to the city folk who arro­gant­ly thought they’d bring them light). Some­where there was Mari­am, hap­pi­ly alone (though she did not know it yet; though she thought she missed him and Mar­ta), going about her night­ly chores before bed. There was Mari­am, in qui­etude; there was serene Mari­am. Soon he would van­ish for good; and Mari­am, once grief had sub­sided, would grow more peaceful.

The mus­cu­lar hand, which had clenched at his lungs ever since he could remem­ber, let go. He breathed in. The air was new. This was the most pre­cious part of his soul, and here he was free.


Karim Kattan is a Palestinian writer, born in Jerusalem in 1989. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from Paris Nanterre and writes in English and French. In French, his books include a collection of short stories, Préliminaires pour un verger futur (2017), and a novel, Le Palais des deux collines (2021), both published by the Tunis-based Éditions Elyzad. Le Palais des deux collines was awarded the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie in 2021 and was shortlisted for many other awards. In English, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, Strange Horizons, The Maine Review, +972 Magazine, Translunar Travelers Lounge, The Funambulist and others. Kattan was one of the co-founders and directors of el-Atlal, an arts and writing residency in the oasis of Jericho (Palestine).

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20 days ago

I loved this sto­ry, it was heart­break­ing. I real­ly enjoyed under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between the sib­lings, which was ren­dered so beau­ti­ful­ly and with emo­tion­al accu­ra­cy. I’d nev­er thought of killing some­one in this way, as an act of mer­cy, kind­ness, self­less­ness. The sole act of agency from a boy who nev­er raised his voice. It will stay with me. As will drink­ing sage tea from rust­ed cups and the smell muskroot…..