Sarah Kahly-Mills: “The Salamander”

15 June, 2022
Bren­dan Kel­ly, “Sala­man­der,” 120 x 120cm, acrylic and char­coal on ply­wood, 2021 (cour­tesy Traf­fic Jam Gal­leries).

 

On an island in the Mediter­ranean, a biol­o­gist tracks an elu­sive sala­man­der, which she has nev­er seen except in artists’ ren­di­tions and her own dreams but which they say is native to the area.

 

Sarah Kahly-Mills

 

Zahra

In only a day’s time, Zahra will find her­self swim­ming across a sea, and the gru­elling jour­ney will be infi­nite­ly prefer­able to what she will leave behind. Any­thing, any­thing at all to escape. She will for­mu­late her plan, if fling­ing one­self head­first into the Mediter­ranean with nary a belong­ing but a good luck charm may be called such, in between blows from Kareem, the gen­er­ous. For now, she sits in a café in Bsharre with the old woman they call Hum­ba­ba on account of her obses­sion with guard­ing the last cedar tree, and they wait for their cof­fee to arrive.

“They want to put me in a ‘home,’” Hum­ba­ba says of her adult chil­dren. She refus­es to budge. A sen­tinel does not give up her post. “If they call that a ‘home,’ then what is a prison?”

Zahra looks across the way to an ancient lime­stone house, its red tile roof miss­ing shin­gles like a grin its front teeth, its walls enclosed with some­thing like a police perime­ter. Tra­di­tion­al Lebanese house! reads a sign with an arrow point­ing to the crum­bling edi­fice, des­ig­nat­ing its pur­pose as an attrac­tion for the tragedy tourists who flock to see the ruins.

“Tell me the sto­ry of War­da,” Zahra implores.

“War­da, ya War­da. War­da was born before the Blasts, before even the Wars! A long time ago, fi qadim al-zaman, when you could eat pine nuts and drink from the streams of the Qadisha Val­ley and buy things you didn’t need!”

When she talks about the Gold­en Age, Humbaba’s cloudy eyes smoul­der with dig­ni­fied, mar­tyr­ish res­ig­na­tion. She scrapes mind­less­ly at dry scales on her hands. Her short white hair branch­es out in peaks and slopes like thorns. She puts Zahra in mind of a moth­er she nev­er knew.

“She picked wild berries, chased down kibbeh nayyeh with arak, lis­tened to vinyl records of Fairuz, wore full skirts and sun­glass­es, drove her own Bee­tle, and her purse was nev­er emp­ty of Lucky Strikes!”

“Yes, Hum­ba­ba, but tell me the part when she kills her hus­band,” Zahra says.

Hum­ba­ba looks behind her to the eti­o­lat­ed cedar. Cof­fee arrives at the hands of a hand­some wait­er. A tourist snaps two pho­tographs: one of the house and one of them.


Zahra hitch­es a furtive ride back to Beirut on a small bus over­flow­ing with bod­ies. War­da, she says to her­self like a spell, and it snaps its fin­gers — gone! The sounds of snort­ing, wheez­ing, curs­ing; the smells of exhaust, sweat, chem­i­cal after­maths, brine. She grips the lad­der with one hand and stretch­es the oth­er out into the wind, lean­ing with the bus as it slides like a puck down its wind­ing road, smil­ing, feel­ing as though some­thing grand were on the brink of birth. She knows the sto­ry more inti­mate­ly than the sound of Kareem’s weight as he steps on that loose tile between kitchen and liv­ing room. She became enam­ored with War­da imme­di­ate­ly after Hum­ba­ba told her the woman’s sto­ry, which was after Kareem had let loose his Ger­man Shep­herd, Zel­da, on her black cat. She had named him Naj­mi for his coat, dark as a star-stud­ded city night after the grid col­lapsed, but Kareem had named him Haram because when­ev­er he would bul­ly the crea­ture with a stomp of his foot and laugh­ter that barked like his hound, Zahra would say, Haram! Mish haram? Isn’t it a sin to tor­ment an inno­cent crea­ture? All that had remained of the inno­cent crea­ture was gore, a mem­o­ry she paint­ed over with ver­mil­lion thoughts of revenge set to Kareem’s words: Such is nature. 

It is only War­da she sees now, stand­ing over her felled hus­band, engorged a translu­cent pop-ready pur­ple with a poi­soned morsel caught in his throat. He died the way he lived, swollen with greed. Zahra laughs with self-pity. The humid air leech­es the last of the spell’s bliss from her mind. Where would I even get poison?


Home is a stilt house near Ground Zero, one of sev­er­al spread out over the sea­wa­ter that rose like a prophe­cy and washed away the Möven­pick Hotel, many cafes and restau­rants, and the last of a gen­er­a­tion. She pays the taxi boat dri­ver with a promise and takes mea­sured steps along a creaky board­walk with handrails made of rope. He waits where the water laps at a stilt.

“I need to pay the taxi,” she says to an emp­ty home. “Kareem?”

The house rocks and shifts with the waves. The search lights of for­eign gov­ern­ment ves­sels on the look­out for peo­ple-smug­glers illu­mi­nate the dark liv­ing room at inter­vals, land­ing on wet eyes that glow a ghoul­ish green. Zel­da guards Kareem’s stash: wads of worth­less cash, bags upon bags of salaam, and all the scraps he’s col­lect­ed from those des­per­ate for the hal­lu­cino­gen, bar­ter­ing away the last of their valu­ables in exchange for a moment of peace. A moment of salaam. She’s nev­er tried the drug, but they say it makes a per­son rise far above their body into the sky and meet their idea of home.

Noth­ing leaves or enters the cage where Zel­da and her master’s cache are kept, not with­out his knowl­edge. A gleam at the edge of the enclo­sure catch­es her eye. With­in her reach, a piece of green porce­lain shaped like a hook, some­thing that looks as though it were bro­ken off a larg­er body. Zel­da snarls as Zahra extends her hand slow­ly and snatch­es it away quick­ly, pock­et­ing the piece before hear­ing the loose tile move.

“Steal­ing from me, ya kalbe?”

A search light finds Kareem and lingers on him, and Zahra, dread be damned, plucks a moment of wicked plea­sure from the knowl­edge that noth­ing but his decep­tion and her despair could have ever bound them togeth­er, so unde­sir­able he was by each and every met­ric. He had had to lie his way into her, a woman made pli­able by all the dead ends she’d rammed her pan­icked beak into. Cracks in his façade had begun to show not a moment after he’d no longer had any rea­son to pre­tend, and he had steadi­ly decayed over the years, chain-and-pad­lock­ing her into an old manor of a man, crum­bling brick­work, mould-eat­en walls, gates off their hinges, ghosts who whis­pered into his ear, com­mand­ing him to hoard, as his only guests.

“I need to pay the taxi,” she says.

“Give him the only thing you have, then. And swim next time if you don’t like the arrangement.”

A vio­lent blow unlike any wave to have ever made their house sway now makes it spasm. Below, Taxi Man bel­lows with an axe in his hands, ready to deliv­er anoth­er hit to their weath­ered stilts: “My pay­ment or you sleep in the sea tonight!”

Zahra walks past her hus­band. He grabs her wrist. “Where is it?” 


How Kareem could have ever spot­ted such an incon­spic­u­ous tri­fle miss­ing from his reserve is a mys­tery to Zahra. She wants to ask him, Is it an arte­fact? Are you hop­ing to sell it to the British Muse­um? But he had laid into her for less.

Now, as Kareem extracts vows from her to nev­er so much as look at the cage again, Taxi Man pro­nounces his sharp threats, the house shud­ders, and the latch comes unlatched, dis­plac­ing some of the stash and free­ing the dog, who stands over them while Zahra strug­gles under her oppo­nent, cheer­ing on the wrestling match as though she’d placed bets on it, bits of her froth­ing spit land­ing on Zahra’s cheek. Kareem bears down on her neck and car­bon diox­ide accu­mu­lates in her body and a sin­gle thought forms in her mind with strik­ing lucid­i­ty giv­en the cir­cum­stances: Would she look like Warda’s hus­band, pur­ple and ready to pop? Fear fuels her last act of resis­tance, and she feels around her body for the green hook. The house cedes to a final blow from Taxi Man’s axe and col­laps­es just as Kareem howls and his hands shoot up to cov­er his left eye, where she pierced him with the hook’s fight­ing edge.

The fall lasts for­ev­er and for only a frac­tion of a second.

Below the water, Zel­da dances in slow motion, twist­ing among the thick debris to pro­pel her­self to the sur­face. Above, it rains paper mon­ey, along with clouds of salaam that gen­tly float down and meet the scream in Zahra’s throat, coat­ing her lungs and stretch­ing fin­gers up to her brain, where they curl onto them­selves and hold. She clings to the float­ing cage and sees Taxi Man fight­ing to keep sure foot­ing in his ram­shackle vehi­cle as he snatch­es at the air for falling bills.

“Sat­is­fied now?” she asks him, turn­ing onto her back to look up at the night sky and see­ing her­self instead, in sun­glass­es, with a cig­a­rette poised between fore and mid­dle finger.

“War­da, ya War­da, the One Who Push­es Through Cracks in Con­crete. So you did it!” Hum­ba­ba says, float­ing next to her on the rock­ing chair where Kareem would sit and sur­vey his day’s gains — a butane gas lighter, a tita­ni­um tooth implant, a bicy­cle wheel. On her lap is dear lit­tle Naj­mi with sparkling stars in his fur.

“I can’t be here any­more,” Zahra says to her.

Lakan — leave!”

“Come with me. I’ll car­ry you across my back, and we’ll cross the sea to the oth­er side. What are you even doing for that sor­ry old tree?”

Behind Hum­ba­ba, unend­ing acres of lush green cedars and a mezze table as long as the coastal highway.

When Zahra comes to, it is morn­ing. Kareem lies bel­ly up on the front door of their ruined house, Zelda’s jaws work­ing through his entrails, pulling up her prize — his gham­meh — and snap­ping away at it.

“Such is nature,” she says. She remem­bers her plan, flash­es of her body cut­ting west­ward through sea­wa­ter like a dol­phin as Kareem squeezed strob­ing visions into her oxy­gen-starved mind. “So, this is what we leave behind?”

A sink­ing ship. Stal­wart Hum­ba­ba and her melan­choly tree.

The green hook calls to her with a well-timed wink of sun­light as it floats by. She pock­ets it for good luck.


Zahra reg­is­ters with mild sur­prise the tex­ture of some­thing oth­er than water beneath her fin­ger­tips. The sea crawls over her body and pulls, beg­ging her to come back. Do you think I am as easy as the rocks you’ve bat­tered down to grains? I’ve killed, you know! She drags her­self fur­ther up the shore. She hears the voice of a child.

Zikra, c’est une sirène!

The crunch of sand beneath boots.

« C’est juste une femme, » Zikra says. “But please, Ara­bic, Barakah.”

 

Barakah

Qu’as tu dans ta main?

At first, they feigned kind­ness when they asked.

“Won’t you show us what you’ve got in your hand, lit­tle one?”

All patron­iz­ing grins and stooped shoul­ders in the way of adults who imag­ined they could swap sin­cer­i­ty with sac­cha­rine sweet­ness and go unde­tect­ed by the chil­dren they hoped to dupe.

“Show us, girl.”

The Mer­ci­ful Sis­ters of the Ado­ra­tion of Per­pet­u­al Crises, Barakah thought, might have been more accu­rate­ly named the Intru­sive Sis­ters or the Med­dle­some Sis­ters or the Inquisi­to­ry Sis­ters. They hat­ed that she guard­ed some­thing from them.

They had begun to scheme on how to obtain the secret Barakah held in her hand, prefer­ably through non-vio­lence so as not to rouse the sus­pi­cion of the many mon­ey-mahshi vol­un­tourists at the orphan­age. Bless us with more chil­dren, read the wrought-iron sign over its entry gate, a prayer answered abun­dant­ly, a cup overflowing.

“Why won’t you show us? Is it because you know you are hold­ing some­thing evil? Some­thing dan­ger­ous maybe?”

Smiles into sneers into threats, but Barakah’s small hand remained a mighty fist, one they even­tu­al­ly tried to pry open with force, receiv­ing bites that bled in the process.

“You will nev­er be adopt­ed,” one sis­ter pro­nounced glee­ful­ly, dous­ing her injured hand with anti-septic.

Barakah mar­velled at their ugli­ness, which adults refused to see. They nev­er came close enough to the sis­ters to see them for who they real­ly were and thus nev­er saw the fault lines in their patch­work papyrus skin, taut her­met­ic-tight over brick­ly bone. They nev­er saw them from the nec­es­sary van­tage point, heads at their hip-lev­el and look­ing up into black nos­trils crowd­ed with spi­der­webs and loose folds of flesh stitched back under their chins to not belie their decline. They nev­er saw how, at night, they hung right­side wrong and hud­dled togeth­er from the rafters, bats in black habits and wimples.

But all their grotesque­ness mat­tered lit­tle to Barakah because she could retreat into her secret.

It had come to her by pigeon beak on a breezy morn­ing. She had been ban­ished to an emp­ty dor­mi­to­ry as they all per­formed Sun­day wor­ship. For so slight an infrac­tion as a growl dur­ing prayer, imag­ine. The sis­ters had thought it pun­ish­ment, obliv­i­ous to the effer­ves­cent delight Barakah kept hid­den behind pressed lips and blank eyes, lit­tle left fist by her side like she was gear­ing for a fight. Alone, she’d stared out the win­dow to a play­field of tyres and pipes and scaf­fold­ing and shell cas­ings and traced her mind’s fin­gers over a fad­ing mem­o­ry of her father’s face, blur­ring at the edges ever­more with pass­ing time. He was tall and kind of smile, and he would fash­ion meals and toys from scraps and his own inge­nu­ity, a gold­en dust­ing of improb­a­bil­i­ty that breathed mag­ic into the mun­dane and taught her that beau­ty was the banal seen through clever, play­ful eyes.

“Car­ry a mes­sage for me,” she told the wind as it touched a hand to her fore­head, remind­ing her of when Baba would feel her for fever, “Tell him I miss him.” It did as she said and changed direc­tions towards the port, lift­ing her hair as though tempt­ing her to join it, and it was in that moment she saw the pigeon, strug­gling against its flow, car­ry­ing some­thing unwield­ly between max­il­lary and mandibu­lar ros­tra. It drew clos­er and clos­er until it reached her win­dow and land­ed on the ledge, tuck­ing its wings in and dis­ap­pear­ing on scaly foot off to the side.

Barakah stuck her head out and fol­lowed the bird with her eyes. It deposit­ed the thing like an offer­ing into a spa­cious nest where a moth­er wait­ed over eggs, warm­ing them with her body, and where oth­er objects were col­lect­ed off to the side like gifts at the foot of a Christ­mas tree — flow­ers stolen from graves, a dia­mond ten­nis bracelet, a pin badge in the shape of a shield. This lat­est addi­tion was a piece of green porce­lain with small pro­tru­sions and sharp edges on either side, as though it were once part of a whole, per­haps the han­dle to an amphora.

Already, she knew it was hers. She didn’t like to steal, but mustn’t the pigeon have stolen it from some­where too?

“Plus,” she told the feath­ered cou­ple as they watched her appre­hen­sive­ly, “it has sharp edges. It won’t be good for your lit­tle ones. And God help you if the sis­ters should see it shine like that. They’ll take it, you know, and destroy your home for the fun of it.”

She hid her secret under the closed lid of a toi­let tank, third stall from the door, and kept a red her­ring balled into her left hand ever since. If they sus­pect­ed some­thing there, they wouldn’t look for it elsewhere.

One night, a sis­ter came for her.

“It seems you’ve made an impres­sion,” she sneered, bar­ing tiny sharp teeth.

Barakah fol­lowed the sis­ter down the cof­fin-shaped cor­ri­dor that led to an office she had nev­er been called to before but knew was where prospec­tive par­ents went to dis­cuss seri­ous mat­ters, all the time won­der­ing whom she had impressed and how.
And that’s when she saw the woman she would leave with before the end of the year. Wild black mane mar­bled with white, a long grey over­coat that obscured her body, a spy­glass at her hip, an unmov­ing glass eye, and the shiny skin of a burn wound on the side of her fore­head above it and her cheek below it. She nev­er once asked what Barakah pre­tend­ed to hold in her fist, and she nev­er bent down to talk to her.

“What should I call you?” Barakah asked her.

“Zikra,” she said, sound­ing very sad.

They were alone in the play­field under a mug­gy, mot­tled sky when Zikra said in her soft, breath­less voice: “I need your help. I’ve been tasked with a very impor­tant mis­sion, and I like the way you guard what’s impor­tant to you.”

“Why can’t you do it yourself?”

“I’m dying.”

“What’s in it for me?” Barakah asked, watch­ing the dor­mi­to­ry win­dow as the new par­ents car­ried cracked eggshells away from their nest.

“A chance to get away from here.”

When they read­ied to leave, the woman looked at her and asked, “Haven’t you any­thing to bring with you?”

Barakah asked if she could keep a secret. Zikra nodded.

“And what is spe­cial about this?” she asked, exam­in­ing the green porce­lain, turn­ing it over between her fingers.

“It was mine when I had nothing.”

“And so it shall remain yours. Say fare poor­ly to the sisters.”

Barakah turned back into the orphan­age for a final time and stood in front of the com­mit­tee. Smil­ing, she held her fist out and opened it, emp­ty palm fac­ing vault­ed ceil­ing. Her vic­to­ry, their gnaw­ing dis­ap­point­ment in the space between. An erup­tion of new wings from the dor­mi­to­ry window.

 


 

“Did you know that a sala­man­der can regen­er­ate its limbs?” Zikra says as they walk by the riv­er in front of her estate.

It drains into the Mediter­ranean, she had said of that sin­u­ous water­way on Barakah’s first day on the island.

The mer­maid who calls her­self War­da lies on a lawn chair, watch­ing them from behind her sun­glass­es and puff­ing on a cig­a­rette. She looks dif­fer­ent than the day she showed up on their shore. Health­i­er, with the arro­gance of the accom­plished. She is unmoved by their under­tak­ing, scep­ti­cal of its val­ue and success.

Barakah has begun to see the ani­mal every­where, in the scur­ry of field mice and lizards, in the flut­ter of birds flee­ing their foot­steps. In the fan­ta­sy land­scapes of her wak­ing rever­ies and in the ves­per­tine lay­ers of deep dreams, Zikra’s fix­a­tion seep­ing into her pores and set­tling behind her eye­lids, ready to pounce at every stimulus.

It is one of a kind, Zikra told her. No one has cap­tured it before, but it is as real as the ground you walk on, Barakah, and one minute spent look­ing into its eyes is enough to bless you with a feel­ing of home that lasts forever.

“Alas,” she mut­ters under her breath, look­ing to the fig­ure atop the hill behind the estate, “you are too big to be a salamander.”

Under the dim­ming sky, a sil­hou­ette. The mag­net­ism of some­thing more than chance pool­ing the incon­gru­ous togeth­er into meaning.

“Such activ­i­ty on this island as I’ve nev­er seen,” says Zikra, squint­ing at the stranger through her spyglass.

 

Zikra

A young man. When he walks, his orna­ments her­ald his pres­ence: the rain­stick shake of beads from bracelets at his ankles and wrists, the whis­per of fab­rics touch­ing and part­ing. He holds his hand to an azure tur­ban. Cape and pan­taloons bil­low with the breeze like sails. A heavy pen­dant at his chest, a ring on every finger.

The details of his per­son shift into focus as he approach­es them, and Zikra is remind­ed of all the things she mis­took for her sala­man­der, the many mirages induced by poor eye­sight and dis­tance, for­mi­da­ble shad­ows cast by small branch­es, smil­ing and scowl­ing faces in the most unlike­ly places. 

“Who are you?” Zikra asks him.

“I am Amir,” Amir says.

Wrapped around his head, a Unit­ed Nations tee-shirt, its globe and lau­rel wreath posi­tioned in the space between his black eyes. At his ankles and wrists, obso­lete, hole-punched coins thread­ed through with zip ties. His cape is a bed­sheet, his rings beer and soda bot­tle caps, his pen­dant the porce­lain head of what looks to be a snake.

 


 

“I was nev­er sup­posed to see them,” Amir says as they sit around the fire pit and he recounts the sto­ry of how he came to be a fugitive.

“But how can you tell one day from the next until it is dif­fer­ent? It was a day like any oth­er day, and as such, I hiked through the hills and val­leys of rub­bish in search of some­thing I could fash­ion into fash­ion, art from the dis­card­ed, use from the abandoned.”

It was how he found the sequins that now adorn his vest, the emp­ty Coke bot­tles from which he built his raft to sail to the island.
“The oth­ers made fun of me. For them, it was a use­less pur­suit. But what is more use­less than wait­ing for some­thing bet­ter to come to you? I might be wear­ing rub­bish, but you tell me whether, for a moment, you did not mis­take me for a prince!”

No one argues.

“I was out­side Par­lia­ment when I saw it in one of the win­dows.” He touch­es his fin­gers to the col­u­brine head. “It looked so real. Alive. And it was star­ing at me like a pris­on­er cry­ing for help with those mes­mer­iz­ing mir­ror­ball eyes that drew light to them and mul­ti­plied it mil­lion­fold. I was bewitched. Most of the secu­ri­ty had been divert­ed to the oth­er end of the city because of a riot, so I took my chances and went inside and got it.” He holds up his pen­dant proud­ly. “And there they were.”

The pres­i­dent, the speak­er, the par­ty lead­ers, all fill­ing the seats as though they were still locked in talks, but over the hall reigned a thick, sta­t­ic silence and the ancient smell of an undis­turbed crypt.

“At first, I thought they might have been pup­pets, dum­my mum­mies. But as soon as I touched the pres­i­dent, he fell for­ward and shat­tered like a sand­cas­tle against the desk, send­ing up dust into my eyes and nose. And that’s when I start­ed to sneeze. I out­ran the drones that came for me, but why should I have to hide for­ev­er when I’ve done noth­ing wrong? Unless it’s this they’re after,’ he looked down to the pen­dant at his ster­num again.

“The liv­ing are an incon­ve­nient pres­ence in the realm of the dead,” War­da says, falling back into her unboth­ered state.

“Who over­sees the coun­try then, if they are all dead? Whose drones fol­lowed you?” Barakah asks.
Amir looks at her sad­ly, red-winged, yel­low-bod­ied bird danc­ing between them and on the reflec­tive sur­face of his pen­dant. Zikra has seen the shape of that tapered head before, its col­or­ful kalei­do­scop­ic eyes.

 


 

Zikra remem­bers lit­tle besides the beau­ti­ful sto­ries of Back­home, a place she could see from the island, a place that sent up chem­i­cal vapors like a factory’s smoke­stacks, that whis­tled and rat­tled with unrest yet beck­oned to her with the pull of a ter­ri­ble drug. She remem­bers hav­ing a moth­er and father who told her those sto­ries, plant­i­ng germs of yearn­ing inside her that would steadi­ly bloom into stalks and mul­ti­ply into fields until her body grew too small to con­tain all that desire for a place she’d nev­er real­ly known but would try nonethe­less to recre­ate on her island, pop­u­lat­ing it with res­cued relics of the past — vinyl records, pho­tographs, books, a reminder in every archi­tec­tur­al detail of the estate, a fin­ger­print in its mashra­biya and arcade win­dows, exhumed semi­otic sig­ni­fiers to cre­ate a sense of place in the dis­placed. Of all the sto­ries, though — of forests and beach­es and moun­tain slopes and val­leys and bar­be­cues and crys­talline brooks and ancient ruins and daz­zling cities and glo­ri­ous food and shahs and emirs — that of the sala­man­der was the most excru­ci­at­ing­ly endur­ing one, fer­ment­ing into an obses­sion that bor­dered on the malig­nant, bub­bling just bare­ly under her skin and erupt­ing with every dis­ap­point­ment. She would find it, or she would die try­ing. And near­ly died she almost had, scram­bling after some slinky amphib­ian to the edge of a vol­canic crater, liq­uid sul­phur seep­ing from its cracks, and rush­ing into a sud­den plume of blue fire that took her eye, the soft skin above and beneath it, and years of her life. Illu­sion after illu­sion, encoun­ters with dan­ger built upon dan­ger­ous encoun­ters until her body became a sto­ry­book of con­se­quences, ripe for reap­ing, alve­oli steadi­ly deflat­ing, bron­chi­oles brit­tle. Breath­ing, that indus­try that in oth­ers asked for noth­ing in return, demand­ed of her a for­mi­da­ble atten­tion. Such was nature: always up for a duel so it could beat you.

She lied to her­self that Barakah would be more even-tem­pered, more slow-and-steady-wins-the-race, when she knew from the moment she saw her at the orphan­age that the girl was all poten­tial, wild deter­mi­na­tion in every excitable cell of her. Zikra was almost sor­ry to recruit her into that carnivore’s life, so much ener­gy expend­ed in emp­ty pur­suit of such a light-foot­ed thing as a dream, always leap­ing out of reach.

“I won’t be here for long, but I’ll be watch­ing from wher­ev­er I go after­wards,” she had slurred one evening, unstop­ping a decanter of liqueur she had just stopped up, chest-deep in a pit of inse­cu­ri­ty, hope a flick­er­ing thing in a cold cor­ner of her ribcage.

“You don’t need to threat­en me,” Barakah had said. “I want to find it too.”

“The oth­ers say it doesn’t exist. For them, it is a use­less enterprise.”

 “What is use­less is sit­ting around ridi­cul­ing oth­ers for chas­ing their dreams instead of find­ing their own.”

 


 

The new­com­er mourns at night, cape trail­ing behind him as he cir­cles the estate in slow, mea­sured steps like a ghost con­demned to a moment on eter­nal repeat. Dur­ing the day, he strate­gizes on how to de-patri­ate all the peo­ple he has left behind and bring them to the island, casu­al­ties of his reck­less promis­es to remem­ber them when he reached paradise.

“You know what the diplo­tourists would say to us?” Amir says. Every so often, he paus­es to indulge his anger. “They would say, ‘Look how you can see the stars now with no light pol­lu­tion!’ And we would look into that uncar­ing sky and wish for the warm glow of home, of civ­i­liza­tion, of a kitchen or liv­ing room lit up with some­thing oth­er than for­eign searchlights!”

When at last he sleeps, when it is almost morn­ing, Zikra creeps into his room and finds the pen­dant on the com­mode by the win­dow. Then, she goes to Barakah’s room, where the girl’s secret lies bare and trust­ing in a nest of dis­card­ed cloth­ing. Warda’s good luck charm too is defense­less, heaped in togeth­er with a pile of curios — a vin­tage poster for the Hotel Riv­iera, a stamp with Emir Bashir Shi­hab II’s face on it, a red-white-and-green lighter with a map show­ing Tripoli, Fake­ha, Byb­los, Baal­beck, Zahle, Beit-Eddine, Jei­ta, Anjar, the Mous­sa Cas­tle, and Tyre.

“How cru­el,” Zikra whis­pers once she has assem­bled the pieces. She sits at a table under the gaze­bo where yes­ter­day War­da played casse-tête and stares at the porce­lain like­ness of her sala­man­der, divid­ed against itself, head-body-tail. Alone as night lifts and its chilled air sinks to the riv­er, she weeps for all the time siphoned from her. A mil­lion ways to keep alive a leg­end was all she would ever know — draw­ings, etch­ings, oral his­to­ries, near-sight­ings. “How cru­el to pass a sick­ness onto your children.”

She rests her head onto the mist-damp wood­en table and sleeps.

The Salamander

It is a glo­ri­ous thing to be whole again. It takes me a sec­ond to find my foot­ing, but once I do, I dart into the tall wet grass by the bank and scut­tle through it before drop­ping into the water — and she after me. For less than a moment, we look at each oth­er, sus­pend­ed in that qui­et limpid world. Her eyes are wide, and her stri­at­ed hair swells around her. I am sor­ry to go, but she asks too great a sac­ri­fice of me to stay and offer myself up for study. Ah, the adven­tures I went on though, the phe­nom­e­na I saw, the way I was loved! I could not ask for more. I leave all this behind, unafraid.

It is known that sala­man­ders swim far bet­ter, faster, and far­ther than humans. I plan to reach the sea with­in the day, and from there, who knows? Byb­los, Tripoli, Tyre, Beirut…

 

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Sarah AlKahly-Mills is a Lebanese-American writer. Her fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays have appeared in publications including Litro Magazine, Ink and Oil, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michigan Quarterly Review, PopMatters, Al-Fanar Media, Middle East Eye, and various university journals.