By Katelynne Davis Shimkus
Haroun Shimkus, 34 y.o. male. GPS Image Analyst. Expat, 3rd generation. 12 October 2014. 17:57-19:39 CET. Berlin, Germany. English.
Every year before she passed, my grandmother would take me to the island of museums in the capital city. Each year we’d pick a new one to discover, but the other was a constant. The Pergamon never became smaller even as I grew up, and my favorite part never wavered from the small, mirrored, intricately designed Aleppo Room. It was here my grandmother would sigh, or straighten, or sit in the years we found a chair abandoned there, and she would tell me a story I never heard outside those red walls. It hardly ever changed; I’ll try to tell it as best I can.
She told me, “Once upon a time, Haroun, in a land far, far away, Abraham lived with a white cow. This-” she would see my question every time – “this was before he had a son, or even a wife, only a lovely white cow. He was a kind man, living out in the desert, and when travelers came across him – starving, lost, rich, caravans, alone – he always gave them a glass of milk.” How they had glasses back then, I don’t know. “One day, a man walked by carrying his wife on a donkey. When Abraham passed him the glass of milk, the man’s hand slipped, and three drops fell into the sand.
“To the people of the desert, the drink lost in the sand is a sin, sometimes irredeemable. Sometimes murder. The wet sand cried out, ‘The child your wife carries will be a girl, and she will carry three magic items, all heavy with tragedy. She will be born in the old world, rise at the break of the wave, and crash into the new age.’
“The voice frightened the couple, and disturbed Abraham, for it was not the voice of the God in the sky to whom he prayed. He worried it might be a djinn of the desert spreading evil on the child. So he told the couple to stay with him, and he would bless the child as soon as she was born, and ask for God’s grace to intervene in her curse. So the couple stayed with Abraham, and the cow gave enough milk for all three to live, to found a city, the oldest city in the world that still barely stands today.
“The girl was born, and blessed, and for the first few years neither djinn nor divinity took her in hand. Then, one day, she came down with a fever, and her mother worried that here was the arm-wrestle between them for dominion over the daughter. Her father, however, came home with a gift – a compass. He wiped her wet forehead and told his only child, ‘Don’t worry, little girl – Einstein had a fever just when he was your age, and his father gave him a compass just like this. It must be a sign – one day you will be as great as he, as great a hero in a great war.’ When she felt strong enough, her father would hide it in her favorite things – the sweet jar, the stuffed bear, her mother’s shoes – and she always found it. He told her that birds have magnets in their bones and that’s how they always knew where to fly, and in the days of Abraham the bodies of mankind had known how to follow their own magnets, but they had forgotten. He told her that one day her children would have bird bones, light enough to fly and always find their way home.
“As she grew older, when Abraham and his son had already gone to see God in person, a new, crueler man came into power. He denied the milk of the white cow to anyone who was not his friend or yes man. Many people in the city of charity withered, and died. The girl’s mother knew it was a dangerous time, and so one day she gave her a long, black cloth, called the cloak of darkness. ‘This cloak is cut from the night,’ the mother said. ‘It is here to preserve your mystery. You are afraid of the dark, but you’re only afraid of what it may hide. Darling, it hides you – it protects you by making you something no one can see, understand, or dissect. In the day, you’ll be a walking shadow, and you’ll be seen, of course, but at night you will melt into the realm of the unseen, unknown, and no one can put their hand on you any more than you can grasp and pull the night.’
“And the girl believed them, because her parents were lost on the day they died, and it was in the middle of the day when the tyrant’s rage against the rebels clashed; thesis and antithesis synthesizing with her parents caught in the middle. Newly orphaned, as many fairy-tale heroines are, she went out into the world of God wrestling with djinn, with two gifts made so dear by death.
“As she wandered, she came across a group of rebels. They grumbled about the extra burden, but one man spoke up and said they should not turn away someone orphaned, whether by the tyrant, making her their compatriot, or perhaps by themselves, making her their responsibility. She walked in the back.
“Each day the tyrant and the rebel fought, buildings fell, rubble filled the streets. It became easy to get lost. The men who used maps and street signs fell to the back of the group. And then, the men who used the buildings, the landmarks, the scents of their childhood, fell to the back too. And so the girl with the compass, who had drank from the white cow’s milk whose drops in the sand gave birth to the city, walked in the front. They began to call her after the instrument, for her north was true and she always found the way.
“At night, she slept apart from them, as tradition demanded. She wrapped the cloak of darkness around her and slept in oblivion. Then the air became cold, and the group grew hungry. On the night the dark ashes of her small fire woke her, she rose, wrapping the cloak closer, and followed the force that pulled like true north.
“The other word for the pointer of a compass is rod, and she thought of this when she arrived at her destination that night, among the men who had seen affliction by the rod of their wrath. She had walked to the enemy as they too lay sleeping around a dim fire. For the first time, she doubted the power of the cloak, for she was certain that as in every nightmare the enemies would awaken and know exactly where to find her. For eternity she stood staring at them, terrified to move yet convinced they would arise from the power of her gaze. So focused, she did not see the figure moving in the dark until it was quite close.
“So deep were they both in the darkness that neither could really see the other. There was only a shifting shadow against the night. They looked at each other, eyes barely visible slits, perhaps only a glimmering star in the distance glimpsed between two fallen buildings. She was certain it could see fear in her. Then it shrunk to the size of a child, removing two blankets, two bags of provisions from the side of the sleeping foe, folded them into its own dark cloak, and returned to the dark. There were still two blankets, two bags left for her to bring back to her own group. She wondered how many other shades in the dark wandered the night. With no lights in the city, the sky was almost grey with every tiny star shining.
“They asked her, aghast, how she had found these things in the dark that no one can see through, and she only smiled and said the holy words: ‘It is my magnetic rod: on it I lean; with it I beat down fodder for my flocks; and in it I find other uses.’ That night, the man who had spoken up for her before said she must join their fire, or she what if their most valuable asset froze? The night hid her blush.
“Time passed and no one could measure it. It may have been years. The city slowly crumbled back into the desert. But when she looked, it held still, and she saw every shift of weight, every nose-scratch, every adjustment. No enemy could surprise them, no group of comrades could miss them. She ceased to be something different, sacred, and strange. She became one of them.
“One day, the man who had first spoken up for her disappeared. For two days and two nights, the compass spun frantically and a figure restlessly moved in the absence of the sun. On the third day, she slept too late and was awakened by something so singularly precious she thought she had died: his smile, a blessed gift. He raised her, and lowered himself on one knee, like in the movies they used to see at the old cinema, offering a long, gray blanket. He asked her, “Compass, I humbly beg that you receive this gift and if it pleases you, to be my wife.” The others in the crowd snicker. This was not how their fathers asked their mothers; their fathers asked their mothers’s fathers and their fathers’s fathers, but in this place there was no dowry, no brideprice, only this gun, which as she unwrapped became a beautiful, glistening sniper. She said yes.
Now this part, this part she always told me, even when I was too young to understand, even when I was old enough. “When they were alone, as was the ritual even among the detritus of tradition. she asked him why he gave her the gun. He said she was an eagle, noble, fierce, graceful, deadly. Her eyes pierced the skies, she saw the ay home and always found it, and she would strike from on high. She was delicate and bold. She soared out and returned.
“She said she always enjoyed the idea that the act was the only sacrament a holy man could not ordain. The sacrifice is made by ordinary men, ordinary women. It is the only holiness our hands, our bodies wring. To sacralize is to make separate from the world, but they are made one. She wrapped the night around them like the cloak of darkness of the earth and together they were unknown to all but each other, themselves. The magnets in her bones pointed and pulled her higher and closer to the sun, ’til it burst red over the horizon.
“The wrestling match between the martinet and the mutineer evolved. It was a boxing match, it was a war, it was a deforestation whittling away her group one by one until the last thing she remembered before she left was sitting alone atop the highest point of the city, which was not a minaret because all the prayer towers had already fallen and no one dared call out now. She carried her wedding rifle, a compass, and the cloak of darkness, all dear from the dead. She carried these gifts into the new world, those and all of the rituals from the old world that she could hold over her head as she waded the river of blood into a new land. Living in a foreign world felt like dragging her ankles through mud, water and sand. No one thought she had bird bones, and the celerity with which she understood her way around the mapped city held no comfort. She understood why veterans missed the war. And she lived thusly ever after.”
Photo by Johnatan Somirs