Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Mr. Al-Zahrani (as his American nurses insisted on calling him) fumed yet again as the light streaked across the blue of his closed eyelids. Sometimes it appeared to be a tiny comet and at other times, it elongated into a minute, dim torch. “What, am I a superstitious fool or a boy frightened of his own shadow?” he thought. “Worse, why did those murmuring idiots called my family say what I saw is a blessing? What is really a blessing is that since I can’t speak now or do anything except move my eyelids, their inane chatter has finally stopped.” His only regret now was that it had never occurred to him to ask his oncologist whether hallucinations were byproducts of advanced pancreatic cancer.

Just last month he was back in his own country, relaxing with his five sons as they smoked and drank their thick coffee for what seemed to be hours. Looking at the lot of them, he remembered his own youth as one of two boys in a family that included his four sisters. He thought that when he married, he would allow his wife one daughter to be a companion to her and insist that the others be males. Fate and a little medical intervention made it so, but the girl turned out to be just like her brothers, even worse. Sanaa was a bitch, even without the Oxford and Ivy League graduate degrees of her investment-crazed brothers. She married a man in the mold of her brothers, but with ten times the ambition and well-schooled in the subterfuge that had made her father’s financial dealings so effective. “My disciple, my son-in-law,” Fahim mused rather grimly. Then he nodded off again and, feeling the opiate dripping in his veins to be somewhat inadequate, focused on the light as an experiment befitting a man of science in full possession of his reasoning faculties.

“Stop,” he said, and it stopped. Then it hovered above his vision like a contact lens that takes just a few seconds to fully adjust. It was as if he were seeing through a transparent sequin—the colors everywhere seemed almost too bright. He could feel the sun bouncing off what, incredibly, seemed pink sandstone walls and the fuchsia, lemon yellow, and purple of the women’s clothing, which also seemed spangled with tiny mirrors like so many stars. Everyone seemed to be smiling, ignorant, Fahim thought, of the immodest dress of the women, which in his country was forbidden. Then he became conscious that he was not alone.

“What did you promise and what was your gift?” someone or something was asking him, and for a moment, it seemed like a riddle and then the meaning became instantly clear. He felt as if he were surrounded by people who for once were genuinely interested in his well-being. “Fahim," someone was telling him, “answer Shubha, don’t be afraid,” and he again found himself under the loving gaze of she who had died giving birth to his only brother. He then turned to address Shubha and recognized her immediately.

“If you can’t answer right now, don’t worry, you will soon learn what they were and if you truly repent, all will be forgiven," she said in a voice that mingled concern and a touch of regret. Mustering his courage, Fahim asked her what had been her own mission. In response, she quietly embraced him. Suddenly, he found himself back at his hospital room, where the only sound was that of the nurses walking slowly about as they plucked all the wires that had bound him to this world, unaware that he was floating above them, an arc of translucent flame, holding hands with and beaming at his new friend. “In answer to your question,” she was saying, “my gift was to discover the cure for your disease and my promise was to work to overcome each and every obstacle to make it happen. Unfortunately, I was never given the chance.”

Then together they appeared in the night sky above a small concrete house in the city of pink sandstone so lately visited and saw a thin, almost waifish girl who could not have been above seventeen or eighteen years old carefully, and as not to be seen by anybody else, gather a few flowers and pat them to the heaped top of a newly-dug, tiny grave next to three others that had since sunken to the level of the ground.

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