Rumpus Original Fiction: Only Humans

By

Now that the sun is back, Salwa brings the children down from the mountains into the Wadi. Parasols over their heads for shade. It’s a warm day, but not the heat everyone fears, the heat that kills. It’s a day to celebrate miracles: For the first time in nearly three generations, water flows in the Wadi, roaring like the sound of a thousand worshipers chanting, Ameen.

Salwa and the children (and their parents, and some of their parents’ parents) never saw or smelled water till the rain poured down last week. Salwa, the children’s teacher, knows the history and geology of the Wadi, but the children haven’t been taught about this place so close to where they live. They don’t expect a river where always (in their experience, in their memory) there has been dry, rocky ground. Before the rain, Salwa thought, We teach them about enough things they will never see. Why give them one more thing to mourn? Now that the river is here, she wants them to sink into its existence with all their senses. They have been taught water—when it was—was clear and odorless. They don’t expect water to reflect the light and the sky, like a green-brown mirror.

“We can see our faces!”

They don’t expect the smell of mud.

They have been taught only humans survived. They don’t expect water to move and sound like a living thing, to be full of fish scooting about, insects with legs as thin as eyelashes, tiny jumping bugs.

“Fish, Miss Salwa! Fish! Real fish!”

Excitement drenches them like sweat. Sweat drenches them, too. Salwa worries a little about heat, but there’s a coolness coming off the water, and she’s never seen the children this happy. They chatter as she leads them along the rocky shores by the edge of the water, holding the youngest child’s hand. How amazing to smell and see and hear the gush of water and everything it carries for the first time!

This morning, scientists tested the river water. They say it’s safe to touch, maybe not to drink.

Salwa dips her pinky in the flowing water and tells the children, “It’s OK, not dangerous, to put your finger in. But don’t put the water in your mouth.”

The children take off their sandals and dip a toe. The wetness of water makes them laugh and shout and splash and touch each other’s skin with wet fingers. Every detail surprises and amazes them: the cool, the tickle, the rush, the fish nibbling their thumbs. One child throws a rock into the stream, and then they all do. Thunk. Splash!

Salwa explains current. Ripple. Tadpole. Cloud. Things she’s read about. She’s good at storing information in her brain, like clothes neatly folded in a wardrobe. Before the rain last week, no one had seen a raincloud in decades, only dust clouds and smog. No one remembers fog. It’s something they’ve read about, seen in old English detective shows dubbed into Arabic. Only the old people remember fish. Only a few of them remember the croak of a frog.

The water flowing now is a wonder Salwa dreamed of, waking and sleeping, but never hoped to see. She can hardly breathe, for fear everything will disappear again.

The water is also a memory of how the river came once a year when her mother’s mother was a child. Until it stopped coming, like a mer creature people no longer believed in.

 

Salwa has been taping old people’s memories. She sits with them on low couches in their living rooms, and they swiftly pocket or clutch the extra food pills and water pills she gives them to get them to talk. They apologize for having nothing in the house, and she doesn’t understand why they feel sorry—no one has anything but their rations of pills—until she pieces together that the first memories gushing forth in each conversation are memories of something she has never known: hospitality.

The old people remember dates and coffee served to our neighbors, incense wafting to bid them goodbye. Sugar swimming in glasses of tea. Saving the slimy, nutritious fish eye for the eldest aunt. Vimto and Mirinda bubbling in our noses when we visited relatives.

They remember milky, fatty rice at weddings, eaten with cupped fingers. Holidays that smelled like lamb and apricot syrup and ma’mūl baking in the oven. Tiny pizzas at children’s birthday parties. Little fruit tarts that fit in our palms.

Hearing old people’s memories is like watching a once-in-three-generations downpour. In the past, they lived in abundance and air conditioning. So many details go over Salwa’s head. She doesn’t know how to transcribe all the words. The grandmothers help her find pictures, so she can try to understand: pizza, ma’mul, Vimto, fruit tarts, oranges, macaroni, tea. They try to explain the feel of food in their mouths, the smell of it cooking, the taste along their tongues and the tops of their mouths. But it was so long ago. They remember probing the flour basket for sūs and squeezing the mealworms dead. The smell of rice with lentils on an overcast afternoon, the tang of tamarind sauce, and little purple flowers that grew in vacant lots after rain. The mineral flavor of Zamzam water before the springs dried up.

One grandmother remembers a swimming pool, how she carried the water’s chemical smell on her skin when she got out.

Another remembers the foul smell of trash—So much food we threw it away.

 

Salwa: When did you move to the mountains?

Grandmother 1: Everyone moved to the mountains. It was too hot. I was very young, and I had a baby. It was very hot. The Government gave us food pills and water pills and sometimes the babies ate dirt or sucked on sandstone. I hated the pills at first. I wanted real food. But there was no food.

Grandmother 2: Thank God for the pills.

Salwa: What did you bring with you?

Grandmother 1: Nothing. The clothes we wore. The shoes on our feet. Someone wrapped my baby in a prayer rug. I think I had green prayer beads. There were dogs.

Salwa: Stray dogs?

Grandmother 2: Someone had a dog. I didn’t know that person, maybe he had a foreign mother. The rest of us were afraid of dogs. But you could tell the dog was sad. It panted uncontrollably from the heat.

Salwa: What happened to the dog?

Grandmother 2: You know what happened to the dog. All the animals.

Grandmother 1: How would we know what happened? It didn’t make it to the mountains.

 

Parents have lined the river’s edge, taking pictures. Scientists catch fish in ancient-looking nets.

Salwa fills a jug with silty water. Her mother refused to throw away the clay vessel because it belonged to her mother’s mother. Made to keep water cool, it has had no utility for a long time.

“Where did the fish come from?” the children say. “The river was gone. The fish were gone.”

“Maybe the scientists know,” Salwa says.

Now the children are thirsty. They want to drink water.

“No water in your mouth,” Salwa says, handing them water pills. She doesn’t want anyone to get sick. They’ve never drunk water. Is the water clean?

 

The river returned because rain fell for seven days. Even the scientists and imams don’t know why it rained. Only some of the old people had seen rain in their lifetimes. Salwa had read about rain. She knew rain when she saw it. Still, she gasped at the sheets of water. Then the houses leaked. Rivers and rivulets flowed through the flimsy front rooms of the houses tucked into the mountain’s crags. Adults told children not to touch the rainwater because who knew what acid had mingled with the water on its way down. Everyone huddled in the dry corners of their houses. When the rain stopped, they put on rubber gloves and sopped up the leakage with old clothes twisted into mops.

Now, in the Wadi, the children are flicking each other with water. Salwa overhears one of the scientists saying, “The river is not going to last more than a week.”

 

Salwa: Do you remember the river from when you were young?

Grandmother 1: Nah, nah. I lived in the city. We had tap water. It rained once a year and the streets flooded and our buses stalled.

Grandmother 2: The water flooded our school and they canceled classes. It was a disaster.

Salwa: Were there animals in the city?

Grandmother 1: There was the meat we ate.

Grandmother 2: I saw stray dogs and cats. Birds.

Grandmother 1: Noisy birds.

Salwa: They sang to you?

Grandmother 2: They twittered. It’s much quieter now.

Salwa: Because the birds are gone?

Grandmother 1: Because the city is gone.

 

Salwa takes the jug of water home. She has read of boiling water to kill organisms. Placing a droplet on a tiny piece of glass to view it in a microscope. Bathing and swimming.

There is no pot to boil water in, no stove to heat it on. No tea like the old people speak of. What would it be like to take a shower, like people in old movies do? Every morning, Salwa sprays herself with cleaning agent. She brings sample-size spray bottles to school for the children who don’t have spray.

Salwa has one patch of dirt in her yard, which otherwise is tiled in bright white, like the missing clouds. She pours water onto the patch of dirt. She tastes the mud, licking it off her index finger. It tastes. It tastes like something lost. No one has tasted anything in years.

 

There are two grandfathers reluctant to talk to Salwa. Is it because she’s a woman? Because she’s a teacher? Because she’s trying to recover memories?

“The only past we need to know about is what God wrote,” they say.

“Why do you take the children to the Wadi?” they say.

“People have invented too many new things,” they say.

They believe the recent past was a time of bid’ah, and they would rather tell holy stories, about Muhammad, Nūh, Saleh, Mūsa, Ibrahim, Yūnis, Lūt, ’Isa, and so on. Stories of men facing challenges on earth.

Nuh’s story is a story of flood. Too much water, covering the land. Not enough room on the ark for everyone.

 

The grandmothers remember beggar children on city streets. They remember silver trays and servants from another land.

 

Grandmother 1: They left. We left for the mountains. The servants left for their homelands.

Salwa: The Government kicked them out.

Grandmother 2: They wanted to leave. They needed to go back to their families.

Grandmother 1: Some people were not allowed to leave the city, to leave the heat. There was not enough room in the cliffs for everyone.

Salwa: What happened to the people who stayed in the city?

Grandmother 2: We never knew.

Grandmother 1: People started calling it the killing heat. That’s why we stay in the mountains.

 

The father of one of the children convinces the grandfathers to talk to Salwa. She wears her gold-coin burqa’ah, a family heirloom her grandmother passed down to her, and sits with the men at the lip of the Wadi. The men’s turbans are piled on their heads, in the old-fashioned style. They wear fūtahs wrapped around their waists and white T-shirts. They refuse to walk down to the river. One says he’s too feeble. The other says the memories are too hard. He’ll look from above.

Salwa sees the grandfathers through a curtain of gold. The river below them shines dark green. It gurgles and sings. Salwa smells something metallic and something green.

 

Grandfather 1: Nowadays, everyone is nourished and no one is fed.

Salwa: That’s what people say.

Grandfather 2: People used to feed each other. Now…Thank God, there are enough food and water pills for us all. If you’re not nourished, you die.

Grandfather 1: The people left in the city died.

Salwa: You left behind the migrants, isn’t that right?

Grandfather 2: I was a child. My father said there wouldn’t be room in the cliffs.

Grandfather 1: If they couldn’t return to their homelands—I don’t know. They might have died on the sea.

Salwa: The seas were rising.

Grandfather 2: God forgive. Islands were lost. I wonder about our driver. Did he have a home to go back to? We were all in God’s hands.

Salwa: Do you remember how you got to the mountains?

Grandfather 1: We rode a bus.

Grandfather 2: We walked, and the littlest children rode on their parents’ shoulders.

Grandfather 1: The only thing I remember is my sister crying.

Salwa: She was scared?

Grandfather 1: She wanted to bring her cat, Basbūs, but we couldn’t find a box to carry it in, so we left Basbūs behind.

 

In the back of a cabinet, Salwa finds a glass jar. She wipes it clean and takes it to the Wadi. Pebbles get in her sandals as she makes her way down; she stops and shakes them out. At the river’s edge, she kneels in the mud and feels cool moist through her dress. She flips her gold burqa’ah over the back of her head, and her face feels the sun. Tiny fish swim in the jar. The green water is a living emerald.

Across the water, on the rocky shore, smudges of purple, green, and yellow.

 

Grandfather 2: I remember when we did wudū’, not tayammam.

Salwa: You washed for prayer with water, not with dirt like we do now?

Grandfather 1: The cool water on your face and arms woke you up at fajr time.

Grandfather 2: Then there was no water.

Salwa: Were you sad?

Grandfather 1: My father said God would guide us. And then we came to the cliffs.

Salwa: You’ve never been back to the city, or the sea?

Grandfather 2: You know no one’s allowed to go back.

Salwa: I’m asking for future generations.

Grandfather 1: We stay away from the killing heat, the tsunamis, the graves.

 

Salwa removes her sandals and carries them in one hand, the jar of fish in the other. She wades into the water. The cold current against her ankles is a thrilling relief against the Wadi’s warmth. The other shore is rocky, and she stubs her toe. She rubs till it stops aching. The flowers are tiny, on tall, feathery stems. She knows flowers; she’s seen pictures. She wants to pick them and take them home, but she doesn’t want them to die before their time. They’re better off in the rocky earth.

At night, her body aches for flowers, dreams of buds and leaves.

 

Grandfather 1: My favorite was cactus fruit. My father would bring it home and peel away the prickly outside, and we’d bite into it. The juice tickled our chins.

Salwa: Was it sweet?

Grandfather 1: Sweet and tart.

Salwa: What did sweetandtart do to your tongue?

Grandfather 2: It danced in my mouth. It puckered my cheeks.

 

Salwa’s fish live for two days, displayed on a bookshelf in her classroom. Their swimming back and forth distracts the children. The third day, the fish float lifeless on their backs.

Grief punches down Salwa’s throat into her gut. She hides the jar of dead fish before the children come to school and lies to them: “I took the fish home to take better care of them. I’ll bring them to visit one day.”

God willing, the children will forget the promise. If Salwa returns to the flowers and the fish swimming in the river, will her grief disappear?

 

Salwa: Do you miss what’s lost?

Grandmother 1: God save us and bless us. We are alive.

Grandmother 2: I miss the taste of butterfat.

Grandmother 1: The children are blessed. You can’t miss what you never knew.

Salwa: Some people believe that.

 

The river lasts a little longer than the scientists predicted. Ten days, eleven. Then, day by day, hour by hour, the river recedes. The sounds recede: the gurgling water is quieter; the croaks of frogs are more like finger snaps; the buzz of insects becomes a hum Salwa listens very intently to hear. Everything will disappear soon, the scientists say. Only God knows if rain will ever come back.

 

Grandfather 2: We used to pray for rain, but God was not sending rain anymore, so the imams stopped calling us to rain prayer.

Salwa: You stopped praying for rain.

Grandfather 1: We began praying for other things.

Salwa: Like—?

Grandfather 1: For food and water pill factories to be built nearby. For the heat to lessen. For the houses in the cliffs to stay cool.

Grandfather 2: Praise to God. He listened to our prayers.

 

The river has been squelched into a bed of mud. Salwa shows the children how to step very carefully and find things crawling in the moistness (worms, spiders) or floating just above (gnats, flies). She helps one of the children catch a bright blue and green flying insect in a glass jar. When it dies the next day, the grandmothers tell her she should have punched holes in the metal lid.

Her grief for the insect is not like her grief for the fish. She sighs once or twice, goes on with her day. The creature probably would have died no matter what. Without mud, which will soon be gone. Without whatever insects eat. The flowers she didn’t cut will die, too. There’s no way to spare them.

 

A few days later, the riverbed languishes, empty, spent, and exposed. The mud has dried up and its surface has cracked.

When Salwa visits the Wadi, she feels as though she is evaporating, like river water, disappearing into air.

She screams and listens for the Wadi’s echo. She paces back and forth where once there was water, frantic, as though she could make it appear, like Hajar did when her infant son Isma’eel was thirsty. But even the holy Zamzam spring is long gone now.

Salwa stops.

Beyond the rocks stacked like idols on the other bank, she sees the curve of a brown flank, a flash of eyes like pools of honey from the hives of long-dead bees, the sharp polish of horns crowning an animal head, ears like soft gloves.

Gazelle? Ibex? Rhim? All long gone, except in folk songs hardly anyone sings.

The scientists believe frogs and bugs and fish hibernated unseen till the rain came, and the old people say God sent the water creatures, a miracle, a reminder.

A gazelle could not have survived in hiding, with no water. It’s too big to be a miracle. It must be a trick of jinn, a trick of mind.

Salwa scrambles over rocks toward the animal apparition. When she arrives, it’s gone. No hoofprints, just a rangy cactus, up to her waist.

Its prickly fruit glow like red lightbulbs.

 

Grandmother 1: If you go back there, don’t let her see you.

Salwa: The gazelle? Why?

Grandmother 2: She’ll give you nightmares.

Grandmother 1: She’s a jinni.

Grandmother 2: No, no. She’s a woman, cursed into animal form. Stuck in an unnatural state.

Salwa: She wasn’t real.

Grandmother 1: Even a mirage is real.

 

The grandmothers say the cursed woman left the cactus behind. They say not to touch it. Not to tell anyone else about it.

Salwa can’t stop thinking about sweettart fruit and how everything the rain brought will soon be gone, possibly forever.

Probably forever.

She wants a taste. She wants a memory.

She returns to the Wadi with gloves and a knife. The cactus is proud and flourishing. She takes a picture, then cuts off a fruit, slices it in half, digs out a divot, pops it in her mouth.

If her students were here, they would point fingers and say, “Miss, Miss! You said not to eat anything!”

The fruit in her mouth is soft, a little slippery, like a tongue on her tongue.

And the taste.

The taste is a memory of something she’s never known.

Is this the sweetandtart the grandfathers talked about? She doesn’t have any other words for it. It tickles her lips and compresses her cheeks, makes her scrape her tongue against her teeth.

She moves the morsel of cactus around her mouth. Should she swallow it, like a pill? Or chew?

She chews, feels the soft, slippery morsel move around her mouth. She swallows. She feels the cactus sliding down her throat, settling in her stomach.

Such a small morsel. She wants more, but now that she’s tasted, she fears her body will violently reject this only bit of food it has ever had.

Salwa slices off another piece and sucks on its sweettartness. She will never have another chance to taste. She swallows. This time, the cactus entering her body feels like something she’s always known.

Two bites is enough. Not enough. But she stops herself anyway.

The knife is slick with juice. Will it taste, too? She licks the . . . delicious? . . . juice off the knife. Buries the knife with the gloves.

 

That night, she’s heaving, sweaty, feverish. She wants to remember eating, cactus, river, fish, gazelle, delicious.

When she sleeps, she dreams of our mother Hawa, who ate fruit and peopled the earth, whose tomb flooded and disappeared in the tsunamis the grandparents fled.

She dreams of cacti shriveling slowly for lack of water.

She dreams Paradise is a river in the Wadi.

When she wakes and her fever breaks, regret fills her mouth.

 

Many years later, when Salwa’s grandchildren ask about rain, she keeps the memory of cactus fruit, its deliciousness, for herself.

The picture she took is long gone. Anyone who saw her feverish is gone too.

Or maybe she has forgotten the cactus, focused on other memories of that time so any recollection of the fever will burn away.

Either way, no one ever hears the story.

When she dies, pleasure and pain die with her, and a memory of what grew along the river.

 

 

***
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari


Eman Quotah is the author of the novel Bride of the Sea. She grew up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Toast, The Establishment, Book Riot, Literary Hub, Electric Literature and other publications. She lives with her family near Washington, D.C. More from this author →