From the Archive: Rumpus Original Fiction: No Good


This was originally published at The Rumpus on December 17, 2017.

They cannot let her keep the flowers. Because of the pollen, they explain, and the insects that might lurk between the leaves. They say this mournfully, as though it is a shame. In the afternoons, they bring in the new vases for several minutes. One is so enormous it has to be carried with both hands, and the flowers are exotically hued, purple and yellow with large green leaves that are spiked like half stars.

If she were speaking, she would tell them that it is for the best. Those bright flowers in the paper-white room. It would be too much. It would do no good, for her to wake up in the mornings, and see those explosions of color.


They leave the cards from the flowers on the small wooden table beside the bed. The paper smells of orchids. She can see scrawled words, a series of xxs, exclamation marks peppering them as she flicks through, but she doesn’t let herself read any of the messages. When her eyes snag on the word recuperate, she tosses the cards back on the table. Several flutter to the floor.


There is a large oak dresser in the room, though she cannot imagine what is in there. Her things are still hanging in her own closet, in the apartment by the river. She wonders what happened to the woolen sweater she was wearing, and the jeans. She remembers seeing the jeans in a heap that night, in one of the bathrooms. It had taken her several minutes to tug them back on, her fingers clumsy around the button.

Later, the sweater had been snipped by the man in the ambulance, who had blue eyes and told her, urgently, not to move. She’d hoped, in vain, for some piercing, some pain. But there had been none.


The man had prayed, in the ambulance. She was startled by this. He seemed shaken—she wondered if she was his first—keeping her head still, telling her to breathe. She’d shut her eyes. It was too bright, the sunshine and spinning streets and that wailing siren, and his voice had risen and lapsed into quick prayer.

Oh, dear Lord. Oh, let her wake.


No one has come back to visit since the first few days. Then, person after person milled into the room, their eyebrows knit, speaking to her gingerly. They looked bewildered.

She hadn’t spoken and eventually they all left. Some—a cousin, a coworker—wept, and touched her hair. Her parents had stayed, as the winter light faded outside, darkening the walls into the shades of plums and bruises. Her father spoke with the doctors, his silver hair sticking out in tufts. He asked about medication, about taking precautions.

Her mother sat on the armchair next to the bed, talking quietly at first, and then more and more angrily, asking her why she wouldn’t speak. What have you done, her mother had screamed finally, what have you done. Her mother kept crying until they came into the room, and her father had pulled her away.

She had been able to hear the doctors in the room, whispering, but she closed her eyes, away from that plum-bruise color, and didn’t open them again until the door shut with a tiny click.


The sounds that she would expect here are entirely absent. There are no cries, no weeping. Just soothing, muffled tones. It is an old estate, with creaking pipes and hardwood floors. When they’d driven up to it from the hospital, she caught only a fleeting impression of white stones and a lawn dusted with snow. The main room, at the entrance, is enormous with high ceilings and a fireplace. A long dining table spans one side and there are couches and chairs, to give the impression of leisure and rest. On the other side are large French doors, which open to a courtyard. Everything, she sees, is set up to feel like an inn, or some idyllic countryside place. A temporary retreat.

Her room has a window which overlooks the courtyard. There is a gray, eroded looking fountain in the center and bare trees and shrubs along the walls. It is snowing, although it is supposed to be spring. Last year, during this month, she would walk across town every day, sitting in the coffee shop that faced the empty lot. The council had voted to turn the space into a new library, and she had been given the project at her firm. The office threw her a party. They bought a cake which had the word congratulations iced out in pale blue.

Her boss spoke with her afterwards, telling her that he could see her moving somewhere east, to one of those proper cities she’d always hungered for, where she could build enormous skyscrapers and bridges as delicate as art. He’d encouraged her to adjunct at the local university, saying it would be good for networking, and she went on Fridays, taught a small group of undergraduates about design and freehand drawing.

The other days she worked in that coffee shop until the sun set, filling page after page in her sketchbook. She would close her eyes and imagine the wide windows, the stained wood bookshelves. She sketched in extra space next to the bookshelves so that people could sit on couches and read. Those on the top floor would be able to see the river, the fringe of forest. When she finished every night, there would be ink smudges all over her fingers. Her head aching, she’d walk home exhausted but satisfied, a happy balloon in her chest, rising and tugging at her.

In anticipation of the warming weather, she’d painted her toenails crimson. In bathwater, the color gleamed like jewels.


She began to notice a janitor at the university. He was a decade or so older than her, mid-forties, and his shift coincided with the classes she taught. He often entered the classroom just as she was leaving; other times, she saw him in the hallways, quietly sweeping. He was handsome with dark features, Mexican or Dominican, she thought.

One afternoon, there was a thunderstorm, the rain coming hard and sudden mid-lesson. The students became restless. She let them leave early and remained in the classroom, pulling out her sketchbook and returning to the blueprints. She could see the library as clearly as if someone was walking her through it.

The janitor entered the room. When he saw her, he apologized and said he would return later. But she asked him to stay. It became a little game after that, her staying after class to grade and sketch, him cleaning the room around her. She loved those afternoons, the sound of the broom against the wooden floors, his body moving around the room. When he wasn’t there, she wondered about his accent, tried to work up the nerve to say something.

Like Joseph, she said when Yusuf eventually told her his name. He nodded: Yes, but different.


It wasn’t that he was her first, or that she’d been unpursued by men. Nearly thirty-five, she was pretty enough, habitually dated men she met at the gym or online. But a decade of mediocre relationships had left her detached. For years, she’d preferred the clean, spare world of mathematics and, later, architecture. There had been times, in her youth, when a darkness pounced upon her like a blanket dropped over a lampshade. She couldn’t explain those times, how she’d feel herself prickling against her own skin, and wake panting in the middle of the night. Not so with the steadfastness of architecture. It gave her something solid and real to touch.

But here was Yusuf, and she felt neither practical nor familiar to herself. She marveled at her own boldness. He was shy; she always had to speak first. Trivial questions at first, small talk about the weather and summer. It was weeks before he told her the name of his city. Aleppo. She tried talking about the war and the president and what was happening in Yusuf’s country. But he just fell quiet again.

In Aleppo, Yusuf had taught mythology at the university. Here he swept students’ gum wrappers and mopped the urine from bathroom floors. There was a wife. He had a photograph in his wallet. The wife wore a gray veil and had eyes dark and warm as hot chocolate. She had died the year before.

Once, Yusuf gestured timidly towards her sketchbook. She showed him the layout, described the rooms of the library. When she saw his absorbed focus—the mark of a true academic, she realized—she spoke of the different structures that inspired her to study architecture. Unthinkingly, she brought up the ruins of Palmyra. I’d love to see it sometime, she sighed, before realizing her terrible mistake.

I will never go back to my country again. Yusuf spoke carefully, each word weighed, as though to make sure she heard.


It was weeks before he asked her a question of his own. One evening, as she was packing up her papers, he asked her about the Taj Mahal. He wanted to know if it was true what they said, that it was built as a shrine for love. A mausoleum for those departed. If there were others like it.


The truth made her glow with shame: she was jealous of the dead wife. She was jealous of the sisters back home, even of the now-wrecked city, just because it had belonged to him.

They met once in the university cafeteria. Another time, they watched the sun set from a bench near the quad. He finally told her how he had arrived. It wasn’t in a boat, like so many others. Still, he had nightmares of his wife drowning, although she hadn’t drowned, she had died under the rubble of a bomb. But in his dreams, they were in the ocean, she was gasping for air, they were both underwater, they were speaking to one another. She was telling him that he had to swim. That if he didn’t swim, right now, he would die as well.

No boat. He had simply driven into Lebanon and flown from Beirut to Amsterdam, then to America. He had a second cousin who lived in town. He had arrived on a tourist visa. But the visa had expired.

He looked at her sharply when he said that, and she could tell that it was a mistake. He hadn’t meant to share that much.

It’s okay, she said. I promise.

It was a long time before he spoke again. I bought papers, he whispered. I spent everything I had.


She continued to go to the coffee shop in front of the empty lot, to spend hours sketching. But something was different after Yusuf. The longer days left her restless and she found herself impatient for Fridays, for those hours when they’d exist in the same room.

Instead of interior floor layouts for the library, she sketched citadels and towers and bridges. She read about his country online. She found it impossible to focus on the doorways of the library or the tiling and instead her thoughts would wander to Yusuf, his dead wife. She thought about the stories he told her, the myths that he taught at the university. Like Eurydice, who was forever in the Underworld. And Orpheus, who couldn’t resist a backward glance. His favorite was Cassandra, predicting the ruin of Troy. He showed her a painting of the figure in a book he’d taken out at the university library, her dark hair in disarray, her back turned to the smoldering wreckage.

It was because she couldn’t bear to face the city, he explained, his face animated.

In spare moments, she searched for other monuments of love. They cropped up on her computer screen, in Peru, in Italy, in England. She was surprised to find there were hundreds, thousands of them.

Each week stretched agonizing and long, and at the end—a kaleidoscope, the reward of him.


An idea took hold of her like a fever. She began to research the cities. Damascus. Homs. Latakia. She practiced saying the names. They were little sugar buds in her mouth. She read about the buildings crushed to dust, the fires set in churches and mosques.

Her own work languished untouched. She downloaded maps of Yusuf’s country, printed photographs of before and after. She began to draw, fervently. When her friends called, she said she was busy. She worked and worked. When it was finished, she sprinkled chalk on the paper so it wouldn’t smudge, rolled the drawing into a cardboard tube.

It was the last week of classes, summer nearly arrived. She arrived at the university with the tube wrapped in gold paper. After class, she asked Yusuf to come with her to a restaurant. Please, I have a gift, she told him. For you.

He hesitantly agreed. She took him to a restaurant with polished tables and white napkins. An entire wall was covered in mirrors. She ordered wine. Yusuf drank water. He stared at the package for several moments before opening it, pulling the paper out. She watched his face as he unrolled the drawing, the furrow between his brows deepening, his eyes squinting with confusion. His mouth twitched.

It’s your city. Your country, she explained. She craned her neck to make sure that he was seeing what she did. The paper was thick and expensive, the sketches done with silky colored pencils.

She had redrawn his city. Brought it to life again, sketching the lush gardens of the Great Mosque, tracing the arcs of the Citadel of Aleppo until they were strong and whole again. She had remade the broken buildings, reassembled the collapsed structures. He looked like she had punched him.

I’m sorry, he said. He dropped his cloth napkin on the table, stumbled out of the restaurant. She followed, the drawings crumpled in her fist, leaving a few twenties for their unfinished food.

Tell me, she begged. Tell me. She wanted to make him forget. Like the river Lethe in Greek lore, one sip and a person’s memories erased. She wanted his arms against hers, she wanted him to take her life—the childhood of summer camps and fishing trips, her parents in their nearby beige house, the summer spring fall winter of it all, suddenly shown to be flimsy as sugar glass—and turn it into something else.

She kissed him, right there on the street, in front of passerby. He surrendered for an instant, she felt him give, his mouth as hungry as hers, before he pulled himself back, shaking his head. He was out of breath.

I can’t, he said. He nodded towards the drawings. You cannot understand, he said. He moved quickly, walking down the main street, past the shops and restaurants, even though she had driven him. She watched the cars drive past, the bright headlights in the dark. She thought of the Taj Mahal, of the kaleidoscope weeks, of what she had glimpsed and now was being taken away. It seemed that she might scream and the only thing that stopped her was looking up and seeing the moon, unblinking as a dead animal’s eye.


A doctor comes in with a tiny red pill and asks her to flex her toes. When she does, he nods, looking satisfied. The swelling is going down, the doctor says.

Her ankle is encased in white. It is something they all comment on, the nurses and doctors. Their eyes flick back and forth from the cast to her face. She hears them whisper about it in the hallway.

Twenty feet, they whisper. And only a cast.

More than once, they say the word miracle.  It was the word her mother used, before her father led her out of the room. Miracle. Miraculous. This makes her want to laugh, but she is afraid to laugh, afraid that if she begins she will be unable to stop, which was what happened when she first woke up in the hospital, after the ambulance with the praying man.


The snow stops, but the sky remains gray. Every evening they bring her a plate of food that she leaves untouched, taking only a few bites of rice and the tomato slices. She is losing weight. They talk about it in concerned tones. Every couple of days, a nurse helps her onto a scale, and makes tsking sounds at the number.

She doesn’t look at a mirror, but she can see her wrist bone, can feel sharp cheekbones with her fingers. Her hips are jutting out. She remembers, detachedly, the diets of her former life, the way she would eat nothing but pears and almonds, the fretting about bikinis and flesh above her waistline.

This is amazing to her. That she once wore yellow bikinis.


She sleeps at capricious times of the day. She wakes and the dresser is still there, the armchair, the window. The sun sets. Several times, she is coaxed into getting up and walking down the hallway, into the main room. One of the nurses loops an arm through hers, helping her take small steps with the cast.

She hates it. The other people loll around the main room, staring at her. Many of them wear sweatpants, their hair in sloppy ponytails. Some are tidier, even wearing lipstick, but that somehow makes it worse, like a fib that is painful to watch. One of the men, an older grandfatherly sort, smiles at her every time.

The next time the nurses come to take her for a walk, she slumps her weight into the bed, pretending her bones are brick. They plead, murmur, open the curtains, but she refuses to move, her fingers digging into the mattress. It lasts a long time, them persuading, until one of the doctors comes in and says, enough, enough, leave her alone.

Outside the courtyard is covered in snow. In the afternoons, some of the sweatpants people go outside, walk around the bare trees. Some kneel and touch the snow. The white glimmers. Somehow, this shakes her belief in what this place is, that people can just wander outside the enormous French doors. But she sees the nurses in the edges of the courtyard, watching with foggy breath, stamping their feet in the cold.


One of these nurses tells her the cold air is tonic, that the snow is good enough to eat. At this point, they no longer expect her to talk back. They chatter good-naturedly, speak to her as one might speak to a houseplant or a pet.

For hours, she looks outside the window. She notices there is another figure, not wearing the white of the nurses, but a dark blue jacket. A groundskeeper, she thinks. He doesn’t speak with any of the others, but goes around clearing the courtyard. He shovels snow and, occasionally, she sees him plucking twigs and dead leaves from the tree branches. He reminds her of Yusuf. Mostly, he shovels the area around the fountain and near the stone benches where people sit. But she watches him, at random times, digging snow from one of the corners, beneath an awning of bramble.

It seems like an unlikely task. Even the snow has fallen haphazardly in that corner, so that there is an odd sloping mound of white. And yet he keeps returning to it, after the benches, the fountain, the entryway flanked by vine, he makes his way back to the corner and shovels.


She sleeps. The pills taste vaguely of chalk. A doctor comes in one afternoon. She has never seen him before. He has long gray hair and wears a leather cord around his neck. A stone dangles from it. He sits in the armchair and tells her that she needs to eat.

When she doesn’t speak, he nods briskly. Whatever happened up there, he says, whatever happened, your body is protecting you by going into shock. By not speaking.

She blinks and looks at her hands. She hears him clear his throat. He tells her to think of it like a story, it might help. We want to help, he says, and his voice is kind. It tires her.

He sighs. If you want to leave, he says, you need to eat. Finally, she looks up and he blinks.

You need to eat if you want to leave, he says again. Do you understand?


The snow hasn’t fallen unevenly in the corner beneath the bramble awning, as she originally thought. There is something beneath the snow, something which the man in the blue jacket is unearthing. A sculpture of sorts, the size of a small child. From the window, she can only make out gray stone.

When it snows again several days later, the man returns to the corner, shoveling slowly into snow. The futility of it depresses her.


If there was a story, it would start with lights.

And then there would be a rooftop. There would be an unsteady step and one last, flashing thought—a forgotten lyric, hibiscus petals—something about bridges and rain and love. And then a backward step.


For days after the night at the restaurant, she felt like a sleepwalker who’d been awoken too abruptly. She was unable to leave her apartment. She told her boss she was ill and it didn’t feel like a lie, for her head pounded. She ate dry cereal when hunger arrived, spent hours lying on her sofa. Outside, the sun was bright and relentless, but she was shivering in her apartment, the AC left on high. The television was always on, the sitcom actresses with their shiny hair and laughter. She felt that old blanket drop over the lampshade of her mind.

There was an afternoon where she drank too much whiskey. She called Yusuf. He sighed when he heard her voice, said politely he had to go. The line went dead. She saw the drawings in the corner, torn and crinkled. In her chest, something snarled.  She remembered the myth of Lyssa: one Yusuf had told her about. A deity who infected mortals with fury and destruction.

She didn’t make the decision. It just happened.

She was at the university before she realized what she was doing. She went to the dean in the architecture department, a jovial older man. He listened carefully to everything she had to say, then asked her if she was sure.

She told him everything. She told him about the fake papers. The expired visa.

I thought you should know, she said before leaving. He thanked her grimly.


The following week, she left her apartment, walking down the summery streets of trees and ice cream trucks, as the newly coalesced do. When she arrived at the coffee shop, she felt the faintest crinkle of something. Looking at that empty lot, remembering the tall ceilings of her imagination, how she’d hoped for the library to have blue tiles. She sat down at her favorite table and pulled out her sketchbook. She tried the first page, to sketch the lobby, but the pen was thick and graceless between her fingers. The second page, her hand shook and she ruined the staircase. The third was a column of ugly scratches. Her chest ached.

It was no good. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get the old lines to appear, couldn’t capture the sketch. Frantically she shut her eyes, tried to clutch at the earlier memory, that magic, to visualize the hallways, the doors, the windows of the library. But they vanished, until she couldn’t even make out the contours of the bookshelves.

Within two months, the library project was given to someone else. After that, she asked to be transferred to the filing office—endless hours of administrative paperwork, not a single sketchpad in sight—and her mystified boss agreed.


Summer became autumn abruptly, the cold arriving early, leaving the tree branches stunned, without any foliage. She didn’t leave her apartment, aside from work, and people left messages for her. When her parents called, or her friends, she said the same lines, that she was busy, fine, but just so tired.

In fact, the opposite was true. She felt lit with restlessness, jitters crawling across her spine and her scalp, so that she was constantly running her fingers through her hair, certain of insects. At night she lay in bed unable to sleep, reciting the names of buildings to herself. Crac des Chevaliers. Potala Palace. When she slept it was never of Yusuf that she dreamt, but of other things, things that she seemed to be remembering, slowly, from her girlhood, terrible things that she’d forgotten. In her dreams she was a child again, lost in a museum, falling from a tree limb, being mocked for wearing a dress with a lace collar. Being pinned down by a boy, a neighborhood boy she hadn’t thought of in years. In the dream, he put his knee on her chest and she couldn’t breathe. He smiled and before she woke, she felt him slide his hand down her skirt, his hand cold and clammy against her skin.

She tried to call Yusuf. His phone line was disconnected. She went to the university, but the dean told her it was done. We reported him, he said. Still, she waited in the old classroom. A different janitor came. She tried to look Yusuf up online. She called and called, the recording’s polite tone telling her the number she’d dialed led nowhere.


The only thing that helped with the jitteriness was the whiskey. At first she drank alone in her apartment. Sometimes she talked back to the television characters with shiny hair. Sometimes she muted the television and put on a jazz record, one of her father’s. She would tie her hair in a bun and twirl around the living room in her socks. Sometimes she looked up words in Arabic and pronounced them alone in her apartment. In the mornings she would gather the bottles, wet a sponge and wipe the spilled whiskey from the floor.


After a while, she started going out. She couldn’t bear to go to the quiet parts of town, with the mirrored restaurants and the coffee shop and the sleek bars. And so she went instead to the outskirts, the seedy neighborhood at the edge of town that bordered the forest. The bars there were dank, poorly lit, always smelling of perspiration and wood soaked with spilled beer. Nearby, the houses were smaller, unkempt. There were streets of abandoned warehouses and the sound of music pulsed from within. Men drank on their porches and, occasionally, a reluctant police siren would half-heartedly wind through the streets.

She’d come here when she was younger, before college, those days when her body had felt like a tightly wound coil and only these streets, with their sound of broken glass and men’s voices like clenched fists, had loosened that coil. Here, in these alleyways and taverns, things had come together in a way they didn’t elsewhere. The anthills of cocaine on keys, the scratches on her inner forearm.

The men still had voices like clenched fists. They sat in the back of bars watching her with gleaming eyes. She knew what those stares meant. But she surprised herself when she slung into the bar stools, when she spoke. Like scar tissue, her mind fell back into that barbed place, of using certain words, holding her body like a weapon. She had not forgotten how.


The men called her fearless. But this was untrue. She felt the fear, at every bark, at the bar fights, the footsteps behind her when she walked to her car. But it seemed to wilt, to fade in the vista when she thought about rain-glittered pavements or the smatter of freckles across cheekbones. She danced in the warehouses. She crunched ice between her teeth.

The men led her stumbling down the winding streets and into their houses, each doorway identical to the next. Sometimes, in the moments before they touched her, she would remember what she had done. But she fastened against the memory, gave herself easily to the coarse, greedy hands. The men battered themselves against her body, their thick waists heavy and low against her pubic bone. They all called her baby. They kept the light on and told her to turn around. They dug their fingers into her thighs. They never asked her if it felt good or if she needed anything, and she preferred that. Preferred to lie there, afterwards, listening to their sleep, the lights still bright above her head.


She never slept in the houses. Even on the nights with warehouse parties which would end, invariably, with people strewn, half-clothed, in the hallways, up the stairs, even on the rooftop in the winter chill, cigarettes tipped with cold ash and traces of white smudging the bathroom sinks. Even on those nights, she wiped between her legs in the bathroom, and limped along the dawn-lit street to her car. She wove between street lanes, watching the sunrise. She told herself this was atonement.


The sun is beginning to shine a little longer each day, although the snow lingers. Outside, the sweatpants people scoop handfuls of snow in mittened hands, tip their faces towards the sun. One afternoon, there is music coming from the main room. A nurse comes into the room, leans her hips against the doorway.

It’s Dr. Morrison’s birthday, she says brightly. Would you like to come out for a little bit?

She shakes her head. The nurse smiles. Okay, she says. We’ll bring you some cake. The door shuts lightly behind her.

For an hour or so, she listens to the music. There is a quick knock on the door and the doctor from before comes in, with the long gray hair and the necklace. He is wearing a party hat, angled comically on his head, and is carrying a notebook and a plate of chocolate cake.

He sets the plate and the notebook on the bedside table. He nods towards it. In case you decide to tell that story, he says.

She takes the plate. She presses a fingertip into the chocolate icing, brings it to her tongue. It is too sugary. The doctor sits in the armchair, looks out the window at the snow. For a long time, he doesn’t speak, only stares and she wonders if he is trying to see what she must see, all these hours in this room. He rubs his beard. There is a faded gold band on his finger.

There was a man who came in to see you, he says. This morning.

Two things happen simultaneously. The first is a spike of some cold, frenetic emotion through her. It is like terror or nausea. It makes her teeth hurt. The second is that she recognizes, with a flicker of interest, that this is the first thing she has felt in a long time.

It was your boss, he says. He said to pass on his good wishes.

The words bring a quick, severe relief to her, so strong it dazes her. The doctor is watching her. There is nothing in her files, or in the endless notes they always jot down, that says anything about Yusuf. And yet he knows, this doctor, she can see it in his eyes. He watches her. His face is so kind she cannot bear it.


That night, the town had seemed lit up just for her. The streets gleaming with lamps, front yards strung with fairy lights. The last she’d seen of the town—before she walked into that night’s warehouses, a party of smoke and music—had been a scattering of lights as she drove through the streets, glowing serenely in the soft, safe dark.

She didn’t see the town again until she was on the warehouse rooftop, the party over, people discarded on the stairway, asleep like forgotten objects. By then, it was transformed, chillingly, into a riot of pink and orange dawn and the sound of the first cars. The city was ugly, so ugly it hurt her to look at it.

There was no railing on the rooftop, only a jutting of bricks covered with gray snow, electrical wires snaking across the concrete, overlooking the town and river and the squat homes. There were chairs near the staircase and two women slept on them, covered in woolen coats, an empty bottle nearby. Their lipstick was smeared.

The town leered at her and she had turned her back, so that she faced the two sleeping woman. The wind struck her face with icy lashes. She had not made a sound. She took the step back, or she didn’t. She had stood, heels first, back to the city. It was her apology. Just like Cassandra. She had done that for him. She fell or she jumped. It didn’t matter anymore.


After the doctor leaves, it begins to snow again. A new mantle of white. The light wanes and she falls asleep. When she wakes it is nighttime, everything silent. Outside the moon shines brightly, making visible her hands, the notebook on the table. She is thirsty and falls asleep once more thinking of water.

It is the scuffing sound that wakes her. For a moment she is disoriented, listening to the scraping. She blinks, squints outside the window and sees a figure moving in the moonlight. The groundskeeper. The shovel handle gleams in the moonlight as he dips, lifts, dips in the bramble corner.

She makes the decision swiftly. As she untangles her legs from the blankets and steps barefoot on the floor, she feels exhilarated. For a moment, her mind dizzies as she stands upright, and she has to reach out, steady herself on the mattress. She breathes slowly, one two three, and the vertigo fades.

Her door makes a slight creaking sound as she opens it. The hallway is empty. She takes small steps, her cast unwieldy. Her arms, legs, all her muscles feel weak, clumsy as she makes her way to the main room. The only light comes from the moon, against the furniture, the dining table. She reaches the French doors and pauses. Touching the handle, she pushes and is startled to find the door open, unlocked. But once she steps outside, she understands. There are no doors, no fences. The courtyard is enclosed by walls.

Her window view was ungenerous. Up close, the fountain is large, stately even. Although the trees and bramble are bare, they are elegant, like somebody drew them. And the snow. It veils the ground, the stone benches. It reminds her of a photograph of a piazza she once saw, with white walls and marble floors. The cold air steadies her.

In the corner, the groundskeeper’s back is turned to her. He has finished shoveling, the spade resting against the wall, and is now kneeling, brushing snow from the statue.

An animal. The statue curling into a long neck, something mammalian, a deer or a wolf, snout upturned towards the sky. There is a wreath of stone flowers, draped over the creature’s back. She steps towards it and her cast lands heavily on a patch of snow, crunching.

Yusuf, she whispers. The man, still kneeling, freezes, his hands extended mid-air. He slowly turns around.

It is a woman. In a flash, she understands her mistake, how she has seen everything incorrectly. Not a man, but a woman, tall, broad-shouldered, her frame padded in the thick jacket. She suddenly envisions how she herself must appear in her pajamas, her unbrushed hair, the bulky cast. The two women stare at one another for a long moment, their faces lit by the moon.

She looks away first, gesturing towards the statue, newly brushed from snow.

I thought you were someone else, she says. Her voice is gravelly. It sounds foreign.

The woman looks at the statue, then turns back. She is smiling. It happens, she says.

Above them, there is a hooting sound, and they both look up in one fluid motion, at the exact lucky moment, to see the blur of a dark creature flit across the otherwise silent, moonlit sky. She begins to tell the woman everything she has done.


Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, Salt Houses, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and was the winner of the Arab American Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her newest poetry collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year, was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. More from this author →