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Ours is No Caravan of Despair

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"Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving — it doesn't matter,
Ours is no a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again, come."
- Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī

 

They came to winter by the cool clear mountain lake, round as the crater in which it lay. The white snow and frost fed the lake and they drank from it. They ate fish from the lake and birds from the sky. They ate the roots of the plants that fed from the shores. They waited. That's what winter was and ever had been. Waiting.

In the spring, Mu'mina watched from the rocks to see which pass would first break free of the yoke of winter. There had been a time when she'd waited alone.

She had gained brothers since then. They had not been born to her mother. They were not her father's sons. But they were her brothers.

Her first brother, Najm, she had met in the basement of a building that didn't exist where men, who hid their faces, did tests and locked doors. Mu'mina had not been given the gifts that she had been given to be locked in a basement unable to even know the proper times for prayer. She met her brother when Najm had fallen out of an air duct and said, "Oh, hello, sister. Let's get out of here." He'd plucked the electrodes from her skin. They went.

Najm had spent the winter waiting bouncing small rubber balls off of rocks and surfaces. Now he crouched next to her to watch snow melt, before he whirled away again. Their wintering was for her. Waiting wasn't in his nature or in the varied gifts Allah had given to him.

Her second brother, Baha, had been given both strength and patience. He had been a soldier once. When the beam of a shelled building had trapped Mu'mina inside, and Najm had run up and around and talked and chattered, Baha had pushed the beam away. Dust covered, he'd pulled her out. She'd looked at him through the folds of her Khimar, she'd smiled at him and said, "Hello, brother." He hadn't followed right away. Or rather, he'd tracked them then he'd followed away from who he had been.

They were brothers and sister now. They always had been. It was simply they had not met yet.

Mu'mina smiled. She watched. She was the wanderer. The lover of leaving. It itched on her skin and echoed in her prayers.

The answer of spring was for the Dawn pass to break free first. It often did. This year, they would head to the sea.

Mu'mina said, "We should leave our home unlocked, so any traveler can take shelter there."

Baha grumbled. "We should lock it so we have a house to return to."

Najm shrugged and did a cartwheel. "If someone finds our home, they'll break in if they want to. If we leave it unlocked, we won't have to make a new door."

Baha sighed. They left the door closed, but unlocked. They walked down the narrow trail that led from the lake. They followed the stream and the trail alongside it.

After several days walking, they passed by Wakhsh with its burnt remnants of buildings and long rung out echoes of screams. Mu'mina was all that was left of Wakhsh. Baha had not been the one to burn it, which was a blessing.

Mu'mina prayed while Baha refused to and Najm brought down a bird with a rock. That too was part of the trip. They were all hungry.

~~~~
They crossed the border during the night and came to the camp of the displaced. Like every year since he'd met his family, Baha gripped Mu'mina's shoulder and he said, "You don't have to do this."

His fingers dug into her shoulder and she welcomed the pain. It was a reminder. She didn't say, "Yes, I do." She looked at him until he let go.

There were children sitting listlessly by the small trickle stream of mud and flies. She reached down to trail her fingers in that water and for a moment, couldn't push her hand forward. She pushed aside the impulse that held her back. It spoke with the voice of the men in that basement as they did their tests.

She touched the water. Clear and clean spread out from her touch while she felt the itch of scales and cracks form on the skin of her arms.

A little boy laughed and called out to his mother.

Mu'mina fiddled with the trailing edges of her head scarf and let Baha help her to her feet. Najm told them about his new friends that he had made by breathing. It was the babble of a stream in her ears.

~~~~~
Baha had been a soldier once.

Baha had been given the gift of great strength.

Najm would hit whatever target on which he aimed.

Soldier's gifts.

Every day, after each of her prayers through the day, Mu'mina gave her thanks to Allah for giving her brothers to her. Even if Baha wouldn't pray and Najm wouldn't speak of the the things he had done.

~~~~~
Mu'mina tended the stream. The inflammation on her skin washed up her arms and over her body hidden under so much cloth. She could feel the opened mouth cracks that leaked clear liquid and blood. She could not stay long. Her feet itched and she felt the mouth of the basement opening up to take her back in.

They slipped away some night in the dark. They kept walking along the trail through the rocks.

The same old man tended goats in the hills that flattened into the low desert. He had used to tell them not to take this path. Because the wells along the way had only water poisoned by chemicals and petrol to drink. Now he smiled when he saw them picking their way through the crumbling stone. He offered them cheese and flat bread, which they ate in the shade of the brush, while they waited for the sun to climb down from the sky.

They walked into the sand and drank from the wells as they came to them.

~~~~~

They came to a city full of tall buildings marked with the scars of explosions and metal fragment shrapnel. The people too. Empty sleeves and seamed faces. Mu'mina kept her face well hidden under the loops and folds of her Khimar. Her open wounds itched against the rough fabric.

They took shelter in the remnants of an old hotel where once the wealthy from cold wet places had come to get away from their rain. Many of the walls were gone and the great stone staircase in the center was open to the burn of the sun. Stone didn't care. The great swimming pool outside was where the people who lived there went to wash and get water for drinking. The water was green and teamed with life.

Mu'mina didn't hesitate now. She touched the water and smiled as it cleared. Winced at the sores that opened at the side of her lips. It didn't matter. No one could see.

Baha frowned at her, but he didn't say anything. Najm has already run off after something shiny. He had promised to stay close, but he'd broken that promise a thousand times.

Baha found work moving rocks from a pit where a building had once stood.

They didn't ask where Najm found his small coins. He didn't offer an answer.

They didn't stay long. As always, Mu'mina felt the tug of the road on her feet and the basement behind her.

~~~~~
As always, that tug brought them up against the wide dunes that led finally to the sea.

Mu'mina sat folded up on a broken shard of concrete. She wrapped her arms around her legs and stared at the wide corrugated storm drain that spilled rust and sulfur smell into the green waves. She rocked back and forth. She couldn't move for staring. Behind her, bright fantastical buildings clustered together. Brilliant and blazing with glass and steel. When they had walked into the city, men had pointed out the world's tallest building. A man had grinned at Baha, "You can go skiing inside."

Najm laughed to think of it.

That building was behind her. In front, she watched over the waves to where on a small island there was a building like a sail, which would never set to motion.

Her fingers itched to touch the water that floated with the sewage of that bright city. She wanted to dive into the waves. That was why she was holding her arms so tightly around her legs.

Finally, forever, Baha said, "Mu'mina, don't do this to yourself." She stumbled as she followed him. Wounds on her feet and arms and legs, and still, she wanted to touch the green thick sea.

They walked back out into the dunes.

~~~~

Sometimes there were farms. They worked in the fields and drank what little water there was.

Once, as she knelt in the dry bed of a lake where the cracked mud crumbled as she touched its curling edges, she watched a whirlwind race along the road. By now, Mu'mina could no longer walk. The wounds on the bottoms of her feet too wide open to allow for steps. Baha carried her carefully.

He had been given the gift of strength and patience.

They went North, after the whirlwind. They slipped across borders at night. Up into the mountains.

~~~~
They came to winter by the cool clear mountain lake, round as the crater in which it lay.

Baha set Mu'mina down by the blue water that seemed to be a part of the sky.

She drank with her cupped hand. Baha unpacked their few things and Najm bounced a ball from the walls.

The winter was for her. It was for waiting as the snow fell from the sky and closed the mountain passes. Covered the wounds of the world in cold.

Until spring.

When she did what she could to heal the world. For now, she healed with her brothers by the cool clear mountain lake, round as the crater in which it lay.