The room is quiet—expansive, and it echoes, but the hour is late, and the windows are opaque with black: the town is small. The scuff of rubber soles on tiles takes him back to his university P.E. requirement, the scent of salt in his mind over antiseptic in the air; the clack of keys behind the triage station reminds him of the secretary in the English department, Miss Callahan—he’d eaten his lunch in her office to the pace of her tales, slices of life from a childhood in County Mayo, glazed in the musical tones of Connacht.
His frame is too big for the chairs here, and he spills over, limbs akimbo and neck tipped back, eyes held shut as his throat stretches long so he can feel the pulse pressed taut against the skin and he breathes, breathes: slow. His tongue itches to curl, his lips crack to speak du'a to the heavens, but no. No.
He breathes. The low, pneumatic whoosh of doors opening, the intake of breath that hisses on a different octave: she’s here.
Dembe opens his eyes.
He watches her pace. He watches her drop into the chair only to stand again. He watches her breathing patterns change. He thinks of metre, and the length of a step; he thinks of feet, and the arch of a heel. Scansion, and prosody, and the way air catches in lungs when a lab coat flutters, the way the air expels when that coat does not approach.
He notices the way her knuckles clench as pale as the white coat that doesn’t come, doesn’t stop for them, and he thinks about rhythm in the tapping of her fingertips against cracked plastic, deepening the grooves.
“Is it bad?”
Dembe squeezes hands, digs fingertips into the flesh at the crooks of his elbows, and thinks about free verse, the endless tattoo of thought and feeling and the colors, not the sunrise: the purse of God like payment and ruin and the sky like a shield and the scent of fresh-wrung milk and heat-crisped grass.
There was a summer, between his second and third years of school—a summer in a meadow with the sounds of life in a wood-creche in the hay; the hens were placid and the sows were fat with child and the udders on the cows slumped low, and he remembered his mother. He remembered his mother with flowers in her hair, and only the fragrance of newness above dirt, above sweat, above the excrement of animals and the hate of evil men.
There was a summer; there were many summers, and the rasp of hunger at noontime, and fresh cream at sundown and warmth in his chest for the first time in a very long time: he remembers summer, and the slaughter of innocents, and the taste of flesh on the tongue and sickness in his stomach at being full, at feeling sated, at savoring the last of a life and understanding things he never wished to know.
“He lost a great deal of blood.”
She wants to know how bad it is.
“I’ve seen more blood, though.” Her knuckles are still very white. “More of his blood.”
There is silence. There is silence, and Dembe looks to his hands, his own knuckles: there is red at the nails, at the cuticles, where he’d held tight; where he’d tried to make it stop and he’s seen more of Raymond’s blood, yes.
But he’s never felt that much against his hands before.
“He asked me not to tell you.”
She looks up, meets his eyes.
“Before he lost consciousness, he asked me not to contact you. No matter what happened. No matter where the chips fell.”
And it’s in those eyes that any doubts—and there were doubts, there are always doubts but never doubts that stop him, never doubts strong enough to make him truly falter: but those eyes make even the whisper of what doubt can mean disappear, because Elizabeth’s eyes are wide and sad and heartbroken in the way that dawn breaks, in the way that glass shatters to powder on cobbled stone: Elizabeth’s eyes make him certain that Raymond will forgive the rejection of a dying wish, because loving is the stronger blow; because no dying will come here, in this, to them.
At least: not yet.
“Will they come after him?” she asks, eyes back to the ground and her voice is tight, hides many things, but Dembe is shrewd, and Dembe sees through heavy brush-cover. “Will they try to finish the job?”
There are footsteps like P.E. classes and nails on slate and they both straighten, both watch as the surgeon approaches, and Dembe cannot answer the question.
He thinks that the question did not need answered. Not really.
Her makeup is running. She doesn’t shed tears, but the color is smeared, only deepens the bruise of fatigue below her eyes.
She is unmoored, and she is not meant to be. Dembe has seen Elizabeth Keen in many states of distress, and he is not sure what pulls at him, this time. He is not sure.
His own chest aches, though; but it is better to sit in silence, to think everything, to feel: to say nothing.
“It was summertime,” he breathes, and Elizabeth’s eyes do not leave Raymond’s face where she sits next to him, where she only looks away from his closed eyes to watch his rising chest, to blink in time with the electrocardiogram that looms to his side.
“It’s always summertime, in certain parts of the world, and this,” Dembe murmurs, closes his own eyes: remembers. “This was a place where it was always summertime.”
He inhales, exhales; he knows that Elizabeth is listening.
It is easier, he thinks, that they do not cross gazes. It is easier to hear the words in another voice, one that cannot speak: it is easier to imagine Raymond telling the story.
It is always easier.
“The snakes in the grass were not metaphors, there,” Dembe bites his lip, and takes himself back to those crevices of memory, couches them in the words of his professors, in the tone of his teacher, his mentor: give them glimpses, and shows them truth through gorgeous lies.
“Long things that would bite to break skin, not to poison veins. Deep fangs to crack flesh, but not to be felt in the heart, just in the burn of the sun, the scorch at the punctures, that was penalty enough for daring.” Dembe thinks about the serpents—perfect coils, small and innocent; he thinks of snakes, though, and sees their eyes, and their teeth, and he remembers learning what it meant to smile and mean only harm. “For standing where they belonged, and you did not.”
He remembers flat heads and cool scales. He remembers the scent of gunpowder, and the way that blood could taste inside the air.
“There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is, now.”
He remembers the first graveyard he ever visited where respect was given form: where loss was carved in stone. He wonders, sometimes, if making grief tangible is wise. He wonders, sometimes, if it matters that stone, too, will wither.
“There are snakeskins, there,” and he thinks on discarded bodies, on shucked selves. “The soil was red, full of clay.”
He remembers shaping it in his hands; he remembers it clinging to his feet when he could not move, shackling him before his time, preparing him for what would come: making him watch.
“It is redder now,” he nods to himself; remembers, because his eyes cannot, will not unsee. “Redder, now.”
Elizabeth does not move; does not shift. He cannot know for certain if she hears what’s said outside the story. He cannot know for certain if she understands.
Not for certain.
“But I stood there once, on the green grass over the red earth,” he continues, watching the still lines of Raymond’s legs beneath white sheets. “Scattering flowers. Stepping on leaves with no sound. They had fallen but had not died. Life, unburied. There.”
The brush, the leaves he’d stood beside as they’d fallen, as life crumbled: as red seeped into the soil—it was life, that reeked of death.
It took years for Dembe to remember what life smelled like, looked like, felt like, outside of dying. Most days, even now, he’s still not sure that he knows.
Most breaths, in this room, he isn’t sure.
“My father followed God, I have always believed, for lack of anyone else to talk to,” Dembe confesses to the ceiling tiles, to the soles of Raymond’s feet. “My mother had blue wisteria eyes, limbs like sunset, like mossy streams.”
He doesn’t know if it’s important, to think of them; to speak of them, but Raymond always said to him details; make it shine with the version of you that they need to believe: he thinks it is redundant, if nothing else, because he has spoken of them before.
They are the red inside the soil. They are the clay to shape and hold, and harden. And break.
“A man came to me,” Dembe tilts his head, but it doesn’t feel right; doesn’t look right, he’s sure. He straightens. “He had wisteria eyes,” but they’re closed. “He followed no one,” but Dembe fears where he might go, in the now. “He did not require an audience in order to speak.”
There are no words from the man, though, and Dembe is not him.
“Roses, he said to me, in the warmth of summer where no roses would grow,” and Dembe’s lips quirk, because he remembers it so vividly: chained, his cells giving way by the moment, so long without nourishment, without water, without.
“He said Roses, and the long body of the river bank that winds: how else to speak of love? There are no markers in that graveyard,” Dembe breathes, and there were so many graveyards, really, and he speaks to each of them, now; “there were no markers, and yet he knew.”
Elizabeth looks at him, and he realizes: she hears the story in the story. Dembe is not Raymond, but he manages the task. Lizzie is not Red, but she is sharp; she can see.
“He handed me a peach,” Dembe smiles, then, because he remember the flavor. “And the stone fell from the flesh, and the soft fur of its skin was like,” he wonders how to speak it, to put into words what it meant to feel that life could persist when he’d accepted the dark, what it was to know the ache of it: in his mind, and his body, and the too-heavy beat of a heart giving out—he wonders.
“Velvet on parched tongues,” he murmurs, finally; considered, and inadequate. “I took forbidden fruit. I sacrificed eternity, maybe, to taste the sweetness. To taste the freedom,” and it is true; he sacrificed the life that comes after to bite into the offering, the man’s promise of something more, and life never ceases to be hard; his wrists still hurt sometimes, in the night: “A stone from the meat, set loose.”
And he is that.
“It was worth it.”
And that is true.
“But eternity, he said to me, is not later,” Dembe recalls it, watches the shape of a mouth speaking to him, and only him, as if he mattered; as if his worth was not undone. “Eternity, he said, is not any unfindable place.”
Eternity was red clay. Eternity was poetry, and the sunrise, and salt-air on the coast. Eternity.
“And it was summertime, always,” Dembe reminds her, though she doesn’t need it, nor does he; Raymond would, though.
He’d say it. So it’s said.
“And sometimes, in the summer, there are high clouds piled, heavy with storms and flushed like plums and their stones don’t come free so easily, there are ties.”
“But sometimes, in the summer, the running, wild thing will lie down in the sand, and it will hold him, like the clay.”
Dembe remembers the Erythraean Sea, he remembers tasting the water, remembers the heat of the grains on his back.
“Sometimes it will fold inward around him and make itself in his image, but the sand is not red, and the sand does not cling.”
Sometimes, there will be a lake, and loyalty, and labor in the summertime in places where it is not always summer. Sometimes, a savior is not a savior, but a brother; and sometimes a brother comes in see-through sunglasses and a funny hat.
“The sand is a freestone peach,” Dembe says, and believes it to be so; “and I watched the wisteria sky and the clouds like fruit for hours, so many hours, until I knew I could breathe if they broke open and showered me in wine, sweet tears. So strange.”
He glances up, and Elizabeth’s hands are folded, two clasped tight around one of Raymond’s, the pallor of his skin more striking against her own, but she’s staring straight at Dembe, now; she’s watching his face with those knowing eyes and Dembe smiles at her, small, because he thinks that she knows, and it is better to sit in silence, to think everything, to feel: to say nothing
It is better.
He makes sacrifices.
So strange. Even now.
“He taught me to read Farsi, before the leaves died,” Dembe tells her, “before the clouds opened and spilled.” And they both know it’s an end, the moral of the story for people, for places, for a world that doesn’t have morals; perhaps never did.
There is silence, that follows. It is neither better, nor worse.
“Thank you,” she breaks that silence, and it is likewise neither better, nor worse. But it does feel right, rather than wrong, because the story was told, the parts were played, and he feels lighter.
Her eyes, against the dark hollows below: she looks lighter, too, and they have done their duties. They have found the space where air is plenty on this peak, in this place where breaths are strained for waiting, for fear.
He looks to the bed. They have made it this far.
They’ve both had a good teacher.
Just as he called Elizabeth, he also calls Kate.
Raymond, he thinks, will forgive him this, too.
“The color of the sky is red.”
There is no sound from her end of the line; no breath, and then:
Dembe lets the vice around his own chest loosen, give way just so, as he nods to the nothing: “Still.”
A sigh, then, and the click of those heels—the long, winding sound of a bag being zipped.
“Will she be calling soon?”
Dembe’s eyes slide to Elizabeth, to her face through the latticed glass in the door: she’s staring at eyes that don’t see her, lids that obscure her from view; she’s gripping the hand around the feed of an IV tube and she’s murmuring, whispering.
Her eyes are familiar, the way they angle and glint.
“It is possible,” Dembe presses the tip of his tongue hard against the line of his teeth before revising. “Probable.”
“Until the skyline, then,” Kate bids him goodbye, and it’s not a presence of approval, but an absence of damnation that speaks her mind inside the words.
“In Chicago.” Dembe disconnects the call.
Of course the door is not enough; of course Elizabeth knows where he’s been.
“What are they?” she asks him; “To each other?”
And Dembe gives her the courtesy of pausing, of pondering; of lingering over the response that she was always going to get:
“What are any of us,” he says carefully, mulling each word over before he speaks it, before he unveils its truth in spades: “What are any of us, when it comes to him?”
The hours and the minutes are not precise, in the interim, but Dembe knows the sun has rose and set; he knows the steady track of Raymond’s heart has tripped just twice in that time, and it is sufficient—it is acceptable to break the still when her voice rings out over the monitors, over the blinking of the lights and the creeping of the time:
“Do you know?”
He doesn’t speak; he understands what she means, but not how to respond. Not yet.
“Whether,” she licks her lips; “Whether he’s, if I’m...”
She knows he understands her, she knows she doesn’t need to clarify, doesn’t have to elaborate and yet it is only better to be silent when the silence doesn’t burn and for Elizabeth Keen, Dembe knows.
He knows what fire means, to this woman; what it causes in her soul.
“The question you’re asking is not the one you need to answer.”
She grins at that, just a little—it’s a sly thing, but a sad thing. “That sounds like him.”
Dembe grins back, just a little in kind, but he’s not sure what kind of thing it is: the little grin.
“He must in turn sound like my professor of composition,” Dembe muses, remembers the spill of late-autumn sun through fogged windowpanes, wood cracked around the glass and scattered, scattering; the old rumble of dusty lungs imparting wisdom, so much and nothing like the man set between them: still and fragile and quiet, all the things he should never be; all the things that are not him, and won’t stay, will not stay.
Dembe breathes: deep, and even, and remembers the scent, the sight of dust motes in sunbeams in late October, because it is easier to be there, just now—it is easier, and he needs easy for this moment to speak what needs spoken, and there is no one to notice what he does who can hope to understand why: not here, not now.
He wishes there was, though. A little desperately, he wishes that.
“If you can ask the question with the words you have, then you are not engaging the unspeakable question that begs to be known,” he recites the dictum as he relives the scene in his mind, his lips moving in time with the image in his head: all tweed and low-perched glasses from the podium—bushy brows like tumbleweeds.
He shakes from the past, and sees her face: twisted, caught between belief and unbelief—finding no solace on the brink of heartbreak on all sides, so many precipices waiting, and she’ll fall unless he reaches; or maybe not.
“There is a thing that I do know.”
He reaches anyway; just in case. She meets his gaze, and he lets her: lets her look as deep as she needs to know his truth—this truth, at least, from him.
“Raymond is,” Dembe pauses, tries to find the right word when one does not exist; tries to settle on a proxy that won’t taste sour on his tongue. “Raymond is my friend, my brother. My family.” He threads his fingers together, laces them into strength and leans on their platform, studies the pale face, the bare head, the rise and the fall of life from his lungs.
“We have spoken of many things,” Dembe murmurs; “many times,” and he keeps his voice low because a shift is coming, and it will be sacred, somehow; he can feel it.
“The things he spoke of, for her,” and there have been so many, named and unnamed, for the child, for the daughter, for the innocent, for the lost: Raymond’s dreams for the girl and all that she means are innumerable, are stars cast toward the sky.
“I have seen him offer those things to you. Unflinchingly.”
Because there is only one truth in them that matters—they are infinite, but they converge upon this one solid point.
“The depths of himself are where he holds you,” Dembe speaks it, because Raymond cannot, has not, will not, but that doesn’t not make it less true. “And those depths do not demand an answer to the question that you’re asking.”
Elizabeth does not speak, and she does not look, but beyond the windowpanes—clear, not musky—there is darkness, and perhaps it is wishful thinking, but Dembe thinks he can see them: stars. And if he can’t, if it is only a wish, he does not think that wishes should be scorned.
“What if he doesn’t wake up?”
It is better to sit in silence, to think everything, to feel: to say nothing.
He knows how silence burns in her.
Silence, though—in this—is better. Still.
There have been more sunsets, more moonrises; there have been many white coats and green scrubs and Dembe has spoken to the doctors, the nurses, the kind eyes and the wait and see’s; the hours are weighing, even on him, and Elizabeth is strong.
“I can’t lose...”
Elizabeth is strong, and she is breaking. They are not mutually exclusive entities. And she is Raymond’s—however it’s meant, however it binds and when it comes to Raymond, it does not matter “what.”
It only matters that they’re his.
Her face is in her hands, but she makes no sound: she burns, from the inside, and it is painful to see. Dembe stands, carries his chair to her side and he reaches: slowly, until she can feel his presence, until she can know before his touch rests upon the back of her neck.
“Sleep,” he exhales, whispers like his mother did; like his father; like his brother; like his friend.
“Sleep now,” he tells her, and takes the tension in her straight out through his palm: “I am keeping watch.”
And she sleeps, and it is silent. And Dembe watches, and he is silent too. And he doesn’t pray anymore; he does not perform salaah, but he remembers—he will always remember the Qiblah; he will always know where to look.
Oftentimes, Raymond has stood there, when Dembe has thought to turn his eyes; it is so, now—his prone form is pale, but he faces true.
And perhaps fate would decide where those eyes might turn if they’d open, if Dembe believed in it, if Raymond granted it any real sway—yet the world is fickle, and the heart is sore, and Dembe does not perform salaah.
But for Raymond, like this: he can ask for the world. He can bear his soul for the listening.
Dembe closes his eyes and makes du’a, facing the Qiblah.
Facing Raymond, and the stilted rise of his chest.
Come sunrise, she’s still sleeping, her breathing soft. Silence is better.
“I was once at the golden coast in Dahab, on the shores of Red Sea,” Dembe is saying without thought, without reason, without sense: a story that means nothing, words that fill the ether, that get lost—soft, so as not to wake her, but clear, because they come from a place beyond his mind and beg to be heard.
“I stood,” he whispers, “and the burn of the sun against my wrists felt heavy like the metal that was gone but not forgotten. I stood just where the water lapped the sand, and I was made new in its image as it gave beneath me.”
Dembe closes his eyes, and remembers what was real, then; remembers what wasn’t.
“The salt was a burst of starlight on my cheek. And the sea itself was warm, and it made me feel light as I fell into it, though I did not make to swim.”
He smiles, and remembers, and knows that real and not real are not necessarily opposed.
“It made nearly dying well worth it,” and he exhales: too loud.
Except not too loud; not him.
There is an echo: unreal.
unstring my bones, unstring my bones, unstring my bones
It is more a movement of the air, before he looks; it is more a sense than a sensation—but when his eyes flicker, and it takes effort not to clench his hand where it rests, a solemn sentry between Elizabeth’s shoulders: it is real, when he sees it. The movement of those lips, their own kind of prayer.
“Scatter me in wonder,” he reads in the motion of them; “shake me from my name.” And it’s a shaping of words that can barely be seen, that cannot be heard—don’t need to be.
Silence is better.
“Unstring my, unstring…”
The chest beneath the sheets shakes, and bright eyes find him as they ease open, ease open: speak volumes.
“Salaam,” Dembe breathes out, and his soul sees fit to slip into his voice as it breaks: “ya akhi."