A feathery touch brings me round. Gentle, like the light summer rain back home in Wiltshire – thin drops patter on my face and bare arms. But I know though my eyes are still closed that it’s all wrong. I smell dust. The air is thick with it. The same smell has haunted the streets for months, but it is now more pungent, more insistent – wrapped tightly around me. It clogs the air and scratches my throat.
I listen out, trying to pick out sounds, voices, but there is nothing. Nothing at all.
When I was a child I would lie in bed with the duvet pulled over my head, my fingers jammed into my ears, and I would whisper softly to myself. Words, like secret spells, rolled from my lips. Not prayers, no, dad objected to all kind of superstition. I whispered the songs mum used to sing. Angie Baby or You and Me Against the World or The Man Who Sold the World. My own voice amplified in my head as if it were the only sound in the world. And sometimes in that place immediately before sleep, where images shift and wobble and nothing is ever like it is, I would hear her voice joining mine. Faint at first, a thin thread high above mine, unreachable. But it would grow stronger and stronger until it filled the whole of me, as if I were an empty vessel, from the top of my head down to the tip of my toes. Everything inside me became her voice.
Now I search for the spell again. My lips are parched and I part them carefully looking for the words of my childhood. But all around me is darkness and I can no longer find them. Stumbling, I reach for the words I have used so often of late.
“Assalamu ‘alaikum.” I imagine the blessing dripping on my bare head like sacred oil, like the tears of a she-God. “Assalamu ‘alaikum,” I say once more.
Still my ears are deaf to the sound.
And it is then that I know for sure, though my eyes are still closed. I know with certainty. And I am afraid of what I will find when I do open them.
Samah is eleven and I know that if I could choose a child it would be her. I also know I will never say this out aloud. It’s wrong to have favourites here. Each one of them needs us; each arrived with a story impossible to comprehend. They are all broken. Some were found clinging to dead bodies; others were taken from hospitals, bloodied and scarred, when it became apparent no one else would come for them; others still were plucked from gutted buildings, buried under rubble feet deep, unearthed like artefacts of a previous era. They are the new orphans, children of the war, and every day more come through the door. It’s still a refuge of sorts here, though nowhere in the city is safe any longer. They move like shadows, silently, colour drained out of them.
She arrived the day after I did. She is so slight you could break her with a finger like a dry twig. That first night I lay on a mat next to her and held her hand as the distant sound of explosions echoed through the night. She jerked at every noise but when it was quiet and we could hear the breath of the children lying asleep around us, she laid utterly still, her muscles tense, her fingers clasping mine tightly. She reminded me of our elusive muntjacs, always on the alert, ready to run at the shadow of a noise.
Her eyes are a frozen sea-green, all light extinguished; innocence has been ripped out of her like weeds. She never speaks of what brought her here. I know she was found in an outbuilding, hidden under a sheet of tarpaulin, huddled among sacks of lentils and flour and discovered only because a trail of blood gave her away. Her family, whatever was left in charred remains that had once been her home, was wrapped in white sheets and buried quickly, while she still was in hospital. It is likely the exact location is unknown to her. For months her pictures have been black squares with gashes of chilling red, and stick-like ghostly people. Now I see warm colours creeping in. Splashes of yellow and green, oranges and ochre.
Today we are working side by side.
“At this time of the year the bluebells are in flower where I come from,” I say.
I dip the tip of my paint brush in the violet-blue I have mixed and I carefully trace the slender outline of a bluebell flower, the head long and thin, the neat curl of each petal like a delicate eyelash.
“When the bluebells flower the woods are transformed.”
I remember a little girl greedily gathering blue flowers into her arms, gorging in their abundance, dizzy from the scent delicious like a sweets’ shop. I remember the sunlight dancing among the trees, mother’s hand slender and pale, the ripple of her laughter, her golden hair forming a halo around her face.
I draw a curled stem with the tip of my finger, scraping away the excess paint with my nail. I have grown to like the feel of paint on my hands, the way the oils dry and shrink on my skin pinching it ever so lightly. This is now the nature of my war reports. They are very unlike the ones I used to tap quickly so as not to miss a deadline. The muffled click of the keys indiscernible among the noise of the explosions and gun fire and the heart rendering wailing of mothers mourning their children. But what difference did my letters of war make? They were read over coffee and croissants: a turn of the page and they lay forgotten. Now the pigments sink inside my skin, stain my muscle tissue and enter my blood stream. This is now my diary of war. When I wash my hands under the tap tonight what will be left of them will be similar to the smudges found in crime scenes, the ones detected under the special powder applied carefully by brush, and comprehensible only if studied attentively under a microscope.
I smile the smile all the volunteers wear here despite everything, and I add more purple-blue bells to the stem.
“They are small, delicate plants. One you might walk past and not notice, but thousands grow together in any one place, a sea of purple-blue. The trees tower above them as if growing out of a stream.”
I add a messy outline of grass with my fingers and I daub purple spots in the background until my picture is a blurred sea of purple-blue against a backdrop of green.
I never used to paint before coming here. Like my father, I never felt the urge to express myself in anything other than words – clear, concise, measured. I was his daughter more than anything else I ever was.
Samah does not say anything, but fills her sheet with block after block of colour. Ochre and pale green, earthy cream and rich brown, deep red and jet black. She is careful not to let the colours run into each other or to use the same shade more the once. An injection of white paint turns the ochre into a bright yellow; the deep red becomes a warm orange, the black a soft grey. Over and over again until her sheet of paper is pregnant and swollen under a coat of paint.
“Are they still there?” she asks eventually. Her voice is faint, as if the words had travelled a long distance before being spoken. “The woods.”
She dips her paint brush in the small bucket of cloudy water that sits between us and circles it gently, washing away the paint.
I dry my hands in the cloth that I keep for this purpose, smudging the paint from today into the dry paint from previous sessions.
Everything changes. Nothing is ever the same. A simple truth. We seek a place unscathed by passing hands wishing it will still the scorching fire that rages inside us, hoping it will heal us.
“Some still are,” I say. One day you can come and visit, I want to add. But we are caught in a blind vortex, in the eye of the storm, and there are no tomorrows we can speak of.
I point at the blocks of colours on her sheet of paper. “What is it?” I ask.
She takes the brush out of the pot and scrapes the excess water against the rim, then runs it lightly over the palm of her hand to drain it further. She is silent, and I wait. I know the importance of silences. I have learned to read their weight and thickness. I know when they indicate indignation or surprise. I know when the speaker is scampering for a way out or attempting to restore order through an agenda. But I also know the thin silences, light as feathers, when you can pick up the breath, like a heartbeat: in – out – in – out – in – out. These are the silences that have no structured thought, but only confused images that chase each other, and a remote consciousness that the words one is about to speak will change everything, that one will not survive saying them out aloud intact, that they will shatter the heart like a land’s mine.
“Spices,” she whispers.
For a moment I think I have misunderstood. Then I remember one of the volunteers saying she remembered Samah’s father from the spices stall at the market. And I can see it now. Rows of spices neatly lined next to each other. White pepper and turmeric, coriander and paprika, cinnamon and cardamom.
Once there is a breach in the face of the damn the flood will break out. It can no longer be reined in. I see how she pulls in her lower lip against her teeth, the soft pressure on her chin. I see how every muscle in her body tenses and clenches in an attempt to keep the flood webbed in. I put my hand on her thin shoulder and draw her to me because what is there to say? I hold her tight while she crumbles into my chest.
This is why I am here. I lost the ability to turn away. It became my story. It used to be my piece but someone else’s war. ‘Make it personal.’ The first commandment. ‘The reader can relate to personal.’ But a reporter has to stand on the outside, on the edge of feeling. Now I hold her to me and let the waves overwhelm us both until the flood will quieten.
I lost the ability to return. I can tell you where and when. I can point to exact spot in the old Christian cemetery in Maaloula. It became entangled in between blackened fingers, like a coiled piece of string, and was pushed deep inside a fresh mound of soil and was laid to rest together with the other things that had once been alive. I left it there, the ability to leave life suspended, like a summer dress hanging in a wardrobe to be picked up again when I returned from an assignment. At home I was absent, as if I had fallen inside of me and the life out there, around me, was nothing more than pictures on a TV screen. My husband said my decisions were rash. He waved words like flags: post-traumatic stress disorder; depression. As if a label could keep me from coming undone at the seams, like the stitches in an old scar, pain spilling out of me like blood.
“You don’t grieve for our babies,” I said. “How can you not grieve for them?”
Maaloula has been torn apart in recent months, its monasteries, like its people, ravaged and mutilated. It lies cradled within the womb of the mountain like a precious jewel with ragged hills embracing it on either side. As our car approaches explosions like claps of thunder echo within the mountain. The statue of Christ the Redeemer on the craggy hillside is enveloped in a grey cloud of smoke. It stands there with his arms outstretched, welcoming. Not long ago it was a symbol of peace and tolerance. Today it is only someone crucified, like the millions here broken and torn apart by hate.
The noise of gunfire echoes across the narrow streets that wind their way up into the mountain. All war zones are alike: streets piled with rubble and spend cartridges, buildings gutted by shells or riveted by gunfire, dust and fires from the explosions, the sound of machine guns, tanks blocking the way – and among these, people: men, women, old and young. Scarred, mutilated, broken or defiant. People who go about their business because they are determined to see the conflict through, or because they are unable to leave, or because they have already lost everything that mattered to them and no longer feel anything. And permeating all of these, like a blanket of steam, there is something else. A voice you may not hear the first or second time you enter a war zone, but one which you will learn to identify and isolate – a pure tone, a single frequency, present, like the air you breathe. It breathes out of the pitted buildings, rises out of the ground violated with blood, and fills the air. It is a sound I know well. I can trace its peaks and its hollows like a musician might pick a piece of music at first hearing. It is the pulse of war, its breath and heartbeat and it echoes across the landscape like the noise emanating from a black hole.
At the cemetery, the business of burying the newly dead is under way. At the far end I see that a large new section has been opened up. If it weren’t for the gunfire in the distance, or the heart- wrenching cries of the mourners, or that other sound of war, the photographer’s camera shutter opening and closing in quick succession, I could stand here and believe that this field, dug up and turned over, had been laid to seed, that there would be new growth come the spring. But the long rows of plain wooden crosses are unmistakable. I imagine the names scratched on the soft wood, the life etched inside each name and the body shrouded in white cloth under each blanket of soil.
They don’t trust journalists here; we are transient, not part of the story. We have a guaranteed way-out ticket in our back pocket and our families safely tucked in bed half way across the world. We are voyeurs of the worst sort, not here to help but to witness. And what good are witnesses when like is ripped from under you like a rug? Our ultimate sin is our attempt to see the multifaceted sides a story. We stride the middle line armed with our thin bullet-proof vests and our plastic wallet- sized Press cards. Scant protections, yes, but infinitely more than most people here possess.
I circumvent the group of mourners and head towards the new graves. And there, thrown on a fresh grave like something discarded, a body. His clothes are muddied and crimped as if they had been dug out of the earth. I stop abruptly and I am about to alert our guide when he turns his head towards me. His eyes are as black as the soil upon which he lays, the soil which coats his lips and clings to his skin as if it were part of him. He pulls himself up onto his knees, clutches clumps of soil into his hands, and holds it out towards me fiercely. His nails are ruined, his fingers blackened and smeared with dirt. It will never scrub away. Granules of it will be trapped inside him forever. They will sink deep inside him, and always be part of him.
“Nzrh!” he cried. “Nzrh! Hdn alard!”
Every exposed part of his skin is soiled. I move tentatively towards him, weary, as if in a minefield. I know I shouldn’t. I know I should be with my team, over there, by the group mourners. But I am rooted to those black eyes and I take one careful step after the other.
“Look!” he cries in the language I have grown to understand after a lifetime spent reporting from its tortured lands. He clutches the soil in his fists. “This soil here, you see? This is where he is now. If you dig deep you’ll find him.”
His voice is guttural, born deep within his throat, like the gush of the wind across the Al- Hamad desert I have just driven across. His r’s a scratch. It echoes within me like something familiar but long forgotten – from the caves, the recesses of my heart, or my brain or whatever other part of me it is that defines who I am.
“Look!” He grabs my hand and presses a clump of soil into it, then clasps it tight between his. “Here. Can you feel it?” A deep web of lines marks his face and circles his eyes, they are etched into him like the names on the wooden crosses. I can feel his skin rough against mine, the soil warm between the palms of our hands as if it were something alive.
“It already has particles of him. It’ll have more every day. Until one day he will be the land and the land will be him.”
He lets go of me abruptly and begins to knead the mound upon which he stands, pummelling it with his fists as if it were pliable dough. Whilst he does this he rocks backwards and forwards – backwards and forwards.
“If I push my hand inside,” he whispers, “I can feel his little one grabbing mine – holding it tight like he used to.” He turns to look at me again. “He will turn into everything, you see? The land. This land. He will hold us. Like we held him.”
Behind him the scoured hillside extends into the distance until it gives way to desert. I open my hand and I let the soil that I am still holding slowly fall back onto the earth. Gunfire echoes in the mountain. Snipers are hidden in its crevices; I know the army is trying to dislodge them. But as I stand here the reasons of my presence are simple commas, and the frail stem that has held me back and kept me safe – my tether line, my umbilical cord – is cut from me and I become lost.
Between us and around us bodies lay inside the disturbed earth. They will slowly reach down to its core like roots. They will wrap themselves around it. They will hold it so it doesn’t crumble away, so it may hold us.
The explosion ripped through the building taking out the front classrooms and the teacher room which I can now see through the debris and the exposed steel rods beyond the collapsed walls. I try to cough the dust out of my lungs, but it’s useless. They wheeze the air in and out like a stuttering machine. Everything is grey with dust. Among the rubble, gnawed remains of desks and chairs, splintered wood, shreds of paper. Still pinned to a scrap of wall I see my bluebells, a sea of vibrant blue, purple and green in the surrounding devastation. I know the cameras will zoom on this. Once the emergency services find their way across the destroyed streets and take away the wounded, and the bodies – which I cannot see but I know must be here – are removed, they will come and this will be their proof of life before the explosion.
War reporting is primarily the act of showing absence, the scars left when something is wrenched apart.
I attempt to pull myself up but I can no longer feel my legs. Under me a dark stain, like oil spillage, is steadily crawling outwards. I touch it carefully, as if it could bite me, and it sticks to my fingers like an omen. I must not panic. I know I must not panic, though I see my life webbing away from me; though I want to lay my head down and sleep. I shift my weight onto my arms enough to look around me. With every movement a small shower of debris falls off me – and the games I used to play at the seaside all those years ago come back to me, when I buried my feet, my hands, my legs under the crumbling sand and then I pulled them out again, all new and precious. All I can see is collapsed masonry and mangled furniture. I call out the names of the volunteers and the children that I know must be here somewhere, but I cannot hear my voice and I don’t know if I am speaking the words aloud at all. I want to close my eyes and let the weariness which webs around me overwhelm me, though I know it is the wrong thing to do. The blood is thick and warm under my fingers and it is somewhat comforting. I reach down to my abdomen though I know that’s not it. I know that was a long time ago. I remember that first time in London. I crumpled onto myself as a sharp pain cut through me like a sword and blood gushed between my legs and onto the bare paving slabs under me, leaving a stain indiscernible from the other spillages of the city. And the second time a train rocked me on and on like a cradle, as I coiled on the floor clutching my abdomen, feeling the future slipping away from me.
Ghostly presences crowd inside me. Now I am pleased to have them here.
Tomorrow I will be the news: my career as a war correspondent, my two decades in the Middle East, my decision to stay behind and work with orphans. But it will not be the whole story. When the task is to report erasement how can it be the whole story?
When I close my eyes I feel the warmth of the sun on my skin and a soft breeze caresses my hair. It is autumn in Wiltshire and the leaves are turning yellow and red. The woods are alive with birdsong and I wish I could recognise each voice.
I know the minute noises of war, but these voices are foreign to me.
This story came second in The London Magazine‘s annual Short Story Competition, 2014 judged by Polly Samson and and last year’s winner Harriet Kline.