For the many years of her life the old woman had travelled across the shifting sands, following the lines of the stars and dunes. She had birthed three daughters and two sons, and in turn these children had birthed their own and that was how the song continued. But now she sat on a rug coloured like the evening sky and a river of tears flowed down her cracked skin.
In the distance she heard the whine of a jet taking of. For a moment her heart faltered but with a short sigh, she scattered the herbs and began to rock slowly back and forth.
The car on the edge of the road was over-turned, its wheels faced the sky. The paint had burned away leaving a charred shell, the windscreen was smashed and bullet holes riddled the door. The row of clipped trees nearby looked out of place, as if already they belonged to another time. On the horizon, a plume of black smoke was rising: Fadeel could taste it, acrid and deadly.
In spite of the sun a chill wind blew down the empty street. A month ago families had strolled down here in the evenings, their children chattering and playing. He hadn’t seen a child outside in weeks now, only the occasional worn face of their parents searching for bread.
Shivering, he huddled into his denim jacket, his gun heavy across his shoulder. He was not thinking of the task before him but of his family, still hiding in the ruins of the city. Because of that young men like him, ordinary men, were learning how to use guns and fight to the death. He thought of his uncle Omar who had stepped out of his home one day and had never been seen again. Everyone whispered about what had happened but no one dared voice the truth. They were fighting for this too: people like Omar and all the disappeared and lost. And for themselves, something better, a free life.
Another explosion. Fadeel’s friend Mousa shifted uneasily.
Fadeel closed his eyes. He was seven when his grandmother took him to the blue lakes in the southern desert. How peaceful it was, so unlike the city with its car horns and shouting.
A sudden blast, the air squeezed out of his chest. He crouched against the broken wall at the edge of the building. Echoing shouts. The whine of a bullet. He closed his eyes again, prayed a little.
Mousa grabbed at his sleeve. ‘Hurry!’
A few short weeks before he and Mousa had been studying. Life had been good if you didn’t think about what was missing. But now it had come to this and no one knew how it would end. They had rightness on their side but that did not mean it was easy. The advances made in the last forty-eight hours were being eroded. The wind had changed direction too, blowing cold into everyone’s hearts. People said it would only be a matter of days but already it had been weeks. Food was running out. Water was short. The electricity was gone. People were scared. Fighters were dying. Children were dying. Old people were dying. Yesterday they had lost Said, one of their best. He died in the city hospital only minutes after he arrived. The doctors did what they could. But it was not enough. It might never be enough.
Fadeel had noticed the fear grow in his companions’ eyes. But you could not speak of fear. You had to speak of revolution and victory. For too long they had all crawled in the dark like worms and they would no longer tolerate such an existence. Yet the fear was there, lurking in the dark corners, in the mortars that pounded the city day in and day out, and in the blood that spattered the walls and pooled on the floors of the hospital.
He inched forward. A pick-up truck rumbled by, reinforced with a metal shield. He wondered if it would be of any use against the Colonel’s tanks and rockets. Everyone was saying they would get help but where was it? They had only themselves and the few weapons they had been able to get hold of: old rifles, kitchen knives, their youth and enthusiasm.
The woman of the desert touched the rug with her forehead. Each time she had performed this rite it had grown more difficult but this would be the last for she was eighty-five years old and her life lay behind her like a long prayer.
The words of smoke and death travelled over the distance and she shuddered. ‘The sky is black. Families and homes are being shelled without mercy. Children and whole families are dying. Mosques are being destroyed. The people sit on their roofs imploring Allah. The city is calling, calling for help. I swear the sky is black. The city is calling. It is a massacre, a sea of blood. There is no safe place now. Where is everybody? They shell all day long. There is no mercy. No one is protecting us. The city is a sea of blood. Why? Why? Please help us!’
She crouched on her withered haunches, muttering under her breath. The sound of the jet had disappeared to the north, headed where she was going. She breathed in and out, her breath raspy like the wind blowing through the holes in the rocks and she flapped her arms and sang in a strange and ancient tongue that even she did not understand.
No one witnessed her transformation, the way in which she lifted up from the sandy desert floor, no one to say if this was true or simply a fable.
Her heavy clothes and veil vanished, along with the stiffness in her bones. As she flew up above the rocks, the lizards and snakes, the swallows and ravens, above the ancient carvings, the old trade routes and the camels grazing in the scrub, her two wings beat steadily and the cold air sliced through her feathers. Soon the sculpted masses of the rocks below turned into mere pebbles and the acacia trees following the lines of the wadis became as tufts of grass. Up and up she spun and the landscape became a web of fissures and veins.
Around sunset a sandstorm blew up, the sky darkened and a blast shook the concrete building to its foundations. Fadeel heard screaming and the cramp in his guts worsened and would not go away.
Mousa came back running. ‘What are you doing! We need you out here!’
Fadeel did as Mousa ordered but as they dodged from one empty building to the next, everything felt broken and wrong.
Another blast sent Fadeel diving to the ground. Pieces of shrapnel and concrete flew into the air and a shard of metal landed an arm’s length away.
‘The colonel’s dogs!’ Mousa shouted. ‘We will never forgive this wrong as long as we live.’
Tracer fire. More shouting. An eerie silence.
The old woman wheeled back to earth. She could not, would not leave. Not yet. Only later, when this was done.
The rocks gave way to great dunes and to a flat plain. She followed the long ribbon of the road, the line of pylons. Far below the cars and trucks appeared like children’s playthings. The road led north-east, past the string of small towns and the blue lakes, up and on towards the sea, so many miles and miles.
More towns and finally, the edge of the land, the line of sand like the half moon of a nail. An oil refinery, a tanker docked, smoke and wrecked cars, a building burning. Sounds too: the heavy rat-tat-tat of artillery, the crack of bullets. The sun was sunk low in the sky, red and round as if it was burning to ash and the city lay beneath her, its streets almost empty, the park void of people. A football pitch without players, a row of palm trees, a torn poster of the colonel, a row of tattered flags. In one street a huddle of men. No women. No children. Not today, nor yesterday, nor tomorrow. Only that rag-tag bunch of men with guns and knives, and hope for the future.
Her eyes marked the blackened buildings and her ears rang with the wailing from the mosque, the chant a continuous loop, a scream of anguish: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.
The shadow of her wings passed along the street. Birds chattered in the palm trees. More shots rang out and a man shouted from a rooftop, ‘It’s an omen, I tell you brother, an eagle in the sky!’
Her eyes reflected things that must never be forgotten: two babies lying on a tiled floor, their faces chalk, and a young man face down in the dirt, his hands tied behind his back.
The sun blazed and disappeared below the horizon and a bomb exploded sending a plume of grey smoke into the air like a thundercloud.
The explosion shattered everything. His brain went numb, his body refused to move. Afterwards there was a deep silence and he thought he must be dead, that this is what it meant to be annihilated. Then he heard the man wailing from the mosque again, his voice distorted by the loudspeaker…Allahu Akbar….Allahu Akbar… The man’s voice rose and fell, his chanting like barbed wire. Hot, salty tears cascaded down Fadeel’s face and he thought he heard Mousa calling his name but he was not sure because of the darkness and the chanting and the strange feeling in his body, as if he were being lifted, as if he was reaching for heaven.
Fadeel, her beloved grandson, apple of her eye, lying in the debris of a building, his right leg smashed, his eyes closed, his face dusty and tracked with tears. Her grandson with his future in his hands, her hope and joy. Next to him, the mangled and bloodied body of another young man, a man beyond help gone to where she too would soon be going. Down, down, her strong wings beating through the smoke and dust, the smell of death and fear, a flag fluttering in the breeze of her flying, a flag for the future, a flag of hope.
The doctor said he had been lucky. The leg was damaged but it would not have to be amputated.
‘Who brought me here?’
The doctor shrugged. ‘I do not know.’
‘Is the hospital safe?’
The doctor shrugged again. ‘Nowhere is safe in the city, brother. Maybe tomorrow or next month, insha’allah.’
Fadeel closed his eyes and lay back on the bed listening to the groans of the wounded, the doctors and nurses working against time, the bleep of the machines. He slept and woke, slept and woke.
When next he opened his eyes an eagle was perched on the side of his bed, the slow flap of its wings beating in time to his heartbeat.
Fadeel, Fadeel, my dearest grandson.
Words in his head.
Sleep, habibi. Rest and sleep.
He slept and dreamed of flying. He dreamed of feathers and wings, an eye like onyx.
He awoke to cries and screaming, to the smell of antiseptic. ‘My friend Mousa,’ Fadeel said, waving to the doctor passing his bed. ‘Where is he?’
‘I do not know of your friend. There is no one called Mousa here.’ The doctor touched Fadeel gently on the arm. ‘But do not give up hope.’
The eagle did not return.
The old woman of the desert rested in a tree far outside the boundary of the city. Before dawn she set off for the south, away from the terror, back to the desert. Her job was complete. Now it was for others to finish for she was old, and her time was passing. But the Colonel’s time was passing too.