A Short Story
By Shameelah Khan
I desperately held on to the sound of his poetry. Now, more than ever, it was the only sound that was keeping me alive. The desert looked differently to how I had remembered it. Two long, painful years I had to stay away. Every day since then had been an ambivalent struggle. A choking one. All I could make out was the desert and the cool wind as it rode the dunes. My body could float with its direction if it desired to. Consciously, my eyes searched for him. I had often kept him where I could find him, but it has been two years and he might have forgotten me. I created him to be beautiful but then he claimed autonomy and now he exists.
Harrowing black bird
Upon the sea
The first sound of being found. His voice was the ocean flowing effortlessly. My Majnun. The madness that reigns when the ocean makes love to the sand. I live within the hands of God’s time and your poetic voice is where I am found. I walked toward him. The madman was seated under the Bedouin sky. I was quiet because I didn’t want to interrupt his process of creation. The stick wrote all sorts of anecdotes across the land and then it floated up and tainted the golden hour of the sky.
“Who goes there?” he dropped his stick.
“it is me- Layla.”
Tears filled his heavy eyes and he crawled, like a baby learning to move its body for the first time, toward me. He placed his head on my feet and his brittle, overused hands clutched, tighter than ever before, to my ankles. He was shackled and unable to move, the tip of his nose laden against my skin. In accordance with his nose was his dried-out lips. There, from my ankles all the way to my mouth, began the story of his breath. My eyes closed and my body was intentionally bare. His breath warmed as it approached my belly and then burned along the shapes of my breast and then I succumbed to death a little bit more as my neck was sharply outlined by familiarity. Finally the lips.
That is another story of his life to tell.
“Layla.” He repeated in disbelief as his cracked and overworked hands fondled my face. “you came back to me after all this time.” He stepped away from me, the waters of the sea changed colour and the sky cried out for the mercy of light. “why did you leave me here?” he walked away from me.
This was punishment. I had accepted it before I entered his desert.
“I had to. They took me away from you again.” I didn’t realise my tears at this point, but they fell.
“Layla, how did I survive without you for this long?”
“I guess…your poetry did.”
Finally, the waters stopped and the light peeked through. I sat beside my lover and intoxicated by the sunset of the desert, he turned to face me.
“Layla, did you marry the man your father wanted you to?”
“No. He didn’t want to marry me in the end Majnun.”
“Because he found out about you and I was forced to go there.”
“When you were there, you couldn’t come back to me?”
“I needed to get better Majnun. Your love was destroying me.”
He took my hand and kissed it, “I know.” He blew out into his cheeks. “Layla, why are you here?”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Maybe you will before morning.”
“I’m not going.”
His expression changed and I heard the worry in the undertones “You’ve never stayed the night.”
“stop talking Majnun. Make love to me.”
It happened naturally. My hands led his hands to my breasts. He took my nipples between his fingers and squeezed them, sending a pulsating pain through my chest. We lied down, the sand- a bed and the horizon-a witness. His lips searched my body, mapping the curves and the imperfections of my femininity. And then moments of silence that he gifted me in order to preserve my thoughts as they floated. His hands found its way to my thighs and then I received him. Cannibal interludes and the spaces where the sun met the shade enveloped us into a climatic dispositioning of selves.
Harrowing black bird
Upon the sea
Search the ocean of love
I will love thee
Until I am no longer
You are me
Upon the sea
I watched him as he slept. His soft snores rhythmically reminding me of why I created him.
I was a young girl and my parents were arguing. My mother had done something to upset him. maybe she had an opinion of her own. I can’t remember. It took many years for me to see my father gently touch her. I promised myself that I would be with someone who knew how to touch me, when to touch me-how to touch me. The children around me, in my community were unkind. I was different. I walked in two worlds. One was with them and the other in a world I created to exist in when I no longer knew how to exist in theirs. My father said that I would outgrow the world of imagination, when I became an adult and had to work for a living. But here I am, 28 and still dreaming.
My mother had been in the kitchen cooking. Whenever I couldn’t find her that is the first place I would look. “You can be independent, but always maintain your home.” She would say. I never quite understood why she felt she had this “independence.”
“Ma, why did you name me Layla?” I asked.
“It means night.” She placed the lid over her pot.
“but what’s so important about a night. I mean shouldn’t my name have meaning?”
“God makes the day turn into night and the night turn into day.”
“I don’t understand. Wouldn’t that happen anyway?”
“Layla, I have to cook and clean and do all these things and you are asking me about things I don’t know. We liked the name and it is yours. Sometimes you just have to accept that.”
Her answers were never patient enough. I needed her to be patient sometimes. My mind was created differently to hers.
The library at my University was dusty and my chest had felt heavier every time I was left alone in the isles. I didn’t need to ask Sheila, the Librarian, for any help because knew the isle- I spent a lot of my time in it. My eyes shifted from the Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi to the sacred anthology of Hafiz but there-there at the end of the shelf squashed beside Gibran’s, The Prophet, you were waiting for me. The story of Layla and Majnun, written by Nizami. I held in my hands a brand-new book. No one had taken the book out. No one had bothered to reads your story. You were new and dusty and just like me, lost in the lonely isle of Eastern literature- you were forgotten.
Qays and Layla fell in love with each other when they are young. As time progressed, Layla’s father forbade them to be together. Unwilling to accept his reality, Qays became obsessed with his lost lover. The community soon gave him the name Majnun, the possessed. Layla eventually married a man ,who belonged to the Taif tibe, named Ward, rose. He was a handsome, rich man and he was loved by her father. The news of her marriage taunted Majnun and he retreated to the desert, where he became known as the madman who wrote poems for his beloved, often calling out her name. His family gave up hope that they would ever see him again. In the wilderness, he was seen reciting poems for his Layla and often he wrote them in the sand with his stick that he never let go of. Layla moved away and grew old, tired and died from an illness. But legend has it, late at night, she would sometimes hear him call her name…
“I pass by these walls, the walls
And I kiss this wall and that wall
It’s not love of the walls that
Has enraptured my heart
But the one who dwells within them”
That was the only book I had stolen from the library. I paid a fine, but no one would miss it or even recognise its loss. Maybe that is a lie, maybe there were many copies and maybe I made it all up. But here is the truth, when I began to read the story, I became Layla. I lived her life and I wondered what I would have done. Given the way that life often goes- probably nothing. But Layla heard you. I heard you. All these years later, your Layla would close her eyes at night and return to you. And there in your desert, she would hunt down the madman and love him in return. In the beginning, it was difficult, but after some time, you recognised me and like the human-wolf you looked to the moon and you howled my name once more. Layla. The woman of night.
“Layla.” He spoke my name once more.
“What has happened?”
A tear fell to the ground and the ocean expanded beneath us and we were floating in the bed of Divine love.
“My mother died.”
He wiped away the pain, “then you must go to her.”
“It is too painful to be there, I want to stay here.”
“Layla, there is the final poem you must read.”
“give it to me.”
“before you wake from this dream, you will know.”
“and then what?”
He kissed me goodbye and the desert took back what it had lent me all these years- the possessed lover, the man one, the one who wrote my name in the grains of his heart. Layla’s Majnun.
There I was, Layla, beside my husband- my Rose. His name was not Majnun. We had aged. Years had pressed wrinkles into our skin. And then I was on my deathbed and the angel of death came to me and it whispered the final poem into my heart. I would not know that this would happen and I would never know that it would happen before I drifted into a deep sleep and I would hear my name one last time.
Queen of Pain
I often look. Gaze into myself. I see things, solitude and pain, and a wanting that’s not fulfilled,
I get lost in it, drown in the misery that is myself,
the pain that I’m used to,
Then I look up and see you, the angelic demon in disguise,
a hellish being,
my Queen of pain,
the Saint to which I pray,
your remembrance bathing in the depths of my sorrow,
This Queen whom I love,
Twisted and dark,
Beneath her feet lies the crossing of redemption and damnation,
When the seasons change and the leaves begin to fall,
the earth becomes cold,
So does the longing creep within me,
The facade of pride shed from my being,
And I’m left with the void,
Just as the leaves fall, and earth becomes cold,
There will be a day when the heart will warm,
and contentment will bloom,
For that day, my Queen
is the true day of sadness,
The day we stop being,
the day blood and tears do not flow,
The day we stop fighting to be in each other’s arms
We will look back to the winter and the desert,
our hearts filled with warmth.
We shall take pride in the tears and blood spilled,
celebrating our egos crushed.
We shall say, we lived.
We truly lived.
“Layla,” I heard my brother behind the door, preceded by a few knocks. He let himself in without permission. “Layla, you should wake up now. They are taking mummy away now to the kubrs, the graveyard. The imam will do the last reading. You should come.”
“Give me five minutes. I’m coming.”
I turned to look at the side table and the clock had stopped working. I must have been asleep for a few hours. My mother’s room had never changed, since I was a child. Even when I offered to get her a new lamp, she refused. She hated change. Her double bed, still against the dark-wooden headboard. Beside it, one table that forever housed my father’s reading glasses and her maroon covered Quraan, the pages so used and yellowish-stained. And there was her dressing table, the wooden one with the attached mirror. Her perfumes were lined and some were still sealed. Behind her door hung her gown and then a chest of drawers for her scarves. “One for every good occasion in this big family,” she used to say.
I put on her favourite green scarf, the one with the tussles at the edges. It still smelt like her. Her Pantene shampoo which she never changed. My eyes were puffy from crying in my dreams. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw the woman my mother had raised even when she was struggling to live at times. She was ill. We have to remind ourselves that she was ill.
I made my way to the lounge where everyone was surrounding my mother. My brother’s wife, I think, placed her hand on my shoulder and cleared the way for me to walk. I sat beside my brother and then, the imam said, in one clear line,
“Let us make some space for the family of Sakina so that they can say their goodbyes.”
And then the sound of my father’s wailing voice rushed through the door and nothing but silence.