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Short Story Contest 2020-21

Empire in the Gardens of Babylon

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Fatima recognized one of the human heads. She said to herbrother, “This particular head belonged to the fighter, Michael.” Michael was an Englishman who joined the Sons of Ahwah. Everyone knew Michael. There was a swath of Sheffield in the uncovered space around his eyes, like a racoon. Michael displeased the Sons of Ahwah because he wore Union Jack boxers beneath his uniform.

Being clever, Fatima easily updated her biographical understanding of all things. “Saint Michael,” she said,“is the one who raped Mahdia.”

“Don’t talk stupid,” Umar said. “He fixed the internet.”

Fatima was undeterred. “You can fix the internet and rape Mahdia.”

“You’re a pig,” Umar said. “How do you know these things? How?”

Fatima said that women and girls share a kind of sad commerce. They barter news of the abominations of men and no one is any wiser or richer for the knowledge.

Umar counterpointed by saying that he, too, was sad. The plan was to use the heads as goalposts in the abandoned car park. But none of his friends came to play football. He had worn his Lions of Mesopotamia jersey for absolutely nothing.

Umargathered up the heads into a burlap sack and slung it over his shoulder. He took Fatima’s hand, which he always did, even if she had the heart of an executioner. His father once said to him, prophetically, as it turned out, “If I am not here, you must take care of the girls and your mother.” Umar imagined easier work wearing a suicide vest.

It was bad luck that the interior of the marble factory had been blown out by allied bombs and that the hole in one wall made a direct line of sight through the window frame inanother wall. Three Sons of Ahwah fighters spotted two of the six heads floating above the shards of marble mortuary. The Sons of Ahwah fighters were all dressed in black, like cowboys from an old American Western whose clothing, alone, telegraphed their intentions.

Fatima and Umar froze in their steps, like statues of the dictator before the liberation of his people.

One of the Sons of Ahwah fighters took the bag from Umar and struck him forcefully in the face with the palm of his hand. The others trained their rifles upon the boy. Apparently, the girl was useless. The contents of the bag were emptied onto the ground.

Fatima was a callous documentarian of human behaviour and, as a result, clever as a fox. She needed a coup of some sort that would be a talisman against her brother’s beating and her own possible lashing or rape. A curfew was a curfew. Examples must be made.

Fatima gathered the heads of the Sons of Ahwah traitors into a tight square. She squatted over the heads of the Sons of Ahwah traitors, lifted her skirt and produced a stream of urine and demonic curses. Subsequently, she grunted and exposed her horse’s teethwhile defecating a mealy rope of half-digested rice, saffron and mint.

The three Sons of Ahwah fighters managed disgust in three different languages but they all wore the same choral mask from Greek tragedy. No one was fooling anyone.

After the fighters had left, Umar said to his sister, “You’re a pig.” He added, “And you’ve ruined my goalposts.”

Fatima did not have a reply for that. Football was serious business.

When they got home, they could hear their little sister mimicking their mother. “IN-DI-A-NA” she would say or “O-HI-O.” Home schooling was the thing since the Sons of Ahwah came to town. For some few weeks, Anaam had sent Shaimaa to one of the Sons of Ahwah schools, but the idiot child(so called by her mother) was not a discerning pupil in any respect. Her homework would include repeatedly drawing and colouring the Sons of Ahwah flag. Her mother would not tolerate it.

Anaaminterrupted her lesson between California and Minnesota. These days, she always looked at her children with a mixture of contempt and pity. One fueled the other and created a kind of septic anger, shit always at the ready to hit the fan. “It’s dark! Where have you been?”

Because Fatima had already told him what to say, Umar spoke with charm and authority.

“It is like this, dear mother.”

He said his sister had to use the public toilet, which was true enough, because their toilet had been smashed to bits by Sons of Ahwah fighters looking for contraband. And it was also true that Umar always accompanied the females out of doors. It was one of the Laws of the Sons of Ahwah.Umar did not mention shameful acts that would surely offend Allah.

Once again, Anaamrecognized arrogance in her son’s tone. Obviously, his sister’s lies would embolden him, but there was more to it than that. Umarwas making a seamless transition toward scorn for womensimply because he was empowered to do so.

For this reason, Anaam aspirated profanity behind her veil. Umar’s ears pricked immediately, like those of a dog. He discerned possibly unpleasant syllables in his mother’s whispered, humid dispatches. Anyway, the niqabwas a great diplomat.

Anaam said to Umar, “Swear on your father’s beard!” And she produced a potpourri bag full of her husband’s lihyah. She kept the beard hair in aninterior pocket of her cloak.

Because Omar, their father,had lived on principle, he did not live long. He was a barber when the Sons of Ahwah usurped control of the city. He refused to believe that growing the beard was wajib or mandatory and, after weeks of grudging conformity, shaved, with an electric razor, no less, to protest beard fetishism.

Unfortunately, Omarunderestimated the threat of the Sons of Ahwah, calling them a few bad apples and a little boys club. He took his naked face outside and was never seen again, become, as Fatima liked to say, wistfully, one of the supernatural beings or jinn. To which, her mother said, “Have you no feelings?” Fatima said that if feelings could be attached to kebab, she would welcome them instantly.

Umartouched the bristling remains of his father’s beard and produced a peculiar spectacle. He declined his head and raised his hand, as if his testimony were legal and incontrovertible. “I swear,” he said, “to nothing but the truth.”

At the same time that Anaam screamed, “Liar!”, Fatima broke her silence with an angry announcement of her own. “We need meat, mother! I have more diarrhea than the prime minister!”

Anaam wanted to slap Umar and Fatima. It was just a matter of deciding whose insolence deserved the quicker rebuke. Instead, she settled upon gallows humour, literally. “You want meat?” she asked. “Then, go to the butcher shop!”

The butcher shop was the town square where criminalswere hung or decapitated by the Sons of Ahwah for crimes great and small. Umar had collected his goalposts there.

Fatima wanted to say that she was, at least, open to the idea of cannibalism. After all, animal protein had largely disappeared at about the same time as local imams were replaced by vegetarians from neighbouring states or so cause and effect would have it.

But her mother raised her hand in the air to signal the limit of her endurance. “Whatever you say,” she said, looking wearily at Fatima, “it will mean my death. Go to bed. All of you. It exhausts me being your mother.”Going to bed meant carving out space on a shared mattress beneath one comforter whose theme was Mickey Mouse and his Magic Kingdom. All other mattresses and linen were donated to the hospital for the Sons of Ahwah fighters.

The next day began with mixed media – the cry of a child, the hum of unmanned, aerial vehicles and a clear blue sky. The idiot child (so called by her mother) opened her eyes at the same time as the muezzin began his pre-dawn call to prayer. Shortly thereafter, at daybreak, Shaimaaimmediately started screaming, “Virginia! Nevada!”

Fatima owed a deep debt of gratitude to one of the heads that she had recently pissed and shat upon. Because Saint Michael had fixed the internet, she learned that drones were often controlled in Virginia and Nevada. As a result, she taught her sister to scream the names of these states whenever the day broke blue. Clear skies meant American drones would buzz the city looking for targets for their missiles.

As a result, it was important to avoid those places on drone days where the Sons of Ahwah fighters might gather – hospitals, schools, mosques, industries, private homes and markets. Of course, the fear of being atomized instantly was an existential threat and, therefore, somewhat less worrisome than lifestyle modifications such as lashing or amputation.

Anyway, Anaam knew what everyone was thinking and announced, “I’m going to the market. I don’t care. Allah is good because his servants can only die once.” And she immediately donned her burqa and began stuffing the interior pockets with beauty products. Before the re-introduction of the seventh century, Anaam worked with her husband, not as a barber, but as a beautician. Like a dragon, she stored her remaining hoard in the root cellar beneath the mattress. It was better than currency.

Several of the crowd at the market had some money with which to purchase onions, potatoes, garlic and the occasional orange or lemon. Most of the crowd had little or no money and, like Anaam, arrived at the market with goods to barter. Because the women were dressed in black and because their movement winnowed like a giant cloud of sand, they called their furtive trade a black market haboob. 

Ahmed, a vegetable salesman, quickly assessed the eyes and height of Anaam, “I know you. You’re like the others who look but don’t buy. Move away and let pass women with money.”

Anaam said she was interested in what couldn’t be seen. She gestured with her head toward the Coca Cola cooler. Legend had it that the cooler contained skewers of marinating lamb.

“Even if you could see it,” said Ahmed, “you couldn’t buy it. Get away!”

Anaam retorted, “I cannot see Allah, but I love him deeply!” It was blasphemy to compare Allah to lamb kebabs but these were difficult times.

Of course, Ahmed was right. The women continued to circulate like rabid brokersat the stock exchange, but few werebuying from the merchants. Their numbers far exceeded actual market capitalization. It was all very suspicious.

As for Anaam, locomotion was difficult. Within multiple pockets sewn into the lining of her burqa were many clear glass, round bottles with black pumps, representatives of Maybelline, L’Oréal, Clinique and Estee Lauder, among others. As a result, her thighs and buttocks were often bruised by trundling about like a heavily laden camel. Fortunately, this time, there would be no wasted movement. Her rich friend, Rahma, was the size of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

Anaam whispered into Rahma’s ear, “I have the avocado mask and the Dead Sea mud and,” for somewhat comic effect, “all the perfumes of Arabia.” She identified the prices and Rahma was only too happy to place her order and pay. How vain you must be! thought Anaam, since all women were compelled to cover their faces and wear gloves.

But Anaam did not know that she, too, was judged harshly, that others believed she did the devil’s work, bartering lotions and creams that whispered into the hearts of her helpless victims. Because of Anaam, children swallowed soupy confections of rice and onions while their mothers applied candlelit complexions.

Of course, it would be risky to purchase the lamb skewers. A sudden windfall would draw attention from the vendors and the Sons of Ahwah minders.  Nonetheless, and before the four of them were extinct, she wanted to provide one last serving of meat to her misogynist son, her glib, sociopathic daughter, and her last idiot child (so called by her mother).

She had only just purchased and hidden her precious cargo when all hell broke loose. Rahmahad dropped a fragrance bomb and followed the bottle to the ground, casting about like a deranged shepherd for her lost sheep. Regrettably, reunion with her Bois Noir, (for men, no less),clinched the prosecution’s case. Sons of Ahwah fighters circled, their vintage Kalashnikovs at the ready.

Immediately, Rahma’s clothing was torn and stripped from her body, both her burqa and her undergarment of embroidered tulip on black. From various pockets, crevices and folds fell chocolates, olives, camembert, a Swiss army knife and kerosene. While she wept and screamed, Rahma was slapped, kicked, punched and called disgusting names. Finally, by her long, black hair with caramel highlights, two Sons of Ahwah soldiers pulled her through the dust and toward the interrogation centre.

At some distance away, moving very quickly and attaching her eyes to the ground, Anaam was breathless with both horror and elation. Already, imagination had produced a dog’s muzzle of her nose, filled either nostril with the smell of roasting lamb and the flayed flesh of Rahma. She calmed her conscience with the assurance that everyone would end up dead or tortured eventually and, therefore, in such an environment, the procurement of lamb kebabs did not come with moralbaggage.

Later that night, after the great debauch of kebab and fried aubergine, Fatima suggested that they offer a prayer for Rahma.

Anaam was caught off guard and assumed a defensive posture, “What do you mean by that?”

Fatima shrugged her shoulders and spoke calmly, as though she were merely underscoring the contribution of a corporate sponsor: “As you have stated, mother, the evening meal was brought to us by Rahma.”

Anaam had avoided description of the unpleasant scene at the market. Rahma’s hubris had cost her dearly. The children were apprised of the first instance, not the second. As a result, she assumed, the lamb had no bitter aftertaste.

However, and before Anaam could offer praise to Allah for the commerce of Rahma, Fatima insinuated her demonic eyes and horse’s teeth not three inches from her mother’s face. “Yes,” she said, “let us offer a prayer of long life for Rahma.” One did not need to study the Koran to read Fatima’s sarcasm and the reason for it. News travels fast.

It was a painful barb. Anaam had assumed that constant supervision of her children would produce something like the Stockholm syndrome, uncritical love of their captor. But the opposite was true. For serving lamb, she was a scapegoat for the sins of the Sons of Ahwah.

Said Umar, in the somewhat twisted logic of his addled brain, “It is like this, dear mother. One day you are here and the next, you can’t organize a football game.”

Anaam became enraged. “Get into the other room!” she screamed. “All of you! And bring the mattress!” She thrust the idiot child (so called by her mother) into Fatima’s arms and intoned gravely, “You can all sleep in there tonight.”

But Umar, dragging the mattress with little enthusiasm and contemplating resistance, said the following, “Who are you to order me?”

Anaam knew immediately that this was the last order he would take from her. “I am your mother.” The card was played. There were no more. Umar and the others retreated into the spare room.

After she had closed the door on her tormentors, Anaam curled into a fetal position on the Micky Mouse comforter. She might have cried for the loss of her husband, the loss of her friend or even the loss of her own estranged children, but, instead, she cried for fear, fear that Rahma, a kind of Freemasonin a maternal order of secrets, would provide all the testimony necessary to have Anaam tortured or hung. In fact, she could not have imagined the quality of her divination nor the remarkable prescience of its messenger.

Indeed, she and her grown children were woken at three in the morning by Shaimaa, the messenger. Perhaps the idiot child (so called by her mother) was an idiot savant, after all. She began screaming “Texas! Texas! Texas!”

Because Saint Michael had fixed the internet, Fatimahad read about forced entry in the Longhorn state, taught Shaimaa to scream Texas at the first sign of law enforcement. It was the work of an angel or a devil that Shaimaa began screaming well before the arrival of Sons of Ahwah fighters.

Fatima poked her weary head out of the spare room, said, “Listen, mother. This is bad news for you.”

But it was also bad news for Umar. Not only did the Sons of Ahwah fighters arrest Anaam, but they conscripted the boy, too. Afterward, Fatimalooked at Shaimaa on her back in the Mickey Mouse linen, said, “A useless warning is a house on fire.” It did not occur to her to blame the child’s teacher. It did occur to her that she, of the whole cursed family, had received the cruelest blow, left to care for another human being.

The very next day, the bad apples and little boys on the Sons of Ahwah Board of Authority published their decision. Anaam and Rahma were to be thrown off the roof of the tallest building in town, a radio station.Fatima read the details of the fatwah attached to a traffic sign that enjoined against noise, No Horning. She was stunned.

Apparently, Anaam was not being punished for her crimes against the seventh century, but her crimes against the twenty-first century. It was news to Fatima that her mother, the capitalist whore, had committed massive fraud before the arrival of the Sons of Ahwah, filling the very best brand name packaging with generic product. Fatima tried to imagine how much or how little suffering her mother had endured. She liked to think that Anaam spoke swiftly, not to avoid blood-letting, but to make herself right with Allah before she was executed.

Fatima’s little sister was glued to her left leg. She detached the idiot child (so called by her mother) and shared an observation both sanguine and philosophical: “It is a world without moral center when perpetrators of legitimate criminal activity receive the same punishment as those addicted to cigarettes or hubble-bubble.” It was unclear from her tone which group she reproved.

Shaimaa was ambivalent. “Washington” she said.

That night, Fatima’s subconscious gerrymandered fresh boundaries for her dreams. Her mother was tossed from the roof of the radio station, but, miraculously, sheplaned through the air like a flying squirrel, lift provided by the ample folds within the inseam of her burqa. She flew to the capital and to all the great capitals of all the great states and then into outer space and through the Milky Way and through two hundred million galaxies beyond. To an uncritical observer, Anaam was looking for freedom and justice in the twinkling light that wheeled about the universe of dark matter. But the Fatima of Fatima’s dream felt deeply embarrassed by her mother’s disingenuous posturing, zipping through billions of light years in search of business as usual.

Suddenly, she was woken by tugs on her shoulder and the voice of a parrot, not her sister’s.

“Fatima. Fatima. Fatima.”

Umar explained that he had been freed from military service because he did not, so to speak, pass the physical. He had a wine birth mark on his testicles that, according to him, was a contagious skin disease that caused impotence and apostasy. No one wanted anything to do with him.

“I don’t want to die,” Umar said. “By the way,” he added, “mother and Rahmawill be thrown off the roof of the radio station later today.”

Fatimashruggedher shoulders and reconfigured her veil of cynicism. “Maybe she will fly.” She added quickly, “They do the same thing to corrupt business people in the west. That explains eclipses of the sun and the moon.”

Umar said he didn’t know anything about that. And then he did a curious thing. He took Shaimaa into his arms for the first time since she was born and looked at her, admittedly, like leftover aubergine.

Fatima had already sensed a sea change in her brother’s attitude toward gender relations. Distaste for his Sons of Ahwah captors and fear of mortification of his own flesh had opened a pathway for détente with his sisters. “Fatima,” he offered, “you’re mostly not a pig.” It was a start.

That afternoon, snow began to fall or so it seemed. Once again, the Americans were dropping leaflets from their airplanes suggesting that everyone flee the city before imminent military assault. They, the central government and a variety of other altruistic factions promised that liberation was at hand.

“No one will go to the camps,” Umar said. “At least, the Sons of Ahwah give us water and electricity.”

If Fatima had political opinions, she did not share them. This one time, however, low embers of gratitude burned in her belly. According to Umar, she was mostly not a pig. “You are right, brother. No one will go to the camps.”

And no one read the confetti as it fell from the sky. In fact, it was, ironically, festive prelude to the launching of Anaam and Rahmafrom the radio station roof. Fatima steered her little sister’s hand toward the sky.

“Look,” she said. “Your mother is preparing a lesson on gravity.”

For Shaimaa, pedagogy was a ladder whose rungs were made of sand. Because of this, she was the best witness to the day’s events.

But Umar feared learning or trauma where none was possible. “We will not look,” he said, plucking the idiot child (so called by her mother) from the arms of Fatima. Opinion was split on the matter, but each in the crowd listened quietly as religious leaders read out the crimes and sentences.

Thereafter, when Anaam and Rahma took each other’s hand and coiled somewhat in preparation to jump, Fatima thought it imprudent on her mother’s part to attach her last earthbound moments to the much heavier Rahma. Obviously, she was unacquainted with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the lightness of being afforded by forgiveness nor, for that matter, the value of a human hand.

Said Umar, looking away but standing in front of Fatima, reading events in her glowing face, “How can you watch?”

Fatima could watch because Anaam and Rahma had already creased the air with forgotten data. “I only believe,” she said, “what my eyes can’t see.” Similarly, the sickening sound of buckling bone produced only waves of denial. “And I only believe what my ears can’t hear.” Of course, she was referring to the world of her fabulous dream where pancaked flesh is no more real than a pixel of animation and every human injury is merely a comedic device.

And so, as Fatima stared at Rahma’s broken legs and obvious and stupendous fractures to her mother’s cervical vertebrae, she patiently awaited the recombination and flight of the capitalist whores and some fusion of slipstream and rapture that would vacuum her city from the face of the earth and up and into and beyond the contracting lungs of the universe. After all, the cycle of liberation and occupation punctuated by death and misery and false hope was no more a credible human story than Mickey Mouse and his Magic Kingdom.For confirmation of her thesis, Fatima looked at pools of blood from the mouths of Anaam and Rahma. Indeed, each looked very much like a conversation bubble for the finger of Allah. Flesh and word were cleared for takeoff.

Said Fatima to her siblings, excluding irony from her feverish visions, exposing her horse’s teeth, “Our liberty has been bought with kebab and fried aubergine.”

Of course, Umar and Shaimaa had no idea what their sister meant or why she chose this moment to recall their last family meal.


Dean Gessie (CANADA)

Dean Gessie is a Canadian writer who has won multiple international prizes. Dean won the Angelo Natoli Short Story Award in Australia, the Eyelands Book Award in Greece, the short story prize at the Eden Mills Writers Festival in Canada and - in Maryland - the Uncollected Press Prize for a short story collection. Dean also won the Enizagam International Poetry Contest in California and he was selected for inclusion in The Sixty Four Best Poets of 2019 by Black Mountain Press in North Carolina.

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