The sky is white.
The sky shouldn't be white because it's after midnight and the moon has not yet appeared and nothing is as black and as ancient as the night in Baghdad. It is dark and fragrant as the hanging gardens of the extinct city of Chaldea, as dark and still as the night in the uppermost chamber of the spiraling Tower of Babel.
But it's white because white is the color of an exploding rocket. The ones that come from over the river, across the fields, from the other side of an invisible border, from another ancient country called Iran. The rockets are so close sometimes he can hear the warning whisk before they explode. The ones that explode in the sky send off big round blooms of colors, pinwheels of fire. But the ones that explode on the ground erase everything: they send out streamers of fire that race across the ground like electric snakes; they light up the donkeys by the water troughs and make their shadows a hundred meters long. They light up every blade of grass, every lizard, and every date; they electrify the dozing palms and set the most distant mountains-the place his uncle calls the Land of Na-on fire. They make his sister's face glow like yellow blossoms, they make the water look like phosphorescence as it runs from the tap. Their report sizzles along the tops of the tallest western buildings and rings against the minarets and domes. They whistle through the orchards and blast acres of olive trees out of the ground. They light up the Euphrates River, knock down the walls of the old churches, the ancient synagogues, the mysterious, crumbling monuments older than the books, monuments to gods so old they've lost their names, the ancient walls dissolving under the shock waves like dust.
They erase all sleep. For years.
A young boy lies in his bed on the outskirts of town, still not-sleeping. He tries to calm himself by reciting poetry:
"Know that the world is a mirror from head to foot,
In every atom are a hundred blazing suns,
If you cleave the heart of one drop of water,
A hundred pure oceans emerge from it."
Far away, on the other side of town, deep in the city night, behind the Eastern Hotel where all the foreigners stay, there is a pool as round as the moon, where a white-skinned woman waits for him in the phosphorescent water. The night over the pool is undisturbed by bombs, he knows, because nothing can cross into the land of the bright-haired women, their painted nails and brilliant hair and glowing skin. She stands hip-deep and motionless in the shallow end of the water, waiting for him to come to her. Her hair is the color of fire and her eyes are the color of sky and the pool is the round moon above Baghdad. He lies dreaming and awake in his bedroom on the other side of town. He is young but he has not truly slept for years. She can send him to a new place, away from the new president, as far away as the other side of the world, a place where he will no longer have to look at his brother and sister not-sleeping, where he will not have to count his heartbeats, his breaths, the pulse in his eyelids. Where his mouth will not taste of iron, his ears will not ring, his hands and feet will not tingle, his stomach will not foam with the roaring sound that has gotten inside of him and that he fears in his deepest heart will never go away again.
Her uncle in his room of imagined books. Everything smells of books: an odor of forgotten memories. This is the library of imagined books, her uncle says, because he never reads any of them. Still, he's collected them from friends' basements and attics, garage sales and widows' dens, all over Culver City, West Hollywood, Pasadena, Laurel Canyon, picking books for their heft and their leather-belted covers. The actual pages don't matter.
From Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber. Copyright 2003 by Diana Abu-Jaber. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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