The winning piece of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and The National's 2012 Short Story Competition.
2012: End of Days
Shams lifted her arm up and covered her eyes from the blazing light. Was this the end of the world that everyone kept talking about lately? At seven, all she felt sad about was not being able to go to the pool at the weekend like her father, Baba, had promised.
In the past few days the sun had blazed hotter and stronger than ever before. The usually hot city had become intolerable. The few trees that had dotted the landscape were dried and cracked and the grass in the parks was scorched to dry, crumbling cinders.
Baba had been very distracted lately. He was always busy with the men of the neighbourhood working on something to do with a generator, finding a usable fuel source and getting the air-conditioning to work again in more than one room of their sprawling house. She was happy the neighbours were staying with them, but not that they were taking up so much of Baba's time. Everyone seemed to be getting more frantic, shushing her questions and shooing her out of the way.
Shams looked at the worried faces of Baba and Mama and her brothers kneeling in prayer and wondered if there was anyone out there who could actually help them. Would that someone really listen to her pleas just because she wanted one last chance to learn how to swim without those bobbing orange floaters? She doubted it.
Tatsuru looked around at the shattered remains of his village and thought again about his beautiful Akiko. A dull ache in his chest reminded him of the time he broke a rib in karate. But this was no bruised rib: it was a bruised heart. They had both waited so long to be together. They had both overcome so many obstacles before they were able to get engaged. Akiko had just turned 21 and they had set a wedding date just days before the disasters had begun.
He wished it was he who had been hit by the crumbling ceiling, he who had taken the punishment from the many quakes that had hit their island. Then again, no; he wouldn't want Akiko to feel the searing pain of uncertainty he was now feeling. He thought again of Akiko's slim figure amid the rubble, her pale face covered with dust and her hair sprawled out like an Odori dancer's fan around her head. She looked so peaceful in her coma; more peaceful than she had ever looked in sleep.
Maybe she was happier where she was. Had she known that the mere thought of life without her would make every cell in his body shut down one by one? Life could not end like this. Whatever happened to love conquering all?
Tatsuru grabbed the small statue of Buddha he had found near her and blew the dust off of it. The happy round face seemed to taunt him. What use was this fat man anyway? He had done nothing to protect her! In a sudden surge of helpless anger, Tatsuru screamed like a samurai in full attack and hurled the Buddha at the broken wall as hard as he could.
Amos had been given a second chance. He held the tiny squirming bundle in his arms and marvelled at the resemblance his granddaughter already had to him. He felt an unfamiliar desire to protect her.
The rising water had already bloated the Mississippi beyond its capacity and when it burst at the seams, the flood had torn down every standing thing in its way. Now the water was creeping up the Southern states, headed directly, it seemed to Amos, for him and the family he had just reclaimed.
How had he gone so astray in his life? And how was it possible that his daughter had given him a second chance? He looked up at her and the lump in his throat grew bigger. He couldn't say a word of apology to her but her smile told him he didn't need to.
What was he thinking when he had chosen a life of drugs and music over a life with his daughter? How had she turned out to be so big hearted and forgiving despite the hardship he had left her and her mother to live through?
A small arm flailed out of the bundled blanket and tiny fingers brushed against his rough beard. He tightened his hold ever so tenderly and searched frantically through his thoughts for a way to protect her. What could such a good-for-nothing coward do to fight against nature? He didn't even believe in God. Even if he did, what god would believe in a man like him?
Shams held her orange floaters close to her and knelt down on her carpet. She squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she possibly could and with every string of her heart sent out a prayer, "Dear God, please don't let the world end before I learn how to swim ..."
Tatsuru saw the statue of the Buddha lying on the floor, dented, dirty, damaged, but still smiling. Still serene and forgiving. He rushed to it in embarrassment and picked it up, wiping away the dirt, running his finger along the dent in an attempt to heal it. He placed the statue on the chair in front of him and sat on the floor facing it. With a deep breath, his heart beating loudly in his ears and his fingers trembling with hope, he closed his eyes and thought of Akiko.
Amos hummed a tune and rocked his little granddaughter in his arms, marvelling at how quickly she quieted down in his hold. She seemed to like the melody he had chosen. He was fascinated at how small she was nestled in his big black hands. He would die for her. The thought struck him like a fist in the face, taking him by surprise. He had never thought about anyone else but himself. He wanted to hold on to this overwhelming feeling of selfless love forever. He raised his face to the sky, summoning every sincere thought and feeling he had ever had, and without hesitation begged the universe to give his baby granddaughter a future.
The Earth was pulling itself apart. Floods, earthquakes, heatwaves and hurricanes were engulfing the different continents. It seemed perverse that one side of the earth was drowning while the other was boiling up. Nobody had expected the series of natural disasters happening over the past few weeks to snowball into the end of the world, but without warning they had. It was too late for any changes now.
Gradually, without planning, rallying or urging, every remaining heart on Earth had a song to sing. The energy emanating from the continents grew stronger, bolder, and more intense. Without armies, without science and without politics, humanity had managed to unite on one front: life. Seven billion prayers, thoughts and pleas later, would humanity's desire for existence overcome the Earth's headlong dash into destruction? Would Shams one day learn how to swim on her own? Would Tatsuru survive to keep Akiko's memory alive in his heart? Would Amos keep his promise, giving his life so that a baby girl who looked just like him would have the opportunity to learn how to sing one day?
• Kathy Shalhoub, the author of Life as a Leb-neh Lover: the Identity Crisis of a Maybe-Lebanese, is the winner of the 2012 Short Story Competition organised by The National and the Abu Dhabi Book Fair
• To listen to Kathy Shalhoub's winning short story and to read stories by the four runners-up, visit www.thenational.ae/arts-culture
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