x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Gone': the winning entry for The National's 2013 Short Story Competition

Read the winning entry for the 2013 Short Story Competition, by Hajer Almosleh, who was chosen as the first place winner.

The dead don't have to worry about the excruciating pain of living.

She doesn't like words. Every time she tries to forget a word, she ends up learning a new one, storing it deep inside her head where her nails cannot dig it out.

When she starts writing, it is not out of a need to write, but to empty her brain, pour all the soaking words out of it. Her head is heavy and the heaviness is paralysing her.

Later on, the book she never intended to write or publish is celebrated as one of the most original books in the century, she as "The Risen Messiah of Literature, A Prophetess of Words", "a writer who has reinvented and revolutionised language".

No one noticed at first.

She'd stop in the middle of signing a book and stare at the winding queue in front of her, a look which skipped those standing into the worlds they left behind and the lives they never knew they ever had.

And just stare.

Or she'd spend an hour signing one book. Not signing, writing, using up the first two blank pages, the inside of the front cover, the margins, the blank sheet at the end of the book, the inside of the back cover. She would write a poem, or repeat the same word over and over again, until there was no space left for more.

Eccentric genius, they thought of her and waited patiently in line for her to sign their copies.

And then, when she stopped the car in the middle of the highway and almost got them all killed, the 3-month-old baby in the back seat, the cousin visiting from overseas, and him in the passenger seat, he thought that it must have been the Irish-Cream filled chocolate truffles the cousin had bought from Duty Free. She had the entire box the night before as she danced barefoot to Coldplay in the kitchen. He had to change the baby's diaper, feed him and tuck him in because she closed her eyes and danced and ate chocolate truffles and didn't hear anything else but the music inside her head.

She's always been a cheap drunk, he thought.

And then there was the day she left the baby in the shopping cart and almost drove away.

Something inside her might have stirred, a thought along the lines of air fresheners, or the price of a chilled can of beer, or the green shade of the ten dirham bill.

By that time, nothing brought happiness to her life, not even chocolates.

She stood facing the gulf and opened her mouth and let all words flow out of her. Some she had to force out, scratchy long words with prefixes and suffixes and meanings no one else knew but her, words attached to each other in a chain of syllables.

The first word out was tomorrow, the most complicated and strangest of all. Tomorrow does not exist. Its non-existence scares her. In today, there is day. In yesterday, there is day. But tomorrow does not follow the same sequence. It is the most haphazard word. It confuses her, the lack of sequentiality in its shape, sound, root.

The hardest words to part with were the words she made up.

Like, how she used to call her twin sister Jasmine "Pappoopsie" all through their childhood; words which were feelings and histories and bygone laughs, before the boat capsized and they all drowned, her dad, her seven-months pregnant mom, she and her twin sister, aged ten; and she alone popped up like a cork, holding on to a life ring, unable to muster enough courage to let go of it and sink back to the deep.

Will it be a boy or a girl, mommy?

It could be a girl; it could be a boy.

Or two boys.

Or two boys, Princess.

She was done with words.

The last sound out was oh, not a word, less than a fragment. Once she closed her mouth again, she tried to remember the part which preceded the o or could have possibly followed the h but she couldn't. That's because she didn't have any more words inside her head.

There was only the whooshing sound of water gurgling inside it.

She looked at the words floating on the water surface, some sinking slowly, some being nibbled away by small fish, and sighed.

That was all she could do now, a wordless, vowelless, consonant-less, sigh.

But then, other words started popping up in her head. Her head was a pot of popcorn and the kernels kept on popping and filling up the pot with more words in the two other languages she knew and the ones in the books she was asked to sign.

She started running, as far away from her head as she could, and her head followed her all the way home.

And then, in the middle of taking off her skinny jeans that day, she sat on the edge of the bed to wiggle them out, and there, she started to pee.

That's how he found her half an hour or so later, like a roosting pigeon, still perched on the edge of the bed, a pool of pee on the floor around her feet, her eyes staring at the long mirror on the closet door facing her, mouth open.

The business of living had become too much. Waking up, all the expectations the day brings, the clocks ticking inside her head, and the hours extending in front of her like a bilious snake.

Every day.

She tried to stop it from happening, the fast fall, the recycling of the same thought over and over again, the dreading of each moment and the fear of tomorrow.

It grew like a giant beanstalk inside her head and she could see the branches coming out of her ears and nose and mouth and eyes and piercing her belly button and ripping her insides. Worse than giving birth, trying to chase a single thought away, out of her head. She'd watch it seep out of her onto the pavement along the highway into the fog up towards the clouds and by the time she almost lost it another one would start seeping, staining her skin.

Her publisher was all hyped up, excited. Her book was going to be translated into Portuguese and Japanese at the same time: 27 languages so far, 24 of which she didn't know. And no one understood that she had nothing to do with it. She didn't want to have anything to do with it. She didn't want to go to book signings and check into hotels and wave for taxis and pretend she knew what she was doing.

It wasn't a book for her. She never thought of it as a book or of the process of disseminating all words from her brain as creative writing. But he started reading it when she wasn't around, her husband who wasn't really her husband but that's what he told the world. Maybe he is the father of the child.

She would leave her laptop on, lying around. And he would read.

She wanted him to read. She needed to share the accident with him, only him, because every time she opened her mouth and tried to tell him what happened on that boat, years ago, she choked. Seawater filled her lungs and she was again in the middle of the ocean, holding on to the lifeboat and to her sister's foot and waiting for her to turn around and say: Look what I found down there.

He had come, like quick sands, and sucked her into his blue eyes.

Blue irises ringed in black.

Two life rings.

Sister, hold on to me. Don't let go.

She was selecting avocados. She stood there, contemplating the perfectly shaped dark green leathery skin of the fruit in her hand. He picked three oranges, four apples, a bunch of bananas, grapes, apricots, had them weighed and labelled and she was still there, standing with one avocado in her hand, an empty shopping cart next to her, and a look of wonder and awe in her eyes.

She was one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen.

Not relative beauty, beauty in the eyes of the beholder. But beauty which hurt. He wanted to shield his eyes. Avert his look, but could not. Features she inherited from ancestors long gone, nomads who roamed the Empty Quarter gazing at the skies for direction, milking their goats with their teeth, loving their horses more than their lives. The hair: they braided it into poems and wrapped it around their wrists for balance.

She could smell the cinnamon on his breath. She almost tasted blueberries and papayas on his tongue.

That was the closest she had ever felt to wanting someone, almost falling in love because of papayas.

An almost-happy feeling was crawling precariously into her veins and she closed her eyes to feel its onslaught.

How could she not let him take her on a long walk on the beach and hold her hand and even kiss her?

How could she not kiss him back?

She was safe in the dark. The light of the half moon hiding the two drowning replicas of her in the twinkle of his eyes which closed when he kissed her, his long eyelashes tickling her cheeks.

She avoided words. She could see them float around her like bloated dead fish, terrifying words. On the tongue, heavy on the lips. She could feel them, chunks of jellying words, wiggling, slapping her ears, getting crammed in, more, more.

How do you scream for help when your mouth is full of dead fish?

One day, after she made love to him, she asked him, "What are you afraid of?"

"Death," he said. "And you?"

"Being swallowed by a giant python and turned into juice."

"You have such imagination!"

She had other fears. Fear of remembering. Fear of helicopters searching for the dead, of black bags stuffed with sea-pickled human carcasses lined up along the shore. Her dad's body was the first to be recovered. Her mother's a week later. Her twin sister, perfectly intact, floating, facedown, searching for pearls in the ocean floor.

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The day she had the baby, the nurse helped her get up and shower, the blood coming out of her clogging the shower drain like misshaped cubes of red jelly. Even her uterus aborted words.

Baby was another word.

Oh how she hated the spoken words.

When she stopped talking, and after he found her sitting in a pool of her own pee, he asked the doctor-friend, "Did she ever say anything to you? Why is this happening to her?"

The doctor could only think of the taste of the sour-green-apples lipgloss she was wearing the day he kissed her.

When he told her the surprise he had for her, his secret correspondence with publishing houses and how a very prominent and prestigious publishing house had accepted her manuscript and were going to publish it, she cried.

Why? Why?

She cried over and over again.

The book was the beginning of her serious attempt to rid her mind of the memory of the accident. She wanted it all out, longed so hard to free herself from the past, the silence which follows the laughter of little girls watching a giant wave, the surge of water all around, the sun beating down on bare skin, and the occasional sight of a whale's fin.

She wanted to start living, but didn't know how.

She cried herself to sleep that night while he rocked her gently and smoothed her hair, as baby crawled up inside her and attached himself to the inside lining of her uterus.