In the sand dunes
His face was growing warmer, it seemed as though the intangible entity that was stinging his closed eyes was growing stronger. He forcibly raised a hand in front of his face to shield himself, pressed his eyes shut and tried to embrace the last few moments of his precious slumber. But the sun was adamant not to let him sleep; the heat on his face started to feel as though he was standing over a burning furnace. Groaning, Salim opened his eyes but the sun's rays stung them shut again. He rolled over on his side and covered his face with his blanket, half-afraid that the sunlight would penetrate the flimsy fabric or come through some of the holes that had recently become bigger after getting caught in his fingers and toes while he was asleep. Salim forced himself to sit up. The birds were chirping outside and the vehicles passing by his house on the street honked relentlessly. He looked at the ancient table clock on the floor beside him; it said 7:14 AM. Salim wanted to cover himself with the blanket and play dead.
He went to school about a month after. Everyone said he looked rather white considering his milky pink skin tone, Salim could not understand why though. He had been feeling all right; his khalah had been staying with him for almost four weeks. She would cook for him and tell him stories about growing up in a small village in Libya and the kind of adventures she and Salim's mother would go on. On some scorching hot summer afternoons, they would go to the nearby lake and play in the water.
Trying to force his body out of the charpoy, Salim's trousers caught one of the nails jutting out. He tugged at the cloth as hard as he could and let it tear a little, it came loose. Wishing he did not have to go to school, Salim grabbed his tattered sap green shirt from the floor beside him and walked over to the clay water pot as he tried to do the buttons on his shirt.
"You look a little pale, dear. Are you sure you're alright?" Salim's teacher asked.
Salim nodded his shabby little head and rubbed his eyes, yawning. Mualima Nessrine was a nice lady. These days she would ask Salim if he had eaten and showered, whether he needed anything, if she could help him with anything and if his Khalah had been visiting regularly; she did not even ask to see his homework that often anymore, only asked whether he was studying well. Brushing off the dust and debris off his shirt, Salim's teacher ushered him to take a seat. Her smile was warm and comforting, almost as warm as his mother's was.
It had been three months, five days and a few hours since Salim's mother died. Salim had just turned nine a week before. He had slowly opened the door to his ancient, dingy little house after coming home from school one day, careful not to take it off its hinges, and walked in to find his mother on the floor beside the charpoy, taking shallow breaths. Her whole body had been convulsing violently, as though someone was shaking her by the shoulder, and her eyes had rolled back so far up in her head that only the crescent was still visible. Salim had stood there for an eternity, tears running down his face even though he did not understand why. He finally thought to run next door to call the neighbour.
He went to school about a month after. Everyone said he looked rather white considering his milky pink skin tone, Salim could not understand why though. He had been feeling all right; his khalah had been staying with him for almost four weeks. She would cook for him and tell him stories about growing up in a small village in Libya and the kind of adventures she and Salim's mother would go on. On some scorching hot summer afternoons, they would go to the nearby lake and play in the water. She and her sister would compete to see who could hold their breaths underwater the longest. They would spend hours splashing around in the cool water before their father would come shouting at them, pulling them out of the lake by the ears. The quests had stopped after some time though, they were each married off to separate villages by the time they turned 17; their father, Salim's grand dad, had said it was to make sure they were safe and alive. However, his khalah had mentioned she could not take Salim home with her right then, her husband did not think it was safe for them or for Salim. "The military troops are keeping a close eye on everyone", his khal had told her to tell Salim.
Random merchants and shoppers greeted Salim the next time he walked to school, which was a 25-minute walk through the local alkhadruat bazar. He would exchange salam with the ones he remembered talking to his mother; they would pat him on the head from time to time and say, "He is growing up so fast."
Their concerns had now changed. "Are you okay, abn?" one would say; another, an elderly man would usually chime in, "You look so white, almost like a ghost! Is someone looking after you?"
'Does he mean now or like all the time?' Salim pondered on whether he should say yes or no. He would not know what to say; his aunt had already left. It had been a few weeks. Some nights he would be brave, fighting the towering jinns draped in white, shadowy and floating around the room in the darkness. Other nights, he would tremble under his blanket and recite as many surahs as he knew by heart, grasping the cloth over his head tightly and praying they would not pull him away by his feet. He remembered how his mother always used to say, "You're my brave little boy, there's nothing to be afraid of" and Salim would nod and bid them goodbye.
But he would wonder what made them think he was a ghost. Although, he was feeling rather light and faintish lately. It was proving to be difficult to ration the leftovers from the last time his aunt had brought him food, from which only a small container of lentil stew and rice was now left. Salim groaned thinking khalah would need to come visit him soon or he would have to learn cooking.
The other afternoon he had been lying on his charpoy, drifting off to the sound of his mother's lullaby when he felt a light cool breeze drift in through the window. The hairs on his body stood on their ends as he lazily reached for the blanket but he only felt its tattered fabric brush against his little fingers lightly, like the tip of his fingers caressing the surface of the water from a nearby lake. Salim's eyes opened to see where it was, frowning in his half-conscious state, and fishing for it around him, he realised it was there right beneath his hand. That is, he could almost see the brown and white patchwork of the fabric through the surface of his hand. He blinked his eyes a few times and rubbed them hard. Salim could only make out the faint outline of his arm as the warm afternoon sunlight reflected off the edges. The fleshy part though, where his skin was supposed to be—the part that was supposed to be solid—was transparent and the sun's ray travelled right through. Salim could see his blanket, his bed and everything right through his hand.
This is an excerpt from the short story, "In the Sand Dunes". Read the rest on The Daily Star and Star Literature's websites.
Maisha Syeda is a writer, painter, and the Sub editor of Star Books and Literature.