Tonight, it is my mother who sits with me, phantom arms wrapped around my quivering shoulders. Silently, she tells me to number the stars. She doesn’t speak- none of them truly did on these visits- but with my mother there was never a need for words. We had the language of flowers and discretion.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think about how fitting it is that she’s here tonight- to come full circle, like birth and the final breath. The cloying smell of crushed petals permeates the stale air, taking me back to three months ago, last year’s summer and the beginning of the end, all at once. I breathe it all in, allowing it to fill the endless abyss left in me, relishing in the way it replaces- or rather, restores- my father with his sunflower-seed skin, my mother weaving jasmine strands into her braids, my brothers tying bouquets of love and joy and sadness together. They are all in me again, tucked away neatly behind the swell of my breast and surrounding my heart. Shadow soldiers. Ready to take a bullet for me, even in death.
The first bell echoes within my bones. She tells me again and again and again. Number the stars.
“I cannot see the stars now,” I say, and already her laughter- loud and unprecedented, the kind that always takes you by surprise- reverberates in the air, my fate forgotten.
“You do not need these,” she says, her fingers pressing into my sockets, running over the stitches securing skin to skin. “You were forged in the stars. By the stars. Galaxies live inside you, just look. And count.”
“I am not made of stardust, Ammi. I am made of red-brick from a flower shop tucked away and spilling its contents onto the pavement, the blue in me comes from the river we camped across each summer, the silver dust from the bell clanging each hour in the city square. I am an amalgamation of a thousand nuances and colours that became my life and the galaxies that I hold aren’t of the stellar kind.”
My mother is a dreamer and a florist. In my head, there are yellow carnations littering marble floors.
I do not stop her from fading away but when I’m certain she’s gone, my hands grasp out for fistfuls of air, cold and unlived in. This part, at least, is familiar. The child at six, at ten, at seventeen, all know how to live when the mother is away.
The woman at twenty still wishes for her return.
She does not come, but then again, the dead never come when called.
I do not know how to number the stars I can barely remember so I begin to number the petals she’d left. The petals dredge up memories of a childhood spent running across cobblestone pathways, losing my way and still ending up home, finding trinkets bursting with life hidden in the crevices of the city. Cotton-candy clouds stick to my fingers and melt on my tongue. My mother braids my hair out on the porch, saffron-stained fingers moving deftly through the curls. Abbi comes home with two boys, more dirt than skin and overnight, we become more.
147 petals. The second bell rings.
My throat closes in on itself, the timer in my head doubling in size until the red glow of the countdown is permanently seared against my inner eyelids. My breath doesn’t return until my father sits besides me, his perpetually warm hands brushing away tendrils of hair that fall across my face.
My mother and I never needed words, but with my father, it’s all that’s been there. He has the voice of a storyteller that flows like water, rough and smoothly polished, lilting and grating, pleasant and earth-shattering, all at once. He begins, unprompted, and like always, knows exactly what story I need to hear.
“A hundred thousand eons ago, a rip in the universe came to be, bringing into creation worlds and heavens. The heavens as we know it, are bursting with joy and unending bliss. The worlds, however, are anything but. For there is the world of men and the world of Djinn, one of sand and the other of fire. Your history books will tell you about the Djinn. About how these beings used our blood as war paint and our hollowed-out bones as war horns. These are lies every man, woman and child needed to hear. The truth is far simpler, and far more complex. The Djinn just were. It has been eons since the first Great War and nobody knows what caused it or why the Djinn vanished from existence, leaving behind nothing but their fire in great craters scattered throughout our lands. It is easy now, to paint them as the evil that wreaked havoc on the Earth, but we are as much responsible for the deaths as they were. Perhaps more.”
“Tell me how this ends, Papa.”
I fill in the silence by picturing him rubbing his beard, the smile lines crinkling around his eyes. “You cannot always skip straight to the ending, love. Origin stories are just as important as endings, maybe even more so. Now where was I?” There is a slight pause, filled only by the rise and fall of my breath before he continues. “Humanity flourished using the fire left behind. We harnessed magic of a novel kind, elevating ourselves to the level of the gods. But like all things that exist, we too have a flaw. Ours was pride, which led to ignorance. Do you remember the night the skies unfurled like orange lilies?”
I nod. “The beginning of the end.”
“Yes. The Djinn descended in their furious splendour, and the world as we knew it went up in smoke, tender wisps of the fire in everything returning to their masters, their homes and filling the air with joyous cackles. This time, it wasn’t a war. The Djinn had millennia of patience and planning and sowing their seeds. We had ghost stories of burning shadows whispered during campfires and history that was flawed in its retelling. This time, it wasn’t a war,” he says again. “This time, it was simply a restoration of balance.”
“They killed you. Ammi said the smell of burning flesh hung in the air for years afterward. How is that restoration of balance?” I try to keep the bitterness out of my voice, to try and think rationally the way he advises me to.
“Your fate hangs heavily above your head, Bil. The universe works in cycles of life and the last breath. The Djinn and Mankind were, until the Djinn were vanquished. Now, it is their time to live, but humanity will return again, to flourish as we once did.”
I do not respond, choosing instead to cower from the fear of dying. I am unsure if it is his breath or mine that sucks the air dry as I ask, “Tell me about her. The first Queen.”
“Bilqis was Queen of the World. She may have ruled from here,” he says, pulling my hand into his and pressing his finger down near my thumb, to where Auraia was inked in. “But she had the world hidden in her palm. Legend has it that Bilqis had eyes of different colours, one the golden colour of the sand dunes that sheltered her castle and the other, the ashen fire of the ifrit. The men used to say the trees spoke her praise when she walked past and the birds serenaded her from dusk till dawn. Her throne was larger than the ancient olive tree that outdated even the oldest of Djinn and was adorned with jewels larger than a man’s head. True magic ran in her blood, and where she walked, she brought to life flowers and shrubs from dreams. The legends say she is the reason the Djinn vanished from existence except for their fire and that she is the only one to whom the Djinn will bow.”
“And Bilqis… how did she die?”
“Her body burned in the crater atop Mount Aine but the spirit of the Queen is not dead. There are sages who believe her spirit will choose another like her, strong and able to stand in between both worlds. Unite both worlds.”
“And you? What do you believe, Papa?”
His fingers mirror the movements of her mother’s as he traces the stitches across her eyelids. “I think her spirit has found its place for now.”
“And yet, my death comes with the fifth bell,” I remind him.
“My sweet, death is not the end. I am here, aren’t I?” I let him comfort me, his murmurs like soft waves crashing against the shores of my fear.
“Why am I the last to go?”
“We are kindling to your fury; if you want to stop a fire at its roots, you must first clear the area. Only once it is all gone, can you approach the heart of the flame without damage.”
“Papa, how do I count the stars?”
His smile stretches, slow and sad and he is gone. There is only the baritone of his words hanging in the air and the smell of a fire beginning its purge.
This time, I do not call out for the dead. I call out for the spirit of a Queen.
There are three hundred freshly plucked petals in a new pile before an answer comes, bringing with it the third bell and a fresh batch of flowers.
“Ammi sent these.” Qadir tosses an artfully wrapped bouquet of white heather and hyacinth of a sunset purple. My brothers still hide their faces in shadow, little visible through the night that hangs over them. They were training to be warriors. Faceless, with only the night and each other as allies. I only know it is Qadir because his hand sports the Acele crest -a winged beast with the mane of a lion and the body of a wolf- marking him the oldest child.
There are three kinds of silences. The first one is where the words are a hindrance. Where words leave room for miscommunication and harshness and only serve to delay the message. The silence of mutual trust.
The second is the silence of the night where stories are mused and pondered on, dreams are revisited.
And the third is the silence that hangs heavy on burdened hearts, sticking to skin like perspiration on a humid afternoon. It is the silence that follows the metaphorical cat out of its bag and the silence that hides behind the white lies people carve out of their souls.
It is the third kind of silence that hangs in the air as I accept the flowers.
Haider sits across from me, his knees brushing against mine. Qadir is stooped against the low ceiling of the cramped cell. I do not know what to say to them.
“Did it hurt? When they sewed your eyes shut, did it hurt?” Haider’s voice is tentative as he tests the silence. There is an apology running alongside those words and I want to tell them it is not their fault.
“It was like the sting of a thousand nettles at once. With more tears and blood, I suppose. Does it hurt when the fires start?”
“The flames are meant to kill, not torture. It is like diving into the river at the crack of dawn, a sharp awakening and then numbness.”
“Did Ammi teach you how to number the stars?”
“You mean the ones in the sky or the ones inside you?”
“The ones inside me, Qadir. What good would the dead stars up there do me?”
Haider laughs. Or maybe it is Qadir’s laugh. I cannot differentiate and my heart grows heavy. I lost my brothers long before the skies were painted with hatred. “She tried to teach us too. But then told us we weren’t the dreaming kind and left us-”
Our laughter is disjointed, but there is the undercurrent of fraternity weaving it together slowly. I hope they feel it too, dead or not. My knees are drawn to my chest, and there is just enough room for Qadir to sit. “Do you remember how we used to share a bed as kids?”
“You mean when Haider took up three-fourths of the bed and I always ended up on the floor?” Qadir mutters, feigning bitterness.
“Well at least I didn’t hog all the blankets during the winter.”
“Yeah you just stole all the tea we found each time,” I quip, coming to Haider’s defense.
My brothers do not talk when the laughter and nostalgia finally dies out. I do not, either, but a thousand and one questions still dance in the air between us.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t stop them,” Qadir says, his voice hardly a whisper. “I’m sorry for leaving, for failing.”
“You are not responsible for me.” My voice softens as I add, “I couldn’t be prouder of either of you for joining the Faceless.”
The fourth bell is louder, and growing louder still as I press my hands flat against my ears. I can feel the fear coating my tongue and turning it into lead. My body rocks of its own accord, knees crashing into the ribs of one twin and the elbows of the other. It takes what feels like hours to stop, locked in the embrace of my found family.
“Death isn’t that bad, Bil.”
I snort, despite myself. “Please don’t let those be your last words.”
“You really need a shower. Make it an hour-long soak.”
“Put all these petals to good use for once.”
There is a phantom smile on my lips as I wave goodbye to the hollow air around me. I resume the petal picking but this time, there is no counting. There is only reminiscing as I paint my mother in the pink of the universe and the blue of her favourite stars, highlighting the dimple on her cheek with stardust. I crush sunflower-seeds to paint my father, dousing his figure in sweetened tea and filling in his paper cuts with music from a faraway city hidden beneath the waves. Qadir is heads, hundreds and hundreds of coins with the shielded eye of the maiden shining out and bringing to life the harsh planes of his face from before the shadows rendered him two-dimensional. I flip it around, and Haider stares back at me. Heads and tails. Not one without the other. I pull from the abyss inside me, drawing shadows over their faces, remembering them as they choose to be.
Finally, I remember me as I once was. Tendrils of snaky hair that belonged under the ocean, an eye of sandstorms and an eye of a funeral pyre. Arms that had the world tattooed on them, long snaking lines of forests and dunes, of oceans and mountains that seemed to writhe and breathe and grow along with me. Skin the shade of the sun-kissed olive bark.
I leave it hanging in the entrance, a reminder to everyone of the family that lived and loved beyond themselves. Time is nonsensical now. The final bell rings, clashing with the sound of metal grating against stone as our jailers free us. No one tries to break for it, lunge for weapons, escape. Instead, they search the crowd of unwashed, grimy faces for familiarity. I do not bother to look.
I have already made my farewells.
The march begins. We shuffle, stomp and drag ourselves through corridor after corridor, the same musty air of our cells surrounding us. Shuffle. Halt. Shuffle. Turn. Stop. Fresh, crisp air kisses my skin and I’m laughing. I can feel the curious, confused stares of the others around me but I do not duck my head or lower my voice. The wind whips at me, carrying my joy through to the heavens. I hope my family hears it. I hope they will be waiting for me. I am jostled forward by the force of a hundred bodies- a hundred hearts filled with fury- behind me and so we walk again, not as individuals but as a whole- the way we will be remembered. I picture their history books with a photograph of a sea of heads, labelled The March of the Last Men.
I pray that the Djinn do not erase us to little more than monsters the way we have done to them.
The ground beneath my feet turns to worn-down concrete, warm from the hundreds of feet that have crossed it. I can hear the whispers of the Djinn around me, feel their fury searing the skin on my back, on my arms. I want to turn to them, rip out my stitches. Remind them their time will come again. People, my people, are sobbing as we walk on the now burning ground, feet blistering and bleeding. The scent of burnt flesh is clearer, more pervasive as we approach the arena.
I am taken back in time to when Qadir managed to sneak us in for the soccer finals three summers ago. Sweat and anticipation hung heavily in the air, crowds overflowing from the stands into the streets in all directions. A cacophony of drums, laughter, cheer. The indescribable feeling of being part of something so magnanimous. I hold onto that, anchoring myself to what being human is.
The stitches on my eyes do not hinder me from playing my part, for the thread of fate that twines through the spaces of all our fingertips has been stretched taut. We line up like tin soldiers, fall to our knees and then our backs. Synchronised dancers, each one contributing to the fall of the other in a domino effect. Not a single human is left standing when the fires begin to rage.
Three realizations come to me before death. First, it is that I am not afraid. Rather, there is an impatience thrumming within as I wait for the flames to reach me, consume me in its wave of destruction.
Second, I was Bilqis of Acele, Carrier of the Queen’s Heart and my time to reduce this fire to ashes has come, will come. I can feel her within me, a promise stronger than time.
Lastly, there are six hundred and seventy-three thousand stars dying in that field with me. There are six hundred and seventy-three thousand stars that form new constellations and a total of eight billion stars in the universe.
It is my mother who comes for me, holding a bouquet of cosmos and lavender in her hands.