I see it in the cold store, between the bags of Chips Oman and the cans of Vimto.
Or its face, anyway.
While I watch, the eyes puddle outward, elongating, retreating. It looks like it is about to cry.
From behind the register, beneath the flickering fluorescent light, Sinjin clears his throat. I blink and the vision disappears. But I stand there, waiting for the face to return to where it was, shining off the grimy glass of the cooler door. Things decohere.
I leave the cold store with my bag of crisps but I have already lost my appetite. The eyes. The strange, engulfing eyes. Looking at them was like being swallowed.
Prayer has finished and the street is a mess of bodies. Mosques are emptying, offices are emptying, people are flooding into the night. Cold stores are doing brisk business in cigarettes, roasted nuts, and cups of tea. Shouts in Arabic, Malayalam, Tagalog. To my left, a plastic bag of black limes has split, scattering pitted orbs into the gutter. A maid in a pastel blue uniform collects them while her madam waits on the curb. A taxi rolls by, shaggy sheepskin on the dash, prayer beads swaying from the rear-view mirror. Two boys hold hands beneath a street light, a group of little girls sandals by, an old man in a kurta tosses a cigarette into the gutter. All around me, time is going strange. Too fast and then too slow. The world shudders in my vision.
I need to know what to do. You see a djinn, that means something. I decide I will ask Abu Ghareeb because he has read more books than anyone I know. I turn left into an alley and cross a road and cut through a dirt lot. I walk without paying attention because I’ve memorized these streets, walked them so many times that a perfect map of them lives in my bones. Down another alley that smells of cheap cologne. Two boys loom out of the shadows, pinking the darkness with their tongues. I cuss at them in Arabic that makes their jaws drop. Who taught an ajnabi to talk like that, they ask. As I round the corner, I can hear them laughing.
Abu Ghareeb lives in a putty pink building with jasmine vines swirling around the windows like sloppy handwriting. He opens the door and holds his hand over his heart, greeting me in Arabic and in English while his Glaswegian accent holds steady throughout. I sit on the rough cushions of his majlis while he makes tea in the kitchen. His wife Reem sits in the corner wearing a zebra print jalabiya. She is a doctor and she looks like a doctor should look, kind and understanding but like she wouldn’t hesitate to slice through flesh with a scalpel. She smiles and nudges a box of tissues toward me. They have a child, a small daughter, and I can hear her whimpering in the next room.
It takes too long for Abu Ghareeb to make tea. Even here in this flat, amid the plastic covered sofas and the doily draped television set, time is going strange. The tea he eventually does bring is too sweet and the mint leaves are gritty. I drink and tell him what I saw.
He sips tea through thin lips, placid, as if he hears about djinn appearing in the cold stores of the souq every day.
Finally, he asks, “Are you sure?”
“How could I be sure of something like that?”
He plucks a thicket of mint leaves from the bottom of his empty glass and wedges them between his teeth. He chews for a while and then, “Did what you see change form as you were looking at it?”
I think back. Time wobbles. I might still be standing in the cold store, with the smell of incense and dish detergent thick in the air. I can still see the reflection of the face in the soda cooler door. The watery eyes stretching to reveal a great, swallowing distance. A sense of falling.
“It did change.”
Abu Ghareeb frowns. “When things change we must ask ourselves: is this even real?”
Reem pushes the tissue box closer toward me and the cries from the other room stop.
Onto Khabeera avenue, weaving through clots of people, I vanish into a fog of ‘oud smoke. The rug dealer has set a giant mabkhara on the curb and the incense stains the crowd with its dark scent. This street used to be seaside docks where porters heaved cargo on and off of dhows. Gold, pearls, spices, camels, horses, and teak, coming and going from India, Ethiopia, Zanzibar, and beyond. After land reclamation the street became embassies, then electronics stores, then small offices and, at the far end, my elementary school, where, years ago, during the Gulf War, I went to class lugging my child-sized gas mask. When the air-raid sirens went off, we huddled beneath our desks and sang nonsense songs to quell our terror.
The school has been gone for years. Where it stood is now an empty lot where an outdoor jalsa has been set up, with a threadbare sofa, rickety table, and a bubbling shisha pipe. A group of barefoot old men are relaxing, waiting for the tea boy to return with their karak. There is a TV on a stack of crates, its cord running off into the darkness, playing an old science fiction movie. On screen, a gleaming spaceship door opens with a hiss and a face with bulbous black eyes peers out. The men gasp.
When I reach the outskirts of the souq, I smell the hot salt scent of the sea. In the taxi rank, a white-thobed taxi driver sits on a bench, staring down at the jawal in his hand. When he looks up at me, a forlorn expression on his face, the light from the phone screen drains, a blue mask sliding over skin.
Um Baed is where she always is, sitting on the corner in her tattered abaya selling boxes of tissue. She has them arranged around her like a cardboard citadel.
I sit down next to her.
“Masa al khair.”
“Masa al noor.” She smiles a smile that is empty of teeth. The tattoo stippled along her chin has faded with age, shadowing her jaw indigo. I don’t know where she is from. Whenever I ask, she names various countries and then shows me a picture of her son, who is away studying in Germany.
From Um Baed’s vantage point, here on the ground, near the curb, the roar of traffic is cataclysmic so I speak loudly when I ask, “Is there anything to see tonight?”
She nods. There is always something to see in the sky.
I tell her what I saw in the cold store. I tell her about the eyes that were like an isthmus. I tell her how I keep falling out of time.
“I don’t know where I am,” I confess.
“Maybe you’ve gone too far,” she says.
We lift our faces toward the sky.
Cranes flail up and down, orange construction lights flash, and men just landed from Kerala and Dhaka and Kathmandu, hammers in hand, scale the embryonic husks of someday buildings. The latest project is the most beautiful. Half of the tower is already complete, clad in luminous siding that gleams like the moon would gleam if we could still see it from down here.
Um Baed has always said there are prophecies to be seen in the machinations of progress written so quickly across the sky. But tonight she remains silent so I watch and tell myself that I will glean whatever knowledge I am meant to glean. You cannot stare at the skyline without seeing it change. It is time itself coming for you.
Turning my gaze back down to the street, I watch a little girl run past wearing a shalwar kameez flecked with purple sequins. She sings to herself in Arabic, then turns and tells her brother to hurry up in Pashto. Two teenage boys shuffle by, one wearing a gutra cobra-style low over his eyes, the other in a tattered baseball hat. A young woman dashes across the intersection amid an outrage of honking, her shayla the color the night sky is supposed to be, blue-black and depthless.
I get to my feet and thank Um Baed.
She gives me a box of tissues.
I give her three coins.
Um Baed said maybe I had gone too far so I turn around. The vast pageant of portents in the sky had told me nothing. They flickered across my face like the taxi man’s jawal light, meaningless shapes and hollow static. I know that I do not have the knowledge of time, that I am always falling away from where I want to be. The map in my bones has grown so large that it has replaced the thing itself.
I plunge into the torrent of people leaving the Hindu temple, the people lining up at the money union, the people buying khubz and ful and falafel, the people shouting, the people crying, the people worrying prayer beads between their fingers, the people on their mobiles calling families on the other side of the sea. When I reach the very center of the crowd, the street stretching before and behind me, I hear a strange, lilting melody. It lasts only a moment but I recognize it: someone is singing the song we used to sing at school during the war, when the air raid sirens went off, when we knew the sky was coming undone over our heads. I remember the way the world looked from beneath my desk, the way my body seemed to warp, lengthening between two distant points. It seems there was always an isthmus.
When I reach the cold store I read the faded, hand-painted lettering over the door, Al Barzakh, and wonder how I could have been so stupid. Through the glass door I can see Sinjin leaning back on his stool, his cracked heels propped on the counter, dozing. Entering, I hear tinny music playing on the old radio, Oum Kulthoum crooning about everything she has lost.
I turn left at the bottles of non-alcoholic beer, skirt the humming milk case, duck under the hanging bags of crisps, and there, along the back wall, is the soda cooler. I stand in front of it with Um Baed’s tissue box still in my hand.
Something about the cooler door has changed. The flickering fluorescent light catches fiercely all along the pane of glass, which is no longer smeary and dull. Sinjin, for once, has taken the rag that sits next to the register and wiped the place down. I step closer.
And, for a moment, I see it again. The face with the sad, stretching eyes. Of course, it was never a djinn at all. I know that now. Looking at it, I think of the isthmus and how I ventured so far from where I should be in this inbetween place. I know I am ready for what is to come.
But then, from behind the register, in his drowsy stupor Sinjin coughs. I blink and the image in the cooler door snaps, vanishing like a popped bubble. Time trembles. I remember Reem pushing the tissue box toward me, the pitying look of the taxi man on his bench, and the way Um Baed wouldn’t tell me what she saw in the night sky. I remember the boys in the dark alley and the sound of laughter falling from their mouths like stars.
Through the newly cleaned glass of the soda cooler door, I see cans of Vimto and Mirinda, Lion ice cream bars, and the grim, shivering reflection of a face.
I look like I’m about to cry.
Natasha Burge is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated writer from the Arabian Gulf. Previously the writer in residence of the Qal’at al Bahrain Museum, she is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing. Her work can be found in The Smart Set, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Forge Literary Magazine, among others. More at www.natashaburge.com.