There was and there was not a world in which every person walked backwards. They did this in order to preserve their relationship to the past, which they knew from birth was sacred. To walk backwards ensured that one could always see the past, flickering in the places it lived. It was always there for the seeing, provided one remained connected with it.
Each day, the people of Khalil would shake off sleep and walk carefully out of their doors and onto the cobbled streets, placing each foot behind them and trusting the earth to guide their steps. Some of the inhabitants were better at this than others, for though they had all been taught the mechanics, the trust required to move in this manner took time to develop. The Boy was one for whom walking was familiar as breath. His feet were intimately acquainted with the way the stones spoke, and he always walked without shoes.
On this day, the Boy exited his home and took the familiar morning path to the corner store for cigarettes and cheese. This route he knew like the lyrics to an old song. First, up the four and a half stairs—the city planner had been disappeared during a pivotal moment of the construction of this area and left a strange half-stair which threw people off for a while—away from his house at the bottom of the hill and onto the street. The Boy continued down the street, stepped left after two hundred and twenty paces to avoid the broken cobblestones that the new city planner had sworn to fix, stopped after four hundred fifty paces to turn and say hello to Sami the flower seller and peruse the poppies, then continued the two hundred paces to the corner store. After one hundred and seventy four paces, however, the Boy’s head bumped something.
He stopped. This was unexpected, and wrong. Nothing should be head height at this juncture; it was an empty stretch of the road, with no shops on either side and not even a makeshift tent for one of the city’s unhoused. The Boy stood, uncertain, trying to cast his mind to any possibility he had left unconsidered. A one-in-a-million collision with a bird mid-flight? He moved again and once more felt the bump. Not a bird, then, unless this bird knew how to stay in the air in one spot. It could not be a street sign, for the Boy knew he had walked in a straight line. It could not even be a person, as he would have recognized the feel of them as he backed into a body. He began to feel frightened by this unplaceable obstacle, this intrusion into the familiar fabric of his city. He imagined it might be the devil, or a djinn, come to cause him innumerable pains until he gave up his soul or his property. The Boy began to sweat. A low noise on the wind caught him by the gut and he balled his hands into fists. He felt the danger resting lightly on his shoulders, and knew that the only thing to possibly do was turn around and see it for what it was.
But to do so was to give up his relation to the past—everything that the Boy had lived, all the memories he cherished on the streets of Khalil. Turning away from the past severed one’s connection to it forever. Only a few Khalilis had ever done it, and now they wandered the city like wraiths, turning and turning and trying to get it back. The Boy had always felt sorry for them, and only in nightmares had he ever considered facing the same fate.
But the thing behind him began to whir, louder, and he felt its breath on his neck. Before his eyes he saw his father, his family, the ones he had lost, the buildings crumbled and rebuilt, all flickering in time with his breath.
The Drone remained behind him, heavy as a funeral. The Boy stood still as dirt.
He closed his eyes.
There was and there was not a world in which you are waiting for the doctor in her cold waiting room. She will, when she emerges from the recesses of the office with all its pristine garish walls, tell you the results of a test which will change your life forever. The attendant, an older man who you have watched misplace and find his own glasses four times in the last twenty minutes, keeps looking at your file and frowning, occasionally shaking his head.
Clutched in your hands is a pack of cigarettes, the brand you’ve been smoking since you were fourteen and felt forty. Now, of course, you are nineteen, and you feel ageless. Perhaps you are. Perhaps that is what the doctor will come to tell you, when she does, her eyes crinkled as she places an arm on your shoulder, in a low voice telling you that time has taken a break when it comes to your cells. You’ll leave the office shaken, convinced it is a joke, but as the years go by, as your friends whither and your mother curses your perpetual skin, as eventually even the buildings start to go, their stones victim to all the small erosions the desert calls love, you will recall this visit to the doctor’s office and point out to the attendant look, they’re right there, on your head, where you left them.
These are the kind of thoughts you’ve been having. You need to see a therapist, but there aren’t any left in the city. The joke among Khalilis is to go ask God for therapy, as he’s cheaper and easier to get in contact with. You laugh every time.
You look at the attendant, impatient. Now he’s picking at his earwax, staring at it with fascination and disgust. You sigh and decide to light up to quiet your anxiety. There’s a no smoking sign on the attendant’s desk, but it took him several minutes to even notice you’d entered the office when you arrived, so you figure it will be fine.
The lighter takes a second, but soon smoke fills your mouth, lungs. You love smoking for unpoetic reasons; you’re addicted to nicotine and enjoy the feeling of smoke and the taste of this particular tobacco. Sometimes it’s nice not to have deeper reasons for things. You think this would be a good thing to say in therapy if God ever responded to the intake form.
You notice the cigarette smoke is behaving strangely. The smoke which drifts from the lit end twists and disappears, but the smoke which leaves your mouth emerges thick and lingering. After your first exhale there is a small cloud of it, hanging in the air, refusing to dissipate.
Squinting your eyes, you take another drag and hold it in. You exhale, and this time the smoke curls around the first cloud, like a sea creature’s tentacle around a ship. It continues to move in a circle around the first cloud, until both merge together into one mass. At this point your jaw is stuck open in disbelief. The smoke hanging before you begins to turn, and you notice that the attendant has vanished, that you are quite alone in the office save for this small saucer of smoke.
The smoke begins to flatten itself into round circle, like the porthole of a ship. It stills, and in its murkiness you begin to see the semblance of a creature, moving rapidly from left to right. The shape in the smoke keeps moving and you can’t place it, though it looks familiar. You begin to hear some low rumbling sound from outside the office—or from inside? You don’t know.
By now you have begun to breathe heavily, mouthing wordless prayers, looking around the room for someone to notice this dark miracle along with you, but there is no one, and by the time the creature from the smoke reveals itself—with a blast that shatters through the roof of the office—to be the Drone, you are aware that now, as always, you are alone. Urine leaks down your leg and you wonder what the test might have said, in another life in which you had the time for it to matter.
As the Drone hovers in its portal to the sky, and the room fills now with a smoke too acrid even for your lungs, you wish that you had talked to someone in this life—to God, to the doctor, the attendant, to anyone at all who might have listened—who might in some small way have understood.
There was and there was not a world in which onions gained sentience before humans, sprouting little limbs that allowed them to move about the earth and harvest precious materials, and by the time humans developed a consciousness and the ability to notice their own nakedness, onions had already built a thriving society based primarily on their number of healthy skin layers, a complicated system that humans did not fit into, seeing as they all had the same number of skin layers barring any major accidents or burns, which the onions found rather peculiar, and there were decades of attempts to work the humans into the society that had been built by the onions, all largely unsuccessful due to the humans’ lack of understanding and the onions’ general impatience, until eventually the Boy, a human, called a public meeting to announce that he had a suggestion for an arrangement of relations between humans and onions that would be equitable, productive, and safe for all, and because the onions valued youth and the humans knew the Boy from previous innovations, both groups gathered at the appointed meeting spot to hear the idea, and the world stilled in anticipation until there was noise, a pointing at the sky by one onion limb, then another, and every eye turned to see the Drone, entering silent and quick, and before the flames, all that any one saw was a creature, a thing with no life, no mind, no skin, no skin at all.
There was and there was not a world in which I wake up in a cold sweat from that dream again. The dream in which Fatima has left me once and for all, saying that it is because of my haircut, and she cannot be seen in public with me or else she will lose her job as a city planner. I try to protest in the dream that this is ridiculous, she cannot be fired because of her husband’s haircut, but suddenly she is already gone and I am riding on horseback somewhere near the sea, only I look down to find that actually I am the horseback, or I should say we are connected, like a minotaur—or, rather, well, I forget exactly which creature we are like but we are like it. The dream ends when I find that the beach has become a drive-through for some Western fast food restaurant, and I look into the service window and see my father, shaking his head and blowing a cloud of shisha at me. The last thought of the dream is always a disparaging one about my father’s choice of flavor. Double apple.
Tonight, as I sit up in our bed and mop the sweat from my brow, I think of Fatima and wonder if perhaps she does harbor some lingering disappointment with me, which I am picking up on subconsciously. I know I am no-one’s dream, being small of stature, mind, and ambition. But I like to believe that the moments between us have been real, these two years: our meeting at the café; when she outpaced me drinking arak, until I surrendered, laughing so hard I could barely breathe; the times we stayed awake til morning on video chat and described our respective sunrises as vividly as possible because the video quality was not good enough to show each other. It seems to me that we have lived a good life, are living a good life. Certainly, there are the usual troubles—food, water, getting to work at the appointed time through the road closures—but despite these, we have laughed each day. This I find remarkable, as I fumble on our bedside table for my glasses, giving up on sleep for the time being. That we laugh, often and long, at things that others barely even see. It is a laughter immune to any suppression, whether pittance pay, or cousin Sami again not allowed visitors in the prison, or what happened to my father while the summer heat pursued us all. I am, in this moment, so overwhelmed by gratitude and by the insurmountable delight of my human, less-than-ideal, nobody’s-dream body, that I feel I must share this feeling or risk a heart attack. I reach over to Fatima, peel back the covers in the gentle dark to feel her shoulder, her delightful, less-than-ideal, dream-of-mine body.
My hand discovers a cold, hard sheen, smooth to my touch. I continue a search down and find more of this, just metal, just nothing like human flesh at all. I fall out of bed, terrified, and hit my head on the corner of the bedside table; a warm sticky something invades the edge of my hair. The room remains silent as heaven, as I reach up, cast about for the lamp’s switch. When I find it, and the light illuminates the room, I stand and stare at Fatima’s side of the bed.
Slumbering peacefully lies the Drone. Its one red eye blinks at me, seeing always but in this moment not connecting action to what it sees. A cold grey machine, still-rendered, in our bed.
I am filled with fear. I taste its copper, I feel its brittleness. I begin to move towards the door and the Drone’s eye blinks faster, its quiet breathing whir picks up its volume. I stop, and it returns to sleep.
My heart is soaked with unintelligible things, and slowly they begin to coalesce into some empty dread. I realize I have known this was coming. My dreams, vague and languageless as they may be, have been warning me of this inevitability for months. The Drone does not move its gunmetal limbs, each capable of bringing about my death at a moment’s notice. It is clear to me now that I must choose between death and this hollow new forced-on-me love. Feeling each inch of my body as it rests on the ground, is kept tethered by gravity, feels even now the wetness invading my cheeks as though rivers of fresh water safe to drink—what choice do I have?
I slowly, gingerly make my way back into bed, curl up beside the Drone and close my eyes, trying to pretend that Fatima is not gone to some unknowable place, trying to pretend the Drone’s steady whir might be her breathing, trying to get back the delight I’d felt just minutes ago, trying so hard that it hurts.
There was and there was not a world in which we asked daily for forgiveness from the mountain, whose earthy silence pointed out in us a desperation too large to acknowledge. Each day the mountain opened up another hole in the ground and swallowed another of us. The holes came closer and closer to the edge of the city, and we were certain that we could not appease its anger for much longer. Then the Drone came, and there was fire, and there was no more mountain. The hole that opened in its wake spread larger than it had been, larger than the city, larger still than our imaginations, larger than any words to describe its edges. Now we ask forgiveness from nothing.
There was and there was not a world in which the foam of the sea’s waves contained a hidden secret, the key to an eternally renewable energy source. The Boy set out on this day, his shoulders small and thin, having pored over the ancient texts and learned the exact procedure to distill this energy and harness enough power for the city. When he arrived at the beach, the Drone emerged from the sea like a revelation, and whatever code the water held was gone, and the Boy lost all meaning.
There was and there was not a world in which the Boy was half human, half machine. The Drone did not recognize either half as worthy of the privilege of movement, and stillness became the Boy.
There was and there was not a world in which the city of Khalil was built of soap bubbles. The people had learned to live inside its flimsiness, to trust enough in tension that their faith made sidewalks of foam. Every living person trusted that the materials they created, the movements their bodies took, and the decibels at which they argued would not pierce the collective shelter upon which they agreed.
The soap bubbles of each object were intimately connected to the others, as were the people of Khalil. Each depended on the existence of the others. What the people of Khalil had discovered was the strength of soap, provided that one interacted with it gently, patiently, and with a modicum of willingness to lose everything. The upside was that everything was always clean.
(This was a joke the elders of the city often told to frustrated young ones unable to figure out how to construct the object they needed from the great well of fresh soap in the city’s center. Generally, young Khalilis found it unfunny.)
The city, though fragile, had never broken. Occasionally, a stronger than usual breeze would move it a few miles to the east or west, and there had of course been the time some residents of the neighboring city had come and made fun of Khalil, which caused a kind of existential crisis among some more uncertain members of the population, but still the city stood, and stood proudly. It seemed to its people that although, yes, they lived within an absurdity, it was this absurdity that made each moment of life a marvel, each day another miracle to point towards the existence, kindness, and humor of God.
When the Drone came it did not even stop to look at them. It merely passed through at a hovering, relentless pace, on its way to exert control over some place near Khalil, or far.
The pop of the city was quieter than they had anticipated; Umm Amir, sitting at her table of soap, thought at first that she was dreaming as every thing around her disappeared in an instant. For a moment, there was a silence. Then a sickening noise: the gentle patter of the falling rubble of soap.
The people of Khalil were stunned. Where they had moments ago been bending over the fire in their home, or smoking behind the corner store, or trying to catch a glimpse of the neighbor’s new suit through the window, they now appeared as a scattered assortment of bodies devoid of meaning, legible only in relation to one another, a field of needleless cactuses. Before them was nothing but the prospect of a great rebuilding, and long days of vulnerability before they finished.
Standing at what had been the city’s center, drenched in cleanness, the Boy tried to breathe. He tried again. He closed his eyes, concentrated, and tried once more to breathe. Failing, he opened his eyes to stare at the receding sight of an object too sharp for the world his people had built together.
There was and there was not a world in which the Boy was made of stone, his people made of stone, his dreams and feelings stone too. At dusk the Drone came. The Boy and his people gathered at the city’s edge and each removed one of their hands. As one, they hurled hands at the Drone until it fell to the ground, and each of them stomped it into glittering metal dust. When the next one came, they hurled their remaining hands and struck it to ground again. Within a week the Boy and his people had no bodies left to weaponize, and remained on the ground, heads only, watching as the Drone observed them, a cold and floating eye with no body of its own to speak of, and still they were jealous.
There was and there was not a world in which language was never invented. The people of this world lacked a knowledge of naming, that first measure of control. And so they were kind to one another, and as close to each other as a living creature might be to those who share its aches, its desires, its sustaining motions. They were with each other mostly in silence, and knew through the touch of a hand to an arm what they needed. And when they touched a stone, or put their fingers into the earth, they knew also what it needed, what it desired, and how they were in relation to its wants. The world remained sensory and strange.
The Boy, a desert child, was one day wandering towards the wadi, interested in finding some one to be close to for the afternoon. At the base of the wadi he came upon two others, struggling. They made loud noises, and moved in ways the Boy was not familiar with. Eventually, the one who was smaller raised a hand and brought it down sharp and quick. A thudding sound invaded the air. The larger one fell and was still; a bloom of red blood marched steadily across the dirt. The smaller one breathed heavily, then made a noise of anguish, and fled.
The Boy stared at the large one, splayed out in the sand that had raised them all. A well of feeling rose up in him, and thinking only to give breath to the vast thing he felt, his lungs pushed and his lips formed the Word.
“Drone,” he spoke. In the reflection of the red pool, he thought he saw a flicker of movement in the sky. When he looked up, nothing beat down but the sun and the knowledge that something had forever been altered.
There was and there was not a world in which the Boy snuck out of his parents’ home, long after the sun had set. The air was cool as he walked towards the heart of the city, faintly lit in the distance by the lights of its revelers. His heart was racing a little bit, and he stopped a moment and breathed slowly and deeply, willing his pulse to slow. It did, and he smiled to himself, secure in the knowledge that the whims of his body were still subject to the intentions of his mind.
When he got to the café, Sami was onstage, belly-dancing. The Boy lost himself in the crowd which stood at the front of the café, clamoring for more drink, arguing with Imraan the owner, and filling the air with cigarette smoke drifting recklessly towards God. The Boy’s eyes roamed over the patrons of the café, searching the audience for the ones he was looking for. These would not be the ones at the front or talking quietly in the corner. The Boy was looking for the few scattered patrons who found themselves unable to avoid staring at Sami, and his hips, and his belly with its sly scruff of hair.
He spotted one he was drawn to, a bearded man a few years older than the Boy. The Boy took a seat next to him and they both watched, rapt, as Sami moved like a wave. As the song drew to a close, the Boy’s pinky touched the bearded man’s pinky, and language was unnecessary.
Later, in the man’s small bed, the Boy traced the hairs on the man’s chest as it rose, fell, slow and sleeping. The Boy, spent and happy, matched the deep breaths with his own two lungs, and soon was asleep as well. He did not dream.
He woke in a few hours, before the sun. They’d turned in the night, their backs to each other’s. The Boy stayed where he was, touched one hand to his own chest to feel his pulse and reached the other behind him to feel the bearded man’s. But he felt nothing, just cold silence beneath the hair. The Boy frowned, certain he was mistaken, and turned back to look at the bearded man, whose mouth was open slightly in some expression of terror, his skin rigid. A whir made itself apparent on the air, and the Boy looked up to see the Drone, floating just above the bed, its eye trained on the Boy’s nakedness, and his shame bubbled up into being.
He started to cry, and as he lay cold under the meaningless gaze of the Drone, he tried to tell it something—something about his body, something about his mind—though here in this moment he found he could not remember what it was.
There was and there was not a world in which the Boy and the Drone never meet. I am searching for it still.
There was and there was not a world in which the people of Khalil, in despair and convinced that the Earth had been too long violent, too carved up, and too poisoned by borders to ever hold them, decided that they had no choice but to leave.
Each Khalili spent their last day on Earth saying farewell to the land. Sami spent the day whispering to the cactus which had been, in his childhood, a confidante and friend. Noor took the opportunity to bury her feet in the soil of her grandmother and remain, rooted, for the day’s duration, watering herself and soaking in the sunlight.
The Boy spent the day with the olive tree next to which his family had built their home, so long ago that history had not been written yet. He spoke to it fondly, patted its arms when the time came to say goodbye, gazed thoughtfully at the corners of the sky.
In the night’s blue light, the people of Khalil gathered at the city’s Center for the Study of Science, Magic, and Trust to make their journey. Each family stepped into a specially prepared room, hermetically sealed and discreet. They each removed their clothes and folded them neatly into little piles in the corner of the rooms. Then they waited, standing pensively and staring up through the rooms’ clear ceilings at the night sky above.
When the rumbling started, each family braced themselves against each other. Some cried out in fear as the rooms began to shudder upwards, detaching from the ground and wobbling their way towards the sky. Old Umm Amir knelt on the clear floor of her room, watching stoically as the dirt appeared to rush away from her, faster and faster. Some Khalilis were sick, unaccustomed to the speed and height at which they traveled. Some closed their eyes, determined not to open them until they had safely landed elsewhere. Some kept their eyes resolutely open, determined to watch as the Earth of their mothers sped away. All of them kept breathing as the experts at the Center had taught them the past six months: three deep breaths in and out, three short breaths in, two short breaths out, repeat. This would ensure that the people of Khalil maintained their souls and were not separated from them as they left the Earth.
Young Noor tugged at her father’s hand and asked for the thirteenth time where they were going. On this her father was hazy; the experts at the Center had tried to describe their destination, but no one had really understood what they were trying to say. Eventually, the experts had given up and simply said, “Someplace better.” Noor’s father repeated this to her, and she looked down through the floor at the Earth and wondered what it would look like. Across the hundreds of rooms, the people of Khalil wondered the same thing. Several people suggested the moon, though there was uncertainty about whether it belonged to another country or was international waters, so to speak. Some imagined Khalil, only bigger; some saw vast, verdant plains or thick jungles of skyscrapers, taller than the eye could see, with a private room for every individual. Some imagined nothing.
Space moved silently by, as the minutes turned to hours, hours to days. One by one, exhausted, each Khalili curled into each other’s arms, until finally all were asleep. For the first time in years—for some of them, the first time in their lives—they did not dream. Their bodies drifted, propelled by science, magic, and trust, towards a place no one had thought of yet, a place made of possibility and nothing else.
Back on Earth, the Boy stared up at the sky, straining his eyes to spot his fading people. While they had filed into the Center, he had hidden, weeping, in the empty corner store. When the last room had parted from Earth’s gravity, he walked onto the street and looked around, struck all at once by how wide his new loneliness was.
A sound made him turn around sharply. Hovering before him was the Drone. The Boy crouched instinctively, put his hands to his head and waited for the blast. But none came. After a moment, he looked up to find the Drone still hovering in the same place, implacable. The Boy stood.
“What?” he demanded. The Drone did not move.
“What do you want? You’ve done it. They are gone. All of them.”
In the face of the Drone’s silence the Boy could not contain his anger and sadness any longer, and it spilled out of him at last.
“I could not choose,” he said. “I could not choose between the land and the people.”
The Drone remained silent, and the Boy, for all his yearning, did not know what to do with all that silence.
So he wept, and knelt, and placed his fingers deep into the soil. The Boy tried to hear the land the way he always had, but in this moment it too was silent, and another piece of the Boy’s heart got looser, more jagged. He wiped his eyes and looked up to watch the Drone disappear into the distance, a sight he had always dreamed of seeing but which now felt like just another leaving. Against the light of the stars, the Drone was a spot of darkness moving like a hawk. Sitting on the abandoned street, it seemed to the Boy that its trajectory began to curve, ever so slightly, into a wide, wide circle—patrolling, spiraling, returning ceaselessly, choicelessly, to the only place it knew.