Cairo Unfolding (Excerpt)
Dreaming of myself as a child again is always bizarre to me, you know, that idea that I can only relive such distant memories when I’m lost in my unconscious bath of chaotic space where time is nonexistent. Underwater in my universe of sleep, I can see the uninhabitable coal planets churning six hundred light-years away from the sun, wind so hot and vicious that it would disintegrate bodies in milliseconds, sending ashes halfway across its hundreds of monolithic active volcanoes that spew hellfire up hundreds of miles high, and the fallen angels chained to the unstable core, vacuums of dead space and black holes endlessly sucking away everything that once was from the very beginning until there’s eventually nothing, until our universe is smaller than a penny, than atom, than the dynamite explosion all over again where it’s all more or less the same as it was before. Does God die in all of that? Is he reborn through this process of infinite death and rebirth? Here I am, six-year-old Elliott seeing everything through the eyes of God, the same God that would have me stoned to death, who flooded the planet I was born on, who allowed millions of his own people to die, and so on and so on … God reveals to me a small sphere that symbolizes the pain and suffering that I am in debt to, and then there is the entire planets suffering, two spheres so tiny and ant-like compared to the sun behind him, two spheres that he effortlessly tosses into the fireball, but I tell him that I get the point, hey man you don’t have to be so blunt and scornful about it, already knew that you were a sham by this age anyway.
Swimming upwards from out of Gods overflowing toilet, I eventually reach the surface, emerge from out of the prophetic eclipse, and open my eyes to be face to face with a lush pinkish-purple Cairo sunset. The sky is so opaque and crystalline that I can’t help but to stare at it until one of the kid’s swimming beside me tugs me back underwater, filling my lungs up with Nile water, pulling myself back up with shock and laughter. Scientists say that swimming here can leave you acceptable to parasites that eat at your brain and lay worms in your liver and intestines. They were most likely right because there are times that I can feel and hear the babies squirming inside of my tubes, my veins, and sometimes even through the pupil of my eyes.
Older boys that used to hang out around the bazaar would sometimes invite me to go swimming here with them. Their secret location was marked by a crashed school bus halfway stuck underwater. It was curved and positioned in a way that made it possible to swim inside of the bus and hide on the highest level of it above the river water. Sometimes we’d go inside just to smoke cigarettes and talk gossip about women that I didn’t know. The trick was that you’d have to put your pack of cigarettes into a sealed plastic bag inside of your swimming trunks to keep them from getting soaked. I remember how it felt to hear my brain cells ripping and popping when I’d smoke tobacco with them, and there were several times I’d have to hide my puke in the sand while holding back tears from a migraine.
Some of the children are crowded on top of the tilted bus and sunbathing. Others pull trash out of the river and burn it in piles. People climb inside of the bus, smash open windows and do front-flips out of it to impress others. I, however, walk out towards the shore and rest my back against a boulder so that I can better capture the sunset. It’s starting to bend and melt, which seems vaguely apocalyptic.
It’s her again, the girl from the previous dream, and she’s wearing the same hijab, the floral and effervescent one that glimmers and slightly blinds me, or maybe that’s just my eyesight, or maybe it’s the parasitic worms. I’m supposed to follow her. We’re sixty miles from home. How did she find me here? Young girls like her aren’t supposed to know about the hideout. She must have been following me. Goddess of the militant spiders.
She rummages through my bookbag, delicately feeling at the pages of the novels inside, and then she mentions to me in Arabic, “Some of these books are almost out of date. We should leave soon before the library closes.”
“Idiot girl,” I bite back. “Helwan to Alexandria is two hundred and fifty kilometers away.”
But she says that distance isn’t a problem, because she has a hot air balloon a few miles away on top of an apartment complex. On the way there, we walk into a train of camels wearing glow in the dark safety vests. We feed them mixed oats and dates. By the entrance of the apartment, there’s this fountain made of adamite that is filled with blood and for some reason, it doesn’t concern me. But this is how the dream world works. Nothing ever makes sense until you speak to a Spanish ghost sealed into a haunted painting. Not even the starving woman sleeping on a harp with a blindfold over her eyes next to the fountain is enough to alert me into lucidity.
Once we reach the top of the roof, we do an improvised dance together as children holding onto balconies from the apartment across the street wave and laugh at us. Her balloon is a massive deflated orange bubble hanging down and shadowing the top floor windows. Everything comes together quite quickly in such an effortless way, more so it seems as if she practically has lived in this thing for a longer part of her young life. First, she revs up an electric fan that inflates the envelope, and then she starts up the fire that breathes out and into the balloon. The basket then begins to float off of the ground, which is when she shouts at me to jump inside, which I do in the manner that only an idiot can do, such as to fall into it and bruise my head against the woven wicker that the basket is constructed of. She ends up stepping on the back of my neck as soon as she hurdles her way into the basket, quickly standing up to adjust the burner so that I can get a better and grimier taste of her sandals that are matted with sand and dirt. We’re already up a few miles high by the time that I’m able to get back on my feet and catch my breath.
“But what about the air,” I ask her.
That’s when she says, “You don’t need to breathe. We’re already dead. Understand?”
I nod. Those might have been the only words I’ve heard in the dream that I can adequately make out and understand.
We’re leaving to have a picnic on Saturn, but before we get there, we have to hitch a ride on top of the ISS and get a clear view of some typhoons. That doesn’t take as long as expected. Neither does speeding our way through the solar system to land on the Enceladus moon. After we land, I have a moment of head-scratching and chin-rubbing, in which I remind her, “We still have to visit the library before it closes, you know.”
She knows, and to her amazement, the hieroglyphic rug and the fresh salads she left behind are still there on the surface of this never-ending ice terrain. According to her, two hours in the real world is equal to six in the dream world, which means that we still have a good twelve hours to go. “Besides,” she shrugs. “We still have to visit the south pole of Saturn.”
And that’s when I snarl, “Still an idiot! Enceladus to Saturn is one hundred and forty-seven thousand and, um, eight hundred and ninety miles! Where did you place my book bag, anyway? Oh no. Mother will kill me! She will literally kill me! You don’t understand!”
It’s that banal touch from her fingertips to my fingertips that silences the anxiety. She’s drilled a hole through the crust of the moon and we’re about to dive into it so that we can place our hands against its core, but then I wake up
Vomiting. Into the hands that I was about to touch the core of Enceladus with.
A visual memory of Cairo consumes me. In this distant recollection, I find myself outside of the Temple of Edfu with my mother and a few other classmates while a musician channels the deity of Horus through his voice and his hand-crafted oud. It’s exactly six o’ clock, thirty-four minutes before the sunset, and the big star is flaring with a glorious torrid warmth. We’re leaning upwards on top of Persian rugs made of silk and wool, dressed in beads of sweat, and digging our hands into the scorching hot sand. Foreign visitors surround us but give an appropriate distance away from our party. Mother is sitting cross-legged and I’m resting my head in her lap. She runs her hands through my thick hair and photographs the musician. Every now and then I would study the hieroglyphic limestone carvings on the monolithic pylon in front of us, but I mostly find myself staring at the musicians moist and bearded face. The left palm of my hand is painted black while the other is painted with velvet red spots. At one point during an intermission between two songs, my mother holds my hands up towards the approaching horizon. Elderly foreigners exit from out of the courtyard, some leaving on buses, and others leave on rented camels. The music is more intimate and metaphysical now. A schoolgirl sitting next to me wearing a phlox-colored hijab extends her arms, forming a star with her body on top of her crumpled rug, and stares at me until I notice her. Earlier that day, she had painted my hands and legs and I had lightly painted her face with seaweed green face-paint. Something about her face in that moment haunted me, even more so when she began to cry. It wasn’t a heavy sob. Just faint. Almost as if she was ashamed. Mother rested her hand inside of my hair while I had taken hands with the girl next to me. All that I can remember after that is the sound of the Nubian oud playing as I had shut my eyes to connect in an empathetic meditation with my friend from school. The sound of sand blowing into my ears, over my face, inside of my nostrils, mother brushing the dust from off my eyelids, mother and I together in peace, in the temple of a sky God, feeling at his wings, seeing through his eyes, the moon and the sun, standing inside of his temple, and finding God through him.
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