Story-When There is No Light

The only mirror they had in the tent was cracked. The crack ran down the middle, and half of the mirror had shifted a centimeter down, making every face lopsided and crooked. 

Appropriate, Ahmad would think sarcastically, whenever he looked at it. He had grown spiteful of his own appearance as the months grew hotter and his body grew weary. 

He kept his beard thin and short for work. After three days in the bakery Ahmad could tell that customers did not like a thickly bearded baker. So every few days, he would trim his beard, making sure to keep the lines even. His beard was one of the few things in his life that Ahmad could control, and so he invested great care.

He would trim his beard before fajr and his walk to work, while everyone else was still sleeping. 

For seven months Ahmad had been waking up before dawn. He would sleep for only two or three hours each night. He preferred to sleep when he got home from work, for hours on end in the day, from right after lunch until the sun went down. Of course, his new sleep schedule made sense for his job, and truly, Ahmad had little objection to his nocturnal life. Daylight in the camp was too bright. He could tolerate everything a bit more in the dark.

Too much light. The darkness hides this shithole better, he thought. The vulgarity of his thoughts at times would shock him. 

Shitty place. Shitty people. 

He regularly regretted the severity of his own thoughts. In those moments of regret, he would bend back to a former self, if only for a moment, and ask God for forgiveness. 

Forgive me. You know that’s not me. 

I know that is not me. 

He was usually at his angriest when he woke up, often to the sound of absolutely nothing. Ahmad was usually awake before the birds, the few birds that could endure the desert. 

Every third day, he would trim his beard after waking. Every third day, he would run a few minutes late to work, having taken those few extra moments in front of the cracked mirror. 

For seven months, Ahmad had lived what felt like the same day on repeat. A callus on his heart, on his soul, had thickened beyond his ability to remove it. 

He knew he was unpleasant to be around. He knew his silence was making his sisters uncomfortable. But Ahmad felt he had no choice. Since Mazen died, there was some barrier, some impediment between his heart and his mouth that he did not have the energy or strength of will to explore, let alone disassemble. 

He knew he was depressed, but he had no way out. He was still the provider. He was still useful, and it was easier to blame his silence and sleeping on his work schedule than to attempt to tell the truth. The truth—at least the full extent of it—was still a mystery, even to himself. He had little idea what was wrong with him, other than he felt awful. Angry. Unable to say anything useful or meaningful to anyone. 

On one morning, the start of the eighth month, something changed. 

It was 4:58 a.m. Ahmad was up, lying with one eye open, scrolling through the countless notifications on his phone. Most of them were meaningless. 

Death. 

Bomb. 

Sunken boat. 

In love. 

Heartbroken. 

The banal and the tragic had learned to live together as the war went on, and in no place was it clearer than on Facebook. Ahmad was resentful towards all of it—the good, the evil, the joyful. It was all the same to him. Wasted words, he thought. Such normalcy and such depravity side by side, unquestioned, angered him. 

What is wrong with you? he thought, rubbing his eyes. He wasn’t entirely sure at whom that thought was directed. 

What the hell is wrong with you? 

He walked over to the mirror and crouched down. 

Ugly bastard, he thought. He traced his fingers along the scar on his head, where, nearly a year earlier, the door had gashed his head wide open. For the first time in his life, he had shaved his hair short, so the scar was clear, still tender, still sensitive to the sunlight. 

As he sat in front of the mirror, he clutched the razor that sat in a cup next to countless toothbrushes. He lifted the razor to his face, staring right at his beard line. He thought of cutting himself just a bit. Just to remember what the blood felt like that last night he saw his uncle. 

He brushed away the thought instantly. He knew better than to let his mind go there. 

As he stared at his own face, the most random and forgotten of sentences popped into his head. 

Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. Ahmad paused. 

What? Khalil Gibran. 

Ahmad had not read Khalil Gibran in years. The last time he read that sentence was when he copied it into a note for Batool, years earlier. He had written it in large letters in the final note he gave to her before she flatly rejected him. 

Eternity. Beauty. 

Beauty? 

Hell! Absolutely hideous hell. 

Ahmad smacked the mirror out of the way, shifting the broken glass to reveal yet a new distortion of his face. Instantly, Ahmad felt the familiar rush of anger from the back of his head to his fists. He clenched. He got up. He flipped open the front flap of the tent and cursed the darkness with his hands and his heart. It was cold. There were no birds. 

Beauty? He laughed to himself, pacing angrily, underdressed for the late October morning.

He breathed heavily a few times. He rushed back into the tent. He grabbed the mirror forcefully, bringing it back outside with him. 

He walked quickly, mirror in hand, towards the public bathrooms. His nostrils were flaring. As he reached the wall of the bathroom he grabbed the mirror with both hands. He lifted it high above his head, and slammed it with all his force into the concrete wall.

Beauty died, he thought. He spat on the mirror, shattered into tiny pieces and shards on the ground. 

His breath quickened. Deeper. Nostrils extended past their limit. His eyes were wide as he stared at the blood coming from his right hand. It was dripping on the splintered glass at his feet. It was smeared across the concrete wall of the bathroom. 

Quickly, Ahmad’s anger turned to shame. He lifted his hand close to his face, gently plucking the glass out with his left hand. 

What is wrong with you? Ahmad’s breath slowed. He was trembling, the energy he used to destroy the mirror, the image of himself, still coursing through him. Alone, cold, he shook. 

Ahmad breathed in deeply and exhaled long. He had shocked himself into a new state, a new feeling he had not felt in months. 

In that moment, Ahmad wanted to run to his father. To just sit by him. Ahmad needed someone. He needed someone to make him feel less alone. 

Ahmad slouched and sort of melted limply onto the dirt. He wiped his bloodied hand on his shirt, pressing his hands through his hair, which he had not yet combed. 

What would I tell him? What would I tell Baba? That I’m sad? He wondered, concerned that he would sound stupid, childish. That his father would be disappointed in his temper, in his inability to calm the raging seas inside himself. 

Perhaps I should leave. This isn’t working. He held his hand to the sky, hoping to redirect the blood. 

Where to? Where could I go? 

A bird chirped. It startled Ahmad. He felt watched, embarrassed that even a bird had seen him.

The world was waking up. Ahmad wrapped the shards of the mirror in his undershirt, concealing the evidence that was too close to their tent. He tossed the shirt and glass into a meter-high pile of garbage.

He paused, and looked up to the eastern sky, wondering if he had missed prayers. He needed prayers. He needed a cigarette. He was not sure which one he needed more. 

He squinted towards the horizon, looking for signs of light. 

Still no light, Ahmad thought. Still no light at all.