Meryem grabbed the crumpled paper bag and rose from her knees. The man’s eyes had closed and the soft afternoon light washed the pain from his face; he appeared to be sleeping. A strong wind blew from the south and disturbed the cloud of flies above his body. Across the railroad tracks, an ash tree shook under the gale.
Meryem stuffed the paper bag in her backpack and walked across the embankment. Dark clouds were gathering in the south and the wind buffeted the plain with sudden blasts. Far to the east, she could just make out the curved line of a road and the orthogonal shape of unidentifiable ruins. The ash tree bent and groaned. Meryem zipped up her rain jacket and wiped the tears from her eyes, walked down the embankment, and set resolutely across the darkening flats.
The storm had flooded the plain. Sparkling rivulets of rainwater trickled from the trees and rushed to constellations of shiny puddles and pools. From afar, the slanting morning light seemed to cover the water in a clear silvery lacquer, but when approached the pools were swallowed by the darkness of the earth, one after the other. The road often disappeared into murky water and Meryem was forced to trudge through rain-soaked fallows, where a thick mud tugged at her boots as if to swallow her. After a few hours, her legs already heavy from exertion, she sat on a tree trunk fallen across the road. She dropped her bag and fished out her bottle. She shut her eyes for a bit. The night had been rough: she’d weathered the storm in a ruined gas station, her tent pitched inside the remaining walls for protection against the wind. After a while, she heaved her pack back on her shoulders and resumed across the flooded plain. The wind had abated after the storm, leaving behind it an eerie quiet in which the squelches of her boots echoed like thunder. Nothing else moved on the brown, deserted country, and neither insects nor birds disturbed its disquieting stillness—
A sudden bark rang out and startled her; she raised her walking stick and turned to see a large dog jump up from behind the rusted carcass of an old pickup truck, bark again and run at her.
“Stop!” she cracked.
The dog froze and lowered its tail. Meryem carefully approached the old, mud-splattered mutt, who must have been at least her own weight and looked tall enough to put his front legs on her shoulders. She knelt down to pat him, and laughed: the dog, sensing the danger had passed, had gone directly for her backpack and was now sniffing at it with great interest.
“Hungry, are we?”
She rose and swung her pack around to take out a slice of jerky.
It took them two more days to get to the farm. Meryem’s long strides seemed unable to eat away at this dreary expanse of gray grassland stretching endlessly under empty skies. Once in a while, mountains appeared in the distance; their purple silhouettes lit up like will-o’-the-wisps, tugging at Meryem’s hopes, before vanishing back into the haze. She was getting wearier by the hour; her thoughts harried her and wheeled around her mind like a buzzing cloud of gnats. The dusty-white sky weighed over her, and the dispiriting silence, underlined by the dog’s monotonous panting, gnawed at her heavy heart.
Near the end of the afternoon, Sponger suddenly rushed atop a levee with a happy bark. Shaking with fatigue and anticipation, her mouth dry and her hands sticky with sweat, Meryem climbed after him against a whistling, bitter wind that flattened the yellow grass. On the other side of the levee was the farm, surrounded by rows of fruit trees, its sheet metal roof shining in the sunlight. The dog was making a beeline for a small brick house, toward the smell of roasted meats; Meryem herself stopped for a minute, momentarily lost in a daydream filled with simple pleasures—a warm meal, a shower, a night in the dry.
As soon as she started down, however, her throat tightened. She nervously ran her fingers through her graying hair and licked her cracked lips. The hope she’d contained during her journey was pushing against the levee again. She forced herself to remember she was on a fool’s errand, and mined the clutter of past deceptions strewn across her memory to build them up against the bright flood and fortify her heart.
“Hello, ma’am. This your dog?”
A lanky teenage girl was walking up to meet her, dressed in tattered jeans and a faded tank top. She had the tanned skin of one living off the earth.
“Sponger? He’s his own dog,” Meryem answered.
She tried to smile, but her nerves failed her and twisted her lips into a nervous grin. The girl had frozen halfway up the levee to stare at the yellow cloth tied around her arm. After a moment, her eyes crawled up to Meryem’s, who asked:
“Where are the bugs?”
“I wasn’t sure you were coming,” the farmer said. The afternoon light filtered through the dusty windows and sparkled on the copper and steel pots hung on the walls. “I caught one just this morning. Make yourself comfortable, I’ll be just a moment.”
Meryem put down her pack and sat at the kitchen table while the man walked away.
“Want a glass of water?” the girl offered.
Meryem realized she was drumming her fingers on the table; she stuck her left hand between her thighs and, with the other, took the glass of water.
The girl smiled and turned to pet the dog, who was having a go at the remains of a chicken. Meryem put down her glass. Each second the kitchen clock ticked hit the defenses of her rattled soul like a tidal wave. In a last, desperate effort, she reminded herself again that the great black wasps were gone: they had disappeared close to ten years ago, and there was no chance that this farmer had just happened upon a nest. But she also remembered that species had been prematurely declared extinct before and, just like that, hope leaked through the cracks: the black wasps were excellent pollinators, adapted to a wide variety of climates …
“What’s it like, being a bug lady?” the girl asked.
“I’m not … it’s entomologist. Not bug lady.”
The girl shrugged and sat opposite her. Her detachment was just as fake as Meryem’s: for a girl like her, destined to spend her whole life on the farm where she was born, a yellow armband meant freedom and adventure. Meryem considered her bright eyes and her vigorous, lithe limbs—she was still young, with all of her life before her, while Meryem’s was buried in the rubble of her world.
“And because I specialize in wasps, I’m a vespologist.”
“Shouldn’t it be waspologist?”
“I don’t make up the words, kid.”
“So what’s it—”
Meryem waved her quiet. The man had come back into room with a mason jar, which he set down on the kitchen table.
“There it is,” he said, stepping back and dangling his arms uncomfortably.
Meryem watched the black insect buzz and bump angrily against the walls of its glass prison. When it finally landed on the bottom of the jar and its long thin transparent wings came to lie against the sides of its jet-black body, she was able to examine more closely its oblong abdomen covered with tiny yellowish hair, its sharp mandibles and its delicately elbowed antennae …
“This isn’t a wasp.”
The girl was still staring at Meryem with her big green eyes.
“Not a wasp?” her father exclaimed.
Twelve days … twelve days of hiking across the deserted countryside, trudging through the mud and dust; twelve days of eating seeds, jerky and grits and sleeping under the tent; twelve days of carrying her doubts and her hopes, braving storms and a sweltering sun—all for nothing. The tide she’d striven to contain had infiltrated her defenses and it was now threatening to drown her; she could taste its bitterness on her lips: for all her efforts, some part of her had dared—needed, perhaps—to hope.
“This is an ant,” she said hoarsely.
“An ant? But it’s got wings!”
“Yeah. It’s a male.”
She walked out on the front porch and leaned on the railing. The sky was turning a darker shade of blue over the dusty haze. Before her, tidy rows of peach and pear trees stretched their crooked shadows under the evening sun. A dozen or so farmhands were still scattered across the orchard, up on ladders, brushes in hand, leaning over flowers as if to paint them with painstaking care, most of them probably too young to remember a time when hand pollination was yet unnecessary.
Sponger had finished his meal and trotted to her side with a happy bark. He was an optimistic dog—these days, you had to be a dog to be optimistic. Meryem scratched him distractedly behind the ears.
“No more honey,” she sang sourly, “means no flavor
And no flowers means no color
With the birds their songs have gone
Give me a reason to carry on
In this bland world
This drab world
This silent and dreary world.”
Meryem spent a troubled night. The barn where the farmer had put her up was much more comfortable than her tent, the straw was dry, she’d showered and her stomach was full, but her thoughts kept whirring with a sick obsession over her memory of the dying man. She heard the flies buzz hungrily about his body, she saw his head lying on the ballast, she saw his sunken, glassy eyes, and she tossed and turned in the dark, haunted by his feverish litany of explanations and supplications. She hadn’t known what to say. Would it have mattered? He’d been too far gone to hear her …
The wind hammered at the barn walls. Sponger let out a grunt and jerked his tail. The crumpled paper bag stood close in the darkness, looking like a strangely shaped idol.
Dawn was yet a paleness over the horizon, and the dark fruit trees still swathed in shadow. The farmhands marched across the orchard with their stepladders under their arms, their heads low and still heavy with sleep. A light breeze made ripples on the pond.
“You’re going east?” the farmer asked.
“There’s someone I have to visit.”
Leaning on the railing, Meryem was looking uncertainly eastward, where a pink light was slowly bleeding into the clouds over the horizon.
“Well, you gotta do what you gotta do. I should warn you, though: coastwards is not safe country, not even for a yellow band.”
Meryem didn’t know if she liked being called a yellow band any better than a bug lady: it reminded her she belonged to an obsolete guild, which owed its survival solely to the respect its strange rituals commanded among the uninitiated.
“I’m sorry I made you come all this way,” the farmer went on. “I really thought …” He shook his head. “I thought you’d go back home.”
She picked up her pack and went her way, and the dog followed.
“It’s an eagle,” the smallest one said.
“Nah! That’s a parakeet!”
Meryem was sitting on the roadside, chewing on a loaf of bread. The kids had barreled out of the cornfield like cannon balls and run past her without a glance before stopping dead under a power line, transfixed by the sight of the big black bird perched on the wire.
“Ain’t no parakeet, you bonehead,” the third one said. “And it ain’t no eagle neither.”
“Oh yeah? Well then what is it?”
The kid smiled broadly.
“It’s a pigeon!”
The three of them burst into laughter, causing the raven to caw and jerk its head in their direction. The kids shut up and froze, petrified by the bird’s kingly stare. Meryem wiped her hands with a thin smile. She stood and walked resignedly back on the dilapidated road. Upon leaving the farm, she had long ruminated over her decision to set out on a dangerous journey toward the coast, straight into a storm-ravaged land, just so she could try—and most likely fail—to accomplish a stranger’s dying wish. All day the memory of the dying man had stirred in his mind—the rusty rail against his head, the heavy blue sky, the creaking ash tree … and his tangled and confused words, which he’d repeated over and over, like a chorus: “Tell her I love her … tell her she must forget me, and love another …” The wind had picked up. Flies had lighted on his mouth; she’d waved them away with a burst of indignation. The smell … it would never leave her.
At sundown she had pitched her tent in a fallow field. She’d fallen asleep instantly, exhausted by her hike and the constant attacks of her doubts; by the next morning, she’d come to the conclusion that it made just as much sense to go on as to go back home.
Evening’s purple shadows bled over the flats, blurring the line between earth and sky and turning the clouds into distant mountains. Two silhouettes had appeared by an old car wreck stranded on the grassy roadside. Sponger barked, and a third shadow rose from the car.
Meryem paused. She looked over her shoulder: another shadow had come out of the brush behind her. She walked on. The silhouettes were getting more distinct as she got closer; soon she realized that what she’d mistaken for broad chests and shoulders were only tatters and rags much too large for the scraggy youngsters who wore them.
“Got any food in that backpack, ma’am?” came a raspy voice.
They weren’t teenagers anymore, but not yet adults either—kids still, with long faces and empty stomachs. Their long shadows stretched across the road and spilled into the brush. Meryem had stopped. Steps were coming up behind her.
“Care to share?” offered one of them, flicking open a switchblade. Sponger growled. Meryem tightened her grip on her walking stick.
“As I said, it isn’t much.”
She turned so that they could not miss her yellow arm band. The kid with the knife paused.
“Whatcha waiting for?” snarled another, his long crowbar glinting menacingly.
Meryem stepped aside and noticed the silhouette coming up behind her had stopped a dozen paces from her. The kid with the knife couldn’t bring himself to take a decision, and the others seemed to be waiting for him. Meryem took another step back. Sponger growled threateningly, his hackles raised.
The one with the crowbar pushed the other aside and walked decidedly toward her; Sponger barked and Meryem steeled herself—
The last shadow had grabbed her companion by the shoulder. He turned to her angrily.
“This isn’t worth it. You want people to hear we done a yellow band?”
The crowbar kid threw Meryem and her armband a scathing look, and stepped aside to let her pass.
Every day they were getting closer to the coast. There was no dramatic change of scenery—the empty roads still cut across fallow fields scattered with wild thickets, farms where the land had been spared by the storms, and pools of stagnant water—but the farms were getting scarcer, and the pools bigger. One day, they passed a field that was completely swamped. A few ears of grain poked up from the still waters, beneath squadrons of gnats and flies whose incessant buzzing sounded like a rattle. Meryem looked up toward the southeast, where it was said there was more water than land now, and she was overwhelmed once more by the absurdity of her quest. She remembered the dry smell of the ballast and that of the moribund; she remembered the rocks cutting into her knees as she knelt on the ballast—and yet back then she had not been conscious of the pain, only of the sorrow and regret in the man’s eyes, and of the mad hope that had flourished in his smile as he’d said: “Tell her I love her … tell my son I wished I’d known him and I’m proud of him …”—everything else just background noise.
Sponger rubbed his head against her leg. The brown silhouette of a lark flew past and landed on the road to peck at an ear of grain. Meryem affectionately scratched Sponger’s neck and squashed a gnat on her arm. “I’ve paid for what I’ve done, ma’am,” the man had explained, his voice between a whisper and a wheeze, “ten long years. And she’s waited, you know, she’s waited. And my son—she wrote me about him … Tell her I love her. Tell her she must forget me, and love another.” She’d found herself nodding and wiping tears away from her face. She’d taken the paper bag, and the dying man had muttered something that sounded like a blessing.
Meryem started again, her pack and her doubts weighing equally heavy on her back. Ten years in jail … how changed the world must have looked to him! She tried to remember what her life had been like ten years ago—it was another woman’s life. And those were the words guiding her? The words of a man from another time, of a dying and delirious man? She wasn’t any more likely to find his wife than she was those wasps. All she had to go on was the woman’s name, and the fact that she lived on the coast … few people still lived there, but there was a reason for that. How many hurricanes had hit in the last ten years? This woman had probably gone away after the third or the fourth, like everyone else … if she had the chance.
Two days later they came upon a small town with only a few houses left, perched on stilts and huddled around a church. The evening light fell in long shadows over the muddy streets, and the whitewashed steeple leaned slightly northwards, like an arrow stuck in the sky’s side. Before the church was a billboard with the service hours and a scripture quote: A crow sat atop the sign, eyeing Meryem quizzically.
“Evening, ma’am,” a man greeted her from his front porch, where he was reclining with a wide-brimmed hat lowered over his brow. He had the local drawl, and his wicker chair rocked with a melancholic creak. Meryem felt her heart and throat constrict. Wherever she went—even here, to the far reaches of the earth—she couldn’t let go of her nostalgia. Like everyone, she was obsessed about the past—after all, most of the insect species she’d learned about when she was a student were extinct now … it was like knowing a dead language, and the prestige it gave her resembled that of the scholars who’d kept speaking in Latin after the Roman Empire had collapsed.
“Evening, sir,” she answered. “I’m looking for someone. Maybe you could help me?”
But of course he didn’t know the girl.
“You should try the church,” he counseled. “Many people pass through here on their way north and most stop by the church. Our minister, he’s good with names and faces.”
The minister had heard of a family who’d decided to stay, way down south on the coast; a single mother with her son.
“She has a name like Daisy, or Lily …”
“Come on, Sponger. Let that bone be, we’re going south.”
The further south they went, the more water surrounded them. Pools and ponds became lakes, and finally swamps. Once in a while they would come upon the ruins of a forsaken farm. In some places, storms had caused the road’s embankment to collapse, and Meryem had to trudge through the mire and run the risk of losing her boots.
One night, she thought she might never find ground dry enough to pitch her tent; after the sun had set and twilight had faded to a purple shadow on the horizon, she finally resolved to sleep on the pavement. The next morning, all land had disappeared: the new day was rising over a vast expanse of rippling amber—only the straight line of the road, thickets of reeds, and lines of trees remained, emerging from the waters like the remains of a pastoral Atlantis. Meryem packed up her tent and set off with Sponger. Water and sky had awoken with them: gnats and flies flitted around them in a low buzz, bright dragonflies darted blue and green in the salty air, ducks and thrushes cried and trilled in the rushes—songs on the wind, and colors over the waters. Sponger trotted happily before Meryem, mesmerized by this exuberant display of life, racing after a duck and running back to her yapping happily.
Toward the end of the morning, Sponger barked and rushed forward, causing a flock of terns to scatter in fright. Meryem took a long whiff. At first, she could only smell the dank, salty swamp water lapping sleepily on both sides of the embankment, but then the wind turned and she caught it: smoke, frying fish. The perspective of a warm meal emerged in her mired mind. Her stomach rumbled. She followed the curve of the road around a flooded thicket of trees, toward a thin column of smoke, and on the right-hand side of the road she spotted a boy, about ten years old, standing in shallow waters. She stopped. The boy waved to her, turned, and leaned back into the water.
“I’m Rose,” the woman answered, kneeling by the dog and patting him. The old freeloader was already halfway through an eel. “Why do you ask?”
Meryem didn’t answer. She looked out the window at the waste of water, shimmering with wind and sunlight.
“And the boy, outside …”
“That’s my son Paul. We’ve been by ourselves for a long time, but his father will be back soon.” She must have read something on Meryem’s face, because her smile turned into a perplexed frown. “Why don’t you sit down?” she offered. “You must be tired.”
Meryem sat and rummaged through her backpack. She took out the crumpled paper bag and put it on the table.
“He was on his way here …” she started.
Sponger had finished and was looking up at her silently. Rose was still by his side, patting him, as if to avoid opening the paper bag, but she couldn’t take her eyes off it. Meryem cleared her throat.
“He asked me to tell you he loved you,” she went on. “He said you should forget him, and love someone else … he asked me …” She met Rose’s glistening eyes. “He asked me to tell his son he wished he’d met him.”
Rose wiped her eyes. Sponger put his head on her knees; she rubbed him and scratched his neck with a grateful smile.
“Do you like eels, Meryem?”
The rich smell of frying fish filled the little house; birdsongs wafted in through the open window; freshly cut swamp flowers floated in a bowl on the kitchen table—flavor, music, and color; rhyme and reason.
“Rhyme and Reason” originally appeared in New Maps Vol. 1, No. 1.