(Alternative Title: "She sells sea shells on the sea shore")
Sand has a will of its own. So does life.
Try this, if you like. Tighten your fist around a mound of sand, and see it push through the spaces in your hands to escape. Hold it freely in the air, and it will disappear in the wind.
If you ever feel the firmness of a shell within the grains, then consider yourself blessed by your gods, as we do. These shells delight the senses of the whole province, brings smiles to the faces of the young, introduces the crashing of waves to newlyweds during calm weather, gives us our daily bread.
"Ummi!" Fatima cries, her bronzed skin gleaming in joy, "Look at this! I found it near the shore!"
Pink blooms over my daughter's cheeks, almost the same shade of the patterns on the shell – except that is mingled with purple and blue, like fresh bruises. The bottom of the shell is a startling white: pure and unblemished by their taint.
"Look, Ummi!" Fatima says, pointing to the bottom, " Not a single mark at the end. It must be a good sign, no?"
A sign? Of what? We have all the luck we can imagine in a place like Medina. We get enough gold to stay healthy at the end of the day, even on days like this one when no one buys our wares, and Fatima's hands will soon be adorned with henna, just as mine were as a bride. This place will never be my home, but I do not begrudge my life here. This air may not cool the remains of my bones, but it will consume my last breath.
I dread the day when I make the folly of accepting – even loving – Medina for what it is, rather than for the lack of what was abundant in Lebanon (hookah, harems, happiness, husband). Lebanon harbours all my dreams, Medina only my mere existence.
Even my name has disappeared to the farthest corners of my memories. My ears no longer arch towards the long, lilting syllables that rise and fall in another's voice, nor does my mouth and tongue hunger to move to the music. My name is an unknown, unnecessary entity in this place. It, like my hometown, is a thing of the past, something I do not need in my twilight years. Not even the youth who pass by this beach need to know it. When they bring new visitors to this soil, they do not have to say anything more than –
"She sells sea shells on the sea shore…"
The young man that Abdul has brought with him struggles to keep his long hair steady against the wind. He wears a robe that my grandfather used to reminiscence about: the garb of a Judean preacher. The elements have played with him and weathered his face. Kindness and wisdom blaze in his eyes, settle on the planes of his nose, nestle in comfort at his lips. Even when Abdul steals a glance at Fatima, smiles, and catches her hand, the man fails to notice and sweeps my wares with his hands. He looks at them wistfully, as if he would like to have them all. Then he looks at me.
His eyes – a mirror of the sea behind us – gaze into mine, smiling at me as if we were old friends. In them I see humanity, in them eternal joy. In them I see love; a love that is almost divine, a love that burns for the whole world, which must mean me as well. He cups my face in his hands, as a young father would his baby. My daughter gasps softly as she sees my wrinkled skin through the hole in his palm.
"Aaminah," he whispers, letting the sweetness of it pour throughout my being like honey, "Aaminah." I whimper with the loss that I did not feel then. How could I have failed to notice how beautiful my name was, how sacred to my being, how soothing its music to my ancient ears? What had I left behind for not allowing these people to love me? I want us to remain like this forever, to feel a love so powerful that it would pay for your debts not just once, but a thousand times over. I can feel it humming in my bones.
The roughness of his wounded hands encounters my hair briefly in a blessing, and suddenly I am plagued with a desire for – for what? All I know is that I cannot simply let him leave so soon, without saying something, anything. I want to hear my name again, sweetly dissolving into my eardrums, leaving me with a tingle that runs deliciously through my wrinkled self, making me feel young again.
I grab his hands, holding them to my eyes, washing them with my tears. I beg forgiveness for nothing in particular, telling him that I did not mean to be so cruel, that I did not mean to think only of my happiness by sapping off theirs. My shame fills my mouth and his ears like an avalanche, blocking out even the crashing of the waves against the shore.
He smiles again, moving his hands to my head. His eyes spell reassurance.
"It is not anything to worry about. You are forgiven. Your journey is just beginning. You will grow to love Medina in time, to treat her people as one of your own. Your life will be complete. May the Lord be always with you."
He gives the shell that he has been holding to Fatima. "This is for you, little bride," he says, glancing at Abdul too, eyes twinkling like sunshine on the sea. "You will like it."
As his footsteps fade away to the far side of the beach, we see a delicately curved shell with tiny holes the colour of Fatima's henna. The most beautiful thing we have ever seen.
As we pass the streets back home, we give the shell to a man whose happiness had escaped through the spaces of his fingers. Out of nowhere, the wind whispers words that do not seem like a mystery for me anymore.
Whatsoever you do, to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.
A/N: Medina is in what is now called Saudi Arabia, and I have used it as a setting envisioned shortly after Jesus' death. Medina may not have been as I described it – but I just needed to make it a more conservative place than Lebanon…just as a contrast.
Ummi is "mother" in Arabic, and hookah is actually is an instrument that emits sweet-smelling smoke.