Fiction – “Yerushalom” by S. Ali

Bread.

Amal narrowed her eyes, twisting the scopes on the battered binoculars to zoom in on the camp below. A young man was tearing the flat brown loaves into equal sections, passing them around the small circle of ragged refugees. Any remaining doubt vanished. The hardened protein cakes her people ate were more likely to break your teeth than tear in your hand, and they certainly never elicited smiles like the ones on the faces of the children eating below.

Her mouth watered, an almost welcome response to the parched air. She imagined the buttery soft wheat… the faint taste of yeast and salt. Amal had eaten bread a few times, a luxury none in her current tribe could even imagine. Not that it hadn’t been an extravagance in her homeland… but along with dexi and other drugs, the officers who ran the Suleimaniya Children’s Brigade managed to lay their hands on enough bread to reward their favorite and most savage pupils. And Amal had been a very good soldier.

A low whistle, barely audible over the howling desert winds, interrupted her fantasy and she lowered her binoculars. The refugees still had a few minutes to enjoy their meal. Amal slunk back, carefully picking her way down the rocky ridge, steering clear of the crushed concrete and jagged metal spires of the ancient town. It was a bright night; the yellow haze that’d been choking her lungs all day now cloaked the black sky, seemingly illuminated from within.

Her other two tribesmen were huddled behind a blasted wall, worn dark scarves covering their faces and providing a filter against the fetid air. Amal quickly reported her discovery

“Refugees, by the look of them. At least a dozen.” She grinned. “And they have bread.”

“They have what?” Thalit whispered. Besides Amal, Thalit was the only other mamluk in the Hashemi tribe. They’d bought him soon after they’d found her, and the pair had grown up together. He knew she wouldn’t joke about something so serious.

“Bread, brothers,” she repeated. “They might even have wheat.”

Walid clicked his tongue, unimpressed. “We’re not risking a raid because your stomach’s giving you hallucinations. What else?”

Amal bit her lip, silencing a sarcastic retort. Walid was not only her elder, but a biological Hashemi; there was no mouthing off to him. “They look foreign. Well-off,” she added. “More supplies than refugees usually have. And three children: two girls and a boy. All look pretty healthy.”

He nodded. The children alone made it a worthy target; the supplies made it irresistible. “Well then, I guess you’ll get the opportunity to look for your ‘bread’,” he muttered, ignoring the triumphant grin she shared with Thalit. “Could you identify the leader? I’d like to question him.”

She nodded. “I think so. The man dividing the food was young, but seemed to be leading some type of prayer.”

Thalit hissed. His birth tribe had been more religious than the Hashemi, and Amal could easily guess what was going through his head. She gave him a sharp look; being a mamluk was difficult enough without Thalit making them all look like fanatics.

Raiding was considered halal – permitted – by everyone who lived in the central deserts; it was essential to both security and survival. The Hashemi were a relatively large tribe, but even they needed a fresh influx of supplies whenever possible. Besides, if any other tribe got wind that they’d let a band of foreigners pass through unmolested, they might think them weak, their territory open for invasion.

Walid removed the small metal canister from his bag. He carefully unscrewed it and plucked out a small glass vial, loading it into a reclaimed steel gun. He gave her another nod.

“The antidote’s in the other pocket. Take one for the leader, put another in my jacket. I’ll get the boy. You,” he said, giving Thalit a sharp look. “Holy man, take two. The girls are your responsibility.”

Thalit still looked uncertain, but he nodded and Amal relaxed. Despite his sarcasm, Walid had just given Thalit the most honored part of the raid.

They remained silent until they reached the ridge. Walid frowned at the sight of the little band in the distance. Judging from the weak plume of smoke, they were obviously attempting to start a fire. Amal shook her head. The fools. They were lucky the Hashemi had found them. Other tribes didn’t provide such a merciful end.

Walid sounded somber. “It’s going to be difficult. If we can pull out of the drop quickly, it’s still easily a ten minute run. We’ll have to find our targets immediately or…” He didn’t have to finish his warning; both Amal and Thalit already knew. The chem agent the Hashemi used would kill a man fifteen minutes after it was released. It was contagious for ten. That gave them a five minute window to administer the antidote. And factoring in the long run…

“Get ready,” he ordered. Amal strapped her filtration mask over her face and tucked the syringe containing the antidote into her pocket.

Walid steadied the gun on the distant group. Amal suddenly thought of the refugees tearing into their bread… the children’s smiles. He fired, sending the glass vial soaring through the air. “God is greatest!”

It was their cue. Amal leapt off the ridge, landing in a hard crouch. She took a deep breath and then took off across the desert, Thalit at her side. The ground was softer than she expected, the sand catching her boots as she ran. She counted off the seconds in her head. There didn’t seem to be enough time.

The smoky purple haze from the chem agent was already beginning to evaporate by the time she neared the clumsily constructed tents of the foreigners. Thalit was ahead of her, only seconds away from the camp when Amal noticed the strange wooden sign that had been hammered into the dusty ground. She did a double-take; wood was even rarer than bread. Her eyes locked on the tightly rolled scroll nailed to the top.

Her stomach dropped, memories of the war instantly flooding her mind. No. Please, God… no. “Thalit!”

But her shriek was muffled by her mask; there was no way he could hear her. Desperate, she raced forward, the muscles in her legs burning, and launched herself at him, tackling the other mamluk to the ground before he could pass under the nailed scroll.

Thalit wrestled her off, his brown eyes wide in shock. “Ya inti magnoona?” he cried, shocked into the dialect of his homeland. “What are you doing!”

She grabbed at his shirt as he tried to rise to his feet. “No, we can’t go in! They’re Yehudi!”

“They’re wha- who cares?” he protested, trying to swat her hands away.

Walid caught up and yanked Amal off Thalit. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” he screamed. “We only have two minutes!”

“They’re Yehudi, Walid! You don’t understand, we can’t…”

“I don’t care if they’re the spawn of Shaitan himself!” he interrupted. “You have your orders!”

Thalit scrambled away, following Walid past the scroll. The purple cloud vanished into the dust they kicked up. Screams came from inside the tents. Torn, she stared after her comrades. They had no idea who they were dealing with.

She yanked her mask tight, swore, and ran into the camp.

The gas had already done much of its work. Dead or dying refugees littered the rocky ground; their screams now reduced to feeble moans. There were more of them than she had estimated. Numb, Amal sprinted to the dying fire, ignoring the low cries surrounding her.

He was already on the ground, lying in a crumpled heap not far from where she’d last seen him passing out bread. Dropping to her knees, she rolled him over onto his back.

The Yehudi leader was even younger than she suspected, looking barely thirty. Despite fighting Yehudi for years in the Children’s Brigade, she’d never actually seen one up close. Although she hadn’t given much thought to what they looked like, it was still a surprise to see that he had the same brown eyes and sun-darkened skin as the Hashemi. She frowned. His wiry black hair reminded her of Thalit’s.

Murmuring words she couldn’t understand, he clutched at her arm, his eyes rolling open. The brown irises were ringed by red splotches, the same blood that would soon be draining from his mouth, nose, and ears if she didn’t administer the antidote.

We are the flower of the nation!

We shall fight the enemies of the one glorious God!

We shall rid the earth of the germ-makers!

The chant from her days in the Children’s Brigade rang through her ears, and she glanced down at the Yehudi, old rage flooding her veins. She fingered the antidote. There couldn’t be more than ten seconds left. She could say it was too late, that the man was already dead when she found him.

And they’ll blame me. She could already hear the whispers. Did you hear the mamluk girl went crazy? Tried to stop the rescue of three children – God forbid!

With a frustrated groan, Amal pulled the antidote from her pocket, tearing off the syringe’s cap. There was no time left. She ripped open the man’s tunic, her fingers locating his heart.

We shall rid the earth of the germ-makers!

She plunged the syringe into his chest and emptied the contents into his dying heart.

***

“Sister?” The voice was polite, accompanied by an equally gentle rap on her battered metal door.

Amal froze, seizing the hands that had begun to wander across her bare stomach. “What is it?” she demanded.

A pause, probably to allow her intruder to imagine what he was interrupting. “The sheikh asked me to tell you that the prisoner is awake.”

So I didn’t kill him, she realized with a mixture of disappointment and relief. “That’s great news,” she replied, trying to keep her voice steady as she slapped away the exploring hand. “Thanks for telling me.”

“That’s not all. Seems the sheikh wants you to help with the interrogation… seeing as you know foreign ways and all.”

Amal sighed, more annoyed by the interruption than the not so subtle dig at her origins. “Tell him I’ll be right there.” She rolled out of her narrow bunk, sifting through the disheveled clothing on the sandy stone floor.

“Foreign ways?” Thalit repeated, untangling his legs from the thin blanket.

“Mamluks are experts at foreign ways, habibi. Comes with the whole being sold from our homeland bit.” She pulled on a pair of baggy pants and the one clean tunic she could find. “Stay behind for a few minutes after I leave,” she warned.

Thalit rolled his eyes. “Everyone knows, Amal.”

She started lacing up her boots. “Don’t start; you know it’s not allowed.” They were both from families with multiple children, a rarity amongst the mostly infertile Hashemi and the very reason they’d been chosen by the tribe. Amal had already been “married” three times, but none resulted in a pregnancy. She and Thalit would only be paired up if neither had any luck with the biological Hashemi. But she hadn’t accepted a husband in several months; she preferred raiding to being a wife.

Thalit tossed over her filtration mask and she carefully wrapped it around her face as she left the caves. The weather had been particularly erratic lately; there were days when the wind would shift direction without warning, bringing traces of the ancient vapors still lingering over the poisoned north. It paid to be cautious.

Stepping into the black night, she noted with some satisfaction that her tribesmen had taken her advice and moved the Yehudi to a small supply tent across the solar fields – far away from both the Hashemi caves and the wind towers that powered their electricity and filtered the air. Although the other Hashemi had been skeptical of her warnings regarding the germ-making Yehudis, they’d at least agreed to keep the leader at a distance.

She swept aside the door, nearly barging into the sheikh himself. He waved away her stammering apology with a gentle smile.

“Peace be upon you, daughter.”

Amal gave him a respectful nod. “And upon you, honored one. You called for me?”

He pursed his cracked lips, looking at her through rheumy eyes that twisted her heart. It was no secret that their leader was sick. Tonight he looked even more dehydrated than usual – not that the stubborn old man would accept a single extra milliliter in water rations.

He shook his head with a resigned sigh. “He doesn’t seem to know a word of `Arabi. I thought maybe you could try to speak with him. I’d like to know more about the wheat we found in their camp and what they were doing this far north. We’ve never seen their kind before.”

“About that…” Amal started, but he held up a hand to silence her.

“Walid already told me what happened in the camp.” He gave her a sharp look. “Are you Hashemi, daughter?”

“Yes,” she muttered, glancing down at the ground.

“Then forget your past with the Yehudis. I don’t care if you fought a thousand wars. The Hashemi have no quarrel with these people.”

She nodded; there was no arguing with the old man. He left and she entered the tent.

The Yehudi was lying in the back, propped up against a thin recycled mattress. A braided plastic rope tethered him to one of the tent spokes, though he didn’t look able to run anytime soon. Amal’s gaze flickered to the half-drained bag of liquefied electrolytes in his hand, and she clicked her tongue in disapproval. Why waste something so precious on a man who was as good as dead? Her dark eyes skimmed over him with distaste. Although she could see patches of sun blisters on his cheeks and hands, his brown skin was plump, lacking the usual slackness of dehydration. Combined with his lack of `Arabi, it was obvious. This man was no nomad.

Then what was he? Yehudi certainly weren’t welcome in the capital of Suleimaniya and she doubted any were allowed in the few towns still clinging to life after the wars. During her time in the Children’s Brigade, she’d heard rumors of a Yehudi city in the distant southern lands, but dismissed them. She decided to try neo-Farsi, the tongue of the cities and the “civilized.”

“Can you understand me?” she demanded. The rounded syllables felt strange in her mouth compared to the harsh and earthy `Arabi she’d been speaking since she was twelve.

He blinked, turning his head in an attempt to focus his gaze on her. His brown eyes were still shot through with blood from the poison; they’d take at least a week to completely heal. A week he doesn’t have. He was clenching his fists in an effort to suppress the tremors from the antidote. His face twisted with hatred. Even half-blind, it was obvious he recognized her.

“You.” His voice was a whisper, but he mustered up enough energy to spit at her feet. “Murderer,” he accused. “You killed them all, didn’t you?”

Amal shrugged. “You intruded on our lands. The children were spared.”

He took a deep, rattling breath, tearing his gaze away with a grimace. “Spared? What, so they can be sold into slavery?” He shook his head. “Savages. We meant you no harm!”

“No harm?” she scoffed. “I know what you are, germ-maker. I saw your Yehudi entry post.”

His eyes widened. “Our mezuzyou knew what it was?”

She drew herself up. “I fought in the Yemeni wars: I know all about you. No harm!” Amal snorted. “I helped salvage what was left of Tel Qash after your people chem’d it. Have you ever heard a child try to cry when their lungs are full of blood and their skin is bubbling off?” She looked away and took a deep breath, remembering the sheikh’s order, trying to calm herself. “I’m surprised you didn’t have neuro bombs at your campsite ready for any intruders.”

“I told you – we came in peace,” he insisted. “And your people were equally culpable in the Yemeni conflict,” he added. His neo-Farsi sounded high class, the accent growing stronger in his anger. “You were trying to exterminate us!”

“It’s God’s commandment to rid the world of germ-makers,” she intoned, the chants of her childhood long drilled into her.

“Germ-makers,” he spat. “Is that what you call us? You slaughter my people with a chem gun, and then dare to call us germ-makers?”

“Your people started it,” she shot back, her eyes narrowing.

The Yehudi started to laugh, the bitter sound echoing around the tent. “Ah, now, my little killer, I doubt you’re well informed enough to wade into that debate.” He cocked his head to the side, carefully regarding her. “The Yemeni conflict… you’d have been one of the child soldiers of Suleimaniya then?”

She lifted her chin. “What’s it to you?”

He shrugged. “Nothing. Far be it for me to judge the high and mighty Democratic Republic of Ala’araq. So renowned for their birthrate that they can send drug-addled children to slaughter.” The Yehudi studied the black tribal patterns tattooed on her left arm. “Far from your illustrious homeland though. Does that make you a deserter or a slave?”

Amal fought the urge to smack the smug look of his face. “Neither, germ-maker. I am a fairly traded mamluk of the Hashemi people.”

He gave her a sharp look. “The Hashemi, you said?” He glanced down again, disappointed. “We were close.”

“Close to what?” she prodded, remembering the sheikh’s request to learn why they came.

The Yehudi’s face seemed to light up, a fevered excitement flushing his pale cheeks. The word came with a reverent sigh. “Yerushalom.”

“Yerushalom?”

He broke into an oddly entrancing smile. “Yerushalom,” he repeated. “Our promised land. The land God was guiding us to.”

It was Amal’s turn to grow skeptical. “You were looking for death in the desert because God told you?” She shook her head in disbelief. “I hope you can come up with a better lie than that.” She’d met her share of fanatics before, but never heard of any “promised land.”

“I told you. We were following God’s commandment to return to the land he promised us.”

“And this…” She gestured outside. The wind had picked up, sending the thin tent walls into erratic flapping undulations. “Is the promised land?” Her tribe might not be suffering as some others were, but their lands were hardly prosperous, let alone blessed.

He shook his head, looking amused. “No, if you are truly the descendents of the great Hashemi kings, our land is to the north, closer to the sea.”

Let alone the ridiculous idea of going north – kings? Amal thought of the ailing sheikh, whose sole descendent was an even feebler teenage boy with lungs that’d been mortally scarred by the foul desert air. This man was insane. Maybe the chem gun had messed up his mind.

She scoffed. “If you really meant to go north, you should consider us a blessing. All you would’ve found up there was a slow, painful death.”

Her attitude didn’t dampen his strange enthusiasm. “No,” he insisted. “Yerushalom is there. It is God’s wish that we settle in it.”

Amal shook her head. “Then maybe God really does want to eradicate your people. The North is poisoned. The ground is radioactive, the air lethal. It’s always been that way. It’s a cursed land.”

He looked unconvinced, staring down at his hands. “It wasn’t always. It used to be our home.”

“Ah, I suppose this is when we Hashemi were lazing about in palaces?”

“Yes.” His eyes had that strange glow again. Madness, possession, something had clearly taken hold of his senses. “Before everything. Before the germs, before the floods.”

“You mean before your germs?” Amal had grown up with stories about the paradise that had existed before the Yehudis poisoned the earth and chem’d up the air.

He shook his head, giving her a pitying look. “I see your people still remain uneducated.” He held up a trembling hand to halt her angry protest. “We were not the only ones responsible for what happened.”

Amal rolled her eyes. “Really?”

His shoulders slumped and he leaned back against the mattress. “Yes. We know what happened,” he insisted, a weary edge to his arrogance. “Our ancestors kept accounts.”

“Accounts? You mean like books?”

“Yes.”

“Books don’t exist anymore,” she said, shaking her head. “There hasn’t been paper for centuries.”

“We preserved ours. My people have always prized knowledge. When everyone wants to kill you, it helps to be the smartest man in the room.”

“I’m sure. How else would you invent chem guns?”

He ignored her sarcasm, continuing with his story. “My ancestors, your ancestors, they all used to live like kings. We’ve read that millions of animals used to roam a green earth, that the seas were flush with fish, and the fields were so fertile that vegetables grew like weeds…” He sighed, closing his dreamy eyes. “Energy was pulled from the very sand beneath our feet and water flowed so freely that people gathered great pools of it simply to swim.”

That drew a disbelieving hiss from Amal, but undeterred, he kept talking. “But people abused the earth and God punished them for their squandering ways. He raised the seas and sent punishing storms.”

Amal raised a brow. She wasn’t particularly religious, but her people always said God was compassionate. Wicked and greedy humans, well, that was obvious. But a vengeful God wrecking havoc on the planet? “Storms and floods don’t poison people with chemicals,” she pointed out.

The Yehudi shrugged. “People were terrified. Resources – land, water, food – all became scarce and people began to fight over them. Those who didn’t fight waited in terror for Judgment Day that never came, so they started accusing each other of heresy, tearing their communities apart. Their leaders did worse, eager to destroy everyone who might compete for resources.”

“Worse like inventing chem bombs and germ clouds to annihilate millions of innocent people?”

He narrowed his eyes. “You’re a fool if you think your ancestors had no part. My people certainly didn’t launch the bombs that obliterated our cities. In the end, no one won. Together, they all destroyed the world.”

“Yet we’re still here.”

“Our books tell us that most perished. A few survived. Apparently, some even escaped to the stars.” A slip of a smile cracked his bitter face.

“That’s crazy,” she declared.

“Crazier than believing God gave us a broken, poisoned world? Where the air can be lethal and nothing grows? Where pollution has made so many infertile that we steal children from one another?” He grew silent, fingering the braided plastic walls of the tent.

She swatted his hand away. “Stop that.”

He chuckled. “You’re resourceful, I’ll give you that. Scavenging the garbage of your ancestors, stealing from those unlucky enough to cross your path… an ideal lifestyle for survival,” he murmured and then glanced up at her. For the first time she saw doubt in his brown eyes. “Why did you save me?”

Amal crossed her arms, suddenly uncomfortable. “I didn’t save you,” she warned. “You’re destined to join the rest of your people as soon as you answer some questions.”

He lifted his brows, but didn’t seem surprised. “Not much incentive to keep speaking then,” he commented.

“We still have the children.”

“You won’t hurt them,” he challenged. “They’re worth too much to you.”

“You could help them.” She leaned against the medi-cart. “Could increase their value. If they’re healthy and have siblings, they’ll land a better tribe.”

He scoffed. “So they can be breeding slaves and servants?”

“Don’t be a fool,” she said. “I’m mamluk. It’s a decent life. We’re respected members of our tribes, and adored as children.”

“You’re a murderer. I’d rather they die than become like you.”

Amal dug her fingers into the cart’s rim. “Raiding is how we survive. It’s how everyone here survives. You chose to lead your tribe into unknown and hostile territory. You killed them as much as I did.”

“I did not,” he insisted. “God told us to come. They died for their faith.”

“They died because you told them a pretty story about some promised land. Now you can at least ensure their kids earn a better future.”

He glared at her, anger sparking in his eyes at the accusation. “I won’t help you barter a better price.”

She pushed away from the medi-cart, dropping to her feet. “And the bread?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he responded, giving her a nasty grin.

That was it then. She leaned in close, answering his grin with a smile of her own, her teeth bared. “May the knife that finally slits your throat be blessed, germ-maker.”

***

Amal refused to speak to the Yehudi again. Still hopeful, the sheikh tried himself, cobbling together the few phrases of neo-Farsi that he knew, but it was useless. The Yehudi wouldn’t speak and refused all food after Amal’s visit in a useless attempt to starve himself, though he couldn’t resist the water they offered. His stubbornness bewildered the Hashemi. Everyone who dwelled in the central deserts lived by the same code and knew that to be caught by another tribe meant death. A quick, relatively merciful death, but death still. They died knowing their children would be safe and those who were briefly saved told everything they could to improve their children’s value.

Two of the Yehudi children began to take ill: growing pale, their fingers and toes cold. The bread was devoured within two days. A scavenging party had discovered several packets of tiny seeds, but it was anyone’s guess as to what to actually do with them.

“He’s not going to help us,” Amal warned the third night, watching as the sheikh drew numbers in the sand, trying to figure out another way to stretch their water rations. “They’re a wicked people. He admitted he’d rather the children die than help us.”

“Your birth people were some of the most treacherous I’ve ever encountered,” the sheikh scolded, waggling a finger near her face. “Testing new bio bombs on villages that broke free from their grasp. Flooding wells with hormone chems to make women miscarry. This man just lost his entire tribe. He faces death. You should try to be more compassionate.”

But compassion only went so far. With the addition of three young mouths, their already meager water supplies were stretched thinner than anyone could remember. There was simply no way they could continue to support the stubborn prisoner.

As usual, the tribe’s raiders drew straws to determine who would be the one to kill the Yehudi. It was a dismal task. It was one thing to fire a chem gun at a distant fire, knowing the supplies you found would help your people survive. But to cut a man’s throat, to hold him as he breathed his last, his blood seeping through your fingers? That was another thing entirely.

Amal lost. She held the colored bit of old styrofoam in her open palm, looking shocked. It was the first time she’d landed the task.

Walid looked stunned and reached for her marker. “No. It shouldn’t be you.”

“Leave it.” The sheikh’s voice sounded stronger than usual and Walid froze. The old man looked at her. “It’s God’s will, daughter. He’s testing you. Be merciful.”

***

The Yehudi seemed to expect her. He looked resigned, his eyes full of cold hate. “May God rid the world of germ-makers,” he mocked, his voice bitter.

He’d requested to die at night, in the dry ravine where they’d buried his compatriots. Walid escorted them to the edge of the hills, pressing a long knife gun into Amal’s hand, a chem gun into her holster. His black eyes glittered with concern in the dark night as he squeezed her shoulder.

“Be careful, sister. Remember: God loves the merciful.”

Amal fought the urge to roll her eyes. She’d had just about enough of mercy.

She marched the Yehudi to the ravine without speaking, her gun pressed into the small of his back, the only sounds his labored breathing and the crunch of their boots on the sandy rocks. It was an unnaturally beautiful night, and the air was crisp and cool with the promise of an early winter. Beyond the cloudy haze, she could just make out the dim outline of the moon and perhaps even a winking star beckoning from the distant heavens.

“You can stop here,” she ordered, noticing the shallow grave her tribesman had already dug. “Kneel.”

With a frightened gasp, the Yehudi whirled around. Amal had her knife at his throat in an instant.

“Wait! Please wait!” he pleaded, his eyes bright with terror.

She swallowed, not liking the way his frightened eyes made her stomach twist. He’s your enemy, Amal, a germ-maker. Don’t pity him. “What?” she demanded.

He took a few deep breaths to calm himself, but couldn’t seem to stop the tremors shaking his body. “Will… will it really help the children?”

Her mouth fell open, startled by the question. “Yes… yes, of course.”

The Yehudi hesitated, his eyes flickering wildly over the dark landscape. “What’s your name?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

He let out a sharp sound, something between a laugh and a sob. “Can’t I at least know the name of my killer?”

Killer. The word stung, but she didn’t react. Raiding is permissible. And besides, he was talking; he could still be of some use. “Amal.”

“Amal,” he repeated. His teeth had started to chatter. “My name’s Naphtali. Naphtali El-Yacoub,” he repeated, as if to reassure himself. “Do you remember your birth family, Amal? Their traditions? Or are you all Hashemi now?”

She could hear the uncertainty in his voice, the fear. Her tone softened, but she tightened her grip on the knife. “I am Hashemi. They are my people. Even if they didn’t own my life, I would gladly give it for them.” Amal paused. “But I’ve never forgotten my family. I remember my parent’s faces every night: the Farsi lullabies my mother used to sing, celebrating the New Year with my brother and father in the streets…” she drifted off, momentarily distracted by the memories.

Naphtali grew quiet, and when he spoke again, his voice was barely audible. “The eldest girl had two siblings that stayed behind with an aunt in Ads Abeba. The younger girl and the boy are brother and sister. Orphaned. Their father died of a metabolic disorder. They have it too. They’ll need to be given an extra sugar ration if they’re to survive.”

She took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

He glanced up at her. In the dim light of the moon, she could see a strange sheen to his eyes. Tears. She stifled a gasp. The last time she had seen tears was in the Children’s Brigade. The Hashemi didn’t have enough water in their bodies for such a physical response.

Naphtali was trembling. “Please don’t kill me,” he begged. “I… I don’t want to die.”

The sick feeling in her stomach suddenly doubled. “We don’t have enough water for you,” she explained, trying to sound tougher than she felt. “Turn around. Kneel.”

“Then let me go! No one will know, I swear. I’ll go north to Yerushalom. You’ll never have to see me again.”

“Yerushalom doesn’t exist,” she said, her voice weary.

He raised his hands, imploring her. “Please, I made a promise. It’s my duty to God!”

Keeping her knife close to his throat, Amal stepped around so she was behind him and quickly kicked the back of his legs, forcing him to tumble to his knees with a sharp, terrified cry. “I can’t,” she insisted, not liking the plea she heard in her strained voice. “You won’t last the night. You’ll die of thirst or your lungs will be burned by vapors. It’s an agonizing death.” She pinned him to her chest, ignoring his futile struggle to escape. The gas and self-starvation had left him too weak to fight her. Naphtali’s ragged heartbeat echoed against her ribs.

“No, please, don’t!” he begged, tears running down his cheeks.

She pressed the cold edge of the salvaged steel knife against his bare throat and he gasped, his body shuddering.

“No, oh, God, no… please help me!” he cried to the sky.

Amal hesitated. God loves the merciful. Mercy! What was mercy in this broken world? A quick death near the bones of your people? Or a slow, painful one while chasing a fanciful dream?

We shall fight the enemies of the one glorious God!

We shall rid the earth of the germ-makers!

The chem gun felt heavy at her side and she remembered what Naphtali said. Together, they all destroyed the world. No! It was a lie. They were liars, murderers, germ-makers.

He was weeping now. Between sobs, she could hear the choked whispers of some ancient, incomprehensible prayer.

Be merciful.

A drop of his blood stained her blade, the warm and sticky liquid seeping through her fingers.

Naphtali continued to thrash in her arms, desperate to live, but her grip was too strong. It should have been an easy execution, a quick drag of the knife, his body slumping to her feet. But instead the knife began to lower, the arm pinning his chest dropping away.

With a shocked cry, he tumbled free and scrambled to his feet. He clasped a hand to his bleeding throat, whirling around to stare at her in disbelief. She saw the question in his wide eyes.

Amal made no move, frozen to the ground near the empty grave. She felt oddly light.

He stumbled backwards, clearly eager to put distance between the two of them, but terrified of exposing his back to her chem gun.

“Go,” she ordered, her voice numb. He fled to the other side of the ravine, scrambling up the rocky bank. She watched him struggle, noting his weakened condition.

Naphtali paused when he reached the top and glanced back at her, bewilderment still in his dark eyes. The fool, she thought. Walid could come back at any moment, and he certainly wouldn’t commit the sin of sentencing a man to a slow death in the desert.

The Yehudi was still there, looking uncertain. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called back to her.

“It grows in sand!”

The night wind had picked up, and his nonsensical words floated back to her. She stepped forward, a movement that caused Naphtali to sprint a few anxious paces away.

“What?”

“The wheat,” he replied. “You’ll find wheat berries sewn into our tent linings. We bio-engineered them to survive nearly anything. They’ll grow in sand, just treat them first with an agar solution.” Amal could swear she saw the trace of a smile cross his face before he turned and ran into the black night.

She watched him disappear, the howling wind erasing the sound of his crunching boots. In silence, she slowly kicked the sandy dirt back into the shallow grave. It took far longer than she’d expected, and she was taking deep breaths from her respirator by the time she finished.

With a sigh, she climbed out of the ravine, heading for home. It grows in sand. Her mind spun with the possibilities for her people; smiling, nourished children, green fields of waving wheat. Bread to eat, seeds to trade. It could change their lives.

Walid greeted her at the edge of camp. He looked apprehensive, perhaps remembering her wild claims of Yehudi violence. “Was it a merciful death, sister?”

Amal glanced back, staring at the distant northern mountains. The clouds were nearly gone and if she squinted, she could see the narrow pinpricks of stars in the inky sky. She imagined Naphtali chasing his beloved Yerushalom. Devoid of food, water, and shelter, with only a legend to sustain him. She wondered if the air above the mountains was still poisonous.

She kept walking, avoiding Walid’s gaze as she brushed past him.

“I don’t know.”


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About the Author

S. Ali lives in Brooklyn and works in women’s health. While not consoling pregnant ladies and baking baklava, she writes fantasy and science fiction. She has been published in Expanded Horizons and Crossed Genres. You can find more of her stories at http://thecityofbrass.blogspot.com/.