The city is quiet this morning, like an empty house. The great apartment blocks across the street gape open, their façades destroyed by a bomb in the night. People scurry about the wreckage, looking for lost loved ones and trinkets. A lone dog sniffs around the bricks and mortar, hungry and ragged.
I stand at my doorstep and call out for her. “Zeinah!”
I have not heard from her these past five days. Each night, I sleep through the explosions on my own, denied her warmth. I miss the soft purring of her sleep. I miss the gentle tickle of her whiskers as she butts me awake in the unspeakable hours of the morning.
A man across the street drops to his knees and beats his chest with ragged hands. He wails. It’s a lonely sound, like a lost whale in a vast ocean. He begins to dig.
“Zeinah!” My voice echoes back from the ruins of my homeland, older and thinner than I remember. It needs to eat, this voice. My mother would have cooked it Shireeah, and stood by, tapping her foot, until my feeble voice had eaten every grain of rice.
The man across the street is digging in the earth. He calls to a passer by to help him. The new man wears a blue silk hatta over his hair. To my surprise, Blue Hatta stops and kneels beside the stricken man. Soon, they dig together.
There is some goodness left in this forgotten city.
“Zeinah.” I am tired. I should go out there, into the world, and look for her. I should follow the last of my family and flee. I should do so many things, but I cannot. Zeinah has not yet had her milk.
A large black bird settles on the rubble near the two digging men. It hops from rock to rock, hoping for a better look. It is nosy, this bird. Blue Hatta looks up and shoos him away, but the bird is in no hurry.
I wish Zeinah were here. She would eat this bird for breakfast.
“Zeinah!” I am almost done with calling. She has not heard me. She does not come. The rats will have her milk.
The unhappy man picks up a stone bigger than his head and drops it to one side. Blue Hatta is digging faster. A woman joins them. She doesn’t speak, but takes her place beside the others. Digs.
I turn away and step back inside. The cool shade of the house soothes my aching bones. Once, I would have stayed to watch them. Once, I would have run across the street, clutching the extra cloth of my didasha, fear and sympathy clawing at my frantic heart.
There is no point now. The child beneath the rubble is like Zeinah. She’s not here.
I envy her.
Leo Norman is a writer, father and teacher from Southampton, England. His short stories have appeared in Scigentasy and are due to be published by Stupefying Stories and Aghast.
See ebook illustration for this story here!