Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2009

A Hundredth name

by Christopher Green

 

And into this stillness, Mavda descends. She drifts from the ceiling to lie beside him on the bed, bringing with her the scent of orchids. Karim pulls her close to him and breathes deeply. She is warm to the touch, her skin dusky with pollen.

He does not speak to her. In a month of searching he has not found words that are worthy of sharing the air between them.

Mavda smiles at him and fades away. Her side of the bed is still made.

The reconditioner on the wall hums to life, dragging her fragrance from the room and replacing it with stale air. Karim rolls over and his eyes go to the single window in his quarters. He can see the paleness of Earth through it, and the glint of early morning cloud over Makkah, the place of pilgrims.

The speakers crackle to life, and the rich wavering tones of the Adhan flood the room, calling him to prayer. Karim pulls himself out of bed and kneels on the prayer mat beside it. He mouths the words but does not say them.

Prayer is better than sleep.

Allah is the greatest.

He presses his forehead to the ground. Mavda’s right hand covers his left and she dips her head in prayer beside him. Though her prayer mat is empty, her touch is a cherished pressure that stays with him.

Karim prays alone.

The room knows he is awake, and it begins to power things up in the order he will need them.

The walls flicker softly before gliding through a preprogrammed series of images. He and Mavda are together in every photo, inseparable. A bench in central park, a balcony in Paris, he at his desk in the U.N. and she in the corner of the picture, eyes awash with pride.

She looks at him from every photo, and he cannot bring himself to look back.

Then she is beside him in the cabin, as well as on the walls. Karim is afraid that each appearance will be her last, afraid that she will always be there and will never speak to him. He is afraid that she will never leave. She watches him for long, soft moments, her eyes never leaving his, before her outline blurs and she is gone.

He pushes himself to his feet and walks through the cabin to the message wall. It is laced with cracks and the messages are now permanent. His broken hand still aches and a snarl of scabs line his knuckles.

Even on the wall, Mavda’s handwriting is sensual. She’d always made even simple requisition forms look like calligraphy. Karim traces her words with his finger for the hundredth time. They refuse to read like goodbye.

We need to talk, my darling. I need to talk. All my love, M.

Karim’s answering scribble is rough, written in a thoughtless haste.

Can it wait, my love? I’ll make time for us as soon as I can.

His last message to his wife.

The shower turns itself on and draws Karim away from the words. He gets in and shivers, unable to feel warm under the heat of the spray. Karim presses his forehead against the wall and closes his eyes. The water softens the scabs on his hands, and he peels them away to let the blood run free. He will not let his body heal what his soul cannot.

He had found her in the greenhouse. She’d cleared her workbench of clutter and soil and made a row of empty pill bottles.

Beneath the workbench, her body was still warm. He dropped to his knees and cradled his wife as he called out to the com.

“My wife is dead. She didn’t think I’d listen, and now I never can. She grew flowers in this place, pushed her fingers into wet earth-

Dirt. Mavda had never let him call it earth. She missed the world too much to use the word.

“And now she’s gone and I am nothing.”

He has used his allotment of water and the shower cuts off. Karim steps out and dresses as the viewscreen above the sink cycles through his messages. A few videos are still trickling through from friends who could not or would not attend. He deletes them all.

The screen beeps and a new message blinks at him. It has been too long since Mavda has signed in, and her messages and privileges have been extended to his account. Would he like to view them?

His voice is scratchy when he says “No” but the view screen ignores him and opens Mavda’s messages anyway. He doesn’t want to look, but the list of people that have corresponded with his wife is too familiar to ignore.

His parents’ names are there, as is his sister’s, and Mavda’s cousins, and friends from every part of their lives. ‘You are being selfish’, they all begin, ‘a good Muslim woman should provide her husband with children’.

He reads them all. The first messages begin gently, with subtle hints and gentle urgings, but they don’t remain that way for long. The most recent letters are obvious, even bullying. His mother writes that she would like grandchildren, and soon. A friend of hers from college speaks of having twins, and asks when Mavda will begin her own family? What would Karim think if they didn’t start one soon? A colleague of Karim’s, a man he worked with at the U.N., writes that he has consulted a mufti, and that the pilgrimage is not a necessity to those who cannot physically accomplish it. Children, they cry in one voice. Children. The Hajj is outdated. How selfish it would be to deprive her husband of children simply because of that.

When he is finished, the com channel informs him he is required in the hangar. The door gets out of his way, and Karim walks down the corridor beyond. He feels Mavda beside him again for a few of his strides, and then she is gone.

#

 

The hangar is lit from every angle. Techs climb the Angels’ hulls, checking seals and tapping their gauges. Gear crawls after them on spindly legs.

The Angels are painted gray, and the color has gone cream in the lights.

Karim presses his hand into the ID gel and the floor of the hangar pulses with blue LEDs in response. They blink a path to his Angel, the Gabriel. Karim follows the lit path, only nodding at the techs or engineers if they meet his eyes.

The gantry brings him to the Gabriel’s cockpit and he pulls himself into the seat and straps in. The techs whistle to their gear and everything pulls away, beyond the pressurized doors. Karim keys himself in and the cockpit lowers and hisses, forcing a new pressure around him.

Karim cuts the Angel’s magnetics and the hangar rumbles as its air is pumped back into the station. The Gabriel drifts off the deck and he nudges it into space.

Once clear, he locks his eyes on the front view screen and its myriad readouts as the cabin fills with the fragrance of growing things and the gentle hum of bees. Silk rustles behind his chair, and she lays her hands on his shoulders. Karim leans as far back as the restraints will allow, and Mavda’s hands drift to cup his jaw. He tilts his head and looks up through the canopy, at nothing.

The com channel has come alive. There are voices in the cockpit, but they are not hers, and so he flicks switches until they are silent. Mavda bends and rests her chin on his head, and her hair drapes him in a glorious cascade.

The resupply ships are already here, two recyclers and an oxygen tanker. Karim guides the Gabriel’s arms to the external O2 tanks underneath the station. The tanks are huge, ungainly things. He attaches their tethers to the Gabriel and pops their restraints before moving to the next rank of cylinders. Those he has already freed float behind him, bumping against each other silently in his wake.

The com lights are a flurry, now. Karim absently opens the channel from the oxygen tanker.

Gabriel? Gabriel, are you there?”

“Yes.”

“Is that you, Karim?”

Karim frowns. The resupply crew are carefully selected. None of them can have knowledge of anyone on board the Abraham, it was one of the rules they’d established at the project’s inception. “Gabriel, responding.”

“Be strong, Karim. Find strength in the words of the Prophet.”

She was my strength.”

Allah sends us all trials, my friend. We are judged not by the weakness with which we begin our endeavor, but by the strength we show throughout it.”

Mavda touches his face again and vanishes. Karim’s vision blurs. He cannot be left like this, so often, every time hoping the visit will never end and is the last one all at once. “I care not.”

“Have you asked Him for guidance?”

“He took from me all that I ever asked for.”

“He is the way. Do not lose your faith. Your lack of it does the Abraham an injustice”

Karim almost smiles. He cannot imagine caring about such things.

But the other man is not finished. “Your wife, as well, then. If she was your strength, shouldn’t you have been hers? Perhaps that is your trial, to become the man she wished you already were.”

The Gabriel is not armed, but Karim tugs the stick hard to the left and trades paint with the tanker. Bulkheads whine. The heads up display becomes a medley of beeps and sirens, all competing for his attention.

The other pilot’s voice is panicked. “Okay, okay! Easy, Gabriel. I’m sorry. We’ll swap the O2 out and head home. Just back off and we’ll be on our way.”

Karim pulls the stick back slightly, and the Gabriel eases off. The tanker grapples the empty canisters behind Karim’s Angel and snips them free of their tethers. When they’re secure the tanker releases a new batch of tanks.

Karim is about to retrieve them when the Michael looms up on his left. The other Angel’s transmission cannot be blocked, and its pilot’s voice fills the cockpit.

Gabriel, allow me. I’ve been behind that desk for too long.” The voice is jovial, but there is an order beneath the words.

Karim thumbs the switch that will make their conversation secure. “Ghalib, there’s no need for that.”

“Of course there isn’t. I receive word that one of my best pilots is intimidating the only convoy willing to re-supply us and there’s no need to interfere? Come now, Karim, what would you do in my position?”

Karim watches the Michael’s arms extend and begin to attach the new O2 tanks to the station. Ghalib is slow at first, but his movements grow more confident as the work goes on. Karim waits, and when the Michael is finished Ghalib brings it around to face him.

“Karim, we have tried not to force you into anything, this past month. We are trying to be patient.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But you must come to terms with what has occurred.”

Karim opens his mouth to answer, but Ghalib cuts him off.

“She’s gone.”

He thinks Mavda may still be behind him, but he cannot smell her, and she is not there when he turns his head to look for her. “I know, sir.”

“Her tragedy will not be forgotten, but we must move on. She would never have wanted the Abraham to suffer so, not as dedicated as you both were to the station. Our work, yours and hers, will be a gift to future generations.”

The word generations hangs in the air longer than it should. Karim holds his trembling hands out in front of his face, staring at the scabs. “Did you tell the tanker pilot to give me that message?”

“I did. I can’t just sit here and watch you lose your faith.”

“Isn’t that what this whole grand experiment should document? Mavda knew that any children we had couldn’t make the pilgrimage, couldn’t complete the Hajj. She wasn’t about to put their souls at risk.”

“Karim, she made her choice. We have to make our own choices, now.”

Karim makes his hands into fists and feels his nails bite into the palms of his hands.

Ghalib cleares his throat. “People tell me your room is a shrine to her, that the last glass she used still sits unrinsed. Is it true? Does her prayer rug still lay unrolled next to yours?”

“Yes.”

“We all miss her, Karim.”

Lies.” Kharim smashes his hands against the viewscreen. “It’s easier for you with her gone. No more nagging questions of faith. She was my wife, and it was our choice, Ghalib, not yours. Not the experiment’s. So what if the station fails? We’re not here to force a success. If the words of Mohammed cannot be followed up here, then why are we here at all?”

Ghalib raises his voice. It booms through the Gabriel. “Allah will understand. The pilgrimage has faded, now. Many do not make it.”

“Electing not to complete a Hajj and not being given the option are two vastly different things.”

“Allah will understand.” He is shouting, now, the words ringing in Karim’s ears.

“My wife killed herself, Ghalib. Does Allah understand that?”

“Do you?” There is a long pause. Karim’s gaze goes to the Earth. The clouds have cleared above Makkah. He enlarges the image and studies the city, until Ghalib’s voice finally breaks his concentration. “Your cabin will have been cleaned by the time you return. You cannot surround yourself with such pain, Karim. None of us is strong enough to live like that.”

Karim spins the Angel around and hits the thrusters hard enough to make the Michael take evasive action. The Gabriel enters the hangar, and the doors close behind it.

#

 

Karim sprints down the corridor. He stops at the greenhouse, first, hoping he isn’t too late, but it has already been stripped. The flowers are elsewhere and the bees are gone. Even the soil has been carted away.

He runs to his room and finds that it is no longer his. Although in the same place, and opened with the same code, everything within is new. The walls are blank, the view screens do not recognize him, and the bed has been replaced. The message wall has been torn out. The air tickles his throat with antiseptic and ionization.

Her prayer mat has been removed. Kharim looks for her, but every room is empty of everything she has ever touched.

The Adhan pours through the room’s speakers. Karim throws himself to the floor in the direction of Makkah, his face once more pressed to the ground. He sucks in breath. He weeps and says the words. Sobs rack his body so hard that he has to start over several times.

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

Make haste towards prayer.

And Karim prays alone.

#

 

They have locked him out of the hangar. The gel ignores his imprint, and as he walks the corridors he finds other areas off limits as well. The power plant, the hydrocells, the synchronous navigator, the records of their experiment, all are closed to him. They fear a traitor, perhaps even sabotage.

The air is different and Karim is certain that she has gone from him. All those little glimpses, all those second chances, third chances, and he still has not said goodbye. With nowhere left to go, he returns to his room.

There is a Qur’an on Mavda’s side of the new bed. It is hers. He has seen it thousands of times. They have studied together, read together, smiled and wept and debated together with this little book open in her lap. It had not been here, after they had dismantled the cabin. It is the one thing in the pale, cold room that she has left him, to give him strength.

Karim opens it. As he turns the pages and scans the blur of words, the ninety-nine names of Allah snap into focus. His finger traces them as he comes across them. Kharim holds them in his mind, pinching them from the text like tea leaves.

Allah, The Utterly Just.

Allah, The Wise.

Allah, The Raiser of the Dead.

Allah, The Reinstater Who Brings Back All.

There are ninety-nine names, and he can find solace in none of them. Karim pores over the pages for something more, and sees only words that once gave him comfort and now give him nothing. He turns to the last page, and then beyond it, to the blank one that sits inside the back cover.

Mavda’s perfect handwriting flows onto the paper as he watches. Karim holds the book steady for her, this woman whose writing he fell in love with even before they had been properly introduced. She writes in graceful Arabic with one hand, and caresses his scabbed knuckles with the other.

She inscribes a hundredth name, with which to say goodbye.

The Ever-Forgiving.

And Karim prays alone.

_________

Christopher Green is a graduate at Clarion South 2007. His work appeared in the anthology “Dreaming Again”, edited by Jack Dann and published in July 2008. 





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