Stacy Hardy: The Empty Plot

The empty lot gapes, yawns and quivers. It exhales dust and sucks the blue out of the sky. It draws her to it, an emptiness that calls out, that whispers and jeers. A wide mouth, that says, come, that dares her.  She has no business with the empty plot. It is a nothing place, a no place, not a place but a gaping, an emptiness that is yet to be filled, something still to come.

It has no address at present, nothing that sets it apart in the neighbourhood. There are so many. Empty stretches of land cleared for some future construction never to come, suspended in the eternal yawning present of oblivion. Plots that have stood so long that they have become part of the landscape, vast parks where rubbish accumulates, some partially developed, deep holes sunk in the earth, now filled with murky water that collects debris, the pokes of steel foundations casting dancing shadows on the surface like the spines of poisonous fish; ruinous scaffold of catastrophic geometries that shade rows of empty buildings, concrete structures looming like theme park wreckage, dark and sullen, windows dust coated, shattered in places, doors padlocked against squatters that never come. The streets that hem them, nearly deserted, monuments to some moment of false hope, a future that dims with each day, grows wary, listless, the air dirty with stalled development.

She can taste the aluminium, the rust.

She does not know exactly why this plot and not another. Her choice, if she did decide, was based on instinct. But maybe there was no choice. Or rather she did not choose—the plot chooses her, it recognizes something, a neglect, emptiness; promise overrun by decay, dirt; a person evacuated of history, given to nothing but instability, ineptitude, ignorance—not torn from roots, but without them, not bothering to plant them, too lazy or conceited, preferring to remain rootless and unwanted, seeking out places of emptiness—always the dirt, the dust, far-flung places filled with the shunting shadows of transition. New developments built on the ruins of crumbling civilizations. Places emptied of history, home, belonging, social relations that bind people. At once everywhere-elsewhere, that deadly violence of nowhere; a mixture of countries travelled, pieces of a life torn to shreds, a body scraped off the ground, revised and repackaged in a different context. Exiles, migrants, expats—fanciful names for unbelongers. Weak, weedy. New to suffering. We who claim as home is construct; are against passports, dictators, continents, against custom. Changing countries like changing arms. To slide from one man’s arms into another’s. Always seeking out the exotic, the other. Leeches that scrounge off squalor, like the gnarled vegetation that sprouts erratic, appearing and disappearing, small spiked brushes, feeble fists of weed, creepers and reedy grasses that rise suddenly in the empty plot. Hardy adventurers that thrive on sullied concrete and metal rust, the new soil of global urbanisation; ugly and useless, unable to cover the wounded terrain, the great gash opened by the bulldozers.

From the start she is drawn to it, at first tentative; she traces its perimeter, skittering. She knows it is off limits, out of bounds because no one crosses it. There is no sign prohibiting entry, no fence guarding the perimeter. The rule is unspoken, a silent law that determines movement. The roads that surround it are full, filled with cars and pedestrians, everyone circles, an endless arc of buses, trucks, cars, people. Streams of tired faces, the circles under the eyes, bent backs, broken by development. A man, crouched low, bearing the brunt of rocks and bricks destined for a future that doesn’t come, doesn’t belong to anyone. Everyone all racing ahead, navigating a thousand obstacles, bricks, sand piles that arise from nowhere, fling themselves suddenly into view. In places the road is uneven, bulging and split as though something presses on it from underneath, a submerged city waiting to surface, a forgotten kingdom that might suddenly rise up and reclaim its glory.

She walks until the road dips then twists, veers away from a construction site and runs below the high wall of some government installation. She stands in its shadow,  guarded by barbed wire and watchtowers. She doesn’t know what is behind the fortification. There are stories, vast underground prisons with walls that weep echoes and laments; ordeals by fire, water, hunger; shivering in a darkened chamber, terror or torture threatening silence, a choice between blood spilled or compliance, a terrible unspoken gag that seals the abandonment of history. A helicopter circles overhead spiralling her back to the street, a sudden churning reminder: the government presence, parading its power beneath the sun; the sky has eyes, everything is visible, the walls warn silence. She shields her face against the roiling, blades wiping dust to camouflage a landing somewhere beyond sight. Beyond walls. She turns and calculates distance. Heads back whence she came, the road slowly emptying at the end of the day. A few cars pass and then for the first time, silence.

She doesn’t enter the empty plot that night. She swallows her urges, steels herself against the plot’s sticky whispers: come, come. Not that night. She is afraid. Already darkness is falling, transforming the sand into a black sea, an endless sheet visible only by a shifting shimmer, broken glass and steel dust in the moonlight. She walks back along the road. Lifts her head as each car light illuminates the path in front of her, spills over, cutting through the black sea, momentarily parting it, revealing brown sand, boulders and debris. She follows the parting, head bent against the waves of black that rise on either side, threaten to close over. Increases her pace, as if to outrun the breaking.

There is no promised land waiting to greet her. She slides her key in the door and enters that silence of the apartment. He is in the lounge. Sitting as if expecting someone, guests who will break the quiet with smells and laughter. He asks where she has been. She says, walking. An activity she knows he doesn’t understand. Walking to where? Just walking. No one understands. It is not a country for walking. There is nothing to be had here but the dust, the blasted noise of bulldozers and cement mixers; blazing sun, dust storms and wind that gnaws. Everything is under erasure: archaeological horizons where details from each period—a frieze, a cartouche, an apse, spiral patterns that twist into ancient plants; knots of serpents and falcons, lions with wings, gods gone mad — are scattered, cracked and banished by the spasms of a long century. It is not the angel of history who looks back to cast a last glance, but the angel of oblivion. Her gaze is insolent, mocking, it greets the new dawn; an overcrowded polluted half-industrial city that heaves with the weight of too many bodies, mouths that will know only hunger and song, dirges of bloodshed, of massacres, uprisings and escape attempts.

The taxi drivers treat her habit with the same suspicion, stopping alongside, hooting that jars her from her destination. She gestures, indicates no with her hands: la-a. Still they persist, stubborn in their incredulity, track her, dogs revving at her heels, eyes that accuse behind windscreens,  threaten then lose interest. The spin of wheels spitting churns of disgust. Stupid white women—in the taxi drivers’ eyes. The veiled mouths of the women she passes murmur censure, announce distance.

She carries the dust from the city home with her. She leaves her shoes at the door, but it is not enough. The dust nests and creeps, coating the floor. The carpets need airing, they are crouched, suffocating, each step resounds like a cough.  In the bedroom, dust dances in the afternoon light, creeps under eyelids, in the creases of her ears, her elbows. It forms a layer on her skin. Washing does little. The dust is inside her. Her skin turns brown and it gains a new texture. There are lines she never noticed before, thin furrows that crease her face. The dust collects in her clothes, follows her to bed, nests under sheets, seeks out wet parts, armpits and knee clefts, fills her vagina, rubs and grinds so sex is like being sandblasted. In the morning her cunt weeps sad dirty puddles. She is exhausted, scalded. Water only stings. She starts to clean, to dust, but the job is too big, endless.

From the neighbouring flats, through the thin walls, she listens to the hum of a vacuum cleaner and television’s constant unintelligible babble. She is meant to be writing but it always proves difficult, impossible; she comes up with a hundred excuses. The noise. All around her entities call—the hiss of air conditioning, the blink of the printer low on toner, the whisperings of a plastic bag caught on the window. The uncomfortable heat and dust. Difficult to weigh words when sweat is streaming, bathing one’s face, hands; the dust that settles on the screen, blurs letters, waters her eyes. Blocks and squares, like sheets hung on a line, buildings on a horizon. The eye focuses on the black shapes, then on the white space in between. A familiar vista wiped out by new construction, and then remade as travelogue. The words are indistinct, characters thin and papery, blow away too quickly. Memories jump. A feeling returns, a vague feeling, which grips her, often returning, a loss of identity, the past names irretrievable, an orphan, no country anymore, no ties. Time loses its grip and the hours slip away, furtive blocks that disperse into the sullen air, no end to the horizon line, erasing in her each point of departure. Origin vanishes. Even the new start.

Finally she stands. Closes the computer and slides on shoes, shouts—hand already on the door handle—she’s going walking. Walks with her head down, destination a forgone conclusion. The sun is low in the sky and a wind has picked up, lifting dust particles that dance in the last light, mock her, mimic her own steps—erratic, distracted, confused. Following her sight line, the outline of the distant windows of light staring from buildings that border the clearing. As she pushes forward, time seems to race ahead. Days, months, decades. The clearing is no longer a new development but rather a demolition site, the remnants of some former industrial area, vestiges of long-razed factories and warehouses. Further along the ground has given way and sand slides out underfoot. She crosses a desolate expanse, far too immense for her legs, metal ramps bunkered by caverns, endless empty cellars where the sound of her steps echo, the dull impact of rocks falling on concrete, marking her stride, low skittering sounds that map her path.

She tries to pick up pace, but the past rises against her, scattering concrete rocks, rearing up black against the glimmer, then suddenly changing position, vanishing while others have reappeared—or perhaps it is only her eyes, the shifting moonlight sending their shadows roaming. She is suddenly struck by the distance—how many decades has she still to traverse? Time freezes for what seems like a century, then suddenly a gigantic moon rises and there is a vivid view of the boundary—alarmingly close horizon. The road! In that moment the lights of a car veer, blind her as they ramp a bump, swerve away as quickly, as though in fright. She stands frozen, watching the lights rattle and skitter on the dusted road, suddenly aware of the present, her appearance, clothes mired, the sweat on her face masked by dust.

She has emerged at the far side of the lot, alongside a series of new developments, concrete edifices still gated by scaffolds. She weighs the options. To get home she either must cut back from where she’s come or push forward, follow the dirt road as it wends the perimeter. She hesitates. Finally walks, or rather the road carries her, suddenly surprisingly smooth and flat. Taxis speed past oblivious; her clothes, her dirt having earned her a passport to the land of the walkers. She picks up pace, emboldened by a new sense of belonging. Sails home on long, loose legs. Hesitates only as she draws close. Now that she has her destination in sight, the dream recedes enough to make room for an unexplained dread. A steady dark chill creeps into her consciousness, a new apprehension. She crosses past the neighbouring buildings. The white weave of the sheets blown from flung-open rooms, rear suddenly, accusing the dust and dirt she carries.  The fruit-sellers eye her—a flash of recognition drowned by incomprehension. The mirror in the elevator echoes their accusation. She tries to right herself, so many wrongs—trespassing, recklessness, arrogance, clothes, hair, even her mouth dust coated. He chooses not to see, or rather to ignore her. Lets her slip past into the shower. She bolts the door. The water too hot. Letting it run. Watching how the dirt grains beneath her feet swirl into ancient patterns that vanish down the drain into some subterranean depth.  An echo, the skitter of rocks and sand falling. She listens. Dries herself. Stands a long time at the mirror.

That night the empty plot enters her dreams. It has expanded, a vast desert of ruin. A line of tyres that run out, a runway towards the horizon but there is no take off, no landings, nothing to give any sense of perspective. Just flatness broken only by the mounds of boulders like sleeping animals, chests rising and falling against the tug of history—the suck of a thousand centuries,  the collapsed terrain, rubble and tokens, strewn like body parts on a battlefield. Corpses cower behind the barrels of rusted guns, snipers guarding a dead empire, their decomposing flesh goes on aiming, dead eyes staring south eastward as if targeting a blind future. She sees herself as if at a great distance. A small figure running, or trying to run, against the tides of time, an empire, dormant for a thousand years, now rising up, waging an undeclared war on those that have vanquished it. A sniper has her in her sights, she feels it, a burning beneath her shoulders blades. Tries to run but there is nowhere to go, the whole territory is occupied. The ground rises and seizes her legs, it laces her ankles with metal weights, opens puddles that siphon, suck her feet down. Sees herself fall, the sudden discharge of air knocked out, the shiver of shock that wards off the pain. The eyelid, the leg, the finger: everything out of place. She watches herself stand, a stick figure dirty and sunken, trying to rise, suspended, shaken then shattering. Watching the self sink back down, waddled in the earth, sucked down only to be exhumed by the wind, dispersed by rising dust. In the dream, she tries to gather the pieces—that scene in a movie where the wind blows the pages, scattering across the landscape, everything lost in a thousand fragments, self dispersed across earth. Everything flung.

She wakes suddenly in a pool of sweat. The sun is high, the light already luminous. His side of the bed is empty. She rolls into it, sleeps another two hours then rises unwillingly, fights against the weight. Stands at the window, stares into the building opposite. Windows spread out like eyes across the expansive façade, a slice of the compound’s wall, the concrete boundary fence and the path beyond. The view ends at the road. The plot is out of reach, beyond the allowed field of vision. She goes back to bed, sleep. Wakes only when he gets home. Surprised to find her in bed. Are you sick? No, or maybe a little. Or yes sick, terrible fever. He brings her water and she drinks, amazed at her sudden thirst, the cool of the liquid swallows the dust swirling inside her. How people here wash the sidewalk;  throw out buckets of water as a defence against the dust. In the morning the mud sinks into the crack in her sneakers, dries slowly then crumbles, finally falls out on the white tiles of the reception area, appearing suddenly as if from nowhere, history stored only to be released later, when the moment has passed, the morning forgotten in the heat fog of the afternoon, the roads outside dry and barren, gagging under the weight of midday traffic, complaining in a chorus of hooting that reaches a fever pitch then seems to vanish, becoming inaudible in their insistence—the edge where din becomes silence.

The empty plot eats noise, drinks it down, even her footfalls are swallowed, padded by the dirt so there is only the mute rustle of her pants, the thin sound of her breathing. She has been walking for an hour already. An impossible length for the distance. The lot is only what, one, two kilometers? She must be walking in circles or backtracking, and yet she is sure, she holds the minarets in the distance in her view, a straight line that never gets closer. If anything the spires seem to fade, grow more distant, pale bursts in full daylight, eclipsed by the sun’s primacy.

That night she enters the destination on google maps. Selects the walking figure. Watches the blue line map a path. Impossible. The map only registers roads, development, emptiness is not in its database. It draws circles and squares, lopsided triangles around the empty space, changes routes and direction but refuses to enter; it too confirming that the empty plot is forbidden, outside the limits of state sanction, government satellites and gps systems.

She spends the rest of the day watching a bulldozer clearing a new building site. The endless rearrangement of dirt and dust. Civilisation built on top of civilisation, layers of sediment compacted by bloodstains, sweat, strife and toil, the dead long since outnumbering the living. The city of the dead. Qarafa necropolis. The taxi driver laughs with teeth like stars. They wind through streets, silent tombs hunched together as if the dead too bend in mourning. The sense of travelling back through the years. The shadow of past things, what’s been voided, what no longer belongs, a tremble of depleted matter weaves in the air. Observed through the windscreen, the city appears almost untouched, the rubble at street level can’t be seen, a few broken roofs, beams charred, sections of wall knocked down, but the town is intact, safeguarded by the ancient god of death. Packs of feral dogs roam streets, digging holes to bury the bones torn from the graves. The taxi driver tells her the remains are collected up, new graves built over the ruins of the forgotten, layers upon layers, a loose pile of bones—humerus, radius, ulna, femur, tibia, and fibula—so many pretty names for dead things. So many bones. A handful of carpal bones, phalangers; a sternum hunched like a vulture feeding; hundreds of bodies broken down and fragmented; beds of bones; winding dirty roads though places of skulls, passing like a shadow over the plantations of the dead.

It’s possible to build a skeleton from these ruins, the great tragedy of humanity. A Frankenstein spanning different generations, part-man-part-woman, a racial mutant, age indeterminable. Isn’t this what we aim for in the great flattening, gender equality and anti-racism and ageism? The ultimate everything and nothing being. We cheer our new god as it rises slowly, walks limping on uneven legs, unmatched fibula. Hauls its hundred years of coccyx bone out of the dirt and sets off towards the glimmer on the horizon, spine swaying like a metronome, the click click click of bones, of fingers, pacing its gait across the broken cobblestones, blind, as if following its own momentum, uncontrolled, with no return.

The city rises to welcome him, neon lights that turn mosques into spaceships, churches and temples blasted, detonated to dust so malls can rise up ready to clothe his mutant figure. Pork is the best replacement for human flesh—forbidden because of the unease of its closeness; those who develop a taste are said to become butchers, cannibals, vampires who feed off blood. The safest is beef: hormone and chemical soaked, bloodied with colouring, packed dense, bruised under the wrap of cellophane. Finish it all off with a suit—Dolce & Gabbana,  Gucci—badly fitted knock-offs that blaze logos, and a jacket bulged with meat, the cram of a waistline that flares then tapers into stubby legs. The face is stolen from a poster, digitally rearranged and fed back. It is not a pretty face, smug yet sullen beaded eyes downcast by the weight of a too-heavy jaw bone.  It is a face that sinks, capsized by jowls, crowned by a sloping forehead splattered with blood.

Choking, nausea; the smell of corrupt sweat and unnamed filthiness of body. That smell! Hot decay grabs at her throat. She pulls herself back. Digs in her heels to stop, to ground herself, stop the ceaseless flow of images. Later at home, he says what are you thinking and she jerks at the words. Wonders what he will think if she tells him where her mind travels, the cower of her imagination, crouching, sunken, always descending, into the bowel, the dirt, the peat of rotted flesh and sewerage sullied. She holds his eyes. Laughs lightly—too lightly, says: nothing, nothing, my mind is an empty plot, a vast space waiting to be filled with whatever castles you want to build. High-rise apartments uniform in their concrete blandness, lace metal gates groaning like gaudy prostitutes and the same furnishings, a thousand choices that become one as soon as you enter. The reception, that area that leads into a lounge, the couch ornate gilded metal and velvet sheen. The plastic cover torn, but untouched, to somehow hold onto the illusion of newness, hold the decay at bay, one more day, one more month. The marbled plastic floor polished by bruised knees, broken skin, concealed under layers of fabric. Everything dirty stuffed away behind the closed bedroom door. The vast double bed with its metal trimming where fucking happens, hard and fast, vacated of intimacy and over too quickly for pleasure. Dispelling urges, like demons that howl then flee into the black night. Terrible release and then stillness. In the morning, thin pale sheets, bleached cotton to soak up sweat, come, blood; washed clean, billowing surrender from the balcony.

There is no sign prohibiting entry, no barrier separating the lot from the street. She stands on the edge, starts to step, hesitates, sets off back down the road. Her eyes are ahead of her, but slowly she veers left. She has crossed the boundary! A silent, almost imperceptible crossing, yet she feels it immediately. The hold of borders on the imagination; invisible lines that draw complex pictures; the other side, and suddenly the air is brighter, clearer, the weight lifted momentarily, the new space! The new start! Legs skid, then sink in the soft sand. She slows herself, readjusts her pace and stride to the shallow surface. A wind has risen and dust clouds everything, waters her eyes, glues her lips. She digs in her bag for water, sunglasses. It is through the yellow tint of Ray Bans that she first sees the shape, something approaching too fast for a walker, too smooth for a runner. Something flying towards her. Fear enters before her mind can catch up with her senses, seizes her eyes and her ears. The muscles of her chest contract. Fear makes the shape larger, crashing towards her. Then the wind drops, the dust settles and she sees him. A boy! A small boy and a bike. He is like all the other boys on the street. Small, supple, muscular, furtive. He slows the bike and comes to a standstill. She takes off her sunglasses and for a second their eyes meet. His eyes. Animal, brittle, intelligent. He holds her gaze with an arrogance that surprises her. Drops it with ease, disdain almost, rights the bike, pushes it two paces, then left leg braced on the pedal, swings himself up on the saddle and sets off again. She stands watching. Transfixed by the pump of his legs, a rapid unceasing motion. Wild whirring! The bike knots and ricochets as it mounts dunes, sways through thick sand. The dust clouds then finally settle. The air is still. Too still. As if not just the boy, but the whole city has vanished, ceased to move; how the things around her no longer make a sound, the wind doesn’t blow, the cars cease their hooting. The city suddenly stopped. Even the distant drone of the construction, the hum of the generators suddenly silent.

She starts to walk but she can feel his eyes tracking, his body moving. She turns and looks back but the space is pitch black, sunken. She cannot see. Her body feels far away, as if physicality has begun to dissipate. She cannot locate her arms. Her legs, chest. She tries to breath but the air is too thick. Panic grips her.  She turns, tries to turn. Suddenly catches sight of an empty taxi approaching out of the darkness. Wrenches herself free, running towards it. The cab swerves to the kerb and she jumps in. Says, go, drive on. Glancing through the back window, she see him, his black shadow, the spokes of the bike suddenly expanded, churning, the arms of a windmill bearing down on her, racing madly forward, as if chased across the pavement elongated by floodlights. Dozens and dozens of windmills spinning wildly, faster than the wind itself, stretching out until they disappear. She slouches back in the seat, tells herself, it is nothing. A small boy and a bike. He is like the other boys: small, supple, muscular, furtive. They are everywhere, eyes of polished ebony, on the streets, the landings, the sidewalks. They play in the dirt and the doom of construction sites, moving sand and collecting stones, building towers that rise then collapse. Practicing their future. And yet something gnaws, something sticks. Her throat is tight. She swallows dirt.

Later she tries to speak about the encounter. He does not understand. Where were you? Shakes his head. He doesn’t like her walking. Why were you there? Did you get lost? Is the gps of the apartment saved in your phone? Our location. He makes her show him. You must be careful. He doesn’t say it but his eyes do—the stories of foreign women vanished, disappeared by shadows that rise from under the city, under the road, steal a prize then burrow back. You must go to the park instead. He shows her the park on her phone gps. You can walk there. But she doesn’t. She leaves early. He is still sleeping. The roads are quiet, dilapidated houses stand silent, as if deserted, in the almost cool air of daybreak; as though they are already abandoned ruins. The rooms appear as black holes through the unshuttered, wide open windows. It is a city that sleeps late. That rises before dawn then falls back into bed. Re-emerges at lunch time and runs endlessly into the night.

There is a strange smog that morning. It hugs the horizon, drapes itself over the scaffolds so they float like ships, the whole city seems to sway, unmoored. She thinks she should listen to her man. She should go to the park. She opens her phone and follows the directions. The park: a neat square, green lawn and palm trees. The geometry of buildings, walls, and windows—their precise corners, rigid lines that form a monolithic façade, mimicking the endless stretch of walls she has only just breached. She slows her pace, a fake tourist in his city. Even the palm trees are transplanted. She sees them pass on the backs of the trucks that race the streets; trees uprooted and moved to decorate the new development. They stand awkward and confused, mimicking greenness, fecundity, growth. Colour muted. Light extinguished by the thirsty slabs of slate, granite walls leaching colour out of the gardens, suffusing everything with the deadened hue of stone.

They no longer have anything to talk about. The lot stretches between them. It hangs in the air like a skrim of dust. Everything becomes heavy, unmoving. The atmosphere in the apartment stagnant, suffocating. All words that pass between them settle into the dust in the blurry rooms. He says how was your day. She says fine, okay.  Hears the words drown in dust before they leave her mouth. Come out dirty, ugly. Quickly she rises, gets a broom and sweeps them away, ties them in a plastic bag and bins them. When she comes back he is sitting in the silence left by her cleaning: a single, gleaming space amidst the dirt. He asks about the writing. She says fine. Deliberately makes her face blank. She knows her words irritate him almost as much as her pale face,  bloodshot eyes, the vague, blank expression which makes him angry because it seems so insulting, as though she were miles away, as if she came but never arrived. Her inability to settle, to inhabit the home. Her dangerous isolation, her detachment. Selfishness. The list is endless. You never act like a normal person, you’re never relaxed, he says. He’s on the attack. Finally he rises, his sighs displace more dust. She watches him leave for the bedroom. Hears his usual sounds, but they are unfamiliar to her ears. She stands alone in the gloaming, uncertain whether to follow him or go out.

This time she feels the boy before she sees him. She feels his eyes. They are dark stabs that see through her clothes. She is alone, naked in a desert landscape. She feels the eyes ply back the folds, seek out her soft places. Her belly, breasts. She is suddenly afraid of her softness, her whiteness. Her mind fingers the underbellies of whales; beached and bleeding on white sand, strewn with foam, pebbles, scuttled by cuttlefish. She clenches against the rotted and mouldered image, body pulled hard and straight as if to counter the folding; a rock, a plinth, an obelisk rising erect and taut. She walks forward with determination. She does not see him, only traces but she knows he is there. The boy. Those eyes watching, devoid of expression, big black eyes that appear depthless, almost like those of an animal.

They follow her home.

She searches for him on the streets but there are so many boys. Like him. Lithe, hungry. Sullen. They move in small groups or pairs. They sit hunched low on the cement slab leading up to their apartments or hunker down, arranging pebbles in approximations of ranging shadow lines. She watches the intent of their gaze, eyes gleaming like glass shards on the concrete floor. Boys that walk with swinging arms and loose steps. They are learning to be men. In the shops they stand next to their fathers and pack her goods into bags. They march, carrying sacks of bread they deliver. Boxes of water. Thin, taut arms straining under the weight of adulthood. Eyes like grasshoppers, that leap toward the future. She searches their faces, the same faces, dark eyes and small serious mouths. So many boys. Small, supple, muscular, furtive. But she does not see him. Or maybe it’s that she can’t recognize him without his bike, without the sun and the dust clouding her eyes. She tries to recall his features but they are smudged and indistinct. When they do finally settle into focus they are a cartoon. A line drawing of a boy rendered down to its simplest past. She casts the image out of her head, horrified by the limits of her imagination, the violence of her gaze. At home she unpacks the bags of shopping, holds each item as if she can still feel the heat of the boy who packed them. His small hard hands. She is no longer hungry. Everything appears ruined. She packs everything away and walks to the bedroom.

It is hot the next day. The muted orange wasteland, dry and stifling. Heavy, crumbling earth, hardly breathing, gasping like tired, smoke-filled lungs. On the streets, the trash heaps collapse into landfills; the smell of burning and rot mixed into a poisonous tincture. She stops at the corner and cannot continue. The sun’s rays stitch her into the shamble of hot black tar and smoke. Hotter even in the empty plot, as if its barrenness invites the sun to fill it, beckons. The concrete blocks are dead slabs barely breathing. Nothing moves except rubbish, thin plastic bags and wrappings that dance like angels celebrating the death below sand and mute unmoving blocks, a giant grave into which she casts herself. Everything seems flatter than usual, blasted. She slides on her shades and wraps her head scarf across her mouth, but it’s too late. Already the poisoned air has entered, choking lungs, attacking nerve muscles so each step drags. The boy comes out of nowhere, as if lifted by wind, swirling down amidst bag tatter, sand. Circles and descends, close suddenly, too close. She can see the dusted dews of sweat that bead his forehead. His dark eyes harder, deeper than she remembers; the crest of a fly, its faceted-eye staring at her: assessing. He lifts a hand and wipes his mouth and she thinks he might speak. A mumble torn away by the wind. She reaches to grab it, pluck it from the air above her but it is gone, swirled away, ravaged by shards of dust until it’s nothing but a smooth hiss, indistinguishable from the hiss from the road, of distant drilling, paper shimmied by wind. The boy’s eyes dart. Left foot pedals backward lifting dust like a smoke machine. Shrouded in his cloud, the boy mounts… is on the bike. Legs sing and the bike ramps, rolls in a tight circle, whirlpooling dust behind it. She is the eye of the tornado, blinded by dust, by movement. Dust that circles the sky, then vanishes. She stands alone in the nothing, listening to the sound of the darkness weeping, the sound of wind escaping, the trembling voices of plastic bags. A torrential rain of dust, that breaks then finally subdues.

It is the heat she tells herself. The dust. The poisoned air that day. At the small cafe the big screen is broadcast news, a government massacre, 14 dead, government sanction picture of heads floating in blood pools. The blood rusts, dries to black and peels off in brittle flakes that power into dust, a dark haze that drapes the city in mourning. A strange quiet has descended. Her eyes track the few pedestrians passing without lingering on the street. Rare cars, a single donkey cart, the driver thrashing, willing the load forward. A city submerged in shadows, inhabited by invisible people, the whole area sunken in an epoch of waning, centuries of lies, concessions, corruption. It starts to inhabit everything. The path the cars take on the roads is suddenly more erratic. The sound of the hooting has both quieted and intensified; a new impatience, softer but more insistent. Further along the black tar, soaked dark red with blood; a goat with its throat slit open, the dirty hump of a white carcass. Across the road a group of boys scrape the earth with shovels and small spades, swinging blades through dry rot. Behind them, the men that shovel dust out of an abandoned building. Their heads lift, eyes vacated of interest. It’s impossible to say if they are demolishing or building, or if there is even any difference any more. The constant chatter of the cafe stalls to silence as she passes. She feels the people on the pavement look; some with pity, detached interest, disdain. Some appear to make small, concealed signs—a warning or a rebuke? She understands nothing. The windows too are like eyes. The houses, the traffic, everything accuses, as if a veil has been lifted.

She returns to the lot. In search of answers. In search of the boy. The empty plot is no longer empty. It is filled with the boy. She see him everywhere, every loose boulder is a sign, scuffed dirt and torn up scrub. She tracks tyre scuds in the dust, trying to discern a shape on the horizon, a sudden rise of dust that lifts and swirls and then settles. She follows the dust trail, scuff marks that run in slow long circles, end in impossible obstacles, hillocks of stones and broken concrete; bricks fallen from the ruins and heaped in mounds; a graveyard of steel rods, long rusted into dirt-eaten branches, petrified trees from a preindustrial era, felled and frozen, stored in the sands. Still further: meter high concrete pipes that stand like the abandoned eyes of Horus, staring blindly across fields of destruction; incandescent sand piled into mountains and passes, spewing out the secrets of forgotten cities and worlds; impregnable regions that extend outward only to mingle with the rumblings of the desert. A valley strewn with bones. A seabed where the waters had long since receded, sand never touched by feet, virgin stretches whose unbroken surface shimmers like a mirror to moonlight.

She reads stories in the sand trails made by the boy: a series of twists in the erratic script of an unslept hand, scrawled narratives that propose impossible feats, impossible geographies. Trails that construct kingdoms, ways of life. Different cities, miles and decades distant from what anyone has known—an interior city, full of wonders, the entranceway appears unexpectedly—a gaping orifice breaching the surface, a spiral staircase that descends to vertiginous depths, vast caverns spread out like synapses, shafts beneath the earth, in channels, walkways, catacombs: water full of starlight. The ground emits the pulse and throb of new forms of knowledge: the activities of spirits, the effects of powers associated with cyclical processes, the manifestation of occult miscellanies, rituals, sacrifices, the incantation methods of turtle-shell diviners and entrail metaphysicians. She follows plot lines as the boy invents machines: a bike with wings that ramps boulders like a bat, that navigates on sonar; a writing machine whose script can only be read from the sky.

She gives over to it, lets the wind take her. She is lifted, yanked into the air. Darkness engulfs her, even the stars have vanished, extinguished by the fear that that suddenly grips her throat. Below her the shadows dance, open their swayed arms, beckon, promise her eternal paradise. We’ll catch you, they whisper, sing. She has only to fall, to sink into them, to be swept up and away, submerged in their subterranean depth and never returned.

Images of Cairo empty plots by Raphaël Khouri