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The Shape of Emptiness
The first time I saw Hassan starts with his mother dying.
Artillery shells had bombarded the dusty streets, painting a mural of blood and bone. Tears streamed down Hassan’s face like rain, his eyes raw and red. He shuddered like a leaf, clutching onto his baby sister as the gunfire blazed into the endless rubble.
Despite being an Apprentice of Death, I had never been to Hell before. But standing in the ruins of Aleppo, gathering the souls of countless bodies, I might as well have been. Upon my graduation from training, Death had immediately delegated me as His ambassador in Syria, and I began cleansing the souls of the deceased. During the Civil War, when the rebel protests began, my work was particularly tiresome. I wept on my first day, overwhelmed by the horrible sound of moaning citizens and the acidic smell of burning flesh that followed me wherever I went. I couldn’t bring myself to return the lifeless gazes of homeless families, their faces sunken with soot and ash. Poverty reeked in the air. Under clouds as pale as silkworms, children littered the war-torn alleyways. Their skeletal shoulders were earthquakes that trembled against hollowed stomachs; their mouths were parched roots, starved on meager food rations; their fingers were brittle and thin like platelets, holding heavy things that no child should have to bear the weight of.
Hassan held his mother’s face in his lap as the life drained out of her eyes.
“Mama,” he breathed. His eyelids fluttered like wings, blinking away tears. Saltwater flooded his cheeks, which were a battlefield of cuts and bruises. Hassan’s sister, Amira, clutched onto his waist. His hands quivered like wind against the bloody cavity of their mother’s stomach. He removed a piece of shrapnel from her gut. She groaned. Her face, once as familiar and warm as the desert sun, was marred with burns from the most recent air raid. Two hours had passed since the Syrian army dropped several military bombs on the rebel-held city. The sky, swollen purple as a bruise, spat the black mass of chemicals into the flaming mouths of streets. Soon, bouts of thunderous screams and bursts of lightning-bolt pain electrified the air, which moments before had been still as the coastal plains.
“…You…” their mother gasped. Her hands curved upward like a stream, unclasping the pendant around her neck. It glittered like jade from a bamboo forest, an heirloom passed down to her when she got married.
Hassan cleared his throat. “Don’t worry. I’ll send this to pa when he comes home. I’ll tell him… I’ll tell him…”
“…No…” she croaked, her voice fading to a whisper. “…You…” Her hand found Hassan’s, the pendant spilling into his palm.
“I got it,” he said weakly. Half-moons formed in his palms from where his nails dug too hard. He clung onto the necklace, his knuckles bruised whiter than vipers. “I got it.”
Amira tugged at the torn sleeve of his white undershirt. “That’s mama’s,” she said, staring up at her brother with a pair of doleful brown eyes. Hassan grimaced. He watched as his mother’s breathing faltered, her pulse slowly slipping into past tense. Chest rising, then falling. Rising, falling.
Hassan forced a tired smile. “Mama wants us to have it.” He slipped the radiant emerald around his sister’s frail neck. “It looks pretty on you. I know green is your favorite color.”
Amira’s bottom lip trembled. Her six-year-old body was a mere shadow in the fading twilight, small as a mouse. She knelt over their mother’s body. Flies and tears coated her copper skin. “I don’t want this! It’s Mama’s, not mine!” A terrible whimpering noise choked her throat as she flung the pendant from her neck. It landed on a faceless body.
Hassan bent down and grabbed the blood-flecked jewel from the pallid corpse’s forehead. He placed it into his pocket. He stared at the dilapidated buildings, bits of debris strewn in the streets like garbage. The local mosque, the halal meat market, the tourist-trap internet café. Hassan imagined the rich taste of spice-laden mahsi wafting in from the marketplace, the laughter of boys walking home from school, the soft caress of his mother’s lips on his forehead. Instead, consciousness left him staring at miles and miles of bloodied cobblestone. Crushed limbs thinner than oud strings, scorched flesh blacker than rifles. The Syrian flag waved like a vigil in the arid breeze. Hassan pulled a stick from a pyramid of brick and mortar. He began etching Arabic syllables into the cracked dirt.
mama, the earth is crying your name / here, your legacy burns on like a flame / know that i will always drift back to you like the sea / dearest angel, may you forever rest in peace
Their mother was a poet. She used to read ghazals and rithās to Hassan before tucking him into bed at night. And he had laughed and run away the countless times when she tried to teach him to write one. But now, Hassan looked down at the words he etched. It was his first poem, and he felt his heart jump in his chest.
“Where do we go, shaqiq?” Amira asked, diverting his attention. The dusk drew shadows across her weary eyes. She sucked in a stuttering breath. “I miss papa.”
Hassan’s eyes darted toward a mountain of stone and stucco, where their home used to lay. “We go to the shelter,” he said, mouth pressed in a firm line. “They’ll know where to send us.”
It was then that I appeared from the smoke and ash and rubble. I coughed (which, of course, no one else heard). Having just finished purging the souls of dozens in the Sakhour district, where thousands of protesters had gathered, I was exhausted. It had taken me three days to heal the fury and vengeance and regret that poisoned the deceased demonstrators’ hearts. My hands even had scars on them from where a particularly miserable soul had tried to battle me. When I finished cleaning them, their souls drifted into the air, invisible beings that haunted the minds of their loved ones. No one saw them but me. Now, I winced at the heaps of bodies that lay ahead of me.
I started with Hassan and Amira’s mother. She was a friendly soul, cooperative and good-natured. There were a few demons that marred her complexion – worry from her husband’s decision to join the Free Syrian Army, stress from working odd-jobs when money was scarce, anger at the Syrian government and its oppressive regime – but she was relatively easy to clean. I grinded up the laughter of her children on lazy summer afternoons, crushed up the cheeky smile of her husband, and rubbed away at the lyrics of her favorite love poem. The newly concocted soap smelled of vanilla and poppies and rain. I scrubbed away at her soul until it beamed like the petals of a white rose.
Satisfied with my work, I released her soul into the air. She floated toward Hassan’s words, which were scribbled shakily in the dirt where her body lay. I watched from behind as she began to weep silently, her ethereal body wracked in waves of anguish.
Off in the distance, Hassan and Amira trudged toward the local shelter, their shadows golden in the sunset. The sun slinked to the ground, dying away to a black ember.
* * *
I saw Hassan again three months later in Jordan. He and his sister were staying at Zaatari, a refugee camp filled with displaced Syrians. There, I had reaped and cleansed the souls of a couple refugees, their bodies deteriorated from disease or grief or malnutrition.
Hassan was crouched low in a medical tent, singing to a dying boy. The boy, around Amira’s age, had a forehead slick with sweat from fever. Two matchstick arms jutted out from a thin cotton blanket, clutching onto Hassan’s hands. He had requested for someone to comfort him in his last moments, to remind him of the days when his mother – who had been murdered during a pro-democracy uprising – had sung to him in the evenings. Hassan’s raspy voice echoed against the nylon flaps of the UNHCR tent.
we try to swim through the pain / waiting for the day we make victorious gains / Assad, since when did our mere existence become a crime / oh, my heart’s been underwater all this time
The boy’s lips, which days before had been plagued with screams and cries, slanted upward into a smile. “Thank you… for… accompanying me…” he told Hassan between coughs. The boy closed his eyes, at peace.
They remained closed forever.
I walked into the tent as Hassan walked out. Amira ran up to him. A wide grin stretched across her cheeks. “Look! I made a new friend,” she said, pointing to a yellow baby bird that was eating seeds from her palm.
“Hey there, little fella,” Hassan said. The baby bird chirped in response, plump as a dumpling. A chuckle bubbled from Hassan’s chest. “I’m going to wait in line for supper. Go back to the cot and take a bath, okay?” He ruffled Amira’s dark brown curls. “And don’t use up all the water. We need it for drinking.”
Amira nodded, her eyes fixated solely on her new friend. “I’m going to name you Mohamed.” Amira smiled at the bird, her bambi eyes glimmering with mirth. “That’s our pa’s name. He won’t allow us to have a pet, but I bet he wouldn’t mind you.” Mohamed pecked at the last seed in Amira’s hand. She giggled as his beak tickled her skin like a gentle breeze. “Our papa’s fighting right now against the bad guys. We don’t know when he’s coming home, and we haven’t heard from him in a while even though he promised he’d write letters to us every month.” Her dimpled grin drooped slightly. “I don’t know how he’ll find us here, but I know he’ll come back to us eventually. He’s like a superhero.”
Hassan returned to their cot with two paper plates, an insufficient handful of dry grains lying on each. “Here you go. Eat up,” he said.
Amira set Mohamed down. He toddled on twig-thin legs across the floor. They ate in silence. When they finished, Amira’s stomach was growling louder than ever.
“I’m hungry,” she whined. “We always eat wheat mush – I’m tired of it. I want mlabbas.” Her mouth salivated at the thought of the sugar-coated almonds her mother used to make on their birthdays.
“There’s nothing we can do, Amir,” Hassan said. Amira frowned; she hated that nickname. It was a boy’s name, and Hassan only used it when reprimanding her. “This is our life now, and we have to make peace with it.”
“But I’m hungry,” she mumbled sheepishly. Her cheeks blushed crimson-red, and her voice softened. “I’ve been having diarrhea lately. I don’t think my stomach likes the mush.”
Hassan sighed. “If the problem worsens, we’ll see medical about it. Okay?”
“Okay,” she replied, eyes flitting to the dust-smothered ground.
In the morning, Mohamed died. I was tending to the soul of an elderly woman who had passed away in the middle of the night when a group of boys grabbed a sharp stone and stabbed the small bird over and over until it was a pulverized mess of guts and bones and feathers. They fled back to their cot, shredding its flesh raw with their teeth. For a few hours, the relentless hunger in their stomachs ceased.
Amira cried when she found out the news. “I… don’t understand…” she wheezed. “Why does everyone have to die? Why did mama… and Mohamed… have to die…”
Hassan stroked her back as she buried her snot-streaked face in his shoulder. “I hate this place,” she sobbed. “I hate how overcrowded it is, and I hate how hot it is and I hate having to to fight over food rations! I want to go home -- when is papa coming home?”
Hassan opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Because for once, he didn’t have an answer.
* * *
A great gust rippled through the salt-licked curves of the Libyan shores. I was tending to the souls of a dozen drowned migrants whose boat had sunken along the Mediterannean Sea on the way to Greece. Five of the twelve migrants were toddlers. A girl no older than five, in her dying moments, had her arms wrapped around a battered stuffed bunny. I had to pry it away from her to reach her soul.
It was here that I saw Hassan and Amira for the first time in five months. They were twin dots on the horizon, huddled in a rickety boat, dirtier and thinner than ever before. The daunting stretch of vast green water bobbled endlessly ahead, the only barrier between them and a land of opportunity and refuge.
“When we get to Greece, I’ll get a job,” Hassan said. Amira was strapped to his back like a knapsack, the ligaments of her ribcage expanding with each inhale. She yawned. Hassan’s heart tripped over his chest. He could barely feel a pulse radiating from her neck. “I’ve already applied for asylum. I’ll get you in school like you’ve always dreamed, and we’ll be able to afford the mlabbas you’ve been craving for so long. I promise.”
Amira didn’t respond. Hassan felt the frail rise and fall of her breaths, which ticked like a time bomb against his back. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Hassan’s knuckles formed tight fists. He bit his lower lip so hard it drew blood.
“Hey.” He nudged her shoulder, his voice hoarse like sandpaper. “Wake up. Come on, hubun. Wake up --”
“…” Amira mumbled something incoherent, the quiet sound reverberating through Hassan’s collarbone. A shock of relief jolted through his bloodstream. “Hassan…”
“What is it? Tell me what you need.” He tried to steady the fear creeping like bile up his throat.
Hassan stumbled over the other migrants in the tiny boat, causing it to tilt on its side. He mumbled an apology as frigid water sloshed against the wooden frame and reached for a sack of canned beans. He opened Amira’s mouth and placed several beans on her tongue. She chewed.
The next few seconds were a blur. A bullet sailed past Hassan’s ear, splitting the wooden planks of the bow. Screams. Blood. He saw the faint outline of a boat filled with coastguards, pistols aimed directly at them. Hassan felt his throat singe with fire, blue veins bursting against his neck, as a bullet made its way into Amira’s chest.
Amira gasped and gasped and gasped, a low cry gurgling from her throat.
Despite the rapid gunfire, Hassan crouched against the boat’s side, pressing his hands over the pool of blood that oozed out of Amira’s chest. “No,” he pleaded. “No, no, no, no…”
“… Hassan…” She grasped for his hand. “I’m dying…I’m…”
“Stay with me, alright?” He heard himself say. Wetness gathered on his cheeks. “You’re so strong – I know you can make it. It would kill me if you… if you… I can’t lose you too.”
“…Do you still have mama’s pendant…”
He nodded and, with trembling fingers, took it out of the pocket of his tattered jeans.
“…Pretty,” she murmured. “Mama said… she said… she’d give this to me when I grew older…” She slipped the emerald pendant into his hand. “I want you to have it… it’s yours now…”
Hassan took off his shirt and wrapped it around Amira’s waist. Blood seeped into the gray cloth.
“Hassan…” Amira smiled. “Sing to me… like you did for that boy...” She squeezed his hand, which paled like a ghost. “I want… I want… the last thing I remember… to be the sound of your voice…”
Hassan placed two fingers over her neck, where a faint pulse lay. His mouth felt numb, yet it stung at the same time.
what / is the shape of emptiness /
the shapes of our holding / our longing / our grasping /
as we latch onto hope / hold it in our hands / miscarried / and eluding us / like air
The coastguards’ boat reached theirs. They detained the surviving migrants and dumped the corpses of dead ones. Hassan was merely a body placing one foot over the other, devoid of all senses, as a coastguard hoisted him onto the deck. He turned his face away as a patrolman tossed Amira’s emaciated body like a buoy into the water.
His hands trembled. The pendant spilled from his palm, falling into the water with her.
* * *
Amira’s soul was a heavy thing, burdened by and anxiety and suffering and sorrow. I plucked the stars that she and Hassan had played under in the moonlight, rinsed away the crinkled warmth in her father’s eyes when she was born into the world, and sprinkled the sweetness of the sugar-coated almonds that she loved during her childhood. The soap smelled of lilac and honey and freshly squeezed lemonade. I washed her soul until it was crystal-clear and cleansed to perfection.
When I first arrived in Syria, I could barely stand the two or three souls that passed me by occasionally. Years later, it seemed, more souls lingered in the air than ever before. They hovered over the shoulders of their loved ones, curled like prayers. And their loved ones carried this emptiness with them into the day, unable to explain the intangible weight that dragged them down, making their hearts weary and shackled.
Amira’s spirit drifted away with the sunset toward Hassan’s shivering body, which was slumped over in a prison cell. She smiled wistfully, leaning against his shoulder in an embrace. He did not hug her back. He could not see emptiness, the hollow curves of grief and all its manifestations. Yet she stayed, leaning into his body with sadness. With anger. With love.
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