The Letter

Terror starts at home

One day, William descended from the mountain to escape his mother.

On the previous evening, Will told us, his mother had “released the help,” tossing her passport at the Sri Lankan girl who had lived in their home for two years, and who still wore the cheap uniform she had been handed on the day of her arrival (coincidentally, her last day as a human being). Now, standing in the middle of the room in her eau de Nil-colored dress, white apron and Crocs, the woman, whose name William’s mother had heard exactly once at the agency and immediately forgotten, wrung her hands, not yet sure she’d understood correctly. “There is war now,” William’s mother shouted in fragile English. “La guerre,” she howled; “Do you understand? See where your freedom gets you now!” While the queen mother’s spittle sprayed the face of the help and the sleeves of her own robe (which she’d not parted with in days), William ran a quick survey of the room: a discarded champagne flute, a slight leftward translation of the Kefraya bottle, and a greasy, sheer stain where her mother’s lips had smeared a now empty glass. Will slipped the wine bottle under the front of his sweater and made for the back patio. Seconds later, he saw the unnamed woman progress down the hillside. The sun sinking into the bay below formed a halo around her head.

In the morning, the regent bellowed that she would like for William to fetch the mail; would he not be so selfish for once and help out his tired mother? Something inside William revved up; no mail had been delivered in a week, and surely if she’d not had her head so far up her ass, if she’d only watch television and keep herself informed like the rest of the parents, she would understand that the mail was a thing of the past; as was the phone, and electricity, which they now owed to the generator only, but for how long? He imagined the look on her face when the power would go out at last. He could already hear her rage about kahraba and the moteur not working; somehow, from the bottom of her alcohol-soaked revelry, she had missed the moment the power had gone out. William’s rage halted at the very edge of his lips and remained there, lingering behind his front teeth. Just say what exactly it is you are tired of, William thought. But the room was empty, and elsewhere a record had begun to play, the first chords of a Bryan Ferry tune his father used to like.

All through the morning William caught himself thinking of the mailbox; a small part of him seemed to believe that if he made all the familiar gestures (unlocking and opening the mailbox in a swift motion of the wrist, tearing the envelopes with the edge of his index finger), if, in short, he showed his willingness to do his part, then God might do the same, and reinstate the normal.

At noon, William opened the mailbox and lay his hand on the letter, addressed to his upstairs neighbor.


“The truth, of course, is that we love war. We romanticize it, glorify it. We pray for it under the covers at night, after we have said goodnight to our spouse, after we have turned into ourselves fully again. We beg a being we cannot feel, hear, or see to make something, anything happen. We tire of questioning whether what we are feeling is aliveness, or whether there may be something more, something above us as we linger, staring at our shadows, wishing to be the light. We tire of wondering and so we admit, in those inner prayers, that we are exhausted, that we are growing old, that we are scared of dying. That we want to live. We beg for something to make us feel more.

What we are asking for is the chance to play hero, to be the martyr whose face others will contemplate on billboards and come to know as their cars idle in traffic day after day. We are children, and we want the game. We begin to suspect that we, who have spent our lives handing out smiles and acts of kindness by the hundreds, might not shy away from piercing skin and breaking bones after all. We run the thought of shedding blood along the edges of our mind. We take it out of the unsaid, hold it in our hands, play with it just to see how it feels. We focus hard on the face of that woman at the store, that coworker we love to hate, the neighbor with the nice car and no sign of a receding hairline. We entertain the thought and think, deep inside ourselves, yes. Yes to hitting their skull so hard you can hear it crack. Yes to hearing the gargle of their voice as it tries to break through the blood pooling at the bottom of their throat. Yes to standing tall and invincible, yes to knowing that although they may have stood next to us seconds ago, all they can see of us now is our feet. Yes to teaching them a lesson: we can crush their undeserving bones and suffer no consequences. This is war, after all.

You may become intoxicated by the one-syllable word itself; by the strange scent of blood, which is both metallic and animal. You may want to feel the heaviness of a weapon strapped across your back in the heat of the sun. You may want to run and growl and scream and pounce and jump and crawl and tear apart. You may want to give in, to dive in headfirst just to finally know what it feels like, to know what you would be like without civilization. Who would you be then? The question haunts.

And so you may find that now you are making war. You may think yourself a fighter, and find the label suits you well. Surely, you will kill. Then, hardened by the vision of yourself as a victor, high on the ultimate act of human godliness, you will kill again.

I cannot save you from this. Perhaps there are temptations one cannot eschew. Perhaps we all have exactly one hallucination we are bound to succumb to.

What will save you, I think, is remembering that the rift between you and the others is not real. They are you. They were children; so were you. They walk the world trapped in their pathetic bodies, just as you do. They are creatures of doubt: just like you?

Please do not become like the children I once knew, who sat next to you in class and who now roam the streets armed to their teeth. They still cannot believe class is out. Listen to me. War is not excitement, it is not the first day of vacation, not the end of rules. Here is what it is: it is the end of life. A great nothing follows.”

Who will feed his cat now

There is no upstairs neighbor, William thought, climbing up the stairs, letter in hand. The constant shuffling of chairs and tables (the man had liked to entertain), the dropping of heavy objects at unruly hours (the man had been clumsy), the open windows and riffs of guitar (the man had liked Queen) had all vanished long ago. Now William struggled to conjure the image of the man in his early thirties who had, until recently, occupied the apartment above theirs, remembering only that his face had been kind. William thought of how he had never been able to picture the people he had once known and who had since left, carrying on with their lives somewhere he could not see them. Was he ever really there, William concluded out loud, for no one in particular.

The letter was unsigned, and William consigned it to the left-side drawer of the console, which he had decreed his on the twentieth night of his father’s disappearance. He had knocked the desk into a few corners on his way from the study to his room, had held on to its Damascene marquetry so hard his fingers yellowed.

William wondered who would be the first person to find the letter in the drawer after he was gone, and where the upstairs neighbor would find himself by then. In a ditch, turned to dust? No longer anything recognizable or human, reduced to an afterthought? Alive and well beyond the border, safe in some unnamed country? Or hiding away in a house like this one, higher up, above the clouds in the cedar-covered mounts, where trouble could not reach?

The calmest color on the spectrum

In the evening, William descended from the mountain to salvage what could still be.

He set the GPS to his father’s office in the east of the city, where he hoped to find, if not hints as to the old man’s whereabouts, evidence that he had been a tangible presence in the world. William pictured himself burying his face in a scarf or perhaps a sweater his father would have left behind, strewn carelessly across the back of his desk chair. The fabric would smell like his voice.

Yet here is what William saw in between the moment the gates of the compound parted in the late afternoon, and the moment he parked, short of breath, in the cramped, decrepit street where his father’s office tower sat wedged between a bakery that sold thyme manakich and a nail salon, looking through the windshield directly at nothing:

Plumes of skinny, black smoke from the burning of tires somewhere in the western half of the city; tornadoes rising from an ashtray, deadly against the dark blue skies.

A group of bystanders circling a disheveled woman in sweatpants and a cable-knit sweater, going at a storefront window with a garden chair, emboldened by the crowd’s cries of encouragement.

In a gutter, a discarded t-shirt with a dark blood stain; nearby, an abandoned shoe.

Two children playing with mock guns, running after each other, shouting “pow, pow!”

Two armed men standing guard beside the doors to his father’s office building; across the off-white doors, in dripping letters of green paint: traitors.

And the sea, of course, which was not lost, and which would always be right there, right behind everything.  

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