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Friday, June 17, 2016

The Voice

The cellphone Stephanie bought me rang, breaking the silence into tiny shards. It must be her, checking up on me.

Had I eaten? Was I warm enough? Had I heard from social services? Anything she should bring me on Friday?

At the other end, a woman who didn’t sound like Stephanie said hello. Her voice cascaded through the earpiece the way the white satin sheets slid over my naked body in the Hotel Rouge a lifetime ago. I hadn’t spoken a word all day.

“Who’s this?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I must’ve dialed the wrong number.”

I cleared my throat. “But, but… you sound familiar. Your voice, I’ve heard it somewhere. Sometime before.”

“Perhaps in a previous life!?” She laughed. An irresistible small chuckle that didn’t stop but dissolved unhurriedly.

Emily? My first love, my sweetheart. Could it be Emily? But we haven’t spoken since I left to Vietnam.

“Are you there?” The woman asked.

“Yes! Can you talk some more, please? I’m still somehow groggy…”

“And, you’re trying to figure out if you know me.”

“Yes, I am.” I replied.

Ellen! It must be Ellen. My lovely bride. But wait a minute, Ellen died twenty years ago. She had cancer. Oh, my darling Ellen. “I’m so confused. I don’t know what to say. You’re not Betsy, are you?”

“Who’s Betsy?” She asked, seemingly amused.

“My ex-wife. But she wouldn’t call and she doesn’t sound anything like you.”

“Then I’m not Betsy. Listen! Who’s been on your mind lately? Someone you often think about.”

“No one. They’ll never come back and it only makes their absence harder.”

“Do you live alone?”


“Any children?”

“A daughter. Stephanie. She visits once a week. So!”, I swallowed hard. “You really dialed the wrong number.”

“Uh, huh.”

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting. It’s just that…”

“That you’re lonely.”

“I guess so. And, you have such a beautiful voice.”

“Hmmm, you still got it in you, old man. How old are you?”


“That’s good enough for me. But, where are you?”

“Modesto, California.”

“That’s not too bad. I live in San Francisco. My name is Michele Wright, by the way.”

I felt light-headed. The possibility of daring to hope was intoxicating.

“I’m John Forest.”

“Like the Franciscan Friar.”

“I have no idea who that is.”

“Never mind. Say, would you like to get together for a cup of coffee? Do you drive?”

“I’d love to, but I don’t have a car.”

“I have to come to you then. You can take me to your favorite cafĂ© in Modesto.”

“But… What if?”

“What if we don’t hit it off? Let’s leave that until it turns out to be the case. How about Saturday? Are you free on Saturday?”

I nodded as if she could see me. “Yes!”

“I have your number. Until then, John.” She hung up leaving the sound of her laughter behind.

As a huge grin wrinkled my face I popped a Warfarin with a swig of water.

*Photo “By the Window”, Edvard Munch, 1940

Sunday, May 08, 2016

What the Robin Heard

They lay down on a stretch of tended lawn in the shade of the largest oak tree. From up here, their merged shape resembled the hands on a watch dial indicating six o’clock. I looked at the dimming sky then back toward the humans. Uh, huh, that’s about right, I told myself. There’s plenty of time still to hunt for worms and insects. I hopped to a lower branch.

“What will you miss the most?” The female asked.

“The feeling of your ear against mine.” The male answered.

The smell of your hair, the ocean in your eyes, the taste of your lips, the freckles on your breasts, the dip above your pubic hair. The male’s breast heaved. Only a robin could hear what the human didn’t say.

“You know it’s for the best.” The female said.

“I know.” The male agreed.

I heard the silence gurgling in the male’s throat, its heart pounding, its hands shaking. Its fingers grasped the grass and pulled. The green blades cried.

Sluthia called from our maple tree. “Where’s the food? The babies are starving.”

“I’m coming. Just listening to these humans breaking up.” I whistled.

“Breaking up? They look so happy. Well, they looked happy when they first got here. I saw them leaning on each other, holding hands. I loved their singing.”

I darted into the light of the dying sun. The firefly didn’t even see me coming. I landed in the nest, shredded the corpse to pieces and fed the nestlings. I kissed Sluthia. She kissed me back and rubbed her beak on my neck.

“Are you going to leave me too?” I asked.

“If you keep acting like them,” gesturing below, “Maybe I should.”

“Can I go back now? Please?”

“Okay, go. But I want you to tell me everything after I put the babies to sleep.”

“Why, no sex tonight?”

Sluthia giggled and pushed me off the branch. I dropped to the ground, skipping as close as I dared.

“You’ll be alright, won’t you?” The female asked.

The male shifted its body, lifted its arm and reached for the female’s hair. I was a human arm’s length away.

“I’ll be fine.” The male answered.

“I can’t go on like this any longer. I’m so tired, my heart.” The female said.

My heart? They aren’t local, this pair. I only heard of humans using body parts to call each other in old bird songs. I always thought it was a myth. I couldn’t wait to tell Sluthia. My heart, ha! She’d be thrilled.

The female pulled itself up on its elbows and I flew away. The male didn’t move.

“Be happy, please!” The female said, walking away.

The male nodded, its eyes closed, two teardrops running down its cheeks.

I shadowed the little red car until it came to the stop sign on Parkway. I dived and zoomed past the open window. I saw the female in that instant. I heard it too. Its shoulders shuddering, it sobbed beyond control.

Monday, April 25, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See, the Pleasure of Audiobooks

Only recently did I listen to my first book after years of reading. I was fortunate to get a good start. My first novel was The Girl on the Train, a superbly written psychological thriller, by author Paula Hawkins. What made the experience immensely pleasurable was the incredible audio rendition performed by three professional British actresses. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anything as beautiful before, music included.

After sampling a couple more excellent works of fiction, however, I’ve learned the golden rule of audiobooks selection. The vocal rendition is as important as the written word. From then on, I specifically search for and acquire audiobooks that are as highly regarded for their voice narration as they are for their literary quality.

I'm currently listening to "All the Light We Cannot See", written by Anthony Doerr, and narrated by Zach Appelman. It’s a WWII historical fiction novel and certainly one of the very best I've heard/read in my entire life. The main backdrop of the story is a French city in Brittany called Saint-Malo. Mr. Doerr not only writes with high geohistorical fidelity but on more than one occasion he brought tears to my eyes, when for brief instances, I felt as if he was writing about my Tartous, the one of my childhood (geographically) and the monster it has turned into (historically: since Tartous is similar today to Saint-Malo under German occupation). I've never heard of Saint- Malo before but a few minutes ago I did something I don't usually do until after I finish reading a book. I googled it and saw with my own eyes how it looks like.

The double picture in this post is of the Tartous of my childhood (upper) and of Saint-Malo today (lower). I don’t call the striking similarity a coincidence for although Brittany lies on the English Channel and not on the Mediterranean the construction of the old city of Tartous was nevertheless influenced by European architecture.

Back to audiobooks, and specifically to All the Light We Cannot See. There comes along a great novel that makes an old, aspiring writer like me feel humble and an older, seasoned reader, again like me, feel as if it was written specifically for him. Anthony Doeer achieved the most daunting task in literature, creating a universal masterpiece with an intimately personal appeal. I won’t even go into a synopsis of the story. I leave that entirely to your curiosity but I’ll wrap this post up with some final words on the performance of Zach Appelman. Despite the Americanized mispronunciation of French proper names, his narration is absolutely breathtaking!!!

Find below two reviews of the book and a short youtube video of the author talking about his 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times). 


Friday, April 22, 2016

'neath the Albert Pike Library

We stand in front of an almost unseeable door, cleverly concealed behind moth-eaten tomes on the last row of bookshelves in the Humanities section. The professor leads the way down a flight of stairs to the mechanical room. Our boots clunk against the gangway as we scurry toward the steam boilers. Under the last one’s chimney, he opens a hatch in the floor. I squeeze through first sliding down a tubular chute. He dispatches the backpack then closes the hatch behind him and jumps. Save for one monolithic door, we find ourselves in the middle of a stark anteroom. Above us, the Pike Library is deep asleep at this hour of the night.

I unpack the gear and arrange it on the floor. The professor takes the can of WD-40 and douses the door’s rusty hinges. While I light the torches, he produces a brass key from the folds of his academic robe. He fearlessly looks me in the eye, yet with a hint of concern he asks.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

I nod, affirming the inevitable. “Let’s go then. From here on we have to remain silent.”

The flames flicker as a rank draft sneaks through the widening gap of the door redolent of sweat and defecation. I fight the impulse to puke, barely able to repress the bile rising up my throat. The professor looks pale and old, as if twenty years have passed since we left the world above.

We climb down an endlessly twisting stone stairway. Rats squeak beyond the reach of light. The echo of water dripping somewhere reverberates against the sandstone. At the landing, seven shafts radiate in a half-circle like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The professor points to the second one from the right and proceeds. The air becomes heavier as we sink further into the bowels of the campus. A faint humming grows louder deforming and transmuting into orgasmic moans of werehyenas and ghouls.

We emerge into a high-ceiling corridor, flanked on both sides by a dozen massive doors. The professor retrieves a ladder from the shadows and leans it on the crossbar above the door labeled XVII. I climb and peak through the transom window. A proscenium, illuminated by chandeliers, torches and sconces is filled with grotesquely naked figures kneeling on semicircular kneelers and chanting in unison. On the stage, directly below, an old wizard with a belly that hides his genitals and an older witch with drooping, wrinkled breasts utter incantations in an alien tongue.

He pulls at the cuff of my pants. “How many?”

“A hundred-fifty, maybe more.” I answer, coming down.

“Let’s kill as many of the bastards as we can. I’ll get the two fuckheads first.” He says, grinning.

The professor pound-hugs me and ruffles my hair then he unsheathes his sword and I heft my ax, shattering the darkness with shafts of fire. Alea iacta est, we cry as we blast in, blinded with fury, stabbing hearts and crushing skulls.

Monday, April 18, 2016

10th Anniversary

Although I’ve been posting short stories sporadically here on my blog, I haven’t “technically” blogged anything since January of 2015. There are several reasons (excuses is a more appropriate word) why I’ve been away, but it all boils down to one important thing, my own state of mind. The shifting trends in social media that eventually led to the current supremacy of Facebook didn’t help much either. Like almost everybody else, I took the easy way out, the fast-food approach to gulping down information and throwing in my own mediocre input into one massive river of nonsense.

During my first five years of blogging, I was able to fulfill, partially at least, some of my self-imposed moral responsibilities. I did that by carefully navigating around political taboos and never trespassing red lines least I end up incarcerated or worse. I openly criticized social traditions and religious canons, sitting comfortably in the shade of a (seemingly) secular umbrella provided by the powers that be. Notice that even to this day, I’d rather call the regime, TPTB, instead of, well, the regime. It’s an ingrained Syrian cautiousness that only recently, in the last five years that is, has been broken by a courageous few who remain captives in their own land and by the multitude of ex-patriots who fear no reprisal. When the shit finally hit the fan and the inevitable did happen, I just couldn’t write anymore while remaining true to my principles and inside the country. Shutting up was my easy way out.

I turned to fiction and to writing short stories instead. I have also started on two novels, but alas, we, the unfinished novels and I, stare at each other with a longing detachment, not knowing what to do next. Had I been using pen and paper, the hundreds of pages I’ve written so far would have collected dust while providing a decent meal for a colony of moth.

It’s the 10th anniversary of The World According to a Man from Tartous. I don’t expect a stream of comments on this occasion the way my olden posts once solicited. Actually, I feel almost exactly the same way I felt when I first discovered blogging. I was writing to myself and this is what I’m doing now.

I’m paying tribute to the last decade of my life. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people through this blog. I stayed in touch with a few and lost track of most. But it’s only fitting in a way, I started alone and here I am once again, alone at last.