Samu and I stand watch in the street. It’s dark: one of those thick dark nights where the air cloys and grabs at your skin, and the light has been stubbed out of the stars, and my heart does a thud thud thud every time there’s a sound.
Stay calm, Nari. Stay calm.
Inside the house, the women are at work. The gentle splash of water scooped in bamboo cups and poured seems too loud for the night. More like a cascading waterfall than gentle ablutions.
They’ll lock us up, if we’re caught.
I think of Denna Barat last month, paraded through the streets for a whole day for breaking curfew, then locked up where she remains now. I remember her beautiful hair hanging forwards covering her face like a curtain as she stared at the ground. I swallow hard.
Samu pats my arm. The two of us have been out here long enough that my eyes have found his face, his slow-blinking eyes. He’s always relaxed, Samu, and he leans now against the door jamb picking his teeth with a stick.
“Don’t worry, little one.” His voice is softer than a breeze.
I stand up straight. I’m not so little, I think. I’m twelve: practically a man. And I’m old enough to remember before and the old ways being just fine and having nobody to tell us that we were bad and savage and need to be tamed.
The door creaks louder than a scream, and Samu and I wince. Dalmiry pokes her head around the frame.
“We are done. Fetch the men.”
Samu lays his hands on my shoulders and turns me east. He pats twice and I am winding through the shadows to Erzhani’s house. I have been chosen because I can move silently with my nimble feet not yet weighted by adulthood, though tonight, I feel clumsy: like my feet aren’t of bones and flesh, but disconnected slabs of mutton tripping and stomping.
I keep my eyes sharp, my skin tuned, trusting the rise of the hairs and bumps on my arms. Watching, watching all the while for the Linen-men and their guards.
Erzhani’s house has a second entrance around the side – just a hole really, cloaked with a ragged curtain – and it is here that I enter.
A single candle burns in a jar, picking out only the outlines of the men filling the room. Some lean against the wall, others sit cross-legged on the floor. They were silent when I entered, like stone statues, and they remain silent, though something in the air shifts.
Erzhani nods, and they move slowly as though these statues are being animated into living, breathing things. Someone takes the candle jar and hides it beneath the folds of his shirt and the darkness swallows us all.
Out we go, out into the soupy night. We are seven strong including me, and we weave through the shadows, knitting their darkness to our backs. Though the side alleys are patrolled less, we hold our breath, exhaling long and slow as infrequently as we can.
To the west, if I focus hard enough, I can hear the soft lap of waves on the shore. Inland, a dog barks.
I rejoin Samu at the door, relieved at least to have completed the first part of my task without issue. Samu claps me softly on the back and watches the men file into our house.
“You remember, Nari? You remember what to do?”
I nod. I’m to head the procession, twenty steps ahead. If I’m stopped, I’m to cry and say I’m lost. They’re sometimes lenient with children. Sometimes.
I don’t want to look as they carry it out, but I can’t help it. It’s smaller than I imagined. Almost inconsequential. Just a jute sack on a rough plank. The men count in a whisper and hoist it to their shoulders.
I wend slowly down the cobbles, pausing with stilted breath when a rat or kitten crosses my path. I barely hear them behind me. As the licking tongue of the river on the bank gets louder, my feet start moving more quickly.
Passing the jetty, I freeze.
There’s a man there: a Linen-man, suit crumpled, swaying as though on a moving boat. He’s smoking, the orange tip of his cigarette like a confused firefly. My heart thuds a staccato rhythm into my ribs, and behind me, a whispered curse from one of the men.
It’s at that moment that the moon chooses to grace us with her presence. Just a sliver, but it is enough to illuminate a young boy on the cobbles.
The Linen-man turns, and even in this light, his skin the pallor of spoiled meat prompts my stomach to plunge. He tilts his head from side to side, snorts, grinds his cigarette beneath his shoe.
He speaks, and though it is his language and not my own, the slur is unmistakable.
“N..n..no Ingish,” I stammer, and then: “lost.”
His walk is more of a stagger, and when he reaches me, I’m barely breathing.
“No Ingish,” I whisper.
Then my chin is cupped in his palm. The breath that garbles out with his words is sour and chemical, mixed with something else: old vegetables, turned milk.
He tilts my face as he speaks, softly, a benediction into my face. A few words I understand. Boy and home. And then he’s crying.
I steel my jaw against whatever is coming. A beating, perhaps. A shout for a duty guard to haul me away. But I am not prepared to be gathered into the hot, moist folds of his shirt, into a sweaty and desperate embrace. He holds me taut and whispers into my hair, his hot tears snaking past my ears.
“Sorry,” he says. And then there’s air between us. “Sorry,” he repeats in my language. He takes a deep breath, dabs his face with a handkerchief and staggers up the hill. He falls once, twice, heaving back to his feet each time before he is out of sight and I allow myself to breathe properly.
We move with speed now. Ten steps to the jetty, then ten more to where the bank slopes gently to the Euphrates and the once crystalline water. It’s colder than I imagined, and my skin slicks through the circular rainbows of oil that freckle the surface.
Behind, they float the plank carefully until I’m chest deep and we form a circle of sorts around it.
Dalmiry removes the jute, and I try to keep my breath steady. It’s hard though, because Zhanat looks just how she did before, except stiller. She is covered in dried iris and verbascum petrae, like a mythical princess from the stories.
I remember the times she’d pretend to be asleep, scaring me with a ‘boo’ and that hearty laugh of hers. I urge her now to wake, to ‘boo Nari, silly brother’ and then laugh at my anguish. I would laugh along with her now.
I wish I had laughed with her the last time.
There isn’t time for Erzhani to say the awmin, but we think the old words as we bring our fingers to our lips, kiss them, touch them to her skin.
She feels like marble where my fingers meet her shoulder and I remember how she let me rest my head there to cry away the beating from the Linen-men.
Erzhani plucks the candle from the jar and lets it lick the jute. It takes fast, a yellow flame illuminating our party, and when he brings the jute to the dried flora, they ignite hungrily.
A thin white beam spills from the Customs Tower, dulling the glow of our pyre.
Erzhani nods and we part quicker than the Red Sea, sending Zhanat into the current that will carry her to the Gulf and onward to Paradise.
Then we scatter. Confetti, fireworks, shattering glass. In different directions we make our escapes.
I dive under the water, holding my breath, thanking my body for remembering how, and surface between two small fishing vessels downriver. Here I stay and bob, clutching a rope for stability.
The flaming barge is almost out of sight.
“Goodbye, Zhanat,” I whisper.
It could be the smoke, or the spindrift. It could even be my imagination. But I swear that Zhanat leaps into the sky, curves around the moon, throws the night into impenetrable darkness just as the light in the tower gives out.
Jay is a Gold Coast-based writer, performing arts teacher and mum, who has lived in the UK, Greece, Indonesia, Australia and Singapore. Her short stories, flash and micros have been published at Cafe Lit Magazine, Reedsy, Globe Soup, Vocal, Sadie Tells Stories, Save As and Off Topic, and in print in Mr Rosewood, Fabula Nivalis, Leicester Writes, The Gift and Crimson, and will be featured in Unleash Lit Magazine and Cerasus Magazine in early 2023. She is a two-time winner of The Australian Writers Centre’s Furious Fiction and winner of the 2022 Exeter Story Prize. Her debut novel will be published in 2023 with Serenade Publishing.