September 23, 2019 by The Citron Review
by Riham Adly
It’s never easy: traveling on a cloud, carrying around my own mug-shot, and all that running for life on a treadmill. I was once mistaken for a hat, a bat, and that last time, for a Spartan saleswoman. I have nothing to sell except for those nerve-racking attempts at skin-peeling. I change my skin every time someone takes a good look at me. It hurts like hell because sometimes—just sometimes—I want to be looked at. I want to be real.
One day, I feel bored and let myself out of my bird-cage. I crave bubble gum. Gum adds substance, creates motion. I’ll hunt for bubble gum. I reach out and draw my sword. It has an aura of ruby-red that makes me gag sometimes, but I am only real—in the strictest sense—when I’m holding it.
I liked a special brand of gum that comes in gorgeous shades of bruised purple. The cashier in the supermarket nearby, advises me to look in the Emporium of the Runaway Princess on Fantasistan Street.
I take an unexpected left when I should’ve turned right. Traveling in your cloud of thought helps when you’re lost; it’s what others—the real kind of others—call gut instinct. The Emporium looms ahead like a dwarfed giant supporting a passive-aggressive predilection.
A man in a flowery turban and a flowing pink robe mouths a greeting. His luminous veneers and curly eyelashes betray an air of fragile excessiveness. Deep inside I know he is my kind of “others”.
“You’re not real, either.” I say.
“At you service, Madame.” He bows.
“I want gum that tastes like a confession, like hard-hitting truths.”
He produces a packet of the designated brand and waves it at me. I take it without question and proceed to check out. Then start to leave.
“Why leave us so soon, Madame? Take a look around, everything’s on half-price today.” Blocking the exit door, he towers well above me like those highway signs with unintelligible print. I feel like I have no choice. I walk around a little.
In one of the display windows I spy a signet ring made of steel—but not without the confidence of gold—on a velvet cushion. A lime-green cigarette packet stands right next to it. They look like a pair with unusual intimacy, something like a conspiring mistress and her masseur.
“I’ve always wanted to smoke.” I blurt out without realizing it.
“What’s stopping you, Madame?” He reaches for the packet in the display window and offers a cigarette. I accept. He lights it. I take a long drag. Tendrils of smoke billow up, their tails running in fading puffs.
“Whose ring is that?”
“Ah, this is Solomon’s seal. It parts water and exposes the hidden People of the Sea.”
“What about those? They’re good.” I take another drag, savoring the mint flavor.
“Those belonged to Gulnare of the Sea. She was a chain-smoker. She ran away from her sea-folk because cigarettes won’t light in water. On land, when the merchant sold her to some king, she remained silent for a whole year so the king wouldn’t pick her smoker’s breath. But she smoked to her heart’s desire. The Musk perfume I sold her helped.”
“She’s not real, just like us.” I say but then I hear a murmur, something like, a blowing breath, struggling to keep a rhythm. The sounds come from the midnight-blue bottle with the delicate stopper in one of the display shelves.
“Whatever you say, Madame.”
If it’s whatever I say then why won’t he let me leave?
I blow more smoke in the face of the statue in fancy embroidery.
“I would’ve liked a father like that.”
“A king for a father? He was a fisherman once, you know, turned king. Anything’s possible.”
I don’t bother looking around anymore and just walk straight to the door.
“What would you make of her?” He grabs my hands and stirs me to the life-size painting occupying the entirety of the wall. “A mother like her?”
“My mother was beheaded by King Shah’s swordsman. Infidelity with the eunuch, they said. She never got to hire a lawyer or commission her own auto-recite witnesses as was the custom. Of course, I wasn’t born back then; I was merely a thought, an intention, a possibility.”
I pull my sword from its sheath. I savor its weight, its mesh of encrusted gems, and its dull glint. The woman in the painting had the air of indifference, like someone who couldn’t care less.
“A thought is as real as any intention, Madame.”
“Bullshit.” I try to peel off a layer of skin, to conjure the relief I seek in pain, but pain is merely a thought that doesn’t exist.
“Have you heard about the Princess of Fantasistan?” He tells a tale, a long, elaborate tale about a girl, jealous sisters-in law, and some parents coming back from the dead to prevent a scandal. It’s all supposed to mean something.
I feel tired from the effort of trying to run, trying to listen, trying to exist, and rest on a throne-like chair, nearby. The floor is littered with my old skin. The woman in the picture frowns in disgust or is it mistrust? The cloud that holds me rains on itself. When my resistance relents, the turbaned man smiles in offering, giving me his hand. I take it and it’s soft, and gooey, and love-full just like gum. I nick bits of the foggy truths I came here looking for and chew.
On my throne, I enjoy—in drowsy satisfaction—the process of gum chewing: how the gum moves in my mouth, how it infuses my taste buds with its flavors of revelation. I gather it at the base of my tongue and blow a raw-pink bubble.
What would it be like to just…believe?
My cloudy mood bubbles into subtle droplets that evaporate back to my mother’s thoughts, her intentions, and her dreams.
Riham Adly is an Egyptian writer/blogger/translator. Her fiction has appeared in journals such as Flash Frontier, FlashBack Fiction, Okay Donkey, Bending Genres, Afreada, Connotation Press, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Vestal Review, Volney Road Review, Five:2:One, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Gingerbread House lit, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Anti-Heroin Chic, Danse Macabre and @Fewerthan500 among others. She was recently shortlisted in the Arab-Lit Translation Prize. Riham lives with her family in Gizah, Egypt.