There were fourteen clean steps from any path, manmade and peeling the shrubbery of the mountain, to the spots where the Virgin Marys would remain.
Whenever she found herself stumbling mid-step over prickly weeds or a clump of dirt, cracked and rusty red, Glory would retrace her steps, exhaling, and find a place further down the mountain path from which to take those most civilized fourteen paces into no-man’s land. Frequently, she would turn back for a second or third attempt, diligently draining her mind in order to begin the fourteen-count anew.
Glory had been planting Virgin Marys at the roadside for twenty-one years. The Lebanese municipality’s mountain tracks slithered in every imaginable direction, arching and splitting and wrapping around the fat hills and peaks like ritualistic bindings. In this maze, Glory suffered the humiliation of never being certain that the Virgin Marys populated roadside perches often enough to draw the inspired attention of tourists and merrymakers, shepherds and nomads.
Time and again, she had passed among the geometric thatches of crops that sat like meticulous patchwork upon valleys in the Bekaa; she was a familiar face to peninsular gypsies who were made pariahs by traitorous copper skin tones and intense, pensive eyes that preached a deep philosophy of adventure. She thought of the succulent summer peaches of Ehden in the north and the way the tourists’ rabid interest in her task was mildly offensive, like the smell of tobacco that lingered for a moment on the outstretched, giving hands of men and women whose orchard bounties had moistened her parched throat so many times.
She had visited cities also, though they distressed her. The flat urban topography reminded her of bosoms in which respiration had ceased, so that she had the vague but lasting impression in that gritty landscape that her muscled legs were not walking the paved roads but floating slightly above them. And too often, as cars honked their impatience at her sweat-slicked back and gendarmes interrupted her plans with indulgently phrased but unwavering attempts to remove her from the street, Glory found herself unable to branch the requisite fourteen paces, not from any starting point whatsoever. It seemed the government’s pavements were never wide enough to allow the Virgin Marys their hallowed perch.
Glory laid her fingers over her eyes, pressing splashes into her disobedient mind to disperse the memories of times when she had so unceremoniously bid farewell to Virgin Marys in cobwebbed alleys, under the arbitrating fluorescent glare of dumpster kittens. In the cities, those frugal slices of space between buildings were the only locations that allowed her fourteen steps’ leeway. That, of course, said something profound about worldly urban ways.
To deposit the Virgin Marys was hardly straightforward: not in the mountains, and never in cities. But the one thing which most perplexed Glory about planting her Holy Virgins was when one disappeared.
Happening upon a vacant spot where a shrine of hers should have been rent Glory’s heart. Once she identified beyond question the fingerprint portrait of slopes and sky as a place that a Virgin Mary had once sanctified, Glory would find herself searching for evidence of the fled Virgin in the grasses and prickly weeds. Despite herself, she looked for miniature footprints along a spiral of growing radii from the altar-epicentre. And tears would begin to stream down her shiny cheeks, tears of frustration, because she did not know whether to pin the disappearances on divine intervention or foul play. Those days scraped at Glory’s stalwart devotion to her silent task, tempting her with the promised relief of bestial trumpeting and shrill wails, excretions of her throat that would bring the fled Virgin Mary not one step nearer to where she belonged.
* * *
It had been almost twenty-two years. Twenty-two years ago, Glory had found salvation wrapped in a bouquet of silence.
It started with normal things that a mother might say to a daughter of marriageable age: When you have children, you shan’t have time to daydream like a simple child. Brush your hair back and change your clothes—Ziad’s coming for a round of backgammon with your father and you know his eldest son is a bachelor. And later, after Ziad had failed to take note of the new blouse and the meticulous locks: Not to worry, we’ll find you a man who will take care of you. Glory had tolerated her mother’s quips, offering origami smiles which took straining effort to construct.
Back then, Glory’s hips had been a mighty, fecund silhouette, a prominent ethnic landmark in the map of her Lebanese heritage. (How far back did it go, she would wonder: To the Ottomans or to Byzantines or had her genetic code an eon ago brushed lips with a salt-caked Phoenician, tan and seablooded aboard a Carthaginian galley?). She was hard and leathery now, enough so to make a Phoenician sailor proud, her entire body having long adopted the qualities of a thick-rooted tree trunk. But back then, she had been popular with the young men. Even the last emir had taken notice.
The Little Emir, they called him. That was his self-proclaimed moniker. Hharib Shamsine, last little prince of the mountain. Admittedly, his royal blood was quite dilute; the girls about town, Glory’s friends, had been confident that this meant he suffered from tepid fluids more generally. Only Hharib’s mother traced her ancestry back to the mountain palace cum tourist hotspot, and then only back to the half-brother of Bashir the Second, who had ruled as regent for eighteen months as Bashir recovered from a crippling bout of dysentery. Despite his mere drizzle of blue blood, The Little Emir had been the local celebrity for as long as Glory had lived in that town.
Glory reckoned Hharib Shamsine’s most infamous days were a gift she had bestowed upon him. They were therefore hers to take away all along, and she had. Not because she could, but because she just did, and though that exercise of power had been born of a girl’s terminal fear, she had nonetheless held all the pieces aloft for a time. She had held the game board high up above an emir’s tarbooshed head.
* * *
Glory flung a handful of weeds. She again braced her back, twined her fingers in the vegetation like some ogre’s hair, and tugged. With a visceral tearing noise, the ground surrendered a wild thorn. Glory chose a perfect ceramic Virgin from her sack, polished it on her woolen shawl, and decided that all the nostalgia ricocheting in her head was enough to deafen a watermelon vendor peddling his wares out the window of a Volks minivan.
The Virgin Mary looked sombre as Glory left her there, fourteen steps from the sepia dirt of the road. She was offset by a wonderful frame of increasingly tall shrubbery, a blush of purple in each weed’s bulb echoing, as if a choir, the gloss paint of her robes.
* * *
Hharib had been sombre too, sombre and sad and wounded in his pride. It had not been easy to defy his dejection. To unhinge the chattering shacklers had been easier. Glory’s father had become a poison of requirements, and her mother, a jailer for the armies of custom. It was easy to say stop in her head and simply cease to reply, and loose her muscles, making herself viscous gelatine when they grabbed her arms to compel her to see the suitor. For a year she taught herself the art of playing dumb, draining retorts from her mind, then replacing them with automatic unvoiced prayers that rolled faster than speech. This technique swaddled and kept her, and the storm winds battered useless.
She had not heard her own voice since.
* * *
Glory looked into the sun, its last pulses like the shallow breaths of the soon dead. The night was twining its oppressive mane into the gasping lungs of day. Hitching her sack of Virgins higher on her solid shoulder, Glory headed back towards a farm estate whose proprietors had extended her shelter in exchange for dusting their antique furniture. It was a fortunate agreement, a small mercy, another undeserved blessing. Her room was dark and damp when Glory let herself in. She put her sack on the bed and spread out beside it, minding the vicious barbs in her spine as she reclined.
The awareness that it was morning came minutes after Glory became aware of a rhythmic thudding. At first the rhythmic noise was the parcels of air like guns or fruit bats that smashed against her as she stood atop a mountain peak. But that was a dream, abducting pieces of life. She did not remember falling asleep. There was a figure in her room, opening and shutting drawers in the peeling white armoire. It was the farmer’s son, Ramzi.
“Pardon, Sister. I’m looking for my spare packet of smokes.”
Glory did not move except to gently unfold the edge of her quilt and pull it to her neck. He knew she was not a clergywoman and that she would not talk to him. She emptied her mind out of habit, and even whittled her breaths to a soundless minimum. The temptation to speak was incredibly faint compared to her will.
Ramzi paused and stared at her for a moment. Then he had the manners to look uncomfortable. After muttering some inchoate thing, he gave a triumphant cry and thrust his arm into a wool blazer hanging between two articles of clothing shrouded in plastic sheeting. A crushed box of Marlboro Reds emerged. The farmer’s eldest boy flipped the lid.
“I remember.” A small cluster of cigarettes in the corner made Ramzi’s eyes shine.
Outside, the farmer’s right-hand man was yelling: ‘Ramzi’, ‘you dog’, ‘simpleton’.
Ramzi gave an easy, noncommittal shrug. “Best of luck with God’s work. Leave an extra Mariam for me. As penance. I’ll be getting really shitfaced tonight.” He went out, the door closing softly behind him.
* * *
Glory was planting the day’s first Virgin Mary in a field of dandelions when she astounded herself with the resolute notion that Hharib Shamsine was entirely unlike that spoilt delinquent. As badly as she had trampled on his heart, Hharib had been a splendid gentleman until the end. And really, Glory had never blamed him for the end of her idyllic life and her prospects as the well-reared daughter of an honest family. Besides, Hharib had never actually uttered the words that would have cemented his humiliation and her own.
The night before Hharib had intended to ask her father for Glory’s hand in marriage—naturally, word of this had reached her last—Glory had let herself out of the house, forgoing even a shawl or cardigan to break the force of the wind. She had left her town behind, draining her mind of doubts and rehearsing a prayer with the rolling of her footfalls. Whether things were really so terrible as to warrant escape did not occur to her for decades; it first became an important question when she noticed that even riffraff and beggars had stopped looking at her with a dirty thirst in their eyes: the last despicable mirror that marked her as noteworthy to men was gone.
When Glory had escaped, there had been a full moon. The town had been haunted by a chrome stasis. Glory had spied a Virgin Mary statue in the storefront of the artisan’s as she made for the salvation of a copse of pines. It was a charmless piece, with uneven paint and cracked robes, but after that harrowing, sleepless night she had entered the shop with her face veiled and bought it. The artisan had surely recognised her as his friend’s daughter. Remarkably, he did not betray her. That first Virgin Mary still stood several hundred metres beyond the town, on the far side of the copse that had witnessed one night between lives. Glory reassured herself of that every year. It was her most sacred of pilgrimages.
Since then, Glory had found a different artisan and become proficient at placing shrines, but it seemed that little else had changed from the day she deposited that first cracked Virgin on her way to permanent exile.
If her silence had not become more final and addictive with every conversation she shunned, Glory might have returned and told Hharib this long-suppressed story. For she felt that, somehow, Hharib Shamsine might have understood. She would recount the spiralling of her terror at the swift progression of their courtship into the smouldering quietude of her adulthood. By now, The Little Emir would be married, with healthy sons to disprove the baseless rumours of thinned fluids. Glory fancied herself calling on him at his mansion, making her voice work, finding that her smallest syllables encouraged insight, that her every word was lyrical.
* * *
Pausing to adjust the strap of her sandal, Glory took note of her surroundings. Over the weeks of her stay at the farmhouse, she had come to know the area well. Yesterday’s Virgin was a short distance to the east. There would be a row of grocers’ and butchers’ a kilometre or two after the path she was following became pebbled and, eventually, paved.
Glory purchased small, hard apples from the first of the grocers and ate one as she watched a boy at the neighbouring butcher’s shop mopping up a puddle of cow’s blood. The fresh carcass was already skinned, revolving on a meat hook in the display as the butcher hacked at it. It had a pink hue, which meant it was good, fresh meat. Glory chewed slowly. Her mother had been fond of saying that wild apples tasted of their blossoms. There was indeed a subtle taste of raw vegetation in her mouthful, but Glory was not sure whether that was the flavour of blossoms or simply the taste of her own tongue.
The apples had been reduced to cores and Glory was pushing a tiny pip against her teeth when she saw the house. Imitation limestone blocks realised an unambitious rectangular architecture fortified at the windows and doors by metal grills. Gilded arrows topped every bar with cheap decorative flair. An amalgamation of all the commonplace elements of Lebanese design, the house was its own prototype.
What caught Glory’s eye was not the house itself but the walkway to the side entrance, roofed with grapevines. Taut green grapes hung like chandeliers over the tiled passage below. A plastic garden table blocked the passage. Perhaps people gathered around the table for coffee and fruit and a dose of mountain air after a heavy dinner. It was easy to imagine them lingering there into the small of morning, the reptilian pipe of a shisha being passed from hand to hand, the violent clacking of game pieces marking triumphant plays.
From the elevated path, Glory could see that a young girl was seated at the table. Something smooth and shiny was seated next to her, being served refreshments in a teacup and plate.
* * *
Voice reared against Glory’s throat until it burned like deprived lungs. She moved cautiously towards the tiled walk, entreating herself to set down her sack as she crossed into the shade of the grapevines. Her hands complied. The young girl saw her and seemed nonplussed as Glory found herself a chair and took it.
Glory’s seat positioned her directly opposite the stolen Virgin Mary. She emptied her mind and emptied her mind again, and it was like emptying a capsizing boat, both for want of declaring her ownership of the Virgin Mary—which might not belong to Glory, but it certainly did not belong to the girl—and for want of reaching across the dusty table and crudely grabbing the Holy Virgin back. Instead, Glory sat in silence while she was served a rock on a leaf and water with red soil in it. The little girl stirred the filth with a twig.
“Do you want sugar?” the child asked, holding a lump of chalky rock in her hand.
Glory shook her head miserably and pointed a firm finger at the statue, then at herself.
“This is Suha. We are having a party. You can stay but you have to bring a present tomorrow.” She pressed her tongue against a gap in her teeth, directing the rude grin at Glory.
Under other circumstances Glory might have thought the child endearing. She had thick black eyebrows and pigtails immersed in a halo of frizz, and her fingers had yet to lose the pudge of infancy. But all Glory could do was wonder if the girl had stolen every roadside Virgin she had ever come across. And all those years of disappearances! Virgins, dozens of them, all vanished without an explanation. Glory visualised a stash of hostage Virgin Marys in the garage, or stuffed in the child’s bag of toys, upside down, the edges of robes broken off, transcendent heads resting on the bellies of stuffed animals or the keys of a xylophone.
“Tomorrow,” the thieving girl said, “is Suha’s wedding day. She is marrying the president of Lebanon. He is coming to pick her up in a limousine. We are celebrating.”
Glory furrowed her brow. Impulsively, she lunged towards the Virgin Mary. The child gave a shocking squeak, and Glory spilt her cup. A fan of mud spread across the table. The girl was suddenly afraid of her. Glory knew this by the way she held her little elbows close to her chest.
All Glory had to do was speak. She saw the words in her head, floating authoritative and unpronounced: the statue is not a plaything for children. Give it to me. Glory’s mouth kneaded, making the shapes that would make the sounds. There was an empty pit in her where words usually lived. As she strained to speak, this emptiness branched from her throat and spread roots in her lungs, tickled at her spine, tried to infiltrate the pieces of her brain that demanded immediate action, and finally corkscrewed into her heart, flooding her limbs with heartbreak. Heartbreak seeped into her marrow. It made her fingers twitch with the ache of regret. And in her core, far from this collateral damage, her voice lay banished.
For once, she saw what lay ahead, beyond the intractable obstacle of speech.
If she spoke now, she could speak to Hharib Shamsine again. And then he would know. She would paint her perspective with all the shades and colours of articulation. She would ask for penance and receive his pardon, head bowed before his noble spirit.
And if Hharib Shamsine had a place in that future, so did her mother and father. It had been a long time, and their anger would perhaps have burned itself out, leaving behind the ashy landscape of a profound loss, the loss of a daughter. They would want her back, and she would speak the words of apology that might even allow them to love her, as they once had.
The child placed her hands on the ceramic Virgin.
Glory breathed in and came face to face with the thrashing inside her. She felt her ears crawl and shrivel, protecting themselves from the forthcoming sound of her own voice. The urgency of her desire to speak, to recover the statue, was a mad thing, triggering sirens and sweat. But there, too, sat the void, a weighty thing, playing substitute for her voice, displacing it. And Glory saw it for what it was—not just emptiness—but a place well tended and reinforced, a place whose foundations had thickened with every dispersal of unruly thoughts, and with every planted Virgin, and at every repeated ritual. She herself was orchestrating the paralysis of her throat, and the frustrated cramping of her heart.
There were possibilities that enlarged the world. They would leak into Glory’s microcosm of roadside toil, and beget changes and hurts and fears. Words were possibilities, and silence was her doing: an act of instinct and self-preservation, to ward off the pounding of elements. She could not undo the knots in her throat, not at so high a cost.
To surrender the Virgin was easier.
She realised immediately, her horror rising like bile, the extent of her betrayal. She could not look at the Virgin Mary. Shame licked her red, roasting her like flames as she twisted and turned to escape her own selfishness and cowardice.
It was only when she left the shade of the grapevines and bright, hot light swatted her that Glory realised she was up and running. An unnatural wheeze escaped from her.
Tomorrow, she would find the mountain—the absolute highest cliff with the farthest vantage—where the sack of Virgin Marys would remain.