Written by Nada Hemida
Never had she seen so many stars in her busy city; never has she seen so much light in the sky. She looked away from her journal at the streets that were almost empty and at the Nile that was peacefully still. She had awoken in the middle of the night, when the power was cut off – she was a light sleeper like that – with an idea in mind for a new sketch. Blackouts had been reoccurring for a while now, and quite frankly, Layla didn’t really mind it. To disconnect from technology was a way for her to – well, connect…connect with what’s beyond all that we see but is right in front of us. It was bewildering – she realized – the silence, the stillness of everything around her. Enchanting, like she was no longer present as though she was in a dream. It just didn’t feel real.
The balcony was where she found that peace of mind. Perched on the 6th floor, her eyes found solace in the view of the slithering Nile; her soul found peace in the gentle gust of the wind and her spirit flew high with the moon at the calmness and stillness of the night air.
A whistle sounded from beside her, and she turned to her neighbor, Waleed. Ever since he moved in a year ago, so often, she would look to her right to find him sprawled on his chair with his reading glasses on, a book in hand, and a coffee mug on the table. Sometimes, he’d just be there, looking at the streets below or the skies above. A lazy smile formed on his face as he said, “Hey, Lolla.”
She smiled and looked down at the empty streets, so inviting, so calm and still. She then sighed and looked at him again. “Up for a walk?” she asked.
“If you are,” he answered, already out of his seat. She giggled as she headed inside.
Moments later, they were walking by the river.
Layla asked, “Why are you awake anyway?”
Waleed shrugged, one hand unwillingly stroking his light beard. “I was almost finishing a book when the power was cut off,” he answered, looking at his feet, “It was the moment I realized what time it was.” He laughed to himself.
“And did you finish it?” she asked.
His answer was a slow, almost sleepy, nod.
Layla asked, “Sad ending?”
“No, actually,” he answered, “It was just mind-blowing. Sometimes, I read a book and I just can’t fathom how the author could have half the mind to create such a world or story. It doesn’t make sense to me – they must be aliens or something.” Her laugh echoed in the silence around them. And even though she wanted to argue that he was just as brilliant, she didn’t. “Anyway, it was a really good book.”
She smiled, then it was silent again – but it wasn’t awkward. It was quite comfortable, as though they shared thoughts and feelings in the quiet just as much as they did with words.
“Haven’t seen any of your work lately,” Waleed said carefully, as though he was tiptoeing around the subject, while eyeing the journal in her hand that she never lets go of. He, too, was a different kind of artist; he knew what it was like not to have the motivation to pour one’s heart and soul into something. Layla shrugged, and Waleed let the subject drop. The truth is Layla hadn’t been doing anything in the past few days except sketch and paint. She didn’t think he’d find it amusing, though, that they were all of him.
Layla had the power to paint with, not pigments but, feelings. Through her work, you could read stories that either break your heart or piece it back together. Abstract or concrete, her art was magic from another world. Waleed was a writer, one whose words could drown you or save your life. He never published any of his work, claiming that they all felt too much like pieces of him and couldn’t stand the idea of putting it out for the world to criticize. But Waleed’s stories were like medicine to a wounded heart, she’d told him so, repeatedly.
She realized she loved him when he finally allowed her to read his work. She’d been asking to see it for days, when he finally left some papers on her doorstep one day for her to find. Layla transcended to another galaxy through his words, by how it felt like peeking into a piece of his soul – and she liked it there. It made her feel immortal.
“Is your writing ever inspired by real life events or emotions?” she found herself asking, and immediately wanted to take it back, “It’s just – it’s so real, so relatable.” She looked at him, her eyes locking on his. His throat bobbed as he gulped.
“I’ll tell you this,” he answered. “My writing is always real, but still fictional.”
She frowned, “You’re such a tease.” He laughed.
“Tell you what,” he said a moment later, a little hesitant, “I’ll show you my notebook if you show me your journal.” Layla raised an eyebrow, almost wondering if he knew what he’d find and wondering why he would ask for it now. She wasn’t entirely surprised though; they had both been amazed by each other’s art. For the past few months, he had been the first person to see her artwork once she was done with it, same went for her.
She wanted to read his poems. Maybe she could give him the journal on a specific page and snatch it out of his hands before he could turn the page? Damn it, she didn’t care. She just wanted that notebook.
“Okay,” she begrudgingly agreed, making him smile from ear-to-ear, “But you first!” He smiled as he pulled his little notebook out of his back pocket and handed it to her. As she opened the bookmarked page, she couldn’t contain the excitement in her as she read:
There were once three brothers,
with unbreakable skin
No matter how much you tried to hurt them,
it didn’t even itch
as though they were invincible
But they had hearts of glass,
pull their strings
and they would shatter.
Waleed had two other brothers. Could this be about them? She wondered. Layla glanced at him and saw through his eyes that shied away that it could be true. At the sound of her turning to the next page, his eyes filled with alarm, but he didn’t reach for the notebook, trying to act casual. Layla didn’t take notice; her heartbeat with the force of a hurricane, as she read:
With eyes filled with wonder,
she looked at the sky
as though contemplating life as a star
She’d stay like that for hours
in the silence
and I’d wonder if she knew
that she was extraordinary in her own way
For she could unravel me with her frown
put me back together with her smile
destroy me with her words
and burn me to flames with her touch.
She looked up at him, at the panic in his eyes. She had a feeling – a dangerous, dangerous feeling. But there was one way she could make sure.
She handed him her journal, and allowed him to turn to the latest pages. He blinked as he flipped through the last few. “That’s -” he started then looked at her, bringing his speech to an end.
She nodded, her heart almost exploding. “You,” she spoke. She held up his notebook, at the page where she’d read the last poem. She didn’t have to ask. Slowly, he nodded.
And just like that, the universe shattered.