The following is from Balsam Karam’s The Singularity. Karam (b. 1983) is of Kurdish ancestry and has lived in Sweden since she was a young child. She is an author and librarian and made her literary debut in 2018 with the critically acclaimed Event Horizon, which was shortlisted for the Katapult Prize. The Singularity is her second novel, published in Sweden in 2021.
Friday morning one late summer in a city where the trash from the buildings with balconies facing the corniche is driven to where the palm trees droop and the earth corrodes green and brown; to where the children with palm fronds in their arms stop every day to poke around in the puddles of mud, waiting for the dogs to eventually arrive and tear the trash bags wide open.
The children anticipate the dogs bounding atop the trash pile soon taller than the house along one side of the alley, and then them bounding back down and the mound sinking and spreading out; the children watch muddy water pulsing, filling the pits in the ground and flowing out to the cars and the newspaper stands, the shops, the fountain and the cherry trees too.
The woman searching for her child wakes up in the morning sunburnt and sits up in the sand. The great loss has already rolled in across the earth, grief and drought, a tattered sunbaked landscape cupped by two empty hands; these days are not the days that once were and this place is a different place, the air close and old, and the city a hole between what came to be and what could have been.
If I feel the sun to be large and hot, it is even hotter to the child she says from her place on the beach, lifting a fistful of sand to her cheek—if in daytime I always appear as the stranger I am in this city, then the child must also appear somewhere—if only I could find the right position and turn my gaze in her direction she says, looking around as if seeking the place from which the child might finally appear across the beach.
The inner distances are greater—between memory and memory and from experience to experience time no longer passes, and the woman does not know where she is or why, whether it was a year or a lifetime ago that the child was playing in her belly and the sun almost extinguished was setting over the sugarcane fields and the mountains, or whether she will again be consigned here tonight, to this place on the beach, to the here and now.
She no longer knows whether the homes on that distant hillside existed at all before they, at dawn with the morning haze, were levelled to the ground; nor does she know whether anyone sees her today as she like every other day searches and calls her child’s name throughout the city, saying you are not alone, my beloved and thinking of the mother among the tent rows who pressed her little bundle already blued against her body and sang the only lullaby she knew in the language she had not yet forgotten.
The mother said I can hear him breathing and held out the baby for the people sitting around to inspect, then crawled onto the rug in the middle of the tent and asked can’t you hear it too? before falling back into her rocking and singing. I saw it happen with my own eyes the woman says out loud from where she is sitting, the morning waves foaming and the sand dunes before her—it happened to the woman two tents over she says and I could see that nothing of the child remained, but I couldn’t say anything to the mother, to the mother I said nothing, for that mother I had no words she says and stands up.
Today the world feels different somehow new and the woman decides to search for her daughter one last time and thereafter no more—never more by the sea or along the harbour and not by the deserted plots of land or in the half desert below the mountains.
She takes stones from the water’s edge and stamps out a rectangle, lets the stones frame a bed and a pillow and says if she passes by, she will know that this is a resting place before continuing her daily trek through the city. Today she will first go to the alley, then to the square and the library and finally return here, to the beach and the corniche.
She walks slowly, stopping often, looking around, waiting impatiently in the city.
Sometimes it happens that someone turns to watch her while she is speaking loudly and angrily or softly close to tears, saying my child and shutting her eyes or have you eaten anything today? as if The Missing One were standing right beside her and could answer once and then again.
Maybe if you wait in the shade of the walnut trees for a barefoot mother to come by and take you in her arms she says and turns around—maybe if on the street corner by the newspaper stand you feel a familiar eye seek you out and understand that it is me she says and looks down the road this way and then that.
She sees them—she sees that those who have stopped to look at the dust and the stains, the bag she carries close to her body and the bare feet with split nails and cracked heels do not understand to whom or in which language she is speaking, and so she wants to say hello and wait, explain herself. The woman wants to share something about her girl with the few words she has managed to commit to memory without them taking fright or turning away, but this too she sees is impossible—they are now speeding their steps up the street to the traffic lights and melding with the swarm that begins on the other side of the road.
What is there if it cannot be close to this and this the woman says and first puts a hand to her belly then to her forehead damp and warm, moving on in the morning sun to the alley.
What is there if it must always be taken away she says and removes her headscarf, wipes her face and the back of her neck, glances up at the sky as blue and blithe, as high and smooth as always, when she makes her way to the children and her mother, all waiting for The Missing One to return to the alley.
Friday morning one late summer in a harbour town spread out along a coastline nestled against the mountains and near a bay that farther up, in another country, curves in and out the image of a half moon, soft and beautiful.
The children in the alley run their hands across the half moon on the map and then draw it in the dust across the sun-drenched alley.
The children say on the map all mountains look alike, but I know that one is red and by that red mountain we once lived.
They say from a hole in the middle of the red mountain ran water soft and pink, and when in the afternoon sun we kicked the ball against the mountain face, the water beaded on our arms and legs and cooled us down, gave us shelter; the water lifted us up high, a cloud of mist to hide in when someone looked up from the road and heard us playing and sleeping and living and eating by the red mountain, do you remember?
Yes the children reply to each other and say we followed the water into the ditch and onward between the homes and saw that at the hillside it pooled like a shimmering lake of garbage and mud— this we remember.
Minna looks up from the half moon drawn in the alley and continues do you remember that we took fistfuls of that mud and built small beds where the kittens could sleep, and we filled the beds with dry grass and newspaper and later dried flowers, dried palm fronds broken and shredded and some old rags? Do you remember that the kittens liked it better there than anywhere else and we felt that so keenly then, that we had done a good thing?
Yes Mo and Pearl reply and continue running their fingers in lines across the alley, now drawing the red mountain and the homes they once had and the ditch and the hillside; the children draw the school at the foot of the slope and the awnings that ran between their homes and also the mountain of trash a short distance away; they draw the water tap and the bicycle and finally the kitten beds like a scattering of small dots in the heat soon unbearable in the alley.
It’s morning and the sun beats down on every child and every stone fallen from the ruined wall and collected in the middle of the alley; it’s morning and the rats zip down the broken waterspout and into the rubble by the house next door, and the cockroaches shimmering find their way out of the dust and climb the walls, going as far as they can away from the alley.
Here there are no longer friends to call out to and no starry sky under the red streetlight’s glow, and neither a hillside nor a mountain rising to hold and comfort, to shield the children from the wind and the rain or just from the cars and eyes prying deep into where the children are sleeping and eating and walking and playing in the alley.
The alley is dusty and deep and at the far end, where the sun does not reach and something darker and larger blooms, there a grandmother sits against a wall keeping a watchful eye on the children.
If she comes home tomorrow, I will draw a flower and a house and next to the house I will draw a ditch and above the ditch a haze the children say and search for a piece of paper that blew in and landed in the alley; if she wants to borrow my catapult, she can have it and if she wants to sing a song, I will sing it, even though I don’t know how the children say and draw the flower, the house and a palm with leaves big enough to keep the rain off.
Grief draws in and widens the distances without the children knowing how or why, and in the bushes that no longer bloom, what is burnt pushes through the deep green and takes over; at the mouth of the alley, an orange tree no longer rises like a crown over the patch of earth where The Missing One would sit with her notebook, and down the road a neighbour no longer stops by to ask the children if they want to come along to the beach or the square for a bit.
Rocks are mountains the children say as they sit either at the ruined wall or in the middle of the alley, waiting for The Missing One to return home.
If you hold a stone in your hand, your hand takes the shape of the stone and if you put the stone in your mouth, your mouth becomes as hard as the stone they say and press their stone hard into their hands. Yes the children reply—if you stack your stones, you can build a hut and if you throw your stone at something, the stone will always win the children say and either pour out or collect the stones that have fallen from the ruined wall in piles across the alley.
Unless it’s at water the children say to each other and look up.
Yes, unless it’s at water the children reply to each other and look around.
If the loss is present, the children no longer know whether it is their mother or sister it has laid claim to, and if heads tilted they stand by the ruined wall and search in the swarm across the road, they no longer know which of the two to search for.
Remember when she came home with a big tin of olives and we sat down to eat every single one? the children ask as they lie there and lift a medium-sized stone towards the sun, holding it there and letting it for a moment hide and push away the sun.
Yes, I remember the children reply—she was happy and cheerful that day, had found a friend there on the corniche and said it was getting better, a girl who worked a few restaurants down and who she could smoke and talk with, they could accompany each other home and maybe she could even invite her here, she said. The olives gave us a stomachache that lasted all night and into the next morning too the children say and start sorting the stones they’ve collected in order of size from one side of the alley to the other.
When Mum and Gran came home from the market, we had to keep quiet about it even though we were rolling around in pain the children say and laugh out loud for the first time in a long while in the alley.
But then we teased her when we saw her carrying the pits in a bag and tossing it into the container across the road the children reply and look at all the piles that have now grown bigger and spread across the alley.
It was a heavy bag the children say and take a stone from each of their own piles and put it in their sweater now stretched out and pale from all the stones borne across the alley.
Imagine the people on the corniche got angry when they realized she’d taken the olives even though the can was only going to be thrown away the children say and from the depths of their sweater pile the stones into a mountain in the middle of the alley. Yes, imagine if that’s why she disappeared the children say to each other and use their feet to dig a trench that runs from the mountain to the ruined wall and the road, they build a sort of hillside in the alley.
Mum didn’t like her working there the children say and place stones like homes on either side of the ditch and farther away a school, a food storehouse, a small house for the cats to sleep and play in.
No, she was worried and angry and one time they fought and stopped talking to each other for a whole day the children say and line up stones like labyrinths around the homes, building a wall and erecting a shelter.
Then just before she had to go to work Mum hugged and kissed her, told her to be careful, that Friday nights were the worst on the corniche they say and decide that the labyrinths are borders you cannot cross any which way, not without first asking permission and paying a toll.
What if the people on the corniche harmed her the children say to each other, now quieter, and decide that if you crossed a border and grazed a stone, you are not allowed to cross another until you have stuffed your mouth full of stones and said a rhyme out loud in the alley.
She had bruises all over her arms and legs the children reply to each other and decide that the rhyme should be one that Mum had taught in the tent school before the people in military uniforms arrived and took everything the children hadn’t had time to carry along with the slate and the table, as well as the map of the world they’d drawn and the shelf Mum got from the nice lady at the library.
Yes, and all over her back and chest too, I saw them when she was washing herself in the bathroom one day and I happened to go in there they say and slowly begin to move through the labyrinths, their mouth full of sharp stones and their rhyme drawn out as the morning sun crosses the alley.
The children play a while and rest a while, position themselves to look out over the road and search for ants near the ruined wall a while. Then they sleep, long.
When they wake up it all begins again and they do what they usually do in the same order and in the same way as before: take out the bread bag from the tin that once held flour and salt and put the part of the bread that hasn’t gone mouldy on a newspaper, pour a can of beans on top, and slice some tomato or cucumber and put it on the side.
Sometimes they call for their grandmother to come and sometimes she steps out of the darkness and says thank you and that’s enough, says she can still feel yesterday’s bread in her throat and again disappears into what has become her spot at the end of the alley.
Now and then the greengrocer comes by to drop off more cucumbers and more plums, asking if the children have seen their mother lately or if they’ve had any news about their sister, will she be coming home soon?
The greengrocer asks if they are managing well in the alley and if Gran is cooking what he’s been dropping off, and which out of the corner of his eye he sees is rotting in bags next to the wall. He asks about the men who make their way here—if there are fewer of them now that the tourist season is over—and if the children are sleeping better and no longer having nightmares in the alley.
The children answer maybe or no, say we haven’t heard anything about our sister and Mum hasn’t been here in a long time and then again I don’t know.
The greengrocer leaves more bread and beans, and the children thank him and follow him to the ruined wall and the pavement— that’s as far as the children will go, and when the greengrocer disappears towards the square, the children think they can see the cherry trees and the library, the food stalls and the fountain; they think they can make out the light that this time of year always hits the shop windows and the playground and also how it thereafter softly falls back on the same cherry trees billowing large by the fountain.
The children see this and turn away.
After eating they rinse their hands and begin again collecting stones collecting scrap, waiting for something anything to happen, and pressing the rocks to their bodies.
What day is it? The children don’t know, can’t read their way to it, have no one to ask.
Was it recently or long ago that their sister disappeared and is tomorrow the day she will finally return?
Will it be this winter that they start school and are given a home where they can rest and warm themselves, draw and play?
The children look up at the trees and the sky and then turn back to the ruined wall and the alley, pick up a stone.
Late summer, one Friday morning in an alley where no one hangs palm fronds anymore green and speckled, and no one knots two ropes together and jumps rope with the children happy under the shadows of the tarpaulin, stretched like a roof from one side of the alley to the other. No one tugs at the other’s hand anymore and says come, look what I’ve found and no one follows after and laughs, taking a bumblebee more beautiful than ever out into the sun and leaving it on the pavement a short distance from the alley.
The grandmother sits in the dark and looks around.
When construction began on the house next door to the razed lot they call the alley and the walls were torn down in anticipation of new ones for a new house with new windows and new doors, a prettier garden and a metal gate with no bullet holes or dents from the war, it was no longer possible for the tarpaulins to hang across the alley, leaving it bared to the sun and the world.
She tried to hang up the tarpaulins, to protect the children, but it wasn’t possible—the walls on one side weren’t there anymore and her spot was the only one that still had a stump of wall from which a piece of cloth could be hung to draw a darkness over her deeper than she could ever have imagined and all that had been left for her to take care of in the depths of the alley.
The grandmother went into the darkness and there she stayed.
From here she can see the movement of loss and doesn’t know what to do; she sees it all the time and fears it as she sits there watching over the alley—she even sees it when the children for once seem to be laughing or playing, and fears it too in dreams when they emerge from the red streetlight bruised and naked, and tell her yet again that the girl has disappeared.
If I stand in the middle of the road and stay there, even if everyone wants me to keep going she mumbles—if I rip one of the men out of the driver’s seat and threaten to slit his throat, maybe someone will give her back to us she says almost invisible from the back of the alley.
Have the missing ever returned she says and runs a hand over the wall and the bullet holes sharp in the middle of the wall—has spilled water ever been unspilled she says and falls silent.
It is summer, even if the tourists have left the cool cottages in the mountains and the small shops along the promenades have shut their doors; summer, as if summer never wanted to end, and past the broken windows of the deserted houses red dust ripples towards the grass.
It doesn’t cool down no matter how many pieces of cloth the grandmother spreads across the ground, not even if at dawn she douses the alley with water from the tap in the only bathroom they dare to enter, with the roof almost split in two and the green tiles in pieces underfoot; the alley will not cool and in the air the swallows fly ever higher and fall again and again against the half-demolished roof of the house.
The grandmother remembers, watching over the children in the daytime and at all other times turned to darkness waiting for those who should return, it’s high time now, where are they?
She remembers that once her cousin Naima and later The Missing One were with her and now neither of them is here—her daughter only barely so, returning to the alley only sometimes. She did what she was supposed to and was loving and held them close—even so neither of
them is here, why is that?
Where are they? Why don’t they come home? She wants Naima and The Missing One back and leaves her spot from time to time, slaps herself hard across the face and thighs and pulls off her headscarf, waving it in the air.
The grandmother picks up the tea glass as if it were hot even though she hasn’t boiled tea for days and pretends to eat a piece of bread even though there is no bread at hand. Would you like some? she asks The Missing One as if she were sitting beside her, and then you don’t eat enough, you never have, I don’t like it. When you get home, I’ll throw you a party—I promise this before the stars and God—and I’ll take off these ugly black clothes and wear something red or airy, this I swear. I’ll wash and comb my hair and offer bread and sugar to anyone who comes walking down the street; I will air the blankets and mattress so you can sleep the softest sleep and I’ll cook all your favourite meals even if my hands have forgotten the measurements and I no longer know what you like, can you tell me?
Do you remember how we used to roast the tomatoes soft over the fire and I would call you in to eat from where you were playing with the other children by the hillside and the mountain face? You’ll never grow big if you don’t eat, I said, and how you gave no answer even though what we’d prepared was so tasty and sweet and not as hard to get hold of as now—do you remember that?
Do you remember how we were able to bring home what we needed without being beaten up and how bad it got when they started marking us in town? Still you grew taller than all the children running up and down the hillside and taller even than me, no matter how many times I begged you not to grow past me like that. I used to watch you, see how the children gasped when you got up from dinner by the hillside and how afterwards they’d knock on our door and ask you to pull at their hands and legs to make them as tall as you, do you remember that?
I used to look at you and when you turned around, you’d blow me a kiss and I’d blow two or three back.
Do you remember how you’d linger by the ditch for hours waiting for Mum to turn off from the road? She’ll be here soon, I said, but you wanted to see her— nothing would do but seeing her with your own eyes coming up the hillside with sacks or planks over her shoulder and then you’d run to me at the same time every day saying Mum’s coming, Mum’s coming, as if it were a miracle that your very own mother was returning from the sugarcane fields and taking you in her arms each day.
The grandmother fidgets in her pit, puts her hand over her mouth, squats down. She can no longer stand to see the children’s movements in the alley and instead stares at the wall.
I was your age when my cousin Naima disappeared and a few weeks later the neighbour girl Selma too, Selma who everyone thought was so bright and beautiful and who I never got to know except for sharing the occasional soft drink and smoking one of the cigarettes she always had with her. I remember that it was winter and I didn’t have a warm jacket and the power was always cutting out; I remember that Naima got sad and cried ever more often and that sometimes I’d steal chocolate for her or bring a newspaper from the stand near our home. When she disappeared Mum kept me home from school for weeks and didn’t let me go along to the market or visit my aunt and our young cousins who didn’t know what to do with themselves amidst waiting for Naima and everyone who was searching for Naima along the roads and in the desert. I was searching too even though I wasn’t allowed—setting out when Mum and Gran were in the fields and searching for Naima and Selma where I thought they might be held captive by those men they had talked about and feared. Once I walked all the way to the city centre to wait for a car to approach me as I knew they had approached Naima on her way home from the food storehouse one evening. And as I stood there by the red lights, one of the men slowed down and looked at me, rolled down his window, made a gesture. I ran away as fast as I could and escaped by a hair, can you imagine? the grandmother says and moves in the darkness now deep and resounding across the alley; I made it out then, my darling, but I ended up here instead she says and lies face down in the dust, saying nothing more.
Excerpted from The Singularity by Balsam Karam, translated by Saskia Vogel. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Feminist Press.