The author, Rashad Pharaon, was born in Lebanon, raised in Paris, and currently teaches English part-time living between Tokyo and New York. Hope you enjoy the first chapter of When Kings Fall.
When Kings Fall
By Rashad M. Pharaon
By Rashad M. Pharaon
As a young woman, I had always heard the tragic stories of mothers losing their children to strange and obscure fates, and I brushed them all aside, thinking, in my naïveté, that I would forever be impervious to such circumstances. I was under the firm belief that these stories were created to instill fright in mothers’ hearts, to draw them closer to their beloved cherubs. Never did I think it would happen to me. Ever. But when the plague of loss infected me, my world seemed to have come to an end, a disease so excruciating, I couldn’t even remember the beginning of anything. My life was all end and no beginning.
If a wish were ever granted to me, it would have been cast solely in the hope that no mother should endure what I have been through. To this day, nothing has shattered my heart more than the loss of my baby. One would have to be a mother to understand and appreciate what I am saying. My fever has only grown stronger with every passing hour without him, without my Oliver. And the day of my loss forever remains a seedling of fear in the back of my mind, even on the most beautiful of mornings, afraid it may grow again into the dark tree whose long, crooked limbs once cast a nightmarish shadow over my heart, its insidious darkness stealing all light from my world.
My son disappeared on the fifteenth eve of the month of the spring monsoon, when the torrential fury made its presence felt across the parched deserts of Arabia and the hand of silence fell upon the city of Damascus. Here in this utter solitude, everyone sat, lights dim, watching the furious rains rage in the streets outside. They all gazed as the wretchedness let up briefly, then followed with another outpour that howled at the top of its lungs. Incessant rain. Brutal rain. What once stood desiccated now lay drenched and bloated as the downpour flooded the narrow maze of dirty roads that wound into the city’s dark unknowns.
My head lay on my brother’s shoulder, as if I was a sick child in the wee hours of night, drowsy with grief. Never-ending tears streaked down my cheeks, drawing deep from within the house of hurt. Papa had always told people I lent the world a beauty so divine, yet singularly simplistic, but I could hardly imagine myself this way now. The honey-chocolate eyes were no more. Instead, my pupils navigated a bloodshot ocean. I had once carried the pride of a ballerina. Now I had degenerated into a decrepit hag with matted hair and makeup running down her face.
“Leila, everything will be okay . . . it’ll be okay,” whispered my brother, Karim, as he kissed my forehead. He ran his fingers through my long hair, shifting his broad shoulders as he drew himself closer.
"Why did he . . ." My sobs were muffled by Karim's embrace while I clung to him, "why did Papa do it?"
Nana Malia, the housemaid, shuffled through the doorway of the living room and stood there for a moment as she witnessed the visage of anguish that stared back. Her brown, curly hair and aged complexion were darkened by this ambient murkiness. She had lived here twenty long years, ever since our early childhood, and when my brother and sisters came of age, we could not let go of the maid we had grown to adore. She had become so entwined in our family’s past that she was embossed in our future. We would miss our Nana Malia if she ever left us. Her stocky shoulders rocked sideways as she ambled forward like a troll, lacking but a club to complete the picture.
She sat beside me, caressing my shoulders. “Darling, darling, we love you. You remember that, don’t you?”
“Yes . . . yes, I know.” I used a tissue to blow my nose, then turned to hug my Nana. “It hurts.”
“I would lend you my heart if I could,” said Nana Malia as she clasped me in her big arms.
Not but twenty feet away, in the cramped but elegant dining room, which was completely open to the living room, sat Papa. His grieving eyes seemed to multiply his many years twofold as he cupped his hands over his face, displaying all but a shiny, bald head perched atop hunched shoulders. My sister Suzie sat beside him, gently rubbing his back. On the other side sat a peculiar man, also old in appearance, although he had always seemed that way. No one ever recalled him being any younger—he had been gray since anyone’s earliest memory. Abu Bakr, the respected police chief of Damascus, was a man the shape of a pear, with the mind of a philosopher and the patience of a predator. Lost in deep thought as he pondered his various cases, we would often find him scouring the streets while stroking his long, pepper-white beard. The young street urchins would always tease him about it.
“Abu Bakr, Abu Bakr!” I would hear them yell.
“Yes?” He would turn around with his charming smile and puppy-dog eyes, and the children would stroke imaginary beards and laugh. He would join them in their laughter and—unlike the haughty policemen those street-runners taunted—they liked the chief of police. We all did. Instead of running away, the children would congregate around and ask him to tell his stories. I would watch them from our veranda overlooking the street—a full circle of children would crowd around the uniformed man who stood, gesturing with his arms as he spoke, like a Roman senator trying to convince a senate.
Damascus itself was a lackluster gray, as if it had once fallen ill and never recovered. The plain, rectangular stone houses and buildings—affairs of necessity rather than luxury—along the city’s network of intertwined streets and alleys sprawled everywhere in confused clusters. The roads within the city were run down and the cars very old and small, the likes of which were probably found nowhere else in the world. Its doleful poverty was of epic proportions as car horns, mounted on the decrepit cars, blared constantly and deals were struck on every corner by merchants of random goods and nothing-wares. Most of the city’s weary inhabitants rode bicycles, while the public transportation consisted of small, ragtag minivans that had seen better days. From above, the streets resembled dark gray veins that pulsed with the motion of millions. The approach to the once great city of welcomed visitors with litter and fragments of broken rock, all beaten down by the heavy rains; and renegade patches of fern populated some of the dejected streets, a last attempt at beautification.
At sunrise, when the monsoon lay in slumber and the baking sun climbed through the sky, the atmosphere exhaled upon the city, drying any last vestige of humidity, exiling the sky’s tears and nearly suffocating the city’s inhabitants with every breath of its dusty, heated incursion.