Her black hair is wetly plastered on her forehead; her dark robe pulls around her ankles like a shroud as she stumbles along the slick sidewalk, a forlorn figure in the misty rain.
Looking out from the café window, I can imagine myself in Baghdad, Beirut or Nairobi.
Anywhere but Paris.
* * *
The sky was black and starless, heavy with the thought of rain when I shut the door to my little pensione in the Marais district. My aimless wandering has brought me again to my favourite square in Belleville where it’s market day. More like a Moroccan souk than a Parisian square, I think, with its hodge-podge of wares and rowdy jostling.
I watch turbaned African women elegant in striped boubous, children chattering at their skirts. Tourists weighed down with cameras jostle sober Orthodox Jews heading to the synagogue. North African men, tall and stately in jellabas, enter the mosque on the corner. Turkish men drink their java in the open wooden tea-house across the road, their cigarette smoke sending smutty curls into the grey sky.
The woman is at my window. I see black eyes sunken and mouth gaping. My God! I start to my feet. She jumps back, tosses her head and wails, her keening sharp in the sopping morning air.
I fall back into my chair.
‘Oh my God,’ I groan. I hang my head while the woman sobs. I reach a shaky hand toward the cold glass where her gnarly fingers clutch at her face.
‘You poor thing,’ I whisper. I stay where I am, pressing my cheek against the damp pane, remembering...
I remember the day the bomb fell out of the muggy midsummer sky…
* * *
Cement columns lean at strange angles; blocks of wall twist grotesquely like a miniature World Trade Centre, bolts and steel exposed. Where the floor once lay there is a gigantic hole from the mortar, filled with debris, the toxic dust rising in grey filthy puffs.
The debris includes her two children, left at the table, reading, only moments before.
The crowd watches as she throws herself into the smouldering heap, her lips quivering, her arms outstretched, her robes spreading over the monstrosity as if to shield her darlings from the unspeakable sight.
She begins to scrapple in the debris, oblivious to her ripped and scorched fingers, her torn knees, her blood mixing with their precious blood. She chants as she digs, frantically pushing cement chunks aside with super-human strength. Suddenly her frenzied digging stops, she gazes downward, blinks. An unearthly sound erupts from deep inside her.
Men in the crowd step forward at last, their garments flapping as they fight her, drag her bodily, her legs jerking, incomprehensible garble spilling from her mouth. Her scarf falls into the grey pit; her long black hair escapes its bonds and trails behind her in the putrid dust. Her screams get louder, piercing the gritty afternoon air. Mothers turn away, rushing home to their loved ones, to smother them in kisses, to breathe in their baby smell, to hold them safe in their arms.
The woman is hauled away. She looks back. The puddle of blood, dismembered arms and legs, a smouldering tiny leather boot are her last sight of her precious ones. Does her crazed stare register the foreigner clutching notebook and camera stepping from the crowd, reaching out?
* * *
How did she end up in Paris? Perhaps she arrived in Paris’ safe haven via Syria or Beirut, facing further danger on her road towards freedom, but how she would have hated to leave her children.
Their dust lies somewhere in Baghdad.
I sip my coffee with shaking hands, tremble and wonder. When I look at her she jerks away, eyes downcast. She stands erect, walks alone into the crowd, daughter of Ishtar, dignity restored.
‘S’il vous plaît.’ I call the waiter for more coffee.
I reach into my bag and stare at the tatty photo of my family.
The backdrop is the gigantic columns of the World Trade Centre, splendidly piercing the sky. I can still hear them laughing as I joked around with my camera. I gently kiss the darling glossy faces.
I remember afresh the terror of that day when the plane that was flying them home veered off course and crashed into the very same building. My loved ones became part of the debris that floated to the ground, that toxic shower.
Did my little ones cry for me? Did my husband feel relief that my work compelled me to catch a different plane, a plane to my Baghdad assignment? I can only imagine his final thoughts in his final minutes, as he held our children close to his beating father’s heart.
I reach for my press card, tap it on the table, remembering. I fumble in my bag again, retrieve my blank notebook and flip it open.
‘Merci.’ I thank the waiter who brings my coffee. I click my pen and slap it against the page, rhythmically, tap, tap, tap…
My hand shakes as I begin to write:
An Arab woman
Lustrous black hair…no…
Dust to dust, dust to dust…oh God…oh God…no…
Suddenly the pen races across the page as if propelled by another source:
The bowels of the earth
With pestilential dust
That was once
Flesh and bone
I cover my face with my hands. I begin to scream.