We are thrilled to host a brand new writer with us on the website ^^ Give a warm welcome to Amna Al-Madani who is debuting her story titled “Nelumbo Nucifera”
She didn’t know why she was here, yet at the same time, it seemed to be the exact place she needed to be. Everything was dark and there was barely anything she could see or hear, but somehow it didn’t frighten her in the least. Instead her curiosity that partially led her here drew her in more; and her hand left the doorknob as she took a step further inside. The worn out door creaked slowly behind her before it finally closed with a thud. Bright, white light assaulted her vision and she instantly shut her eyes. It took seconds for the shock to recede before she began to open her eyes. She saw white. Everything was white. She closed her throbbing eyes again, rubbing them this time, but the white color still remained yet soothing as it welcomed her opened eyes.
She looked around the room in awe. The walls seemed to stretch endlessly, and she couldn’t make out a concrete ceiling that connected them to each other. It’s as if the room she was in was only surrounded by white and nothing solid was holding the room together. She was too focused on the ceiling to notice the people around her, but once she looked at them their voices came to life. She couldn’t understand how she didn’t feel their presence around her until now, considering how many they were and how all of them seemed focused on her now. It was as if nothing existed in this place unless she acknowledged it first. When she turned around to look behind her, she saw that there was no trace of the door she had entered from.
The room was filled with seats. They were stacked in rows, one after the other, creating a path between them. The dirtiest path she had ever seen in her entire life. It was filthy and covered in mud, but she had to pass through it if she wanted to get anywhere in here. She felt nervous as she walked past the vacant seats and looked at the ones occupied in the front. She felt like a bride prepared to walk down the isle, except her hands were empty, she held no flowers to keep them from fidgeting, and no father to give her away. However, she did walk with a bride’s grace, even though she wasn’t dressed in a white gown, but a traditional black Abbaya. Not strictly black in its ends as the mud streaked its tips. She had no idea how she hadn’t toppled over yet, considering how deep the mud looked. Her walk came to a halt when she felt something strong tickle the sole of her covered feet. She moved aside to see a large white flower protrude from the mud. The entire path she had walked on was now covered with flowers. She leaned down to appreciate its beauty and fragrance up close. As she stroked its long petals, she guessed it might have been a lily.
How can something so beautiful emerge from the dirt, she thought. So immersed in the beautiful sight and scent of the flower, she sat unaware of the audience she had acquired. She plucked a bunch of them as she stood up and marched with them gathered in front of her, back to her private joke to walk as a bride. Apart from the people, their clothes and of course the mud, the only thing else in the room that wasn’t white was the wide gate that she was now facing. It was the biggest set of doors she had ever seen in her life, and it was the only thing waiting for her at the end of the aisle. It was pure green, with one white handle at its center. On its right she saw a white counter with a dark skinned receptionist who looked like an old lady standing behind it. She looked at the gate again, this time her eyes squinted as it inspected it closely. She let out a yelp when she realized what the green color was made of, and why it was moving. Hundreds and countless cocoons seemed to cover the gate, if not being the gate. She took a swift step back in sheer disgust.
That was enough to bring her out of her earlier trance. She was not living the dream wedding, she was not acting out a movie scene, and she would never get married in a church anyway, she though to herself. She needed to know why she was there. As she made to take a confident stride toward the counter ahead of her, a voice stopped her.
“I wouldn’t do that so fast.”
She turned around to see a girl around her age patting the empty seat next to her. She smiled and greeted her politely, then took the seat. On her left, she found a middle-aged man and woman. Through their polite greetings she picked out the essential briefings; the girl’s name was Amal, and the middle-aged man and woman were a couple named Adel and Samira, but she naturally addressed them as Aunt and Uncle out of respect.
“So is this an airport?” She felt the sudden need to ask.
The three of them laughed, as if they shared an inside joke about this.
“This will never get old,” Aunt Samira said as she nudged her husband.
“I wonder how many of those you have come across in your time here,” Amal said wiping a tear that has escaped through her laughter. “I thought it would get boring by now.”
“May I know what’s so funny?” She said trying to keep the edge out of her voice. She really hated being a third -or in this case a fourth- wheel, and she most certainly resented being laughed at. She looked down at her hands, and asked “Is it the lilies?”
“Oh dear, we didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just we get this question a lot,” Aunt Samira said kindly, discerning her discomfort. “And they’re lotus flowers by the way.” She added quickly which made her blush.
“To the point where a lot is an understatement,” Uncle Adel added.
“I hope I won’t be here for long to reach that point,” Amal said in a sudden serious tone.
“Then where are we exactly?”
“Where we are supposed to be,” Uncle Adel said and the ladies nodded along.
“And what is this supposed to be exactly?” she insisted.
They all looked at each other, confusion painted on their faces, as if she asked them to solve an algebraic equation.
“Is this some kind of waiting room or something?” She said growing both impatient and uneasy of their silence.
“Yes, you can say so, right?” Amal answered, then turned to the grown ups for reassurance.
They both nodded in return, but this didn’t satisfy her in the least. She wanted real answers, so she turned to look at the apparent reception counter. She wanted to go there, but then she remembered what held her back.
“Amal, why did you stop me from heading there earlier?” Her head pointed to the counter as she said that.
“Well, you just got here.” Amal said, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“So?” She challenged.
“So,” Amal began, dumbfounded for a moment before she continued with her former casual tone. “Look at Uncle Adel and Aunt Samira, they have been here way before us and they still haven’t gone up there.”
“I really don’t understand the relevance of time,” she asserted.
She was set on going to the reception, and only asked Amal why she had stopped her earlier out of curiosity. She had not expected such answers. It bothered her, but she still wanted to listen.
“Dear, you should have patience-” Aunt Samira began.
“You will get called eventually, so why the rush?” Uncle Adel finished his wife’s sentence.
“I see,” she said, reassurance returned to her. “So, we wait here and the old lady there calls us-” but Uncle Adel interrupted her before she continued.
“Old lady?” He laughed before he scanned her face for a moment too long for her liking. “I’m saying this in the nicest way possible, but is it your glasses or contact lenses that you left behind?”
“I don’t wear any, why?” She said as she sucked in more air.
“Because the old lady there is still a teenager.”
She felt her whole muscles tense up. He said it so matter-of-factly; she couldn’t tell if he was actually kidding.
“Is this a joke, Uncle Adel?”She blinked as she looked at him, and then turned to the ladies for confirmation.
“No unfortunately he’s not, but your Uncle Adel is the one who forgot to wear his glasses. He always had a talent for losing things. I tried to convince him into playing Sudoku and doing those memory boosting exercises, but of course he wouldn’t listen and now I see it’s not only his memory that is deteriorating.” Aunt Samira said, and gave him a playful glare. “I have been arguing about this with him for years.”
“So it is an old lady,” her muscles relaxed and she was about to sigh in relief.
“It’s not a young lady, but it’s not an old lady either.” Aunt Samira said as a crease began to form on her forehead “In fact, it’s not a woman at all. It’s a young man, not past thirty I guess and in no way am I joking with you either dear.” Aunt Samira concluded. She took her hand, gave it a reassuring and firm squeeze, as if that was the appropriate consoling gesture compared to the bomb she just dropped.
She turned to Amal and wondered if she heard what had just transpired. Perhaps another witness that this couple might experience some early signs of dementia. However, she realized she was too immersed with the couple to notice Amal’s zoned out expression. In that moment, she had a feeling that none of them actually saw the same person behind the counter, and Amal’s eyes that continued to dodge her own questioning glances proved just that. An old man, a gorgeous lady, a young guy, the images came to her mind as she wondered who or what could it be that Amal saw behind the counter? Could it even be human? Has she kept it from the couple? Maybe that’s why she didn’t join the conversation? Because she doesn’t want to feel like she was going crazy. But for how long could she dodge it? How long…
Her body ran cold when she realized something Aunt Samira had let slip.
“Aunt Samira, you said that you and Uncle Adel have been arguing about this for years? Did you mean him losing his glasses perhaps?” She said, and gulped down her anxiety. She knew it wasn’t true even as she said it, but she hoped it was. The couple exchanged looks with each other as if having a silent conversation. When no answer came, she wet her lips before she proceeded to question them.
“You meant you were here for years.” Her conclusion came out in uneven breaths.
“Yes.” Aunt Samira said simply.
“How many years?”
“I don’t know. I have lost count.” Aunt Samira said with a casual shrug. “How many years was it, Adel?”
“I have a bad memory, remember?” Uncle Adel said, clearly upset with how she embarrassed him before.As Aunt Samira tried to console Uncle Adel, she turned to Amal.
“And how long have you been here?”
“Not long before you,” Amal said, a strained smile on her face.
“In how many years not long before?” She asked but was answered with silence. “Amal, I’m sure you don’t have memory problems so please answer me. I need to know.” She was agitated, but she was sure her tone sounded pleading as her hands clutched her Abbaya.
“2 years?” She wanted to yell, but released the pressure of her suppressed turmoil onto the fabric of her Abbaya, her knuckles turned white.
“Listen, I have been where you are now too. I know it doesn’t seem real but time passes fast-” Amal said, as she saw her tense posture.
“You have waited 2 years for what exactly?” She demanded.
“I don’t know,” Amal said honestly.
“Is there no exit outside of here? Does that green gate not open?”
“I don’t know,” Amal grew frustrated by her insistent questions.
“Why not ask the old, young lady or man whoever it is standing right there. I think they’re there for a reason.” She continued as she turned a blind eye to Amal’s obvious discomfort.
“We were not called yet,” Amal said simply.
“What is worth all this wait?!” She finally yelled, as she freed her hands.
“Haven’t you heard that good things happen to those who wait?” Amal smiled again, yet seemed worried at the other young girl’s outburst.
“Yes, but you guys have taken this to the extreme. I’m sorry if this counts as disrespect but this is absolutely crazy.” She addressed them all this time, and brought the couple’s attention back to them. Not that their ears weren’t unofficially lingering there already.
Just as this commotion was going on, a sudden silence fell upon the room. She followed the eyes of everybody around her, and saw an old blonde woman. She rose from the back and headed towards the counter.She stared at her in anticipation as she spoke with the old lady behind the counter. Her heart raced with every second and minute that passed by. She didn’t know how long it took, but then the blonde went up to the gate and it opened, and once it did everyone shielded their eyes as striking light assaulted their vision. It wasn’t white this time. It wasn’t any color. She couldn’t explain it, but it was just that she was physically incapable of receiving this particular image.
“What was that?” She asked in a voice mixed with both amazement and terror.
“She crossed.” Both Uncle Adel and Aunt Samira said, in a tone laced with disapproval.
“You never get used to it.” Amal said, also amazed as her eyes filled with unshed tears, and she knew it wasn’t from the colorless light.
“I didn’t see anyone call her.” She declared in an accusing tone.
“You’re right, that was very reckless of her.” Aunt Samira nodded and overlooked that the accusation was directed towards them and not the old blonde.
“I’m going to have to disagree with you on this, Aunt.” Amal spoke up against Aunt Samira for the first time “She was here for a long time, and she was ready to cross.”
“Cross to where exactly?” She was exasperated and was met once again with the “I don’t knows” and shrugs. Amal’s first act of defiance against the couple’s ideologies didn’t really please her either. It made her feel even more frantic to ask. She knew she was about to cross the line with them, but she couldn’t sit there obediently anymore.
“Again, what does time have to do with anything? I don’t see anyone here doing anything to prepare for what’s on the other side. Let alone the fact that, you don’t even know what’s there to prepare for.” She said and only stopped to catch her breath as she let everything out in swift sentences.
“Look at yourself.” Amal reprimanded her with a hiss “You’re implying that they don’t know any better.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt and Uncle.” She sighed. “I didn’t mean to belittle you in any way, I’m just saying you being here longer than us doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always right.”
“You’re still young, and you don’t know what’s right for you.” Uncle Adel said “You will thank us later.”
She decided not to comment on that, because she felt that negotiation was futile with them. And if she did, she knew it would somehow be branded as another insult, so she turned to Amal instead.
“So you don’t necessarily feel that we have to be called?”
“It is the ideal method, but if a long time passes and no one calls us, I think it’s time to do something, you know.” Amal spoke hesitantly.
“So how long do you plan on sitting here, before you do something?” She challenged more than asked.
“Two more years.” Amal’s smile returned as she said that and she stared longingly at the gate. In that instant, the other girl felt as if she’d trespassed on a precious moment that only belonged to Amal.
“I don’t understand. If you would go there anyway after two years, why wait?”
“You think no one would call me during that time?” Amal said sadly. She knew then that Amal had no desire to leave on her own accord; she wanted a definite sign that it was time.
“I’m not saying that, but let’s be honest here. I don’t see anyone getting called anytime soon. So why not now?”
Just then a door creaked open and they all turned to the door she entered from. She jumped from her seat. She was sure that door disappeared. It occurred to her how long it felt since she first entered this place. How long had it been? She looked around for a clock and couldn’t find any.
“Can I leave from where I came from without asking then?”
“It doesn’t work that way, no matter how much we hope for an exit.” Amal said sadly.
A guy walked in, wearing a white Kandoora and a cap as headgear. Like her, he walked the aisle now and looked back at the curious crowd with a frown on his face. But unlike her, he walked straight to the reception, and unlike the blonde he didn’t spend much time there. And once again they were engulfed in the blinding light, their eyes concealed behind their hands.
“I think this is a definite sign for me to go,” she declared once the light has vanished.
No you must not. They all said in unison using different words.
“And why not? I didn’t see you objecting to the blonde lady or the guy.” She looked at them her arms crossed against her.
“It was too late to warn the lady. Besides, she was different.” Uncle Adel said. She chose to ignore Uncle Adel’s comment and held herself back from rolling her eyes at the last remark.
“She was ready enough.” Amal argued.
“What about the guy then, he was not ready. God, he just walked in.” She pointed at the gate in frustration.
“Well you said it.” Amal said
“She means, he is a guy after all, dear.” Aunt Samira said in her ever casual manner.
“You’re not serious are you? Please tell me you’re joking this time.”
“I think you know by now, that this place is no joking matter.” Uncle Adel said, as he was offended. “Whatever happens behind the door, he is still a guy and can take care of himself.”
“What does gender have to do with this? Is there a dragon out there waiting on the other side? And if that was even the case please let me know how being a guy would help.” She saw red. She couldn’t take this anymore.
“We’re just being realistic,” Aunt Samira began. “You’re still a young girl, you can’t possibly be ready for what is ahead.”
“We’re not trying to undermine you or anything, we’re saying it for your own good.” Uncle Adel nodded along.
“How would I know that, if I don’t try? There would be nothing left to undermine if I sit here like an undead corpse.”
“We’re trying to give you advice, we won’t lie to you and start giving you encouraging yet false hope just to make you feel better.” Amal said. “This is the reality we live in.”
“Have some faith, will you?” She said. “You would think you, of all people, would understand the meaning of hope.” She addressed Amal and stood up.
“I’d hate to say goodbye like this, but I’m done listening.”
“You are going against the formalities,” Amal said in an urgent manner. It was now that she saw her beg wordlessly, that she knew that all along, from the moment she stopped her from getting to the counter, all Amal needed was someone to stick to these formalities and carry its burden with her. Perhaps Amal never cared for her at all, she would never know, but she knew one thing.
“I don’t care about the formalities. I know what I want and I know whatever is out there is better than being stuck here.” She took a deep breath, exhaled and added. “I’m sorry if I sounded rude or offended you in any way, your concerns are probably coming from a good place and you think you’re protecting me. I’m just-I’m not like you.” She was able to smile this time, because she knew there was some sort of finality that came with it.
After a brief embrace with Amal, a gentle yet hesitant pat on the back from Aunt Samira and a half-hearted wave from Uncle Adel, she got her last recognition of a farewell from them. Even though she can see the disappointment in their unblinking eyes and the disapproval chained behind their lips, she turned and proceeded to the counter.
“Hi,” she tapped on the counter to capture the old dark-skinned lady’s attention. Now that she saw her up close, she noticed she wore glasses. She searched for a nametag, but found nothing.
She felt her resolve break as she stood and faced the lady, who stared back at her expectantly. She hoped that by now the old lady would tell her the procedures or at least offer her a simple “May I help you?”. But she didn’t. It unnerved her and the fact that to the rest she wasn’t exactly an old lady made her legs weak.
“Why am I here?” She asked bluntly and held the counter for support.
The old lady finally let out a smirk.
“You seem to know your own vigor, for you are here after all. I am just surprised it took you this long.” The old lady said, her glasses falling further down her nose.
She laughed out of exasperation and looked pointedly at the dark skinned lady, not feeling the need to be polite with her. Not because she had no respect for her, but because she somehow didn’t feel the need to filter her thoughts or please her.
“Honestly, I’m sick of these codes and symbols you people seem to be communicating with.”
“Well, you can’t make a code out of what you partially understand, right?” The old lady tormented her with another one of her wicked smirks, as if her predicament was some source of entertainment to her.
“I just,” she began, and let out the parts of her she tried to hide from Amal and everyone that looked at her right now. “I’m just scared. What if they are right? What if I’m not ready? I don’t even know what to expect or what’s waiting for me on the other side of that gate.”
“No. You do know,” the old lady’s smirk shifted to a genuine smile. “Whatever is on the other side could either make you happy, or not so happy. If it is the former, then good for you. If unfortunately the latter occurs, then still kudos for trying and not ending up with regrets of what might have been. Plus there are many other closed doors for you to open. Whatever happens in the end does not have to mean that it is a dead end.”
“Why didn’t you call me forward then?”
“It’s not my call to make,” the old lady took her glasses off and started wiping the lenses. “I don’t know if it’s time for you.”
“Then they are right after all. I shouldn’t have rushed.” She started to panic.
“What I mean to say is, it was never my duty to summon you here and it was never anyone else’s to decide that either. See, it is not up to me and it is certainly not up to those folks who have been dictating what you could or could not do.” She said as she pointed at her short-lived companions with her glasses. “It was all up to you all along, and it will always be up to you. No one can make anything happen for you without your consent, and no one can stop you from anything unless you allow them to make you believe it.”
“So all this time, I was sitting there waiting for nothing. I’m not on some kind of waiting list?”
“There is no such thing here as a waiting list, no one waits for nobody around here. Either you cross through, or you don’t.” The old lady said pointedly as she put her glasses back.
“Then why are we here in the first place?”
“Where else would you be?”
“Well where I was before, I guess. I have been told that we can’t go back to that, we only go forward. Why is that?”
“I honestly don’t know why,” the old lady said candidly. “The beauty of it though, is that once you are here there is always a chance for change. As sad as it may seem for them now.” She said as looked at the crowd behind the young girl’s back.
“This doesn’t make sense, why won’t you just announce the guidelines to them and make it clear that they should be the ones to come here? That no one will call them.” She seethed, as she clutched the counter.
The old lady chuckled softly at her, and commented on her insistent attitude. “So bent to get out of here, yet your questions are endless,”
“There’s nothing to be told,” she proceeded. “If you want something you come and get it, you don’t then you just don’t. “
“But I didn’t know! Are you telling me those people are just going to sit there waiting for a call that will never come?”
“Some would eventually come up, while- yes some would remain there in their own limbo waiting for things to magically happen to them.”
“Well, we are in a magical place.” She asserts looking at the painted ceiling then at the old lady with a fascinated look.
“Not everyone sees things the way you do. I think you know that by now.” The old lady said with a knowing smile. “To some, it’s actually a burden to be here.”
“So I’m wondering. When do I actually cross the gate?” She bit her lip as she looked at the old lady.
“Whenever you want to.”
“Then why are we still talking and I’m not leaving?”
“Again, that’s what you want, so that’s what we are doing right now.”
“But that guy only spent a minute here.”
“I thought I have made it clear by now, that nothing will happen unless you do something about it.” The old lady lets out an exasperated sigh and the girl is surprised by the gesture, because she got the notion that nothing can outweigh this old lady’s patience. “You are not that guy. He has his wants and needs, you have your own.”
“I just want to ask one more thing.”
“What difference would one more question make at this point?” she laughed again, but nodded. “Go ahead.”
“What happens if I tell the ones waiting the truth?” She said it slowly, worried that it’s something she shouldn’t have said.
“There’s no truth to be told.”
“But none of us knew.”
“Every one of us has a portion of the truth, but we don’t all choose to follow it through to the end.” The old lady stared pointedly at her. “You can nudge and urge them to do something all you want, but you can’t force them. It’s their own call to make.”
“I see. Well I think – I guess I’m ready to go.”
“You don’t think, you know.” The old lady said and it was the last time she saw her signature smirk.
“I do.” She smiled as both worry and excitement took hold of her body.
The old lady looked at the gate, and she took that as her cue to move. She felt wary again as she remembered what covered the door, and had to swallow back the bile that threatened to escape her throat. She wanted this. It was her choice, she reminded herself as she focused on the white handles instead, a silent prayer playing in her mind. Grunts and yelps filled her ears. She turned to find her former sitting companions and the rest, with their faces covered in their hands. Had she looked so helpless when it was her on the other end? She wondered. She was also surprised since she hadn’t felt the unbearable colorless light. She had turned and was welcomed by hundred and countless butterflies of all colors and sizes. The gate was gone.
Author: Amna Al-Madani