Lilia Salammbô Fetini
You are born in a field. You grow up in poverty. You are told you are lucky, and that luck is why you are the only child in the family who gets an education. You have a natural sense for numbers, and feel that luck is a question of numbers. It is a question of the number of years separating you and your siblings from the source of luck. The greater number of years separating the sibling from the source, the less luck. The fewer number of years, the more luck. There are many numbers of years separating your siblings from the source of luck and many years separating you from your siblings and there is sanctity and truth in numbers.
You are shuttled from your field to the local village north of your field. It feels very far from your field. You go to class and miss your mother. You walk hastily every afternoon to get back to your field. When you approach the rows of olive trees, your step slows and you weave through the rows as the arid wind commands the soil to swirl above ground. Just so. You don’t consider so much as you feel the tremor of the dark green leaves, the immovability of the ochre mountain, and the glow of your family’s whitewashed home in the distance. You cry and feel the wet heat of your tears and don’t think to question them. You see your mother and she asks you to tend to the sheep. You tend to the sheep and think of the local village and the feeling of the teacher’s ruler smacking your wrist and the boy sitting behind you kicking the legs of your chair. At night, your mother’s long fingers and thin wrists caress your dark curls. A golden circle glides up and down her wrist, sheathed in olive skin, and you feel your mother is the field and she is the mountain. In the morning, you drink the sheep’s milk.
A few years pass and you are sent to live in the secondary school in the nearby city to the north east of your field. You have gotten better with numbers now and in your narrow and short bed at school you think about how fast you would have to run to make it to your field by dawn. You calculate that you would only arrive in the afternoon. You shut your eyes and long for your mother and the curly-haired sheep. You read books in class and in your narrow and short bed too with your feet hanging off the ledge. Your nightlight makes the drool of the boy in the cot beside you glisten. You read until your mind and body give up on you and the books. You are jolted awake by the sensation of falling, and your feet flutter in the air as your long fingers cling to the ledge. You try to listen for the boy next to you’s breath and you can’t hear anything. You fall back asleep.
You go back to your field when school is out of session and embrace your mother. You estimate how fast the bus must have been going for the journey to only have taken a few hours. You are able to make a good estimation. You sit by the sheep in the field and read while the sheep baa. You lead them up the mountain overlooking the field. The landscape is barren and beautiful and you wonder if they see it too. Their dark and despondent eyes seem untethered as they baa. You think of the book you read in the narrow and short bed about the man who heard the news that his mother had died and who relayed this news to the reader, plainly. You feel your long and thin index begin to twitch, and it feels like one of the joints holding it together is holding together two movements going in the opposite direction. You put the book to the side and dig for a cigarette. You balance the cigarette in between your thin lips, and try to keep them still and parallel while the cigarette teeters up and down, and sends a trail of smoke upwards. The smoke is choked by the measureless sky. At night, you sleep beside your mother, and you wonder what will happen to you when you hear the news that she has died. You press your fingers against hers. You press with a little more pressure, and she still doesn’t stir. The whitewashed walls and the moon illuminate your long and thin fingers and her long and thin fingers. They are one and the same, and you cry and begin to question why.
The next morning, you tend to the sheep. You guide them through the rows of olive trees and they walk in a straight line. One of them errs and you sneak up behind it and prod it with a thick branch and it joins the file again. You see the contours of one of your sibling’s silhouettes splash against the whitewashed façade of your home in the distance. Or maybe the silhouette is your mother’s. The way the long and thin and dark silhouette moves along the contours of the house unsettles you and you look away. You run your long fingers through the sheep’s curls and calculate how fast the bus would have to travel to get you back to school by tomorrow morning. The sun rises and sets a few more times. You leave a few days later.
You go to university in the capital city, much further away from the field than the local village and nearby city. On the train, tearing through the barren and beautiful landscape, you calculate how fast it should be going to arrive on schedule. You calculate correctly. You read a play about two men talking past each other. You can follow it, but just barely. They cling to one another as they wait for something to come, knowing that it never will. They each say words that the other doesn’t understand, but the noise of the words is of comfort, somehow. You begin to formulate the difference between a bond and a bind, but cannot follow the thought through to a conclusion. You look at the old man sitting beside you with the sun setting on his sun-beaten face. His lips are fuller than yours, and though they tug down at the edges, he looks settled. You feel this is because the sun is setting on his sun-beaten face, while you think about the new life that waits for you.
You arrive in the capital city and feel ill at ease in the narrow and dusty streets. You yearn for your mother and your field. You do well at university. You make friends and learn to make nasty jokes and play mean tricks. You laugh with your friends and in and through that laughter you sometimes forget your mother, the sheep, and your field. Sometimes, but not always. You walk home together late at night, laughing loudly and waking the residents. Your bodies bump against one another, your arms get tangled with theirs, and it feels good. You are charismatic and become the leader of the group. Coupled with your gift for numbers, you are told you are a natural-born leader. You walk through the narrow and dusty streets and imagine yourself as the leader of the nation – reigning over the capital city, the nearby city, the local village, and the field. I have always been a good shepherd, you think to yourself. You get involved in student politics and gain many followers. You sit at the head of the table at the bar and share your musings with the group. You let yourself gain satisfaction from the eager eyes, what feels like a dozen pairs of dark eager eyes, looking at you and telling you that you are a natural-born leader. The more you talk, the greater the number of pairs of dark eager eyes that tell you that you are a natural-born leader. You think to yourself that you are a natural-born leader and a very good shepherd.
You meet a woman with green eyes. You tell her she has beautiful green eyes. She is from a coastal city to the southeast of your field. It’s closer than the capital city, but it still feels very far away your field. At night, you think about her beautiful green eyes that have grown up seeing the blue sea. While she has never tended to sheep, she recognizes that you are a natural-born leader and a very good shepherd. Her voice and others coalesce to tell you that since you are a natural-born leader, you would benefit from an education somewhere towards the west in order to become a real leader. You move to the most western part of west to get this education, accompanied by the woman with green eyes. The most western part of west is very, very far away from your field. You take buses, trains, and planes, to get there and as each engine hisses you feel sweat pool in your socks and in your shoes. You don’t calculate how long it will take to arrive in the most western part of west, you simply arrive there. You discover that not everyone there thinks you are a natural-born leader, and you don’t know why not. You work harder but it’s hard to articulate that you’re a natural-born leader in a language that is not naturally yours. You grow out your curly hair and stroke it often. The people west of west look at you and your grown-out curls and ask you if you are from here, or south of here, or east of there. But you are not, and they would know this if they had seen your mother’s wrists and if they looked at yours, if they had seen the man with sun-beaten face travelling up and down your country, if they had seen the dark green leaves of the olive trees shaking against the whitewashed façade of your family home, dark green leaves casting shadows over the sheep, over you… There is no way for you to communicate this to them and you wonder if you are starting to struggle to communicate it to yourself too.
You finish your studies west of west and, while you haven’t convinced all of the western westerners that you are a natural-born leader, you have convinced enough of them, and they tell you that before you can become a real leader you have to work for real leaders. You do not doubt the logic and you move eastward to a slightly less western part of west. You don’t know exactly how far you are from your field now. You never formally formulate the question to yourself, but the distance reflects itself into the baleful glow of the supermarket lights and refracts itself into the hollow clamor of elevator doors shutting. You are given an electronic ID card and told to tap it against a metallic gate to get into work. The sound of the electronic ID card tapping against the metallic gate sounds like the sound of a real leader to you. Or at least a natural-born leader about to become a real leader. You do more calculations on behalf of real, perhaps not so natural-born, leaders leading nations that are not yours. Not so natural-born leaders, you don’t find yourself thinking so as much you find yourself tasting in the creamer milk you pour into your coffee. You picked it up at the supermarket under the baleful glow of the fluorescent light. There are words on the bottle of creamer you understand. It is sweet and you hate the taste. You drink it anyways. Who knows, the others could be worse.
But you have become such a good thinker. You feel melancholic, but you are unable to intellectualize the melancholy, so you cannot feel the melancholy. But you continue to feel the melancholy. The woman with the green eyes that grew up seeing blue provides some comfort, but she’s from the coastal city to the south east of your field. Who knows how far it is away from where you both are now, in the east of west, or is it the west of east, somehow both. The distance feels as immovable as the traffic you find yourself trapped in in the mornings. You look out of your window and into the motorized cube beside you, where a ruddy-cheeked man shoves something gray into his ruddy cheeks which grow fuller and fuller. You fixate on their ever-growing radiuses and the mechanics of his chewing and you feel unsettled. The car behind you honks and howls at you and you feel your foot press down on the pedal. You park your car in the garage. You take the elevator to the lobby, and it growls at you as it takes you there. You swipe your ID card along the metallic gate. You take another elevator.
You have a child with the woman with the green eyes. It has curly hair just like you and just like the sheep and dark eyes just like you and just like the sheep. It is uncanny, you think to yourself. It observes the world around it with dark and docile eyes. You are occupied with your calculations for the real, but perhaps not so natural-born, leaders. You are becoming one of most solicited calculators, you are called on often to perform your calculations and to construct your models. Sometimes you are even sent to meet the real leaders in other nations, and you feel the sweat pool in your socks and in your shoes as the plane you are in is ripped from the earth, and as you remain firmly rooted in your seat. You try to soothe yourself by remembering that it is the plane that is being ripped, not you. This does not always work. You give many presentations, but because you are not speaking the language spoken in the field, the local village, the nearby city, the coastal city, and the capital city, you find it difficult to articulate both your calculations and the sacrosanct truth that you are a natural-born leader.
You walk down the street and past a man talking to himself. There’s poverty in the slightly eastern part of west, but it looks very different to the poverty you grew up in. You slow your step and walk behind him and try to decipher the words from the noise emanating from his large mouth. You don’t understand a word. He feels you behind him and turns around and looks at you and laughs. His eyes are expressive and his lips move in all directions and he keeps laughing and keeps talking and can’t seem to stop laughing or keep talking and you begin to feel there is nothing truthful or sacrosanct about your calculations. The man in front of you was never factored into your calculations, you can only help but feel. Your muscles tighten, in anticipation of nothing, as he asks himself a question and responds. You didn’t hear the question or the answer, but you feel he has answered his own question. He looks at you and laughs and the laugh is a confirmation that he has, indeed, formulated a satisfactory answer. Your weight shifts to the balls of your feet, yet it feels like your feet are hanging above ground and sweat pools in your socks and in your shoes. Though they feel like they are hanging above ground, your feet help you walk away. What a relief, you think to yourself as his laughter and his questions and his answers peter out. You continue making calculations and you don’t think of the man on the street ever again.
Years pass and your black curls have turned white. White like the sheep’s, and you start to worry that natural-born leaders cannot have white curls. You tell yourself you need to act now, you must fulfil your destiny as a real leader now, before your white curls fall off. But you are distracted –
Your child cannot think but can only sense and feel. It cries at night because it hears noises and the woman with the green eyes tries to comfort it but cannot. Your child is not a natural-born leader and that’s not the problem. The problem is that it cannot seem to convince itself it is or could ever be a natural-born leader. You resent your child deeply. It feels your resentment deeply. Your child is extremely lucky, by your estimation, because of how great the number of years that separate it from the source of luck. Or, on second thought, wasn’t it that the greater number of years separating a person from the source of luck, the less luck? You ignore this. There is no room for second thoughts. The greater number of years, the greater the luck, you try to explain to your child. It cannot be convinced, and it cries. It cries and it wails, and the crying and wailing only seem to worsen as the number of years increases. You cannot rationalize this. It is a ratio your mental arithmetic cannot accommodate. Its long and thin fingers cling to you like it is grieving you.
You wince. You refuse to accommodate the child. You try to teach your child how to calculate so that it will stop feeling and crying. It seems incapable of understanding. You insist and you insist some more. It tries to escape you and your calculations and listens to music in its room because there are some noises that calm it down. You climb up the stairs and try to surprise it. But it already heard you because it can hear everything. You steer it back downstairs to make calculations. Eventually, it is capable of calculating on its own. You watch its thin wrist swivel its long fingers swivel a pencil and balance an equation. It still cries. It is not convinced, it says. You don’t ask by what, you ask why not. It tells you it cannot think but can only feel. It cries.
Its cries sound a bit like the baa of sheep, and you resent being its shepherd. You poke and prod it with luck. It feels each poke and prod and cries louder. You ask it what’s the matter. It tells you that when it looks out the window of the apartment you’ve paid for it to live in, it is unsettled. It says across the street there is a window with a fluorescent lightbulb that flickers at night. No one cares to change the lightbulb, it says to you, and that makes it feel unsettled. At night it says it can also hear voices, and presses its ear against the wall to try to find the source. You buy it a machine to drown out the voices that you can’t hear. It cries and tells you that there are more voices now because the machine generates its own voices and it cannot easily distinguish between the machine-made noises and the other noises. With the corner of its dark eye smeared against the wall, listening for the source of the noises, or was it voices, they are not round like the sheep’s anymore.
You think you are unlucky to have had such a lucky child. You get it a job where it has to tap an ID card across an metallic gate to get inside. You buy it a nice suit, and its dark curls look so beautiful against the crisp black collar. You send it off to work. It comes back at night and both the curls and collar look limper. It does not take long before its supervisors let you know it is not a natural-born leader. Your child tells you the sound of the ID card clanging against the metallic security gate makes it feel unsettled. You tell it you’ve never been able to hear it, and it tells you it can hear it all too clearly. You don’t understand. You tell it that it must stop hearing and start thinking. It cries louder and its dark eyes distort and they don’t look anything like the sheep’s.
Your hair is still white and still curly, but there is less of it, and you start to think you are dying. Your luck has run out, you think to yourself. While it is true that there are a great number of years separating you from the source of luck, there are now not many years separating you from the end. You consult doctor after doctor. Eventually, you are given a diagnosis, but it is not particularly unlucky. It is not unlucky enough to justify feeling, or rather thinking, that you are dying. You tell the doctors the noxious air in the parking garage you breathed in for all those years, you can’t remember exactly how many years, is why you feel like you are dying. The doctors tell you probably not, but you feel that’s why. A technician folds you into a machine, and the machine’s screams unsettle you. The technician tells you to please hold still, sir, through the microphone. You feel cold in the flimsy robe. Sir, your chest is moving a lot and, sir, that will compromise the quality of the imaging. You don’t understand, you are still. But you are not still you are crying like your child. But the thought doesn’t occur to you and the skin on your cheeks is so thick, from sun and from numbers, that it can’t feel the dampness. You tell your child about the machine, and it remarks that isn’t it extraordinary that the machine screams to feel its way inside and outside your body? To give you the realest image of your body? You don’t find this remark profound and are too tired to tell it that that machine only exists thanks to calculations. You tell it that anyway. It cries.
You are desperate to leave the city east of west where there are plenty of noxious fumes and where there isn’t enough room to breathe. You don’t know where you would go instead. You don’t think of the field and the barren and beautiful landscape surrounding it. You feel you cannot breathe. You cannot breathe. You put something on your wrist that monitors your breathing. It looks ugly on the thin wrist you inherited from your mother. It beeps every once in a while, and your wrist becomes a source of dread. It beeps sometimes when you are calm and the number on your wrist decreases. And when you feel scared the number sometimes goes down, but sometimes it doesn’t. You cannot rationalize the numbers. Your wrist is no longer your mother’s. You run to the doctor and show him the data hanging off of your wrist. He tells you not to worry, it’ll beep like that on anyone and the numbers will change like that on anyone.
The beeping is loud and your child is loud. It says it has to give up the ID card to stop crying. To do what then, you ask. To do something else, it replies. You tell it it would be a grave mistake to give up its ID card. But the child reminds you that it is lucky and that it doesn’t have to have an ID card. You send your child to the doctor to help it think. Your child insists it cannot think but can only feel. The doctor tells you that your child cannot think but can feel, and you should feel lucky to have a child who can feel. You don’t think of it that way. The doctor has unfamiliar large blue eyes and implores you to encourage your child to express the feeling. You can’t place the large and unfamiliar blue eyes. The large blue eyes urge you to consider that your child inherited this gift from you. But these are unfamiliar eyes trying to relate to you. Eyes that have never seen the field, felt the distance from the field, felt the distance from the local village, the distance separating the field and the nearby city, the field from the coastal city, the coastal city from the west of west, the east of west from the capital city, all of it from the field, the field from…
I have never been able to understand why.
Lilia Salammbô Fetini is a young Tunisian-American writer. She is based in London and can be reached on X @liliafetini.
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