Henrry Lezama was born in Yaguaraparo, Venezuela. He taught EFL at the Universidad De Oriente in Cumaná, Venezuela. Mr. Lezama received an MA in American Literature from Ohio University, and is currently a Doctoral student in the English Studies program at Illinois State University. He has been translating articles, poems, and short stories by Latin American authors. Some of these appeared in Mandorla 7 (2004), Mipoesia.com 19.3 (2005) and The New Review of Literature 2.2 (2005). His current project examines Venezuelan folktales, focusing on Antonio Arraiz’s Tio Tigre y Tio Conejo.
Faten Morris Guirguis did both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. program in Comparative Studies, at Florida Atlantic University. She started her professional career in the business world.
She worked for an airline company for six years and did a lot of traveling to Europe, North America and Asia. She, then, moved to Kuwait with her husband and worked for the South Korean Embassy as a political and economic analyst. Three years later, she moved to Dubai where she worked for Standard Chartered Bank on a project investigating fraud. In 1996, she eventually moved to academia and worked for the Center for American Education. She taught writing courses and literature.
In addition to teaching, she became the Dean of Transfer Programs and Degrees and worked and taught at the Center for six years. Then she moved again, this time to Central Florida where she worked for UCF and then Polk Community College. She speak three languages: English, Arabic and French. She is married and have two daughters.
Malachite Sunbird and Red Dwarf Star
A low luminosity star with a long nuclear lifetime, red dwarfs are the faintest and coldest stars, so faint that their presence in remote parts of the Galaxy must be inferred from their frequency near the Sun.
-- McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
I remember the day I became a teacher. It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away and a few months after they released Nelson Mandela from prison. I had set out for town at the final school bell. The town was Mohale’s Hoek (one of the ten dark-spot camp-towns in the light-circle of pacific, Boer-unwanted mountains just across the western border of South Africa’s Orange Free State named The Kingdom of Lesotho) which was situated and probably still is on the opposite side of the climate-sharpened Mountain of Snakes: a high and stolid impediment to the Western value of mastering time by eradicating circuitous distance. I had been in Peace Corps for one year and had a month before ceased praying for the white, white-bearded Man to drop down to me His boring machines, had not only ceased it but had begun to believe, impractically, in the ancient obstacle’s right and ability to preserve its secret granite heart, to have faith that its so far un-penetrated sublimity might always keep unsublimated, holding Hidden Mysteries tight against any inexorable techno-phallic danger.
Up at the mountain-side, superior to where I hunkered on high rocks, watchful of a fortuitous lift, the turquoise sparrows flitted – the malachite sunbirds – speeding, livid motes sounding in a sky of the absolute broadest blue: the tiny green satellites of God soaring over a mythic earth of irregularly squared maize fields and fluffy balls of white sheep floating like land-clouds through scrubby dung-and-thatch hut-dotted foothills. The sun had passed down by about one half of itself in the endless revelation of the sunbirds, until the rattle I persevered the glaring spectacle of the Mother for floated up from the distant valley: the unmistakable rattle and squeak of a motor vehicle hoisting itself up a cruel, sharp-stoned road that on some unseen design had been cut jaggedly around the Mountain of Snakes and on into camp. I lifted myself up and out from Mother’s radiant stereoptic influence and peered into the squintingly-bright African light, picking out the mechanical reflection of the Coming of Man: someone I knew: a rare truck-owner from below. I watched the contraption jangle closer, then a bit closer, slowly. Then, slowly, I put out my hand. I slowly grinned.
The drive was pleasant; the driver, somehow, was not yet drunk; I spent my time thinking about Chris. His painful two years were done, at last and thankfully; ended were his tribulations. Sometimes it happens that way: sometimes the politics of Peace Corps overwhelm the mission and a slot is filled that should not have been. A relative of a ruling general dreams up a spurious Farmer’s Training Center, another pretend institution to fool the givers of development money into giving over development money. It works, because no one really cares where the money goes, whose pocket it lines. The important thing is that it goes, that voters in the Netherlands and Denmark and Belgium see their money drifting into countries that appear, geographically, to be struggling against Apartheid. Chris was unlucky enough to have been an American political pawn in this vein – a sacrifice given over to political expediency.
Chris was neither immune to nor prepared for the toxic dropping of his very own people’s disease-ridden shit, shit which – so long as he lived at the other end, at home in consumptive America – Chris had no notion could be so stifling, so stagnating.
Early on he had decided he would, before it was all over, give some shit back. Since that decision Chris had done no more work for the general; what he did was prop himself within the tomb of his tiny house at the bogus training center madly layering canvas after canvas with oil-based paint. And now the day before the day to fly away back had come, and shit-layered Chris had rented the conference room at the Maloti Mountain Hotel in Mohale’s Hoek to hang his frustration for exhibition and sale. Peace Corps strictly forbade Volunteers making money, but the rule assumed/feared profit made off host-country nationals, who were not Chris’ target consumers. No, his marks were the South African English, the Norwegians, the Swedes – all those leeches in Lesotho under the guise of helping-the-natives-help-themselves while in reality only helping themselves help themselves to huge helpings of home-country taxpayer money: payment for looking the other way as local army-suits packed with Orwellian swine shoveled the rest into their deep pockets.
In the truck I couldn’t help smiling. Although my work as teacher was less soul-deadening than my escaping colleague’s, my own cynicism was up enough to be able to look forward with true relish to Chris’s planned evening festivities.
Setting down in Mohale’s Hoek, I paused for a take-out dinner of deep-fried goo, eating it as I made my way to the hotel. The hotel was elaborate considering the poverty of the country, run by a family of “white Basotho,” Afrikaners so long in country milking the aid-money god they considered themselves nationals. The hotel had tennis courts, a swimming pool, a European restaurant (of the overly-meaty, off-continent style of the transplanted Dutch) and two heavily stocked if heavily tacky bars. Each day, every day, they glided in and out of the guarded gate in their hermetically sealed Mercedes like mobile whited sepulchers, getting themselves together socially to spend their generous amounts of free-time and –money in uninteresting ways.
It was with a mouthful of greasy-thick chips and fat cakes that I crossed the threshold into the transmogrified hotel conference room. Chris was out but his soul was in, and I stood amidst its glow of oily color, contemplating its ironies. The whites I spoke of: they had allowed Chris to do this. He had been bestowed the crippled status of “Artist,” and thus allowed his eccentricity. They even went so far as to acknowledge him in greeting now and then, whereas most of us dusty Volunteers get nothing from them but closed-mouth, distant stares, telegraphed out from behind the glass of their silvery, sepulchral cars, which are always slipping away on strata of dust in the flash of an instant. Still, Chris was watched carefully, living as he did amongst the blacks; he was watched to make certain he continued along in his inability to help them. Observing the failure of an idealist was a great comfort to them, as it is to most of us. That Chris was an Artist made him a double failure and thus a double comfort, doubly salving-over their refusal to face their collective hypocrisies and fears.
Teetering there in the off-center of the conference room, buffeted by the failure around me: I was astonished. Partitions moonlighted as gallery hangers, indifferently displaying at least forty different works, ranging in size from palm to refrigerator. Very few images were recognizable, and because they were bottomless in that way and more ways I had trouble locating anything in me when I gazed at them; only needling pains behind my eyes resulted from bouncing off the shapes. ... Okay, so he had been a failure as a Peace Corps Volunteer – and, maybe (I truly dont know) as a member of society – but that was all part of it. Chris created from a very deep pain inside, pictured-out his dissatisfaction and resentment with a purposeful brush. He wasn’t a born debaser, but he had been made into one, as the situation demanded. This seemed, and still seems, a good thing to me, and I can think of nothing more proper than a revenge-gathering to celebrate and pass on such aching birth to its rightful parents. These people that were coming: they were the progenitors of this misshapen sacrifice, and they would be its permanent, rightful guardians by the end of the night. And something life-renewing would result.
Suddenly, from behind me: “Hello.”
It turned him on to see her belly dancing the Dubka in her wood-panelled basement. Her wide, flat pelvis and those hard breasts shaking in a way he had never seen before. A throng of Arab relatives held hands and circled her, not letting anyone in. They took synchronized steps to the repeated, primal beats of a base drum, which was struck and swung side to side by her proud father. At the front of the line a man jigged and stamped his feet, waving a white flag.
Nick stood a safe distance away. Shari once explained the ritual particulars of the dance, how it was once performed between women, but he had no desire to test the waters tonight. He found it difficult to remember her as the same girl who climbed in from his bedroom window such a short time ago.
“I’m leaving for good. They won’t let me breathe without mentioning it over and over to me.”
Her curly hair was pulled back that night. She scuttled in, having scaled the antenna pole, making herself comfortable on his bed. Nick smoked a cigarette at his computer, blocked on a stilted paragraph. He needed to complete an essay on “the illusions of film noir,” necessary for him to graduate with a communications degree. Shari huffed and puffed when he put his schoolwork before her. She had given up on school to take a job as a waitress at the El Amir—her father’s Middle Eastern restaurant. School did little, her parents once remarked, to help her find a proper Lebanese man to marry.
Nick ignored her nonetheless. He knew she wasn’t serious about running away from home. She simply had an uncanny tendency to shock him with blunt statements that made him think twice about her true intentions.
“Make me pregnant.”
He snapped his head around to see her inviting him to his bed with parting legs.
“I’m not ready to be a father.”
“You’re not ready to be anything.”
And so she pouted like a little girl, a stark contrast from the woman in waiting on the night of the Layliyah. Shari seemed more to resemble her parents—the friendly, food-bearing neighbours, who were cultural fanatics on their own suburban corner lot. Over the years, Nick had noticed that the population of Arab immigrants had assimilated nicely into their small Canadian town. So much so that their block resembled a village with uniform one story houses and replicated landscapes translating further into communal beliefs. According to their parental propaganda, Shari was to marry from the old country, a Lebanese man, the destiny of her birthright. She was to marry within their circle, and dance happily ever after.
She seemed too busy to talk.
“Shari, can I have a word with you, in private?”
“I can’t right now, Nick. The Layliyah is important to my family. My father will get upset with me. My behaviour is a reflection upon him. The father of the bride always throws the Layliyah for the daughter the night before the wedding, and the bride must show that she is grateful.”
“I know that but,” Nick tried to say something poignant, but the environment overwhelmed him. The scent of cooked meat mixed with baked goods, sweet perfume and musky cologne hung in the air. Buxom, shorter girls bumped and passed him on their way to the food table, keeping him off-balance.
“Nick honey, have something to eat. I think it’s about time you tried Kibi.”
A silky hand with long nails and cold sharp rings tickled the back of his neck. Shari’s mother swivelled around to face him. Nick had noticed her staring at him from the moment he entered the muggy, smoky basement. Six months ago she knocked on the front door of his home with a similar concern. She had taken a seat at Nick’s kitchen table, while he had listened from his bedroom upstairs, like a little boy in trouble.
“Nicolas does not belong with my Sharifa. They are too different.” Her accented pitch haad risen with the words she wished to emphasize, mainly “not” and “too.”
Nick’s mother had listened as she set the table for dinner, never failing to include a third plate. The third dish kept up the façade that Nick’s parents had a marriage, despite their separation eight years ago. Nick’s father would often show up in an attempt to save Nick the embarrassment of admitting his parents were divorced in principle. With this arrangement, Nick’s mother also avoided the awkwardness of having the neighbours know that she had been abandoned for another woman and a gambling addiction. Nick had accepted this dysfunctional stalemate as a boy, but now he despaired of it in the company of neighbours like Shari’s mother who were adamant about the sanctity of marriage and judgmental to boot.
“I didn’t realize Nick was so serious about Shari, I mean, Sharifa. I had assumed they were just friends.”
Nick’s mother was a short, plump, Canadian-born woman of “mixed origins” with thick glasses and pale skin, a humble contrast to Shari’s mother, who was purebred, tanned and always decorated with gold whenever she left home. Nick’s mother finally took a seat at the table waiting for a tiny pot of Turkish coffee to boil. Shari’s parents had introduced the fortune-telling drink to Nick’s mother. She often tried to impress them by serving it when they visited. Otherwise, she loathed the strong, syrupy coffee.
“Please. Tell him to stay away. It will best for the both of them. My husband will be very upset. He doesn’t know a thing, but he is beginning to suspect.”
At the Layliyah, Shari’s mother pointed with an open hand to a tray of raw meat, red as a beating heart, garnished with sprigs of parsley.
Although Nick was a frozen food enthusiast, he had heard much about Kibi, this Middle Eastern delicacy, placed alongside baskets of pita bread. Shari’s mother managed to pull him away to an area that appeared to be an elevated garden of food in great quantities. She urged him to walk. With a grateful smile, Nick followed the cattle line of scooping guests. And with every stall, he glanced back to the culminating Dubka. The dance had reached its climax once again, with applause, and a polite kiss from a man freshly emigrated from Lebanon. A distant relative of the family, he wore a toupee. Shari had known him little more than two months, and he spoke broken English. He was rather square-bodied, with a pointed chin and a dark unibrow. He appeared suddenly upon the scene, as secretly as Nick would leave that night, without the customary good wish.
Preparing for the wedding mass evoked the same anxiety for Nick. He stepped in front of the mirror to consider his latest breakout. The red raspberry patch above his left eye seemed to make, in contrast, the rest of his complexion paler. His light hair, with reddish undertones and matching red freckles on his nose and cheeks, made it difficult to use cover-up makeup. He had never felt the need to use makeup before, but he wanted to hide this recent insecurity. Shari had often treated their relationship the same way.