BY AMAL HADDAD
Runner-Up for the 2021 Adroit Prize for Prose
Selected by Samantha Hunt
When I was young we went to وادي رم .The desert floor was so thick and dry that it cracked and you could pick up pieces of it in your hands and break them apart. I leaned down and took a hot shard of the desert’s skin. I didn’t look at the hole it left, I threw it away from me and watched it break into dust. Only after that did I turn back to my parents. There was a scorpion sleeping under there, my father said. He said, I was so afraid I couldn’t speak. To this day I have never seen a scorpion.
We are gone for four years and when we come back I can’t sleep in the old bedroom. The fan rings all night, the light that’s there to trick mosquitos buzzes. In the cabinets there are books I left when I was eight. We don’t get used to the time change, we drink tea on the porch until three and I sleep on the cot out there, which my grandmother hates. One morning the air floods. She shakes me awake four hours after I’ve fallen asleep and we are already in the thick of the dust storm, the dirt of her garden surrounds us, there is so much dust in this town and when it all comes together it’s too big to see the whole thing at once. We tear the door open against the wind and I hear a hard shelled animal with many legs skitter under the bed I have just left.
My sister and I find the matriarch of the stray cat colony our grandmother feeds dead in the bushes. My father’s brother tells me that when a cat knows it is going to die it finds a quiet place where it won’t be followed. Ten years later an orange kitten will sleep next to me on the cot outside. My grandmother will tell me that his mother (who is pregnant again) has sick litters, he is the only one who survived.
In the summers before my cousins grow up I never want to leave Jordan. My grandmother’s house is a square ringed by a garden and then a wall and we loop it all day. حازم walks me and my sister to the candy shop and back where we sit on the rotted cushion of a rusty swing and eat food they don’t have in America. One night my cousin who is several years older than us and speaks poor English to me, though I understand Arabic, is on Omegle typing things I can’t fathom. Wave to him, she says, and I see myself in a small corner. There is a man, his picture is much bigger. Her mouth opens wide and a scorpion crawls out. I pick it up and show it to the man.
The orange kitten’s mother gives birth two days before we leave. My last night on the porch I hear a small awful noise. One of the newborns is splayed on the ground, he can’t move on his own, he keens. I make the psst psst psst noise my grandmother does when she puts food scraps out and his mother comes, she circles me and nudges my leg. I pick up the kitten as lightly as I can and she starts away. I follow her to the old toolshed, where under a pile of wood there are three more kittens. I set him down there. In the morning it occurs to me that she may have been abandoning him. She keeps switching where the nest is, having two kittens in one place and two in another. I try to reunite them and then fear I have doomed them for good, and I cry terribly.
In 2004 my family lived in Jordan for nine months. We came back just before I started kindergarten. I remember very little of this time before I lost my Arabic, almost before any English at all. Last summer on our way to the airport I made us drive by the old house. I half-expect it to strike something in me, but it doesn’t. I don’t remember it at all. I feel a stinging pain on my ankle, as though I have been bitten, and I limp back into the car.
My mother was named فداء after the freedom fighters of the PLO. When he was a child, my grandfather was so close to Palestine that he could walk there. A year and some months after he dies I am taken away from my class and into secondary questioning at Ben Gurion. I am in a room with thirty people who look like my family and who have been here longer than I have, who will be kept here after I leave. The agent asks for my grandfather’s name and I won’t say it out loud, I pull a scorpion from my throat. Are you afraid of me, I ask him. He gives me a level three security threat rating, out of six.
At the lowest point in the world everyone’s ears pop and the sound of it keeps going and going in the air, which is slower and hotter and thicker than it is anywhere else. The sea won’t let anything live there and my ankle stings fresh. Salt crystallizes around the bite and I go to shore to peel it off, skin comes with it like chunks of the desert and salt is everywhere. I pack sand into the wound until I’m done bleeding. The scorpion can’t come here.
In Jordan you hear the dogs all night. When we camp in the desert their voices come around the dunes. They filmed Star Wars here, and I wonder what they did with the dogs.
Let’s say I am young and we go to وادي رم where the desert comes apart from the earth. Let’s say I crouch to the ground and lift a piece slowly so that the scorpion crawls on top of it. It lunges and before it can bite me I swallow it whole. It can’t live in the Dead Sea but it can live here, where I crack my teeth on what the water leaves behind.