a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Flight 394 to Washington DC will be boarding in 15 minutes at Gate 22. Please have your ticket and passport ready for inspection. We will be starting with those who are accompanied by children followed by first class passengers.
The announcement at the Charles de Gaulle Airport is clear and crisp, of a better quality than one is accustomed to in American airports, so I do not have to listen in again. I look over at Layla and she is in “CIA mode,” as her father calls it, the moment when she freezes in place, registering every word that is being said without looking in the direction of the speaker. The casual observer would never guess that she is tuned into all that is happening around her. Her peripheral vision, when in that mode, records everything that falls within it. Then questions are formulated and saved for her parents, or an aunt, or an uncle, to answer. Sometimes her Dad thinks he is in the clear. Later, tucking her into bed, up comes the question that she had filed for the day. They are never easy questions. They are big ones. Life. Death. The cosmos. I have watched her father go in her room to put her to bed and emerge after a whole hour, shaking his head, and smiling.
As soon as the announcement ends, Layla is freed again to continue drawing for a few more minutes. As I anticipate, she glances at me to make sure that I heard the call. After all, the announcement is for the adults and I am responsible for her and for making the flight. If there is a point that she feels that I am about to drop the ball, then she will, in the last minute, prompt me with something like, “We should be boarding by now, it has been longer than 15 minutes.” I would look at my watch and see that 20 minutes had passed. At which point I would say, “You are absolutely right!” Layla would go back to her intense concentration on the work at hand. I am her only guardian on this trip that will take us from Beirut, to a stopover in Washington DC, to ultimately deliver her to her grandmother in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I am pleasantly surprised that her parents have trusted me to take her all that distance and I know that, in her own way, Layla is assessing whether I am up to the task.
I collect her things as she starts wrapping up what she is doing. I pack a purple water bottle and put it in a black backpack, one that is emblazoned with stars and too bulky for her petite shoulders. She had picked it out recently from Antoine Library in downtown Beirut when she went shopping for her long journey. She even picked out a book for yours truly, her uncle, a book of Sudoku puzzles, although I have never played it and never expressed any interest in it.
I put out my hand and she finds it, getting excited now, getting animated in her stride, exaggerated in the lifting of the heel before each step. We find our seat and I settle her at the window, her requested seat. She buckles up without prompting and immediately launches into her next project that involves her mother’s iPad that she loaded with her favorite shows. I put away our carry-on baggage, my beaten black suitcase and her plain dark blue roller. Layla eschews “girlie” colors and gender assignations.
As the plane begins to taxi, Layla reaches into the front pouch of her bag without looking down, keeping her eye on a show which seems to be about space exploration. As the plane levels off, I am assured that the empty aisle seat next to me will remain so. I move my water bottle and two books into the empty seat and I slide my backpack in front of it to create more legroom. Soon the passengers are walking around, the frequent travelers among them rushing to the bathroom before the drinks and meal carts come through and block the path. One of the passengers is stuck behind the drinks cart, just behind my line of sight. I hear him before I see him because he is breathing as if he had walked up a steep staircase. I look up to see a slightly chubby and bearish man with a lobster tan and closely shaved head, wearing a Redskins T-shirt and a checkered open button-down shirt over it. When the flight attendant comes back, the man waits until she passes us then starts to talk to her and point to the empty seat beside me. He mentions something about his leg. I detect a southern accent that stirs my spidey sense as I always suspect American men with southern accents, departing from Beirut, to be members of some unsavory deep state element or another. Without hearing the flight attendant’s response, I deduct from her body language that she is not going to comply with the man’s demands. He stares at her for an uncomfortably long moment, maintaining his smirk, while she continues moving along with her cart, and only then does he give up and walk away.
I turn to Layla and she senses that I am trying to look at what she is watching, so she pauses the film and asks me if I had seen it. I tell her I don’t know what she is watching. She tells me it is about Juno’s journey to Jupiter and turns the iPad so I can have a better view. The clip that we watch shows our place in the universe, comparing planet earth to others, then zooms out to our galaxy then to the Milky Way, then to the swirls of milky ways. Layla watches silently as if it is the first time she is viewing it. Her father had warned me that at some point she is going to show me this video and that she had memorized all the facts, numbers and figures. I look at her lips and they are syncing the commentary, the numbers of planets, the sizes, the indigestible distances and the numbers of years that it takes to travel them. As we watch, I feel a presence behind me. I turn. It is Heavy Breathing Man.
He is smiling now, reminding me of a fox that I had encountered while hiking alone. The kind of smile that is part of the southern etiquette that conceals contempt. “Can I take this seat?” I look to Layla to gather some time to find an excuse to reject his request. She seems pinned to the screen but I know that she is listening to us. The man sensing my hesitation says, “She said it was ok.” I look to where he is pointing, and it is the flight attendant that he was talking to earlier. She has moved into first class now and is chatting with a passenger. “Well she is the boss,” I say and I jerk my bag from under the seat and move my book and bottle back into the seat pocket in front of me. He disappears for a minute and comes back with a bag that he stashes under the seat and a clunky laptop that he spreads on his lap. He puts his Skullcandy headphones on and rests his hands on the laptop, jutting his elbows into my area. I keep my arm in place hoping that, like most westerners, he will recoil from the touch, but he does not retreat an inch. He starts a movie and promptly begins to expand, his flesh taking up more space by the minute. His breathing becomes more audible as he watches the movie. I look over at Layla and I shrug my shoulders and smile but she is not amused. So I lift her earplug and whisper “Jabba the Hutt” and she starts laughing, shoulders jutting in exaggeration. Then she turns towards the window where there is total darkness and I can see from the reflection that she has turned serious again. I hear the man draw out a whispered “shshshit”. I look at him sternly to remind him that there is a child present but he just mumbles, “I just charged the thing. I could have sworn it was full.” He is tilting the now blank laptop left and right as if looking for some sort of electrical leakage. He finally slams the cover shut and stashes the laptop away. I turn to Layla and she is watching Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about “quark stars.” The man resigns to watching a film on the back of the seat in front of him.
Layla tugs on my elbow. “You know a black hole isn’t what you think it is,” she declares in a loud voice. I pull one of her earplugs out and say “Shhh.” She shrinks her head back, realizing that she just yelled. “You know the black hole isn’t what you think it is,” she repeats softly this time.
“Oh, what is it then?”
“A black hole presses matter on top of other matter. It flattens them out. It doesn’t make them disappear.”
I think about that for a bit and how that might differ from what I was taught. What I recall is that any matter coming in within the gravitational pull of a black hole will be sucked and spit out into some other dimension. But then I always mix up facts from my childhood science lessons with theories from Star Trek episodes.
“You know a black hole can even suck light in.”
“Wow that is pretty amazing. I knew about the matter but not the light.”
“Yeah” she says, suddenly reflective and staring right through her screen. At that moment, all screens on our row go off and Redskin Man starts pushing all the buttons on his blank screen to no avail. In his frenzied poking he wakes up a sleeping passenger in front of him who peers at him from between the seats to get him to stop. He apologizes to the irritated passenger and pushes the service button to summon the flight attendant, looking up and down the aisle for a response. When the flight attendant arrives, she tries to turn on the screen and nothing happens. So she asks me to turn mine on and Layla’s and they both come on. She tells the man that she is going to reboot the screens to see what happens. Soon after she disappears, our screens and the screens of the passengers in front of us go out and then flick on again, except Mr. Redskin. “Sorry sir but your screen is not working”. “Well what am I supposed to do for the next 5 hours?” “There is an empty seat in the back that you can go to. They told me up front that the screen is working there.” The man does not bother to look where she is pointing because he has a good bet that it is the seat that he just abandoned. So he just nods in resignation. He pulls on his neck pillow and his eye mask from the care kit, and sits back, arms folded in a huff. He does not bother to push his seat back so now his elbow is again sticking into my space.
I go back to watching the show with Layla while she peppers me with facts. As Juno moves within view of Jupiter, pictures flash on the screen and Layla lip-syncs the commentator’s announcement: “Juno arrives within two seconds of estimated time to transmit these spectacular pictures.” She sticks two fingers in front of my face repeating “two seconds” and I say, “that is mind-boggling,” which seems to be the anticipated reaction.
She turns away from her screen and stares into the black hole that is her window, and then I hear a whoosh of air punctuate the silence. I do not feel the air on me directly so I reach up to find the source. I see that it is not Layla’s either and I turn to the sleeping man and realize that the air is hitting him, hard enough for me to feel it deflecting on me. It takes him longer than expected to realize what is happening. He lifts up one end of his eye mask, reaches up lazily, and turns the dial clockwise to stem off the flow but nothing happens. So he lifts eye mask completely and starts to turn the dial violently to no avail. Then he starts to press the flight attendant button repeatedly. A few minutes later one shows up, except it is a man now. “What is going on?” the attendant asks. By his dress and mannerism, I assume that this person is the supervisor. “The vent is going crazy! I can’t shut it off!” the man shouts above the din of the blast. The supervisor fiddles with knob, then he tests our vents and is assured that they are working. “I don’t know what to tell you, I have never seen it do this before.” The airflow is increasing as they speak. The sound of the blast is strong enough that passenger can hardly hear what the supervisor is telling him. “You know what, screw this!” He packs his stuff and walks back to his original seat. Layla turns away from the window and pulls one of earplugs to ask where the man went. I point back and tell her that he finally gave up and went back to his seat and I ask her to shut off the vent. She stands on her seat to make sure that the man is gone, then she sits down, turns her head back to the window and the vent shuts off.
Silence reigns and people go to sleep. All the lights shut off and the stars can now be seen out of Layla’s window. She is sound asleep. The window is clear, as the plane is new. I have never seen the stars this clearly from a plane in all my travels. Layla’s head is positioned as such that the dark speckled opening looks like a cartoon bubble depiction of her dreams. I take out her earplugs and put her pillow against my shoulder and move her head against it. She wakes up immediately and says that she needs to go to the bathroom. I hesitate because we are close to landing and I know how freaked out passengers get when an Arab stands up upon landing, especially when the plane is approaching JFK or Dulles. But having Layla by my side would help reduce the fear. I pick her up and walk back toward the bathroom. She rests on my shoulder looking behind me. I see Redskins Man asleep. As we pass him on our way back to our seats, his vent comes on full blast. I hear “you gotta be shitting me!” I squeeze Layla and the vent goes off.
Layla settles back to sleep so quickly, one can feel a buffer of serenity around her. Her head again crowned by that swatch of star-speckled space. I am mesmerized into sleep. I start dreaming immediately, an unusual thing for me. I dream of four boys crossing into the charred landscape of Beirut, smoke seeping out of the soil and transparent high-rise buildings baring their steel skeletons and a starless sky haloed by several moons. I wake with my head heavy on my left shoulder and as I straighten it, I see a crescent moon peering over the blinking green navigation light of the wing tip in the distance. I think Layla would not want to miss it and as I debate on whether to wake her, I hear her mumble so I move closer to hear what she is saying.
“What did they teach you about the moon?”
I mumble “huh?”
“How was the moon made?” she mumbles.
“I can’t remember. Wasn’t there some sort of a big bang and planets were spun off?” I say.
She straightens up and faces me “No, they probably taught you that it was stolen from the orbit of another planet or something like that. That is what Baba was taught in high school. They taught the same thing all over the world.”
“Well what were you taught?” I ask.
She looks out of the window as the moon moves out of view. She explains without looking at me, “You see, there was a planet the size of Jupiter and it collided with the Earth, when the Earth was still cooling, and this knocked out the lava into the sky and that stuff cooled into the moon. So, the moon really came out the belly of the primitive earth and now it controls a lot of the earth, it plays with all of the water, moves the tides and plays with us because there is a lot of water in us. It even helps women give birth. My mom gave birth to my sister on a full moon night and the hospital was full of women that night.”
“I like that story better than the story we were told about the moon.” I tell her.
“Yeah” she says and slips down again into sleep. I pull up the blanket on her shoulder and marvel at this sudden revelation, as if a visit by an archangel has occurred.
Too tired to read I return to a film that I had paused to get me through the last stretch.
Sooner than expected, I hear the pilot’s announcement about our approach to our first stopover, Washington Dulles International Airport. The original flight attendant comes through to check seatbelts in the dark and all of us frequent flyers are wondering why the plane lights have not been turned on as standard practice. The answer comes over the intercom “We are having a problem with cabin lights, but rest assured that this is a minor glitch and does not affect our safe arrival.”
I see the flight attendant pass us then I see her gold buttons peering at me, so I look down to see if I had forgotten to fasten my own belt, but that is not the case, so I look up at the flight attendant and I find her frozen in place, the only thing moving are her eyes which she is squinting to peer into the dark at Layla. I turn to Layla and the first thing I notice is that her head is framed by the window, as opposed to resting below it, so I look down and see that her seat belt is unfastened, chrome buckles floating, mesh cloth belt undulating like submerged seaweed. The blanket is concealing the space between the seat and Layla. I reach over slowly and deliberately and ease her down into her seat and grab the buckle and swiftly tie her down snugly. I turn, knowing that the flight attendant is still there and I see her looking up and down the aisle. I know that she is deliberating on what to say and who to say it to. Her fearful eyes settle back on me, lips moving in an attempt to form a question. I smile and say, with all honesty and confidence, “This tends to happen when she sleeps.” I know from experience that whatever I may say is not going to matter, because none of us has a vocabulary yet for what is coming.
Zein El-Amine is a writer and poet living in Washington DC. His poems have been published by Wild River Review, Folio, Foreign Policy in Focus, Beltway Quarterly, DC Poets Against the War Anthology, Penumbra, GYST, Joybringer and Middle East Report magazine. Some of his poetry was featured in both Beltway Quarterly (in an issue highlighting five up-and-coming DC poets) and in Split this Rock (where his poem “How to Write a Poem According to Souha Bechara” was selected as the poem of the week). Zein’s poem “The Dogs of Ashdod” was recently published in Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, published by University of Georgia Press. Zein’s short stories have been published by Boundoff, Jadaliyya, Wild River Review and the MERIP magazine.