Every morning, the seafood vendor sets up her purple wooden stall in a small alleyway near my apartment building. She stands there, all day and most of the night. She is tireless, which makes me sometimes suspect that she might be a steam-powered robot of some sort. She comes wrapped in shawls, no matter the season, pink and cream and sky blue, and she peers from behind them with piercing eyes. When I don’t think she’s a robot, I suspect she is Indurian, but I have no way of knowing. She barely talks and her accent is undecipherable.
I had bought seafood and noodles from her often enough before, but ever since I quit my job, it has become a nightly ritual. I’m there, sitting at the stall as soon as the sun sets. A neon lantern dangles precariously from her unreadable little placard, and clients come and go. The light plays with whatever is on display, glistening, viscous and slimy and sometimes half-alive, crawling little things. I eat the special of the day, every day, with a side of whichever type of noodle she decided to make. I say “seafood” generically, for I am often not sure what these specials actually are: purple and gold and grey and orange things. I’ve always trusted her that they were fresh. All I know is that everything, much like me, comes from the delta.
I’m usually done eating by ten and can—softly, lovingly—walk up the stairs to my apartment and prepare for the eleventh hour. It is only recently that I’ve started giving myself over to this blessed moment, where my burdened sense of self dissolves. (I believe the Indurians, themselves, the indigenous peoples of our glorious state, of whom few remain, call it the faery hour.) I realize there might be nothing magical about it; simply a matter of the organization of labor and time in the clockwork of the city. The eleventh hour is exactly before too late, but also right after everyone has gone home; after everyone has wound down and worked through the anger and pain and screaming of the day and before the hallucinations, the cries, the sobbing of the middle of the night. It is the hour of the lull. A properly impossible island of an hour.
It is for the sake of that hour that I quit my job. You might think this is going a bit overboard, but eternity—which I have tasted—is overpowering. In the eleventh hour, time becomes elastic, a succession of moments and spaces; slow and fast. And, I must say, I am addicted to this hour, which I welcome with the taste of noodles and the sea in my mouth. What I have come to realize is that I am not entirely what I think I am. Or rather, I am simultaneously here and elsewhere. You see, I also existed a long time ago. That is what the eleventh hour taught me. That there is the outward me, which you see, and then another me inside (and so many other me’s, in the minds of all of those who remember my existence). One watches the other. One, like a hunter, lies waiting for the other’s misstep. Here, within me (not in my chest, nor in my belly, no, somewhere much deeper, somewhere in me which is not of this realm), within me, the other me, has been waiting my whole life for my abdication.
Most people would have found my job boring. It required strict discipline, which I found engrossing. I was one of the many clerks of the Timekeeper’s Houses. I was in charge of making sure that every single boat, cargo, ship, cruise, anything that swam or steamed or sped on the rivers and seas and lakes of the Summerlands, set sail and docked on time. It was delightful. I took note of the hours of departure and arrival; I tracked them as they glided down one river, up the other, lines and intersections and motions. I did this for hundreds of boats at the same time; as if I had hundreds of consciousnesses, hundreds of hands to write, hundreds of little clocks in my heart beating at the rhythm of the seas and rivers and paddlewheels and engines. But I had to stop. One does not go back, when one has been awakened. I have money now to eat and to pay my rent for another two months. It should be enough.
When I was a child, my parents took my sister and me to the sea. Our home back then wasn’t far from where I live now, but in a slightly nicer neighborhood, where the houses are lovingly embraced by small, astonishingly blue gardens and puddled with pure moonlight. You could still hear the strident yells of street peddlers and breathe in the smog; at night, we could still see the fog and neon far away, and in the morning, we too were burned by the sweltering concrete and the huff and puff of the roaming machines. But this all felt far away; we had space. Breathing room, as it were.
Flesh is incomprehensible, ill-conceived. I’ve always felt uneasy and sticky, as if I had been made from another substance altogether. (I remember that as I watch the glistening mucous that I eat at the seafood stand. I don’t know what they are, but I know that I am more like them, yes.) And so, we went to the sea. I remember: the train; freezing A/C; people, so different, so loud, so many more people than in our corner of the city; and then, from the windows, the coast uncovering itself like a dancer, slowly, teasingly, and then, tantalizingly—there it was, the sea, the shimmering sea. I remember seeing it and feeling: home. My memory after that of these few days is blurry. That I would remember the going to the sea rather than spending time there makes sense, now.
And then came the event. It has come to define much of my life and the way my body reacts. I only remember bits and pieces of it: my sister, playfully (I hope), trying to drown me and subsequently me, my small child’s body, engulfed, swallowing water, blue whirling all around me, blue whirling in my nose, and lungs, and panic first—then peace, swallowing water, letting the water overtake me; letting the water fill me to the brim, drowning drowning and saying hello to the sea; and the sea, the shimmering sea, welcoming me home.
I went deep into the beating heart of the Hinder Sea and as I drowned further and further, escaping my sister’s murderous hands, the light disappeared, and something marvelous happened. When I was far below the deepest of the deep, where it is pitch black, blacker than any night in any desert, my body became luminous, and my own light shone the way, and (though the doctors say I passed out for only a few seconds before my mother saved me) I swam, following the light shining from my body, my own bioluminescence, I became a creature of the Hinder Sea and I swam for hours, my body finally made of its true substance, until I reached my submerged birthplace, where my people lived.
At church, the pastor tells us of a city of wicked people (how were they wicked, we ask, but are never told) that was punished by drowning. Asherah, she says, Asherah was the name of the city which still lies there, in the depths of the Hinder Sea. It is a testament to wickedness and will lie forever, barely a memory, grand ruins whipped by the currents; porticos devoured by algae, columns of former greatness where horrible, one-eyed monsters of the deep live, mate, and die. A cemetery for men and the ugliest of fish; the bones of the former mingling with those of the latter, in monstrous morbid hybridity. Asherah. She says the name and it resonates in me, suddenly, Asherah like an echo of something heard years before. Asherah where I lived. The pastor says Asherah is an example and also perhaps a foreshadowing of what our city was to expect (most of the citizens here did not follow our Old Faith) and insists that the people of Asherah were wicked. She repeats it, sermon after sermon after sermon. Until one day, I cannot take it anymore, and I stand up, and cry: “We were not wicked.” The pastor stares at me, as does my mother, and all the congregation. Hushed silence. When we get home, my mother slaps me repeatedly. I bleed.
I run down the stairs of the house, and all along the boulevards, and down flights of stairs that line the high walls of the city (during the day, the air is dust-colored) until I arrive to the Ayoun, the river which flows out of the capital. It forks from there, one branch traverses south to the lands of the Indurians, the other westward across the seaside territories of the exiled swamp people, and then both branches meet again in a cataclysmic delta: cliffs, rushing and flowing, waterfalls cascading from hundreds of meters on high and into the Hinder Sea. I have become fascinated with the river. I sit on the banks, in the dust-colored city, and imagine it flowing all the way to the Hinder Sea, and down the depths until the river and I reach drowned Asherah, bleeding and crying and free.
I go down to the river every day. I grow more and more obsessed with it. I look at the water, and see no reflection. I listen to the river sing. I feel it rush to Asherah, in a flowsong, down the country, around flowery hills and forests billowing with birdsong; through landscapes of the softest, fleshy pink and shantytowns on the edges of our world where neon reigns in the night, and all the way to Asherah, which needs no light because all of us, in Asherah, were bioluminescent. All of us, the people and the porticoes and columns and frontispieces, all the palaces, produced our own glorious light. As I approach the delta, I feel it again, my body glowing as the city draws nearer. And for a whole year, I dedicate myself to the memory of Asherah. The occasional bird with eyes like a robot’s hops up to me and sings. Often, a homeless woman, with a bionic leg, who sleeps nearby, sits next to me and listens to my tales, to the song of the once and future city.
Then I grew up. Childhood fancy. A rebellion against my overly religious and strict mother (indeed, each time I went down to the river, and came back with tales of Asherah, she would beat me harder, first her hand, then a belt, then the rolling pin, then the chair and sometimes even a poker. I delighted in suffering for the glory of my city; for what is a chair breaking against a body of light and water?) Asherah, my childhood fancy, gradually receded from my memory. I am older now, much older, and the child who dreamed of Asherah died forty years ago.
What a blessing, then, what a mercy sent from below, that it came back. That, emerging from the seas of my memory, Asherah swam into my ken once again, on one such eleventh hour. And now, that oceanic space in me, growing each day – I focus on it in the minutes leading to midnight. Promising myself to the ocean; giving myself to it, bride and groom, a soaring into the water. And so, at the eleventh hour, I focus and connect to this, to what I know my soul to be: waterkin. I dip in the pool, a toe, a foot, my ankle, my leg, my soul and my heart and my mind.
In my little room, I can see the city, chugging along, its exacting, smoggy clockwork. Far below, somewhere, is the Timekeeper’s House where, for countless hours, I felt the beat of the ships; where I ruled over the times and itineraries of the seas. I can hear the cars, hovering in clouds of black fumes, the great big machines plodding along the streets; the city, pumping at the water, subduing it, yoking it to its industrial will. And I feel some trepidation. This is to be my last eleventh hour. I am excited, but I must steady myself. It is only proper to taste this moment of singular eternity in a collected manner; my last contemplation. This, the hour eleven, is a portal to my other self. This hour, the entrance to the darkest of the night, is ruled by magic. The world, for those willing to see it, splits open, like a pomegranate. Inside out; a firework of viscera and blood. I will meditate and I will leap, into the cracks.
I remember the pastor. Her hair coiled in a tight bun. How she would gasp if she heard such blasphemy. The seafood vendor, she would laugh. She would understand. I focus back on my body, dissolving the images of the pastor high on her floating pulpit and the vendor, buried in her shawls, her piercing eyes and lantern, the only light in that back alley; they dissolve as does my body, disintegrating into countless particles, atoms running and dancing, briefly, coursing through the piping of the building and down the sewers, turning brown, then black, then brown again, filtered, thrown in the river, transparent now and frothing and speeding as fast as I can to join the delta, the gushing waters, and then, in the distance, the exploding sea, the shimmering Hinder Sea; running and diving far beneath the sea where my body, water, becomes luminous again, becomes light and water, water and light, as I join Asherah, the once and future city.
They will come, in a few days, and find my body. They will assume I am dead, for their sight is too feeble to grasp other ways of being. They may notice that my body did not decompose, nor will it smell of anything, save a heady fishlike odor. I will not leave any indications as to how they should dispose of my remains. Though I did enjoy it, it is not me and matters not. They will take me to the towers, surely. At the edge of the city, where city lights play on the corpses, there they will leave me in silence and contemplation. A breathing body in the sky cemeteries; but I will be elsewhere.
Some will mourn me, yet I will be one with the going water, and one—at last again—with Asherah. As I meditate, I see who I was there. The lines and shapes of my erstwhile body materialize. I see: the light I felt as a drowned child, and some sort of movement. A motion. Am I a motion? I feel myself dissolve and materialize and dissolve again; frothing—at the mouth? No. I am motion. Was I not a denizen of Asherah? I realize now that I was something else. Not a citizen of Asherah of the glorious palaces, but the water cradling it. I am the swirling vortex whence she emerges. I understand now why my reflection in the waters was so faint: I was already fused with them; already melting into myself. I give myself in to my other body. I look up: the sun shines brightly through the waves, which are me; the wind and the clouds above me and here I am, my truest, free, self; motion invincible.
Above, the dying light gently plays upon my surface.
Karim Kattan is a writer and doctor of comparative literature, born in Jerusalem (Palestine). His first novel, Le Palais des deux collines was published by the Tunis-based Éditions Elyzad in 2021. His work can be found in The Paris Review, Strange Horizons, The Funambulist, and more. He writes in French and English.