Lake McArthur

amal alhomsi


            He washes under cold water and his sins clog the drain. Blocks of black bakhoor burn by the mirror filling the bathroom with the scent of the Kaaba. The faint voice of a Yemeni child reciting the beginning suras plays from the radio of the orange taxi parked outside the building; “Aleph Lam Mim. This is the book in which there is no doubt.” He smiles at the merited arrogance. Our mother wanted me to be with him. You’ve been hiding from God long enough, she said. He shrouds his nakedness with two white cloths without ornaments and walks barefoot towards the orange taxi. The road to Mecca is not paved, says the taxi driver, so driving feels like riding a camel. 

            The road is worse than the streets of Calgary, says the bus driver as he manoeuvers up rugged hills. The passengers jerk their heads searching for the promise of scenery veiled behind jealous trees. An American man with yellow binoculars dangling from his neck talks to a lady sitting behind him. I know he is American because he starts each sentence by saying I. I am single, he says, so I can tolerate hostels and hitchhikers. An old man sits in the back humming a song about sleeping buffalos. The breath of trees carries the smell of the earth and light-damped flowers bow at the side of the road. We stop at an orange sign reading Lake O’hara. Our guide lists the rules of camping and mentions something about the weather. Make sure to try the carrot cake at the tea house, she says, it’s the world’s best. I know she is not Canadian because she only smiles when she means it. 

             He munches on some dates that the taxi driver gave him. The dates of Madina are unparalleled; they taste like caramelized chocolate-honey. The call of prayer travels on the backs of pigeons as big as cats. God is greater. God is greater. Mecca smells like pigeons, like feet and Ethiopian beggars, like Himalayan musk and cheap hina, like faces washed with zamzam and tiles washed with tears, like Persian carpets, roasted chickpeas, and prophets. He wants to run to the Kaaba and drown in the crowd behind Abraham’s stone. He wants to walk up Mount Arafa, down to Hajar’s well, and around the Jamarat, but he hunches his shoulders and walks the other way. The streets of Mecca carry him to dunes of people sitting under palm trees. He approaches coyly like the daughter of Jethro and sits next to a man from Palestine. He knows that the man is Palestinian from the way his dark eyes search for belonging. A thick bearded imam stands on a rock lecturing about the gentleness of God. He should be talking about hell, says the Palestinian man, hell is more believable than God.

            He has Sartre’s eyes and Moses’ shyness. The cabin is warm and the carrot-cake tray is empty. The guide introduces him as Ben. He is known as the flowerman, she says, no one in the Rockies knows native flora better than him. He blushes and wipes his round glasses. The American man stands outside the window talking about him-related topics. Three excited girls sit at the front with pencils and notebooks. I’m not as old as my hair suggests, Ben begins with a joke, but years of encountering grizzlies will suck the color out of you. He divides the flowers of the Rockies into categories of colors and speaks about each flower the way an imam would speak of God’s gentleness. He talks about blue harebell and violet alpine harebell and how both look the same to everyone but him, about rayflower and butterwort which got their names from looking like a ray of light and having butter coated petals, about saxifraga flowers and mountain heathers, about nerium shrubs, valerian roots, purple saw-wort, about the flowers bears like best and the shrubs elk like more, about which stem kills you and which makes you a cup of tea. He concludes with a picture of his wife and allows time for questions. I raise my hand and I ask him if he could be a flower, which flower would he be. He blushes and avoids the question. At night while using the drop, I hear a voice from behind the thin wall, I’ll be a heather. They look strong, but they fall at the slightest tremble. 

            He falls on his knees and trembles. Crowds of white and grey push him back, but the promise of redemption and the scent of the Kaaba pull him forward. The mountains I saw yesterday are no longer the same. I know their names and they know mine. The saw-wort smiles at me when I recognize its shade, and the heathers bow when I tread by them carefully. He skips a step to avoid trampling on a locust; spilled blood spoils pilgrimage. He runs under ottoman arches, each arch a perfect reflection of the hundred before it. The rocks shake under my feet. God is waiting in the wet bush, on top of the mountain, in the black stone. The river is wailing on the drapes of the Kaaba. Will God’s image melt us like the people of Moses? Like jellyfish under the sun? We are our mothers' sons; always running towards God even when running away from him. Ben said that if two flowers of the same kind grew one inch apart, each flower will bloom with a different color, depending on the soil. Were my roots in the wrong soil? Or were you blooming in the shade? We run past the arches and the mountains. He is there, nameless, waiting. We fall on our faces. Mother told us that everything revolves around God. Who knew she meant it literally? We circle the Kaaba that is hidden between forest and valleys. You never knew such a shade of blue existed; I never knew a scent can be this sweet. A voice calls from behind the trees; God is greater, God is greater. We wash our faces in the lake, in Hajar’s well, and the water stays clear.