On the bus, we were told to remember everything, to testify, testify, testify. We’d heard this many times before. Remember and testify, they would say, in order that this or that bad thing does not happen again. I harbored no such faith in remembering. Nor in testimony. I fail to believe in them still. Worst are the stories we tell of our youth. They all sound alike, and mine will be no exception, as I’m sure you’ll agree. If the tales are the same, time after time, why the absurd insistence that if we persist in the retelling, we will succeed, as they say, in preventing history from repeating itself? Then as now, if trouble was kept at bay, it was only a temporary reprieve, a lull in the torrent of reality. Remembering is difficult, in any case, and the worse the trouble, the more slippery the remembering. Everyone I have ever known has obeyed the command to testify, testify, testify, filling every available plane, every unoccupied crevice, with their stories, but as far as I can tell, they do so only as their minds permit or compel them, and even then only in order to make everyone else listen, desperate to be heard, heard, heard. My mind permits me a memory of myself on the bus, where I am fifteen, and I am desperate, though I am not sure for what. Desperation without a clear object: mundane and dangerous, drearily quotidian and exquisitely aberrant. I recognize in this a definition of adolescence. If you laugh at the thought, you are not properly remembering.
I will depict it all as I remember it; I will testify.
It is one of many bus rides, all of them the same: a woman rises and speaks a word to the driver, who pulls a microphone from the dash and passes it over his shoulder, into her hands. She turns, gripping the back of her padded seat with one hand and the microphone with the other, and congratulates us for our actions of the day. We have taken promising steps toward preventing the mistakes of the past, perhaps even correcting them. We listen, briefly; we applaud—ourselves and each other, I assume. The three of us sit farthest from the woman where she straddles the center aisle, speechifying—the three of us, spread across the five seats in the very back row, occupying that territory of mottled upholstery and gummy floor as if we’ve created it ourselves, as if it has always been our own. As if there hadn’t been another trio—or a quartet, perhaps, it makes no difference—to fill this space before we were old enough to do so, as if there won’t be another to replace us very soon. Never mind: for us, the dark road rolls out before the distant windshield as if “very soon” is not within the realm of possibility. The woman drones on, in our own language, though it is not the language of everyone on the bus. The present company has been assembled from among two peoples in conflict, brought together and bussed to the appointed times and places in order to march in demand of peace, to demonstrate its possibility in the very fact of our gathering. We are two peoples fighting, speakers of two different languages, sibling tongues completely foreign in each others’ ears—two peoples fighting, but our side is in charge, has arranged the demonstration, supplied the woman at the microphone, chartered the bus, built the roads, seized the cities, corralled the others, and so the others will have to bend toward the cadences of our talk if they wish to come along.
The three of us find ample diversion in these events. They excuse us from school—well, they release the two of us, the girls, from our eleventh-grade classes. The boy with whom we’ve been spending our time is eighteen, banned from several learning establishments (including our own), a deliriously free agent earning his diploma through a series of exams for which he is ostensibly preparing his own self, independent of any intervening adult. We are a newly banded group: for so long, we were just two, but once, when we were assigned to gate duty at school, scraping our initials into the rusted guard booth, we saw the boy, a twelfth grader we vaguely knew, stomp out the front door and perform a gesture of rebellion that was remembered differently by each of us, forming a dispute that remained between us even as we became a single unit, ending only when nothing remained between us at all. You wish to know what it was he had done. It was not as outrageous as you might hope: we lived in a country engaged in mortal conflict, where certain acts you might expect a teenager to commit were simply not on the menu, especially those that brushed up too closely against unsavory realities. Perhaps he merely threw his books back into the school building he’d just exited, or shouted profanities through the principal’s window. Whatever he’d done, the principal himself, an upright old man with a gray face, marched outside into the sharp daylight and promptly informed the boy he was no longer suspended for the week; he was permanently expelled. We gathered him up instantly—well, my friend rose from the cramped bench we shared in the guard booth, leaving me momentarily behind, and I quickly followed, the two of us slowing the boy’s escape just long enough for him to take notice—and we have run with him ever since. It is the boy who discovered this peace-demanding group, at the university; a free agent, he wanders its corridors whenever he wishes, ostensibly on his way to the library. We girls delight in the brilliance of our boy’s scheme, which, backed by the authority of the university, enables him to amuse himself with us during school hours, when he would otherwise wander alone. But our participation is also sincere: the three of us are, after all, in favor of peace.
We are the youngest on the bus. The university students, most of them from our own people, show us little interest, only nudging us forward when we march, placing placards in our hands and cheering when we scream, which we are prone to do frequently and with abandon, precisely because such noise is tolerated in this context when it rarely is elsewhere. The ones recruited from among the other people are students at university as well, all male, living away from home or conducting two lives as they make their way between their parents’ villages and their studies. These young men tend to ignore us entirely. Yet as the woman at the front concludes her speech, surrendering her microphone to the expressionless driver, a student rises from midway down the aisle and strides our way. We can tell immediately that he is from the other people; the distinctions among us are evident not merely in our faces, but also in our dress, our stance, our demeanors. In the grand scheme of things, he is not much older than us, but our grasp on time is circumscribed: we find him delectably mature. At fifteen, I am young for an eleventh grader; my friend has been sixteen for quite a while; and, as I have said, the boy with whom we spend our time is eighteen. The young man who approaches us can be no more than twenty. Earlier in the day, we must have walked with him on the street, intent on our yelling, paying him no mind, but now he proposes to join us at our seats, something no one has done before, certainly no one from among the other people.
We scramble to make room for him, with some awkwardness: though I already lean against the bulkhead that looms beside me where a window should be, I make a gesture of moving further left, pressing myself to the wall, eager to indicate my welcome, and the boy, who sits between us girls, moves left with me, opening the space to the right of him, where the other boy clearly aims to sit. But the girl, my friend, also moves in our direction, shifting close to the boy between the two of us, inviting the other boy to sit to her right, by the opposite side, where there is a window. He smiles as he inches his way past her, seating himself with his back to the glass, lifting his knee to the empty seat between them, and she turns to face him, lifting her knee beside his and nestling her back into the crook of our boy’s arm. We return the other boy’s smile, transmitting sideways messages toward the rest of the passengers as we do: testify, testify, witness who sits with us. The other boy speaks our language with deeply accented tones, guttural and strangely paced, but his grammar is skilled, his vocabulary deft. He is among those who live in the city, his village too far from the university for him to remain at home. But his sister is married to a man who lives in a village near the campus, one we know well: a small collection of homes across the ravine from my family’s rented apartment, which sits on a steep hill at the edge of town.
From the broad patio of my family’s apartment, on days when the desert air is clear, I can see this village across the ravine. Most days, I hear more than I see: the metallic, agonizing sound, like infuriated machinery, is the braying of donkeys. The exaggerated parodies of a baby’s cry—those are the goats, the most spirited signs of life in the ravine itself, making frequent appearances in the foreground of my view. I watch as they’re herded up the hill, agile and swift. The old men who accompany them are so completely covered in layers of fabric, they are nothing more than white flags in the wind. I have not seen the women, have not thought where one might go to give birth, but the boy from the other people tells us his sister has just had a baby, a daughter. The bulkhead beside me emits an undulating growl that occasionally repels the other boy’s talk, but I can tell my companions catch his every word, nodding, smiling some more. He is speaking, it seems, about the animals. My friend giggles when he pronounces the word in our language for goat, and though he cannot know the reason for her laughter, he appears to be pleased, encouraged to go on. I know why she laughs: “goat” is her nickname for me, a single syllable she extracted from my long first name on the day we met. From the very beginning, she refused to call me by my given name, a compound created from two names that, in our language, are customarily given to boys (did my parents think, she asked, that the two masculine labels would cancel each other out and become a feminine one?). It was far more objectionable, she told me, to be called a boy, or a double-boy, than to be called a goat. (I did not disagree.) And so a goat I became. I shake my head, clearing my ears of the low rumble of the bus, to be sure I’ve heard correctly: the boy from the other people, it seems, is speaking of goats, and of names. Yes: it’s about his sister’s baby. The village will gather tomorrow at sunset, when the child will be given a name in a ceremony in which a goat is slaughtered—he explains that one is butchered for a girl, two for a boy—and the meat is shared with friends and the needy. He says that his family believes that to witness the slaughtering of a goat and eat its innards is to summon great wealth. He says it just so, my family believes. I see in his smile that he wishes to convey that he might not believe. All the same, he tells us we can partake of the wealth: he wishes to invite us to the ceremony.
The village across the ravine is a stone’s throw across a million miles, the dream of an impassable distance that makes you cry out in your sleep and then, the moment you awake, forget why. Sometimes the three of us descend the dusty slope beyond my family’s apartment at sunset, carrying wood we’ve stolen from a construction site, in order to build a campfire in the valley between the two hills. (The children of our people are warned against doing this, not because of the theft or the perils of fire, but because construction sites are guarded by the men who labor there, men of the other people, who might not take our capers lightly.) We feel our way down to the deepest part of the landscape, the stream-cut floor where we will pass the night, courting invisible danger while we sing protest songs of peace, the words all in our own language, my friend orchestrating elaborate harmonies. The boy with whom we spend our time sings like a clarinet, steady, smooth and warm, and my friend’s voice quivers around his like a dragonfly skimming the surface of water. I have learned to sing from my friend, who has needed my plain voice to lay down a steady melody for her ambitious arrangements. These days, in the presence of a strong new sound, I stumble along as far as I can follow. In the darkest part of the night, when the fire dwindles, only my apartment is visible, or rather the single patio light I leave on in case we find ourselves in need of a beacon. Just before sunrise, we creep back up the hill, somehow missing the child I’ve never seen, the one who brings the fresh bread from the village, hanging it in a thin plastic bag from every doorknob in my family’s apartment complex. We share the loaf between us well before my mother can bring it inside for my family’s breakfast. Sitting on the stairs outside my apartment, the taste of fresh bread in our mouths, clothes smelling of smoke, we watch the obliterations of nighttime slowly dissipate. The village reappears, its roosters crying their outrage at the dawn.
(On the bus, the boy from the other people speaks of his brother-in-law’s village, and it is just as we knew it was, its houses built of myths and symbols, of sun and dust, a desert mirage made real by his storytelling. He is courting us, this boy, offering up his tales in the hope that he will be woven into the fabric of ours, though we give little thought to what story he might chase. We are, simply, willing. Even as we sit with him, learning for the very first time the rhythms of his speech, the lines of his face, we are constructing the tales we feel destined to tell of this boy whom we’ve only just met. In the story I wish one day to tell, I discover that from his sister’s table, where he sits alone at night, unable to focus on his studies, he hears a distant sound—no, it is not a baby’s cry; the child is not yet born. Nor is it a lone goat, separated from the herd and lost in the ravine. It is music, three voices braided in song, and his mind pursues it, floating out into the darkness, until he falls asleep at his books. Later, he is stunned when the very same sound reaches his ears again, this time on a crowded street where he marches for peace, and he follows it until it brings him here, to the back seat of the bus, and he finds us at last. Later, he pays a visit to his sister, who has just had her baby, and tells the wondrous tale to her in turn, but she does not believe it: it does not follow the system of signs she knows. What does my family’s apartment look like to this new mother when she paces with her baby past her window at night? What does this other boy look like to his sister when he leaves in the morning for the city, his back to her, walking into the sun?)
The sun rises above our side of the ravine, striking the village first, scaling its terraced surfaces, those flat, wide steps along the steep dry incline that the other people have formed into gardens and foundations for small, box-like houses. On our side, still shaded by the city looming behind it, is the place where I live, a vast apartment complex built into the face of the hill, not on terraces but terraced in style, ascending like a staircase for giants. The complex sits at the very edge, before the world drops off into desert; when I climb the stairs outside my family’s home to the street above, my back to the ravine, I tilt my head to trace the regular, vertical apartment buildings that fill the horizon. In every one of those tall buildings (the buildings where both my friends live, each in a different tower) there is a basement, constructed as a shelter from falling bombs. These are large, communal spaces—sometimes children play down there, as long as they can tolerate the cool darkness, but the rooms are empty, windowless, always in a state of waiting. In the terraced apartments at the edge of town the shelters are compact, family-sized, intended to serve only the occupants of each unit. They are dug into the hill at the point farthest from the patio, separated from the kitchen by a heavy metal door that brings to mind a submarine portal, though I doubt the portal in our home has ever been shut; within its frame, someone has attached a lighter wooden door. On one side, the room is curiously breached: a small window made of two sliding panels looks out onto the outdoor staircase, one of several staircases that run steeply alongside the entrances to each stack of homes, our access to the street. I imagine the window is a late addition (or, more properly, subtraction). I do not know why it is permitted in a room meant to serve as a bomb shelter. I can only suppose this is because no one anticipates any need for a shelter; no one expects the danger to come from the sky. Thanks to its unaccountable alterations, the space serves quite adequately as my bedroom. Lately, in the mornings, when I awake to the rustling of my mother’s reach for the bag of bread at the front door, I discover gifts on my windowsill: a patterned scarf, the sort the girls in my school like to wear, borrowed from the fashions of the women of the other people, though worn in an entirely different manner. A neatly rolled piece of paper that contains nothing but a few lines transcribed from a song we sing when we march, full of sentiment and yearning. I like to imagine these things have come with the bread, emerging from the dream world across the ravine. My mother, whose eyes always search the stairwell before she brings in the morning loaf, knows otherwise. “You mustn’t accept gifts and give none of your own in return,” she says. She is speaking on someone’s behalf, though I sense it is not mine. One morning a hulking object at the window blocks out all light. I slide the glass open and pull the thing inside: a huge bag of bubble gum pieces, the large pink kind that fill your mouth so thoroughly you might choke on them, wrapped in little waxed comic strips that make no sense and repeat themselves so often that I empty the entire bag on my floor and keep unwrapping without chewing, filling my bedroom with a cloying pink smell, moving through them all, searching for something new, something meaningful. I struggle to comprehend how so much enterprise, so much color, is invested in such nothingness.
On the bus, we listen, enchanted, as the boy from the other people invites us to walk the distance across the ravine and climb the hill to the village on the other side. He invites us to tread into a pocket of territory we have only imagined, never truly witnessed. To step into a dream. He invites us to see the goat killed. I too have heard something of the symbolism of the goat: if you dream of bringing a live one into your house, it is a sign you will suffer a loss. In the window behind the other boy’s head, I can see the reflection of my friend’s face, bright with a pleasure I know is drawn in part from the attentions of this boy from the other people, in part from the warmth of our boy’s arm on her back. I pretend her eyes, full of light in the dark glass, look into mine. Against the backs of my legs, I can feel the surface of the seat, a closely cropped fuzz that causes my bare skin to itch. I am wearing the same cutoff shorts I’ve worn for years, the shorts of a little girl. They barely tug at my hips, even now. I am not merely younger than the others in my grade; I am also less formed (and, there is the secret only my friend knows, that my cycle has not yet begun; what she does not know is that this is the focus of my constant prayer: let it not come let it not come let it not come). I have remained pencil-thin, though my legs have lengthened comically, causing my old shorts to conceal less and less of them, proportionately, each year. Our boy lounges between us, also grinning with pleasure as he listens to the talk of the naming ceremony, his chin just clearing the crown of my friend’s head, his hand resting, palm down, beside me on the seat. I can feel the knuckle of his smallest finger against my thigh. At first I barely distinguish the sensation from the prickle of the upholstery beneath it. But soon I feel the finger lift, then fall. Then again. It is a tiny movement, but unmistakable: the finger is exploring a small section of my leg, caressing it, with secret determination.
My first thought at this discovery is that I have been told never to sit beside a man from the other people—a man such as the one who has joined us just now—on a public bus, never to let such a man sit beside me, because he would doubtless attempt to do what the boy next to me is doing now. My next thought—though not really the next, because all my thoughts in this moment happen simultaneously—is a sudden, thorough comprehension of the problem of not having replaced my girlhood wardrobe at an earlier juncture. This thought, however, is not the source of the shame I am experiencing, the shame of which I was free a moment ago but of which I will never be free again. And these thoughts are all entangled with my thoughts of the boy with whom my friend and I spend our time. It is not difficult to entertain detailed thoughts about him, since as he does what he does to my leg (and all along I think: still the outside of my leg, only the outside—as if to confine all activity to that zone, or to dismiss any cause for alarm, though in the latter purpose I utterly fail), as he strokes my skin where no one can see him do so, he feigns obliviousness, directs his attention toward the other boy, presses his face further into my friend’s hair where she offers it up as a chin rest—as he does all this, he never once looks at me. I know he knows he is touching my thigh, has placed his hand there on purpose, is drawing something he wants from my skin, something I do not want him to take from me, but if I pull away, shrinking further into the side of the bus, I will silently accuse him of doing just what he is doing, and he will silently deny it, with a great deal of silent mockery and silent offense, and then my shame will only multiply.
I know all of this, though I knew none of it a moment before. The boy who touches me does not look my way. I do not want him to. But it is in his not-looking that I perceive the true shape and weight of my fifteen-year-old desperation. Without knowing what awaits me on the anything-but-infinite road ahead, I comprehend that this is what it would be like, were I to give in: he would not look me in the eye. I think to myself, it is like this with everything: there is no courage, nothing certain, nothing precise, no distinct question to which one can provide a definitive answer. I tell myself that this is why I cannot summon the faith to believe that to testify is to influence the direction of things: things are not solid, and therefore cannot be influenced. One stabs at them with the tendrils of memory, of witness, of warning—even, at times, of wisdom—and still they slip away. All that remains is the undertow of longing. True events and relations unfurl only there, deep beneath the surfaces made of sound and story, of words upon words that divert our attention, confuse us. I think: a ride on a bus at night, if it lasts long enough, might eventually silence all that noise, but then the darkness takes over.
It is late. The stories have run out for now. Our row falls quiet; the bus rolls onward. Time has shifted for us since the start of this journey, and now our minds are full of what awaits us at the end of this road, at a moment we can now call “very soon.” The boy beside me, the entire back of his hand motionless against my leg, has fallen asleep, his chin still resting in the soft nest of my friend’s hair. (He dreams of the evening of the naming ceremony, when he will knock—not on my bedroom window, but at my family’s front door, presenting himself alone, well groomed, an expectant prom date in a land where we indulge our fancies with far less fanfare. It will be my mother who finds him there.) In her seat at the center of our row, my friend bends her neck slightly under the weight of the boy’s heavy head, a burden she does not mind. She touches his arm where she has wrapped it around her. (Neither my mother nor the boy will see her where she stands, poised on a step halfway between my front door and the street, barefoot, her shoes pinched together in one hand, her hair still wet from her bath, her dress modest, respectful except perhaps for the shimmering cloth she has wound around her shoulders, not quite in the fashion for which it was intended, a scarf she and I bought together long ago.) The boy from the other people rests his head against the glass behind him, shuts his eyes, though his face still wears the ghost of a smile: he has succeeded, for the moment, in tapping into our dream in order to walk into his own. (On the street above, an idling car rattles and coughs. The boy from the other people sits behind the wheel, waiting to drive to his niece’s celebration. He will not, of course, arrive on foot, completing our oft-begun journey across the ravine; he will come, accompanied by strangers, along a winding road, one we’ve never traveled ourselves, likely unpaved and unlit.) In my seat, pressed against the bulkhead, I have no view of the road ahead, but I believe I can see it more clearly than the rest, because there is one thing I already know for certain: I will not go with them. I will fail to cross the ravine. (Instead, I will remain in my shelter, in bed, where I have begun to bleed, a pathetic trickle I recognize as the appropriate harbinger of my dubious womanhood. From my pillow, I can hear my mother, her tone of voice reminiscent of the scent of bubble gum, making my excuses to the boy who asks for me, completely unaware of where he is intent on going, why he is dressed this way—my mother is convinced, mistakenly, that this is one of many nights I have already pursued and will pursue again. Through the window, I will see one sight, the only view I have from this angle: my friend, alone on the stair, touched by the sun that has moved to the village’s side of the ravine, where it will soon soften and melt away. She looks not toward my open window, not at me, but at the boy with whom we have been spending our time, waiting quietly while he accepts the news that I will not come. Waiting for him to turn and join her instead. She has been patient. I have failed, I will tell myself as I watch the two of them ascend the stairs, hear the car rumble away—I am a failure, my voice deficient, my desires incorrect, my bold pursuit of peace a facade, nothing more than a frightened bid for comfort.)
It is already decided: I will not go. I will not witness the gathering in the village, the voice of the brother-in-law when he recites the blessings, the face of the baby in the sister’s arms, the name that is bestowed upon her for a lifetime on this night. I will not see the dying of the goat: the place where it is brought and held still, its cries, its bleeding. I will not be among the unusual guests at the ceremony, will not learn the reason they’ve been asked to come, nor how they are received, nor the transformations their lives will undergo before the night is done. No: my testimony ends when the bus whimpers to a halt in an empty parking lot at the university, my friend reaching up to wake the boy between us with a playful pat of his cheek above her head, as if she is adjusting a wayward hat. She pulls him to his feet, the hand slipping from my leg without a backward glance from the hand’s owner, and the two of them stand, starting a little as they remember the boy from the other people, resuming their exchange of smiles. The two young men shake hands, crafting plans to meet the following evening (the boys settle, of their own accord, on my address, the closest to the village across the ravine). I am nearly the last to exit the bus, leaving behind only the driver, and the pair seated behind him: the young man with the weapon slung over his shoulder, our constant escort, a permanent fixture at the side of the woman who persists in reminding us not to permit history to repeat itself. I manage a discreet tug at my shorts before I leap from the final step into the cold night air, landing with both shoes on the warm pavement. And that is all.
But I have emptied this memory out at my feet, and knelt to sift through its spoils, and found that indeed, that is all. I remember, I recount, I make the usual demands, and my testimony can yield nothing more: nothing in it is solid. Surely, everything—every place and person and hope—can be poked and prodded, caressed and embraced, overlooked and abandoned and betrayed, blasted and demolished and slaughtered, but still, I repeat: nothing is solid. The village is not a village; it is our dream. The city on the hill is what it is in the eyes that behold it from across the ravine that is itself more of a chasm than the terrain avows. Not one of us on the bus is anything more than a figment of the others’ imaginations. Even the goat is not a goat. Dreamed, it is the foretelling of loss. Alive, it is the echo of a baby’s cry. Restrained, neck exposed, eyes wide, it is the promise of wealth and sustenance, a repository for the sum of our longings, conferred at its death upon the tiny form of a squalling infant, our bid to reach into eternity.
Yet to my fifteen-year-old self, desperate and despairing, the witness of whom I testify, I say: you have it wrong. Yes, nothing is solid, nothing precise, everything eludes our grasp—everything, that is, except the goat that is not a goat, the girl who is not a girl, the bus that is not a bus. These apparitions, wrought of longing, are ours to behold. Not because we deny their truths, but because we release them from the burden of testimony. It is then that it is most possible to know them, most possible to show them love. It is of these that I tell my story; it is of these that I testify. Of the things that are not what they are, and are what they are not, and that is what frees them not only from where they have come, and where they go, but most of all from the current itself, breaking them out through the surface, then lifting them higher, forming visions in the clear, bright air.