by John Anthony
Walter paused before the photographs that adorned his hallway, wondering why this portrait of his daughters would sometimes catch his eye, as if becoming alive for a moment to say hello or give him a wave. An imperceptible smile crossed his lips and his eyes softened as the sound of his children’s giggling laughter flooded his memory. He became aware of his beating heart. Perhaps one of them was thinking of him so he said a silent prayer for the spirit to keep them safe and say hello in return. Climbing the stairs to his bedroom he remembered enveloping their closed hands in his as if to surround their entire world in the protection of his love. It was an ambivalent feeling. Being so protected might prevent life’s lessons being taught. If they were not so protected then the consequence of that was yet a different kind of lesson. If he had erred it had been on the side of love and playful joy. He sat on the edge of his bed for a while in quiet contemplation of such pleasant memories before turning off his electric blanket and easing his head onto the pillow. Getting into a warm bed must be one of the great pleasures of life he thought before closing his eyes.
It was one of those dreams where he knew he was dreaming, but it never crossed his mind to either leave it or indeed control it in any way. The thought that this was a dream seemed to reassure him as he felt he could always awaken to escape if such was his desire. Still dressed in his European clothing he was a stranger in a foreign land. Looking around at the white dusty streets bathed in the bright sunlight and the low sandstone walls, plus the lack of any tall buildings, he guessed he was somewhere in rural Middle East. Further observations bore this out. He was on the outskirts of a small town. Behind him lay an expanse of desert scrub land and to his right some women were gathering water from a well. Some young boys were playing chasing games to his left and in front of him lay an expanse of small dwellings as far as he could see.
No one paid any attention to him despite his clothing and pale skin. He was almost afraid to move in case of disturbing the whole scene. He was perplexed as to why this dream was presenting itself with all its clarity and realistic nature. Becoming aware of a figure standing motionless a few yards to his right he slowly turned. A small girl, perhaps no more than five or six years of age, stood staring straight at him. He wondered for a moment if she was really looking at him or through him at someone or something else. As was his nature he smiled and instantly received a beaming smile in return coupled with a cheerful giggle. She walked confidently towards him holding up a small rag doll. Continuing to smile and giggle in delight she held up the doll for him to inspect while speaking in a language he could not discern. Instinctively sinking to his knees in front of her and glancing around in case anyone might object to the attentions of this stranger, he reached out and stroked the doll also caressed her fingers. “It’s such a beautiful doll” he heard himself remark “and I really wish I understood what you are saying”. She turned and ran back to near where the women were working. Perhaps she was going to tell them about her new friend. She ran to a spot next to an old shack and came back with a shoe box into which she had placed the doll. Again, amid her giggles and laughter she seemed to be telling him a story. “I’m sure that’s really wonderful” he said and she seemed to respond to him with her gestures. At this stage he had forgotten he was in a dream so enthralled was he by her beautiful brown eyes and happy innocence. “I’d like to return to this place and see you again if that’s all right?” She took the doll and held it close to her chest and said “Safiyeh”. Something suddenly changed in that moment. Her face became expressionless, her eyes staring straight into his with no smile or giggle. Just then Walter became aware that others had all stopped working and for a single moment it was as if everything was frozen in time. A strange noise filled the air and suddenly there was commotion everywhere, people screaming and running, their meagre belongings abandoned and children being dragged away by their arms. There was a truly deafening explosion and in an instant Walter saw tons of rocks and debris expanding towards him as if in slow motion. His last memory was of looking into the eyes of this beautiful child and she into his. Everything was black then and Walter wondered how he could still be alive.
His hands automatically stroked his arms and legs expecting to discover missing limbs and gapping wounds but there were none. I’m okay he repeated to himself and a feeling of total relief overcame him. He remembered he was in a dream but part of him wanted to stay. Looking around for the little girl he was dumfounded to see her still standing there in front of him. He immediately reached out and coupled both her hands in his and said “You’re okay”. She stood there motionless for a few moments, eventually looked at him and said “Safiyeh’s okay”. Walter drew her close to him and felt her arms encircle his neck. “It’s okay” he repeatedly told her. He raised his eyes and looked around. There was a horrific mixture of blood, sand and body parts. He touched the back of Safiyeh’s head as if to protect her from the carnage. “You know what I’m saying” he whispered and felt the nod of her head on his shoulder. Getting to his feet he carried her towards a building that was still standing some distance away, making sure that as he went Safiyeh was shielded as best he could from that terrible scene. On the way he stooped to pick up her doll that lay on the ground. How could her doll be that far away and leave her unharmed? At last he made his way to the other side of the building. Sitting down beside each other she snuggled up close to his arm. The cries of people could still be heard in the distance but they were faint enough to leave them relatively undisturbed. She slipped her closed hand into his and he enveloped it with both of his.
“Is your name Safiyeh” he asked. “Yes Safiyeh” she said clearly. They then both sat silently and he bent his head and gently kissed her shiny black hair. He didn’t want to ever let her go.
“It is not for you to decide” said a voice as if answering his fleeting thought. Walter gazed at a tall stranger dressed in a white garb draped with a red cloak. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know. I think I‘m here to help Safiyeh”
“We all have a destiny but that is not yours,” His gaze rested on Walter and for a moment there was silence except for the distant cries.
“Who are you anyway” Walter asked.
“I am Safiyeh’s guardian”
“Was it your intervention that saved her?”
“She was not to be saved at this time, at least not in the physical sense that you mean.”
It took Walter some time to understand what the stranger was saying. He gazed at Safiyeh. Standing up he looked over the wall beside which they had taken refuge. Smoke still bellowed from the dwellings with people running to and fro in a desperate feeble attempt to help recover the dead and the dying.
“What am I doing here?” Walter whispered to himself.
“I cannot help you. I’ve come for Safiyeh but you have upset the process. You have given her attachments at a time when she needs to release them. So much so that she now can’t even see me. You need to help her or she could be trapped here for a long time. She was mesmerised by your attention when you first arrived, then you saved her from the trauma of the bomb blast and you even retrieved her doll but your love is based in ignorance. You have not long before you must leave this dreamscape and leave Safiyeh alone. You do not live here”
Walter looked at Safiyeh and gently stroked her shiny black hair and smiling face knowing that the stranger’s words were true. “Why then all of this?” he thought. “Here I am sitting in this, my dreamscape, beside beautiful Safiyeh who is caught between the physical and the spirit world and you” glancing toward the stranger “Where do you come from?”
“To give you a name in language or to say where I am from would be of no help to your understanding. Your time is getting short. The nature of your dream determines that must leave soon. Take Safiyeh’s hand and lead her to where you see me standing. Bring her doll and hand it to me. Once she sees me she’ll know who I am and come with me.”
Walter pointed to where the stranger stood and gently motioned to Safiyeh to come with him. He took her hand with the doll and stretched it out as if to give it to him. She turned and looked straight into Walters’s eyes. She smiled and giggled then in an instant both she and the stranger were gone. There was only the never ending stretch of white desert scrub land. He awoke in the semi darkness of his bedroom where chinks of light were breaking through the curtains from the dawn. Tears were streaming from his eyes. He lay there for what seemed a long time till the morning sun illuminated the dark crevices of the room.
The following days were strange. He had looked at the newspapers and the television always with the dream in the back of his mind. Then while trawling through some internet stories about the Middle East he came across a still photograph of a drone strike in Iraq. Many civilians were killed along with four militants. “Could it be” he thought. He got a magnifying glass from the drawer. There it was. The carnage he had experienced, with the detail of the building where he and Safiyeh had taken refuge. “Four militants” he sighed.
Later that evening he sat before his computer writing a letter. There was no real intention to begin with but as he wrote the words flowed naturally. His own family would want him to have a “normal” funeral with the usual plethora of dutiful mourners, tributes, black suited attendants and priests with their white collars and religious semantics. Was anyone left to give Safiyeh a funeral, if able to find her body parts? His letter became a declaration of conscience. What an honour it would now be to have his body lie in an unmarked grave with little ceremony save a tear of someone who may have known him. To the people of Iraq he said sorry for his part in their pain through his ignorance, prejudice and passivity. When he finished he addressed his letter to all the newspapers and radio stations he knew. He didn’t expect any replies.
Years later he would still reflect on Safiyeh. He chatted to her and sometimes, although he would never admit it to another, he could hear her giggle. Then his heart would skip a beat in joy.