The Calm the Love the Traceless Land
- by Sara Saab -
Who knows how long we’ve been in the Algerian desert. The hotel napkins say Est. 1891, which means possibly more than a hundred years. Some of us dream of a time before the hotel: syrup-orange sand and a blasting heat, and at night a deep, brittle cold on our leathered skin. The dreams are frequent and so similar.
We: Maragot, Horatio, Ysabela. Little Friday. And me. Ysabela and I are the Algerians, in that we experience a clenching in our chests when we hum along to the national anthem. The anthem jangles over the speakers at the start of breakfast service. The rest don’t feel a clenching—their national provenance is unclear. Horatio fastidiously arranges honeydew slices in descending scale on his gleaming dessert plate. Most days Little Friday says a prayer. Maragot hums the anthem, but without verve. She only hums it because she is my friend.
Maragot was the first friend I made at L’Hôtel du Cèdre. She was coming down the hallway from Room 312, and I saw her and pretended to be looking for my key, though I could feel it heavy and warm in the pocket of my linen slacks.
Maragot slowed but did not stop. The hallway smelled of the carpet, which smelled like the spine of an old book wrapped for years in a mildewed nightgown. Maragot’s hair was frizzier and blacker than mine, and much longer. She moved with a limp she did not care to hide. Our eyes snagged for a second. My key, I said. Yes, she said. Are you new to the hotel, I asked. I think we all are, was what she said.
That might have been a week ago or a century. I remember check-in very, very clearly. The front desk staff brought out clean towels for me and handed them to the bellhop. We waited for a party to come down the Jade Staircase so we could go up. The bellhop said that the embroidered bands on the towels were stitched by Berbers in the desert.
We: Maragot, Horatio, Ysabela. Little Friday. And me. And one other—Stanton. But not Stanton anymore.
What of Stanton? We know a little. Stanton is Maragot’s beloved. We know this because of the locket. Maragot wears the brass locket even when we go up to the rooftop pool and swim lazy figure eights around each other. At dinner service she opens the locket and props it on the crisp white tablecloth to view both pictures inside. If she’s been swimming a wet spot spreads on the tablecloth. The left picture: a pair of overlapping hearts, yellow like a wheat field (not like the desert). The right picture: a portrait of Stanton.
From the portrait we know that Stanton has Brylcreemed hair and a forehead like a French actor. His hair might be dark brown, or black like Maragot’s and mine. He wears a turtleneck. Possibly the turtleneck was only for this portrait, but to me this is quintessentially Stanton: a man in a turtleneck.
Where did Stanton go? L'Hôtel du Cèdre is enormous, but I don't think he could be in any of the rooms. I never spy him disappearing around corners or clearing his tray after breakfast. There is the desert, of course. But the way Maragot is about him, we presume Stanton is dead.
The Algerian desert inhabits the hotel. Sweeps of it grit the mosaicked lobby floor. It is baked, grain-by-grain, into the bed sheets. Laundering them only embeds the desert deeper. It is the texture of the Chef’s Special peach flan and it is the salt of the minute steak. It is in our lungs. It is in the joints that give Maragot her limp.
Stanton and I never got along—if we ever talked, if we ever sipped Moon Lagoons together at the lobby bar. It was the way he spoke to me, as though there were something petty to be jealous about. The way he never mentioned me to the others, as if I didn’t exist. That was a hundred years ago or last week. If only I could remember the state of my hands. One can tell age easily from the hands.
Nobody has ever become unwell at L’Hôtel du Cèdre. We have eaten leftover prawn cocktail from giant plastic tubs in the kitchen with wild abandon, our fingers coral-pinked with Thousand Island dressing. We all know each other intimately—how each likes to kiss and be touched, the darting and luxuriating of tongues and lips, the hard and soft grips of hands whose fingernails never need trimming. Horatio’s surprised murmurings of pleasure and Little Friday’s intense tonsured calm. It is one of the better pastimes here, despite or because of the games of boules at the edge of the desert, the barbershop quartet, bingo night, the small cinema with its green felt curtains. There are no menstrual cycles and there has never been a child.
There is only Maragot’s limp, and the other thing: that under the desert sun our throats parch and we burn.
Our money is bound to run out. That is when we will leave. It’s not a matter of escape but of finances. The hotel is opulent; the desert is free. I remember paying each hotel invoice very, very clearly. Yet our money does not run out. It is like the dallah of qahwa beside the tray of dates in the atrium, always brimming and hot and ready.
Horatio and Maragot and I touch each other with lazy strokes in the rose-scented hot tub. Horatio has worn the same moustache for as long as I've known him. He is lucky it suits him because he can't shave it. It gives his kisses a pointedness, it makes of them a striving. Maragot has a hand wrapped around my neck. Her other hand swirls in the water, trailing floating petals like a raft of ducklings.
My hand grazes the locket at Maragot’s breastbone. I break a kiss and let Horatio’s foam-scummed moustache trail down my shoulder. Stanton, I venture. No, is what Maragot immediately says. She has a resonant voice, one destined for the opera.
He never thought much of me, I say. Everyone thinks the world of you, Maragot says. She seems desperate to say nothing else. Do you miss him. I touch her face with the hand that grazed the locket. Her jaw is strong and set against the water softness of my palm. I can’t remember, she says. I don’t remember.
Ysabela is teaching me the steps to the tango. We are in our bathrobes. The hotel orchestra plays for us and no one else as we shuffle in slippers across a floor polished to a shine by a lost history of dancers.
Was he here, she asks suddenly. Who, I say. Ysabela says, My brother. She twists away from me in a motion that has none of the elegance of a tango step. She shuffles to the stage, shouts up at the orchestra—Where's my brother. They stop playing, the violins first, then the cellos, one by one. Where’s my brother. Is he here. The conductor with the sad eyes looks down. We don’t know, Ms. Ysabela. We don't know your brother.
I walk to Ysabela and put my arm around her. Was he with you at the hotel, I ask. It echoes in the ballroom’s silence. She says, He was just with me. With Maragot and I, in the desert. Maragot chased after him. She was too fast. I pause. I cannot imagine Maragot chasing anyone.
Maragot. And Ysabela says, Yes.
I draw her hair away from her brow and kiss her temple. We leave the ballroom to the sounds of the orchestra packing away their instruments. At the top of the Jade Staircase, we turn to part. And just for a moment, I see Stanton’s face overlaid on Ysabela’s. The same planar forehead, the gentle chin, that searchlight glare.
Stanton. And Ysabela says, Yes.
Room 312 has always been Maragot’s room. It smells like a warm spice, nutmeg or cardamom. A standing fan strung with red fabric rotates perpetually in one corner, near the window. The ceiling fan in Room 312 has never worked, but Maragot won’t take another room. She leaves the window open. Her room has a desert view. All our rooms are desert view suites, because there is nothing here but the desert.
The open window brings small life into the room: dragonflies and locusts and the odd translucent scorpion. None of these creatures ever sting, or they do but we don’t sense it. We have learned to leave them alone, to let them crawl over our pillows and into our slippers.
My head is in Maragot’s lap. We are playing rummy with a deck of cards adorned with hotel landmarks: the rooftop pool, the Jade Staircase, the greenhouse, the lobby bar. The game is flawed because Maragot can see my hand, but we play with spirit. I feel Maragot squirm before she lays down a long sequence. Her locket dangles above me, casting a shadow over my chest. A tin saucer sun is setting into the horizon.
I had the dream last night, she says. I rearrange my hand, black then red, largest to smallest. It is not a good hand. Which version of the dream, I say, and gaze up at her face lit by the honey of sunset. A new version. You were there, and Ysabela. We found a Berber caravan headed for Algiers. We walked with them. Our bare feet burned until they had no nerve endings left.
I curl my fingers in the cup of Maragot’s palm. She puts down her cards to free her other hand, and places it over my knuckles. And Stanton, I ask. Maragot squeezes my hand. Her thick eyelashes are limned by sun. Ysabela's brother, Stanton, I ask. Not in this dream, says Maragot. Is he lost in the desert, I ask. We are all in the desert, is what she says.
In the greenhouse, it’s easier to conceive of a world beyond L’Hôtel du Cèdre, and even beyond the desert. The greenhouse is crammed full of things that are alive. It is the loneliest place I know. Here I sit on a bench between orchids and ferns. I breathe the loamy air and sway. In my imagination the greenhouse becomes a Berber carriage that transports me through this wound in reality.
Once, a hundred years ago, or a week, there was more of me than this. I was Algerian in more ways than an inner clenching. A whole language has dried to grey flecks in my throat. I once went months without forgetting my name. I thought about things that weren't the desert. There were people I knew who were not Little Friday or Horatio or Ysabela or Maragot.
A hotel gardener enters the greenhouse. Sorry to interrupt, he says. He is wearing a smart velvet waistcoat. I stand to greet him. I manage to smile, but find I cannot look at him dead-on—some problem with my eyes or neck or spine. I think I have never been able to look at anyone dead-on who is not Little Friday, Horatio, Ysabela, or Maragot. But I remember everything very, very clearly.
Do I know your name, I ask. Of course, he says, you are here every day. What is your name, I ask. He says a word with hard vowels and punchy consonants and I can tell that he is Algerian but I cannot grasp the name. Again, I say. He repeats it. Again. He says, Is there a problem. Shall I leave you. I am rotating my eyes all the way over to focus on him, and craning my neck, but failing. What is my name, I ask. He says a word of hard vowels and punchy consonants, an Algerian name, which I do not grasp.
I can't look at him, so I try to touch him with my hands. Please, he says, moving back, Propriety. I ask, Where are we. How did we get here. He laughs kindly. L’Hôtel du Cèdre. A five-star establishment. Where else.
Little Friday and Horatio find me in my room at dawn. I am clammy with the sweat of dreamless sleep. Ysabela’s going crazy, Little Friday says. She's leaving, Horatio says. Come.
Where would we go, the five of us? What is the shape of a world unbounded by a front desk wake-up call at six and the concierge knocking with freshly warmed towels after dinner? What is the shape of a day without a buffet breakfast, card games on the deck, sex in the hot tub, the greenhouse, cocktails in the lobby?
We find Ysabela’s bathrobe first, then her footprints gouged into red sand and up the crest of a dune. The steps are close together, meek. Should we go after her, Horatio asks. What if she hasn’t paid for her room, Little Friday says. The heat is still bearable so early in the day. I stand between Little Friday and Horatio, and my arms are around their warm bodies. My fingers key their ribs through their clothing. I could so easily propel us forward, a kind of manic free-fall that would crater the desert with one giant body print. We’d rise from it or we wouldn’t. Who knows.
Maragot is alone at breakfast service when the three of us return. She looks up at us and then down at her plate: five red grapes and one greasy link of sujuk. I see now that we are the only guests in the banquet room. Ysabela, I say as I sit beside Maragot. Always so quick with the names of the gone, she says to me and smiles. Will she find...I struggle to finish. Will she find him. It seems important to ask. For Ysabela. No one finds anything in the desert, Maragot says.
It’s a hundred years later or a week—if only I could look at my hands. I’m in Maragot’s room, both of us slick and spent. I stand in front of the fan and look out over the desert. The fluttering strips of fabric knotted to the spokes tickle my belly. Come back here, Maragot says from the bed. Her voice is husky. I wonder if she knows I am imagining what's out beyond the dunes. I shift my gaze so I won’t be found out. You’ll catch a cold, she says. I won't, I say. You know I won’t.
Then I see him. Stanton. He’s dressed in a grey turtleneck and black slacks, a tiny faraway figure lying on the side of a dune. I see him very, very clearly. Then Ysabela. She stands before Stanton in a cocktail dress, clumsily stepping through the tango, each footfall sinking her ankle-deep in the sand.
Come back to bed. Come back and tell me a story about Algeria, says Maragot.
You tell me a story this time, I say. Not the dream. The true story. And I am full of hope, and I am full of regret.
© 2018 by Sara Saab
Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her Resting London Face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.