The Promise of Honey
by Sheryl Glubok
In the predawn darkness, a tired, old bus rattles through the desert down a dirt road. Despite the jerking of the bus, Kayla's chin drifts toward her chest, the week's sleepless nights finally overwhelming her. But soon her eyes whip open as her body hits the cold metal floor. A tire has blown, and the driver overcompensates with the steering wheel, sending them zigzagging back and forth across the road. Kayla grips the legs of the seat next to her to avoid being thrown down the aisle. All she can think about is the bomb taped to her ribs exploding here miles from her target. A cry escapes from her lips, hovering in the air as the bus finally grinds to a halt. Kayla quickly picks herself up. Although the bus's interior lights have been extinguished, she gives her ribcage a quick feel. She can only hope everything is still intact.Kayla settles back into her seat. Her breath slows and finally she begins to dream, her first vivid dream in weeks. The echo of the bus's motion becomes her mother rocking her to sleep as she did when she was a child. Although in this dream, Kayla is no longer a baby, but a full-grown woman of twenty as she is today. Her lanky arms and legs curl compactly, fitting snugly into her mother's lap while she comforts her daughter, singing her own lullaby: Close your eyes Kayla, my wise child, so Allah can watch you sleep. You will dream of heaven and taste the honey on your lips.
Kayla has been on this bus nearly two hours since leaving Nablus well before dawn. Walking through the street in the lingering night, her skin felt unusually cool in the March air. She had forgotten what it was like to be outside at this time of night. Tilting her head back to look at the stars, she remembered how she used to wake her younger brother, Khaleda, and drag him still half-asleep into their back yard. They would lie down on the cool earth, staring up at the night sky. On a clear evening she could see the outline of her face in between the pinpoints of light. Sometimes their goat would startle her brother, who had inevitably fallen back asleep; he would cry out with a start when he felt the rough, wet tongue on his cheek. Kayla would hiss at him like a snake to be quiet. Then they would run inside, stifling the giggles that tickled their sides. Tonight, she thinks as she looks out the sooty window of the bus, the stars don't look as bright.
Kayla left her house long before the others would rise. She couldn't risk seeing her family, and she doesn't want Khaleda to discover what she stole from him. He will be angry at first, but she also knows he will be relieved. She saw how his mouth twisted into an unrecognizable shape, the way his hands trembled as he lifted each object, and heard the quiet strain in his voice when he told her: This is how you tape it to your body; this is how you ignite the fuse. Here on the map, this is where I will go, as if saying the words would help him to accept his fate. Khaleda, let me hold it. No Kayla, but then he handed it to her, the bundle of explosives, and she watched the weight lift from his face, the corners of his mouth rising to his usual smile. My younger brother, she wanted to tell him, you should go to medical school and make our parents proud, here, on this earth. Instead, she handed the bomb back to him hearing a metallic waterfall cascade inside. Nails, he said lowering his eyes.
As she left his room, she knew that unlike him, she was not afraid to die.
Soon the bus is on its way again. Kayla is wide-awake now, the shock of the close call still coursing through her veins. Fighting a wave of nausea, she looks out the window in the dim light of dawn to see her homeland, Palestine, one last time. The land has a bluish glow, like the color of sleep. The sky matches the inky black of her dress, and a ripple of red begins to pierce the sky. She believes it is a sign from Allah, as if her blood already warms the horizon. A glint in the road catches her eye as a breeze lifts the dust from its slumber. She is envious of the dust. It is free; she wants to be dust.
Along the road lights begin to appear in the windows of the camps framed by barbed wire, as the women start the fires for the day's baking. Her mother is awake now, quietly calling her name, Kayla. She turns her head as if she hears her, the voice echoing in her ears like the chime of a small bell. She tries not to picture her mother's face when she notices the empty bed, but Kayla sees it clearly as if she were looking in a mirror. If her mother only knew what her body had done to betray her. . .she would throw her out of the house, rend her clothing, proclaim her dead. Didn't I always teach you your body was sacred? Only a husband is allowed to touch. You are an animal, you are lower than an animal, you are dirt, anyone can walk on you
Hashim's gaze did not make her feel like dirt. She felt beautiful, and she loved him. How could Allah look down upon such feelings? After all, Allah made her capable of such feelings. She fights against the queasiness. She hasn't been able to eat more than two pieces of bread in the last two days. She wonders if it's the life inside of her trying to have its say. Kayla shifts in her seat, focusing instead on the task at hand. The bus will be at the checkpoint in Jerusalem, in half an hour and she practices her lines: "I was visiting my family in Nablus. My grandmother was ill but is better now. So I'm coming home. I am a seamstress."
Kayla was a young girl the first time she visited Jerusalem. She went with her grade school class on a field trip to Qubbet Sakra, the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven. Her father, who was not a particularly religious man, was asked to chaperone the girls. Ten of them walked dutifully in a straight line, each clasping the small shoulder in front of them. It was a beautiful day, hot the way Kayla liked it. The sun baked the stones, and the earth's heat warmed her feet through the rope of her sandals. She felt proud, getting to be the first in line and holding her father's hand as they walked up the steps, as if they too were ascending to Allah. She can almost feel the stones again; the wind whisking a fine sheen of sand on the steps in front of them, peppering her ankles like little pellets of fire. As they ascended toward the sky, the gold of the dome gleamed as if it were the sun itself. She remembers her father's tears as he held her hand tightly, till she could no longer feel her fingers. When he let go, her blood raced to the places of its exile. See, she thinks, everything yearns to be in its rightful place. It was the closest she had ever felt to her father. Even though he had let go, she could still feel the grip of his hand.
Now it is another man's touch that lingers on her fingers. You are a daughter of Allah, she hears her mother yelling, not a son. Her mother's angry voice reverberates in her mind, reawakening the memory of when Kayla was nine. Holding a fistful of her daughter's long, black hair, her mother dragged her home, her stick-thin legs kicking up the dust behind her as her mother yanked her along. Through the sting of her eyes she saw the boys staring at her, including her brother. They began to laugh and point. She struggled harder even though her mother was stronger and at each resistance tightened her grip. She had always been allowed to run with the boys in the palm grove near their house. Why did it matter now?
Once home, her mother had slapped her cheek, flinging a tear to the ground. Don't look at me like that, Kayla. I will teach you, if it kills me, how to be a woman. Eyes lowered, she watched the fallen tear dissolve into the stone floor, and she felt herself disappearing too. In the days and years that followed, she learned how to lower her gaze and watch through the corner of her eye as her brother and his friends continued to run through the grove. The time her mother caught her watching them Kayla felt the slap before she even knew her mother was there.
The soldier's voice startles her. Papers, he repeats, in both Hebrew and Arabic. Her hands tremble as she gives the soldier her papers. She withdraws them quickly into her lap and drops her gaze. Her skin tightens under the tape. She is ready to go with him if this soldier gives her any trouble. From the corner of her eye, she notices the fine, dark hair around his mouth and chin; it is a boy's beard like her brother's. She reminds herself he doesn't belong here, and feels defiant. Secretly she hopes that he would test her, tell her that she must come with him. She knows it is he who would come with her.
Instead the soldier grunts and hands her papers back. The bus shifts into gear and lurches forward, the wheels grinding the dust deeper into the pavement as they enter Jerusalem. She turns back toward the window as the bus enters the city. Her mother's voice doesn't follow her here. Heart pounding, she waits for the stop that will take her to the main square. She removes her scarf, folding it carefully, and places it beside her. She does not want to draw attention to herself. When she walks into the city, she must look like an Israeli woman, even though she has little sense of what that looks like. As she looks around her now, the Israeli women seem different from the women in Nablus. They stand taller, walk faster, and are bent slightly forward, as if their heads are already at their destinations. This must be caused by their guilt, she thinks, for the occupation.
Stepping off the bus Kayla has some distance to cover. but she doesn't mind; she wants to feel her body one last time as she makes her way through the streets. She peers straight ahead, not wanting others to see the dark purpose in her eyes. Instead, she lets her mind wander to what she wants to hold onto but can't, to Hashim, Hashim with his dark hazel eyes and his hands that touched her hair. He was one of the boys she'd run with in the grove as a girl; the only boy who hadn't laughed when her mother dragged her away. She'd loved him from that moment. They'd spent years eying each other with lowered glances, recognizing the tightened lips on each other's faces as repressed smiles. Once when she had tripped on the path, he had helped her up, wiping the dust from her clothes. The other boys had called them names meant as jeers, husband, wife. She secretly hadn't minded.
Ten years later, despite the fact he was about to be married to his cousin from Jericho, they slipped in silence into the back room of his uncle's store, the sultry scent of sesame perfuming the air. They sat quietly, staring at the concrete floor. He'd said, I wish it could be you. Then he let his knee touch hers lightly, as if she would disappear if he pressed too hard. She helped him lift her dress up her thighs, and pulled him in closer, letting him bury his face in her hair. He smelled like hot oil, as he worked his way into her. She wanted their bodies to be inseparable. Except for a moment, they seemed to slip past each another as if they could never touch.
Afterwards, she lowered her gaze, and he avoided looking in her eyes. They left the storeroom and he rushed off as if he'd never known her, as if he'd never wanted to know her. But she doesn't ask herself if she would take those moments back, even now, when she carries the life inside of her they could have led together.
Unconsciously she stops in front of a store window selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Her reflection peers back at her. At first she thinks it's some other woman with dark hair haloed by shiny oranges, lemons, and limes. Her mouth waters for the taste of orange on her tongue. She imagines the juice escaping from the corners of her mouth, sliding down her cheeks. Turning sideways, she checks for a hint of the bomb cradled beneath her breasts, above the slight bulge of her belly. She looks away quickly. She can't bear to see life and death so close.
Heavy with these thoughts, she forces one foot after the other through the crowded, narrow streets of Jerusalem. She is surrounded by noise, by an indistinguishable mass of bodies and faces bright with the noon sun. Yet she shivers, as if her body were cloaked in shadow. Suddenly Kayla wants to start running; run as far as she can until she can no longer run. Could she run to the sea? She has never seen it. How can she die never having seen the sea? Would they try to stop her? Shoot her in the back as she shouts, I just want to touch the water. Her eyes dart around her. Maybe there is an answer in that wall there, or in the eyes of that old woman. But the ancient walls are silent, and the woman ignores her anxious stare. But reason returns. She is no longer a girl, but a woman and she is not allowed to run. No, she thinks, we are not meant to enjoy this life until we are free; until there is no more occupation and the humiliation ends. She walks toward this crowded caf� where the faces are smiling, jealous that every mouth on this patio knows the taste of what she has never known except in a moment, in a back room.
She walks faster now, savoring the silvery metallic taste of freedom on her tongue. Someone shouts but she doesn't understand what he yells. All she can hear is her father's laugh; all she can see is the smile on his face when he hears the news. His daughter, an istish-hadiyat, a martyr. Her mother will cry at first, but she can bear that more than tears of shame. They will have money; her coffin will be paraded around the city. Kayla knows she will be admired, admired instead of reviled. She is getting close to her destination now, the place she will ascend to heaven. She hears her name on Allah's lips. Kayla, come to me. A hand tries to grab her shoulder, but it slips off the smooth fabric of her dress. She fingers the trigger, she is running now. Just twenty feet, twenty more feet and she will be in the perfect position; her rock, her place where she will ascend to heaven. Maybe someday they will build a temple for me here, she dreams, for all of us who have refused to live like slaves. People are shouting, she must do it quickly; she must press the trigger before it is too late. The smell of sesame almost stops her in her tracks. In her mind, Hashim's eyes turn away, the blood escapes from her face. . . For a moment Kayla becomes weightless and she flies. Everyone on the earth below looks up at her as her arms take on the shape of wings and she soars, soars high above their heads. They are amazed as if they've never seen a woman fly. She looks east toward her home and now she flies above herself as a girl, running ahead of the boys who are struggling to keep up. Try to catch me, try to catch me, she yells over her shoulder, but she runs too fast, no one can catch her. She runs past her mother who is smiling, look how strong she is, her eyes seem to say. She runs past her father who is crying. Don't be sad, she tells him. He shakes his head, I'm not, Kayla. I'm not. She senses someone closing in, a breath on her shoulder. She looks back and sees two hazel eyes burning with effort. She wants to slow down, to let Hashim run beside her. Instead she runs faster; no one has ever run this fast, no woman, no man.
She is an angel; an angel with nail studded wings who soon crashes to the earth. The impact knocks out her last breath.
Her mouth opens one final time, hoping to taste the honey on her lips.
Sheryl is a freelance writer and executive recruiter who earned her MFA in Fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars.