Claire de Lune

by Zaher Alajlani

For Eugenia

They’d just finished making love, and it was, as always, meaningful and magical. Even after forty-two years of marriage, it was still so. He loved her the first time he met her when she was nineteen, when he married her when she was twenty-three, and now when she was sleeping beside him as a slightly overweight sixty-two-year-old woman.

When she was younger, she’d often stand before him in the living room, uncovering her belly and pouting. She’d then grab her arm and squeeze it. “Look! I gained weight even here.”

He’d say something like, “To me, you’re a beauty queen, but I’ll support you if you want to diet.”

She never dieted, and he never saw her as anything but a beauty queen with a snow-white unblemished complexion, hazel eyes, rebellious bosom, and shapely ivory toes. Those were always manicured and soft, and he loved kissing them to make her feel adored.

He still looked handsome at sixty-seven: broad shoulders, lean frame, silver mane, and piercing dark brown eyes.

“How do you manage to stay thin?” people would ask him.

“I have been working out regularly since I was twenty-five,” he’d tell them.

He exercised, all right, but he was also quasi-suicidal and as spiteful as a feral cat. The constant fight against those urges he so despised exhausted him and kept him thin.

He knew that aging may be graceful, while death is always messy. His father died of alcoholism at the age of fifty, and his older brother drank himself to an early grave soon after. There was a tendency to self-destruct in his family. He was sure he would’ve done the same long ago if it weren’t for his wife. And so, his whole existence rested on an agonizing balance between his latent desire to expire and his conscious effort to live for her.

He’d remember his hunched-back mother crossing herself and weeping as they lowered her husband’s coffin into the ground. He’d recall how her hand trembled before she dropped the phone handle, said, “Your brother, your bro–” and fainted. His mind played those terrible scenes so vividly that the rustling of his mother’s earrings when he shook her never left him. He’d hear it underlying the birdsong, the roadway noise, and even the dead silence of the night.

His mother woke up after a few shakes. Within less than a week, however, she fell unconscious again, but that time forever. She left him nothing but an empty medicine cabinet, the enduring memory of foam around her mouth and vomit on her chest, and a suicide note on the bedside table. “I’m sorry. I can’t go one,” it read.

Since then, the idea of self-murder had been a dark cloud hanging over his head. His psychological suffering was more vicious than any physical affliction, to the point that he wished his mind was a white noise machine he could unplug. But that is not how the world works. Suffering is inescapable. We must be conscious of it, and in its unceasing throes, we must find meaning. There is no other way: That’s man’s cross to bear.

He knew that and persevered, making a name for himself as an author of stories about madness, suicide, and death—about cannibal cults, homeless underdogs, and abused prostitutes. Although he had to venture into his mind’s dark, accursed territories to write, he’d always come back to his wife when he’d click Save and slam his laptop shut.

“Baby,” he’d call out to her, “come here.”

She’d enter his home office with a triumphant smile that told him, “You’re here again, and you’re mine.”

He’d roll his chair away from the desk, slap his thigh, and say, “Here, little cat.”

She’d sit in his lap and kiss his neck as he’d rest his head on her shoulder and breathe in her mesmerizing scent, a blend of coconut body lotion, sweet perfume, and just heavenly Eastern-European skin. This brought him back to the small world she’d built for him, which always had hot meals, clean clothes, and unconditional love—one that he basked in when he needed it and still felt intensely when he didn’t. It was abundant and firm, even during the rare fight or shouting match.

Her faith was abundant, too. She prayed, fasted, took communion, and always wore a cross around her neck. But above all, she always remained hopeful. He, on the other hand, had bouts of nihilism and despair. On hopeless days, nothing made sense to him. He’d sink into himself like a stone sinks into the bottom of a lake, shutting out the whole world and thinking about the beauty of disappearing without leaving a trace behind, as though he never lived or suffered.

What does it all mean? he’d think. Probably nothing. It meant nothing to my father, nothing to my brother, and nothing to my mother.

There were days when hope nested in his heart like a sparrow in a tree. He’d close his eyes and repeat, “Our Father Who art in heaven…” Every word rippled in his heart like a raindrop on the sea surface, and he’d suddenly be sure of his purpose.

Suffering must mean something, but man should not know what it is. I must live, read, write, and enjoy what God’s given me.

Despair would soon come back, nonetheless, like a crazed logger. The chainsaw would roar. The tree would fall. A squishing sound would follow as the bird of hope was crushed. It was always a circular pattern: hope, despair, hope, despair, hope, and so on.

Tonight, the despair was different, more intense, utterly intolerable. He felt as though there were thousands of men within him enduring gruesome forms of torture. Some were crucified, others boiled, and some on fire. Yet, none made a sound. Pin-drop silence had engulfed them all.

This silence within was as pervasive as the one without in his Transylvanian getaway cabin. They say walls have ears. That may be true. But they don’t tell you that silence has a mouth and sometimes utters the most terrifying things.

“Look at your wife. Look at her,” a voice now told him. “Look how peaceful she is, as peaceful as the dead.”

He looked at his wife, then got up. He stood across the fireplace in the living room, the crackling flames glaring at his white pajamas. His eyes caught the short sword hanging on the wall above.

“It looks sharp, somehow tempting,” the silence hissed.

He went to the kitchen, poured a glass of whiskey, and returned to the living room, bringing the bottle with him. Once he sat on the couch, he took a small sip, looked at the fireplace before him, and then took another, then another, and yet another. He sniffed and downed the drink.

“You love your wife, right? You can’t live without her, can you?”

He ignored what he’d heard, filled up the glass again, and drank it in one gulp.

“You think you can drink me away,” it persisted. “Heh, I thought you were smarter than this.”

“What do you want?” he finally responded, his eyes absorbing the sword.

“To give you relief. The sword is sharp. Maybe you should put it to use.”

He took in a deep breath and said nothing.

“I know you love your wife to death and can’t live without her, and that’s the problem. Sooner or later, one of you will die, and your love story shall turn into a catastrophe.”

Shut up. Just shut up. He pressed his hands on his ears.

“There’s nothing more catastrophic than to truly love. Even when God loved the world, His Son had to die for it,” the voice tolled within him.

Something snapped in him. What if she dies before me? What would I do then? Even if I kill myself immediately afterward, the agony of a split second of such realization must be like an eternity in hell.

The heat shot through his feet and shins as he placed a chair next to the fireplace, stood on it, and snatched the short sword. The sheath made a dull sound when hitting the carpeted floor. The tips of his first and middle fingers left a trail of blood after he ran them against the blade.

“See, sharp enough,” the voice said.

An image popped into his head: He collapsed before his wife’s grave, unconsoled by the words of the faceless mourners. He returned to an empty home, feeling a kind of cold he’d never felt before, one that penetrated every layer of his being.

“Take the sword, go to the depth of the woods, and do it. Slash your wrists, and eventually, you’ll be in eternal peace—no more ups, downs, hope, or despair. Suicide is the ultimate act of control. Die on your own terms. Do it. Just do it. There’s a cold moon tonight. It’s beautiful, marvelous. You can slice your wrists, lie down, and gaze at it. It would be a perfect last thing to see.”

His mind began unraveling. And all the suffering, fear, and desperation he endured in sixty-seven years morphed into one awful beast that crawled on its belly like a serpent, flicking its tongue and waving its tail.

“You’re a writer. You love good endings. Do it. Write yours,” the silence whispered.

A jolt of madness ran through him before he jumped off the chair and sprinted toward the door, holding the unsheathed sword and then opening the cabin door. The dirty snowmelt swamped his house slippers when he stepped outside. The cold didn’t deter him, nor did the wind that lashed him mercilessly. Suicide had his mind under its spell.

He stumbled, unshoed himself, and walked toward the forest’s edge until it swallowed him. Patches of moonlight penetrated through the crowns of the tall trees, whose branches were almost intertwined. The sword in his hand felt light, as though it was part of his body. This made suicide feel more seductive to him—more natural. He walked and walked, and the forest sneered at him with every step.

“Here,” said the voice.

He dropped the sword, then knelt, letting out a cry that resembled a wounded beast’s.

“I must do it. I must,” he stuttered.

He clasped the sword’s grip with both hands, lifting it up and planting it in the soil. A sense of utter satisfaction came over him when it stuck. He felt like he’d just stabbed all of God’s creation, venting years of unexpressed spite. He placed his wrists on the sides of the sword’s edge. He wanted to move them up and down like one does when cutting a rope.

“I can’t do it.” He clenched his jaws and began weeping.

“Do it. Just do it,” the voice murmured.

He closed his eyes, and suddenly, he could smell his wife. Her scent had penetrated the forest, filled his nostrils, and then merged with the blood coursing through his veins. He opened his eyes: He was now sitting by the edge of the bed with his wife sleeping supine next to him.

What! Maybe it was all a dream, he thought. But his dirty, bloodied, bare feet told him otherwise. He lay down on his back next to her before holding her hand.

She made a sweet moan, turned toward him, and opened her eyes wide. “Where did you go?”

Without looking at her, he answered, “I don’t know.”

“The most important thing is that you came back.” She smiled, then closed her eyes again.

He looked at her and saw she’d already drifted off to sleep with her chest heaving.

He, too, closed his eyes. Apart from the faint sound of her breathing, there was total silence. But this time, it didn’t speak.

Zaher Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator living between Romania and Greece. He has published three short story collections in English and one in Arabic. His short stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Infinite Sky, Revista Echinox, Active Muse, Bandit Fiction, The Creative Launcher, Visible Magazine, Agape Review, The Journal of Romanian Literary Studies, Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory, The Experimental Museum of Literature in Greece, Masharif, and Tadween.

He is a prose editor for Agape Review and a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory. He previously worked as a prose submission reader for Bandit Fiction. Zaher is now a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He speaks English, Arabic, Romanian, and Greek.

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