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A Cream City Reserved Only for the Pious

by Heba Elsherif

The weatherman on the nine p.m. news broadcast performed his regular monologue: moderate temperature, slight wind, no hint of rain. There was absolutely nothing unordinary about tomorrow.

After dinner, dishes in the sink filled up, a healthy appetite on awkward display. This meant that there would not be enough cereal bowls for breakfast, but the mother’s rationale was to wait and wash them in the morning. Tomorrow was inevitable. The mother would go do grocery shopping in the morning and later steal half an hour at the hairdresser’s like a sneaky teen. Her husband would stay home all day, glued to the couch with a bowl of something always filled to the top, set at close range. Their two children never made plans. Theirs is the kind of generation that traded plans for the perpetual thrill of living in the moment.

The next morning, birds chirped in earthly harmonies. It was a kind of ecstatic ululation. On any given day, it was somewhat difficult to follow the sequence of their hums. On that particular morning, however, their tunes were firmly arranged, linear and expected, like a line of troops. As was her custom, the mother woke up first. She headed to the kitchen for her usual caffeine fix. As the coffee percolated, it produced bubbly sounds that briefly interrupted the morning melody outside. She poured a cup and placed it at the edge of the porcelain surface circling the sink. She slipped on her rubber gloves, released a heavy breath of air, and turned on the tap. Water flowed down on the pile of dishes, producing uneven splashes and instantly washing away a thin layer of grease. Unaware of the natural soundtrack belted out by the twittering birds, she started humming a Billy Joel song. It was only an hour later that her husband arose. He gently pecked her shoulder, put in a new filter, and poured fresh coffee into the top compartment of the percolator. And then the bubbly tunes replayed.


It was a stormy afternoon. Out on the field, stubborn wind blew strong and steady. The owl rested on top of the tree, her usual smile swelling with snide as she pitied the world beneath. The branches on which she sat rattled with ego, sending laughter down their stem and into the roots, stiff, hair-like strands of life that have lived for over three hundred years. The local council was concerned that the tree might one day crack the ground beneath it, causing damage to lives and to the surrounding buildings. So occasionally, they sent a disinterested employee to inspect the roots to confirm that the earthly giant was not threatening the concrete and steel foundations of its surroundings. “All is well, sir.”

The owl was looking out with uncertain belief. Year after year, she spied on the human race, a weakened, spiritless human race. She mopped her wing of the rainfall and wondered when the night would calm, when the rainfall would end, when the clouds would settle their dispute with God. As she pondered the future of the night, rain started pouring heavily, punching the ground, dotting the horizon with traces of frozen hope, a possible return to the life she silently envisioned. A world where there is no honking, where there are no humans to drive cars and no rubber tires to aid them; a world where birds chirp with colored sounds and animals are not towed to extinction; a world where there is no need for signs signaling, “Caution: Falling Coconuts”; a world where greed ceases to exist.

“But where will all the good ones go?” Miles above the surface of the earth, snow bricks are perched in shades of beige, a cream city reserved only for the pious. It’s a place where men bear pearl halos and women appear in scores of cream robes. Egg white meals are all that is on offer, and sometimes citizens witness milk storms. But if occasionally an optimistic dove flutters by, only the fathers will be blessed, and if you ask the chalk judges, they’ll tell you they’re just following orders. “Really?” Yes, it’s the end of the world.


The light drizzle intensified gradually, the drops growing bigger in size and stranger in shape, creating dewy patterns as if they were carrying hope for a future generation, an alien but wiser invasion of something unfamiliar. The owl started fidgeting, her claws tightly gripping the branch on which she was sitting. Beneath her, swollen water bubbles immersed maturely into wet soil, sparking echoing signals on their way down. As the rain settled in, moldy patches appeared on the ground surface gradually fusing into uniform shapes that sharpened around the edges. Growing fuller, they started piling up, sheet after sheet, young and un-inked like newborns. The stacks thickened steadily and then with speed, expanding horizontally in strict formations across the field, as if they had suddenly been missioned to conquer a much stronger enemy. Aligning their troops, they coiled around the edges, lying flat and facing upward in an orderly manner, clutching one another as they battled the howling winds. They assembled dutifully, throngs of earthly books with a fiery stare, hugging and soulful.

The owl, still sticking to her branch, looked down with gloried disbelief. The pupils in her eyes grew bigger, occasionally surrendering to a haze of rapid squints. She struggled to believe what was unfolding before her. For a regular bystander, the sight would have been incomprehensible. But to the owl, it resembled an astral awakening. The ground that carried her home, bearer of the only life she has lived, was suddenly objecting. She had often wished for something big to happen to shatter the predominant order. Thrilled that on this particular night the clouds felt the same urge, she marveled at the sky and the powerful raindrops that were on their way to shift the paradigm. After tonight, the fields would no longer be forced to accommodate uncaring crowds of men cheating on one another, cheating on life by wasting borrowed time. She gasped at the winds of change.

Their mouths burped out a sea of insults.

Across the field and past the red-bricked wall was the public library, a place rarely visited, where shelves were dust-caked during most months of the year and card catalogues were crumbling. Bored men and women in uniform signed in every morning, and for a whole day, pretended to serve a handful of inquisitive students with looming deadlines. Past midnight and past working hours, the library gates swung open, slamming so loud that they sent the glass panels smashing to the ground. Throngs of human books raced down, marching artlessly and with no evident leadership. Instinctively, they headed down to the fields as if they had been given previous instructions to do so, or perhaps they had done that sort of thing before. They staggered down the stairs and onto the wet sidewalk, crossing through the no-crossing zone, their sagging pages sprinting lawlessly. They took the streets for a battlefield, a rowdy, weapon-wielding gang of paperbacks. The storm had shattered almost everything within its range, everything within the library walls. Wooden furniture turned into makeshift weapons; shelves, chair legs, and broken screens were scattered on every street corner, piled up a few meters apart. But the books were quick to pick them up. Jump, swish, crack, they marched on, their pages flagging in the air, water messing up their ink, washing away a history that only few knew by heart.

By the time they made it to the fields, the air was smoky. They stood in messy lines and their efforts to attack were individualistic, evidently lacking a tactic to assault in full power. They were suffocating. When the strong wind ultimately left them with few of their weapons, sending bits of wood and glass into the night air, their mouths burped out a sea of insults. It was a contest of who was the loudest. On the other side, the fresh, formally fit earthly books stood still, the wind naturally blowing from behind them, causing their opponents to lose their weapons. It pushed them backwards. Lightning struck, and in a moment of glory, the frail human books caught fire, sending gray wails into the night breeze, cries that the surrounding trees could no longer hear. The fight had deafened their ears.

Starstruck, the owl clutched its branch, motionless, this time with a swanky smile. As the sun peeked from behind a jamboree of clouds, the owl felt like nature had just flaunted its best assets on the fairest and most divine runway.


Two people stood on the corner of a main street, now a car-less zone frosted by the decaying wake of war. They had come out of their shelter as the storm withered away, their ears soaked and clothes dripping. The sweet petrichor of the soil was mesmerizing, like freshly brewed coffee. “Oh my god, can you fucking believe this?” one said after a long gulp of clean air. “I thought the world was going to end.” Preoccupied by his unresponsive cellphone, the other did not reply. After fidgeting with the screen for a minute, the water from his hair still dribbling on the sidewalk, he said, “I can’t seem to get Twitter to load.”

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