Threshold

By Fatima Al-Shemary

I filled the oversized pockets of my coat with heavy stones before swallowing the sleeping tablets. Waiting for the pills to take effect, I walked to my truck at the edge of the water, clutching the note to my mother in one hand. I had written the message on the back of a shopping list she’d given me. Maybe it would give her some solace. Maybe not. I stuck the note under the windshield wiper so it lay flat and smooth on the glass. A light breeze tugged at the corners of the paper, but it stayed in place. Looking up at the sky, I watched clouds begin to form around the pale moon. Would it rain and ruin the note? My vision began to haze over and I couldn’t afford to lose any more time. I dragged myself to the dock on Green Lake. It was a landing stage for jet skis and small boats, but there were no people on the lake tonight. The moonlight glinted on the still surface, and I could see the twinkling Seattle lights in the distance. My ankles sank into the cool wetness. I followed the streak of moonlight, feeling the water rise to my waist and the slick pebbles and sand rub against my feet. Something dragged me down. Was it the stones in my pocket or the pills taking effect? Blood rushed fast in contradiction with the urge to sleep. Fast heartbeats sent the message to my mind: Go back! Go back! Go back! I kept moving and submerged beneath the moonlight, shivering. My mother once told me that when you shivered, it meant the angel of death had passed by and chosen to spare your life. The water carried me down, down, down. 

~~~ 

Flashes of the worst moments of my life. Standing in the doorway of the hospital room and seeing the third degree burns all over his body and face. The bottom of my feet singed with knives made hot by the stovetop. Remember: Hell is where bad girls go when they die. My mother crawling into my bed to hide from him. Her tears, his laughter. Her excuses, my pain. My tiny, ineffectual fists banging against his legs. Bloodstained bed sheets. Waking up in the hospital when the makeshift noose broke. His word against mine. My hands scratching at his eyes. His vicious, covetous eyes. His car mangled, windows smashed, headlights broken, dripping with gasoline, flames rising high. They are a wall of fire. A threshold. This is where bad girls go when they die. 

~~~ 

Would the note be carried away or destroyed by the rain? Would it be found by strangers or the police before reaching my mother? 

~~~ 

The pills lulled me towards a deep sleep, and I sucked the lake into my lungs. So this was what it felt like to die. I awoke and found myself hovering over my lifeless body lying in its watery grave. My face made me remember my mother, and regret hit me like a wrecking ball. She would suffer when she found out. How could I have done something so cruel? 

Black wisps of hair floated around my face like smoke. My brown skin looked like ice in the pale moonlight shining down from above. There was a saying that people looked at peace when they were dead. There was stillness and emptiness in my face, but no peace. I couldn’t fathom that I had finally done it, or what world I had transitioned into. Was I a ghost? I didn’t need to breathe. Reaching out to touch my dead face, my hand went right through my cheek. I floated away from my body, unsure where to go now. Looking at my drowned corpse was going to drive me insane. Small fish passed by and through me. I was no longer with the living, but I still felt very much alive. 

~~~ 

I drifted away from the moonlit depths and into the darkness. What if this wasn’t the eternal rest I had hoped for? What if I had come to a place that was worse than my living world? A place where there was only endless loneliness and regret? 

~~~ 

He was standing by himself in the midst of the darkness. A stormy cloud of light surrounded him, illuminating him in the murky depths of my grave. Somehow, I knew who he was. He was beautiful and dark, with a youthful face and ancient, dusky eyes. He smiled sadly at me when I approached. Was Death supposed to smile when you met him? I stopped a few feet away. 

I’d considered ending my life with a deep and irreparable cut in my veins, but the thought of all the red had made me sick. I wanted a bloodless death. When I’d tried tying a noose around my neck and jumping off my balcony, the noose had broken and saved me from this misery. Why had he chosen to spare me until now? 

“I only wanted to stop the pain.” Could I still make tears? "This really wasn't what I expected." 

"It's rarely what you expect," he said. His voice was like a velvety embrace. 

"Why are you here? Aren't there others you should be reaping?" 

"I'm everywhere at once," he said. "For now, I am your friend." 

Every part of my ghostly body yearned for something, and I had no idea what it was. His presence gave me solace in this lonely place. 

"I'm Neeran," I said to my momentary friend. 

"I know." 

"What's your name?"

 "You may call me Azrael." 

“Azrael.” My mother never used that name when she spoke of him. She called him Malak al Mawt. The Angel of Death watched me patiently, his hands clasped behind his back. 

“Now what?” 

He held his hand out for me. “Don’t be alarmed when you touch me.” 

I touched his palm. He clasped my hand tightly and suddenly, we were swept out of the darkness. I shut my eyes at the feeling of being yanked. When we were still, I opened my eyes and beheld the place he had brought me to. 

~~~ 

My mother once told me that when I was being born, there was fire in her blood. She was all alone in the tiny hospital in Baghdad, and my father was at war. The infection nearly killed us both, and she had been given a choice. My life or hers. She’d chosen to save me, and somehow she lived through it. She said that holding me for the first time had revived her. What would it be like if they ever found my body? Would she hold my watery corpse? 

~~~

We were in the hospital room where I was born, and later, where my father had died from the burns from fighting in the next war. This time, the war was in our home, in Baghdad. The overhang of a burning building had collapsed on him during a battle. My touch had not been enough to revive him. 

The smell of death invaded my nostrils like the men who’d invaded my city. Death was imminent when I had been born. Death was there when I watched my father scream and then, when he no longer could scream. Death was at my side as I stood in the doorway, only now he was not my enemy. He was my companion. 

“Why am I here?” I hated this place. 

“Because you need to be,” Azrael told me. 

The empty hospital bed was stained with dried patches of blood. I went to the bed and traced the dark brown stains. My ghostly touch did not slip through. 

“How is this possible?” 

“You can interact with the living world if you want to. When the time is right, you can even let them see you.” 

I stared down at the bloody sheets, at the IV that hung nearby, at the dead monitor screen. This was when my father died. 

“Was it because of me that he went through all that?” I wondered. 

“I can’t answer that for you.” 

“I feel responsible.” 

“You and I have always been good friends, you know. Even when I reaped the ones you loved.” 

“I suppose I always knew, one day, you would reunite me with them.” My uncertainty made it sound like a question. 

“That depends on you.” 

I went past the bed and ghosted over to the caged window, looking through the dusted glass at the flat, hazy rooftops. In the distance, a woman hung laundry on a clothesline. At the same time, sporadic bursts of gunfire reverberated nearby. Smoke lingered in the air. 

“This home is my love. This home is my war. Wherever I go, I’m at war.” 

My father’s spirit lingered somewhere nearby, only just out of reach. I laughed to myself. What a joke to think that Death would bring me peace. 

“God is cruel, and you are a traitor.” 

Azrael did not reply. 

“Take me somewhere else.” 

He held out his hand. I closed the distance between us in that stark white room and took it. 

~~~ 

She was a Shia, my father was a Sunni, and I was the product of the anomalous liaison between them. Their families condemned them long before I was born. His difference didn’t seem to matter when it came to soldiering. We were left with nothing. After he was lowered into his grave, her eyes touched on mine as though she had nothing left to offer but her love. 

~~~ 

The General was my father’s friend and leader in combat. After his death, he visited our house often, his covetous eyes roaming over my mother as they had many times before. He would check in week after week, giving her money. Once, he’d brought me a china doll with shiny blond ringlets and pale blue marble eyes. I’d gone up to our rooftop and threw it to the ground as he was leaving our house. It shattered into little pieces on the hardened sand, missing him by only a few inches. 

The sun struck his eyes as he glared up at me. I did not turn away. 

~~~ 

He did not tell my mother about my attack, and so it came as no surprise to me when he asked her to marry him.  

~~~ 

The sound of splashing water filled my ears. My father’s voice was an echo above the splashes. He told me to keep kicking. I remember. This was before the lake by our house dried up. Loud claps of thunder in the distance drowned out his voice. I tried to kick my way over to him, but the heavy water deterred me from going further. 

~~~ 

I don't know when I forgot how to swim. 

~~~ 

Death’s whirlwind carried us away and through time to the airport in Washington State. I drifted behind my ten-year-old self, walking next to my mother. A small space separated our bodies. The General had convinced her that we could start a new life here. He had his arm clasped possessively over her shoulder. She leaned into him, followed him like he was her compass. 

I ghosted past them, past the memory, soaring fast above curving highways speckled with flashing red and yellow lights. I soared past the skyscrapers, the harbors full of yachts and dreams ever beyond our reach; past the evergreens and the slanted rooftops in all the neighborhoods we lived in; past all the years spent migrating between houses that did not belong to us. We were always moving, always waiting, but we never arrived. 

~~~ 

Who was to know our migration would only lead us astray? 

~~~ 

The rules were clear when we arrived: The General wanted nothing but her perfection and our isolation. She bent and bowed and broke under his strikes, his words. In the end, I was the one who stood between them. 

~~~ 

“There’s nothing worse than a woman with a fire tongue.” 

My mother lay in the corner by the shattered coffee table where he’d smashed her head. I’ll cut your hands off! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! The crescents of my bite marks on his neck dripped with blood. He’d thrown me over his shoulder and my spine had met the hard edge of the kitchen counter. Was my mother still alive? His blood was thick in my mouth. I would kill him. I would kill him. 

He took a kitchen knife and lit the stovetop, turning the heat up to the highest level, just for me. The knife glinted in the fluorescent light like the devil’s smile as he held it over the fire. I couldn’t move. I waited for him to do it. 

“Let me show you what the fire feels like,” he said, then placed the white hot knife against the bottom of my feet. 

I refused to scream, but the pain made my vision go black. 

Hell is where bad girls go when they die.   

~~~ 

He stood above me after I’d been burned. The fluorescent kitchen light surrounded his head like a halo as he gazed down at me with that awful glint in his eye. It was not the first time he’d looked at me that way. It only surprised me that he’d waited this long to act. 

~~~ 

My screams and pleas only seemed to urge him on. 

~~~ 

When the noose broke, I landed on the soft spot of grass just beneath my balcony. The breeze was perfect and balmy and gave me chills while the ache in my neck raised pleasant goosebumps on my skin. I heard soft wings fluttering, and I knew my friend was somewhere nearby, only just out of reach. 

~~~ 

I dreamt I was in Baghdad again, swimming in the lake with my father. The burns went deep into his face and body. Patches in his flesh revealed the white bone of his skull and his arms. He smiled, wading through the water, wearing the Iraqi army uniform. The skeletons of his hands fluttered delicately in the water. Something like sunlight shone down on us through the waves. When I looked up, the entire surface of the lake was on fire. How did the flames get all the way over here? But I didn’t mind. I wanted to stay in the water, even if it meant I would drown. 

~~~ 

He had fought for something, hadn’t he? He died for something bigger than himself, but not for himself. He had burned for a purpose that was not his own. 

~~~ 

The image of a waving American flag invaded my memory. I walked with my childhood friend up to her house where they were preparing the Thanksgiving feast. A dreamy white fence surrounded the freshly mowed lawn. Her father and grandfather sat on the porch. My friend made her introduction. Her dad was a soldier like you, Grandpa, she said. Where is he now? Her grandfather asked. He died, I told him. I’m sorry to hear that. Thank you. Where did he serve? Baghdad. That’s where we’re from. He smiled kindly. Must be hard. I smiled back. Yeah. Her father looked expectantly at me. You ought to thank him for serving. Her grandfather shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Thank you for serving. When we went inside, he gently put his hand on my shoulder. 

~~~ 

Would my father’s legacy live on, or would it fade into the darkness, as I had? 

~~~ 

I was at another hospital. This time, the bed was not empty. My twelve-year-old self was cocooned in the blankets, feet wrapped in gauze, an IV hooked to my arm. The bedsheets were stained with blood. My eyes were closed. 

“Why couldn’t it be like the dream? Why couldn’t I be in the lake with him?” I whispered to Azrael. He appeared next to me in a silent flutter. 

“Because you couldn’t.” 

“What would happen if I touched her?” My hand hovered over my sleeping face. 

“Do it and see.” 

My hand shook. The one thing that would save me was the one thing I couldn’t do. Drawing my hand back, I stepped away fearfully. Azrael watched me with expectant eyes. 

“Away.” 

~~~ 

We were in the house we moved to after she left him. My room was the smallest. It faced the street and had a tiny window with metal casing. The room was completely empty. I wandered over to the window and placed my hands on the glass, looking out at the street, feeling like an imprisoned bird. I leaned against the wall beneath the window and sank down and curled up on the carpet, weeping. 

Azrael sat on the floor on the other side of the room and waited in silence. 

~~~ 

The restraining order kept him away for only a short time. I saw him circling our house in his old car like a vulture lurking over what was left of our lives. After he found out where we lived, I went after him. I brought with me a crowbar, a matchbook, and a container of gasoline. His car was parked in the driveway of a small, flat house in the suburbs. I smashed the headlights first. My blood rushed at the sound of shattering glass. The fragments fell to the ground, sparkling under the light of the moon. Striking the windshield, I delighted in the webbed crack that appeared on the smooth glass. The surface disintegrated entirely when met with my second blow. Splintered pieces of glass cascaded over and into the car like a sparkling waterfall. I went to the windows next and smashed those too, then the back window. Each thrust was my retribution against every thrust that had invaded my body. I stabbed each wheel with a pocketknife my father had given me. The air escaped the tires as I imagined the sound of his dying breaths. My heart beat with exhilaration. I took the container of gasoline and poured it all over the car, watching it drip down around the sides. The smell aroused me, spurred me on. I lit a match and flung it at the top of the car. Bright white and orange flames erupted, blooming before my eyes like a wall of fire. The smoke and light baited him out of the house. He stood at the doorway in nothing but a bathrobe. The bottle of liquor dropped from his hand and shattered on the ground when he saw the flames. His frightful, bloodshot eyes met mine. I walked away from him, leaving the destruction blazing in my wake. 

~~~ 

The war inside me raged on and on.

~~~ 

“The General sent my father on the mission to die, didn’t he?” 

The silence stretched on, but he didn’t need to say anything. I had always known.

“Are you human?” I asked him when I managed to stop convulsing. 

“I am the Angel of Death.” 

“That’s not what I meant.” 

The pain in my chest was still there, unbearable, unshakeable even in death. I looked up at the caged window, hating the moonlight that poured over me, not granting me the darkness I wished for. 

“I know what I need to do.” 

Azrael reached out and I took his hand. 

We were in his house, broken liquor bottles strewn all over the carpet. The pungent smell was almost too much to bear. He lay on the couch, passed out, his arm dangling down and his fingers brushing the floor. How would I do it? I suspected there would be more alcohol in the fridge. I could pour the liquor over him and light a match. No. Fire was too pure. I walked around the house, searching. It was a complete mess. A fetid stench filled my nostrils when I entered his bedroom. On the floor, a long leather belt stuck out from between dirty clothes. I picked it up and went back to the living room. 

Crouching next to the couch where his head rested, I tied the the belt into a noose and slipped it over his head. 

~~~ 

We watched the scene take place. These were my last hours before I’d walked into the lake. The sound of his choking and struggling jarred me. 

When his body went still, I watched myself sink to the floor. My face was twisted into a mask of agony. My mouth opened, but no sound came out. 

“Are you happy now?” Azrael whispered. 

~~~ 

I couldn’t stomach it for much longer. Brushing Azrael’s shoulder, I appeared at the lake and watched myself go into the water. Ripples marred the surface where I’d submerged. The note on the windshield had been tugged into the air. I caught it in my hand and looked at my feeble message that deep down, I’d never wanted my mother to see. That was why I’d left the note here, where it had been stolen by the wind. 

I’m sorry about what I did. But now you don’t have to be afraid anymore. I’ll tell Baba you miss him. 

Love, Neeran. 

~~~ 

Azrael whisked me away to our house, where I left the note tacked to the fridge. A few hours later, the police were there, speaking in low tones to my mother. They were telling her that they had located my truck and found the empty prescription bottle by the lake. She sat on the concrete steps leading up to the house, her black wool hijab uncharacteristically messy around her head. Her eyes were red. She did not speak or look at any of them. I realized with earth-shattering regret that my militant love had not done either of us any good. 

Standing in the middle of the road in front of the house, I kept my eyes on her face and willed her to see me. 

I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry. 

She stood abruptly, a cry escaping her lips. My eyes were full of tears as I gave her a gentle smile. Before she could do or say anything, I willed myself to disappear from her sight. 

~~~ 

“This wasn’t what I needed to do, was it?” 

Azrael shook his head. 

“What’s next, then?” He held out his hand for me, and I wondered at how many more places and memories and tragedies I had to witness before I could finally rest. When I took his hand, we appeared in the hospital room with my twelve-year-old self again. She was still asleep. In slumber, she was stripped of her militant facade, completely vulnerable. 

This time, I did not turn away with fear. Walking over to the bed, I lay next to her and pulled her fragile frame close to mine. 

~~~ 

Azrael hovered a small distance behind me, emitting a soft glow in the darkness. 

“What am I doing here?” 

“You’re almost at the end,” Azrael said. “I’ve been thinking about what you asked me before. To answer your question, no, I am not human. I am simply a part of your human experience. That is what brought me to you. It’s been difficult with you; war lives inside you. But you have done well.” 

A trail of flames burst forth from the darkness in front of me, blinding me. I turned to Azrael, frightened. His dusky eyes held neither sympathy for my comfort or reassurance. 

“This is where you go now,” he said simply. 

The fire drew me in like a magnet, despite my terror. I reached out to touch it. It felt like a cold, refreshing waterfall gliding over my skin.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I said, turning back to Azrael with surprise. He was gone. 

What lay beyond the fiery threshold for me? I didn’t know if it was Hell, or the endless mercy of God, but just behind the flames, a familiar, shadowy silhouette hovered, beckoning me to cross. The sound of splashing water filled my ears, and my father’s voice rang out, telling me to swim. 

I walked forward and let the flames embrace me.