Miriam’s selected fiction is below, with the full version her 2018 short fiction Small Bribes, originally published in Untethered 4.1.
Upcoming: short fiction in untethered 5.2
Smoke in Gutter 22
An Old Word for Frost in ScottishPEN’s anthology Declarations on Freedom for Writers & Readers
Small Bribes in untethered 4.1
Radio Preacher in The Island Review
Rainwater in The Island Review
First Winter in The Stockholm Review of Literature
In The Dead Man’s House in The Stockholm Review of Literature
American Sitcoms in Valve Journal
Frankfurt in Gutter 8
Under Water in Newfound
Throwing Dye in Retort
Ash Summer in Valve Journal
Swim Toward The Moon in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine
Hotels in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine
Bliss in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine
Frontier is a novella published in 2014 by Pankhearst, based on the short story Hotels, originally published by Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine in 2012.
Short fiction, originally published in Untethered 4.1, May 2018
In Jasmira’s dream, a current drags her along the ocean floor. Her skin rubs against sand and broken shells. She feels the curve of a glass bottle, the bones of a shark, the joint of a boat.
She wakes up and tries to brush salt from her skin. But Jasmira’s skin is smooth, and she is wound up in dry sheets. She looks at the low, white walls of the house she first saw yesterday morning, after 28 hours of flights and the slow border queues reserved for people with her kind of passport. In the room down the hallway she signed a one-page lease stipulating that she could not horde weapons and paid the landlord in cash, three months rent up front.
Early dawn lights the house; the last of the moon and the first of the sun. She can hear small waves through the window. Not like the Arabian Sea, not like the Pacific Ocean. The Mediterranean is calm and filled with new death. Why else would she be here?
* * *
The office is in a dry zone. The taxi driver tells her this, hesitating as he regards her in the rearview mirror. When she flagged him down he spoke in Arabic until she gave him directions in her old-fashioned French, cemented in the wrong era by the subtitled Truffaut films she had watched at university, hoping they would make her sophisticated.
Jasmira watches the road. People drive badly but she’s seen worse, worse as well than the children who walk around cars that stop at the lights, with baskets of jasmine for sale. These ones have four limbs each, two eyes and two ears. The driver watches her give her half-finished bottle of water to a boy who taps at the window.
‘You are from which land?’
‘No, India. I’m from Delhi.’
‘You are here with the Indian embassy?’
Her phone is beeping. It’s Harris; he wants to know if she’s nearby.
‘Excuse me, are we near?’ she asks the driver.
‘Insha’Allah ten minutes.’
10mins, she types. Her thumb slips on the glass screen and her own face appears in the camera. Despite the sleeping pill that knocked her out for nearly twelve hours, her eyes are swollen and dark, and her lips are pale. She wonders if it’s impolite to put lipstick on in a car in front of a strange man then remembers that all her make-up was confiscated in Doha, or Frankfurt. She can’t remember which.
‘India,’ says the driver. ‘You have rich people? Travel is…’ he rubs his fingers together.
‘We have a lot of people. Rich, poor, and in-between.’
‘I’m a lawyer.’
The man nods, slowly.
Jasmira leans back and turns away from the sun that pierces the window to her left. To her right, three men in a car catch her eye and shout something inaudible. One rises and rubs his penis against the glass while the other two laugh. The driver turns the radio up.
* * *
The four of them — Jasmira, Chaima, Harris, and Sébastien — stand at a table that holds twelve filthy boxes of paper, filed in no order. Chaima’s pale blouse is ruined but her face, though damp like theirs, is not smeared. Jasmira remembers an auntie who told her never to touch her face, to avoid blemishes.
Sébastien and Harris have rolled their sleeves above their elbows, but they are covered in old grit — stour, Harris calls it — and they sweat through the fabric. Jasmira wears a sleeveless dress. At night, she scrubs her skin with a hard brush from the market, but often misses a spot. They have been doing this for weeks, breaking for briefings, for journeys through bureaucratic corridors that always lead to a piss-stained police station, and for lunch.
Lunch is often fish, which they linger over, letting lemon-bleached dorade eyes stare into the sun while they pick at the bones, feeding pieces to feral cats. They have begun to take turns making salads. Sometimes Chaima brings ojja that her mother makes in a family-sized apartment that is thick with the smell of jasmine in the evening.
They visited this home once, just after Jasmira arrived. She sat on a low couch after dinner with Chaima’s niece and two nephews. In their father’s old atlas she drew her finger along the Indian coastline, showing them her city and the lines that demarcate Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh. No, she told them. We do not pray to cows. She opened the book to the flattened globe and slid her finger to North Africa and the gulf where they digested couscous together. They followed closely with their smaller, warmer fingers, giggling. They wanted to find Harris and Sébastien’s cities, so Jasmira took their band of travelling fingers up to Falkirk and across another ocean to Bécancour.
‘Jas,’ says Harris. ‘I’ve got something a bit fucking sinister in here.’
He calls her out of habit, not to exclude the other two. Sébastien was with them in Freetown, but she and Harris have worked together in five countries and never seen one another’s childhood streets. In Jaffna, they shared a Swedish diplomat’s house which Harris vacated for a week so that her mother could use his room. When he returned, they ate the bhajitas her mother had made just before her flight. So he knows the taste of a Delhi kitchen.
Sébastien stands on Jasmira’s other side now, and Chaima looks at them from the window. She blows smoke through the wooden slats of a shutter they pulled closed to keep out the worst of the heat. Jasmira wonders if they disgust her, three foreigners picking through her country’s filthy laundry. And if so, who disgusts her the most. Chaima turns and puts the cigarette to her mouth again, not letting her fingers touch her lips. It’s the same way Jasmira’s grandmother drinks water.
‘Yes’, says Sébastien. ‘This is bad shit.’ He walks to the door. His job will be convincing someone to let them transport this box to one of their houses, so they can work all night. It’s always the oldest man who gets this kind job, but Chaima and Harris also have clear areas of influence. So does Jasmira. She is subject to smaller bribes if she arrives alone, and men in power are sexually baffled by her. If she and Chaima are together, they look like local woman, but if she is alone with Harris or Sébastien the police stop them and won’t leave until she proves she is also foreign and without a religion they recognize.
She and Chaima created a spreadsheet for this one night when they drank two bottles of wine in Jasmira’s living room.
‘It was worse when the other Canadian man was here,’ said Chaima. ‘The black man. They stopped him every time. Then they looked at his green passport and pissed in their pants.’
Sébastien comes back with a partial victory. They are allowed two boxes and an escort. That night they sort and clip and photograph the paper on sheets that they spread in the middle of Harris’ living room floor. They eat cold pizza and Chaima laughs at them for buying local beer when they could get the good stuff. European beer, she means.
‘It’s exactly the same, pal,’ says Harris.
‘It’s garbage,’ says Sébastien, ‘but as good as European garbage. As good as Canadian garbage.’ They all look at Jasmira.
‘Yeah sure. As good as Indian garbage. But our garbage beer is more exotic.’
They have scrubbed their hands and arms in Harris’ bathroom, but the dirt lingers under their fingernails and in their hair. The skin on Jasmira’s hands has begun to toughen. She thinks of gravediggers and the bells people once threaded into coffins in case the dead had more stories to tell. Where did she hear about those bells? It was in Albania, she can remember the bar they sat in but not the storyteller. It might have been Harris.
That was the night they made the list of what comes back the quickest. Bars return immediately, restaurants come later. Brothels never leave, but change. The men always want to purge the women who survived, who remind them of their cowardices. Banks come back quickly, there is always someone who has profited. Someone sews a nice dress and people remember what it felt like to wear good clothes. Bolts of fabric rise from under floorboards. Better cigarettes and coffee arrive and someone opens a shop. New babies scream into the deadly hush, holding different kinds of memory in their fists with a grip that will loosen as they age. People bury the dead and turn the soil. Who would want to do anything else?
Harris laughs, but Sébastien does not. Jasmira can’t tell if this is his way or if he finds them boring. He laughs more with Chaima when they speak Arabic together. But French is his native language. He is a slightly different man in each language and Jasmira wonders what it would be like to speak Punjabi with someone here. She hasn’t spoken her mother tongue at work since she was twenty, and now rarely with friends. She has never spoken it with a lover, except in her sleep.
* * *
Identity documents, photocopied. Opaque cotton shawl. Local currency. Water. Sunglasses, large enough to obscure most of the face. Phone. Keys. Cigarettes. Lighter. Belt. Small flashlight. Fake wedding ring. Some of these are relics from previous lives in countries where the rules were precarious, but in different ways. Regardless, she always had to leave the house. Everyone did.
Jasmira bolts the door and locks the gate and walks the narrow market roads that radiate from the sea, on the hunt for a woven basket and straw hat that all the local women have. From a distance she’ll blend in, even while alone, once she learns the way to walk.
But the women notice her sandals, which are expensive, and the men notice her solitude. Some women are more covered than Jasmira, and some wear less, but they are young and travel in tight clusters. It’s difficult to tell who is her age. Chaima is three years younger than her, but has two teenage children. Sébastien and Harris are older, but they are men. White men. Sébastien’s children are grown up and Harris had a baby ten years ago who died in his first month.
The men here move slowly. The young ones are nearly naked, walking back from the sea dripping, the clefts of their asses swaying in the heat. They hiss at her as she passes.
An old man walks out of a shop to greet a woman who shouts his name from across the street. She looks cool in the heat, wrapped in pink cotton. They talk across the traffic as she weaves through, and they talk as they hug, and as they kiss twice on each cheek. She squeezes his elbow as they speak. Jasmira thinks of her brother and tries to remember which time zone he’s in, counting backwards. Seven hours, the middle of the night. There’s a song on a radio nearby that fades in and out, a rapper who lives in one of the lanes nearby. The men in the sandwich shop sing along.
* * *
Chaima sends them a text message. Don’t come today. They meet at a bar on the coast with their phones and laptops zipped into bags that, despite themselves, they hold too closely. They take the table nearest to the sea, without an umbrella.
‘They’ve taken the boxes, the ones you numbered from six to nine.’
‘Six to nine?’
‘We won’t get them back.’
‘What’s in six to nine? That’s only bullshit, the small bribes.’
‘I hid the women in seven and eight.’
‘Excuse me, what? You hid what?’
‘The women. There are details of what they did to the women in the jails. I hid them in seven and eight between the small bribes.’
Everyone is smoking now. There’s a new, cool breeze that pulls the smoke away from their mouths, holds it in the air, then lets it out to sea. Jasmira looks at the horizon from beneath the brim of her straw hat. For several seconds she can’t remember which country she’s in or where she will go when she leaves.
* * *
Jasmira’s house is one long room, broken into parts by imperfect walls that end half a metre from the ceiling. There is a blue gate, then a front door. Then the living room with long, low, cotton-covered mattresses, a round brass table, a wireless router. There are three half-emptied boxes which she finally claimed from the customs office two days ago with the help of a small bribe and her fake wedding ring. Someone has left a thumbprint on the glass shisha pipe in the corner.
Behind the living room, there is a kitchen that overlooks her neighbour Sihem’s courtyard, then a bathroom with pipes that creak, then a bedroom. When the landlord showed her the house two months ago after twenty-eight hours of flight, he looked away from the bed as she looked toward it. Beyond that bed there is another door and beyond that her own courtyard, with a metal ring cemented next to a drain for the animal she will never slaughter. Beyond that, down a stony hill, the Mediterranean.
For the last two months she has woken early and walked into the courtyard with a glass of bitter coffee and a plastic tub of water for the feral kittens who live under the lemon tree. Now the kittens are big enough the climb the wall and their mother has left them. Jasmira stands there and lets them bite her fingers. The sea is darker than usual and there are more fishermen.
She turns and walks back inside, through her bedroom with its tangled sheets, past the bathroom, into the kitchen. There is music coming from her phone; a jazz musician from a town that borders the desert. He plays the oud while a poet, now dead, speaks.
‘I dreamt last night,’ she says. ‘I dreamt I was a child.’
‘I can’t believe you were ever a child,’ Harris says. He stands beside the stove, screwing the two parts of her espresso pot together. Her coffee jar is open on the counter. In its dark green surface she can see her own blurred reflection. Long dark hair, long dark legs. The black of her eyes. Something in-between, an old T-shirt that she found in a hotel room years ago.
‘Do you know where I bought that coffee jar?’
He doesn’t look up. The espresso pot is stuck and he is trying to unscrew it without spilling the coffee. He is naked and she notices the way he doesn’t care that the window is wide open, with sun illuminating the gluteal muscles that tense as he tries to dislodge metal from metal. It’s the way she wouldn’t care, if she were somewhere else.
‘No, the souk? I don’t know.’
‘In a shop in Amsterdam, where they sold kitchen things that no one needs.’
‘You lived there? Amsterdam?’
‘I lived in London. I was in Amsterdam for a forensics conference. You were there too, don’t you remember?’
‘Don’t think so, I haven’t been to Amsterdam since I was sixteen.’ He has fixed the espresso pot. He puts it on the stove and bends at the waist, turning up the flame to sit perfectly beneath the base. ‘Come back to bed while this cooks. Tell me about your dream.’