Alif the Unseen

By G. WILLOW WILSON  |  August 14, 2012

Sunlight began to fail in the west, across the ribbon of desert beyond the New Quarter. Alif pocketed his phone and slid off the window ledge, back into his room. Once it was dark, perhaps, he would try again to reach her. Intisar had always preferred to meet at night. Society didn't mind if you broke the rules; it only required you to acknowledge them. Meeting after dark showed a presence of mind. It suggested that you knew what you were doing went against the prevailing custom and had taken pains to avoid being caught. Intisar, noble and troubling, with her black hair and her dove-low voice, was worthy of this much discretion.

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif — a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it con-cealed. Knowing this, he had entertained Intisar's need to keep their relationship a secret long after he himself had tired of the effort. If clandestine meetings fanned her love, so be it. He could wait another hour or two.

The tart smell of rasam and rice drifted up through the open window. He would go down to the kitchen and eat — he had eaten nothing since breakfast. A knock on the other side of the wall, just behind his Robert Smith poster, stopped him on his way out the door. He bit his lip in frustration. Perhaps he could slip by unde-tected. But the knock was followed by a precise little series of taps: She had heard him get down from the window. Sighing, Alif rapped twice on Robert Smith's grainy black-and-white knee.

Dina was already on the roof when he got there. She faced the sea, or what would be the sea if it were visible through the tangle of apartment buildings to the east.

"What do you want?" Alif asked.

She turned and tilted her head, brows contracting in the slim vent of her face-veil.

"To return your book," she said. "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing." He made an irritated gesture. "Give me the book then."

Dina reached into her robe and drew out a battered copy of The Golden Compass. "Aren't you going to ask me what I thought?" she demanded.

"I don't care. The English was probably too difficult for you."

"It was no such thing. I understood every word. This book" — she waved it in the air — "is full of pagan images. It's dangerous."

"Don't be ignorant. They're metaphors. I told you you wouldn't understand."

"Metaphors are dangerous. Calling something by a false name changes it, and metaphor is just a fancy way of calling something by a false name."

Alif snatched the book from her hand. There was a hiss of fab-ric as Dina tucked her chin, eyes disappearing beneath her lashes. Though he had not seen her face in nearly ten years, Alif knew she was pouting.

"I'm sorry," he said, pressing the book to his chest. "I'm not feeling well today."

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