Whither Zenobia?

By on Aug 26, 2012 in Fiction

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Woman in headscarf and sunglasses in Syrian market


The next morning, she woke up naked in her own room. She looked up at the stained ceiling, the brown walls and one shuttered window. What if Klaus had abandoned her? What if she was alone in this squalid place and terrifying country? But soon he knocked on her door.

“We should start early,” he said. “Before the heat.”

Early as it was, he’d shaved and doused himself with cologne. It was futile to expect any of this to make sense, but — like her fourth graders — she craved an orderly, reasonable world.

Klaus pushed the Land Rover so that it made good time across the desert to Damascus. Constance was sunburned and filthy, but relieved to be in a city again, even to see the giant face of the dictator sternly gazing down on the erratic traffic. To her surprise, Klaus took them to a new luxury hotel in the commercial heart of the city.

“Might as well be comfortable,” he told her. Again, they stayed in separate rooms.

“After I’m clean, assuming that’s possible,” she told him in the elevator, “I’m going to a beauty parlor. I need to do something for myself.”

He nodded. “Do what you must.”

She asked the desk clerk to make her an appointment, then soaked in hot water that slowly changed hue around her limbs. Eventually, reluctantly, she climbed out of the big tub, dried and dressed herself. She’d lost weight and had acquired bruises on her body, although she had no idea where or when. When she returned to the hotel, Klaus looked her up and down, then smiled. His perfect teeth seemed whiter than ever.

“I thought you were her,” he said. “For a moment, I thought you were your friend.”

She studied herself in the mirror in the bar: “Do you like it?” She touched her hair, now the same dark shade as Roberta’s.

“It’s astonishing,” smiled Klaus, pulling her toward him, his spicy cologne again filling her nostrils. “Come to Germany with me.”


“Because you want to.”

The next day, he dropped her at the American embassy. At first, no one understood why she was there, but finally she found herself in a high-ceilinged office talking with a thin, bald man who did seem to grasp that a U.S. citizen was missing. He studied the photograph she gave him, then looked up at her.

“Your sister?” he asked.


“You could be sisters.”

An official report was filled out, but he claimed there wasn’t much the embassy could do, although of course they would make inquiries. Above all, they didn’t want this to turn into an international incident.

“You understand,” he said.

She didn’t — well, partially, she did. She nodded.

“She’ll have to leave the country,” he added, “before her visa expires.”

If she’s alive.

Later, when she told Klaus about the meeting, he said that she, too, soon would have to leave Syria. “I have a special dispensation,” he explained, “because of my work.”

“Of course. I knew this was temporary.” Whatever “this” was.

That evening, they walked through the Damascus souk. She pointed out the shop where she’d bought the pen holder and the window with the obscene lingerie. As they strolled through the spice market, he took her hand in his. They passed a stall in which a woman sat on a low stool as her palms were decorated with henna tattoos. Constance watched the artist create intricate paisley-like patterns on the woman’s skin. The lines were delicate, the tendrils of the red-brown designs strangely provocative.

“Bridal night ritual,” Klaus whispered. “Representing sacrifice. Passion.”

As they strolled, Constance noticed other women whose faces had been embellished with henna vines and blossoms, complicated spiky patterns reaching from beneath scarves or from under the rippling edges of dark chadors.

The next day, she went out alone — shopping, she told Klaus. When she returned, he took her hands and opened them, revealing delicate flowery designs the color of red clay on her palms. He smiled knowingly, then kissed both hands.

“Not your face?” he asked.

“I don’t think the school board would approve.”

“Ah, yes. You are a teacher.”

“The new term will start soon. I’m not like Roberta — I earn my living.”

A city of four million, more than five thousand years old: the geography of past lives colored the pavement and spoke of dead civilizations and long silent winds. Sometimes, Constance was certain that Roberta might step off one of the ever-present minibuses or that she might pass her on one of the pedestrian bridges spanning the traffic-clogged boulevards. Or she might glimpse Roberta in a sweet shop or watching a sinewy craftsman beating a copper plate with a mallet. Maybe she’d stop at a bakery and discover Roberta’s flushed features in front of the open oven. Half the time, she had no doubt that she’d find her. Other times, she knew she never would.

Constance was fascinated by the Syrian women she saw on the streets. Often their dresses and suits were conservative, according to Moslem custom, yet the cut and patterns were smart, the colors elegant. The scarves with which they covered their hair were folded and tucked in with style. What if Roberta had bought one of these outfits? Would she recognize her, then?

When Constance hesitated in front of a plate glass window, it seemed as if she was staring at Roberta’s dark hair, Roberta’s features, Roberta’s trim figure. Maybe that was Roberta gazing back. Maybe Roberta was keeping pace with her, always just beyond reach.


Klaus drove her to the airport. He piled the luggage — hers and Roberta’s — onto a cart. Before she pushed it through the door, he took her hands, opening them to see the henna designs. Roberta and she had come here seeking Queen Zenobia but had discovered a world that could transform you into something you never knew possible, something you couldn’t even describe.

Weeks later, when Constance climbed Union Street to her apartment building, a briefcase of homework to correct in her hand, she found Roberta sitting on the tiled step.

“What happened?” she asked. “Where were you?”

“I had my adventures. Maybe someday I’ll tell you.” Standing, hands on her hips, Roberta stared at her friend. “Yes,” she said. “I was right, Connie. You look better as a brunette. We could be sisters, now.” She reached for Constance’s hands, then laughed as she saw the fading henna designs on the palms. “You, too!” she cried. “Look!”

Roberta turned her own hands palms up, showing reddish-brown henna patterns. She grasped one of Constance’s hands and slid it onto her own, then put the other hand over it. Their four palms shifted together, the elaborate, lacy designs almost alive in the sunlight.            

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Bruce Douglas Reeves' novella, Delphine, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition and will be published by Texas Review Press November 1, 2012. He's also published three novels (The Night Action, New American Library and Signet Books; Man on Fire, Pyramid Books; and Street Smarts, Beaufort Books and Ace Books.) Recently, he's completed a new novel, Cavanagh's Promise. He's published short fiction in nearly three dozen magazines and literary journals, including: The High Plains Literary Review, Runner's World Annual, Hawaii Review, The Long Story, Eclipse, The Drill Press, The Main Street Rag, Clapboard House, South Carolina Review, The Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, and The New Renaissance. Three of his previously published short stories, “Obsession,” “Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico,” and “The Lady’s Not for Keeping,” now are available again at ANTHOLOGY BUILDER.