The first word was WE. Sam noticed it when she scrubbed her chin with cleanser. She’d overslept, the first time she’d slept late—or almost at all—in months. The two letters were tucked into the space between her jawbone and her ear. The chemicals inflamed the letters, reddening the skin where it was raised, as though the word WE had been branded into her neck.
What the fuck?
“Aunt Sam!” It was Nasir, shouting in his whistle-high voice from the kitchen. “Can I have more cereal?”
“Hang on a sec.” Sam tilted her head to the right, tugging at her ear and her cheek to see the letters better. Ink? Sharpie? The letters were written in black and her skin was throbbing as though she’d gotten a tattoo in her sleep. They looked handwritten, tilted and curved as from a woman’s hand. She rubbed the letters with her finger, but they didn’t come off.
She scratched at them. Skin sloughed off into the sink. Still the letters remained. Pinpricks of blood emerged from her shorn capillaries.
“Aunt Sam, I’m hungry!”
“Hold your horses!” Sam tugged open the medicine cabinet and hunted for her concealer behind the neat rows of spare toothbrushes and floss.
When she came out, Nasir was on the counter, straining to open the cabinet. She lifted him up and set him on the floor. “I told you I’d be out in a minute,” she said.
“I got tired of watching TV,” Nasir whined. “I wanted another bowl.”
“Watching TV?” Sam glanced at the television—more dirty faces, tent cities, water lines crammed with children Nasir’s age and younger. She poured Nasir a bowl of cereal and slid it across the table. She clicked the television off. “You’re too young to be watching that refugee stuff,” she said. “Didn’t Mama tell you the news is for grown-ups?”
“What were you doing in there, anyway?” Nasir shoveled cereal into his mouth and gulped sugared milk down his throat.
“Putting my face on.”
Nasir giggled. “What?”
“You know, putting my makeup on.”
Nasir laughed again, pointing at her. “You’re silly,” he said.
Sam rolled her eyes and felt her neck again for the letters. She could still feel the bumps; she placed her forefinger on the wells of the W, the shelves of the E. She walked to the phone.
“Who are you calling?” Nasir asked.
“Someone who doesn’t ask so many questions,” Sam said.
It rang three times before Farrah picked up.
“Sam? Is everything okay?” The sound of traffic swelled to fill the spaces between words. “Is Nasir alright?”
“He’s fine,” Sam said. “Just double-checking what time you wanted him back this morning.”
“Oh—” The traffic dulled; Sam could hear voices on the other end. “Whenever,” Farrah said. “I trust you.”
Sam laughed. “Don’t know if that’s such a good idea. He’s climbing the walls. I think he gave me a tattoo last night.”
Farrah laughed, an odd sound where she inhaled sharply between her teeth and wheezed air out. “Samira, please,” she said. “You’re the most responsible person I know.”
“So how was your trip?”
“Exhausting,” Farrah said, “but way worth it. The footage is amazing. I think the translators are the most worn out, though.”
“Not more than you, I’m sure.” Sam glanced back at Nasir, who was pressing all the buttons on the remote. “Hey! Cut it out!” The cord pulled tight—too short. “Listen, I gotta go,” Sam said. “I’ll be over later this morning to drop him off. I have to work this afternoon.”
Sam didn’t respond. She wound the cord between her fingers. Nasir turned his back and picked up the remote again, hunching his shoulders so Sam couldn’t see.
“Thanks for doing this for me,” Farrah said. “This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around all the time, you know? And with our family there—“
“I know,” Sam said. “I know. But we haven’t spoken to them in years, Farrah. Mom and Baba came to the States before we were even born. I don’t know why you—“
“Because I have to,” Farrah said. “I have to, because Syria is a part of us. And now I have to go. And Sam—all this work, these long hours. You feeling alright? Are you sleeping?”
“Yeah,” Sam said. A lock of hair slumped over her eyes. The ends pricked her dry waterline and she brushed them away. “I’m sleeping fine.”
“You promise me, Sam,” Farrah said. “You promise me if that changes, you go see Dr. Hamsah. Alright?”
“See you in a few hours.”
The dial tone thrummed in Sam’s ear. She hung up the phone. Nasir turned and stared at her with the remote in his hand, eyes deer-white.
“Did you write on me?” Sam asked.
Nasir dropped the remote and erupted in a belly laugh, clutching his sides, his whole face full of teeth and tonsils. “You’re silly,” he choked out. “You’re silly.”
* * *
Damon was waiting in the lobby with his arms crossed when Sam got to work.
“You’re late,” he said.
“I had to drop my nephew off,” Sam said.
“We’re shipping today.”
“I know,” Sam said. “I know.”
“You’re never late,” Damon said. He studied her, tilting his head. “You always get in at twenty-five of. Sharp.”
“I know,” Sam said.
“I know. But today’s Saturday.”
“What’s that on your neck?” Damon asked.
Sam touched her jaw—concealer smudged on her fingernails. “It’s nothing,” she said. “My nephew wrote ‘we’ on my neck last night.”
Damon pulled his head back and lifted his brows. “You let him write on you?”
“I didn’t let him,” Sam said. “I guess he just did it. I was sleeping. You think I want a six-year-old writing on me?”
“Was it pen?”
“Sharpie, I think.”
“Shit.” Damon stroked the black hair on the tops of his arms, suppressing laughter. “What color?”
“Black,” Sam said. “Could be worse, I guess.”
“‘We,’ huh?” Damon scratched his thigh. “‘We’ what?”
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “Just ‘we’.” She rubbed her neck again. “Won’t come out, either.”
Damon smirked and tugged at his jaw. “Just use some rubbing alcohol. Should come right out.”
“Yeah. My kid is always drawing on the walls. It’s the only thing that’ll get it out. If that doesn’t work—bleach might do the trick.”
“Bleach?” Sam blanched. “Won’t that burn?”
“Don’t do it then.” Damon walked away, waving his hand behind him. “It’ll fade eventually.”
But it didn’t.
* * *
The next word was WILL. It came a few days after WE. Then the words came more quickly, twining down Sam’s throat and into her nightgown: TELL OUR CHILDREN. It startled her so much that she ripped open the medicine cabinet and her spare toothbrushes went tumbling into the toilet. She had to throw them all away.
Maybe I’m sleepwalking, she thought. Then—‘We will tell our children’ what?
Sam threw out every permanent marker in the house after WILL appeared; after TELL, she tossed every pen she owned into the dumpster. The next day, she groaned when she couldn’t write out checks for water and electricity. She scrubbed herself with bleach and salt, but the words still wouldn’t come off. She was raw. She used a pumice stone to rub the skin off down to the pink layer, dots of blood appearing on a grid, until the dyed skin had crumbled off into the sink. When she was done, it throbbed. Sam put two four-inch bandages over her chest and neck and went to bed, in pain but glad to be free of the words.
When she awoke, WE WILL TELL OUR CHILDREN had appeared out of her sinew and blood and bone. She was bleeding someone else’s words.
She wore turtlenecks. She fished Dr. Hamsah’s card out of her wallet. She stood in front of the sink and thought about calling Human Resources. Maybe I have a sleep disorder. Maybe someone at work is writing on me with invisible ink.
Sam rubbed her raw neck. “Isn’t invisible ink supposed to be invisible?” she asked the dishes.
The next words to write themselves were THE WATER TASTES DIFFERENT HERE. They appeared on Sam’s thigh one night while she slept. She grumbled and lost sleep, but the words weren’t hard to hide. WE WILL TELL OUR CHILDREN still had yet to fade, and the concealer always rubbed off before closing time, so Sam wound a scarf around her throat. As she sat in her office that day, she ran her fingers over her thigh. She could feel the raised lettering of THE WATER TASTES DIFFERENT HERE through the cloth of her pant leg. It tingled.
Two weeks later, the first line of Arabic appeared on Sam’s face. There was no mistaking it, even in the mirror.
Sam sat on the rim of the tub in her bathrobe, clutching her toothbrush but not wetting it, holding it like a weapon. It was 8:20. Every few minutes she moved from the tub to the mirror, surveying the bridge of her nose and her cheekbones, whispering to herself.
“What the fuck does it mean?”
“I haven’t read Arabic since I was ten.”
“Farrah, where are you when I need you?”
She pulled Dr. Hamsah’s card from the pocket of her robe.
* * *
By the time Sam pulled on her paper gown, the lines had multiplied. Arabic cursive flowed down the backs of her knees, in the crooks of her elbows, around her ankles like jewelry. Dr. Hamsah barreled in from another appointment, palms still sticky with hand cleanser, twenty-five minutes after Sam’s scheduled appointment time.
“Samira,” he boomed with a smile and open palms, “As-salamu alaykum!”
Sam shook his hand, unsteady, dry-mouthed.
“I haven’t seen your parents in ages.” Dr. Hamsah clutched her hand in both of his, nodding his head like a Muscovy duck as he spoke. “May their health never fail, inshallah! Have they visited the family in Syria lately? Have they been back to Hama?”
“Not lately,” Sam said.
“And your sister, Farrah,” Dr. Hamsah said, “how is she? Traveling through Europe, I heard?”
Sam averted her eyes. “The Middle East, actually. Interviewing civilians and refugees.”
Dr. Hamsah gaped, touching his palm to his chest. “In Syria?”
“Jordan, mostly,” Sam said, picking at the letters on her thigh through her jeans. “Jordan and Lebanon. She’s filming a documentary.”
Dr. Hamsah shook his head. “A terrible situation,” he said. “So difficult for everyone. You must have been terrified for her. She has been gone four, five weeks, no?”
“More like six, I think,” Sam said. “I had her son with me about half of it.” She scratched her neck.
Dr. Hamsah tilted his head to one side, trying to see, still sticking out his chin. “Is that a bruise on your cheek?” he asked.
“No,” Sam said. “That’s what I came to talk to you about.” She wiped away the thin layer of concealer with the pad of her thumb.
Dr. Hamsah pulled up a stool and gripped her chin, turning her cheek. “Do you know what this says?” he asked.
“I was hoping you’d be able to tell me.”
Dr. Hamsah angled Sam’s face up toward the overhead fluorescent light. “It says, ‘I love you,’” he said.
Dr. Hamsah narrowed his eyes. “It looks like a child’s handwriting,” he said. “And this one—” he picked up her hand, peering at a new phrase that had risen up out of her pores as she slept—“this one says, ‘We arrived at dawn, but Baba was already dead.’ And this—” he pulled her hair taut against her scalp, revealing new letters at her hairline that she hadn’t yet noticed—“it reads, ‘I carry Syria in my heart.’”
Sam lowered her voice, the walls of her throat raw and close. “Why is it on my face?”
“It looks handwritten,” Dr. Hamsah said.
“But I didn’t write it,” Sam said.
“Someone did.” He pushed his stool back and studied her. “Someone who wanted to be heard.”
“Who are these people?” Sam scratched again at the backs of her hands and at THE WATER TASTES DIFFERENT HERE. “Why are their words on my body? Why do they talk about losing everything, fleeing in the night, and then in the next line write the words of Sufi poets?”
“Maybe it gives them comfort,” Dr. Hamsah said.
Sam curled her fingers into a fist. “And what about me?” she said. She pointed at her neck, drawing her thumb along the first set of words. “What are we supposed to tell our children?”
“I don’t know,” Dr. Hamsah said. “About the kindness of others. Why parents left their homes. The names of those who were lost.”
“I don’t understand,” Sam said. “These unborn children—what do they need to know?”
Dr. Hamsah lowered his eyes. “Perhaps,” he said, “that it happened.”
* * *
Sam arrived at work the next day at 9:35. Ten pounds of concealer wouldn’t have covered the crisscrossing highways of English and Arabic that marred her cheeks and forehead now. They were branded into her, burned into her bone.
“You’re late, Sam,” Damon said, crossing his arms. “And what the hell is on your face?”
“It doesn’t say anything bad,” Sam insisted. “This one says, ‘I love you all.’”
“They’re face tattoos, Sam,” Damon said. “In Arabic. Do you think that looks good to clients? Between that and your name—they’ll think you’re a terrorist.”
Sam had cut her hair short three years ago, trimmed her eyebrows every week, avoided contouring her cheekbones with bronzer. She had adopted an American nickname, avoided telling coworkers the full version. She’d refused to learn Arabic when Farrah started taking classes. She’d argued when Farrah chose to name her son Nasir.
Sam looked down at the back of her left hand, at the delicate print branded there: THEY THINK I AM A TERRORIST.
She said, “I’m not a terrorist.”
“I don’t care what you are,” Damon said. “I need you to leave. Now.”
It took about a month before the words began to overlap each other, Arabic layered on English layered on French layered on Arabic. Soon, there was not a limb that was left blank: there were words on Sam’s cheeks, her scalp, the fleshy pads of her palms, the soles of her feet. The words appeared beneath her kneecaps, on her fingernails, across her shoulder blades. They bent themselves over the bridge of her nose and over her lips. They entered her mouth, rocketed around the cavern of her palate, and dyed her tongue. Her mouth went numb.
She called Farrah but couldn’t get a full sentence out; her tongue was so devoid of feeling.
“Don’t go anywhere, Sam,” Farrah said. “I’m coming over. I’ll be there as quick as I can—I’ll have to take the Ben Franklin Bridge into the city. Don’t go anywhere!”
But Sam called 9-1-1.
They took her in an ambulance but didn’t put the sirens on; Philadelphia traffic was too thick to go anywhere fast. The paramedics dabbed her with rubbing alcohol. Sam tried to wave them away, but they kept rubbing. Nothing faded. They scratched their heads.
“It’s on her eyelids,” one of them said.
“Shit.” The other peered over her, took a flashlight from his open kit. “It’s on the inside of the eyelids, too. The underside.”
“She could go blind,” the first one said.
Something inside of Sam began to crack apart. She lifted her palms. She read the words on her right hand, fighting her own thick tongue: “And so our spirits are a wine and our bodies a vine.” She rolled her head to the side and locked eyes with one of the paramedics, the balding one. “Ibn al-Farid,” she said. “Why doesn’t anyone read his poems anymore?” She lifted her palms again.
The words were gone.
Sam bolted up on the gurney. She rubbed her hand across her brow and flattened her palm against her nightgown. When she lifted it again, it was still clean.
Sam pulled the IV from her arm and lurched off the gurney. “Stop!” she cried. “Stop, stop!”
She burst out of the back of the ambulance and onto the Parkway. It was dark and the flags were waving up and down the street. Horns shrieked. Sam jogged down the center median, tearing at her clothes, reading lines off her chest and arms.
“They build and destroy,” she shouted into the window of a passing car. She waved like a madman to a child across the street—“I carry Syria in my heart!” The words vanished.
“They’ve gone to the Garden without me,” she cried, ripping her nightgown from her body. She nearly tripped over its crumpled mass. She left it in the middle of the street, the arches of her feet curving like sabers in the moonlight. She wove a line between the cars, arrowing down the Parkway toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There must have been hundreds of horns, dozens of sirens.
“I was born in Dimashq,” Sam shouted to a woman stopped at a light. She grasped the bottom of the rear driver’s side window. As the woman screamed and raised it, Sam exclaimed to the bewildered child in the rear car seat, “I love you. I love you. I love you all.”
From far away, Sam heard someone calling her name. It was a familiar voice, punctuated by whistling shouts and sharp inhalations. She didn’t stop.
With each lurching step, the words continued to disappear. First Sam’s left thigh was clean, then the tops of her feet, then her chest and elbows. She couldn’t see her own face, so she tried to remember what was written on her forehead—“Raya was shot today, shot in the street.” She serenaded a passing jogger—“The water tastes different here!” To the streetlights, she beat her breast and cried out, “We arrived at dawn, but Baba was already dead.”
Finally, when Sam was out of words, she stopped and searched for her reflection in car windows. The only words remaining were the first ones that had arrived, wrapping themselves from her jawbone to her clavicle.
“We will tell our children,” she cried.
She ran again, faster, careening down the Parkway. She clutched her own ribcage, fighting her nakedness and the cold.
“We will tell our children!”
She stopped again and peered into another window, but the words were still there. She tore at her hair and rubbed her skin, the friction charging her with heat. Then she used her fingernails, tearing at her flesh.
The sirens followed her down the damp street.
The paramedics found her close to three o’clock in the morning. Sam was under an overpass, naked, rocking herself back and forth on the curb. She was whispering to herself, unable to remove those last five words.
“We will tell our children.”
“We will tell our children.”
“We will tell our children.”