A Cypress Tree Has No Shadow

In Issue 65 by Kevin Gerard Neill

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Photo by Sara Calado on Unsplash
Synopsis

A former British soldier, Justina Kent, thirty-two, and a Church of England vicar’s daughter, leaves a teaching post in England to seek the sense of purpose she felt when she was a United Nations Peacekeeper in Cyprus. With effort, she’s found a medical position in a Palestinian refugee camp in modern-day Lebanon.

Justina forges deep friendships with several women harbouring their own dreams – or secrets. Sybilla Schenck, a German who teaches in the camp, is one. She’s concealing being Jewish, but as she and Justina become closer, she reveals her faith. In turn, Justina confides about her own alcohol addiction. Their relationship leads to an unexpected level of fondness and intimacy and the women become unexpected lovers – a danger of its own in a country with an Arab face. Then there are the Palestinians Justina befriends: Hanan Zawati, a dreamy teenage schoolgirl desperate to live away from the camp; Wafa Sa’adeh, a deeply religious nurse forever affected by the violent death of her brother; and Maryam Khalifa, a haughty prostitute who is newly pregnant. Justina also finds her empathy for the refugees challenged by Palestinians who don’t welcome her presence or want to exploit her. Chief among them is Ibrahim Nusseibeh, a belligerent young man obsessed with luring Justina into his black-market operations.

Through Justina’s friendship with Hanan, she becomes aware of a criminal ring in the camp engaged in the illegal trafficking of human organs taken from at least three young boys. Justina discovers one of them, Wasif Balawi, and manages to save his life.

Justina suspects Ibrahim’s involvement, but soon realises the ringleader is a fellow Brit, Adrian Caine, the camp pharmacist with a hazy past. Justina races to find the last two boys. Together with Sybilla, they locate an abandoned clinic only to find the body of one of them there.

The discovery of the dead boy throws the camp into a frenzy. To find evidence implicating Adrian, Justina and her friends return to the disused clinic. There, they confront Ibrahim and a gang of youths. In a heated exchange, Ibrahim shoots and kills Wafa in front of everyone.

Wafa’s death sends Justina into a tailspin of drinking, and she considers leaving the camp. She’s further shaken when Maryam chooses this time to press Justina into secretly performing an abortion on her. Justina reluctantly decides to do the procedure, and it brings it out of her lethargy.

Justina resolves to avenge Wafa’s death and try to end the organ-trafficking. She obtains a pistol from the many weapons cached in the camp, then hunts down and kills Ibrahim. Adrian – now exposed – flees to war-torn Syria. The third boy is never found, but the trafficking stops.

Justina is not charged with murder but struggles over having killed Ibrahim. Her friends, co-workers, and most of the refugees, however, are aware Justina was trying to avenge Wafa’s death and protect the camp. Justina reconciles herself with her actions and will remain at the camp with Sybilla and continue working with the people and at the job she realises she loves.

Chapter One

The Boy

IN a still, dark room smelling of disinfectant that stung his nose, the dazed, terrified boy lay silently crying. He was on his back atop a thin mattress, in a bed or trolley, his wrists and ankles secured with straps so tight he could barely move. His mouth was taped shut. He knew nothing about where he was or how he had gotten here. The last thing he recalled, the last normal thing, was going to the market with his father to buy grapes. After that, father and son walked to an apartment not far from the market to visit a man the boy did not know. They had tea and sweet biscuits, a treat for the child, who did not see his father often. He felt sleepy after drinking his tea. And then the boy awakened here, alone.

The shaft of blue light streaming through a large, barred window near the ceiling made the boy sense it was nighttime. He heard traffic sounds. Trickling through his fear was the question of where his father was. He strained his neck to look for the man, but all he could see was a tall, whitish cabinet with glass sides against one wall, an empty stool, and an upright tank or cylinder that looked like something a scuba diver would strap onto his back. The boy also saw a flat tray or table near his head covered with a cloth.

A sudden scratching noise made him panic anew. He pulled against the straps binding him until his wrists and ankles burned, but his limbs barely budged. When the scratching grew louder, he twisted his head around to find the source. He finally saw it atop the cabinet: a large, dark rat. The rodent was on its haunches, peering down at him. The boy tried to scream through his taped mouth, but all that came out was a squealing muffled moan.

The slam of a nearby door caused the rat to leap from the cabinet and sail beyond the boy’s sight. Afraid the rat might come near him, the boy struggled to rise and see where it went, but his bindings held him down. Just then, the door to the room swung open and the boy froze. From where he lay, he saw the silhouette of someone in a long dress appear in the doorway. At the same moment, a fluorescent light exploded in the ceiling overhead that blinded the boy with its brightness. With another moan, he shut his eyes again and turned away.

“Shh,” said a voice. “Shh.”

The boy quieted, whether from fear or hope, he did not know. Like trying to confront a nightmare, he forced open his eyes and looked toward the doorway. Standing there was a woman, or at least that is what he gleaned from the large, round eyes and smooth forehead he saw beneath the light, for the rest of the face – from nose to throat – was concealed by a gauzy mask. And what the boy thought at first was a dress now appeared to be a light blue gown.

The boy fixed his eyes on the woman, pleading for answers with his expression.

“Shh,” the woman repeated. She moved as if gliding until she was alongside the boy, halting next to the cloth-covered tray. Her own eyes, when she looked down at him, appeared wholly indifferent to his suffering.

The boy stared, breathing hard through his nose, and watched with widened eyes as the woman pulled the cloth off the tray and picked up a slim hypodermic syringe with a gloved hand. Again, the boy squirmed against his restraints. Almost at once he felt a needle puncture his arm; then came blackness.

Justina

THE white carpet of clouds outside the airplane window stretched toward what looked like infinity. Three hours into her flight from London, Justina sat with her face almost touching the Plexiglass. She was so absorbed by the snow-like expanse and the deep blue sky arching above that it took a moment before she realised someone was touching her arm. It was the young, dark-complexioned woman wearing a grey hijab in the seat next to the empty one between them. Justina had not exchanged a word with her since the woman first settled on the plane at Heathrow.

“The flight attendant was speaking to you,” the woman said in a friendly tone.

Justina looked beyond the hijabi, saw a smiling flight attendant. The attendant’s red, white, and blue scarf knotted around her neck was so starched that Justina thought it seemed to be sticking out of her neck.

“We won’t be in Beirut for a couple of hours,” the flight attendant said. “Would you like something? A soft drink? Wine?”

Justina weighed the choices. She was still hungover from her going-away party last night. Even so, the thought of alcohol – just to soothe her nervousness – was tempting, until she thought of her day ahead. “Just some water, please.”

The flight attendant moved down the aisle. Justina was about to turn away when she saw her seatmate examining her. Justina made herself smile.

“Is this your first trip to Lebanon?” asked the hijabi.

“Lebanon, yes – but it’s not my first time to the Middle East.”

The woman looked at Justina, seemingly waiting for more.

“I was in Cyprus,” Justina said.

“Really? On holiday?”

Justina considered how to answer. “I was stationed there as a United Nations Peacekeeper.”

The hijabi frowned as if the conversation had taken a turn she was not expecting. “You’re a British soldier?”

“Not for years.”

The flight attendant returned with a tray. As Justina accepted her glass, she watched the hijabi fish in her bag on the floor for a book. The woman gave her a final look, more bland than friendly now. “My brother’s in the Jordanian Army. He’s in Aqaba.”

“I’m not going that way,” Justina said. She wasn’t in the habit of opening up to casual strangers, but the nervousness in the back of her mind about the seismic change in her life found its voice in a desire to impress her temporary neighbour. “I’ve taken a position in Lebanon as a medical worker at a United Nations refugee camp for Palestinians.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“More like an emergency nurse,” Justina said, adding, “anyway, that’s what I did in the Army. I felt like it was time to go back to it.”

The woman opened her book and appeared to read. “How interesting for you.”

Something in the woman’s voice suggesting disdain rubbed Justina the wrong way and compelled her to say, “I’ve always been drawn to causes.”

The woman gave Justina the barest smile and turned her attention back to her book.

Justina paused, then shrugged inwardly. The hijabi’s sudden flagging interest in her cooled Justina’s anxiety like a salve. She was used to people not caring for zealots. She resumed staring at the clouds.

After landing at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, Justina walked alongside her seatmate for a distance through the terminal, then slowed until she was lost in comfortable anonymity. With little sleep from the night before and hours of travel, she was exhausted. After passing through customs and retrieving her luggage – a bulky rucksack and a single, faded canvas duffle bag – she wearily negotiated for a taxi to ferry her to Beirut’s main bus station. By the time she bought a ticket at the station and settled alone in the rear of an antiquated inner-city bus, her mind was whirling with fatigue. It was all she could do to stay awake and politely refuse plastic cups of tea offered by a pair of old women in colourful dresses while ignoring the leering glances of male passengers. The men’s attention vindicated Justina’s rejection of her mother’s proposal that she travel in a dress or skirt instead of jeans. The issue of clothes had been only the latest in a lifetime of skirmishes between mother and daughter. She much preferred her father, and it showed in their closer relationship.

Justina’s annoyance at the men on the bus eased when she noticed two young boys watching her with shyness rather than lust. When she saw one of them blowing on his companion’s bangs and giggling as he pointed at her, she decided they were amused by the way the cool, spring air gusting through the open window repeatedly sent her pinned-up auburn hair flying. She stuck her tongue out at them, and they squealed in delight. After five minutes of exchanging funny faces, the game faded, and she began to doze.

The afternoon sun peered through a sky painted with white, jagged clouds when Justina woke. The bus was still churning along the coastal motorway. Thankfully, none of the men in the vehicle had advanced closer. She stretched in her seat and rubbed her eyes. Her hangover had settled into a lingering headache behind her eyes.

Justina observed the road signs to get an idea of where she was. Most of the signs were blue, some green, and lettered in Arabic, French, and English. They pointed the way toward towns and cities that had no meaning to her. One prominent English-only sign on a lonely stretch cautioned Foreigners are forbidden to leave the Main Road. She liked that one, wondered what prompted the warning. Perhaps it signaled the presence of a military base, an archaeological site, or served as a caution about minefields from past wars lurking in the wadis that meandered toward distant blue-grey mountains.

A few miles farther, the bus turned eastward and began winding through low hills. Justina alternated between closing her eyes and gazing out the window. Finally, coming around a long curve in a forested valley, she spotted a road sign proclaiming they were ten kilometres from the town of Nabatieh, her destination. The prospect roused her. She tried to recall the tourist facts she had memorised. All she remembered was that the town boasted a Crusader castle from the twelfth century and a mosque from the sixteenth. She knew the big market day was Monday, in a place called Souq Al Tanen. That was all; her memory offered nothing more. In the end, she felt her arrival was like being on the verge of meeting a famous relative whose reputation was stitched together from stories told by others or after looking at old, faded photographs.

The bus rolled into Nabatieh. Justina felt the town did not look like much. She could not see any buildings taller than the minarets of mosques as the bus threaded through traffic. And while she felt Nabatieh had a rural prettiness, it looked inadequate to host any refugee camp larger than a few hundred people – and Justina knew some of the UN camps in Lebanon were huge. One camp, Ain al-Hilweh, held over 100,000 people. An assignment to a place like that would have felt overwhelming, and she had been relieved not to be going to such an immense camp. Nabatieh, on the other hand, only held a couple of thousand refugees. But the reality was that she really did not know all that much about the Allenby Barracks Palestinian Refugee Camp she had been assigned to.

The idea that the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East was based in the capital of Austria was a concept Justina never adjusted to. Vienna, with its verdant trees, towering, glass office towers, intimate dark coffee houses, marble palaces, and cathedrals of weathered stone, seemed a universe away from the refugee camps in Lebanon she became familiar with from her training. Nevertheless, it was in the comfort of Vienna that she and other new employees had attended ten fast-paced days of presentations on the camps, their history, growth, and current conditions. From that, Justina walked away with a mental image of the refugee camps in Lebanon as a shoddy mix of dusty villages, squalid towns, or permanent tent cities – all overcrowded, poor, and prone to the impulsive back-alley or kitchen violence acted out by five generations of people long overcome by the daily frustration of survival mingled with fear of the future. Ain al-Hilweh was like that, she had been told by UN staff that had worked there and returned to Vienna as instructors. In contrast, Allenby and the smaller camps had not been portrayed with much detail to Justina and her fellow newcomers. There just wasn’t time for such a thorough orientation of operations, it was explained to them, as they were needed immediately to replace staff departing from Lebanon whose employment contracts had all ended with bureaucratic precision at the same time; a corporate blunder matched only by Vienna’s inability to anticipate it. The resulting hurried lectures and flurry of paperwork had given Justina’s training a scattershot feel that reached a crescendo when she was assigned to Allenby at the last minute by a frenzied administrative officer overwhelmed by deadlines whose office she was passing by.

After rumbling a few more blocks, the bus pulled into the station: an expansive, open-aired shed with a run-down look. Justina collected her bags from the bus’s storage bay and went to examine an illustrated city map in a nearby glass case. She had an idea of Allenby’s location and searched the map until she found the Byzantine clock tower she knew dominated the square outside the camp. The tower was within walking distance.

Justina followed a main thoroughfare toward the centre of town. Though only mid-afternoon, the streets teemed with people in motion like schools of fish. Most men appeared in casual western clothes: tee or polo shirts, Levis, slacks. Others – typically older – promenaded along in traditional flowing robes. In contrast, the women seemed more equally divided between dressing in modern outfits or wrapped in dark, coat-like abayas, their heads covered with hijabs, striding with large handbags over their shoulders or examining wares displayed in storefronts. Many women and girls were outfitted in combinations of modern clothing topped with brightly-coloured hijabs. Justina also saw men grouped around tables at cafes, and young teenagers of both sexes jostling in front of sandwich shops as small lorries bleated their horns to part the flow of people, and scooters and motorcycles of all sizes weaved through the crowds. Overhead, minarets and the upper floors of buildings were obscured by electrical wires and power cables strung across streets and buildings like badly rigged ropes on a wooden sailing ship. For Justina, the overall effect was a pleasant one, confirming her belief that Middle Eastern cities seemed to throb with a sense of life she rarely felt elsewhere.

At one point, Justina paused to rest and looked in a pub window. Beyond her slender reflection, she saw patrons inside enjoying pints of beers and glasses of wine. Worn-out, anxious about meeting her new superiors, she now longed for a drink, but recoiled at the idea of showing up tipsy – or worse – her first day. Having spent the last few years feeling trapped in what felt like a dead-end teaching position at a British secondary school, Justina was anxious that nothing go wrong today and giving in to have a nip or two might prove disastrous. Instead, she turned her attention to the stacks of newspapers in a neighbouring kiosk. Most showed pictures of Queen Elizabeth commemorating sixty-five years on the British throne. It seemed an inescapable subject even in Lebanon, weeks after the actual anniversary in early February. She moved on.

Justina’s shoulders were beginning to ache by the time she passed a well-tended cemetery and spotted the clock tower: a carved column of limestone eighty feet high. The tower was surmounted on each side by clock faces adorned with Roman numerals but devoid of hands. At the base of the tower stood a dusty rose garden whose early buds needed water. Beyond the tower, at the top of a wide expanse of a dozen stone steps that led to a largely empty car park, rose the high stone walls and extravagant façade of a building identified by a modest sign: UNITED NATIONS PALESTINE RELIEF AGENCY (UNPRA), ALLENBY BARRACKS.

Justina noticed a smaller structure near the edge of the car park. It was a crude hut, not much larger than a few telephone boxes, painted in orange and white stripes, a green cedar of Lebanon stenciled on each side. Justina figured she was looking at a Lebanese Army checkpoint, an observation confirmed a moment later when she saw two uniformed soldiers emerge, each with a Russian AK-47 rifle slung over his shoulder. They viewed her with little interest until one of them wearing the yellow stripes of a sergeant spoke into a radio clipped to his collar, keeping his eyes on her. Justina challenged their stare longer than might be prudent, then strode up the steps with her bags. At the top, another, taller soldier stepped from the hut and stood in her path. Justina caught sight of the single pip on the Velcro-backed insignia in the middle of his chest and took him to be a mülazım – a second lieutenant. He had a radio like the sergeant’s but showed added authority with a holstered pistol on his belt.

Justina set her bags down. She kept her expression neutral and positioned her hands on her hips, a calculated move to show she was more curious than worried at being stopped. The gesture seemed unneeded as the young officer maintained a generous smile below a wide, carefully trimmed moustache. He approached, inspected Justina with dark eyes that – unlike his smile – appeared more clinical than friendly. She waited. She was in no mood to be delayed, knowing she was just feet away from friendly faces and hopefully a cup of tea.

“Papers, please,” he said in clear, American-accented English.

Justina offered her British passport. The officer barely gave the document a glance before handing it back.

“You’re here to work at Allenby?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“And you’re expected?”

The question stirred her fatigue into irritation. “I bloody well hope so.” Right away, she regretted her tone. She knew from experience it was never good to annoy local authorities. She mustered a smile. “Sorry, I’ve had a long day.”

The officer’s own smile remained etched on his face as he made a show of stepping aside. “Yes, I’m sure. Don’t let me keep you.”

The officer’s condescending tone annoyed Justina further. “Thanks very much.” She lifted her bags and started toward her new home.

“Welcome to Lebanon, Miss Kent. I’m Lieutenant Amhaz.”

“Pleasure,” Justina said over her shoulder.

About the Author

Kevin Gerard Neill

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Neill completed a 20-year career in public health in the United States. Before that, his life varied from a period spent in the military as a United Nations Peacekeeper in the Middle East to employment as a refugee relief worker in a camp for Bosnian Muslims in Croatia.
Neill's written work (Checkpoint 104, a flash fiction set in Israel) has been published online in the Bangalore Review. Previously published works of non-fiction have appeared in professional journals (Cultural Survival Quarterly, the Journal of International Women's Studies, and Ethnicity & Health) on subjects of women’s health (sexual assault during wartime), and health and human rights.