Outside is a collapsing quarter of shuttered banks, checkpoints, brothels, beaches, ruins, sites of worship. Inside was once a sanatorium to treat respiratory and skin conditions by the sea. The building is now a camp, a ward, a shelter, a pill press, a meth lab, a rehab. This place is now nameless because it is already gone. Downstairs are the relics of an old canteen, split by a long blue lobby, as well as a bar inside a shipping container, next to what’s left of an open pump well – one of the countless holes of the building. The residents move up and down through the lightless landings: extremists in hiding, criminals on the run, illegal immigrants, refugees and displaced peoples. Police do not enter any of this space. Across the entrance are street markets and barbershops leading to a manned checkpoint, flanked by several high buildings between one or two dozen storeys each, gutted and abandoned from laundering schemes or left unfinished through the civil war, and littered with holes dripping water, as if sweating – the salt in the air crumbles the foundations as the concrete and sandstone seep into the water table. A long sewer separates the quarter from the rest of the city, running beside a series of large harbours, on the edge of the last district before the hills. There are large crops in the fields and many construction sites but few workers. Beneath the building is a drained cistern, built to double as the hospital morgue and bunker, with tunnels leading to other landings, rooms and passages inside more tunnels, and shelter. This is where Myrto and Moura live. Myrto smokes crystal meth through a straw and bottle throughout the tunnel network, shifting beneath camps and coastal high-rises. Moura believes he is Saint Paul and wants to explode. Dusk. Pink light falls over the arid green mountains behind as they wake and rise to the ground floor. Myrto trails through the corridors to a blacksmithing room. She lays her knife on an anvil and straightens it with a hammer. The eyes of a man in a red Nike beanie fix on Myrto through the window of their watchman’s post. She slices open a cryovac bag of Captagon pills stashed in oranges. Tearing at the pith and flesh of the fruit, she finds no drugs. Cheated of their smuggling and supply, Myrto and Moura leave the building and split to the borderlands for more. They pass through a checkpoint hoisting legs up on sandbags and guns, down the slopes of the sliding city, along the river that splits the east and west of downtown. They stop at a kiosk. Moura buys Arak Brun and a bottle of cold water, downs some of the water, tops it back up with arak and watches the anise turn the water white. He grabs the Bic lighter dangling on a string off the doorhandle and lights a cigarette in the doorway and smokes and sips. He dreams of their torsos wrapped with explosives, of honour melted to flesh, as one, into the focal point of luminous sanctuary and bosom – as sound as a miller or fruit farmer – as somebody sitting quietly in a corner, someone not yet fanaticised by the razzle dazzle, in order to touch some semblance of God, of a compass marking this magnetic slice of the human race. Moura already remembers the building. He starts to think of the building as one of the real métropoles, where the guerillas fund their youth squads by pressing pills and cooking meth in the basement while several people snort and fuck three floors up, while NGO workers and journalists look on with Red Cross binoculars into the blackness they can neither reach nor rush over, or through the dry rivers of pilgrims carrying their dead through deserts for reburial in sacred earth, to the holy cities of the holy lands – Jerusalem, Karbala – where martyrs cast no shadows, whose souls are God’s body – the passes becoming the vast stair spiralling down into Iraq, then back to the Levant, to the seaside cities burning their horses. It obsesses Moura, day and night. The hippodromes burning with great columns of smoke into the pollution, into air-conditioning units and traffic, into the smell of scorched hair and dung, into fires – driving his car into fires, into the flaming life – bones smouldering, organs and pockets of gas exploding inside carcasses strung up in shop windows. Bones and embers to one day be covered over with short green grass, gone like ash through a hand, like this city, this damned and cursed city stripped of its fortifying walls and razed and exhausted and towed and propped up half alive by others from the inside out, only able to perform its ablutions when the tidal rains come. All the fuel all around could be better used to turn a stolen car into a weapon, to mow down the pedestrians on the corniche, to break all their bones and send them sideways into the swell of the sea to drown as they try to swim with their destroyed limbs and go under the rip and die. He sees the flames whipping as a calligraphy, as an impossible order of things, and the order of his going. Myrto pulls him out of the shop doorway and into a minivan to score. Passing from border to border and body to body, sect to sect and class to class, they rub the dregs of the meth on their gums and shoot more arak and drive away from the harbours and the building and the district and the sea. Pressing on through the scant charter of her mind and into the road, Myrto is hurled into life, in circular motion, through the length of days as she looks out the window to the landscape:
Warm afternoon waterholes in tablelands stretch across the sandstone valley pockmarked with cedar and citrus trees descending to the visible sea and along the sides graze large flocks of sheep and their shepherds walking among them in a broad sun like illustrations to the Old Testament.
And they are going.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Altar".
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