Sûrah XIII
THE THUNDER
"He it is Who showeth you the lightning, a fear and a hope, and raiseth the heavy clouds."

13
CLOUDBURST

The gulf between Franchone and Z (sitting side by side in the cab) is wider than either is capable of fully comprehending, he having never smelled human flesh set ablaze by a gasoline fireball, nor sorted through dismembered body parts—touched them, kissed them—strewn over half a city block once authorities disbanded their cordon:

Was it hers; this joint of finger; that matted hank of hair?

Nor had he tried to match a loved-one's scorched remains with memories un-incinerated, lain salvaged scraps on a muslin sheet to compare blackened flesh-and-bone to images of femininity... while weeping, denunciating Allah—"the Beneficent, the Merciful"—for whom her comrade, in a holocaust of glory, had sacrificed All... to abide, thereby, in the Garden "underneath which rivers flow," immune from grief, detached from sorrow, unaffected by loss and mortal fear of a fate no less horrific—its virtue called into question by heartfelt blasphemy:

Doubt,
how counteract doubt,
when confronted by such grim senselessness,
the damage done no less collateral
than by heathen enemies wreaked?

Nor had Franchone's sex drive been anesthetized by a cauterizing blade, the Sword of Allah ritually inserted to prepare a virgin chamber for the cache that would ensure her ultimate damnation—its lethal load un-detonated and shamefully delivered within an airport restroom stall, the aftermath of numbness like a penance undergone for her 'mission unaccomplished.'

His the hand that grasped the hilt,
that wired the flawed explosive,
that fastens now on her throat in spectral retribution,
lurking not at a distance but rather here on foreign soil,
looming with a vengeance undeterred by normal obstacles
—be they mental or material,
be they temporal or sustained—
Ahmed
shall requite her execrable wrongdoing.

Franchone, reading Z's distress in her preternatural calm (an eerie, animal wariness raising hair on her unseen limbs), moves to give her shoulders a reassuring squeeze...

FRANCHONE

Steady, girl.

... thinks better of it, resting his arm, instead, on the cab's back seat, leaving it there like an amputated gesture, severed by Z's antipathy—which thankfully is directed (for the moment) not at him.

FRANCHONE

Almost there.

Doubtful Ahmed could have sighted her by chance, Z assumes the worst; that her haven in the Haight has been exposed. Franchone has suggested she "chill out" and offered his place; in her sober state of panic, his-place will have to do. Close enough to home to know the relative terrain, yet far enough to dodge her fierce pursuer, Mister Pinkney's "digs" seem a most propitious sanctuary. Temporarily. Comparing relative dangers, Z regards her escort's as 'surmountable.'

Jealous husband? Jilted boyfriend?

Mulling possibilities, Franchone pays the cabbie... holds the door for Z—who looks before she exits to assess potential hazards, then crosses, quickly, street to sidewalk to steps of Franchone's drab apartment building. Together they scale the stairs to his top-floor perch, an ersatz studio: kitchen, bedroom, and living room rolled into one (bathroom down a poorly lighted hallway), damp and drafty in the rainy season, doubtlessly not up to code, but, thanks to rent control, atypically affordable.

FRANCHONE

Looks like you could use a drink; I've got some vodka. Or maybe a glass of wine?

Z

A glass of water would be welcome.

He crosses to the cooking area, and a none-too-sanitary sink, above which hang a pair of antithetical posters portraying Franchone's heroes: Malcolm X and Doctor Martin Luther King Junior.

FRANCHONE

How 'bout coffee? I brew a wicked pot.

Z

No thank you; water will suffice.

FRANCHONE

"Suffice?" Where's my Merriam Webster when its needed?

Franchone smiles.

1. Good-natured is this Black man's face.

2. Perhaps I have misjudged him.

3. He has rendered aid and asked for no reward.

FRANCHONE

So who's your wild-eyed stalker? Looked unfriendly.

Z

Ahmed comes to kill me.

Franchone's smile dissolves.

FRANCHONE

Whoa; you mean for real?

Z, reluctant to elaborate, lets silence answer, weighing pros and cons of taking anyone into confidence, much less him whose patent immaturity fails to win her trust.

FRANCHONE

If what you say is true, he must be... a former lover?

Z

There are passions more intense.

FRANCHONE

Name two.

Z hesitates for a moment... then points to Franchone's idols.

FRANCHONE

You know them?

Z

One was Muslim, was he not? The other was a Christian. We called him "King of the Blacks," though Malcolm X is the man your people should have crowned.

FRANCHONE

Well hush my mouth; you're political? U. C. Berkeley? Poli-Sci?

Z decides her status is best left unconfirmed.

FRANCHONE

At least fess up to being a student.

Z

"Fess up"?

FRANCHONE

"Confess. Admit. Concede." In other words, tell me about yourself; I'm batting zero at guessing.

Only Homa was her confidante... prior to disembarking... prior to Z's disgraceful touch-down on "The Great Satan's Soil." What would Homa think of her comrade's craven treachery? Homa; Z's compatriot, sister-in-adversity, existential twin, whose absence hurt like the stump of a blown off extremity, a yearning for what once was, once was whole, once was consummately functional. Intimates they had been, engaging bodies, yes, but more importantly psyches. Bound by mutual hardship, the only women in camp, Z and Homa endured deprivations bred of malice as much as of necessity. Conditions were harsh for all, but theirs made worse by the men. Some. Those for whom fedayeen meant martyred male exclusively. Those for whom bassamat al-farah was a smile of joy reserved for vaunted masculinity—its reward misinterpreted. "Women are more than prizes," Homa would remonstrate, "and the journey onto Paradise—Me'erage—can be made by girls like us as much as by boys like them."

4. Homa, so well-suited for her shape-disguising uniform, so proficient with her weapon, so athletic yet so refined that she could touch her calloused palm upon my cheek or nape or bosom and turn roughness into smoothness, transmit gentleness, soothe, console, relieve the stress of dodging live-fire, running gauntlets, crossing mine fields...

FRANCHONE

Hey; you spaced out. Wandered off, I mean. Where to?

Startled by her context, then by the fact that made her chose it—Ahmed's ambush recollected like a nightmare—Z recoils. It is sufficiently traumatic to be trailed by such a nemesis (an avenger, coolly ruthless, full of piety, honed by rage), but then to find herself confronted with a garrulous American who pretends an avid interest (that belies his quest for sex), who has insisted that she seat herself on a couch (that doubles as a bed—unless the single room conceals some hide-away alternative), and who regards her with a mind to find some weak excuse for fondling (as he joins her, arm outstretched along the sofa's upper edge), is to exchange a mortal threat for one that... merely rankles.

FRANCHONE

Girl, you're tense. You need a back rub; Franchone's specialty. Turns anxiety into noodles. Make you limp as a pile o' pasta, guaranteed.

He spreads his hands. She notes the contrast, palms a lighter, tanner shade than the deep burnt-umber that describes his overall complexion. Fingers flared, he neither reaches nor retracts. Instead, he stands, steps round behind her, and applies a touch so tentative she endures the impropriety with a mixture of resentment and nostalgia.

FRANCHONE

Nothing sexual. Just a friendly Franchone turn-y'all-into-fettuccini rub.

Like a palliative to her shoulders, his caress absorbs her pique, annuls her guarded sense of outrage at his cavalier presumption that a man can grope a woman out-of-wedlock, thumb, compress, massage her neck in such a manner as to neutralize compunction and replace it with impressions reminiscent.

5. Roused by her, my body tingled when she brushed my hair, each stroke unsnarling tangles, nerves like split ends tamed, repaired, restored to a tranquil, at-ease state.

6. Yet they reviled us for our sorority, for our segregated barracks that excluded male vulgarity while preserving female grace.

7. An isle of harmony was our tent, despite its harsh, uncouth environs.

8. Until an eyeball, at a peephole, breached our privacy, cast aspersions on behavior disapproved of by our hostile eavesdropper.

9. How Ahmed railed against our wrongly named "apostasy."

10. How he chastised.

11. How he vilified, out of envy—maybe jealousy—surely spite.

12. I was his pupil, his apprentice in the realm of mortal combat. Taxed to teach "an inept female," he was stringent and austere.

13. But he was likewise proud, took credit for my dearly won achievements. If a woman could be trained to fight like a man, then I was she, and he was more a man for mentoring my transition.

Franchone kneads, refrains from straying past the boundaries set by Z's unwitting flinches when his focus accidentally shifts to clavicle, peeks at cleavage, calls attention to the push and pull at private flesh concealed, her vest and long-sleeve blouse obscuring forms that fingertips plumb, intuit—yearn to measure more directly than her clothing will permit?

14. And if our closeness had, indeed, exceeded limits of propriety, if infractions of hodood put our immortal souls at risk, would I relent, regret sensations I felt then but not thereafter?

15. Would I disavow my love for Homa?

16. Never.

Z submits; the macho frisk, for which her backbone had been braced, does not develop. More than able to defend herself, she is glad to waive the need, to conserve her strength for him whose lust eclipses Franchone's Don-Juan exploits, him whose tactics are precise, whose skills are honed, whose aims are keen—with both munitions and ambition for Z's elimination.

FRANCHONE

Come lie here.

Franchone has briefly interrupted his platonic ministrations to arrange a rubber gym mat and some pillows on the floor, to which he beckons Z—on guard once more lest Franchone take advantage, yet agreeable insofar as she feels compromised by the bed (its inoffensive couch-mode notwithstanding).

Poised, unhurried, he resumes with halting strokes until Z's shoulder blades respond, regain plasticity under patient palms that lull... subdue... unknot... remind her muscles of occasions when their bruised and battered sinew found assuagement under therapeutic pokes and pats and prods, when Homa lingered at locations that aroused unstudied fervor, subtle tremors sent throughout a network linked by palpitations that had overwhelmed her once, inspired such uncontrolled contractions she grew frightened, then embarrassed by the flood thereby produced as if her flesh had turned to fluid, flowed then ebbed like a wanton tide—which Z had neither felt nor longed for ever since.

17. He goes too far!

FRANCHONE

Thing's like a tourniquet. Feel this groove? Damn bra's 'bout sawed your back in half.

A move so deft she barely realized her brassiere had been unfastened reawakens Z to Franchone's rogue intentions. She demurs.

Z

A pen and paper, please?

Perplexed by this incongruous requisition, Franchone nonetheless obliges, goes to fetch the items hence, a ballpoint pen and his spiral notebook closest at hand.

FRANCHONE

Flash of inspiration?

He delivers pad and pen, the former flipped to a page well past his rookie ruminations—the latter brusquely seized by Z's white-knuckled fist and held with ends protruding from either side. Thusly armed (content, in fact, to be released from the bra's constriction), Z grants her masseur permission to recommence.

Z

You may continue.

Woman's weird. Decides to trust me, then insists on what; a weapon? Wants to fend off my 'benevolence' or to jot down idle gripes? I gave my word, said "nothing sexual." True, I just undid her bra clasp. To massage not to molest her. To distract her from that creep—who's downright spooky, I admit; but out to kill her? Pure hyperbole. Z's intriguing, enigmatic, but I doubt this death-threat claim. I mean, I'd love it, from an author's viewpoint; malice, murder, mayhem—add kinky sex, adultery, and some terroristic subplot, I might even score a publisher, get a cash advance. Best seller. Make it up, if what it's based on turns out ho-hum, no-big-deal—which I suspect, despite my writer's nose for sniffing out contingencies that show promise of fruition (unlike postponed dissertations, mine as far from consummation as relations with Ms-nibs).

A clap of thunder (rare in San Francisco) punctuates Franchone's thesis. Rain plays discontinuous taps on the dust-flecked windows, speckled, streaked, the summer cloudburst like a harbinger of unexpected oddities.