In the near future a man is in a self-driving car on the highway from the airport to Jerusalem. The traffic coming out of the tunnel that undercuts the high ridge of the Qastel is heavy, the bridge strained with growling metal boxes and the air thick with horns. On the way over he has been running his thumb over a piece of dead skin at the base of his ring finger, like an old burn, except he doesn’t remember getting burned. He senses a movement, something about to happen, and unthinkingly orders the car to an emergency stop. He steps out and leans against the crash barrier on the side of the bridge. Later he will learn that the tremors he is sensing, and the quake itself, have come from the east. A small readjustment of plates in the Great Rift Valley beside the Dead Sea – the earth shaken out like a carpet. The bridge vibrates and groans, a percussion section of cars all bouncing and stomping, dancing on the asphalt. Loosening his grip on the railing he becomes a surfer shifting his weight to accommodate his centre of gravity, so that when it stops he topples to the ground and immediately rises with grazed wrists and a strange exhilaration. In the tunnel behind, a jammed horn echoes eerily, suggesting a body slumped against the wheel. Perhaps he should have walked away. Instead he follows an unassuming sign next to the lay-by, leading to a staircase built into one of the great columns that carry the bridge. Walking down, his legs are so shaky that at the last step he tumbles into the branches of a bush sparkling with fresh rain and sits dumbly in the wet grass for some time. Everything around is blooming, clumps of pink cyclamens between the rocks and carpets of red anemones. Scattered on the steep slope are almond trees exploding into bloom like frozen fireworks. How long was it before he lifted his head, and how long after that before he realised the highway bridge above him was no longer? Where he had come from, it had not rained that morning.
Someone or something is licking at his ear, a young lamb it turns out. A herd, apparently without a shepherd, has come to graze beside him. February is the most beautiful time of year here – the sunny days between the rains, the clearest of blue skies. Eventually he follows a path up towards the village. Passing under a trellis of grapevines to a passageway between the houses, he calls out a greeting and a door opens. She is about his own age and, as she returns his greeting, seems concerned for him. He must look terribly disheveled or confused, because without pausing to ask, she sits him down at her kitchen table and places a cup of cold water in front of him. The water has come from an unglazed ceramic jar on the windowsill, which allows liquid to seep through the clay, cooling the vessel’s walls as it evaporates. Has he somehow traveled to the past? It transpires that the year is still 2017, but the highway has not passed through here for many years. It was rerouted through a tunnel alongside the railway. There was a small fridge in a cupboard, but she prefered water cooled this way, in earth. The village was called Qalunya and the woman – her name was Haifa – had always lived here. But only that morning and for as long as he could remember before that, there had been no village here, just a suburb further up the hill that didn’t seem to exist anymore. There was, he would find, a desperate loneliness to being in a world that was almost his but not quite. Here there were none of the people he used to know, and what was worse, there were several people very like them, but strangely different. If there was a way here, there would be a way back, he told himself.
Time here seems to flow differently. Villagers on their way to the city walk down to the spring and over to where the old Roman road twists up the mountain. There, one can board a platform that glides up and down the slope on rails and a steel cable. Slowly, as one rises, the view opens: the deep green wadi, the houses of Qalunya nestled on the opposite slope, atop the hill the village of Qastel, and to the right the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway emerging from its long tunnel and crossing a fine viaduct into another tunnel. There is a stop halfway up for those tending fields or picnicking, and another at the top, in Deir Yassin. If you bring a bicycle with you on the platform you can be downtown or in the Old City within fifteen minutes. Sunlight and movement seem at times as thick as honey. Journeys to Jerusalem and Jaffa, to the places he has known and loved, leave him edgy. He finds himself at the edge of a precipice, then steps away.
Back in the village he becomes the shepherd to that small herd of sheep. They belong to the woman he is staying with. She calls him a lodger and he does chores and errands. There seems little need in this world for copywriters and campaign advisors. She says there used to be someone tending the herd but they are gone. As long as there is grass, until May perhaps, he can just wander the hillsides making sure no harm comes to the young lambs. For many hours he is alone, absorbed in dew drops and gentle shifts of time. He is regaining his footing.
He meets people, in the village and the hills, and they come to know something of his story. A wanderer tells of others who have, like him, walked through earthquakes. By being in the right place at the right time, by chance or some vague design, one can pass through the portholes opened temporarily by a quake. Eventually he meets other travelers. Most seem in worse shape than him, desperate to find a way back to their various worlds. A few have settled down and adjusted themselves. None seem entirely content. Everywhere he is told the same thing, that there is no way back, that every transition places you in an entirely different reality. Still, he follows a trail of clues to a group of Sufi practitioners in the Druze hills who are said to intentionally seek out these portals and travel through them. Over time he learns how to sense coming shifts and move towards them – a feeling nestled halfway from the navel to the genitals, about an inch in.
The country, which he has known as Israel or Palestine, is now Southern or Outer Shams, and its ancient capital is Damascus. In the great Umayyad Mosque he slips a coin into the charity box near the entrance, and from the message etched on a pebble, which he receives as a token of thanks, he learns something he will never forget. He keeps the pebble in his pocket and passes his fingers over the relief as he follows the hints of tremors to find his portal. He feels that when the time comes, he will know the right way, the passage back to his own world. On one occasion he finds himself at the very edge of it, but at the last moment is unsure and does not pass through. He tells himself that his best chance of finding a way back is to search near the pasture where he first entered and so he returns to the village, to the herd, to Haifa. By the next spring he is not just her lodger but her lover. Long slow days in the hills pass by and this time words come to him. When he had a profession he dealt with words and some people, to flatter, called him a poet, but this is different. The words crystallise slowly, almost imperceptibly, and have a resonance of their own as they come to his lips. He finds that his words, which soon gain some renown in the nearby villages, are at their best messages to himself, and he tries to take note of what they are telling him.
Eventually, it is these words that convince him there is no way back, no parallel reality, only the one you happen to be in.