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What Lies Beneath
Mary Akers, Fiction
Eight days before you leave for the Sinai Desert, Dr. Simon cuts a flap into the skin of your lower back and inserts twelve subcutaneous pellets of synthetic testosterone. The area swells, red and hot to the touch.
That should hold you, he says. For the next three months.
Let this serve, you think, as he swabs and needles and tugs at your skin, as my ritual scarification, my tribal transition into manhood.
Later, you pack, certain you will forget some essential tool of masculinity. Research gear makes up the bulk of your luggage: sixty plastic collection jars for specimens and a lightweight field microscope for establishing the RNA of Cetoscarus bicolor, the parrotfish you received a grant to study.
The parrotfish supermale—the most potent, sexually mature and sought-after mate—begins life as a female. You plan to search for observable changes in gene expression especially during a female’s transition from initial phase to terminal phase. You hope to generate a more complete picture of the physiological processes of gender transformation. You are aware that this makes you a mildly humorous figure, like Dr. Byrd, the ornithologist whose hobby is flying small planes or Dr. Butz the proctologist who is also an asshole.
You will find your specific parrotfish in the Red Sea and Salim Mohammed, a Bedouin of the Muszeina tribe located near Sharm-El-Sheikh, will be your host along with his extended family. You do a Google Earth search for their camp but nomadic tribes are tough to pin down. You learn that “Sinai” translates roughly as “Teeth of the Moon.”
Testosterone—or T as your doctor affectionately refers to it—involves no special molecular pyrotechnics. Its structure is formed of three basic elements in unique combination: Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen, as C19H28O2. Simple like water. Like air. T, your simple savior.
You first took T as a dermal patch, several years ago, supplemented by a cream. The increased T coaxed a scream from your cells, roughly the equivalent of Well, all right! Your voice deepened, your libido went through the roof, you relished every hair that sprouted from your chin, every vein that bulged on your arms. Your shoulders broadened, you stopped menstruating. You sweated more, a metallic tangy sweat that you relished. You felt, at long last, swollen with confidence, with lust for life.
Dr. Simon prescribes subdermal pellets for the research trip. They will not wash off in the ocean. They will not melt in the hot sun of the desert. They will hide beneath your skin and send out daily messages to reaffirm your identity.
Six months before the trip, you get your top surgery. One reconstructed nipple remains persistently high but you are thrilled to look down and have an unobstructed view of your abdomen, which you work on toning after the mastectomy drains are removed. You face the fact that you may never have a bottom surgery. For even the most perfect penis, you cannot imagine spending $50,000 dollars. Also, the mechanics of said operation make you queasy.
The pellets turn out to contain some unexpected trace metallic element that, on the day of your trip, sets off the airport metal detector. The TSA worker who wands you locates suspicious material beneath your shirt. When you attempt to explain that it is actually beneath your skin, they decide there is something not quite right about you. You are whisked to an interrogation room and subjected to a humiliating barrage of questions followed by a strip search that reveals what you had not wanted to reveal. You nearly miss your flight and board at the last minute, breathless and burning with shame from the past two hours and the angry glares of your impatient fellow travelers.
An interminable trans-Atlantic flight follows. You land in Rome, only to endure an onslaught of accusatory questions from El-Al, questions that never end in the interrogative. (“You have smuggled something on this plane!” I have? Wait! No, I haven’t. “Someone has put something in your bag!” They have? Et cetera.) Finally you land in Tel Aviv and your Egyptian travel agent stands at the bottom of the escalator holding a placard with your name misspelled (Mr. Starchonsti). You find yourself so grateful for the “mister” that you smile and grip the hand of Ali with gusto. He drives you to a tour operator with whom he holds a long, gesticulating conversation until the operator throws up his hands and tosses your luggage atop a rickety bus filled with hot people of all nationalities whose amorphous hate you feel emanating from behind the bus windows. You hold your jaw in a way that you believe makes it appear strong and square.
Ali stands on the cracked sidewalk beneath a scruffy date palm. He waves good-bye as the tour operator drives to the border at the edge of the Sinai desert. The Israeli side is manicured and lush. The Egyptian side is bare and dusty. Border guards enter carrying black assault rifles. They move down the aisle checking passports. They linger over yours. It says you are Danielle even though you now look nothing like a Danielle. You hope they assume it is a variant of Daniel, French perhaps. You do your best to affect a fey, European air.
After an endless bus ride, during which the sweaty, swarthy businessman beside you snores and mumbles, the bus stops somewhere for food, in the middle of the night. You hold out your map to the businessman with a questioning look and he points to a spot roughly halfway down the peninsula. There is no dot on the map for this place where you are. At a small stand, you buy a shish kebab of meat that must be goat and are surprised by its deliciousness. Fatigued and body-sore, the pellets in your hip aching like a fever, you are herded back onto the bus for the ten-hour final approach into Sharm-El-Sheikh. To pass the time, while you are not sleeping, you consider the many ways one can die in the Sinai, all of which seem equally plausible this night: a fatal head-on collision on a sharp switchback; a tire slipping off the edge of a cliff, the top-heavy bus rolling over and over before landing upside down in a dry wadi and catching fire; a monstrous avalanche of rock that crushes everything in its path, including you and your fellow passengers; the driver forgetting to top off the fuel tank at the last stop, causing the bus to run out of petrol and you to wander aimlessly in the desert before dying of dehydration or possibly a puff adder strike.
And it occurs to you with a frisson of shame on this crazy, dark night, as you stare out the window through your own reflection, that you are a biologist who cannot be certain if a puff adder actually makes its home in the desert. You have made an assumption, using only the dusty sounding words puff and adder as your guide.
In the early afternoon, the ramshackle bus shudders to a halt and the driver unceremoniously deposits you in a cloud of grime at the end of a dirt road. He points to a group of tents in the distant beige sand and says, “Muszeina.” He plops down bag after bag of your clothes and supplies as you watch, curiously calm, thanks to your recent subdermal infusion of T.
When he is done and gone, the brakes of the bus sighing and spewing that familiar smell of road and travel, you sit on your bags and prepare yourself for lugging everything to the tents. A man walks down the sandy road toward you. He turns and gestures to two young men behind him. You heft your heaviest luggage so as not to appear weak and they move faster, taking up the other bags and smiling. They wear long djellabayas over white, loose-fitting trousers and the older man, who introduces himself as Salim, wears a red-and-white draped head cover held in place with a shiny black cord. You marvel at how anything could shine in all this dust.
“My sons.” He points. “Yusef. Zayed.” You further marvel at his English accent. The sons wear off-white head covers, no cord.
A group of children drawing elaborate designs in the sand look up when you approach. They stand for a moment and then run behind the tent, laughing.
“Noora,” says Salim, pausing beside a woman with beautifully lined eyes that crinkle when she smiles. “My wife.” Faded blue tattoos cross her forehead and flow down her cheekbones, swirling in curlicues that sweep toward what you can see of the graceful curve of her jaw. You establish this through a series of furtive glances. You do not stare. You are a man in a man’s culture where the men do not look at women. Physical contact must also be avoided. Accidentally brush against a young woman’s hand while being served and you could bring great dishonor upon the family. You keep your hands in your pockets just in case.
Your belongings are carried out of sight around the back of the tent while you are ushered through the front, with great ceremony, into a wide-open area. A large welcome rug, banded with swathes of purple, red, and ochre, stretches across the dirt floor. You remove your sandals and sit with Salim, Yusef, and Zayed. You sweat profusely even though the air inside the tent is not hot in the way you had imagined it would be.
Yusef’s wife brings out tiny glasses of exquisitely sweetened tea. The men are anxious to practice their English; they make halting inquiries into your trip while urging you to rest your back against a pile of rugs. The rugs are rough, they scratch against your incision site even through the shirt you wear. They smell like a wet dog that has rolled in a rotting fish, drying beside a woodstove.
After you have been honored with sweet tea, Salim says, “Mihbaj,” and Noora brings out the largest mortar and pestle you have ever seen. It is made of wood and filled with coffee beans and cardamom seeds. The oldest daughter, Farah, who wears a purple dress and headscarf, grinds the beans and seeds, filling the tent with a dark, flowery smell. The seated men breathe deeply as if to inhale caffeine from the air. Farah pours the grounds into a brass urn with a long spout and Salim brings the mixture to a boil three times.
After the grounds settle, Noora pours a bit of the thick brew into a cup incongruously made of china, as delicate as an eggshell. She hands it to Salim. “Al Heif,” she says.
He sips and turns to you. “The first cup. I drink so you may feel safe.”
Noora pours another cup. “Al Keif,” says Salim, “The second cup. For you to taste.”
You sip, smile, and nod. Noora pours more and says, “Al Dheif.”
“The cup of the guest,” Salim interprets, cupping his hands and lifting them toward you so that you will drink, drink. Anxious to please, you tip the cup back and receive a mouthful of grounds for your enthusiasm. They swell in your cheeks and the family watches intently for your approval. The grounds fill the crevices between your teeth, they settle onto your tongue, drift back toward your soft palate. There is no option but to gamely swallow and smile, hoping your teeth are not still holding the black grounds, but feeling grit everywhere in your mouth. “Delicious,” you say, and then rub your stomach enthusiastically, delighting everyone.
“Now,” says Salim, “you are one of the family. If the family is threatened, you will have protection.”
Over dinner—a celebration of stewed lamb and spices, served on the floor on a massive metal plate—you speak with Salim about the Bedouin household and about your work. You describe the parrotfish, how he sleeps in a transparent spit bubble of his own making, a caul of mucous that encases him like a loose-fitting womb, how spit cocoons move and sway and blur the edges and colors of the fish, working as a hedge against predation, how they mimic a decaying strand of bleached-out seaweed and mask the scent of the parrotfish and any electromagnetic signals it emits. You describe your plan to enter the water before daylight and capture genetic material from several fish still in their spit bubbles, how you will effectively have swabbed the cheeks of sixty or more parrotfish before the end of your research trip. Enough to keep you busy back at your lab in Miami for the rest of the year.
Salim proves a wise and curious host. His English is excellent. When asked a direct question, he thinks long and well before offering an answer. He places a high value on metaphor and allegory. You ask how many are in his family.
“I have two sons and their wives, my three daughters not yet married, my mother, and the six children of my sons. We will have another soon.” He does not mention his wife.
“And Noora,” you add.
“Yes.” Salim nods. “We are family. We all eat from the same bowl.”
You like this description of family: all who eat from the same bowl. “My mother died three years ago,” you say, surprising yourself.
Salim frowns and you remember from your research that Bedouins rarely speak of emotional issues directly.
“You have a father?”
“He is…” you pause, considering how best to answer. Fortunately, a silence, even a long one, is not a bad thing in Bedouin culture, where careful words are believed to indicate a sharp mind and poetic turns of phrase are highly valued. You think of the things Tio Manny has told you about Jack, this man, this father you have never met: a veteran, a prisoner of war, a treasure hunter, an aquarium handyman, but you could not pick him out of a lineup. “He does not know me well. I only learned I had a father after my mother died.”
“Everyone has a father.”
“But not every father stays for the raising.”
“This is a shame. The father must teach his son the ways of men.”
“My mother kept the secret from us both.” You think about the secret you are keeping even now, beneath your clothes. Would your host be so hospitable if he knew?
“I do not wish to speak ill of your mother. But the child and father should know one another.” He crosses his legs and rearranges the fall of the long white shirt. “You have a wife, Mister Dani?”
“Yes.” You smile. “Her name is Carla.” You stop yourself from saying Carlita, not diminutive anymore, but the forty extra pounds have given her curves and creases that you love. She remains feisty, and has decided she wants—no, needs—children. She craves the mayhem of her Puerto Rican childhood, of loud relatives that bustle in and help themselves, of children scooting through the house trailing toys, dripping liquids, layers of women wedged tight in a small hot kitchen, como sardinas en lata.
Even though you ran around the neighborhood without a shirt until you were eight, at nearly thirty you are shy about your body. Your friends know this. They will never find you discussing surgical procedures at a cocktail party. You will not be offering tours of your reconstructed body. When Salim shows you the rug where you will sleep it feels wide open and conspicuous. In lieu of goodnight, he leans toward you and quietly says, “When you sleep in a house, your thoughts are as high as the ceiling. When you sleep outside, they are as high as the stars.”
You wake up at 3 a.m. to get to Na’ama Bay while the parrotfish may still be found asleep inside their spit cocoons. You rub your eyes and Yusef hands you a cup of coffee and a piece of hard flat bread, loads a camel with your supplies, saddles another, then boosts you up and leads the beasts across the dark desert to begin the first day of your research.
There is something exciting about the promise of new fieldwork. The possibilities stretch before you and your job at first is only to be open to them all. This is a feeling as wide as the desert sky, as rippling with promise as the stretch of windblown sand before you.
You have an intellectual understanding of cold desert nights, but the steamy breath of the camel surprises you. You alternate tucking each hand into your armpit for warmth, keeping hold of the saddle horn with the other. You look up and see the vastness of a dark, wide sky. Every star is visible and there are millions. From the western sky a satellite moves briskly through the stars and you think of Carla and the time you fell in love with her, camping in the Caribbean, so earnest and idealistic. But against all odds you have lasted, your long-time love and you.
The desert is quiet. Yusef is quiet. The rhythmic shushing of the camel’s hooves sliding across the sand relaxes you like white noise and you fight to stay awake even as you rock in sync with the animal’s awkward lurching gate.
Over dinner, Salim asks more questions about your research work.
“Your fish has the name of a bird.”
“Yes. Parrotfish have hard beaks. They’re brightly colored. Each supermale guards and watches over a harem of females.” Salim smiles and nods. The word harem does not faze him. “But each supermale starts its life as a female. This is what I want to study. Why and how that change takes place.”
“Why make an animal one way, only to change it later? I do not question the wisdom of Allah, but wish only to understand.”
“Maybe being a female first somehow makes the male a better male.” You smile in case Salim would only accept such a statement made in jest.
By bedtime, you both agree that the ways of God are mysterious. They are not for men to question, only to accept.
As this night’s pre-sleep missive, Salim offers, “Only three things in a life are certain: birth, death, and change. I will think about this changing bird-fish of the sea. Goodnight Mister Dani.”
Two weeks into your research, the pellets begin to work their way out of your skin. Two, at first, and you cannot push them back in, although you try, causing no small amount of pain. Briefly, you wonder what would happen if you swallowed the pellets instead. Or inserted them in some other orifice, anywhere they might yet be absorbed. You put them in your pocket, instead. The following day, another pellet works its way out. You stare uneasily at the bullet shape of it in your palm.
The day the final pellet emerges, your underwear shows a rust red smear. You are appalled. Your body is betraying you. Again. How will you continue? You leave open the possibility of harvesting a sea sponge to absorb the flow of blood from inside you. Fortunately, the blood does not increase but a dark cloud of estrogen depression does.
The evening before your final day of research, Salim approaches you with a serious face.
“Tomorrow,” he says, “Farah will join you and Yusef. She has asked to do this. It is not customary, but Noora agrees that you are family enough.”
You hesitate. The girl is beautiful and delicate, maybe fourteen years old. The hesitation shows on your face.
“Farah is most intelligent,” Salim says. “She has always loved the sea. She considers it an honor to help with your important research.”
At 3 a.m. the next morning, Farah is beside Yusef, helping without hesitation. She moves with grace and confidence.
At Na’ama Bay, you search the reef for specimens while Yusef tends to the camels and Farah gathers driftwood for fuel. When you are done with collection, you linger. This is your very last day in the Red Sea. The sun, rising above the flat edge of the sea, tints the ocean pink in a wide V that opens toward you. You float on your back and breathe deeply. The sky is cloudless and deep blue. You watch it lighten, then finally, reluctantly, you exit the sea and move behind a large pile of rocks to change out of your wetsuit as you have done every day.
But today, after you have removed everything and are reaching for your dry clothes, Farah rounds the rock carrying an armful of driftwood, only three feet away by the time she sees you and stops. She starts in surprise, but does not look away and you stand there naked, mercifully breastless, although scarred, and empty between your legs. You cover the area with your hands, but not before she sees. Her eyes have a question in them and she stares openly. You stare back, frozen, exposed, aware that this is a terrible taboo. You hastily pull on trousers. You have no words to explain your body to this young woman.
“Operation,” you say, pointlessly, to fill the gaping silence. She draws back and you pull on your shirt and gather your things.
“I’m sorry,” you say to her retreating back. You emerge from behind the rock shortly after and Yusef is there, holding the reins of the camel in his hand. The driftwood is tied in two bundles and draped over the beast’s haunches like saddlebags. At a word from Yusef, the camel begins a four-point movement, folding its front legs until it kneels and drops its haunches into a squat. The physical awkwardness of the camel mirrors the clumsy swirl inside your head. Is now the time for you to speak? You look to their faces for some clue. Yusef says nothing but gestures for you to climb atop the kneeling camel and so you do.
On the ride back, you watch Yusef and Farah closely, surreptitiously. You cannot tell what they know. How could Farah describe what transpired? What did? Of all the thoughts racing through your mind, you understand this: Farah, a young unwed female, has seen you, an older male, undressed. Though your downstairs plumbing may be female, you have surely dishonored her with this one, brief, careless act. Will the family’s honor require retaliation? A spate of scenarios runs through your mind. Most involve violence. Would the men be more forgiving if they knew you started life as a female?
You have dishonored your kind, generous host. You have betrayed his trust. You feel shame that begins as a sweating in your feet and travels up through your legs, pressed against the swaying belly of the camel. Shame radiates over your scalp, spreading down each strand of hair until your whole head is lit up—a fiber-optic show of shame. It overtakes you like a sickness.
You must meet with Salim and explain. You must tell him you are different, not exactly a man, not yet, not in the truest sense of the word. You are still finding out who you are, who God has made you to be, to become. That maybe it does not need to bring shame on his family if he knows this about you. Maybe Farah is still pure, only seeing other women. You are willing to call yourself a woman again, if only it will make things right for Farah, for Salim, for all of you. Without your friend T to back you up, you feel unstable, emotional. You are certain you will cry.
You try to stay calm when you talk to Salim, but you blurt out. “I’ve ruined everything.”
He holds up his hand. You notice that the lines of his face are deeply creased today. He knows.
Noora emerges from a slit in the curtain and Salim asks her for tea to accompany your conversation. The two of you sit cross-legged in the silence and wait for what feels like an hour. You attempt to formulate the words that you will say but your head is a swarm of locusts.
Noora brings two tiny glass cups on a tray. The tea is black and steaming and sweet and it burns your mouth but you drink anyway, welcoming the pain.
Finally Salim drains his cup. “Tell me who you have harmed.”
“I’ve harmed Farah.” You shake your head to release the insects. “Dishonored her.”
“You have touched my daughter?” His face is stern.
“No.” You feel sweat move in a trickle down your back. The air inside the tent is still. It is stifling.
“Come, Mister Dani. I saw your return from the sea. All were happy. I have no reason to suspect insult.”
You explain the incident as briefly as possible. Everything. Your temples pulse and burn. You stare at the sweep marks on the floor.
Salim is quiet for so long you wonder if he has fallen asleep. You look up and see him watching you. You understand he has been waiting. “I believe you are in pain, Mister Dani,” he says. “Pain made inside the body is worse than outside pain. It is trapped.”
You nod. You do not trust your voice.
“If I am a just man, mercy must prevail over my wrath. This is what Allah decrees.”
Your eyes, so tired, are crusted with sand. Your tongue swells with the anxious words you do not say. “I never meant—” You stop short, unsure what you meant or didn’t mean.
“I will give my daughter time to think. I will ask when she is ready.”
Words leak past your swollen tongue. “I don’t know why God made me like this.” If only you could speak in parable. There is so much to explain, so much to ask forgiveness for.
“You think it is not fair of God to make you like this?” Salim spreads his hands open between the two of you. “To find fairness, you must only desire for others what you desire for yourself. That is all. What is it you desire, Mister Dani?”
You stare at the wall of the tent. It flaps gently in the hot afternoon air; a thin line of sand rolls beneath. “To be understood.” Your traitorous voice cracks like a teenager when you speak but Salim nods his head.
“Many want this.” He presses his fingertips together. “Because of you, I understand that it is possible to start life one way and change to another. You were sent to teach me this. You and your bird-fish were designed in a way that only Allah, Wise Creator, can understand.” He rearranges the white djellabaya over his knees with a deliberate tug.
You examine your hands and attempt to parse the meaning from Salim’s words. “You think God made me this way?”
Salim’s mouth turns down and he is still for a meditative moment. “No. You are changing how God made you.” He looks out of the tent flap and considers the desert beyond. “My wife has drawings on her face. God did not put the ink there, but it adds to her beauty. The face drawings make her happy. It is important to be happy. We are like the fingers of a hand, Mister Dani: all are different. We will not speak of this again.”
Your eyes sting. A stupid rush of emotion that is not you, but is also you, rises.
Salim rests a hand on your shoulder. “The weight of the burden is known only by he who carries it.”
Mister Dani. Burden-bearer.
You swallow hard and turn your face toward the distant mountains, the teeth of the moon. Their jagged peaks glow orange, lit by the falling sun. They are the sides of the great bowl. The giant bowl that feeds us all.
You feel Salim’s watchful eye and hide your overflowing sentiment so as not to embarrass your good host.