Paris Orly Airport, 1960
I sit in my mother’s womb, the cabin full of smoke. Papa wanted us on three separate flights. Maman says it’s better to go down together. Julia hopes for a girl. Papa, too. If I am not born in the next ten hours, I become a citizen of Israel, and the army will come for me.
Maman had red hair but now it is grey. As long as I am inside her, she can’t dye it. Except with beet juice. Once a week, she boils the vegetables, stirs them, strains them, rubs them into her wet hair and leans out the window into the weak Marais sun to dry. She makes sure not to press me too hard against the sill. The carmine juice drips onto the sidewalk. If Papa was ever home and not at the laboratory, he would tell Maman that real carmine comes from dried, ground-up beetles. “Are Paris’s hummingbirds in love with you or the beet juice in your hair?” he would ask her. On the plane, Maman asks Papa if they sell hair dye in Dinoma. She knows there are chemicals, but not those chemicals.
Maman’s face glows in the metal tray table. Maybe after I am born, the color will travel back to her roots. She worries I am a redhead, like she was. In jealous moments, she hates me for hoarding a shock of red hair inside her, while the world sees her go gray. I wish I could tell her how I am bald. Then she might sleep better. Does she know I can sleep even when she can’t?
One night, the night she changed her mind and decided not to leave Papa, and instead to take us with him to Dinoma, Maman told Julia that if she ate too many galettes her stomach would turn into a stone and she’d never go swimming again. Julia asked Maman if someday she could swim across the English Channel, and Maman said, “Julia, once you are a woman, you can float anywhere you like. What’s more, all the best women are swimmers.”
Julia asked if she had it backwards.
“No,” Maman said, “but it does not matter. There is no water in Dinoma.”
She was wrong then. She most often is. Dinoma is full of water, heavy water, water made by man. Papa is a nuclear physicist, an expert in heavy water. He keeps so much hidden from Maman. From Julia, Papa withholds nothing. I listen. It is not true what they say, that children know when they’re being lied to. That is a lie children are told.
“Papa, why are we moving?” Julia asks. He buckles her seatbelt.
“The plane is at the gate. What you’re seeing is retrograde motion. The plane next to us is moving, but it looks like we are.”
“No, why are we moving to Dinoma?” she says.
“Because in Israel, in the desert, people are thirsty, so they need a desalination plant, which is a place that takes the salt out. We French are experts, and I will teach them.” Papa speaks the truth, mostly.
“Is our house in the Sahara?”
“No, Julia, the Negev. Thirty kilometers from Jordan.”
“Does Jordan have a king and queen?”
“Yes, my papillon.”
“Do the Israelites have a king and queen?”
“No, not for two thousand years. They believe in collectivization.”
“David was king.”
“Papa, why do kings wear purple?”
“Ever since Roman times. Near Caesarea, you and Maman and your little brother or sister will visit. Long ago, a sea snail lived there, and they would crush it, leaving it to dry on the kurkar rocks until it turned to purple dust. That snail supplied the dye for every Senator in Rome. The Caesars kept the tradition until the snail went extinct. That is what happens, when people extract one thing from another. What I’m doing in Dinoma is different. Splitting two things is not the same as extraction.”
“Like salt from water?”
“Yes, my papillon,” he says. Untrue. What Papa does is split atoms to make bombs.
“Where does the water come from?”
“The Dead Sea.”
“Why is it called that?” Julia asks.
Without looking up from her magazine, Maman answers. “Because there’re no trees,” she says. Untrue. Papa knows there are many trees in Dinoma. They were planted to hide the Facility. No citrus, only palm groves.
The plane takes off. Maman goes back to reading. Julia cannot sleep. The cabin is full of smoke and it makes her jittery. Cigarettes don’t affect me at all. The airplane flies over the countryside. We begin to descend, early to refuel, but not too early. A port looms below. Marseille.
“Julia, what is this called?” Maman points to a model’s flat chest.
“Coconut?” Julia guesses.
“No. A bikini. Something I’ll never wear again.” She pats her stomach. I feel her disapproval.
“What’s a bikini?” Julia asks. Papa lifts his eyes from his reports. His bifocals give him four pupils.
“Bikini is an atoll in the South Pacific, where the Americans tested weapons. You have three choices: either high in the air, deep underwater, or in the desert where no one lives.”
“Like Dinoma, Papa?”
Before he can answer, Maman shrieks, a wetness in her capris. It darkens her crotch as if they were riding pants. Papa’s glasses fog up. Necks crane. I am coming, soon.
JOEL SMITH edits fiction for Spork Press and lives by a wash in the Old Pueblo. He wrote a graphic novel about post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s called The Parish, and pieces have appeared in Hobart, Nashville Review and Construction Magazine. Online, he is here and there.