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Lilly Under the Sea

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim

Excerpted from a short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019).

The water is the wrong kind of warm. You feel the hotel guests’ stares on the back of your neck as soon as you sink into the pool. You are here on borrowed time, purchased for local use and to be discarded. Even the water in this pool does not know this desert or these tiled blue walls. Like you, it is imported.

Your back aches from late nights on a soft, unfamiliar bed next to a heaving, sweaty body. The dusty Gulf sky sinks into flashing blue, purple, yellow buildings, construction cranes and pale bunkers against dark tents and romantic hotel lights promising respite.

White robes milling around the edges of the pool blur into one long line. Hairy legs interrupt the yellow underwater lights.

You drip back to your hotel room. With only your beaten-down suitcase hidden in the corner, walls of white and yellow flowers floating against blue, a bed with too many pillows and sheets too smooth to be slept on, this space could belong to anyone.

The room, briefly deformed, will snap back into place like a rubber band to accommodate another. Strange how you have been here for two months.

You light your cigarette and inhale. Your employer smokes too much himself to notice your breath when he brings his lips to yours.

A golf cart trundles by your verandah, driven by a Filipino man in brown slacks and an immaculate white shirt. He can inhabit a small part of every world, his corner of the room shared with twenty others, his invisible portion of the pristine grass and palm trees of this hotel.

You turn your head at the slap of plastic slipper against tile. A man in a swimsuit glides up the path running past your hotel room. His grey hair sticks out around his ears, but his belly is flat. He is accustomed to air-conditioned gyms.

“On holiday?” he says, his eyes traveling up and down your body.

He is not Arab, his accent is more like yours. He has pale eyes and a sharp nose.

You feel dwarfed by your fluffy white towel.

“Work,” you respond after a pause.

“Of course. Only the crazy, wealthy, or lazy take a holiday here.”

“And which are you?”

“I would say I am wealthy, but never lazy,” he laughs. His laughter is quiet and short, with his breath catching as if he is holding himself back.

Drops of water cling to your forehead and trickle down your back. The black swimsuit strap tied around your neck feels flimsy. You wish you had a bathrobe instead.

“I was just in the pool,” you whisper.

“I know. You surprised the other men with your speed.”

“I prefer that to stares.”

“They were not staring too much. Their wives were right there.”

“And you? What were you doing?” You have spoken to him for too long. Any moment now, your employer’s assistant could knock on your door.

He steps towards you, and you see his chest glisten under the moonlight.

“I was simply admiring you.”

“So, you must be one of the crazy ones,” you say.

“Perhaps I am. I haven’t seen someone from the motherland in a long time.”

Before you can respond, he turns and continues up the path, his pale, tall body shining amongst the palm trees.


You chose the name Lilly when you decided to leave. Lilly is written on your passport and your contract. You saw the name on an advertisement for soap. A woman with brown hair, oval face and skin so bright as though lamps were inserted under her cheeks, stared at you from a billboard across the busy street from the agency.

Lilly, it said, guaranteed to make you bloom.

Your paleness was your advantage. When the agency saw you, they created your new passport, took a few headshots, and said they would fast track you to the highest bidder. You once thought you were adopted. After all, your mother and father were darker, their faces a weathered brown like goat skin hanging from the butcher’s shop window.

Artwork by Hassan Sheikh

Back home, you would swim fully dressed, in shirt and leggings in a cove nestled in the far corners of the beach a few feet from huts where holiday-goers would laze. Early mornings you would catch a bus from the cramped township where your parents and two brothers lived, then walk two miles, long robe flapping around your ankles. You found the clothes oddly comforting, despite their weight pressing against you. Perhaps their heaviness made you a better swimmer.

One day you heard screams and gunfire and you hid in the cove until all the noise subsided. Your mother found you shivering late at night behind a rock and forbade you from ever going back.



Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a television producer by day and a writer by night. Born and raised in Pakistan, she is currently based in the United States. She was a finalist for the inaugural Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. She has written essays and reviews for Catapult, The Millions, The Collapsar, and other publications. Her fiction has appeared in Specter Magazine, Platypus Press, and is forthcoming in Salmagundi Magazine, and in an anthology of South Asian speculative fiction from Hachette India.*

Hassan Sheikh is based in Lahore, Pakistan, and a graduate of the National College of Business Administration and Economics, where he majored in traditional miniature painting. Over the past few years, his body of work has evolved into mixed media compositions creating dialogues between the past and the present. These compositions include playful explorations of mediums such as photography and digital collage, along with traditional miniature painting done on wasli. His work was recently put up at Twelve Gates Art, Philadelphia, USA.*

* Author and artist bios from archival pieces may no longer be up to date, as they are published on the website directly from the print edition.

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