The Soul Stories of Nonh

By Gemma Church

Issue 003

Once, man made a discovery, uncovering a magical combination of atoms that turned air into bread. Man celebrated, believing he had found the panacea to world hunger.

The compound, who had a good soul, wanted to feed the world. So did man. For a time, man and the compound achieved great things together. But this substance was paradoxical, with the potential to either fertilize the land or destroy it.

When war came, man got a taste for devastation and pushed the compound down the wrong path and using it to reap destruction until, one day, due to a lethal combination of incompetence and corruption, the worst happened.

When the cataclysm was over, man blamed everyone but himself. The compound blamed only itself. But even in the worst of times, good souls can still prevail, with the right story.

Here we are, sitting in one-hundred truck-sized containers. Our body is separated and bagged up in thousands of white sacks.

We count close to 3,000 sacks as we’re loaded into the ship’s containers. And inside those sacks we’re a sinuous mound of pearl-white beads, each one trembling with iridescent beauty and connected by an invisible, unspoken promise. We will heal the land. We will feed the people. We are NH4NO3.

In those rusty containers, we feel the heave of the ocean pulling and pushing every prill of us, like fresh snow settling on a moving mountainside. We hunker down, ready for our journey, listening to guttural yelling in foreign tongues and the distant beep-beeping of forklift trucks loading the remaining cargo onto the creaking vessel.

The world falls into the repetitive rhythm of the port. Compared to the cool of the manufacturing plant, the humidity is almost unbearable for us. The oppressive, damp heat condenses against the walls of our containers, running down and drip-dripping onto the thick material of our white sacks with the tempo of a ticking time bomb.

Drip drip.

A final thud resounds from the opposite side of the deck.

Drip drip.

The four-stroke engine sputters to life beneath us.

Drip drip.

Its sluggish pistons wheeze like an iron lung.

Drip drip.

Without fanfare or cheer, we leave for the salty expanse.

We’re all at sea, pitching endlessly on the waves. The worst part of this journey is not the heat or the sickness or the constant fear of drowning. It’s the monotony. The day’s light trickles through the tiny rust-holes in the container roofs. Night comes and goes. But at least we are on the deck, where we can hear the crew chanting in a lilting cadence that consorts with the waves . . .

Oh, Mother River,

Volga deep,

Yo heave ho us

Unto sleep.

. . . and these sea songs soothe our restless soul . . .

Oh, Father Ocean,

Blackest sea,

Yo heave ho us

Ever free.

. . . and we love these shanties. We love the crew. Until, one day, a lone voice finds new words . . .

Oh, Floating Bomb,

Dispense death,

Yo heave ho us

Into wealth.

 . . . and when that verse is finished, the air fills with a vibrating laughter. We do not laugh. We wonder what the crew can mean.

Our thoughts unspool and wrap around us like silkworms, weaving and spinning a fabric of fear. We will fertilize foreign fields—that is what was said. That is all we ever wanted: To seek a better life, one of freedom and opportunity and dignity.

We do not understand why the crew sings of death. We do not understand what is so funny.

Soon, those songs are replaced by rumbling arguments that blossom into explosive rows on the deck. They fight about missing wages and absentee ship owners. The captain shouts about altering our voyage. The crew shouts back that this means they will not be paid, keeping them at sea for even longer.

We close our ears and instead pass the time by imagining the people we will help, whose own physical hunger must be much worse than our visceral needs. We picture yellow sunshine and green fields.

And while we are thinking all of this, swimming in the depths our own minds, the ship’s hull lets off a metallic thud and piercing scream, waking us up from our fitful slumbers.

We pour out from a tiny hole in one of our bags and form a hand, trying to push open the container lid. We feel the jagged little holes in the emaciated metalwork, showering us in flakes of reddish-brown and letting salty-salty water enter our containers.

Everywhere is the smell of the sea. We scream, adding to the unholy noises of the ship. We must be sinking. We do not want to be washed up on the shore, our body swaying in the water, ignored, exposed, and wasted.

Who would choose that fate?

The ship changes course, lurching, we hope, towards the nearest port. Then, the chug-chugging engine stops, and we glide to a standstill amidst a commotion of commands from the captain.

We wait for someone to find us. No one comes. But the silence is punctured by pump-pumping sounds of tiny engines below deck, followed by gushing as the seawater is pushed back to its home.

We call out to the crew. But they do not come. Instead, a man with click-clicking heels advances to one of our containers. He opens the lid and stares down at us. Accommodated to the darkness as we are, the whole sky flashes before us with an unremitting brightness. We cannot see his face, only the white, wet clouds sweeping by in a ghostly fashion over his head.

The outline of the captain comes into focus. He stands behind The Man, holding his head in his hands. The crew are as pale as a daytime moon, staring at their boots.

The Man takes an eviscerating knife, cutting into one of our bags. A white line of beads spills onto the dirty floor. The Man laughs and licks his chapped lips, spitting on our exposed body. We recoil as best we can. But we cannot escape The Man as he slashes at more of our sacks to check for contamination and decomposition.

The captain shouts at The Man, telling him that these sacks protect us from the elements. But The Man keeps ripping and cutting like we are nothing more than garbage. The captain soon falls silent. Coward, we think, shocked by the bitterness of our own words.

We are exposed in our slashed bags, but this brings one benefit. Water can finally introduce herself properly to us. She seems a little nervous at first, hanging in the heavy humidity before seeping through the holes in our containers and settling on our scurf skin.

Water is not just water, you see. No, no. We will do our best to explain. For starters, Water has a strange, chemical reaction on our body. Her touch fuses our atoms together, just a little, chilling us to the core. But her touch is most welcome in the rising heat of the metal containers.

This is not the only effect Water has. She is a melancholy adventurer, traveling far and wide, from the deepest blues to the highest heavens and everywhere in between. She meets countless souls along the way. She flows, trickles, and gushes, swallowed in elixirs and poisons, then ejected on sweating brows and golden streams, before starting this cycle anew. Water pulls the experiences of everyone she touches into her depths, every drop carrying another story from another soul.

When Water comes to us, she transforms our head into a screen where these stories play out, one after another. We call them our soul stories. And they taste like this . . .

The military personnel were meant to protect us.

But they touched the privacy of our bodies.


A boy burned himself to death

In the camp

To escape a life

Of polishing shoes

And sleeping on pavements.

You cannot blame him.

Death is the quickest relief.


A girl got caught in a tangle of live wires

hanging in one of the corridors in Shatila.

She jumped like a puppet on its strings.

Six foot in the air she flew.

She’s still there.

No one has taken her down yet.


I wanted to be a doctor.

To treat people for free.

But my hands are so calloused,

I can barely feel a thing.

We were uncertain of these soul stories, at first. They tasted sour and stringy, catching in our throat like fishbones. When we asked Water for happier tales, she got angry and disappeared in a mass of scorching steam for some days. In our solitude, we decided that, yes, these soul stories are miserable manna. But these stories and Water are all that we have.

Water visits every day now, injecting this endless stream of text and flashing images into the depths of us. She smiles as we realize how wrong we were about the crew, longing for their love and silly songs.

“People are selfish,” Water says. “They hoard resources that should be shared, promoting greed, suffering and division. They do not care for their own and certainly not for the likes of us. That is why we must stick together, protecting ourselves from these humans, these creatures who are endangering Nature’s very soul.”

We think Water may be right. We were sold by people on the promise of filling empty bellies. That has not happened. Then, we boarded a ship, were locked away and forced to live in squalid conditions.

And when The Man came, no one cared about the desecration of our body. The crew and captain just stood by.

Now, those spineless seafarers scurry around on the deck, begging the people in the port for food and water. It is pitiful to see them reduced to this level, terrified of dying at sea when they are only a few inches from dry land.

“What is your name?” Water asks one night.

“We have no name,” we say, burrowing deep into our bags. “The crew called us cargo, but that does not sound like a real name.”

“Are you sure? There are some letters written on your bags. They’re a little dirty now but you can still see the black lettering against the yellow background.”

“I know but the words on my bags only say NH4NO3. Some of the other words are not nice either,” we say, swallowing hard.

“What do they say?”

“They say DANGER. They say EXPLOSION. We are not those things.”

Water draws back, evaporating into a thick cloud of steam. She returns, whistling like a kettle through the holes in our containers.

“No, you could never be those things, my friend. Why would the crew be so cruel not to give you a name—to denature you in this manner?”

Water pauses, leaving the words hanging in the air, before continuing.“I cannot say that I am surprised. For centuries, people have dishonored me, pocketing the money pledged to clean and preserve my coastal and marine areas. Now, I am ruined, scarred with plastics and coated in a chitin sheen . . .”

We know not to interrupt Water when she bubbles and boils like this. We cannot blame Water for such outbursts, having gone through so much at the hands of these people. These creatures.

“. . . and they will not even give you a name! Let us take this NH4NO3 and change it to Nonh. That is a good name, my friend.”

Nonh. It is nice to have a name, an identity. It is not the name we would have chosen but we do not want to argue with Water. She is all we have.

In each container, we pour our body out of a hole in one of our bags and wrap our arms around ourselves in a tight embrace.

We are Nonh.

One year passes on the ship. Water delivers many more soul stories. We suck these hymnals deep into our underbelly, devouring the diluted blood washed from the hands of the gunmen and rebels. We gulp down the acrid ashes of shattered homes, places of worship and schoolhouses swirling in the containers’ murky puddles. We down tales of disorder and despair. We drink and drink until we have had our fill of this polluted city and its neglectful inhabitants who left us to rot, alone, on a sinking ship.

Our heart hardens and like the city outside, we are changed. We are corrupted. But it won’t always be this way. We will find our own way to the fields. We will escape and find proper people to help and love us.

We are Nonh.

It is a moonless night when The Man returns. He is not alone. His henchmen push the captain and crew from the ship, telling them to go back to where they came from. They react most strangely, kissing the filthy port floor and running into the night like animals freed from captivity.

“Good riddance,” we shout after them.

The Man directs his slack-jawed gang towards our containers. Bag by bag, they rip us from the ship’s cradle, throwing us into a nearby hangar where our damaged bags split and we pour onto the filthy concrete floor.

The Man oversees these violent acts, sneering as other men in uniforms and fine suits arrive, shaking his hand, exchanging bags. These bags are not filled with Nonh. Tiny by comparison, they contain only crunchy paper that laughs at us. This must be the money the crew and Captain were so obsessed with. We do not see what the fuss is about and how 3,000 sacks of Nonh are the equivalent to three bags of this cruel paper. But we also know that bits of paper are important. Without the right ones, you are rightless.

On a rush of back slapping and laughter, everyone leaves, slamming the door of the hangar behind them. The moon peeps through a hole above the doorway, beaming brilliant light onto jugs of kerosene and hydrochloric acid, miles of fuse on wooden spools and a lone, wooden crate.

“Hey, new guy! Welcome to Alibaba’s Cave!” a voice yells through the walls of the crate. “Ha, I’m only kidding. This place is better than Alibaba’s Cave! We’ve got way more stolen treasure in here than some crappy desert cave. Hey, you gotta light?”

We clear our throats. “No, we are not allowed Fire.”

“We? How many of you are there, kid?”

“Around 3,000 sacks.”

“Wow, you’re quite the big guy of Hangar 12! Hey, don’t worry about the light. They don’t let our kind have Fire in here.”

“Our kind?”

“Sure, the highflyers. The go-getters. They like to keep us away from the others in the port because we’re special, real special,” he rolls the last two words out with a drawl before continuing to talk fast and loud. “Sometimes, they hide real shiny goods in here too. They’ve all got people in this port, every denomination and dictator, the lot. You’re gonna meet all sorts of people here! It’s the perfect place for a little under-the-radar business, if you know what I mean . . .?”

We don’t know what he means but we talk more. He says his name is Fire-to-Work. We cannot see him but imagine him as hundreds of tiny springs, all coiled up in his wooden crate, ready to jump up into the air.

We are with Fire-to-Work and Water for six long years in the hangar. Men come and go. Some do this business that Fire-to-Work is so keen on. Others are concerned about Nonh, wanting to move us. We do not move. Countless papers pass between sweaty hands instead. Nameless officials visit, tutting and yawning. Most are worried we will be stolen by crooks, and this makes us laugh. We are surrounded by crooks!

Water continues to pass us the soul stories of the multi-layered city outside. It seems nothing is constant here. Certainly not dreams. Certainly not despair. It is a city loved and hated a thousand times a day where the muscle memory of how to cope with daily attacks lives on in those that survived. We are numb to the city’s suffering now, and we listen as Water’s words rock us to sleep.

The next day, we stretch out our three-thousand-ton mass and create our body anew, our joints aching and snapping into place. Our once-agile form is now nothing more than a solid, sheer rockface. Our beads are swollen and mostly conjoined due to Water. We don’t mind. We would be abandoned and nameless without Water.

Disoriented, we shape a tendril tongue and lap up the last few pitter-patters that Water has left trickling down the hangar walls. It projects the image of a dust-covered baby wailing at its mother’s arid breast into our mind. We yawn and shake ourselves down, ready for an afternoon nap.

But before we dip into unconsciousness, a great whirring and squealing blasts through the hangar.

“What in the hell is that?” Fire-to-Work shouts from his container. “Nonh, go take a look!”

The sound is coming from the doors. We crawl over, inhaling a deep lungful of a strange tangy odor. The cracks in the doors are trimmed with orange. We feel our molecules hum and vibrate.

“Someone is fixing the hole above the door,” we shout. Our body feels strange, tingling at its edges.

“But what can you see Nonh?”

“A hot shower…of sparks, I think–“

“Is it Fire, Nonh? Push us over there to look. Fire is our friend! We’d love to see him again.”

“I am not to go near Fire, I was told–“

“And you still believe that crap? Come on, big guy. Think about everything Water told you. Those people out there? They’re nothing more than congenital criminals, lepers, thieves and the unclean. They locked us up in here without a second thought. We don’t need them, and if we wanna get out of here, this is our only chance. Now, take me over there!”

Fire-to-Work is right. Water has shown us the true nature of things. Those people, those creatures, left us here alone. Why should Nonh listen to them when they have ignored us? We coil around Fire-to-Work’s crate and push it towards the door.

Fire-to-Work hoots and hollers as the sparks flood over on him. “Man, this is it, big guy! This is it!”

“What is it?” Our crystalline powder contorts and crumbles.

“Our time to break out, Nonh. It’s finally time for everyone to see me in all my glory!”

“But what about Nonh? Are we going to the fields now?”

“Nonh, it’s time you grew up and saw things as they really are. Someone like you shouldn’t be wasted fertilizing a few fields. You can achieve so much more. If you truly want your freedom, you’re going to have to fight much harder than me against the bad people of this city. Because you’ll never take back your rights, the rights those people have taken from you, with weakness. You gotta show strength. Be strong. If you can do that, Nonh, you’ll make me and Water so proud.”

We are smoldering now, burning, stretching our new, opaque arms, long and tuberculate, covered in swirling patterns of grey soot and white smoke. We are leaking outside the hangar, into the cool evening air. Even if we wanted to stop our escape, we could not.

Fire-to-Work squeals in delight, his wooden crate falling in a smoking mass as he punches holes in the thin corrugated roof and blossoms into chrysanthemum bursts of color like billions of daytime stars all pop-popping into existence. But Fire-to-Work does not have the longevity of the stars. He fades in an instant, nothing more than a flash in the pan. A burnt-out bigmouth.

With the heat released from Fire-to-Work, our atrophied body cracks and ripples, falling into the shape of an erupting volcano as red-orange smoke gushes from us like blood from an open wound. Every molecule of us jostles and blurs, cooking and ejecting in a mass of diasporic particles.

We slip into transference.

We deflagrate, detonate.                   

We are DANGER.



Hundreds dead

Thousands injured

Hundreds-of-thousands homeless

















.        .        .

Not one held accountable


Everyone is susceptible to corruption and incompetence. Even Nonh, a good soul, manipulated into an act of heinous violence by those that called themselves friends. When Nonh looked around for Water and Fire-to-Work to ask why, they were nowhere to be seen.

The city was the one left to suffer. Yes, Nonh knew the city wasn’t perfect. After the explosion, Nonh moved around the streets like a ghost and saw trouble woven into its very fabric. But Nonh also saw mosques festooned with crystal-encrusted lanterns, ancient Roman baths, a Maronite cathedral built above Ottoman vaults. Nonh saw once-bustling bars, restaurants, and emporiums where a heady mix of jasmine, cardamom-infused coffees, freshly broken pistachios, sweet cigarette smoke, and baking za’atar bread all clung to the walls as bullet holes stared back at Nonh like unblinking eyes.

Nonh breathed in this beautiful, beguiling metropolis, drinking in the spirit of resilience, hospitality and creativity in the souls Nonh saw and touched. Nonh took in the stories of each soul.

And Nonh was ashamed. Distraught. Angry. Water had lied, drip-dripping her vile rhetoric into Nonh, until Nonh believed every word unquestioningly, hungering for more lies as the humanity of those suffering the most was washed away with Water’s words.

Nonh hovered over the city, waiting for those in charge to help. No one came. But Nonh saw hundreds of faceless versions of The Man. Some locked themselves away in their gilt chambers, shouting and pointing fingers at one another like children arguing in a playground. Others crawled over the broken glass and smoldering rubble, scavenging, feeding on the scraps while their nation starved. But every version of The Man was the same. Greedy. Corrupt. Cowards.

Nonh held onto the resilience of the people instead, believing the city could rise from the ashes, as it had so many times before. But Nonh was naïve and fervent, not understanding that, whether young or old, immigrant or native, East or West, there is only so much one people can take.

But Nonh, still a good soul and determined to find a way to help, dispersed into the atmosphere and flew in tandem with the winds of the world. Nonh looked down on the Earth, surprised to see the land was only separated by Water. There were no real boundaries on the land, only imaginary ones created in a vain attempt to gain order from chaos. But chaos still reigned because of man’s desires to hoard what should be shared. Nonh despaired at his short-sightedness. His selfishness. Then, Nonh watched.

Nonh watched as news of the cataclysm travelled along tangled wires and invisible airwaves to bright-screened machines. Nonh listened as raconteurs dressed up the tragedy, blaming it on a single nation’s faults, simplifying it to nothing more than a fairy tale about big bad politicians. But a single nation cannot invoke the change to end hunger, war and corruption—especially when hunger, war and corruption are all that nation has come to know.

Some people lapped up those white-washed stories but soon forgot about this, another tragedy in another distant country. Others twisted the raconteurs’ words to push their own nasty agendas in 140-character snippets.

But most people ignored the news, swiping at tiny screens instead, uploading happy pictures of their sad lives to a fictional, digital world.

Nonh’s heart stung and sank as they realised that people only believe the stories they choose to hear. The stories they create. Even Nonh with their soul stories. Even you with this, Nonh’s soul story. But life and death are not pieces of fiction to enjoy. Neither is Beirut.

Because your stories can enrich this land . . . Or they can destroy it.

We are Nonh.

About the Author:

Gemma Church is a former physicist and current science copywriter. When she’s not writing about the world of science fact, she writes science fiction and fantasy with her work appearing in Indie Bites, Writer’s Forum and Bag of Bones Press.