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Yahya Taher Abdullah
Three short stories
Translated by Elliott Colla
The Banyan Tree
I say to myself in my soft voice, the kind my conscience likes: “The sky splits . . . He has disobeyed an order . . . There’s no doubt about it, he disobeyed an order – that’s why the police arrested him. He is a friend and I love him dearly, but I have never disobeyed an order. Never, never, never. I swear, not a single one. Why doesn’t he just follow my example? Why, O Lord of the Heavens, why? He must not see me. He must not be able to claim that he saw me. And the passersby, though they are few, must know nothing about my ties to him. They must be prevented from ever blaming me. Let no one know. Let no one dare to know.
Today is my day off, and my girlfriend is waiting for me. She is there in the garden, under the tree. O what a tree! Its trunk is smooth, so smooth that it’s hard for anyone to climb it. Hard. Very hard. Its exposed roots spread out over the ground, searching for water from distant sources. Roots fall like bright white whiskers from the branches. A pure white beard of hanging roots. Green leaves flash and sparkle like birds’ wings fluttering in the sun.”
* * *
Here she is. Here I am. Here’s the world. And here’s the tree. O how the years have gone by!
“I was there,” she says. “I happened to be in the street the day you were there. The day they arrested you. I didn’t dare . . . O! This was so long ago!”
“I was there,” I reply. “I was in the street that day he was there. The day they arrested him. I didn’t dare . . . I imagined you were here, but you were there. But that was so many years ago!”
“What a sweet boy you are!,” she says. “What poor little children are we!”
“What a sweet girl you are!,” I reply. “What poor little children we are!”
(Our hearts, in the form of our names, remain buried in the trunk of that tree.)
“I remember that day,” she says. “The tree gave us her breast. Its mother’s milk was pure and white.”
“I remember,” I reply. “But she gave us her tears, not milk.”
She stomps her small feet and shouts, “It was pure white milk. Are you sure you tasted it?”
She takes off her sandals and stretches out her hand: small, damp, trembling. We circle around the tree.
She asks, “Do trees have mothers like humans do?”
“Milk has its own taste,” I answer. “And tears are salty.”
“But you didn’t taste it.”
“Neither of us dared.”
“It’s quite a tree!,” she says.
“Yes!,” I shout. It’s quite a tree!”
Fantasia . . . Ugly Violence
When he kicks the glass door and walks into the bar, it swings back and forth. Outside, the heavens pour, and he looks at the broken fan: motionless.
He orders half a bottle of brandy, “Not too expensive, not too fancy,” and a bottle of soda water, thinking: “When the garçon opens it, it’ll explode and go to waste.” He asks for a plate of sweet lemon slices, pours himself a glass, and gulps it down.
He drinks his second shot in one slug as well; he looks at the broken fan, still motionless and he’s already finished his fourth glass. His fourth glass, his fourth glass!
The handsome fellow is sitting at the bar. He can’t be older than twenty-two. In a loud voice, he converses with the old Italian man who pretends he is younger than he is. Two companions who never leave each other’s side. The old Italian always pays the bill and tips generously. The handsome fellow is a dead ringer for that American actor who plays the cop in those Paramount movies: with his tight pants, exaggerated moves, melodramatic reactions, and surprising precision. His father is Greek, his mother is from one of the Christian families that came from Lebanon and settled in Egypt years and years ago.
A gold chain dangles from his neck, from it a gold cross swings back and forth over his bare chest, (so smooth – smooth like the heel of a shoe that looks like a glass, the red open shirt, so red red, and the wide, long collar).
He looks at the broken fan: now it’s spinning. He remembers stuff from his life and wants to cry. But he fights back the tears. He downs another brandy and soda and the fan is still spinning. He signals to the garçon and pays his tab. The desire to cry hits him again. He has his last drink and mumbles: “Bums.” He spits and tumbles outside. The rain stops and the broken fan spins and spins.
The cleansed black streets sparkle under the yellow street lights. The lamp-posts cast slanting shadows and the man begins to sense the heaviness of his shadow.
He walks behind three girls wearing mini-skirts. One is short, dark and thin. Her name is Inas, she’s a student at the Faculty of Fine Arts, in her second year in the Department of Set Design. She does not like lima beans nor does she like green beans. She loves mummy very, very much, and tells her everything. She doesn’t like green fava beans, either. She loves children until they turn ten. She dreams of travelling to West Germany one day. She loves her friends very, very much and she has friends there. She hates sitting in any cinema for longer than three minutes, even if the film is “Zorba the Greek”.
My God! – there are the well disciplined Eagle brigades over there on the rise . . . O God! – These Eagles are trained to attack . . . My God! – Each one snatches up a girl in its deadly talons . . . They aren’t devouring the girls yet . . . Each one gives his prey a little space to play and then – STRIKE! – he seizes her by the hair . . . Her short hair! . . . Each one drags his prey along the ground (and now a large crowd gathers, and here comes the vice squad, breaking up the ring and scattering the crowd and now the regular, comforting calm returns).
He tells himself: there, in the police station, each victim will write the same promise to never again wear a mini-skirt, and the whole thing will be over. My God – everything, will be done. Everything!
He gets back in line with the general rhythm: calmly as usual, the lights sparkling on the asphalt . . . the black asphalt, the lamp-posts stiff and erect like men . . . erect, casting shadows down on the surface of the wet, black sparkling street.
He finds himself all alone and that desire to cry hits him one more time. He waits for the signal to cross the street. In the square, he stops in front of the display window at a women’s clothing store. Across some loungerie, a small plastic alligator slowly crawls. Now he senses the short fat man standing behind him. He shudders when the short fat man signals to him with the morning paper he holds in his hand: to the dimly-lit side street.
He descends the six steps and comes to the entrance of the underground pissoir. He feels the moisture and savors its stench. His eyesight fails when confronted with the row of black door handles. He stands there waiting. He hears the footsteps and the expected comes to life. One. Two, Three. Four, Five, Six, and the short fat man enters and begins to beat him brutally, with scorn, with an old hate. Perhaps this time the short fat man will beat him to death.
He was hurrying across the street just as the car raced through the intersection. A group of people formed a circle around the body and the black Fiat. The owner had gotten out of the black car, weak in the stomach. He mopped his brow and neck continuously with a white handkerchief clenched in his fist.
An old man carrying a fly whisk shouted that they should cover the dead man’s genitals. A tall, lean newspaper vendor wearing a scruffy long-sleeved jacket leaned over and spread some newspapers over the dead man. A young man with shoulder-length hair helped him. Meanwhile, the young man’s young companion averted her eyes. “Short in stature, short skirt, with short hair as if she’s a young boy. Even so, she’s not bad looking,” a boy said to his friend. She fidgeted and bit her lip and stepped forward a couple steps to hear him say to his friend: “She’ll die. . . And you. And me too. Suddenly. And she knows it . . . Life is our one chance. But why?” The owner of the black Fiat put his hand in his pocket and trembling, offered ten piastres to the news vendor who refused it saying: “The reward belongs to God.” Swarms of flies descended upon the place. A car arrived on the scene and from it emerged three serious men wearing slick suits. They were accompanied by a soldier. In an instant, a traffic cop joined them. One of the three spoke while the second one wrote in a register and the third pointed to specific points on the ground where the soldier would then draw large and small circles and “X’s” in chalk.
Time passed and the black car owner’s composure returned. His jerky movements calmed as he talked with the three men. When the ambulance arrived, their meeting broke up. The ambulance men emerged and carried the body off on a stretcher.
The human ring dissolved, everyone leaving as the two cars drove away from the scene: the investigators’ car and the black Fiat. The traffic cop left, too, to get the stopped flow of cars moving: a jam that caused cars to screech and honk at him.
The one called “Bright” who worked in the Blue Star shoe shop, was carrying a plastic bucket, his eyes following the traffic cop who had yet to make it back to his wooden kiosk. He splashed the place where the body had lain with water, and then swept it with a broom. Some of the flies flew off. The cars began to move slowly and then more quickly: a long parade of every colour.
Selected by the translator from the author’s 1977 collection
Ana wa-Hiyya wa-Zuhur al-‘Alam
[She and I and the World’s Flowers],
reprinted in Al-Kitabat al-Kamila [The Complete Writings],
Cairo: Dar al-Mustaqbal, 1983.
3 of 5 short stories published in Banipal 36