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Yasser Abdel Baqi
The Black Cat
A short story
Translated by Ali Azeriah
The pale-faced man walks into his favourite café and sits near the window that commands a view of the boulevard. His faltering steps, as he walks into the restaurant, rivet people’s attention for a few moments, especially when he starts dramatically flinging chairs about in front of them but it only lasts a few seconds; then they all turn their attention away. He tries to hide his trembling hands under the table or between his legs. Looking out of the window, his eyes focus on a pile of rubbish at the foot of an old building on the far side of the boulevard. The waiter places a glass of tea with milk in front of his regular customer, and walks away without uttering a word.
For some time the pale-faced man holds the glass of tea in his hand, his eyes still fastened on the boulevard and on the pile of rubbish. He notices something moving in the heap; the cup shakes in his hand and his eyes dilate as he stares at whatever is moving. Then a white cat emerges and he heaves a sigh of relief.
“Hello!” says a stranger, getting ready to take a seat in front of him.
The glass of tea drops from his hand, making a loud crash; the regulars turn towards the two men. The waiter rushes to clean away the spilt tea and pieces of broken glass.
The stranger apologizes for the mess. “I’m sorry!” he says, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
The pale-faced man looks at him and quickly hides his hands under the table, then gazes into the boulevard again.
“I’ll order another tea for you,” the stranger says. The waiter returns with two cups of tea.
“Why are you gazing at the street?”
“I saw you many a time coming in here looking a bit disconcerted and then staring out at the street.”
The stranger laughs and says: “You can’t be crazy; a crazy person does not drive a car.” Then he asks: “Are you running away from something?”
With lightning speed, the pale-faced man glances at the stranger out of the corner of his eye, then looks back at the boulevard again. The look is enough to prompt the stranger to reiterate his question: “What are you afraid of?”
“I am not afraid of anything,” screams the pale-faced man, rising to his feet and striking the table hard with his fist, jolting the two glasses of tea. Once again, the other regulars glance over at the two men for just a moment.
The stranger smiles coldly, and asks the pale-faced man to sit down. “Calm down, my friend! Why are you so uptight?”
The pale-faced man coughs. He tries to contain his cough with his hand, looks out at the street, then sits down, turning the chair and himself away from the street.
“That’s much better,” says the stranger, “let’s talk a little.”
“About what?” answers the pale-faced man, his voice still trembling. “Who are you?”
The pale-faced man looks at the street, but only for a few seconds.
“Why do you keep looking at that old building?”
“None of your business!”
“Consider me a friend. Say, what is it that frightens you and makes you ill at ease?”
The confused, frightened, pale-faced man tries to erase the negative picture the stranger has of him, and with a sardonic look and a fading smile he says: “Me, afraid! You’re dreaming.”
The stranger shakes his head: “No, I am not,” he says. “Fear is part of us. I, for instance, am always frightened of crossing the street for fear a car might run me over.” He utters the last sentence with great emphasis and in a sharp tone.
The pale-faced man laughs for the first time and says: “Really! What would your life be like if you could not cross the street?”
The stranger smiles and says calmly; “You see, my good friend! I do get scared, just like you.”
“I told you I am not scared.”
Arms crossed on his chest, the stranger says, “Let’s say you’re not scared; let’s say you’re just worried. What is it that worries you? Believe me, I am here to help you. Try me?”
The pale-faced man licks his lips, stares at the old building and at the pile of rubbish, then says: “Do you see that rubbish over there at the foot of the building?”
“Yes, I do. I often walk past it.”
“You won’t believe me!”
“It’s been stalking me and watching me for about a month now.”
“A cat?” the stranger exclaims mockingly.
The pale-faced man looks at him angrily: “Didn’t I say you wouldn’t believe me?’
“I do believe you; but I haven’t seen this black cat. Where is it?”
“Black, did you say? I never told you it was black. How do you know it’s black?”
“Is it really black? It was just a guess! Tell me more.”
“I told you, the cat’s been watching me for some time, but today it’s not there, which is strange.”
“The stranger gulps down his tea, stands up, turns and walks away. The pale-faced man calls after him: “Hey, stranger! You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I’ll go crazy if I believe you. A cat watching you? You must be sick.”
“I am not lying!” says the pale-faced man, falling silent for a moment, then, in a timid, weak voice, adds: “I’m scared!”
The stranger nods and walks away. The pale-faced man shouts after him: “Where are you going?”
“To the toilet! I’ll be back.”
The pale-faced man again rivets his eyes on the foot of the old building, and amid the rubbish emerges a black tail. Scared to death, the pale-faced man squirms in his seat and begins to look around for the stranger. From the pile of rubbish a black cat pops into view. It turns round on itself then stops and stares straight at the café. The pale-faced man rushes to the toilet in search of the stranger, but in vain. He leaves the café and sees the stranger coming in from outside. He asks him: “Where have you been?”
“I went out to make a phone call. What’s happened? Why are you so scared?”
The pale-faced man grabs the stranger by his hand and leads him back to the table, pointing to the pile of rubbish and shouting: “Look! There it is!”
The stranger looks and says sardonically: “Where? All I can see is a black bag.”
The pale-faced man drops on to his seat, sighing: “It’s gone! It was there. Don’t you believe me?”
“I do. But calm down, and tell me why this black cat is watching you?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!”
“Just think! Why would a black cat watch you?”
“It has . . .”
“It all happened a long time ago. But no, no, no; there can’t be any relationship between . . .” And he stops.
“Speak! What happened?”
“Back then I was a frivolous young man. It so happened that I ran over a black cat. Many a time I had wanted to deliberately crush it under the wheels of my car, and I then did it; but that was ten years ago.”
The stranger sighs and says: “But what is the relationship between that cat and this one?”
“I don’t know! Maybe this one came to avenge the one I killed with my car.”
“Are you joking?”
“No. I did run over a black cat,” he says, emphasizing the word “black”.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s an evil spirit!”
The stranger shoots to his feet and shouts out: “Are you making fun of me?”
All the customers fall silent for a few seconds before the place regains its bustle.
The pale-faced man whispers: “Now you’re making fun of me.”
“Think, my good friend, think! A black cat has been watching you for a week!”
The pale-faced man cuts him short: “How do you know it’s been a week?”
The stranger shrugs his shoulders and says: “You told me!”
“I did NOT!”
“OK! It’s just a guess; or maybe it’s because I’ve noticed you have been in this state for a week.”
The pale-faced man looks out into the street and says: “All right! What did you want to say?”
“Devils are known to make apparitions as black dogs or black cats.”
The stranger brings his face closer and whispers to him: “He came to take his revenge on you.”
The pale-faced man suppresses a smile and says: “This makes no sense!”
“It’s just your bad luck! You ran over the father of this satanic cat.”
“How do you know it’s his father and not his brother or sister?”
The stranger takes a few steps back and says: “Just a guess.”
“A guess! You just want to scare me, don’t you?”
“My good friend, the devil’s soul can return to life as anything, including as a human being.”
“Stay calm! I’ll go away, but think . . .?”
The stranger points at the street and says: “Where’s the cat now?”
The pale-faced man shrugs his shoulders, his eyes riveted on the street.
“I don’t know.”
“Is he?” The pale-faced man shifts in his seat and nervously looks around the café.
“Yes, I told you the devil can disguise himself as a human being. Why can’t he be him,” says the stranger, pointing at the waiter.
“I have known him for many years,” comments the pale-faced man.
“OK, he could be that black man over there. He’s black, like the cat!”
The pale-faced man shakes his head in disagreement and says: “No, I saw him sitting there while the cat was beside the building. I also know all the regulars here. Many strangers come here, too.”
“Just like me!”
The pale-faced man looks at him: “Yes!”
Bringing his head closer to the pale-faced man, the stranger says: “Why can’t I be that black cat?”
“You must be joking!” the pale-faced man says, a nervous smile drawn on his face.
“A little black cat sees his dad being ran over and torn to pieces by a car. The cat grows up to avenge his father.”
“But where have you been these last ten years?”
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“You just want to scare me!”
The stranger takes off his sunglasses, stands up and says: “Look at my eyes. Don’t they look like those of a cat?”
The stranger has green eyes. The pale-faced man steps backward and says skeptically: “My grandmother also had green eyes, and she was not a cat.”
The stranger puts his glasses back on, stands up and says: “I’ll be back!”
“Where are you going?”
“To the toilet.”
The pale-faced man watches the stranger as he walks to the toilet; he lights up a cigarette, and asks the waiter to bring him something to drink. As he turns round to face the window, he sees the black cat looking at him from the old building. He is terrified, but quickly manages to conceal his fear. He looks at the entrance to the toilet and waits for the stranger to come out. He looks again at the cat, then at the door of the bathroom and again at the cat. His eyes shine and, speaking to himself, he says: “Does this make sense?”
The waiter places a cup of tea in front of him and asks: “Are you talking to me?”
Receiving no answer, the waiter walks away, making a sign with his hand to the other waiter that the man has gone crazy. The pale-faced man talks to himself again: “Is it possible that the stranger is himself the cat. Why is it that every time he disappears, the cat appears?”
Quiet as a mouse, he looks at the cat again, terrified and asks himself: “But how does the stranger know I have a car? How does he know that my being terrified of the cat goes back to a week ago, and that the cat is black? This stranger seems to know me. When he was talking with me, he sounded very certain that the cat I killed with my car was the father of this cat.”
The cat is still standing there and looking at him. He looks over at the door to the toilet and says to himself: “He goes to the toilet twice in half an hour. That doesn’t make sense! Also, the first time he showed up, he came from the street. Agh!” He falls silent.
His eyes begin to spark, and he asks himself: “Could he be the cat? His eyes are green.”
The pale-faced man imagines the eyes of the stranger who sat front of him are gradually moving towards him and closing in on him; it impels him to stand up and cry out: “I’ll kill him!”
The regulars are startled by the pale-faced man’s cry. Then he produces a knife from his pocket and, looking from the cat outside to the imagined eyes of the stranger, he shouts: “I’ll kill him and I’ll kill you, too.” He rushes out into the street and runs towards the old building, clutching the knife in his raised hand. A lorry hits him as he runs and hurls him in the direction of the old building.
Traffic screeches to a halt; people run towards him and stand in a circle around him. One man breaks through and shouts out: “I know this man! We were together a short while ago.”
He is dead. Someone covers his pale face with a tattered piece of cloth, his eyes fixed on the pile of rubbish in front of the old building. A black cat is turning round on itself, meowing.
Al-Hir al-Aswad [The Black Cat] is from
the author’s short story collection Imra’a Layliya,
published by Markaz Abbadi, Sana’a 2008
Selected from the Yemen feature published in Banipal 36