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A short story
“There is nothing in the place . . . apart from heat, cold, dryness and moisture. The fire is so warm and dry, the water is so cold and wet, the air is so hot, and the sand is so cold and wet. Somehow, Elixir or Red Mercury, that liquid which flows from the philosopher’s stone, may emerge to grant immortality and desire . . . In an attempt to understand Jabir ibn Hayyan, and the reasons behind the worshipping of idols . . .”
Inside the sculptress’s house. Her name escapes the minds of the distant neighbours because of her profession and is mentioned only by journalists who rejoice in attending festival openings or art exhibitions, as if these are part of their professional duty, or who imagine themselves critics capable of creating sculptures themselves.
The hermitage, as she liked to call the house in her rare happy moments, was a stone building lying on the edge of the city. It was encircled by a wild garden that was designed to complement the impetuousness of stone and the remote isolation of the place, and had her sculptures scattered in every small corner. Once in a while, one might come across them . . . here and there . . . near the house, beneath a stained-glass window, and in some places the garden resembled a Catholic cemetery in a small village.
“Stone . . . stone . . . how wonderful stone is . . . who says it is not malleable? Who says it is a flint stone . . . a block of rock?! My stone is perfectly shaped and is part of me, my veins . . . to my stone I confess my feelings! I whisper to it, hold silent conversations, yearn for it and gaze at it. Only the most select enter my house where the words of the chisel, the hammer and the dance of the fingers together with the brush, form a meaningful whisper, almost exploring the remote labyrinths of the soul.
“Now . . . the sculpture is complete, a perfect creature that bears witness to the stone’s strength and my own fanciful dreams. The details of its shape are perfectly carved, it stands like a legendary hero who worries about his exploits while I stand before him, a temple woman full of hidden passion. As I bathe in its warmth only then does the stone speak out. My stone has no equal!”
So said the sculptress in a revelatory moment when her sculpture had been completed. Elated, she felt great joy as her new sculpture of a man was draped in a white cover and anointed with her personal scent.
The sculptress was wont to spend entire days interrogating the stone’s emotions as she walked among the trees in the garden. Nothing could shatter the serenity of an artist’s morning like an awkward work schedule and she was in love with the morning shade and the scent of lemon blossom as she walked, leisurely picking up the dry, fallen leaves. She added her own ingredients to things, and worked them out according to her own aesthetic philosophy. During breaks, she moved from corner to corner of the garden, with her cup of coffee, standing beneath the fig tree or the almond tree or leaning back against the stone wall to enjoy its coolness. No one shared her solitude with her coffee, and cigarettes that she had taken from the few packets on the table. When her day started in the early light of dawn – after a carefree night – she carried on working until midday. Then she took a shower, had a light snack and slept for an hour. When she woke, she dressed, perfumed herself and picked up her work again or, as one would say, resumed, her work on an unfinished sculpture. She then continued until late afternoon – until she felt a sudden urge to have a nap. She wore thick corrective lenses whose frames of gold and ivory were at one time valuable.
Then she would go into her garden at twilight when its orange hue fragmented the air creating a burning tranquility that was reflected on the stone walls of the house. When she felt satisfied with her day’s work, she would laugh out loud. She would smile when things went smoothly or if she was about to enter a house whose door was hand-carved to her own specifications. It was as if a scene she loved could be captured through her eyes – a scene for which there was no substitute in any other city.
At night . . . she had a different ritual . . . a different routine. After preparing her vegetarian dinner, she would place a carefully selected bottle of wine on the table that had been bought from one of many airports. The bottle would be beside her glass. She would then take another shower and put on a light evening dress. She spent her nights reading, enjoying green vegetables steeped in lemon and vinegar, her wine glass filled with the red blood of saints. In her house, in the darkness of the night, her body shivered with elation as she turned up the volume of the music. She continued with these pleasures until her body felt drugged, her mind stimulated and she was bursting with euphoria. It reminded her of when she was young and excited by her maturing body, with its first signs of femininity and the small adventures toward her innocent coming of age.
Today, it was as if things had never changed all these years. Only harsh light could dispel the illusion evoked by the cold night and the tinkling glass of wine. Her body began to sweat. She was totally exhausted from the exhileration, as well as from life and her fading beauty that was heading towards decay. She threw herself onto the old sofa. Nothing could wake her from her merciless dreams except perhaps her midwinter night cough. When her bones felt the coolness of the stone, in the silence of the night she dragged herself up and plunged on to the large bed and into its soft warmth as her hand searched for the ghost of a man whom she wished was there that moment.
The morning light revealed the features of a woman in her fifties. She was once tall and slim but age had brought curves around her waist and hips, and sagging breasts. Her receding henna-dyed hair made her look twice her age and there were a lot of freckles on her face, breasts, and a few on her hands. She had long fingers, like those of a trained pianist, adorned with imposing gemstones and silver rings. Her thin and damaged hair, and her teeth, accustomed to daily doses of coffee and nicotine, had lost their lustre. Only her skin maintained its youthful freshness.
She was always searching, in her stone, for the complex side of people, for the interaction between woman and existing things. The male body was her real pleasure and she carved every single muscle with a woman’s strength, haunted by her thirst for passion. The fingers, as if they were soaked in attar or the essence of bay leaves, danced on the stone. As she sculpted, all her senses focused on communication, feeling only satisfied when the mouth of the stone granted her the feeling of an absent kiss. Once completed she made passionate love to her new idol in what was like a nocturnal pagan wedding ceremony. She dignified its presence by uttering ancient ritual prayers. Like a temple priestess, her body moved to a hymn dedicated to the god of fertility, to bring rain and for his herbs to grow green around her. During those nights she lit a fire from the remnants of a Zoroastrian fire and recalled the earliest hymns of guidance. She burst into a spontaneous dance around the fire before sinking to the ground exhausted.
The day after this pagan prayer ceremony she awoke purified from the wounds to her spirit, as if she was a new bride of fertility rejoicing at the moment of possession, wishing only for the moment to last in a different form . . . any different form in life . . . like that atheist workman who, when she was still a child, came to install the gate to the big house. She was fascinated by his sweating hands and the blue overalls that concealed the details of his tall body. She watched steel being smelted – a moment when a child watches what it would love in the future, but the blacksmith’s gaze hurt her and dulled her curiosity to watch more.
If only he would come now, with all his satanic desire! Let that guy who stole her youth live with his wife, burdened as he was with the responsibility of providing for his children, let alone the curse of diabetes that turned him into a haunted green-coloured ghost. It was he who had run away from her that day, rejecting her with all her gifts, using his lack of work as a pretext for not marrying. He had really wanted to travel to the Gulf. That was when she took money inherited from her mother from a box and gave it to him. He went to Kuwait, returned to marry a divorcée, a teacher, with a daughter and a five-year-old boy. That was the woman who was to become his wife. After the days in those merciless coastal cities he was driven back by avarice and male chauvinism! That day, she sculpted the bust of an effeminate man, one half of his face fractured as though beasts were eating through it. She placed the bust outside the house and often looked at it.
After the relationship she had had with this half man, she focused on success and fame, which she found through newspapers, magazines, exhibitions, critical acclaim, endless travel and other activities. She sometimes invited to her house intellectuals who attended conferences and were lovers of her art. These occasions usually ended with helpless drunken kisses or guests protesting that they had to return to their wives who were waiting impatiently for them. So, despite the merry beginnings, the house was soon free of visitors, with dinner plates left on the table. Like a lioness sated from mating, she wished those guests were not hers. Her nights faded rapidly without offering her the woman’s happiness she had always longed for. Nothing remained of those intimate gatherings. In fact, all she could recall were painful memories of a mother who had been unable to raise her, a father who was lost in the cities of politics – and his second wife. Long years of absence, lukewarm meetings with his only child, which ended too quickly after much complaining and nagging from the second wife.
Her life was a life that imposed new measures of love. Day after day, her condition deteriorated until she found she was unable to give her changed body to anyone any more. Then one day, a blind beggar, led by an eleven-year-old boy, knocked on her door. She gave him the leftovers from breakfast and somehow felt she wanted to give him much more. At first, she imagined that he could be her new art project . . . that somehow he could heal her. She watched him as he ate, drank, rubbed his moustache and groped at things; she looked at his body closely, his listening ears, his hooked nose, his unkempt beard that looked like wild plants of the night.
She watched him as he entertained himself inside his void, engaging in a dialogue with her; and she asked him questions. The little boy noticed her glances and this confused her. She threw him an orange to appease and distract him, hoping to silence him. The blind beggar burped and then prayed for her, as he usually did when he was happy with the food he had been served. He prayed that God may grant her a long life, good health, a livelihood, children and a blessed house. She felt he was sincere, or imagined him to be. She asked him to come by the house again, and tried to explain to him that he was to be her next art project, that she wanted to make a sculpture of him. As a full-time beggar, with street begging skills, he did not really understand what she said, nor was he convinced. He replied: “Ma’am . . . I’m only a poor dervish . . . and pray to our generous all-giving God.”
“I’ll pay you 100 dinars for a month of work,” she said, like an inexperienced prostitute. “In addition, two meals a day, and a quarter bottle of arak are guaranteed . . .”
“Fine,” the blind beggar replied, “and just throw in a daily packet of cigarettes as well.”
“I wouldn’t have agreed if you’d asked for a joint,” she laughed.
The blind man’s eyes shone in the dark. His front teeth stuck out as he laughed: “Ma’am . . . you’re a woman of inherent generosity . . . I swear by God . . . and I deserve your compassion.”
At that moment, she wished she could explore his body. The blind beggar pretended to be plunged in his world of darkness, and made a suggestive movement that he had learned early on in his blindness. Did that cunning beggar make this gesture intentionally in order to entice her, or was it spontaneous? She was not convinced of the latter; however, she was assured of her next art project. He accepted her kind offer and was thus guaranteed a month of pleasures: food, wages, no walking, and no more scuffles with his wife that usually ended violently. Only one question worried him: was her offer worth it? What was so special about him?
There was a brief conversation between the beggar and the boy, his son, who was used to answering his father’s vague questions, and asked so many questions himself. He was his father’s eyes but this time his father wished the boy was the black rings under his eyes! It seemed that this art project was something to do with being a man. The blind beggar hoped the boy did not understand this and tell his mother, who was usually angry throughout their uneventful evenings. He said to the boy: “Son, let’s eat the two meals a day, take the hundred dinars, but tell your mother we’ve earned only fifty. We can get a whole packet of cigarettes and you can smoke a whole cigarette yourself after each meal. What do you say to that? Let’s enjoy this month without telling your witch of a mother. Don’t tell her anything if you really want to eat good food and oranges and try a cigarette and not walk so much.” The boy murmured agreement, wishing he had known about everything sooner.
Like all blind people afraid of their livelihood being snatched away, the blind man went to the sculptress’s house with his son every day, even before the appointed time, which began to annoy the sculptress, as it upset the rhythm of her day that she liked to flow like a stream.
The boy always remembered the daily fresh orange, breakfast at half past eleven, the shade of the large fig tree which brought on noontime drowsiness, the woman’s glances, which he tried to understand with his young mind prone to masturbation, as well as her sweet words. He even he tried to visualize her female form; an image of her nakedness came to him late at night as he lay on his dilapidated bedding.
These were strange days and the father would spend his evenings with his son. He wanted to know something or confess to something and when his son did not respond he slipped out, groping his way in the dark. He was content with the silence, and flirting with a woman he knew only by touch, seeking ecstasy through the effortless union of their hands. Desire brought arousal, dispelling the pain of daily hassle, chatter about children, and the harassment of an overcrowded neighbourhood, whose poverty-stricken inhabitants struggled to make their own days and worlds and where small things in life added a liveliness that was otherwise absent. At night, he could not forget the sculptress’s voice and tried to conjure an image of her while making love to his wife. Somehow his wife’s laughter and movement became soft hands caressing his back and stiff limbs lulling him to sleep.
Of course, his daily visit with his son to the sculptress’s house did disrupt her routine and her pleasant, idle way of living. However, ever mindful of their presence, she adjusted her life as much as she could and finally managed to fit them into her daily routine, which was set around her work. The son stayed close to his father until she devised some games appropriate to his age. She ensured his silence with a huge television which she used for watching documentaries or disagreeable reports and news items that reminded her of her old homeland and the villages scattered along the other forgotten river bank. The television proved a sedative. The black and white films it showed entertained the boy and made him laugh.
At first, the blind man thought that the attention given to the boy was either a way to get to him or that the boy’s presence was irrelevant. He tried to explain, saying that he was a man who wanted answers. “This wasn’t what we agreed, Ma’am,” he said. “The boy’s still young, he hasn’t got a moustache yet. What do you want? If you still want something from me, then I’m ready.”
He was filled with disquiet and apprehension, like any blind man. The sculptress understood hispredicament, and tried hard to prove to him that he was solely an art project, that was what his role was and he should not disturb her work with his private concerns. As regards his basic needs, she was ready to look after them all. He raised his voice and repeated: “But, Ma’am, the boy is still young. He hasn’t got a moustache yet. I’m ready to meet all your needs. May God have mercy on your parents’ souls.”
“Try to understand, my friend! Let the boy be entertained and let us get on with our work.”
“Ma’am, I am under your orders. Whenever, whatever you want. You have showered us with kindness.”
“Listen, try and understand me. I just want to make a plaster cast of your body.”
“Whatever is your command, Ma’am, though I don’t really get the point. Whatever you want, but just stay away from my boy.”
“Now, listen to me. You’re driving me crazy with this talk of your boy. I don’t need him. You are my concern. Do you understand?”
“As you wish, Ma’am. I am at your disposal.”
“There’s no need to call me Ma’am.”
“As you like.”
“Come with me. I want to make the cast. And don’t say a word.”
“Yes, Ma’am. May God bless you with all success.”
“God, grant me patience! Follow me, and hold your tongue!”
“And the boy, Ma’am?”
“Let him watch TV. Do you want him to be blind like you?
“Have mercy on us, Ma’am . . . we are wretched people. Begging dervishes.”
“Enough chatter! Let us focus on our work.”
He submitted to her like a boy chastised for making a mistake. However, everything inside him made him angry about life’s cruelty. He also felt he was filled with a new light that would make his days much happier. But he also felt as if his bladder was about to burst. She treated his beggar’s body as raw material, different from stone. It was more like dead meat – and she was a vegetarian; it lacked the solidity of marble and the malleability of stone. It was of a form that she did not relate to – she never paid attention to its creation process. She waited for the right moment, as if she had to do something she did not like doing, but did it all the same. That wearisome night, she had to conquer her lack of a man, her escaping life, she had to find satisfaction in what her hands were creating.
She became exhausted with the beggar and his son, and their incessant demand for food. She wished she could be alone with her rituals, which made her feel nostalgic. Words of thanks could have been enough, but they would not come from a blind beggar and a son on the outset of a begging career. She had better open up the fridge and empty it of items with expiry dates due. She stood still, not knowing why she was thinking about this – it made every muscle in her face twitch. Soon she surrendered to her solitude, realizing that the heart cannot always have a place for everyone.
Only the son stayed attached to the front door that had brought him happiness ever since he started going to the house. He had become infatuated with the sculptress who was like a sculpture of a woman herself. She did not look like his mother, and he did not know how to stay with her, but he doted on her many works of art, on every small detail beyond that rotten mattress. He spent his nights feeling lost. How could he get back to all that? Most of all, he recalled the orange that he had had, almost a month ago!
Twenty-one years, seven months and seventeen days later, at the corner of the street with a new name, Ahlam al-Majeedi Street, in the small yard of the square a stone sculpture had been set up, and earlier that day was unveiled by the governor of the capital. Once before – the first time in my life – I had taken the path, barefoot, to that house. Today I left some lemon blossoms to brighten up this new, empty place in memory of a flower she had always loved. I lit my pipe and wrapped my Kashmiri shawl round my neck. I did not wait for the rain to stop. I was there and her soul was there too, and the city needed that rain on that exceptional day – exceptional at least for me, the boy who had changed as soon as he entered the sculptress’s house, amazed and full of questions, and leading a blind beggar.
I passed my hands over the sculpture’s freckled face, and touched the thick glasses, realizing then the value of ivory. I reflected on its smooth forehead and then planted a kiss of consent on the lips of the stone sculptress, a kiss that meant nothing but exhultation of her anniversary, and love for a woman whose daily life I had come to know. She was a woman who had taught me much during her last years. I felt satisfaction at what my hands had carved from this stone.
Translated by Reem Ghanyem