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“Stupid, stupid, stupid. You rushed here without a destination, and you’re at the edge of the city not knowing where you are, running this crazy run, hurrying, hurrying towards this horrifying darkness as though a curse were swallowing the earth at your heels.”
I swore and careened away like a bat after an intense, short rain. I opened the door into a rectangle of light in front of me on the doorstep, and stepped onto it, while the door remained open. Not long afterwards the door shut violently. Even once I had begun to run far away from the house, far away from the city, rushing and stumbling, I could still hear their roaring. They were drunk.
We had come on vacation to this strange city and stayed in a cheap room located on the outskirts. After wandering around a bit, we had bought several bottles of alcohol. I was suddenly disgusted as I watched the others barking with laughter for no reason. They seemed very lonely to me, as though they were crying, pleading to escape their desolate isolation.
I lit a cigarette and soon the little flame radiating from the burning match disappeared. Once again, darkness prevailed like a sea of ink. I stumbled, trying to move further away, which I vaguely felt was still within spitting distance.
I was breathless and the smell of alcohol coming out of my skin made me nauseous. That drunkenness disgusted me and made me feel impotent, like an animal. Then I saw a grey glow within an empty shaft of light. It appeared to be a field off to one side, of the type that could be used for a temporary rural market. I rushed towards the light and as I approached I noticed the presence of a huge structure. In front of it was an empty space for a horse. I realized it was a wagon with a large lantern hung from its middle. The wagon had a door and two windows. I advanced slowly as leaves and dry straw stuck to the bottom of my wet shoes.
I heard a female voice, saying to me: “Have you lost your way?”
I peered at her as I drew slowly nearer. It was a woman with long hair. I saw her sitting while leaning on the side of the wagon. I saw her through the empty door, the glow framing her human form. I could not distinguish the features of her face because the light was behind her. My panting was becoming embarrassing. I tried to calm myself down.
I said haughtily: “What are you doing here?”
She laughed sarcastically and said, slowly and proudly: “I live here.”
She shrugged her shoulders in a manner that caused me to bow my head. I did not know what to say, but I felt vaguely comforted. I felt I had finally reached the place I was searching for.
Suddenly, I discerned another human presence: a man lying in the back of the wagon. I had now grown accustomed to the light, and the face of a child also appeared.
The woman turned to the child and said to him sceptically: “What are you carrying in your hands?”
The boy said: “A mouse.”
The woman slapped him softly. The boy opened his hand and let the mouse slip away into the wagon.
I said, laughing in a thin voice: “Aren’t you afraid of mice?”
The woman said disrespectfully: “No, you mouse.”
This angered me. My eyes were open wide; my legs were numb and fatigued. I said drily: “You’re gypsies, aren’t you?”
The woman did not answer. Instead, she went to the far end of the wagon and then returned. Her strange eyes pierced me with a look that felt like icy water was being poured over my fevered head.
She said to me: “Come closer, come a little closer.”
I hesitated. I began to think of frightening things. I got closer to her, trying to control my curious fear so it wouldn’t show on my face. I did not want to be exposed.
The woman stared into my eyes, and said: “He’s my husband, and he’s dying.”
I said: “Who? Who?”
I could not speak. My words stuck in my throat.
She motioned with her head, and said: “He was a real man before coming to this city, and a real man in all the other cities before.”
She fell silent. Then, she began talking, slowly, as if she was dreaming: “He took me from another man who was a coward. Then we ran off, and brought the boy with us that you see.”
I had the courage to say slowly: “Isn’t he your son?”
She said: “No! He is a lost boy, a boy without parents – stolen, I suspect. We are gypsies, as you know, thieves, and travellers in all remote parts of the earth. We go after the spring clouds and we run away from the rain and the heat. We can only live between seasons. Then my husband became frail and absorbed the customs and practices of the cities. I am talking to you about the man who is dying here behind me now.”
I said, jokingly: “But he’s not dead?”
She did not answer, and her sudden heavy sadness frightened me. The sorrow appeared clearly on her face for a moment then disappeared, and her deeply lined face reappeared.
Suddenly, a giant form moved by the wall next to me. It was black and disturbingly large.
She said reassuringly: “Don’t be afraid, it’s just a horse.”
I tried to control myself. I felt ill, and said: “I beg of you, could I please sit on the steps for a second? I’m a bit dizzy.”
She observed me as I sat directly under her feet. She said slowly: “We had been happy.”
I said apologetically: “I don’t understand.”
She reiterated: “We were happy. We were ill-mannered and tricky children with pure hearts. But when we started spending the winter in cities, he began to hate our never-ending wandering. He started thinking of strange things. He became cowardly and dependent.”
I pondered aloud: “I know the gypsies are a people who sing and dance in return for money. In any case, they’re an exceptional type of people.” In order to please her, I added: “I, personally, wish to be a gypsy man.”
My heart filled with satisfaction. I wiped away my sweat and began to scrape the bottom of my shoe against the stairs to get rid of the mud.
Suddenly, a hairy body jumped about in the wagon and I felt it behind my back. I was very frightened and shouted at the woman out of fear: “What is that?”
The woman lashed out at the black body and sent it to the back of the wagon. I was shivering and funny hiccups seized me.
She said: “That’s Kusta, the monkey.”
I screamed in a parched voice: “A monkey? A monkey?”
The woman said: “Yes, Kusta is an old monkey.”
I tried to control myself in order to get rid of my fear, but could not manage it. The strange woman was treating me with compassion. I realized suddenly that my eyes had widened, and tried to bring them back to normal. I raised my gaze to her and said, slowly and calmly: “I am not a coward. I know you think that I am a coward, but I am not a coward.”
She remained silent then said: “Come here. Climb up into the wagon?”
I moved a little but hesitated. Suddenly, I thought of my drunken friends; I don’t know why I thought of them. The idea struck me that I was dreaming. The presence of animals in this place convinced me I was living in a nightmare or a dream.
The woman said: “Stupid, why did you run away and escape, anyhow?”
I said to her: “I think I am going to go back.”
She said with unexpected pity: “Where to? Where will you go back to?”
I whispered, deeply perplexed. “I don’t know where.”
She said again: “Climb up, come on, and if you wish, sleep here.”
The boy was sleeping, and the monkey was curled up asleep in a dark corner of the wagon. I shivered when I thought of the dead man inside.
I said: “Wait, tell me, is he – is he really dead?”
She said sorrowfully: “Yes, he died. Come here, don’t be afraid of him. He’s sleeping; you can consider him sleeping, so don’t be afraid.”
She added, as if talking to herself: “He died, yes, yes. He’s wandering through the cities while dead. He died when he began selling everything. He sold himself and he sold me. Fortunately, he died before selling the wagon.”
After what she said, I did not hesitate to go over to her. The lantern was swaying as a new rain began to fall. I had a vague feeling that I was boarding a bizarre ship sailing in the midst of a storm. I saw the woman’s face; it was youthful, and as she turned around, I saw the features of her face very clearly. I realized that she was crying and perhaps she had been for a long time. Before making any movement, she said while contemplating me as if I were a hopeless child: “Do you want me?”
Sargon Boulus, before he became a well known poet, was a writer of short stories, publishing them in magazines and newspapers in Baghdad and Beirut. This story, “Wandering the Cities While Dead” is translated from a recent collection of some of his short stories, ‘Asimat al-Anfaas al-Akhirah (The Capital of the Last Breath), published by Manshoorat al- Jamal, Baghdad - Beirut, 2015, ISBN 13 9789933351595.
Bassam Frangieh is a professor of Arabic and the chair of the Modern Languages and Literatures at Claremont McKenna College. Dr Frangieh has previously taught at Georgetown University and Yale University. He has written several books and translated several celebrated Arab poets and novelists including Hanna Mina, Nizar Qabbani, and Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati.
Julia Kelly is a student at Scripps College in Claremont. She is infatuated with the Arabic language. She is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern and North African Studies, with a dream to spend her life learning more about the Arab cultures, histories, and peoples. She is the student and the friend of Dr. Frangieh, collaborating with him on translation projects.
From time to time, we will be publishing on www.banipal.co.uk a short story, article or poem that has never appeared in the magazine and can only be read and enjoyed online. We will shortly be organising a dedicated web space for these online only texts.