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“The cities have devoured you,” he said, pulling a chair and sitting on it in the middle of my little room. “You’ve lost so much weight,” he added, lighting his pipe with a pencil-shaped lighter. “Your face is pale and emaciated, the brightness of your eyes is gone, but you’ve become more handsome than ever.”
I looked at the lighter he put down on the little table between us. I heard his lips smack as he sipped his coffee, and I heard his cup clink as he returned it to the saucer.
“Your mother says that you’ve not visited her for a long time and that she misses you; but she doesn’t know that you live in a beautiful home in the heart of the city.”
At that moment, it occurred to me to get rid of him but I didn’t, not out of pity for him but fearing those painful feelings that take hold of me on doing something wrong.
There he was, in front of me. The distance between us was no more than one metre. His body was piled on the chair, his shirt open and showing his bulging chest. He talked to me in the same manner he did ten years ago, as though he had not changed, as though he still was that child I loved in those distant years.
When he called, I had immediately invited him to come. I dictated my address to him clearly: the metro station, the street, the district, the number of the building and the floor. I described the entrance to him accurately. I told him that the porter always waxed the stairs, and I advised him to hold on to the railing as he went up, lest he should slip. And here he was now, in front of me, a heavy body piled on a little chair. And here I was, wondering about the reasons that made me invite him, and trying to persuade myself that there was still something that bound me to him and impelled me to silence that inner voice ordering me to kick him out.
He bent over the table, stretching his head which appeared to me then like that of a startled tortoise. He picked up the lighter and thrust it in the pocket of his pants trousers. He took another sip of coffee and I heard the smack of his lips, again. A moment later, he pulled back his upper body and began staring at me.
“Your mother said that your teeth were late to come out through and that your uncle used to repeat jokingly that you would remain without teeth.”
He took the pipe out of his mouth and laughed. I became aware that his right foot almost touched my left. I thought of stepping on it, and then of what he might do if I actually did.
Suddenly, the sunshine filled the room. I got up and turned off the light, then returned to my chair. He let his eyes roam about the room, then said without looking at me: “And these paintings, are they real?”
“No,” I said.
“Why then do you hang them up?”
“Because I like them,” I answered.
He clasped his fingers hands together and gave me a short look, from which I understood my answer did not convince him.
After a long silence, he pointed to a big painting and asked in a defiant tone: “And this painting, what does it mean?”
I inclined my body slightly forward and began to look at it, pretending to show interest. After a long while, I answered: “It means many things.”
I said that because I was annoyed that I did not really know what the painting meant and had never tried to know. As I was intently looking at it, I wondered for the first time about the reason why I liked it.
I left the room and went to the kitchen. I was tense and sad. I opened the window and began looking out at the grey roofs and the pigeons perched on them as I tried to soften my sadness. I saw a thin line of smoke rising from one of the chimneys and I continued to look at it until it vanished. In the middle of the buildings, there was a lone sycamore tree. I saw a bird soaring above it, then settling on one of its branches. I thought to myself: “This is another bird whose name I don’t know.” It was small and had a short beak. I looked at it for a long time, then decided to look up its name in the birds’ encyclopaedia that I had bought when I discovered that my knowledge of birds and their kinds was weak.
When I returned to the room, I found him sitting on the sofa. He gave me a broad smile, so I smiled too. My sadness had vanished. I sat on his chair and leaned my head away to avoid the sunshine. He leaned on a little cushion and stretched his legs, then he put his hands on his knees. I stole a look at the nail of his right-hand little finger. It was long and dirty. I think he noticed my look, for he raised his hand at that moment and scratched his chin.
I looked at the painting he had pointed to, moments ago, and I began searching for what it could mean.
“Your mother says that she received the amount you sent her, and that she repaired the tomb and painted it with lime.”
His words surprised me, so I asked, “What tomb?”
“Your father’s,” he answered, still scratching his chin.
I remembered then the letter my mother had sent me several months ago, a long letter written in pencil, in which she criticised me severely and blamed me for neglecting my father’s tomb. At that moment, I felt a strong desire to hear her news. But instead of asking him about her, I began to recall her face in my imagination.
A dark cloud suddenly hit the sun. He said: ”The weather here changes a lot.” I said: “Yes.” Looking at the sky, he added: “I believe it is going to rain.” I said: “Perhaps.”
A long while passed during which we said nothing. I remembered that he used to like rain, snails, and tortoises and that he used to swim in brackish water and in the wadi* when it overflowed. I began to recall the past, searching for what could help me understand what happened to us later on. I used to like him and he truly loved me. We went to school together and when we obtained the baccalaurÈat, I joined the College of Medicine because I wanted to become a surgeon but I soon gave up my studies and got lost in the world until I settled in this city by chance. As for him, he was appointed a teacher and I heard, years later, that he had become an important politician in the village and that he was fond of raising chickens.
And here he was now, in front of me, looking at me from moment to moment with eyes whose colour I could not determine. And here I was, digging up that distant past in order to find something to help me bear this human body piled up in front of me.
He fidgeted a little, then pulled in his legs and sat up. While I was searching for something to say, he yawned and stretched his arms, then stood up. I stood up in turn. I didn’t know why but I suddenly felt I should. He moved toward a wall shelf on which old books were heaped: novels mostly by foreign writers, poetry collections, little encyclopaedias I had stolen from a library in which I worked.
Tucking the edge bottom of his shirt in his pants trousers, he bent over the shelf, then picked out a book. He read its title aloud and leafed through it. I came closer to him and said in an enthusiastic tone: “It’s a wonderful novel . . .” He asked about its topic, so I related to him its events in an exciting excited manner. He listened to me silently, then he said, returning the book to its place: “I don’t like war novels.”
It began to rain. We went to the window and looked at the raindrops running down the dusty glass. A moment later he asked: “These pigeons, don’t they come near your window?” I said: “Sometimes.”
He lit up his pipe and took a long draw on it. Suddenly, he turned to me and said: “Do you want to send anything to your mother?” I asked in surprise: “Are you leaving now?“
He gave me a scrutinising inquisitive look and said nothing. I remembered at that moment that he used to love me truly and that I liked him. It occurred to me to invite him to supper but I did not, out of shame.
Avoiding his look, I said: “No, nothing.” Then I added, confidently: “Tell her I will visit her shortly.”
I accompanied him to the door and we said goodbye. I think he hesitated to shake my hand when I stretched it out to him. He went down the stairs slowly. I bent over the railing when he was at a short distance from me and I looked at him as he trudged down the stairs. A moment later, I shouted to him: “Don’t forget the stairs are waxed.”
I remained motionless, listening to the sound of his heavy footsteps on the wood. When he’d left the building, I returned to my room and lay down on the sofa opposite the painting he had pointed to a short while ago. I looked at it intently, then murmured: “Certainly, it means something.”
Translated by Issa J. Boullata, 1998
Published in ‘Al Karmel’ magazine, Cyprus, 1990