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Poor mother! She’s still standing where I left her, waiting for me. Does she think I’m going to be late getting back to her? I haven’t wasted a single minute. I crossed the whole distance running, the dust from the road rising to my nose and the sun’s sweltering heat scorching my forehead as I became drenched in sweat.
What shall I tell her, now? She’ll be angry, most certainly. Yet, is it my fault? It’s Uncle Rabih who has caused all the delay. I’m not one to create a delay on purpose.
I found him sick, sitting up in bed. He seemed to be anxious. As soon as he saw me, he clung to me. He asked me about my mother, about my younger brothers, and about the farm: how was it going? Was it still as good as when my father was alive, when he ran it? Was I able to shoulder the responsibilities of the farm after my father’s death?
Then he asked me about the ox he had sold to my father a long time ago when he used to deal in cattle and travel to far-off places. He followed this occupation for many years before sickness disabled him. He knew all the kinds of oxen and could distinguish between the different breeds. When an ox was sick, he treated it himself. He knew all the diseases of oxen and the remedy to be used for each.
As he talked to me, I liked this man. I liked him more than I had ever liked anyone else before. I liked the calm way he sat, his swarthy face, his white beard that looked like tufts of cotton on a plantation. His manner of talking made me increasingly fond of him. There was calmness in his speech, there was tenderness, there was a flow like a stream. No one could be bored, even if he spoke for hours on end. When I mentioned to Uncle Rabih that our ox was sick and my mother had sent me to him in the hope that he would help us treat it since we had failed to find a successful remedy ourselves, he was touched and very moved. He wanted to come with me and tried to get up from his bed, but he was too sick and could not manage it. I wished him a full recovery, then left him.
As he ran along the winding narrow path across the fields and saw the figure of his mother in the distance standing in the shade of the tree in front of the farm, Mansoor asked himself again: Why is she standing there? The ox must have taken a turn for the worse. Otherwise, she would not have come out in this intense heat to wait for me. I should have come back earlier so that she wouldn’t have to face these matters all by herself.
But what use will my arrival be? What can I do for her, or for this ox? Absolutely nothing, except that I will stand there silently and she will stand beside me. And we will continue to watch the ox as it struggles with death, until it finally reaches its end. That is, if my mother chooses to remain quiet and watch how the last curtain falls on the last story of the ox my father bought.
But, if she chooses to go on making up potions for this ox right to the last minute, if she chooses to gather herbs for it and asks me to help her in this endeavour, if she chooses to do that, then I cannot do anything except leave her and turn my face to the fields. That is because I do not want to search for a remedy for this ox. What I want is to look for a way to rid myself of it. I have tried to do this many times but I have clashed with my mother every time. I always found her obstructing my way.
I seized the opportunity of her absence from the fields one day and took the ox to market. Scarcely had I sold it and received payment than I was surprised to see my mother. I was caught unawares as, in front of all the people, she landed blow upon blow on me. I was forced to hand over to her what I had received and leave the market.
My mother is a stern and strong woman and I was afraid of her. And I was unable to do anything because, quite simply, she could prevent me. So I tried to explain things to her differently. I said to her: “Instead of the ox, I want to buy an engine like the one our neighbour Mabruk bought. Such an engine can, in a short time, easily pump the water for us from the depths of the well, and in greater abundance than bucketfuls.”
At this point I did not stop. I even took her with me to our neighbour’s field and she saw how water was gushing along the irrigation canals and how two workers were diverting it into the ditches but were overwhelmed by its force. My mother liked the scene of the large pool that looked like a lake, as the water poured into it from the well without the help of an ox, or a bucket, or even a human being.
What happened was that, after we returned to our field, she said to me: “My son, before he died your father advised me to keep this ox and not allow it to be taken from us at any price. The loss of it would be a loss both to us and to our field. And, furthermore, even if there is something that could take the place of the ox in bringing up the water from the well, I don’t think there is anything that can take its place in ploughing the earth. It is better for us, my son, to keep this ox that your father bought from his hard work and the sweat of his brow. We must not allow it to be taken from us, whatever the cost. We are not in need of more water. Our bucket, which the ox carries for us, is sufficient and even more than sufficient.”
I could not tolerate such words, so on that day I left the house in case I did something that my mother would not like or that would harm her. Was it true that the amount of water carried for us in the bucket was sufficient? How about the rest of the farm? Would we leave it to go thirsty until its greenness died? How about the labour, the sweat? Would all that be in vain?
Why should it always be this ox at the centre of things?
I am sick to death of its story. I am sick of the whining of those pulleys that never stops all day long, sick of that movement up and down in the ditch, sick of the ox there in front of me, sick of the ropes before my eyes stretched taut between the ox and the bucket while I am drenched in sweat.
Why does my mother want me to follow the example of my father in everything? To be like him in everything? If my father followed the example of his father in all the things he found him doing in his time, I cannot follow the example of my father in all that he left for me. I cannot live the life of my father. I have my own life, and I live it as it is destined for me. No human being should impose his opinions on me, whatever he might be and whoever he might be. Even if he is my father.
Mansoor reached the field and crossed the narrow path leading to the house. He did not turn to his mother but he heard her calling him: “Mansoor, what is the matter with you, my son? Why are you so late?”
“It’s not me who wanted that. It’s the man you sent me to see. He’s the reason I’ve been delayed all this time!”
“And where is he now? Why has he not come with you?”
“I found that he is sick.”
“Did you tell him how the ox was?”
“Yes, I told him. He wanted to come with me, but he was too sick and could not even get up from his bed.”
The mother bowed her head for a long time, thinking. Then she turned to her son and said, in a voice that was like sorrow itself: “And have you thought about the ox?”
Mansoor wanted to keep silent and not answer the question but rather continue on his way. However, he took hold of himself and said to his mother: “Thinking is no longer my concern from now on.”
“Whose concern is it, then?”
“It is your concern.”
“It is my concern! And how is that?”
Mansoor could not add a single word. He turned his eyes to the fields. He then walked to where he had left the ox in the shade of the vine.
There, he found it lying on its side, its great black head wrenched backwards, its forelegs thrusting forwards, its thick tail lying flattened beneath its body as if it were not part of it. Flies were gathering around its nose, near its eyes and on different parts of its body.
This enormous body, spread out under the full shade of the vine, looked as if it had been dead for a long while. Mansoor looking at it silently and his mother came up and stood beside him looking at it too. They both saw the ox, little by little, raise its head from the ground. They heard it utter a great deep moo that echoed over the distant fields. It moved its forelegs and twitched, and it mooed a second time. Then its head fell back on to the ground and it was no longer a living thing.
Translated by Issa J Boullata
“Thor Khallafahu Abi” [My Father’s Ox] is from the author’s short story collection Layali al-Matar [Nights of Rain], first published in 1968. This translation is from the new edition published by Dar al-Yamama, Tunis.