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“By the way, the old days were better.”
She said that and left the bedroom. She collected up the dirty clothes and threw them on the bathroom floor by the washing-machine. He was lying in bed, his eyes closed, his hand on his forehead; he could just hear the children in Teibah school singing.
“Get up, love, it’s almost noon.” Startled, he opened his eyes and leaned back against the Arabesque bed head and replied: “Good morning.” He had a bitter taste in his mouth and was careful not to swallow his saliva.
She stood by the door, tightening her dressing gown with a leather belt. He looked at the shining buckle and said to himself, “Goodness me! That’s my belt!” She rummaged around in a small sideboard of silver ornaments, and opened up an ivory box; she took out a small photograph and stared at it. Then she remarked: “Have you noticed that men seem to get shorter as they get older.” Crossing the room to him barefoot, she added: “Look, love, in this photograph you looked taller. Now you have shrunk a little.”
He watched her through the mirror as she pursed her lips and took a long look at herself. He saw her nervously pulling out a white hair. Then she called out to him: “Do you think a woman would be better off dying her hair?” Before he could answer, she gave a long laugh. It resonated in the empty flat; its echo splintered his heart. It was going to be a disagreeable morning, like all those he seemed to be experiencing lately. He got up, left his bed and walked over to the empty space between the cupboard and the bed. His body rubbed against hers. He gave her a sympathetic pat and said:
“Look, love, all of us grow old; no one is satisfied.”
He crossed the hallway and went to the balcony. His eye caught the painting by Rizq-Allah which was called “Clean limbs in the light”. He was dazzled by the glowing bright red colours of the limbs lit up by the sun-rays in the background. He looked out onto the street. It was empty; dust whirlwinds of Autumn hitting the house fronts and the dark branches of bare trees mercilessly beseeching upward to the skies.
“Are you going to stand there for long? Come in and do something. Help me!”
He came back in the flat and his eyes took a while to get used to the dimness inside: “What’s the matter, love?”
He lit a cigarette and sat in the armchair opposite his desk and pondered about his life. What passed now seemed quite surreal and filled with questions. He noticed that whenever he watched her closely, trying to understand what she meant, he would catch her staring back at him questioningly.
She stood in front of him holding the naked lady statue and gazing intensely at him. He feared she might hit him on the head with it. Then she said: “Do you remember where we bought this?”
“Of course? I bet you don’t. You’re already starting to forget names.”
He resented her constant nagging, and he could not stand how she behaved during the night, when he would wake to find her not there beside him. He would get up and look for her in the closed rooms. He would hear her broken sobs coming from the balcony. He would go to her, take her hand and gently stroke her hair.
He heard her cleaning the shutters and singing an old song. She stopped and said: “Don’t you get bored in this prison you’ve put yourself in?”
“Love, the country’s changed and things aren’t what they used to be. Times change and we all get old.”
“Then you are making me older before my time.”
He noticed how lately things had become confusing for her and her behaviour perplexed him. She had banned him from walking about the flat at night. When he asked why, she had answered: “Because it’s filled with bad dreams.”
She turned her attention back to pulling out her white hairs.
He turned the radio on and the Andalusian music carried him back to his childhood. He remembered his mother and her final days when he would take her to the river at sunset and she would automatically turn round and go back home. When he asked her where she was going, she would answer, “Home my son, can’t you see it is getting dark?”
His wife said: “Didn’t I read yesterday the story of Anna Maria Simone?”
“Dead boring, but a great story.”
“A pity! That woman lived a seductive life of lies.”
“The important thing, love, is how the story is written.”
“What do you mean how a story is written? The important thing is the unforgettable pain.”
She stared at him for a while and then added: “ Does it always have to end with the heroine climbing up onto a chair and her body dangling from a rope!”
She mimicked this by pressing on her neck and hanging her tongue out like someone who had been strangled.
He swallowed hard and felt a great pain in his chest. And he remembered the story from his childhood of a fisherman who had lost his son at sea and waited for him all his life. The father had continued to hear the boy’s crying from the waters until the end of his days.
She brought out the electric fire and turned it on.
He said: “It’s not cold yet!”
She moved away and picked up a small harmonica that was on the desk, starting to play a well-known tune mixed up with another, sad melody. She threw down the harmonica and walked towards him, an expectant look on her beautiful face.
he turned her back to him, and went over to the fire. A moment passed before she suddenly grabbed the red-hot bar, and then clenched her teeth in soundless pain. He jumped up in alarm and screamed: “What on earth are you doing?” He put his arms around her and heard himself calming her, despite his urge to scream out: “And this is what it’s come to? . . . We have to bear it.”
They walked together in the darkened flat, the blinds pulled down. She rested her head on his shoulders and could cry no tears. He woke in the morning to the sounds of the wind beating against the shutters. Filtering through were the songs of school children and the commanding voice of the gym teacher giving them their morning drill.
“Attention, Third Grade! Forward march! Stop! Stay in line! Forward march!” Then the repetitive sound of the drum . . . troom troom . . . troom . . . troom troom . . . troom. And he could just hear the children going up the school stairs while the loudspeaker was broadcasting national songs.
He felt the bed empty beside him. It was cold. He got up to look for her as always. When he did not find her inside, he went out onto the balcony. She was sitting hunched up in the bamboo chair, her hands clenched, one palm wrapped in white gauze. She stared at him with her eyes full of tears. Her thick black hair had been shaved to the scalp.
Translated by Mona Zaki
‘Jadilat li-Maryam’ [A Plait for Maryam] is from the short story collection ‘Dawa’ir min Hanin’, Dar Toubqal, Casablanca, 1997
NOTE: The translator would like to thank Sharon Brown, the circulation librarian at Firestone Library, Princeton University for her immense help in locating Kafrawi’s collection on its way to the bindery. Her promptness allowed for this selection to be completed in good time.
“A Plait for Maryam” is also published in the collection of short stories from North Africa, Sardines and Oranges