“WHAT fills temporal and spatial voids?”
This question, which tormented me when I was a small boy, has been deferred for a lifetime, until now, as I remember and recreate that night. Ghosts prowl around me without my being able to see them. Their palpability is assumed by my muddled consciousness. Although many voices are audible, fear springs into existence. Even though I hear all their voices, they can’t shield me from this fear. I am alone. They have left me, locking me inside – the members of the household.
The voices are outdoors, beyond the locked door, outside the window, which is half covered by a curtain of heavy cloth. They have gone out – I don’t know where – leaving me to await their return. Alone inside, I am held hostage by the lock, and the house is totally empty. The ghosts. I glance around me and can sense them, as if I were breathing them in. They prowl through the two rooms as they please. I do not actually see them. This fact helps fear climb onto my shoulders and dangle its legs toward the ground, past my knees, before entwining them around my neck.
I remember that I was sweating and regretted not having paid attention to what they said before they left. Perhaps they had told me where they were going. I reflected. It was the cursed pictures, scissors, and glue container. That was why I paid no attention to what they said. Evening was gradually becoming pitch-black night, and I was building a new world from pictures I cut out of old magazines and then juxtaposed, sticking them beside other ones from my own magazines.
The surface of the white pasteboard slowly filled, and with each image that I added, a new arrangement of relationships – contrived by me, not by their creators – emerged. Tahiya Carioca danced beside the Eiffel Tower, looming high above it. Farid Shawqi could throw a punch at Hitler while he extended his arm in a Nazi salute. Umm Kulthum’s head fit on the neck of a svelte blonde clad in a bikini. Gamal Abdel Nasser was flexing his arms and spreading his fingers as he prepared to grab the revolvers of the cowboys on either side as he readied himself to confront his evil nemesis. Ahmad Ramzi hid as he eluded Zorro, who wore a black mask and rode a white stallion that reared up on its hind legs.
I was distracted by my world and felt something, which I can’t name now, while my new creation unfolded, filling the surface of the white pasteboard. I possessed complete control over the creative process and had more than enough supplies.
But I grew tired.
And I felt bored.
Then I realized that I was alone, surrounded by stillness, and felt afraid.
I remember that I sensed a breath of air to my right. Then I felt another on my left. So I anxiously asked, “Where are you?” Undeterred, the two ghosts continued to press against me from either side. My perception of them and my certainty that they were preparing an ambush of me immobilized me. As if evil were tightening its grip on me, the other empty places acquired their own discernible wafts of air.
My fear flared up, tyrannizing my body. I shivered like a sparrow and trembled like a leaf.
Looking at the dark pane of the window, I saw on it the constant drizzle that for some time had hidden the sky. I was trying to flee the contents of the empty house and this long period of time. My eyes searched the drizzle-coated pane for water that wasn’t from the rain. Intermittent bursts of pain stung my bladder. My senses were prepared to seize the place’s ghosts at any moment, and my heart was looking for a light that would illuminate the gloom outside and recover the stilled voices.
* * *
I don’t remember when they returned.
Perhaps I’ve slept since that night right to the present moment. If that’s not the case, how could I have forgotten? But I didn’t forget completely. I actually witnessed, as I now remember, a silver bird that passed swiftly between two stars, one on either side. After that the whale of the celestial gloom swallowed it up.
This was the last thing I saw last night
before the residents of the house returned
and were alarmed to find a small boy motionless, his head hanging over his chest, asleep,
while a trickle of water zigzagged gold in the ceiling lamp’s glow as it
ran beneath him, from between his legs,
and emptied in front of him,
turning his new creation into wrinkled pasteboard, ruined by a small child’s water.
* * *
I was a small boy,
and the query about the contents of time and space has been
deferred to this moment.Translated by William M Hutchins from the author’s short story collection al-Mala’ika fi al-‘Ara’ [Angels Outdoors], included in the author’s collected works, Man Ra’aytuh Kana Ana [I Was the Person I Saw], al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiya lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr, Beirut, 2002