A little after evening prayers a torrent of abuse gushing out of Abdel Kerim came pouring down on the entire village, sweeping Tantawi and all his ancestors in its wake.
No sooner had he rushed through the four prostrations than Abdel Kerim stole out of the mosque and hurried down the narrow lane, apparently irritated, one hand clasping the other tightly behind his back. He was leaning forward, his shoulders bent, almost as if weighed down by the woolen shawl he was wearing, which he had spun with his own hands from the wool of his ewe. Presently he raised his brass-yellow face and caught the wind on the tip of his long hooked nose, blotched with many ugly black spots. He muttered, clenching his teeth, and the taut dry skin of his face wrinkled, bringing the points of his mustache level with the tip of his eyebrows, which were still speckled with drops of water from his ablutions.
His irritation grew as he trudged along down the narrow lane trying to find a path for his large flat feet with cracks in their soles so deep they could easily swallow up a nail.
The lane was teeming with youngsters scattered like bread crumbs, tumbling about in all directions, and getting in his way. They pulled at his shawl, knocked against him, and made him cut his large protruding toe on the bits of tin they were kicking in his path. All he could do was lash out at them, vituperating furiously against their fathers and their forefathers, the rotten seed that gave them life, and the midwife who brought them to existence. Shaking with rage he cursed, and swore, and snorted, and spat on the wretched town where brats sprouted out of the ground in greater numbers than the hairs on one's head. But he comforted himself with the thought that the future was going to take care of them. Half of them were sure to die of starvation, while cholera would carry off the rest.
He sighed with relief as he emerged from the swarming lane into the open square surrounding the pond which stood in the middle of the town. Darkness spread before him where the low gray houses nestled close to one another, with heaps of manure piled before them like long-neglected graves. Only a few lamps shining across the wide circle of night indicated that there were living creatures packed beneath their roofs. Their dim red lights, winking in the distance like the fiery eyes of sprites, came across and sank in the blackness of the pool.
Abdel Kerim peered into the gloom that stretched before him, the stink from the swamp winding its way up his nostrils. It oppressed him so he couldn't breathe. The thought of the townspeople already snoring behind their bolted doors oppressed him even more. But now his anger turned on Tantawi, the watchman, as he recalled the glass of tea the latter had offered him in the glow of sunset, and which his parched throat and his longing for it had forced him to accept at the cost of his pride.
It was very still in the square. Still as a graveyard; nothing stirred. Abdel Kerim walked on, but halfway across he halted. Not without reason. Had he followed where his feet were taking him, in a few paces he would have been home, and having bolted the door behind him, there was nothing for him but to flop on his pallet and go to sleep, and there was not a grain of sleep in his eyes just then. His head felt clearer than pump water, lighter than pure honey, and he could have stayed awake till the next crescent moon of Ramadan appeared. All because he couldn't resist a glass of black tea, and Tantawi's fiendish smile.
And now he felt no desire to sleep and the townspeople were all huddled, snoring in their hovels, leaving the night to their obnoxious children. What was he to do with himself? Stay up. But where? Doing what? Should he join the boys playing hide-and-seek? Or hang around for the little girls to gather round him and snigger? Where could he go with his pockets picked clean? Not a wretched piastre with which to take himself to Abou El Assaad's den, for instance. There he could order a coffee and then smoke a water-pipe and stay till all hours, or sit and watch solicitors' clerks at their game of cards, and listen to the radio blaring out things he didn't understand. He could laugh to his heart's content poking Abou Khalil in the ribs and then move on to where Mo'allem Ammar was sitting with the cattle dealers and join their conversation about the slump in the market. But he hadn't a wretched piastre. God bring your house to ruin, Tantawi!
Nor could he go across to Sheikh Abdel Megid's where he was sure to find him squatting behind a brazier with a coffee-pot gently boiling on top. El Sheehy would be there, sitting near him, telling of the nights that made his hair turn gray, and the days gone by when he had thrived on the simple-minded, kindhearted folks of those days, and how he was made to repent of swindling and thieving and laying waste of other people's crops by the wily generation of today.
No, he couldn't even go there, because only the day before he had pushed the man into the basin below the water-wheel and made a laughingstock of him. They'd been having an argument over the cost of repairing the wheel. Not a civil word had passed between them since.
If only he could just grab his ferruled cane and go to collect Sama'an and together make off for the neighboring farm of El Balabsa. There was fun to be had over there. Wedding feasts, and dancing girls, and high jinks, and merrymaking, and what-have-you. But where was the money for all that? Besides, it was late. Very likely Sama'an would have gone to make it up with his wife at her uncle's, where she was staying. And the road was treacherous, and everything was pitch-black. Merciful God! Why must he be the only clod in town tormented by lack of sleep? And Tantawi. He wasn't tormented. He was probably snoring away peacefully in some quiet nook. God in heaven, let him snore his way to hell!
Suppose now that he were simply to go home like a God-fearing man. He would nudge his wife and make her get up and light the petrol lamp, heat the oven, warm him a loaf of bread and bring him the green peppers left over from lunch. With luck there might be a piece of pie left over too, which his wife's mother had sent them in the morning. And then she'd make him a nice brew of fenugreek and after that, pleased as a sultan, he'd sit and repair the handles of his three worn reed baskets.
Yes, what if he did just that? Would the station take wings and fly, or would the heavens collapse on the threshing floor? He knew no such thing was likely to occur. He also knew his wife. She would be lying like a bag of maize with her brood of six scattered around her like a litter of puppies. Nothing would make her stir. Not even the angel Israfil blowing his trumpet to raise the dead. And even if by some miracle she were to wake up, what then? He wasn't kidding himself. The petrol lamp was only half full and the woman would be needing it when she sat up to bake all night tomorrow. That is, if they all lived till tomorrow. And the children, growing hungry at sundown, would have devoured the last of the peppers with the last scrap of bread. And the pie was sure to have followed after the peppers and the bread. As for fenugreek and sugar, he needn't worry. There simply wasn't any in his house. And never again was he going to be offered a glass of tea like the one he had drained at Tantawi's.
God damn your soul to hell, Tantawi, son of Zebeida!
Anyone coming to relieve himself in the square at that hour, and seeing Abdel Kerim planted in the middle of it like a scarecrow, would have thought him touched in the head or possessed of a devil. He was neither. Just a man whose perplexity was greater than he could deal with. A simple man, unfamiliar with the things of the night, the tea playing havoc with his head; his pockets stripped clean on a cold winterÕs night, and all his companions long sunk in deep sleep. What was there for him to do?
He stood thinking for a long time before he made up his mind. Having no choice he crossed to the other end of the square. He could only do what he always did on cold winter nights.
Finally he was home. He bolted the door and picked his way carefully in the dark over the bodies of his sleeping children, to the top of the mud oven. Inwardly he reproached the fates which had plagued him with six bellies so voracious they could gobble up bricks.
He knew his way in the dark from long habit on cold winter nights. And when he found his woman he didn't nudge her. He took her hand and began to crack her knuckles one by one, and to rub against her feet, caked with tons of dirt. He tickled her roughly, sending a shiver down her sleeping bulk. The woman stirred with the last curse he called on Tantawi's head. She heaved herself over and asked nonchalantly through a large yawn what the man had done to deserve being cursed in the middle of the night. Abdel Kerim muttered, cursing whoever drove him to do this, as he fumbled with his clothes preparing for what was about to be.
Months later the women came to him once again to announce the birth of a son. His seventh. He condoled with himself over this belated arrival. All the bricks of the earth would never fill up this one either.
And months and years later, Abdel Kerim was still stumbling on swarms of brats littering the lanes, tumbling about in all directions and getting in his way as he came and went. And every night, with his hands behind his back, catching the wind on his long hooked nose, he still wondered what pit in heaven or earth kept throwing them up.
You Are Everything to Me
All was quiet. The only sound came from the Primus stove like the persistent wailing of a sickly child. It was interrupted at intervals by the noise of the metal tumbler dragging on the tile floor of the bathroom, then the sound of water gurgling out of it, and the crackling of the tin can where the water boiled. The sounds clashed and darted about like bats under the low ceiling of the room until at last the Primus gave a last gasp and was silent.
It was a long time before the bathroom door opened and Ramadan heard his wife clatter in on her wooden clogs, her familiar breathing pervading the room. The clogs kept clattering up and down and the light from the lamp flickered as the sad low murmur of the woman rose and fell. Ramadan kept his eyes shut. He opened them only when he felt drops of water splash on his face. He stiffened a little at the sight of his wife standing disheveled with the wooden comb in her hand. She was digging it into her kinky hair, making long deep furrows as she pulled. Her plump face was puckered and there were wrinkles on the sides of her flat nose. She worked at the thick coils, the water splashing about in every direction, wetting her clean cotton dress with the huge faded flowers.
"Why don't you take care with that water, woman," said Ramadan as he shifted on the bed and shut his eyes again. "You'll break the lamp."
He paid no attention to what she mumbled but turned over and settled down to sleep. As he pulled the quilt over his shoulder he opened his eyes a little to steal a look at his wife who was just turning off the lamp with a radiant smile on her clean face. The wrinkles had disappeared for the time being. A little tremor ran through Ramadan's body as he snapped his eyes shut. He had long known the meaning of that smile on Thursday nights.
The four-poster shook as the woman climbed up and slipped under the covers. A strong female odor, mingled with that of cheap soap and the cotton nightdress, pervaded the intimate world under the quilt. Ramadan gave a laborious cough which he made long and deliberate.
"What's the matter?" asked his wife in a meek voice. "You sure Sayyed is not awake?" she added after a while, in a conspiratorial tone. When she got no reply she gave a sigh which she seemed to draw from the inner coils of her soul while the bedposts shook again and she heaved herself over to place herself within the warm radius of his body. The man was breathing quickly and the hot gusts of his breath bore her off to bowers of bliss, crushing her to the marrow. She stretched a hand and touched his moist forehead, then slid it down to his fat neck where the veins stood out.
"Bless you, my dear. God keep and bless you, love," she said in a voice like the mewing of a hungry cat. Ramadan forced himself to cough again, groaning through his clenched teeth, and the four-poster shook once more as he turned and showed her his back.
That wasnÕt the first time he had turned his back, or coughed, or groaned through his clenched teeth. He couldnÕt remember how many months ago his trouble had started. Whether it was before or after the small Bairam. A thick fog veiled the beginning of it all. He had never given the matter a thought, nor did he dream that what had happened that day would lead him to this. Just like his neighbor from next door, the bus driver, Si Ahmed, who couldnÕt have known that the fever which had seized his little girl would end in a procession of mourners filing into his house.
He had attributed what happened to a chill he had caught. When the effects of the cold had gone and he found he was recovering his strength he decided to sleep with his wife that same night. The prospect cheered him up, and he went to take his position in the public square where he was on duty considerably elated, humming the only tune he knew. Cars stopped as usual at the signal of his powerful hand in its worn white glove. He stood erect in his close-fitting uniform, with the brass buttons pulled tightly over his paunch making it look like a huge watermelon. The paint shining on his cap failed, however, to conceal the grime and the signs of long wear. With his stubby pencil he diligently took the numbers of offending cars with the confidence of one who has no fear of the past, the present or the future. He jotted them down neatly in his clear handwriting of which he was very proud. The world was fine, and he was on top of it. He ruled it with his whistle, exalting whom he wished and humbling whom he wished with merely a sign from his gloved hand.
Copyright © 2020 by Yusuf Idris. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.