the short story project


Irada Al-Jubori | from:Arabic

He Saw Too

Translated by : Jonathan Wright

Today’s Friday. I might be mistaken though, and it could be Saturday.
How stupid!

Why couldn’t it be Sunday or Monday?

It’s not worth thinking about or even looking at the calendar. I can’t even remember which year the calendar’s for or why I bought it.

His voice was the only tender thing that aroused my interest amid the dryness and monotony of things. His call this morning crushed everything else in my mind.

“Is there still room for me in our little hiding place, or are you tired of waiting?” he said.

“You’ve been away a long time, a very long time.”

“But I came back as I promised,” he said, and then his voice disappeared, leaving behind it a sense of sweet expectation that overwhelmed me with the warmth of childhood days when we would spend the night before Eid with our new clothes laid out on our beds, impatiently awaiting the dawn, and then the Eid kisses, the swings, the candy and the promise of freedom.

All my attempts to cling to time collapsed at the sound of his voice. All he left me with was silence and the sound of the ropes creaking on the holiday swings.

There at the window, dawn was gathering together its drowsiness. It smelled of a tiring winter that I could feel seeping inside me until I sank into a deep sleep.

I felt reassured, since sleep was what I had wanted for ages. I dreamed of beautiful things. It doesn’t matter what they were, but they were definitely beautiful.

I don’t think anything could have spoiled those dreams had it not been for the loud knocks on the door. I ignored them several times, but finally gave in to them after failing to catch the last dream.

I tried to get up to find out who was knocking, but my legs failed me.

I ran my hands over my body. I couldn’t tell where it was because it would rise at one moment and sink at another moment, with the bed as the line between up and down.

I felt an icy emptiness sink into me, as if the details of time, which had once grabbed the darkness by the throat and provided me with markers, had been packed in a tin can that had opened and all the contents had spilled out inadvertently. 

The door opened and two people came toward me, but all I could make out was their bodies. I was happy, in a pleasant state of drowsiness to which I readily succumbed, so I had no desire to recognize the faces.

I was startled to find one of them staring into my face with an obstinacy that was brazen. When I looked at him, I saw that his face was faceless! He was just a skeleton that hesitantly reached out its bony hand and shut my eyes.

In spite of the questions that teemed in my head, I opened my eyes again. As I looked at what was left of his face I forgot to be frightened, or to speak or even scream. Ideas, forebodings and indistinct things had taken shape in the form of a skeleton draped in black.

He looked at my face again with a fear that penetrated the veins of his throat, so his voice came out tremulous as he repeated his words through bare and clattering jaws.

Ignoring all those words, I clung to the thread of happiness that they offered me as they looked back with strange disdain. The disk of the sun had also appeared. It was beautiful and as tempting as a hot bun, and I imagined I could bite into it as if I were in a cartoon. I laughed at myself when I saw the sun tickling my face. At a certain moment that was hard to define, the skeletons carried me out of the room. I turned and found the sun leaving its place and slipping into the calendar to stay there. I was pleased, because everything had happened just as I had suspected: that we would be something undesirable and there would be nothing to regret.

The streets were shambolic as if some event was distorting things, or, let’s say, making them more superficial. I looked for the myrtle tree we had planted when we were children around the place where we used to play in secret, but I couldn’t find it. I remembered him saying, “When I come back, the myrtle will be a companion we can play with as we walk along.”

At the time I swore to him that the myrtle and I wouldn’t grow up without him.

“And what about time?” he asked with the puzzlement of a clever child.

“We’ll hide from time and wait for you.”

It struck me that we had been born long, long ago and that the myrtle and the waiting were a past that played on the heartstrings and the memory. We were neither young nor old, or we may have forgotten the times we spent behind our secret playgrounds.

From the first moment, an awesome barrier began to grow between me and this desolate city. Everything about it was irritating.

I saw a line standing outside a butcher’s shop that I thought I knew well.

I called out to him, “Mister butcher, mister butcher.”

But he pretended he hadn’t heard and when he turned all he did was bow.

He was a skeleton, too!

I appealed to both memory and forgetfulness as I saw night had descended there – mercilessly, where life was stripped bare and seemed empty of everything but the dead.

The skeletal horde, clad in black, began to surround me like a dark cloud.

None of them seemed to know any of the others, or even to care that they were there. Somehow each of them was alone. I was able to speak in a confident voice and create new words.

I said everything I knew but my attempts to wake them up were in vain. They made me feel sad. Something inside them had grown old and turned to stone. I said to myself that something big must be missing.

They couldn’t hear me. My voice felt so broken that I wept. But then I stopped crying. I remembered that big people don’t cry. I wonder why big people mustn’t cry.

My mother used to say, “Shame on you. Big people don’t cry.”

My mother’s voice has haunted me ever since, saying: “Big people don’t cry.”

Maybe I’m still a child!

The procession carried me past deserted lanes and gardens, as if they were telling me, “There’s nothing for us to be sad about.”

“First there are flashes of lightning and then it pours with rain.” I heard this once but the lightning was dazzling and there was no rain. I was desperate and about to close my eyes when I saw his face lit up in one of the last flashes of lightning.

I was embarrassed about staring into his eyes all the time. His presence was as intense as the rain that had started to fall. At that point two skeletons took me off in the procession to somewhere outside the town, where the branches of a myrtle tree loomed on the horizon. I shouted for joy: “At last the myrtle!”


* * *


“I brushed your face with myrtle to wake you up. You were dreaming, weren’t you?”

I opened my eyes. I found him sitting on the edge of the bed holding a myrtle branch.

“I was dreaming of you. We were young, no, grown up. I don’t know exactly.”

I continued, “There was a city of skeletons, and I was sad and lonely, and …”

I stopped speaking when I saw his smile, which silenced me.

“I know you’re making fun of me,” I said in embarrassment.

He looked at me tenderly and whispered in my ear, “Not at all. I saw that too.”


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