the short story project


Ahmed Omar | from:Arabic

River of Honey, Lake of Milk

Translated by : Nasser al-Sayyid al-Nour

Hadiya would visit us with her mother. On sunny days, we did our homework together under the grapevine; in winter, we did it by the stove. Her books were often torn: she didn’t like books or school. I held back my anger and reasoned it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with her. She was such a beauty, white as milk, her eyes pools of honey. Her beautiful plaits were fit for a man to hang himself with, or be led to the gardens of eternity by. Beautiful girls have no need for school; they themselves are knowledge, culture, and poetry. They are the prize.

I reproached her for being careless with her books. Unlike me with my tiny pot of glue that dried out as soon as I opened it, her father had a bucket full of glue always exposed to the air. Ever since I discovered the miracle of white glue, I was drawn to her damaged books, repairing and binding them to heal their wounds. While I repaired her textbooks and notebooks, I reveled in the clean smell of the glue and the film it formed as it dried on my forefinger. I would peel it off happily, as day peeled off the skin of night.

In the neighborhood, I was known as the book repairer. Fathers sent me their copies of the Quran, and I reacquainted the leaves separated by the fingers of time. I learned how to sew the spines of the books. I even repaired the leather-hard covers of the Qurans from the mosque, although the worshipers warned me that they were endowments. Nevertheless, I kept repairing them in secret.

Hadiya and I were neighbors and we shared a long narrow alleyway, only wide enough for two people to walk, holding hands across the edges of a stone gutter—it was the only alleyway of its kind in the entire town.

Our front door faced Hadiya’s, which had a brass latch plated with a design in zinc. Along the middle of the alleyway ran an open culvert that collected the rain and made it stream over a Sakia wheel—her father was a carpenter. Hadiya liked rivers and making boats, while I liked binding books and making bird traps. In other words, she loved tearing and I loved pasting. Her paper boats were always well crafted, while mine listed, capsized, and sunk.

My mom asked Hadiya’s mother for Hadiya’s hand for me as, one winter, we clustered around the stove roasting chestnuts and smelling the aroma of roasting orange peel. Hadiya’s mother agreed, and Hadiya smiled her consent. I assured my bride that she was free to tear up her books because I’d repair them all when we got married. But something unexpected happened. As if by magic, Hadiya grew up. And treacherously behind my back, she got engaged again. Beautiful girls get engaged in a flash, plucked from the bunch like the first ripe grapes of summer.

When my mom reminded Hadiya’s mother that Hadiya was engaged to me, Hadiya’s mom disagreed, saying that I was Hadiya’s milk brother and forbidden to her. My mom argued it depended on how often the suckling took place; two feedings did not make her forbidden. But Hadiya’s mom claimed she had fed me to satiety for an entire year. If only I had stayed unfed. If only we hadn’t grown up, the little lambs hadn’t grown up. I believe that my mom lied about the number of feedings. Defeated, she knew her son, who played with marbles and chased birds with traps and worms, couldn’t outpace Hadiya in the race to grow up, even if he drank rivers of milk and honey.  

I wasn’t too upset; I was still her brother. And what could be better than the striking Hadiya, who turned overnight into a mighty fine woman like her mother Hawa, being my sister? I admitted defeat. I only had two options available, a victorious lover or a defeated brother.

But Hadiya changed. All I wished for was that she would say hello back. On the narrow lane, it was as if a butterfly passed alongside when she was going to school and I was coming home—boys had school in the morning, girls in the afternoon. I would say hello and she wouldn’t respond. She just kept going as if a ghost had gone by! Perhaps I had gotten thinner and she couldn’t see me, or her fiancé ordered her to cut me. She became a butterfly, while I stayed stuck to the ground with white glue like the cover of a book. Wherever I went, I carried the glue pot. I wanted to paste clouds to the sky, street to street, north to south. The butterfly flew far away to countries where enormous boats traversed majestic rivers.

Hadiya left school, and her marriage was celebrated in a magnificent wedding ceremony that felt like a funeral. Her marriage contract was the only paper that I doubted I would restore if I found it torn. I asked my dad to open a door onto the street at the front of the house instead of onto the narrow lane that depressed me, lined as it was with the debris of sunken paper boats. In its gutter, I buried my bundle of precious memories. I became a disobedient child and deserved the Lord’s anger. I refused to visit, even during Feasts, my second mom’s house, Hadiya’s mom, who had made me replete me with poisonous feedings.

My mother tried to comfort me when I removed the film of white glue from my wounded finger. She said, “Oh, my son, son of my flesh, apple of my eye, you will grow up and repair all the books in the world. Then you will get married to one a thousand times more beautiful than her. I will bring up my grandsons and marry them to fair wives.”

I no longer saw Hadiya everywhere. I didn’t have her photo, although I wished I had kept one of her torn books. Her handwriting was messy; dots hovered like bees around the inconsistent letters. Still, I had loved it and it had intoxicated me. I used to ask her to write my name in honey on my books and on the walls. She signed them as if she were a film star, her handwriting an old master painting.  

The river in our town dried up. The winds buffeted my paper ships as they lay wrecked on the shores. My wealth of hellish colored marbles got lost in the oceans. My memories stuck together with glue until they were completely erased. I had stitched together thousands of pages using the white glue. I had caught hundreds of birds and then freed them again in hope of good news, but I never found anyone more beautiful than Hadiya; my heart remained torn to pieces, its yellow pages have strewn everywhere like autumn leaves. I waited for Hadiya to repair the cover of my heart and its lost pages just like I had repaired her books and paper.

She forgot her brother who once shared her mom’s milk and the glue flowing from my mom’s breast. She also forgot her lover, who travelled with her across the seas, for them to live on desert islands and shepherd flocks of gazelles, elephants and tame dinosaurs with beaks; her lover, who, like a tobacco addict, still carried a pot of glue with him wherever he went, in an effort to bear the pains of his broken heart. With the glue of his pure-white soul that had been torn apart thousands of times, he mended thousands of books; books of love, philosophy, religion, and the world, science and poetry; books in Arabic and those translated from the languages of jinn, man and bird. Between their lines, behind the shadow of the words, under the rubble of numbers, he searched for her ghost and the scent of orange peel diffusing like perfume over the hell of longing.