A Cause Postponed

By SIMON ABRAHAM ODHOK AKUDNYAL
Translated by ADDIE LEAK

 

The teacher, Ms. Nyiboth, was tenderhearted and gorgeous, with a small, proud beauty mark on the bottom of her left cheek. Her features added to her charm, and as for her voice, it had some hidden magic; whenever we heard it, we were tickled by a kind of madness that made us go still and quiet, as if a gentle breeze had blown through the class. I remember the time fate smiled on me and I got a perfect score on that month’s test; you wouldn’t believe how happy I was when Nyiboth came close and patted me encouragingly on the head. Her hand was soft, her warm touch enveloped me, and there are no words for how I felt; it gave me goosebumps. And now here I was, being beaten like a mangy donkey in front of her. How degrading!

Professor Mangar’s eyes were always red, blazing like hot embers, and his forehead was patterned with scars from which sweat fell like angry rain. In the midst of his destruction, he sprang a question on me, just after the fifth stroke:

“How many?” (That is, how many strokes.)

“Six.” (I was trying to pull one over on him.)

“Five, you numbskull, or don’t you know math, either?”

He said this in a roar as ugly as his face as he brought down a sixth blow in the middle of my back, a tissue-tearing blow, a blow better suited for some killer spy than for a meek, dutiful student. This one hurt more than the others, not because he’d deliberately aimed at a more sensitive spot but because it made Ms. Nyiboth shudder in her seat; she bit her lower lip with her moonlike teeth and blinked hard at the sight of her student being flayed alive, defenseless. School regulations didn’t allow a teacher to stop a colleague from carrying out his sacred duty—only the principal could do that, though even he would have to do it tactfully.

Inside, I was begging the dusty monster flaying me to let me approach my teacher and console her for the torture he was inflicting on her, but the beast continued to wield his sharp sword—I mean his switch—against my backside, finishing off the punishment with a tenth blow to my head that nearly knocked me out. Then a miracle happened. I saw Nyiboth among the stars, winged and clothed in white, roaming the sky like an angel carrying a message for the Earth, and I was anointed with exceptional strength, a strength that kept me upright, like a strong, stubborn fence post, or rather like a prophet ready to receive a revelation.

This brutish criminal would not go unpunished. I wouldn’t complain about him to my father, who was a kind, rational, dignified man. He wouldn’t buy it, the need to punish this hard-hearted giant. My father would try to understand my punishment from a position of humility and would even pat me on the shoulder sympathetically, encouraging me: You can’t get to the honey without braving the thorns. Or that’s what my instincts told me, anyway, and I could never be content with that.

Satan and his armies closed in helter-skelter on my thoughts, mobilizing a grand protest, egging me on with demands for payback or (to be frank) pure revenge, trying to convince me that anyone who beat me like that may as well have murdered me.

I was close to our house now, only two streets away, but I limped to the right instead, heading for the public zeer in front of one of the neighborhood houses. I drank two cups’ worth of the cold, still water from the earthenware jug, and it wrested me out of the furnace of the protest—my thoughts, I mean—but I told myself there was nothing for it: I would have to go find my father’s brother, Akol, whom everybody called Ajyachol. He was a fixture in the community and the best option in a case like this. I would have to show my respect by handing over a few pounds to start, enough so he could toss back two or three glasses of merissa, that home-brewed beer, and then I would have Uncle’s full support, a guarantee that he’d stand shoulder to shoulder with me in my trench, however many legions of enemies we were up against.

I swerved away from the house, turning my steps toward the solitary old neem tree on the banks of the Nile, where Uncle Ajyachol would be resting. I figured he was a romantic at heart, because he knew how to pick the most wonderful places, the trees and the shade, the Nile and the sky, where the breezes take you to other worlds—the least you can say about them is that they’re romantic. I found him lying on his back. He held the hem of his thobe in his right hand, the garment pulled up to his chest, and his left hand moved in circles over his gleaming, swollen stomach. He gave a burp every now and then, completely unmoved by the energetic flies trying to ruin the mood by making love on his forehead. His eyes were half closed as he lazily fended off the pleasure of an oncoming nap. When I approached, he recognized me at a glance and surprised me with two questions:

“Are you okay? Is something wrong?”

I said no quickly, pretending that there was nothing at all to worry about. It was all part of my plan; I didn’t want to ruin his relaxed vibe, so I decided to put the matter off till later. But there was no harm in paving the way for the cause we were postponing.

“I don’t want to ruin your afternoon, I know your time’s precious, but I actually really needed to talk to you about something, maybe tomorrow, Lord willing.”

As I spoke, I pulled two banknotes from the pocket of my school pants, a one and a five. They were folded together with care and looked ancient, and they were part of my special secret savings. I held the two notes out to my uncle and asked him to take them, apologizing that they weren’t more.

When the smell of the pounds made it to his broad nostrils, Ajyachol woke all the way up, and signs of delight etched themselves on his face. He began to heap thanks on me, mixed with a bunch of ambiguous phrases in our local language I could hardly understand, but I guessed he was going on about how proud he was of his generous nephew. I excused myself after I again stressed my need to talk to him the next day. The calm of the afternoon was broken only by the roar of nearby hippos fighting over their females.

When the yellow dawn broke, announcing a new day, I awoke happy and fairly bursting with energy; as I moved around, I half walked, half jogged, whispering to myself in anticipation: “Today’s the day we put an end to that evil monster Mangar. If not for the kindness of heaven, he’d’ve thrown me to the hyenas.” I gathered some of my fellow students, and we headed toward the neem tree on the banks of the Nile to look for Uncle Ajyachol. They were on my side and seemed even more excited than I was, painting wonderful cinematic pictures in their imaginations and dramatizing them aloud, making everyone laugh and gloat:

“Mangar trampled under Ajyachol’s feet!”

“Mangar and his stupid voice calling for help!”

“Mangar begging Ajyachol to untie his neck!”

We were marauding through the alleys of the neighborhood, immersed in our fantasies, when Uncle Ajyachol came into view, propelling himself forward like he was in a hurry. He said good morning, then continued, “I’m going to the village; they sent for me. The mother of my children’s about to give birth—tell your parents!”

My uncle tossed these words back at me like they were nothing. My classmates and I were at a loss, totally disappointed. He left hastily, nothing left of him but his large footprints in the earth and the smell of merissa—that home-brewed beer—wafting after him.

 

Simon Abraham Odhok Akudnyal was born in 1979 in a suburb of Khartoum, to a family from South Sudan. He worked as a teacher before pursuing a degree in media studies at the University of Khartoum. He worked as a news editor for Citizen TV for a short period following the secession of South Sudan, before resuming his teaching career in Cairo. He writes in Arabic, and has been published in several Sudanese and Egyptian newspapers and magazines. His short story in The Common, “A Cause Postponed,” received an honorable mention from the Mohammed Saeed Nawed Short Story Award. 

Addie Leak is a co-translator of Mostafa Nissabouri’s For an Ineffable Metrics of the Desert and Hisham Bustani’s Waking Up to My Distorted City, and her translations from French and Arabic have also been featured in Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, Words Without Borders,The CommonExchangesShuddhashar, The Huffington Post, and more. She is a former Fulbrighter in Jordan, where she lived for six years.

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A Cause Postponed

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