By ABDELMAJID HAOUASSE
Translated by NASHWA GOWANLOCK
An hour before their father would wake up and take them to the beach, they lay under a block of sunshine in the courtyard of the house. They waited an hour, or longer, until they were almost fed up. But they kept occupying themselves lazily with the blueness above, as the hands of time crept by.
Staring into the heart of the passing clouds, the youngest one, who had only just learnt to speak, asked if the clouds were waves. The middle child, who had been to the beach many times, knew that it was just the sky. But he found it fun to also muse, this time wondering whether flying vertically would feel the same as falling from a great height. The eldest boy knew that the Earth was round, so flying on one side would be just like falling on the other.
I had seen them last night behind the small mound of houses, digging in the dirt parallel to the cemetery wall. Their eyes were wide open in amazement because they had found a bullet. They lit a fire, but when they tossed it in, the bullet didn’t explode. They dug again, more carefully this time, realizing the value of the pit they had found. They made a promise to each other to keep the secret safe and before long were caught up in a pretend battle, disappearing amongst the tombstones, their voices ringing out as loud as the bullets. Each time they died, they rose up again like cartoon characters and carried on aiming, then rummaging in the soil, when all they had was a single real bullet. But just having that was enough to give them an altered sense of the weight of war.
They stopped when they reached the shop near the house. The old fighter told them all about the imaginary victories he claimed to have achieved, without ever answering their questions about whether the soil behind the cemetery was a real weapons store. They didn’t tell him about the bullet, and he didn’t tell them whether he still kept a gun muzzle, so they went to sleep without knowing any answers, then woke up beneath the square of sky.
The father woke up against his will. He was the only lazy one that morning, suffering from the rheumatic swelling in his back. If he was excited about the trip to the sea, then it was only because the fighter had recommended he go for a sand bath. The fighter suggested that he go to the south and sink deep into the magical grains of sand. Perhaps it would repair what the swelling had mangled. And maybe going to the south, and the children, and all the obligations would distract him from his dreams about traveling. So this morning his excitement was palpable, and the air too felt fresher the closer they got to the beach, helping to ease his despair. And for once, the children were leaving the neighborhood with all its clamor, which they stirred up with the other local children, never settling until the sun emptied its entrails over the tin roofs before slowly fading away like a pierced balloon.
The children led the way forward while he followed, dragging his feet as they lugged their beach toys and the large inflatable rubber tire without getting tired or making much noise. The local mechanic must have given them the impression that the tire was the lightest boat in the world when he gave it to them. He used to drift on it when he was young; all the neighborhood kids had taken it in turns, young and old, and so it came to look like snakeskin with all the patches on it. This was also how it had become the only lifeboat that hundreds had sat on after a wearied truck had no more use for it.
The father was thinking only of his children, charging ahead of him like wild horses with their loads and their dreams. How they had suddenly appeared, as if without warning. And how years ago he had anticipated nothing as catastrophic as this life, his heart and back now crushed under the weight of it all these children—the result of One by one, the children appeared before him, reminders of the time he had lost, each one emerging into the world as though from a train stopping at different stations as it hurtled along with no destination.
His life had become monotonous. Every morning, without fail, the rooster alarm clock clucked by his head as if hammering at that day’s nerves. Cold and emotionless, he would wake, shave his beard, or forget to, and sweep up his work documents into a worn-out briefcase. Then he would leave, unmotivated and repulsed, toward his office, leaning as if he wished he could turn in a different direction but all possible paths vanished until he was left on the same track. It was as if he was a ball being chipped away as it was passed between two rackets, trapping him in his familiar grave; or like he was climbing a rock and couldn’t get down, while the ground around him shrunk. Every time he woke up, he would see just how far his home was from his dreams. And in this city, he found a woman, a house, and a hospital that he only ever entered loaded with blankets to collect yet another demon. A hospital he was transported to in a carriage that spun around him without ever losing balance, leaving only his head spinning as he faded and collapsed.
He often thought of how his life was like an ambush, prepared in advance—that everything had been put in place with great care, leaving him no room to protest, so that it all appeared normal. They had given him a house, which he’d accepted, and a woman and children, and he’d said nothing. This whole time, he remained unable to find a way to release the sound wedged deep in his throat that never emerged, not even a rattle.
I cycled past, and the children sprinted alongside me. I spun the bike around as if we were racing, feeling subconsciously stubborn about not wanting to lose. It didn’t occur to me that I had an unfair advantage, and when I was several meters ahead, I heard them laughing. I was panting, but their breath wasn’t being forced from a perforated lung like mine was. The father was behind. He was like a shadow without a body. Like a powerless cat with a piece of thread tied around its tail, being dragged by some heartless children.
In less than an hour, I could hear them laughing again. They were heading into the water. Meanwhile, I had taken myself off to a distant spot on the beach. But their voices still reached me, their laughter ringing in my ear, reminding me of the humiliation I had suffered when I had raced them earlier.
Here, where the land was almost flat, the distances that marked out an hour of walking—between the city and the beach, between the trees and rocks scattered along the side of the road—collapsed. The distant city appeared like a blurred white line, its shape unclear. Its image clung to a horizon that extended toward the shore before fading into the blue, without decisively separating water from sky. And the children, staring ahead with a philosopher’s gaze, sketched the distance with their fingers, their eyes taking in the scene with a precision that attempted to capture every detail and then transform it into a whole image. It was as though they were drawing on tracing paper, their paints and pens hung on one side as nature passed along on the other, moving beneath the wings of imagination.
They were naked, the way they loved to be, first running, then throwing themselves onto the sand before rising again and screaming. The laughter transformed into a chemical substance that helped these roaming spirits regain a sense of equilibrium. They lay on their backs like they did under the block of sunshine… and their house appeared. When they got up, it subsided. And then the sea appeared, welcoming the sky like an outstretched palm greeting water from a waterfall. They rummaged in the sand until shells and shellfish emerged, fragments that didn’t resemble bullets. And so the old fighter died in his losing battles, and the mechanic took his final breath when the tire turned lightly and rose above the waves, forgetting the scent of oil and remembering that, here, it was a boat.
Meanwhile, at the back of the forgotten scene, the father slouched, having taken nothing off but his shirt, so that his muscles were revealed. They drooped even more, looking like a miserable deformation caused by the cumulative years landing on his back, like a ladder buckling. Even though his physical form embodied these losses of his present life, his soul felt a little refreshed by the supple air, before diminishing again as it recalled old memories. In days long gone, the two hours he would spend walking back and forth between the city and the shore were like an effervescent pill of dreams. But they would lose their fizz, leaving behind all hope for joy, as the reality of this marriage, with its arrangements and hapless future, sat on his chest. So that here he was now, planting himself amongst the grains of sand, absorbing the heat as if comfort could wash over him. He started thinking that if the swelling would shiver beneath the sand and vanish, allowing him to regain some strength, even if only once, he would stand up decisively, resolutely, and without feeling any pain. He would kiss the children firmly, not casting a single glance at the woman whose gasp he wouldn’t even have time to hear as he stepped out of the house for the last time, slamming the door behind him. Maybe he would then feel lighter than a bird’s feather as he strode toward a place where each station in life would be less oppressive than the heavy boulders of his past. And the past would transform into dust in the palm of his hand. If he blew at it, it wouldn’t extend its wings and fly, but simply fall like tired particles sucked into the earth and vanish.
He relaxed, and his mood shifted.
Then, without engaging his brain, without thinking at all, he slackened his gaze toward the horizon and stood up.
His children were running around, hurling the damp sand and refreshing in the water. He took off his trousers and tossed them into a pile that resembled sagging guts, then ran toward them. When they looked at him—surprised—their laughter was not jeering. And when he smiled, they smiled too. The tire was tossed down, and he was thrown into the middle as they clambered over its insides. He kicked at the ground beneath the water, and the tire drew back, then sank a little. They floated on the surface of the water, the waves swaying behind as they bobbed, their hands intertwined, joined together to make sure that the small tremors of joy would not be dampened and that the laughter wouldn’t sink to the base of the ocean.
There was no one else at the beach, but it didn’t feel empty… and since I’d only rarely been here, I picked up my bike, which had been leaning against a rock, pushed it toward the shore, and descended. Just as I’d always imagined, the sea had withdrawn, shrinking into the horizon, dragged upward and leaving the sand like a wet rug that was both firm and soft. The bicycle tires didn’t sink as they drew a thin line along the beach, moving at a steady pace. The air softened, and the scent of sea spray emerged. As always, there were swarms of seagulls that couldn’t be reached on foot and that the earth couldn’t capture. I forgot about the children and the injustices of the lazy city where a neighborhood slept, where the sun, high and looking like a bright burning orange, painted squares of light through the gaps in the rooftops. And from the rooftops, the alleys appeared outstretched as though they were made of dry orange peel strewn between the houses, marking out the various paths before coming to a dead end at the cemetery wall. I forgot about the cemetery and the pile of bones beneath it. And a small hole where a bullet was buried that had been alight in a nozzle that never abandoned the old fighter’s imagination.
I forgot all of that and set off, obscured by the field of seagulls flying with an alluring charm, gliding low, no higher than the horizon. The ground felt lighter, as if I was drunk, and the bike, which was falling apart, did not sink, wandering amongst the seagulls that soared ahead of me and with me. Feeling as if the sky was close, the air around like blue, transparent blood smacking against the calcified rust that still remained in my lungs, I dozed beneath the serenity of the wings that were dragging me upward with some invisible thread. Just like the children, their vision limitless, from the receding waves to the wandering cloud in the sky—the way soaring up high on one side could be the same as falling on another—I completed an entire arc this way, and each time I descended, the rubber tire looked to me like a black disk wavering between two waves… no one in its center and no hand gripping its edges. I pictured those rings that appear around a sunken point created by small pebbles dropped into the water before they settle on the sea bed. I imagined, or I saw, in the direction of the white thread that outlined the city, three small bodies walking toward the horizon. And I thought of the father, and of the door slamming as he escaped with that final step forward, wondering if he had staggered from that black hole by himself.
Maybe the scene was different. Maybe he had swum like a child, then lay down on the sand, stretching his arms out like a bird, his great hopes revived by the weightlessness of the waves. The tenderness that overflowed from the small hands when they joined and intertwined. As if for the first time, he would touch them so that his heart would overflow with joy. They fluttered around him, and enchanted laughs emerged from their lips, an anaesthetic that flew up and wrapped around his swollen joints. It appeared to him as though the children had wings. He smiled at them ecstatically as he buried his fingers in the sand. The small hands were submerged too and worked together to dig out the edges of a small hole that was growing wider. He threw himself in it, and the heat enveloped his limbs. He closed his eyes as though to see the world in a less brutal way than before. Everything around him appeared like a void in the great sludge of the universe.
Heap after heap, the grains of sand rained down on him. They became a mountain. And beneath the mountain, his soul was fading and almost taking flight. He held on to it, but it rose and beat its wings. Meanwhile the children kept piling sand over him. With great persistence his soul continued to rise up as the air left his lungs and his soul finally flew away. Then there was no more air; he had no more strength and collapsed.
The beach was empty… as if it had been prepared this way in advance. The seagulls continued to soar on their own, until night fell and not a single trace was left to be seen.
Abdelmajid Haouasse was born in 1964 in the Moroccan city of Taza. He is a professor of scenography at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art and Cultural Animation in Rabat. In 1999, he established the Aphrodite Theatre group, where he accomplished a number of scenographic works before he turned his hands to directing. Haouasse has also worked as a cinematographer. He has won a number of prizes, including the Al-Fareed award for scenography, multiple awards for best scenography at the National Festival of Theatre, and the Festival’s award for best director. Haouasse has published two short story collections, White Nights and Skies.
Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, editor, and literary translator. Her translations include After Coffee, by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi, and Shatila Stories, a collaborative novel by nine refugee writers. She is the co-translator of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and is a contributing editor of ArabLit Quarterly.