Translated by FADWA AL QASEM
Like everyone else on the train to Roskilde, his eye was caught by the woman in the tattered dress handing out candy to all the children in the carriage. When she reached him she gave him a piercing look and said, “Although I usually give candy to children only, you deserve a piece, because you’re just a big child yourself.” He took the candy and stuffed it in his jacket pocket as he stared after her until she vanished into the next carriage.
When he got off at the Roskilde station, he saw her weaving her way through the crowd. He tried to catch up with her, but he suddenly realized that she was walking in an extraordinary way. She slipped out of the station and turned down an alley, and he ran after her as if he had been touched by some of her madness. As he set foot in the first alley, he glimpsed her turning the corner into a second one. The same thing happened once more: no sooner did he reach the second alley than he saw her turn into a third. He ran after her with as much agility as he could muster, trying to reduce the distance between them. He caught sight of her again in the pedestrian street near the church, walking in that same suspicious way, and he rushed after her, but she disappeared among the throngs of people coming and going. Eventually he was reassured by her reappearance, this time sitting on a bench. He felt an overwhelming urge to sit next to her, and he approached her confidently; but he stopped abruptly, his confidence evaporated, when he saw that the old woman had turned into a bronze statue. On the plaque next to her he read: Lise Nørgaard. The only other detail he registered was that she was a satirical writer, famous for her novels and short stories.
He quickly put the matter to the back of his mind—he would think about it another time. Right now he had to go to the plaza downtown; he had just remembered that he was supposed to meet the Icelandic girl. This was to be their second meeting after their chance encounter at the National Museum, where they had fallen spontaneously into conversation about a type of animal that resembled an elk, the topic of her university thesis. He, on the other hand, had been looking for musical instruments dating back to the Viking era, but he’d found nothing of particular interest.
“So, you’re researching historical music; do you play anything?” she asked.
“No. It’s just a thing I have for musical instruments, just a hobby, really,” he replied.
A huge door that was never to shut flew open in that fleeting moment. A wave of coincidences took them away from the exhibit, touring wing after wing without even noticing. A whirlwind dinner at a Turkish restaurant intensified their speed-of-light journey, and then they stayed up till dawn in her hotel room. They had promised to meet in Roskilde again the next day, at the very same time, and to go to the port together to visit a workshop that created reconstructions of the boats the Vikings had built to conquer the treacherous seas.
Now she was sitting and waiting for him on the bench in the plaza with the three vases in it, opposite the train station. Her figure resembled one of these giant vases, which stood tall and majestic in the plaza. It was the first time he had seen these sculptures; it was his first trip to Roskilde. He would probably not have seen them at all had he not been spending time with this sexy Icelandic girl.
“Which of these vases contains the honey? And which contains the centuries-old ghee? What about the gold coins?” he asked his girl as he hugged her.
“What if all three are haunted by evil spirits?” she said, as a great joyful laugh escaped her.
They consulted a guidebook and found their way to the port. They walked hand in hand, the warmth of their encounter laced with bright banter and kisses. In a small park, they stood in front of a wooden sculpture of an owl. It reminded him of the owl that had not only disturbed his sleep yesterday but had made its way into his muddled dream, of which he now remembered nothing but the bird’s anxious lament.
“Don’t tell me you have a thing for owls, too?” she teased, caressing his fingers.
“Not exactly. Unlike most people, I’m not superstitious of this strange and delicate creature.”
It was easy to get around the city. Their guidebook helped them find their way to the port, and once there, the abundant physical warmth and intellectual enthusiasm they shared engulfed them more than ever.
They ended their day on the 7:30 evening train back to Copenhagen, looking forward to a third meeting the next day.
When he took off his jacket and lay down on his bed in the hotel room, the candy in his pocket fell to the floor. He immediately remembered Lise Nørgaard. He placed the candy carefully on the night table and went to take a shower to cleanse himself after the day’s excitementand exertions. Before he went back to bed, the thought occurred to him that he should give the candy to his Icelandic girl, but he changed his mind. He held the candy in his hands and examined it. He removed the shiny wrapper and found another smaller piece of paper around the candy itself. He peeled it off as a butterfly might free itself from its cocoon, only to realize that the paper was a fortune. “The owl is your guide to your lucky day,” he read in a whisper.
He turned these coincidences over in his mind, trying to work out if they were indeed just coincidences, and wondering about the significance of the owl appearing several times during his day. Then he quickly put the matter to the back of his mind—he would think about it another time.
He had been sleeping for only three hours when he was awoken by the hooting of an owl. He got up to see if the sound was real or just tinnitus. He peered out the window and spotted the owl on the roof of the building opposite his. It was still wailing, moving its head back and forth. It was as large as the wooden owl sculpture in the park in Roskilde. Was it actually the same owl? He was disturbed by this and tried shooing it away with a wave of his hand. Then he waved his pillow at it, even his bedsheets, but all in vain. So he made sure his windows were firmly closed, stuffed cotton in his ears, put the pillow over his head, and sank back into the oceans of sleep.
But his efforts to tightly seal every opening against the owl were futile. Now the owl was in his dream. He saw it swoop in a circle around the three vases of Roskilde three times. Then it landed on the center vase and motioned with its head toward something inside.
He woke up troubled. He took the cotton out of his ears and hurried to the window. He opened it all the way, but the owl was not on the roof of the opposite building.
Sleep deserted him. He tried to quickly put the dream to the back of his mind, to think about it another time, but this time his strategy didn’t work. He went over it all in his mind hundreds of times: the owl in the disturbing dream he’d had last night; the old lady in the train who turned into the statue of a famous writer; the three vases; the owl in the Roskilde park; the owl in the fortune in the candy; the owl on the roof of the building opposite his room, the very same owl that had been in his dream only a moment before—the dream that had evaporated just as the owl appeared poised to lead him inside the vase.
He tossed and turned in his bed. Eventually, he gave in to the fortune in the candy—or rather, he gave in to Lise Nørgaard’s message. He was absolutely determined to let the fortune be his guide.
He tried to call his Icelandic girl many times, but she did not answer. He wanted to tell her that there was an emergency and that he would not be able to meet her in Copenhagen that evening. He was hoping that he would be able to tell her the whole story later.
He waited until ten at night, then took the train to Roskilde. He avoided walking anywhere near Lise Nørgaard’s statue. He also refused to visit the owl in the park. He took refuge in a spot overlooking the plaza with the three vases, smoking one cigarette after another.
When it was so late at night that he was certain the city was completely empty, he crept toward the plaza like a cunning wolf. He dug into the small bag he carried on his back and took out a rope, which he threw up to the brim of the center vase. Up he climbed like a spider, reaching the top of the vase with the agility of a professional thief. He leapt inside.
Barely three minutes had passed when a gang of thugs arrived in the square on their motorbikes. Three grumbling men took up positions in front of the vases. Then they took out huge sledgehammers, counted to three, and began pounding on the vases. The deafening crash of them being smashed to pieces rang out across the square.
Butterflies flew out of the vase on the right.
Wasps flew out of the vase on the left.
In the center vase, into which he had leapt, the lover of ancient musical instruments stood holding the corpse of a naked woman, weeping over her in unbearable grief.
The thugs shattered their cocoon and, cursing and swearing, angrily demanded he give up the gold coins lying beneath him and the body of his beloved Icelandic girl.
Ismail Ghazali is a writer and novelist, born in Morocco. He won the Tayeb Salih International Award for Creative Writing for his book of short stories, The Honey of the Storks. His novel The Season of Pike Fishing was longlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize. His work explores themes of modernism, empiricism, and fantasia.
Fadwa Al Qasem is an author, an artist, a creative translator, a self-expressionist, a restless woman with a gypsy spirit, a refugee by inheritance, and a Palestinian born in Libya. Her Arabic short stories have appeared in Akhbar Al Adab, Al Adab Magazine, Al Bayan, Banipal, and elsewhere. She has published three collections: Ra’ihat HabAl-Hal, La’that Alkhrouj min Aljanna, and Paradise No More. She translated The Scents of Marie-Claire, by Habib Selmi, and Tomorrow I Sew My Mouth, by Bassem El Rayyes.