Death-Flavored Life: Two Stories

By RAW’A SUNBUL
Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE

 

Absent Butterflies 

She takes off her clothes and covers her chilly, naked body with a heavyweight green gown. She steps into the white plastic slippers and gets up onto the birthing chair. She leans back, gulping hungrily at the air and mumbling a plea for help in the form of the Quranic ayahs she’s been told will ease the pain of her contractions: “When the earth is leveled out, casts out its contents, and becomes empty… casts out its contents and becomes empty… casts out….” Her words are silenced by a new contraction slamming into her from behind, then bursting out from the middle of her back and wrapping its monstrous arms around her, engulfing her, linking its hands under her belly and squeezing, clamping down, pushing down, down, down. She bites her bottom lip and clasps her hands over her chest. She digs the nails of her right hand hard into her left palm, streaming sweat, a tear escaping the corner of her eye. 

The contraction submerges her until she’s gasping for breath, and then suddenly it lets her go.  

“First baby, is it?” a nurse asks her. She nods, and the nurse smiles. “Don’t be scared,” she says, as she gently bends and parts the woman’s legs and lifts the gown. Inserting two fingers deep into the woman’s vagina, she says, “It’s still kind of early.”  

The woman’s breathing returns to normal, but her depraved memory returns with singular focus to everything she has read and heard about difficult deliveries and all the potential complications and fetal abnormalities that can strike at random. Her memory has been tormenting her like this since the beginning of her ninth month, sending her worrying messages, waking her up at night with terrifying nightmares.  

Then she feels the wild weather of a new contraction blowing in. Somehow she manages to cling on and endure the raging eye of the storm. 

It subsides, leaving her in peace. 

“Onnnnnnne, twoooooooo, threeeeee…” 

She is counting now, in a dogged whisper, hoping to silence the loud voice of her memory. 

Undeterred and smiling viciously, her memory puts her visual skills to use instead and plays a stream of video clips inside her head. She had taken to watching these clips recently, her curiosity pushing her repeatedly to type “natural birth” in the search bar in Arabic and English and then follow, in horror and repulsion, every graphic detail of the footage. 

A little trick occurs to the woman now, something that can dupe her memory, and it works immediately: she and her memory busy themselves in compiling a long list of her female friends and relations and calling on them to pray for them both—her and her memory—during the labor, a time when prayers are said to be answered. She raises her eyes to the pale ceiling of the room and calls on God. The sky seems close, so close, as she recites her prayers wholeheartedly, wracked with pain.  

The contractions become more frequent, and more intense. She finds herself embroiled in a difficult delivery, death and life meeting over her head and hugging each other, overlapping and interweaving to the point of merging. They cleave to each other and then, with difficulty, peel themselves apart, only to hurl themselves back together again in a new embrace. 

Drifting in and out of a dream state, she sees herself under the trunk of a huge palm tree, but she can’t see its fronds. She pulls the palm towards her and dates soft and ripe fall on her as, inside her head, a booming voice intones, “Eat and drink and be of good cheer.” She reaches out her hand to catch a date, and when the date falls, she falls with it, crashing into the birthing chair. She stares up at the white ceiling as a new palm tree begins to manifest.  

Sometimes she is simply unable to swallow the pain and keep it inside her. She shuts her eyes to expel the pain from her body and it comes shooting out of her, borne along on her screams, to crash into the wall and then go rushing out of the room. 

Despite her difficult labor, she’s amazed to discover new qualities in herself, one of which is an outstanding vocal range that she has previously not used at all. No one would have believed, not even her own ears and brain, that such a delicate and gentle person as she could possess such a wild and uncivilized voice! She also notices a long list of extremely shameful swearwords that she has never uttered in her entire life but that have apparently been stashed away in her brain all along, ready to be released by the pain for her poor doctor to savor. She also discovers that she has excellently healthy teeth and a strong jaw, to which the anesthetist can testify. When he places the mask over her mouth and nose during the final stages of labor, her head starts to spin and she feels as if she’s fainting. Thinking her soul is surely about to leave her body, she pushes the mask away and clings onto life by her teeth, biting down hard on the doctor’s hand. 

During her labor she catches a glimpse from time to time of the American actor Nicolas Cage, in the flesh. This alluring and seductive presence, up close and lifelike, would make most women in the world happy; but what triggers her panic is that he appears to her in character from the film City of Angels. He is an angel of death, with a black coat, a pale face, and bewitching blue eyes. She is afraid to close her eyes and find herself leaving her body to stand beside him at her own feet, his arm around her—she seems to be turning into a transparent being, separate from her shrouded body on the chair.  

Nicolas evaporates, and she knows that the moment of victory is upon her. The pain of the final contraction rages through her, her womb wrung out by a downward force so intense that it wrests a violent shout from her at the moment of the two bodies separating. At exactly the same time, perfectly in sync with the wave of agony, a single cold shudder runs down from between her shoulder blades to the small of her back as, in a liberating moment of painful relief, the two souls detach from each other.  

Then the doctor throws something hot and soft and slippery onto her chest, something screaming in protest, and she realizes with her eyes closed that this freshly made and tender being is her son. She confirms this fact when she hears the phrase “Here he is, safe and sound, God bless him!” uttered first by the doctor and then many more times by other voices. Initially she can tell whose voice is whose, and distinguish their faces, but then the faces begin to pass by her at speed, as if she were watching them through the window of a fast-moving train. As the voices get deeper and deeper, they get farther and farther away and then repeat themselves more and more until they all merge, weaving themselves into a single thread that she tries in vain to grasp as she is swept away by a swirling vortex of unconsciousness.  

Later she comes back around to welcome her child with infatuated teary eyes. When she looks at her doctor, however, her eyes are lowered and shy, and when she turns to her husband, her eyes shoot out sparks of fury at him—and at all men. This fury is weakened when he embraces her tenderly, sympathetically; many contradictory feelings fight each other inside her then: a feeling of blame, ascribing to him sole responsibility for the pain and terror that had engulfed her, and a new love that she sees with her own eyes, pulsating in a little bed near her, and joy that she is here, alive and well. Crying, she hits her husband on the chest, pouring out the rest of her tears and her emotions. 

After a while she calms down, and looking up at him with a joking caricature of an argumentative expression, she whispers: “Have you seen how beautiful our son is? Just like me!” 

Before leaving the hospital she swears the solemnest of oaths that this will be the last time: she assures everyone that she will not be putting herself through this painful experience ever again. And she doesn’t forget to mete out a stream of foulmouthed curses—on marriage, on the day she ever even considered getting married, on women and their lives, and on children and the worries they bring! 

 

She still remembers clearly, to this day, her husband’s smile after she was done cursing, as well as his arms around her as she carried the child out of the hospital. “His smile is still the same,” she says to herself now, as she lovingly contemplates his face in front of her, running her hand over her three-year-old only son’s hair as he sleeps at her side. Touching her flat, empty belly, she whispers to her husband in a trembling voice: “I miss that lovely feeling of butterflies fluttering in here.” Drawing the child in closer to her, she continues, “Can you believe I miss that pain? That pain that squeezes your body almost to death, but brings out life.”  

Her smiling husband doesn’t utter a word. The black band over the left corner of his picture hanging in front of her appears to writhe, but she ignores it and stares at the white wall around the frame. The whiteness takes her back to the bleached-out room in the hospital, and to a day when the child was only a few months old. Everything had happened so fast that morning, despite the war, which had become slow and protracted. She hadn’t imagined it could spread to her house and destroy her nascent happiness with the speed of a sniper’s shot that wasn’t even visible to the naked eye. That day she had just wept silently at her husband’s bedside. She hadn’t shouted or screamed, or fallen to the floor in grief. “Believe me,” she whispers to him now, “all that stuff is just a trick they play in movies. When your sadness is truly vast you can’t even shout.”  

Now she speaks louder, clearly audible: “That happened in the same hospital where I gave birth to our son—do you know how amazing it is, and how painful, for death and life to be as close as neighbors?”  

The man’s smile in the picture is tight and pained, and the woman allows her tears to flow as she murmurs to him, “Keep smiling, I’m begging you, for our sake.  Don’t worry, we’re doing alright,” as she clings to the child with all the determination of the life force inside her, clinging on, clinging on.  

 

 

Calmly, Behind My Cat 

I leaned on the wall to catch my breath, and realized that playing and running had taken me far from home. I began to sob loudly, calling out for my mom.  

My cat didn’t seem as scared as me. She was meowing insistently and walking two paces ahead of me, and repeatedly turning back to rub herself against my leg. I remembered what my father had said a few days before: “Cats always come home. They skillfully find their way, and back they come.” 

He was smiling when he said this, his eyes following my cat as she walked arrogantly along the edge of the wall surrounding our house. That morning he had put her in a cloth bag and fastened it securely onto the back of his bike, ignoring my pleas and yielding to my mother’s insistence. I’d heard her saying to him, “That cat has lapped up his mind. They’re almost never apart! I tell you, I hear him talking to her, and I find her in his bed at night!” Then she added, imploring and emphatic, “I’m scared for him, I really am.  Do me a favor—go on, get her out of my hair.” 

I wiped tears from my eyes when I remembered my father’s advice: “Whenever you get lost, just follow your cat—cats always know where they’re going.” 

 

My school had been on holiday ever since the latest bombing destroyed parts of it. I heard our neighbor the teacher tell my father school would be closed until some essential repairs were completed. I was happy for the first few days, but then I began to miss it. 

I hadn’t watched children’s programs for days, because the electricity had been cut off, and the constant pouring rain kept me from playing in the street, so I was getting bored. I remembered my brother Hamoudeh. It’s hard for me to forget the gleam in his eyes when he opened them, with difficulty, and looked at me, from my father’s arms. His body was trembling with a fever he’d had for days, plus diarrhea and vomiting. My father had picked him up in his arms that day and carried him out. I don’t remember where they were going; I only remember my mother’s streaming tears and her big belly. During the early days of his absence I remember how, despite my sorrow, I actually felt a little secret pleasure that there was no longer anyone to boss me about in my games.  

In the evening I was even more bored, and sadder than ever. I called out to my brother Hamoudeh and wept, hugging my cat and telling her that I would give Hamoudeh all my toys when he got back. Mom heard me. 

“Hamoudeh is playing in a faraway place,” she said. “He’ll be back soon.” 

My mother said that every day. 

But “Hamoudeh is never coming back” was what her tears told me every night.  

After a while I was playing and laughing, having shared my toys with my cat. We played for a long time. 

 

I was woken that night by the sound of the war. It was far away, but it was a terrifying sound, and I sat bolt upright in bed. It was freezing. I started to shiver. If I woke my mother, my father would scold me; she had warned me earlier on, when she was nursing my sister, not to bother her during the night. Then she’d put the baby into the bed next to mine and stretched out next to my father’s exhausted snoring. 

I started sobbing softly.  

Near my head two eyes glinted in the darkness, and my fear abated as the furry body slipped in beside me and I felt warm. 

 

In the morning I searched like a little mouse through the kitchen cupboards and any drawer in the house that I could reach my hand into. But I didn’t find anything to eat. 

My excitement at greeting my father ebbed away when I read his inability to provide for us in his desiccated face and his empty hands.  

I went to sleep without eating anything other than a few wilted leaves of purslane that my mom pressed into my hand. 

At noon the following day I wept from hunger, and so did the baby. She was sucking ravenously on my mother’s breast, then spitting it out and crying. My mother cried with her, looking up at the sky and saying, “We’ve had enough of this siege, Lord. We’ve had more than enough now, you hear?” 

The hunger sapped my strength. I lay down and watched the sun move slowly across the sky. I didn’t know I had slept until I was awoken by my mother’s hand shaking me gently. 

“The food is ready. Up you get, love.” 

In the dim light of a single candle, I could make out their faces; my father was chewing his food with tears in his eyes, silent as a rock, and my mom wept silently, hugging me to her chest every little while.  

I hadn’t felt full for so long, but that night I did. 

I learned afterwards that we had eaten my cat. 

 

Now, when I wake in the night, mom whispers tenderly, “You’re a big boy. You’re almost nine years old. You’re too big to cry.” 

But I cry and cry. 

And when I wake in the morning, mom shouts angrily, “You’re a big boy. You’re nearly nine. Shame on you for wetting the bed!” 

But I do, again and again. 

Every night, I see those gleaming eyes in the darkness, and I wait for the ball of fur to slip in beside me. I wait and I cry. 

 

A little while ago I was out in the alley scratching letters in the mud with a stick, when suddenly there was a loud rumbling. Mom screamed, and something—I don’t know what—fell on my head.  

Everything is happening very fast. I close my eyes and open them again. I hear shouting, my mom and other people shouting, shouts that have been dyed red. I close and open my eyes: the voices and the red are mixing together. Everything is red. My eyelids are heavy. It’s hard to get them open. I manage to open them: the voices grow faint, and a loud ringing overwhelms me. I close the ringing; the ringing is black. 

Gradually I am embraced by utter tranquility. Everything is white. I find myself suspended in perfect silence, alone, bewildered, and wailing, calling out for my mom. Then I see my cat. “Don’t be scared—you’re safe here,” she says in Hamoudeh’s voice, and then she adds, with exactly his lisp, “I’ve missed you very much.” 

My cat doesn’t seem scared like I am: she walks two steps ahead of me, then turns back to rub herself against my leg. 

I wipe away my tears when I remember my father’s advice: “Whenever you get lost, just follow your cat—cats always know where they’re going.” 

I smile peacefully and walk towards the light, calmly, behind my cat.  

 

Raw’a Sunbul is a short story writer from Syria. She was born in Suweida in 1979 and obtained a degree in pharmacy from the University of Damascus in 2003. Her first collection of short stories, Tongue Hunter, was published in Arabic in 2017 and won a first-place Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity. She has a second short story collection forthcoming in Arabic, as well as a novel for adolescents, Blue Spectrum for a Single Girl.

Alice Guthrie is a British translator, editor, event producer, and occasional journalist. Her literary, media, and academic work with writers from across the vast Arab world has appeared in a broad range of international publications and venues since 2008, and has been recognized with various grants and awards.

 

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Avery FarmerDeath-Flavored Life: Two Stories

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