Translated by MAIA TABET
The Long Winter
“They’re here—” she was about to scream, bolting upright, her heart pounding in her chest. It was as if a snake had brushed against her bare skin under the comforter. He snatched his arms away from where they lay against her neck and her cleavage. They were both naked: beads of sweat quivered on the hairs of his broad chest, and her breasts trembled over the volcano that had erupted in her heart.
Frozen in place, they looked toward the door, watchful, silent. Not a murmur or a sound. Other than the furious palpitation of their hearts, and their rapid, jagged breathing, the silence was total. Eerie, like the silence before an ambush.
Although it was only a few seconds, it felt as if they had been frozen there for hours. When he looked at her questioningly, he saw her eyes filled with dread. He turned away without uttering a word, perplexed by the downward curl of her lower lip and her gaping, anguished eyes.
“What is it?” he whispered, trying to quell his own mounting fear.
“Didn’t you hear?” she said, her voice muffled as though from under the comforter.
He began picking over his memory, but couldn’t identify any strange sound or motion. Was it because he’d been plunged as deep in her embrace as if he’d been submerged in the sea? Or because of his mutinous breathing? Had he heard but not noticed, or perhaps noticed but not realized, or not come to the same conclusion as she had?
When he took her hand into his under the comforter, it was shaking. He whispered from the pit of his churning stomach, “And what did you hear?”
She dropped her voice like someone telling a secret: “… Cars at the edge of the neighborhood….”
He conjured up the scene in his mind’s eye: He had come at the agreed time, neither early nor late, and hadn’t entered from the front door. Despite the heavy rain and the cold, he had circled around twice before approaching the house. The neighbors’ doors and windows were all closed, enveloped in darkness and silence. He remembered the orchard next door: it was empty, except for a bunch of stray dogs. He had followed the directives to a tee. “The house is being watched from the front,” the shabab had said, “so go around the back, by the mulberry tree, and climb in from there.” And that’s what he’d done. In fact, when he was halfway up the tree, he’d looked down to survey the area, and there wasn’t a soul. When he jumped into the courtyard, after his feet hit the ground, he’d laid low for a while, crouching. He’d listened for the faintest stirring or murmur from neighbors who might have heard him climbing up or jumping from the tree. He’d wanted to pelt the window with pebbles but had stopped himself. The door had been left ajar, as agreed. When he slipped inside, he didn’t wake the children, even though his longing for them tugged at his heart, and the sound of their collective breaths in the room had been gut-wrenching. He put salt on that wound rather than give in to his longing for them, afraid that their excitement and rambunctious squeals would alert the neighbors, and just planted light-as-air kisses on their little heads, embracing them with his eyes for a few seconds. He had taken his wife into his arms, and the two of them had disappeared into each other in dumbed silence… so how had they found out he was here? How could they know?
“Are you sure?” he said, relinquishing the desire that had inhabited him ever since he had hatched the idea of this tryst with her.
“Of course. I heard what sounded like car doors being slammed at the edge of the neighborhood.”
“Shhhh… shhhh,” he whispered, squeezing her fingers. He tried to push back the comforter, but his legs felt paralyzed, locked into the tender warmth bathing their bodies; melting in the cosmic energy that had entered their bed; trapped in the softness of her body clinging to his as if it were their first time…. Trying to delay the inevitable, he said, “Could it have been the sound of the rain outside? The rap-a-pap from the gutters?”
“Hassaan… it’s them, I’m sure of it. Listen… listen—don’t you hear…?”
She turned her head toward the door. He said nothing and strained to listen. He heard what sounded like a faraway commotion… and then muffled, irregular footfalls. He leapt from the bed. She followed suit.
“Don’t turn the light on,” he murmured. “Help me find my clothes, and don’t open if they come to the door….”
He cast about for his clothes, nervously feeling around in the dark, his mind racing. So, I shouldn’t have come after all…. The thought of catching me has been driving them crazy… and now, just like that, I am the one that comes to them on my own two feet? How could I have made such a mistake? How could I have thought that they wouldn’t…? Man, oh, man…. A mistake? A sin? Neither… so what should I have done? Stayed away from her, kept hiding like a mouse? A year and a half… that’s how long it’s been: I couldn’t stand it any longer, my heart withered, my soul wilted. In hiding from them, OK, but from her too? And from the children? He hurriedly pulled on his clothes. And… why did we immediately assume that it was them? Maybe it’s just some rumbling noise…. He realized that he should ask her.
But then he changed his mind, because the question was stupid, just absurd. Was he going to wait until they actually entered the house to believe that they had come for him?
“Maysaa’,” he said again, trying to mask his hesitation, “… help me find my stuff…. Where’s my kuffiyeh?”
They searched for it together. What a goddamn stupid idea it was, and in the dead of winter. The desolate roads, the mud, the incessant moving around, and early dawn hours be damned: a man yearns for the smell of his children, he misses their mischief, longs for them to crowd around him. She broke into his train of thought, helping him wrap the kuffiyeh around his head.
“Hassaan, hurry, maybe….”
He tugged the kuffiyeh into place and tiptoed toward the door. When he opened it, there was nothing there but the dark, the rain, and the silence of the courtyard. Just the clacking of the raindrops against the corrugated tin, the wooden beams, and the courtyard floor. Clack-clack-clack, like his heartbeats, urgent, rapid, persistent. He grabbed her hand, and they ran outside toward the mulberry tree. Pulling her in from the shadows, he clasped her tight against him.
“Maysaa’… don’t wake the children; don’t tell them I came. If they knock at the door, don’t open. Let the neighbors answer; pretend to be asleep. I’m going to go now. Tell the shabab that the meetup has been canceled…. I’ll see them at the backup appointment. And don’t forget…”
He fell silent, sensing that time had run out. He grabbed onto a thick branch, and just as he was about to swing up into the mulberry tree, she called out in a quiet, strangled voice, “Hassaan.”
He turned toward her. She said nothing, made no sound, just opened her arms wide and wrapped them around him. She squeezed him against her as if she could lodge him between her ribs, deep inside, all the way in, closing everything up and hiding him there, out of the world’s reach. She wanted to hide him from the freezing cold that suddenly ate at her bones. She wanted to hide him from the eerie darkness everywhere. From the drone of the terrifying silence. From the tree’s tentacles snatching him away from her. She squeezed and squeezed, hiding him in her longing eyes, hiding him from the inky, desolate night, from all the watching and waiting, from the yearning, from the absences, and the not–yet–ended long winter of their lives.
As strong as the longing that had pulled him inside her, her fear now pushed him away. As he swayed in her embrace, footfalls sounded close to the gate. She shoved him toward the tree, turned on her heels, and ran. And in the instant it took for him to disappear between the branches and into the back alley, she had returned to the room. She closed the door carefully, slid into bed, and drew the comforter over her…. Loneliness gnawed at her body like the anguish stabbing at her wary heart.
Like a Stone in the River
The incident couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, ten at most. It was at the height of rush hour, around 2:30 p.m., when civil servants leave their offices, and the throng of shoppers, gawkers, and bystanders spills onto the city’s main thoroughfare. Like the beauty spot on someone’s face, the incident became something of a landmark.
No sooner did one join the throng of people on the thoroughfare than it turned into a roaring torrent, a river of people converging from all four directions, hurtling forward like columns of ants, landing on one of the riverbanks, in a commotion of cars, vehicles, and trucks. Shoving and jostling, massing around the pedestrian crossing, and launching in unison at the traffic policeman’s signal, they were propelled like a wave across the thoroughfare, as a similar wave came the other way. For an instant, the two waves coalesced, and then separated, each going in opposite directions. They washed up on facing sidewalks and gradually fragmented: into hands, dangling empty, or carrying bread, olives, bags of vegetables, boxes, etc., or scratching heads; into feet striking the pavement, some hurrying, others shuffling; into chests, rising and falling, sighing with worry, panting, frantic; into a jungle of faces, miserable, hapless, or terrifyingly fearful. Mingling, conjoined, disparate. Then, as quickly as it crossed the thoroughfare, the unbroken flowing mass scattered—into a neighborhood, a shop, or a house, behind a tree or some derelict structure—and disappeared.
Like a boulder smashing into a river, a grey vehicle burst onto the thoroughfare that day, landing in an inky trail of skid marks left by its screeching tires. A collective cry went up from the throng, piercing, wounded, like the wail of a woman. The four passenger doors, and a fifth at the back, flew open in a lightning flash, and furious, enraged men spilled out of the vehicle. Whether from the shock, or out of curiosity, or maybe because of the screeching that drowned out the din, the throng huddled around the car as if awakened from a stupor. A sheaf of papers fluttered to the ground, and a young man from the crowd took off running, cutting through the rings of onlookers.
Terrified, he darted through a gap in the loosening mass, with the angry men on his heels. When one of them caught hold of him and pulled, the young man yanked himself free and took off again. Just as another one of the men was about to grab him, he spun around and darted behind the stunned mass, zigzagging through the rings of people like a shooting star. Brandishing a gun, a third man barked out, “Catch him, stop him, he’s a criminal, catch him!” The men on the other side of the circle went after him.
As soon as the men from the vehicle seized hold of him, the young man began to scream. “Liars, they’re liars,” he cried. “Get them away from me…. They’re lying…. Hold them off!” he went on, as if revealing some great secret. The human mass stood in broken concentric lines, lower lips protruding skeptically, heads hanging, eyes bulging or dejected, shoulders hunched down. Two fingers flicking through a string of prayer beads stopped mid-course, a woman huddled close to a man, a sheikh muttered a prayer, an old crone invoked the name of God.
After they pummeled and kicked him, the young man’s body looked like a badly slaughtered chicken; the men picked him up and stuffed him, along with his cries of help and desperation, into the trunk. They climbed into the vehicle, slammed the doors shut, and took off, ripping through the thoroughfare. The sheets of paper flew about, scattering between people’s feet. The same feet that had first separated as they struck the ground and then coalesced into one mass hurtling toward another in the pedestrian crossing at the head of the thoroughfare swarming with people. Weaving together and then apart, and then, just as quickly as they had come, they disappeared into a bend, or a neighborhood, or a house, behind a tree, or inside a derelict building, in an uninterrupted flow.
His coughing reached my ears from the innermost cells down the dark narrow hallway. If it hadn’t been for my vigilance, or my own boredom, it wouldn’t have caught my attention—no more than the slamming of a door or the ringing of a metal container hitting the cement floor.
The coughing that streamed out of the depths of the hall was sharp, and repeated. I too was—occasionally—afflicted with coughing fits, but they weren’t as intense. No sooner had the coughing died down than it was followed by a couple of “ahems,” a throat-clearing that struck me as forced or fabricated. It wasn’t the result of a genuine cough; it sounded as if it had emerged from someone’s lips and not from the back of the mouth or larynx…. So right away I cleared my throat, in a singsong questioning tone: “Ahem?” And right away a similar sound came back, but without the questioning singsong; it was deliberate and pointed, a greeting answering another greeting.
He’s calling out to me, then! But… who is he? And what does he mean by his throat-clearing? Does he know me? Is it a signal he’s giving me, which I don’t understand? I loosened the nail I had pulled out of my cell’s wooden door, and squinted through the little circle of light: the warden wasn’t there. I stuck the nail back in and cleared my throat just to check. He cleared his throat, and now I was sure. I cleared my throat once more; he did the same… I did it again, and so did he.
All of a sudden, the cell expanded. As if the “ahems” had cracked open the walls, and a beam of light had insinuated itself into this gloomy and mute creature. I was overjoyed by the light, and worried that it would go away. I stretched, vocalizing, and he vocalized as if stretching.
The game was on…
Him, sounding cavernous from the forgotten cells at the other end of the hall, and me, from my cell at this end of the hall.
Along the darkened and unknown space between our cells, we played a throat-clearing tug-of-war. I watched out for the warden and cleared my throat. Reassured, he would clear his throat. We continued this game that brightened the deathly silence and broke the monotony of the days that followed one another like the rolling little orbs on a set of prayer beads. I tamed my solitude, and no longer felt alone. Perhaps, the same was also true for him.
And thus the days of playing passed, in which his solitude dissolved mine, and his spirit touched my own. And what had begun as a game to break the oppressive and obligatory silence grew into a lovely preoccupation, a wondrous and intricate pleasure, thanks to a limited alphabet that radiated closeness, warmth, and connection—balm to hearts shriveled by impervious walls and an impenetrable void.
I had not realized what profound and intimate disclosures mere sounds could make until I experienced those throat-clearing days with my unknown friend. I could tell whether he was sad, happy, or worried from the sound of his “ahems.” How loose or tight they were… how positive or hesitant they sounded… how strangulated, or how robust and full… how close to my heart he felt, just from the vocalizing at day’s end.
Since any kind of utterance or calling out by the prisoners was prohibited, our ruse grew and flourished, and we were happy to vary our voices and to explore new terms to add to the lexicon we had developed.
Across this shared, unconstrained, and resonant chasm, we could express our boredom or our desire for sleep, sometimes feigning a loud sneeze to wake the other up, and even joking thanks to our newly found private language!
After every meal, we’d hurry to clear our throats, lengthening the “ahem, ahem” enticingly to signal to each other which of us had gotten more or better food! He usually beat me to it, and, vexed, I would vocalize an analogous “ahem, ahem,” not because my food was particularly good or plentiful, but just to get back at him and irritate him!
I had been trying to catch a glimpse of him for several days before the incident occurred. I had widened the nail hole, and agreed with him on a particular “ahem, ahem” to signal that he was coming out of his cell. The only thing missing from our friendship was seeing each other in the flesh. I thought of us as two blind men who unknowingly shared the same cell: If one of us was late or dawdled, the other would hurry him on with an “ahem, ahem.” If either of us was absentminded, a reproachful “ahem, ahem” would act as a warning.
Had I neglected that day to provide the “ahem, ahem” that signaled safety? Had I failed to be alert and to reassure him, so that now he pre-empted me with a throat-clearing that sounded angry and reproachful?
I hadn’t responded when I’d heard him clear his throat. I’d hurried to loosen the nail and look through the hole, and was shocked to see the warden bending down and peeping, most of his body visible behind the door to the hallway. I stepped back, frightened. My friend’s throat-clearing persisted, getting louder, modulating, changing. I looked again, and caught sight of the bent over warden, peering through one keyhole after another. I willed my throat to make a sound, but it remained inert. I tried again and again. Now the warden’s keys were turning rapidly in the keyhole, drowning out my friend’s “ahem, ahem.” And then… like a robe being rent in two, flesh was pummeling flesh, the blows came down harder and harder, and something akin to guilt or deceit flooded my eyes.
The warden retreated. With every step he took, I slid further into a throbbing abyss of pain. Then, total silence, the likes of which I had not heard ever since entering the cell. I got up from my painful bit of excitement, gritting my teeth to look through the hole: nothing but an empty circle of light. I swallowed, and cleared my throat. My “ahem, ahem” crashed into the silence and bounced back. Twice more, pleading now. And again. He didn’t respond. I repeated my plea, begging this time, but felt that the sound was so feeble it just vanished into thin air. I cleared my throat again, pleadingly, then questioningly, then jokingly, the way we did after meals. I sounded like a yelping puppy devoured by hunger and bitter cold: nothing in that dark and narrow hall but the cavernous echo.
Just like a helix collapsing on itself, the beam of light was gone, and the walls of the cell came crashing down over my cold, cold body.
Ibrahim Samuel is a Syrian writer currently living in Amman, Jordan. Born in Damascus in 1951, he graduated from Damascus University with high honors in 1982, and worked for many years as a special-needs social worker. He has published four books of short stories and one of essays. His work has been translated into English, French, Italian, Bulgarian, Japanese, and Chinese. Samuel also teaches Arabic as a foreign language and has lectured at the French Middle East studies research center based in Damascus.
Maia Tabet is a literary translator who lives in Washington, DC. Besides her day job as the associate editor of an academic journal, she is an avid reader and cook. Her translations have appeared in many formats, both online and in print. They range from full-length novels to essays and short stories that have been produced by publishers in the UK, the USA, Germany, Lebanon, Singapore, and Egypt.