sighing, she wraps the fifth layer of white cloth over the body, folding the corner of each sheet away from the stiffened face. “alhamdulillah, like a rose” the corpsewasher says to the windowless room of sullen women as she runs her broad hand over the cold cheek. the last few beads of water drip from the washing table onto the tiled floor and slide toward a large silver drain.
“five layers, so when we uncover the face, she looks like a rose.”
the frog-faced sister of the deceased—round eyes too far apart on her head, thin lips—nods slowly. she had been the youngest of six sisters (seven, if you count the newborn who suffocated to death at the massive breast of mother, who fell asleep as she fed her). she thinks, all of them have died, and so now it is my turn.
the refrigerator whirr of morgue lockers next door vibrates through the wall, and among the mourning women, one with narrow shoulders recites, dwelling on every syllable, “allahuma, wash her in water, and ice, and hail” and the others respond with an elastic “aaaaameeeen.”
“cleanse her from sin as you cleanse a white gown from stains.”
“allahuma, make her grave a garden of paradise and not a pit of hellfire.
allahuma, forgive us and forgive her.
lord of both worlds, make her grave wide and full of light.
allahuma, forgive our living and our dead, those who are with us and those who are absent, our young and our old, our men and our women.”
later, as they walk out of the hospital together, the dead woman’s sister will tell her daughters not to hire this corpsewasher when the time comes to prepare her own body. she forgot to recite verses as she wrapped the corpse, verses that protect a body, that ease the torture of the grave.
six hours and twenty-three minutes have passed since that last breath sputtered out of her sagging body.
the old widower shuffles out of his apartment block and into his toyota, driving slowly to the bank, up and then down the beige hills lined with squat limestone and concrete buildings. he steps out of the car, clears his throat, and spits a glistening ball of phlegm onto the pavement of the parking lot.
inside the bank are people in neatly arranged rows, queue slips in hand, red numbers flashing on a small screen in time with a robotic counting voice. at the cash machine, he checks the balance of their joint account, and as he leaves the building, folds the bank slip into the pocket of his olive green suit.
he has not been to see the body and does not want to. it is enough to see it in his mind, shrouded, lying bloated in a morgue locker like an obscene caricature of his young white-wrapped bride. back in the parking lot, he digs a piece of spinach from between two false teeth before driving slowly home to his family.
they ask him, his five aging children, where he has been. they ask more than once, but he pretends not to hear them.
in eleven months and twelve days, her bowels will loosen, release their stench into the hospital bed, and that last breath will sputter out of her sagging body.
but today, the old man shuffles out of his apartment block to the toyota—turning to look behind him as she lumbers to the car, one heavy leg in front of the other. at the bank, he tells a customer service representative with a pale, bony face to add his name to her bank account. his wife scrawls on the documents, then stares vacantly at a wall as if it were an old acquaintance whose name she can’t quite remember.
as they step outside, the august sun stabs their eyes, and the old woman stops, grasping at her wrist. she has lost her bracelet, she says. two brittle, bent backs scour the sidewalk, then the floor of the bank, foggy eyes scanning back and forth. when they give up and decide to leave, she gives the bony-faced man a long, sour stare.
“the one with the gold coins. I saw him take it. he picked it up off the floor and put it in his pocket” she says.
last week, she said it had been the coiled snake bracelet with a ruby eye.
“he picked it up off the floor and—and put it in the drawer. I was buying tomatoes. I saw him.”
“tomatoes? at the bank?” her daughter asks.
“the grocer… yes, yes, the bank.”
the whirring of a blender pours out of the kitchen where the old man is pureeing spinach and boiled oats. he will eat half and stack the rest in the crowded freezer alongside other concoctions inspired by nutritional advice from the newspaper. he stopped eating his wife’s cooking years ago and regularly informs everyone that he plans on living to be a hundred. by then, he has concluded, scientists will surely have found a way to keep him alive for twenty years longer.
in ten years, he will only be ninety-seven: three years short.
on the afternoon she died, he calculated that his wife had lived seventy-nine years, three months, and twenty-two days.
as he empties a can of morning tuna into the blender, he thinks of the dream. azrael floating down naked from a tangerine-colored sky—fleshy, golden buttocks glowing radioactive, and the head of an angry goat—not landing, only hovering above the pomegranate tree in the old man’s small garden.
“there, there you are” the celestial emissary bleats, smirking at the thin figure standing below.
“look, look at you, knees stiffer than a rusty hinge, half blind, three-quarters deaf. you think that disintegrating body will give you thirteen more years? no, no. possibly, if you stop shouting at the neighborhood children, well, possibly, I might give you ten.”
in this dream, a leathery pink fruit drops beside the old’s man feet. it occurs to him that a less cowardly man might pick it up and aim it between the smug, bulging eyes, but before he finishes this thought, the archangel has already dissipated into a watery silver haze.
two hours and eight minutes before her clenched palm releases open like a wrinkled flower, before her bowels loosen and the last breath sputters out of her sagging body, she is lying stiff—heavy of breath, eyes fixed on the hospital ceiling—watching thoughts float past the strips of fluorescent light.
a glint-eyed serpent swallowing another with a quick-expanding jaw
her mother’s tobacco-stained voice
the smell of her just-born child
strange teeth dropping around her blue-veined calves
teeth aching inside her wearied jaw, pain swelling in every fold of flesh
a half-formed thought spreads across the ceiling: if she could just make these drifting dreams disappear—focus on the four straight lines of light above—she might sit up again. if she could just focus. but the light stings, and a cold dark is seeping in from the edges. she thinks, this cold will wipe everything clean, but a whisper fluttering in her chest says anything but that.
even at the final moment, she is uncertain whether she is more frightened of living, or of dying.
Thoraya El-Rayyes is a writer, award-winning literary translator, and political sociologist based between London and Amman. Her translations of contemporary Arab literature have appeared in publications including the Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, World Literature Today, and Words Without Borders, among others.