By BASSAM ALMUSALLAM
Translated by MAIA TABET
Her face emerged from the sea. And then her glistening body.
The rope writhed in his clenched fists like a fish fighting him, but then it subsided. It gradually slackened and fell still between his hands.
A silver sea cascades from the full moon, enveloping the night. The moonlight inundating the neighborhood spills through the porthole and caresses her face. She’s asleep next to me. I move closer. Rising through the darkness, two wet arms burst forth from the mattress and circle between her and me. Hands reach for my neck in a stranglehold. Barely able to escape them, I move away from her.
The wall’s shadow slams my face. It lifts its black lids and a hundred red eyes stream out, encircling me and throwing sparks! I escape by curling up into a ball under the covers.
From the porthole corner, I watch the moon climbing. A humid breeze is blowing, and the air fills with the scent of rose water mixed with her sweat. I approach her again, but his blue face emerging from the darkness stops me. It has embers for eyes. I turn away toward the shadowy ceiling, and octopus-like tentacles descend on me, grabbing and wrenching me from my bed. Humiliated, I get up, put on my clothes, and leave. Off through the dark alleyways, I steal through the night toward she who knows my secret. The sea.
I crouch on the cold ground, the silvery spume lapping at my feet and hollowing out the sand as it recedes. As ever, the tepid water is like glass. I take refuge in the sea at night when everything is quiet. I listen to it… carrying Jasim’s voice to me.
We were three. Our earliest memories: the smell of the sea and the roar of the waves breaking against the shore. We’d follow the trace of our mothers, the soft imprints of their feet along the winding beach. We’d step into them, enjoying the tickle of sea snails and shells beneath our feet. A knotted bundle resting on each of their heads, the mothers would sway in the distance like howdah-carrying camels in a late-morning mirage. Taking a rock for a seat, they’d untie their bundles and wash their loads in the sea.
Jasim and I would throw off our thawbs onto the wet sand, and Lulwa did the same except for the garment that covered her modesty. Together, we’d immerse our tender-skinned bodies in the water, splashing each other and savoring the salt clinging to our lips. Through the spray, we could see our mothers busy at work: their eyes carefully watching us but grinning as they exchanged confidences. From their look, we knew they were talking about us. They’d chuckle, and their embarrassed giggles would echo the cackling of the white seagull in the distance, its wings spread wide over the rolling waves.
I still remember the day my uncle’s wife came down to the shore without Lulwa. When Jasim asked where she was, a beaming grin buried the auntie’s eyes in her chubby face. “The girl has grown up,” she said. “She’s a woman now!” We didn’t understand, and just swam without her. That day we didn’t hear the gull’s laughter. Silently, Jasim and I turned to the horizon, and both of us felt the desolation of the sea’s expanse. For the first time, its salt tasted bitter. Without Lulwa, the sea was meaningless.
Jasim always knew where to find me. Resting against the trunk of an old jujube tree we used to climb when we were children, I saw him running toward me, keffiyeh in hand. His panting breaths crowded out his words: “Captain Bousleiman is moored in the harbor. The dashhah is about to start!” He pulled me up to standing, and we made our way to the harbor, where I found the captain welcoming me… as a pearl diver! I imagined myself coming up from the depths bearing a pearl necklace with which to adorn Lulwa’s neck. But my reverie quickly faded when Bousleiman cast a piercing glance toward me. “I worry about the length of the dive,” he said, turning away. “You’re not strong enough yet. This year, you can start as a seib.”
It was as if a lightning bolt had gone off inside me and ripped to shreds my pearly dreams. I pleaded with him. He chided me with a captain’s sternness. I said nothing.
In time, I accepted the facts and held onto my dreams of Lulwa, my pearl.
The vessel’s balladeer was on board, his resonant voice as sad as the song of the sea. We set sail for the pearly grounds, and at the fall of night, the sky lit up with the pearls of heaven, some of them shooting stars that disappeared into the inky folds. The clamor on board subsided. Tired bodies laid down to rest, and only a few seamen remained seated around a rush mat speckled with dates.
I was standing at the edge of the boat, close to the surface of the water, which glistened like silver in the ethereal light of the full moon. Suddenly, Jasim was at my side, the sound of his voice mingling with the whispery waves lapping against the wooden boards.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked.
I didn’t respond, and then said wistfully, “Next season, I’ll be with Captain Boughanem.” He touched his shoulder against mine as if to comfort me. “Slow down…. We’re not there yet!” he said. After I turned toward him, he added, “Forget about Bousleiman and Boughanem.” But his tone had changed. Despite the undulating light reflecting off the sea, his face was masked in black. “My dad talked to your uncle yesterday,” he fired off like a bullet from behind the mask. “I’ve decided to get married! Cousin, I’m going to marry Lulwa.”
I watched the moon hurtling down into the open sea and the stars following behind. Total darkness enveloped me. I could no longer distinguish any of his features.
“Con… gra… tu… lations,” I stammered.
Bousleiman’s booming voice urged the seamen to lie down. Jasim slipped away, and I remained standing alone in the pitch, with the swell of the sea repeating like an echo, “Cousin, I’m going to marry Lulwa!” Ever since my father’s death, my paternal uncle Boujasim had assiduously nurtured closer ties with my maternal uncle, hovering over my mother and me like an eagle circling his prey. Only now did I recall his covetous gaze or grasp the contours of a plan he worked on like a spider spinning its web. When I finally turned in that night, I locked eyes with the stars. And did not sleep a wink.
Jasim clipped the fitaam to his nose. Silently, we tied the rope to the basket hanging from his neck, and he looked me in the eyes before jumping into the water. I don’t know why, but I watched him dive in as if saying goodbye.
Here in the village, a man doesn’t break his word.
Jasim was on the sea bed. The rope was in my hands. And Lulwa between my ribs. In my mind’s eye, she was a bride, as shiny as a conch rising from the sea under the sun, calling my name and stretching her arms toward me, with pearls of water glinting against her skin like diamonds. Lost in reverie, I never felt Jasim tugging at the rope––at least that’s how I explained it. The divers all came back up to the deck, except for my cousin. When I felt he was taking too long, it was only with the seamen’s help that I could pull up the rope. It was a motionless corpse.
Bassam Almusallam is a Kuwaiti novelist, short story writer, and former assistant editor at the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA). He is the author of three books, including two short story collections. The recipient of several prizes, Almusallam was awarded Kuwait’s State Prize for Literature, the Laila Al-Othman Literary Award, and the Sheikha Basma Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah prize for creativity.
Maia Tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator with five book-length translations to her name. Her work has also appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal, Fikrun wa Fann, Portal 9, ArabLit Quarterly, and the Journal of Palestine Studies, among others. She is currently completing a translation of Rula Jurdi’s ‘Ilbat al-Daoww.