By RASHA ABBAS
Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE
Your games are upsetting; they always seem like they’re going to end in tears. Like this one you’re playing right now, for example—I’ve just woken up to find myself blindfolded, with my hands tied to the chair I’m sitting on. I don’t like it at all. But I’m smiling at you anyway, expecting you to come toward me. I’m only smiling because I’m frightened that if I don’t you’ll sense how weak I am and do me even more damage.
The muscles stretching this desolate smile across my face are cramping now, and I give up; I’m going to call out for you, even though I know it means I’ve lost.
Now I’m calling you a second time, and you’re still not answering—instead of your voice, I can hear that man speaking to me over the loudspeaker, like you sometimes do during your upsetting games: “Any more movements and you will be injected with the drug again.” I know what he means when he says “the drug,” and remembering the big shiny needle sliding into my arm makes my temples start to throb again. I can make out the harsh glare of the lights even with the tape over my eyes.
That man has gone quiet now, but I can hear some muffled voices coming from the next room. I can’t make out the actual words, just that someone is explaining something to a few others, getting interrupted by them a bit but pressing on. I’m sure they’re watching me through a glass panel in the wall between us. I smile again as I adjust my posture and sit up straighter.
Waking up again, I find I can clearly see the ceiling above me now. The lights on it are moving past me. They’re wheeling me along on a gurney; I’m strapped in. I’m suddenly desperate to know what I look like, so I start to thrash around, straining at the bindings until I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a glass-fronted medicine cabinet as I’m wheeled by it. Then they pin me down to attach the electrodes to my temples. My face is wan and thin, my eyes are sunken, but I guess I’ll be able to get my looks back pretty quickly once I get out of here, my face’ll soon perk up. So I feel slightly relieved—until the electric current rips through me yet again.
I wake up to find they’ve put me back in the chair again. My mind has cleared, and this time no one’s shouting at me over the loudspeaker. I can hear them talking amongst themselves again. Since I was last here (earlier today, or last week) I’ve been keeping myself busy by thinking about you. I’ve done it so much it’s worn me out, I’ve got no enthusiasm anymore for your games or even for seeing your delicious face. I’m sorry. I’ve really been missing smoking, and I feel bad now for leaving all those cigarette stubs lying around all over the house. You used to get angry about that, and about what a mess the whole place was, and you’d slam the door behind you. The little one would wake up in terror when that happened: she’d be screaming. We weren’t exactly living the dream, a nice normal family life, and I could see you thinking that you weren’t happy. Every time you went out of the house, you didn’t really want to come back.
The voices on the PA are starting up again. One of them’s asking if I know where the little one is right now. I tell them her ballet class will be on, so she’ll be flitting across the wooden floor of that room, or holding onto the bar and doing her stretches. Saying that makes me picture the changing room and all the little shoes and ballet tights strewn around it. My heart starts pounding again as I remember how I felt last time I was there: I didn’t like the look of that man who does the cleaning, and I didn’t like him being there with all those little girls. The door of the school wasn’t secure enough, and it seemed to me that anyone could easily have snuck in and harmed any of the little girls, including our precious little one herself. He would follow her as if she were a ray of sunlight—with her curly ginger hair and her pink dress, she made the whole place light up. I politely ask them to undo my restraints so I can go get her and take her home. No one answers. I bet they’re still watching me through the glass panel. I repeat my request and tell them she’ll be in danger unless I can stand up right this minute and go to her. My eyes are burning: I think I must be weeping behind the electrical tape. My head’s really hurting again. Here comes that voice over the PA again, warning me not to move, but I’m pushing down on the floor with my feet and managing to rock the chair a bit toward where the voice is coming from—I can feel my hands just about moving, just a tiny bit, inside the restraints, and I hear the door of the room fly open—but I’m ready to fight.
I open my eyes and see the ceiling rushing past me again: they’re carrying me along faster than they usually do. My eyelids hurt when I close my eyes, but I force myself to do it anyway, and I hold my breath—maybe I can hold it until I suffocate, and that way it will all be over before they get a chance to give me any more ECT. They don’t need to hurry like this, or strap me down this tightly—it’s not like I’m capable of doing anything anymore.
Can you believe what’s happening? You didn’t hear what they were saying to me just now, in that other room; you didn’t hear the spite in their voices while they smashed my ribs in. They said that I should’ve already been dead a long time ago because—imagine this—because I caused her passing, her death, after I kept her locked in our cellar for months! They said that I abused her, ever since you disappeared, until she passed away in the cellar. Such foul exaggerations, so rude—and I’m still trying to work out if this is all part of your disconcerting games. The only things that happened were inside my own mind: I watched her doing her exercises in the studio before I took her home, and I could sense how the scent of milk wafting from her cheeks was stimulating the rats’ appetite. I could see how, when she was a little older, some piece of trash, some filthy scum like you, would come and gnaw on her delicate flesh and then dump her so he could hang around with some trashy woman instead, one of his own kind. I could see how our little one was going to get broken and then fall to her knees on stage, unable to move for the searing pain in her heart. And they’re not punishing me for abusing her; they’re aggrieved because I know what she is, the perfect thing she has become, and I always protect her from scum—unlike how they treat their own little vermin offspring. Now they’re trying to discredit me because she’s mine: they’re drafting the charges on paper so they can take me down. They claim I used to hang her by her hands from the ceiling for days on end, and that I mutilated her, that I ruined her looks—when in fact her beauty is what I live for. They’re trying to get even with me for looking down on them, for despising their sordid ways, and for hiding what I have. The sight of me collapsing would make them feel better; that’s why they broke all those sticks beating me and tore my clothes and now they’re strapping me into the electric shock bed again. Usually they only shock my head, but now they’re manically sticking electrodes all over my body. They want to use their electric current to penetrate me like you would have done, but that’s not going to happen—if I can just manage to hold my breath for long enough.
Rasha Abbas is a Syrian short story writer based in Berlin. She is the author of two short story collections, Adam Hates the Television and The Invention of German Grammar.
Alice Guthrie is a British translator, editor, journalist, and event producer specializing in Arabic-English literary and media content. Her work has appeared in a broad range of international publications and venues, with an increasing focus on Syria, where she studied Arabic.