Symphony of the South

By TAHIR ANNOUR 
Translated by MAYADA IBRAHIM 

Dew
Uncle Musa died. A year after his passing, my father headed north. He said he would be back in a month.

It all happened so fast I barely caught it, like a migratory bird resting in a dark corner of the forest, like all the things that crowd my memory. No sooner do they appear than they vanish. When I try to recall the details, to understand what happened, none of it makes sense. Time lures the mind into letting go, submitting to the abyss, but I know the mind is capable of reaching into the well of the past. All these memories, from time to time they pierce through the pitch-black darkness. They gleam and fade into the shadows of this exile, of this rotten world.

On one of the shadowy days before his departure, I accompanied my father to the farm. It was the afternoon. Our farm was just outside the village. People were drying their earthenware in the sun: cups, bowls, pots, censers, jars. Children ran around them and erected little churches. They waded deep into the mud, sinking their hands in as if into spilled blood—the blood of an offering, perhaps—smearing their faces and tossing it at one another. They yelled and called each other names. Their clothes were the color of rust, their faces crocodile-like.

Kyomo called out to me.

“Myriam, iri iri. ”

I took careful steps closer to make out her mud-covered face. She flung a handful of mud at me, but I retreated and it scattered by my feet.

I bent down to pick something up to throw back at her, but my father’s fingers pulled me, and I obediently followed, like a reined horse.

We walked silently along a serpentine path, dodging small cocklebur bushes. I would stall to catch red and migratory locusts, then run to keep pace with my father. We took a dangerously delicate path, which narrowed infinitely into the distance. He didn’t turn around once, assuming I was by his side, barely saying a word. If I had come across a magic lamp like Aladdin’s, I would have wished for my dad to speak, to dance with me, to sing with me, to hunt rabbits and birds with me, to explain things to me, like why some animals seem so listless. I would have wished to be from the south, a daughter of a southern man, with a cloth tied around my waist, a copper necklace around my neck, and round moons hanging on my ears. But I wouldn’t wear the metal cross that parents claim protects children from harm. I would dance, stomping on the ground, waking the dust from slumber, coaxing the beasts of passion awake, making the treetops join in.

I caught up with him as he reached the farm.

“Dad, this time last year the corn was ready for harvest. Do you remember?”

I touched the necklace Uncle Musa had given me the previous autumn.

My father had begun working in earnest. It wasn’t backbreaking work; he was just trimming overgrown weeds with a small sickle. When I began to ask the question, he was going deeper into the farm; when he heard me, he froze as if he hit an invisible wall.

He remained stock-still for a long moment. As did I. There was only the rustling of corn leaves.

Then I heard it. I heard the faint melody of sorrow.

The dew glimmered. The heart came apart.

“Yes, I remember.”

That was all he said. He walked away. Haphazardly, he lashed the air and the unruly weeds with his sickle.

I grabbed his gray jalabiya. But he wouldn’t look me in the eye. His face was turned toward the sun, which was shining blue, yellow, and gold, and reflecting on the cornstalks.

“It was this time last year, Dad. The corn was ready for harvest. There were a hundred thousand kernels in each ear.”

I let go and sighed deeply to draw him into the conversation, to draw him out of the merciless loop of time.

But he said nothing.

He looked pitiful.

Still, I added, “Uncle Musa liked to eat it before it ripened. He always sent me to fetch him some to grill. And he loved the smell of burning coal.”

My father stopped staring at the sun, at the cruel ancient distance between them. He walked away, supported by a stick, and disappeared into the overgrown part of the farm. That’s where the forest began, where our hut was, and the mango tree we hung our belongings on, surrounded by weeds.

I didn’t leave his side. I never could leave his side.

My heart was pounding. I rushed toward him. I fell. He pretended not to notice. He walked toward the hut and began clearing the weeds around it.

He swiped at the weeds as if wishing to make the earth, the earth he came from, shed blood.

He seemed to be responding to a mysterious terrestrial force, its effect on him so unnatural that he was no longer himself.

“Dad, what are you doing? Please stop. You’re weeding the forest.”

He didn’t seem to hear me. It occurred to me that something had taken hold of his soul.

I grabbed his sickle. His blind, reckless movements made me fall again.

The cocklebur scraped my skin and cut my forehead. But I didn’t care. Again I got up and clung on to him until he slowed down and was finally still.

He buried his head in the greenery, which was covered with dew.

I saw droplets fall.

His hands were welded to his head, but I still pried them away.

Copious tears fell to the ground.

“Dad, are you crying?”

He wiped his face.

“No.”

“What about these tears?”

“The grass’s tears,” he said and walked away.

This was in early November. He left the following day.

 

Departure
We walked back from the farm as the encroaching darkness slowly devoured and choked the life out of the land and all that dwelled within. The sun still flickered across our faces. My father was carrying mangos and lemons, and I seven or eight heads of sorghum and ears of sweet corn. The children were slipping out of the muddy pools and withdrawing from the outskirts of the village, back to its center. The hunters were returning with their dogs, carrying an abundance of rabbits, birds, and squirrels. Their younger siblings shrieked happily at the sight of them.

Only the village chief walked alone like a lost dog—spear on his shoulder, straw hat on his head, and white fur around his waist, heavy with cowrie shells and beads. He greeted my father with eyes that sought nothing. They stopped to talk while I gazed at the sunset, thinking that the sunrise was more beautiful. I looked at my father. On his face were glimmers from the deep sky. The chief’s face bore the marks of decades gone.

I don’t know what they talked about or in which language; my father only spoke northern Arabic, while the chief only spoke the local language. I suppose they must have resorted to the broken Arabic of the south.

They parted ways. I saw them shaking hands and smiling like two people fond of one another. The chief lifted the straw hat off his smooth scalp, then placed it back on like a cork. My father, in turn, lifted and then replaced his tagiya. Because I was eager to get home, at first I didn’t notice that the chief had extended his hand toward me.

The chief then blew his whistle upon seeing the young hunters caught up in a scuffle. As soon as its startling sound reached their ears, they stopped; their eyes darted around, looking for the chief. When they saw him walking toward them like the angel of death, they stood in a line, oldest to youngest, trembling, knowing that the chief would not tolerate any signs of disorder. I stood watching them greet the chief with reverence, their heads lowered. My father walked ahead of me. I heard his slippers brush against the carpet of green grass.

I see him in front of me but he is not really there. He is a vision that soon disappears.

I ran after him.

There was a distant sound of screaming.

We walked on and found Mama Mandellad waiting for us. She had bathed my brother Yagoub, cleaned both huts, cooked dinner, and laid out the palm mat and the blood-red rug on top of it for my father. When she saw the scratches on my face, she smacked her chest and rushed toward me.

“What happened to your face, baby?”

“I fell in the forest,” I said, evading her eyes.

She sighed. “You need to be careful.”

I nodded.

I saw my father preparing to pray Maghrib.

My father and I are the only ones who pray. The only Muslims here. Mama Mandellad goes to church.

“Dad?”

“Yes.”

“When Yagoub grows up, will he pray with us or go to church with Mama Mandellad?” I once asked.

“He’ll find his own way,” Dad softly said.

Mama Mandellad laid me down, brought hot water and dipped a piece of cloth in it, then squeezed the water onto the sandy ground. She wiped the graze on my forehead. I felt a sharp pain sweep across my head and the heat of the boiling water, but I didn’t flinch.

She finished putting gauze on me and then applied an ointment made of tree bark.

Tears surged powerfully to my eyes, but I held them in.

I turned to my side and slept.

When I woke up, I overheard my father and Mama Mandellad having a serious conversation that drew my attention.

Over breakfast, my father told me he was traveling to the north, and that he wouldn’t be gone for long.

It made my throat catch. I couldn’t say anything.

I willed myself to endure the news.

The two huts were silent.

In the afternoon, I stood next to Mama Mandellad, who was holding Yagoub, and Assan Blees and his wife, and the chief, and a few neighbors, who all said goodbye to my father.

We followed him with our eyes as he climbed onto the cart. Without uttering a word, I took off running after the cart as it rode away. I ran and ran, out of breath, my throat hardening from thirst. I hid in the forest, no longer able to see the cart, only the hoofprints of the horse.

Mama Mandellad found me near the mouth of the forest. She said, “Your father will be back soon, Myriam.”

Livid, I tore myself away from her. I climbed the large mango tree and sobbed. Mama Mandellad begged me to come down. She cried with me. I ignored her.

I whispered into the tree branch that my father had left me.

Two thick tears fell.

 

Fever
As night fell, I lay on the tree branch, vomiting. I tried to get up and I couldn’t. A fever swept my body and pressed my nerves. It kept rising. It released its unintelligible cry across my body. Mama Mandellad carried me to the hut and covered me with thick leather pieces. But it didn’t help. My small, exhausted body turned cold. My head was vacuous and dull with pain. My mind was full of thoughts that made no sense. I could barely sense my own being, or Mama Mandellad’s next to mine, embracing me for warmth, or the fire that singed the wood beside us.

There is not much I can recall, but I remember being taken to the traditional healer, who has a thousand remedies for every ailment. That’s what Mama Mandellad said.

At night—and night is when the jinn come out—a large and filthy beetle crawled across my head, keeping me awake. I fidgeted. I scratched the leather. I yawned. I stretched. I heard Mama Mandellad’s voice, a steady, wordless melody. But it couldn’t have been wordless. Words are what remains when all else is gone.

I witnessed a fierce battle between flies over scattered flour. I smelled things I can’t name. I saw flocks of birds, of butterflies. I heard the buzzing of bees caught in their own monologue. They buzzed, and buzzed, and buzzed.

I slunk out of the hut, leaving Mama Mandellad asleep on my bed. She didn’t stir. I moved slowly, swaying with each step, from one end of the village to the other, in a daze, languid as a cat. I closed my eyes and dreamt of my father. I called out to him, but he didn’t respond. I dreamt of my mother. My real mother, who was never going to see this world again. I dreamt that I was riding a beam of moonlight. I was following my father, and the stars were showing me the way. I had walked past the chief’s house, past the pigs that are slaughtered during celebrations and dance ceremonies. Then I heard a swishing sound a short distance away that stopped me short. But I raised one foot, followed by the other, as though gravity were compelling me forward. I heard the sound again. Blood rushed to my head. I moaned softly. I saw my blood and my dead mother’s blood mix together. I walked on tiptoes. I took a deep breath. I quickened my step. The swishing sound was back. That’s when I decided to run. I ran to wear out my fear until it was out of breath. I saw small trees; each one looked like a spirit lurking. They hopped from place to place. The faster I ran, the closer they followed behind me like a swarm of jinn. My heart slammed into my chest. My left foot was hurt. I pulled out a small piece of glass and walked on my heel to lessen the pain. The sound got closer. Something yanked me back in the direction I came from. Shortly after, I heard the chief’s whistle. A light flashed in my direction and focused on my face. I felt my head hanging pathetically. The chief called my name. My eyes were closed and full of blood. His large body knelt down, and he looked at me with tenderness and awe. Myriam. Myriam, he repeated. He picked up my bloody foot.

“You’re not okay, Myriam.”

I didn’t say anything.

I was in pain.

He pressed my foot.

“Does it hurt, Myriam?”

I nodded.

He looked around, stuffed a handful of herbs into his mouth and began to chew. I saw his face contort from the bitterness. He spat out the herbs and applied them to my wound. Using the black cloth he was never seen without, he wiped my sweat-covered face. A sour odor mixed with the scent of grass wafted from his body. He rubbed my head.

“Everything will be okay,” he told me.

Then he lifted me onto his shoulder. My head sagged, my shoulders rounded, my eyelids heavy. I was full of shame. I closed my eyes, wishing I could fly away, over the Chari River, or disappear into Lake Chad, instead of being a burden. But he walked calmly, with his back straight, as if I were weightless. He was humming a song. A song sweeter than the aggressive ones he usually sings, waking up the entire village and making the cornstalks join in.

Myriam.

Myriam.

The chief called my name.

Myriam.

I heard Mama Mandellad’s voice.

“She’s hallucinating,” said the chief.

He burned incense for me, and I fell asleep.

 

Tahir Annour is a journalist and novelist from Chad. He was the editor of N’djaména Aldjadida and currently works in the Department of Justice. He has published four novels—Root Ashes, Symphony of the South, The Barbed Wire Farm, and Qudala, winner of the Tawfiq Bakkar Award for the Arabic Novel—and a book in the rihla genre, The Story from Earth to Sky: Days in Lebanon. His short story “Gold Earth” won the King Faisal Short Story Prize.

Mayada Ibrahim is a literary translator based in Queens, New York, with roots in Khartoum and London. She works between Arabic and English. Her translations have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and published by Archipelago Books, Dolce Stil Criollo, and 128 Lit. She is managing editor at Tilted Axis Press.

 

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Symphony of the South

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