The Death Shroud

By ABDERRAZAK BOUKEBBA

Translated by ADAM TALIB

1. The Story

There was a short story at my door. I ignored it even though I’d been expecting it.

 

I pretended that I needed to take a shower

to put on cologne

to drink something and melt the sun in its ice

to listen to music that escapes from its strings

to speak to someone I love

to—now what?, I wonder.

I opened the door and found it rummaging through the trash. It gave me a dirty look: Now I know why you’ve started ignoring me and spending so much time with your novel. You’re eating better.

 

I chased it off the stairs; it fell. Broke its leg. I’ll spend the rest of my day in the word hospital now.

 

2. The Phone

Zubayr placed it on the table and willed it to ring. He wanted to hear her voice, to know she was still alive. The news report was unambiguous: everyone onboard died except for one female passenger.

It had to be Sarah. No one else on the plane could have competed with her when it came to remaining in life’s brightness. Is it so, Phone? You’re the one who said it. I could never replace you; you’re the one who conveys her words. She crosses from you into my soul. Couldn’t you see how excited I got every time her number appeared on your screen?

You know that she’s the only person whose number I never had to save, the only one I didn’t have to distinguish with a special ringtone or photo. There was already something about her that stood out, that made her ring stand out. I would reach to pick up before even hearing a sound. Why don’t you remember any of that? Why can’t you muster the energy to save me with a phone call from her now?

How dare this idiot television invade my thoughts with advertisements, trying to tempt me into buying food at a time like this? Does it think I’m in the mood to eat right now or puke even?

Did you forget that I’m waiting for her call, Phone? She’ll call. Do you want to bet? You set the terms. Like, if you win, I’ll starve myself until I die. Or you can make me eat something that will kill me instantaneously. I know: How about I never leave the house again, until they carry my corpse out?

[How long did it take him to get from the living room to the front door and then open it? It was as though the door opened itself.

At first he didn’t believe what he saw: Sarah, flying in a wooden casket; the police asking him to sign an affidavit certifying he’d received the body.

He had no time to waste with them. His place was beside the phone in the living room. He closed the door.]

 

3. The Bottle

A Smuggled Sheet of Paper (The Owner’s Testimony, 1)

It was the first time that either of them had come to my restaurant, Officer. She was all smiles; he was all frowns. That’s something I’ve never gotten used to about other people. Young men have smiles on their side when they’re trying to get their girls to forgive them. A hug is halfway between a smile and a frown. My restaurant ought to be called The House of Forgiveness. Quarreling lovers are always reconciled by the time they walk out the door, their two hearts made one. It’s not their pockets that concern me; it’s their hearts.

I conspire with the customer who wants to make up with his lady. He calls me and tells me exactly what kind of mood she’s in, so that I can ensure the service suits it perfectly. Her favorite color, her favorite dish, the music, the perfume in the restroom, the fruits, her favorite artist [a sudden laugh, sweet and bitter at the same time]. Just imagine: I change the paintings hanging in the restaurant each day just to improve the moods of our female clients. That night Zubayr asked me to hang up a picture of Abderrazak Boukebba.

Everything was white—he said it was her favorite color—and he warned me not to spoil it with any other colors [silence, the kind of silence that meant more than one thing]. I didn’t realize, Officer, that I was enabling that white night. Are you going to close the Bottle because of what happened tonight, Officer?

 

Abderrazak Boukebba’s Testimony

I saw my photo hanging up in the restaurant when I walked in, so I knew that someone had asked the owner to put it up. I understand the rituals there. It’s why I like the Bottle more than anywhere else. I didn’t ask the old lady about it, and she didn’t say anything. But she did seat me at a table where I could see them and they couldn’t see me. Nothing escaped her. She’s like a character straight out of a 19th-century novel.

They arrived at 8 p.m. sharp. I won’t lie to you: I knew exactly what was happening as soon as I saw her. He brought her there so that he could force her to face my photo. I was shaken, but I didn’t let that stop me from asking the owner to take my photo down before the girlfriend came back from washing her hands. The owner refused, saying she’d promised her husband on his deathbed that she’d always uphold the rituals of the restaurant.

 

The Owner’s Testimony, 2

I’ve never regretted anything in my life as much as I regret not doing what that writer asked me to do. Lord, why didn’t I do what he said? He came very rarely, always alone, and he’d sit at one of the empty tables at the back, where he’d lose himself in his words. I don’t even know what his voice sounds like, or what he writes about. Do you know what happened, Officer?

 

The Waiter’s Testimony

I’ve seen a lot of bottles and plates break, but I’ve never seen a head break like that before. He hit her suddenly with a full bottle, and I couldn’t tell what was wine and what was blood. I attacked him from behind, but he went after me like I was a stray dog. He got me with a blow to the stomach and then another right in my eye. My testimony ends there, because that’s when I passed out.

 

Breaking News

The writer Abderrazak Boukebba suffered a heart attack while at the police station.

 

4. The Door

[Don’t try to convince me that he doesn’t know his own front door, Narrator.

This goes beyond knowing and not-knowing: it has to do with a premise that doesn’t understand its own nature. He said that the door would transform every time he knocked at it, and he told me stories that fell somewhere between credible and incredible.]

 

First Confession

Can you imagine how it feels to knock at your own door and be told, “Sorry, sir, but your apartment is one floor up,” and then you find that it is actually there? The next time you go home, you’re told, “Sorry, sir, but your apartment is actually in the building across the road,” and then you find that it is actually there, with all the same people, all the same feelings, your pen exactly where you left it, on top of your manuscript.

I live in fear that the manuscript of my novel will get lost. I’m more scared of losing it than my apartment. It’s the first thing I look for whenever I come home and the last thing I say goodbye to before I go out.

Yesterday, I stood by the entrance to my neighborhood and called Sarah to ask her to come walk me home. “I’m ill,” I told her. “I need to lean on you.”

“Where are you exactly, Zubayr?”

“In front of the shop that sells Arab sweets.”

“There isn’t any shop that sells Arab sweets in our neighborhood. Wait for me next to the French perfume shop.”

“There isn’t a French perfume shop in this neighborhood.”

She found me half a day later and took me to another neighborhood altogether. The pen was resting on the manuscript.

[He didn’t know whether he should make peace with the circumstances as they were or if he should take his own life before his head exploded. He could see himself, just at that moment: lying in bed, eating in the kitchen, watching a documentary in the living room, using the bathroom, entirely on his own as everyone else faded away.]

 

Second Confession

I told Sarah what was happening to me, and she said that this novel was going to drive me crazy. She went over to it as though to destroy it, but I managed to slow her down by laughing long and hard, as if I’d only been teasing her. She put down the manuscript.

I had no choice but to play it cool after that—out of fear for its safety—even though I didn’t think my neighbors looked like my neighbors anymore, and the bills I had to pay for water, phone, electricity, and rent all bore different addresses.

I was just waiting for someone to say to me, “Sorry, sir, but you’re in the wrong country.”

 

Confusion

He wrote his address on a sheet of paper and was adamant that he would carry it with him everywhere he went, so that he’d never get lost again. He handed it to a young man, so that he could give him directions home. The young man led him to the cemetery.

He went in.

They all rose out of their graves, carrying pieces of paper bearing their old addresses and letters they wanted him to carry back to their loved ones.

It didn’t take him long to deliver the letters that time, as the addresses were all written clearly.

Then there was just one letter remaining. He was already knocking at the door by the time he realized that it was in his own handwriting.

A person who looked just like him opened the door; the duplicate was carrying a manuscript he’d just been working on. The man said, “Sorry, sir….”

 

You’re not from this world.

 

5. The Doll

Sarah said she didn’t know where to put her doll so it wouldn’t remind her of what her mother had told her as she got ready for bed as a child: “This doll is you, so don’t put her anywhere you wouldn’t want to be.”

She threw the doll out of the fifth-story window.

 

 

I was sitting next to the entrance to the building, counting my innumerable worries, when something heavy struck the ground.

It was her.

Her blood soaked into the black asphalt, and her brains flew up to the branches. I know Sarah’s brains; they never stopped flying.

But—was it really her?

 

 

When was the last time I went up to the fifth floor and didn’t feel like I was descending? Not since she called me on the phone: “Your mother’s here with me.”

“My mother?”

She’d left me on account of her. She told me that she looked like the doll.

As soon as she put the phone down, I was standing before her, then going into the living room (whose body was I in at that moment?). All I found was the doll, sitting beside the coffee table.

She looked so much like my mother.

 

 

I ran up to the fifth floor to make sure that the corpse wasn’t hers.

It was a dream. I couldn’t feel the pleasure of flying up the stairs in my feet, but I did notice her doll lying in the living room. She looked so much like Sarah.

 

6. The Swing

He didn’t turn to look at anyone as he made his way toward the swing hanging in the middle of the neighborhood. He was in a hurry, spreading fear; that’s why the little girl leapt off the swing and ran toward the building. She intuited the meaning of his moves.

He surrendered himself to the swing.

He surrendered the swing to the wind.

“Will you do it, Sarah?”

 

Narrator’s Move

It’s not like I encouraged him when he told me Sarah’s demand: that he ride the swing in full view of the square and all the balconies. Only then would she agree to run away with him, defying both their parents, who refused to let them marry.

I told him he’d be the neighborhood laughingstock.

 

Neighborhood’s Move

Laughter mixed with disbelief. Who plays on a swing at his age?

 

Swing’s Move

Do you remember the first time I played on a swing, Mother? You were holding my hand, and with your other hand you were waving toward the balconies: “Zubayr’s a big boy now. He’s swinging.”

The balconies had echoed, half-earnest, half-envious: “Next he’ll be getting married.”

God bless you.

The swing means growing up.

 

The Move of the Beloved’s Balcony

Zubayr, I’m coming—

 

G

I

V

E

 

M

E

 

Y

O

U

R

 

H

A

N

D

 

Neighborhood

Disbelief took the place of laughter as eyes scurried between her balcony and his swing.

 

The Balcony and the Swing

Two hands stretched out toward each other in the air.

She began to weep; he began to giggle.

They embraced.

They collided.

Even his teeth were smashed by hers.

 

 

Death has no move.

 

 

7. The Curtain

Lights: Faint, but the viewer can still see every detail.

 

Setting: An empty chair; ropes hang down from above.

 

Music: A young woman blows her entire being into her flute and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks.

 

Venue: Empty souls.

 

Stage Direction: Forget that you’re acting; you are truth animated.

 

[For reasons unknown, the writer of the work missed the performance. Zubayr spoke only to his empty chair after the curtain went up. Emptiness, emptiness, emptiness.]

 

I was filled with emptiness and the flute’s sorrow (where did the flautist get this tragic air from?). All I could find, when I searched for myself, was a path leading to that (points to hanging rope). Because so many of the paths I take lead to that, I don’t trust it anymore. (He runs between the ropes and makes sure that they’ve been strung up well.) Many ropes snap when I reach for them. (The director checks the script, but he can’t find any of this.) The last one was this idiot director’s rope. I’ll let you know why the writer didn’t come: He refused to allow the pistol in the final scene to be replaced by ropes if the actor himself didn’t believe in them.

 

Alibi

The writer testified that he was at home at the time, redrafting the text. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he watched a recording of the performance and saw that Zubayr had embodied him exactly as described in his revisions. He laid out the sheets on the table:

 

Zubayr took out a pistol.

He blew his own head off.

Sarah cut her own throat. Her blood bubbled out as if from the end of a flute.

The director threw himself from the lighting room up in the rafters.

The police couldn’t prevent the audience from embracing the ropes.

The flute blew out the last of its sorrows.

 

8. The Letter

Let me be completely honest with you from the get-go and confess that I’ve never read a single word you’ve written. Isn’t that strange? Even though my boyfriend Zubayr has read everything by you and he thinks you’re the most profound writer: your work celebrates death, and your life celebrates life. That’s what made me want to write to you. To make you an offer. But I wonder if I can impose and ask you to agree first on one condition: that my Zubayr will never hear of this.

The pages we wrote together contain us like the air contains sighs. They wrote us, too. They are inside of us like a pulse inhabits the heart. We wrote about our relationship to death. Can two people ever take shelter in death’s shade until they grow used to it and start to miss it when it’s gone?

The truth is that this isn’t a temporary life that we’re living—it’s one death after another. What hurts is that we die, and then we live, and the memory of death never scars over. Not before death can surprise us again. It hurts all the more that even suicide seems pointless and absurd despite everything.

Zubayr died before my eyes dozens of times, and I before his. One of us would organize the other’s funeral, and it was the only time that the deceased would hear the people mourn for him. Then he’d jump out of his casket to start another journey, without knowing whether he was heading toward death or life.

Author, we’re fed up with death.

Will you soothe us by publishing what we’ve written?

 

9. Just Now—Trending Hugely on Facebook

Abderrazak Boukebba got his hands on a manuscript by two amateur authors, Zubayr ibn Najmah and Sarah al-Ash’hab, and has published it under his own name, with the title “Death Shroud.”

 

Abderrazak Boukebba is an Algerian author who has published ten books of poetry, short stories, narrative fiction, and cultural criticism. He was named one of the forty most important young writers in the Arab World, and his work has been translated into English, Persian, and Kurdish.

Adam Talib’s co-translation of Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace will be published in 2016. His other translations include Khairy Shalaby’s The Hashish Waiter, Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada, and Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song. He teaches classical Arabic literature at The American University in Cairo.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 11 here.]

[Read more Arabic fiction in Issue 15.]

The Death Shroud

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