Translated by ELISABETH JAQUETTE
You may wonder how old this sleepless face is. You may put him to bed in a long-gone mountain garden. Or revive him in the gardens of years to come, centuries from now. That’s where I live, in a dimension unseen by your future eyes, where feather-light cars drive by, and words freeze in the air.
This face appears on the other side of the table from me, in a bar suspended at three hundred meters. We sip our drinks in their feather-light glasses: neither raising them up nor setting them down nor clinking them together makes a sound to be heard. We hear no motors grinding or jet engines screeching on the trails wrapping around the mountain lodge. We are immersed in what scientists call the hush void, a space of near-utter silence. Here, voices fall mute when they pass beyond the scant inches of one’s hearing range. In the hush void, words can always be heard by the ears of the person meant to hear them. But if they escape beyond the void, into the vastness below, even a softly-spoken syllable could set off an avalanche in a solid rock face.
This weary-faced man and I sit in this bar in the Tower of the Bat, where you could say the patrons’ words freeze in the air as soon as they leave their lips. The bar is densely packed, buzzing with voices that could cause Bat Mountain to shatter and collapse in the blink of an eye, if uttered beyond the hush void. A certain stillness hangs over the tables crowded with boisterous men. Each man hangs his head low to hear the man across from him, their faces so close they almost touch, while the din of the others (a whispering din, you might say) is heard by none, spinning aimlessly in space. Of course, the patrons hear no squealing tires of any kind outside the bar, no massive airplanes, sirens, bombs exploding, bridges or buildings collapsing, massacres, or cries for help. I wouldn’t say that Bat Mountain enjoys an idyllic state of peace. Yet neither does it blaze with the fires of war. A nearly tangible ring of silence encircles the bar-goers: those lost in drink and thought, and those for whom drink has staved off sleep, hollowing out the empty look in their eyes. Some may suspect that every minute out there, men are downed by shadowy snipers, and that beasts of prey growl and howl around the bodies left in empty streets. But the tranquil void enveloping the patrons makes them dismiss such thoughts, time after time. Instead, they conclude that an impending explosion or collapse is rather unlikely. The only outward evidence of the strange murmuring in the bar is a blue mist. It obscures everyone’s face, secluding them from the unknown world, even mistier out there. Suddenly, in the haze of this bar suspended in the hush void, I hear my weary drinking companion speak, his words cutting through the tranquility of the mountain gardens: “I was looking for my child.”
His voice breaks off for a moment, and I consider his swollen eyelids from which the lashes have fallen, the baldness of his head, the trembling of his fingers as they grip the slender glass—all marks of his long vigil that has lasted through the misty decades. He presses on, unheard by the other patrons.
“Everyone else was content with our dying city, as squalid as a Mongol piss hole. They’d never tasted the joys of walking that the runaways knew, and were content with the movement they were allowed. It was an old tale. The emperor would round up his enemies and piss on them, and not one of them tried to leave that fetid quagmire. One night I gathered my things and decided to leave the place where I was born and raised. I set out at nightfall, walked to the outskirts of the city and beyond, until I came to its vast periphery. It was there I found it: a graveyard for vehicles. A few other runaways had arrived there too. Like them, I was looking for my child.”
The weary man’s voice fades once again, and reflected in his empty eyes are crushed car bodies, as far as the eye can see. He begins again, breaking my train of thought.
“Yes. A necropolis that even car factory owners and rubber tire proprietors could not have imagined. Cranes and bulldozers arrived with car bodies of every make and model, all throughout every day. They dumped them in an area that had begun to expand and take over our city’s suburbs, outlying roads, and land set aside for building new homes. The people of the city had only ever traveled in vehicles, never setting foot on the ground, except when coming home at the end of the day. This was until the day the plague struck, when the vertigo and terrible tremor in people’s heads caused cars to veer off the roads, crashing into bridge railings and tumbling down into the river. A great collision happened that day; speeding cars swerved and struck oncoming traffic, wreck after wreck, terror and tremors and horns. Lovely lines of cars on orderly streets were obliterated, traffic lights stopped working, gas stations disappeared, and chaos reigned. The entire city was turned into a car graveyard that day.”
He pauses for a moment, takes a sip from the glass quivering in his hand, and then picks up where he left off.
“I had left the city long before the great tremor happened. Afterward, people fled to the outskirts in waves, arriving at the car graveyard where I lived. That was how I learned of the news. At that point, I had been living in the graveyard for years. On the day I had first arrived, I found myself a comfortable home in the remains of a huge locomotive. It had once transported goods between green lands and far-off cities, but by then only the cab was left, its doors ripped off. My first day in the graveyard passed uneventfully; I fortified the cab with car doors and made a bed out of an old seat cushion. I was lying there, serenely gazing at the full moon as it rose, when I heard scrap metal around the cab rattling. A specter passed under the window, peering around, kicking aside car parts that echoed with the phrase she cawed out, again and again: Where are you, yamma Allawi? A mother’s call.
“The great moon illuminated the graveyard and web of paths dividing one neighborhood from the next, a sprawling complex under the moon’s radiant light. The wandering specter turned onto a path to the next neighborhood, but suddenly her calls were cut off. Where are you… where are you… yamma— The woman had fallen into a trap. Dragged inside a car body, her voice was stifled.”
Back in the bar, it’s not unreasonable to think that a tremor like the one that caused the great car crash and massive wreck in the city could befall this suspended part of the world too. A strange, fleeting light trembles under my drinking companion’s eyelids—this being who hasn’t slept a single night for a hundred years, the eternal guard of the graveyard’s children—and I feel the bar and everyone in it tremble too. “You’ve found no rest, and you might be the only witness to have escaped that terrible tremor. Did you ever find your child?” I ask him.
“Like the specter, I had been looking for my child. The next day I met the ‘elders,’ those who had outlived the others, as the gravediggers were called. I met many people from the city, and others, foreigners who had come from nearby towns. Some were collecting useful bits and pieces to sell in the graveyard markets; there were things we could use as pots for cooking, utensils for eating, gears for sewing machines, and even light weapons for fighting. The graveyard was transformed into houses, markets, and small factories. I became an elder, and wed an elder woman, and she bore me children who grew up and moved into their own car bodies. I forgot about the child I had been searching for, and became a great elder who owned lots of car bodies… but that was a long time ago, when I was an old man.”
He appears a disjointed old man to my drunken eyes in that moment, scraps of worn clothing lashed to his body with nails, rivets, belts, and stays. He rises from his chair, and when he stands up I hear a sound like metal plates grinding against each other, or the jangling of loose parts inside an old car body. I have seen car bodies sitting on the side of the mountain road, but I have never before met a man like my disheveled companion. We leave the bar, and for the first time, I hear the tires of a car. The vehicle approaches us from behind as we walk through the mist down the narrow road, and then pulls up alongside us. It is made of thin sheeting; has one seat, for the driver; and spouts fire from the rear. It stops, the retractable roof slides back, and the driver appears, wearing a helmet with a glass visor, a short tube to breathe through, and shells over the ears. The driver takes off the helmet, and long hair falls over a lustrous race suit, which clings to her tightly wrapped body and reveals youthful curves.
The driver hugs the old man, but he doesn’t appear moved by her sudden appearance in the middle of the night. “Father, I don’t believe my eyes! I was looking all over for you. If I had known you love the high peaks as I do, I would have driven you up here from the bottom of the mountain myself. Oh, you dear old man. You’re here, so close to the clouds… we have to thank your friend for taking such good care of you.”
Before I can respond to her kind words, she snatches her father up, holding him in her arms as if carrying a lifeless plastic doll, and disappears with him inside the car. It sets off, like a dream with a jet flame trailing behind. Finally, the spark of the engine vanishes. I stand there, bewildered on the mountain road, waiting for a car to take me home to the valley too. From that elevation, the days of old almost seem nestled in among the foothills.
From the collection Hada’iq al-Wujuh (Garden of Faces), published by Dar al Mada in Damascus in 2009.
Mohammed Khudayyir is an Iraqi short story writer. He is the author of five collections, including Black Kingdom, At the 45th Percentile, and Vision of Autumn. Khudayyir was awarded the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Award in literature, and the Golden Pen Award from the Iraqi Authors’ Union.
Elisabeth Jaquette is a translator from the Arabic. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Words Without Borders, and Asymptote, among other publications. She is also a judge for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize. Her first novel-length translation is The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (Melville House, 2016).