There once was a man who left his home every morning at about six or six-thirty after shaving his face. He sprinkled heavy golden droplets of cologne onto his palm and then patted his cheeks. His cheeks tingled, and he experienced the subtle scent of lemon. The sting and aroma made him feel as if he were passing by a fruit orchard whose scent was dispelled in the air. Next, he put on a clean pair of shoes, one that he had polished as the final chore of the previous day, just before going to bed. He quietly stepped out of the house. In wintertime he encountered the first beams of the rising sun. In summertime, everything was lit already. He picked up a pebble from the sidewalk nearby. He used to choose one carefully, scooping up and inspecting a handful until one special pebble called out to him and his heart was pleased with it. Now he automatically put a pebble in the pocket of his pants, feeling it from time to time. The mute texture gave him comfort, and the solid roundness made him feel that he was carrying something unique and precious, something whose value was not diminished by the fact that it was picked up from the sidewalk.
The man crossed a short bridge with a metal rail leading to the other side, where the scent of lemon filled the air. The sheen of his shoes grew scuffed as he set foot on the ground, ambling quietly until he reached a solitary two-story house. Its spacious circular balcony and broad windows with faded wooden shutters always made him imagine it to be an abandoned summerhouse belonging to the owner of a large fruit orchard, the kind that flourished when the land was still planted with tall trees whose green foliage rose up majestically toward the sky.
He stood near the stone wall surrounding the house. He looked up at its balcony with its tall splintered columns as he took out the pebble from his pocket. He felt it for the last time, rolled it around between his fingers before leaning his body forward to throw it. He flung it with the force of his whole loneliness toward a specific window whose glass had been broken a long time ago. He usually hit his target and heard the muffled sound of the pebble as it fell on the floor inside the room. Sometimes, only rarely, he missed his target. Every now and then his hand shook or his strength failed him for one reason or another and the pebble would hit the windowsill or bounce against a wall. That did not change his feeling one bit. His morning mission was accomplished all the same.
Whether it fell inside the room, hit the windowsill, or flew off course into a wall, the final stop on the pebble’s journey marked the end of his excursion as well. He returned home, having disburdened himself of the weight of an entire day and night during which he thought of nothing save the moment at which he would cast his pebble toward the window.
Today, upon turning to go back, he heard a distant sound. It was the roar of a car engine, not the sound of the wind that carried the scent of lemon. He listened closely. It was a car engine, indeed, a cargo truck, he told himself. A medium-sized truck, perhaps, the kind that he often saw zooming by from afar. By the time he arrived at the bridge, the truck was facing him. They were on the opposite banks. There it was now, veering to the side as soon as he mounted the bridge. He leaned against the iron rail to let it pass. He saw a woman look at him through the window. Her head turned toward him as the truck passed. Her eyes were wide, as if they had been open for ages. Beneath each of them loomed a pale gray arch, like an inverted crescent. Her hair was gathered behind her head. The woman withdrew her head, as if she had seen enough of him. In her place appeared a man’s face, with thick mustache and sparse white beard. He drove the truck as he looked at the man on the bridge.
It surprised the man in the truck to see someone on the bridge so early in the morning. He had not agreed to live in the house until he’d ensured that his only condition was met: that the house be isolated from all noise. Seeing the man leaning against the bridge rail told him that he would see others whose voices could rise at any time of day or night.
The following morning, the man left around six o’clock as usual, followed by the scent of lemon. As usual, he felt as if he were passing by a fruit orchard. He stepped quietly in his clean shoes toward the nearby sidewalk. He picked up a pebble that called out to him and made him feel at ease. He put it in his pocket and went on to cross the bridge.
The man with the thick mustache and sparse white beard had not slept the previous night. He had not slept since his wife fell ill. He stole quick naps at various points and returned to check on his wife, to see whether she had closed her eyes. He approached her barefoot. His footsteps could barely be heard. He watched as her face grew paler each day. Since she fell sick, she had not closed her eyes for even a moment. At first he thought that fatigue alone would be sufficient to throw her into the abyss of sleep, but no. Her eyes seemed only more petrified as time passed. When he told this to the doctor, the doctor had turned to the woman as if seeing her for the first time.
“Petrified? No, no. They are just open.” That is what he had said, and then he advised the man to take his wife away from all sources of noise.
“Any noise, no matter how soft, interrupts her sleep and aggravates her illness.”
The husband agreed to move to the house in the orchard only after making sure, over several visits, that it was cut off from all sources of noise.
The man had entered the room with the broken glass several times before, each time surprised by the pebbles scattered on the floor. Last night, when he took up his post by the window, moving in the dark as if over an unpaved road, the quantity of pebbles, even greater than he remembered, startled him more than ever before. He began to approach the window, then retreated as soon as he saw the man from the bridge near the fence of the house. He watched him from a distance. He saw the man take his hand out of his pocket, rub his fingers together, and then lean his body forward and throw something at the window. My God! A pebble! A clean black pebble passing through the window and falling on the floor of the room. The man with the beard immediately bent down to pick up his rifle, which was leaning against the wall. Perhaps he was a professional hunter, or a night watchman, or an officer who had entered a long, cruel war which he could not imagine would ever end—perhaps he was any of these men, because all of them know how to bend slightly to pick up a rifle leaning against a wall.
The sound of the rifle being primed to fire was sufficient to alert the pebble man. He raised his head again to look at the window, surprised by the noise that broke the silence of the house. The moment he began to turn around, convincing himself that he had not heard any sound, the man in the house pointed his rifle and fired. The bullet, smartly aimed, landed exactly above his left eyebrow, leaving an imperceptible little dent.
A meager moment passed before all three of them closed their eyes: the sick woman huddled on the bed, whose eyelids trembled for the first time in ages; the rifle man; and the pebble man, who had not yet had the chance to realize that his morning mission was accomplished.
Luay Hamza Abbas is a novelist and short story writer from the port city of Basra in southern Iraq. His recent publications include City of Pictures (novel), Writing: To Rescue Language from Drowning, and Closing His Eyes (short stories). The latter collection won the NEA Translation Grant. Abbas is also the winner of the Creative Short Story Award, Iraq.
Yasmeen Hanoosh is an Iraqi writer, translator, scholar, and associate professor of Arabic language and literature at Portland State University in Oregon. Her translations have been featured in World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, The Iowa Review, Banipal, and Journal of Arabic Literature, among other distinguished venues. She is a winner of the NEA Translation Award and the University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award for her translations of Iraqi fiction.