I’m frightened of everything. I walk around with my abnormal body. I haven’t learned to accept it yet, this body that bulges in every direction. Now I have two round lumps jutting out of my chest, and shrubbery growing in my armpits and between my legs. And then there’s the fear that’s plunged itself deep inside me.
I was still young when my father said to me, “You’re a big girl now. You don’t need toys now that you’ve grown up.”
My father, who wouldn’t buy my little brother toys either, avoided looking at me. All I ever wanted since that time was for him to see me. In the evenings when he came home, I greeted him the same way my mother would. But I could never get him to smile back. At the dinner table, he would sit and serve up the food I’d cooked, giving my brother and me our share. Sometimes he’d stop eating, like he’d just remembered something, then say to me, “Well done.”
That’s how it was, being raised among two men and the emptiness that my mother’s death left behind. I don’t know how my mother died. All I remember was that something was laid out in the middle of the house. It was covered in a green cloth with a gilded pattern. My friend—whom I’d stopped playing with because I was grown up now—told me, “That’s your dead mother.”
I never saw my mother again after that. Then I grew, and other things grew too. My father, who wouldn’t look at me, went grey, and his back started to hunch. At first, he would go to the market to buy us fruit and vegetables, beans, pulses, fish, and sometimes chicken or meat. A lot of the time, he’d forget to buy us new clothes until our kind neighbor reminded him. Then he began to choose clothes that were too big and baggy, so that my brother and I could grow into them. We would laugh at how long the sleeves were and let them fall over our fingers to keep them warm on the colder winter days. Later—and because I really had grown up by then—I started to go to the market myself. I had to buy things for the house as well as clothes for my brother, and sanitary napkins.
That’s when I began to notice the outfits hanging in the shop windows. And I started to see how the friends I’d stopped playing with were dressing up. But I didn’t plan anything. It just happened. I stood facing the shop assistant and asked him how much a school shirt cost. I asked him for one in my size. When he turned to get it, I reached out and grabbed a packet of tights and snuck them into my shopping bag with the vegetables and the half kilo of fish and kilo of apples.
It was very easy. I did this over and over again. I paid for everything but tights. I would reach out and take all sorts of styles. Who said it would be difficult?
My father, who wouldn’t look at me, didn’t notice anything different. My brother, who was grown up enough to play with the neighborhood kids, wasn’t quite old enough to find tights exciting. The neighbors thought my father was spoiling me to make up for losing my mother. My friends were jealous of me and my fancy new hosiery. As for my mother… well, she was dead and mute. And I loved those see-through tights, in all their patterns and types.
Then I really grew up. I grew up several times, in fact. The first time was when my mother died and I stopped playing. The second was when I started going to school by myself, then taking my brother there, holding his little hand in mine, like it was God’s comforting hand. The third time was when I started to go to the market. Eventually, I had to grow up so I could go to university. When I reached out to grab the novel L’Amant, that was the end of my affair with tights. Whenever I bought schoolbooks, I would snatch some novels too.
I didn’t need to steal anything else. For me, the novels were enough. And they helped me escape the vacant look in my father’s eyes and my brother’s absence now that he’d moved on to football pitches. And I kept growing. I got used to these lumps and bumps on my body until they began to feel like a part of me. No one would believe that they were extra bits of flesh that a child shouldn’t really have, because she didn’t play enough. The fear grew too. That tantalizing fear that would settle inside me as I trembled whenever I tried on the tights in the early days, then later when I curled up in bed to read the novels.
Then I grew up again—I now understand that we always move forward in life. I grew up, stopped stealing novels, and now I steal lives instead. I walk slowly and smile at the children and at the sky and the river that sneaks a kiss from me every time I pass it. Kisses not only from the river. Once, a woman struggling to catch her breath pleaded, “Don’t take my husband away from me.” I had to stare at her for a long time, and to find a little compassion. I can steal anything, and your husband is not a thing, I wanted to tell her as I stripped myself of fear, peeling it off me like orange rind and hurling it at that woman’s face and at all the people watching the shameful scene. But I am not scandalous, I wanted to scream. I am a little girl playing.
You Will Also Leave
I was getting ready for bed, having one of those moments when you can’t help but recall the details of your day. At that moment, I remembered how I had seen the boss pick his nose with the same hand he later touched me with.
Like I told you, I was waiting to get to sleep, lying on my single bed, since we weren’t married yet. You hadn’t found a job. My wages weren’t enough to support the two of us, so I gave it to my family—my father, my mother, and my younger brothers. I was in bed, the one I told you about—an old bed my uncle slept in before he got married and left, which my sister then slept on before she got married and moved. I’ve been sleeping here for ten years.
I’ve loved two before you. The first one was just having some fun with me while he waited for repentance—the repentance that God blessed him with after he nearly died in an accident. After that, he married his aunt’s daughter—a virgin. The second one was having a bit of fun with me while he waited to catch a boat to Europe. The boat came and went, and all news of him was cut off. His sister, who works with me at the sewing factory, told me that they found him on the other shore. A blonde girl in a bikini found him. His body had gone grey, barely covered by some tattered clothes. If he had only known that the blonde had been gracious enough to squeeze out a couple of tears in his memory, he would have been beset with joy. He always dreamed of having a blonde lover!
Anyway, I was in bed. I’d taken off my makeup. I know you like it when I line my eyes in kohl. My boss at the workshop likes lipstick. I’m hiding the traces of time…. I’d washed my face and my hands too. I’d even cooked and eaten dinner, then I washed the dishes and thought about sleep.
It’s definitely a bad idea to think about sleep, because then other thoughts will creep in. They’ll clamber onto the old bed, sneak under the covers raised over your head. They’ll crawl across your face so that you won’t be able to resist itching your cheek with your right hand. Then it’ll force your eyes open… that’s when you remember the way he grabbed your hand.
No, no, you won’t remember. Maybe you won’t even pay attention to the finger that was picking the nose. Maybe all you care about are that man’s promises to find you an easier job that pays better. Admit it. Yes, I’m the same: I only thought about my new job.
Anyway, I was wide awake by now. I went to the toilet, facing the old mirror, and washed my hands over and over. I washed them with bleach—you know how it sanitizes everything. That’s what you told me when you came inside me, after you forgot to pull out in time. I hadn’t wanted us to sleep together. Those two others I loved before you, when I gave myself up to them—I mean my body—they left.
But you won’t leave. You love me; you swore it to me behind the fence outside the mosque. You were heading to the Friday prayers, and so I believed you, even when I saw you grow your beard, and when you asked me not to use kohl, and when I saw you put your hand in the hand of the esteemed man….
Never mind—life can cope with these twists and turns. By this, I mean: this separation. You’re now in Iraq. Our geography teacher used to point it out to us on the map—do you remember? We weren’t very conscientious students. You know, you were always busy with your football and the dirhams that you got from carrying people’s shopping bags in the market by the school, and I was busy with my sewing. “Sewing will keep you fed and watered,” my mother used to say to me.
I haven’t eaten or drunk anything or even washed in two days. The interrogator said to me (he didn’t just say this, of course, you know: he yelled, hollered, and bellowed. Interrogators don’t just speak, and they don’t ask): “How do you know Saeed?”
“I don’t know him. I mean, yes, sir, I know him. He’s the father of my son, who’s growing inside me. The bleach didn’t work. He doesn’t know that. He traveled before I found out I was pregnant.”
“I asked you where you know him from. Since when?”
“But I don’t know, sir. We were raised together. Maybe his mother nursed me. Maybe my mother nursed him. He used to like to steal my notebooks and pens at school.”
Sometimes he’d hit me if I came home late. I don’t know how long I’ve known him for, and where from. I’ve always known him, like I know myself.
They released me yesterday, Saeed. You know, I was forced to tell them about the last time we met—you remember it, of course—at the park. You told me that I was an infidel and a whore and that you were going to a place where heaven awaited you. I know: there are girls with huge, beautiful eyes; there are rivers of wine; there are grapes and boys… I know. I know that you love the neighbor’s boy, the one with the golden hair and the wide eyes. But I didn’t tell them everything: I didn’t tell them about the manager’s finger that was up his nose, about his hand that passed over my hand, then between my legs. There’s no need for them to know all the details now… I’ll tell you all about them in heaven. We’ll meet there—isn’t that so?
Fatima Zohra Rghioui is a Moroccan writer born in 1974. She has published three short story collections, including A Jilbab for Everyone, I Place My Secret in Your Hands, and Five Dances a Day, in addition to a book of correspondence with the Palestinian writer Ahlam Bisharat called If They Cross My Mind Then They’re Just Thoughts.
Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, editor, and literary translator. Her translations include After Coffee, by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi, and Shatila Stories, a collaborative novel by nine refugee writers. She is the co-translator of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and is a contributing editor of ArabLit Quarterly.