Translated by NARIMAN YOUSSEF
The pores of life are clogged in this room. Making it difficult to breathe. There’s a hanging smell of death that’s impossible to miss. Visitors are unnerved by it. Except those visitors whose nerves have been hardened by the tedium of their dutiful weekly visits to the woman at the far end of the room: boredom and emptiness compressed into no more than half an hour.
There’s a TV fixed to the wall. On its screen, men with toned muscles have been jumping around since yesterday. Now there are women running a hurdles race. They jump high and don’t break any bones. On one side of the room, a pair of eyes moves left and right, with nothing to watch but the white wall. On the other side, another pair of eyes follows the screen and waits for the daily soap, and a heart quickens with every push on the buttons of the remote control. So many buttons and so many hands that press them.
It amuses her to think that she has a lot in common with that TV screen. Neither is short of buttons for others to press. Hers raise the bed, lower it, squeeze food paste out of a tube that feeds her. A green button on the remote occasionally allows her a glimpse of light and life, a space for gratitude. As long as her view isn’t blocked by a slow-moving nurse.
What’s taking her so long? Damn! How slow can she be? And why does she have to start washing me just as the soap opera is about to start. For twenty minutes now she’s been telling her friend about last night’s party. What she ate and didn’t eat. Who was wearing revealing clothes and who was dressed like a saint. And I have to listen to her and endure her spittle on my face and her heavy hand wiping it away. I wish she would look at my face even once while she kneads it like dough, rearranging its features. My worst fear: I’m about to miss another scene from the show. It’s the one window left for me to look out on life, and the bitch won’t even let me have that. She’s still blocking my view with her massive figure and her round belly. Has she lost some weight, though? Maybe. She still has a big ass. Come on, move your ass for heaven’s sake! I despise big asses. If only my foot would obey me, I’d have kicked hers. I swear to God!
He, on the other hand, always liked a big ass. Still does, I’m sure. Why would that have changed?
Big ass or not, the large window to the right of her bed lets in enough light to obscure part of the screen anyway. She has no idea what’s outside that window, but has a feeling it must be beautiful. The gentle sounds of morning tell her that. Most probably, some hidden garden that holds the stories of lovers and solitude seekers. The curtains imply it too, adorned as they are by butterflies in a variety of colors and sizes. The dead butterflies bring solace to the women lying helpless in their beds. There are two long-term patients in this room. The other is a younger woman whose face she can’t turn to see. Sometimes, when a lazy nurse lets the bedcover fold carelessly, she catches a glimpse of pale toes in her peripheral vision. They’re different from her own, which she still remembers from back before she was turned on her back like a tortoise, never to get up again.
It’s been years since he touched her toes. If he only knew how cold they are.
It’s been five years, and she’s still not dead enough to be buried and dismissed from the world of the living. Though she hears the death rattle with the mucus they pull from the tube in her nose. She wishes one of the tired nurses would find the courage to press something, block something, and release the fragrance of annihilation and gratitude into the hospital’s corridors. But they reserve their sacred courage for turning her from side to side and cleaning her secretions, in the manner they must have practiced on lifeless dolls in nursing school. She is well-suited for such sacred tasks. A doll with barely any life.
For five years she has been forced to follow the conversations of nurses and medics. By now she has the equivalent of half a nursing degree, half a doctor’s degree, and an accurate understanding of her diagnosis. It was a rare virus that attacked her one morning and dragged her to the edge of the abyss of death, then left her hanging there. With a breathing ventilator, a hole in her throat, a feeding tube, and a bed that is bare of everything except a friendly whir that seems to pity her helplessness. Her heart beats still. But her head is failing many of its functions.
“Irreversible damage.” The phrase makes her laugh. She remembers how many times she told her children that all damage could be reversed: their toys strewn across the room, their average grades, a bad haircut, sunburn. Damaged organs did not occur to her as she flitted between them like a busy bee and collapsed at the end of each day next to a husband at the peak of his virility.
She listens and watches and remembers and forgets. She leaves questions hanging. Others answer on her behalf with what they know about her past and stagnant present.
“Same as she was yesterday, a year ago, five years ago. She will stay the same, unless you’re waiting for a miracle. Personally, I believe in medical statistics. I don’t let myself be distracted by what the one up in heaven might or might not be planning. But I wouldn’t deny you the right to believe in miracles.”
The doctor standing by the bed talks to her husband, chuckles lightly, scribbles his rehashed notes into her file, pinches one young nurse, and winks to another. Shameless creep. He never passes an opportunity to harass the nurses. They rarely object. Especially the fat ones and new ones. But when it comes to her, he has only ever pinched her cheek twice, to test her responsiveness. Just another medical statistic.
For years her husband has been waiting for a miracle. He would have made peace with the boredom that had started to seep into their lives after ten years of marriage and three children. He would have searched her body for something to excite him even as she placed her femininity on a kitchen shelf each morning and left it there as she went through the chores of the day. The never-ending chores of the day. Tired and yawning, she would have dragged them along to the marital bed and fallen asleep telling the man lying beside her about her struggles with the kids, while he found solace in a wild fantasy featuring their neighbor, the widow with the big ass. He would have found a way to hold on to the memory of the great love that had brought them together and then settled in marriage like a calm lake. He would have, beyond doubt, listened to her talk about work and the children with some empathy. In all cases, that monotonous life would have been more of a life that the death-smell of this room.
A week ago, his eyes told her of another miracle altogether, one she had been denying until he stopped bothering to hide it.
“I’m tired,” they said. “Very tired. I can’t take this anymore. Why don’t you just leave this world? Leave as quietly as you’re lying here. No one will notice the difference. I’m hanging, like you, between death and near-death, and it’s not fair. Nothing is the same. You don’t resemble anything like you.”
My kids don’t recognize me either, the bastards! Why don’t they look at my face? I miss their eyes, how they lit up as they told me the details of their day. Little Lana, I miss her smell. Aaaah! She used to trace my face with her little fingers, kiss every inch of it. Now she’s too busy drawing butterflies in the little sketchpad that she always brings with her, never looks at my face. Sometimes she pays attention to my toes; she tickles them like they don’t belong to me. If I could only sniff her toes. Or bite them! Oh, God, how she has grown!
“Your kids barely remember your name. I drag them here once a month. Drag them, yes! Do you have any idea how hard I have it, persuading them to come with me? ‘Just fifteen minutes to see your mum,’ I say! Their eyes mock me. ‘Our mum? That woman sleeping on her back like a corpse belongs in history books.’ That’s what their eyes tell me. And I can’t help but understand. The passing days are erasing their memories of you. They’re no longer the small children they used to be. What do you know about them now? You’ll never be there for their first loves, their graduations, or their marriages. That’s a fact. I’m not being cruel. I’m just tired. Very tired.”
And you? What do you know about them? Do you really understand the language of their eyes the way I do? Do you know how much salt each of them likes in their food? Saeed likes to wait for his food to cool down, Sawsan likes to eat in a clear glass dish, and Lana likes the red plate. Do you still have the red plate, or did you break it while making their school lunch one morning? What about my red nightie? I bet you’ve forgotten about that too. You used to like it, but I had stopped wearing it anyway. Three births had used up my femininity, ruined it even. Do you ever dream of me? I caress your hair every night, before you fall asleep on my shoulder.
The nurse switches off the TV and walks out, leaving the black screen hanging in the middle of the room. She wants to let the two patients rest their eyes, and to preserve their ears for the gossip of the night shift. This pressing silence in the room, save for the hum of the machines, leaves the two women in their beds plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of life, or the futility of a pseudo-life viewed from one fixed angle, out of which you might occasionally glimpse the toes of your ward roommate.
She feels like a genie in a bottle. Except she won’t be saved by a sailor or carried by the sea. Her desires shifted gradually from survival to death, then settled on just existing. Existing with no questions about the meaning of living, no signs from the Creator, no hidden messages in the pain of the experience. The existence of someone witnessing life from the sidelines. She populates her sideline view with the daily soaps she follows, finishing one and starting another. She would miss scenes and whole episodes due to the visits of doctors, nurses, cleaners, or family members, as well as sudden deaths in the hospital that would jolt her for moments and drive her to sleep for days. Eventually she has turned those missed parts into a game. She steps back into whatever show she’s following with confidence, turning the plot upside down, confusing the protagonists about their own roles.
He comes to visit one evening when she’s not expecting him, after having been away for a week. He stands by her and, for a long time, looks into her eyes.
“What would you have done?” he finally asks. “Everything has changed. A year, then two, then five! Can you imagine? And these dreadful machines! And the smell! The smell of death is killing me. Please leave quietly. I’m forty-four. My life is passing me by. I beg you to just leave. The kids are growing. and I’m wasting my days between work and home and hospital. Every time I visit you, I leave with the smell of death clinging to my shirt. It’s unbearable! I find it even in my bed. It’s no longer a bed but a theater for a sick imagination. Or a breathing grave. Do I ever dream of you? So many times, I fell asleep with your hand on my chest, only to wake up and find it has become a severed hand. A dead hand. It’s all dead.”
I was waiting for the daily soap before you came. Today is the last episode. Though I might have already missed it because of the slow-moving nurse. You ask about my hand? You can take it. I don’t really have any use for it anymore.
He turns his back to her and leaves. She sees a soft hand brush over his hair, then fall to his shoulder to console him, dragging him outside and away. A victorious woman’s eyes look to her from beyond the door. Was that her own severed hand she saw? She’ll find out tomorrow when the nurse lifts her arms as she cleans her upturned-tortoise body.
Why don’t you kiss me? You haven’t even touched my hand.
Put your hand on my face.
I’m cold. I’m scared of the dark.
Who drew the curtain? Is it night already?
By the threads of light left in the day, she glimpses a butterfly slipping through the open window and landing on the curtain. Into a dead sister’s embrace.
Sheikha Hussein Helawy was born in 1968 in Ar-rai Dhil al-Araj, a derecognized Bedouin village in the Haifa district, which was demolished by the Israeli authorities in 1990. She studied at Catholic schools in Haifa before moving to Jaffa. She holds a master’s degree in Arabic and is currently working on a PhD thesis. Helawy writes poetry and short stories, and the English translations of her work have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, including Granta, Boston Review, Bellingham Review, and Best Small Fictions 2020. Her short story collection Order C345 won AlMultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story.
Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born literary translator based in London. She manages an Arabic translation team part-time at the British Library, and has led and curated translation workshops with Shadow Heroes, Shubbak Festival and Africa Writes. Her recent translations include Mo(a)t: Stories from Arabic, Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, and contributions to publications like The Common, ArabLit Quarterly, and Words Without Borders. Nariman holds a master’s degree in translation studies from the University of Edinburgh.