The whole city gave up on sleep that night. Explosions sealed up ears and filled the city sky, turning the anticipated weekend into a nightmare. Then Monday came and the shelling calmed, so I goaded my body out of the apartment and down to the empty street. I headed in the direction of the office, not because I was expected there, but to pretend that there was still life not far beyond my reach. As I drove through deserted streets, I felt as though I was descending into a vast cavern beneath the earth, like the hollow of the old well in our village home. It had once swallowed me and thrown me into hidden depths until I swallowed the water of my death and the emptiness inside my skull. Now the bones of my skull had become loosened by the deep booms of the shelling and felt disjointed like the skeleton of the old house.The whole city seemed to me like a bottomless well that day and what seized me was my childhood fear that Mother would fulfill her threat and "take care of me" in the water of the well if I wasn't a good girl.
The scene replayed itself before me.
She drags me by my hair to the edge of the well, lifts the lid, and points inside. "I'll throw you in there," she says, and her finger pointing into the darkness flings my heart right into the well, making it sink deeper and deeper inside. After that, each time the lid was taken off for a cleaning, my heart would slip away from me once again. It would scramble into the house and I would hurry inside, following the path of my heartbeats.
The streets titillated me and summoned me outside to peer into the secrets of their hollows. It was the same as when Mother would be away and my fear of the well at my childhood home would move me to seek what was hidden under its lid. Gazing into the darkness with my face fixed at the water's surface, I would lose myself in the dread and pleasure of finding secrets. I would stare at the water's unbroken darkness interrupted only by the reflection of one narrow beam of light. Then I would lift my head a little, move it right then left, to watch it sway before me inside the water.
Father dug the well more than sixty years ago, before water ran to the village homes. The cover of the well kept changing with time. It took on numerous shapes before finally assuming the form of a tile that lay at the level of the courtyard floor. In the beginning, the mouth of the well had been covered with the lid of a barrel that was set aside each time water was being raised. Then Father replaced the lid with a piece of tin that he cut to be larger than the opening after my cousin Halima fell inside.
The well had been left open that morning. Mother was crossing the courtyard when she glanced toward the well and saw a small pair of legs disappear inside, then heard a splash below. She thought it was my sister Zainab.
She screamed at the top of her lungs, "Oh my God. She's gone. The girl is gone." She tore the scarf off her head and started pulling her hair out with her hands. The women and men of the neighborhood raced into the courtyard after hearing her screams to stop her from throwing herself after her daughter. My uncle and his wife ran upstairs. They lived in a little room on the lower level with a window overlooking the valley. My uncle's wife started wailing passionately in a shrill voice. She snatched Mother's veil, and began to wrench and wave it through the air, telling her in a dirgeful rhythm: "Ya Fatima, you wretched thing. Ya Fatima, you miserable thing. Ya Fatima, you unfortunate thing. Ya Fatima, you've already enough misery and misfortune. Ya Fatima, may God give you patience." Her husband, my uncle Daoud, who was a strong swimmer and had served in the French army during the World War, dove into the water with shirt and pants on. He pulled the struggling girl out of the water and folded her body around his neck like a scarf. The men gathered around and pulled him out with a thick rope, circled several times around his wrist.
The surprise came once the rescue was complete and the girl slid down from his shoulders. Mother was mute with shock, and my uncle, trembling from the cold water soaking his clothes, looked down incredulously at his own daughter. As for his wife, her wailing suddenly halted and transformed into something like the howl of a siren, "That's you, ya Halima, when all this time I thought it was Zainab, you miserable little thing? How did you get yourself in that water, you wretched dog?"
She lunged at her daughter to beat her but they held her back. Lying on the ground, the little girl shivered from cold and fear, and the big black eyes in her round brown face froze at the sight of her mother's rage. Halima had to be turned over and her belly emptied of the water and secrets she had swallowed.
Then the cover of the well changed again into a concrete slab, but the new shape did not change my fears.
Ever since that day, the threshold of the well sends a certain trepidation creeping through me, a different kind of fear than death by water. According to Mother, the lady jinns were only comfortable sitting at the very mouth of the well, the place where lie the secrets of the unknown world. I inherited this fear of the unknown, of wells and thresholds, from Mother ever since we gathered around her as children to listen to the stories of the lady jinns. She would caution us, my sisters and me, to take refuge in God in every step we took and to always say: "In the name of God, the Kind and Merciful." She warned us that it was not enough to whisper the words in our hearts, because only loud voices were heard by the jinns and kept them away. She said to call on God every time we approached the threshold of the well or crossed into the house, or the bathroom, or any other kind of threshold, especially if it led to water, or any kind of hole that could fill up with water or in which water was used.
And when I used to ask her, "But why is that, Mother?" she would say, "Because they like to sit with their children on thresholds and in places where there is water."
"They. I mean, 'In the name of God, the Kind and Merciful.' You should never say their name or you'll be possessed by one of them. Say 'they' or 'her' or 'In the name of God, the Kind and Merciful' and they'll hear you and know that you're talking about them."
I heed her advice to this day and take refuge in God, as she always did, whenever I cross any kind of threshold. She would call on God whenever she turned on the hot water tap at the sink, just in case "In the name of God, the Kind and Merciful" was sitting there. Mother would make sure to give "her" fair warning so "she" would not get burnt, and God help Mother should "her" child be hurt, because the retaliation would surely be much graver than the offense. And so Mother would always call on God, even as she poured the dirty water down the toilet after washing the floor.
All thresholds led to secrets that frightened Mother. Any crossing or change signaled to her the possibility of arriving at the unknown. Mother often swore to us that she had seen "her" more than once, "With my own eyes, I saw her," she used to say, "believe these eyes of mine, which will be eaten one day by the worms of misfortune." She would see "her" standing at the threshold of the well whenever she woke up in the middle of the night and crossed the courtyard to relieve herself in a remote place.
And there "she" would be standing, flesh and blood and wild hair, at the mouth of the village well. Mother would see "her" brown eyes shimmering under the moonless sky. But it was after what happened to my sister Zainab that she became truly convinced that "In the name of God, the Kind and Merciful" sat at the edge of our well.
That morning, Mother had just finished baking and her round face was as red and warm as the loaves she had just made. Before she went down to the field to help Father harvest the wheat, she appointed Zainab watchguard of the fresh bread. Zainab was to make sure that none of the other children would steal the bread before she got back.
"Ya Zainab, be careful," she instructed her sternly, "God help you if I get back and find even one loaf missing. I nearly killed myself kneading and baking. You wait till I get back and I'll feed you. I know what big stomachs you all have. Each one of you needs ten loaves to fill up."
We knew why she was so protective of the bread. She would have to wake up before daylight to finish the kneading, then wait for the dough to rise and start baking at dawn. She would sit on the floor with her legs open, flatten the dough with her hands on the wooden board in front of her, then toss and turn each loaf between her hands until it became a wide slim circle before throwing it lightly on the flat oven.
My sister prepared to carry out Mother's orders and stand guard over the bread for fear of punishment. But my older brother Ahmad slipped by her, stole some loaves, and escaped down the valley to eat them there. My sister ran after him, but he was faster and soon disappeared from her sight. He devoured the loaves in the orchard, while back at the house, fear devoured my sister. When Mother returned and heard about my brother's "big belly," she broke into a rage and ran after my sister to thrash her. But before Mother's hand could reach her hair to tear it out, Zainab fell at the threshold of the well and blood oozed from the back of her head. The ground coffee pressed to the cut could not stop the blood's flow, and neither could Sayyed Ali's readings, which were said to heal the ill, bring her back to consciousness. Zainab kept pushing toward the outer gate of the house, lunging in that direction, while everybody held her still. She cried out, saying she wanted to go to her mother, her brothers and sisters, and her home.
Mother became hysterical and almost fainted out of fear for Zainab. She held her and sobbed, "This is your house, my child, and I am your mother, may you live to bury me, you grass of my soul." But my sister answered with fire flashing in her eyes, "No, you're not my mother. My mother is there, far away. My brothers and sisters are there. I want to go to them, they're waiting."
"I am your mother, and you, you are the first candle that lit this home. I am Fatima, your mother."
"No, you are not my mother. You, your name is Khadija," she said, "My mother is Fatima. She's waiting for me over there." Listening to her, Mother wept until she fainted.
She stood vigil at my sister's side day and night, hugging her close so Zainab knew that it was she, her mother, holding her and not the other one waiting over there. Mother hugged my sister, her arm covering the short distance between her young breast and neck, while her stomach pressed firmly against Zainab's waist to keep her from running to her other mother.
She cried and cursed herself and kept damning the hour she chased after her until Zainab regained her senses. Mother told everybody the story, swearing that it wasn't she who hurt Zainab, that it was "In the name of God, the Kind and Merciful," who had been sitting at the edge of the well. She convinced everybody, including herself, by telling the same story each time without adding or changing anything. To wrap up the story, she would press the tips of her fingers together and make a dot in the air, as if putting a period at the end of a sentence.
"And this is the truth, as truly as you see me and I see you this minute," she would say. "Because 'she' had slipped and fallen at the edge of the well, she got up and pushed my daughter until she opened her head. God help us."
Years later, whenever we would visit the village in the summer, we saw everything the way Mother told us. With time, we learned to see with her eyes because we were certain that her eyes never lied. Like Mother, we would catch a glimpse of the lady jinn. Mother's stories had to be believed, because otherwise, her faith would be shaken and her fears would grow. "God watches and sees everything," Mother used to say, "and He will make sure she gets her due."
Mother believed that she was the wronged one in all things, because the ways of right and wrong were clear to her. If she had the slightest doubt, she would go to the sheikh and he would advise her on what she needed to do. With Father, she would ask his permission first for everything, since that is how he had "disciplined" her from the very beginning.
When they first got married, she would ask him how much she should bake, and if she wanted to have a new dress made, he would have to give his consent before she could go to the village seamstress. Otherwise, he would give her a beating to set her straight, as he often did when she was still a young bride. One time, she wore a new slip for him that hung loose and fell to the knees. When she lifted her dress and he saw the slip, he asked her:
"Where did you get that from?"
"I had it made by the seamstress, Manahel."
"And why didn't you ask me first?"
"Because the old one was worn out."
And he wore her out with a beating so she would never make another slip without his permission. Later on, he explained, as he made up with her, "You see, Um Ahmad, it's for taking off, anyways, not for wearing. If no one other than me is going to see it, what's it for? Worn out or new, what do I care?"
Later, Mother told Alawiyya the story of Zainab's accident. She leaned closer to her and, putting a hand in Alawiyya's lap, she whispered, "Each one of us has a double, my child. It was probably my daughter's double who made Zainab fall and hit her head on the edge of the well. Why else would Zainab's head have opened just like 'hers'?"
Mother heaved her heavy frame from the sofa and moved with weighty steps into the kitchen. A sadness dimmed Alawiyya's face, and when she spoke, she stared like Mother into nothing:
"Do you think Zuhair is my double? When I made him lose his mind at the end of the story, the novel was lost too. How else can you explain that it got lost when he lost his mind?"
Did Mother invent stories to believe in them? And did Alawiyya also invent the end of her story in order to believe in it? I am not certain about Mother's motive, but I know that she spoke to me plenty about her fear of wells, and that I too am afraid of the edges of water and of empty spaces.
I can still remember my fear when I saw Mother's eyes disappear into the hollows of two wells in her aged face. I stood in front of her. I looked at the color of her face and saw that it had come to resemble the soil in which she was about to be buried. Her closed eyes, surrendered to the final absence, were different from when they closed to open again. They were no longer Mother's eyes. Had they become Grandmother's? Mother's eyes used to be surrounded by fleshy, generous lids. Then suddenly around them appeared two deep hollows that swallowed her eyes as soon as the curtains of the eyelids were drawn over life. As I sat next to her body saying my final farewell, her eyes sank deeper and deeper with the night. She had faded into the hollows of her eyes and could no longer see me. Her eyes were lost to me.
For two days the constant shelling had held my breath captive in my chest. When I left the apartment that morning, I felt that I was descending into a dark space filled with water, like the water in our village well that spoke to me of the dark circles of absence around Mother's eyes.
The chill in my body seemed natural, but my lungs felt lonesome in the seclusion of my chest.
My eyes, which I thought had been lost on the roads and drowned just as Mother's, returned to me when I saw Abbas and a fire rekindled in my veins, softening the chill of my dim shadow.
Abbas was alone at the office.
The firm, which was owned by a well-known lawyer, was supposed to give us some experience before practicing law on our own. But jobs are merely titles during times of war. So Abbas arranged a second job monitoring prices for one of the ministries. There, too, supervision was slack and he would get paid at the end of the month whether he went or not.
As soon as I walked in, he remarked casually that his head was killing him and complained that even a cup of coffee might not be enough to take care of the headache. With overly profuse courtesy, he asked me to make him a big pot of coffee, since the woman who came every morning to clean and to wait on the employees had not yet arrived.
I walked into the small kitchen to find the sink full of dirty cups and glasses. While the coffee brewed on the stove, I washed two coffee cups and a little plate to cover the pot. I wiped the tray with a napkin and carried it to the office where Abbas sat waiting at his desk for the coffee that would thaw his frozen mind.
I sat on the chair in front of him and poured the coffee into the cups. I asked him how he had spent the night during the shelling. I don't remember what he answered, or if I even heard what he said. I remember that it was the first time we had talked about ourselves. He did not talk about his wife or his children, and I did not tell him about my past relationships. He just said he was tired, and I said I was too.
We talked without thinking about what we were saying, something that resembled children's talk. He said he missed falling asleep on a wooden bench in a beautiful park full of flowers, trees, and the songs of birds. He said he wished he could still lie on his back and look up to the sky and sleep, sleep and dream, then wake up and find out that this park was Lebanon, and I said, "Yes, me too."
He didn't ask if I was involved with anybody, and at that moment I didn't think about the fact that he was a married man. Suddenly, as I got up from the chair, "You know what? I feel like loving," I said. "Is this talking dirty?" I looked at him, smiling.
He laughed with me and said, "No. Love has to be dirty." And when I asked, "Why?" he didn't answer. So I talked about my loneliness, and how I felt vulnerable and violated. I didn't say any of this with the intention of exciting him. But little did I know that I was turning in my keys, entrusting them to him without stopping for a moment to ask "Why him?" Was it a coincidence? Or was it that in this city that toyed with everything including lives, everything could start as a child's game?
As I spoke, the exhaustion was visible on Abbas's face and he looked older. He felt like a father to me even though he was my age and I had said things to him that a girl would not say in front of her father. Although I spoke innocently, the room filled with a musky ripeness. For the first time, I noticed the little wrinkles around his small round eyes, his pallid skin, and the full black beard covering his thick lips.
So I transformed his frail arms in my mind to the muscular arms of an athletic man and I imagined that his long ears were invisible behind his earlocks. Beside him my short and thin frame felt even smaller, the size of a pistachio nut. It was as if I were Maryam, but another Maryam. I could turn over his hand that was stretched on the table and sit in his palm like a little bird.
When I drew close to him to pour his coffee, he raised his eyes from the desk to the ceiling and stretched out his hand to stroke the warmth between my thighs. Without looking at what he was touching, he was reaching the dark recesses of my body and opening up new spaces. He kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling as if he didn't want to see what he was doing, the spaces hidden beyond the barrier of my skin under his hand.
A thick sweat seeped from within me, from the openings and pores of my body, and clung to my skin. It was unlike normal sweat. It stuck like oil, and I wiped it from my face, neck, and arm all the way down to my wrist.
While Abbas's hand played with me as if with the thighs of a doll, I grew fond of the game and began to go along. All my life, I never let myself play; I no longer asked for much. But at that moment I was not thinking, I played with my body as we did with the wounded city . . .
There's nothing like playing to escape death.
When he reached out to me, the heat of his hands changed oil to water, and it dripped to the floor. It was not the water of wells but of seas that met a distant sky stretching far above his gaze. Silently, he stroked my thighs, and my legs responded as if they wanted to learn to walk all over again. I imagined him standing close by, poised to catch me if I fell to the floor.
But Abbas did not imagine any of this.
He entered the well between my thighs, floated, and swallowed the fear of leaving the water inside me, or the fear that he may never leave again.
There's nothing like playing to escape death.
What began as a diversion ended in love. Seeing him every Sunday became a thirst and a hunger that fed the hollows in my body, until the world redeemed itself in my eyes as a few warm secrets. I merged into his mass until my isolation vanished with the loneliness of my shadow. Because this shadow had limits in his life, the limits tempted me. What I wanted was "a real man, not the shadow of a wall," as women say in Egyptian movies. I wanted someone from whom to draw the illusion of anticipation and virile secrets, a companion for once a week, who would always be passing through my life. As for him, my weakness was all he wanted from me. He had found in my loneliness the key to my body.
Even though I met him every Sunday, he would become enraged if I left the house without his permission to see Alawiyya, Ibtisam, or any of my friends. Every Sunday, he fled from his wife and the tedium of his home to indulge in my dependence on him. That was Abbas. He needed me to be the eyes in which to draw the picture he imagined of himself.
These Sundays pass slowly without Abbas, and I am condemned to the world of family gatherings and the formal visits that I have always detested.
Now, the fava bean breakfast is the highlight of my Sundays, not because it reminds me of the fava beans I ate with Abbas during the Sundays of the war, but because it reminds me of Mother. Its smell in the morning reminds me of Mother and the Sundays that we dedicated more to the mashed fava bean dish than the fact of our being together.
Mother and the rest of the family treated Sunday breakfast as an opportunity to satisfy some timeless hunger. Like frenzied little birds, we snatched the food from her. There were nine of us children, Mother, Father, and all the visitors who had appeared unannounced that morning. They were lucky, those guests whose mothers-in-law must have finally remembered them in their prayers.
Round flat thyme pies stood in a tower on a platter beside the large bowl of mashed fava beans that Mother had prepared from scratch. She cooked the beans slowly through several stages, each of which had a special name. When the beans softened, she called it a hallouta, and when it fell apart, she called it tiryak, or even better, she described it as the "moon of all time." Her face would brighten at the ripe fullness of "the moon" as she held up a steaming bean between fingers that had become so hardened and dry with the laundry and hot dishwater that the skin had become numb to fire itself. She would blow a little on the bean, then pop it into her cool mouth, to be sure that it literally melted on the tongue. The beans would start cooking at dawn when she rose for the early prayer and simmer all morning, "God's blessing on the Prophet."
For a few moments the food looked abundant, but it soon transformed into a scattering of unwanted scraps. Mother would spread a big plastic sheet in the middle of the living room floor where we would all gather around. A satisfied smile would spread across Mother's face as bowls and plates were spread on the sheet. Her eyes watched vigilantly to make sure that the piece of bread reaching for the large platter would be big enough for a heap of fava beans, fried eggs, or raw pounded meat to sit comfortably on it. Nothing angered her as much as when she spied one of us daintily eating undersized mouthfuls. She would not hesitate to nudge whoever was sitting next to her, and say, "Make your hunks bigger or you'll never fill up your bottomless pit of a belly." Or she would yell the same to those of us sitting far across from her, and when no one would listen, she would lift her eyes to the heavens and say, "God, you hear and see everything. You are the witness for those who give and those who refuse what they're given."
Mother complained that our hands would never reach first for the beans, nor for the thyme pies, or the vegetable dish. Even though we lived in a country blessed with green, the plate of vegetables was always neglected. First to go was the plate of raw spleen that Mother would dice into little cubes to be sure there was enough to go around. As soon as eyes caught sight of the little black diamonds, the most valuable of edible jewels on the sheet, hands reached out swiftly and snatched them up. Left with only streaks of red blood on the plate, Mother would retreat into silence until someone noticed and asked what was wrong.
She was always the last to join us, which is why she was always left with the scraps that we did not want. She would tarry on purpose. As soon as we would gather on the floor, she would start shuttling back and forth to the kitchen or the bedroom for no reason. Something in her body compelled her to avoid the food. I noticed that this happened whenever there was any meat being served. If meat were served as a stew, she would sit down and eat with us without any anxiety. But when a proper meat dish was served, she would come and go nervously until we called out to her and invited her to eat. It was as though she was not entitled to eat like the rest of us without an explicit invitation. For some reason she felt most comfortable eating in secret, but she would always say, "No, I'm not hungry. I don't know why people are such gluttons. Look how my stomach is stuck to my back. I would sooner die than make myself eat like that." I would listen to her and look at her paunch that did not seem stuck to her back.
The words "not hungry" were heard from her only when there was a meat dish served.
"Come on, Mother, we're waiting for you."
"You go ahead, I'm not hungry."
"Why don't you come sit? What are you still doing?"
"Coming, coming. Just a minute."
She cast quick glances in our direction yet avoided our eyes. She hovered around busily, waiting for us to urge and plead with her to join us. She would only come after all of us had begged her repeatedly, if the food was "at the level of meat." She considered meat a luxury, an indulgence for which she needed to excuse herself.
I used to hate the holidays on which we grilled meat because it was certain that Mother was going to be troubled and ill at ease. Eventually, she would get irritable and pick a fight either with Father or one of us. Sometimes, she would confront us angrily, saying we didn't remember her at lunch with even a little piece of spleen or a skewer of grilled meat.
"I'm not eating any more. You all eat and fill up."
"Why were you late then?"
"Cause I'm not hungry."
"Not hungry? How can you be not hungry? Why did you get mad then?"
"I got mad because why could none of you remember me with a little piece of meat? Oh God, you hear and see everything. You are the witness for those who give and those who don't."
She would keep stalling and join us only after she was certain that she had been wronged. Once she was certain, she was satisfied. But her indignation at not being offered even a single piece of meat did not make us feel guilty because she never threatened to die if she didn't have her fair share. But we did feel guilty should one of us reach for the heart of the onion, the heart which had to be saved for her while contenting ourselves with the outer layers so our Mother would not die.
Since we were kids, we learned to avoid eating the heart. I remember very well how she warned us against it. The layers of the onion and its heart lay next to the pounded meat on the plate. Mother's mouth watered as she stared at the soft heart sitting next to the hard shells. Before anybody's hand could reach for the heart, she said:
"Children, never eat the heart of the onion."
"Why not, Mother?"
"If you eat the heart of the onion, your mother dies."
"Of course, or do you want me to die?"
"No," we answered.
"Then never eat the heart of the onion or else I'll die."
And since then, the heart of the onion has been Mother's. She delights in the crushing sound it makes between her teeth, as we delight in knowing that our mother will not die.
All my life until Mother died and ever since then, I have avoided eating the heart of the onion. I let it glow in my eyes with the memories of Mother. When I reach the heart, I put it aside so Mother will not die all over again.
Although it has been years since Mother died, the heart of the onion still reminds me of her Sunday morning fava bean feasts and her delicate heart. After she died, I began liking grilled meat, raw spleen, and fava beans, even though before I had always refused to taste any of them. I came to desire the foods that she had craved, as though I could conjure her through my cravings and fill the absence she left behind. A nagging feeling makes me go early in the morning to a famous fava bean shop, and the smell of their homemade recipe leads me to the lost scent of her hands.
These aromas will perish from memory when I fly away to Canada, just as when I emigrate, I will take with me the sweet fragrance of the last grape in the bunch. My scent will fade from the house and the office where I worked, just as my sister Maha's smell left our room to give way to a new smell and new secrets in her husband's home, and a life whose details I did not know.
Her smell left the room to live on in my head and I could barely recall this old smell when I kissed her on the cheek. She had a new smell after marriage. Whenever I entered her bedroom for some reason or opened her closet, her new smell lacked the old muskiness. I had thought that human smells, like fingerprints, never changed and remained unique from one person to another.
I cannot tell exactly how the smell changed. Did her smell mix with those of her husband and children? Or was it just a matter of change in hormones with age and marriage? Maybe hormones are secreted differently under pain or happiness, anger or silence. Or maybe her scent has changed in my head. Maybe.
But this past Sunday I noticed something like her old smell when she sat next to me on the living room sofa of Father's home. I had not seen her for weeks and did not know that her husband had left for Kuwait to look for a job, planning that she would follow him if things worked out. Her two boys, Hussein and Mohammad, were sitting on her lap. Her arm stretched along the back of the sofa behind me, the white sleeveless shirt exposing her underarm hair.
Her old smell crept into my nose. I don't know if I sensed it when she mentioned that her husband had left or when I saw her laughing. Since her marriage she laughs modestly. Actually, she smiles constantly but never really laughs, as though she has become afflicted with a kind of laughter amnesia. My friend Ibtisam was struck by the same affliction; funny, considering her name. But then I saw my sister laughing like she did in the old days. She was roaring hysterically, so that her head swung from side to side and her mouth stretched so wide that her dimples disappeared into her cheeks.
At first she did not explain why, but my aunt who was visiting that day insisted on knowing the reason. "Why are you carrying on like a madwoman?"
"Because I've been sleeping without a blanket."
"What's so funny about that? It's hot as hell outside. Why would you cover up with a blanket anyway?"
After we pressed her, my sister finally confessed the story of the blanket to my aunt Samiyya and me. She told us that during their seven years together her husband would not sleep with her except under the blanket.
"What do you mean under the blanket?"
"Just like I am telling you, he needs to do it all under the blanket. The blanket has to be covering us both even if it is pitch dark in the room. I tell him, 'Just let me take my clothes off before we cover ourselves,' but he says, 'I just can't do it that way.'"
But I could not laugh. I looked at her as she told the story and her old smell wafted from her body. My aunt volunteered her advice, saying, "It's better under the blanket. Why not? Besides, your body is white and beautiful, my dear, and you never know when one of us is naked and 'In the name of God, the Kind and Merciful' could see and desire you. That happened to your great aunt Tuffaha a long time ago, and her marriage was ruined because 'he' would never let anybody, including her husband, touch her after that."
She poked Maha's thigh and said, "It's all right, child. It's more modest that way, and safer too." She winked and nudged her, and among the wisdoms she offered was that for the woman to undress during marital obligations is a burden because then she has to strip off all her bodily hair with boiled sugar. She said that her late husband (God rest his soul) did not cause her any trouble because he never took off any of her clothes. She would just take off her slip and he would lift her dress or nightgown and take care of his business. For that reason, she would use the sugar only down below.
"One minute and we're done, end of story. No muss, no fuss."
I suspected that my aunt was lying. I remember visiting her as a child and watching her boil a big batch of sugar that filled the whole house with its sweet smell. I was certain that such an amount was needed to remove the hair from her whole body. I said, "Why did you always used to boil so much sugar, then?"
"Oh, you be quiet now. Do you think it's just peach fuzz that a woman's got down there? It's this much," she said, cupping her hand. "Like a jungle, I tell you. You would think that I enjoyed the sugar, but it was all for the sake of cleanliness."
Then she looked at my sister and said, "Child, don't be upset with your husband about the blanket."
"But I get so hot that I can't breathe and my heart almost stops beating."
"I tell you it's better for you that way and faster. If he sees you naked in the light, he'll want to take his time, and he'll wear you out and leave you exhausted. Yes, of course. What else do you think was going to happen? This is the burden that we all have to carry."
* * *
I told Alawiyya about that Sunday, what my aunt said about herself and my sister's story about the blanket. I also told her about my sister's old smell, which disappeared again with her husband's return from Kuwait.
My own smell too has changed of late. Ever since my hormones decreased, the odor between my thighs has become clean and light, like the smell of clean air. Sometimes, when I smell my hand after masturbating, it is as if I am smelling some odorless, clean skin. My panties no longer have that musky smell, that scent which I think was the reason the plumber did his work with the door closed behind him the time he came to fix the broken bidet.
Was it the smell of the panties or the sight of them flung carelessly on the floor? Or was it the exchange that had taken place between him and Mother?
I was lazing half awake in my room across from the bathroom when I was roused by a conversation between Mother and the plumber. The Hajji stood at the bathroom door with a hand on her waist and the other resting on the frame of the door. The plumber sat his bony young rump against the edge of the tub, and leaned his hand on the edge of the sink. Cigarette smoke rose from between his fingers as his bulging eyes stared at Mother, the Hajji, whose nervous body shook like frothing milk about to spill over the rim. I still remember how the words poured from her mouth in front of the plumber, repeating the phrase "no meaning" in every sentence, to demonstrate her modesty and purity to a boy whose beard had hardly blossomed. She was talking like our cousin Nabiha who, whenever she described anything as long, would make sure to add "No meaning." If Nabiha said "round" or "thick" or "this width," she would always say "No meaning," and if she said "this big" or "went in" or "came out" or "stood up" or "opened," she would quickly follow with "No meaning." Descriptions of any sort burned her cheeks and face, and her tongue sought to quench the burning with the phrase "No meaning." I remember that day when I visited her in her family home in the village. She was putting away the thin sleeping mattresses so I got up to help her, and she said to me, "Stuff it well in there. No meaning. Because if it doesn't go all the way in-no meaning-it will slide out again-no meaning. Know what I mean?"
Throughout her conversation, Nabiha would always remind the listener of her modesty and that she did not intend a second meaning.
That day, Mother spoke just like her. Explaining the problem, the plumber said, "This pipe I put in, it works like between a man and a woman. There's a female part and a male part."
"No meaning, ya Hajji."
"They say that since it was the carpenter who shat himself on the knot, only the carpenter can clean it up to undo it. You figure out how to make it fit-no meaning."
"But, ya Hajji, I can't put him inside her because the hole has to be bigger-No meaning."
"No meaning. You figure out how to take care of him."
"If the male can't fit in the female, it won't work. Then the water starts dripping out from the hose-no meaning."
"But how can you fit him inside?-no meaning."
"If you don't want me to get a new pipe, I'll try to fix the old one. But then I'll have to stand it upright, for it to go in-no meaning."
"Come on, now. You figure out how to fix the old one so I don't have to buy a new one and make a second hole because the opening's gotten too big-no meaning."
I climbed out of bed and headed down the corridor to the kitchen to make the afternoon pot of coffee. Mother followed me with unusually quick steps as she did only when she was unsettled by something. She tugged at the edges of her scarf around her flushed face to make sure that all her hair was tucked in and not a single hair could be seen.
The plumber closed the door behind him, locking it from the inside, and did not come out for a long while. Mother knocked more than once, asking him:
"What's wrong? Why's the door closed? What's holding you up in there?"
"Just a minute, ya Hajji. I'm almost done."
"Leave him alone. Let him do his work as he sees fit," I yelled to her from the kitchen.
When the plumber appeared again, his eyes were misty and his skin had a peaceful and earthy shine. Smoky halos enveloped his eyes, different from the dark circles of work and exhaustion or the kind that afflict politicians and officials because of the secrets stored in the blood around their eyes.
The halos around the plumber's eyes faded before I could understand what had happened. Had the exchange with Mother aroused him? Was it the smell of the underwear or was it just the sight of the underwear on the floor, which can sometimes excite more than the presence of the body that wore it?
I was not sure. All I know is that the underwear that had been on the floor was in the tub after the plumber was finished fixing the bidet, and I found traces of dried semen on it. Did smelling my underwear excite him as it did Abbas? When I used to meet Abbas on Sundays, he would push me onto the bed as soon as he saw me, part my legs and close them around the sides of his face. He would nuzzle and sniffle at me like a cat at her kitten.
"Why do you do that?" I would ask him.
"Shut up and don't say a word. If you want to talk, you know what to say."
He would reach up with his hand, cover my mouth, and start sniffling again. When I would fall silent, he would lift his face to mine and say, "Talk."
"What do you want me to say?"
"You know what to say."
I would stay quiet.
"Say it. Say, 'Put it in.'"
I would not say anything.
"Talk. What is this called?" pointing at his member.
And he would insist every time until he heard the answer. He would repeat the question like a teacher to his student until he got the correct response. But I would not laugh while repeating the answers or naming our things when he pointed to them with his finger. As I spoke what he wanted to hear, I would sometimes press on his head with my hands and let him sniff at me. Then I would smell the semen on his thigh or on my inner thigh, and sometimes, I would rub my face in it.
Finally, Abbas explained to me one day that he disliked the smell of clean underwear. It was the smell of bodily fluids that excited him, and not the smell of Camay or some other soap. He loved it because it reminded him of the aroma that emanated from his aunt Tuffaha in the village, whose lap smelled of fermented apples. In the late fifties, when he was a little boy and still lived in the village before his family migrated to Beirut like my family, Abbas used to curl up and fall sleep in her lap every time he felt a headache from his sinuses. Hajji Tuffaha would sit cross-legged on the floor with her legs open and Abbas would rest his head in her lap. She would read verses of the Koran and stroke his head and shoulders, reaching around his neck with her plump hands and gold bracelets, as he pressed his face into the folds of flesh between her thighs and the bottom of her belly. From the openings of her loose underwear would escape a damp smell, hinting of a viscous substance impenetrable by light. Sometimes, he would peek under her skirt and she would say, "You naughty boy," and pinch his ear, then continue her stroking. And one day, for the first time in his life he saw that bushy triangle between the thighs, after peeping quickly inside. "You little mouse," she said to him, laughing, "I'm sitting here praying for you and you're sneaking a look, you peeping Tom. By God, no man can ever be trusted. But it's all right," she said, "What's important is that you get better. You're still young and must be forgiven." He was ten years old at the time.
Her smell came back to his nose as he told me the story, the smell that disappeared from the village after she died and took it with her.
All smells disappear, following those who create them like companions. But the scent of memories remains, and disappears only with the flight of its author. I recount these memories so the scent will stay right here. That is the only kind of smell that never leaves. As for my other smells, those will disappear and leave with me.
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