The day had advanced resolutely into evening. He returned to his hotel, anticipating an early departure in the morning; once in his room, he stretched out on the bed. Outside, blackest night.
He rose to drink from the faucet. Unable to imagine falling back to sleep, he took a seat on the floor beside the bed, switched on the lamp, took out his wallet, and drew from it his plane ticket and Nawal’s photograph. Laughable as it seemed to him, he found her image had become more beautiful, even compared to the previous day.
Glancing at the wastebasket, he carefully removed several strips of tape from the photograph, leaving in his hand three fragments. On one, he could see the young girl’s eye. With an air of melancholy, he returned her glance, knowing it would never be united with the rest of her face.
He made as if to throw them into the trash. Then, changing his mind, he set the first scrap of paper in his mouth. Its stiff corners prodded his gums. Chaïbane began to chew. Taken aback, he mused: everything’s edible, even love.
With the last morsel between his teeth, he lay back down. Finally, he swallowed it. One last time, he checked the hour of his plane’s departure. Oddly enough, the chewing had a sedative effect: he fell asleep immediately.
I had a dream.
A white expanse, blanketed by snow, yet in the air, a breath of spring.
A wolf appeared. He was close enough to bite me, but didn’t. He was content, smiling.
Despite my fear, I asked him:
-Who are you?
-A wolf, obviously.
After a moment, he added:
-A wolf is cruel, you know. It takes you between its teeth and . . .
I couldn’t say a word. I tried to distance myself, a bit alarmed and suddenly, immensely sad.
His wolf’s voice halted me; he was not speaking in a human tongue, but I could understand him nonetheless:
-You don’t recognize me?
-No. But I have the strange impression that I know you well.
He let out a barely audible yelp: momentary, muted distress.
-I am the love you feel for Nawal. I entered you, and ate up all there was. Lately, I’ve been wandering within you. It’s not so pretty here, you know. One might even say, it’s a disaster.
I continued to draw back, so that I might, perhaps, be able to escape. I protested:
-But I don’t love her anymore. At least . . . not in that way.
-What do you think love is, a lamb?
Pensive now, he added, slyly:
-Listen to me: how long have you not been you?
I just looked at him, puzzled.
-You’ve gone so long now, afraid to walk inside yourself, ashamed . . .
I gathered some snow, as if to throw it at the wolf. Strange, it was cold but had a gentle touch, and a delicate odor to it. Like a flower, offered by surprise.
Without warning, the wolf bounded off toward the horizon. Blinking quickly, I saw two whales playing in the water in the distance. The water, I was certain, was mild despite being surrounded by snow.
There: before I woke, I could distinctly make out two jets of water rising from the whales. And I saw-I could hear nothing, but saw-lifting and spreading over what remained of my sleep, the light snow of the wolf’s laughter.
He shaved. Only two hours until he had to be at the airport. An orange was resting on the table of the hotel room. He lifted it, and bit directly into the peel.
Eyes closed, he allowed himself to be overcome by the taste and fragrance of the orange. In small increments, without haste, but with the stubbornness of a recollection long suppressed, the decision to rejoin her rose from within the place her memory inhabited in him.
Then, in that very part of his body, or his soul, where sadness-and the awful silences that so often attend it-is born, something was finally appeased.
Once, there was a man who, having bitten into a piece of fruit, changed his mind. He resisted biting a second time, fearful that it might change again. Knowing from experience the frailty of all decisions that have not been corseted by elements exterior to him-so that, deliberately, they become a kind of prison-he hastened to the agency to cancel his reservation, then toward the taxi station behind the University of Damascus, in the Baramike district.
There were three other passengers in the Mercedes 190; one of them, a woman, sat in the front beside the driver. When he had taken his place in the worn leather backseat, and the driver had turned the key in the ignition, he let out an intoxicated sigh.
The landscape was bare and the heat overwhelming, but fortunately the road was in good condition. They arrived quickly at the border post in Jdeydiye, only to wait nearly two hours for Syrian customs. An amputee, seated on a plank outfitted with small wheels, approached the rear door of the taxi and thrust his hand out to Chaïbane for charity. The eyes of the cripple, sunk deep in a face streaming with sweat and filth, were so insistent that Chaïbane, ill at ease, handed him a book. None of the others followed. Before rolling off to repeat this routine with the next car, the beggar examined the five passengers, his attentive gaze an unexpected mixture of authority and servility. The driver wore a docile grin throughout the exchange, turning to Chaïbane only once the man was gone to explain that he saw the cripple upon each border-crossing. The man lived nearby, literally wasting away from hunger, incapable of any other work in this arid land. The soldiers had resigned themselves to letting the legless beggar have his way, in exchange for which he had agreed to alert them to any passengers who aroused suspicion. If his tips were helpful, he would receive a few coins to ameliorate his situation. On the other hand, if he was incorrect, they would give his vehicle a kick and send him rolling, as a caution to be more discerning. All the drivers knew the cripple, and mockingly referred to him as “the Colonel,” but in truth, they feared him because he had developed, over time, a facility at detecting nervous passengers and unusual behavior. In contrast, the police inspection turned out to be quite superficial.
“On our return trip, however,” said the driver, “they are extremely severe. They will search you four or five times over, inspect the trunk and under the hood, and even look beneath the car, sometimes dismantling tires they suspect to be packed with drugs or weapons. They are wildly afraid that the mess in Lebanon will spread here. Don’t mention it!” laughed the driver.
It was at the Lebanese passport inspection, about eight hundred meters ahead, that things took a turn for the worst. The officer leafed through the pages of Chaïbane’s passport for a long time, then held it out before him, saying bluntly, “You don’t have a visa, you cannot pass,” then turned his attention to one of the other passengers. A boisterous crowd was lined up at each of several counters for customs, but Chaïbane suddenly heard nothing but an enormous silence, like the aftermath of an explosion. As though speaking to a small child, he murmured, “Nawal . . .”
Outside, the driver was growing impatient. When he spotted Chaïbane, he shouted for him to hurry, that the others had finished the inspection and would not wait for him all day.
Chaïbane called out to him, and explained the situation. Voice cracking, he tried to assume a heavy tone, announcing that his only option was to return to Damascus and obtain a visa from the Lebanese embassy. If the driver would be returning the following day, he asked, perhaps they could make the trip again?
The driver just stared at him, a bit incredulous.
“But there is no Lebanese embassy in Syria!” He let out a haughty laugh. “We’re too close for that, you see?” Chaïbane, now livid, stared dumbly at the driver.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t know it! You came all the way from Algeria and didn’t find out for yourself? All right, my friend, but the return voyage is going to be a bit longer than expected.”
He examined Chaïbane with the sort of well-meaning pity one has for an imbecile.
“There is, perhaps, a solution . . .”
FromL’amour Loup (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2002). Copyright 2002 by Librairie Arthème Fayard. Translation copyright 2005 by Justin Goldberg. All rights reserved.