But where’s the skill in loading a gun with just one round of ammunition and pointing it at your head, trying your luck at deliverance? The ingenious thing would be to fill all six chambers and let every bullet kill you, one after the other.
Even though the voice ringing out from the stereo in your bedroom belongs to a singer who didn’t die at twenty-seven like those other musical geniuses—Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, that bunch—you still listen to him every morning.
You open your curtains to find a severed head in an elegant planter on the windowsill. It’s bald, and the eyes are peacefully closed. As far as you remember you’ve made no visit to al-Muʿtamid ibn Abbad’s medieval garden of severed heads to pluck this one from among his enemies, so perhaps the early-onset Alzheimer’s promised by your mother’s genes is setting in already. Or maybe al-Muʿtamid himself arrived in Damascus last night bearing these heads of his as gifts borne along—as you saw in a waking dream last night—in a convoy darkened by the shadow of a thousand curved swords, which blocked the way through the Bab Sharqi old city gate. You sat down on a wooden chair there once, right on the curbside, worn out from a show-off drinking binge that hadn’t made you look hard like it was meant to; a German tourist dabbed at your brow with a damp piece of cloth, saying “You’ll be all right,” in a scornful Germanic English voice. Then you got into a taxi with your broke friends and terrified them— you were so out of it that you actually launched into a mangled recitation of an Old Testament psalm in broken Hebrew (you had just about learned the basics of it) as the taxi driver stared distrustfully at you in the rearview mirror. “Give thanks to the Lord!” you said to him in Arabic, as if in response to his glares, then completed the line in your dodgy Hebrew “keiy . . . leiawlaam . . . khasdu” (“for his steadfast love endures forever”).
Right now, as you carry a jug of chilled water over to the window and water the new head’s soil, what you wish is that you were being stalked by an infatuated lover who couldn’t find a less miserable way of seducing you than leaving you these wretched gifts, as if attempting to prove that he’s just as sick as you are.
You listen to the song, and you think about the things that make you prefer YouTube to television. All they put on TV is cooking shows, and the music they like, and sheikhs, and corpses; even in your worst and most perverted fantasies you don’t find corpses at all enticing, so you take yourself off to YouTube where you can have your own way and watch hentai anime clips for free. Women with pink hair get fucked by all sorts of things—not just blue-haired and polite-looking bespectacled young men, but ugly monsters, grotesque machines and creepy humanoid trees. The women’s skin looks flawless and clean, and there’s all this flabby cloying drama; but you need these films, even if you do get irritated by the way the women and girls are depicted with that pained expression on their faces during sex. Why do these female hentai characters always have to be in pain?
You fall asleep halfway through the movie to dream of cats like you have every day for the last year—clingy cats wrapping themselves around you, kneading at you. If you happen to have something edible in your hand you feed it to them, but they’ll swipe away whatever you’re carrying anyway and gnaw at it—even money. You dream of your lithe friends—half-cat, half-human—springing nimbly from roof to roof, bowling along through the city streets, full of grace and free to roam around undeterred by anything: no one snipes at cats or hits them with electric cattle prods. During the dream you decide not to have any friends except for cats from now on.
You pour water onto the severed head once again, even though it’s seeming more and more dried up—it doesn’t want to drink any water, and you don’t know what’s to be done. You peep out the window at the police station on your street, straining to hear if anyone’s getting beaten up at the moment—but there’s no sound.
You turn up the stereo—maybe someone in there’s longing to hear a song—and you fall back into your familiar fears: you frighten yourself that you’re like that pitiful man in the film, selected at birth to be the subject of a global reality TV show, and that at this very moment everyone around the world’s watching you in a live broadcast via hidden cameras positioned all over your room, laughing at you as you dance by yourself and talk to yourself in the mirror like an idiot. You glance over uneasily at the doll with the staring eyes tracking around your room, and you turn the stereo up higher. Then—in utter futility—you pour water on the head, its bluish dried-up veins showing clearly now.
Your mother opens the door to tell you off about how loud the stereo is, and another cat wriggles into your room between her feet. You immediately wonder how you’ll answer if she asks you about the blaring stereo and the severed head and the black blindfolds covering the dolls’ eyes, and about all these cats surrounding you: you don’t have a good answer. Your only solution would be to claim that you’ve gone mad or gotten depressed because of the cold and flu medicine you’ve been taking—but she doesn’t even ask. All she says is that one of the cats seems to understand plants better than you do. “Look,” she says, pointing over to the windowsill: the cat is licking the lips of the severed head, whose cheeks are turning pink. Your mother’s right, cats understand stuff better than either of you do. You think about the reasons you’d rather spend time with cats than with your mother.
There among the tens of blindfolded dolls and the skittish, playful cats in the room with you, you open the laptop and think about what makes you prefer Facebook to TV. You can’t find any proper reason, and you’re distracted—still feeling suspicious about that despicable doll that spies on you every second of the day, despite the black tape you’ve blindfolded it with, transmitting your dumb behavior via the cameras hidden inside it to giant TV screens in squares and parks all over the world.
You rush to cover the lens of the laptop camera with a little piece of paper. You heard once that those cameras can be hacked into and tapped.
The Web site of the women’s magazine says: “And if you like this boy who you don’t know, you must make it seem like your social life is very lively, teeming with friends and parties and so on . . ..” Fuck these magazines, you haven’t got time for this shit, there are cats that need taking care of—more and more of them, they’re scattered through the streets in all sorts of danger—and there’s an extremely beautiful severed head on the windowsill which could wither and die at any moment, and there’s a police station in your neighborhood, and there’s al-Muʿtamid who arrived in Damascus yesterday—you need to get a move on.
Exasperated, you lash out at a clown doll that’s strangely close to the computer screen and seems highly interested in monitoring your Facebook account. When you smack it over the head it falls to the floor and is instantly pounced on by a seething mass of cats, acting out the rage they can smell wafting out of you so clearly. Wow, cats! You decide that if there turns out to be any time left you’ll grow old with them, all of you together in a house with no one else, and you’ll name them all after you. Facebook chat shows he’s online, so you get straight to the point with no preambles. “Listen, I really want to put cheddar cheese all over your body and then eat it off.” He suddenly disappears from the chat list, and when you check you find that he’s disappeared from your friends list too, so you send him a new friend request and you wait, thinking that his being married doesn’t mean anything, and that if one day he updated his Facebook relationship status to “divorced” you wouldn’t be embarrassed to put a cheeky “Like” on it—of course that could only happen if he’d added you as a friend again by then . . .. The clown doll on the floor has had its blindfold pulled off by the cats—Shit! It must’ve seen everything!
If you are reading this most respectful composition of mine, which I hereby affix to the freezer, then please be informed that I am indeed no longer able to complete a set of tasks which I would therefore like you to carry out in my stead. Fear not if you see a line of blood at the door to my bedroom, but enter calmly. Do not be alarmed, either, by the sight of a clown doll who has been hanged from the ceiling: it was what she deserved and we made sure that she did not suffer unduly. Tread carefully so as not to step on any of the cats’ tails; if you find them licking the blood off the floor do not scold them or shoo them away. I had sworn to these cats that I would grow old with them and that we would share our old age in seclusion, and I have now broken my promise. On the windowsill you will find an elegant planter empty of earth, near the one containing the severed head. There are pumpkin and sunflower seeds therein: kindly transport my head over to said vessel and place it on the seeds to stanch the bleeding. Use my Facebook password and ascertain whether the Cheddar Cheese Boy has restored me to his friends. Put a link to some song or other as my status update, bid my friends good morning, and tell them the lie that I love them all equally.
© Rasha Abbas. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.