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Fiction

Pityriasis Rosea

By Jokha Alharthi
Translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth
In this short story by International Booker Prize winner Jokha Alharthi, a "herald patch" also heralds the end of a love affair.
A fox standing in snow is facing the camera
"Fox" by Chrisbkes is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The two of us were sitting side by side and facing in the same direction. Bamboo, our chairs were made of, or perhaps wood, or maybe they were nothing more than heavy-duty corrugated fiberboard.

We were in the house; and our chairs faced the door.

But in fact, what faced us were two doors, not one. Both of us had our eyes on those doors, steadily, intensely. Between us and the doors sat a small table, bare but for two keys.

He reached forward and gripped both keys. Without turning his body or head in the slightest, he handed one of the keys to me. I closed my fist around it and stood up. I strode to the door—the door that was directly in front of me, that is. I shoved the key into the lock. The door opened. I walked out.

This vivid dream—it came to me two years and three months before we separated.

Did he stay there, inside the house? Perched on that very same chair? Still facing the closed, locked door?

The key was in his hand, after all. The key was always in his hand. But sitting was what suited him best. It suited him so well that even when I left that house, dragging my case behind me—the ugly green suitcase of the old sort, the color faded, leaving traces of the rubbed-off stickers from airports it had been through—he didn’t even get up to show me to the door, and he certainly made no attempt to follow me.

He didn’t take a single step. Ever. For he had forgotten how to walk.

And so there he is, sitting in that forever-chair of his. I suppose he would be thinking back to the magnificent fox that we caught sight of in our courtyard. She brushed us with her hard gaze as she pawed the gravel, scattering the tiny pebbles, and then she vanished. Snow was beginning to come down hard. Ah, this happens once at the turn of every century, he remarked. It’s only now that I am wondering: What happens once at the turn of every century? Snow, here in this country, or a vixen in the courtyard of that house?

We had kept the house warm enough with a coal burner. It was a very small house and it did not take long to rid it of the cold. It didn’t have two doors, either. There was one key, to open its one door. Handing him a cup of very hot tea, I said, It’s because all we’ve been talking about these evenings are the old legends, and that’s what brought the fox here. She’s carrying a message. Didn’t you say, after all, that you were going to write a new version of that ancient epic?

At that, he took a sip of his tea and smiled. His grin rearranged that earnest-looking face of his. He tossed his head. What did that mean? Was he about to start writing seriously? Or did it mean that he didn’t know? Or perhaps he was anticipating a miracle that would change everything—some event that would really push him forward, write the saga he had dreamed of writing. The conviction that only miracles could truly transform anything he was attempting, and for the better, was unshakeable. It governed all of his thinking. He had nothing but scorn for making efforts oneself. Even when the self who made them was me.

The next morning, when I opened my eyes, it was dawn and through the window I could see that the snowfall had stopped. On the broad windowsill I saw a waiting cup of coffee. The rising steam was collecting in beads on the windowpane, and the sight of it told me that he was in a very good mood. He never made coffee for me—before I was even awake—unless he wanted some immediate conversation, when it was not even yet properly morning.

Did it come back? I asked him. He knew I meant the fox, and he shook his head. I think we did have a long conversation, as that early morning broke, and then maybe we went back to sleep. The fox never again appeared.

Those were the days, with the air temperature still very cold, when he would wear heavy striped pajamas. I teased him about it: the pajamas looked like what the prisoners in children’s picture books wore, I said, and especially the gang of masked robbers in Mickey Mouse. When it was that cold, I huddled inside my faded woolen sweater and never took it off. Until, one time, he took it off and discovered the oval brownish-red patch on my back.

That wasn’t there before! he exclaimed. There was surprise in his voice; but his words sounded more like an accusation.

The days accumulated, and so did the patches on my skin, although I hadn’t felt anything. It’s like someone put their cigarette out on your back, and on your legs, too, he said off-handedly.

They’re itching, I said. A medicated cream would probably help, he replied. But he couldn’t go to the chemist at the end of the street because he already owed the guy some money. So I went. The cream didn’t make any difference.

That’s all there is to say about that strange winter. We put away the little metal brazier, or we got rid of it, somewhere, like someone who knows they won’t have any more need for an item. I used the woolen sweater to tie back the branches of the little tree in the courtyard that had grown crooked and snaky because of the strong winds. The striped pajamas disappeared into the bottom of the wardrobe. There was no more coffee sitting there waiting for me in the morning; maybe the windowsill was no longer wide enough to hold a coffee cup. Or maybe the tin on the shelf that held the coffee was empty. It was a pretty canister with an image of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

What was still there was the sound of my old green suitcase’s rusty little wheels, bumping and thudding down the staircase, and then scraping across the gravel in the courtyard, sounds that grated inside my ears for years. No other sound followed. Just the noise of those wheels rumbling and creaking on and on, against the silence, wheels struggling for balance beneath the deadweight of my big, old, faded case. The tiny stones in which had rummaged that fox of a lone and never-repeated winter now bounded up sharply as the wheels ground their way through. The sounds echoed; the dream I had had, two years and three months before, did not come to mind.

Yesterday, I noticed brown patches on my friend’s arms, and I remembered the spots on my skin that had faded over time. I got something like this once! I exclaimed. Yes, she responded, sounding bored. Anyone can get this, sometime in their life. Especially young women, though. It’s called pityriasis rosea. The first patch you get, usually on your back, is called the “herald patch.” As she spoke, I saw them clearly, those two doors side-by-side. They must still be there, I thought. Very likely, they were.


“Pityriasis Rosea” © Jokha Alharthi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Marilyn Booth. All rights reserved.

English

The two of us were sitting side by side and facing in the same direction. Bamboo, our chairs were made of, or perhaps wood, or maybe they were nothing more than heavy-duty corrugated fiberboard.

We were in the house; and our chairs faced the door.

But in fact, what faced us were two doors, not one. Both of us had our eyes on those doors, steadily, intensely. Between us and the doors sat a small table, bare but for two keys.

He reached forward and gripped both keys. Without turning his body or head in the slightest, he handed one of the keys to me. I closed my fist around it and stood up. I strode to the door—the door that was directly in front of me, that is. I shoved the key into the lock. The door opened. I walked out.

This vivid dream—it came to me two years and three months before we separated.

Did he stay there, inside the house? Perched on that very same chair? Still facing the closed, locked door?

The key was in his hand, after all. The key was always in his hand. But sitting was what suited him best. It suited him so well that even when I left that house, dragging my case behind me—the ugly green suitcase of the old sort, the color faded, leaving traces of the rubbed-off stickers from airports it had been through—he didn’t even get up to show me to the door, and he certainly made no attempt to follow me.

He didn’t take a single step. Ever. For he had forgotten how to walk.

And so there he is, sitting in that forever-chair of his. I suppose he would be thinking back to the magnificent fox that we caught sight of in our courtyard. She brushed us with her hard gaze as she pawed the gravel, scattering the tiny pebbles, and then she vanished. Snow was beginning to come down hard. Ah, this happens once at the turn of every century, he remarked. It’s only now that I am wondering: What happens once at the turn of every century? Snow, here in this country, or a vixen in the courtyard of that house?

We had kept the house warm enough with a coal burner. It was a very small house and it did not take long to rid it of the cold. It didn’t have two doors, either. There was one key, to open its one door. Handing him a cup of very hot tea, I said, It’s because all we’ve been talking about these evenings are the old legends, and that’s what brought the fox here. She’s carrying a message. Didn’t you say, after all, that you were going to write a new version of that ancient epic?

At that, he took a sip of his tea and smiled. His grin rearranged that earnest-looking face of his. He tossed his head. What did that mean? Was he about to start writing seriously? Or did it mean that he didn’t know? Or perhaps he was anticipating a miracle that would change everything—some event that would really push him forward, write the saga he had dreamed of writing. The conviction that only miracles could truly transform anything he was attempting, and for the better, was unshakeable. It governed all of his thinking. He had nothing but scorn for making efforts oneself. Even when the self who made them was me.

The next morning, when I opened my eyes, it was dawn and through the window I could see that the snowfall had stopped. On the broad windowsill I saw a waiting cup of coffee. The rising steam was collecting in beads on the windowpane, and the sight of it told me that he was in a very good mood. He never made coffee for me—before I was even awake—unless he wanted some immediate conversation, when it was not even yet properly morning.

Did it come back? I asked him. He knew I meant the fox, and he shook his head. I think we did have a long conversation, as that early morning broke, and then maybe we went back to sleep. The fox never again appeared.

Those were the days, with the air temperature still very cold, when he would wear heavy striped pajamas. I teased him about it: the pajamas looked like what the prisoners in children’s picture books wore, I said, and especially the gang of masked robbers in Mickey Mouse. When it was that cold, I huddled inside my faded woolen sweater and never took it off. Until, one time, he took it off and discovered the oval brownish-red patch on my back.

That wasn’t there before! he exclaimed. There was surprise in his voice; but his words sounded more like an accusation.

The days accumulated, and so did the patches on my skin, although I hadn’t felt anything. It’s like someone put their cigarette out on your back, and on your legs, too, he said off-handedly.

They’re itching, I said. A medicated cream would probably help, he replied. But he couldn’t go to the chemist at the end of the street because he already owed the guy some money. So I went. The cream didn’t make any difference.

That’s all there is to say about that strange winter. We put away the little metal brazier, or we got rid of it, somewhere, like someone who knows they won’t have any more need for an item. I used the woolen sweater to tie back the branches of the little tree in the courtyard that had grown crooked and snaky because of the strong winds. The striped pajamas disappeared into the bottom of the wardrobe. There was no more coffee sitting there waiting for me in the morning; maybe the windowsill was no longer wide enough to hold a coffee cup. Or maybe the tin on the shelf that held the coffee was empty. It was a pretty canister with an image of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

What was still there was the sound of my old green suitcase’s rusty little wheels, bumping and thudding down the staircase, and then scraping across the gravel in the courtyard, sounds that grated inside my ears for years. No other sound followed. Just the noise of those wheels rumbling and creaking on and on, against the silence, wheels struggling for balance beneath the deadweight of my big, old, faded case. The tiny stones in which had rummaged that fox of a lone and never-repeated winter now bounded up sharply as the wheels ground their way through. The sounds echoed; the dream I had had, two years and three months before, did not come to mind.

Yesterday, I noticed brown patches on my friend’s arms, and I remembered the spots on my skin that had faded over time. I got something like this once! I exclaimed. Yes, she responded, sounding bored. Anyone can get this, sometime in their life. Especially young women, though. It’s called pityriasis rosea. The first patch you get, usually on your back, is called the “herald patch.” As she spoke, I saw them clearly, those two doors side-by-side. They must still be there, I thought. Very likely, they were.


“Pityriasis Rosea” © Jokha Alharthi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Marilyn Booth. All rights reserved.

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