even looking at her.
The heat did not disturb her, perhaps because she was naked. A slight breeze caressed her breasts. Her eyes widened as she saw that naked body. Her astonishment increased when she moved it the other way and it disappeared.
She had to move her head a little to see it again. A tall body with tort muscles, particularly her stomach muscles, no doubt because she had never been pregnant, and her neck muscles, no doubt because of the jars. Also the muscles of her right arm, no doubt because she had been digging with the chisel. Her fingers were long and tapering, suggestive of movement without actually moving, and her nails were black.
She had never previously considered her body from as close as this. The bridge of her nose was red and inflamed because of the sun and her eyelids were swollen. Her shoulders fell away sharply to right and left. They were a dark bronze colour like the colour of the mummy. Her real flesh began at the chest. Two breasts that stuck out proudly, hot as if heated from inside by a hidden spirit, and two coy nipples that beat with another pulse emanating from an unknown depth.
Her eyes followed on downwards and her body slipped away. They froze on a forest of hair below the stomach. She tried in vain to look. She had never been able to see clearly. If she tried to look closely, she felt her eyes becoming inflamed. She could never penetrate this forest, which appeared hollow to her, in spite of its thickness. Was that because of the emptiness of the world!?
What most used to disturb her was that she was incapable of gazing for a long time into her eyes. She saw them as hollow under the bone of her forehead that was as dry as the ground. She looked at them as if they were two remote spots on the horizon, more distant than the stars, as if they were the eyes of another woman looking out on her from behind the clouds.
‘No doubt the eyes of a goddess.’
She had determined the place according to the map. She continued to dig throughout the day from sunrise to sunset. She had no doubt about the place. The smell of her body rose from the depths of the earth. There was nothing that indicated the body apart from the smell. However, by the end of the day, she had not come across anything. She came out empty-handed with the chisel.
Perhaps she had been mistaken about the place. There was nothing like a mistake for restoring hope to her. She picked up her bag and moved to another place which she imagined to be the right one. The smell rose more strongly from it. The stronger the smell became, the more convinced she was that she was near her body. She dug until she reached the bottom. She did not find anything and moved to another place. She was not prepared to accept despair. The day passed while she dug in vain. She continued day after day to hug hope to her bosom, and every day she moved from one place to another. Finally, when the last day came to an end and the sun set, her body collapsed in exhaustion and she burst into tears.
‘Would it be better to go back to carrying jars?’
But tears flowed down like compressed steam. Her head was lightened somewhat from the pressure, and then she opened her eyes. She realised that her eyelids were swollen and that her tears had mixed with the particles of oil. However, her mind was strangely clear, and a thought came to her from afar like a star shining in the darkness of the night. The absence of goddesses in this place did not mean their absolute absence. Moreover, the earth rotates, so perhaps places are exchanged as the earth rotates.
‘A totally logical thought.’
There was evidence in support of this thought. The position of her body had indeed changed. It was no longer in the place it had been in at the beginning. The gushing waterfall had swept her to another place. And in the depths of the earth, the current was also keeping people’s remains in continuous motion. In this way it would be possible for her remains to cross the border, if it were not for the checkpoint, unless of course the guard was sound asleep.
Perhaps it was her bad luck. The guard was awake, for no other reason than that the mosquitoes were awake. The pesticides also were cheated for the mosquitoes gobbled them up in the twinkling of an eye, and one of them would become the size of a frog. Yes, some of the bodies could manage to get through passport control. Perhaps her body would have been successful in running away without a ticket or written permission in her husband’s handwriting, or a yellow paper stamped with the hawk and the signature of her boss at work. She had no intention of breaking the law. She was a model of obedience and fidelity. It would at least have been possible for her remains to pass without tests, if it was not for the establishment of the building that was later called the pathology laboratory. In her dreams at night, she could not look at her body stretched out on the cold marble operating table, her nose full of formalin.
She felt a cupped hand rocking her. It was of course the hand of the man. Who else could it be? His voice in her ear was as gentle as the breeze, ‘When it comes down to it, the smell of formalin is no worse than oil.’
He was totally truthful in what he said. The smell of formalin seemed more delicate. Or perhaps it was the dream, since in dreams things become more beautiful simply because they do not really exist. A thought came to her that she must be beautiful now in the eyes of her husband simply because she was not there.
Following a violent blow she was thrown to the ground and lost consciousness. She could not keep her feet fixed in their place. The current dragged her off in a direction she could not determine. Before she could recover her senses a sound like the siren of a boat rang out. She was being rushed along towards the shore, and she began to hear the sound of waves, like drums.
The cry broke from her like the sound of a slaughtered animal. She could have lived like the other women, and then died, if it had not been for that chisel and those sunset sessions on the bridge when she was a child, and that light. Enough! Enough! There was no point now in anything.
Her voice rang out like a whistle amidst the beating of the drums, or the whistle of silence that rings in the ear before the last breath. Apart from the fact that she was seeing the sail from afar. A white dot on the horizon. It was the first time any boat had appeared on the sea. Her eyes discovered the light. A spot of great clarity. As clearly defined as a drop of water. Clear and pure and sweet like the voice of her mother entering her ears before she was born.
‘Hold my hands!’
She saw a long arm with five fingers extended at full stretch towards her. She stretched out her arm as she used to do when she was a child. Her eyes were fixed firmly on the point of light. She jumped forwards shaking with intoxication. The voice in her ears was as clear and as definite as the stars.
‘Put your hand in mine.’
She moved her body so as to stretch out her arm further. The voice disappeared as if the movement had dispelled it or as if it had been drowned out by the din of the drums and the barking of the dogs in the distance. Darkness fell resembling the cavity of the womb. She realised that her mother must have lived this moment, when the sun was setting and the universe was drowning in darkness. She used to sit like her on the bridge. Her eyes were alert and when the lights appeared, her body trembled as she used to tremble, and her heart beat vigorously, on the point of discovering the thing that always used to appear as if it was nothing.
The lake stretched endlessly before her eyes. The man had turned round and returned to the house. His back had become humped after having collapsed in bed. He was sleeping heavily and she was lying down with eyelids closed. In her dreams, she never stopped running away. She surrendered her legs to the wind. Behind her there was something running on two legs, or sometimes four or six. She was not able to count the legs or the paws. The sound of panting behind her was loud. It had a regular rhythm like snoring. When she turned round, she could not see anything running behind her apart from her black shadow on the ground.
‘Are you awake?’
She did not know how he could reply to her while he was asleep, but he used to talk in his sleep more than any other time. If he turned over on the other side, she did not hear any sound. It was hot, as if the disc of the sun had not set. The darkness was so intense that it was almost palpable. The light of the lamp was almost spent, although it remained steady. Nothing moved apart from those winged creatures. It was natural for white moths to be drawn to the light. But these creatures were not white. And they were not as small as moths. They were as big as frogs, as black as night.
‘Does oil also change the nature of moths?’
The frogs began to orbit swiftly around the lamp. She gazed at one of them for a long time. It had a black head as if it were tied round with a scarf. Its mouth was fixed without a smile, beating time after time against the lamp. Its shadow on the wall behind was bigger than its real size, and danced as it moved, staggering like a chicken with its throat cut. It kept banging itself and was being drawn ceaselessly towards the flame, clinging to it and trying to steady itself on it for fear that it might fall.
It seemed to her to be an intelligent frog, in spite of its crazy longing. Did she not have anything to hold on to apart from what destroyed her? She was longing to be rescued, even though rescue was no other than death. The flame had afflicted her with a fever in the head, and it fell singed to the ground like a grilled fish. Her eyes protruded, filled with regret. She stretched out her arm to pat its head, and suddenly there rose from it the smell of grilled meat. With a swift movement of her hand she put it in her mouth and swallowed it in a moment. She did not have time for pangs of conscience.
The man looked at her as she licked her lips after the appetising meal. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve as if to conceal the sin. She tensed the muscles of her back. She began to move her feet as she used to do when she was a child. She quickened her pace. As if to meet a particular appointment at a particular place. She began to pant like a child. She almost cried out with joy when she arrived a moment before the time of the appointment. That night there was a storm and the black dust covered the sky and the earth. She continued to sit in her place waiting. Perhaps she remained waiting for half the night. She was certain that the women were there behind the clouds and that they would appear as they did every night. When she saw the clouds moving, she would move from this place to another place. The women will appear. They definitely will appear. She began to sing to amuse herself. She heard her aunt and the neighbour women singing to the Lady of Purity, or singing to the rising sun, or the wheat at harvest, or the waters of the Nile when they are in flood, or the moon when it becomes full. Her eyes lost themselves in the vastness of the pitch-black darkness. Tears glistened in her eyes. The women had not appeared as they did every night.
‘Had they betrayed her to His Majesty?’
The wind slapped her face with black particles. Everything around her was covered in darkness. It was not liquid and it was not solid. It crept in under the skin and entered the pores of her body. It penetrated under the bones to the sensory and nerve centres.
‘Moisten your tongue with a drop or two.’
The man was standing up with his arm stretched out towards her with the bottle. She was trying to stretch out her arm. Her eyes were wide open, her lips were moving without letting out a sound, her ears were blocked, the particles piled up and melted with the heat, like black wax. He was standing in front of her at arm’s length. His hand held the bottle. Her arm was stuck to her body. She tried to move it, but it would not move. Her body was firm in its place, while the frogs flew lightly around the lamp.
Her eyes widened, staring at the light. Her eyelids were inflamed and she could not close them. The flame burned the naked white. She closed her eyelids and pressed her eyes shut. Darkness seemed to be better than light. Her mind also seemed to her to be bigger than the mind of the frog. From under her eyelids she could see spots of light swimming in black spaces like drops of water slipping out from under her eyelids.
‘Are you crying like other women?’
She did not know that it was her who was crying. Her sobbing was echoing in her ears and made her sound as if she was one of the neighbours. Or like her aunt, or her mother when she herself was still in the womb. Or perhaps the Lady of Purity herself. She had never heard the voice of the Lady of Purity. But her aunt used to hear it, and when she used to go to sleep, she used to leave the window open, and strain her ears just before dawn, and the voice would come like a ray of light that she could scarcely hear as she lay there. She would jump up and crane her neck towards the horizon, and the voice would come to her from afar before the light of dawn appeared.
‘I have given the command for you to be healed from your headache. Get up!’
Her aunt would get up immediately from where she was lying. She would undo the scarf from around her head and sit in the tub. She would pour water over her body with the jug. As she poured each jug, she would invoke the Lady of Purity three times in a whisper.
‘Who is the Lady of Purity, Auntie?’
Her aunt would open her arms as if she was the whole world. The Lady of Purity is the mother of the universe. She is the mother of heaven and earth. She is the only one capable of healing her. She is the mother of all gods and prophets. She is the giver of life and health. She is the goddess of sickness and death. ‘Yes, my daughter, the one who gives life is also capable of taking it away. And the one who brings illness is also the one who brings healing.’
* * *
From behind the high sand dunes, across the great distance of the night, she saw the police commissioner sitting. He was in the same swivel chair, spinning it so that he was facing her husband. He looked as if they had woken him suddenly from sleep.
‘I see that your eyelids are swollen and your lips are cracked. Are you ill?’
‘Since the Festival they have not sent us the grant.’
‘Will you never stop complaining, even in your old age? Don’t you know that His Majesty is the faithful servant who is always vigilant in guarding our tranquillity?’
‘Yes, that is totally clear, but . . .’
‘You’ve no excuse now for not writing, now that you have that new machine.’
‘Is the company intending to bring us electricity?’
‘Yes, when it comes, you can write even when there is a power cut. As you know, this new machine thinks, writes, sweeps, wipes and . . .’
‘And washes and cooks and everything. It performs the work of four wives at least.’
‘Hasn’t your wife returned from her leave yet?’
‘Do you mean the first or the last?’
‘In any case, we’re serious in our search for her. We have to submit a report to His Majesty before the end of the Festival. As you know, he’s waiting for your new article in honour of his birthday party. Do you know that he asked me about you? Why don’t you write any more?’
Since he had stopped writing, there had been nothing but worldly emptiness. Night extended into day and nobody asked after him. Spaces of darkness filled only by sleep. Or reading the newspaper, or moving his arms and legs in the air, and cracking his toes. Like His Majesty, he knew neither how to read nor write. It was not for him to try and outdo the King. Moreover, what was the point of reading and writing? All the prophets were illiterate, but in spite of that they could lead the world, couldn’t they?
He was tapping with his fingers all night. The tapping beat inside her head as she slept. The wind was howling as well, and the waterfall roared like rain beating on the windows and the doors. She wrapped her head in the black scarf, and tied it above her forehead like a snake’s head. She saw herself in the mirror, like the goddess Sekhmet. She stared at herself with red eyes, swollen at the corners.
‘Are you awake?’
She mouthed the word. She closed her eyes, pretending to sleep. She studiously shut her eyelids, but he stretched out his arm. He tried to open her eyes with his fingers. As if he would put drops in them. Nothing poured into her eyes apart from the light of the lamp. It fondled the white of her eye like a flame. He was sitting in his place covering his upper half with the newspaper.
‘Naturally, you feel embarrassed when you read your article, don’t you?’
‘Don’t speak to me in that disrespectful way. Don’t you know that I’m your husband?’
‘No, I didn’t know.’
‘Don’t you know that God has ordered the woman to prostrate herself before her husband? Come on, prostrate yourself before me, woman!’
‘Don’t you know that you prostrate yourself before His Majesty?’
‘What’s shameful in that? Everybody prostrates themselves before him.’
‘Didn’t he announce that you had received a bribe from the devil to stop writing about him?’
‘That was nothing more than a gentle rebuke from His Majesty, and I wrote a complaint to him.’
‘You complained to him about him?’
‘What’s shameful about that? Everybody complains to him about him. Come on. Take off your dirty cloak, take a shower and let’s celebrate the Festival. Instead of one bottle we have two bottles. Look!’
* * *
He was holding a bottle in each hand and spinning round, beating the ground with his feet to a dance tune. The festival drums were beating out the same tune. The earth shook under his body, and his waistband came undone. His sarwal slipped to his feet. He kicked it with his right foot and it flew in the air and then caught a hook on the ceiling. It remained hanging there swinging under the light, covered with black stains and exuding a smell of oil. He continued to dance, naked as the day his mother gave birth to him. He did a complete turn and returned to exactly the same place where he had begun.
She had thought that he was still a youth, but his naked body revealed that he was an adult. His shoulders drooped downwards. His chest was bowed under a thin coat of hair. His muscles were like slack rope and his skin was as dry as a layer of plaster of Paris that one could peal off.
Her eyes followed the outline of his body downwards as it tapered off below his stomach. An oblique light fell on a mass of hair that shook at every breath, casting its shadow on the wall. The artery of his neck was swollen and pulsating. The pale light drew it with a black line. Yes, there was real oil in his neck. In that swollen artery and in that black liquid, which flowed like blood.
She remained standing, gazing around, fully dressed. He was looking at her expecting her to take her clothes off. However, she had begun to have doubts about him. She did not know that she had to strip like him. Her only aim in staying with him was to be protected behind a wall. If the waterfall caused the wall to fall down, then there would be nothing between them.
‘OK. If the wall collapses, everything else will collapse as well.’
Perhaps she took a long time to strip. Everything happened as if it was nothing. Then the whistle rang in her ears like a scream. A scream of pain, totally black and utterly despairing. A scream without bounds, which cut through the darkness like the edge of a sword. It carried with it all the pains gathered from the expanse of the lake, and the depths of earth and heaven. Like the back of an animal laden with all the pains of the world, with the memory of humiliations and blows, celebratory parties, bottles, articles, flashing lights, mud, and all the suppressed longings for death and for return to the mother’s womb.
Everything began to come to light in the light of the scream. The moon which was rising in the heavens. The wind which was ruffling the surface of the lake. Nakedness reaching the nadir of despair. Sweat feverish with hope. Memories of an obscure childhood. An unknown room in a previous life. The chisel of a researcher without any research to do. Goddesses without any existence anywhere. Small limbs scattered around, which can only be gathered by a supernatural power, gathering them and making them into those rays that stretch from her eyes to the surface of the moon