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from the February 2005 issue

A Man’s Staff

I don't know why I was upset when my husband reached for the stick, grasping it and starting to twist it around. I gave him a warning look, but Ahmad is extremely proficient at avoiding my warning looks. Pretending to address my words to my father, although my goal was to nip this initiative in the bud, I said, "You must have brought that back as a souvenir of your trip. How much did you pay for it?"

My father replied matter-of-factly, "The equivalent in Malaysian currency of twenty Kuwaiti dinars."

Ahmad quickly commented, "It's simple, but beautiful. No matter how many walking sticks we see in the local market, we would never find one like this."

Recognizing his attempted evasion, I redirected attention to my first point: "It's a lovely souvenir, Father. We'll frame it and place it in the parlor near your chair."

Ahmad continued rotating the stick round and round as if it were a rare objet d'art, which in fact it was. The stick was fashioned from a pure black ebony so limpid it resembled honey or a ruby. The handle, which was curved, was an artistic masterpiece, for although it was a natural extension of the stick, it was circular and shaped like the body of a woman who appeared to be performing a ritual dance in a Buddhist temple.

Ahmad kept twisting the stick around and examining it from every angle.

My father said, "You seem to like it."

"The truth is, Uncle, that I'd like nothing better."

I yelled, "Ahmad!"

My father said, "Congratulations! I brought a set of emerald prayer beads back for you, but the choice is yours."

Gazing at me vengefully, Ahmad said again, "I'd like nothing better."

To infuriate me further, he glanced at me and, thrusting the stick toward me, said, "Fatima, be a doll and wrap this back in its special box, the way it was, till we return home."

I was forced to execute his request, albeit grudgingly. Was I annoyed because he had taken from my father a walking stick that was a rare masterpiece? I was not sure. All I know is that a woman cherishes her relationship to her father but prides herself on her husband. Her first point of pride is that he not have a roving eye scouting for gain from her family.

I inserted the stick into its silk sleeve, which had been custom-made for it. It fit-like a Barbie doll-into a plastic holder its size. This I placed inside the cardboard box.

Ahmad kept silent in the car as we drove home. I was hoping to provoke him so I could discharge the emotions that were tormenting my spirit and lighting a fire in my heart, but he did not give me the opportunity.

So I exploded: "Was it really necessary for us to leave with something in our hands so that it would seem we came to beg and not merely to visit my father?"

He replied nonchalantly, "Beg? What a bizarre idea! Since when does a daughter beg from her father or a spouse from his uncle? Fatima, talk like this is disgraceful."

"What's disgraceful is your taking from my father a present he didn't offer you."

"No, that's not disgraceful. If your father admired something at my place and took it, I would congratulate him too. This is normal among members of a family. Don't make a mountain out of a molehill."

The stick or staff was lying in its box on the rear seat. Ahmad ogled it via the rear view mirror with such infatuation that I may have felt a bit jealous.

When we reached home, he got out, opened the vehicle's rear door, and bore off the box as if carrying a bride on her wedding night. A gleam of joy and passion flashed in his eyes. His arms cradled it so fondly that I asked myself, "What does he think it is? How long will it continue to excite such enormous interest in him?"

Once inside, I changed my clothes, sprinkled cologne on my chest and arms, and then silently preceded him to bed, as if wishing to steel myself and punish him, all in one blow. I was surprised to find that he paid no attention to my silent gesture of defiance. He had entered the room bearing the box, which he opened. He extracted the plastic wrapper from inside and then slipped the stick from its cavity, revealing it veiled by its silk sleeve. It was dazzling and radiant, like a beautiful woman on her wedding night. He removed the silken vestment, exposing its nudity.

I could not keep myself from admiring it, although I was furious. I searched for an end to this weird infatuation but could think of nothing.

Ahmad, on the other hand, after turning it about and gazing at it, shocked me by kissing it, placing it beside him, and falling asleep.

I am not sure when I finally dozed off or managed to fall asleep, for I was in such an agitated state that I even considered smashing the stick and throwing the remains out the window or torching it. I was restrained only by the thought that this emotional behavior might create problems that our life could do without. I told myself, "It's only a stick. What could he possibly do with it? He's my husband, and I know him. He's like a child who cries till he gets the toy he wants. Then, he's the first to break and discard it." Perhaps it was this thought that calmed my nerves and allowed me to surrender to sleep.

In the morning, I found no trace of Ahmad. He was not in his bed, in the garden watering his favorite flowers, or in the garage. He had departed, and the stick was missing too. He had taken it to work with him. Ahmad did not return at the usual time for lunch. When he arrived two hours late, he was jubilant: "There are many things we did not know about it . . . what we need."

Hurt, feeling rebellious, I replied, "Good news, God willing."

"Imagine this, Fatima. Just imagine. Would it ever have occurred to you that there's a physician in our area who specializes in sticks and staffs?"

I retorted sarcastically, "Good gracious! What's the occasion?"

"The occasion? Could anything be more important than this beautiful Malaysian ebony?"

"You've gone to the trouble of finding a physician for it?"

"Of course," he said resolutely. "It's my prop in life; why shouldn't I seek to reassure myself about it?"

I responded angrily, although I tried to sound jolly to avoid making things worse: "Enjoy."

He laughed nervously and said, "This is the first time I've seen a woman jealous of a stick. Who would be jealous of beauty like this?"

He hugged it. The twisting figure of the dancer touched his lips, and the foot of the staff rested between his feet. The honey-pure color reflected faceted light upon his white dishdasha, turning it into a festival of colors.

He gazed at it admiringly, with sorrow, fear, and bedazzlement. I had no idea how far his attachment to this stick would escalate.

The following day, he came in looking despondent. I told myself, "If he's depressed on account of that stick, I'll be delighted."

Indeed, he remarked sorrowfully, "I found some cracks in it. Someone at work must have resented it and hit it . . . damaged it with his hands or something. It was free of imperfections when I took it."

I asked mischievously, "What did the physician of wounded hearts say?"

"Are you referring to the staff physician? He said this is a superficial wound. We hope it does not lead to any further damage. He also said this is highly unusual."

I could not conceal my sarcasm: "I see: wonders are multiplying. Show me what you have, Father of Marvels."

"Are you making fun of me?"

"Why not? So you can see the comic side of all this."

"No. I consider it a tragedy."

I laughed wholeheartedly for the first time since the stick entered our lives.

He continued: "The doctor said that this type of ebony is extremely sensitive, almost like a person, with feelings. It responds to the people around it."

I scoffed: "Glad tidings! I would say that the stick has unleashed a protest campaign against you from day one."

His expression became glum. My words apparently had struck a nerve, for the next day he called in sick to work and, bearing the staff, made a circuit of all the places where relief might conceivably be found for the condition afflicting his precious stick: the physician he had mentioned, the bureau of veterinary medicine, the bureau of agriculture, and even some psychiatric clinics.

He did not find a cure. To the contrary: the cracks spread and grew more numerous. They began to resemble smallpox blisters. The stick had become disfigured, its sleekness had vanished, its luster had dimmed, and its limpidity had disappeared.

I told him, "You've done everything you could for it, but I remember now you said this type of wood has personal feelings like a man's. I think this stick is not happy about being in our house."

He said in astonishment, "Have I mistreated it in anyway?"

I replied, "A person who's in the wrong never realizes he's at fault. It may have a grudge against you, or perhaps me; so don't be upset."

He asked, "Do you actually believe that?"

I said, "We can always try."

"Try what?"

"Returning it to its master's house."

He interrupted me sarcastically, "Is that your goal? No . . . ."

I replied, "If its condition improves, we'll reclaim it once more and then attempt to reconcile it to us, using tree talk."

He laughed, considering this a pleasantry, but agreed I could take the stick and return it.

I was happy to take it back to its original owner. My father was astonished when he saw the box. He was even more astonished when he saw the disfigured state of the stick. He looked sad. He touched the stick affectionately and placed it on his lap as he drank his evening coffee in the parlor. He left it there in the seat when he rose.

The next morning he remembered it. When he went to retrieve it, he found that its former limpidity had returned and that a green bud had sprouted from the lower tip.

Read more from the February 2005 issue
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