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from the December 2017 issue

The Stranger and the Old Lady

A stranger follows an old woman through a city’s streets at night in this charged work by Tunisian master of the short story Noura Bensaad.

 

“What do you know?”

 “Nothing.”

 “What do you hear?”

“Silence.”

“What do you see?”

“Transparency.”

“Where are you going?”

“Where my feet take me.”

The stranger walks through the city. He comes across an old lady. In her quivering gaze, childhood flows like a river in reverse. She smiles, grabs him by the arm, and whispers in his ear:

“Do you know where I’m going?”

“No, I don’t.”

She murmurs, even lower, so low that her voice is no more than a sigh:

“I’m going where she won’t be able to get me.”

“Who?”

“Her, of course!”

And the old lady turns, indicating with her finger a point in empty space.

“But there’s no one there!”

“There is. She’s there. She’s evil, she scares me.”

And he understands.

“Yesterday she got my husband, but she won’t get me.”

In her eyes there smiles the child she once was. She continues on her way, hunched over her shadow as if gathering it. He watches her draw away. Perhaps he should help her carry it. The shadow has grown heavy with the weight of years. He counts the lampposts separating her from the end of the street: one, two, three, four, five, six. A bicycle passes, ridden by a man bundled in his overcoat.

Ding, ding, ding! he proclaims gaily, but nobody hears him. With night fallen, everyone has tumbled over to the other side of life, their minds drawn on by dream.

The stranger looks to the old lady again: she’s made it past two more lampposts. A cat leaps out, as if from the very wall, its tail stuck in the air. It pads toward her and sits on her shadow. She stops. He hears her cry out:

“Shoo! Shoo!”

But the cat doesn’t move and continues to cadge a caress:

“Meow, meow, meowwww!”

So she yells:

“Let me go!” and the understanding cat moves just enough to let her pass with her shadow.

She continues walking, taking small, hesitant steps. When you’re that old, each step is a struggle, one more moment snatched from life. She bears so many years on her broken back, but in her mind she is a child again, running to hide.

The stranger decides to follow her. He’d like to ask where she’s running to for sanctuary. Eight lampposts separate him from her. He doesn’t rush, he’s got plenty of time to catch up. The old lady only has three left to reach the end of the street.

A man and woman approach, a couple intertwined, his arm around her shoulder, hers around his waist. As they reach the old lady, she straightens as much as she can, and looks at them, but they don’t see her. In the wan light of urban night, her hand rises and extends—it’s a slow gesture. An abyss separates them, but just when she believes that she can touch them, the man and the woman are already distant. And so the thin, wrinkled hand falls back alongside the body that seems to slump even more. The stranger stops and moves aside. The two beings clutched to each other appear to form a single whole: enormous head and body stuck on four legs. They don’t see him either, for love is blind to everything that isn’t it. The stranger notices the tears running from the woman’s eyes that the man collects with his lips.

The old lady has reached the end of the street, which she must cross in order to proceed upon her way. She stops beneath the semaphore. A little man, blood-red color, indicates that one mustn’t cross—danger! Then he turns to green—danger passed. With small, hesitant steps, she begins her long crossing, dragging with her her shadow that sticks to her like glue—sole remaining companion of a life worn out. Her face is lit by the lampposts on the opposite side of the roadway; her shadow lengthens behind her, stretches out, as if ready to detach itself, to flee? but she sees nothing other than the white lines beneath her feet still separating her from the life-saving sidewalk. Suddenly the blinding light of two headlights approaching at full speed. The stranger would like to cry out instead he tells himself that the old lady won’t have the time to dodge. Then the infernal squealing of braking wheels. In the night, the impact of a car violently hitting a body reverberates like an expected ending.

 

"L’étranger et la vieille dame" © Noura Bensaad. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Roland Glasser. All rights reserved.

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