My Invisible Friend
My mother went to call on her neighbor Umm Baha’. She refused to take me with her, giving the excuse that women visit women and men visit men, and she left me at home alone, promising that she would only be gone for a few minutes.
I told my cat that I was going to hang her, but she paid no attention to me, and kept on grooming her fur with her tongue.
I told the bitter orange tree in its tub of earth in the courtyard of our house that I was going to find a hatchet and chop it down, but its leaves did not turn yellow with fear.
I told the wall that I was going to butt it with my head, a mighty butt that would knock it down, but the wall laughed ironically at my threat and said defiantly: Just try it, and you’ll crack your skull and you’ll be sorry.
Then it seemed to me that someone was roaming through the rooms upstairs around the courtyard. To get my courage up I told myself that it was the air moving an open window, but I noticed that at that moment there wasn’t enough of a breeze to make even a small leaf among the tree’s leaves flutter. So I called out in a voice as deep as I could muster, standing in the courtyard and looking up attentively: Who is up there?
A joyful laugh right next to me took me unawares. I looked around me, but I saw no one, and I asked: Who is laughing?
A girl’s voice answered me:
I’m laughing. Is laughter forbidden?
I said: Who are you?
The voice said: I am the djinn of the house.
I said: I don’t see you. Where are you?
The djinn said: I’m close to you, and you can’t see me, but I see you.
I said to the djinn: What do you want with me?
The djinn said: I don’t want anything from you, but my mother went to visit one of her friends and left me home alone, and I’m bored and I’m afraid.
I asked, finding this extraordinary: Do you have a mother?
The djinn said: I have a mother and a father and an older brother who goes to school every morning.
I said: Are there schools for djinns?
The djinn said: Yes, and universities.
I said: How old are you?
The djinn said: Five years old.
I said: I’m a year older than you are.
The djinn said: Don’t tell lies.
I said: I’m two months and three days older than you are.
The djinn said: When I grow up to be a big girl, you’ll be able to see me the way I see you now.
I said to the djinn: And where do you live?
The djinn said: Here in this house. My father and mother sleep in one room, and my brother in another room, and I sleep in another room.
I said: But in our house there are only three bedrooms and a guest room and a sitting-room.
The djinn said: Your house is our house and your bedrooms are our bedrooms.
I said: And where do you sleep?
The djinn said in a shy voice: In your bedroom.
I said: What color is your hair?
The djinn said: My hair is black and long, and my skin is brown, and my eyes are green.
I said, embarrassed: I love green eyes.
The djinn laughed gaily and said to me: When you grow up you’ll love green eyes and blue eyes and black eyes and gray ones…
I said: I won’t grow up.
She said: Of course you’ll grow up and I’ll grow up.
When my mother came home and found me sitting on the ground talking to myself and laughing she said to me: May the name of God protect your spirit! Have you become mad enough to talk to yourself?
Then I told her that I had enjoyed myself talking with a little girl djinn younger than I am, and my mother said sharply: Be quiet! There are no djinns in our house! We did not move into this house until your father had a reader of the Koran with a group reciting verses come here.
My mother paid no attention to what I told her about my friend the little djinn, and she took me to our neighbor Umm Baha’, saying to her in an imploring voice: Help me, Umm Baha’! After God, I have no one but you! May God take my soul! I should not have left him home alone!
Umm Baha’ calmed her down and said to her: Don’t despair of God’s mercy!
Then Umm Baha’ put her hand on my head, and she began to recite verses of the Koran in a voice that rose and fell until I got sleepy and then I fell asleep.
I heard Umm Baha’ say to my mother in a soothing tone: Let him sleep, and when he wakes from his slumber you will find him cured, God willing, and perhaps he will remember nothing.
But I was secretly scornful of Umm Baha’ for the first time in my life, because a friend does not forget his friend, and at that moment I realized that I had not asked my friend the djinn what her name was, and I was sorry. I had not learned her name because, although I had tried to continue our conversation, I had not succeeded. I don’t know the reason she became angry and refused to go on speaking to me. But as soon as I’ve grown up, I will look for a girl with black hair, brown skin, and big green eyes.
And in my room, I no longer slept in the middle of the bed as I usually do, but I was careful to sleep on the right side, leaving the left side empty so that someone who was tired could sleep there comfortably and would want to come back there to sleep the following nights.
I wander around our house’s courtyard, bathed in the summer sunlight.
In the courtyard there are five trees: a bitter orange tree, a sweet lemon tree, a sour lemon tree, a cedrat tree, and a fifth tree which bears no fruit. I asked my father about it and he answered that it was merely a leafy green tree, and that was sufficient reason that it stay and that we protect it.
I placed my right ear against the trunk of the bitter orange tree, but I didn’t hear its heart throb and beat. And I said to myself that the orange tree was asleep, and it was surely very different from us, because when the tree slept, its heart slept as well.
My tree is asleep.
The water in the pipes is sleeping too, and it will wake from its slumber as soon as I turn the head of the faucet that imprisons it. But I am absolutely forbidden to play with water.
My cat is asleep, but she will wake from her slumber and she will begin to meow when I put a piece of meat or cheese under her nose.
The walls are asleep, I ask them questions and they don’t answer.
The earth is asleep, I walk on tiptoe on it, but I don’t wake it from its slmber.
I look up at the yellow-and-white sun, but I don’t have the power to stare into it directly, and I look at the blue sky where there is a little white cloud. I watch it for a long time, but it doesn’t move, as if it were asleep, or tacked to the blue of the sky.
The birds are the only ones awake, they fly from tree to tree, and no sound comes from them. But when the sun begins to set, the birds abandon their indolence and sing as if they were saying farewell to the sun or greeting the approaching night.
The wind is not asleep, but it contents itself with lightly ruffling the leaves of the trees, as if it were letting them know it was there. It wants them to fear its anger which will make many of their leaves fall. But the wind is vain, it doesn’t understand that the only leaves it will make fall are yellow, dead ones that the trees are happy to see gone.
And I’m like the wind, neither asleep nor awake, but I yawn, and then go and bring out a carpet on which my mother sometimes says her prayers. I unroll it in a spot in the courtyard that the sun doesn’t reach, and abandon myself to sleep, sympathizing with the birds.
The New Tree in the Courtyard of Our House
I was standing barefoot on the earth between my wild orange tree and my lemon tree. I wanted to turn into a tree, sure that roots would grow from my footsoles down into the earth, and I stretched my arms up high so that they would become two branches from which other branches would bud. My father, my mother and my brother would be surprised and would ask each other confusedly about this tree that had appeared there by itself, with no hands that planted it or tended it, and without being noticed by anyone.
But at the same time, they would take no pleasure in the new tree since they would be sad because of my mysterious disappearance. They wouldn’t have found a trace of me either alive or dead and they won’t be able to forget me. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that I had become a tree that bears fresh warm bread. Each time someone plucks a round loaf from it, two new loaves grow, so no one has to stay hungry.
Cruel men who wanted the famine to continue attacked me and struck me with their axes and I cried out, suffering, in pain.
My mother heard my cries and came running from her bedroom. She asked me impatiently what had happened to me, but I didn’t answer and I stayed in the same position on the tub of earth without moving. My mother scolded me: Are you going to go on frightening me with this stupid act?
She called my brother and said to him laughing: Your poor brother has gone mad! My brother asked me what I was doing, but I didn’t answer him because trees don’t speak. And I paid no attention to the mocking remarks my mother and my brother made about me. I kept standing with my arms outstretched in the tub of earth. And I didn’t leave it until my mother and my brother sat down to eat lunch, and then I ate voraciously because trees also die if they don’t get the nourishment they need.
The Harvest of the Bitter Orange Tree
I trotted around the courtyard of our house imitating the bleating of a hungry, thirsty sheep, and my father told me to be quiet so as not to wake my mother, who was taking a little nap since she was tired from preparing our meal, doing the laundry, and cleaning the house. So I was quiet. I made a mark with my right index finger on one of the bitter orange tree’s branches and I begged my father to lift me up in his arms so that I could pick an orange that seemed beautiful, red, and ripe to me.
My father asked me, surprised: And what will you do with it? Those oranges are bitter and sour.
I said: I’ll contemplate it.
My father said: Since you only want to contemplate it, look at it without picking it!
I said to my father in a threatening voice: If you don’t lift me up into the orange tree, I’ll imitate the rooster crowing and wake my mother!
My father laughed, and said: Your mother doesn’t hate the crowing of the rooster, and if you wake her, perhaps she’ll even make me a cup of coffee.
I said to my father, even more threatening: I’ll imitate a donkey braying!
My father said: You’re in a hurry for no reason! Wait till you’ve grown and you’ll be able to pick fruit all by yourself, without asking anyone’s help.
I said to my father: I’ll cry, and I’ll wake my mother, and I’ll tell her you beat me!
My father said: Do everything you want, but I’ll give you some advice to learn how to climb the orange tree, you’ll have to learn how to climb it so as not to fall and crack your skull.
I was angry with my father, and I imitated a sheep bleating, a cock crowing, a donkey braying, a crow cawing and a frog croaking, I cried, I put dirt in my hair, and I woke my mother, but my father didn’t do what I asked and I had to learn all by myself how to climb up into a tall tree taking care not to fall.
News From the Wall
I asked my best friend, the black stone wall, about the latest news in our house, and he told me that all was well and there was nothing new worth mentioning.
I said to him: Then why has my mother had a gloomy face since this morning?
The wall said: If the walls of your mother’s and father’s bedroom are telling the truth, the only cause of her dour expression is her disagreement with your father.
I said: And why are Mama and Papa angry with each other?
The wall said: Your father proposed moving the family to a new neighborhood, into a new house. And your mother refused immediately, saying that she loves this house and she won’t leave it.
I said: But if we move into a new house you won’t be able to come with us!
The wall said, in an ironic tone: Don’t worry. I will speak well of you to other walls, so that they will talk to you, console you and amuse you.
I stroked the wall tenderly and I said to him: But the other walls won’t be like you, and they won’t take your place.
The wall said: Stop stroking me, or I’ll cry, and it’s disgraceful for a wall to weep.
So I left the wall, and I hurried to my mother, and asked her the question:
Is it true that we’re going to move into a new house?
My mother said: When will you stop spying and listening to rumors?
I said to her: Is the news true or not?
My mother said: Your father wants to move into a modern apartment in an apartment building, and he said that he feels sorry for me, and he is tired of old houses whose courtyards have to be cleaned every day.
I said: But my father doesn’t help you clean the courtyard. I’m the only one who helps you every day!
My mother laughed, and she said: It’s better if you don’t help me! It takes me an hour to clean the courtyard, but when you help me, it takes two!
I said: I am not leaving this house!
My mother said: Don’t worry! We won’t leave this house. I’ll talk to your father tonight, and he’ll see my point of view.
I was about to ask her why it was that she always chose nighttime to discuss things with my father, but I merely told her that I would tell my father myself that we loved this house and we didn’t want to move into a house that we didn’t know.
My mother said: Little ones don’t meddle in grown-ups’ affairs!
I said: And when will I be grown up?
My mother said: In twenty years.
Ouf, I said, distressed and protesting.
And I grew silent, thinking. My mother asked me: What are you thinking about?
I said: When I’ve grown for twenty years, will you also be twenty years older like me?
My mother said: I’ll be twenty years older and I’ll get old.
I said: And will you die when you are twenty years older and you get old?
My mother said: Who knows? The young die and the old die. I could die in the blink of an eye or in sixty years.
I said: And what will happen if you die?
My mother said: You will weep for me for a few days, and then you’ll forget me, and I will miss all of you forever.
I said: I’ll visit you every day and I’ll bring you red roses.
My mother said: Don’t lie, tell the truth! Will you visit me once a day or once a year?
I said: I’ll visit you twice a day!
I imagined that I was visiting my mother’s grave, and I ran to my friend the wall, and stuck my face up against him, and he said to me:
If you keep crying, I’ll have to cry harder than you, and a wall who weeps becomes a disgrace to all walls.
I said to the wall: I’m not crying, and my face is wet because I washed it the way I do every morning.
And I imagined our house without my mother and my father and my brother, and the wall who’d be sad and wet with tears without anyone’s hand to dry them.
6 قصص © Zakaria Tamer. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.