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from the August 2011 issue

The Well

When Rafa‘a died, the last human desires in the bosoms of the people of Huzum village were extinguished, most of all in the bosoms of its women.  The burning desire for Rafa'as comeuppance sputtered out, for when a person dies, her memory grows flimsy and her human presence melts away…  She is no longer a threat to us because she is better and more beautiful than we are; instead, she becomes a weak creature because she dies insignificantly like every human being.  Because she no longer competes with us here on earth.

The women of the village who were Rafa‘a’s companions can no longer recall the spark of life in Rafa‘a’s eyes, her mischief, and her love of jokes.  The women of the village no longer burn with anger as they remember Rafa‘a’s legs exposed in front of their husbands and her breasts heaving with temptation when, possessed by the jinn, she was overcome with epileptic fits.  The men no longer think of Rafa‘a’s body as a memory subject to possession, because Rafa‘a has entered into the weightlessness of the void, and forty days after her death, her memory now evokes an inexplicable gloom in the spirit, turning cool breezes into the scorching heat of a sandstorm.

When Rafa‘a came to the village of Huzum, she was fourteen years old.  She hadn’t yet noticed women’s sly tricks or got the winking references in ribald tales.  She wasn’t yet aware of the reason for the words of wisdom that the women spun for her in Umm Ammar’s sitting room, and which provoked exuberant hilarity among the women while at the same time making Rafa‘a more embarrassed and confused in her ignorance.

Umm Abdallah, Rafa‘a’s mother-in-law, used to observe Rafa‘a’s shyness—Rafa‘a who every night would stretch herself out on the edge of her prayer rug as she prayed the last evening prayer, and enter into a light drowsy state.  Umm Abdallah didn’t hesitate to drive away Rafa‘a’s sleep, gently shooing her away to her husband’s room, as a reminder for her that it’s not right for a new wife to leave her husband’s bed empty in their first days of marriage for no reason.  Rafa‘a asked for nothing more than that silence on Umm Abdallah’s prayer rug, in order to arouse in herself some of the confidence that her mother had given her in long-ago nights in her village.  Rafa‘a suffered from a recurring nightmare that started when she began to fall asleep.  She would see herself in al-Ramahia valley gathering sorrel and putting it in her sleeve.  Her seven sheep were scattered behind the acacia and cypress trees, pulling up clover, wild radish, and desert grass; the sounds of her friends gradually grew until she heard them near her, and the tall, rocky mountain echoed back their laughter to the broad expanse of the Nejd.  The water in the rocky valley had dried up and its interior was colored with wild spring flowers in shades from purple to yellow and white.  Rafa‘a heard the faint sound of pebbles rolling along, then the sound grew louder.  It seemed to be the sound of a giant thobe sweeping over the pebbles, and at the moment when the sound grew close to being loud behind Rafa‘a, and before she could turn around, a giant hand descended and grabbed Rafa‘a by her waist, yanking her, lifting her up high, choking the breath out of her.  Rafa‘a woke up from her dream, her throat hurting from her smothered screaming that no one heard.  She got up afraid and embarrassed in front of her new husband.

When Abdallah came to ask for her hand, no one told her about it, but she heard her father talking semi-apologetically to her uncle, Abu Salman:

“Abu Salman, your son Salman is on the long road to an education and is away from home.  But the girl’s destiny has come her way—a wedding is both destiny and fate!”

When Rafa‘a returned from the path to the well, she found that her lambs had had their throats cut. The tall black servant girl Marzuqa took her by the hand.  Marzuqa rubbed her hair with henna, washed her skin with sidr-tree leaves, combed her hair with fragrant perfume and rose water, and wrapped her in her mother’s long abaya.  She brought her into her room, and Marzuqa sat down, telling her about her life’s long journey, about men’s games with women, and the ignorance of young girls.  Rafa‘a didn’t know why Marzuqa enjoyed remembering her old sorrows at moments like these.  Rafa‘a didn’t understand that those stories would become the wisdom of a new era—the era of her exile and loneliness in the new village of Huzum.

She had to forget Ramahiya, Salman, and her friends in the valley in order to recover, and to make it easy for her to get used to the chatter in the sitting room of Umm Ammar, wife of the leader of Huzum; to the wisecracks of Umm Fahad al-Salim; and to the stories of the women that cure everything.  Mouths are nourished by bread and the spirit is nourished by joy and the sharing of secrets.  In the next two years, Rafa‘a grew up quickly.  She came to have a bigger body and a more outgoing spirit than she had had before.  Her body now had new demands that taught her that she was a woman, and her spirit had another view of life.  Rafa‘a rearranged everything according to the preferences of her new spirit, and she forced her old spirit to descend into a deep, bottomless well.  She buried her sorrows along with it, and her new spirit sat over the mouth of the well.  She rearranged Huzum, her house, and her friends, which made Abdallah and his mother, Umm Abdallah, happy.  They interpreted Rafa’s change to mean that Rafa‘a had gotten used to their new life and that Umm Abdallah had gained a new daughter.

Rafa‘a came to be a public distraction when she would walk with her friends toward Amriya’s extensive farms to go swimming or climb the lasura tree and shake off its fruits.  The young women would gather the sour nabq fruits beside the northern water wheel, and when they drew water from the well, the eyes of young men passing by would linger on Rafa‘a alone among the women.  Rafa‘a was glad to have her friends accompany her, but she awoke in their bosoms a biting jealousy that drew blood.  Being close to her burned them as much as it made them happy, because Rafa‘a came from an obscure background they knew nothing about, so they had nothing to disparage her with to cure themselves of their jealousy.  She wasn’t like the rest of the women of the village, who were bound together by relationships of blood and kinship: they all knew each other’s failings and weak spots from their childhood and youth, and they reproached each other with them, some of them snapping at the chance whenever the opportunity arose.  So Rafa‘a remained distant from innuendos and sneers, while every one of the others was a rich target for casual slander or biting mockery that left the object of the remark accepting that this was the reality of being part of the group.

On the fifteenth day of Shawwal, when the first moon after Ramadan was full, al-Nashmi had announced to the people of Huzum that he would be marrying off his son Fallah to his cousin Juhair, and that evening, every individual in the village of Huzum believed it was his duty to support and participate in the celebration.  Everyone went, and no one remained at home.  That night Rafa‘a danced as no woman in Huzum had ever danced. She shook her braids, damp with the fragrance of henna and perfume.  She let down a mass of brown hair over her face and shook from her spirit the dust that time had accumulated there, all through the singing of the entertainer who began tugging at the boughs of her heart in a group song accompanied by a band of Dawsary tribal drummers.

O give my heart a gentle pullLike the floodwater that pulls at the sidr branches

Rafa‘a was late getting home that evening. She had the night to herself after Umm Abdallah returned and laid out her mattress in the corner far from the oven room and went to sleep.  When Rafa‘a entered the house, she hadn’t realized anyone was watching her.  Cold breezes began to put out the fever in Rafa‘a’s body, bubbling over with the beauty of the dance.   Rafa‘a’s neck glowed with warm perspiration.  The scent of roses and perfume wafted from Rafa‘a’s damp hair, spread out behind her back.  She bared her chest to the cool air and walked toward the sidr tree in order to drink from the goatskin hanging on its branch.  He was standing by the goatskin, and suddenly struck by thirst, he came to drink too.  He saw her and fell in love with her.  He couldn't resist her and possessed her body, abandoning his journey to the north.

Umm Amar said, “He entered her body and she fainted by the sidr-tree on the following night.  He was—the Bismillah upon us and you—one of the jinn, a Muslim coming from Yemen, heading north.”

Umm Amar also said, “A jinn enters a Muslim when he is in an extreme state—whether it’s joy, rapture, fear or sadness.  That’s why a Muslim must mention God’s name when he is in these states, and not let his soul take him to its extreme, so that it becomes weak and susceptible.”

Rafa‘a was no longer the way she had been before, especially after the jinn threw her down.  They said that Rafa‘a was greatly changed.  She became listless and wan.  Umm Abdallah said it was nothing more than the cravings that come over pregnant women.  But Rafa‘a still bled every month, and her belly didn’t swell up.   From that day, Abdallah stopped treating her the way husbands do.

Umm Amar said, “The jinn threw her down whenever he saw her husband, Abdallah.”  She also said that the jinn was tormenting Abdallah with the thought that Rafa’a didn’t belong to him alone.  And when they brought their black slave Mushrif, and he put Rafa‘a’s head under his armpit, the jinn began shaking Rafa‘a’s body like a feather.  Mushrif threatened him to kill him with the smell of his armpit if he didn’t come out of her.

Umm Sa‘ud laughed, explaining to her daughters that “the jinn—the Bismillah upon us and you—don’t like the smell of a black man’s armpit.  Merciful God, we are within you.”

When they found Rafa‘a’s body floating on the surface of the well, they knew that the jinn had broken her neck  For when the jinn are forced to leave a body, they deny access to anyone else.  Perhaps the jinn hadn’t forgiven Mushrif for threatening to kill him with his smell, and tossed Rafa‘a’s body at him like a rag, so he could enjoy it.

Rafa‘a’s spirit was circling near the gathering place for the men of the village.  Her long dress swept the pebbles, as in her old dream, and before it leaped into the well for the last time, Rafa‘a’s spirit heard her companion Mazna, Fawad’s daughter, talking to her sister-in-law Mawdi, on the roof of their house, as they did on humid evenings past.

“Abdallah is the one that killed Rafa‘a,” said Mawdi, her voice breaking.

“Be quiet, so no one hears you.”

“I’m telling you it wasn’t a jinn that broke Rafa‘a’s neck—it was Abdallah.  Rafa‘a didn’t come home on the day al-Nashmi’s son got married. That day, she went to meet Salman, who came back from Riyadh, at the well.  Rafa‘a hadn’t forgotten Salman, and if he hadn’t come to her, then she would have gone to him.  The jinn that was hidden by the sidr tree was Abdallah.  He had seen her when she met with Salman, and then when she saw him, she understood that Abdallah knew everything.  Her heart pounded and she fainted.  Abdallah didn’t kill her that day.  He withdrew.  He was afraid of people’s gossip, and of the scandal that would be attached to his name.  People would talk about it for a long time.  When Abdallah, after months of miserable turmoil, saw Rafa‘a near the well by herself, he knew that, although she wouldn’t go back to Salman, she was no longer his wife as she had been in the past.  So he fell upon her suddenly from behind.  Rafa‘a heard pebbles rolling under Abdallah’s feet but was unable to turn around in time.  Abdallah grabbed her neck from behind and squeezed until her breathing stopped and her body became limp in his arms.  Then he pulled Rafa‘a’s body over to the well.”

Mawdi pushed at Mazna’s hand, saying, “Are you going senile, Mazna?  Keep God in mind… Your talk will provoke blood-killings among the men.  Hold your tongue and go to sleep.”

Mazna heard the sound of pebbles rolling and got up on her knees to peer down from the low wall of the roof.  Mazna saw the waning light of a star glimmer above the well.  The star shone in Mazna’s eyes, then went out as though something was bidding her farewell.

“The Well,” by Badriyah Al Bishr, is taken from New Voices of Arabia—The Short Stories: An Anthology from Saudi Arabia, edited by Abdulaziz Al-Subayel and Anthony Calderbank, to be published by I.B. Tauris Publishers, London, in hardback in 2012. The anthology will be published in association with Dar Al-Mufradah Publishers in Riyadh, and is supported by the KSA Ministry of Culture.

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