Short story by Luay Abdul-Ilah

Whenever my sisters and I exchange memories of our childhood, I get the sensation of having been part of a story that Scheherazade forgot to tell King Shahryar. One of those tales set in a palace with forty rooms. The hero is free to roam at leisure through them all except one, which he has sworn not to enter. But, under the persistent nagging of his curiosity, he breaks his vow and opens the door to that ill-fated chamber.

To us children, the rooms were the days of our lives in our family home. Every day had a unique flavour. It was though our father wanted to instil the conviction deep down inside of us that we were the happiest family on earth. Every day he brought us a beautiful surprise. One day we’d wake up to gifts in red wrapping paper. The next day the paper would be blue, the following day green. On weekends, he would take us to see a film or a play, or to visit friends and relatives. On school breaks he’d take us on holidays abroad. What fun we had at Disneyland, in those underwater aquariums, on those artificial ice rinks!

I should add, here, that our father didn’t limit his gift-giving to us kids. Our mother came in for a good share. How could we ever forget the new car he’d surprise her with every four years, always the latest model and always more elegant than the one before? And the precious pieces of jewellery that he’d present to her with great ceremony on some occasion, or for no occasion at all! At night their giggles would drift through the air to our bedrooms, increasing our assurance that we were a truly happy and close-knit family.

Yet, there were those disturbing rumours that would wend their way to our ears from the conversations among aunts and uncles. They had to do with how our elder sister Fadwa died so and so many years ago.

I should stress, here, that I hadn’t yet been born at the time of that tragedy and that my sisters were too young at that point to recall anything about it. That must be why those whispered rumours could so easily penetrate the commotion of our waking lives, our dreams, and our doubts and questions.

“The mother involuntarily rested her arm on poor Fadwa’s nose while the two of them were asleep,” went one rumour. Another went, “She fell out of her father’s arms while he was blind drunk,” and a third blamed it on the negligent maid. I was far too young for any of these rumours to take hold in my head. I merely acknowledged that there had once been an elder sister in our house. The proof was that picture of her in our mother’s arms. Whenever we got into an argument about her, we’d rush to collect in front of it, even though it hung in a corner of the cellar where it fell in shadows and couldn’t be seen easily. We’d stare up, mouths agape, at that black and white photo of our elder sister and we’d wonder: What would she be like if she were alive and with us at this very moment? Does death really keep the people we love from growing up just like us, but on the ‘other side’?”

How could I have forgotten to mention another disturbing matter that kept taunting us for a long time, much like Scheherazade’s fortieth room? All our days went by as smooth as silk except for one that would always descend like a thunderbolt. On that day our normally cheerful and easygoing mother would turn alert and on edge, and bustle around in rapid, jerky movements. She’d burst into our rooms at some early hour in the morning, shake us awake and herd us like little lambs into the kitchen. After feeding us a hasty breakfast, she’d corral us into the cellar where we stored grain, pulses, dried vegetables and every sort of leftover junk. There she’d distribute us among the large burlap sacks or inside an old cupboard or beneath a rickety table. “Stay where you are and don’t make a sound,” she ordered. “The Stranger’s coming today. If he finds you he’ll snatch you away to where Fadwa is.”

One day I asked her, “Is Fadwa with him?” She answered with a weak smile.

I can picture my mother now as she set the table in the dining room, which we used only when we had guests. She placed two plates and a wine glass in front of my father’s chair and the same in front of the Stranger’s chair. I recall the care she took to place the two chairs exactly opposite each other. She must have been following my father’s instructions to the letter.

She would then spend the eve of the fortieth day in the kitchen in order to prepare a special meal while my father removed the best brands of alcohol from their carton and put the finishing touches on the table.

None of us children have ever seen the Stranger, I should mention. I’d be willing to bet that my mother had never seen him either in spite of his regular visits. At most, she might have caught a glimpse of his back as he left. Whenever we asked her what he was look, she’d merely answer, “He’s huge.” Should one of us ask, “Is he bigger than Daddy?” she’d nod her head sadly.

I can hear him now, in the house. The rumble of undecipherable voices. The ceiling shaking over our heads. Our hearts beating faster and faster. The noise of plates being smashed, bottles shattered, chairs and tables scraping and banging across the violet floor tiles. Suddenly, the din would subside and we’d hear an angry argument between our father and the Stranger in the dining room. But we’d only catch fragments, like the whispered echoes of crashing waves on a distant stormy sea.

Yet, the day after a visit, there was no sign of the previous night’s chaos. It was as though the whirlwind that had raged  through our house decided to leave behind a tranquil, clear blue sky. Everything was as it had been before. Every piece of furniture was where it should be. You couldn’t see a single shard of glass or splinter of broken wood. And there was Daddy, with a bright smile, to give each of us children a big hug and promise a beautiful gift and the best holiday ever during the next school break.

How often we asked our mother what made our father, who was so gentle and caring, keep on inviting such a rude and hostile guest. The only explanation she ever offered was: “Your father and the Stranger are from the same family.” No matter how we pressed her with more questions we were unable to squeeze more information out of her.

I can’t recall what made me resolve to disobey my mother’s orders to stay in the cellar during those visits. Was it my growing fear that he was going to hurt Daddy? Was it the curiosity to see what the Stranger really looked like, instead of the constantly shifting images of him that haunted my dreams? In one dream he appeared as a creature from outer space emerging from a spaceship which had landed on the roof of our house: a big round head on a tiny stick-like body. In another dream he was like a huge gorilla, his head nearly scraping the ceiling.

That day, after the clamour subsided and the cellar ceiling stopped shaking, I slipped out from behind the sack of wheat as silently as a tiger stalking its prey. The six stone stairs seemed like a thousand. Defying the inner voices that urged me to return to my hiding place and the fear that seeped through my veins like opium and made me picture the Stranger just on the other side of the dilapidated wooden cellar door waiting to gobble me up like Fadwa, I finally summoned the courage to enter the fortieth room.

I pushed open the door inch by inch. With every inch my heart pounded faster and louder as images of those horrible ghouls and ogres from our mother’s bedtime stories raced through my mind. I turned right and crept on tiptoe down the corridor leading to a small courtyard.

The voices grew more distinct with every step I took. As I approached the dining room door, at the other end of the courtyard, the voices narrowed down to two.

I pressed my ear to the door. It now seemed as though the two voices were one, but speaking in two different tones, one sharp and agitated, the other cool and composed:

– Don’t deny that you’re the one who made me drop out of university and take up trade.

– After your father’s sudden death, you had to manage his extensive business affairs.

– But my dream was to become an eminent historian. Commerce killed that dream.

– People’s lives are too short to realise even a fraction of their dreams. That’s why everyone’s consumed by remorse.

– You never stop trying to delude me with your fancy words.

– I only advised you to strive toward your deepest desire.

– Then why do I regret the choices that you drove me to make?

– Because you’ve changed. The person who made those choices then is not the same person today.

– According to you, we’re all prisoners of the past and free will is only an illusion.

– I never said that. We’re creatures who strive towards perfection.

– Once you attain it, you die… Ha! You think I’m so naive. It must make you laugh your guts out!

– Take a look around you. All your relatives envy you for what you have.

– If I’d sold my father’s property in order to finish school, I would never have gotten married.

– The worst thing mankind ever did was to invent the word “if”. With that one word, people can abolish the present in a whim and substitute alternative possibilities from the past.

– What are you trying to get at? That I’m trying to send my children back to the point of “alternative possibilities”?

– Only in your imagination. No one can budge the past, not even by a hair’s breadth.

– If it weren’t for that old woman who claimed to be my father’s aunt and persuaded me to marry my orphaned cousin, I’d still be a bachelor. What is it?.. What’s that nasty smirk on your face?

– I should have told you the truth ages ago.

– Do you mean you’re the one who sent her to me?

– That old woman was me― plus the wig and the makeup.

– So ruining my whole life was just some kind of funhouse stunt for you?

– Not at all. But I made you happy. To be a historian you have to bury yourself in the past.  I wanted you to live in the here and now.

– Who asked you to do that? Do you think there’s only one kind of happiness for everyone?

– I did nothing but to help you hear your inner voice.

– So now you’re saying that I’m the one to blame for all my decisions.

– Yes. I was only your echo.

– Did I ask you to be my echo? I warned you again and again not to visit me.

– I can’t leave you on your own.

– Why? I’m no longer a child.

– I promised your late father that I’d always take care of you.

– You’re lying again. I’ve never seen you with him.

– I knew him before you were born. Then our relationship… broke off.

– I had my fortieth birthday a week ago.

– You should have invited me, to celebrate your great successes.

– You’re lucky you weren’t there.

– Why’s that?

– I bought a gun. If you’d come, I might have tried it out on you.

A sudden silence made me freeze. What if my father opened the door and found me there?

But then, a strangulated voice pleaded, “Let me go! I promise I’ll let you alone!”

“Don’t let him out of your grip!” someone said in an evil sounding hiss.

I heard my father’s bitter voice: “Yes, you killed me while pretending to make me happy.”

The Stranger and my father had switched masks in front of my mind’s eye as I my ears pieced together the noises inside that room on the other side of the door.

A totally different image of the Stranger began to take shape in my mind: a kind elderly man with a white beard, bald head and thick-lensed spectacles. A grandfather to take the place of the two who had died before I was born. I felt sorry for him. And afraid of my father. How calmly and gently the old man spoke compared to my father’s resentful, menacing voice. Slowly I began to doubt everything my mother told us about the Stranger while the image of the tenderhearted father gradually transformed into a demon who had just removed his mask.

Human voices switched back and forth between beast-like snorts and growls. Dishes crashed on the floor.

I was now sure that the Stranger was in the clutches of a bloodthirsty gang set on wringing the life out of his frail body. It suddenly struck me that my father was those villains’ leader. I heard raspy coughs and saw my father’s long smooth fingers tightening around the old man’s neck like a thick noose. Then came the thump of a heavy object falling on the Kashan rug, a boom that made the whole house shake, and silence.

Something inside me made me thrust the door open with such force that it banged against the wall. I staggered inside and stopped, barely able to stand, my legs were trembling so hard. I was in Scheherazade’s fortieth room at last. But there were no thieves or evil genies. There was no one. Everything seemed normal. The room was dark, but the light from the four dwindling candles on the dining table pierced the enigmatic shadows. A purplish dusk showed through the window. I was certain that everyone must have vanished through the tiny gaps in the iron window grill, including my father. A groan coming from the darkest corner of the room dispelled that notion. I heard the familiar sound of my father clearing his chest and moved cautiously in that direction.

Just then, the bulbs in the chandelier flicked on. I turned around to find my mother approaching in quick confident steps. She patted the top of my head with her soft hand and said, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s going to be alright.”

My father lay on his back, on the edge of the carpet. There were dark smudges on his perspiring face. My mother wiped them off with the sleeve of her housedress. “Daddy’s fine.  Look.” She lifted him slowly from his shoulders and helped him come to standing. Then she wrapped her arms tightly around him and led him to the nearest couch.

After a few moments, which seemed like ages, Daddy opened his eyes. As my mother continued to stroke his wavy hair and thin cheeks, he said in a feeble voice, chest still heaving, “He’s gone, now. For good. The bastard. He’ll never trouble you again.”

My mother steered me toward the door, saying, “Don’t ever tell your sisters what you saw.” As though enjoying a private joke, she added, “I made sure that there were only blanks in the gun.”

Right then, my mother seemed bigger than the whole room to me. In fact, I believe I had a fleeting suspicion that she was a benevolent genie who had slipped out of the pages of A Thousand and One Nights.

Translated by Peter Daniel

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