As Though She Were Sleeping (30 page)

BOOK: As Though She Were Sleeping
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Had she not felt so apprehensive, so fearful for the baby inside, Milia would not have opposed the move to Jaffa as strenuously as this. True, she had formed a strong and intimate bond between her pregnancy and the place: it was partly Nazareth’s sacred associations, partly those frequent dream-images of the blue woman, and partly the tang of discovering secret places that she savored in her meetings with Tanyous. But in the end, she knew, a woman must follow her husband to wherever it is that he wants her to go. Yet in Jaffa there was the fear, there were undertones of death, the faces of those blond men in the church. And there was the smell of oranges replete with intimations of dying. She wanted to tell Mansour the coffin dream in hopes it would deter him from the move. But the man no longer believed her dreams. She wrapped herself in her sadness, yielded to his fierce insistence, abided his anger, and lived her two final months of pregnancy more or less alone.

She saw Grandmama Hasiba in a dream. It happened in Nazareth. She saw Hasiba and there was the French officer standing to one side. His hands reached for the woman wrapped in black but the woman stayed where she was, standing at a distance, coming no nearer. Milia went up to the officer to tell him Hasiba had married and forgotten him. His beloved could not come to him now, anyway, because she lay in bed unable to move and incapable of speech. But the officer did not hear her, thought Milia, or perhaps he didn’t understand the words she said to him. In Beirut, Milia had never dreamed about her grandmother or the French officer. What had brought the two of them to Nazareth? Milia had been convinced that the officer had never existed and was merely a story that Hasiba had concocted to justify her slowness to marry, her rejection of suitors, and her withdrawal into her own solitary world. Milia dreamed of herself as a small girl in her room in
Nazareth. The grandmother slept on Milia’s bed and the girl gazed out of the window, seeing Ferdinand in the distance, his hands out, leaning forward and then falling, and she was afraid. Mansour was not there to protect her from the creatures of the night.

When they married, Mansour described Palestine to her as a land governed by curses and sin. The fault is God’s, he said. No, he said. I’m wrong – and God forgive me if I’ve blasphemed. But human beings have never truly taken to heart the Almighty’s proclamation that one city out of the thousands that exist would be His, and that one tiny region – no bigger than a grain of wheat – would be the territory of His only son. All the wars have erupted here, and they still do – ever since Akhenaten the Egyptian realized that there is only one God. All eyes were turned to the land of Canaan because it was God’s land, and the wars began. Unending war, war after war. War will not stop until God decides either to let go of His city or to enter it. But this He will not do. Don’t be afraid – I am with you and I will not allow anything to touch you or harm you. This land is going to know many more wars but we will live far away from war. No one will dare spark off a war in Nazareth. We will live in Nazareth and peace will shade our lives.

Milia did not believe this story of peace but the man enfolded her in his words. Listening to him, she felt as though he were bearing her aloft, taking her with him as the poems he recited floated in front of her eyes tantalizingly, bringing together the two of them in a land of enchantment crafted by the man’s voice. She loved his voice, she told him, with its husky tinge evincing a brew of tobacco and coffee, its waves of tenderness swelling upward on the high seas of the ancient Arabic poetic meters, and its soft depth, which made her think of velvet. The voice carried her along, swimming through its worlds that drew her far away. And then suddenly she was discovering that this man concealed a momentous secret and had come to her to seek the refuge he believed she could provide. He promised her protection but
in reality what he wanted was to travel inside the worlds she had made, so that he could skirt the dangers hovering darkly over Jaffa.

I am not objecting to going to Jaffa or anywhere else – wherever you want to go – but because of my pregnancy I cannot go right now.

Milia could appreciate the importance of keeping the iron foundry going in service to the city’s defense – this little city on whose bowed shoulders was growing a new city trying to swallow up the old one. Tel Aviv was an attempt to legitimize the Jews’ quest to occupy the whole country. She understood all of this. But she hated the violence and the blood and she was afraid for her son.

Had her grandfather not killed her father?

Why was she saying this when she knew full well that he hadn’t killed his son?

But he intended to kill him, Saadeh told her daughter. If it had not been for God’s mercy and the purity of his mother’s heart, the boy would have departed this world.

Did the man kill his son, or at least throw stones at him, because he did not know who it was, as he claimed? Anyway, this was not so important. The real question was: what was Milia’s link to her grandmother and to this foolish legendary tale that had transformed itself somehow into a memory wrapped in nebulous indistinct dreams? For after the death of Amin, the tale returned, as Jaffa’s phantoms invaded and occupied Milia’s life during the two final months of her pregnancy.

It doesn’t matter to me, she had told him. Instead of Mansour returning from Jaffa the next day as he had promised her, he returned three days later. He said he had been forced to stay and could not find a way to get word to her. He read the doubt in her eyes, swallowed, and his voice stumbled as he said he had been forced.

It doesn’t matter to me – just no more words, please.

She heard fragments of the words her mother-in-law had said to Mansour about his marriage. The mother had told him he would have been better off not rushing into marriage. What are we going to do with the woman and her children? his mother demanded to know. She realized then that her mother-in-law had wished Mansour could marry his brother’s widow as customarily happened in the case of a brother’s death. But it was not possible now, of course.

The die is cast, what’s gone is past, murmured Milia, invoking her Lebanese idiom.

What are you saying? Mansour asked her.

I told you, it doesn’t matter to me, you can go wherever you want to go but don’t worry me like this. I am not my grandmama. I will not scream or yell or do anything. This child is enough for me.

No . . . Milia did not say these things. Nor did the mother-in-law wish out loud that her second son had remained single so that he could marry his brother’s widow. No, it was simply that Milia imagined all of these possibilities as she waited for her absent husband. Coming in, he gave her a kiss and said he was tired and needed to sleep.

What I really wish is that I could fall asleep quickly and not wake up, he said.

May such an evil not happen! his wife replied. She bit her lower lip and sensed the taste of blood.

Milia turned restlessly in bed. She heard Mansour’s voice but he seemed to be calling her from far away. She tried to open her eyes. Enough! she wanted to say as the glass bit her lips. She was sitting on the swing, the wind gusting around her. She was flying on a long wooden plank swing that was attached to the tree by two long ropes. She looked overhead and did not see the fig tree. Where was it? Here was a swing but no tree, and the garden looked more like the garden of her new home in Nazareth. Who
had brought the swing here? She decided to get off and bring the thing to a standstill. She gripped the ropes tightly, rose on her delicate legs and bent her knees to give herself leverage. She paused, pulled herself forward, and flew. She sailed upward, where there was nothing but further upward. The sky was gray and overcast with fear. Her heart dropped. Searching, she saw nothing but a gray sky splotched with fog. Suddenly her fists relaxed on the cords and let go as if an outside force propelled her upward. Her body took the form of a crucifix, arms sticking out rigidly, fists finding nothing to grasp. She plummeted. She heard screaming and the tang of blood spread over her tongue.

She opened her eyes but found no one in the room with her. Her heart was fluttering and a ringing filled her ears. She decided to get out of bed and then discovered the pain that spread across her belly as it came and went in small waves, one lapping over the previous one. She chewed on her lips and wanted a drink of water but she did not find the glass of water next to her bed. She closed her eyes and saw him. Najib stood there, covered with dust. He came toward her and sat down next to her on the bed and wept.

Why are you crying? What did you come here to do?
Get up and go to your wife. I am here now, and that’s the way it is, and you are there.

He put out his hand and took hers and in her fingertips she felt the man’s heartbeat. She wanted to cry but she did not ask him why he had done what he had done. She did not say to him that her heart was broken. How could she explain to him that, yes, a heart can be broken, and then to repair it is more difficult than mending a shattered pane of glass. She said she had left her broken heart there in Beirut but here she had found a new heart. No, no, you cannot break more than one heart for me – God forbid! She withdrew her hand from his and opened her eyes to see Mansour drawing the blanket up to cover her.

When did you get here? she asked him.

Just now.

I’ll set dinner out for you.

No, no, you must rest. I will go call for Nadra.

But Nadra died, said Milia.

Now there’s a woman! her father, Yusuf, would exclaim.

Whenever Yusuf spotted Nadra in the short dress that showed off her full brown thighs, he would go completely still and stare, his eyes hungry. In her father Milia saw how a man’s eyes could become tiny balls of fire, and how a man’s body could become the enunciation of an inscrutable desire that possessed him. In the end Yusuf died in the hands of none other than the plump midwife whom he desired until the end of his life.

The man simply toppled to the ground and could not move. Nurse Nadra described how he fell and died, even though she was not there, and her story of his death became the story of his death. He had come home very tired, she said. No one else was there. The children were at school and Saadeh was at the church. The man had come home early with a stinging headache. He drank a glass of hot sweetened orange-blossom water – what the Beirutis call white coffee. He dragged himself into the
, where he collapsed and lost consciousness. The children came home to find their father crumpled up on the floor. Salim ran to Nadra’s house and Niqula ran to the church. Nadra arrived before Saadeh did and she, Salim, and Niqula succeeded together in lifting Yusuf into bed. It was hemoplegia, she said, and there was no hope. When Saadeh arrived Nadra told her how the man had come home fatigued, drunk some white coffee, and then fell unconscious. Saadeh asked her eldest son to summon the doctor and Salim ran off while Niqula ran back to the church. Doctor and nun arrived together. The doctor examined Yusuf, felt for his pulse, took his blood pressure, and tried to awaken him but had no luck. He looked hard at Saadeh and then at the nun and said, Hemoplegia.
it won’t go on for very long. Then
he won’t suffer and you won’t suffer. The doctor left without taking his fee. The nun said she would bring the priest to their home to perform last rites. The house filled with the fragrance of incense. But the man did not die. For four days he lay in bed. Nadra came every morning, moistening her finger with water and putting it to his lips. On the fourth day when she arrived, Nadra said, It’s over. And that is how he died.

He died on your finger, said Saadeh.

God be merciful to him and to us, said the nurse, weeping.

She loved him, said Saadeh.

No, that sort of woman doesn’t even know what love means, snapped the nun. All these women know is this business.

Now what had brought Nadra here?

Milia told Musa she had begun to fear the midwife. Nadra brought death with her, said Milia to her brother.

Nadra carried a vesselful of water from which steam poured. She pushed up her sleeves and began to cough. Her cigarette end fell from her mouth into the basin and Milia heard the sound of it sizzling as it went out and the place filled with smoke.

I don’t want to! she screamed, and opened her eyes.

She saw Mansour standing by her bed with his aunt.
, my dear, we must get to the hospital. The aunt seized her hand firmly and helped her up.

Not today, said Milia. Let me go back to sleep.

Absolutely today, said the aunt.

What day of the month is it? asked Milia.

It’s the twenty-first, said Mansour.

No, it won’t be today, then. I am not having the baby today. The doctor said it would come during the night of the twenty-fourth.

Mansour dragged a small case into the room and asked his aunt to help in packing Milia’s things. Milia stared at herself in the mirror. Her entire face
was puffy and her usually pale cheeks were almost saffron. She saw black circles under her eyes. The stomach pains came again and she moaned. Mansour hurried over to her and helped her sit down on the edge of the bed.
, we must go! he said, turning to his aunt, who seemed lost among drawerfuls of clothes. Aunt, we’re not putting together a trousseau. Just a nightgown and two sets of things, that’s enough. I can bring more if we need it.

Milia found herself in the car. Mansour sat next to the driver and she sat in the backseat next to his aunt. Passing through a narrow, choked street, the car turned right and began to climb the hill toward the Italian Hospital. A flash of light lit the sky and heavy rain began to fall. Shivering, Milia complained of the cold. The aunt removed her coat and covered Milia with it. The car seemed unable to mount the steep incline. It bellowed as if calling desperately for help and the tires spun, unable to gain purchase on the asphalt.

BOOK: As Though She Were Sleeping
3.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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