As Though She Were Sleeping (7 page)

BOOK: As Though She Were Sleeping
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Yusuf felt the presence of death and he was afraid. He feared for Saadeh. He told himself he would accept whatever she demanded. He was ready to stop having sex with her if that was what she wanted – and if only she wouldn’t die.

He walked on in the nun’s shadow as the fear of death possessed him completely. He heard himself murmuring the prayer that his wife repeated every day.

O Lord, why have those who press upon my soul grown so numerous? Lord, many have stood against me. Many have tried to expel me from the salvation of Almighty God. But You, O Lord, You are my succor and my support. It is You who raises my head high . . .

What is it you are saying? asked the nun.

Nothing, nothing at all, responded Yusuf hastily, watching the shadow of the nun swaying before him, her huge body facing the sun, and into his mind came the old-man features traced on her face. Dense eyebrows, bulging half-closed eyes, a broad forehead, thin lips beneath a prominent nose, and swarthy olive-toned skin. A face that seemed to hold nothing but the huge nose with the three hairs sticking out at the center as if this were a cock’s crest, and a thin purplish moustache looking as though they had been drawn in with an indelible pencil.

Yusuf told Saadeh that the nun was not a woman but rather a man in disguise, a man in the shape of a woman. He loathed her and found her disgusting, he said. After all, her enormous size was not in keeping with her holiness. Saints, be they men or women, have uniquely attenuated bodies. For the body melts away, that the soul may radiate its light. But this woman’s enormous body was extinguishing her meager soul. She was akin to a man with a woman’s voice.

In that July heat, though, Yusuf forgot it all. He thought only of death. He found himself walking in this black shadow like a small boy following his mother, sheltering closely in her shade.

When the nun reached their front entrance she turned and raised her eyebrows to signal that Yusuf should go in ahead of her. Yusuf ran up the five wooden stairs and walked through the stand of lilac trees. Opening the front door, he turned back and waved at her to come in. The nun walked quickly toward the sitting room. As she entered the yellow chamber her black shadow climbed over everything. The nun gave Nadra no chance to curse in her usual way. The midwife swallowed her imprecation when it was halfway out: Where is the doctor, that son of a b . . . – as if the vast blackness of the nun’s habit swallowed the word before it could leave Nadra’s lips. The large room, blazing an excruciating yellow through the sheets hanging over
the windows, suddenly lost its hue to the nun’s large black shape, as if the sun itself had vanished. Saadeh’s trembling body grew still as the blackness flowing from the nun’s garment washed over her.

Her color! Please, Haajja, look, the woman has turned green, and I don’t know what to do, I don’t know, we must fetch the doctor.

The doctor? For what?

Her color. The green!

Where’s the green? asked the nun. There’s no green here.

On Saadeh’s body the green aura had faded to be followed by a thin blue that dimmed in its turn. Saadeh’s flesh returned to the pure and bright white it had always been, a whiteness so milky it made one imagine a deep plush velvet covering the body so profoundly that it could conceal the light in its depths, yet one knew that the light was always there. This was the skin color Milia would inherit. It would be the hallmark of her beauty, the light that bewitched Mansour enough to bring him all the way from the Galilee just so his eyes could imbibe the whiteness that shone from the body of his Beiruti darling.

There’s no blue, and no green, said the nun. This woman’s body was near to gone, but now everything is fine.

Saadeh grew calm and stopped shaking. But never before had Yusuf seen such tears. Saadeh’s tears collected on her cheeks, fell heavily onto her nightgown, and soaked her nakedness below. Yusuf stared at that morsel of flesh that through the years he had seen only as a darkened point that he would touch in search of the pleasure that God in His generosity had bestowed on human beings. He was interrupted by Nadra’s voice ordering him to leave the room.

No, let him stay here, said the nun in her reedy voice that seemed to issue from her nose. Leave him where he is, so he can see how much the woman suffers.

Yusuf had already turned to leave but the nun’s voice rooted him to the spot.

Don’t move – stay right here.

The nun ordered Nadra into position, squatting and ready to pull the baby out.

Yallah
, Saadeh, my girl. Push hard,
habibti
, my dear, just one push and it’s done, said the nun.

Push! echoed Nadra in a low voice, and knelt on the floor, her hands reaching to find the little head in its descent.

There was utter silence in the room, as if Saadeh had suddenly dropped off to sleep. Her facial muscles went lax and a white glow washed over her body. Yusuf saw his wife’s face softly stretch and expand, floating in the white light, rinsed by the drops of sweat rolling across it.

Nadra cupped her palms to receive the baby as it dropped and slid into the waiting hands of the midwife. Nadra hugged the child to her chest, forgetting in her astonishment and emotion to grasp it first by the feet and turn it upside down.

Lift her up, bellowed the nun.

The midwife stood up heavily and held the baby by its feet. She could barely wait to cut the umbilical cord, and she had not yet given the baby a slap, when her lips were already moving in a loud and joyous trill.

Saadeh told her daughter that she had not cried at birth like normal babies. Nadra forgot to give you a slap on your behind, she chuckled. So the holy sister picked you up – and no one cries when they’re in the hands of saints.

Yusuf had a different view of it. The nun slapped her bottom, he said, and then she wouldn’t stop bawling. But you didn’t hear it, woman – I don’t know how it happens, but when that nun’s around it’s as if you’ve been hypnotized.

The nun grabbed hold of the baby, who was wet with blood, and held her high, and away from her own body, as if she were going to plaster the tiny girl high against the wall.
Mabruk
– congratulations! she remarked. Milia has arrived. She ordered Nadra to wash the baby in water and salt.

Salt? Why salt? asked Nadra. We don’t wash with salt.

Water and salt, answered the nun firmly.

She turned to Yusuf and ordered him to fetch a jar of olive oil. Nadra washed Milia in water and salt, whereupon Sister Milana rubbed oil into the baby’s skin, swaddled her in a length of white cloth, and raised her above the bed with both hands as if – once again – she meant to attach her to the rough-plastered white wall.

Mabruk
, Milia has come. May God help her grow, May He preserve and protect her and keep all evil far from her, intoned the nun. She placed the baby girl on her mother’s bosom and left the room. Yusuf ran after her and kissed her hands in gratitude, the flavors of salt and oil imprinting themselves on his lips, before returning to bend over Saadeh and give her a kiss on the brow.

Milia has come, said Saadeh, staring at the wall where she saw an image on the white plaster in exactly the spot where the hands of the nun had raised the baby girl.

What’s this name – Milia? asked Yusuf. No, no. I want to name her Hélène.

Her name is Milia. She had her name from the moment she was created. You saw what the nun did; you heard her say the name.
Yaani, khallaas
, that’s that, Saadeh concluded resolutely.

Precisely twenty-four years after that day Saadeh would stand perplexed before the image that Musa had just hung on the wall in that very room, and in the exact spot where the nun had held Milia’s body aloft, cleansed with water and salt and olive oil. The mother would say to her son that she had seen that very image on the day of her daughter’s birth. Musa would stare back at her, a look of bafflement in his eyes, and he would lower his
eyebrows in an attempt to silence her. But Saadeh would not tell the whole story until a year later, when the photograph was all that remained for her of her daughter.

When the nun raised her high against the wall, the girl became an image. This is the same picture! exclaimed Saadeh. I saw it – I saw it when Milia came into the world, and beneath it I read these words you are writing down now:
but she sleeps
. I saw it all then, just as it is now.
Ya
Allah! Why didn’t I understand? Everything was already drawn, already written, in black, and the nun was murmuring the words written beneath the picture.

The photo Musa hung on the wall in the room they called the
liwan
stayed where it was. It did not drop from that wall until Musa decided to raze the old house and erect a new building on its ruins. That house, which looked like two houses side by side, and its big garden: it was the image Milia carried with her, in her waking hours and in her sleep, when she left for the Galilee. She had brought the scent of the place with her, she said to Mansour, and every morning she breathed in the old house, which sat on a rise of ground commanding the slope that led downward to the Convent of the Archangel Mikhail. The lilac trees protected the house from the swarms of gnats that invaded in summertime. Their intensely green leaves sent out a sharp odor that shielded the house from all manner of insect.

But the old house was only half of a house, and the whole structure was not completed until Yusuf married. The original house purchased by Salim Shahin, Yusuf’s father, consisted of a spacious open room, or
dar
, separated from the smaller
liwan
off to the side by arches and glass windows. There was a small dark kitchen, and a bathroom at the end of the corridor linking the kitchen to the garden, shaded by a fig tree so old and so large that its enormous trunk was split into three. From it Musa and Milia suspended a long wooden plank, making a swing that could send them soaring upward into the sky.

For the sake of Saadeh’s happiness, Yusuf had to add on to the house. He
built a bedroom, dining room, and kitchen, constructed of concrete blocks, so that the house looked like two separate properties stuck together – the airy old house, built of yellow sandstone, and the new, smaller quarters of concrete. The roof of the older house was wood layered with earth covered by a thin coating of white plaster, while the new section was roofed in cement. The house really was two distinct structures next to each other: one house through which the breeze played in the summer while in winter the rooms stayed warm; and another house that was hot and close in summertime and ice-cold in the winter. The four boys lived in the new concrete space while Milia stayed with her parents in the old
liwan
, and then shared it with her mother after the father’s death. This new family geography took place after the death of the grandmother. Hasiba had lived in the
liwan
with all of her children. After her death, Saadeh decided on major changes. She gave the boys the concrete room and moved with her husband into the spacious
liwan
. No one could find a solution to the dilemma of Milia, though. The mother proposed that the girl sleep in the
liwan
with husband and wife, but Musa was insistent on Milia staying on in his room. So Milia ended up nowhere, her mother summoning her to sleep in her room and Musa calling her to sleep next to him or on a small sofa placed in the boys’ room. Milia would have preferred to unroll her bedding on the floor of the dining room but in reality she remained nowhere, sleeping here on the sofa and there on a metal bed her mother had put in the
liwan
, carrying her dreams from here to there, and living her nightly vagabond life. The problem remained unsolved until the father died and she occupied his bed.

Yusuf died when Milia was nine. Niqula and Abdallah took over their father’s shop while their elder brother, Salim, went on studying law in the Université Saint-Joseph, and the youngest, Musa, stayed on in the Mar Ilyas-Btina School.

Three days after her father died Milia had the dream of her own birth. Seeing Yusuf stretched out in death, the girl of nine lost her ability to speak.
She heard the women’s fierce laments and listened to words that puzzled her deeply.

His beloved has come, one of the women cried.

The girl saw herself standing among the knot of women draped in black and waving their white handkerchiefs over the corpse of the man lying on the bed in the
liwan
. Milia knew instinctively that she was the beloved the woman had announced, but she did not know what a beloved was supposed to do in such circumstances. Suddenly her legs gave out and she saw herself in a heap on the floor. Too many times to count, this dream assailed her: legs collapsing, a little girl falling, and the nun rushing over to pick her up and hold her suspended against the wall. She saw herself wrapped in white swaddling and two cupped hands lifting her high, and then she plummeted.

Milia could not come near her father or look directly at his closed eyes. She could not get there, because she fell, and the taste of fire spread through her insides. The same thing happened when she watched herself approach the man sleeping beside her. She wanted to reach him, cover his body’s tremors with the bedsheet, pat him on the shoulder, and tell him not to be afraid. But she fell. She would open her eyes to banish the dream. And she would see the light creeping in through the slits in the yellow curtains over the window. She would turn her head and see Mansour sleeping on his back, his mouth slack and the sound of his snoring rising and falling. She would smile, reassured, and decide to go back to sleep.

BOOK: As Though She Were Sleeping
5.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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