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 Mahmoud Saeed

Translated by: Dr Shakir Mustafa.
Professor, Boston University.

Cock-a-doodle-do . . . cock-a-doodle-do. She was awakened by the cock’s shrill calls. She giggled. She turned her eyes to the window and called out at the cock. It didn’t answer. She was lying on a mattress on the floor not far from the window. The branch of a pomegranate tree studded with bright red flowers was fluttering in the wind, its tips playfully brushing against the window bars. The cock crowed again, and once more she gave that pure, enchanting giggle. She called out again and was again ignored. A nightingale landed on the window and sang for a few seconds, its tail bobbing up and down all the time. She giggled again and called to it. She stretched out her hand towards it but it couldn’t see it. The sound interrupted the nightingale’s song. It turned to one side and its round, beautiful eyes searched for the source. The window lattice must have prevented it from seeing through the window. It burst into song again, and again she called out, waving her hand in its direction, but the nightingale turned its attention to a female of its own kind, sang elegantly for her and flew to join her.

Her father stopped snoring. His prolonged, noisy intakes of breath were followed by rather short exhalations. She noticed how different it was from her mother’s snoring that had a rhythm like light tapping on wood, and different from the lighter breathing of her sleeping brother. But her eyes were still glued to the window; the songs of the nightingale and its companion were still coming from that tree. She enjoyed the singing and waited for the birds to perch near the window even though they had ignored her repeated invitations. She turned her head when she heard her mother’s words to her father, “Stay in bed. Why are you getting up so early? Misery can wait.”
“I need to get ready.”
“We still have a lot of time.”
“When I’m awake I can’t go back to sleep.”
He started to get up but she held on to his hand. The giggle came again, like a delicious musical tune this time and with enough magnetic power to draw the father to his daughter’s side. That was laughter filled with boundless happiness. She clapped her tiny hands and then stretched them as if to embrace him, or perhaps fly. Two tiny upper teeth shone like pearls and her big black dark eyes dominated the milky surrounding. When she felt his breath close to her, she trapped the air in her mouth till her cheeks looked like small, red balls and then playfully sprayed his face. Her little victory brought the giggle back. “You little rascal, look what you have done?” and he laughed.

She was still looking at him when she raised her chubby leg and held her foot with both hands. She drew it to her mouth and sucked big toe. She stopped for a second, looked proudly at him and lisped, “bib … bi …bib.” The big toe, now a red hazelnut, went back to the mouth.
His wife pushed him aside, and grumbled: “You have to torture us this morning of Our Allah! Can’t we forget for a while? At least when we’re asleep, we don’t think. Move, let me wash her.”
“Don’t show her a frowning face. She understands everything. Keep her out of our troubles.”

Almost immediately, she saw her mother bending over her, locks of her hair completely shrouding her face. Excitement filled her eyes and she let go of her foot. She grabbed a lock of hair and pulled it towards her mouth. The mother laughed as she unwrapped the tattered cloth round her daughter’s thighs. She looked at her husband and said: “Look, she didn’t wet her mattress. This is the third night in a row. I can’t believe my eyes.”
“Don’t jinx her.”
“She’s only seven months old.”
She put her on the potty. The baby started to tap the ground with her feet. Then her mother came back with a cup of milk and said, almost in tears: “This is our last spoonful of milk.”
“I told you to smile when you talk to her. She understands everything.”
The mother didn’t answer.
“When are you going to realise that children understand everything?”
“Realise what? She’s only seven months old and she understands everything? Isn’t that crazy?”
The sparkling light in the child’s eyes was gone. The father approached her and flashed a big smile. He blew air in her face. She flinched a little, then laughed. He laughed, too. She took the cup of milk from her mother and wrapped her little fingers around it. He put his open hand under it, without touching it. She took a sip and raised her head. Her upper lip had a milky stain. She looked at him as if to say “See what I can do!”
He laughed and kissed her hand. “You’re a hero. You’ve the milk bottle. A hero.”
On the verge of crying, the mother sat on one of the mattresses on the floor, her head in her hands. He guessed she was still thinking about the baby’s milk, their three-year-old son’s food and the dark future awaiting them.
“I’ll make you some tea.”
“I can’t take anything. The doctor said so.”
“You are not going to sell it.”
“What? We are not playing around. I gave them my word.”
“You are not selling it.”
“But you agreed yesterday.”
She approached him and sat on the baby’s mattress. “I’ve been thinking all night. After you went to sleep I cried and cried till four in the morning. How many kidneys do you have? Just two. Yes, you’re young now, but who knows what will happen four, five, ten years from now. What will you do if something happens to your kidney? You’ll die. A lot of people have kidney trouble. You’re sacrificing yourself. And how much are you getting for the kidney, anyway? The money will last only a few months. I did the sums last night. Not more than four months. What are you going to sell next? Your eyes? We’re not selling anything any more. We’ve sold the refrigerator, the television set, the carpets, beds, air conditioners. We sleep on the floor. Enough!”
“We’re not going to starve our kids to death, are we?”
“I’ll give Raja’ to Um Ali.”
“We’re going to sell our baby?” he shouted in disbelief.
“No, we’re not selling her. I reached an understanding with her, and she and her husband will sign official documents so that we can get her back when we want. When things change. She also said she wouldn’t mind it if we all moved in with them. Their house is nearly empty after their four sons left the country. Two floors. The second is empty. Four empty bedrooms. They want some life around them.
“I won’t sell my baby.”
“Well, then you’ll have to choose between me and selling your kidney. If you go to the hospital you’ll never see me again.”

Arabic title: “sabah mur,” published in Al-Adab magazine, 2002, No 11/12, pp108-11.

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