Sitt Munira's War
"Mama! Sana shouted. "There's a man outside!"
The moment Sitt Munira was awake, she thought, How will I get her medicine, because Sana would be up and about, maybe walk into the kitchen while Sitt Munira was crushing the pills. She blinked. Her eyes felt gritty. She saw the lines of sunlight on the bedcovers, the closed shutters, and she remembered, It's afternoon. She shook Sana's hand off her arm and said, "What?"
Sana explained that she had found him only now, when she went to cut flowers. She led her mother to the front door, opened it a crack. She refused to open the door further so that Sitt Munira had to tilt her head and peer out with one eye. Through the hot summer light, she saw the man sitting in the shade of the oleander, head hanging over his chest so his face was not visible. His blonde hair was cropped like a soldier, and his wrists, bound with rope, rested on his knees. His arms were streaked with blood. Sana shut the door, almost catching Sitt Munira's nose.
"Who do you think he is?" Sana whispered. She looked thrilled. She stood with her back to the door, palms flat against it. "He's hurt."
Sitt Munira was bewildered by this glimpse of her courtyard. It was impossible, this strange man outside. "I'll call the police," she said.
"The line's dead again. I already checked."
A sliver of light shot across the stone threshold as Sana opened the door again. Sitt Munira gently pushed her aside. He had not moved.
"He must have come last night," Sitt Munira said. The Druze and Shia militias had been fighting over West Beirut for days; anything could have happened in the din of the shooting. She imagined this man crawling into her courtyard. Or maybe he had been left there by others. She tried to recall specific noises from the night before.
"How long did I sleep?" She felt drained. She rubbed her eyes.
"About two hours," Sana replied. "I cut the pattern for Mrs. Namani."
Sitt Munira nodded her appreciation. Her daughter was so resilient when it came to filling the sewing orders. She could operate on no sleep at all, like a machine. The shooting last night had continued until dawn, so that they had slept only a few hours, and Sitt Munira had given in to a nap in the early afternoon. She looked at her daughter's black eyes, which were opaque, as if a wall lay just beneath the surface, but she could find no hint of trouble.
"We'll have to go to the police station," Sitt Munira said.
Sitt Munira dressed in her formal gray suit, to impress the police. Sana waited on the edge of her bed after tying her long hair into a bun. She looked older than twenty-two in her spinster black skirt and pullover. Sitt Munira had given up trying to make her wear jeans like other young women, to maybe try make up. Sana was so solemn, and she moved with caution, as if ever on the brink of danger. Sitt Munira chose the heaviest umbrella from the stand in the foyer, in case the man attacked them. Sana did not question the umbrella even though it never rained in summer.
They closed the door as silently as possible and tiptoed down the stairs onto the cobblestones, but the man's head lifted as they passed him, and Sitt Munira froze, gripping the umbrella. She saw the blue eyes, the scraped cheeks, the mouth hanging open. The man's tongue wiped his lips and then he mumbled something in a cracked voice, words they did not understand, and Sana said, "He's foreign!"
Sitt Munira's imagination flew to the vision of a hapless tourist caught in the fighting the night before, beaten up and left for dead in her garden. Or maybe he was a business man, or a journalist. A journalist! She leaned towards him.
"Journalist?" she said loudly, as if he were deaf.
He squinted at her, then nodded his head slowly. Sitt Munira saw that he was only in his mid twenties, if that. He was scowling. Maybe he was in shock. Sitt Munira followed his gaze to the gate that was ajar, the empty street. She heard the distant beeping of cars, people's shouts muted by the heat. The odor of the garbage on the corner hung in the air. There had been no collection for two weeks.
"He's really hurt," Sana whispered. She touched her mother's arm. "Should we get him something to drink?"
He seized the glass with both hands and gulped the water. His wrists were raw from the rope. Sitt Munira thought maybe he had been dragged on the road behind a car or a jeep, because of the way his shirt and jeans were ripped, and the deep scrapes on his face and arms. She had heard such stories. She felt pity for this young journalist. Maybe it was his first assignment. He smiled briefly and closed his eyes again. Flies buzzed, settled on his face. She waved them away. They could not leave a journalist like this, with the flies, the heat.
"Get up," she said, tugging on his arm. "Come on. Get up." He leaned forward, balancing his weight on his palms, and pushed himself to his feet. Sitt Munira was taken aback by how tall he was. She had already started to think of him as a boy. She teetered when he leaned on her. He smelled terrible. Sana ran ahead to hold open the door, her heavy shoes clunking on the cobblestones.
They settled him on the couch in the living room after covering it with two old sheets. Sana collected gauze, sulfa powder, scissors and piled them on the coffee table. Then she ran to the kitchen to heat water. Sitt Munira was pleased to see how well Sana was managing. She would have to send her for more water soon. The taps had been dry for months. They pumped water from a well a few blocks away and the line was always at least an hour long.
"How did you end up like this?" she asked him as she cut the gauze. He did not answer. He did not seem to understand her words. Probably he only knew the word for journalist, so he could get through checkpoints. She stared straight at him. "You silly boy," she ventured, but his eyes did not stray from the gauze, following the swift snipping, the journey through the air onto the small pile she was making.
He looked wary. Maybe he was scared. She imagined armed men breaking into the house searching for him, but ignored this. He had already been left, it was over. She wondered what he had done. Journalists tended to get into trouble. She heard stories all the time. They wandered into the wrong places, thinking their press cards would guarantee safety. She hummed a little, thinking it might calm him. Today's sewing would be delayed. She felt a thrill of importance for rescuing this journalist.
He mumbled something, a question, and held up his hands. They were still tied with the rope. Sitt Munira told Sana, "Get a knife."
When his hands were free, she cut away the t-shirt to tend to his arms and chest, but she became aware of Sana sitting on the arm of a chair, picking her nails.
"You should tell Abu Mustafa," she said. Sana did not immediately respond, and Sitt Munira looked at her as if to say, Well? Sana strode down the hall, slammed the door. Neither of them liked Abu Mustafa, but he was the closest person available. He could go to the police for them while they watched over the young journalist.
When Sitt Munira poured capfuls of peroxide onto his face and arms he did not flinch, just fixed his gaze on the ceiling. What a brave young man, she thought. Bruises were starting. The whites of his eyes were blotched red from broken blood vessels. His face was grim, even angry. He did not seem to realize he had been rescued.
She taped the gauze, smiling at him. "You'll be fine," she said. She could not bring herself to remove his jeans to dress the wounds on his legs. She took off his boots, which had no laces. His feet were grimy with dirt and sweat, so she wiped them with a washcloth and sprinkled baby powder on them.
When she was finished she pulled a sheet up to his chin and tucked it under his shoulders. He fell asleep at once. Then Sitt Munira settled in a chair and listened to his snoring fill the room. It was a sound she had not heard since Najib had divorced her and moved to the mountains. She wondered what he would think, to see this man on the couch. He had been gone for almost seven years. He had left the day after he drove Sana, then sixteen, back from her first and only stay at the hospital. Sana had been dazed and oddly sweet from the shock treatment, like a baby, but he had left anyway. The house had settled into a different kind of quiet, and for two nights she had lain rigidly in her bed, staring into the dark and listening for sounds from Sana's room. On the morning of the third day after his departure, she had separated the twin beds with a table and a lamp, swept the new space, and moved Sana in with her.
This young man's snoring was different from Najib's, not as harsh. In sleep, that strange anger dissolved and she could see despite the patches of gauze that he must be handsome. His eyebrows were so blonde they were almost white. His nose was straight and long, like that of an aristocrat. The nostrils were rimmed with dried blood.
Sana returned weighed down with bags of groceries. She said Abu Mustafa would send his nephew to the police.
"I bought food for him," she said.
Sitt Munira looked in the bags, saw rice, squash, fruit, even strawberries, and a large bottle of Pepsi. "But he won't be here that long," she said, surprised.
Sana started putting the food away. Sitt Munira examined the way her daughter moved so quickly, as if she were nervous. It's not unusual, she reasoned. After all, nothing like this ever happens.
By dusk, Abu Mustafa had not yet contacted them and the young man woke with a jump, as if he had been hit. When he caught sight of Sitt Munira and Sana on the couch opposite, he sank back down. Sitt Munira said, "It must have been a dream." Sana nodded, eyes fixed on a point somewhere between the floor and the couch where he lay.
Sitt Munira gave him tea and buttered bread because she thought his stomach might not handle anything more substantial. He drank and ate without speaking. He looked thoughtful. She mimed, Are you all right? He nodded. She wondered if he needed to use the bathroom but did not know how to ask.
"Sitt Munira," she said, tapping her chest. "Sana."
He nodded, gave a small, polite smile to each of them. Sitt Munira pointed at him, twisted her wrist in a question, but he had closed his eyes.
"Do you think he understood?" Sana asked.
An hour later, Abu Mustafa stood in the living room with one hand twirling the point of his mustache, the other on his hip. Sitt Munira did not like this ugly old man looking around her living room, at the furniture, the wallpaper. He was too curious. He said, with a touch of satisfaction: "The police can't come today. But they have no reports of anyone missing." He peered at the journalist, who glared back at him. Sitt Munira was disconcerted.
"He must still be in shock," she explained quickly.
She waited for Abu Mustafa to respond, to say he would remove this man, maybe drive him to the hospital, but instead Sana asked, "So will he stay here, then?"
She did not sound too concerned, Sitt Munira noted. Her daughter was fiddling with the hem of her skirt. Sitt Munira stared at the hands moving like pale birds above the austere black material, fluttering back and forth along the hem as if it were the line of the sea. She moved to Sana's side. Sana's hands dropped together, one above the other.
"Can't you take him?" Sitt Munira said to Abu Mustafa.
"Take him where?" Abu Mustafa grunted. "He fell in your garden, not mine."
At night, Sitt Munira could not sleep. He must be awake, she thought. He's not snoring. She pictured him lying there on the couch, eyes wide open. She thought of him leaving tomorrow, because probably he would be well enough, and wondered where he would go. She had shown him to the bathroom off the kitchen and he had bandaged the wounds on his legs. He had smiled more often, but did not speak. He did not even try the telephone. Probably he knew it did not work.
As the night passed on, minute by minute, her thoughts turned to Sana again, to what would become of her. Sana was on her side, facing the other way. Sitt Munira knew exactly how her daughter looked in sleep, the faint troubles of her dreams marked in the lines between her brows, the mouth just open, hair over her cheeks. Sitt Munira imagined again becoming ill and dying, or maybe getting shot, and she still did not know who would take Sana, certainly not Najib, certainly not Giselle, Sana's older sister, who traveled with her banker husband in the East, arms jangling with bangles and the half-moons of her nails pale against the red. Sitt Munira felt the dryness in her throat that came with this anguish, the tight clench of her heart, and she strained to see her daughter through the dark.
She heard the soft, odd movements from Sana's bed, the quick slip of a breath, and she stiffened. Sana turned onto her back, and her knees lifted under the blankets. Sitt Munira knew she was asleep, that this happened only then, that she had no knowledge of it. Sitt Munira turned away, the shame burning her face, and she stared hard at the gray opaque glass in the doors that separated them from the living room. She pressed her palms to her ears and heard the beating of her pulse. Images of moving away came again, away from this dark house, the war, of paying for Sana to have a room in the asylum, which had been recommended years ago, and then the guilt made her want to cry. Dr. Hashim had said, It is a matter of the responsibility. It would be easier on you. But Sana could not live in such a place. She was fine, as long as she had her medicine. Sana turned on her bed and mumbled softly, and Sitt Munira closed her eyes. I am her mother, she had said to Dr. H!
ashim, and he had been put in his place.
At dawn Sitt Munira woke, crept past the man to the kitchen and set water to boil. She washed her face in the bathroom. Through the window high in the wall she saw the bare white sky. It would be hot again today. She wiped the sink with the washcloth, checked the floor for dirt. She poked the marigolds and oleander blossoms that Sana had arranged in a bowl. The odor of urine shamed her, but water could not be spared to flush.
She was counting out the pills when she heard a sound, and she looked up to find the journalist leaning in the doorway, his breathing a little harsh, as if the effort of walking had been too much. He looked towards the bathroom questioningly and she said, "Yes, go." Her fingers closed around the pills. She gestured him towards the bathroom with the pestle, but still he did not move. He was looking at her hand that covered the pills.
There was nothing to be done, Sana could wake at any moment. Sitt Munira crouched down to shove the bottle into its hiding place. She crushed the pills swiftly and prepared Sana's tea. All the while, he watched from the doorway.
"Are you ill?" he said, and his voice was so soft that for a moment she did not realize that she had understood him, that he had spoken in Arabic. He had a slight accent. Her words came back, You silly man.
"You pretended not to understand Arabic," she whispered.
"Did I?" He frowned. "I don't remember." Then he looked around the kitchen, said, "How long have I been here?"
"Just since yesterday." Sitt Munira recalled the coldness of his look, the way he had seemed to follow everything that was happening. She searched his eyes to find the lie but he looked innocent. Maybe he was even younger than she had thought.
He nodded at the tea cup, repeated, "Are you ill?"
Sitt Munira nodded, pointed him towards the bathroom. He hesitated, then smiled, as if defeated. "You know," he said before he closed the door, "I'm just a journalist. I'll write a story about you before I do you harm."
Sitt Munira listened to him pee. It was loud. She remembered bursting in on Najib once, early in their marriage, how enraged he had been. As if she had caught him in an act of weakness. She searched the walls for cobwebs. The vaulted stone ceiling curved to a tiny square window above the sink. It was always dark in here. She stirred the tea, clinking the spoon against the sides of the cup.
"There's no water," she shouted, to remind him.
"I know." His voice was muffled. She heard the lid of the toilet seat clunk down, then water being poured into the sink. She had filled the pitcher for him.
"What newspaper are you with?" She stood just outside the door, holding Sana's cup. She heard water splashing, his feet shuffling on the floor.
"I'm a freelance," he said at last.
Sitt Munira remained outside the door, tensed with wanting to explain everything, explain the pills, and then to ask him to please be so good as to leave, they had work to do. What was he washing? His face was too damaged. He would need a shirt, too.
He waited while Sitt Munira fluffed and folded the sheets he had slept on, and then he sat down. He had removed the gauze on his face though the wounds had barely started to scab. Sitt Munira thought they should be cleaned again. They could get infected. She chided herself for wanting him to leave. He was hurt, young, didn't even know to leave the gauze. Probably he felt embarrassed.
She smiled at him, feeling kinder, and said, "You need a shirt."
He shook his head. "I feel fine," he said and grinned. She saw that farther back in his mouth one of his teeth was missing. He ran his finger along the glass top of the coffee table. He examined the tip, turned it to her. "No dust."
"Yes," Sitt Munira replied, taken aback. "I know."
Sana came out of the bedroom. She had asked immediately upon waking if he was still there. Sitt Munira had told her yes, and that he could speak, too. Now Sana nodded at him, almost regally, and sat on the edge of the couch. She looked like she always did when they had company, alert, ready to have a conversation. Sitt Munira noticed her clothes, the gray skirt and the pale silk blouse. Sana was dressed up. Sitt Munira was embarrassed by this display of politesse. She wanted to protect her daughter from the man's gaze, the way he would be able to tell how carefully Sana had pinned her hair, see through the clumsy expression of interest.
Sana set her tea cup on the side table. He will recognize the cup, Sitt Munira thought, and she looked at him fearfully.
"I really would appreciate some tea," he said. His words were directed at Sitt Munira, but he was looking at Sana, who quickly focused on the floor.
Sitt Munira nodded graciously, and then she asked Sana if she would be so good. Sana walked stiffly, almost too slowly, as if she might trip. It's no wonder, thought Sitt Munira. He doesn't even have a shirt.
"So it's not you that's ill," he said, wagging his finger at her. "I caught you."
Sitt Munira was astonished. "She can't know," she whispered, to explain. "She will not take it. She refuses."
He sighed, as if mulling this over. She heard Sana's movements in the kitchen. She said, "Do you understand?"
"What's wrong with her?"
"That doesn't matter." Sitt Munira sat straight in her chair, hands folded in her lap. She gave him a look to convey her displeasure at this question. To her surprise, instead of apologizing he groaned, slumped back.
"All right," he said. He looked bored.
Sana set the cup next to him, returned to her place on the opposite couch. She searched through the bowl of cigarette packs they kept for company, selected a brand. The journalist grinned as Sana blew smoke rings, and she smiled back politely.
"You'll be well enough to leave today," Sitt Munira said.
Sana tapped the ash, started on more rings. They passed through each other. She had been doing this for years.
"Maybe," he said. "But I do feel quite weak."
There was no electricity until evening, and the gas lamps on either side of the couch where Sana sat gave off a dull yellow light. The silk shirt she wore was shining softly. Sitt Munira gazed at the dark hairs on her daughter's arms. Giselle had such hairs and of course removed them, and her arms were always smooth and tan.
"The dress for Mrs. Namani should be finished today," Sitt Munira said.
"It will take no time at all," Sana replied.
Sana spread the material on the sewing table in the corner of the living room and started to baste. Her hands moved with a deftness that Sitt Munira was starting to lose. It was mid-morning.
"So what happened to you?" Sitt Munira finally asked. She had waited long enough for him to offer this information.
"I was on the wrong side," he said. He was flipping through a magazine and now he held it up to her. She stared at the woman in white lingerie. "Then you two angels, like this angel, found me."
Sitt Munira saw the wine-colored stains on Sana's cheeks, the quickening of the needle through the material. He dropped the magazine onto his knees, rubbed his scalp.
"What do you mean?" Sitt Munira asked.
He waved the question away. "It's a long story."
"Where are you staying? We could take you." Sitt Munira imagined he probably had a room in the big hotel where all the foreign journalists stayed.
"My legs hurt," he said after a moment. "I think I should have some more rest."
"We have work to do," Sitt Munira said lamely, and in the same moment Sana asked, "Are you hungry?"
He ate the rice and beans quickly. His fork clinked on the plate. There had to be someone he needed to notify, but he had shrugged away the question, as if it were of no consequence. Sana had cooked the food for him, singing to herself as she always did, then giving him one of the cloth napkins instead of the kleenex they usually used. Sitt Munira wished Sana would be rude to him. She was starting to feel worried. Why did this young man not want to leave, to contact anyone? Sitt Munira wondered what her daughter was thinking, if she had the same concerns. Doctor Hashim, patting her shoulder, had said, Sana won't feel a thing. Her days will go by in tranquillity.
"Come to the bedroom. We need to choose material." Sitt Munira stood up and Sana followed without argument.
"How do you feel?" Sitt Munira whispered when they were in the bedroom. The unfamiliar words stumbled in her mouth.
Sana looked bewildered. "I'm sleepy."
Sitt Munira rolled out the material on the bed. The prints were all dark, hazy. So many funerals, she thought, that I don't even buy light material anymore. Nobody wants clothes that are for fun.
"I mean, how do you feel about this man being here?" And then she remembered they still did not know his name.
"He's pleasant." Sana shrugged, ran her palm over the material. "What order are you thinking of?"
Sitt Munira sent Sana for water in the early afternoon. The journalist stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips, watching Sana until the gate clanged shut and she was gone. He surveyed the courtyard, breathed deeply. The sun emptied all color from the stones and walls and the plants drooped, leaves curled brown. "It's a stunning day," he said. "A day for the beach."
He sat at the kitchen table while she scraped into a bowl the yogurt that had drained through cheesecloth all morning. She shaped a hollow in the labneh with a spoon and sprinkled thyme. He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms. She nodded at him, encouraging him to speak.
"This house is too dark, too dismal," he said. Sitt Munira stopped, the oil decanter suspended in mid-air. "Whoever heard of a living room without windows? And it looks like the furniture is from the last century." He jabbed a finger into the labneh before she could pour the oil, sucked on it. "I prefer modern things. There isn't even a stereo," he continued. "How long have you lived here?"
She covered the hole he had made in the labneh with a quick swipe of the spoon. "This house was built hundreds of years ago. You have no respect for history." She inspected the bland blue eyes, the puffy lips. He is so young, she thought. "Isn't there someone who will worry about you?" she asked. She poured the oil in a swift circle, caught the stray drops on the decanter with her forefinger.
He did not answer. Instead, he got up, and with a sly glance, he reached under the sink. She saw a tattoo on his shoulder blade. It seemed to be writing of some sort, and a strange creature, half lizard, half man. She wondered fleetingly if he was a sailor, because sailors always had tattoos.
"Haldol," he announced, reading the label. He shook the bottle. "What's Haldol?"
Sitt Munira reached but he lifted the bottle higher. She felt a weakness in her legs and sat down, her palms on the table, pressing against the wood. The pills clicked as he shook the bottle again.
"It's an anti-psychotic," she said, and her voice relieved her, it was so calm.
He sat opposite her, set the bottle on the table. "Aha. She's crazy." He looked pleased, eyebrows lifted as if seeking confirmation. The red in the corners of his eyes was disconcerting. She could not imagine what he looked like without these injuries. She wondered suddenly where his mother was.
At the vague image of a child in a mother's arms, she managed to fix her most intimidating gaze on him. He looked away.
"You haven't even given us your name," she admonished.
"I can't remember it."
"Don't be foolish," Sitt Munira said briskly. She was cowing him, she could tell by his pout. She thought he might feel ashamed, but then he started to laugh.
"You know, this house is very strange," he said. "It's dark, there's a psycho, you and your secrets." He paused. "What do you think I'm going to do?"
"I think you are going to replace the Haldol, and then, when you are better, you are going to leave and go back to your job." Sitt Munira felt her control had come back. She was older than him, after all. He knew nothing. Just a stupid journalist who couldn't even stay out of trouble, and who wanted to play at being mysterious.
"I'm not going back to my job. There's not enough money in it, you know." He tipped the bottle back and forth between his index fingers. The pills tick-ticked.
"Maybe you are not writing enough stories," she said.
He shook the bottle. "I like this sound. I bet Sana hasn't heard this sound."
She could not think of anything to say. The light from the window illuminated a beam of dust between them. She gazed at the calm drift of particles.
He stood up, sending the beam into chaos, and replaced the bottle. "I want to know why you don't tell her." He was smiling, cajoling. Sitt Munira wanted to slap him. Her thoughts darted to Abu Mustafa, the police. They might come today.
"She won't take it. If she doesn't take it, she's unmanageable."
He looked like an impatient teacher who had gotten the wrong response from a student. "What is her problem, exactly?" he said slowly, as if to get something through her head.
"She's schizophrenic." Sitt Munira paused. Maybe if she explained, he would realize how uninteresting it all was, how many years had already passed and how many were to come. "It started when she was sixteen," she said. "She's twenty-two. Nothing changes. Do you understand?"
"Oh come on. That's impossible. They have cures for these things now." His surprise seemed genuine.
"You don't know anything about it," Sitt Munira chastised him.
He folded his arms, brooding. She thought, I've offended him.
"I really think you need to contact someone," she said, trying to be persuasive.
He said, "Yes, you do." He stood up abruptly and his chair teetered. He slammed it into place and left.
She stayed at the kitchen table, unable to eat, staring at the moat of oil in the labneh. He is young, she thought, and he wants to be dangerous.
Sana returned with two gallons of water and placed them side by side in the corner of the kitchen. She hung up her coat in the foyer and smoothed her hair in the mirror. Sitt Munira saw her daughter through this young man's eyes, the plain, slightly pocked face, the clumsy, thin body, and she was ashamed. Stand taller, she thought, smile. The length of years invaded her, the coming and going of days barely fluctuating, lifted into action only by gatherings now and then, by days of cooking feasts or by a swell of orders for a wedding. This house is dark, he had said, and she searched the green and black carpeting, the few old gas lamps from the last war whose light did not even reach the high, gloomy ceilings. The television was never on, the radio only rarely. They had lost interest in tracking the war, relied now on word of mouth in the stores, from customers. Silence had devoured this house. Every day she sat beside Sana at the sewing table, both !
working without speaking. The only sound here, unless company came, was the whirring of the sewing machine, the dull rise and fall of the hum, the click-click of the foot pump.
She pictured Sana's grim concentration, the skillful handling of materials, even silk. Had the doctors been mistaken? Was she, in the end, responsible for Sana's silence, for this barren life? But Sitt Munira had tried once, a year after the hospital, to stop the medication. Giselle had visited at this time and had taken Sitt Munira aside, her face murderous. What do you think you're doing? You think you can cure her all by yourself? Sitt Munira had accepted it then, the sentence that fate had passed on her younger daughter. It was Sana who did not want anything, Sana who seemed perfectly content to spend her days sewing and cooking and cleaning. Her daughter traveled on the edge of some terrible collapse, and it was only the tiny white pills that kept the darkness at bay.
"How are you?" the man asked Sana, who smiled politely and said she was fine. She disappeared into the bedroom and he looked questioningly at Sitt Munira, as if to ask, Was that all right? She stared at him in amazement. He really thought he could get through to Sana.
"Don't you want some exercise?" she said.
"You just want to lock me out." He drew his legs onto the couch, groaned. "This is the most comfortable place in the world right now, even if it smells like mothballs."
"I don't think you are a journalist," she blurted, and then held her breath.
He laughed, eyes still closed. "So what," he said. "Not anymore, at any rate." He sighed. "You know, I don't agree with the way you treat your daughter."
Sitt Munira was dumbfounded. She looked at the doors to the bedroom. Sana might have decided to nap. She liked to sleep sometimes during the day.
"Do you have any idea?" she whispered. He raised his eyebrows, mocking her, she thought. "Do you realize what it is to find your own daughter banging her head on the wall, breaking everything? How dare you think I haven't done anything. How dare you." She sat back, adjusting her sleeves at the wrists, certain she had humbled him.
"I just don't agree," he whispered back. He propped himself up on his elbow. "It's not possible," he explained, waving his hand, "for a person to be that way. Has she ever had a boyfriend? That's what she needs." He lay back down. "Though she's pretty ugly," he added, as if conceding to some invisible argument.
Her eyes blurred. Sana's face, she knew it so intimately, every centimeter, every dip in the skin, every lash -- she had held this face in her arms, gripping her shoulders as they twisted and jerked for freedom, the eyes narrowed with the spite, even hatred, growing out of that inaccessible cave deep within her. She had often imagined the powdered pills creeping through her daughter's body, winding their way to that place no one could see, seeping into the rage and distilling it, leaving a dark, flat pool in the depths of Sana's mind like a subterranean water source. Sitt Munira sought this pool now, she groped for it, but instead she found only Sana's naked, bony body, the scarred wrists, the strangely limp pubic hair that Giselle had taunted her about when they were younger. Giselle had never been able to tolerate Sana's madness. No one had. Only me, Sitt Munira thought. I am married to my daughter.
The young man had unraveled a spool of string and now wound it this way and that around his fingers.
"The police will come today, at some point, you know," she said coldly.
"So I heard."
"So you did understand, all along."
He grinned. "I'm not silly, by the way."
She nodded. "What do you want?"
"To stay here a few days. Then I'll go. I need money, too."
Sitt Munira saw from a distance this calm that had descended upon her, and she thought, Even with the war, even with Sana, nothing like this has ever happened. A faint pride came to her for this ability to handle the situation. She considered saying, I don't care if you tell her, to see what he would do, this stupid boy, but then she recalled Sana years before spitting the words, I am not sick, when the sweetness had started to sift out of her only weeks after leaving the hospital, and the glass of water had whipped through the air, smashed into the wall. Sana had ground the pills with the heel of a shoe, grimly crushing every last fleck out of existence while Sitt Munira sat on the floor, sobbing.
"I will have to go to the bank," she said.
He considered this, then shook his head. "Don't make things up. I know your kind. You hoard things away. Look at this room, for instance. What's this thing for anyway?" He snatched the small blue vase from the side table, waved it at her, replaced it. "You can't even put flowers in it. And those shelves, all those pictures and plates, and the salt and pepper shakers, now those really have a function, don't they." He grinned at her. "I'm right, no? You have money here, hidden away somewhere, and that's what I want, the money that you keep under something, or in something, in case the bank blows up."
After a silence, she said, "You speak so well."
"Young journalists don't speak Arabic so well, usually."
He groaned. "Please don't play games with me."
Sitt Munira examined her face in the mirror. Old and pale, the skin puckered at the eyes, the lips. She bared her teeth. She had not been to the dentist in years. It was too expensive. She patted her hair. She filled the sink with water and washed her hands and face, spread Oil of Olay on her cheeks. Giselle was always bringing her creams and cosmetics. Every time she visited, she left a small plastic bag with samples. Sitt Munira liked the creams, the soft flowery scents. She imagined stabbing the man with her scissors. Who would care? There were no trials anymore, no judges or lawyers or fines. The police would come, they would get rid of this stranger. They would not care. She pressed her palms to her face, sniffed the cream. Impossible. He would not tell Sana.
In the late afternoon, Sana prepared kousa mehshe. She carved out the insides of the squash, piled the hollowed vegetables on a plate. She pounded the rice and beef with her fists and shaped the mixture into a ball. Sitt Munira opened a can of tomato paste for the sauce. The young man sat at the table with his feet on a chair. The police had not come. Abu Mustafa had not come. Sitt Munira imagined how she would tell him about this, how he would feel so terrible about neglecting them. There was a stupid man, certainly more of a donkey than this fellow. Ugly and selfish. In his shop, he hid the scales with his body and added weight with his fingers. Sitt Munira had caught him, so he did not do it anymore with her, but she knew he continued to cheat others. She would no longer buy from him. She would walk the extra blocks to the street vendors.
"You're so serious. I wonder what is on your mind." The young man leaned across the table, and Sana's hands stopped in their act of stuffing the squash.
"Nothing, John. I'm not serious." She resumed her work.
Sitt Munira controlled her surprise at hearing his name. When had he told Sana? She had left them alone only minutes at a time. She imagined him confessing his name, drawing Sana in. She briskly stirred a spoonful of tomato paste into some warm water, the spoon banging the sides of the cup.
"Yes you are," he said. "You are a very serious woman." His hand shot across the table, grabbed Sana's fingers. Sana pulled but he did not let go. "Tell me what you think."
Sana gave another yank and her hand, oily with meat, slipped out of his. She stood up. "You're rude!" she said.
"Stop it," Sitt Munira said to him.
For an instant, she saw the surprise on his face, the absolute childishness of his shock, and then he rose and bowed out of the kitchen, waving his hand in mock flourishes. Sitt Munira heard the crackles of the transistor radio sweeping the stations. Sana sat down again, her anger subsided, but her movements jerky. The tinny sound of pop music swelled and faded so that she knew he was wandering in and out of the rooms. Sitt Munira wished Sana could explode. She imagined Sana in one of her old rages, tearing the rooms to pieces, and drew satisfaction from the image of this young man being horrified and running away.
"He's a little strange, Sana, that's all. Just ignore him."
Sana resumed stuffing the meat and rice into the kousa, but she was too vigorous, so that Sitt Munira knew the rice would not expand, the innards would be lumpy and hard.
"This," he said, chewing, "is undercooked." He swallowed. "Nevertheless, the taste is charming." He dug his fork into the kousa , lopped off a chunk.
"I'm sorry," Sana said, watching him chew.
"I am the one who should be sorry," he remarked, and although Sitt Munira did not believe him, she was relieved that Sana did, that she smiled to herself, eyes on her own plate.
"Why do you stay in this godforsaken country?" He shook salt onto his food, sipped his Pepsi.
"There is really nowhere to go, is there," Sitt Munira said.
"It's a good, solid war, this one."
He smirked, as if he was testing to see how they would react. Sitt Munira kept at her food. He was not a journalist, not a business man. Certainly not a tourist. She mashed rice between the tines of her fork. He pointed at the bread and she obligingly passed it to him. He had to be a spy. If so, then he would know how to leave the country. He would take her money and go. She wondered whom he spied for, if he was part of some international intrigue. He seemed too young for this, to have such important responsibilities. She felt a sting of dislike for the temperamental, handsome face, the razored hair. He was trying to look dangerous, she thought. Certainly he was big enough.
"The cease fire won't last," he said, mouth full.
"They say it will," she countered.
"They're wrong." He swabbed his plate clean with a piece of bread. "I'll have to get out before they start again," he added, winking. Sitt Munira calculated her savings, how much he would ask for.
Sana scraped her food into a pile, poked at it. She said, "You're leaving?"
Sitt Munira stared at her daughter. He pushed his plate away, wiped the corners of his mouth with his fingers. "Want to come with me?"
"Don't be ridiculous!" Sitt Munira said sharply, and he gave her an apologetic grin. She relaxed a little, looked over at Sana to say, Isn't he a silly man, but Sana was hunched over her plate, her hands gripping the table edge like a waiting runner. Sitt Munira broke the stillness when she leaned towards her daughter, who all at once snapped out of position, muttered, "Excuse me," and walked swiftly out of the kitchen. A moment later, the door to the bedroom slammed and the glass panes rattled.
The young man looked sheepish. "Just a joke," he muttered.
Sitt Munira did not know what to say. Sana was probably curled on her bed, the way she tucked herself together when she was upset.
"You're cruel," she said at last.
He looked away. "I suppose so."
She started to clear the table, trying to decide what to do.
He picked at his teeth with a fingernail. "You know," he said, "you really should go talk to her, see if she's all right."
She dropped the dishes in the sink. None of them broke, they just clattered onto the porcelain, and the silence afterwards was profound. She waited but an apology did not come. She wiped her hands and left without looking at him.
Sana was stiff as wood, hands clenching the pillow. Sitt Munira sank down next to her, listening to the traffic on the street outside. A woman laughed, speaking rapidly, heels clacking on the pavement. A man answered, their voices faded. The room was warm.
"I'm not a child," Sana spat out and then her lips clamped shut, furrows from the corners of her mouth to either side of her chin.
"I'm sorry," Sitt Munira said. She did not feel sorry, only bewildered. She gently tugged on a feather that was sticking out of the pillow, rubbed it between her fingers.
"I can do what I want," Sana said then. "I've been fine for years. You still think I'm sick, but I'm not. I have bad moods like everyone. Like you," she trailed off. Her eyes were teary. Sitt Munira bent over her, let her forehead rest on Sana's shoulder. Her daughter smelled of garlic and lemon.
She found him drying the dishes.
"I'm not such a bad guest, see?" he said cheerfully. He was piling the plates on the counter. Sitt Munira never dried the dishes because the towel left streaks, even threads. She wondered how much water he had used.
"Is she better?" He lifted the plates, set them on the shelf above the sink.
"She thinks so."
He played with the towel, folding and unfolding it. He has lost his danger, she thought. He's just a boy, fiddling with what he doesn't understand.
"What do you do?" she said before he could speak. "I want to know what you do."
He shook his head, and he looked a little guilty.
"It's not fair," she said softly. "You come in here, you drive my daughter crazy, you-"
"I'm not the one who drives her crazy," he jumped in. He carefully spread the towel on the counter, started to fold it into a tight square. "You are."
"You have no right to say that," she said. "You don't even tell us your real name. You want my money. You're just a boy, look at you. Who do you think you are?"
He turned the tightly folded towel around and around with the heels of his palms. When she started to rise, she was arrested by his look. He shook out the towel, pulled it through the refrigerator door handle.
"There are things you don't understand, old woman." He said this almost gently, and then paused. "I think I'm in love with your daughter," he announced. He looked proud. "And I know she's in love with me. I want to take care of her."
"What do you mean?" Sitt Munira wanted to laugh, suddenly, at how pleased he was with himself. He folded his arms, rolled his gaze across the ceiling.
"I am a soldier of fortune," he said. He leaned towards her. Her thoughts flashed to Sana in the bedroom, to the solitude of her young body curled on the bed. She forced herself to stand. He stepped forward, blocking the doorway. "I am fighter, a representative of the world. I am a revolutionary. I am a fucking king." He said this as if it were a simple, obvious fact.
"Please," Sitt Munira whispered. She could not believe the sound of her voice, far away.
Quick footsteps tapped in the hall and then the front door slammed. His face registered surprise, then anger. She grabbed at him, pulled with all her weight, but he shook her off with one jerk of his arm and she was thrown against the door jamb. She remained there for an instant, stunned, before stumbling after him.
He stood on the front steps. She squeezed past him and in the fading light, she made out the wide-open gate, the latch still tinging faintly. She rubbed the small of her back. There would probably be a bruise. A woman passed on the sidewalk, glanced in.
Sitt Munira smoothed her hair. She knew how she looked to him, an old woman, graying, lines counting the years under her eyes like the inside of a tree. She looked back at his torso, the scrapes, the tan lines on his arms and neck. He was angry. A savage satisfaction came over her. Soldier of fortune. A boy playing war. He has no country and no name, she said to herself. He is not from anywhere.
"I need money," he said. "Quickly."
Sitt Munira had been waiting for this. He followed her inside to the bedroom. She opened the closet doors, breathed in the cedar wood scent. "Sana probably went to the police station," she said. "It will take at least twenty minutes to go and come back." She pulled out the metal box where she kept her emergency money, the bills rolled tight in a rubber band.
"Is that her bed?" he pointed at the rumpled covers. She nodded and he sat down, her money in his fist. It was not that much. He had been wrong, she did have a bank account. A relief was coming over her. In love with Sana, what a wonder. As if he had any idea what it meant to love her. She wanted to sit down too, but she remained standing, the way she did when politely urging company to depart.
"I need a shirt," he said.
She removed one from a drawer. She had kept some of Najib's shirts, just like that, without questioning her motives. Sometimes she had worn them to sleep. He buttoned, tucked in. It was a little tight on him. He stuffed the money into his pocket, smoothed the bedcovers where he had been sitting.
"Where will you go?" She needed to know, suddenly, what path he would follow.
He shook his head. "I'll find somewhere." He fixed his blotched red eyes on her, gave a contrite smile. "I'm sorry I got angry."
"I've seen worse," she said.
When he was gone, Sitt Munira stood at the doors to the balcony, the shutters bent half open, but she did not see him pass by, so he must have gone in the other direction. She imagined the soldiers from the neighborhood militia coming upon him. She imagined the butts of their machine guns crashing into his temples, the shock of blue eyes wide open, the head tilted in the gutter. The pictures came and went. They mingled with Sana's face lit by candlefire at a birthday, her demure, shy glances at Giselle's wedding, and, years earlier, her elbows on the windowsill, chin in hands, as Najib arranged his suitcases in the Renault. The day of his departure had come during a heat wave, so that his shirt was dark with sweat at the armpits. He had scented himself with Eau Sauvage, as if he were going to a meeting or a party, and the stench had hung about the house for days. He had kissed Sana's forehead, just barely. He drove away with all the windows open since the air conditioning did!
not work, his elbow jutting out the driver's side, the open trunk tied down with rope that dragged behind on the street. Forget me, Sitt Munira had pleaded when he told her he was leaving. What about Sana? But he had replied, She frightens me. She is insane.
Sitt Munira had not wondered if he still loved them. There had been no time, not with finding things for Sana to do, keeping the girl busy while she took what was left of him, piled it methodically on the bed to give to charity, counting the paces between the bed and the closet, the bed and the chest of drawers, the bed and the doors to the balcony that drew her to them in search of the street.
Sitt Munira waited outside on the bench. When Sana came back, accompanied by two policemen, she rose, smoothed her skirt, and announced that the criminal had already left with all her money and her husband's shirt, which was light blue. They ran out to the street at once, and their footsteps faded.
Sitt Munira did not hold Sana as she might have, as she wanted to, and she did not pull the small head to her shoulder and stroke the hair, arrange it in a swirl at her nape.
"He was a terrible man," Sana said. "When I heard what he said to you I went to get help. I hope they kill him." She went inside, leaving the door open.
Sitt Munira looked at the space under the oleander where the young man had been sitting just yesterday. She remembered he still did not have shoe laces. The city was quiet. She thought of what he had said about the cease-fire, and conceded that it was probably true. He was, after all, some sort of soldier, or a spy. She sat on the bench and looked into her house, down the hallway lit by a faint glow from the living room. The electricity was on. She did not want him to be killed, she realized, but he probably would be, and whoever did it would take her money.
Sana appeared in the doorway and switched on the outside light. The tree's shadow fell across the stones. She was carrying a pair of clippers, and she gestured at the tree with them. "I'm going to cut flowers," she said.
For an instant, Sitt Munira saw the girl from long ago, before the hospital, full of possibility. She touched her eyelids with her fingertips, refocused. Sana was gravely perusing the tree, her body tilted slightly forward, one hand parting the branches. Sitt Munira pointed to a spot higher up and Sana reached, standing on tip toe, her calf muscles tight and strong, hair hanging down her back.