By Najwa Barakat, trans. Luke Leafgren
Najwa Barakat’s ‘The Bus’ is the story of a group of strangers who share a long bus ride, gradually revealing their stories and their secrets. During a police inspection, the grisly discovery of a severed head on the bus prompts mutual recriminations and soul-searching. The excerpt that follows is taken from Chapter 27.
“Wouldn’t it be better to confess immediately? Will they even believe me when they discover the truth? Tomorrow, when they look through my impressive file, I’ll be the prime suspect. Damn you, Mu’awiya! What prompted your tongue to start lying the minute you got out of prison? But how could I guess I would come back and find myself accused of the crime committed by that black cat? It’s strange: you spin a little white lie, then you plunge into its bowels, like prey wrapped in the tentacles of an octopus.
“I told them. I warned them time and again. The idiots! If only they hadn’t taken her with us on the bus, we’d be safe now. Isn’t the price I paid over so many years enough? If only they had left her behind when she began complaining of the labor pains, she would certainly have remembered her accursed bag, and we would’ve thrown them both out in the street. Those damned hypocrites! They claimed they were performing an act of charity. But they’re just like scorpions: as soon as you trust one, it jabs you with poison.
“Women—damn! They ought to be crushed like insects! The bitch! She pretended to want to get back to her village after losing her husband at sea. I bet my life she got rid of him in order to make way for all the other men in the world. Poor guy! She disfigured him and chopped him up like a dog, like a lamb to the slaughter. The animal! If he had been a real man, he would have sent her to that same fate first. Damn her! Damn all women! There’s no trusting them. Damn all of you too! If only I hadn’t gotten on this bus. If only I had been a little late and missed it!”
If they interrogated him again tomorrow, he would reply, “Does it make any sense that I would be punished for all those years, and that I would commit another crime just days—no, hours!—after being set free?” That was actually a very convincing argument. What’s more, he wasn’t a wandering killer who roamed around killing whomever he liked. What did he have to do with strangers? The crime he had committed had cost him a life sentence, reduced to just thirty-five years because of good behavior. That’s what they told him. Some of his friends said it was from overcrowding and an inability to house the new inmates being arrested by the hundreds.
It had happened when he was twenty-four, and now here he was at sixty. They would believe him. He would say he had carried out that crime against the person closest to him. So he had an excuse, a pretext, a motive for murder. As for that severed head, he would attest that he had no connection to it at all, neither near nor far. Of course, they would believe him. Certainly. Without the least doubt! For where in the world would he have gotten to know the owner of that head—in prison?
Dear God! When he had taken that step and crossed over the few centimeters separating prison from life, he stopped, looked up at the sky, and whispered, “Congratulations, Mu’awiya! Perhaps now you can spend your remaining years in peace and quiet in your village in the south.” He had thrown away that bag of things reminding him of those dark days and then set off towards the square, hoping he might still catch a bus to take him where he was going. When he came across the driver’s aide calling out for passengers even though the bus was behind schedule, he had taken that as a good sign, indulging the hope that his misfortune was beginning to turn into good luck.
Before that, he had passed by a shop, and he couldn’t stop himself from going in and asking a question, just to reassure himself that things were still the same and hadn’t changed during the long time he was away. There, he was overwhelmed by a desire to do something that would remind him, after such a long time, that he could move and act like everyone else. He asked for a certain amount of sugar, feeling an enormous pleasure. To tell the truth, it wasn’t the pleasure of it that drew him, but rather the need to take care of something that was still stuck in his memory. He carried that sugar like someone who had finally found the key that would make his life seem not at all a waste. For he felt he had gone out to buy something not thirty-five years ago, but just a few minutes, and as soon as he finished his errand, he would go straight back where he came from.
She was truly beautiful. That was his first experience with marriage and passion. Young, beautiful, and with a smile that gripped your heart to see it. That melted your heart to see it. Sweet, white, soft-skinned—and a bride. Just like sugar. Afterwards, he started forbidding her from going outside because he couldn’t bear the looks men cast in her direction when he was with her. So how could he endure the looks they would cast when he wasn’t there?! He locked the doors, windows, and walls upon her in order to ease his mind and be able to go out. And she kept smiling…
Like the sun. That smile burned him like the sun. It blinded him. He didn’t understand where it came from and what he could do to make it go away. He couldn’t take it any longer. He cut her off. He isolated her. He made her into a hermit. He made her into orphan. He cut off her roots. He stripped away her leaves. He extinguished her. He pressed her. He compressed her. She kept smiling. It wasn’t visible. But he guessed it was inside. Behind her mouth and eyes. Underneath. In the bottom. It flowed slowly. It circulated. It nested in the corners. It piled up. Like a disease. It glittered with a dazzling sparkle he couldn’t grasp.
What made her keep smiling? He stripped her of all her possessions and her makeup. He shredded her clothes. He sold her jewelry. He pulled her hair and cut it off with a knife. Her locks fell like mutilated snakes twisting on the floor, letting her scalp shine through.
And now? She got up. She came back with a broom and a bucket. She swept. She washed the floor. He saw her smile glide over her shorn head and slide down her back. Why didn’t she scream? Why didn’t she cry, complain, beat her head against the wall or some hard object? What enabled her to stand up to him? What gave her this power, this tyranny? She would kill him if it went on like this! She would be the end of him.
And now? He abandoned her. He kept her away from his bedroom. He made her sleep on the floor. And her smile, which he didn’t see, pursued him and came to his dreams in the form of demons. Like the sun. Like fire. Like a genie. Until it stole his soul and destroyed him.
One day, she made tea for him at his request. It tasted bitter. He grew angry and cursed her. He looked for more sugar but didn’t find any. He said he was going out to buy some, that he might be gone for a while to visit some friends. And he went out. He didn’t lock the door. He dug carefully and set the trap for her. Then he went away and hid, watching from afar.
And now? She was seated in front of the mirror. In her hand was a green walnut shell that she was rubbing on her puckered lips. Her mouth became scarlet like an aged red wine. She hadn’t betrayed him. And here she was making herself up for him. She was alone. There was no fear in her eyes. No shadow of disturbance or surprise. He approached. He kissed her. She jumped and drew away. He approached and grabbed her. She stood, frozen in his hands. Cold, like ice. He blew his hot breath upon her. She didn’t smile. He asked, “So who were you making yourself up for then?” She didn’t say she was making herself up for him, that he was her husband, whom she desired and loved. Her tears flowed down. He slapped her. He struck her again. She stopped crying. He was powerless. Was she provoking him? “Who was it for then, you whore, if not for me?” He started hitting. Perhaps she would utter a word or a groan, or cry out to protest her innocence, with a complaint, with some curse. At least let her say something! He kept hitting her until she was covered all over with a deep crimson, like her lips stained with the walnut.
And now? It was finished. She lay stretched out in a pool of red. Her ears and mouth were bubbling blood like a fountain. It subsided. It died away. Fate and chance. Destiny. It was fated for her to die at his hands. And if she had been innocent, he would not have been struck blind, and he would not have started beating something that seemed like a ball between his hands. He would have found a reason, just once, for that smile of hers.
And now? Tomorrow they would suspect him in connection with that lopped-off head. There was no doubt. Hadn’t he already committed an act of murder? How would he make them understand? They would add, “Someone who kills his wife because she puts on makeup might kill a man because he doesn’t like how he looks.” He would answer, “If you were in my shoes, you would have done exactly the same thing. I don’t regret what I did. It was the hand of fate that chose me to carry out her destiny. Indeed, I don’t regret it. Prison is no shame. Prison makes a man.”
They set me free. And they kept that lunatic who drove me crazy with his talk about “the struggle.” If he only knew I had adopted his stories, he would have been happy, rejoicing and thinking that my getting out of prison was like him getting out. He made me miserable with stories about his friend, Jameel the Baghdadi. I learned them like the back of my hand. I made these hypocrites listen to them as though they were scribbled on my palm or engraved on the open book of my memory. What’s the difference? What I said wasn’t a lie, even if I was lying. Even if the other guy was lying and fabricating all his military exploits in “the struggle.” What fault is it of mine that they believed me?
I lied. And they believed me! They honored me! They left me alone! If I had confessed the truth to them, would they have treated me that way? No, by God! People are scorpions. As soon as you trust them and reach your hand out to touch them, they jab you with poison.