“Here I go again, my love, saying that you haven’t changed. Not one little bit. Time after time I've said it. I'll say it till the end of days. Yes, Saffia Saffia, my darling. First and last name the same. They used to call you Double Saffia - make a joke of it. No, you haven't changed at all, my dearest, which is something you can’t say about me, your eternal widow. I keep growing older. Older and older. Today you wouldn’t recognize me. This is what happened to our severed life.”
Rimat speaks these words voicelessly, gazing at the faded photo, then kissing it. It doesn't do Saffia justice because Boni took it just as he was getting up – face puffy, hair disheveled,eyes unfocused. But this is the only photo that survived the disaster. How close were those two brothers: “Big-Saff” and “Li'l-Saff”.
She hangs onto the photo till she hears Glin's footsteps in the evening quiet. When they get louder it's time to return the photo to its place under the old cradle’s small mattress. She tugs at a corner of the cloth lying on top of the mattress looking for where she left off. The yellow flower is almost complete. How many more flowers will she need to complete the garland? Five, she thinks, maybe six. Afterwards she'll embroider another ring, perhaps even a third. How will this piece of embroidery end up?A tablecloth, a bedspread – who knows? She can't remember when she began working on it, nor does she know if she’ll ever finish it. Who cares? The days when she measured the passing of time by days, weeks, months, seasons, years, are long gone.
Outside Glin mounts the stairs two at a time and bursts into the room, Walkman dangling on his chest, earphones slung around his neck. He lays a few discs on the table, swiftly crosses the room and opens the window. A women's lament drifts in from the rosy twilight.
“Hi, Glin,” says Rimat, “It’s cold outside.”
“And if I close the window…?”
“No, it won’t be warm outside.”
“Ha ha ha!” Glin forces a laugh. “Hi, Mom.”
“And while you're at it, would you be good enough to switch on the light? It’s getting dark.”
“One at a time, if you don’t mind,” says Glin. He closes the window and presses his face against the glass. “Who are those two women singing out there?”
“The two Balad women, I expect,” Rimat answers.
“What Balad women?”
"The ones who started working in the village."
"Come to think of it, I've never met a Balad – man, woman or child."
“They came looking for work. Jobs were arranged for them in the packing shed.”
“Gidal had a hand in it, no doubt.”
“I expect so,” Rimat says.
“You don’t expect, Mom. You know. D’you know them?”
“Only from afar.”
“So where are they heading now?”
“They live in that shack up the hill, past the bend.”
“In that hovel?” Glin turns to his mother.
Only now does Rimat notice a new bandaid on his right temple. She doesn't ask about it; that would only rub him the wrong way. Instead she explains, “It’s been fixed up.”
That too, is Gidal’s doing, Glin is certain. Not wishing to annoy his mother again, he keeps quiet. She has a soft spot for Gidal, Golden Hands, as she calls him – let the old boy enjoy it.
Rimat bends over the old cradle, her fingers searching for the skein of embroidery thread under the soft mound of cloth. She pulls out some white thread and examines it against the white cloth. “Should I use white in the empty spaces? White on white?”
“Void on void.” Glin turns back to the window and opens it again. Meanwhile the twilight has deepened and the gloomy melody filters in from a distance. “Mom, come see how beautiful they look against the sunset.”
Rimat leaves off her embroidery, gets up with a sigh, and goes over to the window.
“A picture postcard,” she says. The singing momentarily gives way to a tinkle of silvery laughter. “I think they’re mother and daughter. Would you mind shutting this window for the night?” Returningto her armchair she turns on the light, then trails her fingers against the violin case on top of the bookcase. She collects the fresh crop of flakes that the cover has recently shed and puts them in her pocket. Later on, in the darkness, she'll let them fall from her hands into the trash bin outside. She'll do it slowly, deliberately. She eases herself back into her chair and threads her needle with yellow thread. Up and down, up and down through the white calico she plies her needle.
“If it isn’t too much to ask," she turns to her son, "could you draw the blinds? The sun’s going down. You know I don’t like to see the dark outside.”
Not only does Glin ignore her bidding, but he again turns off the light.
“The light inside obscures the dark outside.” He returns to the window. “Did you hear what I said? I repeat: The light inside obscures the dark outside. You’re not impressed by the symbolism resonating in these words. With all due respect, dear Mom, you do lack poetic sensibility. My ‘void on void’ before also left you unimpressed. Where are their men? Making bombs?”
Rimat’s scissors slip from her knees to the floor with a loud clang. How can her son mention those horrific bombs so lightly? It’s her own fault. She didn’t do enough to make him hate the idea of bloodshed.
“The guard’s closing the gate,” says Glin, drawing the curtains. “He's limping, that means it’s Moshko. The clang of your scissors was the overture to the clang of the gate, a prelude. So those Balad women work in the packing shed,” Glin commits this piece of information to memory. “You're a mine of knowledge."
”What will happen to you when I'm gone?"
“That won’t necessarily happen. Death doesn’t always go by seniority: father, mother, child.”
Glin regrets his flippancy. He’s gone too far. Although he cannot truly grieve for a father he doesn't remember, he’s deeply conscious of his mother’s everlasting mourning for her love – the victim of a heart attack – snatched from life at its prime, as she told him. He steals a glance at her. He’s already been forgiven.
Rimat does not always understand her son’s humor. Saffia, too, used to say that a keen sense of humor wasn't exactly her forte. He forgave her this deficiency just as he forgave her for others far worse. But she will never forgive his friends nor his brother Boni for having left him to his tragic fate. Nor will she ever forgive herself. She should have trusted her gut and begged him not to leave the house carrying those damned bombs. She should've shrieked to high heaven, laid herself on the doorstep to stop him. Instead, she'd yielded to fatigue. Nursing Glin, pacing the floor with him those sleepless nights, she was exhausted. When the final hour comes, is this the way she'll close her eyes, with anger still smoldering inside? A thought crosses her mind: maybe now is the time to learn from Saffia the art of forgiveness. If she can ever forgive his brother and his friends, she might be able to forgive herself, too.
Glin asks, “How long have they been working in the village?”
“Almost a week.”
“It’s the first time I've seen them here.”
“At first they were told to use the new gate, but this morning they began opening the old gate for them.”
“You're a genius if you can’t figure that out for yourself. The new gate made them go a long way round through the village and that took time. Using this old gate makes it a short walk. And you have to remember that they are after all Balads. Not everybody’s happy about that.”
”Why do people care? Anyhow, is this also thanks to Golden Hands?”
Suddenly, something from outside shatters the window and hits Glin on the cheek.
“Glin!” Rimat rushes to her son and tries to stem the bleeding with a handkerchief.
“The daily gift,” says Glin. “If you hadn’t insisted that I close the window, I would have gotten only a little tap.”
“Press hard with that handkerchief,” Rimat advises as she hurries to get abandaid.
Glin bends down to pick up the muddy package from the floor. Opening it he reads the attached note aloud: “‘Every bullet has its address.’ How veryoriginal.”
Rimat returns, dabs iodine on the cut, and applies the dressing.
Glin, his face now adorned with two strips, puts a closed fist to his mouth. “Tarrum-tarrum-tarrum!” he trumpets. “On the one hand, Mom, this is not one of your annual springtime letters from your old friend, thathistory professor. But on the other" – he pulls a folded scrap of paper from his pocket and hands it to her – “it sure is interesting.”
Rimat flattens the scrap of paper. “Alir!” she cries.
“Your old poet-friend, indeed.”
“It’s his picture from the old days,” Rimat says. Scanning the text underneath, she purses her lips. “Where did you find this?”
“On the path coming home.”
Those Balad women might have dropped it accidentally, or maybe on purpose, Rimat thinks.
“Your stories about Alir made me imagine him as a saintly soul hovering up above,” Glin continues. “And here he's so down to earth. But the main thing is his poetic device.” Glin is about to quote from memory, beginning with the poem’s title, “Next –”
“Stop!” Rimat shuts him up. She can’t bear to hear the terrible words. What happened to Alir?, she asks herself. Alir, who wouldn't hurt a fly?
Glin resents her interruption. All he wanted to do was explain how overwhelmed he was by the third and last line – how its deviation from the poem’s initial structure sharpened its meaning. Instead he says: “The way he used to say that in a moment he’d commit to memory the poem he’d conceived and then jot it down in his notebook.”
“You remember my stories.”
"That's such an original way of putting it.”
Rimat doesn't tell him that when a moment of inspiration came over Alir, Saffia would neither sing nor play his violin; the moment was too precious.
Those unforgettable times, living from hand to mouth in that hole-in-the-wall. But Saffia insisted that you don’t abandon a friend to homelessness, so he’d invited Alir to move in with his brother Boni in the glassed-in veranda, beds foot to foot. Glin doesn’t even know of the existence of his uncle Boni – formally known as Bonimi – whose life has not ground to a halt. Golden Hands Gidal whose veins flow with the milk of human kindness, who reads the papers, listens to the radio and watches television, shares with her bits and pieces he gleans about their old friends. It’s thanks to him she knows that Boni has become Chief Executive Officer of the Public Television Network. Whatever that means. Not to mention the fact that she has no TV.
But thanks to Gidal she also knows about the calamity that befell Zakod, and about Michlor who went abroad to pursue his medical career and became a world-famous pediatrician. Gidal attributes the absence of any mention of Shouba on the media to his being an applied chemist. And Alir's absence from the media? Well, how many poets enjoy the limelight? She returns the disturbing scrap of paper to Glin and takes up her embroidery.
After folding the note and putting it back in his pocket, Glin turns on the Walkman.
“No!” Rimat stops up her ears.
Glin quickly switches it off. “Sorry, Mom.” He comes over to pat her greying hair. When he reaches her age, his hair too will be grey. His father died before a single hair of his turned white – that’s what his mom told him. She also told him that his father was dashingly handsome and had an aura of grace about him, that his speaking voice was mellifluous, that he had a lovely tenor singing voice, and that from the violin he had saved up every penny to buy he produced divine music. Glin knows that he didn’t inherit any of his father’s traits except perhaps the love of music. No, not love. Passion. He presses a button on the Walkman and the music soon has him under its spell.