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"The food will be ready in a minute."
"I'm not hungry, Mom."
"I bet you haven't eaten since this morning. Come on, eat it while it's still warm. It'll take a while. Go take a nap, and I'll call you. There's pea soup too."
My mother is sensitive enough to close the door on her way out. I look around the room I left ten years ago. Nothing's changed, except for the fact that nobody lives in it. The three cots stand empty, evenly spaced. I was the first of the three brothers to leave this room, and now I'm the first to return. Nothing's changed, except perhaps the smell, which I still can't manage to ignore, and now I can imagine what being forsaken smells like.
I put down my duffel bag, the black one that's been with me ever since my university days, and lie down on the middle bed, the one that was always mine. The feel of the bed is further evidence that nobody has visited this room in a good many years. The mattress gives off a kind of dampness,and by the smell of the sheets and the pillow I can tell that my mother hasn't changed them since we left for the last time. I look up at the high ceiling and see some green and black circles of mildew on the section right above me. Once my father would fix the leaks right away, climbing up on the roof and applying special sealants, then painting over them. Judging by the big stain, he doesn't bother anymore, as if the children's room isn't part of the house now. As if it doesn't really exist.
I never imagined this room could be so quiet. This room, which once buzzed with life, with screaming and games and countless squabbles, is utterly still now, everything frozen in place, everything just so. The books on the shelves have been arranged in order of the grades in which we used them. My mother hasn't thrown out so much as a single book, not even the ones from elementary school. They're all there in the bookcase. And our three names are still written on the three drawers, as if we're still liable to fight over who gets which one. Three chairs, side by side, evenly spaced, face the long desk that Father made especially for us. He forced us to do all our homework there, sitting stiffly on our chairs, which we weren't allowed to move an inch. My father took exact measurements, and drew four circles on the floor for each of the chairs. That's where the legs had to stay. As we grew taller, he would move the circles, seeing to it that the distance from the desk fit our new size. Nothing pleased him more than to come home, open the boys' room and see us sitting in our set positions, our faces immersed in books and notebooks. We always made a point of assuming that favorite pose of his when we knew he was about to return from work. It was no trouble. In fact, it was kind of fun, and as soon as he shut the door behind him, no matter how much we'd been fighting, we'd almost always give each other the look, and giggle.
My chair was in the middle, the one farthest from the desk. I get up off the bed and look at it. I was the largest one in the family, taller even than my older brother. I take a good look at the floor and discover that the red marks are still there, and that the chairs are positioned right on the last circles Father etched into it. I take my seat, the middle one, and discover that my body hasn't grown since I finished high school. The chair is exactly the right distance from the desk, and my posture is just right, almost completely straight. And as I try to pretend to be writing, my body leans forward in the chair at precisely the angle that Father claimed was the healthiest and the best one. I smile now, and the smile gives me a strange feeling, like when a muscle that's been slack for a long time wakes up, coming back into use.
I reach out to the drawer that bears my name in thick red letters and pull it out till it nearly touches my stomach. The drawer is filled with papers, meticulously arranged, all the way to the top, till there isn't room for even one more sheet. I pull out the whole stack and put it on the desk in front of me. My mother has kept everything in order. Even the picture they gave us when we finished kindergarten is in that drawer. A blue sky, a yellow sun with eyes and a smiling mouth, and red flowers. It's all there, sorted by year, in sequence, every report card from first to twelfth grade, trimester by trimester. Class pictures of every single year. Right on top is my matriculation certificate, and below it the high school class picture. Every kid in my class, in little squares, row by row along the bottom half. Above them are the passport pictures of my teachers, in bigger squares. And in the top center is the principal, who got the biggest picture of all, right above the school name and logo.
The students' pictures are so small you can hardly make out their faces. If it weren't for the names underneath each one, in tiny letters too, I'd never find my own. I take a close look at the little square that contains me and remember how scared I was of leaving this room, this place. How I'd been 100 percent certain that this was where I wanted to stay forever. How I'd spent the whole night crying before moving to a different city, to study there and live there. And how the place that had always been home to me gradually began to seem menacing. I remember how on the day I left, carrying my black duffel bag, the only thing I wanted was for my three years of school to go by quickly so I could hurry back. How I'd sobbed when all the neighbors and all our relatives, who make a habit of coming to say good-bye during the week before someone leaves, kept congregating in our yard each evening, bringing presents, comforting my parents and trying to cheer them up. How I'd cried when I left, how I was crying now, when I had no choice but to return.
I look at the little square photos beside mine. I used to think I'd never forget my schoolmates, and now, as I look them over, I discover that I haven't thought back about a single one of them. The kids in my class always seemed to me like a blob of faces following me wherever I went, but as I look at this class picture and study them one by one, they seem so odd, so distant. Even their names have been blotted out of my memory in the ten years that have gone by. I haven't spoken with any of them in all that time, or before that either, but at least I used to see them almost every day. Why the hell do I imagine them now as more dangerous than they were? Why am I afraid of them, afraid of bumping into them?
I read the names out loud, and they grab me and take me back. God, who are all these people? What are they doing now? And I go on studying their pictures: Jamil Hazkhiyyeh, Nabil Nasser, Haytham Sultan, Hanan Fadilla. I've forgotten them all, the students, the teachers, the principal. But I'm back now, and I'll have no choice. They're nearby, practically next door, and I'm bound to bump into them. I've got to be careful. I stare at the papers, one by one, and read the comments the teachers wrote over the years. I didn't receive a single bad mark, except in subjects like phys ed and shop and metalworking. I thumb through the pages in awe, turning them carefully and placing them one on top of the other, taking care not to do anything that would upset the order my mother had imposed.
"Good morning," she says, opening it some more. "The workers are here, and your father would like you to go up there and keep an eye on them."
"No problem. I'll be up in a minute."
The room is chilly. The ceiling is high and the walls thin and damp. "This has been the longest and rainiest winter in three decades" was a sentence we kept hearing over and over again on the weather forecasts. Winter was officially over, and we were in the middle of spring. I pull a sweater out of the bag I haven't even unpacked yet and go into the air-conditioned living room. My parents installed the air conditioner after we'd left home, and didn't see any point in opening a vent into the children's room. Just the living room and their bedroom. "Good morning," I say, and my father, sitting there with his cigarette and coffee, answers, "Good morning," without looking away from the screen. He's watching the Hebrew news, and when that's over, he zaps to Al Jazeera, where they have news all the time.
Breakfast is already waiting on the kitchen table. "Come to eat," my mother says. I look at my father and he looks at me. I know it's going to be difficult for the two of us to sit at the table together. My return must seem as odd to him as it does to me. "In a minute," he says, and I go and sit down at the kitchen table, in my regular seat, the one farthest away from Father, with my back to the TV, sipping tea with naana mint. The tea is too sweet. I had forgotten how sweet my mother makes it. It's a family rule, you drink tea with two spoons of sugar, coffee with none. There's no room for personal taste, it's a recipe handed down to her by her mother, who got it from her mother. "I don't cat breakfast," I explain, and she frowns in unmistakable sadness. "But I'll have something a bit later," I say. "In an hour or two."
Fifty steps separate my parents' house from the one where I am about to live. The noise of the floor-polishing machine rumbles in my ears even before I go inside. Today they're putting in the stairs. For over five years, there was just the outer shell. Only recently, after I'd announced that I was returning home, did my parents resume working on it, full steam ahead. It'll be ready pretty soon. In just a week, with any luck, or two at most, my mother said, and there's money too. My parents cashed in a savings account and they're putting it all into the house now, so I can move in. That's the way it is around here: good parents build homes for their children.
I walk into my future home, carrying a copper tray with two cups of tea for the men who are putting in the stairs. They turn off the machines for a moment. The one who seems to be in charge walks over to me, takes the tray and puts it down on the step he's just finished making. "Are you the owner?" he asks, and shakes my hand. "I'm Kamel." He gestures toward the younger guy, who puts down an enormous slab of marble and comes over to drink his tea. I study him and nod a greeting. He has a wide cleft all the way up from his lower lip to his nose. It doesn't look like an accident, more like a birth defect, and if he hadn't answered my greeting, I'd have assumed he couldn't talk. His voice is strange and squeaky, reminding me of the deaf kids' class at the far end of our elementary school. "Thanks for the tea," he says. His boss must be used to it by now, because he quickly makes a point of offsetting any apprehension or uneasiness I might be feeling. "Mohammed is an A-okay guy," he says. "We've been working together for two years. Like brothers, eh, Mohammed?" Mohammed lowers his head and tries to smile. I'm uncomfortable with the whole thing, slightly embarrassed even, as if we're dealing with some creature whose owner owes it to us to explain right away, before I panic, that he's just a harmless pet and not some wild beast, heaven forbid.
I'm going to have a big house, bigger than any of the rented homes I've lived in till now. There's no comparison. I try to persuade myself that the change might be for the better, that maybe I'll make it after all, that it might actually be nice to finally have a home of my own, considering that I've been dreaming of one my whole life. I walk up the stairs, to the floor where the bedrooms will be. The contractors have put in the marble slabs on that floor already. They have just one floor left, the one with the laundry room and the roof. The steps are a bit crooked, and some of them stick out. A few others broke as they were being installed. I don't know whether to say anything. To tell the truth, it doesn't really bother me much. I go into the bedroom. The walls haven't been painted yet. The en suite bathroom is all ready, and so is the one that will be for the children when the time comes. There isn't much more work to do, actually. Once the stairs are in, they'll put in the railing and then paint it all. The carpenter has put in the kitchen cabinets too, and he'll be installing the doors in a couple of days.
I won't even have to leave the house at all, I think, and have a cigarette in the bedroom. I won't even go to the grocery store. I'll just sit here at home, oblivious to everything. I could easily disappear, easily fix my life in such a way that nobody will know I'm back, nobody will notice I've come back to this lousy village. At least I have a big house to bury myself in. Wasn't it the oppressive feeling that I had run out of steam that made me come back here in the first place-a what's-the-point feeling that had been haunting me for the better part of a year and just kept getting worse? What was left for me in the big city anyway? Nothing, nada, just a sense of apprehension. I'd never tick secure there, even at home, and I don't intend to deceive myself into thinking that I'll feel any more comfortable here. But at least I won't have to pay rent for a place to be apprehensive in.
The stairs man and his worker are at it again. I stand at the bedroom door and watch. "Hurry up, you idiot," the boss says, as he waits for the bucket full of brown slurry that the harelip with the submissive expression hands over to him. The whole scene makes me uneasy. The boss, who must be about my age, tries to make conversation, a big smile splashed across his face. "We never see you in the village at all. I was surprised to see you, and of course I know everyone your age around here. The younger generation, the children, I don't always know, because the village keeps getting bigger, but I know every single person your age. You must have studied in Germany. A doctor?"
I shake my head.
"So what did you study?"
"Journalism," I tell him.
"So you're a journalist?"
"For the Jews?"
And soon enough I find myself getting into a conversation and breaking the promise I'd just made to myself a minute ago, not to make contact with anyone. How can I keep that up in a place like this?
"I'll telling you, there's no place like home. I've worked for the Jews too, and believe you me, even though you make a lot more money, it still feels different, you know what I mean, the way you come in every morning with the tea on a tray, with them you could be working for a week and they won't come near you. Not all of them. I'm not saying they're all like that. But now, with the things getting more and more tense and all, it's just getting worse. They can't tell the difference between people like us, living inside Israel, and the ones living on the West Bank. An Arab's an Arab as far as they're concerned. I bet you thought I was from the West Bank too when you came in and saw me in my dirty coverall. I bet you were scared," he says with a laugh.
Mohammed is standing there, and I hope he can't hear any of what we're saying. Maybe he's deaf after all. Our eyes meet and he quickly lowers his gaze as if I were a Border Policeman or who knows what. And the boss, who must have picked up on my discomfort and our mutual glance, smiles again and explains, "Don't pay any attention to the way I talk about him. Mohammed and I are like brothers, right, Mohammed?" He turns to him, and Mohammed smiles. "He's been with me for two years now. An excellent worker. And I look after him, take care of everything he needs, food and drink, and my old clothes so they don't stop him at the roadblocks. You know I could do time if they caught him in my car. I'm employing a ticking bomb, brother, a terrorist." He laughs. "Ask him. He can't live without me. Isn't that right, Mohammed?"
Excerpted from LET IT BE MORNING by SAYED KASHUA Copyright © 2004 by Sayed Kashua. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 16, 2011
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Posted March 14, 2012
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