This short story by Ameer Hamad — a Palestinian writer who has work forthcoming in the collection Book of Ramallah, ed. Maya Abu Hayyatoriginally appeared in the DREAMS issue of ArabLit Quarterly:

The Wooden Castle

By Ameer Hamad

Translated by M Lynx Qualey

I don’t know when exactly the idea came to me: of building a castle like the ones I’d imagined when reading stories, or like the ones I’d seen in cartoons.

I’d always liked the idea of castles, of owning my own and ruling from inside it like a prince in a fairytale who could look out from behind high walls that no one could climb.

So I turned to my best friend, Anas, who was also my neighbor and classmate, the person who I always told what I was thinking, perhaps because I felt the pleasure of sharing a secret with only one person.

From the very beginning, I told him about the joy of owning a castle that no one but us would be allowed to enter, so that we would be kings who could hurl insults at the other neighbor kids from behind its walls, shooting them with water from our plastic pistols if they got too close, and playing in it for hours without caring a thing about school or about what time night would fall and our playtime would end.

Anas listened to my description, astonished, wishing he could have a castle just like it. I told him we should build one with our own hands, and he shouted, “Let’s make it out of wood!”

“Where are we going to get enough wood?” I asked.

He gestured toward the many pieces of wood that were stacked, one on top of another, which we saw every day in the car-repair shop as we walked home from school. He added, enthusiastically, “A friend of my uncle’s works there. I’ll ask him to see if we can take it.”

Maybe, for Anas, one of the reasons he wanted this was because he needed a place to get away from his parents’ divorce, even though he said he was happy that he’d have two homes to stay in, plus relieved there would be an end to the fighting, which he spied on from the bathroom.

But my reasons were different. My desire to escape wasn’t from anything in particular, but just for its own sake, since I was having a happy childhood full of everything I wanted. 

Anas told me that his uncle’s friend was going to let us take the wood that had been tossed into the yard since time immemorial. How did he explain his strange request? At the time, I didn’t ask him—I was just happy that I’d come within a few centimeters of my dream.

On the school bus, we were sitting in the two raised seats at the back. I was holding up a pen and notebook by the window and drawing the outline of the castle and writing down ideas for it as I looked at the houses outside, stealing a detail I liked from this one or that. Anas added to my thoughts, changing some, persuading me to drop others. 

Every day, the castle grew, making room for our desires, such as building a soccer field where we could mimic the skills of Captain Majid, pilot combat ships like Grendizer, and catch Pokemons in their red balls. 

But in order to get all the wood we’d need, we had—as Anas said—to get some from the nearby scrubland, which we called “the forest,” because there were a lot of trees. We would use his grandfather’s ax and saw.

Anas shared my imaginary world, legitimizing it, like when we were on the bus, and I pointed to a pile of rocks shining under the sun and called out, “Look, over there, it’s a Golem hiding like a chameleon.”

“Ahh, wallah! There’s another one behind it too, an Onix.”

Our daydreams took us to the land beside Anas’s grandfather’s house, expanding it, as that was the best place to build. The two worlds—imagination and reality—were friends, like us, and if they sometimes argued when faced by a logical dilemma, then our wishes would help the imagination win out. Or else we would put off thinking about the dilemma, confident that a solution would come later, of its own accord. 

We decided that the right time for building was on Friday, since we wouldn’t be able to see in the evening when we got home from school, and we wouldn’t be able to build on our other day off, which Anas spent with his dad. We kept postponing the work to make sure we had exhausted all our ideas, since what if we came up with another idea after construction was finished? How would we add it?

It was going to be as easy as putting together legos; we’d just have to assemble the pieces of wood and hit them with nails. Near us was an endless forest of trees which, with a few blows from an ax and swipes of a saw, would give us what we lacked. We’d need just one Friday: we would start work on it in the morning and finish by nightfall.

In the shop window of a toy store, I’d seen a remote-controlled robot. It was hugely expensive, so we started to save our pocket money to buy “the robot,” which was going to help us build the castle, which had become a wooden city floating in the sky, as if feeding from the roots of the trees in our forest.

I truly felt as though I were living in that castle, so that whenever I fought with my parents, or teachers, or my other friends, its walls would rise up around me, carrying me away, leaving in my place a deaf body that didn’t care about its surroundings. Sometimes, when I couldn’t muster my imagination, I would take revenge by secretly saying, “You’ll see, when I build my castle.” No doubt the castle was helping Anas as well.

*

It was while we were in our two raised seats on the bus, as I looked out the window as usual, shifting between the outdoors and the almost-full notebook, that Anas told me, in a serious tone, when I asked how much money we’d saved up so far, that he was going to live with his mom in a temporary apartment, and that he was moving to a different school, too, closer to this new place. His uncle was going to tear down the family home and build something new on the land, something like a “castle” that would cover the whole area. Then he added, quickly, when he saw the disappointment take hold on my face:

“We’ll only be gone two years, and when we come back, my mom and I are going to have our own apartment, and I’ll have my own room.” 

How long had he known about this? On the way back, I tried to help him find a solution to this dilemma, but this time we got no help from imagination, so we stayed silent until we got off the bus, as usual, at the top of the street. We didn’t look toward the car-repair place, and we walked on until we passed by the patch of scrub.

There we stood, amazed, as we watched flames lick through the trees in the forest, taking many shapes without being bothered by people’s attempts to put them out.

Suddenly Anas pointed up above:

“Look!”

The smoke moving in the strong winds was drawing an enormous castle, a solution to what we had previously considered our great dilemma, the dilemma of combining the stability of a castle with its ability to fly.

*

Ameer Hamad is an award-winning poet, short story writer, and translator who has published his work in numerous magazines and websites and has a short story in the forthcoming Book of Ramallah. He was born in Jerusalem in 1992, graduated from Birzeit University, with a major in Computer Science and recently finished his first collection of short stories.