New Fiction: By Eisa Al-Hilo’s ‘Two Old Ones in a Tree’

In July of this year, Sudan said farewell to the great short-story writer Eisa Al-Hilo (1940-2021). We remember him with this story:

Two Old Ones in a Tree

By Eisa Al-Hilo

Translated by NASSIR AL-SAYEID AL-NOUR 

Both of them were there. Old Radya and old Mutasim stood side by side behind the window, looking down into the garden. The evening had colored the garden grey and evergreen, tinting it with a dusky hue as the day dissolved into night. The western sky was briefly painted with rich colors of red, yellow, and orange that quietly vanished as dark overtook light on the horizon.

Shiv’s fotografia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the garden, two exhausted birds perched in a blossoming fig tree. Radya gazed at the meadow, while Mutasim was engrossed by the withered leaves that fell and then floated in the water that soaked the meadow. Radya stared at the birds’ quivering wings and thought the birds seemed ready to fly away together. Mutasim saw the same thing, but he assumed the birds would fly in opposite directions.

The two birds took off, circled the fig tree, and then ascended before disappearing into the heart of the darkness.

In the first days of their relationship, life had been fruitful for Radya and Mutasim, when the fig tree made its sweet nectar. The two birds chirruped, flew, and perched together on the fig tree’s boughs after getting pleasantly exhausted. Like the birds, Radya and Mutasim rested together when they grew fatigued or troubled. In winter, they got married and shared their warmth, thinking they had finally banished their restlessness.

Later, a long time after they had visited the gardens, they explored the ups and downs of their life together, a life full of things that were far less grand than they had expected. Days were like the tides that come and go, fed by tiny ripples. They knew it was difficult for one to bear a person more than the person should be born. They touched hands, but these touches were losing warmth; loving fancies disappeared; patience gave them nothing but depression. In the evening, guests came for dinner, but Radya forgot all that; they wrangled, Mutasim slapped her, and a divorce nearly happened. But before they fell asleep, they apologized to one another. 

I’ll be yours forever, Radya said. 

I’ll be yours forever, Mutasim said.

Their life kept going. Days repeated themselves, and their life was like an hourglass, filled from the bottom with boredom. He once bought her a necklace and said: This is for you… I’ll be yours forever. She bought a necktie for him and said: This is for you… I’ll be yours forever.

The dialogue started as they played it safe, the sand clock doing its continuous work. From time to time, they knocked over the clock to renew its cycle. Waves of love appeared, and the small daily details were their inevitable mechanism; sometimes, there were impulses and psychological balancing acts that maintained their relationship. And amidst all this, neither of them knew exactly what would happen next; they were worn out by all these efforts to maintain each other. And because of this exhaustion, each one began to think of getting rid of the other.

That morning, Mutasim reconnected the power to the washing machine until the machine was fully charged, but then he was afraid Radya would die by sudden electric shock. He listened to the voice of the machine whiz as Radya worked, her hands sunk in the soapy foam. Mutasim stood beside her, and she glanced at him and quietly said, I have fixed it. 

*

Both gave a desperate look at the two birds perched at the top of fig tree: Would they leave each other in their next flight? Would they stay together to destroy each other?

These two old ones were in a state of wonder, obsessed by their fear of death, asking themselves whether one would die before the other, or whether each would perhaps kill the other. Love trembled in their old trembling bodies. Darkness fell, and the day was stripped away, like a garment pulling itself from the body of existence. Behind the window, both looked at this gradual decline of daylight. Each asked themselves, “Might it be possible to fall in love again?”

That night, a June storm blew in, the doors rattled, and a soft red dust formed clouds over the old ones’ heads. They were silent, face to face, the ancient Radya sitting on her stool, putting on her glasses and continuing to patch old clothes while the ancient Mutasim was just about to dash off, surrounded by the dust storm. Radya was silent and didn’t care. The doors and windows began to rattle: everything was uncovered, everything was over. Radya stood up; it was her duty to wash his feet with warm water, to prepare a soup of meat and vegetables and bring it to him in the gown he wore to sleep. Alas, something had changed. Perhaps it was Mutasim who had changed; so it was that their inner monologues ran on, grinding ideas. 

It has been said: boredom is like a rust that eats away at everything it coats. It was that kind of thing; such a thing was happening outside the window. The two birds were about to feel it, their wings were shaking, ready to fly. The storm grew stronger, and the windows and doors were rattling. The photos that hung on the wall were flipped around. 

There were five in the photos, including their elder daughter, middle son, and younger daughter. The son had emigrated to the Gulf states, the younger daughter traveled with her husband to Canada, and the elder daughter lived with her husband in Omdurman. There was a photo of Mutasim and Radya. Mustasim had adjusted the other photos, but left Radya’s upside down. After that night, their life changed. 

Mustasim began to come home at dawn; he dyed his hair; he bought a new shirt and walked about, murmuring a joyful tune. In silence, Radya zipped her suitcase and left for her daughter’s house in Omdurman. 

The abandoned house was deserted, rose pots withered, birds died in cages, and both elderly birds fled into the heart of the darkness. This story, in the children’s letters, took on a comedic form, and then transformed into an interesting romantic tale.

The two old ones flew into the vast skies. The elder Mutasim was always escorted by a tall brown girl, and Radya was seen in a red Cressida accompanied a younger man. Later, all were seen in a public park, as if they had met by coincidence. 

*

As Radya entered the park, she saw the flowers, birds, and the flow of running water. All walks of life. She was under the spell of new feelings and newly invented customs, and she sat on the bench in the middle of the park beside her younger friend. At that moment, Mutasim came in with his tall brown girl and sat down on the same bench. They all talked at the same time, their voices intertwining, paralleling, and crossing, but they never met at a point. Suddenly the four clashed in a fight, but when the young man slapped Radya, Mustasim turned to face him, and the park visitors had to intervene to break up the fight. 

*

Mutasim held Radya’s hand, and they went, hand in hand, Radya’s head resting against his chest as she wept.

That day, both old ones pretended that they had met at Albaladia Park for the first time and fallen in love again. What had happened to them in the past, and what had been fodder for gossip, was only false imaginings. 

In later months, they started to execute their joint project. They built two beautiful tombs, and they fenced them with flowers in a garden that had a blossoming fig tree in the middle.

They stood behind the window, shoulder to shoulder, and Radya looked at the two birds while Mutasim looked at fig tree.

*

They whispered: “We’ll give ourselves another chance. And if there’s no more time here, then we will find a larger time there.”

In the end, they were like two birds perched in the tree. They stood behind the window and looked at the garden, which grew wider and wider to include the whole scene, where the old ones’ inner monologue ran like rushing water in the spaces of the evening, with senility’s trembling echoes.

*

Eisa Al-Hilo (1940-2021) was born in Kosti, a city on the White Nile around 200 miles south of Khartoum. He published his first collection of short stories, The Parrot’s Feathers, in 1963 and was one of the pioneers of the short story in Sudan. He published six collections of short stories and four novels, and his work appears in English translation in the collections Book of Khartoum and Literary Sudans.

Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.

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