New Short Fiction from Syria: Ibrahim Samu’il’s ‘The Stench of Heavy Footsteps’

This short story is a companion to Samu’il’s “The Bathroom,” also translated by Ghada Alatrash.

By Ibrahim Samu’il

Translated by Ghada Alatrash

Incredulous, she stood frozen in disbelief at the news as he repeated it, confirming, “Yes, they’ve agreed that you can meet with him, and they’ve asked me to make the arrangements.”

“All right. When and how?” she asked rushing to hear the details, her pale face flushed with longing.

“Tomorrow or the day after, depending on when we can arrange things.”

“No, tomorrow,” she cut him off. He replied, soothingly, “Slow down, Salma.  Slow down. He’s been away for two years. Now all of a sudden you’re in a hurry!”

Teasingly, she smiled. “And what’s the problem with being in a hurry?  Yes, I’ve been in a hurry for two years.”

Art by Najah al-Bukai.

“Very well my dear, do as you wish.  But in situations like this, rushing is not an option, since it could cost both of you a very heavy price.”

She felt her chest growing tighter and exhaled. “Are you going to lecture me? Just tell me, how and where will I see him?”

With a gentle smile, he took out a pen and a piece of paper and said, “Listen.  If all goes as planned, the meeting will take place tomorrow night.”  He looked at his watch, “At about this time.”

She nodded.  

He drew a circle on a piece of paper and continued, “Next to Al-Mujtahid Hospital,” he put an X inside the circle, “Roughly opposite is a lane, or more like a side road, that leads to Al-Midan.” He drew a straight line that intersected with the circle.

She whispered eagerly and pointed. “I know the place, there.”

“No.  Slow down.  On this street are two left turns,” he drew two parallel lines close to one another that intersected with the straight line. “Don’t take the first turn.  At the beginning of the second turn, at its shoulder, is a narrow lane, and at the end is a huge eucalyptus tree.” He drew two short straight lines next to each other and marked the end with a tree-like shape and a clear X.  

“Here, exactly under the eucalyptus tree, you will see him.”

Her face brightened. She rubbed her palms, “Okay, it’s a deal. What time?”

With a raised finger he warned, “Nine at night.  Don’t be a minute early or a minute late.  Exactly at nine.”

Her eyelids fluttered.  Pulling back her long black hair, she replied, “Definitely.  Definitely.”

He pushed the pen and paper aside, wrung his hands and said, “Now, pay attention to me.”

Annoyed, she interrupted: “Another lecture?”

Irritated at her attitude, he said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, another lecture!  Would you rather see him detained?”

She felt her fears resurface after they had just been buried for a brief moment in the clamor of her joy. 

She replied apologetically, “What I mean is that I already understand all these warnings from my previous meetings with him.” Imitating his voice and gestures, she recapped, “Don’t be late.  Don’t tell anyone.  Don’t look worried.  Watch out for those around you.  Try to—” 

He interrupted, “Actually, that’s something I want to emphasize this time. Be aware of who’s around you on your way there.  It’s very possible that your house is being watched, ever since it was last raided.  So make sure that no one is following or watching you.  As we’ve already explained to Abu Omar, your purse will be the sign we use to show whether or not things are safe. If your purse is hanging on your right shoulder and Abu Omar’s rosary is in his right hand, then it’s a sign that it’s safe for the two of you to meet.  If at any time you have any doubts or hesitations, then hang your purse on your left shoulder and don’t go near him. He is to do the same.” He remembered Omar and added, “Speaking of Omar.  Don’t bring him with you, but bring his photo instead as his father requested.  Agreed?” 

“Agreed,” she replied, her face pale again.

“I’ll go now.  Do you need anything else?”

“No, thank you, Abu Majid.”

He turned away, took two steps, and then stopped to remind her, “Salma, be careful.  To this day, they don’t know what he looks like. You’re their only guide.” 

“Don’t worry.  Say hello to everyone.”

On her way back, she began to slip into an abyss of overwhelming anxiety.

***

When she arrived home, she was overcome with fatigue.  She took a reassuring glance at Omar and decided to surrender herself to sleep, but sleep was nowhere to be found.  

Distant memories began to surface.

She gave reign to her imagination, letting it stroll through the days of her past.  She recalled the day she met him, when they vowed at the trunk of a tree that they would never separate, and she smiled at the memory of how he anxiously and eagerly anticipated her arrivals.

She buried her face in her pillow, trying to flee from a looming insomnia while the memories continued to surface: the day of their sudden marriage and their families’ astonishment; the day they had gotten into a disagreement, and she cried and cried and swore that she would not stay with him one more moment; and that moment at the door, as they stood eye to eye, overcome with emotions, and fell into one another’s embrace, burned, melted, trembled, and then grew faint, as still as a love that dwells in a grief-stricken heart.  

She removed the blanket and lay on her back.  Then, that cursed day stormed back in front of her eyes as if it were yesterday, and she recalled how they raided their home looking for him in every corner, even under the mattress of their bed! A smile surfaced in the midst of the terror as she thought, Did they actually think that Majeed could’ve been hiding between the bedframe and the mattress?

Her eyelids became heavy.  She buried her face in the pillow, desperate to sleep.  She imagined the eucalyptus tree stretching out its branches through the window; she held onto them and climbed down.  She saw Majeed emerging from its trunk as if being reborn.  She embraced him, rubbed her face against his chest, and wept.  In the midst of the embrace, she vanished into his arms, permeated his being, breathed in his sweet scent of pines, and dove into what felt like widening seas of blue streams embroidered with grains of tender sun.  They travelled into one another under a sun that was setting behind a distant horizon, a horizon that was once so clear but began to fade away, little by little, into the bosom of darkness. 

***

She headed out to meet him, and, as she shut the door behind her, an abyss of fear and apprehension seeped into her chest.  She straightened her sky-blue dress, fixed the strap of her purse on her right shoulder, and checked the time; it was a quarter to nine.  

She walked along the avenue that ended at Ibn Asaaker Street, her eyes carefully surveying her surroundings, and turned right as instructed.  There were a few pedestrians and many cars.  She felt the faces assailing her.  This is how thieves must feel—they think that everyone is looking at them, she mumbled to herself as she avoided looking at pedestrians and headed toward Bab Msalla.  

Am I really going to see him?  Will he agree to return home with me?  Even the walls of our home have missed him!  And Omar!  My God, if they would only let him come back home with me, she thought while opening her wallet and making certain that she’d brought along Omar’s photo.  She zipped her purse. 

And only for fifteen minutes!  I should have insisted that fifteen minutes isn’t enough.  For God’s sake, it’s not enough.  The last time I saw him was like a dream.  Only two meetings in two years! 

“Hey there, gorgeous.”

Startled by the voice of the young man who’d pounced in front of her, she scurried away, terrified and cursing at him silently, “God damn you, bastard.”   

She circled the square.  

She checked the time. It was seven to nine.  

She crossed Al-Mujtahid Street to the side opposite the hospital.  

I’ll ask him about how long he plans to remain in hiding and when he thinks this nightmare will end.  They’ve only raided our house twice, asked about him, and never returned.  Who actually has the time to watch and monitor us?

As she took a turn onto the side road that faced the hospital and looked over her shoulder, she was struck with fear at the sight of someone following her steps.  Her chest tightened. Could it really be?

She retraced her entire walk and began to believe that his shadow had accompanied her ever since she’d left the house.  She turned her head and stole a glance at him, but she was unable to make out his features. 

Could he be one of them?! She was suddenly overcome with panic and began to slow her steps, trying to make out who this person was.  Could he be just another thug, she wondered, trying to calm the apprehensions that were engulfing her like an octopus. 

She continued to walk slowly.  He did not pass her, nor did he disappear from behind her, and she felt his heavy footsteps pounding like a hammer on her heart.  Her breaths grew heavy.  Before turning left onto the narrow lane, she looked back and caught another glimpse of him.

Like one overcome by a seizure that caused them to jerk uncontrollably, she felt her hand rip the strap of her purse off her right shoulder and hang it over her left.  She then dragged her feet toward the eucalyptus tree, feeling as though with every step she were sinking into deep, sticky mud.  

His silence is killing me. I wish he would say something, anything.

As the tree appeared, she melted with anxiety. Her body was drenched in sweat as if she had been overcome with a sudden fever.  She began to sink under the silence of the footsteps behind her and the approaching tree ahead of her.  

At that moment, Majeed appeared from behind the trunk of the eucalyptus tree holding his rosary in his right hand. She felt her hand paralyzed as it lay on the purse that hung on her left shoulder.  Meanwhile, her feet were taking very, very slow steps, like in a nightmare.  As she drew nearer, she stole a glance at his confused face, one that was buried in the middle of a long beard, panicked and searching for answers. 

She pounced on him and embraced him with her eyes as she passed him, and she left behind her moaning heart, a heart suffocated by the stench of the heavy footsteps that followed her.  

She hurried a little, ran towards the main street, and crossed over to the other side and entered the hospital.  Hastily, she spoke with an employee at the information booth.  She then entered the hospital, made two rounds, and left.  She turned back, looked behind and around her, but the man was nowhere to be found.  She ran to the other side of the street.  A car screeched and came to a halt before almost hitting her.  She continued running while the driver’s insults followed her, “You whore!  Slow down, your client will still be there!”

She scurried towards the narrow lane, holding her purse with her right hand.  Darkness descended and enveloped the entire place.  She shivered in fright and began to survey her surroundings, but she could see only ghostly silence and hear only hollow emptiness.

She looked toward the end of the lane.  Her eyes crashed into the huge eucalyptus tree as it stood in shock with its thick, intertwined branches fading into the dark horizons. The tree seemed to be awaiting no one, and no one emerged from its hollowness.

She wrapped her arms around the tree, held it close to her throbbing chest and began to circle it, while the rustle of her hands scratched the hollow and deadly silence of the place.  

She began to feel her strength escaping her.  She stopped, leaned her back against the trunk of the tree, and began to slowly fall to the ground; slowly, she was pulled by the weight of a purse that remained on her right shoulder.

July 1987

*

Ibrahim Samu’il is a Syrian short-story writer and a former political detainee.  He has published five short story collections, some of which have been translated into Italian, French, Bulgarian, and English. He holds a BA in Philosophical and Social Studies from Damascus University.  He currently lives in Jordan.  

Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds a PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.

Najah al-Bukai is a Syrian painter who was held as a political prisoner for one month in 2012 and for eleven months in 2014 for his participation in peaceful protests that took place as part of the Syrian people’s uprising. After his release, Najah al-Bukai engaged art to document what he had seen, lived, and experienced in Syrian prisons–prisons that have been described by Amnesty International as Human Slaughterhouses https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/hu… Najah al-Bukai has had his work featured in several international news and media channels, including The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/wo…

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