A Short story from Morocco
I escaped from the city’s mad streets with their iron swarms and wandering ants, and climbed the marble steps slowly. The narrow waiting room was a square tomb, but the eye became aware that it was a Pharaonic tomb. One’s eyes turned from plastic décor to leather armchairs, a square table in which colored mask flickered, from the wall covered with fine ornamental paper to the polished intervening doors and windows and the dimmed lighting whose source one could not see. I withdrew more into myself. The funereal silence prevailing over the room was heavy on my ears. None of the skeletons beside me spoke, as if they had spat out their tongues a long time ago. They were sunk in painful shells of dull-wittedness. I sighed as I imagined that they had weights of lead on their heads. The emaciated nurse, from whose drained eyes a jungle of huts and the course of high process gazed out, was the only one who spoke, insisting on speaking French to the patients. She did not stop coming in and going out through a grim grey door, in the middle of which was a protruding red eye. She ignored everybody, spat into the plastic basket placed in the corner on my right.
Finally the nurse came out of the door, whose mouth yawned towards me. She called over a speaker:
“Number eighty….eighty…Mr. Al Maskini….Al Maskini, Ahmed.”
The shiny metal signboard fixed above the grim door changed into a large screen, which I perused with concentrated attention. An X-ray check-up. Skeletons were staring at me. I felt that the planet earth was worlds apart from me.
I followed her, penetrating the moisture of silence. The corridor stretched ahead like a road, causing me to shudder. Where was the doctor? Where was the hell of wires, tubes and darkness? The drops of sweat poured from under my armpits, stinging.
“Take your clothes off and lie down here.”
A truly horrifying monster surprised me: a solid square head, a flat glass face with a mouth whose teeth were numerals, two short but strong horns, thick, bulging jugular veins, a long giraffe-like neck whose rubber veins protruded from its flesh, a noticeably prominent chest, a large long flat belly, and the monster had no lower half below the belly.
I stretched out naked on my back, submissively over the long cold bench, my eyes pregnant with questions. A sudden cold overwhelmed my whole body, and a dense silence covered the whole world. My eyes stared at the ceiling aimlessly. They said this monster worked miracles and blessings. So let it do what it wished with me, although I felt no friendliness towards it. Let me endure numerous pains, let me suffer a storm of agony at one go, but the important thing was that I should be freed, forever, of the recurrence of torment which rolled over my intestines continually, at their sharpest when I was faced with something unpleasant.
The doctor stormed into the room with tense steps tall and broad. He had the face of a mummy with harsh features, and his mouth was filled with a fat cigar. I reached out my hand to shake his, but he ignored it.
“You need to concentrate the X-ray on the left side, Doctor,” I told him pleadingly.
“The pain there is more troublesome.”
He looked down on me, and raged in my face:
“In know my job well. Your duty is to be quiet and do what I tell you.”
The attack of pain surged on my right side and left side with the speed of electricity. I imagined the angel of death Azrail was in front of me. I heard the groan escape from my mouth wearily. A rigid scowl was set up between myself and the doctor. The doctor put out the light. Things became dark except for a small red lamp which hardly showed itself. The doctor operated keys and buttons. The monster wheezed, rumbled and growled. His bulging veins quivered. It emitted from its mouth a flame like a legendary serpent towards my stomach. The nurse filled my mouth with a sticky substance that tasted like soap, which slipped heavily and revoltingly down to my stomach, while two threads of it trickled from the corners of my mouth. Everything was steeped in silence, except the monster which rumbled and muttered. The doctor pulled at my naked body like a fish, shook me roughly so I would assume the right posture. I almost made the mistake of explaining again and telling him about my pain:
“This is how the thing started, Doctor:
In those misty years, I was an ant which did not stop creeping day and night, and the cockroaches used to advise me that it was foolish to wear oneself out as a sacrifice to emptiness……it is insane not to gather the fruits of one’s death… It is accursed not to die in the toilet… and success, success lies in chirping, wheezing and leaping over ears of grain.
The pain became excessive in this way. Doctor:
The first manifestations of pain began when the accursed habit of spitting overcame me. I would spit more or less without stopping. All day I would spit with indigestion. I even discovered that I did not stop spitting increased in certain conditions; as if I saw two skeletons wrestling in the middle of the road as in films, while others were watching rapturously. Or I would see another skeleton insulting its wife and hitting its child. Or fearful boxes would go past me, hunting down dogs which said that they were mad. It was if I heard the radio station lying to its esteemed listeners from the sea of oil to the sea of darkness. Or the road would be closed before me by a masked creature from a strange world, long and broad, his mouth filled with a cigar, staggering on the narrow sidewalk, a clean little dog at his side. Pursue this, Doctor, add to it, so you may be aware how much I endured. I was almost convinced that I was not weaned on milk from my mother’s breast, but spittle.
I wish the business had stopped there, Doctor. My supply of spittle dried up without the habit of spitting leaving me. So I began spitting out blood, skin arteries. It became certain that I would soon spit out my tongue, throat, lungs, heart and liver, until I exhausted all my insides…did I say my insides? Ah, this is the essence of the matter, Doctor, as our ancient masters used to say, may God make their bones beneficial to us. Later, the pain became fierce. I felt that a huge, rumbling expectoration was forming inside my belly, that it would burst forth at one go, and my suffering would end with my death. For it is not logical, Doctor, and you are the best one to know, for a human being to live without a tongue, without a throat, heart or liver or any other of the vital organs, which distinguish a living being from an inanimate body. But I hate this spitting which decided to settle in my stomach and was not willing to leave me one way or another. So there is now no way to cleanse me of it except to my stomach opens. What torment, Doctor, what torment…Sometimes, Doctor, my despair becomes so intense that I wish my mother had never born me, or that my farthest ancestor had been impotent. By the way, Doctor, don’t you think that boys in this age grow old too early? What’s the reason in your opinion, Doctor? It is either malnutrition, or idleness, or exhausting their minds for nothing, or the enormity of impossible dreams?”
I remained stretched out like a dead man, not moving. The nurse moved slightly, carrying out some tasks like a robot. The doctor took hold of the monster’s horns with his fat hands and brought it near my stomach, the monster’s chest pressed on my belly without ceasing its wheezing and muttering.
“Stop breathing,” the doctor ordered me.
I did no, my eyes always to the ceiling. The ceiling split and a black ghost descended slowly from it, two short horns and a tapering tail, grasping a long winnowing fork in its claws. It headed straight for me.
“Good night….are you ready?”
What? Was this logical? This was illogical. Could it be feasible? Who are you? I am 25 years old and I do not know you. Images flocked together, attitudes, events, fragments, trivialities, intertwined entangled dreams. Fierce demons assaulted me, as I was confused between the logical and the illogical, between question marks. They started pouring water on my corpse, rubbing me as I were a rubber doll, guffawing and talking to each other about sex and parties. They placed me in a coffin, closed it securely on me, carried me and buried me in a crevice in the ground. Immediately, silent skeletons which I did not know lined up, and began offering me their condolences one after the other. At the end of the line, I approached my shadow, embraced it, and gave my condolences, weeping. Within me swelled an overwhelming desire to chat with the grocery, to climb the stairs of my home, to kiss my wife. I longed warmly for the hour for the cradle to enclose me, to embrace my mother, to converse with friends, give a party for the neighbours, visit my father’s forgotten grave which I had stopped visiting for years which flashed by like a fantasy, I cried out, as I had not done before, “How beautiful life is.”
“Breathe,” the doctor called out. “Don’t breathe…Breathe…..
I would breathe, then stop, breathe, then stop, and breathe again. I found myself becoming nearly incapable of continuing the process, and almost collapsed. I wished I could tell the doctor, “I can’t go on, particularly interrupting my breathing. I must rest a bit.
“Stop breathing,” he ordered me, scowling.
The ghost gave a boisterous laugh, uglier than anything I had seen or heard. “Come on, here you are ready at last,” it said to me with a false friendliness.
“Come on, the end is near.”
The coldness, the sweating, the shivering redoubled. The pressure on my stomach and on my breathing doubles. Finally I was able to say weakly to the doctor, “I can’t stand more.”
“Get up and put our clothes on.”
The room blazed with light. The ghost went away. The metal monster was silent. The doctor went out, whistling and dusting off his hands. The nurse followed him like a tail. As for me, my mouth filled with spittle.
(originally published in LOTUS, 1983)