The Penguin's Song

Hassan Daoud

Artwork by Miko Yu

From my window the sand made lustrous by the moonlight is clear and close as if its surface has risen toward me. The light of the moon carries the sand almost to meet me. Or perhaps that light simply strengthens my vision as I look at the sand, shining so brilliantly and at the same time appearing so brazen that it very soon repels my gaze. Sitting on the balcony, we catch the sound of the approaching breeze as it shimmies upward from below—that faraway below where the old city lies. The moonlight gives us the city too but as nothing more than skeletal outlines of buildings, ash-gray with age and remoteness. We send our gazes there, to perch at the margins of its wide ringed expanse, to know that something of us remains there.

I would complete the evening's togetherness alone, sitting at the window. Opening that window, I seemed to be breaching the wall of our home or displaying its interior spaces yet another time to the outside world from which it has sealed itself off. But nothing is out there apart from the glistening sand below me, which lies still and silent as if the light falling on it freezes it in place to fix its image forever. I am waiting, though. I am expecting a light to come on in the room below. It's the room exactly below mine—below me—on the floor directly beneath, and it will not be for more than a moment or two, that soft yellow light peculiar to homes, as it escapes the room and plunges across a stretch of sand. The instant I see it I am up from my chair and at the window frame, doubling my body over the sill to dangle my head below. But all I can see is a row or two of tiles, bare and empty as if the people down there have removed all traces of furniture, shifting them to the room's far end.

Still, I can see her in my mind. I imagine her picking up whatever it was she came in to get and then (with her other hand, the one that's not occupied) pressing the light switch to off. Her small hand is stained with ink in the way of schoolgirls, and the skin around her fingernails is crust-like and flaky. It's only an instant or two; and when the moment ends I am still hanging from the windowsill, pressing my stomach against it as I stretch downward as far as I can go. As long as no one can see me, I am in no hurry to bring my feet back to meet the floor. Anyway, she might come back. She might come back to get something else she needs: a colored ribbon, a belt to encircle her waist, or something else of the sort.

And I know, too, that their evening together—theirs too—is over. I know this from the shadow that comes to meet the expanse of light and then advances fully halfway across the area of sand lit up by the light in her room. I know it also from the pair of plump hands that reach for the outside wooden window panels to close them. She will be in bed and already well on her way to falling asleep when the voice of the woman—her mother's voice—says a couple of words to hasten her sleep and then when the woman's fleshy hand turns out the light. I will not wait long before letting the light in my room run over the sand. But my light will make only stripes, reflecting the slatted wood on the outer window panels which are already shut.

*   *   *   *

From the sound of her footfalls I can figure out which direction she has gone in and where in the room she is right now. I can tell that she has pulled open one of the double doors to the wardrobe and so I know she will pull out one of the drawers inside. I can even hear the soft thud of her book falling onto her mattress and the swish of her blouse as she lifts it off her body and hangs it on the wardrobe doorknob.

And then the light switch—I hear its tiny click just as the light sails out her window and across the sand, making a long thin patch that is off centre from the light coming from my window. That oblong of light creates no shadow of her on the sand, though, since she moves around only in the room's inner half. It is almost as if she believes that coming near the window means knowing that someone is surely standing there at the other edge of the sand and will see her. Or perhaps she stays in that part of the room because she is in a hurry and wants to stay near the door. As for me, waiting overhead, I figure she does not even know I am here. She doesn't know about me. If she did know about me, she would not let these irritable phrases—these angry, sharp words—slip from her mouth. No, not if she knew I was here, immediately above her window. Not those words which are very nearly swear words and which come out whenever something slows her down or she can't find what she is looking for. She does not know about me. The light in my room going out just now does not alert her to anything at all because a few moments ago, in her room, she did not notice that my light was on. Or she did not realize the light up here had been turned on after it was off. She would have to be slower and more deliberate in her movements, she would need to be calmer to be able to work her brain over a sound she hears or a light she sees. A person in as much of a hurry as she is—indeed, any person her age—does not take shadow created by light falling from the window above to mean that someone is there behind the window. Her head is not occupied with what she sees or hears because it's just following her body in its abrupt changes of course, as if a reverse current has suddenly charged through it and driven it back from the direction in which it was heading.

This body of hers: hardly has it come into the room before it goes out. Only a moment or two, no more; and in those moments it is as if I am actually seeing this body of hers. When the drawer opens I can practically see that form bending over it, and as the wardrobe door clicks firmly shut it is as if I am watching this body leaning forward ever so slightly to heave the door into place. I sit waiting for it, preparing myself to get up from my chair, to go over to the windowsill and to hang my head and shoulders out if I sense that the charge governing it will send it over to where I can see it. Really see it.

That evening I realized it was going to happen. Every time she came into the room she spent more time in it than usual. Her steps were slow and few, and everything she touched or looked at stopped her. When she opened the wardrobe door and then I heard no further sound, I said to myself, she is looking at herself in the mirror right now. Then I had the thought that perhaps she had begun revealing parts of herself to the mirror. This idea dawned on me when she nearly ran out of the room, or at least as far as the door, as if she were making certain no one had come anywhere near the door which she had mistakenly left open. She would return, though. After all, she had not shut the wardrobe door nor had she turned off the light. So I knew that she would return. And that it was going to happen. Leaning over my windowsill, angling my head and shoulders below, I would see her.

She did not stay long in the interior where the sitting room was. When she was once again in the room, directly below me, she closed the door and went immediately back to the mirror. It must be a mirror as high-reaching as the wardrobe door itself, so high that a person standing at it would be invisible to the emptiness there near the sweep of sand. She is concealed by the long slender rectangle formed by the closed door of the room and the wardrobe door opposite it, the two creating a sort of narrow closed corridor. Even I, watching and listening so attentively above, sensed that she was perfectly hidden there. Only my imagination could help me know what she was doing. For she had removed her body from the space commanded by her open window, from where she sent a part of it outward, carried by air and light, into the boundless emptiness out there which I share with her. All I could do was to imagine her, to try to fix her in a series of crisscrossing images that crowded in on each other only to erase one another as if, curtained there, she has severed every gesture, every sign or indication, by which I might have been able (just possibly) to reach her.

On that particular evening however, standing in front of the mirror would not be enough for her. It seemed as though something in her had awakened suddenly and—even in such a short interval—had transformed her. Hanging over the window ledge, I would wait for her to appear below me, to stand here where I can see, revealing now this part of her body and now that one to the outside where she knows no one is. If this is what she is doing then it is akin to taking another step forward in accepting and responding to this sharp fast change that has come over her.

This is what I want and do not want at the same time. I would love to see the bare skin of her shoulders as close as this but I am not happy in the thought that she is exposing herself bare-shouldered to the wide-open space beyond the windows as if to challenge someone out there to see her. Nor do I like the idea of her standing hidden behind the wardrobe mirror where only she can see herself and where, as I see it, some internal urge is locked in a quarrel with some other instinct, one part of her trying to entice the other out of its accustomed state. This is what I do not want because it causes her to know her body. I want her body to stay small and childlike, unconscious of itself, knocking into everything around it haphazardly as a child's body does, like when she walks in the morning to the end of the sand track. I love to see her then, her heavy school bag swaying, striking her between the shoulders so that she jerks forward, still grumbling because someone woke her up from a deep sleep. Desperately, I want to be the one—the only one—who will bring something unchildlike from her body, a body that returns sweaty and exhausted from school. I want her to be ignorant of her body, unaware of its forces. Only then—and if there were to happen between us what normally happens between neighbors who have lived near each other for a long time—could I put my hand on her arm and invite her to come in. Then my hand could go to her face, wiping off a muddy or oily splotch left by the school bus, and she would believe the only reason I touched her was to wipe away the dirty spot. I would see her feet, bare as she padded through the house, with me there, nearby, so close I can contemplate reaching out a hand and touching those little feet, just like that, naturally, as if I'm flicking the clinging dust off them. Maybe I could reach out and catch hold of one foot, from the inside, from that inner arch that slopes down to the bottom of her foot. If the people sitting with us were to leave, if she were the only one still there, alone, sitting with me, that is what I would do.

On this particular evening as I lean against the window ledge and hang down over it, I know that she will come close to where I can see her and not just the shadow of her. She will come so near that she will be exactly beneath me, I know it. She will stand in front of the open square that the window forms, poised there exactly as she stood in front of the mirror. She will think she is risking nothing. She is only offering what was in the mirror to onlookers she creates in her mind. That's what she will do. The same way she stood before the mirror, that's how she will stand now but in front of that open square that is the window. And so from where I am, immediately overhead, I will see her; when she comes over here I will see her and she will be just as she was there, showing herself to herself in front of the mirror.

Behind me, the light in my room is out. There is no light to create a shadow of me across the sand that lies so close beneath us. I can wait like this for hours, assured that no one sees me or knows that I am here. But I will not need to wait very long. Though she has come away from where she stood, there below, she has left the wardrobe door open. Did she go over to her bed, perhaps? Or maybe she walked toward a table that I have not realized was there, near the bed. And then... but here she is now, coming back this way: something has moved in the light descending from her room. It is not her shadow. It is merely the phantom image of her movement inside the room.

She will come.

She has come closer; she has walked toward the window. What was a formless movement playing on the sand, a flickering of the light, is now a real and solid image. She is coming, now; her shadow arrives. In the instant when her shadow becomes complete out on the sand she appears behind it; and I, in that selfsame moment, have prepared myself to see her appear, fully and truly appear. Her golden hair is combed and wound in the way of older women. Underneath, below her neck whose nakedness seems (from the back) so elongated, she wears nothing but a child's sleeveless cotton undershirt which reveals the rounding of her small breasts, not yet fully developed. She wears a shirt worn not to be seen but only to lie beneath other clothes. And the breasts beneath it—these small breasts which I want only to pass my hands over, for desire has not reached them, has not yet come to touch them. Yes, this is what I want: I am he who desires the body whom desire has not yet caught.

translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Translation copyright © 2013 by Marilyn Booth. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books. The Penguin's Song is forthcoming from City Lights Books in Fall 2014.