Once more he breathed the air of freedom. But there was stifling dust in the air, almost unbearable heat, and no one was waiting for him; nothing but his blue suit and gym shoes.
As the prison gate and its unconfessable miseries receded, the world--streets belabored by the sun, careening cars, crowds of people moving or still--returned.
No one smiled or seemed happy. But who of these people could have suffered more than he had, with four years lost, taken from him by betrayal? And the hour was coming when he would confront them, when his rage would explode and burn, when those who had betrayed him would despair unto death, when treachery would pay for what it had done.
Nabawiyya. Ilish. Your two names merge in my mind. For years you will have been thinking about this day, never imagining, all the while, that the gates would ever actually open. You'll be watching now, but I won't fall into the trap. At the right moment, instead, I'll strike like Fate.
And Sana? What about Sana?
As the thought of her crossed his mind, the heat and the dust, the hatred and pain all disappeared, leaving only love to glow across a soul as clear as a rain-washed sky.
I wonder how much the little one even knows about her father? Nothing, I suppose. No more than this road does, these passersby or this molten air.
She had never been out of his thoughts, where bit by bit she'd taken shape, like an image in a dream, for four long years. Would luck now give him some decent place to live, where such love could be equally shared, where he could take joy in being a winner again, where what Nabawiyya Ilish had done would be no more than a memory, odious, but almost forgotten?
You must pull together all the cunning you possess, to culminate in a blow as powerful as your endurance behind prison walls. Here is a man--a man who can dive like a fish, fly like a hawk, scale walls like a rat, pierce solid doors like a bullet!
How will he look when he first sees you? How will his eyes meet yours? Have you forgotten, Ilish, how you used to rub against my legs like a dog? It was me, wasn't it, who taught you how to stand on your own two feet, who made a man of a cigarette-butt cadger? You've forgotten, Ilish, and you're not the only one: She's forgotten, too, that woman who sprang from filth, from vermin, from treachery and infidelity.
Through all this darkness only your face, Sana, smiles. When we meet I'll know how I stand. In a little while, as soon as I've covered the length of this road, gone past all these gloomy arcades, where people used to have fun. Onward and upward. But not to glory. I swear I hate you all.
The bars have shut down and only the side streets are open, where plots are hatched From time to time he has to cross over a hole in the pavement set there like a snare and the wheels of streetcars growl and shriek like abuse. Confused cries seem to seep from the curbside garbage. (1 swear I hate you all.) Houses of temptation, their windows beckoning even when eyeless, walls scowling where plaster has fallen. And that strange lane, al-Sayrafi Lane, which brings back dark memories. Where the thief stole, then vanished, whisked away. (Woe to the traitors.) Where police who'd staked out the area had slithered in to surround you.
The same little street where a year before you'd been carrying home flour to make sweetmeats for the Feast, that woman walking in front of you, carrying Sana in her swaddling clothes. Glorious days--how real they were, no one knows--the Feast, love, parenthood, crime. All mixed up with this spot.
The great mosques and, beyond them, the Citadel against the clear sky, then the road flowing into the square, where the green park lies under the hot sun and a dry breeze blows, refreshing despite the heat--the Citadel square, with all its burning recollections.
What's important now is to make your face relax, to pour a little cold water over your feelings, to appear friendly and conciliatory, to play the planned role well. He crossed the middle of the square, entered Imam Way, and walked along it until he came close to the three-story house at the end, where two little streets joined the main road. This social visit will tell you what they've got up their sleeves. So study the road carefully, and what's on it. Those shops, for instance, where the men are staring at you, cowering like mice.
"Said Mahran!" said a voice behind him. "How marvelous!"
He let the man catch up with him; they said hello to each other, hiding their real feelings under mutual grins. So the bastard has friends. He'll know right away what all these greetings are about. You're probably peeking at us through the shutters now, Ilish, hiding like a woman.
"I thank you, Mr. Bayaza."
People came up to them from the shops on both sides of the street; voices were loud and warm in congratulation and Said found himself surrounded by a crowd--his enemy's friends, no doubt--who tried to outdo one another in cordiality.
"Thank God you're back safe and sound."
"All of us, your close friends, are overjoyed!"
"We all said we wished you'd be released on the anniversary of the Revolution."
"I thank God and you, gentlemen," he said, staring at them with his brown, almond-shaped eyes.
Bayaza patted him on the shoulder. "Come into the shop and have a cold drink to celebrate."
"Later," he said quietly. "When I'm back."
One man shouts, directing his voice to the second story of the house: "Mr. Ilish! Mr. Ilish, come down and congratulate Said Mahran!" No need to warn him, you black beetle! I've come in broad daylight. I know you've been watching.
"Back from what?" said Bayaza.
"There's some business I have to settle."
"With whom?" said Bayaza.
"Have you forgotten I'm a father? And that my little girl's with Ilish?"
"No. But there's a solution to every disagreement. In the sacred law."
"And it's best to reach an understanding," said someone else.
"Said, you're fresh out of prison," a third man added in a conciliatory tone. "A wise man learns his lesson."
"Who said I'm here for anything other than to reach an understanding?"
On the second story of the building a window opened, Ilish leaned out, and they all looked up at him tensely. Before a word could be said, a big man wearing a striped garment and police boots came from the front door of the house. Said recognized Hasaballah, the detective, and pretended to be surprised.
"Don't get excited. I have come only to reach an amicable settlement," he said with feeling.
The detective came up and patted him all over, searching with practiced speed and skill. "Shut up, you cunning bastard. What did you say you wanted?"
"I've come to reach an understanding about the future of my daughter."
"As if you knew what understanding meant!"
"I do indeed, for my daughter's sake."
"You can always go to court."
Ilish shouted from above, "Let him come up. Come up all of you. You're all welcome." Rally them round you, coward. I've only come to test the strength of your fortifications. When your hour arrives, neither detective nor walls will do you any good.
They all crowded into a sitting room and planted themselves in sofas and chairs. The windows were opened: flies rushed in with the light. Cigarette burns had made black spots in the sky-blue carpet and from a large photograph on the wall Ilish, holding a thick stick with both his hands, stared out on the room. The detective sat next to Said and began to play with his worry beads.
Ilish Sidra came into the room, a loose garment swelling round his barrel-like body, his fat round face buttressed by a square chin. His huge nose had a broken bridge. "Thank the Lord you're back safe and sound!" he said, as if he had nothing to fear. But no one spoke, anxious looks passed back and forth, and the atmosphere was tense until Ilish continued: "What's over is done with, these things happen every day; unhappiness can occur, and old friendships often break up. But only shameful deeds can shame a man.
Conscious that his eyes were glittering, that he was slim and strong, Said felt like a tiger crouched to spring on an elephant. He found himself repeating Ilish's words: "Only shameful deeds can shame a man." Many eyes stared back at him; the detective's fingers stopped playing with his beads; realizing what was passing in their minds, he added as an afterthought, "I agree with every word you say."
"Come to the point," the detective broke in, "and stop beating about the bush."
"Which point?" Said said innocently.
"There's only one point to discuss, and that's your daughter."
And what about my wife and my fortune, you mangy dogs! I'll show you. Just wait. How I'd like to see now the look you'll have in your eyes. It would give me respect for beetles, scorpions, and worms, you vermin. Damn the man who lets himself be carried away by the melodious voice of woman. But Said nodded in agreement.
One of the sycophants said, "Your daughter is in safe hands with her mother. According to the law a six-year-old girl should stay with her mother. If you like, I could bring her to visit you every week."
Said raised his voice deliberately, so that he could be heard outside the room: "According to the law she should be in my custody. In view of the various circumstances."
"What do you mean?" Ilish said, suddenly angry.
"Arguing will only give you a headache," said the detective, trying to placate him.
"I have committed no crime. It was partly fate and circumstances, partly my sense of duty and decency that drove me to do what I did. And I did it partly for the sake of the little girl."
A sense of duty and decency, indeed, you snake! Double treachery, betrayal, and infidelity! Oh for the sledgehammer and the ax and the gallows rope! I wonder how Sana looks now. "I did not leave her in need," Said said, as calmly as he could. "She had my money, and plenty of it."
"You mean your loot," the detective roared, "the existence of which you denied in court!"
"All right, call it what you like. But where has it gone?"
"There wasn't a penny, believe me, friends!" Ilish protested loudly, "She was in a terrible predicament. I just did my duty."
"Then how have you been able to live in such comfort," Said challenged, "and spend so generously on others?"
"Are you God, that you should call me to account?"
"Peace, peace, shame the devil, Said," said one of Ilish's friends.
"I know you inside out, Said," the detective said slowly. "I can read your thoughts better than anyone. You will only destroy yourself. Just stick to the subject of the girl. That's the best thing for you."
Said looked down to hide his eyes, then smiled and said, in a tone of resignation, "You're quite right, Officer."
"I know you inside out. But I'll go along with you. Out of consideration for the people here. Bring the girl, someone. Wouldn't it be better to find out first what she thinks?"
"What do you mean, Officer?"
"Said, I know you. You don't want the girl. And you can't keep her, because you'll have difficulty enough finding some accommodation for yourself. But it's only fair and kind to let you see her. Bring in the girl."
Bring in her mother, you mean. How I wish our eyes could meet, so I might behold one of the secrets of hell! Oh for the ax and the sledgehammer!
Ilish went to fetch the girl. At the sound of returning footsteps Said's heart began to beat almost painfully, and as he stared at the door, he bit the inside of his lips, anticipation and tenderness stifling all his rage.
After what seemed a thousand years, the girl appeared. She looked surprised. She was wearing a smart white frock and white open slippers that showed henna-dyed toes. She gazed at him, her face dark, her black hair flowing over her forehead, while his soul devoured her. Bewildered, she looked around at all the other faces, then particularly at his, which was staring so intently. He was unable to take his eyes off her. As she felt herself being pushed toward him, she planted her feet on the carpet and leaned backward away from him. And suddenly he felt crushed by a sense of total loss.
It was as if, in spite of her almond-shaped eyes, her long face, and her slender, aquiline nose, she was not his own daughter. Where were the instinctive ties of blood and soul? Were they, too, treacherous, deceptive? And how could he, even so, resist the almost overwhelming desire to hug her to him forever?
"This is your father, child," said the detective impatiently.
"Shake hands with Daddy," said Ilish, his face impassive.
She's like a mouse. What's she afraid of? Doesn't she know how much I love her? He stretched out his hand toward her, but instead of being able to say anything he had a fit of choking and had to swallow hard, managing only to smile at her tenderly, invitingly.
"No!" said Sana. She backed away, trying to steal out of the room, but a man standing behind stopped her. "Mommy!" she cried, but the man pushed her gently and said, "Shake hands with Daddy." Everyone looked on with malicious interest.
Said knew now that prison lashings had not been as cruel as he used to think. "Come to me, Sana," he pleaded, unable to bear her refusal any longer, half standing and drawing closer to her.
"No!" she shouted.
"I am your daddy." She raised her eyes to Ilish Sidra in bewilderment, but Said repeated emphatically, "I am your daddy, come to me." She shrank back even further. He pulled her toward him almost forcibly. Then she screamed, and as he drew her closer, she fought back, crying. He leaned forward to kiss her, disregarding his failure and disappointment, but his lips caught only a whirling arm. "I'm your daddy. Don't be afraid. I'm your dad." The scent on her hair filled his mind with the memory of her mother; he felt his face go hard. The child struggled and wept more violently, and finally the detective intervened: "Easy, easy, the child does not know you."
Defeated, Said let her run away. "I will take her," he said angrily, sitting bolt upright.