The next morning the Poet was in the woods as usual. He had not had breakfast. Sawsan had not brought it to him. The Poet was sad. Sawsan too was anything but happy.
“I saw Sawsan weeping,” said Sufian curiously. “Why?”
“Was she?” replied the Poet, half-surprised. “Well, perhaps she has recalled somebody that she misses. Where did you see her?”
“With Hind. In the house.”
“Ah, good. Then let her do whatever she pleases.”
“I feel sympathy for her.”
“You!” The Poet paused, sighed and added, “Maybe she’s been ill of late and needs some rest.”
“Have you brought the flute?”
“It’s a pity.”
“I wish you had it with you now. To sing me one of your nice songs.”
The Poet too had the same wish now. But he could not send the boy off for the flute in this infernal heat. He just kept quiet and looked straight ahead unseeing. After a while he glanced at Mariam, who herself was looking at him meditatively from a distance. Sufian too looked in that direction, but said nothing. The Poet wondered what Mariam was thinking just now. Then he tried to interpret Sawsan’s reaction. Why was she weeping?…And as he went on thinking he felt something unusual happening in his head, in his brain. He could not explain it. He felt as if someone was pricking his brain with a pin. His head began to throb painfully. He tried in vain to stop thinking, but his brain pains only needled him into thinking more and more.
At night the Poet was still thinking, and his brain ached all the more so since Sawsan’s intolerable indifference stoked up the fire in his bosom. He prayed and read the Quran and yet his pains and torments did not abate. And he blamed none but himself. He had done what he ought to have done and he had to bear his suffering patiently. Apart from his past sins he had nothing to regret now…
Sawsan dined in the compound and did not bring the Poet his dinner. He said nothing. After the Evening Prayer he had a little walk round the tent and then went back to sleep. In bed he did not lay a finger on his wife. He only clasped his head in his hands and endured the pain…
Hassan had not appeared all through that day and the next. It was Assem who came now to see the Poet in the woods. He brought with him fruits in a small basket. The Poet was playing on the flute when Assem appeared. Then he stopped tootling and waited for his master to come closer and sit by his side.
“Peace be with you, Salman,” said Assem, sitting next to the Poet.
“Peace be with you too,” replied the Poet, forcing a smile.
Then Assem took two fruits from the basket, stood up and headed toward Boutros’ daughter. He gave her the fruits, chatted with her for a while and came back to sit next to the Poet.
“Mariam really is a nice girl,” said Assem, looking at the Poet.
The Poet smiled and looked at his flute.
“Will you play for me?” said Assem.
The Poet glanced at him, smiled, sighed and began to play on the flute. And he went on tootling, almost absentmindedly, until Assem turned to him and said, “That’s enough.” The Poet stopped.
“You are lucky, Salman,” said Assem.
“You have this means to express yourself as you please.”
“You’re right,” replied the Poet with a sigh.
“What did Sawsan say?”
“About the necklace, of course?”
“She’s said nothing but she looks angry.”
“Do you speak to each other?”
“Do you eat with each other?”
“Does she bring you your meals?”
“Do you…at night?”
“Then you are an ill-assorted couple!”
The Poet kept quiet.
“Speak!” said Assem.
“I’m sorry to say that the Sawsan you’ve chosen for me is an iceberg of a wife!”
“Does she lam into you?”
“What has she done or said, for example?”
“Once, not long ago, she said to me, ‘I admit you’re quite a pretty sexy boy. That’s probably the only thing good about you!’ ”
“Your face,” replied Assem after a pause, “has grown rough enough to sharpen a knife on. It’s like a hone! Did she say that?”
“Then you are dead lucky! That’s what most women are seeking after. The rest –all the rest– depends on you!”
“Her behaviour has made me think more of Sultana than of herself. I really don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll tell you what to do. Keep faithful to your wife. You don’t know her life-story. She might have been a miserable maid. And then think of God, first. Compare what God gave you with what a woman –any woman– could give you, and then decide. Sawsan is good. Don’t lose her! Now eat this and sing me a song.”
Those moments with Assem brought a great comfort to the Poet. Sawsan too began to change. She would now bring the Poet his meals on time. But she would not speak to him. In fact, she still looked at him in disgust. And to the Poet’s relief, Hassan was not around for days. But the Poet was by nature a sceptic. This time he was proved right.
One evening Sawsan went to the compound to get dinner for herself and the Poet. As he usually did, the Poet stayed in the tent, reading. At first he thought more of what he was reading than of his wife’s return. But suddenly he began to worry. Sawsan had never been so late as she was tonight and she had not yet returned to the tent. The Poet wondered why but did not go out to see what might be happening until his heart was sure that there was something wrong. So he left the tent, and as he went a little distance in the direction of the compound he saw two figures standing up in front. He quickened his pace and his heart gave a violent jump as he made sure that the two persons standing up there and chatting were Hassan and Sawsan in the flesh. The Poet’s brain ached. As he got closer to them, Sawsan turned around and looked at him disgustedly.
“What’s the matter with you, you noodle?” Hassan snarled. The Poet glared at him for a while, simmering with rage, and in a moment he nearly went out of his mind. He crouched down and fumbled in the dark for stones to throw at these two vile people in front of him. Hassan drew his sword and lunged forward to scare the Poet off. In fact, the Poet had escaped only by inches when Sawsan stuffed her fingers into her ears and bawled. Sufian rushed out to see what was happening and flew back into the house. Then both he and Assem appeared and darted forward. Hassan was chasing the Poet and barking at him when Assem cried, “Stop it! Put up your sword! Come on!” Assem cried and cried until he came to interpose himself between his own son and the Poet.
“Put up your sword at once!” Assem shouted to his son as he held him back.
The Poet dodged behind his master, holding two stones in his hands. Hassan glared one last time at the Poet, then looked at his father and put up his sword reluctantly. Sawsan kept aloof, watching.
“Now, clear off!” shouted Assem to his son. “At once!”
Hassan cast covetous eyes on Sawsan and moved off. He vanished into the compound.
“Sawsan, come over here!” said Assem gravely.
She shambled up to him. The Poet dropped the stones and wiped his hands on his gown.
“Now, let’s move!” said Assem to the couple, looking each in the face.
All three headed toward Kafr-Hanoon, where lived Boutros.
“Salman,” said Assem, who now walked between the Poet and his wife, “my son is a very bitter man. You shouldn’t have clashed with him. But tell me, what happened exactly?”
The Poet replied in an unsteady voice:
“I was coming from the tent to see why Sawsan had been so late. And on the way I caught her standing up by the house and chatting suspiciously with Mr Hassan.”
“Sawsan, is that true?”
“Yes Sir,” she replied confidently, after a pause.
“What were you saying to each other?”
“He asked me to persuade Salman to write something about Hassan’s friend.”
“Was that all?”
“My son is crazy. You’re not to blame, Salman. You are free. No one would compel you to write what you don’t feel. And you, Sawsan, I hope you understand your husband…”
At Kafr-Hanoon, Assem asked the Poet to stay outside while himself and Sawsan went into Boutros’ house. The Poet did not see Boutros. He only waited out there and wondered what would happen next. Assem reappeared alone. The Poet wondered why.
“Where’s Sawsan?” he asked eagerly.
“Sawsan will stay here in Boutros’ house until we see what to do. Now let’s go back home!”
After a long silence, on their way back home, Assem confided to the Poet:
“Hassan might kill you both. You’ve got to be wary. Tonight you won’t sleep in your tent.”
“Where shall I sleep, then?”
“I’ll show you where.”
The Poet spent that night in Assem’s sleeping-room. Sufian slept with them.
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER