He tugged at the fisherman’s apron. “Haji Kamal, Haji Kamal,” he said. Haji Kamal was too busy fixing his net. By his side lay a fish trap made of thin wire. Five fish thrashed about gasping for breath inside his boat. “Haji Kamal, listen, I just came from the gathering. Look, they gave me some candy.”
“Who gave you candy, boy?” Haji Kamal looked down at him through his bristly moustache.
“The men at the pit! I went and saw them. They turned glass into candy!”
“Is that so…”
After a pause, Haji Kamal continued: “Do you know why they dig a pit to do what they do? Do you know why they raise that long pole with the flag in the middle of the pit? – It’s because they don’t want anyone like you snooping around.”
The boy went on his way, grumbling and looking at the puffs of dust brought up by his feet as he walked. He opened his hand. That candy was shattered glass a few minutes ago.
He stopped at the shoemaker’s store on the outskirts of the small marketplace. “Uncle Nabeel, I must tell you something,” the boy said. Uncle Nabeel was sitting on the raised entrance of his shop “swatting flies,” as they say. He looked at the boy from behind his faded glasses, breathing through his teeth.
“And what is it today?” said Uncle Nabeel.
“Well, I just came from the pit –”
“Didn’t your father tell you never to go there? Didn’t I warn you myself?”
“Well, Abood was going, too. And he’s older. So I went with him.”
“And where’s that devil Abood now?”
“He ran away. He was scared. But I stayed.”
“You weren’t scared.”
“I only fear God!”
“Tell that to your teacher in the mosque tomorrow. How much of the Quran can you recite from memory?”
He was accustomed to that question from the grown-ups and had a lie readily prepared:
“And did the words of God come to your aid at the pit?”
“No . . . why . . . ?”
“Did anyone talk to you?”
“We hid behind the citron tree.”
“If you do it again, I’ll be sure to tell your father. Now run along.”
The sun beat fiercely on his scowling brow. A twitch flickered on the corner of his lips. He put the candy back into his pocket. In the distance a mother was calling on her child to get inside the house.
The smell of tobacco and then the sound of water rumbling in the bellies of the clay hookahs soon crossed his path. Under the fronded canopy of the coffeehouse the men sat and smoked without speaking. A distorted voice was talking about “rations” on the wooden radio. He simply stood there and watched. Behind the threshold of the coffeehouse, the shaded men seemed to him like ghosts from another world.
None of them paid him any notice.
He now threaded through the alleyways with their cool plaster walls. It was quiet there. His steps lost their purpose. His mind was adrift in unfamiliar thoughts. Suddenly Frutan, one of the village’s beloved madmen, called to him from behind: “Oi! Boy! Boy!”
The boy turned around and Frutan came running toward him. A dog started barking somewhere.
“Hey, boy, what do you have for me?”
The boy stared at him for a while, extending his lower lip. Like him, Frutan’s skin was dark. The madman plopped to the ground and crossed his legs. He looked up at the boy: “What do you have for me, boy?”
The boy took out the candy from his pocket. He extended his palm to Frutan with a few irregular pieces that glimmered dully like frankincense. Frutan jerked back and gasped: “I can’t eat that!”
The boy narrowed his eyes uncomprehendingly. “No, no way I can eat that!” repeated the madman.
The boy hesitated and asked at length: “Why not?”
Frutan opened his mouth in a gigantic grin: “Because I have no teeth!” And he fell on his back laughing. The boy, too, started laughing heartily and for a moment was wrested from the wickedness that had engulfed him. This renewed his verve and he hurried away. Frutan, still laughing, clawed at the tails of his dress trying to catch him. The boy gave him a kick and rushed homeward.
He found his friends huddled together. One of them caught sight of him and alerted the others. They all turned toward him, skeptical and snickering. They had heard the news from Abood, who told them all about the ritual as if he saw it all. Abood fabricated many of the details but the boy did not contest what he heard of his amusing account.
“Didn’t he tell you about when they turned the glass into candy?” he asked them. This episode happened after his friend had deserted and was naturally missing from his narrative. The boy told them of how a pile of jars was crushed before his very eyes and turned into the candy he was offering them now. One of the friends stepped forward and casually took a piece. He looked around dramatically before putting it in his mouth. “This – is the same as we buy from Abu Jamal’s store!” he declared.
“You don’t believe me?” the boy was offended. The others grew bolder and each took a piece. They all confirmed the first verdict.
The boy quickly changed the subject. “There was a fat man. Did Abood tell you about the fat man? He was hot and thirsty and sweating and when the demon possessed him he started trembling and shaking. Then he started stomping on the ground, stomping hard. The other men asked him, you know, ‘What do our lords want?’ And he kept jerking and twisting and his eyes were white. And the men kept yelling at him, ‘What do our lords want? What do they want?’ Then suddenly he stopped and puffed and said, ‘Give me a cold bottle of soda.’”
The boy’s laughter lingered over everyone’s head like a stranded seagull. His friends looked at him with crooked eyes. “What is it? What’s wrong?” he said. Some other rascal snuck in behind him and started whispering verses of the Quran into his ear. The boy pushed him away and defiantly confronted the group. “What are you doing?” pleaded the boy. “To drive out the demons in you!” retorted the offender. Another brazenly approached him with a stick and started whipping at the boy’s calves and repeated: “Settle them down! Settle the devils down!” The rest of the children carried on the chant, their cruel teeth flickering in the sun.
The boy backed away in horror. They ran after him and jeered and hurled pebbles. He heard one of them cry, “Abood told us what happened! Abood told us what happened!” But Abood, thought the boy, must have been telling lies.
Back at home his mother asked what was wrong, if he had gotten himself into trouble again. He waited for his father to return from the refinery in a creaking bus that carried only a handful of men. Before his father could remove his weary shoes and take off his stained overalls, the boy approached him and asked, “Father, where do we come from?” His father sighed. The boy lowered his head and said, “I mean, where are we from?” His father told him that they were from here, like everyone else. “But I mean, father, where were we before here?” His father nodded and said he would tell him some other day.
He did not tell his father where he was earlier that day. In the dark of his little room, he heard the branches of the dry poplar rustle outside the window. Its shadows cracked his face. The song of the congregated men from that day seemed to reach him again. Strange words like he had never heard before. A strange melancholy song. A drum beating like a gigantic heart lodged deep in the earth. They swayed and wailed and called out to someone who had left and was no longer there. They grasped at each passing waft of dust. Their eyes were already on him although he was hiding.
And then he felt the same breeze that caressed his forehead and led him gently to their welcoming faces. He felt that breeze like a tingling in his veins. When he looked down, he saw his bed far away beneath him. Without fear, he stared at his blazing hands.