Before the crimson rays of dawn touched the treetops, before the cry of the cock, the bark of a dog, or the bray of a donkey pierced through the heavy darkness, or the voice of ‘Sheikh Hamzawi’ echoed in the silence with the first call to prayer, the big wooden door opened slowly, creaking, with the rusty sound of an ancient water-wheel. A tall, upright shadow slipped through and advanced on two legs with a powerful steady stride. Behind, followed a second shadow, on four legs which seemed to bend beneath it, as it slouched forwards with a lazy, ambling gait.
The two shadows disappeared into the darkness to emerge out of it again over the river bank. Zakeya’s face stood out in the pale light of dawn, gaunt, severe, bloodless. The lips were tightly closed, resolute, as though no word could ever pass through them. The large, wide-open eyes fixed on the horizon expressed an angry defiance. Behind her, the head of the buffalo nodded up and down, its face gaunt and bloodless, but not unkind, its wide-open eyes humble, broken, resigned to whatever lay ahead.
The light of dawn glimmered on the river, revealing the minute waves, like tiny wrinkles in an old, sad, silent face. Deep underneath, its waters seemed immobile, their flow as imperceptible as a moment of passing time, or the slow movement of the clouds in the dark sky.
In the wide-open spaces the air, too, was hushed and silent. It slipped through the branches of the trees so gently that they barely moved, but it continued to carry the fine, invisible particles of dust from over the high bank of the river, down the slope to the dark, mud huts huddled in rows, their tiny windows closed, their low, uneven roofs stacked with mounds of dry cotton sticks, cakes of dung and straw, then further down into the narrow twisting lanes and alleys blocked with manure, and on to the stream which completed the village contour, where they settled to form a dark, slimy, oozing layer covering its green water.
Zakeya continued to walk with the buffalo behind her, her legs moving at the same unchanging pace, as unchanging as the set look on her face, as the immobile waters of the river to her left, as everything else in these last moments of the night. But to her right there was a slow shift as the mud huts started to pass behind, and the fields emerged before her eyes like a green ribbon laid out parallel to the Nile.
She advanced between the two stretches of green and brown with the same swinging movement starting from the hips and thighs. Overhead, the black night withdrew gradually as the crimson hue of dawn spread out, then, after a while, changed to a glaring, orange light. Suddenly, over the edge of the earth a point of sun shone out, grew slowly to become a disc of fire, then climbed up into the sky. But before the light of day had chased away the night, Zakeya had already reached her field, tied the buffalo to the water-wheel beside the stream, removed her black shawl and put it on the ground, rolled up her sleeves, and tied the tail of her galabeya* around her waist.
Now her hoe could be heard, thudding out over the neighbouring fields with a steady sound, as it cut deep into the ground. The muscles in her arms stood out, and below the black galabeya knotted tightly around her waist, the long powerful legs showed naked and brown in the morning light; the features of her face were still the same, still sharp, still gaunt, no longer pale, but dark with the leathery tan bitten into them by heat and dust, and sun and open space. Yet deep underneath was the same pallor which her skin revealed before and now concealed. Her body no longer stood upright. It was bent over the hoe as she dug away in the soil. Her eyes did not look at the ground, were not fixed to her feet. They were the same. They had not changed. They were raised, fixed to some distant point with the same angry defiance which looked out of them before. And the blows of her hoe seemed to echo with an anger buried deep down as she lifted it high up in the air and swung it down with all her might into the soil.
Its blows resounded with their regular sound like the muffled strokes of a clock striking out the hour. They devoured time, moved forwards machine-like, cut into the earth hour after hour. They never tired, never broke down, or gasped for breath, or sought respite. They went on with a steady thud, thud, thud echoing in the neighbouring fields throughout the day, almost inhuman, relentless, frightening in the fury of their power. Even at midday, when the men broke off for a meal and an hour of rest, they went on without a stop. The buffalo might cease turning round and round for a short while, and the water-wheel would stop creaking for a moment, but her hoe kept on falling and rising, rising and falling from sky to earth, and earth to sky.
The sun rose up in the sky gradually. Its disc turned into a ball of fire, choking the wind, bearing down on the trees, turning everything into solid dryness, so that all things seemed to suffocate, burn in its red fire, and dry up, except the rivulets of sweat pouring down from Zakeya’s face and body on to the ground. Beneath the sweat her face was livid like the face of the buffalo turning round and round beneath its yoke.
The hours passed. The sun began to lean towards the earth in a slow, sweeping movement. Its flames no longer burned with the same ire. The heat subsided, and the air stirred, wafting a soft breeze with it from the waters of the Nile. The tree tops swayed from side to side unwillingly, as though spent out. Once more the sky was bathed in a glaring, orange light, gradually swept aside by the sad, grey hue of beginning twilight. The sweat on her face dried up leaving a layer of dust behind like ashes on a dying fire. She threw the hoe on one side, stretched the muscles of her back and stood upright. She looked around for a moment as though awakened in the night, then rolled down her sleeves and untied the knotted folds of her long, black garment before letting it drop down over her legs to the ground. She drew the shawl around her head, and stepped out of the field on to the dusty track. A few moments later she was once more a dark shadow walking back over the same path, with the same steady step, and with the buffalo plodding slowly behind. Now the green expanses of the fields were to her left, and the brown waters of the Nile on her right. In the distance the trees had become slender black silhouettes etched against the greying sky. The sun had dropped below the earth, and to the west, its crimson light no longer fought against the dusk.
The two shadows travelled slowly over the dusty track on the river bank. Her shadow was the same: tall, upright with the head rising straight above the neck. It moved as though advancing to attack. The second shadow too had not changed one bit. It slouched along, completely spent, its step resigned, its head still bent. They advanced over the river bank, two silent shadows in the deepening night. Nothing moved in the whole wide world around, nothing moaned or sighed or cried or even spoke. Only silence in the silent night spreading its cloak over the fields stretched out on the other side, over the waters of the Nile, over the sky above their heads, over everything on the ground.
Slowly the fields swung back behind them, and the huts emerged in front, small, dark, indistinct shadows huddling up for support or shelter against the river bank or perhaps afraid of sliding down into the dust-covered expanse of low land.
The two shadows descended the slope into the ditch, and got lost in the narrow twisting lanes, as they glided furtively along between the houses. They came to a stop in front of the big wooden door. Zakeya opened it with a push of her powerful fist and it gave way with a heavy creaking sound. She dropped the rope by which she held the buffalo. It ambled in through the open door and went on towards the stable. She watched it go in for a moment, then squatted in the entrance to the house with her back up against the wall and her eyes facing the open door, so that she could see the part of the lane which lay beyond it.
She sat immobile, her eyes staring into the darkness as though fixed on something she perceived in front of her. Perhaps what had caught her attention was nothing but a mound of manure piled up near the entrance to her house, or the stools of a child, lying on the ground, where it had squatted to relieve itself near the wall, or an army of ants swarming around the body of a dead beetle, or one of the black iron columns in the huge door on the opposite side of the lane.
The darkness was all pervading, almost impenetrable, but she continued to stare into the night until a moment came when she felt a stabbing pain in her head. She pulled the shawl even more tightly around it, but after a while the pain travelled down to her stomach. She put out her hand and fumbled in the dark for the flat, straw basket containing the week’s store of food. She pulled it up to her side, parted her tightly closed lips and began to feed little pieces of dry bread, dry cheese and salted pickles into her mouth.
Her lids were heavy with an exhaustion which was overwhelming. She dozed off for short moments, her head resting on her knees. She could no longer see anything in the total darkness, even when her eyes were wide open. Kafrawi slipped in through the big wooden door and squatted down beside her. She was looking straight at him as he came up, so he thought she had seen him. But although wide awake she had not really seen the man he has become. His body shrinks before her eyes to that of a small boy, and now she is looking at him through her child’s eyes, as she crawls on her belly over the dust-covered yard of their house, panting breathlessly, with her tongue hanging out of her mouth. The dust gets into her eyes, and nose and mouth. She sits up and starts rubbing her little fists into her eyes. The next moment she stops rubbing her eyes, and sits with her hands in her lap looking around, but suddenly she sees four black hoofs moving over the ground towards her. One of the hoofs rises slowly up into the air. She can see its dark forbidding underside like the surface of a big hammer ready to drop with all its might on her head. A shiver goes through her, and she screams out loud. Two strong arms reach out to her and lift her from the ground. The feel of her mother’s arms around her, the warmth of her breast, and the smell of her flesh are reassuring and her screams subside.
She could no longer remember her mother’s face; the features had faded away in her mind. Only the smell of her body remained alive. Something about it reminded her of the smell of dough, or of yeast. And whenever this smell was in the air around her, a strong feeling of happiness came over her. Her face would soften and grow tender for a short moment, but an instant later it would become as harsh, and as resolute, as it had been throughout her life.
When she learnt to stand on her legs, and walk, they allowed her to go to the fields with Kafrawi. He walked in front leading the buffalo by a rope tied round its neck, while she brought up the rear driving the donkey with its load of manure. Her brother remained silent all the way. She never heard his voice except when he urged the buffalo on with the cry ‘Shee, shee’ or tried to make the donkey move faster by shouting ‘Haa, haa’ at it.
She remembered seeing her father standing in the fields, but could not recall his face. All that remained of him in her memory was a pair of long, thin, spindly legs, with protruding knees, a galabeya with its tail lifted and tied around his waist, a huge hoe held tightly in his big hands, as it rose and fell with a regular thud, and the sombre, heavy creaking of the water-wheel. The wheeze of the water-wheel would continue to go round and round inside her. At certain moments she could feel it stop suddenly, make her turn towards the buffalo and cry out ‘Shee, shee’, but the animal would not budge. It stood there motionless. The black head perfectly still, the black eyes staring at her fixedly.
Zakeya was about to repeat ‘Shee, shee’ when she realized the face was not that of the buffalo, but Kafrawi’s. He resembled her a great deal. His features were carved like hers, his eyes large, black and also full of anger, but it was a different kind of anger, mingling in their depths with despair, and expressing a profound humiliation.
He remained seated by her side, his lips tightly closed, his back pressed up against the mud wall, his eyes staring into the darkness of the lane, reaching across to the bars in the huge iron door facing them some distance away. He turned towards her and parting his lips slightly spoke in a harsh whisper.
‘The girl has disappeared, Zakeya. She is gone.’
‘Gone!?’ she asked in anguish.
‘Yes, gone. There is no trace of her in the whole village.’
He sounded desperate. She stared at him out of her large, black eyes. He held her stare, but there was a profound hopelessness in the way he looked back at her.
‘Nefissa is nowhere to be found in Kafr El Teen, Zakeya,’ he said. ‘She’s vanished completely. She will never return.’
He held his head in his hands and added, this time almost in a wail, ‘She’s lost, Zakeya. Oh, my God.’
Zakeya looked away from him, and fixed her eyes on the lane, then whispered in a mechanical way, her voice full of sadness, ‘We’ve lost her the same as we lost Galal.’
He lifted his face and murmured, ‘Galal is not lost, Zakeya. He will return to you soon.’
‘Every day you say the same thing, Kafrawi. You know that Galal is dead and you’re trying to convince me that he’s not.’
‘No one has told us that he is dead.’
‘Many of them died, Kafrawi, so why not him?’
‘But many have come back. Be patient and pray Allah, that he may send him back safely to us.’
‘I’ve prayed so many times, so many times,’ she said in a choking voice.
‘Pray again, Zakeya. Pray to Allah that he may return safely, and Nefissa too. Where could the girl have gone? Where?’
Their voices like the successive gasps of two people in pain ceased abruptly. Silence descended upon them, a silence heavier than the thick cloak of darkness around them. Their eyes continued to stare fixedly into the limitless night, and neither of them moved. They sat on, side by side, as immobile as the mud huts buried in the dark.
* An ankle-length gown or robe which is cut to hang loosely; it is worn traditionally by both men and women, although the style, colours and cloth differ.