A short story by Haytham El-Wardany


The pack left the village behind them and headed east. A heavy cloud of metal dust wrapped the sky and hid the sun’s light, or the moon’s. Only a neutral blue came through, by which it was impossible to tell whether it was night or day. In silence the dogs ran over the barren ground, the poet at their head. They passed by dried-up marshes and the heaped and rusting hulks of military transports. Not a sound could be heard the length and breadth of that bare border zone but the effortful panting of the dogs. Days and nights the dogs ran on in utter silence: there was nothing left to say. Even the image the poet had seen: there were no words left to speak it. Their trail snaked, they ran on and on, until the poet suddenly froze. There was a dark patch in the rocky terrain. The pack halted behind him then began to scrape determinedly at the ground.

It was at this patch, a thousand years before, that the dogs had spoken for the first time. Spoken as the stone speaks: out of terror at what it sees. Their tongues babbled, the humans had been killing one another, with the most vicious and noisiest battles being fought on the boundaries between languages. Then one day something had surged through the dogs, a force that turned their baying into speech, and the humans had paled and fallen silent. And when they’d recovered from the shock they’d started to note down what the beasts were saying. It was the first time men had shut up and listened. They heard the story of the two dogs from two different packs who fell in love, and were destroyed by love. A love that both the packs forbad, for they were then at war. The first was a pack of guard dogs, the second wandered the desert. And the humans wrote down this story of forbidden love, and in all its variations: the lovers struck down with madness; the lovers turned to stars in the sky.

Beneath a sky unlit by stars the dogs tore at the ground, claws splintering on the rocks and joints burning, until they had dug down to the black river. But they did not find the language that they’d lost. For when the long war had run its course the dogs had sunk into a silence without end. They even stopped their baying, and no one now spoke except the humans. Gradually, the dogs were absorbed into the emulsion of human speech that was filling the universe, and which no longer meant a thing.

The one called poet had seen his people lose their language and become like sleepwalkers, and he had been powerless to change it. But one day he had sprung to his feet and run outside. He had heard a call, a strange call he thought was coming from the borderlands, and he followed it, because out there, he thought, there might be born again that language which would cross those borders. Because without a language they could never be saved.
On a pile amid the piles of rubble dug up and deposited, the poet stood, staring confusedly up at the lowering, glowing sky. All the rocky layers they’d dug through. Why hadn’t they found the language? Had the poet chosen the wrong patch? Had his hearing deceived him? He curled up on the pile and slipped into deep sleep.

In his dream, the poet was sitting in a park. A young man approached him and asked him if he would take a picture of the young man and his friend. The poet said yes. The young man handed the poet a small camera and positioned himself and his friend next to the plate glass of a building. The screen on the camera in the poet’s hand was prismatic: like a strange playing marble. Beaming happily, the two young men stood shoulder to shoulder. They appeared to be in love.

The poet took the picture, but before he could hand the camera back, the young man asked if he wouldn’t mind taking the same picture, but this time with the pair of them standing on the other side of the glass. The poet said yes. He waited as they went into the building, but as they entered the back-and-forth of passers-by swallowed them up and he lost sight of them. His hand fell to his side. He didn’t know what to do. Then he decided to go in after the two young men and give them back their camera, and thus began a long search through the corridors of the building.

As he was searching, down a passageway somewhere inside, he came across two dark patches on the floor. He froze. Immediately he knew that these dark patches were the two young men. That they were here, spilt out on the floor. He stood over them, gaping, camera in hand. Then he went out of the building like a madman.

He was no longer himself. He started seeing the two young men everywhere he went in different forms. He saw them in the stains on a wall, in cups discarded on the ground, in the hinges of doors and windows. He saw them standing shoulder to shoulder, looking at him, as though waiting for him to say something.

Translated from Arabic by Robin Moger.

Haytham el-Wardany is a writer and translator. His latest book, “The Book of Sleep” (Alkarma 2017, Cairo), reflects on the political and aesthetical potentialities of sleep and vigilance dialectics in the postrevolutionary moment. Forthcoming is a collection of short stories entitled “Irremediable”.