a shudder had run through her body.
The way it had sunk its teeth into her, the unhurried cruelty, the
guttural sound, and the downwards and slightly backwards jerk of its
head had been just like what he did to her on that bed there, close by.
Triggered by the surprise, a rush of terror had filled her. She had
moved away from the ginger tom instantly, shaken her hand hard, stood
at a distance from him that seemed, for no good reason, to be safe,
and gazed at the cat, which had looked back at her with an unwavering
Once, on a far-off day, he’d laughed when she told him the story,
joking that of course he was with her always, even when he was far
away. Her immediate thought had been that he meant it figuratively,
but he’d meant that he really was watching her, and when a young lover
had tried to insinuate himself into her life like a masked friend, telling
her that winter was a holy season, that to wake early in the morning
was his cherished dream, and that his next novel would be about sex, it
had occurred to her that her new lover was always saying that winter
was a holy season, that to wake early in the morning was his cherished
dream, and that he had had to give up his next novel because a young
friend was thinking about writing on the same subject. Again, she had
found herself shuddering.
She’d been aware of a connection between the two lovers that
couldn‘t be characterized as anything so elevated as friendship or so
trivial as mere acquaintance, but when she’d heard that the young lover
had dropped a small piece of paper beneath a chair in a down-market
café and that her new lover had found it and read the young lover’s
name, telephone number, and email address in his sprawling hand,
she’d found herself wondering about the lines that divided the young,
the new, and the ginger tom. He’d laughed as he told her how he’d
come across the scrap of paper and given it back to the young lover at
a chance encounter at a publisher’s office. Had it been that same day?
The same night? She’d asked him and he’d said, with his quiet smile,
that he’d forgotten that it was in the pocket of his pants and it was the
same pair of pants he’d been wearing two days later, when he was sitting
in a publisher’s office smoking hashish.
He’d told her he liked the young lover: he seemed talented and
quick on the uptake. He said this as he was taking off a different pair
of pants, at the foot of the bed.
She’d asked him how he’d spent the evening afterwards, and he’d
stretched out, flexing his muscles, and said he’d had dinner with the
young lover; the hashish had made him a bit tired. “You know how it
is when you come down,” he’d said, pursing his lips and shaking his
head laughingly. She knew that most of the time he didn’t feel any
embarrassment when he told stories of that sort, just as the young lover
hadn’t been ashamed to tell her, smiling calmly, that he hadn’t been
much of a stud with his previous girlfriend. Her feeling of foreboding
seemed to her too large for the life she knew, or like the disquiet one
feels before a delicate operation.
One night she’d been alone and she’d taken a piece of paper and a
pen and started enumerating the similarities and differences between the
two lovers. She’d written a lot, it seemed to her, but when she came to
the differences, she’d found herself at a loss. There was six years between
them in age. Six years between them in age. Six years between them
in age. She thought again; surely there must be some other difference.
Obviously, they didn’t live in the same house. One of them was a Cairene
to his fingertips. The other came from somewhere in the north. Great.
She’d almost finished going over the list of similarities when it occurred
to her that the young lover was a little taller. No, they were the same
height. Their hair was the same color. They had the same eyes. The
new lover was a little smoother-skinned, a little fairer-complexioned.
She made a moue of disbelief when she realized that she could not—to
cap it all—identify any important difference between their penises.
“How long is it, exactly?”The young lover had laughed till he choked. To tease her, he’d
refused to tell. But his voice had taken on a slightly (no more than slightly,
of course) more serious tone when he asked her for the reason behind
her strange question. She’d thought she’d be ridiculous or insane to tell
him because he would, of course, think she was ridiculous or insane.
He’d suggested she come and see for herself, and she’d cursed him as
angrily as a conservative young lady and rung off in his face.
When she called the new lover, his cell phone was off. Maybe he was
having sex with some girl. Of course he was having sex with some girl!
He was always doing it. He kept saying to her, with a grimace, that
they had an open relationship, which meant no commitment of any
sort. Those were the rules of engagement. She’d bawled him out once,
when he’d analyzed the way the young lover behaved toward his current
girlfriend by saying that it was a form of self-defense. He’d said, with
haughty confidence, that the open relationship thing was a pretext so
that a young man could practice his petty infidelities without anyone
chiding him. He’d smiled his quiet smile, which at that moment took
on a slightly satanic look, while lighting his cigarette with a familiar
ironic showiness. She’d said only that he too behaved the way he was
describing. His smile went rigid on his face for a second, and then he
spread it over his lips and answered with a calm bordering on insolence,
“And why not?”
Had that been the day when she’d spoken about his smell? Probably.
In any case, she’d told him, as she sniffed and then licked his armpit,
that she loved his smell. “Why?” he asked. “I just do,” she’d replied. She
became lost in thought and her words came out slowly. “Your smell is…
different. Close. Piercing.” Since “piercing” was the only word of her
description he could understand, he’d asked her if all nice smells were
piercing. After some hemming and hawing, she’d said yes.
Had she been lying? She didn’t know.
The young lover didn’t have a smell. It seemed strange but it was
true. He wasn’t exactly odorless, but his smell was light, a whisper.
She couldn’t come up with a way to describe that smell, or explain to herself why it was so meager and elusive. He didn’t bring with him thesmells of the village—its little houses, its fields, its wretched animals,
its pure white clotted cream. He didn’t carry with him all those things
that would delight the heart of a member of the bourgeoisie thinking
of a boy coming from a northern village. She stood up and stretched
out her hand toward her clothes closet. She couldn’t bear to be in the
house a moment longer.
As she walked smartly over the cruel asphalt, placing her hands
in the pockets of her short overcoat, swathed in her bright red scarf
and long crinkly hair, she asked herself why she hadn’t asked either of
them about her own smell—the young lover with his dim smell, the
new lover with his blazing smell. She was walking determinedly in
the direction of Downtown. She might find the new lover there. The
ginger-colored cat leapt into her mind. The only smell of his she could
remember was that of the baby powder that the new lover put on him
on the rare occasions when he took the trouble to give him a bath. A
deceptive smell. She hated that smell, which reminded her of artifice.
A smell that resembled his disturbing look when she shied away from
him. A piercing smell? Yes.
She leapt up the marble steps and made her way to the large dining
room, encumbered by its dozens of tables. She scanned the spaces
between them. No sign of the young or the new lover. She saw a hand
raised in greeting.
She drank from the glass of red wine with a greed that seemed to
take her by surprise. She noticed the marveling, slightly amused, looks of
her friend. “What’s up?” he asked. “I’m fine,” she replied. She watched
a young woman blowing contentedly on the cup of hot chocolate in her
hands. Her cleavage was visible behind the cup and next to her an older
man was sipping from a glass of whisky. Her friend asked her how her
new lover was. She said he was fine, then asked him if he’d seen him
that day. He said he hadn’t.
She excused herself from the crowd of people, including her friend,
and took her bottle of wine and glass and went to a table that was off
on its own, though not far away.
She felt a familiar desire to be on her own, and the two glasses of wine that she’d drunk made her a little more daring in asking forwhat she wanted. The young lover had criticized her for her habitual
reticence, while the new lover praised her for her sweetness and self-
abnegation. He would stroke her cheek and gaze into her eyes with a
wonderfully tender look—so wonderfully tender indeed that one might
suspect deceit—and tell her how beautiful she was.
How long was it since their first night? Four months. The first
time she’d met him, the ginger tom was two months old. Six months—
the little monster was six months old now. She poured her fourth glass
from the ungenerous bottle and thought about the transmigration of
souls. Could the same soul be in three different bodies? Once more, she
didn’t know. She had a bright idea: a soul like Batman. Bat and Bruce
Wayne at the same time. Her own personal bat would be Robin too.
Bruce Wayne and Batman and Robin.
The waiter went by so she ordered another bottle. He said that
hers was the last bottle of red wine. How dumb could you get? The last
bottle, in a bar? She heaved a sigh of disgust, then made do with white.
She tossed the last drops of red from the fifth glass down her throat,
telling herself, “So they deserve it.” For the first time in her life, she
was ordering something she didn’t have the money to pay for. Not the
first bottle and not the second bottle and not the plate of meat in front
of her. She threw a piece of it to the fat white cat that roamed, as was
its wont, among the tables. It was a strange cat in that it didn’t meow
impatiently if you gave it something or if it smelled something. It was
like a queen whose wants were all taken care of: she would eat what
you tossed to her in silence and walk away in silence. The ginger tom
was noisy, almost too noisy to put up with. Until that last bite, she’d
liked his crazy playing that kept them awake. Now, however, she had
taken a stand.
Her friend at the next table asked her how she was. She noticed him
looking at the bulge of her thighs where they emerged from her short
skirt. “What have you got to do with women, sweetie?” she wondered,
as she answered him with a foolish smile that everything was fine. For
sure, she must know she was lying this time. He noticed her watchful
looks and her smile, so he smiled. Suddenly he told her, “It’s always nice to try new things, isn’t it?” She laughed and nodded her head. Soit was. So it was.
She laughed suddenly, recalling the new lover’s fantasies about
lesbianism and how he’d ask her from time to time how she’d felt when
she did it once with an old friend. She used to tell him she hadn’t enjoyed
it; she’d just had a fit of curiosity and that was the end of it. He’d tell
her, “It’s always nice to try new things, isn’t it?” She’d ask him, teasingly,
why he didn’t try out homosexuality, then. Laughing, he’d push her
jokingly out of the house. She knew he was afraid of homosexuals.
Despite all his apparent liberalism and transient tolerance, that’s the
way he was. She’d told him that she thought the one before might have
had homosexual tendencies. Her new lover had said that was unfair.
She’d told him he used to like to have sex with her from behind, was
happy when she took charge, and was afraid of the sight of her vagina.
He’d adopted an air of gravitas and said that the first two were true but
that he could say, with the utmost frankness, that he was not afraid of
the sight of her vagina.
Maybe he was just saying that, she thought, half-way through her
second glass. He must have homosexual tendencies like the young lover.
Obviously a morbid fear of homosexuality reflected a repressed desire
to practice it. Obviously that was why he defended the young lover. A
thread stretched from him to the young lover that made him identify
with him. She was always breaking through his defenses and discovering
his secrets, and he hated it every time she did so. He was forever saying
that she was wrong when she was sure that he knew in his heart of hearts
that she was right.
Once she’d told him, after six consecutive hours of foreplay and love-
making that had left her wrung out like an old rag, that he was “pleased
with his own performance” or that his performance had “turned him
on” (she couldn’t remember exactly). He had exhaled the smoke from
his cigarette in a stream and asked, with initial calm, why, if that were
the case, he wouldn’t just watch himself in the mirror for the ultimately
pleasurable ejaculation. Why he would go to the trouble of being with a
stupid female like her? His voice had turned into a scream as he’d asked her what was wrong with her. What was wrong with women? Why didwomen always make such a big deal of acknowledging the man’s virility,
or his generosity, or his kindness, or whatever? She’d wanted to argue but
instead she’d said nothing for a while and then said she’d been joking,
or he’d misunderstood her, or she hadn’t meant it literally. After being
angry for a bit, he’d sighed in exasperation and gone into the bathroom
to drench his body with water. She’d looked at the great wide mirrors
opposite the bed. She’d asked him why he didn’t move them and he’d
mumbled something inaudible. She knew he watched their bodies on
the bed while he was inside her and this gave his thrusts more force and
vigor. She didn’t have good judgment, because she’d asked him once why
he was looking in the mirror, and embarrassed him somewhat. She didn’t
have good judgment, because when he became somewhat embarrassed,
his thrusts, which she greatly enjoyed, would become uneven; they’d
become uneven and falter and she’d start to become aware once more
of everything around her, that curse from which she fled to him. She
loved his body, she didn’t mind admitting it.
The whirlpool of her thoughts, now stained red and white, escaped her,
and she looked around. The place had cleared a bit. She stretched her
hand into the pocket of her coat which was hung over the back of her
chair and called his number. It rang and rang. The echo of an old idea
that had pursued her ever since she’d got to know the new lover mixed
with the ringing—the idea that it was always she that phoned him. He
only troubled himself to call her on very rare occasions. Or was it only
His voice came to her, and extricated her from these old echoes:
“I’m sorry. My battery ran out.”
“Where are you?”
The voice paused and then resumed, laughingly, “I’m at the house
of our mutual friend.”
An uncontrollable rage took hold of her. She asked him sharply what
he was doing with their “mutual friend.” He answered sarcastically that
he’d decided to try having sex with him. She rang off in his face. She rose to her feet and pulled on her coat.
Her friend who didn’t like women but thought it was nice to try new
things looked at her enquiringly. She told him something to the effect
that she’d be back right away. She left through the door like a storm,
without looking behind her. The ringing of the phone in her pocket
grew louder. It was the new lover. She turned the phone off in his face
once again. She’d known that this would happen one day. They would
have sex with one another and they’d leave her. Maybe the ginger tom
would take part too, licking this one’s balls or that one’s dick. She hoped
one of them fucked it and it died of the wounds. That shitty cat and its
shittier master. She would run to his house. She wouldn’t let them go
through with it. The new lover would say to the old that he’d told her
of his terror of her vagina. They’d fuck one another. The young lover
would tell him about how he’d put his cock in her ass unprotected, and
afterwards she’d run to the bathroom. She felt shame. She felt shame
As she hurried down the dark street, she felt nauseous. She leant
against a wall. She knew that churning inside her belly. Obviously she’d
find the cat there. She’d find the cat because the new lover was there.
She’d find the new lover because the young lover was there. She’d find
the three of them because she was certain, in some corner of her soul,
that the three of them were one; just one, who delighted in crushing her,
each time in a new guise. The contents of her stomach rose to her mouth
and she spewed them over the wall in front of her. He knew everything
about her and told it to himself with relish. He hadn’t even left her to
live in the bliss of ignorance. Why hadn’t she realized that until the cat
bit her? How could she not have realized it when handsome Narcissus
got such pleasure from watching himself fuck her in the mirror? He’d
attain the climactic revelation when he fucked himself. The universe
would suddenly seem to him to be filled with shining light, while she
was in a black hole of shame, a black hole as shameful and degrading
as her anus.
She became aware of a hand extended toward her and a voice
caressing her. She pushed the hand roughly away and struck out with
her voice. She wiped warm runny threads off her face and left the dark street at a run. It became clear to her that she couldn’t make it to theyoung lover’s house either walking or running, so she shouted to a taxi
whose fate had brought it to a corner near which she’d collapsed in a
heap. The driver set off, she urging him on like a madwoman, the driver
glancing at her every now and then in anxiety.
When she arrived, she leapt away from the tattered old back seat
paying no attention to the man’s cry. She crossed the lobby at a run. She
climbed the stairs on foot. One floor. Two floors. Three. The fourth
on the right. She held her finger down on the button. The bell let out
an endless shriek. The door opened and behind it was the young lover,
crying, “What’s the matter?” He looked at her in astonishment and then
let her in. She found the new lover, looking tense, sitting on a sofa with
the paraphernalia spread out in front of him. She looked around her
carefully. She searched the whole apartment feverishly, even the furthest
corner of the closet, where he hid his hashish, far from the eyes of his
visiting father or any spongers who might descend on his establishment.
Your Holy Ghost that bestows the largesse of his lacerations on the hands
of your lovers, the cat with the ginger color and the sharp, piercing
eyes that shine like diamonds. She didn’t find him. They watched her
from the hall, while she searched like someone deranged, crying out,
“Where is he? Where is he?” They tried asking her, “Who?” but gave
up in despair when she didn’t answer, her feverish energy seeming too
great to allow them to object, or scream in her face.
Eventually she came back to them in the hall. There were tears in
her eyes and her arms hung limply by her sides. Frustration and despair
had consumed her tongue. But, in a moment of liminal magic, she caught
a glimpse of something through the window. Her eyes flashed as she
gazed at it and her smile broadened. It was a body covered with thick,
smooth fur and a finely moulded head resembling a triangle, from which
whiskers sprang and above whose surface two further hairy triangles
stood erect. The head turned in her direction and she turned her gaze,
her eyes triumphant, her smile victorious, back to the two faces of the
same creature, between whose four eyes much astonishment, and a little
disquiet, were divided.
This is the English translation of Muhammad Aladdin's "Al Sagheer Wa Al Hali", first published in Arabic in November 2010 by The Supreme Council of Culture- Egypt, in its anthology "Best Egyptian Short Stories Ever", Then it was the title name of Aladdin's short story collection of Merit publishing house in 2012.
The English translation was published by A Public Space, New york, in October 2010.
TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY HUMPHREY DAVIES.