Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Sixteen


The next morning Larbi and the Poet had breakfast together and then went to see Ben Mahmood. Now the Poet suspected Larbi’s every move but wilfully made an ass of himself. When Larbi said it was “only an ordinary courtesy visit”, the Poet nodded and replied, “Fine”. On that very occasion Ben Mahmood invited, then insisted, then begged the Poet to stay with him. “I’m glad to offer you this private room for the time being,” he said smoothly. “And when money comes my way, I’ll build a separate cottage for you!” The Poet smiled broadly, trying to ferret out what kind of plans Ben Mahmood was carrying out. So far, the Poet was determined to hold on to his love of Yamna. He knew he was but a lamb amidst wolves. But he meant to be a clever, slippery lamb. So he thought of planning quite everything with the greatest care. He knew it would be a stupid mistake to demand to see Yamna now. And he did not make that mistake.

      Nothing unusual happened in the rest of that day. Two other days went peacefully by. On the third day the Poet had a headache. At first, he endured the pain and made no complaint. But as the day wore on the pain grew keener. Larbi came to see him at Ben Mahmood’s cottage and advised him to be confined to bed. The Poet needed not such an advice because he knew he would not be able to go out for at least two more days. Five other men came to see him. These were casual acquaintances. Over the last two days Ben Mahmood had taken the Poet around the area and introduced him to some of the hamlet men.

      The Poet’s ailment lasted more than anyone, least of all the Poet, had expected. Ben Mahmood seemed to have been doing all he could to treat the Poet well. Larbi and some of the young men came from time to time to inquire after the Poet. But the one person who meant most to the Poet had not come as yet. Over all these long days the Poet had tried hard to conceal his innermost feelings. But as his pains began to worsen and his powers to fail, he grew afraid that he might die before he could get a chance to see Yamna once again. So he finally betrayed his fears to Ben Mahmood. “You’d better forget all about her!” was the response. This infuriated the Poet. And he immediately began to wait with a mounting impatience for “wicked” Larbi to reappear. Larbi came and the Poet told him that he wanted to see Yamna. “Yamna has changed her mind, I’m sorry!” old Larbi replied coldly. The Poet was stunned into silence. It took a good while before he could find his voice again.
      “How the devil would I know this is true?” the Poet cried in a quivering voice. “I want to hear that from her own mouth! I was well aware of your tricks, Mr Larbi. You could well say that, since you have not experienced the flare-up of the flames of love in my heart. You are cruel, cruel, cruel– Mr Larbi! And I’ll never forgive you– neither in this world nor in the Hereafter!”
      Larbi did not alter his story, though. When he had left, Ben Mahmood came in and found the Poet weeping. When the Poet was able to speak he complained to Ben Mahmood. Ben Mahmood listened, and then said, “Mr Larbi is a very respectable man. No suspicion attaches to him. I think it’s downright impudent of you to speak ill of him…”

      And thus the Poet’s torments grew more and more acute day by day. And yet his hopes to see his beloved had not gone completely. So he waited. And not until the nineteenth day did he stop waiting. Yamna came to see him at Ben Mahmood’s cottage. Old Larbi was with her. But after having tea with the Poet, Ben Mahmood and Larbi, Yamna insisted that she be left alone with the Poet. Larbi accepted grudgingly. So, at long last, the Poet and Yamna were once again alone together.
      “How are you, Salman?”
      “Yamna, I love you. I’m–”
      Yamna smiled, and then said:
      “How long have you been ill?”
      “Ever since I saw that Jew rush after you with the knife in his hand!”
      “That’s too long a time!” Yamna smiled, then sighed.
      “I love you, Yamna. I was impatiently waiting for you to hear this from my mouth before I die.”

      For a while, Yamna kept looking tenderly at the Poet’s pale face. The Poet could see that she was trying to hold back her tears. Suddenly, Yamna closed her eyes, breathed passionately, and said:
      “Salman, you’re you a poet. Sing me a song!”
      The Poet had one ready:

      Of all the roses I’ve called one,
      And that’s you!
      Of all the hearts you’ve won one,
      And that’s mine!
      Of all the maids I’ve love one,
      And that’s you!
      Of all the souls you’ve won one,
      And that’s mine!
      You’re the red in sunset;
      You’re the blue in the sea;
      Before you and I met
      I’d been but a wave in a sea…
      Phew! I love you!

      Yamna smiled and said, her eyes glistening with tears:
      “This Phew! I love you! , is it part of the song– it doesn’t rhyme with the rest?”
      “Give me your hand, Yamna!” the Poet murmured. “I want to touch it.”
      “I can’t.”
      “Why?”
      “I don’t know.”
      And before the Poet could ask another question, Yamna started to weep suddenly. She wept fit to break her heart. The Poet gaped. He waited until she had wept long enough, then he asked in a hesitant, sad tone:
      “Why are you weeping, darling?”
      Yamna looked up at him and sobbed. Then she flung herself at his frail chest and began to sob even more movingly. At last she found her voice and burst out:
      “My children, Salman! My children… Hassan and Hussein and Sa’diya…” The Poet was puzzled.
      “Which Hassan and Hu–” he asked, panting.    
      “You know them,” Yamna answered between tears. “I told you.”
      The Poet deduced from that that Yamna had secret, private names for her three children from Haroon.
      At this point Larbi slunk into the room and screamed:
      “What’s that?”
      The Poet was startled but kept holding Yamna tight against his chest. And Yamna did the same. Larbi advanced upon them and tried to separate them with his wiry arms, shouting all along:
      “Which devil has brought you together? Get up! There’s no one of us but would tread on you if he found you lying like this– like two rotten sardines! Get up, May God damn you both!...”
      Yamna did not budge however hard had Larbi tried to lift her. And all of a sudden she shrieked and her shrieks pierced the air. Then she swung round and shouted, with glaring eyes:
      “And what about you, our honourable imam? Aren’t you an arrant errant husband? Don’t you see that you and your fellow hamlet men have turned this land into a haunt of criminals? Get out! Get out!”
      Yamna sat upright and resumed, between tears:
      “Listen to me, I’ll tell you plain! I’m willing to die with this man. Did you forget? Weren’t you present at that assembly when I said I wished to marry Salman? If you forgot, here I am reminding you!”
      The old man’s face darkened as he heard this and particularly as Yamna raised her voice higher and higher. He suddenly sat down and kept quiet. The Poet spoke.
      “We are sorry, Mr Larbi, terribly sorry.”
      Yamna buried her face in her hands and burst into bitter tears. The Poet went on, addressing his words to the old man:
      “Why don’t you want us to marry, she and I?”
      The old man turned to him and retorted:
      “Don’t idle away your time! You will not marry her!”
      “Why?” the Poet cried madly.
      The old man did not bother to answer him. He just stood up and drew a small knife from under his belt and turned at Yamna, growling:
      “Get up, you moll! Get up or I’ll kill you!”
      Yamna tried to resist, crying, “Kill me! I won’t go with you!” But she finally gave in and went out of the room– under the Poet’s burning eyes. 

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER


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