THE BRIDGE UNDER our wheels moaned, some said, because it was built in time of war. Others were more specific — it moaned because of the two men buried in the concrete. Rommel built it; the British maintained the asphalt after he left. My father would drive across it with the car lights off. The haze from the city was enough to show the way, he explained. Then he’d stop by a channel that carried sea water to the salt fields. There were no birds, not even the sudden flop of a fish, or the rumble of the city’s thousand pariahs that roamed the streets and howled through the night. My father would rest his hand on my shoulder to quiet me in case I wanted to talk. Then soon there would be nothing in the world but the sound of crickets, an ordered machinery, a vibrating zone. The sound of the crickets would crawl, like a creature wanting to let itself be known, yet quick to withdraw. You would feel the air shiver around you. You could almost feel the sound of crickets wrap you like a shroud. If you closed your eyes you could almost see their hidden machinery, the idea of their purpose, the mass of their history, the infinity of their future births and deaths; and you could almost feel the mass of this heap of intangibles rise up like a mountain of silver — glittering, luminous, suddenly doing away with the night. . .
And who was I then, and who was my father?
And what was that city that tangled us in its muddy streets?
MY COUSINS HAD a parrot. He called only the name of one of them. Whenever the parrot called her name he would then close his eyes and roll his neck as if to clear his blue throat. I would run to the kitchen to bring peanuts which he ate slowly and deliberately, the peanuts he picked from my palm clicking against the insides of his black mouth. I would then plead with him, calling my cousin’s name, calling out all sorts of names. But the parrot would look past me bewildered as though the noise took him too by surprise, as though it had come from a house which — to him and to me — was hopelessly shut.
The parrot was never named and that may explain why no one mentions him now. My cousin whose name he called married years ago and fought her husband through two pregnancies, but did not divorce. Sometimes when she cooks his meals she begins to feel a dull hate tighten like a muscle inside her. When this happens she sets for a walk, placing her feet carefully to avoid stepping on porcupine carcasses or wild artichoke spikes, looking at the ground for snake and scorpion tracks, listening for the wild wolf-dogs that lurk on the outskirts if the city. She travels for a long time to sit under a eucalyptus tree, to dip her feet in the stream that sometimes runs past the house, deep in the lost parrot’s heart.
Days of 1932
THE TRAINER COLLECTS his coins to the crowd’s sparse clapping. No children that want to pet the monkey today. He whisks Noosa, who has grown arthritic the last two years, carries her home in his arms. As he reaches his house, he opens the door to a small room. Three young monkeys, fresh from the Sudan, are huddled in a corner, their eyes taken by the sudden light. The trainer walks in, his steps uncertain. He was told this would work. He takes a deep breath gathering courage and suddenly yanks one of the new monkeys — the one on the right — throws it in the middle of the room. He shouts “Dance.”
Noosa jumps from his arms and dances, three hops and a twirl, three hops. The other creature whimpers, frozen in place. The trainer grabs a whip hung from a nail on the wall and lashes the monkey behind the neck. He shouts “Dance” and the whimpers turn to screams. The whipping continues until he feels a streak of sweat run down his face. Noosa keeps on dancing. The trainer pulls a hatchet and with a single swing he severs the new monkey’s head. He is startled by his swiftness as the head slaps the mud walls and lands like a bruised pomegranate. Blood shoots up from the monkey’s neck. The two monkeys in the corner scratch the stone floor. With their hands they cover and uncover their eyes which have turned the color of dark plum seeds.
Noosa stops dancing. She has danced enough today, the trainer thinks, wiping blood off his cheek and carefully placing the whip and the hatchet back in their places. For a minute he begins to think of other things, how he forgot to pay the milkman, and how the milkman’s cow reminded him of a good water buffalo his father had, a healthy calf every two years. Then he remembers that he needs to bring leftovers for the monkeys (the new ones prefer carrots to bananas). And in the evening there will be tea and checkers with his friends. But when he locks the door to the monkey cell he thinks again of the matter that has occupied his mind for months — what will he do now that Noosa has grown old.
Days of 1948
A TRAIN THREADS through twilight heading north. A young couple step in from a small station. She smells as though she had given her father’s cow a farewell hug. He, wearing his brother’s suit, carries the fields’ dark soil on his shoes. They look around them and find an old turbaned man — an imam of sorts. They want someone to marry them quickly, before they reach Irbil. The old man asks for witnesses, and soon the peasant women’s ululations spread through the train. The newlyweds shyly accept gifts prepared in haste, and stare at their feet. And we, who have come to pity them, sing nuptials and wish them good luck.