Hisham Bustani

Voices Within

Hisham Bustani

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I am just a lonely ruin of a place.

The rooms inside me are empty, unfurnished – and my only window is darkened, blocking out the light. There is a metal screen on it that electrocutes the birds and assures me continuous silence.

In the parlour (that is what I imagine this room might be) lies an old double bass. If you put your ear up against the wood, you will hear the sound of reverberating laughs stuffed inside. But right now it is depressed, like the steps that I drag along the sidewalks when I go out. Its pegs are missingand its strings broken, no blood runs through the veins of its music.

Some note sheets strewn about the place, and many pieces of small glass that look like mosaic tiles. Could it be glass from a mirror that once hung on the wall? I do not know. No one knows. The double bass player was the last person to drift in – like perfume – and like perfume, he vaporised.

No one has been in those rooms, even once, since the music stopped playing. I started passing that house of ghosts quickly, head down, whistling to ward off the noises I might imagine coming from inside.

Many cockroaches. Many, many dead cockroaches. A carpet of dead cockroaches covering the floors. It is clear that a cockroach massacre happened here. All of them are light in colour and medium sized. They are enveloped in a kind of beauty, lying on their backs, unmoving. They remind me of myself, and of my rooms – repeated rows of kindred rooms, lying on their backs. Who would want to wade into all that death?

Some paintings must have been hanging here. Not anymore, but their outline on the wall has created new paintings that fit the state I am in. Every one of them, a frame of dust and dirt bordering a space that used to be white and is now closer to grey, with a nail jutting out from the top.

If you are a good listener, the nail will tell you how many mummified memories had hung on it. The nail will tell you how hanging memories always look like a mountain climber who stumbled and is now clinging on to the ledge of a rocky cliff.

If you are observant, you will see that all the nails are there in their places but the mountain climbers (unfortunately for them) have fallen. Maybe that is what explains the moving glass mosaic on the floor. Maybe it is pieces of me. Aren’t we our memories, as they say? Don’t we break into thousands of pieces after every fall?

I sometimes hear a distant howling coming from my far reaches. Have I become a pile of stones inhabited by solitary creatures of the night? And those wild grasses that have sprung up everywhere and grown long… the trees will tell you how many children played beneath them once. The pomegranate tree will tell you how many stones it has been hit with so its high-hanging fruit would fall. Now, rotting pomegranates fall by themselves and no one picks them up.

I pass this house of ghosts quickly, without looking. I pass it on my route that takes me to this same house, every time. Every day, I change the route and every day my hurried steps lead me here.

I am just a lonely ruin of a place, that all roads lead to. I am the heart of a labyrinth whose twisting paths head in one direction, towards me. I will never knock on its door, but will keep passing by it hurriedly, running away from what I imagine to be voices within.

Translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes

Hisham Bustani

Hisham Bustani is a Jordanian writer and activist, and the author of four collections of short fiction. Renowned for his contemporary themes, style, and language, he has been described by al-Ra’i as "bringing a new wave of surrealism to [Arabic] literary culture, which missed the surrealist revolution of the last century." Bustani’ s work has been translated into four languages with English-language translations appearing in prestigious journals across the US, UK, and Canada, including World Literature TodayThe Common, andThe Literary Review. His third short-story collection, The Perception of Meaning, won the 2014 University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. Thoraya El-Rayyes, a Palestinian Canadian translator, lives in Amman, Jordan. Her translations have appeared in numerous journals, including BanipalOpen Letters Monthly, and World Literature Today, among others.