The Captain’s House
He didn’t have it built for her because she complained, but because he could see the whole story in her eyes each time he left. It was always painful, their separation, but not a sharp pain, more of a dull tug at the heart and soul. Maybe the first time, perhaps the second and third, the pain was greater, but they had learned to live with it. Physical separation was as much a part of their lives, more so, then togetherness was. They knew when they married that their lives would be difficult, if not unkind, but had they chosen differently – another spouse for convenience and safety – it would not have been for love. He was her lighthouse, a beacon in the darkness, and she was his protective harbour, the warm and peaceful womb of friendly shores.
It had been pure happenstance, their meeting, but from the first words they had spoken to one another, a simple hello, it had felt like destiny. Perhaps, she had thought over the years, love is the only emotion that allows one to have faith in destiny, or when one truly believes her soul is not complete without his. But whatever had inspired this faith and belief, it was something they both held to despite all and, despite all, they were never really alone, never without one another. When the sun shone she felt its rays stroke his calloused hands. When the storms raged at sea he felt the wind rustle her skirts and tousle her hair. When they said “Farewell love.” it was never a goodbye but a prayer on each of their lips for his return.
Days turned to weeks and, quite often, weeks turned to months without him, without her. The only thing for her that marked the passage of time was how the children grew. For him, there was nothing. Just the day and the night and the next. The shared dream of him being home elevated each of their menial chores, made each day a little brighter. But dreams were never the same as reality. The children’s laughter was clearer and more jovial when they heard it together, the sun shone brighter and more warmly when they walked in it together, and each meal tasted sweeter when they broke their bread together. Most of all, when they held each other, when his sea-ravaged lips delicately kissed her petal soft ones, reality became like a dream again.
And so it was that she always anxiously awaited his return over the days that he had approximated he might be home again. She made many long trips from their home in the village to the harbour. She would go in any kind of weather, and walked the shores in hopes of spotting his ship. On a particularly cold and nasty day, after hours of watching for him, trying to stay warm under a damp, woolen blanket, she fell under the grip of a consuming pneumonia. Days later, upon his return, he went straight to her bedside and held her small hand while she struggled for each and every breath. He had never been a man who prayed, but he had prayed then, with all of his might, to the god he had long ago forsaken. In the realm of the angry sea, there had been no place for God, but in the peacefulness of their tiny village, God seemed closer somehow. In his grief he needed God to remove this evil demon of sickness, he would swallow it himself if he had to, but he could not stand to see it consume her tiny body.
Her will, although silent, had not weakened. She felt his presence, she heard his prayers, and she fought for her recovery. She fought to be with him again, in every way. Slowly the sickness dissolved, her breathing regulated, her body flowed with vigor, and once again, her cheeks bloomed and her eyes sparkled. He thanked god but in his heart he only thanked her. For he knew how she had struggled and braved the rough seas for him, as he had always done for her. What he hadn’t realized before, or really thought about until now, after this crisis, was that life for them was not the same as for the banker and his wife, or the merchant and his wife. Why then did they live in a house suited to a banker or a merchant, when he, a Captain and his wife, needed something suited only to them?
Their home had a simple elegance about it. It was not ostentatious, but reflected his stature. There was room enough for many children and it had beautiful views of the gardens from almost any window. She was happy there, he knew that, and he could not uproot his family from their home. The problem was that it afforded no view of the sea. The coast was obscured by other homes and trees. This obstruction, this disconnection, was completely unsuitable to their lives. This was what had caused her illness. There was only one solution that he could envision and so he commissioned it. He worked diligently alongside a large group of men whose abilities ranged from architects, to builders, to masons, to blacksmiths, and glassblowers. Over the course of many, many months, and several voyages for him out to sea and back, it was built, stone by stone, until, when it was finished, it stood proudly but not absurdly above the village.
Her tower brought her the sea to the comfort and protection of her own home. As the days neared for his return she would climb the seemingly endless spiral of stairs to the cozy room at the top. There, she eagerly scanned the waters from generous windows on several sides. When she saw the powerful masts, a sight she never grew weary of, burst from the long line of the horizon, her heart lept with joy. In her thankfulness, each time, she lit a lantern in every window. The tower, ablaze as night fell, was a beacon of celebration to all the wives of his crew, who had received their husbands, their loves, back from the unpredictable sea.
Time after time, year after year, the tower at the Captain’s house, the Lighthouse of Hope, as it became affectionately known, brought, not only safety, but more happiness than he could have ever imagined. And when he retired from life at sea, he sat restfully beside his wife. He held her small hand in his, and once again, as he had done years before, he thanked God but in his heart he only thanked her. And she thanked him. He was her only life, and she was his. They had started it together, and together they would finish it…but not now. Someday. And after that day, she knew, their souls would search again – across land, across seas. And he knew, they would always find one another – where the light shone the brightest.
He had been gone a while. As the orange evening sun blasted it’s way through her salon window, obscuring everything in the room with it’s brilliance, Amal looked for him. Before, when he was there, at this time of evening, she could only make out his profile across the room from her. But now the streaks of brightness hid nothing from her, nothing that she needed anyway. As she rested her head on the back of her chair, and rocked slightly, she wondered how long she would have to endure this; the reminders and the loneliness. Then she told herself, as she always did when she fell into this line of thinking, if he hadn’t been part of her life she would have no reminders or loneliness. Life with him had been worth all the loneliness she suffered now. But sometimes she was too tired to be grateful and as the tears fell, she slept.
“You’re crazy to marry him!” Her girlfriends told her all those years ago. “He’s cold, and odd, and annoyingly particular.” Certainly he was, but she found these characteristics curious, even intriguing. And since he had chosen her, above all of the other girls, well, it suggested to her that maybe he saw something special about her – him being so particular. She hadn’t been wrong. In private moments, when all the world seemed to have disappeared, he told her what an amazing woman he thought she was, more so, how amazed he was that she put up with him. They had laughed because they knew how true this was. There were days when she had wanted to strangle him. But, had he changed then and there, when she complained, it would not have been him anymore. She loved his flaws as much as she loved his good qualities.
Every time she awoke in the dark, it startled her. When he was there, he had always awakened her and they went to bed together. Just a gentle touch of his hand to her shoulder was the signal. “Come. Let’s sleep.” But now, she had slept through twilight in her chair and only the light of the street lamp dimly lit her surroundings. She stared out of the salon window, looking at nothing except a black sky, hoping for a glimmer, maybe from a distant star, to soothe her aching heart. But it never came, ever. Sometimes she wondered why she bothered with hope. Perhaps she was too old for it. It seemed like something only suited to the young. At her age, reminiscence seemed more relevant and she had become quite good at it. In fact, when she thought about it, she could relate anything new she heard to something that had happened in her past. “Well, why not?” she smiled. “It’s the privilege of the old people to know everything. We damn well earned it!”
They had both been hard working people. Never made much money but had enough to live on and to raise their children. Their children who had gone on to lead much more successful lives. Their children who had mostly…all except one…moved far away. Her daughter had stayed and married an ugly and selfish man. Nizar swore that’s what was killing him, and she swore it definitely contributed to his death. She ached all over when she saw her daughter which, fortunately, was rare. She couldn’t understand why a child who had been raised under the wing of a strong mother, could grow to a woman who allowed her spirit to be eroded away. At least, Amal hoped that she had been strong. She had felt strong most of the time. Perhaps the reality had been that she had no opportunity to be weak. She wouldn’t have allowed herself that luxury and she couldn’t have stood any charity from her husband or even a pitiful glance.
Not that he made a habit of exchanging glances of any kind. When they had first met, he had approached her, looked at her with determination, and spoke his intentions almost immediately. “I need to meet with your father.” She was surprised and flattered at the same time, and perhaps a little taken aback by his directness and presumptuousness. Soon, however, she grew accustomed to it and even learned to appreciate it. With him, she always knew where she stood and to him, she always stood at the very top. Always, until their daughter was born. To Nizar, his daughter was the most precious jewel on earth. He was her knight and she his little princess. They were virtually inseparable and two of kind. Amal never minded being topped by her beautiful child, in fact, she encouraged it. It had always seemed their bond had been forged for a lifetime but Nizar’s princess was stolen by a life she had thought she wanted; one that she was never able to return from.
Amal used to lie beside him in bed, her body stiff and sore from the years. She couldn’t ask him to help her. He was dying. She was simply aging. But as a gasp escaped her lips when the pain became too much, he would place his hand on hers and gently massage her palm. To most it wouldn’t seem like much, but to her it was everything. His warmth radiated through her, and although it didn’t heal her body, it certainly eased her soul. These days she tried to arrange the electric heating pad under her just so. But even at it’s top setting, it’s heat was synthetic and ineffective. Tonight she would leave it off. She wanted to feel him in the big empty bed. She wanted her memory to recreate every part of him from the touch of his cold toes, to his bony knees, his soft belly, to his broad shoulders. Most of all she wanted to hear his breath as it escaped and was recaptured by his lips as he slept.
To say that she missed him would have been erroneous. To Amal, missing was something one did with the living. She missed her daughter. But she did not miss her husband. It was a far deeper loss; she had lost part of herself when she lost him. Without him it was so difficult to ignore the oppressive silence and deep coldness of night. Tonight, as with so many others, she would pass the hours, lying still with her eyes closed, slipping in and out of sleep. Images of him would appear randomly but she could never reach him in her dreams, never really see his face, never really feel him. But in the moments before dawn, when she opened her eyes and waited for the sun, her body stiff and aching, she smiled again. For unlike the brilliant sun of dusk, the sunlight of dawn heralded a beginning. As the first few fingers of light stretched across her bed and over her body and danced in her eyes, for a magical moment she did see him and she did feel him. It was always brief and always precious. Every time she whispered “I love you.” Every time she got out of bed and started a new day.
“Come, ride with me.”
My father had given me explicit orders to stay in the car. He had not wanted me along in the first place, but I pleaded with him to take me. “They are all men here.” He said reproachfully. “Just stay out of sight.” I had no intention of obeying him but nodded dutifully. He eyed me seriously a moment before leaving the car and disappearing up the laneway. He knew me too well. It was a beautiful and clear day, a day when spring was flirting with summer, warm but not yet oppressively hot. Baba left the city to visit an old friend in Al-Nasara valley, one of the most beautiful areas in the country. All around us the roads wound like black ribbons through the hillsides. Apple and pear orchards and lush forests dotted the slopes as far as the eye could see. Above me, sparse, billowy clouds moved lazily through the blue skies, presumably to gather elsewhere, as there was no threat of rain on this perfect day.
On a road just outside the city of Tal Kalakh, far below the towering walls of the great Qal’at al-Hisn, Baba had parked the car in front of a large fenced property. In several of the enclosed areas, magnificent Arabian horses stood peacefully grazing or running gracefully in short bursts. One dappled gray mare, smaller than the rest, wandered close to the fence nearest to our car. I watched her through the window and her large, gentle brown eyes created a temptation I could not resist. I got out of the car quietly and stepped cautiously through the long grasses toward her, watching to be sure no one had seen me. When I reached her, she stood calmly as if she had been waiting for me. She nuzzled me as I softly stroked her face. I quickly found myself lost in whispered conversation with her. Our instant connection surprised me and thrilled me at the same time. She pushed her body as close to the fence as she could and I began dreading the thought of leaving her for even a moment.
“Ah, the bond of girl and horse.” A smooth, male voice jolted me from the world in which I was alone with that delightful being. “Her name is Hellwah.”
I repeated her name quietly and, closing my eyes, rested my forehead against her. I hoped that whomever he was, he would go away and I thought that maybe if I didn’t acknowledge him he might.
“It sounds even more beautiful coming from your lips.”
He wouldn’t be ignored. Slowly I peeked around Hellwah’s frame and saw him several meters away. Immediately, I felt my breath catch. He stood casually in jeans and a t-shirt; tall and slender, with strong arms, and a gentle face. He was the most handsome man I had ever laid my eyes on. His hazel eyes sparkled with intensity under his dark brows and his caramel skin glowed deliciously in the morning sun. As he began to approach, I couldn’t find a word to say and continued to stare from behind Hellwah.
“She’s my horse. Although not as large as the rest, I think she is the most wonderful creature to exist.” He was close enough now to pat the horse’s back end. Hellwah replied in kind, by turning to nuzzle him. I felt my hands achingly empty when she turned away. Partly because I enjoyed the feel of her, but partly because of the security she had provided. As a replacement, I leaned awkwardly against the fence. “Well,” he continued, “I had thought she was – the most wonderful – until I saw you with her.”
I felt the heat rising in my cheeks and my heart beating wildly in my chest. Part of me was terrified. This was exactly the kind of situation my father had been trying to avoid by hiding me in the car. If he found me here, talking to this man, he would be livid. But another part of me, who was intensely attracted to this perfect stranger, had no desire to be an obedient daughter.
“Do you want to feed her?” My stranger reached into his pockets and pulled out a few lumps of sugar. “She has a terrible sweet tooth.” He smiled and I swore that the entire world lit up with him. It was the warmest, most sincere, and achingly attractive smile.
“Ye…” My voice caught in my throat. Embarrassed, I looked away shyly and cleared my throat. Then I tried again. “Yes.”
“Hold out your hand.”
He drew closer to me, and as he passed me the sugar his hand covered mine and held tightly for a moment longer than one normally might. As I felt the warmth of his skin on mine, the gentleness of his touch, and the purpose in his lingering, I
felt dizzy, almost to the point where I wasn’t at all sure what I was supposed to be doing. Then I noticed Hellwah eying me expectantly and I held out my hand to her. She eagerly gobbled up the sugar cubes and nuzzled me for more. I turned to him to see if he had anything left in his pockets. As I looked up into his face, I saw that he was staring at me with something in his eye that made me shiver with desire. We were so close I could feel the warmth from his body.
“Come, ride with me.” He said softly.
Oh how I wanted to. I nodded, “Yes, please.” With great agility he mounted the horse and reached his hand out to me. “Climb the fence and get on here behind me.” His strong arm easily pulled me up and I climbed, gracelessly, into position. I quickly wrapped my arms around his waist and my thighs grasped his tightly. “Don’t be uneasy. We’ll go slowly.” He said soothingly. But I wasn’t nervous. My body was so close to his and his scent was wildly intoxicating. I wanted to hang on and tightly. “Please, let’s go.” I knew everything about what I was doing was wrong, wrong in terms of how my father would see it but as every second passed since laying my eyes on this man, I cared less and less about what my father would say or think. I didn’t realize then, though, how soon I would find out what he thought.
“Nour!” Baba’s shout was full of anger. “You! Bring my daughter back this instant.”
I rested my forehead on his back. “Oh…” was all that escaped my lips.
“I have to take you back. If I will marry you some day, your father cannot hate me…Nour eyouni.” He spoke over his shoulder in a low voice so that only I could hear and smiled at me reassuringly. After this, I was so elated I heard nothing else, just a distorted sound of him speaking to my father, “I’m sorry sir. I thought she had permission.”
“Sure you did.” Baba eyed him suspiciously, the same way he had me before leaving the car.
I climbed down, reluctantly, into the arms of my angry father as the young man spoke to him, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Your daughter has quite a way with horses.”
“Apparently with men too.” My father muttered under his breath and then scolded my handsome rider, “Go on!”
Baba took my hand and dragged me toward the car. I continued to look back at Hellwah and her master. They remained by the fence, both of them watching my departure. “What’s your name?!” I shouted finally, just before my father stuffed me into the backseat of the car. The answer was lost in the warm spring breezes and as we drove away, I wondered how I would ever see him again. Baba would certainly never allow me to return to the ranch with him and the rider did not look like the kind of man who would frequent the busy streets of Damascus. I sighed heavily.
“Don’t think for a second you’re in love with him!” My father shouted, eyes narrowed in the rear-view mirror.
“Who is he, Baba?”
“Oh no! No you don’t.” He waved his finger at me. “That information is classified.”
“So you know!” A smile spread across my face like wild fire.
As my father ranted all the way back to Damascus, I lost myself in the endlessness of the skies. The banal countryside skipped by almost unnoticed by me. My heart was light believing I would see my rider again, the man who was like a dream, the man with whom I would go anywhere. In my mind, I would hold his image until I saw him again and, in my heart, I would hold his words until I heard them from his lips again.
“Come, ride with me.”
Kifak Enta? (How are you?)
The pleating on my skirt was bothering me. I sat, awkwardly trying to flatten it, at a table full of mostly strangers; people I knew of but didn’t know at all. I never really liked that dress and I don’t know why I wore it. I should have worn something more comfortable. At least then I would have had one less thing to worry about. But there I was staring down a long evening of small talk, fake smiles, and grandstanding – as well as crooked pleats. I glanced occasionally, but with little interest, at the couples making their grand entrances; men in black suits and slick hair; women in silks and satins looking like tropical birds at the men’s sides. I never understood the ritual at these events. After the outward expressions of appreciation, whispers of jealousy or mockery staled the air. I desperately needed a breath of fresh air and looked around, as casually as possible, for an inconspicuous exit.
That’s when I saw you. It had been years but I knew you right away. Your hair had grayed handsomely and I smiled as I realized that there was much less of it than their used to be. Your full beard had been replaced with a cleanshaven look, except for a charming mustache adorning your upper lip. I shuddered slightly when I suddenly remembered how your lips felt on my skin. I quickly tried to push the memory away but I was already lost in you. All sorts of memories of our time together, more the feelings than the actual events, came rushing back. You were standing in that brooding fashion as you always did in crowds and I had an almost incontrollable urge to run to you and slip out as we always used to do. But, of course, that was not possible now. So much had changed for both of us. I’d heard you have a family – children.
Reluctantly I turned back to my table and as I looked around at the empty faces there, I felt my entire body turning within itself. Daydreams of you danced before my eyes before I had a choice not to see them. My hands trembled and my legs ached to carry me to you. I had to speak to you again, to find out how you were. I wondered if my lips would even be able to form the words if I stood before you or would it be like our last night together? I asked myself if you would even remember that night and what you said to me. The conversation at the table rumbled like a train through my head, meaningless chatter about meaningless people and meaningless situations. I smiled meaninglessly back at them and excused myself. I was surprised how light I felt on my feet, as though they were more anxious than I to escape. I nearly floated across the room toward you, only you.
“Kifak enta?” My voice echoed strangely in my ears as I looked into your eyes. Your surprise at seeing me was punctuated with obvious delight and some uncertainty. Oh your eyes, those eyes that shone like the last breath of dusk, deep pools of passion, lit with twinkles of mischievousness and the soft light of love. The day they stopped looking at me was the day my soul lost part of itself. But here, now, if even our moment together might be brief, it felt whole once more. I knew again, as I always had, that there had never been anyone but you. Mella enta!* Life moved on after we did, but I didn’t see the subtle nuances of beauty without seeing it together with you. When you used to hold my hand and walk with me, the world blossomed before me. When you said my name, I heard music in the breezes.
But where did you go? I never saw you after that night. I thought maybe you’d left the country. But you told me no, that you hadn’t. You’d only gone to the coast and returned recently to the city. And here we were – together after so many years at an event neither of us wanted to attend, both going through the motions, both anxious to leave – until now. I would have held on to this moment forever. We stood so close. Conversation between us seemed superfluous. Our bodies spoke a language of their own and drowned out the words we tried to speak. Nothing but time had changed. I reached for your hand, just one of my fingers on one of yours. You didn’t pull away. I wanted more but didn’t dare. We were even closer now. How close could we be without being too close in a room full of gossipers?
“Oh let them talk.” You smiled your beautiful smile. What I wouldn’t do or say to see it flash across your handsome face! And there it was, devilish and yet pure – straight from the heart and soul. I smiled back and I thought then that we could be together again. We needed to be together again. It was wrong that we were apart for so long. Oh, how I wanted to kiss you, taste you, feel your passion mix with mine. But it wouldn’t be tonight. We both knew that. It didn’t really matter any more. We had found each other again and this time neither one was letting go. Not like before in some foolish game. We settled back in our seats, me at my table and you, across the room at yours. I surveyed the people around me once more and smiled. But this time it was not meaningless. This time I didn’t care if my pleats were crooked. This time I had you. You have always been my only one. Bhebak enta.**
Inspiration: Fairouz “Kifak enta?“
*Mella enta – what a you.
**Bhebak enta – I love you.
Posted on Abufares’s site.
I stood watching intently, and amused, as she attempted to peel the ripe Sabbar. The juices ran down her fingers to her delicate wrists and bits of the peel covered the place at the table where she stood. She was determined to do it herself. That was part of what I loved about her, her determination, which, at times, bordered on a hard-headed stubbornness. Although she had seen it in the streets of Damascus, she had never eaten the sweet fruit in her life. Here, it was everywhere, a delicacy we took for granted. However, as soon as her lovely hands held one for the first time, I saw the pear in an entirely new light.
We had been out walking. I was showing her the area around where I grew up. She marveled at the number of cacti, Sabbara trees, as she called them, that were along the road. They were handsomely laden with their brilliant red or yellow pears. When I told her they were edible, the Saber, as we call them here, she insisted that we pick some and I, enthusiastic to share everything with her, carefully pulled them from their prickly nests. I took off my shirt and created a sac of sorts in which to carry them home. She giggled nervously after I cursed several times from receiving a poke or two, but she continued to cheer me on as if I were navigating an obstacle course. My pride would never allow me to pick less than ten and, after I caught her admiring my bare torso with a mischievous little grin, I continued on as long as I could.
I rolled the fruits from my shirt onto the kitchen table. There were at least twenty. I stood for a moment and admired my harvest until I caught sight of her hand moving in to fetch one. “No, habibti!” She pulled her hand back in alarm. I immediately put my arm around her slender shoulders and warned her about the nasty thorns. They were small but insidious, and caused great discomfort if they got under the skin. Naturally I knew this from years of experience, from having them embedded in my hands and arms. But I couldn’t knowingly expose her to anything unpleasant. The only thing I wanted her to remember about Sabbar was the luscious taste…and me picking them without my shirt. So I washed each of them and removed as many of the thorns as I could without actually peeling them.
She insisted on using a potato peeler and somehow I couldn’t bring myself to stop her. “I don’t want to cut out too much of the good fruit. I tend to gouge things with knives.” She told me confidently and with a look in her eyes that suggested I’d better not try to stop her. She tentatively peeled away the outer skin and then used a knife to chop off each end of the fruit. It took everything in me not to chuckle or to move in to show her the proper way. She was adorable in her awkwardness, so I bit my tongue.
When she cut off the ends she discovered the spines. At first she wasn’t sure what to make of them. She muttered to herself as she inspected it by removing one of them. As she did, the rest of the outer skin pulled away revealing the edible fruit. I saw the light go on; her beautiful eyes sparkled with delight. “Ah ha!” Then the scolding. “Why didn’t you tell me?!” Instead of answering I gently removed the well peeled pear from her hand and took a bite. Her eyes turned stormy as she watched my mouth envelop almost half of it but before she could reprimand me I put the rest of it to her lips. She took a small bite and let the juices and pulp roll around in her mouth. Her eyes immediately quieted as the pleasure of the taste registered on her tongue. “Sahha.”
I sat down and quickly peeled more of them. I selfishly needed her to eat at least one more. I cut the fruit into small pieces and asked her to sit by me. With my fingers I placed each piece on her tongue after she had chewed and swallowed the one before. I watched her enjoying the sweetness, her lips moving sensually as she chewed. I gazed longingly as she swallowed, following each lump as it moved through her throat and down her long, graceful neck. After she finished the last bite, I kissed her and savoured the sweetness of her mixed with the nectar of the Sabbar. It was the most heavenly combination. Suddenly I had the urge to harvest every tree in existence just so I could feed her one every day for the rest of our lives. But we had enough to last us a few days, and other, more burning, urges overtook us anyway…
I had wanted to show her everything about my life here. However, I quickly discovered that, in fact, through her, my life was reflected back to me in a refreshing new way. Just by being here, by being curious, by being her, she transformed the simple Sabbar into a delicious memory of that day, of her. I would never ever look at it or taste it in the same way again.