We were lucky. Aunt Nazeks car had died as soon as it hit the first hill. Always a good citizen, she parked the car on the side even though there were no other cars on the road. My father had driven past and hadnt noticed. He found them, and my cousin May jumped into his car, but he had to wait for Aunt Nazek as she tried to remember where she put all her valuables. He returned them to us safely, and while driving back, a bomb fell about fifty meters away from them and a metal shrapnel hit the cars windshield and got stuck there. No one was hurt, though both Aunt Nazek and May lost their voices for a while, having shrieked their throats dry.
My cousin May said that my father shrieked as well when the shrapnel hit, an operatic high note. However, both my father and Aunt Nazek deny that. He was a hero, my aunt would say. A real life hero.
It wasnt heroic, my father would say, but cowardly. Id have been too afraid to show my face to my brother if I hadnt gone back after his wife.
That day was twenty-six years ago.
Fatima was waiting outside her building, which was covered head to toe in black marble, one of the newer effronteries that have risen in modern Beirut. As if to compensate for the few neighborhoods that had not been upgraded since the war, Beirut dressed itself in new concrete. All over the city, upscale highrises were being built in every corner, nouveau riche and bétonné.
Sorry Im late, I said, grinning. I could usually predict her reaction since she was an old friend and confidante. I was about to get a pretend tonguelashing no matter what I said.
Get out of the goddamn car. She didnt move to the passenger side, stood with arms akimbo, her blue-green purse dangling from her wrist almost to her knees. She was dressed to dazzle, everything about her flashed, and the ring on her left hand screameda hexagonal mother of an emerald surrounded by her six offspring. You havent seen me in four months, and this is how you greet me? I got out of the car and she smothered me, covered me in her perfume and kisses. Much better, she added. Now lets get going.
At the first sign of traffic, she slid open the visor mirror and interviewed her face. You have to help me with Lina. Her words sounded odd, her mouth distorted as she redecorated her lips outline. Shes spending the nights sleeping on the chair in his room. As ever, your sister wont listen to reason. I want to relieve her, but she wont let me.
I didnt reply and I doubted that she expected me to. Both of us understood that my father wouldnt allow anyone other than my sister to take care of him and was terrified of spending a night by himself. He had nightmares about dying alone and uncared for in a hospital room.
When we arrive, she said, kiss everybody and go directly to his room. I dont think there will be a lot of people, but dont allow the rest of the family to delay you. Ill stay with the visitors, not you. Hell be offended if you dont rush in to see him.
You dont have to tell me, my dear, I said. Hes my father, not yours.
Fatima left the green city in a small caravan with a retinue of five of the emirs bravest soldiers and Jawad, one of the stable boys. She understood the need for Jawadthe horses and camels had to be cared forbut she wondered whether the soldiers would be of any use.
Do you not think we need protection? Jawad asked as they started their journey.
I do not, she said. I can deal with a few brigands, and if we are attacked by a large band, five men will be of no use anyway. On the contrary, their presence may be a magnet for that large group of bandits. She felt the emirs fifty gold dinars she had hidden in her bosom. If it were just you and me, we would invite much less attention. Well, nothing we can do now. We are in the hand of God.
Excerpted from The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine Copyright © 2008 by Rabih Alameddine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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