The scales of the world have been knocked out of balance. Numbers have filled the air of our rooms, and continued to multiply there. Numbers of the wounded and numbers of the dead. Aid packages and lockdown dates. A return to nature is humankind’s only escape from numbers, its only means of preserving what little sanity it has left. Some go to the river, while others prefer to walk in the forest. I find what little nature I need in strolling along the canal that runs parallel to the river. On my way there I pass the skeletons of new buildings where construction has halted. Then I walk through a narrow strip of land where scattered elder bushes grow. Until three decades ago, it was a wasteland that divided the city in two, and people called it the death strip. I have no time to go walking other than at weekends, because my work never stops. I stroll for a while with the elders, noticing how the plastic tents between the trees, where those who have lost their homes live, have proliferated. Then I cross a few streets to reach the canal and walk amid the weekend bustle until I reach a quiet spot shaded by a line of weeping willows, and there I sit down under one of them.
The trunks of the willow trees incline towards the canal, and their branches, like braids, trail into the water. Delicate creatures swim around the submerged branches, and insects glide across the surface, such that the branch gives the impression of being a coarsely woven cord that connects beings of the water with beings of the air. Sometimes, on the bank, a small beetle walks the line between water and land without ever falling in. One day I was sitting alone in my favorite spot, watching the canal as the color of the water changed from dark green to grey under a volatile autumn sky. A steamboat went by, throwing out music and the sounds of exaggeratedly celebratory voices. The boat sliced the water, sending waves towards the banks, each one slapping at the concrete wall then falling back. Gradually the water mended itself as the boat moved away, the surface became still again, and the boat’s wake and its noise were gone. The sky had clouded over now, covering the sun and pressing down on all living things. It was still and white-grey. Just then, an outstretched hand appeared from the water. I stared hard at the hand until all my doubts had been dispelled. Its fingers were extended and splayed apart, like those of someone appealing for help. I stayed where I was, breathing slowly, until the current brought the hand closer to the bank, and then I got up and reached for it. Everything around me froze for a second when I touched it, but it bobbed away before I could catch hold of it. Glancing around, I noticed a few dried branches, so I quickly fetched the longest one. Then I took hold of one of the willow tree’s dangling braids for balance and leant towards the hand so as to nudge it to the bank with the stick, but each time I tried, I failed, because the hand was difficult to maneuver. From where I stood the roots of the willow tree were huge and knotted and sunken deep in the water. A whole world lay concealed below the surface. I noticed that the hand was moving away from the bank and drifting gradually further into the channel, so I leant out as far as I could, holding fast to the willow, and my eyes were fixed right on the hand when my grip slipped, a fraction at first but then more, and then I gave up my grasp on the branch altogether, lost my balance, and fell into the water.
It was an entire forearm amputated at the elbow. I lifted it out of the water, returned to my spot, and placed it on the grass next to me. We were both soaked and dripping canal water. There was a pungent odor in the air, like the smell of a swan when it comes onto land. I drifted off, staring into the canal, which was now a leaden grey, and thinking about a city that was unknown to me going up in flames and about the number one trillion, which exceeded my mind’s powers of comprehension. Then I turned to the hand and asked, “Would you like me to bury you now?”
Its fingers were slender, and bluish at the tips. Torn flesh hung from its amputated stump. Its skin was slippery, but it was clean and unblemished. Its bones were bright white. A few moments went by before I heard its wavering voice reply weakly: “…decapitated her before tossing her body into the water … thousands of eyes being eaten by the fish … 1919 … mountains of sugar … hills of coffee … rivers of rum … 1859 … they’re still laboring down below … 2,500,000 … thrown into the water in their manacles … 1786 … women with their bellies slashed open … Ibrahim Salim … A’isha Abd al-Razzaq … 2003 … Umar Diyalo … Al-Hasna Barri … 120,000 … tons of nitrate … oceans of petroleum…”
I picked up the amputated forearm to soothe its delirious ramblings and placed it in my lap beneath my own right forearm, so that I had two forearms coming out of the same elbow joint.
A woman said, “I want to break up.” A man said, “I got stuck in an anti-vaxxers’ protest yesterday.” I was starting to shiver, and I noticed that passersby were looking at us. I wanted to throw the hand back in the water and go home. But the hand in my lap said, “Please help me.” It spoke with difficulty. “I must get back to my work.”
“What is it you do?” I asked.
“Writing,” it replied. “I’m the hand of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ. What city is this I’ve come up in?”
I told it we were in a city called Berlin. The questioning looks from around us were increasing, and I started to get anxious, so I stood up, hid the hand under my shirt, and zipped my wet coat all the way up. I shuffled away through the passersby who were staring in astonishment, leaving two wet patches on the grass, one much larger than the other. Two dogs barked somewhere behind me. When I’d got some distance away I happened to glance back, and I saw clearly the crown of the willow tree I’d been sitting under, despite the grey-white flatness of the sky; it looked much taller than I had thought. Its silhouette would remain imprinted on my memory forever.
I fell straight into bed feeling feverish. I was swallowed up by an impenetrable darkness that glimmered with images I did not recognize. I saw laborers digging up the earth. I saw fish floating on the surface of the water. I saw weeping willow branches wound around bodies, strangling them. I saw arms and legs. I saw ears and bones and eyes. I saw white smoke rolling over the water, suffocating all who breathed it in. I saw huge cargo ships crossing oceans. I saw my mother’s face as I saw it for the last time. I saw all these things then returned to the darkness. I don’t know how long I remained ill. Now and then I got up, with great difficulty, to drink something hot, then returned to the chasm of my bed. And whenever I got up, I saw the hand on the floor beside me, writing. I don’t know how it got hold of all that paper. There was paper all around, and it was at the center, writing. Writing and writing and writing. I saw it from a distance as I stumbled back to my bed, in thrall to the whirling fever, and tumbled over and over into the darkness of the abyss.
I jerked frantically awake in the dark, fear perforating my head. Looking at the alarm clock next to me I saw I was late for work, so I quickly got up and got dressed. The hand was still on the floor, writing. I grabbed my keys and my things, and without saying anything left the flat and closed the door behind me. The city was still deep in slumber as I walked. My head was spinning and my body exhausted. A faint ache was starting up in my right arm. I arrived at work. We were building an enormous Prussian palace in the heart of the city. I swiped my electronic card quickly over the reader at the metal gate and entered the construction site, heading towards the cement mixer. Ignoring the throbbing in my arm, I greeted my colleague, who was standing by the mixer feeding it sand, water and cement. Then I went up to the first floor, and said good morning to the workers who stood there smoking. They told me they needed window frames and heating pipes, so I went down to the forklift, my head pounding, and started the ignition.
When I first started work, they told us we were rebuilding an old royal palace destroyed by the war. My friend Fadil, who helped me get the job, told me that the land where we were building the new palace belonged once to a country named East Germany that now no longer existed, and that its parliament had met here until the building which stood on the site was demolished after unification. Work on the site was highly regimented. Each work gang had four or five laborers led by a ganger, and when a gang was given a task, the ganger was left to direct work as they saw fit. Fadil was one of these gangers, having been chosen for his good German and his ability to translate what needed doing for the Arabs we worked with; most had arrived in the city after the revolutions of the past few years, unlike Fadil, who had been here for around fifteen years.
I could always distinguish the sound of Fadil at work amid the clattering and noisy machinery on site. The sound of nuts being tightened on the girders of the façade was unmistakably Fadil. He always gave the nut an extra turn for luck, where his workmates made do with tightening it just enough. In Fadil’s hands, the metal produced a short whine that sliced through the site, a ringing declaration of the precision of his workmanship that neutralized any possible criticism. I set about moving the huge metal window frames to the first floor with the forklift. At just the moment when I needed to stop the fork, I felt an agonizing rush in the bones of my arm. The pain was unbearable, and it was rapidly getting worse, worse than the dizziness in my head, but I managed to keep the machine under control. It felt like fangs were tearing my arm from my body. I couldn’t understand the excruciating pain and tried to distract myself with the unusual comings and goings taking place on site that day. Many vehicles had appeared and left again, and finally a large lorry had arrived carrying a huge bronze angel which it deposited in the central yard. When it was almost time for morning break, I switched off the machine and went to where the laborers gathered, crossing the open space where the angel stood to get there. My workmates, staring, remarked that I was pouring with sweat. I sat down among them to rest, the pain getting worse and worse. I couldn’t keep on top of it any longer; my vision blurred, tiny white stars appeared before me, and I cried out in agony.
When I woke up at the hospital, I’d lost the feeling in my arm altogether. A doctor injected me with a painkiller, and said, “Don’t worry, you’re going for a CT scan now.” I found myself on a wheeled bed, on which I was moved to the scanner room and then returned to the room where I’d awoken. The painkiller had started to take effect and I left myself to its torpor. When the intense pain disappeared it gave way to an emptiness that was even more dreadful. Then a doctor arrived and introduced himself as a neurologist. He looked at the scan, and asked me to tell him what happened. I told him. He was quiet for a few seconds, then asked, “Has anything been bothering you recently?” I told him no. He was quiet again and then said, “We’re all living in exceptional times, unlike anything we’ve experienced before. But you should see the glass as half full: at least you haven’t lost your job, like so many other people have. In any case, everything looks fine to me. You just need some rest.” I tried to move my arm but it wouldn’t move, then nodded at the doctor to affirm what he’d said. When I left the emergency department, Fadil was there waiting; he put his arm around me and spoke to the doctor to find out how I was doing. He asked me to go back to his, where he and his wife and their two children could look after me, but I preferred to go home, and so he drove me back.
There was paper all over the bedroom floor when I entered. The hand was still writing. “What is that?!” shouted Fadil. I explained it was the hand of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ. He was even more amazed at that. “What’s it doing here?” he asked. It had been a long day, and I was too exhausted to tell him the whole story, so I just said, “It came out of the water in the canal. I’m tired, I’ll explain later.” Fadil was rooted to the spot for some time, but he finally left once he’d reassured himself that I didn’t need anything. I sat quietly in my room. I imagined that I felt a twinge in my arm, so I tried once again to raise it, but it didn’t move. Then I picked up one of the pages from the floor, and read: A leg … many legs … a small leg next to a larger leg … those who have lost their names … left forgotten in forgotten waters … who will never arrive … who will never return … who will never awaken … a hand looking for another … lungs cured in salt … an isthmus between two shores … souls escaping their owners … a slow movement … this way and that … fingers are paralyzed … throats dry out … the abyss grows wider … salinity under the skin … clothes that no longer clothe … surface of the water … rope trailing in the water … hand clutches rope … the roar of an engine … leg growing weary … a rucksack slipping away … and swirling into the depths …
Five shocks, each delivered by a metal pad. One on the side of the neck, one on the forearm, one under the shoulder blade, one on the curve of the thigh, and one on the heart. The technician pressed the button on his device to start the current, then left the tiny room. I closed my eyes, imagining I could hear a vibration but not feeling a thing, and then the session was over. There was no progress after two weeks of electrotherapy, but the pain was gone, along with any sensation connecting me to my arm. For those two weeks I had trudged the streets with an arm that hung limply from my shoulder. The world had gone dark before me. I would lose my job now I’d lost my arm. I’d have to manage my life with only one arm. How had this happened to me, at this age? Even my former life, working off the books in construction and constantly running from police inspections—I couldn’t even return to that. I walked and walked through the cursed city, asking myself what had brought me here. I didn’t know where to go or who to confide in. Memories of my family home in Basra, which was no longer standing, rained down on my head, and I fled from them. I would return to my room, shattered, at the very end of the night.
One night I went back to my room and found Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s hand waiting up for me. It said it had an idea. The next day I rang Fadil and we arranged that he would come over immediately after his shift. I proposed the idea to him with great enthusiasm the moment he arrived. But Fadil didn’t seem persuaded.
“Let’s give it a go,” said the hand, “we’ve got nothing to lose.”
Fadil looked at it doubtfully. “I’ve never seen a talking hand before,” he said.
“Look, Fadil,” I replied, “I don’t have any other choice. I’m clutching at straws here. You know it’s not just myself I have to support. And you’re the only person who can help me.”
Fadil was hesitant for a long time, then he took hold of the hand and warily gave it a once-over. He held it against my dead arm to compare them for size, turning both of them over once or twice. When he’d done that he was quiet for a minute, then he put the hand back on the floor.
“I can’t attach it myself,” I pleaded. But he didn’t look at me. He got up and said he would be back shortly.
He was back in my room in under an hour. He’d brought a piece of sturdy fabric with buttonholes in, some compression bands, and a length of strong elastic cord. He placed my arm in his lap, then wrapped the fabric around it, catching Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s arm underneath it. I couldn’t feel anything, but I could see the back of the hand touching my own palm. He cut the bands into narrow strips and used them to fasten the hand’s fingers to my own, threading them through the buttonholes in the fabric. Then he looped the cord over my shoulder and used it to pull the fabric tight. The hand was much thinner than my own, and the forearm weaker. Anybody looking at it from above would hardly notice it was there. When he was done, Fadil removed my arm from his lap, and it hung quietly at my side. We held our breaths for a moment, and then Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s fingers began to move gently, along with my own, then rose slowly through the air till they were level with my eyes, as was my own hand, for the first time since I had fainted at the building site. I was overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude towards the hand. Fadil took a deep breath, then smiled. “Maybe we’ve got luck on our side,” he said. “We’ll get you some baggy work clothes, and some extra-large gloves, so your arm doesn’t look any bigger. Tomorrow I’ll sort out the fabric and adjust that strap for you, and if everything goes to plan, you’ll be back at work the day after tomorrow.”
And I was. The bronze angel I’d left there before I became unwell had become eight angels who towered next to the water tank in the middle of the construction site. They were identical reproductions of other angels who had once stood atop the old palace. The angels held their arms in different positions. One pressed its palms together at its breast, another had both arms outstretched before it, a third had its right hand clasped to its chest and its left held aloft; they looked like actors in an eternal tableau. What they had in common was their wings, polished metal feathers that fanned out from a point in their backs and glittered at the tips like sharp blades. I stood before the angel which held its palms together, the one I had seen before my fall. It was at least twice my height. Its face was silent, and the look in its eyes stony, as if in its fall it had come down in the wrong place. These, then, were the angels which would bear the golden cupola, and upon it the orb and cross. The cupola which was to crown the palace and be its device, one which no eye gazing upon the city’s skyline could mistake. Just then, I heard Fadil calling me, so I went to the forklift to get on with my work.
My return wasn’t easy: manipulating the controls still felt clumsy, and I often had to support the one hand with the other. Fadil took care to keep me in his gang each day and give me straightforward tasks to do. He never let me out of his sight. Operating the forklift required me to be very delicate with the fork; one false jerk of the lever could lead to disaster. My hand used to know its own way around, but now its movements came from some point in my stomach; I could feel it producing a tension inside me that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s hand received as a signal and attempted to execute. The work was utterly exhausting, but I managed not to attract any attention to my appearance, and that meant I had a decent hope of keeping my job. The first day went by, albeit slowly, without incident. But as I was getting ready to leave the site, I noticed two young women in blue work clothes. Their hair looked damp, and they weren’t familiar. They appeared to be observing the progress of work in great detail as they walked through the site. They glanced at me and stopped. Our eyes met for a moment before I quickly hurried away.
Later the hand asked me if it could remain attached to my body that night even though work was over, because it had missed the physical connection. I had no objection. I also asked what had happened to its owner. It told me that Sufyan ibn Muʿawiyah, a governor of the caliph Abu Jaʿfar al-Mansur, had torn him limb from limb and cast each part into a roaring furnace before his eyes while he was still alive. The hand fell silent.
“So how did you survive, then?” I asked.
“I escaped being cast into the oven by jumping into the river Tigris,” it replied. “I’ve been in the water ever since.”
“And what did your owner do to deserve such a gruesome death?”
“He made dumb beasts speak,” said the hand simply. “He was a writer in the caliph’s court. The caliph became enraged with him one day and accused him of heresy.”
“And what about you?” I asked.
“I’m searching for a way out.”
I wanted to know more, and to hear how it had ended up here, but I could see it was not fond of talking and understood that whatever it wanted to say, it preferred to write. That night I slept deeply for the first time in many weeks, and when I awoke I found that the hand had written many pages while attached to my body, so I picked one up and read in astonishment.
Water snakes glided among thick stands of reeds. One emerged and slipped quickly across the water, then returned and hid itself in the reeds once again. The sky was clear, and in the distance black curtains hung above the flares at the oilfields. Four young men crowded into a canoe with a curved prow amid a silence disturbed only by the flashes of passing fighter jets. One of the four stood up in the middle of the boat holding a long pole. He plunged it deep into the water till it pushed against the bottom, then pulled it out and plunged it into the other side. They approached a small island surrounded by rushes, and they saw the fire consuming its huts, so they continued on their way until they arrived at an inlet cross-hatched by reeds. They brought the boat closer and slipped in behind them. Here the reeds grew thick and wild in an intricate maze. They floated past the puffed-up bodies of dead water buffalo and rocket debris sticking out of the water. They continued until they reached the thickest part of all, and there they stopped and concealed themselves in silence. The previous day, the women in the city had run, looking for their sons, and the men had stood before the city’s government offices in anger. Soldiers returning from the desert had horrors to tell. The police opened fire but the people were unafraid and remained on the streets. They said they wanted their sons who had been destroyed by the war, and a dignified life. Hundreds upon hundreds of souls came out and filled the streets. But the governor sent for huge reinforcements. They would tie up the young men and fasten a stone to their chests and push them into the water. When the boy had returned from school the day before, his mother had hidden him, because they were going round the houses taking away the young men. And that morning she had prepared him a handkerchief tied around some food and told him to hide in the marshes with the others, so he would be saved. Time passed slowly in among the rushes, and the waves of heat became more and more intense. The sky was split apart by the roar of an engine in the distance. A helicopter appeared and assumed a position in the heart of the sky. It came so close that the young men feared it would come down on their heads. The earsplitting noise it made was like the pulse of artillery fire. Then they heard bullets vibrating past them. Screams went up all around. It was the day of gathering and judgment. An age went by before the helicopter left. The boy plunged the slim pole deep into the water then, and the canoe moved slowly away. The water was dark when they came out into the open channel.
It takes a person a full five minutes to walk from the western façade of the palace which overlooks the canal to the eastern side which backs onto the river. In breaks the laborers would make their way, chatting loudly, to a distant corner of the ground floor which looked directly onto the river, and there they would eat and smoke. My arm became more agile as the days went by, and I became accustomed to my new life, in which the hand of a man who had died nearly one thousand years earlier was the intermediary between my body and the tangible world. Without it, my world would have fallen apart. I began to feel safe among my workmates again, since none of them seemed to have noticed anything and instead offered to share their food and asked how I’d been doing since the day they’d seen me fall down among them. But one day the air turned suddenly tense when a special lorry, guarded by a convoy of cars, arrived on the site, and we realized that it carried the golden cupola and the orb and cross. We hurried back to work.
The cupola was accompanied by men in brown work overalls different to the blue ones we wore. They were frowning. They immediately took over management of the site and began giving orders, and everyone was on edge lest they make some mistake; it was clear that these angels and the golden cupola they were to carry were the priceless essence of the palace. The first step involved the forklift drivers lifting the angels onto their plinths, which were spaced around a low circular balustrade made of heavy steel set upon a concrete base. Next the angels were to be fixed in place. Each angel weighed approximately half a ton, and together they would carry another ten tons of cupola, orb, and cross, on their heads. The weight of the world. I saw my life imploding before my eyes as I watched my first colleague at work. The task was inordinately precise, requiring him to maneuver within a very limited space. The first angel was hung from the tines of the forklift with a thick rope. The tines inched into the air and the angel swung gently, followed by the people in brown overalls yelling directions at the driver. Hands grasped the swaying angel and attempted to guide it into place, but in an instant it slipped and collided with the side of the plinth. The driver was sweating profusely. He embarked upon a second attempt. Just then, Fadil came to the rescue, and sent me to rearrange boxes in the store. I could see the frown on his face as he walked me there. I asked him if everything was ok, and he turned to me and said that he’d been thinking a lot about my situation. “Things can’t go on like this,” he said. “We got away with it this time, but who knows what could happen next time. I won’t always be able to cover for you.” He looked me in the eye. “You ought to put the hand back where it came from. It belongs to another world, and it has no place in yours. It’s the cause of your problems, not the solution to them. It’s keeping you prisoner, and when you free yourself your hand will be yours again.”
Positioning the angels took a full week’s work; the night shift laborers weren’t allowed to work on the task because it was too delicate. For the duration of that week I went immediately to the store when I arrived at the palace, and sat in my forklift lifting boxes up and bringing others down. I thought about what Fadil had said. We had been friends since my youth. He was with me in that canoe, and we were together when we left Iraq, still not even twenty years old. I owed him a great deal. He’d always been there for me as we moved from city to city, and even when we parted ways he was never stinting in his assistance. It was thanks to him I’d got this job three years ago and been able to straighten out my life after a time on the streets in Leipzig. His life was settled now he was in his mid-forties, having worked like a dog for years; mine was still teetering on the brink. Perhaps that was why he couldn’t accept the strange turn my life had taken now. But I couldn’t afford to let go of the one straw I had to hold on to. A patched-together life was better than a non-existent one. And I’d got used to the hand; it had become a part of me.
One day as I was preparing to leave the site, the two young women I’d seen before approached me. “We’d like your assistance,” said one of them.
“What is it you need?” I enquired.
“We need the keys to your forklift,” replied the other.
“What for?” I asked in surprise.
“So we can drop the golden cupola into the water,” said the first. “Because this building must not be completed.” I was dumbfounded. I thought I must have misheard. “This is our last chance before it’s put in place,” she went on. “Give us the keys to your forklift.”
“Who are you?” I shouted at them. “I’ve never seen you working here before.”
“I am Happiness,” said one.
“And I am Loss,” said the other.
There was silence then; our eyes were locked. Finally Loss said, “Many died in captivity. They are still toiling, while their killers grow rich. But they are resisting.”
“Did you know that during the revolution of 1848, many people were killed at the gates of the Hohenzollern dynasty’s residence which you are now rebuilding?” asked Happiness. “Did you know that what you are building is a museum which will house stolen human remains from long ago? They were stolen by settlers and antiquities traders.”
I simply stood there, stunned, not knowing what to say. Loss broke the silence.
“The battle is still raging, and the dead are still searching for a way out. Do you understand?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t understand, and I don’t want to, and I certainly won’t give you my keys.”
I left them. When I got home, the hand asked me about the conversation that had taken place with the two young women, so I translated the gist of it, still dazed at what had happened.
It took three further days’ work to place the golden cupola onto the angels’ heads, and the orb and cross on top of that. I was no longer obliged to hide in the store. Numbers filled my head once again. No sooner would I find myself alone than I would return to thinking about the staggering number one trillion, once a unit of debt and now the unit in which aid packages were distributed. It was a value whose dimensions I could not comprehend no matter how I tried. I imagined it as a colossal cloud blotting out the horizon whenever I contemplated it as I drove the forklift. I shrunk smaller and smaller under the pressure of that white cloud until I became a red blood cell or a drop in the ocean or a grain of sand. Just a zero in a long string of zeroes. The day went by, and it was time to hand over to the night shift. I was about to go and change and get ready to leave, but as I was still standing next to the forklift I found Happiness and Loss in front of me once again. I tried to walk away but they stopped me. “This is the last chance,” said Loss. “Tomorrow the golden cupola will be set in place on top of the palace. If the roof closes over the dead once again, they’ll be suspended there forever, and they’ll never be able to escape.”
“You don’t know anything about my life,” I told her. “I have enough problems of my own without your dead. Why don’t you ask one of the other drivers?”
At that very moment, my hand went to my pocket, lifted out the key, and handed it to Loss, who took it and jumped immediately into the cab of the forklift with a cheery “Thanks!”
It all happened too fast for me to follow. I raised the hand. “How could you do that?” I said to it in fury and disbelief. “I’ll be fired now!”
Loss switched on the ignition and the forklift set off towards the angels. I tried to run after her but the hand grabbed the water tank and wouldn’t let go, preventing me from moving at all.
It was clear that Happiness and Loss had studied the site carefully, and that Loss was a skillful driver. She had already gotten the tines of the forklift into the balustrade upon which the angels stood, and was proceeding carefully towards the hoardings that ran along the edge of the canal. Happiness, meanwhile, was watching like a hawk, waiting till she was needed. She tore away a section of hoarding, exploiting the momentary confusion. She was quickly moving everything that stood in the path of the forklift. The load was far too heavy for the forklift, but Loss had worked out how to maneuver it. She was heading for the edge of the water. The dome was listing to one side, almost slipping, but she swiftly lowered it, drove the fork in at a different angle, and continued on her way, with Happiness walking alongside. The angels were trembling at the repeated jolts of the journey. Suddenly, one of the angels swayed wildly, came away from its plinth, and toppled toward the ground. And then—that was the moment I lost my senses altogether—the uppermost feather of the angel’s steel wing plunged into Happiness’s foot and she let out a blood-curdling scream. Everybody on the site froze. Then all hell broke loose and laborers were running in every direction, until they found Happiness lying crumpled on the ground with the fallen angel above her, and Loss standing beside her attempting uselessly to heave the angel away. Happiness’s heart-rending scream was still echoing down the palace’s empty corridors.
I finally managed to wrench my hand free of the water tank, and ran towards the forklift. My mind was gone, but I knew what I had to do. I quickly tied some rope around the neck of the angel that had speared through Happiness’s foot and leapt into the cab. I started the engine and my hand ran smoothly over the controls. With every centimeter that the angel’s pointed wing feather ascended, Happiness’s screaming became sharper and more agonized. She howled and howled until suddenly she stopped. The angel’s fall had been terrible. When finally it lifted free of the ground, we saw Happiness’s foot, separated completely from her leg, hanging from the tip of its wing: a trainer with ankle bones and torn flesh protruding from it. Everybody shouted and screamed, and floodlights flicked on. My eyes were glued to the woman’s bloodied foot; I wanted to switch off the forklift and leap up and rescue the foot, I wanted this endless pain to stop. Instead I found that the forklift was aiming for the hoardings that ran along the canal side, my hand working the controls swiftly and confidently. It moved to the main lever against my will and gave it a decisive flick, and the inert angel slid instantly from the fork and plunged into the water, taking with it Happiness’s foot.
Holding my breath, I pulled my body toward the bottom, moving through impenetrable darkness until I made out the angel’s eyes glimmering in the depths and swam towards the faint source of light. For several moments I circled the angel, groping at it from every side, but I couldn’t lay my hands on Happiness’s foot. I was sure it had been pinned on the wingtip on the side where I was, but there was no trace of it there at all. I circled the angel again and again, but my breath was running out so I brought myself slowly to the surface. No sooner was my head above water than I found spotlights trained on me. Policemen lifted me out of the water then stood me up and held me tightly by the arms. I saw paramedics carrying away an unconscious Happiness on a stretcher. Then the police led Loss and me to their cars. We walked in silence, one of the policemen propelling me along with a plastic-gloved grip on my arm that sent a rush of pins and needles through me. I looked down in surprise and it slowly dawned on me that my old arm had come back to life; and then, too, that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s arm had not come out of the water with me. I squeezed its old place to be sure, but there was no sign of it. For the first time in weeks, I could feel my own arm. There it was, tingling in the spot where the policeman held me as he pushed me along, water cascading from my body. For some reason Loss glanced at me then, and our eyes met for an instant before each of us was taken to a different police car.
Haytham El-Wardany is a writer and translator and the author of How to Disappear (2013) and The Book of Sleep (2017). In a pocket-sized format, How To Disappear, part of the Kayfa-ta book series, explores the potentialities of passivity and unproductive action. The Book of Sleep offers insight into the dialectics of sleep as it relates to resistance, change, and revolution, and was translated to English by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books in 2020. He was granted the award for Best Short Story Collection at the Cairo International Book Fair for Irremediable, currently being translated to English.
This short story was commissioned and translated with the generous support of Goethe-Institut Lebanon.