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Excerpt from "A Day Like Any Other"

Safiya was still holding the stick when she collapsed, exhausted, on the floor of the cave. She was the last of her companions to sit down. She shivered at the cold dampness on her bare legs as she eased back against the cave wall. Complete silence prevailed over the little bodies now worn out from hours of playing.

 

Why should the tender fern wither away?

How could she give up her limbs to the dry leaves

and be overtaken so quickly by brown?

Leaves that were fresh only yesterday

 

Safiya fiddled with the stick, a young branch she had cut and stripped early that morning. She used it to tap at the ground, as her father did to alert his wife and her guests when he was on his way into the house. She rapped twice on the cave floor, trying to hide her chagrin.

 

At the back of the cave was a wisp of fern that had sprouted from the rocky soil. Would the fern have withered if she hadn't stroked its bright leaves so fondly the day before? She wished she could stop it from fading away. She vowed to herself never to touch those little blossoms again, but this did little to ease her remorse.

 

They were five young girls. Safiya was the eldest, nine or ten years old. Nawal, the youngest, was not yet five. Safiya would offer to take them to this secret corner, even little Nawal, who would plead to go along.

 

Safiya, Fatima and Husn were the daughters of Hajj Mahmoud al-Aryan, who hadn’t made the pilgrimage to Mecca or ever been there at all. But he was a pious man who said his prayers regularly. Although a simple post office clerk, he was a commanding figure, and a devout man among his neighbors.

 

Zeinab and Nawal were the daughters of Jamil Salman, a modest quarryman who had inherited a vineyard which he held onto despite the constant hardship.

 

The two families had decided to spend the summer in their vineyards to protect the fruit from thieves. The fields stretched down a mountain where nature, winter rains and rocks had hollowed out a number of caves. But it was this particular cave that drew the girls. It was shallow and overlooked the east. Sunshine streamed through its low opening, so the girls could reassure themselves that were no snakes or other menaces. The opening was partially covered by a fig tree that would drop its ripe black fruit onto the cave floor.

 

The cave lay midway between their two houses, just out of sight of the adults. It was Safiya's favorite place to play. There she could be the one in charge, as it was she who always insisted on being the man when they played house.

 

She wasn’t quite pretty, but her features were striking, especially when she tied her hair back to go with the shorts she insisted on wearing, like a boy. Hajj Mahmoud forbade her from showing her legs, but she could get away with it by tucking in her dress once she was outside.

 

"Here’s your coffee."

 

Zeinab put a feminine lilt in her voice as she held out a flat stone with a fig and two pomegranates on top. She had set aside a few small pieces for herself and the other girls. Safiya liked having the man’s share. She held the tip of the fig and put it to her lips, as her father did with his cup of coffee. They felt drowsy after eating, and the stillness of the afternoon began to set in.  

 

Then, suddenly, the silence was broken by a thunderous bang, then a crashing thud. Little Nawal scrambled into Zeinab's lap and their eyes locked on the fig tree. A huge bird had dropped into the branches right in front of them.

 

Do birds gasp for breath?

 

Its beak hung open for a few seconds, in heat and thirst, before it flew off again in a burst of rustling leaves.

 

The moments of quiet that followed did not ease the girls’ fright. Their wide eyes were fixed on him now, following his every step along the rocky outcropping that formed the opening of the cave. He was thin and short, and his trousers were tight around his legs. He brought his gun to his chest and pressed his cheek against it as he came to a stop outside the girls’ shelter.

 

Did he just happen to look their way, or did he sense Zeinab tightening her hold on her sister? He was still cursing his bad luck and the bird got away, using words the girls had never heard before.

 

He lowered his gun and rubbed his eyes. After a moment’s pause, he moved in closer.  

 

The girls turned their eyes to Safiya. She was their only man in this moment, the one who made the rules and cast the roles. The one who gave the orders, did the scolding, and got the biggest share of the fruit. She was their man in times of fear and confusion. But they found only her frozen expression, and silence.

 

When his leg brushed against her bare thigh, Safiya knew he was too close. She wanted to pull away, but her legs were numb.

 

"If a strange man comes up to you, shout and run away.”

 

The stranger was closer than even their mothers could have imagined.

 

Safiya saw something in his eyes she had never seen in her father's. Something strange and sinister.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

He spoke with a rough hiss that hardly matched his slight build. He looked around the cave, surveying the row of frightened faces. Then his eyes came to rest on Safiya's legs.

 

As she followed his slow gaze, she realized – for the first time – that she her legs were long and slender, with full thighs and soft youthful skin tinted a dark golden bronze. She shuddered but felt powerless against the heat coming off his body as he pressed his leg harder against hers. There was only the cloth of his trousers between them.

 

“I said, what are you doing here?”

 

Safiya finally managed the word. “Playing.”

 

“Playing what?”

 

He was breathing harder now, with a sound the girls had never heard before. He leaned his gun against the wall, next to Safiya’s stick, then reached out and put his hand on her bare thigh, sending an icy shiver through her body. Her fear was growing but still she couldn’t move.

 

“Playing what?” he asked again, his voice somewhat gentler this time.

 

“I…I'm the father. I'm the man.”

 

There was a gust of tobacco smell when he laughed. Safiya knew the smell from her father’s clothes and breath, but her father didn’t hiss or pant like this.

 

“A man? Ha! A man with these legs?”

 

She shuddered again as his rough palm moved back and forth over her skin.

 

“But do you know what men do?”

 

Safiya didn't know why he was laughing, but sensed from his tone that there was something men do which she wasn’t aware of. She did know from the strange glint in his bloodshot eyes that this man could do something she didn’t know about, something dreadful. Something mothers warn their daughters about.

 

“That’s not a proper thing for you to play.”

 

With the stranger preoccupied, little Nawal had crawled over to the cave door. Now she leapt out and ran away. The other girls darted their eyes back and forth between the stranger and the opening. A few seconds later they were gone, with Zeinab the last to run away.

 

Safiya was alone with the stranger now, and panic seized her chest and stomach. It was as if her legs were paralyzed.

 

“You didn't answer me. Do you know what men do?”

 

He slid his arm around her back, setting off a sprinkle of dust as he brushed against the cave wall.

 

“Whose daughters are you?”

 

Again her voice caught in her throat for a moment before she could speak.

 

“We’re Hajj Mahmoud's daughters. And the others are – ”

 

“Aren't you all sisters?”

 

“Jamil Salman’s daughters.”

 

His hot breath stopped short.

 

“Get up! Go on, get lost!”

 

He shoved Safiya’s motionless body. In that second, life vibrated inside her petrified legs. She crawled on her belly to the opening of cave, without looking back.

 

She raced along the empty road home, her heart pounding and her mind dazed. Before going inside, she pulled her dress out of her shorts and down around her legs.

 

The women gathered at dusk but no one talked about what the girls had been up to. They had gone off to play, as they always did. For the younger girls too, it had been an ordinary day. But Safiya and Zeinab, the man and woman in the game, were content with their roles now. They all carried on playing together as the days passed, but with no mention of the stranger, or the cave, or whether they ever went back to it