These two short-short stories appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly, the CATS issue, which is available digitally (Gumroad, Exact Editions) or in print (in the US, Canada, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, and elsewhere):
Tale of the Resurrected Brother and the Metamorphosed Mother
By Amgad ElSabban
Translated by Mona Khedr
As we set up the table for our meal, the doorbell rang. “Who is it?” we all wondered at the same time. No one answered. We headed to the door. When we flung the door open, a thin adolescent fell through it to the floor. As we carried him to the red couch that was close to the apartment door, we heard our mother’s voice from the kitchen, wondering what all the fuss was outside. There, still in the kitchen, she stood holding a big fish in her hands.
“This bastard! Throw him out!” she yelled at us.
She tossed the fish at the young man and hurried to her room.
He picked the fish up in his mouth and began gobbling it up.
Suddenly, he noticed we were silently staring at him in astonishment. He immediately spat his mouthful out.
He looked increasingly exhausted as he explained to us that he was our brother. Yes! Our brother who had passed away twenty-seven years before at the green age of sixty minutes! He recounted that, after his death, he had persisted in working to dig out rivers, collect firewood, and kindle fires with the sole aim of being awarded the title of “Model Worker.” One of the title’s advantages was a return ticket to Earth in the form of his choice.
He sadly expressed his disappointment at Mother’s reaction to his return, which he had striven for just to mend her heart, broken since his departure.
We were hardly concerned with whether he was lying or telling the truth. What really intrigued us was finding out whether our mother would acknowledge his story or not. Were that to happen, a huge gap in our lives would be filled. Our lives had been totally devoid of male presence. When we were younger, we believed that males possessed bodies identical to ours, only that they did not sufficiently belong inside them. Besides, his existence in our lives would alleviate many of the hardships we’d had to endure, since he would, we hoped, take care of them.
Some of us stood there, comforting him; some went to our mother’s room. Mother took something out of a drawer, but, upon seeing us, she abruptly hid it in her clothes.
She turned to us. “Did you kick him out?” she asked angrily.
We were perplexed, but collected ourselves and reproached her for her attitude. Why hadn’t she told us of our brother, who had died in infancy? He could be of great help to us, we said, since he was youthful and could do work around the farm or the stables, or at least he could watch after our mercantile affairs at the market. We reminded her of the many people who had returned to Earth after their death: ‘Aam Gom’a’s son, who had been run over by a car at the age of three, was now a renowned butcher at the Friday Market and was making his dad a fortune. We mentioned Aunt Nadia’s daughter, who had died of a rare disease, only to come back later and become a screen sensation.
“So, will you kick him out?” she interrupted.
Before we managed to ask her the reason behind her angry outburst, she rapidly sprung up and stormed out of the room. Thank God we managed to prevent her from attacking him with a pair of scissors that she’d grabbed out of the folds of her clothes. If we had failed, she would have cut us up the very next moment. How could we let her kill a living soul, not to mention our own brother! How vicious were we?
On being assaulted, our resurrected brother screamed, “You want to kill me, Rokaya?! I swear to God I’ll tell your girls everything!”
They started to fight and shout at each other. Our mother stood at the door of her room while our brother stood close to the apartment’s front door. In our large numbers, we positioned ourselves in the middle to keep them apart. We attentively tried to listen to what they were saying, but in vain!
The fight went on for a long time, and we could not figure out how to stop it. All of a sudden, the power was cut and all the back-and-forth shouting ceased. We held our places to keep the fighting parties separated.
When the power was restored, our mother carried on with the yelling, but we heard no further response from our brother. He’d vanished! Our mother looked relieved, as if a burden had been lifted from her chest. Dismayed as we all were, we pretended nothing at all had happened.
Then a cat was heard coming through the kitchen. Our mother hurried toward the sound, holding up her scissors. As soon as she went into the kitchen, the power went off one more time, for a yet longer period of time.
When the power came back, we could not find our mother. We could only distinguish the yowls and screeching meows of cat-fighting coming out of the kitchen. Two cats suddenly jumped on top of the dining table and bounced out through the open window. We ran to the window and looked carefully, up and down, but both had disappeared into thin air.
We felt pleased to be finally rid of our mother. At long last, we were free. Each one of us contemplated a plan for their future; we were thrilled to imagine the easy lives that lay ahead of us. We felt hungry—that was when we proceeded to the kitchen to carry on preparing our meal.
As we were eating our meal, a cat leapt on the table. We had no clue where it had come from. Her right eye was injured. We examined her closely, trying our best to figure out whether she was our mother or our brother, but could not decide. The cat stretched her body out along the table and relaxed, letting her eyes fall shut. We glanced at each other in the hopes that one of us would throw her out the window. But the feline creature inspired such an aura of reverence that no one dared violate. We tossed her a piece of fish and went back to finish our meal which had gone cold.
Amgad ElSabban, born in 1990, is one of Egypt’s talented emerging writers. His work has appeared in several ink publications such as Akhbar Al-Adab and Al-Badil, as well as online blogs including but not limited to Yousef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal. ElSabban is also the recipient of the Afaq short story prize in 2018.
Mona Khedr is a theater academic and a literary translator based in London, Canada. Her critical research and literary translations focus on interpretation studies and interculturalism in theater and literature, and have appeared in academic journals including Two Lines, Ecumenica, African Theatre, and Performing Islam.
Also from this issue:
‘Schrödinger’s Cats’ by Ameer Hamad
Click HERE to read more from this author.