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Vénus Khoury-Ghata: The House of Nettles

[Photo by Sue Tortoise, Flickr] [Photo by Sue Tortoise, Flickr]

Tireless mother, worthy descendant of a line of peasant women working as long as daylight lasted, as long as night permitted them to tell a lentil from a pebble. Only sleep could still the hands that washed, sewed, cut, peeled, kneaded, cradled. Sleep vertiginous as a stone hurled into a well. Hands that resisted winter, pain, even snakebites from the serpents they trod upon barefoot. 

Peasant women and ladies at once, taking control of everything, except their fear of the bus, a devilish invention, created to shame the horse and his cousin the donkey. They would not get on it except in situations of great necessity: the sudden death of a relative in the city, or the sale of a harvest with no middlemen. Otherwise, everything was tended to in the village, by patience and prayers. Death-agonies shortened by removing the image of the Sacred Heart facing the dying person’s bed; hemorrhages stopped with chicory and unwanted pregnancies with the help of a knitting needle thrust in the body’s declivity. I model my life on theirs in this peripheral Paris neighborhood. A pen in one hand and a ladle in the other, I stir a soup and correct a page at the same time, weed a flower-bed while seeking the turn of a poem, mend a sheet while taking up the dialogue between characters of a novel-in-progress. My work-table facing the garden, I write while surveying the progress of a snail over-fond of my plants. The useful and the agreeable grow side by side: roses and rosemary, begonia and basil, mint and myrtle, parsley and passionflower. Armed with a rake or a pencil, I make war on adjectives, on overfed worms or verses, prune a page, pull up nettles, water and replant even in my dreams. Morning finds me as exhausted as a field furrowed by a rusty harrow. Honeysuckle and morning-glory entwine on the wall, until I don’t know where the poem begins, where the garden stops.

***

She went back to her roots, regained her strength face to face with the nettles that stared at her without seeing her, motionless, absented from herself, a statue of flesh and fatigue; become almost stony.

The soup on the burner could have scorched to a crust, the house crumbled, she would not have blinked, would not have turned around. The blackish plants were her only company, her only concern.

“I will pull them all up tomorrow,” she would announce every evening when house and garden became an opaque block. But the next day, arriving with its chores, made her forget the nettles, however visible they were from her two windows. Their confrontation happened at dusk when the neighbor women disappeared behind their own walls with husbands and broods. Women so different from the mother. Carmined lips, shaved armpits, flower-printed dresses and odors of cumin, saffron and turmeric wafting from their cooking-pots while all spices were banished from hers.

The mother didn’t like the house, and neither did we. It would have been enough to lose the key, to leave the door open to the rain and wind for it to become part of the garden, the nettles overwhelming the furniture, an unwholesome earth covering the floor – gray cement while the neighboring apartments were tiled with red clay hexagons. What I call the house was a square block, a cube pierced with five apertures: two windows and a door in front, two other windows at the rear. The sun came in like a burglar, to be split up by the iron bars, swallowed by the walls. I saw the same cube in the public cemetery of Moukattam in Cairo. A cemetery where the poorest people lived , who had set up housekeeping in its tourba like houses turned upside down.

The daily confrontations between father and son transformed the house into a space of shouting while the field of nettles was a space of silence. The mother presented a calm face to the sawtoothed plants, so different from the expression she wore indoors. From where she liked to sit, on the rough stone doorstep, the sea was invisible. She guessed at its presence by staring down the sloping streets that led to it. Branching through the olive orchards or circulating naked among the buildings, these streets wound here and there around a kitchen garden or an empty lot before stretching away straight into the waves that swept away garbage and excrement in a fetid odor of rot, algae and salt.

Years later these same waves would carry the swollen cadavers of the victims of the war that split the country into two enemy clans. Emerging from their shelters, the inhabitants of B. would rush toward the beaches to watch with disgust and delectation the dead shifting in the undertow, who sometimes were swept into the river mouth as if they wanted to swim back up to their source.

Unlike her neighbors, the mother never ventured along the coast where strolling passers-by, ice-cream vendors, cadavers and flies made up one mass of odors and noise. To those who reproached her for her lack of curiosity, she answered that she had only to put her ear against the her house’s floor to hear the waves roaring, the gulls crying, and the dead bumping against each other before the barking sea.

 -- Draw your house when you were little, my daughter asked me one day when she was four years old.

I drew a woman with her back to a wall facing a vacant lot overgrown with weeds.

 -- Your house only had one wall ?

 -- It had four, our crying made the other ones fall down.

 -- You must have been poor.

***

Often, when the sun swept the house-front with a last movement, there arose from we couldn’t tell where a tune like the funeral songs of the mother’s village. As they dissolved in the air, the notes crushed her heart and she rushed to the window, ready to follow them, then stopped at the sight of the bars. Prisoner of three horizontal lines and three vertical ones, she abandoned her desire to see the musician’s face. Rooted to the spot, she waited for the refrain’s return, sure that she would die without having met him, without having seen her village again, or heard the song again that sent her back there every evening.

Was the ney player a street musician, a studious child learning a piece for the flute? The answer came from Mme. Rose who complained about the tactlessness of a foreigner imposing his music on the whole neighborhood. Contrary to the mother’s suppositions, he did not come from the mountains of North Lebanon, but from the south, driven out of Palestine by the carnage in his village, Deir Yassine. Squatting the apartment of recent emigrants who had left for Australia, he was joined a week later by his family. A woman and four children appeared early one morning, in a cacophony of creaking cartwheels. They must have been very poor to come with a cart instead of a truck. They must have been destitute to bring with them only three mattresses bound together with a rope, as many pots, and a wooden cupboard grubby as a chicken-coop. Their arrival in that quiet street perched on the city’s heights aroused parents’ and children’s suspicion. Why had they chosen this neighborhood and not another? Why hadn’t they stayed with the rest of the refugees gathered on the outskirts of the capital ?

We got to know their children on the vacant lot. The boys kicked our footballs. The girls tried to snatch our dolls. Just one morning was enough to declare us enemies. Instead of making us sympathize with them, their misfortune distanced them from us. Children’s squabbles were taken up by the adults, and the neighborhood mothers called their mother a beggar and a thief. We were stingy, miserly about our territory, like dogs who mark their own with a spray of urine. Why didn’t they go back home, to their village destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, in the shade of their olive trees uprooted by Israeli soldiers, to the graves of their countrymen shot down with their backs to the wall, move back into their own houses lived in now by Jews who had come from the West?

Only the mother took no part in these quarrels. In her veins ran the blood of ancestors driven from their own land, pursued by hordes from Asia, who had found refuge on the mountain heights, far from the coast. It was only much later, when the barbarians had left the country, that they marked out the first routes, that were enlarged for carts and then cars as time went by.  

***

The mother paraded her ancestors in front of us as you’d leaf through a book. Their near-unpronounceable names evoked: flight from the Ottomans, locusts, drought. They went from village to village, children and poultry bound up in the same bundle, converted to Islam so as not to be beheaded, became Druze when the wind drove them west. What dialect did they speak before they took root on the mountain with their goats and their Gospels and that alphabet whose sounds they pronounced without knowing its writing?

The speech they ended up with, a mixture of Aramaic, Arabic and Syriac, is as rough as the noise of stones rubbed together. Did the mother think of the women who had preceded her when the pomegranate tree bled on our doorstep, a blood as black as her own, her monthly blood, assuaged with herbs for fear of wasting the household money in doctor’s fees when that money could ease the daily life of the son locked up among the madmen?  

***

In the evening, when I came home from school, I could locate her by the clatter of dishes that she moved with precision as she once had the scissors and tweezers at the hospital where she worked for three years, as a nurse’s aide, then as a nurse, then as an anesthetist. A dazzling progression despite her lack of any diploma, as only determination and devotion at work counted at the time. She had, from those exhausting years, a provision of modest memories that grew glorious over time.

As she told it, it was she and none other who had been chosen to reassemble the skeleton of a Druze peasant girl after a twenty-year sojourn underground. The circumstances of her death would had not been made clear if her mother, in the course of an argument with her son and daughter-in-law, had not accused the son of wanting to kill her as well after having assassinated his sister. Her outcry alerted the neighbors and the police. Her son had lied, the girl had not died of typhoid fever but from the slashes of his machete. He had wanted to take the whole inheritance for himself. And thus the midnight burial, when her blood had not yet dried on her dress. A burial with no witnesses, the son dug, the mother held the lantern.

  -- She’s lying, the son protested, the truth is worse than that. My sister was pregnant by an unknown man. I washed the family’s honor clean with her blood.

 A deputy public prosecutor attended the autopsy, then the reconstruction of the skeleton, brought in a canvas sack. Once the rib-cage was put back together, the forensic pathologist, with the help of our mother, began work on the pelvis, the prime witness, from the gap in it one could tell if there had been a pregnancy. But the pelvic bones showed no gap. In the empty room, our mother remained alone facing the pile of bones. She wept for the girl whose face she would never know, only her hair, twisted into a thick braid they had found at the bottom of the sack; the mother slid it under the skull after dusting it off.
***

Pen suspended above the page written to my mother’s dictation:

 -- Stop spreading yourself so thin! Too many books to write, to read, conferences abroad to satisfy your ego. Concentrate on the nettles that I couldn’t pull up when I was alive. Do it, even if it’s just in writing! You waste a ton of paper talking about these people that no one here knows. How can we recognize them when there’s nothing to tell one of them from the others? Sacks of fog, empty boxes. That’s all they are. No face, no features, only names engraved on stones gnawed away by time. Idle as the rest of us, they don’t love, don’t hate, don’t give birth. Colorless, shapeless things, with no consistency. Nothing is demanded of them – and after all they don’t know how to do anything. Ruminants, they sometimes try to move, but arrive nowhere, and for good reason, the roads are immobile and so is the wind. Nothing is started, nothing is finished, opposites merge: day and night, the same compact mass, sun and moon are prisoners in the same circle, children and old people look the same, have the same pastimes. Never play.

 -- You must all get bored, I suggest, sure of her approval.

 -- Not as much as that, as long as there is the noisy season, the most appreciated, waited for, a little livelier than the others even if the number of days is always the same.

I suspect her of making all this up and write that to her in black on white.

She recovers with finesse and cunning:

-- Put down what I said about books that nobody reads! 

   I continue before she disappears:

-- Why didn’t we have any books in the house? Not a single novel. No poetry either.

-- Who needs to read novels when they’re living one? Your father who tied your brother up to bury him alive, that’s better than a novel, that’s an epic!

 My God, how erudite she’s become since she died, I think to myself.

-- And why didn’t we ever go to the seashore? I also ask.

 -- Nibbling at the coastline the way it did, the sea would have arrived at our house, in the living room, under the table, the chairs, even the refrigerator. At least that’s what your father said.

-- Do you and he see each other up there?

-- Never saw him again. And why do you say “up there”? The above and the below are mixed, since everything turns.

-- One last question, mama. Why was our childhood so black?

-- Black, white, red, leave the colors to your painter friend. Find a word more appropriate to the situation: stony childhood, pebbled, yours was grassy. You grew with the nettles in winter. And with the cannabis in summer.

Harvested in the village in mid-July, dried on the rooftops all through August, the cannabis the mother mentioned would be subject, in the torrid heat of the mountains, to a slow combustion , and its exhalations made men and beasts dull and sluggish. Incapable of flying, the birds stumbled clumsily across the village square. As drugged as the rest of us, the priest would call us on the stroke of noon when the sun was reflected in the well to see Saint Anthony reduced to his halo.

 A memory that made the mother burst into a fit of laughter, and so did I, laughter that erased the war, my mourning, our destroyed house, everything but the shame.

***

The mother had more confidence in proverbs than in her own good sense, especially when she addressed herself to the saints, people who were more important than the mayor of her village, than the Maronite archbishop, more important than the poet nested in the crevice of a rock.

Her village had become her pride since her husband was no longer the apple of her eye. She ranked it above all others: above the village whose wealth was a reliquary and a saint embalmed a hundred years ago, above the one that possessed a relic of St Ephraim, a tibia in a glass case that made dogs’ mouths water when they wandered into the church. Exiled to city pavement after her marriage, the mother continued to take pride in an earth that produced only potatoes, hashish, pebbles and poets.

 A single street descended from the city hall built on a hilltop to the cemetery implanted on the low ground not far from the river. Strollers would go up and down it after dusk. Conversations scratched the surface of the growing darkness. Families were recognizable by features common to their members’ faces. Fertile women had children that looked like their progenitors. The infertile ones gave birth to stories like those in books. But the only books to be seen in the village were those of the poet who had died in America and who left the revenues from his work to these people who venerated him. The royalties from The Prophet, translated into myriad languages, copies sold by the millions, were used to repair the roof of one church and to start construction of another one instead of building a school or a clinic. The villagers walked in the dark, talked in the dark, went home when they could no longer distinguish a cat’s eyes from a firefly.

 Returning from one of these evening strolls, we found the father shifting from foot to foot with anger in front of the door. His military boots glistened in the darkness. He planted a dry kiss on each of our cheeks before showering us with criticism. We would do better to stay indoors and study than to go walking with peasants; we should have been watching out for the arrival of the one who had been burning up in the hell of the capital instead of wasting our time.

Turning toward his son, the focus of his dissatisfaction, he asked him if he had been thinking about his future. Would he take up the profession of his maternal uncle: a carpenter of coffins, or that of his cousin who grew cannabis, that is to say a smuggler?

Thinking himself at the level of these paternal ambitions, the twelve-year-old boy pointed up toward the tomb of the author of The Prophet.

-- I’m going to be a poet like him.

 Huge disappointment on the father’s part, he pulled his képi firmly on his skull and left for the capital, his holidays over before they began. The father had only contempt for his wife’s village, for its lights that all went out at the same time, for its foxes that ate ears of corn and its hens that pecked at pebbles. Village where, for lack of a sea, the inhabitants were content with a stream, for lack of waves, made do with grass flattened by the wind. An old man claimed that this village had once been endowed with a plot of sea, but before Christ, or perhaps during Christ’s lifetime, a landslide had swallowed it in the blink of an eye, and that you only had to put an alert ear to the ground and you’d hear the waves roar and the gulls cry.

 An extravagant opinion: still, the mother believed it during the summer holidays. Once back in the city, she had doubts. With her feet back on the ground, she reclaimed her solidarity with what she called her garden, decided every evening that come daybreak she would replace the nettles with hydrangeas, but when the new day arrived with its chores, she lost heart. Since she had never fulfilled her vow, I planted hydrangeas myself for her in my Paris flowerbed, though I never liked those flowers. Planted upside down, they must have bloomed in the devil’s house.

All my life, I’ve struggled to learn to cook, to garden, to write in a language that isn’t mine. A daily struggle with snails that devour aromatic plants, with dust that smothers the furniture, with the plump adjectives and metaphors my mother tongue delights in that are rejected by the French language that shrinks, gets thinner as you watch. Exit images and excess sentiment. No obvious emotions either, the contemporary novel will have none of them. Arab as I am, I must erase from my memory a whole patrimony nourished with pre-Islamic poetry weeping on the ruins of its encampment, mourning a dead she-camel or a lost homeland, in order to write like the moderns.

[Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker]

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