By Youssef Idris
It was strange for a small girl like her, in simplicity and innocence, to ask a grown man like me, someone she didn’t know, to adjust what she was carrying. What she carried was truly complicated: on her head settled a tray of roasted potatoes, and balanced on top of that rested a wide pan covered in pastries. The pan had slipped despite her careful grip, which clung tight to the load as it threatened to fall.
My surprise didn’t last long as I stared at the small, bewildered child, and I rushed to save what she was carrying. I fumbled several times: when I straightened the tray the pan would tip, and when I adjusted the pan the tray would begin to slip. Then when I would straighten them both, her head would lean to one side. I finally succeeded in stabilizing it, and to be on the safe side I advised her to return to the bakery, which was close by, where she could leave the pan and return for it later.
I didn’t know what went on inside her head, obscured as it was by what she carried upon it. She simply waited a moment to check her grip and then left, muttering a string of words, none of which I caught except the words ‘my mistress…`
My eyes didn’t leave her as she wove between cars on the broad, congested street, nor from her wide, flimsy dress that resembled a scrap of cloth used to clean the ovens, nor from her legs, which peeked out from under the tattered hem of her skirt like two slender nails.
I watched her in wonder, as her bare feet clung to the ground like the claws of a chick. She trembled as she moved, then looked around with her small dark eyes and took a few steady steps. Though a couple items may have wavered, she quickly resumed her pace.
I watched her for a long time, absorbed in every detail of her movement, expecting at every moment that tragedy would befall her.
Finally, the servant girl was able to cross the crowded street, with the prudence and hesitation of someone well beyond her years.
She resumed her pace on the other side, and before she disappeared I saw her pause.
A cart was about to crash into me when I rushed to save her, but when I arrived everything was fine. The tray and pan had been adjusted, and she was standing still, watching. Her dark, pinched face was following a rubber ball that a group of children her own size and larger were throwing, as they cheered and shouted and laughed.
She didn’t notice me, and she didn’t pause long before starting up again on her slender claws. But before she departed, she turned slowly, and her heavy load turned with her, as she cast a long glance towards the ball and the children.
Then the alley swallowed her up.
[Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette. You can read the original in Arabic here]