“A Bottle of Honey”, a short story by Mahmoud Saeed translated by William M Hutchins

Mahmoud Saeed

“The sun’s rays penetrate the room’s wide window and strike the bathroom door,” Maryam shouts, “Damn! They’re almost blinding me!” I laugh. “You’re exaggerating!” She is in her twenties, brown-complexioned, and slender. Her grey eyes have light blue streaks. She enchants me every time I look at her. The dove calls: “Coo coo, uhkti; coo coo, sister” from the roof of our six-story building. Her call makes me yearn for my childhood. I feel a strong urge to see the bird, and search for her in vain. “It’s pointless,” Maryam observes, “Your search will fail. When I come to Mohammedia for the weekend, you will see her.” I don’t ask her how. I treasure her words in my breast. Perhaps it will be a pleasant surprise: as she searches for the dove, I will lose myself in savoring her charms.
I was still stretched out on the bed, watching the tongue of light stretch through the bathroom door and hit the wall. If Maryam were here, she would draw the curtain to hide the rays and throw herself down beside me. She would place a finger on my lips to keep me from saying anything that would curtail the profound silence pervading us. She thinks silence fills us with divine music that conveys us in its folds to roam through existence. But she isn’t here with me. She will arrive in an hour and a half, at seven on the dot. Her arrivals are punctual, on “English time”. What a delight! The most beautiful moments of my life are those I pass with Maryam. No matter how long she stays, I feel those seconds are numbered. Once she leaves, I can’t recall the significant things we did—just insignificant stuff: what we ate, how we joked, where we went. The storms of love inside which we lost ourselves have evaporated. Maryam comes every Thursday for her weekend—Friday through the end of Sunday—when we are the two happiest creatures in all of existence. She grows angry when she sees me glance at the clock. She drowns out my voice, shouting: “Why do you risk abbreviating our time? Let’s mount time. We will imagine it’s a horse we’re riding.” She would tap the table with her fingertips: tap, tap, tap. Then she would smack her lips with her tongue, hold out her hands, and move them as if she were riding a horse: tak, tak, tak. She would cast me back into my childhood as I chortle. When she put a finger to my lips, I would fall silent. Then she would bury her face on my chest.
Someone suddenly knocks on the door. Has she come early? The clock says it’s five-thirty. No, she always comes at the appointed time. Has she departed from the schedule for some reason? I am in my underwear and grab a nightshirt to put on. The second set of knocks are louder. I head for the door. I fear she’ll be angry. She doesn’t like to see me dishabille. I’ll show only my head. I call out: “Yes, yes?”
Mr. Bu Alam, our school’s messenger, was on the verge of tears and his voice was trembling with pain. His expression was furious. Before I could ask what was wrong, he yelled at me plaintively: “Mr. al-Sharqi! Come! Save me from Mr. Yasin! Didn’t we agree the price of the bottle was fifty dirhem?” I nodded my head in agreement and said, “Yes.” He continued shouting: “He’s changed his offer. He says he’ll give me thirty. I told him that changing a deal once it’s been made is forbidden. May God preserve you, Mr. al-Sharqi. Help me.”
I left him at the door and went to put on my clothes. Then I set off with him. “Where is he?”
“By the pond.”
We walked there together. Mr. Yasin was leaning against the rear wall of a house, which faced the Casablanca road, near the beautiful pond garden. As soon as he saw us, he shouted furiously at Mr. Bu Alam, “How could you leave the honey with me and go off? Do you want to stick me with it?”
Mr. Bu Alam shouted nervously, “By . . . .”
I interrupted him: “Let me do the talking; otherwise, I’ll return home.” I placed a finger over my mouth.
Mr. Yasin held out the bottle of honey to Mr. Bu Alam. The cork of the chestnut-colored bottle protruded about a centimeter from it. I looked Mr. Yasin in the eye and smiled. “The two of you agreed in my presence the price would be fifty dirhem. Isn’t that so?”
“Yes, but this is diluted.”
“Have you tasted it?”
“No.”
“How do you know it’s diluted, if you haven’t tasted it?”
He began to move away, forcing us to follow him. He customarily imposed his preferences on other people. He stopped at the sidewalk, and we did too, between the judge’s large German car and the door to his house. Behind me was the tall window of the judge’s house. The sun’s rays penetrated it with a dazzling light, illuminating its green-and-red striped curtains of fine velvet. Silence reigned for a few seconds before Mr. Yasin reiterated: “By God, it’s diluted.” I smiled and repeated my question as I stared deep into his eyes: “How do you know?”
He retorted, “It’s not a matter that needs investigation. I’m not a donkey. Don’t I have two eyes?” I turned to Mr. Bu Alam and asked, “Did you open the bottle?”
“No.”
“Then how do you know?” I shouted.
“From the color.”
Anger began to affect my voice, and my tone grew sharper when I shouted: “The bottle is dark brown! You can’t tell what’s in it from the outside.”
Inside the garden of the judge’s villa a cat could be heard hissing angrily. When I glanced at her, she opened her mouth and bared her fangs threateningly. I could not see her antagonist. Suddenly the cat quickly climbed the trunk of a tree. Then she leapt to the fence and began to run toward the garden gate.
I heard Mr. Yasin say, “I can discern the color.”
My rage peaked. Lying infuriates me and makes my blood boil. I was afraid I would lose my temper and do something stupid. The arrival of al-Khitabi and al-Qadiri helped me calm down. I remembered that the match between Real Madrid and Manchester would be on at six-thirty. Maryam would be with me by then, and we had agreed to meet them at al-Khitabi’s house, because he was the only one of us who had a black-and-white TV that would receive the match. Then I would escort Maryam back to my apartment, before nine. I had stocked up with fine drinks, appetizers, fish, and fruit. Maryam would prepare an appetizing repast.
Al-Khitabi pointed to a plaque affixed to the righthand corner of the garden gate. “Watch out!” he cried to warn me. My head was a few centimeters from it. “It might hurt you!” I looked at it: the judge’s name in French in golden metal letters on an elegant black background. The ruq‘a script gleamed vibrantly. Someone must polish this plaque every day.
Mr. al-Qadiri suggested, “Let’s move away from the judge’s doorway.” But Mr. Yasin remained standing there alertly.
“In your presence, Mr. al-Sharqi, Mr. Yasin pledged to give me fifty dirhems, with God as my witness,” cried Bu Alam.
Al-Qadiri and al-Khitabi looked at me first and then at Mr. Yasin. Somewhat heatedly I volunteered, “Yes, in front of me. I can vouch for that. Mr. Alam wasn’t happy about giving him the honey, because there’s no honey to be found in Mohammedia. A relative of his was to bring it from Beni Mellal. But I vouched for him and convinced Mr. Alam. The amount of money isn’t that large and it not worth quarreling over. I’ll pay the balance.”
Mr. Yasin shouted with the full force of his scornful anger: “I value my honor. The honey is diluted. It isn’t worth fifty dirhem. Thirty is already too much.”
I turned toward al-Khitabi and al-Qadiri and observed, “Mr. Yasin’s amazing. He hasn’t tasted the honey. He hasn’t opened the bottle, and yet he knows the honey is diluted.” Then I turned to Mr. Yasin and complained, “I can’t waste any more time. Give him what you want, and I’ll make up the remainder.”
“Don’t pretend you’re Hatim al-Ta’i. There is such a thing as true and another thing called false.” He held the bottle out to Mr. Bu Alam, and said, “Take your honey. I won’t buy it. Goodbye.”
Mr. Bu Alam stood at a distance, furious, trembling, as if his house had just burned down. He stood there frozen and did not take the bottle. Meanwhile Mr. Yasin was also trembling emotionally as his dark complexion became speckled with yellow. Al-Qadiri and al-Khitabi both looked angry. The latter said, “Mr. Yasin, you’re wrong.”
Yasin disdainfully cried out as loudly as he could, his nerves shot, “How do you know that, Mr. Jurist? You genius! I’m wrong? You just arrived here now, knowing nothing about the matter and intervene.” Then he turned to Bu Alam and said: “Take your honey. I won’t buy it.”
Mr. Bu Alam held out a trembling hand as tears threatened to form in his eyes. No sooner had he grasped the bottle than it slipped from his hand, broke, and the honey spilled out, forming a circle about a foot in diameter together with the shards of glass. As the honey ran and spread, Mr. Bu Alam leaned over, and his fingers dipped into the honey. He was gasping furiously. I didn’t know what he intended to do.
I’m not clear about what exactly happened. For a moment I thought I might lose my temper. I do remember that I went berserk when I heard Mr. Yasin guffaw and say, “Now you’ve dropped the bottle. Well done! There’s no honey and no need to pay for it.”
Who called the police? I don’t know. What did I do? I don’t know. I regained my composure in the police station. It was a greater insult than I could bear for me to listen to the suave detective’s reprimand: “My goodness! A secondary school teacher brawling in the street! What will the pupils do in this case? What a lack of decorum! What a lack of manners!” Countless words! Rebukes, scolding, reprimands—anything a man could think of. Extraordinary eloquence. “Is this what they teach them? Is he a cultured person?”
One concern filled my head, and I didn’t have a clue about it. Where had Maryam gone? It was almost eight p.m., long after her expected arrival time. The sun had set. The gray twilight, which I despise, had begun. After sunset, Mohammedia becomes quite crepuscular.
The detective shook his index finger at me threateningly. “I will recommend that your contract be terminated and that you be expelled from the country. You all bring your mental illnesses with you and your nasty behavior, brawling in the street. You have no shame and no manners. You almost destroyed his eye. He will need to stay in the hospital for five days, and you will pay the costs of his hospitalization.” Then he shouted, even before he had concluded his statement: “You won’t stay in our land! Who knows how long you’ll rot in prison?”
My respiration was rattled by my profound sorrow. I sighed. Pain was constricting my heart. All this for such a trifling thing! I didn’t care if they terminated my contract. There were other places I could work. I was a young fellow of twenty-five. But would I ever see Maryam again? Could I withstand separation from her? Could I ever enjoy a moment of happiness without her? Would she leave her job and her country, her residence, her family—for destitution and flight with me? She was all my happiness in life! Was anyone else like her? I almost started to weep, much as I wanted not to. But I gained control of myself, knowing that once I closed my eyes in jail or prison—or wherever—I would let my tears flow copiously till I fell asleep. How I was suffering!
Above the officer’s head hung a rectangular plaque with French words in red, on a white background. Two other frames were hanging there. One was a picture of His Majesty King Hassan II with an inscription in Arabic, and the other had the inscription in French. Pots of different kinds of flowers filled the windowsill to the right. One was a unique rose, unlike any I had ever seen. It was yellow verging on orange and had a gleaming white center almost two centimeters high! My Lord, how can You create such beauty as well as the ugliness of Mr. Yasin? What a contrast!
“Sign this.”
I was standing. There were two chairs in front of the detective’s table. My legs were exhausted. For the first time I was conscious of the pain in my leg. I had been on my feet since I left my residence. I hadn’t dared ask if I might sit down, for fear of angering the furious detective and to avoid precipitating the flow of more insults from his mouth. I stretched out my hand to accept the case file, but the officer looked alertly toward the door, which opened then. At once he stood up respectfully to welcome his visitor. He smiled, extended his hand in greeting, and shook the man’s hand warmly. I don’t know what the distinguished man in his fifties said to him in French. His suit was navy blue, and his tie had blue and white stripes. He was plump but not enough to diminish his elegance and grace. Then he turned to me and surprised me with something that I could not have imagined, even if I had brooded for an entire month! He held out his hand to me, shook my hand, bowed amicably, and then left.
At that moment the detective turned to me, smiling. His expression had changed to calm sociability. He opened his eyes with interest and said, “Destiny has rescued you, Mr. al-Sharqi. Please forgive me. Goodbye.”
I left the room incredulous, wondering what had caused this miracle. As soon as I closed the door quietly behind me, I was shocked to Maryam with al-Qadiri and al-Khitabi rush toward me, delightedly, praising God, and hugging me. I asked them, “What’s happened? I don’t understand anything.
The grocer cried out: “The judge saved you! He heard everything that happened through the window. We didn’t expect him to intervene.”