My Friend the Cat
I failed to convince anyone of what I saw. They didn't believe me and they didn't take what I said seriously. In attempting to save my friend from an unusual ordeal - an ordeal that seemed miraculous or nature's decision to reshape itself and to merge its creations to reproduce them in new forms - I risked being accused of mental imbalance and having the sobriety my actions questioned. People became very suspicious of me.
“How can that be?"
"The man must have gone mad, or he has a few screws loose to believe things that can’t possibly happen."
"He’s probably upset with his friend and wants to offend him."
"Their friendship was obvious to us all ever since we've known him."
"He's just jealous of his artist friend's success, that's why he's spreading these lies about him.”
That's all I heard from everyone in the village ever since my friend disappeared.
Here I stand. I’m the one to blame. I’m the one accused. Here I am falling victim to the utterances of my tongue because I told of what I saw. The only fact they believed, and for which they found no explanation, was the sudden disappearance and reappearance of that black cat.
Dear reader, I hope you'll believe me. I lost hope of finding anyone who will take this story of mine seriously, so I decided to write this letter to bear witness to the truth after my death and as proof of my innocence of a crime I didn’t commit. If you can find an explanation to what you're about to read, please help me rationalise what happened, or else put this letter back where you found it.
I'm not sure where you are exactly. You're probably near the shores of Al Hawa River, where Al Louz River ends, or somewhere else along the edge of the river. As for me, I'm in a village opposite the flow of Al Louz River. That's where I found this bottle into which I slipped this letter. There are almond trees along the entire border of my village, Al Balata. If you want to help me, ask for the idiot.
People in my village, Al Balata, and in its surrounding villages, have been known to seek out the exceptional amongst them for company and to keep themselves entertained by gossiping about these people during their free time.
Fadwa, the beautiful divorcee with a large, firm bosom, changed into a prostitute in their eyes just because one autumn night she met, quite by chance, one of the village young men by the north road. His name was Nidal Al Thour. He was known for his overflowing manhood, and everyone knew that no girl within his line of vision was spared his harassment.
And there's "Abu Jad" who became the village poet. After returning from obligatory military service and before marrying his cousin, and ever since he uttered a couplet of poetry at his brother’s wedding, he became the companion of the village elders.
As for the lame "Abu Jalil", the village hero and protector, he claims that he got his limp from a fight with a hyena in one of the alleys. The fight, he insists, lasted a full day and ended with him skinning the hyena, of course. And so it was that he became the wise man, the storyteller, the artist and the beggar.
Another thing about my village is that we don't have your typical village idiot for people to make fun of, swear at or curse, or use to spread rumours in the village. So the search for our village idiot became an absolute necessity.
Every man in the village lived in fear of becoming that anticipated person. So everyone became very polite, acted rationally and uttered thoughtful and calculated words. They held many meetings, they spoke of the prudence of their thought and the wisdom of their action - and everyone agreed.
I hope you don’t get easily bored. I hope you don't throw this letter away in disinterest. I feel compelled to explain the nature of the people of the village. If you don’t want to help, please put the letter back in the empty bottle you hold in your hands right now. Close it well and throw it back into the river; I might find someone else who will help me.
Anyway, I will go on:
What distinguished me personally was that my friend Hammam was the village sculptor. My strong friendship with him confirmed my wisdom and my sanity to everyone. The astonishing and impressive mud sculptures that he created increased their respect and appreciation of me. I used to collect the clay for him from the bottom of this river and he would turn the clay into small statues of the village elders.
I know that everything I say may seem very ordinary and quite commonplace, but my story starts here. The incident that occurred, and to which I was the only witness, turned everything upside-down. One day one of the men in Al Balata, my village, had a visitor. He stayed for several days. He was accompanied by a large and strange black cat. As usual, the villagers paid a great deal of attention to the guest, and he was invited to many dinners and evening gatherings.
The visitor's black cat caught everyone’s attention. It feared everything around it, and its fear of everything it landed its eyes on made it seem very strange and suspicious.
Sometimes it would be found on the edge of rooftop, hiding. Or it would be up an electricity pole. Other times it would climb a tall tree and hide out of sight, and no matter from which angle you tried to look at it, you'd only see half its black body and its fearful, glistening eyes.
My friend Hammam's curiosity was excited. He wanted to find out what that cat was all about. He started observing the cat wherever it went, discreetly, so as not to scare it away. I, in my turn, observed them both.
The incident happened in the middle of the fifth night after the arrival of the guest with the black cat. That night the moon was full and its light shone bright. I went to my friend's house wanting to spend the rest of the evening with him. I took the long alley. It was quiet. Halfway through down the alley, near one of the empty passages, I found Hammam standing rigid, looking up. The moonlight was bright enough for me to see what he was looking at. It was the fearful cat, frozen on the edge of a rooftop, gazing back at my friend with glistening eyes.
The silence between them intensified. The scene seemed astonishing; my friend and the cat. All I could see at that moment was their eyes. One pair searching, exploring, the other fearful, cautious. Suddenly the cat's tail stiffened high in the air and its charcoal black fur stood on end. It let out a loud 'meow' as if uttering a last warning or announcing the start of a fight. It leapt toward my friend who remained motionless, eyeing it challengingly. During these moments which seemed like hours, their eyes got closer and closer until they touched. Then the black cat disappeared completely.
I saw it, I swear. I saw it enter my friend through his eyes. It disappeared behind them and settled in his head. It didn't escape, I'm sure. They didn't clash or fight. Had that happened and had the cat lost, I would have seen it. What confirmed what I saw was my friend's condition. He remained still, eyes wide open in silence, and then he fled as soon as he felt my presence near him when I rushed forward to try to help him.
In the following days, everyone got involved in searching for the cat, in honour of their guest who decided to leave nonetheless. He was certain that the cat abandoned him to start its own family away from him.
During that time I hesitated to disclose my secret; what I saw. Who will believe me and take my words seriously? They'll surely call me crazy. How can a cat enter a man's head and settle there, without causing any cuts or leaving any marks on his face?
I searched for a way to tell them what I saw, a way that would save both me and my friend. I decided to tell the village mayor about the changes in Hammam. How he has become fearful. How he was in a constant state of panic. How he was cautious of everything around him. How he no longer wished to talk to anyone. How he observed everything guardedly. And how, lately, he seemed to like high, often dangerous places.
"Yes, yes. Now I remember seeing him climbing the pigeon coup north of the village. I scolded him and warned him that he might fall. But he ignored me. He just shrugged and went on climbing,” volunteered someone attending the village meeting.
“Me, too, I saw him run away from the village dog; petrified for no reason,” someone else said.
Everyone was surprised by what they had just heard. This encouraged me to continue with my attempts at persuading them to help Hammam without raising their resentment toward me.
“Didn’t you notice changes in his behaviour? Did you know that I once saw him eating a raw piece of meat he found on the ground near his house?” I said.
“What does this mean?” someone asked.
“You mean .. you mean he became a ...??”
After telling them the facts of the incident, I could see doubt creeping into their eyes whenever they looked at me.
My friend Hammam isolated himself at home; he refused to see anyone. He closed all his windows, he locked all his doors. He sealed every opening in his house except for a small hole high up in one the walls of his room; he climbed a long wooden ladder and peered at the villagers from this hole.
Increasingly, everyone looked at me with great doubt. It seemed that the village men found what they were looking for and I became the village idiot. They found an explanation to my story by saying that artists have their mood swings, and that all he wanted was to be left alone and far from noise. They even went as far as accusing me of being prejudice and unjust, and of being jealous of him.
Whispers and innuendos about me intensified and I fell into the trap.
Dear reader, what happened next is of no less importance, for within twenty days I became an idiot and my friend became a cat.
Meantime, a fetid smell wafted from my friend Hammam's house, no one visited him anymore. The smell was so offensive and putrid that it prompted the villagers to hold an urgent meeting to deliberate the issue of his isolation and the smell coming out of his house. They decided after the meeting to break into the house. With our collective force, we broke the door. We all rushed in to find Hammam a lifeless body on the floor near the wooden ladder. The strangest thing we saw was that black cat, it was circling my friend's body, then it fled from the opening in the wall when it saw us.
What angers me the most is not that I was accused of being an idiot, but that I was accused of killing my friend Hammam. So I became the idiot killer.
They’re coming into my cell to interrogate me. I can’t continue to write this letter any more. If you’d like to help me, I’m in the village prison overlooking the river. Just ask for the idiot killer.
Translation by: Fadwa Al Qasem