The Stench

by Ashraf Osman

Stories by Ashraf Osman
The Stench
© Ashraf Osman 2003 -2023

A dead rat lay at the bottom of the stairs. You could barely see it standing here at the top of the flight, but you could definitely smell it. Oh, you could smell its sickening sweet stench from the end of the street! Well, almost. The electricity was out. It won’t be back until noon. But the loading dock at the other end was open, and it let some light in. Light that barely made its way to this side here, but ah well, it was enough to make out the fuzzy little outline of the decaying rodent below.

Was it the stench that reminded you of those days? Or was it just the sight of the ‘shelter’ again. It was no shelter, in fact. At least it wasn’t intended as one. It was supposed to be the basement of a hospital building. You know, where they have all the surgery rooms and stuff. Supposed to… Except that the hospital building never became a hospital. Well, not until now. After all, with the economic crash of eighty-three and the war raging on, who but the warlords could have afforded funding a hospital? And your father was no warlord. Oh no. Far from it. Far far from it. And you admired him for that, didn’t you? In any case, the dream was halted. Halted midway. In fact you all thought it was put to sleep forever. And people started coming up with ideas for it. "It’s a frozen investment that way. It’s frozen money, wasted money. And were you somebody else you could probably afford wasting money. But not you. Not now at least. You need every penny you can get your hands on.” Yes, you did. And so your dad succumbed to reality after all. The poor man fought hard enough for his dream, I tell you. He fought long and valiantly. And you admired him for it, right? Well, it was time to wake up now and smell the stench, no pun intended. And so he did. After all these years that the building laid there, a skeleton of a dream, literally, it was time to give it a new life. Milk it for the direly needed cash. At least he didn’t give up the idea of the dream, that it be a hospital. It won’t be his hospital, but it will be one nevertheless. At least in that he could cling on to some of the remnants of an integrity that was getting harder to maintain by the minute.

And so the equipment people were coming in today to check the place out. You know, see what it needs, take measurements, bla bla bla. They will never be able to see in this darkness. They will have to wait till noon. A flashlight is enough for your purposes, but not theirs. You walk down the stairs, kick the rat away with the side of your faded Dockers, as if that would remove the stench. In the blurred circle of light the flashlight cast you could see the first of it, and you could almost hear the Katyuchas whizzing again. You raise the hazy spot of light, and it only gets hazier. But in its distant faded light, and the diffused light from the other end of the hallway you could see all the doorways lined up as if in a funeral procession. It’s funny how you can still remember whose room each was. This lineup of doorless doorways was a miniature of the street above in those years. Here was Jameeleh’s room, and then Imm-Faris’s. Those two were never empty, even in the longest of cease-fires. It seems to you now that they have lived the whole war underground. You never saw anyone more afraid for their lives, more afraid. Each shot was a small death for them. And then farther away was the room of the Rajihs, and then the Sukkars from across the street, and on the other side the Mouqdads, the Hatoums, and the Abou El-Najas. And the names went on and on as if etched above the unfaced concrete doorways. But they were only etched in your head. Some things time just can’t erase; isn’t it so funny that those would be amongst them? And there at the end was your family’s room, still with the curtains in the doorway, and the rusted skeletons of the beds inside, and the ‘closet’ (open iron shelving), and even the dark flame marks of the candles in the corners. Remember how proud you were when you were able to perfect the ‘technique’ of sticking a candle in the corner? First you get a lit candle, and you melt the sides of your candle with it, and quickly stick it in the rough concrete corner and hold it there until the molten wax gets rigid again. Ah, you forget once more to dust the corner first; there’s no way in hell your candle is going to stick to concrete that dirty! The black marks were all over the rooms, like blue marks of insulin shots all over the body of a diabetic. It will take some work to get them off: some sanding, and quite a few layers of paint, but everything can be removed with enough determination. Even the black marks of the candles.

And there, next door, was her room. You wonder where she is now, conscious all the time of the tacky romantic sweep of your recollection. You cherish the moment, the wishy-washiness of it, with all your heart. But you turn around; you don’t really care where she is right now, or how she’s doing. She’s probably married off somewhere. And besides, what would she think if she knew you’re ‘not into girls’ anymore? That would be funny, wouldn’t it?

A squeak, a scratch on the dusty terrazzo floor, a rat scampers across the hallway and disappears into the darkness, into the gray wall it seems. You shriek, like a high school girl. And then you notice how dirty the floor is; the dust is so thick it is cracking under your feet. You can’t make the pattern on the terrazzo anymore; you just project it onto the dust from your memory. Well, at least the floors are finished.

And at the end of the hallway are the stairs leading to the lower floor, reserved for when things got ‘really bad’. You smile, you scoff off the dust of war logic in your head, and proceed downstairs. The steps are lit from the open loading deck above. You pause, look up, and the see the sky, ridiculously clear, a silly blue that only the giddy Mediterranean skies seem to be capable of. You smile again, that one-sided smile. It was under this same sky… And now life goes on as if it never happened. The only remaining traces of it seem to be here underground, packed into rooms where the air is still thick with the sweet stench of it. You clear the steps with the sides of your Dockers again, a piece of wood with rusted nails poking through falls off the side of the stairs to the ground below with a muffled clank. You could kill somebody with this thing.

Below the rooms are bigger, the proper ‘operation rooms’. And the air is much cooler. That’s the point after all, you think, it is much easier to cool this place down to those freezing op room temperatures. And it is much darker somehow, even though the same light from the loading dock is penetrating it. But inside the huge vacant room, it is only the light from your green Eveready flashlight that you can feel. The rooms are so empty, and somehow feel much smaller. They used to feel immense then, with the whole neighborhood huddled in, and stacks of mattresses near the wall. You can still hear the crackle of the news from your grandpa’s little black radio transistor. You never made out what they were saying, but it always sounded ominous. Now you can’t bear the sight of one of those cheap little things. You close your eyes. The sounds, the clank of pieces of dhama on the corrugated cardboard, the twitter of women’s incessant gossip, and the ramble of children playing on the mattress piles. It is funny how underneath it all you could still hear the fear of the silent. And then a loud thunderous "Whooosh!” above ground shakes the place, makes the cold ground underneath your asses squirm. "It’s New Jersey!” Rabih identifies it, as if anybody could mistake the distinct sound of the American barge in action. Siham huddles Nisreen close, shutting her daughter’s ears tightly in anticipation of the big blast. And the stench of the mloukhiyyeh stew simmering somewhere in the corner on a camping stove fills your lungs. It infiltrates into your blood stream, makes you hungry again.

You walk out. Go to the other big room. That is where your aunt’s family was, amongst the rest of the neighborhood. You never understood why she had to be in another room. You feel that incessant low-key fear in your guts again growing into panic. "What… What if…?!” Nothing will happen, mom. Calm down.

The lights come on, flood the room, shrinking it even more. You forgot that you’d turned the main switch for the shelter on before you came down in case the electricity came back. It must be noon. The light blinds you. It takes you a while to adjust to it again. You look around, but you don’t like it down here anymore. You hurry back up. You almost stumble on that piece of wood you kicked off the stairs. That was a near miss! Careful! But you hurry back up, gasping for air, the stench of the mloukhiyyeh and dead rats filling your lungs. You scramble up the steps into the dizzying light of the sun. You stoop, catch your breath, straighten up, inhale some fresh warm air. Hold it in. And let it out slowly. It’s no use. Nothing can efface that smell from your nostrils. Maybe you should go to the beach, it’s a nice day, and would be getting too hot to bear out of the water. That should calm you down. Put your mood right again. Yes, the blue sea, the warm sand… Yes, that should do it. 

Ashraf Osman

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