Translated from the Arabic (Tunisia) by Ali Znaidi
I suddenly felt the need to write down memories that resurfaced in my dreams. People and customs that had disappeared, gnawed away by time, and bygone village ceremonies that I witnessed as a child now inhabited my grandparent's place; night after night, they broke into the house to visit me in my sleep, apparitions that steered me from bewilderment towards remembering.
A girl born in the capital, who during the holidays goes back to the village to spend a few days with her grandparents.
I look at a photo of me when I was that girl.
Now I stand outside the front door of that house. I can't find my grandfather. Nor can I find my grandmother, who went to Mecca one day for the pilgrimage and never came back.
The familiar faces have left the old house, but it is filled again with childhood smells: lumps of leaven-fermented dough lying beneath a cloth before being stuck flat against the inner walls of the tabouna and coming out ghanai bread; fresh milk as it is squeezed from the cow's udder; hens scratching at the soil and laying eggs; and the house crammed with villagers coming to visit, morning and afternoon. A story had been crouching between the four walls of this house and in my head since childhood, hidden in the unlit corners of my memory.
I open every door, looking for the people called up by my latest dreams, who are part of the village surrounding me. There are scents of henna, of hair dying and tattooing herbs and potions. I remember the widow's daughter, whose wedding-eve celebrations the villagers agreed to fund. She was to be married to a man who lived abroad. Caught up as he was in his overseas trade, he wouldn't arrive until the day of the wedding, just in time to sign the marriage papers. Then he would whisk her away from the village and its people, and from their infatuation with the story of the wolf man. He would take her to the city of light.
Every villager knew about the wolf man who abducted young virgins. The men who guarded the fields held guns at the ready but never managed to aim a shot at him. He was too cautious. He took his prey by surprise and dragged her to a high place. So said the old women, making all those who heard their words shiver. The wolf man would appear in the guise of a handsome man dressed in a fur coat, a French colonist killed by Fellagha combatants whose spirit had stayed behind. The sheep never tempted him; he howled and seduced the young village women. Then his howls faded, and he grew hungry for forbidden flesh. The villagers worried not for their cattle and fields but for their young women, who fell pregnant and gave birth to wolf-like babies. They never dared mention the name of the wolf man who still roamed the slopes of the mountain, hunting for young women on their way back from a day's work in the fields or crossing the mountain road.
The young girl remembers the sweet seller who surprised the village children on rare visits. He came on that colourful carriage, filling children's dreams with the taste of doll-shaped sweets. They melted, sticky on the children's lips. She bought a piece as the others had. Then she went into the guest room in her grandparents' house where a visitor was nursing her baby. Sugar melted in the girl's mouth and milk flowed into the baby as he clutched at his mother's breast. Dreams embroidered with poppies and wild herbs flowedwithout pause, colouring her lips with the flower of childhood.
A girl haunted by the spectre of that man, who appeared whenever the children gathered around the sweets seller.
In their innocence, the children failed to grasp what his piercing gaze concealed, and the reason he bought sweets as they did. The taste of sugar still lingers on his tongue. The baby still clutches at his motherǯs breast, suckling the warm milk. The breast seduces him. And my pen steams with the pleasure of suckling on language, which lures me with its hidden secrets.
I see in his gaze the wolf man that old people describe. No sooner does a young woman cross a mountain slope than he attacks her and holds her down until she goes limp. He devours what is delightful in her, then runs to the heights and howls like an ever-hungry man.
This piece is published in full in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
Houyem Ferchichi is a Tunisian writer. She is the author of several short story collections, including The Scene and the Shadow, and The Secret Tattoos.
Ali Znaidi lives in Redeyef, Tunisia. He is the author of several chapbooks, the latest of which is Mathemaku x5 (Spacecraft Press, 2015).