weekly (Another Night…) – 3

With a final forced intake of breath, he hooked his fingers expertly through the hole in the door left by the last thieves, who had found the only thing worth stealing in the entire apartment was the metal of the lock itself, and pulled it open.

Squeezing the breath he’d trapped in his chest, he forced himself as upright as he could be and stepped down the wood stairs as easily as any other man his age. He knew it was vanity, he knew it was all the more foolish for his appearance in a nightshirt and slippers, but he refused to give them any excuse. The only thing worse than fear was pity.

Tonight, however, he was rewarded for his efforts, as the younger half of the tribe of occupants in the apartment below pushed themselves up the stairs, arguing weakly and shoving one another. Steeling his face into aloof passivity, Manadan listened to their heavy passage, his palm, arm, and shoulder firmly against the wall.

Almost immediately, they silenced as one, though their grunts and whispers and tight breaths were as obvious as if they had hailed him directly and slapped him on the back in greeting. In a hesitant rush, they moved past him, the air between him and them moving the damp folds of his nightshirt, and piled into their apartment. As usual, before the door had shut behind them, the tireless mother was already shouting at them.

Manadan’s chest began to ache, but he kept the breath within. Twelve. Thirteen. Unlucky Fourteen. Landing.

On cue, Hazhi reared slightly and shook himself, gasping and stretching. A thin hissing slipped through the small space between the stairs and the rear door. As Manadan continued to breathe out in tight control, he tracked the descent of a drop of sweat down through his thinning hair, along his scalp, across the small open space of the back of his neck, and down into a fold of the nighshirt.

Hazhi settled down again and Manadan, emptied, breathed in once more. His limit was approaching. He pulled the door open, stepped down the two outer steps, and traced the rough side of the building nineteen paces through the silty, muddy earthen track that separated each of the tenement buildings in the Salah Al-Din Slums.

At nineteen, his effort squeezing tears from his blind eyes and pulling blood from the lip he was biting, he reached the rear corner. There, he paused for barely a moment; just long enough to listen for sounds of the privy in use.

It was a public bathhouse, designed to accommodate the tenants and slaves of the four buildings at each of its corners. Instead, it served those plus the block of twelve surrounding them. The perception of whether this grossly inadeuqate construction was the result of stunning, but unintentional, bureaucratic ignorance or genuine and calculated malice depended entirely upon whether one lived there or not.

Whatever the answer, the simple fact was, beyond the simple mathematics of its filth and the ensuing and perennial reek which could only be borne by those born to it, it was simply never empty. Nonetheless, each night, Manadan strained against this incontrovertible truth, this permanent fact, in the vain hope of a single moment of silent suffering.

Tonight, of course, was no different.

A pair of dirty children chased a dog out of the nearest entrance, shouting and threatening it. The dog’s heavy breath and lolling tongue passed in front of Manadan as he moved steadily for the entrance. The children’s shouts quieted, then turned to curses they hardly understood the meaning of, once they were well out of reach. Manadan ignored them, counting down the last steps of his journey.

Eleven. A hand on the door frame, slick in the heavy air and from the touch of five hundred hands a day for years on end.

Eight. A knuckle against the inner doorway to the stalls. Even so little a touch yielded some residue. Hazhi lifts off, hunting for a meal in the dark rafters.

Five. A knee beside the wide stone wash-basin, with its limpid gurgle of re-circulated well water passed down from the bathhouses further up.

Three. Filthy straw covers the mud but not the smell. A woman berates a man for drinking away the rent. The man shushes her as Manadan nears. The woman only grows angrier.

One. An empty seat without the embarassment of brushing against someone so exposed.

Sitting on the bench, tensed forward with his head in his hands, entirely a victim of his mortal failings, Manadan cried in pain and weakness and shame, his only solace the woman’s ceaseless screech and the shelter of its commonplace noise.