Read time: 9 mins

Behind the Casuarina Trees

by Farah Abey
24 August 2020

Translated from Arabic by Katharine Halls

Over the years, Maryam and her father stopped at all the villages which neighboured the country estate owned by her grandfather, ‘Abd Rabbo. But they never stopped at the village of Kafr al-Walga on their monthly trips to visit Grandfather. It didn’t occur to her to ask her father why they avoided that particular village. It seemed to her that it must be simply a coincidence which over time became habit. But when her father stopped at the village on their last visit, she was surprised, as if some unspoken agreement had been broken.

From inside the car, she pointed at the roof of one of the houses of Kafr al-Walga. ‘Dad, look!’

There were five dogs standing motionless on the roof, staring down with eyes that bulged out of their sockets. The dogs were looking at them.

Her father didn’t pay much attention. ‘Do they mummify dogs here or something?,’ he replied absently. ‘Maybe they’re statues, Maryam.’ They pulled up a little further ahead, on an empty plot in front of some houses. Her father always liked to ask what local produce there was for sale whenever they stopped at a village. No sooner had they got out of the car than the dogs began to move. They leapt down from the rooftop. Maryam realised suddenly that they weren’t just dogs. There were dogs, bears, crocodiles, birds of prey, all gathered into a single flock, and they were coming closer. She screamed and reached for her father’s arm, but there was nothing there.

‘Don’t be scared!’, he called out to her from one of the surrounding rooftops. Maryam was stupefied. ‘How did he get onto the roof?’

‘Spray them with water,’ her father screamed, ‘Spray them—’ His scream was cut off.

She grabbed a hose that lay on the ground, watering a garden somewhere nearby, and pointed at the attacking animals, who shrunk back. Terrified, she kept calling out to her father as she sprayed the water around. Her father had disappeared from the roof.

The animals refused to leave, and only the water was keeping them at bay. Without thinking, she dropped the hose and fled. She raced down a muddy track between the houses, looking all around for her father, until she realised that human footsteps, too, were following her. She turned to see five men with eyes that bulged from their sockets running after her. Panic made her run faster, but she realised that the ground was moving in the opposite direction beneath her feet. The ground delivered her to them without any effort on their part. They grabbed her and led her towards the women’s mosque, her shrieks echoing between the houses. Nobody in the village paid any attention, as if she was a spectre or a passing breeze. At the mosque, they handed her over to three young women and closed the door behind her.

The women were gathered quietly and humbly. Maryam noticed them bringing ropes and knives concealed under their dark robes. It looked as if some sacred ritual was being prepared. It struck terror into her heart, and she resolved once again to escape.

Their eyes, too, bulged from their sockets.

‘Where is my father?,’ she asked, each letter trembling inside her mouth, and began to edge towards the door so she could seize the first chance of escape.

‘The men killed him.’

She froze to the spot and screamed.

‘They caught your father and tied him up by the arms and legs. They took him to the box of the dead, behind the casuarina trees, and then they hung him. They put blue neon lights in the box. He looked beautiful, to tell you the truth. Praise the Lord!’

Maryam must never have known what terror felt like before that point. She screamed until her eyes bulged nearly as much as theirs, and she thrashed her arms and kicked out with her legs to push them away, then ran, but one of them caught her by the arm and pushed her immediately to the ground.

They forced her to lie flat on the ground, still screaming, then one of them took out a pair of red flip-flops, pulled Maryam’s shoes off, and put the flip-flops on her instead. Next they began to pull her trousers off. That was the last thing she expected. She asked them what they were doing, now more surprised than scared. ‘We’ll put you in the red flip-flops, and leave that orange t-shirt on you,’ they replied, smiles playing across their faces, ‘And take off the rest of your clothes. You’re going to look perfect in the box of the dead, behind the casuarina trees.’

Her strength left her completely when she realised she was going to follow her father. ‘Why do you want to kill us?,’ she sobbed, fear and tears furrowing her face like crooked knives. ‘Why?’

The question caught them off-guard. Their bulging eyes glinted and their youthful faces shone with exertion. They let go of the ropes with which they’d tied her up and sat down, legs crossed, around her, Maryam still lying half-naked before them in red flip-flops and her orange t-shirt. They all began to speak at the same time. None of them drowned out the others, and the sounds and letters didn’t overlap; they spoke in a harmonious chant in which the words were braided together in grace and balance.

‘A very, very, long time ago, the grandmothers of all the villages along the Nile used to gather each evening at dusk. When bellies were full of food, baskets were full of grains, and the earth was full of water, stories filled their souls. They sat in circles at the boundaries of their different villages, for each one to tell a story. A story provided a seed: the seed was sown in the ground, and later it would become a casuarina tree. Casuarina trees are tall and evergreen, and their leaves make a constant, distinctive sound. The trees were planted so that they would sing stories for the infants of the village after the grandmothers were dead.

‘Grandmothers of every village told stories. Grandmothers in the eastern villages told of the beautiful enchantress who killed their strongest men with a single call, and grandmothers in the western villages told of the hideous hag with long fingernails and terrifying hair who lived at the bottom of dark irrigation canals. Others told of boys who ate sawdust and turned into a tall wooden fence, which gobbled up flirtatious women by night, belching after their meal and making a sound which the villagers always thought was the croaking of the frogs in the canal.

‘Everyone told stories and planted seeds, and as the years went by the casuarina trees grew and told stories of their own, sending them whistling through the air to places far and wide. Everyone but the grandmothers of our village. They found nothing to tell at dusk each day. Nothing happened in our village. No women, beautiful or ugly, drowned our menfolk, no fences ate our young women. There was no killing, no theft, no unrest, no nothing. We were the happiest of villages. And we couldn’t stand that.

‘Rumours began to spread that our infants were born cursed with a dearth of stories. Suitors from neighbouring villages turned their backs on our young women. They did not know—as women should—how to tell stories to their husbands after they returned from work. Our children were shunned by the gaggles of children who played together, who rarely stopped telling stories of the adventures of the previous night.

‘Before the people of our village were disowned entirely, the eldest grandmothers decided that the village must fashion a story for itself. The village decided it must tell a tale, even though it was placid and unchanging.

‘The next day, the grandmothers of the next village over gathered in a circle as usual to plant their casuarina trees, but this time they made their circle tighter, to keep the grandmothers of our village away, for they were becoming a burden on their stories and their trees.

‘That very day, grandmothers from other villages were perplexed when they found a box for the dead in the place where they usually sat. Inside it was a dead man, a stranger, who was blue in the face and bore the marks of hanging around his neck. They were scared, and none disagreed that they had to flee: the killer might be close by.

‘Then, the grandmothers of our village appeared. They stood at the head of the box, tall and erect, their headwraps tied firmly around their heads. Now, they had a story.

‘That day, a casuarina tree was planted, and it later became the tallest tree of all, whose leaves rustled the most and whose branches were thickest and most abundant. That day, the grandmothers told the tale of the stranger who was killed by hanging in their village. The story captured everybody’s attention. They passed it on, and gave writs of recognition and obeisance to our grandmothers. The people of our village henceforth became masters of the storytelling circles, and the story took pride of place in every book of stories that recorded the history of the villages along the Nile.

‘The deeds of our ancestresses were passed on. The craft of fashioning a story in this way was inherited by generation after generation. The killers were given distinctive details to ensure that the story born would be exciting, that trees and tongues would pass it on. And yet…’

The young women didn’t notice as Maryam untied the ropes around her feet, preoccupied as they were with recounting the story of the first stranger who was killed so his flesh could be made into a story. She shifted, put her clothes back on, and crept towards the door, her feet pulled along by trepidation and vigilance.

Standing at the door to the mosque, she looked out at the road, the entire village shaking before her eyes with the force of the pounding of her heart. She could see the story flowing from the young women’s lips, covering over all the village’s utterances. The cries of the market trader faded away and fell into harmony. The animals seemed more docile for a moment. Infants stopped wailing. Something was happening in the village.

‘And yet…’ What Maryam had not heard was that the stories had ceased to be repeated by the people of the villages long, long ago. The curse of the dearth of stories had returned with ferocity, afflicting them as it had afflicted their ancestors. The dead bodies piled up until the channels of stories that ran between the fields were blocked, and the village’s land and soul dried up. It became a village of eyes that bulged from their sockets, a village that killed strangers to make a story that was never told.

To make a story that was never told.

But now that story had been released, unwittingly, by the young women, and the scales were upended. Something changed inside them. The young women felt the same primal pleasure in telling a story that their ancestresses had felt hundreds of years ago; they were intoxicated, severed from the world around them. They smiled, as if greeting a long-absent lover.

Maryam glanced around her, still fearful, and began to run away from the village; the animals saw her and the earth sensed her, and yet nothing moved to stop her. She looked into the eyes of the men and saw that they were as they should be, calm. They let her go. They needed a new story more than anything, before their appetite turned to the flesh of their bodies.

For the first time since their lips had felt the touch of a story, their next story would not be about a stranger they had killed in a strange way, but about the first stranger in hundreds of years that they had allowed to leave their village alive. And perhaps a casuarina tree would now grow in another place, to tell the people of faraway cities like the one where Maryam lived, about the peaceful village of Kafr al-Walga, where nothing ever happened.

Illustration by Karen Keyrouz

About the Author

Farah Abey

Farah Abey is an Egyptian writer, born in 1998, who graduated from the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University. She writes short stories and reviews books and films. Her work has featured in many popular Egyptian newspapers and magazines including Akhbar Aladab, El Masry Al Youm, Al Ahram gate, (Egyptian Minisrty of Culture publications: El Thaqafa El Gdida Magazine and Al Kahera Magazine), Al Maqal, Rosaelyoussef, Forga. Her short story ‘Everything is Fine’ has been translated into English and published in a collection named The Best Egyptian Short Stories 2019, edited by the travel writer Salwa El Hamamsy.