By: Aadel M Al-Mahdy
“God Gracious, have mercy on him!” the words came out of my mouth in staccato whisper while my fingernails cut through the skin of my palms. A pregnant woman held her distended abdomen in pain. An old man fell to the ground unconscious. A little girl hiding behind her mother shook like a dry leaf in the wind. People stood riveted, stunned by the scene; fear blanching their faces.
It was mid-day. The carded-cotton-like clouds moved slowly to the horizon, and burnt in the sun, the sugar cane leaves twisted into little cork screws. Tops of sparse palm trees looked like unkempt hair of an aged woman. At the top of a palm tree was a man; his eyes glazing and bulging, his dried-date tongue parting his swollen lips and his forehead beaded by glittering sweat. Around him coiled a dreadful serpent; its body massive and its head swinging violently. Its mouth opened to bare its fangs and forked tongue.
“God, look at its tail hitting the tree trunk!” breaking the silence, someone exclaimed. “I bet you, Hollywood cannot produce such a scene!” a man wearing an elegant suit interrupted. “The man is dying. Someone must do something to save him” an old woman begged the crowd.
Screams were heard, and a woman was seen stumbling down the road. “That’s Reem, Abu-Ismael’s wife. Stop her otherwise her screams will kill her husband. The serpent will be irritated” ” someone said. “Ignoramus, snakes have no eardrums” the elegantly dressed man whispered to himself. I glared at him while two men pulled the poor woman away and commanded her to be silent. “What are we going to do now” someone asked. The elegantly dressed man answered immediately, “I know what to do” ─ everybody looked at him, but he continued, looking into the desperate faces “I know someone living on the western bank of the river. He is a good shot. I am sure he will help”
"I would not recommend him. He is a bastard and would not care less unless he is getting a big portion of interest in his favor” a university student interjected. “Mind your language, young man! Haven’t you learned any manners at school” someone snapped angrily. But gripping firmly a history book under his arm, the student answered, “I have, and history as well”
“Calm down folks! There’s another alternative” a saddle-nosed man interrupted; his eyes and mustache looked Mongolian. People looked at him with pleading faces.
“I know of a man living on the eastern bank of the river. He would not claim much in return, and if you tell him that you are thinking of seeking help from the western bank dweller, he may do the job for next to nothing”
“I know him, too, and he is worse than the other one” the university student cried, but his voice was stifled by the sound of hooves clopping down the road.
Astride his beautifully saddled horse, the village mayor rode into view; his chief sentry running in his trail in a cloud of hooves’ stirred dust. A murmur rippled through the crowd.
“When did such a serpent come to the village?” the mayor asked, appraising the desperate situation carelessly. “Once upon a time, mayor” the university student said; his voice was sarcastic. The mayor glared at him, but the student continued, “It was smaller at the time. We fought it bear-handed, but we failed to kill it. We then cried out for help, but you did not respond. You were up to your ears absorbed into your own affairs”
“How dare you talk to the mayor like that?” the chief sentry said pushing the student on the shoulder. The crowd roared, and a huge man held the chief sentry firmly by the shoulder and yelled, “If you ever do that again, I’ll break your nick”
“Let me kill the bastard right now” someone pushed forward wielding his rod, but a white-bearded man intervened, “Calm down, folks! Arguing and fighting with each other never solved a problem. Does it matter now who is responsible? Right now all we have to do is unite, be of one heart, of one mind and think of a way out. Neither east nor west, or north or south is going to help us unless we help ourselves”
Some people moaned and some other shouted, but someone cried happily, “There he is someone from among us coming down the road” ─ All people turned eagerly to see a man heading to the scene. He wore a traditional garment, patched but clean. His nose was straight and sharp like the edge of a sword. Thick eyebrows shaded his grief-stricken eyes. His beard was as white as freshly blossomed cotton flowers. He was definitely old but still as strong and tall as a mast of a ship. “I heard of the incident, so I came to offer my help” he solemnly said.
“That’s Abdul-Aleem, a killer, blood-feud people use to hire” my friend whom I came to visit whispered into my ear. “But I heard he quit since cancer killed his only son” I whispered back. “That’s right” My friend said. “Save the man and I’ll give you any amount of money you ask, Abdul-Aleem” a rich man said. But Abdul-Aleem said, “I am not interested in your money. My bullet may miss and kill Abu-Ismael. Would you then claim for my blood?” The rich man said, “On behalf of everybody, I know you’ll do your maximum best. If you miss, we will then accept it as God’s will and God be my witness, no one will blame you”
Abdul-Aleem then asked for a rope which he wrapped around himself and the palm tree’s trunk that stood opposite to Abu-Ismael palm tree. Carrying his rifle on his shoulder, Abdul-Aleem climbed the tree until he reached a parallel point. He then took his gone off his shoulder and aimed.
The serpent hung its head in the air in front of Abu-Ismael’s face; its tongue frightfully appearing and disappearing, and then retreated with its mouth widely opened and its fangs totally erected. The serpent then swooped forward, but at that exact moment, Abdul-Aleem fired his gun. The headless reptilian body uncoiled and hit the ground. Someone climbed the tree and helped Abu-Ismael climb down the tree.
“Water, water” Abu-Ismael whispered as soon as he reached the ground. But soon after he had a few sips of water, his head dropped on his shoulder. Cries rippled through the crowd and Reem throw herself on her husband wailing.
Firmly squeezing my friend’s hand, I whispered to him, “God may have mercy on all of us! It is as if I haven’t come to visit you, but to walk in Abu-Ismael’s funeral”.