On the Step of a Bookstore
by Alia Al Zaabi
Nara waded through the tranquil waves with her arms stretched out. The tip of her fingers glided on the surface of the water, barely
breaking the barrier. It would be high tide soon, so she didn’t have to go far. Squeezing her eyes and scrunching her nose, she dunked beneath the water and begun scrubbing at her scalp. Deeb had casually mentioned he had lice, that was right after he let her try on his new hat, the little shit. He had nicked it the day before, and it was a nice hat, just a tad too big for their heads. Nara lifted her head above the water and started scrubbing the filth from her shift as best she could. It was woolen, which made it itchy. It was also too short for her, reaching her shins. Sara had given it to her before she left them. She’d found a job as a maidservant to a merchant’s wife. That was the last she’d seen of her.
Nara decided to take another dunk. She stayed underwater for a while, wondering what it would feel to drown. She rose up and took a
breath just as a wave smacked into her face. The seawater burned through her nostrils and found its way to the back of her throat. She coughed her way back to shore.
* * *
It was around midmorning by the time she reached her usual spot, the bookstore. It was a few streets away from where she’d rather be, the market, but that was the older kids’ territory. She’d gotten a kick to her behind one too many times to know not to linger there for too long. Nara wasn’t much for stealing anyway, she was better at begging. Mariam had once remarked that she had the face for it: huge eyes and sad eyebrows. She also liked to maintain a clean and tidy appearance so as not to repulse her customers. Hence, why she had been scrubbing her hair earlier: lice were bad for business.
The street wasn’t particularly busy at the moment. It had a coffee place, a run-down inn, a bakery that had closed down long ago, and the bookstore. Suffice it to say it wasn’t a popular place, but it was a part of one of the main routes from the market to the villas, whose occupants were her main targets. The women would usually pay her no mind and pull their children closer to them, sometimes muttering something about filthy street urchins. Those women who did pay her mind were the most generous of her customers, handing her a handful of coins, or enough food to fill her belly up. Sometimes, if she were lucky, she’d get a pat on the head and a kind word…but those were rare. The men were easier, she assumed the ones who gave in to her were fathers. Nara just needed to make eye contact, once she had it, it was all over for them...well, most of the time... In that instant she’d quiver her lips, stare into their souls with her huge brown eyes, before looking down and hunching into herself as if she were cold (which was unlikely in this hot, humid weather). Nevertheless, they’d yield, and toss her a coin or a morsel of food. Some had become immune to her charms and would look the other way as they passed her. Others would nod hello but walk briskly past before she could ask for a handout. It was a precarious business.
Nara shook out her blanket (it had slid off a merchant’s camel, and she’d swiped it without anyone noticing) and laid it near the step before she settled down. Hani had his door open, but it didn’t seem like he had any customers inside. The bookstore and its owner were in the same shape: incredibly old but still quite sturdy. He tried to shoo her away the first few times he found her begging near his store, but gave up when he recognized Nara’s defiant nature. It was either that, or he felt sorry for her. Nara preferred to believe the former. He didn’t pay her much attention anymore. Sometimes he’d give her a sidelong glance when he stepped out, but that was it. He never talked to her, not even when he sat outside, book in one hand, his afternoon tea in the other. He’d take out his stool, his latest book under his arm, and place it about a meter away from her, on the other side of the steps. He’d nod to Salem from across the street, and one of his coffee boys would appear soon thereafter with a hot cup of tea. Sometimes, he’d mutter a thanks, while handing his coin, but he usually liked to keep quiet as Nara observed. That was how the past few weeks had passed by for Nara, mostly in silence.
By midday, her hair had long dried from her morning swim, and it was beginning to frizz out in all directions. Besides one or two passersby, the street was empty. Most had retreated back to their shops or homes to avoid the sun beating down on their heads. Thankfully, Nara had chosen a shady spot. She had gotten a decent breakfast from a kind old woman and a few coins from some others and was now feeling quite drowsy.
Nara woke up with a start to the sound of a stool scraping the ground. She thought she heard the sound of muffled laugher, but found Hani engrossed in his book. She must have stared for a little too long, because he returned her stare.
“What is it? Are you interested in the title of my book? I suppose you can’t read…it’s a curious account of our city, some three hundred years back.”
Nara’s mouth was left hanging in shock. She fumbled for words, but couldn’t come up with a reply. The old man had spoken to her!
Her shock seemed to amuse him, and there was a glint in his eyes as he quipped, “didn’t take you for a mute.
“I’m not a mute!” She glared at him. “And for your information I can read.” She crossed her arms and turn her head away from him with a “Hmph!”
“Is that right? Then you’d be able to tell me the title, wouldn’t you?”
He was baiting her; she wasn’t sure if she should grace him with a reply after his insult. Her hesitation seemed to confirm his suspicions, “Knew it, you’re just another street urchin. You lot need to be gathered up and put in an orphanage…poor souls... Maybe then you’ll get a decent education.” She swiveled her head, glowering at him. He ignored her and started to get up, motioning over to one of Salem’s boys, to come take his cup.
“Sand beneath our feet.”
Poor Hani nearly tripped over his own stool, “What?”
“That’s the title of your book” Nara stood up dusting herself off and gathered up her bundle. She needed to get back to the others anyway, it was beginning to get dark.
“Wait.” Hani regarded her with a new look in his eye, almost like a fisherman inspecting his latest catch. Nara stared back coolly. She was gauging whether or not she was in safe territory anymore. The others warned her to steer clear of any adults who took too much interest in her.
He hesitated, “Won’t you come in for a minute?”
“Why?” She asked suspiciously. “I need to get going, besides I’m just another beggar, aren’t I?”
His eyes widened a little at that. “Then… just wait a minute….” He disappeared inside for more than a minute. Nara heard something fall and a quiet “ow.” Nara looked at the evening sun and started to shuffle her feet nervously. She didn’t like the dark. It was a pitch-black night when she was thrown out from her own home. The plague had taken everyone. A distant relative had come to lay claim to the house. It was mostly a blur to her, she couldn’t remember his face, she was too caught up in grief at the time. He told her she was probably going to die from it soon anyway. No use giving it to him as well. So, she left those steps that night, and she never looked back.
Hani chose at that moment to shuffle out of his store and down the two steps. He was deep in thought as he scrutinized a small, leather-bound book, which he held tightly with his withered old hands. Seemingly reaching a conclusion, he nodded to himself, “Yes I think this will do.” He strode over to Nara rather quickly, causing her to flinch involuntarily. Too intent on his mission, he didn’t take notice of her reaction, and handed her the book. Nara accepted it reflexively. “Take care of this, will you?” She opened her mouth to reply, but he had disappeared back into his store, before she could muster up a word.
Confused at this exchange, she wondered if she should follow him inside. What did he mean take care of it? Nara faltered. She hadn’t been inside a building in almost two years. Was she even allowed in? She looked at the sun anxiously. She needed to go. She’ll just hand it back to him tomorrow, when he comes to sit outside. Nara gathered up the book closer to her chest before dashing off in a sprint. If she looked back, she might have seen Hani peeking at her from the doorway, a smile tugging at his lips.
* * *
“What you got there?” Deeb peered over her shoulder, his prized red hat almost falling to his nose.
“It’s a book, old man Hani gave it to me” she swatted him away like a fly, “I told you to get away from me, you’re gonna give me lice.” He gave her a dejected look before shuffling closer to Mariam who was tending to their small fire. Nara rolled her eyes; he was the runt of the pack and expected extra attention because of it.
“Why’d he do that for?” Mariam looked confused; she was the oldest of the four. Nara wondered when she’d leave them too.
“Told him I could read.” She leafed through the pages. It was Layla and the Wolf. Her father had read it to her once.
“Can you really?” Deeb looked excited. He glanced to the book, then to her face, then to the book again. “Do it.” He said it in a way that reminded her of a dog being commanded to sit.
“What’s the point?” Ali said from the corner of their little alley. They had chosen a secluded spot away from any adults that liked to wander around at night. “You should just go sell it, it’ll be worth more to us that way” Ali liked to think of himself as their leader since he was ‘the practical one’ as he put it. They usually ignored him.
“That’s true, but if Nara can really read it, then we’ve found some entertainment for the night.” Mariam winked at her, “Go on.”
“Alright, alright,” Nara sighed as she flipped to the first page, she hoped she didn’t fumble over her words too much. Her father had been a scribe, that, and an excellent teacher, she didn’t want to disappoint him…Well he was dead, so it didn’t really matter… Still, she was nervous, maybe she just didn’t want to disappoint herself... She saw Ali sneak a little closer from the corner eye. Nara took a slow breath and read to her companions, as a parent would read to their children, offering them comfort in their lonely little world.