by Diaa Jubaili, trans. Chip Rossetti
Mahir was an odd girl. She only appeared at night to sell roses to lovers on the town’s riverfront walk. During the day, she turned into a butterfly that flittered through the gardens along the Shatt al-‘Arab river. Since she appeared only at night, tongues had begun weaving stories around her, until finally she became known as “the Night Girl.”
“Selling roses is just a front for her disgraceful profession!” said an out-of-work sailor, one of those people whose only job is slandering others while they sit in a scruffy coffeeshop along the riverbank, plucking hair out of their armpits. It was an accusation that Gharib the fisherman didn’t believe. Or rather he believed it, but “A friendly eye could never see such faults,” as Shakespeare has Cassius say. For the fisherman loved her. He was infuriated by the men who whistled and made eyes at her as they walked by, and by the sailors who tried to sweet-talk her onto their boats. But he knew that Mahir didn’t care about any of that.
One day, Gharib decided to declare his love to her. He thought that bringing her a gift would serve his purpose and have a magical effect on her. He thought about getting her some kohl, because, ever since the first time he caught sight of her, he had never seen her wear kohl on her eyes. But he wouldn’t do something like that unless he first knew more about Mahir, such as where she disappeared to during the day, where she lived, and what her life was like. Did she live alone? Was she married? Or was she a spinster who lived with her family? He had to know everything about her, and it was inconceivable that he would marry a woman he knew nothing about.
One day, an hour before sunrise, Gharib followed Mahir, walking behind her through back lanes, roads, and fields, and over bridges, until she passed through a cane thicket into a grove of palm trees on the opposite bank of the Shatt al-‘Arab, where he lost sight of her, which baffled him.
On his way back, he was dazzled by the appearance of a swarm of butterflies in the grove. There were so many, it made him feel as if he were in a dream, and he wished Mahir were with him.
That’s when an idea came to him.
He left the grove, then came hurrying back with a net, which he used to start collecting the butterflies. He collected them all. Then he committed a mass slaughter, an assault on nature for its butterflies, for no other reason than to extract the colors from their wings and collect them in a bottle that he would later give to Mahir, as kohl for her eyes.
Then he went back to wait impatiently until night fell and his beloved Mahir returned.
But she didn’t come.
She will never come.
Diaa Jubaili (b. 1977, Basra, Iraq) is the author of eight novels and three short story collections, including What Will We Do Without Calvino?, winner of the Tayeb Salih International Award for Creative Writing, and No Windmills in Basra, winner of the Almultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story. He was a contributor to the short story collection Iraq +100 and has written for the Guardian.
Chip Rossetti has a doctorate in modern Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania. His published translations include Beirut, Beirut, by Sonallah Ibrahim; the graphic novel Metro: A Story of Cairo, by Magdy El Shafee; and Utopia, by Ahmed Khaled Towfik. His translations have also appeared in Asymptote, The White Review, Banipal, and Words Without Borders. He is currently the Editorial Director for the Library of Arabic Literature at New York University Press.