Hajar Bali, "The LIttle Watermelon Seed"

 Hajar Bali lives in Algiers, Algeria, where she until recently taught mathematics at the Université des sciences et de la technologie Houari-Boumediene. She is the author of the novel Écorces (2020), the story collection Trop tard (2014), the collection of plays Rêve et vol d’oiseau (2009), and Le regard de Vincent, a volume of poetry (2003).


I first met Hajar Bali in 2017, when she was visiting Iowa City as a participant in the International Writing Program. At the time, we collaborated on a translation of a new story of hers. One of the many benefits of translating writers in the IWP is the ability to meet up in person. We spent long afternoons at Prairie Lights Books talking through the finer details of her work. Often, I wanted to hear how she heard the piece, so she would read to me across the table in a hushed voice, gesturing this way and that to underscore the tone of this clause, that phrase. Translating this other story now, during our isolation—the opening story from her 2014 collection Trop tard—I long for such intimate collaboration. In its absence, I often found myself taking on both roles, whispering and gesturing aloud at my desk in order to find the voice.

This is a story of survival—the survival of pride, love, marriage, family, motherhood, memory, habit, illusion, violence, terror—but finally of l’individu, the individual, even within violent structures working against that survival.

Early on, after discovering a roach in the bathroom, the narrator remembers an exchange she has had with her husband: “Samir has tried explaining to me that these creatures will survive all the world’s disasters, but so what? Will it prevent their suffering? And it’s the species who survives, not the individual. The species doesn’t interest me.” In Samir’s eyes, the individual survives in the species; in the narrator’s, the individual survives despite the species. By nature, she suggests, we do harm to one another even as we are harmed. “All over the world, there are roaches and the eradicators of roaches. I should write this down in my notebook: we are all roaches to some, eradicators to others.”

Much of this harm depends on our not recognizing our true cafardise, our roach-hood. The species changes after the individual: “The terror," she urges, "will disappear once we understand what we are.”

It’s fitting, then, that throughout the piece, Bali is chiefly concerned with private experience. Worth noting, for example, is that the story’s namesake is the narrator’s initial misperception: the apparent watermelon seed is in fact a roach. At every turn, the story prioritizes proximity of mind. This fact guided my translation.

Some specific examples: French grammar is typically more forgiving than English grammar, allowing a little more, e.g., for what English calls comma splices. Occasionally, where in English configurations the syntax and grammar would have been disruptively unclear, I took liberties such as splitting the sentence, adding a conjunction, or clarifying a pronoun. But in the vast majority of cases, I tried to retain the origin style, even where it might be slightly less seamless than in French, as such vocal nuances characterize the associative mind of our narrator. In the same vein, there were moments where I had to decide whether to bring words or phrases into English at all. For example, toward the end of the story, the narrator remembers singing a line from “Gentille Batillière” with her mother. Given that this song has never been interpreted into English, I hesitated to translate the lyrics (“J'irai cueillir la fleur nouvelle chaque matin pour toi”), since that seemed to interrupt the intimacy of the remembered duet. But in an otherwise fully-translated text, the French stuck out like in a way that it doesn’t in the original, thereby suggesting a difference present only in translation. In service of consistency of mind, in the end I decided to translate these lyrics. On the other hand, I did not translate “fluctuat, fluctuat, fluctuat” a little later on. This word comes from the Latin Fluctuat nec mergitur (“[She] is tossed [by the waves], but does not sink.”), the city motto of Paris; given that between Latin and French there is difference, even to the narrator, I retained that difference in English. Finally, where it appears as a proper noun, Maman remains Maman; as a common noun, it’s mom.

One aspect of Bali’s work I admire (among so many) is the pairing of the quotidian and the sublime. At the level of the sentence, this pairing arrives as a constant maneuvering between “higher” and “lower” registers, sometimes within a single sentence. Here, I have done my best to retain the fluidity with which she moves between them. I hesitate to call this story “philosophical” (since frankly I don’t know what story isn’t), but like Clarice Lispector’s ingenious novel The Passion According to G.H., with which this story is in direct conversation, the insight and the thinking through are right on the surface. I tried my best to get out of the way and listen.

--Keenan Walsh


“How luxurious this silence is. It’s built up of centuries. It’s a silence of a roach that’s looking. The world looks at itself in me. Everything looks at everything, everything lives the other; in this desert things know things.”

Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. (tr. Idra Novey)



The Little Watermelon Seed

I saw this black-brown spot in the sink.

At first I thought it was a watermelon seed, spat out and abandoned. I’m always having to clean up after the others, they’re incapable of rinsing the sink. It’s always like that, the smallest scrap of paper forgotten on the ground, fingerprints on the wall, urine stains, they can’t even aim right, all of it left for me. The cat’s the only one who’s not responsible for what he does, but even he has the decency to bury his shit. Is it his fault that the cold tile won’t cover anything? Still, he makes an effort, poor thing, often with the fervent shame of more worthy beings who’ve been uncomfortably cornered, like beggars who devour what we’ve thrown away.

It wasn’t a watermelon seed, the brown spot began to wriggle its whiskers at the exact moment I went to run the water and scrub, as I always do, the white surface I try so hard to keep clean, worryingly, for you never know who might stop by, open the cabinets and examine the state of the bathroom, who might go on, then, to report that things aren’t so tidy at the Benbadis’, which my pride as mistress of the house wouldn’t survive. I polish the cabinets, I tidy the living room, but everything else is the “mess,” as Samir would say, I don’t know what you do all day, you’re disorganized. Get yourself together, I don’t know, you don’t contribute at all…

So it was a little cockroach, out in plain sight, though it had tried to shelter behind the cold tap. He must really have felt terrorized, paralyzed by fear, all his whiskers trembled.

I resolved to leave him there, give him the chance to save himself, to rejoin his tribe, his family, poor thing, he was so small. With age, the contempt that these poor, repulsive and dogged creatures inspire in me, living as they do in tribes, like us, without any real solidarity or attachments to specific places, has evolved into pity for their great physical frailty, their almost-quick little bodies that we crush with our feet, their feeble squeaking, their inability to release even the smallest lament or cry for help. Samir has tried explaining to me that these creatures will survive all the world’s disasters, but so what? Will it prevent their suffering? And it’s the species who survives, not the individual. The species doesn’t interest me. You know? It’s like if someone told you you’ve been alive for some 8,000 years. Can you imagine? He shrugged, my Samir. He loves pretending like he doesn’t understand. He’s a liar!

Tonight, like every night, I won’t sleep, I’ll think back on this little animal, alone like me, there, here, now. This morning. And every morning of the week. Samir and the kids are gone, as usual, for the day, no one will have lunch with me. I should take the opportunity to finally organize the cupboard, the winter linen always rots between the shorts and swimsuits. We hardly ever wear coats anymore, winter’s gone, and it’ll be even more gone come June! It’s so funny. What’s wrong with you? Nothing. I made myself laugh. Samir doesn’t like seeing me laugh alone. In the beginning, those first years, I told him everything. But then I began to feel like he only listened with one ear, if at all. He doesn’t pay attention anymore, has no affection for my “naïveté,” as he calls it. I wonder if he even feels contempt. He must think I’m stupid. Truly.

Something inevitable is happening to the two of us. I won’t call it falling out of love, that abject expression we invented this century because we still don’t understand, even after centuries of cooing and poetry, poetry that’s usually just tearful and stupid, why, in the end, the feeling of love doesn’t stay, why there’s this thing that changes, imperceptibly, or just leaves. The heart that beats at the mere sound of his voice, or impatience with his silence, which distances him from me, and pushes me to invent the strangest stories, this urgent desire to take his hand, to grab at his thoughts lest he exclude me, to realize, even now, the perfect communion of our souls, this illusion of power, of eternity, simply because we’ve sworn to be faithful, or whatever other nonsense abounds in books, nonsense that the “elders” hand off to us even though they no longer believe in it themselves. Falling out of love? How’s that possible? Nothing ever really disappears, but one day we realize that exclusivity’s impossible. That’s why Samir drains all my energy, that’s why I have to fight against each day’s mollifying nuisances. But just as sometimes, in a flash, states of childish wonder appear, and I return to being exactly the little girl whose heart leaps for joy, I’m sitting in the front seat on Maman’s lap, enjoying this exclusive privilege afforded to the little carsick daughter, and right when Papa’s Simca enters the driveway of the park where we spend our holidays, the familiar scent of reed beds, which to this day overwhelms me with perfect joy, in the same way, we find, the two of us, if we run in together in the rain, the laughter we’ve for too long held back, forgotten, the timidity of our youth. To no longer love would be simple, you’d just become someone else, or die, like Romeo and Juliet, at the perfect moment, just in time to preserve that initial feeling. I think it scares Samir that we’re growing old together, that in the end this is just the way life goes. We’re so arrogant!

Summer’s approaching so quickly, I no longer have time to clean up, but what do you do all day? he yelled at me once after the closet rod had collapsed from the weight of the hangers that were overpacked and too heavy. Well, I clean up your pee, I responded, tit for tat. It’s still infuriating. Later he told me, I don’t think you’re okay. It’s abnormal, your disinterest in everything. You don’t visit your friends anymore, or your parents. What makes you like this? He finished by giving me a very pretty, hand-sewn notebook with kraft paper pages of all colors. Write. Try to flush out whatever’s inside you. He doles out empty phrases like this. I don’t want to know anything, I just want you to feel better. He must have flipped through some psychology magazines and thought, Yes, she needs to “flush it out.” You blame me, don’t you? Shame on you! And I started to cry again. He hates that. He left in a huff. Why doesn’t he want to know? Maybe it’s true that what I say doesn’t interest him. What do I really have to say, anyway? Nothing that matters to him, I guess.

I’m desperate. Nothing suits me. Neither the straight path nor its detours. Neither convention nor the joy of denying it.

On my knees, I watch my new mustached friends, for a whole colony has arrived now. They’ve come to the rescue, the little one must have called them. I wonder how he broadcasts his deft and silent SOS. They advance stubbornly, quickly, toward the foot of the sink, in single file, a true army, small and well-organized. How vain they are. Imagine Bush and his sky of fire, bombing Mesopotamia, and then them, Saddam’s mustached and zealous soldiers, their gaze lifted toward the sky, all at once seeing Hell as it crashes down upon them, their feet planted firmly on the earth. They’d organized the barricades, as pleased as Parisian revolutionaries. What’s that? Hell has fallen from the heavens, they say, but isn’t that where the angels of paradise reside? And the others, their vulgar laughter, their goggles snugly fitted on their eyes, deal out fire and film the spectacle of their own destructive power.

All over the world, there are roaches and the eradicators of roaches. I should write this down in my notebook: we are all roaches to some, eradicators to others. Descending the roach ladder, one wonders if there’s a lowest rung, some final cellar. In other words, can roaches always unearth something more hateful than them, more fit for their venom? Something lower, more vile … Iraqi soldiers spitting on groups of Somalis, Pakistanis discovered by chance one evening on a hike, rugs, a hundred or more, in a djebel cave, dirty, stinking, quiet, eyes inordinately widened in terror.

The troop of these other mustached idiots approaches the sink from behind, as if I can’t see them, as if I can’t flatten the sky upon their heads. They approach the smooth surface near the faucet, completely exposed this time. Can’t they see it, their own stubborn idiocy? They’re all the same size, pretty small. Their moms sent them off to be trained. Like the young conscripts of the People’s National Army. That way, should there be war, they’ll be together to face the enemy, hearts pounding as they remember that their moms have given their blessing, which seems to lend them courage. We are ready to die, we wouldn’t dream of asking why… My presence is a danger to them, they don’t realize that I could, with nothing but my little toe…

Sunlight floods the kitchen. Yesterday’s coffee remains. A cup in the microwave. That’ll do me good. The coffee’s too hot, scorching. Boiled coffee, ruined coffee, that’s his favorite saying. I guess he thinks it’s witty.

There are crumbs everywhere. I’ll have to scold the children. No more croissants, no more butter. It’s all about them, the pigs! All that’s left on the table is a piece of stale bread and half a rotting banana, black, overrun with little flies, rotten. I’m sweating streams, I briefly remember the coats, but not today.

I let the sound of the radio engulf me to exasperation. Deceptively playful voices beneath a frying crackle. Torture.

Hello? Samir … oh! This late? Alright … who? Oh no! Not tonight! … It’s okay, don’t get upset, I’m so… He hung up on me. Even the formalities are gone. Seven o’clock, that’s in seven hours. I have plenty of time. We’re having dinner at his boss Faty’s house. How does she manage to impress everyone? I see through her games, she smokes and drinks like a man, bursts out laughing at Samir’s stupid jokes, surrounds herself with all the richest men in town. Her husband’s even stupider than mine, even more obnoxious. The other women stand on the sidelines, chatting among themselves about their toddlers’ progress in school, while La Faty talks politics in the smoking room with the men. I’d prefer to stay home, but the kids tire me out. Might as well go out with him, prevent him as much as I can from making a fool of himself. He’ll play the learned engineer, then the political expert, and then will even go so far as to call me as a witness, pretending that our relationship is perfect and liberated, thus using a strategy of seduction that any woman would spot a mile away. What does he think! Then, three glasses in, he’ll launch into some unintelligible monologue, his tongue heavy, his eyes red. When the polite and worried glances begin to feel unbearable, I’ll drag him out, tripping over excuses and apologies. We’ll return home tired and sad, and I’ll resume my sleepless nights beside him, this handsome young engineer, Monsieur Benbadi, whom, it seems, many women covet. I just hope the kids will be asleep by then.

My protégé is still there, having moved no more than a millimeter. I know this because I know my sink perfectly. The little pink stain, he’s right on it now. Incredible. He noticed it, my little detective. Where’s your mom, little one? Does she leave you all alone like this? What if you were killed? I remember how I cried when Lilou was taken from me. I watched him walk away, the teacher pulling him by the hand as he turned and looked at me with his big eyes, his eyelids drooping in the corners, my little spaniel, as I called him. Of course, I said nothing, I let him go, Samir was also crying in the car. And he said: Can you believe some people have the courage to bury their kids? Life is so unjust. Then he read to me a page from the newspaper: “How do you explain to a mom that the son she’d encouraged to make a career in the army is returning to her in a coffin on the eve of Eid?”

But you get used to it, he said. School takes them from us, then it will be the army. It’s true that you get used to it. Society takes them from us, so we resign ourselves. We’re alarmed, then disheartened, then resigned. My children, flesh of my flesh, as I liked to say, will be salvaged by the machine of capital. They will be, they already are, capitalists, egoists, schemers. Especially Habib. Not Lilou, but Habib! He’d have crushed my little watermelon seed just for the pleasure of it. I’ve scolded him a hundred times, not only because he used to kick the cat on the soft part of her stomach, in the groin, right where it hurts, but because he did so on the sly. He measured out his cruelty, he enjoyed it, and what terrified me most of all was that he couldn’t resist the senselessness of it. One day, so that he’d understand, I gave him a good kick in the stomach. He screamed in pain, I was nauseous, my gut shuddered in horror. Then he ran, as he always does, to tell his father. How could you do such a thing! You’re not normal. You’re truly heartless. He’s just a kid!

We’ve made noble plans, we’ve cried together before the fragility of the world.

When I first knew him, Samir was so brilliant. He knew how to get the better of everyone who pretended to understand society, but who were then shocked at each rise in religiosity. Wrapped up in supposed modernity, our friends at that time entertained themselves by smothering whatever they didn’t understand in their contempt. Religion is open to endless interpretation. Everything can be justified, it’s all in response to our anxieties, but in reality, it’s we who invent those responses. Religion addresses each of us personally, and in whose name can we deny a young man of twenty such exhilaration? Of the strength and beauty borne from the illusion of having finally discovered your truth, and of wanting, even, to share it? Remember our twenties… I listened to Samir, as it were, religiously. It was so … consensual … yes, in the end, it was consensual.

I should start studying, that’ll make Samir happy. I’ll tell him that I’d like to study the behavior of animals in hostile environments. I won’t say any more than that, he wouldn’t understand that I’m interested in the poor humanity of roaches and their type: so poor, so arrogant. I’ll add that I’d like to study wild animals, or helpless animals, even, in a hostile environment. My Lilou is one of them! He’s the little seed on the way to school, threatened by his classmates in goggles and black boots.

The door! Someone’s knocking. Someone’s banging. The swing door, it’s like they want to break it down, I look through the peephole, the cat panics and follows me, there are three of them. The one who’s knocking is armed, he shouts aggressively. The second one is on the step that leads to the upper floor, the third is lying in ambush a step down, also pointing his weapon at my door. I open the damn door because I don’t know what else to do. I’ve never known how to take the right action at the right moment. My heartbeat is deafening. Think of the conditions of roach-hood. They are nothing but the roaches of others. These men, too, they are only roaches. Roaches. I hear the neighbor walking up, saying, Madame Benbadi is always home, she must just be sleeping late. That bitch! The cop doesn’t ask twice, he pushes me aside and enters, followed by the other two, who toss fierce glances my way. Especially the third one. But I still have the presence of mind to shut the door in the neighbor’s face as she approaches from behind, panting.

They tell me right away that they want to see Samir, What’s he doing? Where is he? What’s he doing right now? I answer stupidly that now is, he must be… The boss cuts me off. Call him! The third one went to the bathroom, I hear him blow his nose loudly in the sink, I think of my little watermelon seed crouching there, so close to that monster. The boss takes the phone from me, his voice softening after a few seconds. Samir must have put on his haughty voice. Between men it’s always more cordial, I tell myself, more respectful. The male, as a species, rarely sees himself as a roach. Perhaps this is the supreme illusion of men. They can’t see the roach within themselves. So the boss asks Samir to check if his car is parked where he left it. Yes, right now. He writes something down, then hangs up. We wait. What’s going on exactly? It was my voice that just asked the question, produced by me, in spite of myself, almost smothered. The second one responds, almost kindly, that our car is wanted. I could see from the start that he was the least cruel. There has just been a terrorist attack, your registration number has been noted on the vehicle. What are the odds? Samir calls back, he’s summoned to the police station, along with the car of course, the boss specifies affably. Ha ha! Laughter to fit the occasion.

The end. Now they’re gone. They climb back into their big 4x4, parked right in the middle of the street, the neighbors are all out on their balconies watching me, suspicious. I slam my window in their faces. I adjust my bra conspicuously before pulling the curtain. Wow! For the notebook: their weapons don’t scare me. The terror will disappear once we understand what we are. Always remember the roach who watches over us. And them. Clarity, humility. Face it openly. Easy!

Armed men are everywhere now. They come to your home claiming to work for your safety. And we must be grateful to them. Samir talks to them politely, meanwhile he hangs up on me. He’s always found it normal, barrages and all that, he grovels. Slow down, turn on your ceiling light, say hello. All these vile gestures. It’s not up for debate. But the Samir I once knew would bang the table and call the head waiter if the meat wasn’t to his liking: I ordered a filet! This isn’t a filet! I was so proud!
Obedient in the face of the order-keepers.

You mix everything up, it’s not the same, we’re at war! You get it, we’re at war!

Perhaps if I understood the language of roaches, I could warn them of potential danger: “Look out, threat of tsunami. When the man places his ass on the toilet, you’ll only have a few minutes to evacuate the area. And above all else, when the lights come on…” Oh! They’re already doing it, already running for shelter, but still not fast enough. All I have to do is help them perfect their withdrawal tactics.

Apparently Faty’s son was in Thailand. He could see the disaster from the bay window of his fancy hotel, situated, fortunately, on higher ground, like all beautiful city districts. Women and men, bums, fishermen, children, everyone ran, but not fast enough. Roaches in a man’s world. He told us about it one evening after Samir had dragged me to their house, having heard of the boy’s repatriation on an Air France priority flight. He was lying on the sofa, his mother was upset and attentive: Go on, have a little water. It’s so hard for him to see footage of the disaster. How much we’ve suffered! Oh! You can’t imagine. Luckily he’d gotten Thuraya, but I didn’t hear from him for two hours! Can you believe that?

Two hours! I repeated with my most cynical compassion. Samir glared at me. And then, Faty’s son told us, the poor people just abandoned their tents, left everything behind, but you know what, some of them stopped to snatch jewelry off of the dead they encountered. It was monstrous! Worst of all were all those cheap, waterfront hotels, rented out by working-class and retired British and German families. Poor bastards, some of them had won their trips on stupid gameshows. There you go. And his mother went a step further: I find cheap vacations unbearable. Those poor people’s naïveté is being exploited. She wore the appropriate expression, eyes squinting, hurling from the depths of her idiotic mind some hints of sentimentality, for she had also once, long ago, been an ardent supporter of revolutionary socialism.

Yes, those poor people, I repeated. Poverty truly is unbearable. This time Samir ignored me. Perhaps he thought that, in the end, the best strategy in such moments was to simply ignore my teasing. He believed, not incorrectly, that it was to him alone, to his intelligence, that my sarcasm was directed.

Would you follow me? Am I alone in the face of terror?

I must respect their terror. I must run, must feel the world beating in my heart. Your mere presence at my side would have given me wings. What is courage if not that?

What’s the point?

Fine. Study the behavior of defenseless animals in hostile environments, do they have a choice? Not really. Maybe they’re happy after all.

What are you missing? Why are you like this?

He’s become downright aggressive, doesn’t even wait for me to respond. When he sees me tearing at my clothes, or breaking the dishes, when this incomprehensible pain overwhelms me, he turns his back and leaves me alone with my rage.

The doorbell rings. First, see who it is. Sometimes …

Lilou’s swimming. They were let out of school early, the way they always are at the end of the year. He kisses me mechanically. I feel like I’m invisible to him. I think he’s ashamed of me. It’s like he’s afraid of being contaminated. Because in some ways, he might be like me. He is like me. Habib is more affectionate, one might even say easier, more wide open, he keeps nothing from me and tells me about his day in great detail. Sort of like the way I used to enjoy talking with Samir in the evenings when he got home from the office. I’d walk him through every little detail of my day, my phone conversations with mom, the latest gossip, I’d hang on his neck, he’d laugh and pat my butt. Then the children widened our home, as they say. And I began to listen carefully for the sound of his key in the door, imprisoned as I was in the rocking chair, the baby hanging from my disfigured, aching breast. I’d hear him take his shoes off and hurry toward us, his face more and more worried, then more and more distant.

He’s so easy, my youngest one, Habib. But Lilou’s my favorite, I know, despite those egalitarian rants about how maternal love should burn equally bright for everyone. Another lie elevated to the realm of morality. I know I could win my Lilou’s affection, I know I haven’t fully lost it. I softly consoled him one day after he’d been embarrassed by a bunch of mean older boys, he was holding back his tears at the treshold of my bedroom, Samir was sprawled out with the remote in his hand, determined to begin his nap. My heart skipped a beat. I saw my Lilou ready to crumble, I caught him just in time and held him in my arms. I explained to him, that day, the importance of forgiveness, of loving others, for it’s they who are weak, I said, but you still have to speak the truth, no matter what it costs you. I made it up as I went along, half believing my own words as I held him tight, caressed his hair, dried his tears with my palms. He gasped between sobs, while his father, who I’m sure was also moved, surely he was touched, shot me a reproachful glance without moving, as if to say: You want the boy to be soft? Ever since that day, it was last year, a kind of awkwardness mixed with silent love has hovered between Lilou and me. I know he’s struggling to be free, as if from a shameful disease. That day, he even asked me about the principles I live by, but I couldn’t respond clearly. I took on a reassuring tone, and then explained to him that God created us just as we are, and our task was to ceaselessly improve. I let him go. I could have held him back that day, won him over, but I didn’t want to. Or couldn’t. Or I forfeited the chance I’d been given. Plus, Samir’s gaze disturbed me. In the end I’d been pretty pathetic. It must be hard at that age to have a mother like me, I told myself. Samir softened, I cried for a long time on his shoulder.

You’re done with school already? Here, go buy a pizza or whatever you want. I haven’t had time to cook. I had a lot to do, and guess what? The cops… But he’s already running down the stairs, I close the door on my own voice, cut short by his vanishing steps.

You’re always going after them! Leave them alone!

Too much love is lost.

My head hurts, my heart races. Take my pills.

My little roach is still there, near the stain in the sink. I need to watch him, need to soak up his ancestral wisdom.

He looks at me quietly, I bend down, my eyes level with his. He doesn’t even try to run, he’s surrendered. His ancient gaze locks with my own, tired, nauseated. My hind legs bend, I hang on, the sink wobbles but doesn’t disrupt our conversation, which comes, alas, too late, for I’m already collapsing. But he catches me, irresistibly. He knows, he perceives that I’m calculating the immeasurable distance I must overcome to reach him. He flexes his wings as if to beckon me, pull yourself together, look at me, accept your destiny.

Our wreckage is not alike. My DNA is only 200,000 years old, while he, with his 400 million years, has no other aim but to be.

My impatience amuses him.

We both cling to the porcelain precipice, it lasts an eternity, a silky little drop of water escapes the tap, like a desperate appeal to life.

I’m very small, I’m seated between my mother’s soft, chubby legs, she’s braiding my hair as we sing.

Every morning I will go to pick a new flower for you.

My large roach eyes observe the world calmly, my Samir speaks to me with tenderness. A soft breeze stirs the curtain, the strong scent of saltwater, this is happiness. Smell the sea. Perceive the splendor.

Something outside of me says that Lilou is knocking, but I can’t move. I must wait for the scent to return, just as it was, a foretaste of paradise. A little vertigo. Slight vertigo. Cruel vertigo. You can keep pounding on the door, my son. Go ahead, lean with all your might upon the bell. I’m not there, I am everywhere, everything is pointless, everything is vital. An intense, terrible joy clutches me. A new era has just begun, the vanity of the world is its weakness, in the end everything’s alright, truly everything. I must close my eyes to ponder it all, and then like a prophet I’ll go away, not to preach the good word, nor to wage war in the deserts, nor to sequester myself in some monastery, shrouded in the supposed superiority of knowledge and virtue, on the contrary, I’ll rummage through the world’s trash, where the ancient insect, with its life-saving gaze, its irreverent and sublime esotericism, is condemned as a scoundrel.

The gray cat moves away in front of her. They run joyously on the beach. Don’t swim yet! You’ve just eaten! Let yourself digest!

An inner voice. Or is it the wind?

Come back, don’t go. Nobody will follow.


They’re all there, all three of them. I’m lying on the bed. Three identical pairs of eyes scrutinize me. Lilou’s are bigger, softer despite his scowl. Habib is indifferent, he’s spotted a piece of chocolate on the nightstand. Samir has not yet let go of Habib’s bag, has a backpack in the other hand, he examines me severely. I have a headache.

How many pills did you swallow? We found you in the bathroom, you were sleeping, you looked so peaceful, I thought… He stifles a sob.

Lilou turns his back on us. I’ll make some coffee. There’s some pizza left if you want it, Maman.

Can I have some chocolate? Maman!

Make it strong, Lilou.

Finally Samir drops the bags and sits down, or rather lets himself fall, as if releasing a burden, onto the edge of the bed. If you want, we can talk? He’s trembling imperceptibly. I’m so tired. I turn around, I feel, behind me, Samir bracing himself, I know this gesture so well: with his elbows on his thighs, he takes his temples in both hands. The door is open and I sense that at the other end of the hall, the watermelon seed observes us from his immaculate throne, with a subtle smile of infinite generosity, mercy.

I search for Samir’s hand, pat it gently. Everything is fine, I promise. Habib snuggles up against me, buries his big head in my breast. I smell chocolate mixed with the scent of dust, or chalk. We’re okay.

Fluctuat, fluctuat, fluctuat.

When do we leave for Faty’s? He doesn’t respond.

I still have to take a shower. But first I have to sleep a little. Just a little. I promise.

Eyes closed, I sense the little watermelon seed, up there, enormous, above my head. His scales cover the ceiling as he watches me tenderly.


Keenan Walsh is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a 2016-2018 President's Fellow. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Brazenhead Review, and elsewhere.