In just a few minutes he found himself in front of the small house where he had been born—a one-story structure with a yard enclosed by wooden stakes in front. The look of the place suggested not merely simplicity but squalor.

The house was on the opposite side of the street from the train station. Its flat roof offered a view of the fields beyond the tracks. The house was plunged into darkness, except for a gleam of light emanating from a gap at his father’s window. His heart would not stop pounding, and fear and hope clashed inside him. He crossed the front yard to the door and knocked gently. Then he heard the clop of wooden clogs. Recognizing the step, he opened the door, where the apparition stood. He drew nearer, saying, “Good evening, Mother.”

He heard a voice sigh, “You!” Then she took his hand between hers and asked in the same exhausted voice, “How are you, son? My heart told me it was you.”

The hall was so dark that he could not make out her features. Closing the door, he asked anxiously, “Mother, what happened? How’s my father?”

The woman replied in a mournful voice, “May our Lord take him by the hand.”

He placed the parcel containing his gallabiya on a table and entered his father’s room with wary steps. His eyes examined the man, who was stretched out on the bed. Then he approached him. The man’s head was tilted toward the wall. Mahgub mumbled faintly, “Good evening, Father. How are you?”

His father gave no indication that he had heard or understood anything. So his mother leaned over and said, “Mahgub’s greeting you.”

The man slowly moved his head round and opened his eyelids. Then he extended his left hand, which Mahgub took between both of his and kissed. The man looked very ill, and his eyes were clouded, as though oozing a foul liquid. His mouth was contorted too.

Mahgub asked, “Father, how are you? All power flows from God.”

The man rested his eyes on him and, speaking in a voice that came in spurts and sounded almost like a death rattle, replied, “Noon today was the first time I spoke again.”

Mahgub felt alarmed and asked his mother, “Was he unable to speak for a time?”

The exhausted woman said, “Yes, son. He was at work last Tuesday afternoon as usual. He suddenly fell down and lost the ability to speak. They carried him here and called the doctor. He came, cupped him, and gave him an injection. He continues to visit him every morning. His ability to speak returned only before noon today.”

“What did the doctor say?”

The look in her eyes was anxious, and her lips moved without making any sound. Then his father said, “He said it is paralysis … partial … paralysis.”

The young man was alarmed by this hideous word, even though he was totally ignorant of its medical implications. Wishing to allay his fears, his mother observed, “But he stressed this morning that the danger has passed.”

In his staccato, slurred speech, the father continued, “I … understand … what was said.… I’ll never be the same.”

Biting his lip, Mahgub asked his mother, “Did this happen without any warning?”

“No, son. Your father was in the best of health—as we’ve always known him—but then his right leg began to feel heavy and he had a headache Monday night.”

Everyone was silent. Then the invalid closed his eyes and stopped moving, as if he had fallen into a sound slumber. The young man turned his head toward his mother and realized at once that she had not slept a wink since Tuesday evening. Her eyes were red, lackluster, and encircled by blue halos, and her skin was pale. He was overcome by sorrow and grief. His parents seemed creatures as miserable as he was. He sat down on a chair near the bed, bowed his head, and reflected: This family’s destiny depends on the life of a ruined man. What’s beneath those sealed eyelids: life or death? Success or homelessness? Why didn’t this stroke wait a year? He recalled silent, majestic Rashad Pasha Street: the mansions on either side of it, the pashas and beys transported back and forth to it in automobiles, and the women who could be glimpsed from behind curtains or between the shrubbery. How did his wretched parents compare to all those people? And this dilapidated house! He began to tell himself that if he were the heir to one of those mansions and his father—the pasha—was on the brink of death, he would be waiting impatiently for his demise. He sighed from a wounded heart where rage flared. Then he asked himself, his head still bowed: I wonder how this tragedy will end?

He looked stealthily at his mother, who was seated by his feet with her head bowed. He saw that she was enveloped by the black clothing she had sworn she would always wear in memory of his two sisters, who had died of typhoid. Her face was withered, and she looked older than her age, which was a little over fifty. She had succumbed to the burdens of a life spent by the flame of the cook-stove and heat of the oven—kneading dough, baking, washing, and sweeping. Her fingers were worn to the bone and the veins stood out on the back of her hands. She had lacked any opportunity for small talk during her life. She resembled the invisible fuel powering a large engine. She loved her son to the point of adoration, and this affection had doubled after his two siblings died in the bloom of childhood. Even so, she had not exerted any noticeable influence on his development. She had never had anyone she could talk to and had lived in silent ignorance as if mute. His father’s circumstances similarly had obliged him to withdraw from his son’s life. He worked nonstop at the firm from morning till after supper. Then he hurried off to Sufi dhikr circles, where he chanted till midnight. Thus he barely saw his son. He was a serious, indefatigable man, loyal to his chums and a good representative and reflection of them. He took pride in his kinship to a major bureaucrat—a relative of his wife’s. Like her, he never enjoyed any free time. He was not sustained by his marriage, and his supervision of his son was limited to forcing him to observe some of his religion’s duties—with frequent recourse to the stick. For all these reasons, Mahgub had feared his father while growing up and fled to the street where his upbringing and formation were completed. Thus his tie to his parents was weak and frayed. He loved his mother more than his father but remained ready to sacrifice his relationship to his parents in keeping with his nihilistic philosophy, which had no basis whatsoever. He did not grieve for his father as much as he felt anxious about the man who allocated three pounds to him each month.

Cairo Modern