Read “The Fqih,” a short story by Paul Bowles

“The Fqih”


Paul Bowles

ONE MIDSUMMER AFTERNOON a dog went running through a village, stopping just long enough to bite a young man who stood on the main street. It was not a deep wound, and the young man washed it at a fountain nearby and thought no more about it. However, several people who had seen the animal bite him mentioned it to his younger brother. You must take your brother to a doctor in the city, they said.

When the boy went home and suggested this, his brother merely laughed. The next day in the village the boy decided to consult the fqih. He found the old man sitting in the shade under the figtree in the courtyard of the mosque. He kissed his hand, and told him that a dog no one had ever seen before had bitten his brother and run away.

That’s very bad, said the fqih. Have you got a stable you can lock him into? Put him there, but tie his hands behind him. No one must go near him, you understand?

The boy thanked the fqih and set out for home. On the way he determined to cover a hammer with yarn and hit his brother on the back of the head. Knowing that his mother would never consent to seeing her son treated in this way, he decided that it would have to be done when she was away from the house.

That evening while the woman stood outside by the well, he crept up behind his brother and beat him with the hammer until he fell to the floor. Then he fastened his hands behind him and dragged him into a shed next to the house. There he left him lying on the ground, and went out, padlocking the door behind him.

When the brother came to his senses, he began a great outcry. The mother called to the boy: Quick! Run and see what’s the matter with Mohammed. But the boy only said: I know what’s the matter with him. A dog bit him, and the fqih said he has to stay in the shed.

The woman began to pull at her hair and scratch her face with her fingernails and beat her breasts. The boy tried to calm her, but she pushed him away and ran out to the shed. She put her ear to the door. All she could hear was her son’s loud panting as he tried to free his hands from the cords that bound them. She pounded on the wood and screamed his name, but he was struggling, his face in the dirt, and did not reply. Finally the boy led her back to the house. It was written, he told her.

The next morning the woman got astride her donkey and rode to the village to see the fqih. He, however, had left that morning to visit his sister in Rhafsai, and no one knew when he would be back. And so she bought bread and started out on the road for Rhafsai, along with a group of villagers who were on their way to a souq in the region. That night she slept at the souq and the following morning at daybreak she started out again with a different group of people.

Each day the boy threw food in to his brother through a small barred window high above one of the stalls in the shed. The third day he also threw him a knife, so he could cut the ropes and use his hands to eat with. After a while it occurred to him that he had done a foolish thing in giving him the knife, since if he worked long enough with it he might succeed in cutting his way through the door. Thus he threatened to bring no more food until his brother had tossed the knife back through the window.

The mother had no sooner arrived at Rhafsai than she fell ill with a fever. The family with whom she had been travelling took her into their house and cared for her, but it was nearly a month before she was able to rise from the pallet on the floor where she had been lying. By that time the fqih had returned to his village.

Finally she was well enough to start out again. After two days of sitting on the back of the donkey she arrived home exhausted, and was greeted by the boy.

And your brother? she said, certain that by now he was dead.

The boy pointed to the shed, and she rushed to the door and began to call out to him.

Get the key and let me out! he cried.

I must see the fqih first, aoulidi. Tomorrow.

The next morning she and the boy went to the village. When the fqih saw the woman and her son come into the courtyard he raised his eyes to heaven. It was Allah’s will that your son should die as he did, he told her.

But he’s not dead! she cried. And he shouldn’t stay in there any longer.

The fqih was astounded. Then he said: But let him out! Let him out! Allah has been merciful.

The boy however begged the fqih to come himself and open the door. So they set out, the fqih riding the donkey and the woman and boy following on foot. When they got to the shed, the boy handed the key to the old man, and he opened the door. The young man bounded out, followed by a stench so strong that the fqih shut the door again.

They went to the house, and the woman made tea for them. While they sat drinking the fqih told the young man: Allah has spared you. You must never mistreat your brother for having shut you away. He did it on my orders.

The young man swore that never would he raise his hand against the boy. But the boy was still afraid, and could not bring himself to look at his brother. When the fqih left to return to the village, the boy went with him, in order to bring back the donkey. As they went along the road, he said to the old man: I’m afraid of Mohammed.

The fqih was displeased. Your brother is older than you, he said. You heard him swear not to touch you.

That night while they were eating, the woman went to the brazier to make the tea. For the first time the boy stole a glance at his brother, and grew cold with fear. Mohammed had swiftly bared his teeth and made a strange sound in his throat. He had done this as a kind of joke, but to the boy it meant something very different.

The fqih should never have let him out, he said to himself. Now he’ll bite me, and I’ll get sick like him. And the fqih will tell him to throw me into the shed.

He could not bring himself to look again at Mohammed. At night in the dark he lay thinking about it, and he could not sleep. Early in the morning he set out for the village, to catch the fqih before he began to teach the pupils at the msid.

What is it now? asked the fqih.

When the boy told him what he feared, the old man laughed. But he has no disease! He never had any disease, thanks to Allah.

But you yourself told me to lock him up, sidi.

Yes, yes. But Allah has been merciful. Now go home and forget about it. Your brother’s not going to bite you.

The boy thanked the fqih and left. He walked through the village and out along the road that led finally to the highway. The next morning he got a ride in a truck that took him all the way to Casablanca. No one in the village ever heard of him again.

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