The Man with the Scale in his Head

The great Arab poets roamed the desert creating ballads to their absent beloveds. My grandfather built his wife a house, though he was not an architect. Outside the city walls of Jeddah he had another wall raised to encircle the villa he wished to have constructed in her honor. Every morning he returned from the mosque and watched the workers gather. Scratching his turbaned head with fingers that felt the weight of the air, he instructed them on the wall to be mortared today, the floor to be laid down with Armenian ceramic tiles, the ceiling to be painted pink with gold fleur-de-lis.

He left them hammering and digging and bending. His own footprints led him through the winding corridors of the city to the tiny shop where he sold cloth, a lone room surrounded by other lone rooms in a city where each day the order of streets and alleyways seemed to change. Yet he always found his way.

The walls of Grandfather's shop were lined with bolts of silk from his ancestors' India, damask from Syria. My grandfather measured out linen simply by looking at it, without needing to stretch it to the length of his arms. His cupped hand became a scale when he sold gold floss and beads. Only strangers to the city questioned his accuracy. The other shopkeepers joked that he knew the weight and length of his wife's hair from day to day, was able to calculate the rate at which it grew. Grandfather knew by heart the number of steps, the number of breaths and heartbeats from the new house being built to his shop, from shop to coffeehouse and mosque, from shop to home. Home was one room with a kerosene stove in the middle of the floor, two hard pillows for five heads. His wife sat in that room all day but he imagined her roaming the rooms of a house built like his city.

How long did it take them to finish the ribcage whose heart grandfather wished my grandmother to become? When the house was done, it was a maze: it contained the hallways each builder most wanted to travel, and in it counted heartbeats met. No room could be reached without at least one false start. No compass needle settled on north in Grandfather's house. Only he knew how to navigate that archipelago of rooms. His wife and three children feared the corridors that twisted and circled back on themselves, the rooms with tiled walls and painted floors. The windowless chambers whose high ceilings threw the footsteps of my grandmother and her children back at them. The four sat all day in the front room near the windows whose wooden grills cooled the breeze, and waited for my grandfather to return.

Unable to understand his wife's fear, one day he brought home a spool of gold thread. Patiently, he tied one end to the window and pressed the cylinder into grandmother's hand, bending her fingers around the spool when she refused to move them. He told her to walk, to unravel the thread and explore the rooms of the house he had built for her. Holding the yarn in one hand and gripping the yellow flowers of her long dress in the other, she walked away from him. He waited for her to look at him over her shoulder, hoped for a parting glance like the wind brushing his face one last time before desert stillness returns. But he saw only the length of black hair, and in his heart he felt its weight.

He left he children playing in the yard, because he didn't know what else to do with them, and he hoped she might learn, thread in hand, the rooms he knew by rote.

When he came home after the sun had bent down in the day's final prayer, the children sat in the dust, faces browner with sand. Inside, the gold thread lay like a thin vein along the floor's palm, reaching into the wrist of the hallway. He followed the trail, walking slowly, until he found her in a windowless room with her hand tightened around the spool. When he opened her hand he found her palm carved with lines as though her skin had been traded with an old woman's. He saw this in the total dark, knew the length of each indentation. Remembered the length of thread he had traveled to find her.

Each night afterward grandmother slept with her children around her, each one curled along a curve of her silhouette. Grandfather spent sleepless nights wandering his labyrinth alone, arms spread and palms flat against the walls of the corridors as he walked. Sometimes the children woke to his hammering. He was hanging lanterns at equal distances from one another. The tiny glass cages held wicks that never stopped burning and the light cut windows of red blue green yellow into the once bare walls. When grandmother refused to leave her room and see what he had done, he brought her instead reams of cloth from his shop printed with the colors of the lanterns. The most beautiful was a sari cloth with weaving so intricate the eye could not follow it. He wanted her to wear his gift, and to smile at him, but she looked away from him so often that he feared he was forgetting her face.

He stood at each of her sisters' doors one after the other, holding in his arms beads and silk thread, black gauze as thin as a layer of skin. Please, sisters, come speak to her, please make her look at me again. When they visited he heard them giggling in her room, almost felt the steam in their voices from the tea they sipped in tiny glass cups. He roamed the house trying to lose their voices and lose himself. If he closed his eyes, held his breath, made his heart stop beating, could he find himself in a room with no sense of how far he'd come? But he always knew where he was and he returned as his wife's sisters departed, their faces blackened against him; he sensed their smiles beneath their veils. The last stopped and lightly brushed his arm with one finger like a lone raindrop falling, her words an afterthought of the touch. Your wife is pregnant.

It was said that a jinni wandered my grandfather's house, hid in its farthest corners. That the jinni slept with my grandmother while Grandfather was away. A neighbor's child taunted my aunt with this rumor when she was little, and she whispered it to me so my grandmother would not hear.

One day soon after my father's birth my grandfather climbed to the roof of his house, and his daughter saw him standing there like a minaret rising to scrape the sky. His arms reached up high and the fingers of one hand were a sickle moon. The loose end of his turban flapped in a breeze from the sea, waving at his young child though he did not. My grandfather fell from the flat roof. Grandmother said he fell while fixing it.

What some said, and even those who didn't quite believe it suspected, about my father's lineage isn't true. I know this because he prevented the jeweler from weighing my mother's pale gold wedding band until he had let its substance tug at his palm. As a child I never had to stand against a doorframe while my parents held a yardstick to my straightened body. My father could tell how tall I was by glancing at me. Kneeling over my grandfather's grave he can count each of his father's bones, how far from his feet they lie, can feel the distance his father fell.

About the author:

Eman Quotah grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Cleveland, Ohio. Now, she lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband and a very noisy cat named Fayruz.