King Herod's Houses

 

I’m trying to be attendant to small miracles these days. I’m not

drinking as I used to, I’ve just landed a big commission, and my

daughter was born in good health. But I see dead spaces everywhere.

I’m reminded of Herod, king of undernourished men and women,

who built flat and sloping and tall and crumbled things. Only

the Cave of the Patriarchs still stands, and all of its siblings are

dead. Herod built things to last, but history abhors permanence.

It’s obvious to me that buildings feel something: their roots and

tentacles, subterranean in reach, burrow under streets and groves

and rivers and expressways. They’d emerge from the ground

organically were it not for the dirt-clogged metal sinew. Foundation

stones lie dormant, of course, but some are awake and present in

the world. Do they have anything to tell us? I once posed a polite

version of this question to the woman who runs the Church’s

Opportunity Shop. She said, ‘None of that here,’ and unwelcomed

me with a look.

 

Yesterday I had an argument with Farhiya. She was sitting in the

back with our daughter, so I had to look into the rear-view mirror

to meet her eyes. The baby was restless; she didn’t take to car travel.

Farhiya was still annoyed at my mother for refusing to hold the

baby at the hospital. I tried to explain to her how Hoyo was, but she

was having none of it. ‘Gabow, your mother is an odd woman,’ she

said. She was gripping the baby seat with one hand, half-leaning

over, as if to shield it from the world. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

‘You’ve just got to deal with how she is,’ I told her. ‘She doesn’t like

babies.’ ‘Who doesn’t like babies? Why doesn’t she like our baby?’

‘It’s not our baby she doesn’t like. It’s just babies in general.’ I think

children remind my mother of death. She has a natural disposition

toward fatalism and is forever besieged by terrible premonitions.  

Her worries consume her. Now that I am older I understand her

better—we all sublimate our fears in strange ways.

 

When I think of buildings, I am really thinking of people, and

perhaps in this I reflect my mother. Near the house where I grew

up, there’s an empty lot where the old plastics factory once stood.

A man died there when I was seven or eight. It was a hot day, and

I’d gone out to buy ice-cream. I had a habit of clutching coins in

my fist until they were covered in a film of sweat, and then licking

the coppery taste from my palm. The ambulance screamed past me

and a spill of workers gathered nervously on the street in front of

the factory. I stood around the edges of the crowd and watched as

the paramedics rushed inside. I didn’t see them come back out, but

later that evening my father, whose friend Abdulwahid worked in

the factory, informed us that a man died there that day.

 

Farhiya says I take my profession too seriously. That I think about

it too much. She finds it odd that I spend hours and hours walking

around listening to dead bricks. But one can’t help one’s peculiarities.

‘They want you to design apartments, not monuments,’ she said,

when I first showed her my rough sketches for the structures that

would go where the factory once stood. Her words struck a chord,

though not in a way that she intended. A monument. To whom? I

think of the man who died, in that space that will soon be filled with

modern luxury apartments. None of it will last, but the buildings

themselves will dig into the earth, coiling in the undersoil, arranging

their surroundings, speaking strangely to strange men and women.

Soon, no-one will even remember there was a factory there. Except

me—small and unafraid, my palms smelling faintly of copper,

glistening with sweat.