In those years of sunshine that battered the streets, and deluges that wrinkled fingers and toes, the villagers never suspected Hafeez of anything more than putting holes in their teeth.
He made bonbons and baked bread. The bread was his livelihood, the bonbons for the pleasure of the village children. When Hafeez lacked the gumption to wash crockery—and this was often—bonbons and bread shared the same trays and spatulas. The result was a perversion of sourdough studded with half-melted boiled sweets and goops of chocolate truffles, in pursuit of which the children of the village frantically begged change.
The confectioner’s bonbons were of some renown. They were sold in leather-trimmed square boxes handcrafted by a second cousin called Lana, a simple woman in her early fifties who nevertheless seemed to be racing Hafeez towards the finish line of old age.
In the temple and before they fell asleep, the children of the village prayed for Hafeez’s immortality. He was ancient, an old man since their parents had been children themselves.
He seemed to the children a shrunken relic, desiccated and overwhelmingly sweet-smelling. The few silver hairs that still dotted his chin and earlobes were out of place, wisps of spun sugar clinging on after the treat was gone. The children stared at Hafeez across the counter fashioned of two splintered planks while he bagged the bread their mothers sent them to buy. When the shop was quiet, he snuck them a bonbon each for the road.
And his favourite children? These he took by the hand during siesta hours and led into the kitchen in the back. The others knew by instinct not to wait about for their return, nor to give away their whereabouts when parents or tutors pressed. Anyway, the favoured children always returned the next day, smiles beatific and broad, teeth coated with toffee.
“Did he give you bonbons?”
“Are there any left for us?”
But Hafeez’s favourites never told. They only moaned with over-fullness like happy calves, clutching bellies, and said, “I can’t remember. My ribs hurt.”
They were quiet for some days, and the other children’s jealousy made pariahs of them. This went on until fervent dreams of being chosen next were accidentally left out of nightly prayers, and everyone, including the particular child Hafeez had favoured—who had always been hazy on the event—had forgotten all about it.
Then came a summer worse than any before; the heat rose to such levels that livestock began to die in the fields and even the stoutest palm trees wilted like tender shoots.
The village children rested lolling heads on the stoop of Hafeez’s shop, scuffed their shoes in the dirt, and worked up reluctant appetites for bonbons below an oppressive sky. Hafeez, on the other hand, baked with vigour, despite heat that rose to infernal levels within his small kitchen with its brick oven.
At the end of every fortnight, he supervised a shipment of supplies. The children learned to await this delivery: it involved the toing and froing of great crates filled with steaming, streaming ice.
“Ahhhhh,” the children said, arms spread wide as they hopped and skipped, drunk on relief, alongside the cooling crates. They did not think to question why the crates of ice were ferried into Hafeez’s bakery, then back to the waiting cart, its horses whinnying and lathered.
Lana was unconsoled by any volume of ice, and at the height of the weather ran into the village’s meagre boulevard shouting prayers to the prophets, her unbridled breasts suffering the humiliation of their own pair of spreading sweat patches.
“This heat! This heat! I’d sooner roast on a spit than boil slowly in my own skin!” she shouted in the direction of the children, and tossed her arms up towards the clouds and their blinding pinpoints of light like piercing arrows.
“Go inside, Lana,” said the only boy who could muster enough energy to speak. “It’s worse out here, with the sun beating down like a slap from God.”
That was when a loud and tragic cacophony turned every lethargic head in the direction of the little bakery.
The children rushed in to find Hafeez slumped onto his baking counter, his nose in a log of rising dough, his shoulder dunking into a mixing bowl of meringue. In the heat, the sweetened egg white reeked like a convalescent’s room adorned with the overripe flowers of wellwishers. Lana was the last to discover old Hafeez face down in uncooked pastry, at which point she let out a wail that seemed to last until a reluctant shadow finally obscured the sun and the powdery dim of mourning suffused the room.
Within two days of Hafeez’s funeral, a fully grown grandson appeared in the village. He stood one morning at the dead-bolted door of the bakery, arms stuffed with paperwork, his look long and sallow like the reflection of a parched camel in a drinking trough.
The man’s name was Mr. Hani. After he disappeared into the bakery, it remained shuttered for weeks, and then reopened with a new sign dripping white paint—Hani’s: Purveyor of Rusks, Biscuits, and Sweet Tea.
The children could barely contain their curiosity. The door jingled with the entrance of twos and threes of them. Their fists were fat with pocket money saved for weeks in the absence of Hafeez’s bonbons.
Mr. Hani buttered twice-baked rusk bread for them, wrapped each crunchy, sesame-studded piece in a twist of wax paper. He looked down an accusing nose and his moustaches trembled when he breathed. Worst of all, when Lana emerged from the kitchen with a baking tray, Mr. Hani shooed her away. “You need to watch the baking. Every second, your eyes must be on the rusks. Or they’ll blacken, not brown.”
“Blacken, not brown,” Lana repeated, turning around, knocking her tray against the back of the antique cash register, all the while eyeing Mr. Hani nervously. That was when the children decided this grand-fruit of old Hafeez’s loins was, alas, a wormy apple.
They had only to prove it.
The plan was hatched on midsummer’s eve, though they admitted to themselves that as far as the need for secrecy, light leaching into the heavens in the heart of the night was not a point in their favour. The two tallest girls were chosen to jump the back fence into the disused yard of the bakery, then climb up the vine frame to the red-tiled roof. Here the girls dangled a series of mirrors attached to a rope into the smoke duct and searched the darkened scene for anything suspicious.
A nearly blinding pinpoint of light hopscotched up the chain of mirrors. It took a few minutes to chide the mirror rope into stability, and a few more before the girls managed to make out the scene. Hani, far from asleep, was hacking at a hooved carcass with a meat cleaver, and collecting offal in a slop bucket.
“He’s chopping up a goat or something!” one of the girls shouted down from the rooftop, and the waiting children on the other side of the fence met each other’s eyes in puzzlement.
“The cocks are yet to even stir,” said Amado.
“It’s true that they work through the night at bakeries,” said Nisrine.
“Since when does a baker sell mutton?”
The village children fell silent, recollecting. An entire goat provided a lot of meat. Surely one of them would have noticed if any of it ended up for sale alongside the polite arrangements of crispbread, rusks, silver-plated pouring pots, and jars of tealeaf.
In the morning, the children formed a tight huddle outside the door of Mr. Hani’s.
“You check the top shelf,” they said to tall Rafi.
“You—look behind the jars and in the cold box where our Hani keeps milk for the tea.”
“Someone should ask about what’s in the rusks. Even if they barely taste of anything—”
“—Well, closest to cardboard.”
“Good idea. And you: make an excuse of searching for a spare crate to carry onions home from the market. Cover as much of the kitchen as you can.”
The children danced over the threshold, one after the other.
“Only three in the shop at a time, please!” cried Mr. Hani in his deep, breathless voice.
“We’re on summer holidays,” said Nisrine, as if this were explanation enough.
The shop was stifling, the atmosphere tea-vapored and shaded. Lana stood rearranging rusk bread in two large baskets behind the counter, adding the freshly baked rusks to the very back of the pile, scooting pieces to the front proportionally to their staleness.
The ten village children who had squeezed into Mr. Hani’s went about their reconnaissance, sleuthing for evidence of the meat worth staying up all night to prepare.
One of the boys ducked into the kitchen where old Hafeez had died. Here his eye fell on knives speckled with viscera, soiled mixing bowls, and a spill which had a hardened circumference of rusty brown.
But nowhere was there any sign of the meat prepared by this progeny of old Hafeez, or the remains of the carcass. No bones, no bristly skin, no organs.
As much as the children salivated at the memory of the bonbons that had flavoured the start of summer, they now indulged their inner carnivores. Their lust for the missing mutton heightened the children’s suspicions, and from then on they watched the shop with a paranoid constancy, accosting Lana on her way to the market for ingredients, waiting for Mr. Hani to shut the door with a thwack so that they could follow him home.
On Sundays and Tuesdays they conducted night-time missions to glean scraps of evidence from mirrors strung down the smoke duct. The two bakers were often awake and bent over a goat carcass, but every time it seemed the children would learn the final fate of the sinister mutton, Lana would swing open the back door to fetch buckets of water from the well. Wave after pink and frothy wave gushed from the open door into the sandy yard while the sky coloured in response. The children would sneak away rather than risk discovery.
At the same time as the village children regaled their mothers and fathers with tales of Mr. Hani’s rusk shop, strange things were happening at the graveyard.
The paunch of the atmosphere drew down to coddle the streets, and the heat seemed to have permeated the tombs and mausoleums of the newly dead, since swarms of locusts and fruit flies, bees and biting midges, arrived to hover in black clouds above the fresh burial plots.
Hafeez’s grave attracted the largest swarm, which emitted a droning dirge all day and night. The children collected specimens of the flying hordes and showed them to their parents. The adults, having promised to investigate, took shelter in the coolness of Meemo’s cafe. Over carafes of tea diluted by melting blocks of ice, they discussed the desecration of the dead.
“I suggest we open the tombs to look,” said Meemo, overhearing. “There can’t be any harm in it.”
“Oh, what do you know, you old turtle,” said Amin, whose heart had never recovered from his wife’s brazen adultery, and who treated every man as his personal enemy.
“What’s the harm of it?” repeated Meemo over the tin tray balanced on his bicep. “Just a bunch of bones.”
But the village children, at least, had begun to doubt that. They wondered what could be in the tombs, in the mausoleums, to attract such an insistent plague. They ignored less afflicted graves in favour of investigating Hafeez’s tomb. So much mystery burdened that moody summer that they split their forces into two. Children taller than the palm tree in the middle of the square were on Mr. Hani’s case, and the shorter children went on patrols of the graveyard.
One thing was certain: the children had never had so much excitement to fill the sweltering days of their summer holidays. They refused siestas, preferring to walk the streets during the hottest part of the day with dish towels draped over one shoulder to mop up sweat.
Icy shipments to the shop had resumed after Hafeez’s death. The children returned to their old habit of shadowing the crates, desperate for the tendrils of cooling air. They were more and more reverent of this brief and periodic luxury, the heat-swollen lobes of their brains awash in gratitude for any break from the smothering heat. The contents of the cooled crates, coming and going, remained doubly insulated: from the weather, and from the children’s prying.
Mr. Hani’s dry, tasteless rusk bread was more popular than it deserved, since the children had given up meals as a waste of precious time. Despite the antagonistic curiosity of their approach, they negotiated rusks and cold sweetened tea at a frequent customers’ discount.
“How about some mutton and carrot stew?” they’d ask him, probing. “Maybe a char-grilled skewer? A fried liver and pickle plate?”
Mr. Hani let these questions sit unanswered in the heartbeat hum of the ceiling fan, and as for Lana—her vocabulary seemed to have shrunken to three or four rote sentences since Hafeez’s death.
One night the shortest child old enough for these adventures noticed a new smell on the wind in the graveyard.
“Awful!” he exclaimed to his small-statured group. “Can’t you smell it? It’s like a basket of sugary watermelons rotted and infested with worms.”
A breeze soon spread the smell to gathered and sniffing noses, and they realised that the source was a crack in the lid of Hafeez’s tomb, where the wooden flat top and stone rim had expanded with different exuberances in the boiling heat.
None of the village children could claim to have smelled a decomposing human body before, but even without this bragging right, the organic calibrations of their bodies told them that this smell was uncommon.
The graveyard patrol gathered the taller children from Mr. Hani’s yard, and then the parents and village adults.
All took turns sniffing at the necrotic scent from the crack in the tomb, nostrils flaring in horror.
“Like the sweetness of fermented tea if you soaked camel shit in it.”
“No—worse. Much worse. The Devil’s armpits if he scrubbed them with the innards of sinners!”
“It’s just sweat and decomposition.”
“It can’t be. It can’t be.”
It was in the end Meemo from the cafe who appeared with a crowbar and a cloth to buttress it. “Move away, except for those strong enough to help me pop the lid!” he said, relishing his self-imposed leadership.
“Let the old man’s bones lie,” grumbled Amin.
“No!” cried the village children. “We’re so close!”
The parents gave in to the pleading; it was too hot, even that late at night, to countenance anything like a debate.
Meemo wedged the crowbar in and, aided by the brawn of the village mason, shifted the lid of Hafeez’s tomb.
The smell poured out, eyewatering, and the body, wrapped loosely in a burial cloth, was teeming with such a matted thickness of grubs and winged things that parents held their children back.
But the shortest boy of the graveyard patrol wasn’t easily cowed, bravery having always made up the three inches missing from his stature. He swooped in, raised his shirt to his nose, and swatted the burial cloth to one side, unseating enough feasting insects to fill a gallon tank.
“What is that?” he shouted. “What in the name of the most merciful is that?”
Curiosity overcame the villagers. They shuddered forward into the light—for a soft golden glow emanated from the tomb. They held their breath collectively and saw, inside the half-decomposed casing of poor Hafeez’s ribs, vital organs fashioned of a rich amber resin, perfectly made, some identical to those of a man, and others which seemed to be pistons and levers.
Insects crawled all over this substance, and more were stuck to its surface.
The colour was unique, identifiable. Nothing had ever been clearer to the village children.
“He’s been stuffed with his own bonbons!”
While their parents milled and shooed insects, longing for the sanctuary of their beds beneath a fog of mosquito netting, the children accepted the latest revelation with the glee of hounds on a fresh scent.
“Did it happen after he croaked or before?”
“I bet Hani did it. Replaced his grampa bit by bit with sugar until he was a robot under his control.”
“And maybe he’s been practicing on dead goats. Until he gets his hands on another victim?”
There was a moment of silence, into which Meemo said, “What?”
“Lana!” said three girls and a boy at once.
With that, the children vacated the graveyard, running for the boulevard of shops as though God had personally bid them come.
The shop was silent and shuttered. The Rusks, Biscuits, and Sweet Tea sign swung noiselessly in a cloying breeze. But the taller children had not one hour ago observed more unholy butchering from atop the roof, and within moments the entire village was gathered outside the shop, children shouting in conviction, adults in confusion.
After minutes of this, the door shutter lifted and Mr. Hani’s eyes, perfectly awake and pinched with animosity, peered out at the gathered mob.
Almost instantly, the shutter slammed back down.
“Open up, sorcerer!” Rafi cried.
“Where’s Lana? Send her out!”
The village children began the arduous task of trying to convince their parents to ram the door to Mr. Hani’s shop in.
“Insides made of sugar—”
“—Lana scared to death—”
“—probably killed Hafeez.”
“Wait,” shouted Jalal’s mother over the din. “Calm down. What does this have to do with what was inside Hafeez’s tomb?”
At this the door swung open a forearm’s length, and Mr. Hani prodded his neck out, an oil lamp illuminating a droopy earlobe and a pimply neck.
“What about my grandfather’s tomb?” he asked righteously. “What have you done, you little fornicatory mistakes?”
“We know what you do with your goats. And we know what you did with Hafeez!” the children bluffed confidently.
“That’s right! Have you done it to Lana too?”
The door opened wide, swinging all the way to the outside, the wrong way round. It splintered against its jamb.
Mr. Hani was fully dressed, and Lana cowered behind him. He laughed like a hyena. “How wrong you have it!”
This gave the village children the briefest pause. Then they remembered why they were there.
“We said let her out!” the village children threatened.
Having gotten wind of some wrongdoing, and now of the fatty and unsettling scent of a carved animal, the adults joined authoritative voices to the children’s.
“Let her go, Hani, for the sake of Hafeez, esteemed by us all.”
Mr. Hani made a grotesque facial expression, his lips retracting all the way back to reveal sharpish, stained teeth. His moustaches bristled, fringing his mouth. Then he reached behind him and swung Lana around until she was in between him and the villagers.
“His one mistake, my grandfather,” said Mr. Hani over the sound of Lana whimpering, “was to think he was untouchable. He spent a whole generation putting sugar innards into others, building himself a fortune in the organ trade.” Mr. Hani screamed these last words into Lana’s ear. She yelped and shouted “Blacken not brown!” angrily.
“Of course he taught me how,” Hani continued. “I was meant to take over the family business! Took me into the back, showed me the tools so sharp their tips were invisible to the eye, and the fudge balls soaked in tranquiliser. The trays of sugar organs—they were a thing of beauty, my grandfather said, intricate and perfect as God’s own.
“The old monster never thought I’d turn on him. But the last time I came through this infernal bone in the windpipe of our land, I made sure I left old grampa twice as sweet as he’d been before.”
Mr. Hani studied the collective horror on the faces of the villagers standing at his doorstep. Then he noticed Lana. “Excuse my cousin. Atoning for her old life as my grandfather’s accomplice has rendered her rather speechless.”
“What exactly are you up to?” said Meemo, stepping forward and unbuckling his belt, which he unstrung with a whoosh and wielded like a whip. “Come out of there, son. I think your time in this town is up.”
Mr. Hani had glazed over. “Why did I bother?” he murmured sadly. “Goat hearts and goat kidneys were only going to go so far before someone wised up to the counterfeits.” The look on his face was so lost it almost gained the village children’s mercy. “At least I can savour having gotten the old devil myself, in the end.”
“We don’t believe you. Old Hafeez never swept a lizard off the wall,” said Amado. “You’re a murderer. You killed an innocent old man.”
Mr. Hani set down his oil lamp, stepped over the stoop, and passed nonchalantly through the crowd. When he was safely beyond the gathering, he paused.
“If none of you ever suspected a thing? Well, I have to admire the dead old man’s guile. But if you fear what you saw in place of his heart, his entrails, his lungs, you should think hard about why half of you smell like cinnamon and toffee instead of the unwashed riffraff that you are. Think about what secrets that bakery has kept.”
Soon he faded from view on the road through the market and out east towards the sea. A few adults circled Lana to reassure her, but she had been startled into an entrenched muteness that would last the rest of her life. Others raided the shop looking for solid explanations for the soiling they all felt deep in their souls.
The village children conferred worriedly amongst themselves. The words of their parents did not ease them, nor promises of bonbons come daylight. For years after, parents caught their children examining themselves in mirrors and with magnifying glasses, sniffing their own sweat thoughtfully, or tapping on their sucked-in bellies with the flat of a finger, listening.
Only a liar would say the rest of the villagers did not wonder. When husbands and wives lay together, their fingers searched for seams in intimate places, and in the solitude of darkness everyone let their own fingers roam, searching for unwanted sweetness.