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Twilight Travels with the Grape-Paper Man

When he appeared, the grape-paper man, I was half in half out of the fig tree in my grandmother’s courtyard.

He stopped short in the war-rutted driveway and announced, “Layal! What happened to the snotty rascal I remember? You grew into a little lady.”

“Who the heck are you?” I asked. “Why do you even look like that?”

He was wrapped up like a giant dolma with dolma limbs, even his face covered in grape leaves.

“Who knows,” said the grape-paper man, and he sat heavily on the cinderblock shelf of the jasmine bush across the drive, the one you could smell even inside the house.

Getting out of the fig tree was complicated. I shifted my weight and shouldered away the branch tickling my neck. I kept an eye on the grape-paper man as I dodged grubs and millipedes and the itchy milk welling where I’d twisted fruit away.

“In God’s name,” he said, watching me maneuver. An automatic phrase, to protect me from harm. Who was he to say it? An estranged uncle of mine? An eccentric family friend? Someone looking for a very young wife?

I hopped down to the ground, slapped my hands together. Seedpods and bits of gravel came away from my palms, leaving impressions behind. I tried not to be self-conscious of my baggy striped Adidas tee, my pilling basketball shorts concealing skinned knees and blond-brown hairs. My dorky glasses kept sliding down my nose. At least the cotton training bra under my tee had mostly stopped bugging me.

“Well? What do you want?” I asked, hands in my lumpy pockets. The lumps were a ping-pong ball, an oval rock, an acorn, and nine figs. My grandmother showed me this way to trick the hens into laying huge eggs by leaving round-shaped things in their coop. Five minutes before the grape-paper man showed up, I’d been wondering if figs might be round enough to work.

The grape-paper man stood. He watched me from across the extremely steep driveway, shaded by the chocolate factory towering next door. Weirdly I knew he was watching me although I couldn’t see his eyes. He really was wrapped head to toe in grape leaves. They were a thriving shade of green, thick and swampy.

“Is your grandmother around?” asked the grape-paper man.

“Nope, not here,” I said. She was taking a pot of okra stew to my great-aunt Marwa, the one with the rude parrot.

“Oh,” he said a moment later. “Then can I ask you a favor?” He brought his tightly bound arms up—gangly arms nearly too long for his legs—and clasped hands in front of his heart.

“Depends. What is it?”

“I’ve hit a dead end and could use a little help,” he said. He coughed with humiliation. “I’m looking for my face.”

Most of the time I would not want anything to do with a freaky guy wrapped in leaves. The thing is, something about the grape-paper man made my heart sore, the same sore as when my mom hugged me and asked if I’d had a good day at school when actually the guy I had a crush on had called me a pathetic nerd and shouted in class how I’d die a virgin.

That’s why I walked the grape-paper man to the back of my grandmother’s house, to the broken down fridge with a cardboard box on top. Plucky the red hen wouldn’t lay eggs anywhere else. There was a single egg in the box. I swapped it out for my largest fig.

“I’m going to boil you a fresh egg,” I told him.

He craned his neck to see into the box and said, “I would love an egg. I can’t remember the last time I had one.”

“Wait—can you eat?”

He was silent a long time, until Plucky’s sister Clucky barreled up to us and pecked at his wrappings and I had to take him inside.

I was thinking I’d better be hospitable in my grandmother’s place, so she’d remember that about me later, when summer holidays were over and I was back at school, in another country in basically another world. All the crap I gave myself during the long, lonely days of summer would be reiterated by hormonal boys and looks-obsessed girls, but at least my grandmother would know I was a good person.

Inside I put the egg in a coffee pot with tap water and lit the stove, then jumped up on the kitchen counter and pulled down a drum of orange Tang from the rafters.

“Can you drink at least?” I asked the grape-paper man, dusting shoe mud from the counter.

“Not since I was hunting for my face in ’Aley,” he said. He pronounced the ʿayn all rich and round, like putting a word in your mouth and chewing it till it bursts and there’s caramel inside. Whenever I pronounced that letter I sounded like I was choking.

I gave the grape-paper man a seat at the table and handed him an old newspaper kept aside for the chicken coop. He began to search the listings for his face.

“How do you know who I am?” I asked. I drank my Tang slowly and bit into a salted and peppered yolk like a setting sun.

“Isn’t that an embarrassment, Layal? To ask me such a thing?”

“Not really,” I said. I wondered if he had a Ken-doll crotch under all the grape leaves. Whether he cared either way.

“Come on. We’ve known each other forever,” he said. “And I’ll be at your wedding, and your children’s weddings, and their children’s weddings, God willing.”

“I’m not getting married,” I said.

“Oh?” He turned a page of the newspaper. “Too many ideas from books already?”

I shrugged. “Do you still want to look for your face? It’s already kind of late in the afternoon.”

The grape-paper man brought leaf-wrapped digits to his head, touched the bump of each ear in turn, then swiped the bindings where his bottom lip would be like he was clearing dew from a window.

“I’m ready,” he said.

“So what does your face even look like?” I asked.

“My little problem is that I don’t remember,” said the grape-paper man.

We were walking side by side into the smell of heaven: the chocolate factory’s vanilla and cocoa mashed up with the green chirping afternoon. At the drystack wall I crouched to look for snails in the moss and the dark damp between boulders. My grandmother liked to eat them with tahini. Three snails had clumped together on a flat rock. They popped off with this cellophane noise and I stuck them in my pocket. As a bonus, they were sort of round.

“Do you think my face is in there?” asked the grape-paper man. Possibly sarcastically. I glared at him. A triangle of leaf at his brow fluttered in the breeze.

We went back to walking. A waft of diesel hit us and then we were on the main road to town. It was silent except for the undulating traffic whoosh and the plink of the pebbles I kicked with the tip of my sneaker.

“Let’s try the mayor’s office,” I said. “They know about everyone.”

The grape-paper man sighed and let his hidden gaze range over the mountains beyond my grandmother’s house. “Do you really think we’ll find it there?” he asked.

“Ugh. Whatever,” I snapped before I could stop myself.

Whatever. When I was very little I’d stay with my grandmother a whole month in the summer. My first and second cousins on my mom’s side would be there, dozens of them, all boys, and we built bonfires at night and roasted potatoes and acorns. During the day we trapped feral cats and flipped over metal drums on the outskirts of the nearby refugee camp and dug underneath them for treasure. Our cuts got infected and we got stung and our nails were always dirty and we didn’t care.

Last year I came back and some of the boys had started working with my uncles, and some of them were in the army, and the ones who were around looked at me differently. This sounds weird, but it felt like they suddenly noticed I was a girl.

The games they wanted to play got more polite. Should we go pick up a tray of knafeh for dessert? We could play Fifa at the internet cafe. Want to feed sunflower seeds to Aunt Marwa’s parrot?

I acted like I didn’t care. I made myself say ‘whatever.’ We can do whatever.

But none of them had been asking for help finding their face. I stewed guiltily. There were two icy lines from the frame of my glasses against my hot cheeks.

The mayor’s office saved me. It looked dark from the outside but the door swung wide open on greased hinges. At the reception I said, “I’d like to see all the faces on all the civil registry cards.”

The woman behind the desk wore a lot of makeup. I thought I could poke her chin and leave a big hole in all that foundation. I could tell she didn’t like the look of us.

“Is this your father?” she said, but looked at the grape-paper man for an answer. I wondered how many grape-paper men lived in my grandmother’s town. No one seemed to bat an eye at mine.

“He’s nobody. Nobody you care about,” I said. Her way of asking questions made me nervous. “I need to see all the faces in town, please.”

Her eyes went funny like two gates slamming shut. “We can’t show you the faces. Sir, I’d suggest taking your son somewhere other than the mayoral hall for entertainment. There’s a small fairground at the end of the street.”

“I’m not a boy,” I said.

“She’s not a boy,” said the grape-paper man.

“I’m sorry, dear,” the woman tittered. “It’s just your short hair.” She smiled like there was some kind of scandal between us.

“Let’s go,” I said. But we stopped at the noticeboard in the hall, the grape-paper man and I, and we scanned the faces on all the mayor’s decrees and notices: the mayor’s face, his aide’s, his wife’s, a municipality man’s, the faces of children visiting on a school trip. I heard the grape-paper man breathing raspily and I could smell old cigarettes and the taste of green grapes.

“These aren’t my face, Layal,” he said. “Not even close.”

Even though I’d just been feeling guilty, I got angry again. “Why should I even care about your asshole face! I have my own face to worry about.”

My cheeks got really hot now. I hated it. I wanted a stupid body that felt strong, not stupid. I wanted to grow up big, broad, tall, and hit harder and run faster than the boys. And I wanted them to like me too. I didn’t want to develop over the summer and go back to school with curves. But I did. I wanted to be this girl they asked out, a girl who knew how to be cool about slow dances, the blinking white of midnight online chats, and phone calls about homework which were actually not.

The grape-paper man put a hand on my shoulder. Grape leaf fingertips brushed my neck, slime and rubber.

“Rely on God,” he said. “He’ll find us a way.”

I wasn’t appeased. “Why don’t you tell me what happened to your damn face anyway?”

Again, that sorrow I felt without seeing.

“Another little problem,” said the grape-paper man. “I don’t remember how I lost my face. I had one and then I didn’t. I was a person and then I was a type of person with wrappings. And they wouldn’t come off.”

He tugged delicately at a flap over his wrist bone. “It hurts a lot if I try.”

Heels clicked on marble—the receptionist striding our way. Our grace period for being in her coiffed hair was definitely over.

“Let’s try the fairground,” I said. “Lots of people means lots of faces.”

The grape-paper man hmphed. When I pulled him along, he trailed behind me unevenly like a broken wheel.

The fairground was one merry-go-round, a bumper cars game, a haunted house, and a dozen men selling inflated plastic animals or clear bags filled with blue puffs of cotton candy.

Families milled everywhere; the line for the bumper cars was fifty deep, boys in light-up Spiderman shoes and girls in sparkly tutus. The air smelled of roasted chestnuts and tobacco.

We lined up for the merry-go-round, watched glossy ponies and angled seahorses revolve against the backdrop of low, pregnant clouds. Up the sides of the mountains were squat buildings, bread-colored, windows in them like punch holes.

“Do you see your face?” I asked the grape-paper man.

He shook his head. I offered him a fig from my pocket.

“I can’t eat this.” He took the fig and raised it to eye level. “Where I sleep now, the wood’s from a fig tree.”

“Where is that exactly?” I asked.

“A splintery bed that snags my wrappings,” he said.

“Like where?” I pressed. “Are you visiting from Beirut?”

The merry-go-round jingle went through a whole loop before he spoke again. “I don’t know,” said the grape-paper man. His voice was apologetic.

The ride cost me four thousand lira for two tickets. I’d have to beg for extra pocket money later, but it’s pretty rude to take a guest to the fairground and not at least have a go on the merry-go-round. Even during a face hunt.

“One more question,” I said while we turned and turned. “What kind of a person are you under there?”

“I’m a good person. I’m honest. Generous. I watch over my family.” The grape-paper man seemed to be scanning the rotating crowd for his face.

“No—I mean, are you skinny? Fat? Muscly? Dorky? Hairy?” I asked, spreading a hand on the chipped flank of my blue pony. “Are you definitely a boy?”

“These questions hurt, Layal. They hurt bad. Isn’t your grandmother teaching you to be polite?”

“Shut up,” I said. The ride was ending. I jumped down from the pony before it’d fully stopped. “I’m helping you out here.”

“You are,” he said, climbing slowly from his blank-eyed duckling. “I’m grateful.”

We lingered in front of the haunted house, watched the little monorail car collect excited people and empty them back out jittery and spooked. We listened for the pitch of screams inside. The house was painted with stupid stuff that was meant to be scary—looming ghouls and flying witches and all kinds of dumb monsters.

I pointed at the mummy painted near the mouth of the haunted house, his bandages undoing to reveal grey and purple decay.

“He’s like you,” I said.

“Like me?”

“All . . . wrapped up.”

The grape-paper man didn’t say anything for a long time. “Is that what I look like?”

God, my heart felt bad. I didn’t know what to say. I thought: it’s better to be a useless thirteen-year-old loser. I thought: a shitty, slow, weakling girl-body is better than being that way.

At school the only sport I wasn’t useless at was swimming. I mean I hated the shuffle from the changing rooms to the pool, goosebumps everywhere, my forehead stretched into surprise by my swimcap. Once we got going, though, my breaststroke was pretty decent. I was faster at laps than almost all the girls. They put me on the team.

Then two summers ago, we went to the water park here, a bunch of my cousins and I, the boys bouncing around in their trunks and me shriveled in my stupid swimsuit like one of my grandmother’s snails waiting to be tipped into boiling water. We beelined for the wave pool and Jaber shouted for a competition. Laps across the width of the pool, six of us lining up. Two laps in, the boys were already on their third. They slapped water at my face on every return length until the lifeguard kicked us out for making mischief.

I thought of the grape-paper man even trying to swim, flailing and burdened in his soggy grape leaves.

“You don’t look like that mummy,” I said. “You’re much, much cooler. Come on.”

We’d been around town twice, and soon my grandmother would be home. I had to be back before she started to worry.

The grape-paper man’s face was still nowhere to be found. I would have given him a hug if he weren’t so slimy looking. Besides, I still wasn’t sure how he knew me. I didn’t want to give him weird ideas just in case.

“This is hard work. Ice-cream break?” I asked. “For me, I mean. I’ve only got enough pocket money for one cone anyway.” I shot him a sheepish look.

“You deserve an ice-cream,” the grape-paper man said. He cast his head about strangely, almost like he was scenting the air. “I think I know a place.”

I had a favorite place too but didn’t want to be impolite. I followed him up a steep side street past a row of mechanics and hairdressers. The freezer shone like a treasure chest from a distance. The million flavors made a rainbow of colors—delicious things like mulberry and honeydew and mango and lemon. And chewy, gummy chocolate and custard, and pistachio with bits. You could ask for as many as you wanted and the guy would construct a mosaic of ice-cream teetering over the edges of a thin wafer cone.

For a while we sat on the curb while I licked soft sorbets and gouged the gummy chocolate flavor with my front teeth. Arabic music drummed and jangled from the parlor’s speakers. The grape-paper man was silent.

Eventually he had things to say. They weren’t things I wanted to hear.

“Layal. I want you to work hard at school and stay out of trouble. Get married to a decent guy. Get a job in a big, bright office. Can you do that?”

“What does it matter to you?” I licked my lips clean. I wished I wasn’t top of my class. I wished I wasn’t so popular with my teachers. I wanted to have stolen the car, smoked some pot, gotten drunk and kissed a boy.

“I know what happens otherwise,” he said. And again his scratchy sorrow, like I’d felt when my grandmother hacked the head off Tricky, the hen who refused to do her womanly duty by laying a bunch of eggs. “I think,” he started and quirked his head. “I think I know that street over there.”

He got up and began to walk away from the ice-cream parlor until he was standing in front of a closed shopfront beneath a wavery streetlamp. I joined him. He was facing the metal roll-down grille and its scribbles of graffiti like they were some kind of crystal ball.

I looked up at the sign, sounded out the Arabic laboriously beneath my breath. Al-ʿAdel Shop for Fruit and Vegetables.

“This fruit shop?” I asked.

The grape-paper man nodded. “It’s somewhere I used to be.”

He was moving off again, to the cinderblock wall alongside the shop. It was arrayed with political slogans and posters and more shoddy graffiti.

Then the grape-paper man stopped again and began to heave with sobs. Tears splattered to the dusty ground, and with them fell small scraps of leafy vegetation.

I steeled myself to look at him and saw, poking through the gaps in his grape leaves, murky eyeballs. They were brown and cloudy as bone broth. Now I could follow his sickly gaze to a three-panel poster of a young man in various poses. The top panel, a studio headshot. Beneath this, the same man in new-looking acid wash jeans and a button-down, straddling the branch of a tree. At the bottom, the young man in shorts in a gym, oily, flexing his rippling physique.

“It’s you,” I asked, “isn’t it?”

The grape-paper man nodded through his tears. “That’s my face.”

A terrible feeling roiled in my stomach. I read the Arabic: Private Tareq Salman, 1980-1999, killed honorably in the line of duty, April 2nd.

“I help my father out at his greengrocer’s shop when I have weekends away from the barracks,” he said. “I preserve grape leaves in jars of salt water. Layer after layer after layer. It gets so muggy in that shop. I go to the gym afterwards and I’m sweating before I even start lifting weights. I remember.”

More green stuff was sloughing off him. Three colors of ice-cream dripped down my fist. My heart beat fast. I did not want to see a corpse’s body.

“Hey. We have the same last name,” I noticed.

“Of course,” said Tareq. “I told you. I’ve known you all your life.”

In my head I went through my long list of relatives. “Aunt Roula’s oldest son?” I whispered. “My cousin Tareq?”

“Who else?” He smiled at me, a lipless stretch of flesh.

The summer I was five, Tareq and I spent a week shooting at lizards with BB guns. He was a great shot. He got one in the butt one time, pinning it squirming to a tree branch. We didn’t shoot at them after that.

“You’re dead.” I was struggling to believe it. I hadn’t seen him in years. No one had told me.

Now it was fully dark, and the night was cooling, and Tareq’s smell was changing to something darker too, a hot smell that lodged in my nose-hairs and made my eyes water.

“How can I be dead?” he asked. “I haven’t got a wife or children. I haven’t bought a house or a car. I don’t own any land. My degree . . . I was studying business administration.”

“I don’t know,” I said, setting my melting ice-cream down in the dust. I wanted to hide inside the depths of myself. I squinted at the bottom panel of the memorial poster. “You were a bodybuilder.”

“Runner-up in the amateur bodybuilding championships in Beirut.”

I imagined getting as strong and tall and broad as that, only to be dead. It didn’t seem fair at all. Like not even the things I secretly hoped for made a difference to the world tearing you down.

“Can you eat now that your wrappings are gone? Do you want to come over for dinner?”

Again, that weird sorrow like a change in weather, so intense it almost shifted my feet from under me.

“Thank you, Layal,” he said with a trembling voice. It was the only thing about him that was better—clearer and sounder—without the leaves. “You’ve helped me a lot. But now that I’ve found my face, I have to search for other things I’m missing.”

The grape-paper man began to walk away. Under every streetlamp there was less greenness about him, and below the sixth streetlamp there was none, and he was camouflaged by the dark, by the dust.

About the Author

Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she works on transport systems for the future. In her spare time she boxes, runs, and hunts for the perfect almond croissant. Sara is a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her fiction has recently appeared in Clarkesworld and Lackington’s, and you can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara.