The house where Anís lived was built of long gray boulders and had a lovely old-fashioned porch turned towards the sea. As he arrived, he noticed a pair of sea people standing under it, at the very door – two elderly people of which only the woman’s hair had grayed. It appeared to him that they had already knocked and were now impatiently shivering on the porch, trying to get warm, for their clothes looked as if they though the autumn would have lasted longer than it actually did.
He smiled, kindly.
Finally the doors were opened by the lady of the house in person, for all help was so busy inside with the preparations they had not heard the knock. The mother was a middle aged woman, a dark skinned inlander with nut brown hair, in a dress overly luxurious for where she lived.
She took the parcel from the man and drew a scornful glance at his wife, standing two feet to the back, as if wondering why both had to bother coming over for such a simple matter.
‘You are late,’ she said and after an awkward pause closed the doors to the man’s face.
There would be no tip for him.
‘Oh, what days these, what days,’ the old woman mumbled while shaking her head and gesturing threateningly with her hand, which she dared not lift from her green dress. ‘Can you imagine that a… a landbreed has all… this, all that ought to have been yours,’ and the way she said it made it plain she bitterly believed it all ought to have been hers.
‘Let i’ be, let i’ be,’ the little seaman said turning around and descending from the porch in a toddling manner. He looked back only once, then continued on his way. ‘They’ve jus’ moved in, they’ve only just bough’ it. They di’n’t settle properly jus’ yet. “We can’t keep wha’ we easily reap.” Remember?’
The woman spat and mumbled, ‘The devil keep her,’ but careful that nobody should hear her, ‘if she not be one herself.’
And they were gone. The lady of the house could stop eavesdropping, so she quickly drew the curtain over the little round window from which she was spying on them, intrigued by something in the seaman’s black hair and the muddled lines of his face. Just to be sure, she opened the doors again, looked left and right and, when she was absolutely sure they were gone for good, went inside to open the parcel. But because she forgot to close the doors tight, unused to getting them on a daily basis, the Rat Lad easily slipped in, unnoticed.
The only person who gave him a puzzled look was a servant rushing to help the lady of the house with her package. Over her shoulder, the Rat Lad was overwhelmed by the wonderful warm smells of a southern kitchen, deftly served on a plate. It was the only thing she found to her liking lately, so the servants were helping her arrange it at the top of the dining table, as she would not touch any of the wondrous preparations by the hired cooks.
Thus absorbed with the table setting, she never noticed the tall, unhandsome intruder who entered in a warm dark red coat with a protruding nose and lank hair. One of the servants wanted to take his coat, but he just waved her off.
‘I am here for the party,’ he said. ‘I believe your mistress is expecting me.’
The girl bobbed and showed him along the grandiose preparations for the occasion, with at least ten different pairs of hands doing ten different kinds of arrangements, from setting the dinnerware to dusting the high places of furniture. He gave his due attention to every detail, at the same time being careful to follow the little mousy servant who scurried down the hall, then left, and then opened a seemingly unimportant door and showed him in. It was a side drawing room with only a few selected souls killing their time before the most important part of the evening.
To them he paid little if any attention, for they seemed to him as moths gathering around the one and only person who deserved it by her still veiled brilliance.
She resembled her mother, who was capable of ordering expensive dishes from a dispropertied seaman and leaving him outside without even a tip, very little. Despite of her alleged spending a lot of time outside, she was plumper than was expected from a comely woman her age, and her complexion was too soft and light.
He liked her nevertheless, for other reasons. The prime of these was her hair, whose russet locks rested on top of her head, raised and clasped with a strangely looking ornament which resembled cinnamon bark, or some such similar potpourri – he could not be sure of which at first, but smelled it and felt excited by it from afar.
She glided around the room in a lush copper dress, full of drapes and trimmings which came into view and disappeared from it at every moment, as if the dress were alive to tease the mindful observer. He thought it was just a bit too dressy for someone who was herding goats the rest of the year round, but did not make his remark known in any way.
Anís kept laughing and enjoying herself, as one should when celebrating one’s first engagements, yet he could not help but notice the tiny signs of nervousness – the playing with her nails, the plucking of her own loose tress, the thoughtful stroking of the table. And she never once looked at him the entire time she stood by the piano, though his chair was set just opposite her.
He took his seat at the table generally unnoticed at first, but it could not last long. Just several moments later he engaged the girl sitting next to him in a loud conversation which made her neck itch and two young men, who had already been competing for her attention, frowned at the Rat Lad. He was an accomplished party-goer and animosity needed not slap him in the face for him to recognize it. Before the inimical pair could dampen the atmosphere, the Rat Lad was getting out his hazi.
‘Hear, hear!’ he said loudly and all but one head turned to him. ‘I propose a song, one rather befitting our occasion; a very merry song, anyone could join in if you find it to your liking.’
‘Splendid,’ said a disembodied voice that could not be identified later on.
‘Do sing,’ pleaded, in a husked voice that fitted her perfectly, the luxuriously blonde woman nestling on the other side of the table from the Rat Lad. They had all been sitting together for a long time with no food served and the conversations were beginning to thin out.
He struck a tune, a merry one indeed, which only lacked a violin or two, that later on several people claimed they had actually heard in the background, to start a hop. This did not hinder the Rat Lad who suddenly stood up and began jumping from one chair to the other, quickly getting worked up and in the mood for a song. So sing he did, a bunch of simple, almost silly verses about my darling who loved me, and my darling who danced, and my darling who went to hell for me, or some similar nonsense. Perhaps it was not quite befitting, but it remained one of high green slopes and leaping over river rapids, and was rather catchy.
The Rat Lad kept the beat on the blue tablecloth with his freer hand – trump-trump, tap-tap, tarrap-tap-tap, trump-trump – and the blonde one joined in at once, falling in love with him so utterly and deeply that her thighs squeezed and her breath stopped short with excitement as she sang. Oh, to this Anís could not resist, so she too joined them, first from her corner and then coming out to full light, with eyes gleaming and her face all heated up.
It was then that the Rat Lad really fell for her, as she took up the beat with her pebble-like hands, never missing one drum, giving herself fully to what pleased her. He observed her so carefully that the blonde woman turned a greenish hue from which she never quite recovered, and her thighs remained stiff forevermore.
But the Rat Lad could not care less, for there was absolutely nothing special about the blonde. Instead, he pranced and twirled, sang and hummed, and the fingers on his strings managed incredible feats for Anís. Whoever looked once at him could not take his eyes off, so mesmerizing was his music and motion, as if one sprang from the other. His coat kept both in a dark frame, attracting attention and keeping the distance which they felt was shrinking, as the desire to be that merrymaking youth themselves splashed everyone and drowned them in a river of empathy.
Anís found herself wildly desiring things she had so far known only in her dreams. The paths opened wide before her, calling her by the sweetest names, and the longing for climbing to high places seemed to hurt. She was dizzy and, inebriated by the music, for a moment went to and came back from that place where the soul permanently resides once it has known it. And someone went with her, and came back holding her hand.
There was a pause.
The air stood quite still.
And then the wild refrain began to drum its way into their ears. Habebe habebe, obebe obebe – and then the other way around – obebe obebe, habebe habebe. The Rat Lad begun the chant solo but very soon everyone broke into the chorus – habebe habebe obebe obebe – forgetting themselves and trying not to lose the rhythm or twist their tongues – obebe obebe habebe habebe – but they did for it was impossible to keep up with the quickening speed of the Rat Lads hands, beating upon the blue tablecloth, demanding concentration, yet subverting their attempts to do as he asked: habebe habebe, obebe obebe –
And – obebe obebe, habebe habebe – one by one, they fell off and burst into a laugh, roaring all around the room with tearful eyes, not once wondering who the youth was who brought them to this state. He laughed with them, and perhaps even the more, for Anís returned his look and he liked so much what she was proposing to him at that one instant.
As the bustle settled down, there was a peaceful hazi interlude, almost as if nothing had happened, and then the lady of the house came in, her face so ashen one could have at once known she would not be eating her southern delicacies that evening. The hazi and the youth in the room fell silent and observed her and the newcomer in a drenched fur overcoat who stood outside the parlor with his head bowed. It was only then they noticed that the night had spread its wings outside and all the candles in the room were lit, in a solemn and festive manner.
‘Child,’ her mother said approaching to take Anís by the hands, in an overly ceremonious style, ‘I am sorry to inform you that your fiancé will not be coming.’
‘Oh, is it the weather?’ she asked, still lightheaded from the dance and chant.
‘Yes,’ the mother said, ‘but not as you might suspect. It was icy from the fog on the way up… and he – he fell…’
‘… so, he must be at the doctor’s by now,’ she said.
From the older woman’s demeanor it was plain she considered her daughter a dunce but the show had to be played on, to reach the properly sober ending.
‘No, I am afraid his neck was broken.’
And Anís, all of a sudden, could not stop a giggle growing in her throat, for she knew he fell in the middle of their habebe obebe chant, while they were so absorbed that the world did not exist outside anymore.
‘It was here, in front of our house, underneath this very window.’
‘So, did they bring him in?’ Anís asked, trying to keep a straight face.
Her mother, seething with anger at her inappropriate behavior, replied through clenched teeth that, ‘no, no, they were waiting for the coroner.’ There was no need to spoil the entire evening by bringing a veritable corpse in.
At these words, the daughter could no longer restrain herself, and she burst into a laugh, later on designated as hysterical, perhaps because there were no tears in it and her chestnut hair was completely disheveled, for its aromatic clasp was gone.
The rest of the evening, she kept muttering two strange words in-between her chuckles, and the uninvited guest tucked his hazi under the coat and silently vanished into the night. He only stopped to remove with him the tasty package that had arrived earlier in the evening, and that nobody would eat after all the mêlée, and was out of the house and into the misty woods.
Then the rest of the company paid their respects and withdrew to their rooms, only to be utterly gone by morning, in which Anís awoke rested and disengaged.