Rahim’s gaze wandered from river to shore to forest to river. It was the kind of morning when you could just go for a stroll for no other reason than just to go for a stroll. Nothing to do but watch circles ripple on the glassy water, listen to those early morning birds whistle in the drowsy air, and the placid plash of the paddle. They eased upriver in a silence; from time to time one, without word, pointed out an object of interest, say a heron, a turtle, a nest, a particularly outstanding tree, and in no time at all did Rahim know why Zaghali said he could live in a place like the Cedars of El-Banon permanently.
Mid-morning, Zaghali said, “Look there.”
“Yeah? What about it?”
“Just beyond that bend there is a sand bar in the middle of the river. An old man sits there. Each time I pass, there he is, just sitting.”
“What does he do?”
“That’s the funny thing. He chants. But he pronounces the words incorrectly. Each time I’ve passed him, I tell him how the chant is said properly, but he pays me no mind. You’ll see. He says ‘u yah hu’ when he should be saying ‘ya hu.’ You’ll see.”
They turned the bend and sure enough, there sat the man, his grey beard and tangle of matted locks piled on the ground, his worn-through robe revealing more of the man than Rahim cared to see, repeating the phrase. Rahim turned to Zaghali. Both snickered at their little inside joke. Waving to the old man, Zaghali didn’t bother correcting him and paddled on; minutes later, a curious Rahim looked over his shoulder.
“Um, Zaghali?” He nodded downriver.
Zaghali looked over his shoulder and almost dropped the paddle.
“Be mindful of the residue in your mind,” said the man, standing on the water. “What you underline in your books has scored
you here.” He tapped his temple. “You need to learn to forget.” Saying nothing more, he turned and walked downriver toward his home on the sand.
Zaghali, defeated, remained silent, then cursed himself and called himself an idiot.
“I don’t know Zaghali…”
“Not him, me. I’m the idiot,” he said, slamming the paddle into the water.
“You’re not an idiot Zaghali.”
“All this time and I didn’t see it.”
“I should have known.”
“His beard. It was long. I should have known, but I only heard the words. I thought him a fool for I knew the words he said, I…I…”
“You read them.”
“Yes. And I remembered them. I thought he was a fool.” His eyes a confusion of frustration, grief, and nostalgia, he asked, “Who’s the fool now?”
Rahim recognized, in the way he asked the question, a deep longing. He felt sorry for Zaghali and though he did not tell many jokes, considered whether making light of the situation would bring a smile to his face or make the man, the force with which he paddled matching the force with which he ground his teeth, paddle ashore and kick him out of the boat.
He braved it: “Don’t you mean idiot, not fool?”