Introducing the winner of our 2021 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, selected by Kristen Arnett: “Night Stencils” by Sherine Elbanhawy! Arnett writes: “The careful weaving of this narrative—and the subsequent unraveling of it—took my breath away. I was deeply invested in the relationships between the characters in this beautiful story. Wife and husband, mother and child, the living and the dead. The author did an amazing job of tugging the threads of the past and present, twisting everything together seamlessly. This is a story of grief, which means it’s about how memories of loss continue to shape the characters; regret sits immediately alongside anger and denial, but there is also hope and love. How do we move forward when the past sits inside us, lodged like a fist in the throat? The story is bodied, messy, tender, and impressively written. It stayed with me long after I finished reading.” We hope it’ll stay with you, too.
Cairo never sleeps, but it was deserted this night. An occasional car whizzed by. Hoda parked Ali’s silver-grey Hyundai Verna on Hoda Shaarawi street. As she passed Banque Misr, she remembered telling her class how she was named after Shaarawi, Egypt’s first feminist, and one of the pioneers who provided seed money for the establishment of the bank a hundred years ago. The students were always surprised when she told them that the board of directors of Egypt’s first bank had included Sephardic Jews, Coptic Christians, and Sunni Muslims. A national bank to counter European colonial institutions.
Forty stacks of disheveled newspapers, each one filtered by headline. Forty days of bleeding after birth. Forty days of travel in the underworld—one month and ten days. As a historian, Hoda should have felt more tethered to the fortieth day ritual, yet all she wanted was to be alone.
“I can’t tell people not to come.” Hassan whispered in her ear a fortieth day prayer to the dead about light, forgiveness, and paradise.
She let his arm lie there and watched how her fingers imprinted on her icy glass of water, as she erased the fog with her breath bit-by-bit.
Women clad in black, men in buttoned-up shirts filled every inch of the Heliopolis apartment. The winter sun streaked through the glass-paned windows; the air was stuffy, breathless. Ali’s friends, Hassan’s parents, and their extended family encased Hoda.
Mourners reeked of bitter Turkish coffee breath, their tear-stained faces muggy, and their condolences a looping track. The orotund voice of the Qur’anic verses screeched from a loudspeaker, filled the silences, and muted conversations. Everything was loud, too loud, even the chirping birds outside in the sycamore trees.
From the burgundy velvet chair, her eyes followed the activity as if she was watching a movie scene. Outstretched arms hovered mid-air then withdrew, unfulfilled in their need to proffer sympathy. Hassan was gracious, overcompensated. He walked each person out, shook hands, accepted hugs, folded paper bills to pay the waiters and the sheikh. Extra for the carriers who stacked the rented chairs, extra for the servers who clinked glass and clanked china.
“Come to bed,” Hassan said.
She shook her head.
“I’m exhausted,” he leaned in and kissed her cheek, “Bonne nuit, habibti.”
His silhouette receded down the corridor and disappeared into the bedroom.
Hassan had gone back to work after a month; she had taken an indefinite leave of absence from the high school. Teaching via email during curfew was pointless. Even if school were to resume, she couldn’t stomach her pupils’ animated pimpled faces.
In the bathroom, she rolled toilet paper around the drenched sanitary pad and sprayed jasmine air freshener to mask the metallic stench of blood.
Ten days ago, after throwing away the millionth pad she had visited the gynecologist. The one who had delivered Ali and treated her mother for ovarian cancer had abandoned Egypt last January when the foreigners were forcibly evacuated. She decided to be more progressive, to book a doctor online, something a millennial would do, something Ali would do.