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The man in the camel wool djelaba appeared from the shadows under the trees and crossed the field of fresh snow, stepping into the road twenty yards ahead of me. His arms were folded, his hands clasped at his waist inside the loosely fitting sleeves. The peaked hood covered the back and top of his head, but the front edge was turned up, so with the vision for that distance one could just see the olive-brown skin of his face and the darker skin around his eyes, also hooded with strong, dark brows, and that the eyes were open, and the prominent, smooth arching bridge of his nose, and the thick, black moustache that nearly covered his mouth. He wore soft leather boots, the color near that of his robe, and they must have been at least knee high, for the tops of them were not visible. He strode easily in time with the new snow, which, while diminishing, floated still soundlessly through the dusk and fell like feathers cradled for gentle landing by the air through which they move. He never looked back, but continued in the direction of the village; and I, conscious not to close with him, followed, watching him glide along. At the top of the track, over a slow rise, he disappeared – first his legs, then back and shoulders, and his hooded head – and the darkness seemed to close behind him.
Later, after I had returned to my room to leave my hat and gloves and exchange my stiff jacket for a comfortable sweater, and then went downstairs to the common rooms for the evening gathering of my group, I saw the man sitting alone in a corner of the hotel café, away from the bar. He was still dressed in the ordinary Moroccan style; his djelaba, however, appeared a fine saffron in that dim light, the hood pulled back and draping in a smooth triangle over his shoulders, and he wore a black wool fez. A silver teapot, enough for one or two servings, sat steaming on a small, square olive-wood tray on the table in front of him; and he was sipping from a short glass embossed with a gold pattern of Arabic along the rim, in which a cluster of mint leaves had settled.
In the warm candlelight of the dining room, the long table was set for the twelve of us, as it had been the night before, when we arrived unexpectedly. Eight were already seated, arranged as I had seen them at the other meals, the sudden ties of new companionship having taken early in the previous week and apparently still holding. Aaron sat at the far end – alert in his round, wire-rimmed spectacles, his straight black hair parting in the middle and falling across his forehead –appropriately serious in his desert travel clothes, eager not to miss a moment. Paula – willowy but certain in her movements, unambiguous around the eyes and mouth, her fair skin and shoulder-length auburn hair – sat at the corner next to him. Stout Judith, her strong hands and the open face of a small mountain, her long brown hair tied into a loose ponytail, sat next to Paula. Then came tall, gentle Daniel, his beard and hair thinning and graying with distinction – he spoke always from the background, and could be found, without fail, waiting for anyone who might fall behind along the medina’s narrow streets that turned quick corners, where the way back might suddenly disappear. Marion sat across from Daniel, her back to the wall – she ran her tongue over her straight, white teeth behind her closed smile, played with her clean, shiny brown hair, carefully trimmed to shoulder length and tucked behind her ears so that the small silver hoops showed. Susan – never at rest, a little tedious with tales of her children and grandchildren – sat next to Marion. And then there was Susan’s Thomas, a little worn but still sturdy, a high school history teacher to the core, who understood what it meant to be a stranger and a guest in a new land. Linnea sat next to Daniel – Judith and Daniel were her Wisconsin friends, who had encouraged her to take this trip; for six months each year, Linnea was the only physician at a remote clinic in the Amazon near Iquitos. She had wrapped the deep, gray waves of her hair, which fell to the middle of her back, in the long scarf, woven of many blues, she had bought in Fes.
Aaron was pouring for everyone from one of the familiar tall plastic bottles of spring water, the stock we had carried with us from the supermarket in Rabat. I sat next to Linnea, who turned toward me briefly and nodded.
“How are you?” she asked, whispering cautiously.
“I’m all right,,” I answered, “a little tired from my walk. The snow is still deep, and I think I let myself get too cold. Have you seen the others? Aziz?”
As if she hadn’t heard me, Linnea looked away. Since I am not accustomed to going on very long in leading conversation, and felt that I already had said too much, I let my question hang in the air.
I shrugged, looked across at Marion, who held her half-smile for a few moments, turned her head as if looking for someone, then looked down at her plate, but she wasn’t eating. And no one was speaking.
I tore a piece of baguette from the basket, picked at it, pinched a peppery black olive from the shallow bowl next to the bread, drank some water. I was looking at the mural on the wall behind Marion – an expansive alpine scene, painted in a simple, amateurish style without fine detail or depth. A string of chalets followed the unbroken contour of the lake until it found the stream, and, with satisfying perspective, climbed the valley into the shadows under ragged peaks from which broad glaciers flowed.
This landscape must have given inspiration for the new resort village in which we found ourselves, I thought. But nothing one might have expected in North Africa, considering the scars and echoes we had seen and heard already in the medina of Fes and its modern city counterpart.
I noted that the other three from our group had not come down for dinner, but no one else had questioned their absence, and I made no more of it. I felt worn down by the ordeal of the previous day, and understood why they might have chosen other arrangements for the evening, including remaining in their rooms. I had seen other guests – two middle-aged single men, apparently not together; an elderly woman accompanied by one younger, who might have been mother and daughter; and two other couples with two young children, a boy and girl each, entering the dining room the evening we arrived. But I had not seen any of them since then.
Two young women with perfect Berber skin and sapphire eyes entered the room. They were twinned in black silk suits – broad-shouldered long jackets with narrow lapels buttoned at their waists then flaring to below their hips, straight-legged pleated trousers, and starched white collarless shirts with open French cuffs, and black leather slippers. Their dark hair also was twinned, plaited into single thick braids to the centers of their backs. They set two tajines of roasted lamb and a combination of yellow squash and golden fingerling potatoes on the table. My companions waited politely. Because I did not eat lamb, I waved inquiringly to the restaurant manager, a tall, muscular, elegantly tuxedoed man with a ruddy complexion and a full head of white hair that appeared to be in flight, who had been hovering around the edges of our group, and I asked if fish were a possibility.
“Of course, sir,” he said with casual economy and a friendly nod. “We have fresh mountain trout.” He stepped aside, turned slowly, and disappeared between two panels of heavy, dark maroon drapes he closed behind himself.
During what might have been an hour, while I waited for my meal, I watched the others eat, if one could call it that – one small portion served silently by each of them to themselves, a few bites, a pushing around of the remains on their plates, a few sips of red wine, which Linnea had ordered and offered for sharing without needing to ask. An empty fork in his right hand, his camera in the other, Aaron scrolled through photographs on the digital screen, from time to time looking up and gesturing with his eyes at Paula, who looked straight ahead, her hands folded into each other and resting on the edge of the table in front of her. Leaning gently forward, Judith read silently from her guidebook, scanning each page slowly with the forefinger of her right hand; Daniel looked on. Susan appeared in animated conversation with herself; she played the air with her hands, her lips moving in the shapes of words, and head cocked to one side, then the other, but there was no sound. Thomas held his battered clipboard on his lap and studied the loose sheets, dense with the details and ruminations he scrawled boldly across the pages when and wherever he walked or stood or sat, watching the world unfold, as he said. Like Susan, Marion seemed to be muttering, but remained very still, and had long since gone silent. Left-handed Linnea would lift her wine glass by the stem with her thumb and two fingers, tilt it, then set it down; after she first filled it, she drank only twice, and about half remained. She was close enough that I could hear her measured breathing, as if in preparation for something; but after her single question she did not speak.
Then, one by one, only minutes apart and still without a word, each looked around the otherwise empty room, expectantly, I thought, but with peaceful resignation, as had Marion earlier. Each acknowledged me where I sat, still waiting, with a simple lifting of a hand, and then, in turn, departed.
Paula was the last to go, Aaron having waited momentarily for her in a trapezoid of warm light at the opening of the curtained glass doors that separated the dining room from the bar room, at the end of which the wide stairway rose.
One of the young women who had been serving us appeared at my shoulder. Holding a large, plain white bistro plate by one hand, she leaned forward ceremoniously and set the plate in front of me. It was arranged as still life – a whole, dark-spotted Atlas trout, resting on a bed of wild rice and sautéed spinach, flanked by steamed carrots and small, round red-skinned potatoes. Before she pulled her hand away, I imagined myself touching it, brushing the backs of her long, lovely fingers in appreciation. She paused, smiled easily, lips closed, bright eyes clear and steady on me, which I took for appreciation in her own regard. She stepped back and turned gracefully, appearing to float. I watched her dissolve into the darkness from which she had come.
I sat there for a long time, I think – I could not really say – since after the others left I found myself slipping into reverie of the day, replaying the sense of morning light, its visible transformations, the unaccountable images of the man on the road, the quickening shadows, the silence, the sound of snow not falling.
Just after midnight – I could not be sure – on my way up, I found the man on the third-floor landing at the top of one spiral reach of the stairs. He was standing, smoking a cigarette, in near darkness at one of the little arched windows that overlooked the village, roofs stretching all the way to the edge of the forest. I could not see his face, yet I was certain it was the same man – not only from his boots, which were the ones I remembered from earlier in the day and had noticed also in the bar, and also the djelaba, though it might have been only the moonlight passing through the window that colored it silver blue, as a sky out of which first snow flurries when a hesitant storm is just washing over the mountains, but more because of the way he held his head, as if it rested on a stone pedestal. In the café he had looked up at me – a slow, brief inclination of this head, an acknowledgement in return for mine – and I had seen his eyes, a spark in each black iris. But here, in the moonlit corridor, where the long halls met at the top of the stairs, up which he must have heard me stepping and then stop, he did not move.
Again in my room, I lay down in my clothes on top of the wool blanket covering the bed. I had been unconfident about the cleanliness of the sheets – they seemed unduly wrinkled when I first checked them upon arrival, which is my habit in strange lodgings – but this blanket held a soft, fresh smell of lanolin, which I associated with the many fine rugs I had brushed with my fingertips, and for which I had developed an affinity in these travels. The room held a comfortable temperature and, from the effects of warmth and wine, I slept for some time, time I sensed having passed when I finally surfaced – feeling still only partially awake – into that country where dreams may come so vividly and be so pleasurable or frightening, as to give one pause. I believed, there on the edge of consciousness, that I had dreamed of a sunlit clearing, ringed with ice, into which snow fell but did not remain, even for a moment, dissolving as it descended into the pure ether of the winter air.
The next morning was the third day after my twelve companions and I had abandoned our minibus on account of the unexpected blizzard along the Middle Atlas route from Fes to the desert. In eight hours, over less than a hundred miles of lethal two-lane highway that we should have covered easily in three hours, the road had closed behind us and seemed to be narrowing and icing too quickly ahead of us. Except for the few jeeps and other utility vehicles that passed us, cars had difficulty moving, even along the flats, and either stopped to wait or tried to turn around against all odds. Still hopeful that given the weight of our vehicle we would be able to pass through the worst of it, Omar had maneuvered carefully around the obstacles and pressed on.
Just before nightfall, without enough traction on a long uphill curve near the summit, Omar struggled to bring us to a safe stop. But the bus slid backward off the shoulder into a ditch on the verge of a steep drop. I could hear Omar gunning the engine, feel the uneasy motion, the wheels slipping, and I shut my eyes, waiting. I may have lost consciousness in the moment. After time unaccounted, at the urging of Aziz, our Moroccan guide, who had been standing at the windshield, braced against the dashboard, or seated stiffly during the entire drive, we took what we could carry, leaving behind Omar and Moncef, the driver’s young assistant, to deal with the matter. Guided by Aziz, we began to trudge through the drifts the mile-and-a-half to Ifrane for shelter in the tourist hotel he knew was there.
At first Aziz was directly behind me, dressed in his western clothes – hiking boots, blue denim jeans, voluminous hooded down parka inside of which, with his olive skin and steady gaze, he resembled an Inuit hunter on the sea ice. After a few steps, before mounting a short bridge, a single-file passage between low wooden railings mounded with snow, the first of three we would cross over dark winter streams, I stopped to look back. I touched Aziz’s shoulder, then felt him pass beyond me.
Omar was standing next to the bus, watching us. With his left hand he held the shaft of the flat-bladed shovel I had seen him take earlier from the rear luggage compartment, his right hand holding the hood of his garnet-red djelaba against the force of the wind-driven snow.
Moncef stood beside Omar. His khaki pants were already soaked from his knees to his canvas sneakers, and he was huddling inside the thin nylon shell over the wool sweater he had worn every day. He smiled broadly across his round boy’s face, his gentle lion eyes glowing in what seemed to me excitement at the task facing him. Then he extended himself, stood very straight and tall, stretched his right arm, his bare open hand, high into the storm in an unmistakable signal of farewell. I copied the gesture, held it until I felt someone else pass me, then lowered my hand, stepped onto the bridge, and crossed over.
Now, out early just after dawn, the sun low and obscured by the hovering overcast so that the bare branches of the cherry trees in the courtyard remained edged with snow and tipped with ice crystals, I saw the man step from the hotel porch into the path that led to the road. His boots were clean and glowed softly in that pure light, as if he had worked on them, polished them, in the time between – for they had appeared wet and a little muddy from his walk the day before, which I had noticed even in the dimness of the café. The djelaba also was as it had been the day before, the color of camel wool, brushed clean and smooth. He hesitated, hands resting in his pockets, head inclined and tilted as if he were listening for something, but he did not look around, nor gave any notice of me, although certainly I would have been visible where I stood in the open.
When he moved, I no longer could see his boots; from the way the road had been plowed and shoveled clear, little walls of snow stood a foot-and-a-half high – so a walker in a long, flowing garment would appear to float. I stepped into the road, too, but then off again, as not to remain directly behind him, and held my distance at an angle, walking through the deeper snow, watching him drift along in prayerful motion. He would walk and pause, glide and hover, look down at his boots, up at the pewter wash of the sky. A few times, at what might have been regular intervals, he removed his gloveless hands from under his robe and rubbed them together briskly, then laced his fingers into a single fist, pressed against his chest, separated the hands again, and slid them inside.
When he stopped, I stopped, and, so as not to appear intentionally in his wake, would turn my body to one side or the other, face left or face right, or kneel to adjust the laces of my boots or to scratch at something unseen in the snow, but still witnessed his meditations. This continued through the middle of the morning, as far as I could tell, because I had lost my wristwatch at some point after we had left the bus behind in the blinding snow and before we could see the village ahead, when I checked. But under this persistent overcast, the darkness felt imminent. He walked, and I followed, along my parallel track, our pace varying with the slope of the road.
After time I could not measure, I became aware of a change in the man’s stride and in the sound of my own footfalls, which I attributed to exertion on both our accounts. Some fifty yards ahead, he did not truly stop, but slowed to a pause in which he turned to the right and set himself ready to step over the bank as if to head into the forest another fifty yards beyond that. I marked the location in my mind, because it was where we had left the bus, just north of the first arching bridge we crossed on our march into the village through the storm; two narrow lines of cedars merged into a ragged point toward the road, and, closing behind, formed an open grove, which straggled up the hillside to the only outcropping of sandstone I had seen along this section of the high plateau.
The man lifted each leg in studied ceremony, bending at the knee, not swinging, and cleared the low wall easily, first the left leg, then the right. Once he was over, I could see the full hem of his djelaba clearly above the surface of the snow. He continued east toward the trees. When he had walked just a short distance, perhaps ten easy strides, he paused; and, though he did not look my way in full, and I did not see his face again, he made a quarter turn of his head in my direction – I thought, to hear my movements, judge my distance and intent. Self-conscious at that, I decided to hold back in earnest. In fact I turned away completely and, without looking toward the man again, I set out to return to the hotel by the same path.
I supposed we would be returning to Fes the next day, since the road in that direction was expected to be open, and passage south to Midelt and Er-Rashida and to the Sahara beyond was still locked in ice. I had enjoyed my supper of fresh trout the night before, and the bar room was companionable, so I was not the least undone by the derailment of our itinerary and the delay these past few days.
The walk back was taking longer than I had expected, but I reasoned that the attention I had fixed on the stranger had distorted my sense of time. I passed an abandoned stone house with a collapsed roof I did not remember seeing on the way out, and also a dense packing of old junipers that edged the road tightly on both sides and, at one point, nearly converged to block the trail with their thick trunks and overhanging limbs. Still I pushed ahead. And when I finally saw the lights of the hotel lobby, I had to admit to myself that I was relieved.
Darkness had fallen quickly, even for the mountains in winter. I had left in the morning without hat or gloves, not expecting to be out very long. But I had been gone all day, and had missed lunch. I was chilled to the bone.
The café bar room was well heated, and once inside I shed my anorak and hung it over the back of a chair set against one of the heavy, rough hewn cedar posts that held up the central ceiling beam at the height of the pitch. I kept my fleece vest over my wool sweater, both hands in the pockets to thaw, and sat on a high stool at the bar. Some half-empty glasses, plates with the remains of food, forks and knives and spoons, and crumpled napkins still lay scattered on tables, where I remembered seeing them in the morning when I had passed through. Otherwise, the room was empty, which I thought to be unusual for that hour; and this stillness, with the lengthening of the day and the cold still in me, left me feeling a little unbalanced. I called in English for the bartender, who appeared, it seemed reluctantly, from a passageway I could not see around a corner at the far end of the room.
“Monsieur,” he said, a tone of annoyance.
“Scotch whisky,” I said, “single malt, if you have it. No ice, please.”
He paused, took a step backward, looked straight at me, then down, and reached under the counter, bringing up a bottle of Lagavulin, which pleased me, and I must have signaled so when I looked back at him. He inclined his dark bird head slightly at my approval, then nodded, andwith practiced attention measured out my drink into a shot glass, which he poured into a tall tumbler, not a drop more.
“Eighty,” he said. I placed the eighty dirham on the bar – he paused again, arms folded across his chest – and I added another ten, then another five, before he swept the coins into his hand, turned, and disappeared around the corner by the way he had entered.
I sat alone and drank slowly, sipping and waiting, turning my glass to the light and holding it to my nose, so I could admire the color and draw in the scent, counting the glasses on the mirrored shelves over the back counter, and straining to read the labels of various bottles to pass the time while I worked to regain my equilibrium.
After a while, I took the slim remains of my drink and returned to my room, up the three broad flights of marble stairs, past the landing where I had seen the man in the djelaba standing and gazing out the window the night before. I shaved, showered, and put on clean clothes, preparing to go down to dinner. Still inside my room, I checked the front pocket of my pants for my wallet, then pulled the door part way open and turned off the overhead light, leaving the small lamp on the end table next to the bed switched on, its bulb flickering uneasily, as if it were about to die. I stepped out of the room, reaching back to lock the door behind me. The hallway was in near total darkness, except for the early moonlight curving through the tall window at the close end. But I could see well, once inside, and avoided the switches mounted low on the walls, which, when tapped, would trip the few ceiling fixtures set just long enough for one to make way safely to each landing. I knocked on a few doors along the way to see if any of my group might also be ready to go down, but no one answered.
That night I was the only diner, though I believed that other guests, including my companions, remained in the hotel, since I could hear movement on floors above, from the porch could see lights in windows, and, while I was eating, was certain I saw shadows moving outside on the moonlit snow. As usual – good Moroccan vegetable soup; and again the trout, cooked carrots and potatoes, tajine style; fresh, soft, dense bread the color of maple wood; crème caramel; strong, black coffee; and sweet Mandarin oranges.
Again I dreamed of the clearing in the forest, this night in multiples, as I wandered in repetition, in and out of circles filled with linen-white light and periods of impenetrable darkness, which, in the half-waking state of such dreams, I concluded – and in this comforted myself – as being deeper sleep.
The following morning I awoke before dawn, refreshed, and satisfied that I would have time to walk again before the road would be clear enough for our return to Fes. I expected that Aziz would be waiting in the lobby, before breakfast as usual, and that Omar and Moncef, whom I had not seen for three days, would have prepared the minibus, which also I had not seen since we abandoned it. I bathed and dressed, grateful for enough hot water at least to rinse my hair, and headed downstairs, not switching on the overhead lights, and stepping softly on the marble steps so as not to awaken any of the other guests. At each landing I paused to look out the little window at the persistent morning stars, just beginning to fade as the sun, still below the high peaks, was rising.
The common rooms – reception area, bar, dining room – were dark, no one about, not even Aziz. Outside the air was clear and not as sharply cold as yesterday. I found my path easily and moved along it, up the steady grade I had followed twice before, in measured strides that did not feel a stretch, but warmed me – the blood pumping from heart to legs and arms, to skin and eyes.
I was thinking about my cottage by the river, especially in autumn, in that quiet transmutation of light and time, a distillation of the world we see, set alongside the world we do not only see, but sense in full – red and golden leaves blanketing the broad lawn that fills the lake of perfect air to the edge of the woods and opens pathways to the interior; the taste and smell and feel and sound of morning there; the calling of the geese flying from north, out of winter, according to the rules for travelers; the stack of seasoned wood; the cupboard full; the shelves of books read and waiting to be read again.
When I reached the place along the road where I knew I had turned back the day before – the angling lines of cedars, the sandstone ridge – I stepped across the open space to where he had crossed, at which point, as I expected, the snow wall was still intact, for I had seen him step over it cleanly. I thought to follow him, the impressions made by his boots yesterday. If he were there, somewhere among the trees or on the other side, I would not have wanted him to hear me, so took the call for patient silence. There was no other sound. I looked for his prints breaking the surface, which was still fresh enough – there had been no new snowfall that previous evening or overnight. But there were none. And then I looked across the gentle, sunlit slope where I had seen him last, still only halfway to the edge of the forest, in a time which I understood without ambivalence to have been not even a moment before.
William Lewis Winston
William Lewis Winston lives in Oakland, California, where he taught English and history for four decades, also publishing student writing in school literary journals and newspapers. His poems appear in Bearing Witness (Zephyr Press 2002), Margie, Ink Pot, Comstock Review, Poet Lore, Essential (Underground Writers Association 2022), Close Up (Orchard Lea Press 2022), What Is All This Sweet Work? (Vita Brevis Press Anthology IV 2022), and Sunspot Literary Journal; and he received an International Merit Award from Atlanta Review. His short story “The Sound of Snow Not Falling” was featured in the Philadelphia InterAct Theatre’s 2005-06 Writing Aloud series (Adrift), but remained unpublished until its appearance in Litro.