The sound of dogs barking in the neighborhood came to Mojahed’s ears he pressed his hands over them, distressed by the cacophony.
He was a parking attendant at the Adl Street bus stop. Approaching sixty, his body had been slower to age, and his face preserved the features of a forty-year-old. He was muscular, burly—a mobile chunk of rock—and his right hand gripped a heavy truncheon that seemed made for his blocky palm.
On that particular night, it was not the sound of the dogs that alarmed him so much as the sight of them in the square, formed up in a circle and yapping back and forth. Why were they gathered there? He couldn’t tell, and sparking his lighter he trudged slowly through the barking animals. At the center of the pack he saw it: at the bottom of an empty biscuit box a tightly-swaddled baby boy.
Extending out a rough, hairy hand he picked the child up, and as he did so the muezzin’s voice swelled into the Allahu Akbar of the dawn prayer.
“Daybreak. I’m calling you Daybreak,” Mojahed whispered in the boy’s ear as though giving the call himself.
Night withdrew and day dawned, the sun shining down on yet another crowd gathered in the same place where the bus drivers always met, eating the hot, fatty, fried-bread discs of khamir, and swapping the latest news—a fat-free meal. On the day in question they had sated themselves with reports of the president’s son demise, killed in a car accident. Mojahed could be seen approaching in the distance. They screwed up their faces. One of them spat out his anger, a morning curse:
“Important people die and Mojahed still rakes in the payments. Tell him we’re in mourning!”
But he didn’t shout at them as he usually did. He didn’t grab at the collars of those who’d slipped his grasp the day before. And in place of his truncheon, he carried the baby. Shyly clearing his throat, he declared,
“I’ve found myself a son. And I’ve named him Daybreak.”
Despite the clamor of the passers-by, a silence descended on the square. Mojahed was, as they knew, childless and had no family. One said,
“That son of yours is bad luck! Born the day of mourning for the president’s son. Leave him where you found him…”
Only Hamoud, the khamir-seller, treated the new arrival as a cause for celebration:
“Guys, the child brings blessings! Years ago a fortune teller told me that a baby would come into the world on the day a great man died: a child that would belong to us all; fated to arrive between the witching hours and the first streaks of dawn.”
But only the few who were lucky enough to receive the loaves he handed rounded for a free breakfast showed any sign of joy at these words.
The days passed and Daybreak grew, his pillow a biscuit box like the one—so Mojahed would tell him—which had formed his first crib. His first lessons in life were the kicks he received from the frustrated drivers, but despite the pain he felt he never complained or argued.
Change came ever quicker to the neighborhood. When Daybreak turned two—on the very day on which he’d been found two years before—the neighborhood’s official representative on the municipal council was murdered. On his fourth birthday the grain stores burned to the ground, though no one knew what had sparked it off and it had to be set down as an “unexplained incident”. Two years later, again on his birthday, an earthquake shook the town center, with its epicenter in Adl Street.
Nobody would have connected these incidents with Daybreak’s birthday were it not for Mojahed’s celebration and Hamoud handing out the free loaves. The drivers, their passengers, and a majority of the local residents weren’t happy—they called him “jinx” and “bad luck”—but a few of them could see the light that shone from Daybreak when he smiled, among them Hamoud, who softened hearts with his talk of all the blessings that they’d known since Daybreak’s birth. When he’d been two, for instance, the city’s largest free hospital had been opened, a charitable bequest for the soul of the assassinated representative, and when he was four a whole network of new grain silos run by local residents were constructed to replace the one which had burned down.
And so the years passed by, now happy, now grim; now fodder for optimists, now for the naysayers. And Daybreak, too: a son of darkness, a fount of misfortune, and a source of blessings.
Life was rough and he grew up rough, savage, like a wild animal. At twenty-one he was fully grown, the handsomest and most physically-developed young man in the neighborhood, his face a canvas of striking colors: eyes like his country’s valleys, skin saturated with the golden brown of its coast, and thick hair black as the desert night. His tall, strong, upright frame, his smile, his smooth voice, the power of his presence, the casual heedlessness with which he dressed, threw everyone who met him into confusion, unable to work out where such a face and form could come from. What were its roots?. But he was the only one who actually posed the question to himself.
Wandering the neighborhood, its four-legged residents would keep him company; when he leant against a tree its birds would give him shade and if his heart was light he would chatter back to them. There would be times when he’d be so confused and bewildered he would shake with rage, and his shivering anger would be fanned higher by the cawing of crows which came from nowhere.
“Who am I, Hamoud?” he sighed in exasperation, fixing the latter with an unblinking gaze and without waiting for a response to form in Hamoud’s mouth, he took himself away.
“Oh, Daybreak. I wish I had an answer to make you happy,” muttered Hamoud, watching the passers-by winking to one another and making sly jokes at Daybreak’s expense. Daybreak, as usual, paid them no mind, walking calmly along with the cats and dogs of the neighborhood tripping in his wake.
Only Hamoud knew the secret of their attachment to him.
In the square, practicing the profession he’d inherited from Mojahed, he waved his truncheon in the air, regulating the flow of jostling buses. His roving eyes didn’t spot her bags until they fell on a familiar smile. He pushed through the crowds, calling out at the top of his voice,
“Over here! There’s a free seat here!”
She smiled, and his face lit up.
“Driver! I’ll pay her fare.”
He called out as though singing and she granted him another smile, sending stars out to light the pre-dawn darkness all around him. More smiles, and more, and his generosity grew: her ticket in exchange for her smile; fifty riyals the price of a sun that broke over all his quotidian details. He no longer roamed the streets so assiduously, but kept to a quiet corner of the street where he remained unvisited but for Hamoud, Mojahed and his four-legged companions.
“Hamoud, where’s the sun been hiding all these weeks?”
Regretfully, Hamoud dropped his head and whispered to an increasingly deaf Mojahed,
“Dear God, your son’s gone mad.”
Unable to hear the secret, Mojahed had raised his voice, and Daybreak smiled.
“They’re calling me mad, father. That’s the name I’m known by. You can get me an ID card now!”
He cackled like a drunk unsobered by the dawn breeze. Longing swept him and in the depths of his despair he saw her smile. His eyes lit up and he turned them on her like lamps, unwilling to wait for a stolen grin. But the suns in his eyes were soon doused again when he noticed that her arm was tucked beneath the arm of a young man. He stopped a bus for them.
“Over here! There are seats here!”
The young man erupted with anger.
“Out of the way, jinx!” he shouted and puffed out his chest, to dazzle her with the force of his personality. She broke into a smile.
Daybreak stood frozen to the spot.
“I’m worthless, worthless… I’m the jinx who jinxed himself…”
And he continued to mutter these words as he dragged himself back to his corner. He squatted there for hours, still muttering, his body swaying back and forth.
No one came over. Only the crows were drawn to his loneliness, ceaselessly cawing.
Hamoud was watching him. He saw the clouds gather in the sky, the crows wheeling, and he prayed for God’s protection. That day, he decided to shut up shop early.
The deep night yawned wide, its hours dragging through to early dawn. There was a flash in the sky and thunder.
Then the ground itself split open.
Sleepers tumbled from their beds, their ears stopped by momentary deafness, some bleeding at the sudden pressure which shattered their windows. Stunned, they crowded into the street to see what had happened. Someone shouted,
“It’s war! This is the first raid!”
They decided to bring their bad luck to an end. They picked up their staves. They made for Daybreak. They gathered round him, hissing their intentions. They raised their arms, each stretched as high as it would go, and when they fell upon him, the heavens turned red, the earth and all who stood on it, twisted and buckled.
Silence everywhere. Only the wind, flapping the only sign to be seen. Adl Street, it read. Justice Street.