Rabiha’s Holiday


“Please hurry, Rabiha,” Hisham urged as he walked beside the cart on the busy Cairo street.

The mule pulling the loaded cart could make little progress on only three good legs.

“Get that worthless bag of bones off the street!” the impatient cart owner directly behind Hisham yelled.

“Rabiha is not worthless!” Hisham shot back.

A feeling of affection for Rabiha washed away Hisham’s anger as he guided the mule to the side of the road and stopped. He looked at Rabiha’s lame leg again and grimaced when he saw how swollen and sore it was. “My poor Rabiha,” Hisham mourned, patting the mule. “Your leg is not healing.”

Putting into words what he had feared these many days aroused a feeling of terror in Hisham. The heavy loads Rabiha pulled provided Hisham and his mother their only income. When his father was alive, Rabiha had pulled the cart for him. Hisham did not know how they could manage without the mule. Discouragement overwhelmed him, and he buried his face in Rabiha’s neck, ignoring the noise of the busy street.

“Hisham!”

Hisham started, blinking back the tears. His neighbor Mr. Megm was looking at Rabiha’s leg.

“You must take your mule to the Dispensary for Sick Animals,” Mr. Megm advised. “When my donkey’s leg became lame from a nail lodged in his hoof, the veterinarian there removed the nail and made him well again.”

Hisham brightened. “Do you think they can help Rabiha?”

“They can try,” Mr. Megm replied. “I will help you take him there after work.”

That evening Mr. Megm and some of Hisham’s other neighbors helped load Rabiha into a cart, and then Hisham took the crippled animal to the dispensary. For the first time in his life Rabiha rode in a cart instead of pulling it.

“It’s a deep, ugly tumor,” the white-coated veterinarian told the boy after examining Rabiha’s leg. “I can operate tomorrow.”

Hisham wet his dry lips. “Will Rabiha be all right?” he asked anxiously.

“I hope so,” the doctor replied. He gave Hisham a reassuring smile.

Through smarting tears, Hisham tried to return the smile.

Rabiha was put into an empty stall and fed.

“You may go home now,” the doctor told Hisham. “Your mule will be all right here tonight.”

“I cannot leave Rabiha!” Hisham cried.

“As you like,” the doctor replied. “But there is no food for visitors to the dispensary and no place to sleep.”

Hisham was too worried to eat. After sending word of his whereabouts to his mother, he spent the night in the stable beside Rabiha.

The next morning Hisham watched from the stable as the anxious owner of the donkey in the next stall led his animal to the canvas-covered operating table in the adjoining area. As the white-coated attendants forced open the donkey’s mouth, Hisham again buried his face in Rabiha’s neck. “I love you,” he whispered. “You must get well!”

Later Hisham heard an attendant chuckle as the other donkey was returned to the stall. “A greedy donkey if I ever saw one,” he said.

The owner was laughing too. “Greedy indeed!”

“What ailed your donkey?” Hisham asked.

“He had a whole corncob stuck in his throat,” the owner explained, grinning. “He is all right now.”

When Rabiha’s turn came to leave the stable, Hisham tried to be brave. But his legs felt like matchsticks as he followed the mule to the operating table. Then, hearing the neighing and barking from the paddocks and dog kennels close by, Hisham whispered to Rabiha, “The animals are sympathizing with you, old friend. You will soon be well.”

It wasn’t until the attendant administered the anesthetic from a large brown flask that Rabiha quit straining at the thick ropes steadying him.

Smelling the pungent fumes Rabiha was breathing, Hisham’s head, too, began to swim. He backed away and rested against a tree.

When he felt better, Hisham saw that the doctor had removed the tumor and was scraping and cauterizing the wound. Rabiha lay quietly on his side.

Hisham swallowed the lump in his throat. For the first time in weeks, he thought, Rabiha is feeling no pain in his leg.

“Your mule came through the operation beautifully,” the veterinarian told Hisham.

“Thank you, doctor!” the boy exclaimed. “Rabiha thanks you. My mother also thanks you.”

“Your mule, however, cannot go home today,” the veterinarian said.

Hisham blinked. “Why not?” he asked.

“He will have to stay several days until his leg heals.” He patted Rabiha’s bony back. “He needs time and rest to put a little meat on his tired bones.”

“Rabiha has never had a holiday,” said Hisham, wondering how he and his mother would live while the mule was recovering.

Seeing the boy’s worried face, the veterinarian said, “Perhaps I could lend you some money until your mule can work again.”

“I could not take money unless I earned it!” Hisham protested.

“If you are willing to work,” the veterinarian said, “there are jobs you can do here. Because you love animals, you would be a good worker for us. Come, I will show you the pets we board for people on holiday. They help pay our costs. You could help care for them.”

Hisham accepted the kind offer and then smiled as he thought, Rabiha’s holiday will be my holiday too.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mike Eagle