I’ll Sleep Inside a River if You Don’t Want my Hand

Mkiluani House was named for the old mkilua tree that stood in the middle of the yard. Its tough flowers, curled like alien hands, smelled of some rich fruit soaked in lemon sugar. Around the tree, a frothing garden; beyond, the coral stairs and landings that led to the high roof; and, between all that and the street, a heavy wooden door. Helge had loved this house from the first, and she loved it still, though her husbands, both Belungi-born and bred (so she had spoken the shahada with a softened open heart and a clean sense of surrender) were no longer there. The house is mine, she often told herself, though husbands come and go. And at least, for now, Helge’s daughter, Nuru, was coming back for Christmas.
For Christmas Eve, Nuru would bring the one thing Helge really missed, marzipan, which would melt along the way but still taste like itself, and they’d exchange small gifts over sweet wine as bats flickered in the thatch. In the morning, they’d stroll down to the women’s beach and kick sand at each other, then sigh and swim into the quiet, pleased as always at the stillness of the bay before the men arrived. Helge was a little lonesome in Belungi now, but knowing Nuru would be there made her heart feel light.
She’d not heard from Nuru’s father, Issa, in over twenty years. He would be very fat by now, and rich, and father to three sons, and surely he was somewhere (Who knows where! she thought, though she had known, once.). Helge’s second husband, tall, long-fingered Yusuf, had eclipsed him, anyway, although he, too, was now gone. Yusuf, whom she’d left seven years before, now paid via bank transfer a modest monthly rent for use of her old apartment back in Germany, where Nuru – that bright, stubborn girl – was, too. A few times that day, before Nuru’s call, as Helge bathed with her bucket of cool water, and later as she swept the courtyard with a broom she’d made herself, she had thought again: How funny, how surprising. How a person could be born somewhere and hate it, and how someone else could visit and feel destined to remain.
For Helge, arriving on Belungi Island in that first-ever rebellion (She would travel by herself for one year, she told her weeping parents, before deciding, finally, what her life would be.), the place where she had come into the world had seemed awful and oppressive, a terrible first draft which she was eager to discard. Germany. How as a little girl she had been distressed by the inky darkness of the forest trees, the thickness of the stockings, and the ominous fragility of the porcelain figures on her mother’s shelves. But when Yusuf finally convinced her that he should see her homeland, for there was no future in his, he had loved that very place – from the moment his well-formed sandalled feet touched the evenly paved ground and his sloe-plum eyes caught sight of the politely manicured spring gardens, and the tiny, suffocating sky. It sometimes seemed to Helge as if she and he had met solely for the purpose of this nearly magical geographical exchange.
In that country where Helge felt so miserable and lost, Yusuf happily professed a love for German cakes, for the Turkish coffees which the many German Turks sold at small street-side cafes, the neatness of the avenues, German symphonies, and an unsuspected flair for Helge’s mother tongue! Just come from a class on the history of music: “Danke schön, meine Helge. Es ist jetzt sehr klar. I know where I belong.” Whereas she, Helge, found the music overbearing, the winter air a violence, and what she experienced all around her as complacency and a deadly narrowness of mind.
During those three years in Germany with Yusuf, and little Nuru at their side, she worked  all over the city as a secretary, filling in for women who were dying, ill, pregnant, or just married, and every morning dreaded opening her eyes in the musty flat, with its too-big double windows, metal radiators steaming with complaints, and underfoot the dull green carpet that seemed to her so filthy. All the while, she was dreaming of Belungi and Mkiluani House.
At first, Nuru, too, railed against the horrors of her mother’s home! Where was what had raised her! The neighbors’ children Basra and Alwiya whom she’d thought were her sisters! The sea and mirror sky! The plush wool wandering sheep, with their skinny legs and ferociously dark heads; the hungry dappled cats; baobab sweet and cardamom, rice-bread in clay pots! Eventually, the man who was not Nuru’s father but whom she’d taken to like one, swayed her, and Helge watched in sadness the two skated without her on the very German river, or attended buzzing, droning concerts that left Helge feigning headaches, and in revenge listening to crude talk shows on the radio from the sofa where she wept. Once he saved the money, Yusuf, carpenter by training, announced that he had enlisted in a course on violin repair and was never going home. Helge had come back to Belungi by herself, leaving her one child behind to finish out the year at the school she insisted that she loved. As she had said to Yusuf over and again, Germany would kill her. And she’d found on his island all the quiet and hard light she needed, to be kept alive.
But now Nuru was announcing that she wasn’t coming after all. This after promising Helge a full month. “Mother, my friends will be nearby. I’ll go stay with Yussuf. You know how he loves Christmas.”
Do I not love Christmas, too? How could Nuru’s lilting voice cause her so much anguish? Helge felt a sad cold threading in her center of her back, just between her shoulders. “But you said – ” Helge began, and quickly stopped herself. Recrimination is no different from street cats, she had overheard a woman at the market say over tomatoes that a child had just knocked loose. Feed it once, it comes back all the time. So Helge’s need for Nuru was a clowder, meowling, desperate for milk. When speaking to her mother, Nuru often sighed, and said, “Why are you so unhappy?” She must not pose that question now. Helge didn’t think she was unhappy, but the thought of Yusuf, who was not even Nuru’s parent, basking in the presence of her glowing only child, on a holiday that he had not grown up with, surely made her so. If Nuru did ask, she would have to say, “Because I miss you! Because I ache to hold your hand! Because you are not here!” and so would start another useless go-around with Nuru, who was hard and young. Helge rubbed her neck and closed her eyes to hold the tears in. At her silence, Nuru said, “Mother. Mother? Are you going to cry?”
Nuru’s way of knowing, even from across the deserts and the seas, when her mother was about to weep, was galling. “No, I’m not. Don’t worry about me. I’ll find something to do.” She could find something, if she wished. The Rwandan yoga teachers, the Croatian journalist, the women’s council, or the orphans’ school would have an open house, and Helge would be welcome, wouldn’t she? On the signal’s other end, she heard Nuru murmuring to someone. Perhaps Yussuf was there, too, shivering in a house-coat, opening for himself a red-wrapped Mozart chocolate, and a purple one for Helge’s little girl. Perhaps Nuru had already stepped into her winter boots and was halfway out the door to join her sophisticated friends. But daughters should be free, she knew this and admitted it. “That’s just fine,” she said. “Enjoy yourself with Yussuf.” She nudged the phone off and considered hurling it from the roof into the street. But there was work for her to do, she would need the thing. She rolled her hips and went down into the garden, where she sat for a long time in the dark beneath the fragrant tree. This loneliness, this disappointment, which she felt she could not share, was just then bad enough, but that night things got worse.


The morning after Helge heard the second piece of news, her back hurt so much she was afraid to rise. On her rooftop, stretched full out on the fine besera bed, she groaned and dug her buttocks in on one side then the other, and listened to the voices from the house next door, which, like Mkiluani House, was also a hotel. A new hive of Americans had arrived at dawn. On the other side of the high wall, a woman asked if the coffee had been brewed or was it just a powder, while a man proclaimed the fresh banana pancake totally delicious. She was glad the visitors were in the neighboring house today and not in hers, that this week she had no one. Aware of her own thinking (I have no one, I have no one), Helge sighed, tightening her arms and ankles then loosening them again, and said into the pillow, “I’m in a black mood.”  She was. But just then it was not Nuru nor Yusuf at the forefront of her agitation, but her first husband, Issa.
She had heard the news from normally courteous Mahmoud at the little shop a few doors down from hers the night before, when, finally composed, she stepped out for mosquito coils and three simsim bars. Mahmoud’s shop had been there for years, its square grate set into the wall, and Mahmoud’s posters – announcing airtime sales, or cultural evenings at the fort – framed it on each side. The street side of that shop was as familiar to her as the sky above her head and the pale earth of the street. Living so nearby, Mahmoud had seen Helge’s grownup life unfold. Mahmoud and his then-avid wife had taken care of little Nuru when Helge was too busy with guests, and of Mkiluani House while Helge settled Nuru in a high-school on the mainland on her eventual return from Germany, or when she traveled to the city. Usually, Mahmoud made her feel calm.
Mahmoud knew about everything that happened in Belungi, and had an absent way of smiling, head half turned, there and not quite there, that enabled visitors to speak to him at length about what was on their mind. In truth, Mahmoud held himself that way because he’d lost one eye in childhood, and preferred to face his speakers with the good one that was left, which was intelligent and kind. But people told him everything. He heard of births and illnesses and deaths, discord between friends, betrayal among spouses, burglaries, thefts of sheep and cattle, and shipwrecks in which people drowned. He knew about the conflicts that erupted at the Belungi Elders’ Council, and about the panga killings on the other island, and how, and why, it had taken the police a full day to respond. He knew almost everything, but people also liked him because he did not tell all. Judicious, he shared only what he deemed was crucial for each person to know, delivering his accounts in a placid, soothing voice, meanwhile wrapping purchases efficiently and offering free sweets to the children. Customers appeared to be buying matches, colanders or lamp oil, but really they were buying Mahmoud’s patient ears, or his latest news.
In all the years she’d known Mahmoud, he had never once presented her, intentionally, with the right side of his face. But now, uncharacteristically, Mahmoud looked at her straight on, his fine brows knitting and a working at his throat, as if something were stuck there. Helge asked, was Mahmoud well, and was his family okay? “Fine,” he said. “Everyone is fine.” His wife had been four months now, with her parents in Oman. His youngest son had married several weeks before. So his house was echoing and empty. Had Helge not been so upset about Nuru’s news, she, as she always did, would have asked Mahmoud if there was something in particular of which she ought to be apprised. She didn’t. Mahmoud waited in increasing agitation, until he finally leaned toward her, and with a grimace said, “Habiba, you don’t know?”
What was there to know? Helge said she didn’t, and Mahmoud’s mouth twitched as he fished distractedly for Helge’s sweets inside the plastic jar. “He’s come back,” he said. Still, Helge didn’t understand. Finally, placing the slim packet of mosquito coils and a little stack of simsim bars before her, Mahmoud said, “Habiba. The one who used to be your husband. Your old Issa’s back.”
Helge’s back stung at the words, and she clutched the grate, and both her legs went numb. Mahmoud’s agitation was unusual, thought Helge, but it was correct. Someone should have told her. Issa! Slow and ample Issa, in whose almond eyes Helge had first seen herself coming into bloom. Once good and laughing Issa, who, just three years in, had left her and little Nuru for a mainland bride, a buxom Penyenjiwa princess who had brought him honor and respect. A woman who knew all the coastal things already, who spoke Issa’s language even in her sleep, was not clumsy, and who would mother for him three new lovely sons.
Helge fixed her gaze away from Mahmoud’s searching eye. Her ears burned. She said nothing, counted out the coins, and slipped her purchases into her cloth bag. As she stepped away, Mahmoud said, “There is more, Habiba. Siyo hiyo tu.” Now he was facing her again, and beneath its fringe of lashes his clear eye blinked, and in its dim and milky light Helge found that she could not recall the last time he had called her Helge. Just Habiba, a name that meant beloved. “I have respect for you, Habiba. So I think that you should know.” What did Mahmoud mean? Helge’s heart slipped into a corner. “May God keep her in peace,” he said. “I have also heard that the second wife is dead.”
At that stunning announcement, Helge dove into the darkness and hobbled off as quickly as she could, back to her own house, behind the heavy door. But even in the bed she’d ordered built so she could always sleep where no man had ever touched her, Helge got no rest. Mahmoud’s news troubled her all night, and Helge dreamed of eyelids, lifting to reveal not eyes but tiny limes, or piles of njugu husks, pink like shedded skin. And she saw herself, too, younger, slender, rising from the ground and sailing in the purple air, and Nuru safe below, smiling, making animals from clay. Now awake, Helge found that wondering whether it was true – both that Issa had come back, and that he had been widowed – took over from thinking about Nuru, or of Yusuf, and, a little, from the burning in her spine.
At Samawati Tours, a light blue painted house near the jetty on the sandy promenade, Helge learned that yes, she was to expect a Ukrainian couple to stay with her on Friday. They were vegetarians. It would pose no problem, Helge said. It was good that visitors still came, after the attacks further up the coast, and the announcements by so many foreign missions that Belungi was a dangerous place, despite the fact that nothing like that ever happened here. She said so, and Hisham, who managed her accounts, agreed. Helge said the guests were welcome, she’d arrange for the couple’s every want. A trip to the next island, for example, where there was a ruined city, or to the snorkeling bay, where they would be amazed by all the colored fish.
From Samawati Tours, Helge walked to Mariam’s house along theways where she would not run into men who knew her husbands. The day was hot, and, back here in the little streets, the houses and the earth were orange brown, and the cats, too – three by Helge’s count – seemed made of the same stuff. How quiet it was, here. Her house was so close to the water and to the tourist spots. Good for business, Helge knew, just then wishing that she lived back here in a tiny place with a small bed of bamiya plants and some banana trees, and a mango one for shade. Somewhere, Helge thought, where Issa would not think to look. So she was conflicted. She wanted, and she did not want, to know, what had brought him back. What he was going to do, and what she’d say when she saw him, if she saw him at all.
Mariam wasn’t there. Instead, Helge found Mariam’s oldest daughter, Aisha, who, but for the divorce, would have been Helge’s oldest niece. Still single in her thirties, Aisha had long been afflicted by what some people called a djinn, a spirit who had married her when she was in her teens and for whom she bore otherworldly babies without knowing, and who would not release her to an actual living man. Because of it, Aisha was given to dark moods. But when Helge knocked, Aisha had just come from a bath. In a cloud of sandal talc, she looked neat, alert, and clean.
Aisha laughed to see Helge at the door. “Mama’s out,” she said. “Explaining about credit circles, by the palm oil mill. But you, come in,” she said. “We are having tea.” Inside, as far as Helge saw, there was only Aisha, but Helge knew Aisha’s spirit was there, too, watching over them, and she hoped he would stay quiet. “Come in, Helge. Join us.”
They sat together on the deep-pink plastic woven carpet, and Aisha filled a flowered cup with steaming creamy tea. It was not always clear to Helge how much Aisha understood. But Aisha knew already. She drank slowly, a half-smile on her face, and said, “Sister, if you’ve come here about Issa, it is really true.” Aisha’s bright dark eyes were fixed on her uncle’s ex-wife, who had just taken a large mouthful of tea which she could now not swallow.
On the margarine-colored wall, a holographic image of the Kabbah glinted beside a photograph of Issa and Mariam as young children, and their parents, both of whom were dead. Finally, Helge gulped and said, “What’s true, Aisha, tell me.”
“He’s come back a widower,” Aisha said. “Heartbroken and sick.” Her heart was soft and took in others’ sorrow. She looked close to tears.
What did Helge feel? So, Issa’s younger wife had died. Issa’s sweetheart from the southern coast, berry-eyed and beautifully round, and sixteen on her wedding day, where Helge had been twenty-two, lanky-haired and thin. It was all very long ago. But it had hurt, knowing that Issa did not love her anymore. That perhaps he never had. And although keeping Nuru was what saved her, in some ways it was even worse that Issa loved his second wife enough to leave Nuru on Belungi to be raised only by Helge, as if she had no father, and as if Issa’s marriage to a German woman was an embarrassing mistake, a thing to be erased. So Issa was a lost child looking for his mother, Aisha told her. Heart completely rent. But what about my heart, Helge asked herself. Hadn’t hers been broken, too? And what about her child? A thought arose. Right there in her former in-law’s house, was she happy that Issa’s wife was dead?
At the time, she had wished the Penyenjiwa girl would die. She herself might have killed her and then Issa. With little Nuru – just three, then – sleeping on her lap, she had fantasized. She would kill the new wife with a wooden club, in one blow to the head. She would send the couple, as a gift, a load of camel milk, each jar dosed with rat poison or doctored kalafati glue. She would sneak inside and set them both alight. But now, at fifty-three, did Helge care enough about Issa and herself as they had been in that long-gone time to be gladdened by this news? No, she thought. She no longer had the heat or love or tenderness required for such anger. She couldn’t bring herself to ask what had killed the woman. But the question did not hold her.
Looking at the picture on the wall, Helge wondered how much Issa, decades older now, looked like his one sister, or his sister’s child. He’d had rounded cheeks back then. In her mind, she could see his forehead, and his eyes as they must be now, and the soft slopes of his nose, but, try as Helge might, she couldn’t see his mouth.
“Helge, did you hear us?” Helge looked politely at the space beside them, and said “Yes, Aisha, I heard you.” She set her teacup down. “What about the children?” They’d be in their twenties now, she thought. Married, and perhaps with children of their own. Where would Issa live?
“Sijui miye,” Aisha said. “The one who knows is God.” It was near midday, but Helge lingered for a while, remembering how hopeful she had felt when she’d entered this house the first time, beside the man who would be her husband. She had smiled at everyone so brightly that her cheeks had hurt for hours and, at night, Issa had massaged them. This life with Issa – it had been hard to fathom then, and it was even harder now. Who had that woman been?
Aisha put on the reading glasses that always hung from a blue thread at her throat and scooted to the case beside the big TV, where she poked about with agile, knowing hands. Would Helge watch a nature film with her? She had two dozen of these, documentaries that showed the mating dances of wild birds, or explained why Arctic frogs could live for more than eighty years if they froze themselves in winter. Humans made her anxious, but animals brought Aisha a lasting sense of calm. She held out a cassette. “This one is my favorite right now,” she said. “It tells about how life is for the creatures of rivers and the seas.” But Helge rose. She wished to be at home, to lie back down pretending it was yesterday instead, and that Nuru was still coming back. If Nuru called again, would Helge say, your father’s here, you have to, have to, come?
For six days, she heard nothing about Issa. Several times, she dialled Mariam’s number then hung up before the call went through. Yussuf called from Germany and asked her to look in on his mother, and tell him for herself how well or ill she looked. Yusuf’s mother, Helge thought, was stronger than a donkey, surrounded by sisters and good friends who loved nothing more than delivering hot porridge and sour lemon soups in oversized plaid thermoses that held enough for all of them and more. She did not go and visit. She stayed at Mkiluani House, repainting the two washrooms and stopping now and then to stretch her back with yoga exercises she had learned at a meeting of the Women’s Development Committee and which, she’d found, did help. She took sedatives at night. When the Croatian couple came – their bags brought up to town by Mahmoud’s oldest son, who ran a taxi from the airport – it was a relief for Helge to discover that they had more needs and wishes than she had expected.
The man, square-built with unwashed yellow hair, and a stubbly, sharp-toothed face that made Helge think of wolves, had fallen at the terminal, incurring mild abrasions on one leg and arm. He was given to infection, he told her, and could she call a doctor to see him every day? His wife – she assumed the woman was his wife, for the languid and diffuse hostility that seemed to rise between them when she watched from the roof – his wife, slender, and taller than he was, and with a pale, lightly freckled face, was a naturopath, fascinated by all the healing arts. Helge threw herself into satisfying them. She arranged for the naturopath to spend a morning with a mkunga on her rounds, and an afternoon with the learned maalim who’d made goodluck charms for Nuru before she left for Germany. She arranged three daytrips to which they eagerly agreed, and went herself to several shops, looking for quinoa and flax seed to include in the light salad they required at each meal.
At certain moments, she found herself not thinking about Issa, and felt pleased at her own strength. But the noting brought him back. How could he be right here on the island and not come to see Helge? They’d not spoken in so many years, she had worked hard to forget him – and, with Yusuf, had – but he was Nuru’s father, and she, the mother of that healthy, dogged child, was right here on Belungi. How much had he changed? A sudden weight loss, or a fattening, could alter an appearance utterly. And grief could do the same. Would she recognize him? She did not know what she’d say if he did appear. Shouldn’t he appear?
Mahmoud, on whose kind placidity she’d relied for so many years, did not help at all. He seemed to be in the throes of his own agitation, and spent more time at his shop than usual, taking over shifts held usually by his son or daughter. He called out to her every time she passed. “Habiba, have you seen him? Do you have any news?” It was extraordinary. In all the years she’d known Mahmoud, he’d never made her feel exposed by his information. In fact, he’d had a way of preserving every person’s dignity; he was never rash. But now he seemed possessed, bent on speaking about Issa, and his eye, fixed on Helge’s face, seemed to want something that could not be said in words. “No, Mahmoud,” she said every time. “I haven’t.”
The day the Ukrainian couple left – after a full week of pettiness and mild dissatisfaction, they declared their great love of Belungi, and their appreciation for all that she had done – she was tired, and when Mahmoud asked if she had heard from Issa, Helge said, “Why do you keep asking? Would I tell you, even if I had?” Helge’s words stung him, and Mahmoud withdrew into the darkness of his shop so abruptly that he might as well have vanished.
Issa had been back for twelve days now, and had not come to see her. It was time to entertain the thought that she was nothing to him, unwelcome even in his past. But it bothered her. Where was he and why had he not come? After all these years, did she still want an apology? Without a man, Helge was learning, it was not easy to explain a woman’s destiny, or imagine what it could be. But here was Helge, still, in the house she loved, in the town she’d chosen. Had Issa been surprised, that Helge did not run back to Germany, that something else had kept her on Belungi, living, in whatever way she could? Yussuf, perhaps always Europe-bound, had been more fatherlike to Helge’s little girl than Issa ever had. He had hummed Nuru to sleep between them, he had fed and bathed her, and when she was old enough he’d taken her to work with him, letting Nuru play in the pale sawdust, and giving her wood blocks to stack and knock about while he carved stars and moons into the pendants people called ‘ship’s eyes.’ Mahmoud, too, had been much kinder to Helge and to Nuru than Issa ever had been. So what did Helge need from that old husband who’d not helped her at all?
Her back pain had grown worse, now a keening at the very base, with tentacles that reached up into her shoulder blades and down along her thighs. Once the visitors had gone, the mkunga came each day. She made Helge lie down on a mat, stepped spryly up and down her spine, and ordered her to rest. “You miss your only child,” she said. The older woman’s feet were hard, like coconuts, and her voice a duck or turkey’s call, like a zumari horn. “And there’s still no husband here. These absences you’ve got are troubling your body, and all of it’s your fault.” The mkunga mainly dealt in pregnancies and problems that prevented them from forming. It was natural, thought Helge, that she’d focus on these things. But still what she said stung.
When Helge lay down in the daytime, questions about Issa and herself besieged her. A cruel slowness threatened to take over, so that anything she did felt like a campaign against the idea of his presence. But she would do her work and protect what she had built. She took more Dolcolat. She would paint the bedrooms in new colors – pink or yellow, blue.
Aisha rarely left her mother’s little house. She’d been unwell for years. She was only comfortable and happy with her films in that yellow room. And so it was a surprise when Helge found her at the door of Mkiluani House, bright-eyed, fresh and standing straight, having walked all on her own. “Helge! I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “Look.” The brown paper envelope she held was filled with heart-shaped groundnut sweets that she had purchased at the bookshop counter on her way through town. She brushed past and stood almost triumphantly in the middle of the yard. “Here,” she said, “Let’s sit in the shade under the mkilua.” Before Helge could ask her how she was or take the package from her hands, Aisha was seated at the little table under the old tree. Helge joined her. The air was sweet with flowers and Aisha wonderful within it.
“You haven’t seen him, right?” Aisha said. Aisha’s years of staying home and being introduced to everyone as a woman suffering from spirits meant that she’d not learned the art of skilled approach. But what was she doing here, so healthy all at once? Was it having her old uncle back on this island with her? Did Issa have in him the capacity to make someone feel well? Helge took a groundnut heart into her hand and nibbled at its edge. No, she had not seen her first husband. Aisha reached out for the sweet in Helge’s palm, and snapped a quadrant for herself. “He wants to meet with you at noon, before adhuhuri prayers. At Aboud’s Music and Perfume.”
Helge was surprised. “He won’t come here himself?” she said.
Aisha shook her head. A kilua blossom fell onto the table, and she plucked it up and held it to her nose. “You know how people gossip. He’ll go in from one direction and you’ll come from another. Then you’ll talk in the back, and nobody will know.” Helge did know how it worked, this place was so small. But what would be so shameful about coming to see Helge, with whom he’d had a child? Helge pressed Aisha. “Does he mean to move back here? Is it money that he needs? Aisha, surely you have seen him and have talked. Is he staying at your place?” But Aisha wore the tender absent look that came when she withdrew from this world for a quiet place where there was always tea, and lemurs frolicked in a river or wolves napped in the snow. They sat silently together and polished off another groundnut heart before Aisha shook the twigs and blossoms from her skirt and got up to go.
Helge said, “When does he want to do this?” and Aisha, one glittery-sandalled-foot already in the street, reminded her. “Today, of course. He’s going there today.” Aisha looked unable to believe that anyone could be unhappy at such exciting news. “So, you’ll see him?” And Helge found herself saying yes, because Aisha was so lovely.
But once Aisha was gone, and Helge bolted the wood doors, she felt suddenly unsure why she had agreed. She knew Aboud’s Music and Perfume Shop very well. In the early years, it had been a beacon for her, a pleasant place from which to contemplate her imagined future as a person – as a woman! – from Belungi. The long green shop was packed with an array of shining items – radios, thermoses and backpacks, boxes full of women’s shoes, headphones, luggage sets in every color of the world – all piled behind two counter-tops beneath which three glass cabinets held a vast collection of udi and perfumes, and the tented wooden boxes from which, when the coals inside were lit, musk, rose, frankincense and myrrh streamed out in pale smoke.
Aboud’s shop was run by his wife, Nusla, and she, gracious, funny, smart, had been very kind to Helge. With Nusla, there was always music, love songs in the Swahili Helge had determined from her first day there to learn, and also the qasidas, sung in Arabic, but most expertly and lushly, Nusla always said, recited by assemblies in Malaysia. She and Nusla got along. In those days, before children and the business of surviving loosened what had been, Nusla would invite Helge to sit on a wood stool in the corner to rest from the hot street and watch the customers come in – the wonderfully-veiled women, all in black but for their faces and ringed hands and prettily-shod feet, and the brilliant headscarves, blue, red, gold and pink, or patterned, in silver tasseled paisley or a forest of dark green, that took the shape of the hairstyles underneath. A great bun there, a heap of curling braids, a head shorn close in mourning. How calm and wise their faces were, how expertly they made their choices of perfume.
It was Nusla who had smiled at Helge her first week, offering a little packet of rose udi as a gift, and then said, “One day you’ll be one of us.” It was Nusla who had spent the night in Helge’s rented room when, two days before she married Issa, Issa’s sister Mariam and her friends had painted Helge’s arms and legs in a thick green paste of henna, which took all night to set. But that was many years ago, and Helge had not visited with Nusla even to share news of her second wedding. It was cruel of Issa to choose Aboud’s Music and Perfume Shop as a place for them to meet.
Would she go? Her heart a windy cave! But sometimes one takes what has been offered. Saying no was like a boulder in the road. Helge dressed and went. Mahmoud was in his little shop, but did not call out to her. Instead, he sat very still, quietly composed, his eye fast on the ledger book before him. Helge hesitated. She missed saying hello. Missed asking how his children were, when was his wife coming back, and telling him about her last talk with Nuru, which always involved greetings from the child to old Mahmoud, and was he still right there, where he had always been? Since Issa had come back to Belungi, Helge thought, Mahmoud had not been himself. Or perhaps he was more himself than ever. Life was like that, Helge thought. It knew who we were, even when we and others didn’t. “Mahmoud,” she called, hands twined around the grate. “How are you today?”
Mahmoud did not answer right away. He lifted his head from the book, and seemed to study her. Then, he said, “In truth? I’m angry.” But his voice was like a flower petal or a leaf, landing on a hand.
“Angry?” Helge said. She brought her forehead close against the grate and squinted at him. “Why?”
“Because some people just won’t see where they are, or who is right here with them, even in the dark.” And Mahmoud surprised her further by standing up and turning from her, and sliding back into the hallway of his house, toward a pale blue fullness she could just make out beyond the open door.
“Mahmoud!” she said. “What if someone wants to buy something?” It was a silly thing to say, responding to a speech like that as if she had not heard it. But anyway, Mahmoud was gone, and his shadow disappeared.
She moved on down the little street, on her way passing two donkeys chained by their soft snouts to a brass ring on a door, and a bony dog, sleeping, one eye open, on a cement stoop. “Each one in their place,” she thought, and it occurred to her that since Issa had come back, with mysteries of his own, since Nuru had announced that she was not returning, Helge hadn’t known what her own place was. Would she really age and die right here in this island town, all alone, while Issa’s children – she imagined – vied to take care of their father, and while Yussuf in Bavaria made repeated love to a darling German woman (a musician, Helge thought, blonde where she was brown) and Nuru drank fresh cherry juice two thousand miles away? She could hardly bear to ask herself these questions. Of course, she would stay here. What the mkunga said was right. She had done it to herself, and, now, where else was there to go?
For a moment, she felt all the terror of her solitude, and it was unlivable. She would meet with Issa and convince him to come back to her. Perhaps you wed another, she would say, but it was me who sowed this field. Why can’t I have the harvest? She would hold him in her arms, and they would dance to one of Nusla’s favorite cassettes – the song that Helge understood as speaking of a woman who slept all night in a river risking drowning, reaching for her love, who had sailed away. She would rest her palm on the back of Issa’s neck, where there had been a sweet, plump rise, a lovely pad of fat that she had liked to tickle with her eyelashes and drop small kisses on. These thoughts made her hurry toward Aboud’s Music and Perfume as if driven by a spirit. She would not remain alone! She would save herself! But something stopped her at the corner of the little alley that fed into the shopping street, right across from Aboud’s store.
Just behind her, a boxy woman squatted on her stoop before a tray of deep-fried hamri breads. Ahead, in the shop’s doorway, an old grey man with one leg and wood crutches held a hopeful hand out for anybody’s coin. And three slender spotted cats – a family? father, mother, child? – skittered past on speedy clicking feet. It struck her. The streets and alleys were as they had always been, as long as she had known them. They were just the same as the weeks and months before. Why should anything be different, just because Issa had come back? This place was just the same, and Helge too, was just as she had been. Healed. Relieved at Issa’s absence from her life. Discreet and full of thoughts. Sufficient to herself. And even, Helge thought, once her back hurt less and all the rooms were painted: ready for whatever there was now.
She stepped close to the mottled wall of an old house and leaned comfortably against it. It was almost noon. She could see into Aboud’s shop, and, behind the counter, one of Nusla’s sons, the oldest, a soft-limbed boy with a long fine neck and dutiful kind eyes. Nusla wasn’t there, and Helge wondered idly how her old friend was, and what had gone between them that they didn’t see each other anymore. She couldn’t remember, and she even thought that, in a day or two, she’d send Nusla a note, and invite her to sit down with her, under her nice tree.
Then, Helge saw a man entering the store. A man about her size, like Issa. They had joked about it, how well-suited, how the bed fit them both exactly, how they shared the rubber flip-flops they kept near the bath. This man’s hair was gray, as Helge’s also was. His shoulders sagged a bit. Perhaps he, too, had a backache. He had not gotten fat. His white gown shone in the light, and his feet, the same size as Helge’s own, moved in hand-made leather sandals of the kind Issa preferred. In the shop, Nusla’s boy smiled at him in welcome, and Helge thought, with surprising satisfaction, that if that man was Issa, he didn’t know the boy; that Issa had left Belungi before this boy was born. But even from a distance, she’d seen that boy grow. She was trying to make sense of the feet beneath her, and the cool shape of the wall just against her cheek. I’ve been here, I have. So, that is something, Helge thought, that Issa cannot say.
Struggling to remain concealed, she tried to see what was before her. That man is Nuru’s father. I once knew those hands. That man married me, and we had a child. But the feelings that might go along with any of those facts did not rise inside her. Her limbs did not believe it. But perhaps it wasn’t Issa, after all. Perhaps Aisha had misunderstood, or her spirit had meant to play a game.
The man stepped beyond the counters to the little shop’s back room, where Nusla and Aboud stocked clothing sent from Thailand, India and Oman, and where they kept fabric – silks and gauzes, for making women’s clothes. Nusla’s boy brought the wooden countertop back down again, and turned to greet two women who had stepped inside and appeared to be in search of quite specific things. Helge’s heart was settling. She pulled herself up to her full height and felt an easing in her shoulders. Near her hips, a bone popped. She would not accept this secret meeting with him. As if they were young lovers. As if she were a thing to be hidden and concealed. “No,” she thought. “If he wants to see me. If he wants to ask me about Nuru. If he wants something from me. He will have to come to me directly. He will have to walk past Mahmoud’s shop and greet him, too, notice where he is, and who I am without him.”
For just a moment, the past did call to her. She imagined Issa seated on a stool among the gowns and women’s fabrics, and how one color or another, or a scent from Nusla’s counter, might remind him of his second wife. How that might wound or pierce him. She wondered if the second wife had died alone, or if Issa had been there beside her, if he had wept for her while she was alive, or if he had waited, so as not to harm her. Or if it had been so sudden that he still did not believe it. That his body was one bruise. All at once, Helge found that she felt sorry for whoever that man was. And even for his sons, whom she assumed he loved as ferociously and proudly as he had not loved Nuru. She would have to tell Aisha when she saw her next, why she’d not gone in. She’d apologize. “I just couldn’t do it,” she would say, and Aisha would forgive her. What a terrible idea to meet in Aboud’s shop! But I have other things to do.
What things? Well, caring for her body, for example. This sore spine. Also, she was hungry. She gave the old man a fifty-shilling note and brought two mahamri from the woman, who wrapped them expertly in paper and patted them, to show how warm they were. Almost time for prayers! Helge hurried back, without knowing why she did. For women, who didn’t go to mosques, there was little harm, wherever the time found you. The donkeys were still tied to the brass ring, but the dog was gone. A little boy ran past her, carrying a package tightly with both hands. A group of schoolgirls pressed ahead of Helge, laughing.
Back on her own street, she found Mahmoud at his seat in the little shop. “Mahmoud,” she said. “I’ve brought you some food.” She stepped not up to the grate but to the rusted metal side door whose top half was open. She could have stretched her hand from there and set her fingers down on the flesh of Mahmoud’s arm.
“What is it?” Mahmoud asked. He did not smile at her, but nor did he seem angry anymore. “Did you make it yourself?”
“Mahamri,” Helge said. “No, I didn’t. Can I come in there?”
Mahmoud looked at her and his eye narrowed. “Habiba. You want to eat in here?”
“Yes,” she said. She reached inside to unhook the metal sheet, slipped out of her shoes, and stepped into the darkness. The little shop smelled lightly of wax matches, paraffin and sugar. At her feet, a box of washing soap, the long pale bars of it glowing dull and pale. Mahmoud made room for her beside him, and she unwrapped the bread and pushed its paper toward him. In the stillness, she became aware of Mahmoud’s body as a whole, his level shoulders above the wooden bench, and, on the floor, his feet, which were bare and large and bonier than hers. It surprised her, seeing all of him from length to length again, instead of through the grate. He knew that she was looking at him, but he didn’t turn toward her. He sighed, and, like a flag unfurling, a surprise: his left knee softened and came to rest on hers.
“I didn’t go to see him,” Helge said.
They ate. She could not tell if Mahmoud ate because he was hungry, too, or because he was polite. The hamri bread was sweet. In the half-light, Helge closed her eyes and chewed. She was glad to be there. With Mahmoud’s knee resting against hers, and the quiet of the street outside, Helge briefly thought that the hamri tasted just a little bit like almonds, like a memory she loved.
When the prayer call arose, all the street sounds stopped, and Mahmoud, too, seemed to square himself before relaxing with one breath. He set the hamri down, his knee abandoned hers, and he closed his eye. Helge felt her separation from him, first, surprised that she was pained by it, then not surprised at all. As they always did, the adhanas rose from all directions, billowing in the air. The hamri felt good in her stomach. Helge sighed. She looked at Mahmoud’s ankles, then her own, and was struck by the idea that ankles were like rudders, helping human beings through the waters of each day. Above these, Mahmoud’s legs were like slim masts, and his kikoi a sail. The next time Nuru calls, she thought, when she asks me, ‘How is old Mahmoud,’ I wonder what I’ll say.
In the quiet, she thought about Mahmoud, and all the men she saw as she went about her shopping. The coffee sellers and the teachers, the imams and the businessmen, the goat and donkey herders, and the drug-addicted men who begged for money to buy toothpaste and bought something else instead. All at once, she saw that they had mysteries inside them, sorrow, fear of what came next, or dreams, of an ally who would hear them, or of solitude, or death. Then she thought about the women who were falling silent too, in the midst of hemming trousers, rolling dough, or looking for a book they had once read and forgotten; and of women sleeping in a river, nearly drowning, then gasping for dear life and wondering again what it meant to reach out for the banks and let the world unfold.
About the Writer:
N.S. Koenings has spent much of her childhood and adult life in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. Her novel The Blue Taxi and short story collection Theft were published by Little, Brown and Company in 2006 and 2009. Her translations of Swahili literature, including fiction by Mohammed Said Abdalla, Mwenda Mbatiah, and A.S. Manyanza, have appeared in Words without Borders, Asymptote, and The New Orleans Review. She is currently working on a translation of Emmanuel Mbogo’s Vipuli vya Figo, and her own short story collection, entitled ‘Blueband-Omo-Bic’. In her other life as a scholar, she is anthropologist whose research and publications are focused on daily life and oral history in Pemba, Zanzibar. She currently teaches in the School for Interdisciplinary Arts at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.