Karima Grant

Teggin

(Excerpt Chapter Three)


 

Heii, sisters,

heii sisters,

another one is going,

another one is leaving…

 

The yard was noisy, the women’s voices rising in unison, rising in dissension, rising sharply into the gathering night that had long ago chased away the men. Theirs was an irregular circle, the vivid colors of their flowing fabrics spilling in and around their stools, dotting the wet earth like large petaled, black-faced blooms, throbbing in the dusk evening. Peals of laughter broke out between the women, snatching darkness from the spirits and djinn that walked its length. On occasion, the women whispered, spirits were known to imitate human form, taking their place in the circle to better learn the woman medicine unfolding.

Even the rain had finally relented to the greater force of the women, who had declared the ceremony’s date regardless of the rain. It was past time, they declared. A bridegroom and his bride could not be left waiting so long. Nor would Moussa wait indefinitely in the capital, Maryse knew. His career in France did not allow him the luxury of a life paced by the elements. She wondered if when she became his wife, she too would order her days not around seasons, but around the colossal glare of the whites.

All day long, the sun had remained hidden behind a thick skirting of grey clouds that had not, like the women in the circle, revealed their secrets to men either. Perhaps more rain was promised, perhaps the season had already reached the beginning of its end. Indifferent this evening to the affairs of heaven, the women spread tightly woven straw mats over the moist earth, doubling them on the wettest areas of the Jaw yard. Each woman had brought her own stool to sit upon, latecomers obligingly fitting the cramped spaces between the darkening night and its blacker women, forcing the circle to swell and rise with the power of each new body.

Maryse moved uneasily among the women, the white embroidered pagne wrapped tightly around her hips. Heavily starched, it hung stiffly, curtaining her legs and slowing her otherwise purposeful stride. The servant girl had tied the matching headcloth around her newly braided hair (decorated with small cowries and clear beads) and it fell unburdened past her shoulders.  On her right arm, she wore the five gold bracelets her sisters-in-law had each given her. On her left, her father had offered a series of silver bangles, each bearing one of the ninety-nine names of God, each thicker than the last, a bright round halo lighting her hennaed hands and wrists. As Maryse moved from guest to guest slowly, gracefully, balancing and serving the elegantly decorated platters of food, her hands made occasional music. She curtsied before each woman, according to age, caste, and social status.

All her attentions had gone into preparing the food for the evening, knowing the evening’s agency and fortune lay in the mouths of these women. Their talk would bless or curse her newly justified rank among them. Yet even as her arms ached from the weight of the serving dishes and her bangles, and her calves moaned from the deep sway of each curtsy, the night and its women electrified Maryse. It was as if her skin had turned inside out, her blood now a cool running current under the breezes of the night.

Under the weight of their gaze, Maryse felt herself torn in pieces. The women of the circle dissecting, conferring and debating on what she was made of, turning over with their hands and tongues the little evidence of womanhood Maryse presented. Their words tested her spine, its bones strewn and cast like Saro’s cowrie shells, their weight and density ancient measurements of Maryse’s fortitude. She was not expected to show either reaction or response. Either might indicate an excess of liver, too much bile in a girl soon-to-be woman and she could hardly be expected to withstand the bitterness of marriage. Maryse remained silent, her eyes downward, her role and place in this ceremony set lifetimes ago.

“Heh, heh, eh! Maryam’s daughter is a good cook, she has fried these fritters a beautiful color,” offered one.

“What is color compared to taste?” returned another.

“Heii, sister, we will be asking Moussa that in a couple of days!”

The ribald comments on the nature of her first night (tomorrow already!) kept Maryse’s eyes low underneath the thick black kohl that lined both her eyes, and her lips, and her ears flushed hot. Here, finally, was the talk of the invisible magic between men and women, imagined loudly and in detail by these women whose collective wisdom would initiate her. This night was perhaps the first and most important in the series of nightly seductions; for if the bride were to revel and share her own comeliness with a groom, she had first to know it for herself.

“And look how well she serves? Heii, Adja Kane’s son should be pleased to have her instead of a white.”

“Yes, but this is just service on her feet, the real test will be the service she can do on her back!”

The loud laughter hurried Maryse forward.

I don’t know these women, she could not help think to herself. These women I have known all my life, seen all these days, I no longer know them.

How could these women — who so rarely visited her mother — seated all in her own yard, under the same silk cotton tree that had known only her languid dreaming beneath its boughs, now be ushering her toward marriage? These same women, who spent their days otherwise encouraging a subservience to men, now gathered together to give her future sudden flesh and blood form?

Fear crept through her. Maybe her mother was right. Maybe she knew nothing of the world at all. This business of marriage, this business of women, oh God, what was she doing?

Maryse’s eyes lifted and scanned the gathering. At one end the circle came to an irregular point. Here sat Adja Kane, her mother-in-law, and four of Maryse’s five future sisters-in-laws, their backs half turned to the gathering and women around them, as if they could not bear to be seated among these women and their words. The Kane sisters were even then sheltered and connected to the crowd of women only by the dense circle of bodies all dressed in similar cloth, heads wrapped in the same manner —  griots, one for each sister.

The daughters sat at the feet of Adja Kane, the light of the weak moon falling on their backs. A longing ran like madness through Maryse, and she shut her eyes tight for a second to feel its rush. My place will be with them. Soon, I will be seated with them.

Laughter rang out from one of the Kane sisters, a jagged sound that pricked Maryse’s eyes open.

“Hey girl, what, are you sleeping?  Heii, don’t you know there are no more nights of sleep for you?” called one woman impatiently.

Maryse bent over in a bow and brought the platter before the woman who sniffed, somehow appeased.

Adja Kane’s seat was not a stool like the other women, Maryse had noticed, but something more like a high chair, almost of European design. Its back was regal enough for Adja to slouch ever so slightly against, its height enough elevation for her to look over the heads of the other women. She lifted her head slightly, her eyes and ears trained on the heavens, as if only her body was here, on earth, in this circle.  She moved her lips around each other while she told her prayer beads, nodding only now and again with a weak smile at the other women, as if the very effort itself, to be present now, with these women, in this yard, was a tax upon her spirit.

Still, the silk she wore, the elaborate embroidery on the cuffs, hem, and neckline of her robe told otherwise. Even under the moonlight and the faint gas lamps that formed the periphery of the yard, Adja Kane’s tawny skin paled against the others, a reminder of her origin from peoples further North. People she had married her eldest daughter Soxna into. Soxna, seated at the right side of her mother, pretended piety, pulling her own alabaster colored veil over her battered face.  It was rumoured her husband had taken a second wife, building her a palace, north of the town, leaving Soxna and her nine children behind practically to starve.

The women in the circle sucked their collective teeth. “Though you could never tell it, the way she sits there, her head in the air.”

“Heii, sister, do not blame the Kanes if they do not wear their humbleness well. Remember, the cow’s skin will never fit the hyena.”

Maryse swallowed, perspiration dampening the neckline of her dress. She watched as one woman greedily pushed two bean fritters into a laughing mouth.

Who can blame any of the Kanes from not wanting to sit with hens such as these? It was certainly why they were always accompanied by their griots. Rarely would their words ever be as sharp.

Occasionally, the Kane griots stepped forward in song, but just as surely, fat Gawlo’s wife, Collé, stood and interrupted them, her pitch higher and more strident than any in the circle.  Before her marriage to Gawlo, she had served with a family even more prestigious than the Kanes but had taken service with Adja Kane out of loyalty to her husband.

Now, as the women laughed and exchanged lewd comments, Collé filled the air with songs of Adja Kane’s generosity, her once legendary beauty, her own ceremony the night before her nuptials to Baye Iba Kane.

A young girl, blessed by God to marry such a noble man.

A young girl, loyal to her father’s word, travels far,

leaves the tent of women, the tent of her mothers, to travel across many roads to come to her husband’s family.

A young girl soon to assume her role as a noble woman.

 

The griot turned toward Maryse.

All the young girls who want to marry noble men,

listen and learn well.

Your path is ordained by God, none other.

Be faithful and obedient,

bring no shame and your reward like Adja Kane will be your husband’s pride.

 

Maryse’s eyes met her mother-in-law’s. Instantly, Maryse’s dropped her own hurriedly continuing to serve the guests. Before this night, they had met only once, when Adja Kane had paid the requisite visit to Maryam’s house after the exchange of the first part of the dowry.  Then, as now, Adja Kane had not spoken a word, her two hands clutching the prayer beads, reaching occasionally to her veil, pulling it forward as Collé formerly expressed the entire Kane family’s satisfaction with Moussa’s choice of a wife.

“The girl is pleasing to the eye, a clever girl, respectful. These things we see, these things will make her a true daughter to the Kanes.”  Collé had declared.

Only once had Adja Kane settled her eyes on Maryse during the visit. Neither did her lips part in anything resembling a smile even as Maryse had placed the freshly pressed iced coconut water before her, curtsying as she left the room. When the visit came to its proper end, Adja had stood, raising her prayer beads slightly, curling her lips smugly, leaving behind the untouched glass sweating profusely onto the small wooden table.

Maryam, of course, had been duly offended.

“What kind of woman needs a mouthpiece to talk to the mother of her soon to be daughter-in-law?  Only a woman who will not be held responsible!” Maryam had sucked her teeth long and hard, shaking her head at her daughter.

“Keep tight your fancy ideas of love, girl. I pray they are comfort to you the long days ahead.”

From her place in the outer circle, Maryse stole a glance at her mother, seated on a quiet side of the circle.  Not far from her sat Saro, her mother’s only friend.

Heii, Yaye… But tonight you are beautiful.

Indeed, Maryam’s beauty this evening was stark.  The contours of her lip had been stained with henna, painting an almost purple shadow over the lower half of her face. Cheikh Issa had gifted her with a pagne and boubou of contrasting shades of indigo. Against the near black of her mother’s skin, her mother’s robes glowed in the night.

If only she dressed up more, smiled more…Maryse stopped her thoughts.

Around Maryam’s feet were the bolts of fabric and small pieces of gold jewelry given to her by the Kane sisters.   The Kane griots had presented the gifts, the sisters seemingly choosing their seats as far from Maryam as the circle allowed. Even Houraye, the youngest, and Moussa’s choice for her attendant sister- in-law, performing service alongside her, Fanta, and the servant girl, did not loiter either in serving Maryam. Wordlessly, Houraye placed drinks beside Maryam, handing her cooked snacks silently, dipping her knees in curtsey only just barely.

Maryse turned her eyes away, a sudden heat rising to her ears.

She has no friends… No one to defend her.

If Maryam had had a griot, perhaps the griot might have defended her honor, pointed out the offense, sang Maryam’s praises, but Maryam’s only representative was the old woman, Saro. Legendary for her silences, Saro was not a griot anyway, and would never sing on her friend’s behalf.

Hurriedly, Maryse placed her mind on serving, not liking the direction of her thoughts.  The night was hers after all, not her mother’s.

She will not ruin this for me.

Maryse dipped deep into curtsey. Nor would she allow pity to replace the quiet anger she had carried against her mother these many weeks.

Instead Maryse concentrated on the songs that filled the air. To sit and listen to them all, the complex compositions of moral, fable, allegory, and yes praise all sung for her, the bride to be, but destined mostly for other ears.

Beware of the women who sit below you,

beware of the woman who sits at your feet.

She will catch the crumbs of your table,

she will drink the spilled water.

Heii, beware of those who sit at your feet…

 

The griots, formal praise singers, sang best, their voices trained instruments but the ill conduct of one woman to another could provoke an impromptu verse, a coded story, by any of the women, like the couplet directed at one of Maryse’s neighbors, legendary for her stinginess.

Heii, a skinny woman is a danger.

She will never stand to see anyone else fat

less they poke fingers at her skinniness.

Yes, a skinny woman is a dangerous thing.

She will catch the crumbs of your table,

she will drink the spilled water.

Heii, beware of those who sit at your feet…

 

These songs united the women with a playful moderation of bawdy handclaps, sudden dance, frenetic laughter, loud assents and the snaps of fingers thrown high into the air whenever a particular beautiful or truthful song was performed. Soon, the evening would turn to dancing, and all would be invited to dance. Drummers, the only men privy to the surreptitious world of women, would arrive soon, joining the ring only as the women’s sumptuous dances demanded.

Inadvertently, Maryse’s eyes returned to her mother.

Would she dance? Would she join in the celebration at all?

And me? Will she even let me dance?

A movement from her left distracted her and Maryse straightened. Houraye was arguing with a guest, complaining it seemed about a stain on her dress.

Heii, little sister-in-law! Maryse thought. Houraye had arrived late, after most of the cooking and preparing had been finished. From the Kane household she had carried only a sticky pitcher of too sweet fruit drink as her contribution. Barely speaking to either Fanta or Maryse, she nodded curtly at their instructions for service.

“I can’t stand her,” said Fanta, coming up to Maryse, her own arms filled with a half empty tray of stuffed fish patties.

Maryse brightened. Her sister looked stunning in the orange dye fabric she had given her as a gift.

“Look how she argues with everyone. She cannot even pour juice straight without spilling it!”

Maryse looked once more at Houraye. Her heart pulled. Houraye was not yet fifteen, but already she bore the haughtiness of the Kanes around her tall frame and fine features. Tonight she had eschewed Maryse’s customary offering of fabric in favour of a more expensive fabric and design. Maryse had to admit Houraye’s green tunic and wrap skirt, embroidered with thick gold thread, was stunning.

She is beautiful, Maryse sighed to herself.  She remembered when Houraye had once been a too skinny girl, crouched at the gates of the Carmelite nuns, begging entry to the white nuns’ school.  Her daily screams, as she was dragged home by one of the older Kane sisters, had always interrupted Maryse’s geography lesson. It had gone on that way for months, Houraye insistent and petulant, demanding that the sisters open the doors to her as well.  She screamed obscenities, reminding everyone in shrill tones that her father could afford the school fees, and threw herself in the path of the girls and the nuns repeatedly.  Until the one morning when Houraye had suddenly not been there to greet them with her shouts, and the geography lesson had continued on, undisturbed.

A wife able to understand and have knowledge of this new world he will no doubt be part of. Baye Iba Kane’s words.

Afterwards, Maryse promised herself, she and I will be special friends. After all, this is why Moussa has chosen her as my attendant.

“She is young, Fanta, that is all,” Maryse said now soothingly.

Fanta sucked her teeth. “She is spoiled, like all of your sisters-in-laws. Look at how they sit, apart from everyone. Sending their griots to give gifts to Yaye. None of them have yet properly greeted her.”

Maryse swallowed again.

Upon their entry at the gate of the house, the Kane women had waved their hands slightly in the general direction of all the women in the circle, sending their griots to claim their places.  In deference to their status as one of the highest caste families and the richest, many of the townswomen had stood, come forward, and greeted them, some even receiving a hand on their head as Adja Kane wordlessly spoke prayers over them.  None of the Kane women had walked to where Maryam sat on the bench Cheikh Issa had built for her, and formerly greeted her. Instead, relying on their caste and social status they had seated themselves, as if waiting for her pilgrimage to them. Something, Maryse knew, would never happen.

“Does your soon to be mother-in-law really think she is better than us? Just because she is married to Baye Iba Kane?”  Fanta snorted. She stood straighter, comparing herself immodestly to the Kanes. “Besides, they are all getting fat.”

A guest yelled. “Heii girls, are we supposed to be hungry all night while you gossip? Bring the food ‘round!”

Maryse hurried from Fanta, pushing her mother and the Kane women far from her mind.

 

II

The drums had arrived. Forcing the circle open, the men took their places, the drums poised suggestively between their thighs. Passing them, Maryse blushed at their presence, glad she was not responsible for serving them. Fanta, in her orange wrap skirt that she adjusted tighter and tighter as the evening wore on, would certainly capture the eye of more than a few, Maryse guessed. Not for the first time that night, her heart pulled downward, thinking of her sister and the separation the upcoming days would surely mean.

Houraye had since stopped serving, thrusting a hand in Maryse’s face.

“It is burned,” she stated, her eyelashes flashing almost as willful as her brother’s.

Maryse placed the pitcher of water she held in her hands down, and took Houraye’s hand in her own. Almost instantly, Houraye snatched it back, but not before Maryse could feel the cool smoothness of her sister-in-law’s palm.

Maryse’s eyes met the girl’s. Houraye flushed and looked down.

“Yes, sit.” Maryse smiled, wanting suddenly for the girl to like her, to smile back at her, stretch out her hand once more. “Rest now. Fanta and I — we will handle everything.”

But Houraye had already turned and left, finding her place with her sisters, who produced a stool for her.  Once seated, her angular face (almost the same color as Moussa’s) coming undone as she joined in the arrogant laughter of her older sisters, certainly at the other women’s expense. Some of the guests took notice of this, and shaking their heads, exchanged whispers with one another.

“Heii, sister, I wonder at this tradition that allows our men to choose our so-called attendants. What do they know about the qualities that make a good sister- in-law? What do they know of anything?”

The crowd’s disapproval reached Collé’s ears. With a proud flourish of her costly boubou she stood again.  She called into the night.

 

Be careful, sisters

at what the wind carries.

Be careful at what the rain brings.

What we see is always an illusion,

unless we are bowing our heads in prayer.

Be careful at what the wind carries, sisters.

Be careful at what the rain brings.

All that glitters at dusk may not shine in morning,

and only the wise know who to salute and serve.

 

The crowd fell into murmurs.

Maryse’s ears burned.

What was she doing, marrying into the Kanes? What had she to offer women as wealthy and self contained as they? Even the small gifts she had given Houraye had paled in comparison to the gifts Houraye gave her; Maryse’s cloth, pale and cheap looking next to the rich and varied silks it was said Adja Kane ordered from as far away as the Orient.

Maryse wanted to look to her mother, but was afraid of what she would see. A cripple, overdressed, dwarfed by gifts left at her feet? Too mean to even have one friend to sing her praises, or defend her good name here in her own yard? Her mother had not bothered with the pretense of sending gifts to any of the Kanes, including Moussa. Maryse had wanted to beg her, but knew better. A stone set in Maryse’s stomach.

Must she be so mean? Doesn’t she see? It is my future.

No matter how the Kanes acted, her mother could still have sent a gift, something symbolic that would have told the story of her own pride.  Something that would help Maryse hold her head up now among the Kane women.

She is jealous of me. She is jealous that soon I will take my place with the Kanes.  She is begrudging me because soon I will surpass her, I will be greater than her so soon, Maryse thought to herself.

But even as the words filled her head, Maryse felt the shame of betrayal. She hurriedly filled a water pitcher and placed it at her mother’s feet. Her mother did not move.

The old woman Saro, at her mother’s side, smiled, reaching to Maryse. “Sit with me a while, daughter,” she called.

Maryse demurred. “The guests…” she said, turning her head toward the crowd of women.

“Heii, they can wait. Eating, drinking since they have arrived. You and your sister have worked hard. You are a crown to your mother’s efforts.” Saro smiled again, her lips parting to show strong white teeth in the evening’s dusk. She patted a place on the ground next to her stool. Maryse crouched down.

“Such a pretty girl. And grown so fast. How is it a girl like you can be a fat-legged baby forever wandering after her father and his boats one day, and leaving for marriage the next?” Saro clapped her hands together. “Heii, wonders!”

Maryse smiled at the old woman, but did not speak. Saro lifted her chin.

“Your mother has asked me to accompany you tomorrow. Prepare you in the wedding chamber.”  The old woman’s eyes were bright.

The tears shot to Maryse’s eyes and she turned her head slightly in an effort to keep them back. Such a small hope, one that before now, Maryse had not even known she harboured. Was her mother’s anger so deep she would forgo this traditional role?

Does she hate me so much now?

“Heii, tears of joy, or tears of fear?” Saro ran the back of her hand down Maryse’s cheek. “Do not be afraid, daughter. Every woman goes to her bridal night alone.” She laughed. “Most even survive it!”

Maryse managed a soft smile at the old woman. “Yes, Tante Saro,” she answered dutifully.

“Besides, this old woman has a few tricks up her sleeve, things to show you that will make Moussa Kane a satisfied man!” Saro’s cackle turned into a cough and sighing, she settled herself into her stool. She was silent for a long while. The women’s voices rose and fell in song around them. Maryse thought Old Saro had forgotten she was sitting there. For a wild second, she wished she could disappear, away from Saro, her mother, even these women and the heat of their eyes.

Saro looked at Maryse again, raising a hand to Maryse’s face.

“You must learn not to ask of people what they cannot give, Maryse. You have heard it said before, but it is better to put faith in God, than in men.” She smiled. “Women, too. We are just as imperfect, taken from the crooked rib, unable to be made straight, as they say.” Saro released Maryse’s face and adjusted her own headwrap. She nodded in the direction of Adja Kane who had picked up a glass of water and turned it meaningfully around in her hands, glaring pointedly at Maryse.

“Your mother-in-law is thirsty. Go and serve,” Saro said, and turning back to the crowd resumed her placid smile.

Maryse stood, curtseying before leaving Saro’s side. As she passed her mother, she kept her eyes downward. Maryam’s eyes did not flicker and if they registered Maryse, they gave no sign.

 

III

The dancing over, Chinese gunpowder tea with mint was passed in tiny glasses for women to drink in small sips.  Adja Kane still held her prayer beads, her daughters still clutched at their veils. Before them, Collé stood, singing their genealogy. At evening’s end, the mood of the gathered women had grown sombre. The climax of the ceremony reached, dawn now beckoned with its humble truth: another girl was on her way to be wedded. Leaving girlhood behind to become a wife, that most honorable of positions, as sang the griots.

Heii, an illustrious family produces only jewels.

The prophet himself has proclaimed the worth of a virtuous woman.

Times are changing, but we cannot escape where we came from,

no matter where we are going.

No matter where we are going,

we cannot escape where we came from.

 

Collé’s fearsome lungs had finally cowed the women into submission, and many snapped their hands in acquiescence. On a nod from Adja Kane, a Kane sister reached into the bodice of her silk gown and pulled out money. She placed it on the ground before Collé’s feet. Collé did not move.

We have come to celebrate a marriage.

We have come to celebrate a union.

The Kanes will get a new daughter for their son.

Let the girl know what she is carrying,

let the girl know what she is bringing.

The Kanes have given their assent to accept this girl,

let the girl know what she is bringing,

because heiii, she will never ever escape where she is coming from.

 

The Kane sisters placed more money at her feet in tribute to Collé’s words.  Women in the crowd, recalling the ancient nature of their society, stood, stepping forward to also place money in front of the griot, as one by one she called the names of the noble caste of clans.

Sisters, one and all

Be you daughters of the great families of Kane,

Of Fall, of Lim, of Po,

Be you descendents of the royal families of Keur and Dey, Pem and wey,

All of you daughters, you have never escaped your legacies, yes, you have carried your traditions with you.

So the girl must know what she is bringing, since she will never escape where she is coming from.

 

Colle’s song was a knife in Maryse’s heart. Tears rushed to her eyes, but she kept her eyes riveted on the griot as she sang the proud names of people whose lineage had been untainted and remained noble. Would her name ever be called among those of royalty? Would a griot ever one day sing of her nobility as she too stepped forward and placed money in recognition of her proud heritage?

From the other side of the circle, a sound was heard, and the audience and crowd turned their heads.

Heii, sing to me now of God.

Sing to me of His beloved prophet, peace be upon his name.

Sing to me of God and not of men.

Sing to me of God and not of men.

Tell me the words of His prophet and not the words of men,

I beg of you, not the words of men.

 

Maryse could not bear to hold her mother’s eyes as Maryam stood fearsome, in the circle’s center, singing, her crippled leg balancing precariously inches off the ground.

Sit where you’ve been put.

Heii, Teggin,

say the old ones.

Know your place.

Sit where you have been placed.

On the floor,

on the stool,

even in the white man’s chair.

Sit where God has placed you.

There is no shame for those who have been honest in their place.

In the back, in the front,

heii God still looks through the world from there where you are.

 

If not melodic, Maryam’s voice was strong. Her voice pulled into the night as if searching for something all her own in the obscurity.  Maryam moved across the circle to her daughter, her leg no longer a weight to be dragged, but an elegant sweep adding a stirring support to her song.

A woman must bear what her God has given her.

This is her only dignity.

This is her only veil.

A woman must bear what her God has given her,

be it a mouth filled with crumbs or a belly filled with meat

A woman must bear what her God has given her, tell me is this a woman?

 

Maryse’s head hung, unable to meet her mother’s eyes.

Maryam’s voice was not beautiful, its tenor still tinged with the raspy bitterness Maryse had known all her life. How could she ever have imagined her mother’s song?  The crowd grew quiet as Maryam’s song ended.

Silence littered the crowd of women, and only the nightwalker beetles in their mating calls could be heard. Collé, the Kane family griot, reached down and gathered the money at her feet. Walking over where Maryam stood, visibly shaking from the effort of the song, Collé respectfully fell to one knee, placing the money there. She gave Maryam a low curtsy, as the women in the crowd burst into thunderous applause. All but seven women clapped, called, and snapped their fingers.  Adja Kane and her five daughters had narrowed their eyes looking at each other hesitatingly, Houraye’s nostrils flared in distaste.

Maryse’s body suddenly heavy from the weight of her heart, loose in her chest, could only hang her head, blotting out the salt tears clouding her vision.

 

Maryse’s sleep that night was uneasy. Her dreams were filled with the crowd of people waiting for her in her yard, but she was unable to find the door out of the house. She awoke in a sweat.

The house was quiet. From the yard, Maryse could hear the night wind tussling in the remnants of the women’s celebration. The yard would be cleaned tomorrow before her departure and for the first time in her life, it would not be by her. Still, the energy of the women, the ceremony, and the night called to her, fixed her to her bed in restlessness.  She took a last, full breath, glancing around the room she had known all her life.

It was her last night sleeping here, her last night sleeping alongside Fanta.  As if in response, Fanta snored. The night had exhausted her and she had fallen to sleep without any performing the night time ablutions. Maryse knew morning was not far off, and with it the end of her life as a girl. The moment she had been waiting for.

Her mother’s song came to her again, and she closed her eyes, trembling from the weight of the night, and the promise of the future. The passing of one season to the next. She squeezed her body. This is what thunder feels like.

From the next room, she heard whispered prayers. Her mother was up, and suddenly she wanted desperately to go to her. Wrap her body next to her mother’s as she could never remember doing.  Hear her whisper all the words of a mother to a daughter their last night before marriage.  But Maryse did not move. She reached instead for the new rosewood prayer beads (a gift from one of Moussa’s sisters), timing her prayers alongside her mother’s. Together, but apart, mother and daughter spoke their words of supplication, each pressing their head to the floor with only each other and the spirits of dawn as audience.

Join the conversation