Translated from the Arabic by ROBIN MOGER
The zaar concluded on the tenth day. With a small retinue, Sara went down to the Nile.
On this, the last day, she had to wash every inch of her body in the river’s sacred waters, and then the celebrations could begin. She stepped quickly, her body weightless now all the years of waiting and false promises were set aside. Face shining, renewed, it was as though three decades of dread had swirled up and away with the incense smoke and the dust raised by the devil’s music. Purged of its frustrations, her mind could usher in thoughts of hope, and it seemed to her now, as she stepped out of the house and back into the world outside, that divine care had granted her its protection; was shielding her from time, against oblivion.
Out into the burning sunshine in a bright white robe, trembling a little at first to think that she should reenter the world this way, as in a burial shroud, but ten days had taught her how grief could transform into dreams come true and memories into ash, and she brought her terror of death under control.
Two dreams in particular had come true in the course of these ten days, dreams that in normal circumstances would have stayed dreams, even if she waited a century or more. They were: that she forgot the causes of her sadness, and that she set out at the head of a procession that proceeded out into the unknown.
At one point in the rituals, she had drunk down a whole bottle of whisky and lost herself in dance. Now she unsheathed a longsword belonging to one of her ancestors, and carried it with her as she went.
Sara walked at the head of the little procession, surrounded by children who had run to join them after school, bringing with them long-forgotten revolutionary anthems, clamoring over a wail of reed pipes and the clatter of empty tin cans. Straight down to the waters she marched, brandishing her sword. In the evening light she was a commander marching forward into her last battle.
A breeze sprung up, blowing her hair, her golden tresses streaming through the faint lines of the setting sun’s last rays. Like nothing so much as the last happy day of her former life, a day some ten years before, which she had later come to think of, trapped in the labyrinth of waiting, as the day she’d married a dead man.
This was the truth.
Exactly as the maadhoun announced that Sara Othman Al Fadl, a woman of proper age, was now wife to her cousin Saeed, and the ululations had torn through the tedium of a winter’s day—at that very moment—Saeed was stretched out in the mortuary, blood congealed around the bullet hole in his right temple. In his right-hand pocket, the last of the pamphlets, which he had been unable to hand out, and in his wallet, stolen by the security officer who’d shot him, a photograph of a plain-featured girl tucked amid receipts and banknotes and inscribed on the back with a promise to wait for him till death.
Ten days to wash away the bitterness of ten years. A day per year. In the fever of the dust cloud, in the chaos of the drums, shedding every moment of a wretched existence spent waiting between hope and despair for a message that would negate the report of his death, for some great catastrophe to shake the world around her and wake her from the nightmare in which she lived.
Sluggish in the heat, Sara walked on. Emerging from the stand of mesquite trees, a general at the head of her dust-cloud army, advancing to attack the ancient river in its noontime doze. The drumbeats and the children’s screams woke the Nile. Waves surged across its face and broke against the shore; then calm was restored, the ripples running gently as butterflies at rest, smooth as flights of cranes and sandgrouse.
Looking down over the full breadth of the Nile settled beneath the fierce noon heat, Sara told herself that it hadn’t been her who had led the procession but instead the drummed rhythm and the melody piped by the schoolchildren. The sight of the river took her back through the past decade. She saw herself fighting to stay alive, all the furniture in her house sold for food. She saw the cockfights in the markets where she carried her unsellable wares: sweet sesame paste, sugar cane, dried peel. She saw her mother in malarial fever rising from her sickbed, defying old age and illness to try and break her daughter’s endless grief, sending what little money she’d saved for her medicine with a boy to buy a battery for the old radio, so that death’s silence wouldn’t invade the walls of their home. Her mother, taking her by her hand like a little girl and leading her round the village as it baked beneath the sun. Singing to her by moonlight the same songs she’d sung when Sara was young. Passing on endless news and gossip, most of which she’d woven herself out of the scant threads she gathered from those women who still visited her, on summer days mostly, or holidays, though she could no longer remember the names of most of them, nor the happy times they’d spent together.
Sword held high, stepping at the head of the procession, Sara drew on her new confidence and tried to push these memories back into oblivion, but the river’s still surface seemed to her like a second memory, and one that resisted forgetting: a mirror reflecting back the events of a time she’d hoped to have left behind her, to have buried in thump of drumbeats, ecstasy of dance, her newborn dreams.
In the waters, she saw the face of that young man who’d once taught at the village school. She saw the first time he had paid her a visit, come early one morning with his kind and weary face, his old clothes, pickaxe in hand because he had walked straight from the fields. He had sat with her mother, who had been raving in her fever as he arrived, but had recovered enough to sip from a cup of tamarind, tuck a pinch of snuff into her mouth, and exchange pleasantries with the young teacher.
When she had heard the visitor’s footsteps, the old woman had known that this was her daughter’s last hope of escaping her grief. Shaking herself free of her fever, she got up to welcome him in. He drank his tea with a noisy satisfaction befitting a winter’s day, and when the old woman held out the ancient radio that had finally stopped working, he reconnected the mechanism that moved the dial, and it spoke again. Setting the radio aside, he unwound the bulk of the ragged wool scarf from around his neck, and a small dust storm filled the house. He asked for Sara’s hand.
Joy showed on the mother’s face, but Sara showed no sign of sharing it. The kind young man left, hoping he might return. And he did, several times over the next few days, and every time he would reattach the mechanism in the radio and the dust would billow off his old wool scarf. Once he brought the old woman a handful of malaria pills. He filled a cup with water and she took her medicine. And as more visits followed, it seemed that Sara was beginning to soften before his insistence.
For the first time, she consented to sit with him without the immediate company of her mother.
She put her foot in the water and felt its chill burn stab into her bones. For a while she stood there, hoping this first step would restore some control over her memories, but the flat surface before her offered only more wounds. She saw him again, the way he’d been the last time she saw him, at her mother’s funeral: the same kind face, the dusty shawl round his neck, hope still flashing in his eyes.
She glanced at the throng behind her. The sun’s horizontal rays and the darkness just starting to gather over the river both fell about her and sheltered her. From afar she heard the last tapping of the drums, the final reedy notes of the pipes, then all was lost in the river’s gloom.
Ahmad Al Malik is a writer from Sudan. He has published seven novels and three short story collections. His novel Autumn Brings Clarity has been translated into French and Dutch, and his short stories have been published in English, French, and Dutch translation in anthologies of contemporary Sudanese literature.
Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry based in Cape Town, South Africa.