Translated by ELISABETH JAQUETTE
“Goal! Nice goal!”
That’s what my mother calls from where she sits on her low stool, which seems to long for the earth of my father’s grave, when she sees me kick an onion between two of the legs supporting the large earthen water jar. My vegeta-ball bounces off one leg and lands in the smoke pit, crying hot tears from the wound she sustained when she struck the sharp leg.
The smoke pit is under my grandmother’s wooden bed, so I bend down to retrieve my vegeta-ball, but when I see that the ground under her bed is wet with water dripping from the jug, I immediately forget what I was looking for. I love mud, and so donkeys, sheep, lions, elephants, and chickens emerge from the mud thanks to my fingertips, and then I take my new flock to graze in the courtyard, where they all eat grass, and even the lion’s stomach is fine with it. The two pebbles I use for his sad and happy eyes are like lovely girls’ eyes in my country. The elephant is smaller than the goat; it wasn’t born, doesn’t reproduce, and won’t die, just like the goat, and like me, I think, and the matches make for straight tusks. My mother is looking at me with a lot of love, not because I’m little and without a father, but because I’m ugly and skinny and poor, and my mother thinks this trinity will crucify me on sturdy beams before the age of thirty. But she doesn’t notice that the lion I’ve made is like an officer in plainclothes, that its mouth looks as meek as the beak of a bird, as if Christ has come down into my fingertips, then out through my hands. “Don’t worry about him,ˮ my grandmother tells my mother. “He’s been watching water drip from the jug for four hours, perfectly happy.”
The droplets fall from the base of the jug completely naked. They don’t use a shroud to cover their private parts; what do they have to fear? They conceal what they reveal, diamond husk and diamond kernel, glinting like an immortal god. They nimbly dig a little pond, which opens and closes its mouth to devour the drops of water, beating tenderly and methodically like the ticking of a clock, or perhaps like the way Amna inhales while reading Jane Eyre, or perhaps deeper, more merciful, more mysterious than that.
And sometimes Um al-Loul, our thirsty chicken, lies in wait for these droplets, so patient and persistent, waits until each watery body falls from the bottom of the jar, and then she devours them with her beak in the middle of the sky (the low sky where no white clouds float past, the part between the ground and the sticky green bottom of the water jar), like a hawk thrusting its talons into a helpless bird. It’s the faintest rain in the universe, the rain that falls from the bottom of the jug all day, each orphan droplet without thunder or lightning, without tiring, just that loving echo. It makes me wonder, in this quiet house, what time is. Sometimes my animals fight: the goat breaks the lion’s leg, the camel’s neck gets twisted by a peck from the chicken’s beak (I haven’t stuck it on like I should have). My virgin consciousness determines that the weak beasts should win; the lion runs away from the goat, just like we run away from the savage ajoubet al-khirbet soba (which is what we call the stray dog when she keeps us from coming too close to the mesquite forest). When I get bored under the jar’s shrinking shadow, I smash the animals into a single lump of clay, the way they were before my fingertips pulled them from under Grandmother’s bed. And in an evolutionary leap, only backward, I use it to make a Bedford lorry carrying black watermelons on its back; the only thing in the house I can find for watermelons are goat droppings. I let out a long exhale, like the lorry is going across a deep, sandy ravine. My voice reaches Mother, and she prays to God for the lorry to make it out of the sandy ravine before I become hoarse.
The onion’s heart shivered when she felt she had no place in my thoughts anymore, that she’d died in oblivion, that she’d fallen into a bottomless pit, no further mention, or echo, or resurrection.
Only an hour had gone by before the lorry became a lump of clay too, and I stuck it to a stone in the wall of our house. Where were the camel, the goat, the lorry, the chicken, and the elephant now? They had melted away like incense into the air, and after a week even the cleverest heavenly angel wouldn’t have been able to make out their features in that particular piece of mud, which will have dried and become exactly the same color as the wall. And without being able to distinguish them, the angel couldn’t make them account for their sins: for example, that one of the droppings was salty when it played the role of the watermelon, or that the elephant questioned Fate when it was very angry with the hen for breaking the larger animal’s enormous leg.
And in the meantime, the watermelon lorry stopped at the market and stacked the melons into a pyramid:
“Take it or leave it,” I said to the mayor’s son.
“Here you go—it’s on me.”
This was my body, and this was my blood, an offering for your precious smile.
The market scattered; the black, round watermelons rolled into empty, penniless pockets. Just how water flows downhill, by following its natural impulse.
Whenever I walked past my father’s grave on the bank of the Nile, I remembered the mound of clay, and how it became part of the wall like any other. Where was the sound of the goat bleating, of the elephant’s trumpeting? The animals’ forms had disappeared into the lump of mud, the way musical notes slowly fade into the silence of a vast sky.
The donkey lived a full hour under the little barrel’s shadow, without digestive, nervous, or reproductive systems, carefully bearing Amna on its back to the mill and canal. Amna sat me behind her on the donkey’s back when she went through the forest to the river, and my friends were jealous when I sat on the kingdom’s throne, fatherless and alone, like a god.
Making it was as fun as creating the entire universe. I became one with its shape. Take it or leave it, I wouldn’t sell my donkey.
For a whole hour I tried to catch the shadow of our neighbors’ tree; it was playing like the eyes of a tennis referee. I put a brick on the troublemaking shadow, so it wouldn’t cover the soft statue of Amna in our courtyard; I wanted her to dry as fast as possible, so I could sew her a golden dress out of the cap I inherited from my father. In my mind, the dress surrounded her breathtaking body like candlelight surrounds her embryo’s shadow, deep inside me.
As I was decorating the donkey’s stomach, I sank into the joy of my senses all becoming one. I was breathing my spirit into the details of its stomach, tail, and braying, and I put my head on the ground to see its stomach and hind legs; they sagged, but they were able to carry me behind Amna, and they could carry blind Asha’s wares to the other side of the market, for free, and they could beat Taha’s strong donkey in a race. I was surprised that its eyes were sad and clever like Amna’s eyes; when did her spirit surprise me by slipping into my mud donkey’s head?
I didn’t catch the shadow, it remained free from my grasp, and indescribable feelings fluttered around my head, unutterable and unnameable; there are beings that cannot be held.
My mud donkey’s braying came out of my mouth without a whimper or embarrassment. This universe is so vast, like a watermelon—it contains sweetness and fragility and emotions and good flavors.
“The donkey’s tired; it’s just come back from the mill.”
That’s what my mother told our neighbor Souad when she asked the donkey to carry a sack of onions back from the market, and my donkey heard this great kindness, from where I’d hidden him under a pineapple can, and he puffed out his bristles like Mister Hedgehog’s spikes: safe, delighted, and ready.
The only people at home were Mother, Grandmother, and me, so God sent us these little mud creatures, to fill the silence with their baaing, braying, hissing, and barking, to fill the needs of the forgotten ones.
The smell of the oven, the canals, the jar and its water droplets, a blank wall, my mother’s special cupboard filled with cups and other dishes, the clouds’ slow creep across the top of the sky, slight drowsiness before bed—these all seemed like one thing, like a drop of honey on my tongue, my eye, and my heart. When I saw Amna lean over as she swept her house, or kneel during the prayers I wished would not end, her breasts were like crystal-clear drops of water at the base of the jar, though these ones remained clinging to her compassionate chest, like a heavenly prophecy, as if holding back the light from my hungry land. They rippled with the broom’s movement, like waves across a little pond when joined by returning droplets.
Trills of celebration filled the village square, and the bodies were naked in my imagination, like the droplets of water at the base of the jug as they prepared to depart their kingdom. It was Amna’s wedding; a dove flew from my hands into a cage, and my chest simmered with everything that rankles the hearts of girls, men, sheikhs, dogs, children, angels, prisoners, and the fearful. While my mother’s tears expressed my sadness, my tears manifested as sweat over my entire body. The trills of happiness tinged with song floated on the breeze, as slowly as a turtle, easing their pace when they reached the ears of the walls and cows, the minaret and the river, all in solidarity with me. I felt like every atom of the earth needed a heartbeat, to feel how terrible the wound was, then needed to sleep peacefully until heavy tears purified them from everything unclean.
As the sun leaned toward the horizon, the donkey’s shadow looked like a mountain holding a dish, as if it were begging from passersby. Three ants carrying a heavy grain of wheat sat in the shade of the dish, as if they were what fate had bestowed to this hungry mountain, but really, the dish was nothing but a donkey’s shadow, distorted by the waning sunlight.
A breeze blew in from the river, and Amna’s hair brushed my face; the air became wine, and I drank my fill of houses, fields, and clouds. I ritually washed my face in those dark rays, as shadows frolicked with the earth. My face tasted billowing silk, combed through by the breeze, and when my donkey felt my excitement, our three hearts beat in everlasting passion, and the rhythm of his hooves syncopated with my heartbeats and Amna’s breathing.
The shadow didn’t reveal the truth. My body merged with Amna in the waning shadows of sunset. Nothing could come between us, not until death; nothing could disentangle my shadow as it melted into hers.
Amna and her groom watched in horror from a hole in the window, as the little clay dog barked all night, a dog created from mud made by the donkey’s urine. Its barking sounded like braying, and I sent it to bark at Amna’s house until morning, so that no one but me could come near her. The sound of its barking reached me, like an army commander chanting a victory anthem over the remaining traitors; its barking was a huge wall between Amna’s lips and her false spouse.
The dog told me I would marry her in the liminality of al-barzakh, that my body had not yet ripened or become hard like clay, and that it would not until after the first death; there you can have ninety-nine names, or one for every creature; as many as you like.
I threatened Amna that I would snuff out her existence forever if she didn’t marry me, that it would be her fate to end in smoke, like people in a pleasant dream when the dreamer awakes. I threatened to smash her into a lump of mud like the goat, the elephant, and the chicken.
My fingers moved of their own accord; meanwhile I was powerless. I pressed my ten fingers into the mound of mud, into the treacherous statue that rejected its creator and threw itself into another’s embrace, and I turned it into a sad lump of mud, then stepped on it. Amna’s features were imprinted with the sole of my foot; my big toe rippled through her smashed head. I cried bitter tears as I gathered her smashed corpse, which stuck to the ground, and to the sole of my foot, and I went to bury her in the smoke pit. But I abruptly forgot about her mud corpse, which lay at the edge of the smoke pit, when I found an onion lying inside, moaning because of a gash in her stomach. How did she get here? I stuck two dry stalks of wheat to her, so she would look like an ostrich whose legs could help her stand.
I didn’t remember at all that the onion was once my dear vegeta-ball.
Abdel-Ghani Karamalla is a pioneering Sudanese writer and novelist who lives in Khartoum. He has written several novels and short story collections, including Sharp Back Pains, Wooden Heart, Scent of Silt, and Bellow of Shame. He has also written more than ten books for children and illustrated all his children’s stories himself. His writing has been translated into English and French. Karamalla is also a political activist, and he was detained for several months in Kober Prison, Shala Prison, and Shendi Security Prison, where he was subjected to violence and physical abuse by the dictatorial regime.
Elisabeth Jaquette is a translator from the Arabic and executive director of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Her work has been shortlisted for the TA First Translation Prize, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and supported by the Jan Michalski Foundation, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and several English PEN Translates awards. Upcoming book-length translations include Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, and The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous. Jaquette has taught translation at Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference and elsewhere, and was a judge for the 2019 National Book Award in Translated Literature.