The girls who are about to become women sit opposite Merr Sillah, on mats lain on the ground, deep in the forest. It is the Afternoon of the Life Story. She will speak to them, and by the time they leave they will know what it is to be a woman, in the society in which they live. They will be ready for husbands and homes.
- Once there was a woman, Merr Sillah begins, who met and was woo-ed by a man. He loved her, and she loved him, and though he was wont to participate in the indiscretions men are known for, it was only because this was a part of his nature.
A twig snaps in the silence, everyone jumps. But behind them there is nothing. After a while Merr Sillah continues.
- Always after these affairs of hers he came back to her, and always he apologized, and in this way she knew she was the only one he cared about, and in the nights after his latest return she would feed him his favorite foods, and he would call her Mama Biang, and make fond jokes about her stomach.
Merr Sillah pauses to sigh. She is not looking at any of the girls - her gaze is cast off in another direction.
- But then one day, Merr Sillah's voice turns husky, she clears it out with a spit, and rattles her throat with a cough.
- But then one day, she tries again, - His boat finally came to dock - chase kat bi tehral - he fell in love with a witch.
The Sun hides behind a cloud, a chill rises up, the girls draw closer together.
- She was a perfect witch: young and beautiful, and cruel and powerful. She ensnared him, she bewitched him and made him love her. And at last her spells were complete, and he - unable to see, blinded by her dark magic - married him.
Merr Sillah's voice is soft, and the girls have to strain to hear it.
- But the Merr - she was not without her ways. She set out upon certain paths, she visited certain old and wise men her great grandmother had taken her to, when she was still but a child, growing, unsure yet as to her future. Merr Sillah revisited them all. And from this one she got a spell of night-entwining, and from the other she got a spell of never-abandoning, and from a third she got a spell of stomach-enchanting. And she put all these spells together, and she cooked her husband's favorite dakhin mop, and she mixed it in with the dehgeh, and she fed it to him.
One of the girl sniffs - in the quiet it sounds quite loud. All turn to look at her, and she looks embarrassed. Merr Sillah looks up as if startled, and shows her a disapproving frown.
- A woman, she says, should carry a musu-waar. In any case, Merr Sillah says, she fed him the spells. But she had underestimated the power of evil. For her spells were not strong enough to counteract the spells of the witch-harlot. And her husband, caught between the two, his stomach yearning for one thing, his heart another, and his manhood a third, was torn three ways and thus died a slow and painful death.
Several of the girls - who know the meaning of "manhood" - wince.
- And Merr Sillah was filled with grief. But she had one last card, that she had thought not to play. On the night of power, when all prayers are answered, Merr Sillah went to the local mosque. She bore two bags, and they contained all her gold and silver, and all her money that she had withdrawn from the bank. She left it at the mosque door, and was turning to leave when an old man called him back. I know you do not want recognition, the old man said, and that is well. But what you seek you shall find - your enemy shall go insane, before these month-days are over.
Merr Sillah pauses, held captive by her own narrative. Then another twig cracks, and Jahu-doff springs from behind a tree, where she has been hiding all this time. Everyone jumps again. Merr Sillah's sorchu drops to the ground - she picks it up, bites off the part covered with sand and spits it out, then puts it firmly back in her mouth.
- Merr Sillah dayga-dayga, Jahu-doff says, you are a liar. Kee more muna dool!
The Merr turns slowly to look at her, a disdainful expression on her face. She looks as if she is addressing a cow dropping, her right nostril flared, her right upper lip curled upward to allow sounds to escape merely because she has no choice but would rather not be speaking to this human filth, etc.
- What did you say? She pronounces each word singly, apart from the others, dripping acid.
- Hei Merr! You heard me. She - Jahu-doff turns to the assembled girls and points - is a liar! A big liar! Not a small liar sah deh! A big fat one!
- Jahu-doff please stop shouting, one of the girls - whose mother is friends with Merr Sillah - says, a pained expression on her face.
- But do you not want to hear the true story?!, Jahu-doff's eyes are bulging, her neck muscles are strained. Spit flies from the corners of her mouth.
- Yes, yes, the girl says, just sit down and calm down. Then you can tell it.
Merr Sillah looks like she's about to say something, then changes her mind. Jahu-doff sits down, off to Merr Sillah's left, a respectable distance between them. There is a hostility now, in the way Merr Sillah positions her body.
- OK, Jahu-doff says, well then listen to me, and listen bu baah deh.
And Jahu-doff tells them a story, of a woman who was married once, to a husband who did not love her, a man who came home every night but did not really come home, left the better part of himself on the streets and in the rooms he shared with other women, his many affairs. And the woman grew old and bitter, knowing she could never own her husband as these other women owned him, that she lacked something - what? - that they all had. (Merr Sillah frowns, and bites down hard on her sorchu. The girls ignore her, captivated by Jahu-doff). And so they lived, Jahu-doff continues, this husband and wife, and it was somehow a marriage - they had a child, and they performed the necessary family rituals. And she, the wife, got used to this way of living, or at least resigned to it. Until one day the husband, the man of many illicit affairs, met a woman he truly loved. (Merr Sillah coughs, and spits savagely into the bush. She draws a deep xaax-tandehku, holds it for a moment, then spits that out too. Then she re-clamps the sorchu in her jaws, and is silent once more). He did not know how it happened. One day he was talking to her, just yet another of his many conquests, to be fought over with his wife and then forgotten, and then the next he was proposing to her. He had never felt so in love with anyone. When he told his wife she sat down in a chair and looked at him. Are you sure marriage, she asked him, the sentence trailing off, and though he did not answer what she saw in his eyes was answer enough, and it broke her heart. She had always loved him, you see, had always harbored a hope that in time he would come to return it too, if only she was patient, if only she waited. And now she saw there was no way, that there had never been a way. (Merr Sillah gives a little sniff, and draws her kaala tighter about her. The girls are still enraptured by Jahu-doff, and scarce notice her movements.)
And so with that hope taken away in its place there came a hardening. She got up, and left him in the room, and she did not say anything to him regarding the matter again: not when he came to announce the marriage ceremony, not when he told her about ayeh duties and the splitting of the nights. She did not pine, she did not sulk. She was filled with a coolness of purpose which should have frightened him, had he only stopped to think about it. But he was too enamored with his new bride, and realized nothing, until it was too late.
For the first wife, the old woman, did not rest. She traveled abroad, she went to find serigns. In dark rooms filled with darker purposes she committed her transactions, and they concerned death, and they concerned madness, and were in exchange for blood. Within two months the husband was complaining about a stomach pain that would not go away, within six he was dead. And I - the new wife, for it was I he had married - I too fell under the spell of Merr Sillah (the girls start, realizing who the older woman in the story is), for I could neither eat nor drink unless first I took off all my clothes and danced naked all down Kairaba Avenue, or I would have no peace all day, it was like a voice in my head.
Merr Sillah snorts.
- A voice in your head, she says. - This woman, she speaks to the girls now, is not well in the head. Do not listen to her, though her voice is laced with honey - a sly doff is still a doff.
The girls look doubtfully between the two women.
- You believe who you want, Jahu-doff says, and her smile turns cunning. She looks off into the distance, a gleam in her eye and, speaking to herself but loudly enough that the others can hear she says, - Chey those days, when it was my turn with Alaji Momodou, my ayeh! Shoo! - she jiggles her head as she says ayeh, her right hand off on an incline.
- Chey when I got a hold of him, what rachah-pachah I showed him. She gives her waist a little slap as she says rachah-pachah, and Merr Sillah's breath quickens.
- Defarr be muh saf!, Jahu-doff says. She smacks her lips together, making kissing sounds, and Merr Sillah shakes with anger.
- And then when we were done, Jahu-doff continues, when we lay on my bed, my Alaji and I, what things he would say to me. God knows, he would say, a woman is to be like this, but that huge stomach - Jahu-doff mimes a stomach - that big lump of geh-ress - Jahu-doff points in the general direction of Merr Sillah's bum - sitting around all day belching and farting…
And before she can complete Merr Sillah gives a wild scream and launches at her, hands reaching for her throat, as Jahu-doff jumps up with a playful laugh and runs off into the forest, Merr Sillah hot on her heels.
The girls are hysterical with laughter.