Wednesday, December 22, 2010


4. Attached to her mother, she follows the woman everywhere. She understands two rules: being with her is good, being away from her is not. These are the only rules she needs to know.

16. Her first boyfriend, high school classmate. He is on the football team. They walk together, after class, and he tells her about what team they will be playing next, what their chances are. She comes to school one morning and there is something wrong. She notices as soon as she enters the school gates. Everyone is standing outside, in little gatherings, murmuring to each other. She is told: the captain of the football team has died. The eyes of the boy she dates are red, and he turns away from her. She feels she ought to cry, as some of the other girls are doing, but the truth is she did not know the boy, feels nothing at his passing. And so she goes with the rest of the school to the funeral, and maintains the necessary decorum. But her thoughts are elsewhere, as they all sit outside listening to the wails of the boy's mother. She thinks of death, of what form it takes. In the final moments filled with knowing, what is it like - imagining it fills her with a delicious thrill, the thrill of one who still feel themselves far from a future danger, safe behind many layers of time. She thinks, where will I be when it happens. She thinks, will I know, at the last moment.

18. Her aunty dies. She is woken from sleep by her mother, who is in tears. They dress quickly and go to the morgue to see the body. She thinks of her aunty's journey, from the main hospital, to haar yaala, to dead house. Her face deteriorating at each stage, her body become weaker and unable to support her any longer, so she had to be carried. In the end she recognized no one, would start screaming about witches if anyone touched her. It is the closest she has ever come to death, and it shocks her, seeing where her aunty lies dressed in white, her face pasty, the line of viewers walking past in a muffled sorrow. And her mother shouts her aunty's name over and over, and cries out to God, and has to be led away by one of the men. She does not cry. She stands outside the morgue and thinks of her own death, and what it will be like. She runs through the many possibilities in her head. Death by drowning, water-filled lungs. Death by falling, from a great height, the body shattering on impact, the head exploding as it meets hard concrete. Death by fire, a terrible burning, the stench of one's own flesh accompanied by a pain she cannot even begin to imagine. Death by gun, a shot in the back of the head as she stands facing a wall. Death by sleep, a dream in which she falls from an airplane, but this time does not wake up from before she lands. And all the women are told to leave the morgue, to go back to the house while the men carry the body to the mosque, to perform the last rites on it. And as she sits in the back of the car with her weeping mother she thinks not me, not yet.

24. Marriage. A nice man she meets at college, one who makes her laugh and feel good about herself. When she is with him she feels complete - this is what she says to all her friends. The ceremony is a small affair - she has never been one for lavishness. A few relatives, her proud parents. As he holds her and they dance at the reception she catches a glimpse of her father where he sits, hunched over his walking stick, his breathing laborious, even as he puts on a brave smile. And she thinks he cannot have much left. And she feels a sudden sadness, and her husband must feel it, too, because he draws her closer in the dance, as the griots walk about them speaking of the deeds of their grandparents, picking up dalasi notes from the floor.

27. Divorce. She cannot produce babies - they have tried everything imaginable. Visits to serigns and doctors, the advice of friends and family. The mothers on both sides are exasperated, each blaming the other's child, a continuous battle which tires her. And she finds out, too, that he is not what she truly wanted, the doubts that entered her mind after the first week of marriage have hardened and become the driving thoughts of her days with him. She finds fault in everything he does. And he in his turn is irritable and given to bouts of moodiness. They will go whole nights without speaking, lying there in the dark, each waiting for the intake of breath that will mean the other is about to apologize, and that never comes. Their fights grow more bitter by the day. One day in a fit of rage he tells her that perhaps if she had not lost her virginity before they married none of this would have happened. He apologizes immediately - all the air is deflated out of her and she has to sit down. And after that he is extra polite, but both of them know this is it. They have crossed a line drawn long ago, even as they promised each other there would be no lines. They no longer love each other, they carry on a pretense only for old times' sake, and for the sake of their parents. Her father dies, and briefly they are brought back together, under an umbrella of grief. But it does not last, the flame that existed has dwindled to a mere flicker, and then is finally put out altogether. One day he returns home from work to find her sitting in the living room, eyes red, a tissue in her hand. We need to talk, she says.

42. In her apartment. The world has changed, it seems, while she has stood stagnant in it. She lies half-awake - perhaps she is only dreaming this. But death is with her, its presence fills the room, makes the air frigid so her thick blanket provides no protection. Death is here with her, and it is everywhere - she can no more escape from it than she can escape from herself, from her body and pestering thoughts. She is filled with fear, that constricts her throat and makes her gasp. She is in bed alone - over the years a succession of men have entered it and left, each leaving no great or lasting impression. She wishes now for a person, for someone, anyone - she cannot face this alone. She runs into the bathroom - it is there, waiting. She goes to the living room, turns on the TV volume - damn the neighbors - it is there too. And she lies on the sofa and curls herself up and tears stream from her eyes. She recites a vaguely remembered prayer again and again. And at last the presence leaves - a subtle shift in the temperature of the room, a dulling of her fear. But she has been in its presence, been marked by it. She knows it is only a matter of time.

47. The day of her graduation. She has gone back to school, to get a new degree. She wishes to make something of her life, has stopped smoking, and drinking. Her mother is there, shuffling on arthritic legs, a smile on her weatherworn face. She begins a new job at one of the local NGOs. This is how she spends her days, staying at work until late, even on weekends. She has no other life, no interest in men, despite the gentle prodding of her mother. And death follows her still, the more she runs from it the closer she can feel its hot breath on her back. Sometimes at night she lies awake crying, though she suffers from no disease, and her life is as comfortable as it has ever been. She cannot talk about it with anyone - she knows the answers they will give her, about gratitude, about God. She lies awake and wishes it would happen now, be over and done with. A dullness fills her heart, the world is flattened into a place without hope or emotion. And it gets worse. In the mornings she cannot get out of bed except with a massive effort. And death is there, and some nights she rails against it, and some nights she pleads with it, but death is silent, death knows what it knows, and is patient. And in desperation she begins to think, I have only one thing left, and that is my choice. And the thought enters her mind and will not leave it, and she can feel death stir, where it waits in the wings of her life. She thinks I can choose the place and the time, she is filled with defiance.

49. Her mother is the only one who cries for her. Everyone else speaks only about how a person without faith could have done such a thing. No last rites are performed, no Imam presides over her.

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