His Aunt went to see the Serign on Saturday. The Serign wrote his name down on white paper, with the blood of a goat.
And by the following Saturday he had gone mad.
It wasn't the kind of madness that was immediately obvious. It was a subtle madness, that infected his thoughts and filled everything with a dark poison, and made him stay awake at night. It found its source in a growing dread of his mortality. The thought of what lay beyond existence, what lay on the other side of the impermeable dark filled him with a greater terror than he had thought possible. And this terror was compounded by the fact that he felt, too, an inexplicable desire to embrace this darkness, to escape himself.
His mother noticed. Perhaps through his speech, perhaps in his actions - mothers always know, are always able to read the signs, no matter how insignificant they seem to an outsider.
He snapped at her once, in the living room, over a trivial matter. Another time he would not greet her, when he came in from work. And both times she was silent and showed him no anger- was in fact even kinder to him as he went about the house in a dark mood, complaining about everything.
That Friday, unknown to anyone, the mother traveled to visit a well-respected but obscure Serign in Fass Njaga Choi, waking early in the morning to catch a van, after she had prayed Fajr. The roads almost empty, the geleh-geleh leaving a trail of dust in the damp dawn air.
Your boy is under the cursing hand of another, the Serign told her, observing his shells spread out before him, The hand of one close to you in blood and in water.
Something in the old woman's throat caught. She breathed in deeply, and coughed.
What do I have to do?, she asked, and she could have been asking for the price of a fish - so composed was she.
The Serign's face grew grave, and he shook his head.
The ties that bind the curse can be undone only by one stronger than I - it is an ancient and cruel magic. He looked up at her. Belie Aja - I have been doing this for long now - Jahan-nama is not itself enough of a punishment for the caster.
The mother had suspected it but been unwilling to believe it. She said nothing of this to the Serign - she thanked him, and left that place in the early afternoon, taking a van back home.
When she got there she cooked lunch for two (for she lived alone with her son). Then she sat in the living room with the TV on, waiting for him to return from work.
He did not believe her, of course. In truth he thought rather poorly of what he called the superstitions of an older generation, trapped in a time of darkness before Science. So he paid her no mind, dismissed her words, eating his lunch and going into his room to take a nap.
For many nights after, his mother did not sleep. Her thoughts wandered, yet were centred toward only one thing: finding a way to save her son. She wondered, at which of her relatives had done such a thing. In her mind all of their faces acquired ugly sneers, hitherto unseen marks of cruelty hidden in the lines and creases of their faces. It could have been any of them, or all of them in concert. She had never spoken a bad word or done a bad deed against they and their families - why would they do this to her now?
She thought, but God is better than them. And in her mind she made a list of Serigns to visit, to see what they could do.
The mother had not raised her voice against the son, in many years. She handled him like she had handled his father, letting him walk around the house as if he owned it, quietly getting her own way using her own subtle means and ways.
So she had never raised her voice, since the father had died. Which made the sound of it seem even more unnatural, as she admonished him in his room.
I got this saafara, she told the son, and you will drink it, and you will bath with it. I never ask you to do anything - I slave for you day and night. You will do this for me - there is no argument.
He had never seen her this upset. With a resigned sigh, a sulky look on his face, he took the bottle from her.
If only to get her to shut up, he thought. If only to make her happy.
There were a few more bottles-ful, after that, concoctions from all over the land, multicolored liquids with swirls of shredded paper at their center put in old medicine and drink bottles.
He drank, and he bathed, and he rubbed over his head, and he put in his ear holes, and under the soles of his feet.
He did these things with a resignation, for he was sure they would not work. Sometimes in bed at night unable to sleep he saw past himself into an abyss that seemed to have no end, a gaping chasm toward which he was propelled through no choice of his.
And he became desperate for sleep, in the way a faster is desperate for water, yet the more he forced himself the wider awake he felt.
Mornings became sombre affairs, as he sat with the mother over breakfast. Their previous conversation that had filled the house with life before the Sun was now only a scattered silence between them.
The mother watched him, and her heart grew heavy within her, and she fought to keep down her anger and frustration.
And the son felt the mother's eyes, and felt also the burden he must be on her, and resented both this and himself, and what he had become.
After a while the son stopped going to work.
The mother woke him up one morning, and when she returned fifteen minutes later he still had not gotten out of bed.
Ah - no work for you today?, she asked, standing over him.
I'm just… tired, he said, and his voice was so flat she felt a sudden pang. She sat on the edge of the bed, and placed her hand on his back.
I feel cold, so very cold, he said, I can't feel my feet.
It's OK, the mother said, stroking his brow, just relax - you don't need your feet right now. You lie down right here and I'll get you anything you need.
He smiled up at her, a smile that frightened her more than it comforted her. He said
You should go conduct your own business, you know. I'll be fine.
Shhh, she said, her hands reaching to his hair, you are my only business - try and sleep now - I'm sure you were up again the whole night.
He closed his eyes. His chest rose and fell. She looked at him and willed herself not to cry. Gradually the movement of his chest slowed. Once he started up muttering and she thought he had woken - but it was only a dream - he settled back down.
The mother looked at him where he lay. Even in sleep he seemed filled with an unease that in a sudden fit of violent thought the mother wished she could drag out of him, casting it away from him and back at its owner, the relative that had done this cruel thing.
She got up after a while, and went into the back yard to cook them lunch.
When she returned he was sitting up on the bed, his head in his arms.
She rushed to him.
What is it?
Nothing, he said, Dara.
She pulled him to her and held him in her arms.
The thing again?
It's just so heavy. I don't feel as if I can bear it for much longer.
Don't talk like that, she said to him, and her tone was stern. They sat together in silence for a while. Gradually he leaned in closer to her embrace.
It is only a disease, she said finally, a determination in her tone, you must always keep this in your mind. We will fight it.
He nodded weakly. He thought more than anything in that moment he wanted her to feel better.
God won't give us what we cannot bear, she told him, We pray to Him, and do only good. Our enemies will get nothing to them but shame. You hear me? You must help me shame them - let them hear only good things about you.
He nodded again, and gave a sigh.
Now sit up, she said, Let me dish out the lunch. You have to be powerful, so when it comes rek nga box kor!
She made the boxing motion with a clenched fist.
He laughed, he thought, only to please her.
She began to sleep in his room with him, at night.
It started after she asked him why his eyes were so red - was he sleepy? And in fits and starts he told her about the night, and how long it was, and how it seemed to have no end - how frightening he found this.
He looked so tired, she thought, as he spoke. His eyes would not meet hers. They had never been intimate, in this way - and the mother felt what effort it must take even for him to speak with her like this.
She did not say anything.
But that night she brought her mattress and laid it on the floor of his room, ignoring his protests. And when it was time to sleep it was she who turned off the light, and said goodnight to him.
When he woke up in the morning and realized he had slept for hours he thought only, My tiredness must be catching up on me. He thought, The insomnia will return again tonight.
He watched the mother where she lay, her face quashed against the pillow, her mouth half-open. And the sudden feeling that surged in his breast made him turn away from her, so foreign an emotion it was.
She told him stories, about his father.
In the dying light of day as they sat together, as Taakusaan made way for Timis, she stroked his hair and spoke to him. She told him how the old man would take him when going out, as a child. She spoke about how coming home from work he would open his arms and the boy would run into them, how he would always have a present for him: a kabaa, a koeni.
The father had died in a car accident. The son had no memories of him, except vague and general ones, that could have been worn by any man.
Her stories seemed to soothe him - he snapped them up like an excited child. For the duration of their telling the fear in him seemed to lessen.
For it came down to that: fear. She could see it in his eyes, when she spoke of leaving for a moment to carry out an errand. The fear of being left alone, that he had once displayed, as a child, that she thought he had outgrown with the years. And behind that a greater fear, that the mother could not name or place, but that made her shiver.
She lessened her errands, the need to leave that room. She changed her daily rituals so they all became centred around his. She slept after he slept, and woke up before him. She prayed in the room, making him get up to join her. She performed her wirrda sitting in a chair opposite his bed, gesturing at him when it was time to close his bedroom windows, to keep out the mosquitoes.
And she hid from him her own fear that gripped her, that she did not examine, or even dare to look at too closely. She spoke with a confidence that sometimes brought a sparkle to his eyes. But it was a confidence that she herself did not possess, and though she kept her expression placid there was underlying it a turmoil of emotion, that sometimes threatened to break through the surface as she watched him sleep.
The son listened to her speak of the father, and he thought, I am bored, but I must listen for her sake. Yet when she stopped he would ask her to go on, with gentle prodding questions. And as she spoke he sat in rapt attention, laughing when the mother repeated a joke the father had made.
When the relatives called the house now, the mother's brothers and sisters, she told them only that everything was fine. When they made plans to visit she put them off to indefinite times, or changed the subject. She discouraged the neighbors, too, from visiting. In time whole days went by in which only a beggar or two would come into the house, the odd salesman. She made an arrangement with one of the girls in the house opposite to do her grocery shopping for her, once a week.
He had seemed to be getting better, but now he was worse.
In his eyes there was a deadness, a lack of interest in anything. When the mother set food before him he would not eat it, until she forced him. And even then only a few spoonfuls, before he would lie back down, turning his face to the wall.
Now there were no stories, or even much conversation. The mother sat in her chair looking out the window as she told her beads. The son lay with his back to her. She thought of many things to say, but the right words had deserted her. Or perhaps there were no right words, in the barren desert of feeling the son now inhabited that seemed to fill the room, the air still, the silence unbroken.
She had to help him into the shower, in the mornings, then dry and dress him and put him back in bed. He would not eat, and she had to spoon-feed him, cradling his head in her left, bringing the spoon to meet it with her right.
In all her dealings with him she employed a light touch, meant to soothe him. And she tried not think the thought that forced itself to the front of her mind, that he was beyond soothing.
She woke up one night to find him crying. She felt it before she heard his sobs. She lay on her mattress, and could not get up, because if she got up she would not know what to do, what to say, to take away his fears.
And so she lay still, in moments filled with a wracking torture, and whispered to herself a name of God, over and over, until finally he stopped and went back to sleep, his sniffling becoming less and less frequent and finally dying down.
Even then in his breathing she thought she could detect the hint of a rising sob, and for the rest of that night she could not sleep.
She gave out alms after that, every day. To the children at the local daara, to passing beggars, to the beggars who sit outside the mosque on Friday, to the Imam of the mosque.
They had lived modestly after the father had died, the mother and the son, their needs few and easy to cater to.
She sold the few gold bangles and bracelets she owned and with the money she bought bags of rice and coos and sugar, for the making of the sarah. A dim memory compelled her to act, returned to her from her childhood, about the feeding of the hungry and what great rewards it brought back to the alms-giver.
And to everyone she gave food to she told them only, I have only one prayer. God knows it. Pray for me that He will grant it.
And the receiver of alms - whether child or beggar - would ask that God grant her wish, and she would thank them, and go back into the house.
He stared into space for long moments, his eyes seeming old, older than even the mother. Now when spoken to he only answered in nods and barely-heard whispers.
One morning the mother woke and he was gone. She had felt the emptiness of the room, in her sleep, and it had brought her hurtling out of her troubled dreaming. She sat up sharply. The bed was empty, and the feeling that made her spring to her feet came from deep within her. The bathroom, she thought, though she did not know how she knew.
He was there, sitting on the lid of the closed toilet bowl, his head in his hands.
What are you doing?, she asked him. He looked up at her where he stood, and she took a step back, despite herself. His eyes were filled with a certainty he had not displayed since the start of the disease, and on his face there was a terrible smile.
It is OK, he said, standing up, I understand it all now.
It will be fine Ya, he said.
And he walked past her back to the room, and there was something in his words and manner that made her afraid, a new kind of fear, a fear that filled her with a panic she could not control.
She watched him closely, after that. She gave up sleep almost entirely, would jerk out of dozing in her chair in the middle of the night and immediately reach for him protectively, muttering his name, still confused.
He ate now, by himself. He took showers. But despite these things - or perhaps in the way he did them - the mother was filled with a growing unease.
The day when it came felt different. The mother could sense it, in the way he spoke, with a finality that seemed to come from one almost dead, setting their affairs in order for the last time.
He spoke with her almost normally, laughed, even made a few jokes of his own. And the mother thought, perhaps he is healed, perhaps the curse has been lifted. But even as she thought this she knew it was not the case, that he had at last reached the end of the dark road he had walked and was barely anymore of this World.
She followed him even more closely that day, standing outside the bathroom door as he bathed inside, holding his change of clothes. He seemed relax, but this was belied by a new hardness in his eyes that made her afraid to touch him, unable to recognize in this stranger her son.
She thought, very well. She thought, this is the day then. She thought, An ending - but I will not let it end here.
The day ended, and nothing had happened.
That night she lay out her mattress, and pretended to fall asleep early. She lay in the dark trying to slow her breath, her eyes closed tight, one hand slung carelessly across her stomach.
In the middle of the night she felt his tread as he climbed out of bed, as he walked toward and over her. There was the sound of the door opening, he was out, and the mother sat up quickly. She stood, and in a rush regathered her malaan about her, put on the slippers that lay at the foot of the mattress. And then she ran after him.
She found him outside, standing under a sky with no stars and scant moonlight. He turned and saw her, their eyes met and held and they did not speak. Then she looked up at the washing line that hung above his head, knotted into a perverse shape, a circular shape.
The mother had never cried in front of the son, that either could recall. And so when her tears came, an explosion that sounded like a sneeze, it surprised both of them. She wept, and did not try to stop it and he took an instinctive step toward her and away from the rope.
Your father is gone, the mother said, sobbing like a child, If God takes you too what shall I do?
The boy went up to his mother. He put her hand on his shoulder, and there were tears in his eyes, a moisture that seemed to soften their late hardness. And when his mother saw this she cried even more, though now she was also smiling, for the worst was over, and now the darkness would only grow in distance behind them.
They went back inside, and in the morning they sat together over breakfast, mother and son, listening to the news on Rajo Gambia, a plate of akara set before them, loaves of bread and cups of tea.
Here - here is the sauce for the akara, the mother said, reaching to give it to him. He reached to take it with a smile, and the mother sighed and silently thanked God.