Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
*Shortlisted for the Thirteenth Caine Prize for African Writing
Like so many omens, she had missed its significance at the time. Three years ago, Ibou had sent home a photo of his fancy business school friends in America. The thickish envelope had arrived after a long silence and Fatima had not felt the slightest presentiment as she pierced the envelope with a kitchen knife and withdrew the typed pages. She went outside to read the precious letter to Father.
The old man was ensconced under the mango tree, sitting on a short stool, leaning against the trunk’s rough bark. His habitual gray boubou with swirly, yellow embroidery up the front was unraveling at the collar but billowed out grandly at his sides. Because he had been educated in Koranic School, he found it easier to read Arabic than French but these days, he couldn’t read much of anything because his vision was dimming with the advancing years. From a distance his eyes almost appeared blue, the dark irises encircled by rings of gray and the cornea covered by a film of translucent gel. Of late, those rheumy, shimmery eyes could only make out general shapes and so it was usually up to Babacar or another nearby grandchild to read him the tiny print of the daily newspapers.
Fatima waved the letter in front of him but he made a motion for her to wait, indicating the young men by the water tap preparing ataya. When it was ready, Lamine, their neighbor, offered the old man the first taste of the second round. The sun shone through the small glass cup. The piping hot tea was almost darker than the old man’s trembling hand. He took a sip and sucked his tongue as the zing of the syrupy sweet brew hit it with full force. He nodded his head in approval as he handed the glass to Fatima. She took a sip and then handed it back to Lamine who walked back to the other young men huddled around the primus stove and the little kettle. They were already heaping more tea leaves into the simmering water and dropping in more sugar cubes for the third round.
Father nodded at her to begin reading the letter and it was only then that she noticed the photograph that had slipped out from between the pages. Picking it up, she gently shook the dust off of it and wiped it on her pagne. It was Ibou with two other young men and two girls standing on the steps of what looked like a library or some other majestic university building propped up by ornately-decorated columns. To Fatima, it looked like a concrete wedding cake. She had barely taken note of Ghada, assuming that perhaps the Nigerian girl with chiseled features was Ibou’s petite copine, even though the letter contained a whole paragraph dedicated to this wonderful Ghada: “She’s Egyptian and she plays women’s soccer. Plus, she speaks fluent French and English and she has read the entire Koran in Arabic! She is head of MESO—Middle Eastern Students’ Organization. That’s how we met because I am head of ASA—the African Students’ Association. We organized a conference on Arab-African trade together. Many important dignitaries came, thanks to Ghada’s organizational skills, and Ghada…”
The old man held up his hand and she paused. He called Lamine over and gave him some crumpled bills to go and buy more sugar for the third round of ataya still boiling. The letter made him happy, he proudly told every passerby that Ibou was keeping up with the faith even though he was all the way over theeerrrre in America. Fatima reexamined the photo: all she saw was an unfortunately petite girl who looked like the daughter of one of the Lebanese merchants in town.
Now looking back, it was incredible that she had not felt any special premonition about this woman. Instead, she had shown the photo to Maimouna, her best friend, who agreed that Ghada looked Lebanese. “Christian or Muslim, they all switch men daily like their fancy French brassieres.” Fatima had nodded knowingly, not that she associated with those Lebanese women herself, besides buying in their shops or restaurants, but this is what Maimouna said and Maimouna would know. “She’s very short,” clucked Maimouna disapprovingly.
The car gurgled into life at Uncle Djiby’s fourth try. Hearing the scratchy sound, Fatima withdrew her hands from the basin of tepid water in which she was planning to soak the bouye overnight. It lay next to the bowl, desiccated fruit of the baobab, still crumbly dry and white. She glanced around for Ibou, about to open her mouth and call to him in her high-pitched voice. There he was, imprisoned in the puddle of light cast by the solitary street lamp, hunkered down close to the ground, his chin thrust forward and his chest pressed against his thighs. She knew he was trying to suppress his irritation by drawing stick figures in the sandy soil. It was something he used to do when he was still a skinny, knock-kneed boy. The familiarity of the action plucked her back across a desert of forgotten memories. A long-buried affection swelled in Fatima’s breast. There was a time when they had been close. Perhaps, he still remembered fondly the long gone days before he went to live in America, when he used to mimic her high voice, “e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e,” saying it reminded him of a mosquito’s whine. Would he agree to help her now—during this rushed two week holiday in Senegal after so many years away in America— in honor of that former time?
Uncle Djiby revved the engine and beamed genially, unashamed of his car which was almost older than Ibou. Once upon a time, it had been a brand new Renault but now it was a box of battered tin on wheels, painted yellow and black to show it was a taxi. Fatima and Ibou both climbed into the back seat since Ibou’s hand luggage and laptop were filling up the front one. She could feel how tense his body was, rigid with annoyance; she forced herself to lean back into the lumpy seat and willed herself to relax so that he in turn would also.
He’d wanted to flag a taxi from the streets, something larger and more comfortable, like one of the newer Peugeots. She also suspected that he would have preferred to go to the airport alone but he hadn’t dared to flat out suggest it, merely muttering something about how it would be much more time efficient. Fatima had pretended not to hear him because that’s not how things were done, after all.
As the car lumbered off on its bald tires, just barely skimming the patchwork tarmac, dipping precariously into multiple potholes, Uncle Djiby flipped through his extensive collection of pirated cassettes with one hand and then slipped in the latest Baaba Maal album. A static-creased mbalax-influenced reggae tune started up. Ibou leaned forward jerkily, raising a finger to tap Uncle Djiby on the shoulder, about to protest the poor sound quality, when his cell phone beeped. He flipped it open. A second later he cackled out loud and his face suddenly relaxed, his lips unpursing and his eyebrows moving apart. Fatima breathed a little easier. She had been examining his stony exterior for days, searching desperately for a breach in which to wedge her request. “Will you share the joke?” she asked gently.
“It’s a text message from Ghada. I can’t believe my roaming is finally working again and of course, just in time for me to go to the airport.”
Ghada, always Ghada! “What does she say?”
“Too much testosterone, not enough balls.”
Fatima raised an eyebrow.
Ibou chuckled to himself, “She must be really mad: too much testosterone, not enough balls! That’s a good one.” He was unconsciously speaking in English, quoting Ghada verbatim.
Fatima, uncomprehending, removed her chewing stick from her mouth and smiled politely. As she would smile at a stranger or a foreigner, even though Ibou was her brother—same mother, same father.
“It’s difficult to translate,” he suddenly realized what he had done and guiltily resumed in Wolof. “She is calling me…” he cast around for a word, “…a sheep.” He hesitated and then continued, “She said I don’t stand up to my family enough.”
Since Fatima didn’t understand English, she was so grateful for his translation that she nodded to show that she got it now, but as the meaning of these words began to crystallize, her vigorous nodding abruptly ceased. Her emerald green damask foulard slipped back and Ibou noticed for the first time that there were strands of silver streaking through her closely-plaited hair. How old was she now? Almost forty probably.
There was a short silence as Fatima’s mind kneaded this chunk of information, trying to make it digestible. Her concentration was broken by Baaba Maal’s soprano sinking into her consciousness. She tried to blot out the music. What position did Ghada, not even his wife, occupy for her to wield such power in the affairs of the family? Who was she to tell Ibou to “stand up to his family” when the family was bonded by blood and name and she was nothing but an interloper? Would Ibou care more about this Ghada’s opinion than the heartfelt request of his very own sister?
A sigh escaped her lips. Her mind was not nearly as nimble as her fingers. She could take a shallow brown basket full of rice, her long fingers whisking through it, searching for weevils and pebbles, separating them out, shaking the grains again, searching, separating, until the rice was ready to cook, all in the time it takes to scramble an egg. But her mind was slow, it moved like lait caillé, sweet, curdled milk, lumpy, glutinous, creamy.
“But is she your wife?” she ventured finally, twisting a gold filigree ring around her middle finger. It was longer than the first joint of her finger and the pointy tip grazed her bony knuckle.
“Not technically…but she will be soon. We live together.”
“Yes, I believe you mentioned that but I thought she was very religious.”
Again a nod. This time noncommittal. Fatima looked through the window as Uncle Djiby’s ramshackle taxi ploughed through Dakar’s dark, dusty streets.
“She is very religious,” Ibou repeated himself and she could hear the defensiveness salting his voice.
“No, no, I understand. Of course.” She hadn’t meant to be denigrating but what god-fearing Muslim woman dared to take the veil while sharing the bed of a man not her husband? Not that Fatima was one to cast stones but at this moment, this all-powerful Ghada stood between her and her son’s future. Ghada was like a big black stone that could splinter your teeth if it wasn’t removed before the rice was cooked.
“Ghada has read the whole Koran,” Ibou said aloud, echoing his long-ago letter. “Religion for her is something she truly practices rather than obeys. It’s something that she interrogates and interacts with, wrestling with its contradictions and inconsistencies, those within her and those within the religion itself. She is not afraid of them you see, she doesn’t deny them, she faces them head on. We can only understand God’s word as it is translated by and through men. God is great but all religions are man-made and are therefore imperfect.”
Fatima held her breath. Were these Ibou’s words or Ghada’s? He sounded like he was reading from a book but his hands were empty. She had never known Ibou to be either religious or philosophical. Not trusting herself to reply, she slipped the foulard off and then expertly rewrapped the thick, starchy material around her head. She lowered her arms and twitched her shoulders so that the heavy gold embroidery bordering her collarbone shifted to the side leaving her left shoulder bare in the preferred style. It was her most expensive boubou, the one she had worn for Maimouna’s fourth child’s baptism. This entire readjustment took almost two whole minutes yet Ibou’s gaze was still fixed on her expectantly. Was she actually supposed to respond to that speech? Her mind churned to no avail.
Finally relenting, Ibou looked away and pulled his red baseball cap further down on his brow and turned his iPod back on, jamming the headphones deep into his ears. He was wearing baggy jeans and a navy blue T-shirt with “Brooklyn” scrawled across the front. On his feet were oversized sneakers. He looked like a character out of an American movie, especially with the pea-sized headphones plugged into his ears blasting a thumping, gritty bass that clashed with Uncle Djiby’s music. Maybe this little white machine was whispering secret incantations to him, bribing him, convincing him, just like Ghada, that he shouldn’t listen to her.
Fatima closed her eyes and leaned back into the car’s filthy seat. The deep red seat cover was cracked and tufts of dusty, yellow foam spurted out in places like little mushrooms. Uncle Djiby’s dilapidated taxi was the best vehicle she could rustle up under the circumstances. The whole family had gone to Kaolack for Adja’s funeral but someone had to stay behind to accompany Ibou to the airport. Of course, the whole family was outraged that he hadn’t changed his ticket and stayed at least an extra week. Adja was their father’s eldest sister after all. No-one expected him to stay for the entire forty days of mourning but at least a week.
“But you have to work every day in America,” Fatima said in his defense.
“And the last time you were in America was when exactly?” Maimouna was her closest friend from childhood but to be honest, Maimouna’s relationship with Ibou was not that different from her own. Perhaps, it was the twelve years between their ages that rendered their relationship so constrained by formalities. Or was it all the years that Ibou had spent in America, years that stretched out like the great desert to the north? Or was it something she couldn’t quite get hold of, like a fishbone buried deep in slippery flesh, avoiding extraction by the fingers yet fatal to the gullet.
Now time was running out and she still hadn’t asked Ibou for the one thing that she wanted to happen above everything else. How to begin? Gathering her courage under her tongue, she opened her mouth to speak but just then, Uncle Djiby switched off the staticky tape. Keeping his fingers balanced on the steering wheel, his large head swiveled all the way around, balancing precariously on his long, delicate neck. He flashed his chocolate-brown teeth, colored by the waters of his Kaolack youth, “So Americain Boy, can you get me a new cell phone? I hear they’re cheaper over there.” He used the English word boy. He had started calling Ibou “Americain Boy” on his first trip back to Senegal and Ibou hated the nickname. He almost flinched but muttered through gritted teeth, “I’ll get you a cell phone if you get me to the airport in one piece.” He pointedly jammed his iPod earphones back into his ears.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then. You can send it to Fatima’s address. How long until you get there?” Slowly, his head, heavy with thick, springy locks and seemingly too weighty for his neck, turned back to face the front. Ibou grudgingly turned off his iPod, “I am flying Dakar to Paris and then Paris to New York. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“Inschallah,” Uncle Djiby intoned emphatically. Trans-Atlantic flights still seemed like an affront to god’s will.
Ibou didn’t repeat the phrase after him. He just kept staring steadily out the window. In the yellow light of the streetlamps, his profile didn’t appear to soften. Where had that little boy gone to, Fatima wondered, the one who used to write them long letters every week, begging to come home?
Fatima tapped her ring against the car door, metal on metal. Her mind worked along the clicking rhythm, calculating and recalculating her finances. Since her divorce five years ago, her brain had transformed into a calculator, adding and subtracting continuously, even in her sleep. Babacar was fast outgrowing his clothes and she doubted he would have even one decent boubou to wear in Kaolack at the funeral. His father couldn’t be relied on to give any more money since his new wife had just had twins. All her sisters had their own children to look after. They were an unlucky family since they were all daughters except for Ibou.
Perhaps she would have more choices if she had more brothers to rely on. Brothers were like the wind, they could go places she could not. She was like the sand. She could only be blown by the wind. But now she had a son and Ibou had to help her build wings for him. Her dream for Babacar was for him to go and live with his Uncle Ibou all the way, theeerrre in America, to go to school there, sow success for the family there and harvest green US dollars to bring back here.
“He’s a good boy!” she blurted suddenly. Her hands raked the air as she tried to grab the words and stuff them back into her mouth. But too late.
“Of course he is. All mothers think their sons are good little boys.” He didn’t seem jarred by her outburst, almost as if he had been expecting it.
How many times had she politely alluded to the idea of Babacar studying in America, hoping that Ibou would pick up her implications like so many threads and wind them into a spool of his own making. Then it would seem like it was his idea, the family would praise him, and she would be spared the humiliation of pleading outright. By means subtle and skilled, she had been leading him in this direction but he had refused to take the bait and finally, he had forced her hand. She drew a deep breath, “Will you take Babacar to America next year to live with you?” There. It was out. The subject had been broached, not the way she had wanted it to be but there was no going back now.
Briefly, she closed her eyes, holding her breath, trying to return to the richness of that split second earlier this evening when the moist sweetness of the date splattered onto her tongue after a long, dry, dusty day of fasting. As a child, she had thought that eating candy would dulcify her words, make them come out sweet as young coconut milk. Now, she prayed that she could utter words palatable enough to open a path to America for young Babacar.
As she fasted all day, her mind stirred furiously, searching for the right words. For lunch, she cooked Ibou his favorite meal, making sure to add plenty of peanut paste to the maffé so that the sauce was reddish, thick and tasty. But even though he refused to actually fast, Ibou, in deference to Ramadan, had eaten less than usual. At iftar, just after sunset, there had been various interruptions from relatives and neighbors come to bid Ibou farewell and bon voyage again.
Again. He was always leaving. Her memories of him were distilled down to a series of departures, snapshots of ever leaving. And now he was leaving without having agreed to take Babacar with him. It was her turn to fix her gaze on him, willing him to respond in the affirmative…
When his reply finally came, it sailed out on a sigh, deep as the ocean that normally lay between them. “But what would I do with an eleven-year old boy in New York? How would Ghada and I cope?”
Again this Ghada! Why was Ghada—not even his wife—hovering between them, like some unholy djinn, threatening her son’s future?
Her mind marched forwards, falling into the icy sea between them, flailing around for facts that she could use in her favor. Hadn’t Ibou himself left for the first time when he was only a few years older than Babacar, bandy-legged, scabby-kneed, the youngest of seven children but the only boy and hence, therefore, thus, so it was that he had grown wings under his feet while hers grew heavy, her toes gnarled like the roots of the baobab tree. But she wasn’t as lucky as the baobab, she couldn’t flourish in this semi-arid desert. No. She had grown thin; her collar bone poked above her boubou’s neckline and her scrawny neck bulged with cords. But Ibou was stout, not just around the gut, like some wealthy, older men, but even around the knees, at the wrists. He was well-padded.
Before her divorce, she had been plumper but not as plump as she had been before she was married of course. “Dafatooy” was what they used to say about her, “She’s soft, fleshy, sexy.” She thought longingly of those plump, contented days but she quickly caught herself, refusing those self-pitying memories that could paralyze her the way the haunting melody of Mandingo kora music would make her stop dead in her tracks and echo in her ears the rest of the day. She shook herself, literally and figuratively, trying to think of the positive side. At least, she reminded herself, at least her business had grown, especially in the last two years.
“What will you do?” asked Maimouna, soon after the divorce, and Fatima had looked at her blankly. Maimouna was washing clothes and her thick, strong arms were soapy up to her elbows. “Mane, what will you do for money? Can Ibou in America help you?”
Fatima mutely shook her head. “I wouldn’t want to ask him.”
“So what will you do then? Do. Do. For money,” Maimouna exclaimed, waving her hands around so that soap bubbles splattered all over the courtyard, trapping the sun in rainbow prisons wherever they landed on the hard-packed dirt until the wind pierced them and the bubbles burst. It was so pretty that Fatima almost cried, but then again, in those days, anything could make her cry.
The exception to her unhappiness was her first and only child: Babacar. Both families were grateful, hers and her husband’s. Even though she never fell pregnant again, at least she had borne a boy and she never ceased to thank God for that, even while she prayed for more children. Seven years of barrenness rotted away her marriage until it was tart as the lemons fat girls sucked on to lose weight. Finally, they divorced. Not long afterward, her husband remarried. She had always refused to let him take a second wife, preferring divorce. But still she had her little man, a son, so much better than a daughter. A son could fly, a daughter could only nest. She had waited a long time for le mariage and for Babacar, and even though there was le divorce, she still had Babacar and she needed to invest everything she had in him. Everything. Except these days, she had nothing but tears. If only she could stop crying.
That very morning, she had quarreled with a truculent adolescent and ended up sobbing. He was one of those poor boys who went into the bush to trap dozens of tiny, brown birds which he stuffed into an over-crowded cage and then brought to the city pavements where passers-by paid him a small fee to liberate one of the birds he had earlier captured. People said that as the bird flew away, it would bring happiness to the one who had purchased its freedom. But it was such a hot, dusty day and the birds were too many for the tiny cage. They were agitated, flitting in futility against the wooden bars. She just wanted them out, all of them, as if watching them fly away would prod something into bursting open deep inside of her.
She had tried to bargain with him in the usual manner but he was stubborn and she didn’t have enough money to let them all go. She had offered him some of the thick and creamy thiakry she was carrying to her elder sister’s home but still he refused.
“Nercna trop,” she said cajolingly but he looked at her balefully.
“Really,” she said in her sweetest voice, “I am the best cook in all of H.L.M.”
Bending down, he picked up the cage, accidentally scraping his dusty calf. The birds twittered frenziedly. “Please,” she implored him.
“Leave me alone!” he exclaimed sharply as he dived into the street, dodging several taxis and a blue and yellow car rapide which had to brake suddenly, tilting unsteadily for a second. The apprenti, hanging on to the flapping back door, swore at the boy and the boy swore back. From the safety of the other side of the road, he threw her an accusing look that hit her with an almost physical force. It was the kind of look reserved for the mentally unbalanced. Hot tears were cascading down her cheeks, surprising her with their wetness. She hadn’t known she was crying. Taking the cloth that lay across the platter of thiakry, she pressed it hard into her eye sockets, blotting the tears.
“I can cook.” The words popped out of her mouth.
Maimouna smiled and plunged her hands back into the soap suds. “I’ll say,” she said dryly.
That’s how it began, small, informal, on the street in front of her father’s house. She had begun by selling sweet, fried beignets and cold bissap juice. Her fingers were always stained red from the hibiscus but she didn’t care. At least she was earning something. With her marginal profit, she invested in buying some cups and spoons and she branched out into lakh, thiakry and ngalakh and soon she had a thriving clientele. Word of her delicious puddings spread to other areas and in reply to queries about her “secret ingredient,” she would smile mysteriously.
But she still wasn’t making much money until Maimouna’s brother-in-law had put her in touch with Madame Diouf. Madame Diouf owned three restaurants that catered to well-to-do locals, expatriated Senegalese returned on holiday and high-budget tourists. Her menu promised the best of traditional Senegalese fare and her prices assured her clientele that they were receiving the very highest quality. Of course, Fatima only received about ten percent of what the customer paid but still, supplying three restaurants on a daily basis had turned her from a street-seller into an entrepreneur. She even had assistants now, two of them, plus a delivery boy on a moped who put the plastic buckets of thiakry and ngalakh into a cooler box, precariously strapped behind his seat. She could expand still further if only she could sell to other restaurants but Madame Diouf had forbidden this. Yet, she needed to expand to increase her revenue so that she could send Babacar to a better school. Children were like seeds that needed to be watered with lots of education. Then, like the mango tree, they would perennially bear fruit.
Or best of all, he could go to America. The fruit would be that much sweeter.
“Do you not have the resources to look after Babacar, Brother?” Her high voice was deeper than usual as she tried to sound calmly persuasive, even though her tongue felt fuzzy with a film of unspoken words.
Ibou pulled the brim of his red cap further down on his forehead so that his eyebrows were almost covered. His lips were pursed again and he didn’t look at her as he said tersely, “It’s not a question of resources.”
Fatima frowned in confusion. “But do you have enough to support Babacar? Growing boys can be expensive—food, clothing, school fees. Do you have enough for all of that? I could try and send you some funds to help out.”
A harsh bark of laughter hushed her, shamed her. He flipped his cap back up his forehead, “That wouldn’t go very far. Do you have any idea how weak the CFA is compared to the US dollar?” He looked at her with flashing eyes. His mouth opened and closed. Of course she didn’t know, why would she? It was just one more translation he was used to making and she was not.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her chin falling forward onto the scratchy gold embroidery. Her mind felt like it was boiling over. Was there any way she could make money in foreign currency?
“It’s not a question of money. I have enough money for God’s sake. It’s a question of…” he stumbled as he sought the translation. All he could think of was the English word “lifestyle.” The flow of angry words filtered off as he finished with a feeble “…the way we live.”
Fatima shook her head in utter incomprehension. Ibou’s hands landed palm down, fingers splayed, splat on to his jean-clad thighs: “We have lives, we are busy people, we barely have time for each other.”
“Time?” she asked, her voice small. “Babacar won’t need any of your time.”
Now the heels of his palms dug deep into his eyes, reddening the whites. “You don’t understand. I work long hours, Ghada works long hours. We struggle to find…” his mind stumbled on “quality time,” but again he faltered and mistranslated as “enough time to spend together. Our work schedules are so demanding plus the constant travel. Where is the time for an eleven-year old boy?”
Fatima’s voice was pitched higher as she grew animated, “But he knows how to cook, how to clean. He knows very well how to look after himself. In fact, he can be a help to you, keep the house for you when you are away!”
“We have a housekeeper, for God’s sake. What I’m trying to say is that we have no space for him in our lives,” said Ibou in French.
“Aahhh,” Fatima’s face came to life. “Because you only have one bedroom?” Her voice was tinged with relieved laughter, “But that is no problem. Babacar can sleep in the living room. That’s where he sleeps now and he’s always up early. He won’t disturb you at all. I don’t want you to spoil him.”
Uncle Djiby twiddled with the cassette player and Assane Mboup’s latest hit came on. He also seemed relieved that the problem had been solved and laughed at them through the rearview mirror. “Coolfinenice,” he said in English, his small, sleepy eyes crinkling in mirth under the thick locks straggling around his jovial face.
How much marijuana does the guy smoke, Ibou wondered silently. He put his hand on the side of his leg and started to flex his quads, holding the muscle tense and then letting it relax. Besides the muffled music blaring from Djiby’s cheap cassette player and the gentle sound of Fatima rhythmically gnawing on her chewing stick, there was quiet.
Outside the car window on the dimly-lit streets, ghostly white mounds hunkered down by the roadside, the moutons. In a couple months time, when he would be far away, there would be sheep sold on every corner. The country would be preparing for Tabaski when every Muslim family would slaughter a sheep. Ibou could relate. Long ago, his family had sacrificed him to the call of America. But there was a trade-off buried in the fine print. Now he was supposed to sacrifice all he had gained for them. Up to and including every last penny and his relationship with Ghada too apparently. Uncle Djiby’s cell phone, Aunt Marietou’s new shoes for so-and-so’s wedding, Little Aliou’s new bicycle, Great Uncle Assane’s new sewing machine, Adja’s funeral expenses and now taking Babacar to America, the last in a long list of requests that were emptying him from the inside out. Hadn’t he just texted Ghada yesterday: “I feel like an ATM machine.”
He should have seen it coming. Why else had Fatima presented him with all the boy’s report cards and bored him with long, detailed stories about his exploits on the soccer field? But this was well beyond the usual monetary request. This was asking him and Ghada to raise a young boy. Ibou had turned 28 last month. Ghada was two years older but how could he even ask her?
Fatima seemed lost in her own thoughts, a calm smile playing around her lips, Uncle Djiby’s thick locks swung to the tempo of the music. They seemed to think the issue was settled.
“It’s not because we have just one bedroom.” His voice was quiet, almost embarrassed.
Confusion crossed Fatima’s face again, turning her eyes a dead coal black.
“There’s just no room.”
“You don’t have a living room? He can even sleep in the kitchen.”
Ibou clamped his teeth shut, accidentally biting his tongue. Blood oozed out, warm and gooey. “I’m sure he is so perfect that we could just fold him up and put him away in the coat closet. Or can he sleep standing up?” The sarcasm was lost on her.
She took her chewing stick out of her mouth and pointed the masticated end at him, “He’s a good boy.”
Memory mocked him. Wasn’t that what they used to say about him?
“He’s a good boy.” Uncle Thierno, Djiby’s eldest brother, had come home one dry August. He had brought his sister—Ibou’s mother—a gold watch with little diamonds at the center of the pale gold face. How they glittered in the sun those diamonds. Just before doing the washing, she would take the watch off her wrist and lay it on a stone. The tightness of the band would still be etched on her skin as she dipped her dark hands into the soapy water. The raspy sound of wet cloth being rubbed together still reminded him of his mother, as did cheap watches sold by West African immigrants on 34 th Street in New York. He smiled to himself, bemused by the appalling naiveté of that youthful Ibou. They had all been so impressed with Uncle Thierno’s “wealth.” “He’s a good boy,” the whole family kept repeating over and over, like the mantra of some kind of fanatical cult, until, at the end of August, Thierno agreed to take Ibou back with him. A forged birth certificate was produced, naming Ibou as Thierno’s son. It was hard to get American visas! C’est difficile dê!
That September he started high school in a Maryland suburb even though he couldn’t speak a word of English. His ESL classes were full of Korean and Dominican kids so he learnt Spanish faster than English and wrote letters home every week in a mixture of French and Wolof, full of stories of a life he found alienating and confusing. At night when he showered, he would pretend he wasn’t crying as the water ran down his face. Instead, he would think about how lucky he was. C’est difficile dê! He would only do the early morning and last evening prayers, and he would pray to be allowed to go home, even for one day. His obsession with time travel spurred him on to learn English as he devoured science fiction books. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time became a talisman and he carried it everywhere with him.
When he finally graduated high school three years later, Uncle Thierno gave him a present. A ticket home. When he got there, he found his elderly mother had had a stroke. She was lying in a darkened room with long gauzy curtains catching the dusty sunshine. A newly-married Fatima was looking after her, carefully sponging her arm so as not to get water on her watch, which had turned a burnished metallic color. It no longer told the time. Two of the diamonds had fallen out of place and rolled around the pale gold face.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Ibou, aghast, holding his mother’s other leathery palm. Her hand still felt strong, muscular.
“We didn’t want to disturb your studies,” said Fatima, careful to avoid the swell of her pregnancy as she picked up her mother’s leg and gently bent it. She ran the wet cloth up her shin bone. Ibou looked away, embarrassed somehow. It’s not that he had never seen his mother’s legs. Like all the little boys, he had spied on many a sabar and seen her dance to the griot’s drums, shedding her pagnes until the very last one, her legs exposed up to the fleshy inner thighs. Rather he was embarrassed because she was inert, her leg muscles slack, like a floppy rag doll.
“When did this happen?” he asked quietly, his eyes averted.
“Six months ago.”
“Can she talk?”
“No,” Fatima shook her head. “Not yet,” she quickly amended.
“Will she get better?”
“Inschallah.” She clasped her hands around the tight drum of her belly as if sucking in all of God’s will for her own unborn child too. “Inschallah.”
At the end of Ibou’s summer vacation, he flew back to the States against his will. His mother was near to death and he knew that if she died when he was overseas, he would never be able to make it back in time for the funeral. But they wouldn’t let him stay. University was beginning in the Fall: it was everything they had all been working for. Hadn’t Uncle Thierno offered to pay for Fatima’s university expenses after she finished lycée with such high marks? But no, instead, her father said better to use that money for young Ibou, send him to a good Catholic school where he could learn proper French and improve their chances for future success.
“Fatima will wait to get married,” he informed the family. “Ibou will go to school.”
“Je vous en prie,” she began in French and continued in Wolof, “Please.” Her voice was hoarse. “Only you can help him. Please help him to be like you. Do what Uncle Thierno did for you. Look how lucky you are, how successful. The success of one is the success of the whole family. Babacar’s future is the future of us all.” She clutched at him, her long ring scratching his wrist as she grabbed his hands, pulling him around to face her.
He looked at her for a long time but he couldn’t hold her gaze. It wasn’t so much that he was afraid of what he would see but rather of what she would see, the feelings he did not care to admit even to himself. Somewhere deep down, Ibou experienced familial obligation as an intolerable irony. When his mother passed away in October of his first term at university, a strange aloofness was born in him. He never mourned her. It all happened so far away, in another time and place. Instead, all his childhood memories were slowly suffused with a sepia tint typical of old-fashioned photos, the type of photos one looks at but feels no connection to. Somewhere along the way, Senegal had died for him. It was all too abstract, too removed from his daily reality; family responsibility weighed on him but not as heavily as he felt it should. How many years had he been away? Half his life had been spent in another country, in another culture, where the ties of family do not strangle one’s bank account and stifle one’s emotional resources. He wished he felt more guilty. If he were a better person he would.
“I can’t take him with me. I just can’t.”
“But why not?”
“How can I? I don’t live like that.”
“Live like what?”
He dragged his hands away and leaned forward so that his forehead was against Uncle Djiby’s seat. Uncle Djiby hummed to the music, far away in his own world. “How do you know this is the best thing for him?” he spoke into the ripped upholstery.
“What could be better?”
“Don’t you know that once he leaves home, he can never come back again?”
Fatima’s hands were still resting near his jean-clad thigh. She pulled them back and began twisting the ring round and round her finger, scraping the filigree against her knuckle. Why was Ibou speaking in tongues? She was confused. “I know the airfare is expensive but at least, hopefully, he will make it home once every few years.”
“It’s not the airfare! Everything with you is money, money, money. I am not talking about money.” He turned his face and glared at her accusingly.
Fatima gasped at the waves of hot, choking anger emanating from him, like the winds of the harmattan.
Ibou closed his eyes in exasperation. He wished Ghada were here so that she could speak for him. She understood this unbearable duality of being. She would explain that when he came back to Dakar, he saw it through eyes made sensitive to dust, to hygiene, to other ways. When Fatima reached into the communal serving bowl to expertly shred the cebujen’s vegetables with her nimble right hand, all he could think about was the dirt under her fingernails. And yet, she was being a good hostess, showing him typical Senegalese hospitality, the famed teranga sénégelaise. Her fingers worked fast and a lump of carrot landed in the groove from where he was shoveling his rice away. As fast as the rice disappeared, Fatima pushed more towards him, encouraging him to eat, eat, eat.
Delicious! An excellent cook, but why was the squat toilet never flushed properly? Why were there always lumps of other people’s shit floating next to the foot pads? He pushed the carrot around with his tongue, trying not to think about that and he wished he felt guiltier for constantly thinking about it. But he couldn’t stop himself. Ghada was luckier in that sense, she was closer to her family. But then again, her family was different.
When Ghada spoke to her wealthy grandmother on the phone, she spoke in flawless French. He would tease her for hours afterwards, mocking her snobbish, clipped accent. Ghada’s grandmother was part of that elite, Egyptian generation educated by the French. They were more at home in the wide boulevards of Paris than the narrow, winding alleys of Cairo’s popular neighborhoods.
It pushed him solidly in the chest, like Uncle Thierno’s stubby forefinger when he wanted to make a point, something he had known for a long time but never wanted to formalize by putting it into actual words: Ghada was close to her family because this extremely inconvenient difference in income-earning potential didn’t exist between them. Money bound people together just as much as it pushed them apart. Especially the intangible things money could buy, like lifestyles.
His mind turned over. He was running near the cliffs now but he couldn’t turn away from where his mind was leading him.
Inconvenient. Poverty was very inconvenient. It led to extreme dependency, the opposite of self-sufficiency, which is exactly what Ibou had been trying to achieve for all these years. Couldn’t the whole ethos of America be distilled into the essence of self…self-sufficiency, self-made, self-love…self, self, self…where did it cross over into selfishness?
He had almost died of homesickness the first three years in Maryland. Each turned out as cold as the other, the shiny snow and the language that sounded like coins being shaken in a tin. Both had appeared beautiful from afar, yet close up he found them chilly to the touch. How many years had he spent learning to live far away from the family, studying so that he wouldn’t have to work all day in a supermarket and all night as a security guard like Uncle Thierno? What was the purpose of all that learning?
That’s what he did, studied. Especially after his mother’s death the year he started community college. He hadn’t gone home for a long time after that, maybe five years, and when he did, he was just starting his second year at his first job, a job crunching numbers at a financial firm in New York, a job like the kind you see on T.V. He wore a suit and a crisp yellow silk tie. He read the Wall Street Journal and marveled at the fresh flowers in the reception area on the 49 th floor where his cubicle was. He knew that the cost of that daily bouquet could feed a family of five for a month in half the world’s poorest countries. He actually sat down to do the calculations. Late at night, after working all day, waiting for the car service company to call him and tell him that some Eastern European immigrant driver was downstairs at the firm’s fancy entrance, waiting to take him home, he would do the math. It was a simple process of translation: He would look at exchange rates and the poverty datum lines of the poorest countries like Chad and Haiti. He had toyed with the idea of starting some kind of drive, perhaps every firm in the U.S. could give up their daily bouquets on Fridays, and the money could go toward a food fund for the Third World.
His supervisor was underwhelmed by the idea and told him to talk to someone in HR. He sat down with a nice, blonde lady who pointed out to him how overwhelming the logistics would be, the difficulties of creating a viable operation that didn’t just use the collected monies to pay off its own overheads. Discouraged, he went home and rented a DVD about New York City being blown up by aliens.
Had he changed? A vase of flowers was just that to him now. It was what it was. For him, it was too late to come home.
“I don’t think Babacar would be…” again his tongue was lost in a vacuum of cultural difference, “…happy. In the long run. Fulfilled.”
Fatima drew a sharp intake of breath. Uncle Djiby bobbed his head to the music and laughed aloud. Was he laughing at him, Ibou wondered.
“Happy?” Her voice was incredulous. “Please Brother,” she began again, pragmatism hollowing out her words, “When we sent you to America, it was for the good of the family. We sent you to study for us.”
“You don’t understand,” he shook his head.
Us. In America, there was only me. Families met once or twice a year at the holidays. At Thanksgiving, perhaps at Christmas. They ate a big meal together and then mostly watched T.V., maybe a football game, or a romantic comedy. Then they took advantage of the holiday sales. They don’t pay the school fees of a dozen younger cousins, or send half their salary to their paternal uncle to distribute amongst the needier family members. They are not expected to raise an 11-year-old nephew in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side? He shook his head. “I can’t do it.”
Fatima was finally getting angry. Her feet were sweating in her best gold sandals with bronze jewels on the straps. “But you too had the chance to go. If it wasn’t for Uncle Thierno, you wouldn’t be where you are now. Why are you denying Babacar the chance you were given?”
“Why can’t we send him to a good school here? If he does well, he’ll get into a good college in the States and I’ll help out financially.”
“Even if he does very well, the competition is steep. It’s better if you take him now as a child. It’s hard to get student visas. C’est difficile dê!”
“There has to be a way.”
“You are the way!” All these years she had accompanied Ibou to and from the airport. She waited for him to arrive and then waited for his plane to take off. She waved at the disappearing jet, knowing that he could not see her out of the tiny fish eye windows, but knowing it was her duty to wait until the plane had streamed up into another stratosphere, somewhere up near the stars. A place she would never go. Except in her mind. She must remain here because if she didn’t, Maimouna sometimes joked, who would? Not everyone could be there or there would be no here. But where she couldn’t go, Babacar could. And would.
“You are the way.”
“I can’t bring him to live with us. It’s impossible.”
“Please think about the family. If Babacar can earn well, he will look after the whole family.”
“This is not about the family. It’s about my life. I can’t sacrifice my life, our life, our privacy, our time. And Babacar won’t be happy. Trust me. He should stay here and go to a good school here. It’s for the best.” Then he added, without intending to, “I can’t feed half the world.”
“Why do those who profit from the kindness of others hoard their success all for themselves?” Her voice was shrill, sharp. But inside she was thinking it must be Ghada’s fault: she had made Ibou more bitter than the last round of ataya.
“Are you calling me selfish? After all I do for this family when I couldn’t even—”
Fatima leaned out the open window and spat to cleanse her palate. A globule of throbbing, jelly-like spit landed somewhere in the darkness. She longed desperately for water to wash away the harsh words brewing on her tongue. Exerting every last ounce of control, she said softly, “Ibou, you are a good man, and a good brother and you have not forgotten us. What I’m asking you now is for the wellbeing of the whole family. It’s only a few years until he will be old enough to live by himself. Only you are equipped to look after him until that time.”
Uncle Djiby braked suddenly and pulled up to the curb. They were at the airport. All three of them got out. The luggage was placed on a rickety cart which kept veering off to the left. Ibou turned to Uncle Djiby, sticking out his hand in farewell. But Uncle Djiby’s red-rimmed eyes glowed at him. “No, no Americain Boy, I am just going to park the car.”
“There is no need to come in,” said Ibou.
“No, no, we’ll say goodbye in la salle de départ…” Djiby muttered, ducking back into the car.
Ibou said nothing in response but merely nodded and pushed his cart in front of the bustle of people. Fatima tried to retain a hand on the handle to show that she was being helpful but Ibou was going too fast for her. She gave up and lagged behind, smiling apologetically at the people he unconsciously brushed past. He found a place in the check-in queue and they stood there silently. He ruffled through his passport, a dark American blue, and produced the single flimsy sheet of his return e-ticket. Fatima watched him dispassionately.
“Where is Uncle Djiby?” he asked finally, breaking the silence binding them together in a knot of unspoken words. The queue was inching forward.
“He’ll be here soon. He must have met some taxi driver friends of his.”
They got to the Air France counter. The man looked at Ibou’s face and then at his U.S. passport and began hesitantly in English. Ibou answered forcefully in Wolof, “I am Senegalese.”
“Bien sûr, of course,” the man said quickly, but he answered in French, as if to underscore Ibou’s compromised status. Their interaction continued in French, formal, the bare necessities of what gate to go to and the whereabouts of his baggage claim tickets.
Fatima stood to the side with his laptop and carry-on bag as he received his boarding pass. He carefully pocketed his passport and she looked speculatively at the dark blue color. It was almost the same color as his jeans. Should she ask him again? What to do now? Her throat was parched and words blossomed in her head and then expired on her swollen tongue.
Ibou took off his cap and wiped a palm over his shaved scalp. He replaced the cap and looked around, “Where is Uncle Djiby?”
Fatima tried to talk but she could only nod her head. She wanted to say that he would be here any moment now but the words kept getting stuck, grazing her throat like a chicken bone. Then abruptly, she spoke but she didn’t say what she had intended. Instead she said, “I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.”
Ibou looked at her for a long time, his eyes bright and his jaw slack, his mouth slightly open. He seemed to be panting for breath. Finally, he shook his head in incomprehension. Even Fatima wasn’t sure what she had meant. It was just a feeling, a rubbery suspicion like beef fat. She could chew and chew on it but it never seemed to break down and even if she swallowed it, she wasn’t sure that her intestines could digest it.
They stood there in front of the metal detector machine, passengers and their farewell entourages bidding them bon voyage, jostling them on all sides. There were garbled announcements over the PA system. The whole world seemed to be vibrating except for the two of them, a brother and a sister—still locked in the circle of their own impasse.
She knew she could plead, she could beg, she could invoke God and their deceased mother, she might sniffle and weep and take off her foulard to press against her eyes.
But she did not do this. Instead, her ring went round and round her finger, scraping her dry knuckle an ashy white.
Time ticked. Uncle Djiby did not appear.
Ibou glanced at his watch. “I have to go…” His voice trailed off. She could only nod.
“Goodbye,” he said. “Thank you for everything.” Awkwardly, he embraced her rigid shoulders and then quickly turned and pushed into the crowd putting their luggage through the X-ray machine. He took his carry-on and put it on the moving belt. Then he took off his watch, his iPod and his cell phone and put them in a tray along with his laptop. He stood in front of the metal detector. When the official waved him to come forward, he stepped through the metal frame, trapped for a second on the border between his world and hers, silhouetted against the bright light of the other side. Time teetered; she held her breath. But then he was through, into a world where she would never venture. He looked back at her and lifted a hand.
Then he was gone. She would wait for his plane to take off.