By Zvezdana Rashkovich
First wife’s screams invaded the air of an isolated Khartoum neighborhood. They rose over and across a mud wall separating the house into two sections. The smaller section belonged to Noon now. Second wife. The woman’s anguished lamentation clamped a cold hand around Noon’s insides. Their husband’s yelling rose and fell together with the screams. The woman’s weeping finally turned into a stifled wail. It has been this way almost daily, ever since Adam brought Noon into the house.
Noon titled her head to the side. Her braids brushed her slender shoulders. Minutes passed. She knew her husband was coming. Like a brush of a spider’s feet, fear touched her neck.
The odor of her husband Adam’s cloying perfume reached her first. His bulbous form hovered above her like a cloud. Just a few meters divided Adam’s two lives and it took him seven minutes to move between one into another.
“Al salaam alaikum.”
Noon was washing dishes in a bucket in the sunshine filled yard. She sat on a twine stool, thighs spread out as she labored at her task. Muggy heat dampened her forehead and armpits. Her flower patterned dress scrunched up, revealing gleaming dark thighs. She plunged her hennaed hands into soapy water then proceeded to scrub fried egg remnants from a pan. The egg fell off easily. Yellow clumps floated in the cloudy water, changing to disagreeable brown as they sank to the bottom. This morning’s breakfast.
“Alaikum al salaam.” she answered without raising her head.
“How are you, Noon?” His thick tongue lingered over her name, his voice hoarse with a breathlessness that implied only one thing.
“I’m going to lie down,” he said.
Her hand hovered over the pail. The wailing had stopped. The air was still. Maybe first wife and her screams had sent the entire neighborhood into hiding. It wouldn’t be the first time. The tall neem tree shading their yard seemed to voice its displeasure by releasing serrated, fragile leaves onto the ground.
“Bring me some cold water. And hurry, I’m thirsty.” Adam looked over his shoulder and disappeared in the darkened confines of their bedroom.
Noon sat motionless after he left. Sunlight slid over her skin. She had spent hours in the smoke room, huddled under a thick blanket, seated over an earthen pot that spouted aromatic smoke from burning wood. An ancient Sudanese tradition, a must for every married woman. The temptation of golden hued, sandalwood infused skin that resulted such dedication would surely keep any husband aroused and hence, devoted. Noon admired the combination of black henna shapes on her feet against the bronzed tone of her body.
How had she gone along with this marriage? Listened to her uncle and mother back at home in Kadoogli.
“You will have a better life,” her uncle promised.
Here she was now. Second wife. Carrying a child already.
She thought of other chores she must do. She hasn’t even started lunch yet. There was fresh okra to peel, Adam’s favorite dish. But she was tired. So very tired. She rubbed her wet hands on her dress, staining it. Getting up from the stool Noon made her way to her husband’s room. Her plastic flip-flops felt heavy on her feet and that ever-present spider continued to crawl down her spine.
She didn’t take a glass of water with her.
Noon’s mind filled with unbearable longing for Kadoogli. Those long visits to her relatives’ homes where she sipped endless cups of clove-flavored tea while her mother and aunts gossiped. Among the lush green orchards and tinkling springs Noon giggled with her male cousins and cast flirty glances at handsome village boys. That joyful time, filled with promise and anticipation, became harder to remember clearly.
Noon’s body ached and heaviness settled on her chest. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she joined Adam in bed. Late afternoon shadows darkened the walls of the bedroom. She replayed all the sickening details of the past hours over and over with something akin to what madness must be like. Brutal. Terrifying. Lonely.
Each time since they were married Adam had pushed her on the bed and pounced at her flesh like an animal. The sight of her bruised and bleeding body failed to deter him. On the contrary, Adam groaned with satisfaction whenever she whimpered in pain. The memory of her wedding night made her legs go numb and her palms slippery with sweat. Noon didn’t fight back. Not anymore.
She thought she had seen kindness in Adam’s eyes when he asked her uncle for her hand in marriage. Yet, after the wedding they narrowed into mean slits whenever she contradicted him.
One day, Adam arrived in Kadoogli with a friend driving a ten-year-old white Volvo. The car looked impressive parked next to her uncle’s mud and zinc shack. The marriage proposal concluded swiftly. After the prerequisite arrangements for a dowry and a simple wedding ceremony the two men left, leaving clouds of dust behind the Volvo. Through the window, Noon watched scrawny, barefoot village children run after the car. Street dogs barked in unison. The neighbor’s donkey brayed. Noon bit her lip and tasted blood.
Her uncle, stick thin and stoned on bango called Noon to sit next to him on a rickety metal day bed. “Noon, you know what we decided, right?” His rheumy eyes scanned her face.
Noon nodded. In Sudan, silence meant agreement.
Her mother’s face crumpled on itself like withered dead leaves. “You are getting old, Noon.” Mother’s eyes inspected the floor of the hut she had shared with her bachelor brother since Noon’s father died. “You will have security. And he is only fifty, not bad at all for a girl your age,” she said.
Noon drowned her sobs into a pillow every night preceding the wedding. She knew mother meant well. Since her teenage years Noon had heard the painful truth about how she looked. Short, legs bent at the knees, flat chest and thick but wiry hair. Now, almost thirty years old, she had accepted her fate. She will never be beautiful. She should thank Allah for sending her a man. Any man. In her village, even pretty seventeen-year-old girls married men older than their fathers. They became second or third wives. A roof over their head, status as married women and hands and necks adorned with twenty-two carat gold seemed like a good enough trade.
“It’s all right Noon,” her uncle said.
Mother’s eyes filled with limpid tears.
“He is a merchant. Owns a coal dealership in the big souk,” her uncle said.
Apparently, Adam had pursued her after seeing her once at someone’s wake. Noon couldn’t remember whose. She went to many with her Khartoum-dwelling aunt. It was the way of the Sudanese. Paying respects. Doing the right thing even if you hardly knew the deceased. Adam found her family from a friend of a friend’s cousin’s brother’s wife. Everyone knew everybody in Khartoum. Then he made his way to their village. Noon had been summoned from Khartoum days before. She worked long hours at a trinkets shop, owned by an old Armenian woman with a fondness for cigars and whiskey. Noon made a meager salary and for three years spent long hours staring out of the glass doors at the world passing by.
And then, before she knew it, she was getting ready for her wedding, encircled by a dozen female relatives clacking like a group of old hens.
Until the wedding night Adam kept her existence secret. Then, the very next day he brought her to his crumbling house in a remote neighborhood of Khartoum and deposited her like a package next to his wife of thirty years and his five grown children.
Once, Noon overheard first wife’s conversation with her children.
“She is of no consequence to us. A passing whim… your father will tire of her soon.”
“But mama…” one of the daughters, the one with thoughtful doe-shaped eyes, protested. “That woman is someone’s daughter too.”
First wife clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Girls from good families don’t steal husbands. A father of five!” First wife’s composure was crumbling as surely as the old mud wall that ensconced them all in a toxic world of hatred and suspicion.
“He divided the house, and look now. What do we have?” The youngest of five, a son, spoke up. Forced into manhood at fifteen even as his virgin moustache barely darkened the soft curve of his lip.
Despair and jealousy had finally saturated first wife’s mind like a terminal rotting wound. On the other side of the collapsing wall, Noon wept.
She had caused so much pain. Surely God will punish her.
Noon thought of her husband’s children and their brief and unfortunate introduction, orchestrated by Adam during the first week of their marriage. The exercise was never repeated.