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.
Adam mumbled in his sleep then farted. Still on her side, Noon’s moist eyes followed a tailless grey lizard scramble across the wall. The scamper of lizards’ feet across the roof kept Noon awake at night. She watched the warty reptile disappear behind a plastic-framed wedding picture on the wall. In the photo she wore a purple tobe and three kilograms of fake gold borrowed from an already married cousin. The gold draped her hair and chest. Intricate swirls of henna adorned her hands and feet. Adam stood behind her, in groom’s regalia and a wide smile. He looked old and flabby. But what a lovely bride she had been! Noon’s cheeks flushed in pleasure at the memory.
She turned on her back and stared at the revolving fan. Like a giant moth it stirred a pungent odor of earth. She had sprinkled water on the dusty floor this morning, then swept it with the straw broom. She preferred simple straw to the fancy ones with bristles that Adam bought for her.
“To make your life easier,” he said.
Noon woke at dawn, just as night withdrew gently from the blaze of a rising fireball on the horizon. Listening to the hauntingly beautiful voice of the muezzin she performed her morning prayers. Wrapped in a plain beige tobe she listened to the tic-tock sound of a grandfather clock hanging in the living room. By some miracle Adam had acquired this contraption and it looked vulgar, un-Sudanese among the gaudy furniture, the lacquered yellow wall paint and jaundiced light bulbs hanging from dangerous looking black wires. Adam had promised her a chandelier. She had her eye on one from that shop where she used to work before marrying him. Plastic, shiny and cheap. Made in China. Every day, the naked light bulbs reminded her of yet another betrayal by her husband.
The morning was brisk. Summer was slowly coming to an end. Noon preferred the rainy season anyway. She pulled the tobe tighter around her swollen belly as she walked across the yard towards the kitchen. The baby was growing. The sight of her changing body in the mirror made Noon recoil in horror. The looming finale left her psyche locked in a permanent, clandestine scream.
While the pancakes cooked Noon thought of how much she hated housework. And Khartoum. And this doomed, sullied house full of broken individuals.
She thought of how much she detested washing Adam’s white robes by hand. The crude bars of soap turned her skin into indigo colored blotches and washed off her carefully applied henna. She disliked ironing his white robes with that heavy coal iron. Adam liked his robes flawless.
Eleven months and eleven days since her wedding day Noon watched her husband devour the breakfast she had spent an hour preparing. She placed a round tray heaped with spongy warm pancakes and a large glass of milky tea in front of him on a small metal table.
Adam inhaled, his flat nostrils flaring in approval. “Ahh,” he said, “vanilla and cinnamon.”
“Yes, vanilla and cinnamon,” Noon repeated.
Her husband ate as he lived. He ripped portions of pancake with his stubby fingers, dunked them into a plate of sticky honey before shoving them into his plump cheeks.
Honey dribbled down Adam’s fingers and hand, landing on his white robe, the one she had washed and ironed with meticulous care.
Noon sipped her tea and looked away. She stared at the neem tree shedding more of its leaves.
Vomit rose in her throat and into her mouth. She stood up, unsure whether it was the baby or her husband that made her ill.
“Bless your hands,” Adam licked his thick lips. “Your mother did assure me you were an excellent cook.”
Oblivious to the pieces of dough stuck to his teeth, Adam slurped tea and sighed. He stretched on the bed and closed his eyes. “I feel dizzy.” He threw a hand over his forehead and turned on his side.
She had been dismissed.
“Would you like something else before you leave for work?” she asked.
Adam grunted in reply. Noon picked up the tray with the glutinous leftovers. Her gold bangles jingled. Her husband’s child kicked inside her. Bile made her mouth sour. Adam didn’t ask if she wanted some breakfast. He never did. It was just how he was.
She is in Kadoogli and the river flows beneath her feet. The water is cold and she splashes it at her squealing cousins. Oh, how she misses bathing in the Nile. On the bank, her mother and aunts prepare a picnic. They spread out lunch on a large straw mat. Salted fish, hard boiled eggs, sesame paste and jam sandwiches, mangoes that turn blood red and leak through Noon’s fingers as she devours their piquant sweetness…
Noon almost dropped the tray.
“I am telling you to get me a glass of water.” His voice sounded strange. Noon pursed her lips and lifted her head high.
“What’s wrong with you, girl?”
She didn’t look at him.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
The empty tea glasses slide on the tray and shatter. The tray is a mess of glass fragments, spilled tea and disintegrated pancake. Noon’s feet feel heavy as she stumbles towards the kitchen for what seems to her an inexplicably long time.
The sounds come then. The gurgling, the first startled intake of breath… She doesn’t turn around to look at her husband. Not even when he calls her name. It’s barely a whisper, but her senses are sharpened, incredibly aroused and she clearly hears the pleas in his voice. Adrenalin pulses through her veins like that boiling water in the teapot. She wonders if this elated feeling is what smoking bango feels like. The baby kicks again. Placing her hand and the disappearing henna doodles on her belly she touches the miniature earthquakes baby’s limbs create inside her.
Shush baby… Shush.
Adam doesn’t call again and Noon continues tidying up. She dumps the tray, together with its useless contents into the plastic garbage bucket. A breeze has lifted off the highlands somewhere in Sudan and made its way to her. Clear and crisp. No dust. She inhales the scented air into her lungs and closes her eyes. A river, a forest, frangipani and jasmine, guava and tamarind. Sandalwood too. It smells of home.
Something brushes against her calf. It’s a stray. Emaciated, black and evil.
“Black cats are the jinn themselves,” mother always warned.
Noon sees the cat scurry towards the garbage. It sticks its ugly pink tongue into the trail of spilled milk-tea.
Everything is so quiet now, so beautiful. Noon forgets the cat. She feels light and free. At the same time she wants to bang her head against the stupid crumbling wall until her head splits open like a ripe watermelon. Red and fleshy.
Adam has not called her again. She is curious but doesn’t feel like going back to check. To walk across the endless yard, stand by the bed where his splayed body, contorted and dead now lays. No she will not go.
The cat is onto the pancake scraps. Licking… licking. Has it not had enough already? Obviously, it’s stupid and greedy. Just like Adam.
The cupful of lizard poison Noon had stirred into the pancake batter should have killed the jinn cat already. Vanilla and cinnamon. Cinnamon and vanilla. She wanted to pat herself on the back. Her cousins are never going to believe she had it in her. Her close-set eyes crinkle at the corners. She smiles.
The baby is suddenly heavy and Noon slides to the dusty ground like a rag doll. Her legs stretch out in front of her at an awkward angle. She breathes mouthfuls of that home scented breeze and watches the jinn cat. Its pupils are as big as coins, bottomless. Noon is sure now. They emanate hell fire.
The fire bores straight through Noon’s bulging eyes all the way to the decaying regions of her mind. And still, the cat keeps licking the damn pancakes.
Zvezdana Rashkovich is an American author and columnist born in the former Yugoslavia and raised in Sudan. Her swork has appeared in When Women Waken Anthologies, Inkapture Literary Magazine, New World Writing, Huffington Post, and InCulture Parent among others. She is also the author of ‘Dubai Wives’, a novel.