My grandmother moaned when she heard he had passed. She was getting on in years as he was, but his departure terrified her; their separation frightened her.
After the women who had been preparing to act as mourners left, the black cloud lifted slightly from my eyes; I wanted to recover the play time they had stolen from me.
I raced to where I housed my dolls, which were made of clay hardened by the sun and my fervent prayers, only to find that the boys had smashed my dollhouse to pieces that would be hard to stick back together.
Without shedding any tears, I found I was reaching out to make new dolls. So I recycled numerous shards into three dolls.
As I was preparing to watch my clay daughters nap on part of a palm-leaf mat I noticed that a group of women were coating a distant room with clay and locking its only window. I began to wonder who would hide and seek or play ghumayda inside it.
They were all clad in black in deference to my grandfather’s passing. Each carried as much clay as her hands could hold and deposited it in a tattoo on the upright wall like a saint who was stingy with gifts to his petitioners.
I crept toward them, thinking that they hadn’t seen me and that I could collect any clay that fell from their hands. Perhaps my clay daughters might acquire some beds or cooking pots.
My friend, who was supposed to come, was brilliant at making dollhouse furniture. She, like me, would be delighted to have more clay.
The women paid no attention to me as I crawled forward to collect dollops of clay. Their expressions were serious, and their hands took turns slapping clay loudly on the cheek of the wall, time and again. Evening overtook them and me too, but my absent friend had still not arrived. Perhaps her brothers had forbidden her to come play, as they always did, and she hadn’t succeeded in escaping from their blockade.
I collected my three daughters on a rock that the river’s mouth had coughed up forcefully onto the bank after choking on it. I held a reed in my fingers and began to draw a circle around them. My mouth whispered a childish talisman to ward off mischief from other kids: “Magic, may the demons’ magic blind you and the cat.”
I concluded my rituals, made a clay ball, and looked around to check for anyone who might be watching me, fearful that my clay treasure would be stolen.
I didn’t see any other child but found that the women were pulling a woman enveloped in black. The cord fastened to her neck seemed more compassionate than the hands of the women pulling her.
There were three of them; one pulled the woman by her neck, the second led her by her hand, and the third raced to the clay room and quickly opened its door. They pushed her inside and then emerged with expressionless faces. They locked the door tight. My feet trembled and started to run.
I rushed, searching for her embrace, but didn’t find her. Her sister, my other grandmother, was preparing supper. I left footprints everywhere as I sought my grandmother’s embrace.
The little building coated in clay was a total blank, and the vapors of death hovered loudly around it. One of the women assaulted my ear: “Be patient. Your grandmother’s a haadda.”*
I collapsed on the ground as questions twirled and crowded together, trying to open my mind’s locks, but these women did not wish to help me. So I shouted: “Please don’t kill her!”
One of them wagged her hand at me and moved off, whispering: “How can we explain anything to children?”
My sense of being abandoned increased as my sorrows seemed to multiply. I had never seen my mother and had never asked how or when she’d left. My father had migrated to the city in futile pursuit of his dream of making money. Three days before men had covered my grandfather with a white cloth and carried him away in a wooden box on their shoulders.
I asked, “Granny, who is this?”
She replied tearfully: “Your grandfather.”
So my life was empty. As simply as that, they had erased the names of all my loved ones. I turned back to her: “Granny, but he promised me a new blouse.”
She answered bitterly, “We won’t have any new clothes.”
Now, where had they taken her? She had not been put in a box. They had not lifted her to their shoulders. So where had they gone with her? Perhaps they had buried her without a box, without lifting her to their shoulders. Perhaps they only lifted men to their shoulders?
I didn’t calm down. So one of the women exploded: “I’ll take you to her room tomorrow.”
“Now! Now! Now!” I screamed, no longer able to mind what they expected of me.
“Hush!” another woman shouted to my face. I recoiled, assuming they would devise some strategy to keep me from seeing her.
Morning’s arrival was hard, because I’d gone to bed without eating and slept on the dirt without even the remnant of a mat, using my arm for a pillow, without my grandmother’s thick eyelashes, without her protecting me from the jinn with talismans, and without a dream—or so I’d thought as I’d dragged myself to the gelatinous confines of sleep and held myself there by force of will.
The night was alone with me and I with it. There were no bedtime stories to help me fall asleep. The three women slept beside each other and tried hard to entice me to sleep with them. I did not want to–not while I imagined her alone, sharing her room with clumps of darkness. I saw her the moment I closed my eyes.
My blindfolded grandmother was carrying a black rooster. As soon as she reached the river, she strangled him, and cast his body into the waves.
I rushed to the room at the first cock’s crow of the morning. The door was secured with a lock so large my hand could not fit around it. I began to pound on the door with both hands.
Then I heard her trembling voice ask, “Who is it?”
I heard her footsteps approach me. “The door, the door’s locked.”
I glared at the lock with hate-filled eyes. It was as huge as my terror at being separated from her, as large as my despair at not being able to join her. I fell in a lump to the ground as I recognized my own feebleness and the lock’s tyranny. The women would beat me if I went to ask them to open the lock. So all I could do was stay there, but how could I when the door rose to block me from reaching her?
My mother, my father, my grandmother, my world! I rescued some of the drowsiness the morning had overwhelmed with its silvery blue light; I tugged on it with the cord of hope, forcing it to intertwine with my eyelashes, as I attempted to lower my eyelids. Ever so slowly I swam into a slumber that extended its shadow for moments and then yielded to the crown of sleep as its prisoner.
One of the women woke me, punching me and shouting: “Wake up! Wake up! We want to open the door!”
I woke up, feeling frightened and joyful. The door was opened; their rough hands opened it, and I raced toward my grandmother’s billowy embrace. She hugged me with both hands. I clung to her and fell asleep.
This time I awoke by myself, without any frightening blows or any yelling mouths. I woke full of life, riding a cloud of the happiness I had lost the night before. My grandmother’s smile filled my spirit to the brim. She asked me to go wash my face and hands, because she had been waiting for me to wake so we could share our breakfast as usual. I ran as quickly as I could and let the water graze my face and hands—the way cats wash—and returned.
We did not speak. We simply began to share the bread, tea, and fried egg.
“Granny, I want to stay with you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll give you the key. Wait till they’re busy with something and come. But, don’t let them see you.”
Thus I returned to the fount of affection once more. I picked up the breakfast tray as if it were a pretty cat and returned to the house. The women were busy with their daily chores. One took the tray from me and asked me how my grandmother was doing. I was so blissful I could only say: “Fine.”
I returned to my clay girls and embraced one of them. I began to tell them the tale of my joys. While I was rattling on with dreams and stories that had no end, I heard someone knocking from my grandmother’s room. So I raced off, forgetting about my clay dolls, which fell and broke. My grandmother was attempting to make the women hear that she needed out. So I quickly opened the lock.
“I want to go to the privy. Go call one of them, will you?”
I quickly ran out and brought her a woman, who was yelling at me and upbraiding me for unlocking the door and acting on my own initiative without informing them. We entered the room together. My grandmother had put on her abaya, and I prepared to go.
The other woman put her hands in her pocket and brought out a black cloth she fastened around my grandmother’s eyes. Then she grasped her hand and led her from the room, advising my grandmother not to lift the blindfold or open her eyes, because she feared her glance would fall on the animals in the yard and kill them. My grandmother obeyed her very submissively and went to empty her bladder in the latrine, where her blindfold was lifted for the first time.
She looked for the water jug but did not find it. When she asked for it, the voice of the other woman instructed her to use the basin, because a haadda didn’t use a jug.
My grandmother submitted to her sister’s wish, but when she emerged she had trouble putting on her abaya, and that made her forget to place the blindfold over her eyes, which opened long enough to glimpse a rooster that had puffed up his feathers as he’d strutted before his dutiful hens. The other woman immediately began to beat her breast and shriek as loudly as she could: “Father! My rooster will be dead before nightfall. What’s the matter with you? Close…close your eyes!”
Her sister’s shrill voice unnerved my grandmother. With trembling hands she began to tie the blindfold around her eyes.
She stretched her hands out to me so I could take her back to her room as she repeated: “La hawla wala quwwata illa billah. All might and power are God’s.” We made our way back to the clay room at almost a gallop. While we sat there, my other grandmother held her rooster to her chest and fled with him while all the hens clucked raucously.
To minimize the losses my grandmother’s glance might cause to those around her, one of the women suggested minimizing her excursions from her clay prison—limiting them exclusively to latrine breaks and a weekly bath. So they brought her a medium-sized bucket full of water and an aluminum basin she would use for ablutions.
I craved sunshine and the lights that have so many uses and didn’t want to come to terms with the darkness, but my grandmother deliberately diminished its severity by lighting candles.
I was drawn once more into my grandmother’s orbit and wished to discover what people expected of her. So I went to retrieve the clay bits of my shattered dolls, collected them, and brought them into my grandmother’s room. I asked, “Granny, how long will you remain here?”
She replied, “Till the mourning period ends: in four months and ten days.”
“What would happen otherwise?”
“An iron collar would shackle your late grandfather’s neck.”
“Oh…what will we do now, Granny?”
“We’ll play dolls.”
She nonchalantly reached for the dry clay and began to mix a little water with it so she could remake my dolls. Outside the room the rooster was squawking to his hens to enter their coop before evening fell.
* Author’s note: haadda means a widow who is confined to her house or room and can leave it only to visit the latrine. She may not see any men and is not to be seen by them for a period of four months and ten days. This story is based on my own grandmother’s experience.