Marwa trailed around the tree. There had been an old ice lolly stick in the sand, scuffed and worn as though it were a splinter of flotsam. She circled with one hand roaming the cracked bark, tight and controlled as a math compass. Her other hand gripped the spike.
She was bored, she went onto her toes and then trying to swing her way around, nearly fell.
Kiziwi; deaf. It was Tudor’s neighbour, just as sleepy, if not quite as leafy. In her aunt’s backyard there was just one tree—hard-faced and pockmarked with stiff dribbles of resin, frozen, shining marble-like. She sawed at a trickle with the lolly stick, prying under it until the little rivulet snapped off.
She rolled it along her palm, it was orange-ish. Like a bloody sneeze.
‘Marwa!’ It was Suheila, throwing her voice around and hollering so that Marwa couldn’t pretend not to have heard.
Marwa felt her skirts, the stiff frills had no pockets. It was too nice a dress to be wearing at home, her short hair was wet and licky with sweat. She stretched the frilly edge of her sock and slid the resin there, before navigating over the weed-crumbly rock back to the house.
Her cousin Suheila, old enough to have married once already, was rather tall. Whip-thin, she possessed eyes dark as coal and a pale, zigzagging scar which mapped down one side of her face. Marwa could not remember her cousin without it.
‘You’re going to get dirty,’ Suheila’s smile badly hid her impatience. ‘Ah, Marwa. Come here and let me comb your hair.’
Marwa’s hair was too short to braid and too sparse to clip, and rather unfortunate. Suheila sat her before the dresser that had belonged to their grandmother.
Suheila herself was these days free of adornment, until she served her time. She drew a comb through Marwa’s hair, which only served to frizz it. She supplemented this disaster with oil, which made Marwa’s hair far too greasy!
A bright yellow bandana hid Suheila’s hair and she wore a robe she would have been chastised for being too kiji-mama to be seen in. But the whole point was that she had to not be seen. It was the same when Suheila had married too, they had hid the bride in secret so she could ‘wow’ at her debut.
Marwa did not think she would wow anyone herself. She kicked her heels one after the other, jiggling as Suheila made the best-worst of Marwa’s hair. She was already late and there was no car to take her. Suheila could have driven Marwa there, but Suheila couldn’t drive anyone anywhere any time soon.
‘Why can’t I walk?’
Suheila’s flat gaze met Marwa’s in the mirror.
‘It’s not far!’
Suheila commanded her to uss. A light, dismissive command that promised to harden should it be asked to repeat itself. It was as she was stroking Marwa’s hair that the sound of a motor, vibrating hard and wheezing all the while, came to them over the sleepy quiet.
This was unmistakably the sound of a vehicle of some sort; the older women were always able to guess the type just from the sound—and thus know who had arrived. Keen ears and quieter, modest manners. Suheila cursed under her breath, really?
She went to the window, gazing through the curls and curls of metal grills. The spiked black gate creaked open. Suheila had been trying to make a fringe out of the oil slick she’d created, this flopped greasily around Marwa’s face as she too, stretched on tip-toes, to rest her chin on the bottom of the window—half hanging there by it.
From the innards of a blue, steel tuktuk emerged the troupe of aunts. Suheila’s eyes widened, at first she had looked irate and mildly inconvenienced, now she seemed confused, perplexed and dreadful.
Khale Marwa clutched the front of her triangular abaya, waddled out like a crow—as Hababa Marwa sat there on the seats with an expression of stormy intolerance, waiting for one of the slow young ones to do her the indignity of assisting her out of the metal trap. Khadija was there too, though her face was covered with her bright red shawl—Marwa knew because of the way her heels wobbled on the smashed gravel and cement of the driveway, she did not stay to assist Hababa Marwa, which Marwa thought meant Khadija was currently on a rampage or throwing a tantrum, as she was wont to do now and then. Ever since she became a bride the girl had been a storm of tempers, and once she married, she was a haughty paragon of womanly virtue.
‘There are too many Marwas in this house,’ Suheila said.
There would be less if you let me go to Malyun’s birthday party, Marwa thought, but Suheila was cursing again, herding Marwa out of the room so they could both go downstairs.
Suheila opened the trellis that doubled as a security door. The older women were sweeping and grumbling into the place—the smoke of oud and ubani had turned heavy, tobacco-like on their clothes. Khadija came in first, throwing off her red shawl and with make-up only slightly sweaty, was insultingly no less stunning than she’d been an hour ago. She entered the majlas without taking off her heels, which was the kind of audacious thing only a bride could get away with. Suheila asked her what happened, Khadija huffed, and flung the shawl over Marwa’s with serpent-fast dismissal.
The cloud of fabric settled around Marwa’s head and neck—she self-consciously pulled it away from her hair so she would not be accused of greasing it.
Khale Marwa came in achingly, next. The call-centre that never rested, and did not even look at either of them as she entered. This supreme ignoring of, was something they were used to.
Once Khale Marwa was on the phone, you could die and still receive none of her attention. She was complaining, both sympathetic and condemning, like a preacher. You had to play a sort of mental game here, loathe to eavesdrop but left no choice (and no escape) the people around her had to piece together fragments of a one-sided conversation to figure out current events.
Or wait for another three hours, depending on which divorcee or co-wife had called to air their grievances with the ever-absent, ever-listening Khale Marwa—who was a saint on the phone and rather unforgiving of her live studio audience.
Suheila and Marwa exchanged a look that transcended their age disparity.
Salma came next, she had been held back to pay for the tuktuk without being asked—and (as to avoid a trial far costlier than money) without asking. She continued the same, without asking or being asked, or (ho!) thanked—by helping Hababa Marwa.
Hababa Marwa’s hand had been a dry and unfeeling paw on her grandnieces arm as she allowed herself to be escorted from the gate. Faced with the little steps that came up to the door, her hand tightened into a crippling death-hold on Salma’s thick wrist.
Hababa Marwa’s henna-dyed brows gripped downward like two red hens throttling one-another, and she began to sweat a little.
Salma, had an excess of sweetness, greeted them. Like a mule did she help her package up without complaint.
When she was safely on the level, Hababa Marwa discarded Salma’s wrist and moved in as though she had never feared death.
Salma had worn bright red lipstick when she left, a bold and daring new look. It was all smudged out now. She smiled, though Marwa thought she looked rather unfortunate.
‘What happened?’ Suheila asked as Salma began dragging off her shoes.
‘Suheila!’ Marwa muttered. ‘Tell the tuktuk to stay!’
They both ignored her. Though Salma smiled when she ignored her. She was never without her smile, just as Suheila was never without her scar. As the walls of the perimeter were never without their lash line of jagged coke-bottles.
Apparently, one of the old ladies had upped and died at the subha. Khadija was annoyed because she had only gone so she could be tholewad, opening the event for the new bride, as one of the spring brides—now the event had been waylaid by a tragedy that she didn’t care about.
Hababa Marwa had settled back into her big chair, staring with disapproving impatience ahead of her. She was hard as a mountain face.
Khadija stood underneath the banca, blinking into the whirring blades and trying to dry the sweat from her face without ruining her make-up.
‘Oh ho!’ Khale Marwa was exclaiming to the other person on the phone, every moment or so she would whistle or gasp that frightening, scything-up-from-the-very-bottom-of-the-lungs gasp that raised all the hairs on everyone’s skin. Then she tittered, and then she consoled the other person.
‘I’m already late,’ Marwa mumbled to herself.
That, was heard. Like every secret thing was heard in this place. ‘You can’t go anymore,’ Suheila snapped. ‘The tuktuk’s gone and there isn’t going to be a birthday party.’
‘There might still be,’ Salma said, she was a little breathless from the excitement of this sudden death. At Suheila’s perplexed glare, Salma defended her insubordinate sentiments. ‘They aren’t related as closely to Hababa Halima.’
‘That’s Malyun’s aunt!’
‘Well, when her grandfather’s half-brother died? They still had the wedding!’
‘It’s a birthday party!’
‘It’s watoto tu,’ Salma said, still smiling her smile, though frankness turned it lighter, more bland as though to lighten the unmistakable smirk of it.
As though summoned by this unfeminine rebellion, Khale Marwa, agreeing with whoever was on the phone, came back up and, between them and using a tissue she crumpled out of the recesses of her handbag stuffed it in Salma’s palm.
With excruciating discipline, none of the two girls rolled their eyes.
Even Marwa understood. ‘Why’s Khadija still made-up?’
Salma seemed to agree, looking to Suheila with an air of somewhat defeated sarcasm. Suheila, with a valiant lack of inflection said, ‘her husband needs to look at her.’
The older girls seemed to find this to be a mind-numbingly exasperating reality. For a moment they rested in this exhaustion, the forced-gift of the tissue peeking through the loose, somewhat defeated grasp Salma had on it.
And then Khale Marwa kissed her teeth in the next room, ripping through this pocket like it was an old pillow case. Salma laughed suddenly, playfully blotting at Marwa’s locks with the tissue.
Marwa ducked, dancing away. ‘Suheila said I had to look nice for the birthday party!’
‘Looking nice is very important,’ Salma said with that same odd-tone—it was nearly mocking, but too crafty to allow the accusation. ‘Anyway, looks like that birthday party isn’t going to happen. For you. It’s less about whether there’s going to be a party or not, and more about whether you can secure enough attention, interest, or just general empathy from these people to give you the time of day to listen to you. And even then, these people have dangerous reactions, so I’d refrain from now.’
‘Don’t use big words with her,’ Suheila rolled her eyes. ‘Or just to please yourself.’
‘I’m the only one I can please,’ Salma said. ‘Everyone else is too difficult. Anyway, isn’t it rude you’re keeping me in the doorway like this? ‘iddah makes you the prisoner of this place, not its master. But please do invite me into our aunt’s house, cousin!’
Suheila sighed. Marwa was set off to ask Zawadi to make tea. When she told Zawadi what had happened, the maid looked interested and intrigued, she’d have to be—this place was boring.
Marwa was bored to death, and felt scalded with the fast building anger at being forced to be in this place. She returned from the kitchen and into the majlas. The black speckled yellow stone floor was older than her, and she sat down with a harrumph to take off her socks. It was no fun.
Khadija opened one eye to behold her. ‘What’s with that hair?’
Suheila bristled but said nothing. Salma sat next to her mother with the sort of bland nonchalance that protected her last shred of sanity.
‘I was going to a birthday party,’ Marwa tried to say it like a subtle chastisement.
Khadija could be chastised by no one, not even her husband, which was bemoaned by all women-folk in their family. Her hardheadedness, though said to be typical of his clan, made her the head of its vices. Khale Marwa said the only reason her husband had married outside of his family was to secure a sweeter, more impressionable wife. Khadija was lucky she was beautiful, but how long would that entrap him?
Marwa scowled. Khadija was already bored, turned back to the fan. Her sweaty face had already dried, now she stood there, with the idleness and belonging of an over-spoiled housecat.
And just when Marwa thought she had been dismissed, Khadija said to the fan, ‘Well, at least one of us should enjoy themselves! This house is depressing!’
‘If you’re not careful,’ Salma said sweetly, ‘you’ll be like Suheila over here, you can even give her company.’
Something catty was happening. Suheila rose with a noise of disgust and exasperation and went into the kitchen.
Khadija laughed an elegant, if villainous, laugh. ‘That’s never going to happen,’ she smirked, ‘Look at this face.’
‘It’s giving me indigestion,’ said Hababa Marwa. ‘Come here, Marwa.’
Marwa shuffled dutifully forward. Khadija, distractedly turning away from her own cruel, flippant words, turned back to the fan. Khale Marwa lifted her ear from the phone to assess the situation, having heard her name—before dismissing the situation and returning to her soap-opera.
Meekly, Marwa stood before the woman she had been named for. Hababa Marwa had a wrinkly note of money, ever in her palm. Sometimes she had seen the old woman rummage in her great, mary-poppin’s trove of disorder like she was upending a bombsite for scrap— but she usually did not need to do so with money in her hand.
Salma had called her the Midas of unusual and useless currency.
‘Get yourself a chocolate,’ Hababa Marwa said, moving as little of her face as possible. Speaking like an agent in a public park. She closed Marwa’s fingers over the little morsel.
Marwa was proud of her own composure, fingers closing around the piece of paper and thanking her grandmother quietly.
Khadija intercepted her halfway, clasping Marwa by the shoulder with the dexterity of a predator, inattentive and skilled at being an obstacle. ‘What’s that?’
Marwa ran away to give Salma the paper. Salma unrolled it, blinked down at a smashed, blotted headline about university scandals. She returned this to Marwa with a sigh, and told her where she had hidden a cadbury in the upstairs bedroom.
Hababa Marwa had dementia, little memory but fouler grudge that endured regardless of any access to recall. Her bad temper was as faithful as blood. She need not know who was in the room to dislike them immediately, and when she did remember she looked like she’d rather do without the inconvenience.
Marwa decided she would get the chocolate later, if she disappeared she’d just be called back. No, she would enjoy the chocolate by herself when she would not have to share it with all these vain loudmouths.
Suheila came back with the tea. This encouraged an intermission from Khale Marwa, who paused to acknowledge it, and to wipe roughly at her daughter’s mouth. Salma scowled, something truly hateful roiling underneath her restraint.
Suheila let Salma pour the tea, and milled about the sitting room to see what she could neaten up unnecessarily ignoring the landmark Khadija had become.
She crouched to the floor and rose up. ‘What’s this?’ she said to herself.
Khadija cracked one black-lined eye open, her false eyelashes trembling as though they had become sentient. ‘Is anyone taking this sheitani to that birthday party?’
Marwa straightened, surprised by this allyship, and suspicious of it.
Salma peered into Suheila’s hand, when Suheila came back to sit next to her. They examined these findings with bored curiosity.
‘Ah!’ Khadija said. ‘I’m being ignored!’
‘Mrembo,’ Salma said, her mother had smeared the lipstick halfway down her chin, and Salma did not care to fix it, or rather very pointedly would not. ‘Why are you so obsessed with that? Who cares? If you want to drink lukewarm soda until your belly aches and watch that haughty brat Millyoon crow about how great her life is, then you can go in the child’s place.’ Then to Suheila she said, ‘it’s the gum tree from outside.’
Khadija left the fan and came toward her two cousins, peering down with haughtiness. ‘Of course you’d say that, spoken like a true unpopular fatahna.’ She sneered. ‘It’s the gum tree from outside. Salma used to play with it like a loner too.’
‘We all used to play outside,’ Suheila said, not really paying attention. ‘Why is it here?’
Khale Marwa’s fingers shot forward, snapping the gum out of her niece’s palm. She made a face of disgust. She looked at Marwa. ‘Where are your socks?’
‘Eat a biscuit,’ Salma said. ‘And take this cup to Hababa.’
There was a honk at the gate. Khadija’s face brightened, hatefulness deepening into smugness, and she still looked lovely. Khale Marwa began slapping Suheila’s knee so that the odious divorcee could make herself scarce.
‘Why is this man here?’ Salma scowled as Suheila made a bored, put-upon exit. She only ever scowled over men.
‘You know why he’s here!’ Khadija’s hands rose to plump at her glossy hair before remembering it had been straightened to death for an event she didn’t even get to dance at. Then she went through Salma’s bag and began to rummage through it with the rough carelessness of a crow ripping through garbage.
Salma slapped her cousin’s hands away before taking over the search. She emerged with the very tube of lipstick she’d been disabused of.
Khadija squealed, before remembering to be disgusted, and then began to do her make up using the reflective surface of the tube.
‘He knows better than to show up here,’ Salma was saying, no one was listening. ‘It’s really unfair of him to come here knowing this is a house where a woman is serving her ‘iddah! He should just pick you up at the gate and you should both go away.’
‘Nonsense,’ Khale Marwa chastised, disgusted with her rudeness. ‘It’s time for chai. And wipe your face if you’re going to see him, there’s lipstick all down your chin.’
‘And whose fault is that?!’
‘Someone died! But I can’t expect someone as thankless as you to understand mourning!’
‘Oh, and is the princess over here exempt?’
Khadija seemed to glow surrounded by the music of what she was happy to call bitter jealousy from a girl too much a hag to be her peer. She bounced around, shimmying her shoulders, dancing to this beautiful song of being better than others.
‘Marwa!’ Khale Marwa ordered. ‘Zawadi haongeze chai, and ask her why she has not brought the cake out!’
‘See, it’s all working out,’ Khadija lay her hands on Marwa’s shoulders and crooned. ‘You still get to have cake.’
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber is a Mombasa born writer of Hadrami descent and the 2018 winner of the inaugural Graywolf Press Africa Prize for a first novel manuscript. Her work has been published in Brainstorm Kenya and the Enkare Review among others.
This story appears on the drr issue of Place. Order your copy here.