The Children of Toumaï
by Thomas Dietrich
Translation sample by Molly Ashby
As a little girl she was already terribly scared of storms. When thunder pounded on their corrugated iron roof, followed by driving rain, she would curl into a ball, huddled up in a position that she must have had when she was still in her mother’s stomach. To comfort her, Noura, her big sister who was really just a year and a half older than she, would say the streaks of lighting in the dark were jinnis who had come to steel the souls of bad people. She had nothing to fear, she could go to sleep; the jinnis never take innocent children.
The storm rumbled. It was all very well to remember Noura’s tale, Sakineh could not shake off the fear. For 48 hours, since God’s water had started pelting down above them, His voice thundering, her intestines had been wrought with anxiety. Large drops of sweat pearled from her temples. Her fingers restlessly kneaded a kola nut that she eventually held to her mouth. She bit off a piece. The bitterness eased into her mouth but did not have the desired effect. Her mouth was still just as dry. She wanted to drink some milk. The thickness would calm the burning sensation gripping her throat. But there was none left, nothing but bitter tasting tea, and no one to risk going out for some more. Still, she made it her task to let nothing show. She had learned to hide her feelings as a small girl, no matter how untameable they were. Through progressive silence she forged for herself what, in her country’s Muslim society, was without doubt the most admirable quality in a woman. Revealing nothing. Never revealing anything. Even in the most desperate situations. Faithful to this rule, she contained her fears and let perspiration sting her dark eyes. The storm was there all right, the rain pouring down, the jinnis striking their prey: she would only tremble on the inside. When the thunder clapped, and clapped again, she stopped herself from jumping. All the same, she was more and more afraid, and the night ahead made nothing better.
The humidity in the women’s sitting room was unbearable. She moved to sponge her forehead and then, noticing her veil was half fallen, placed it back over her finely braided hair. Without the star-shaped scar her beauty would have reached a certain form of perfection. Soon, when she would want to please men (one man, rather), she would try hard to cleverly mask this mishap of nature under a fringe. But for now the black star on her forehead was the first to shine in the Chadian night.
Her mother called for the houseboy. She wanted him to strengthen the plank hastily secured across the sitting room doorway, which would soon give way under the pressure of the water. Her voice was breathless with hostility; she too was afraid. She knew the boy would not come. He had not been seen since yesterday; gone goodness knew where to sleep off his millet alcohol. Her insults were more of a release than anything else. She got a thunderclap in reply, vibrating her eardrums. Sakineh’s three younger sisters squeezed up to their mother. The youngest started to cry. Silently at first, then in loud sobs. By way of comfort her mother gave her a slap. Seeing it did nothing to calm the girl down, she started telling her off to cover the bawling. She spoke fast, almost biting her tongue, laying into the houseboy sleeping outside: “Knowing where he comes from, he couldn’t be expected to show any courage.” She went so far as to hark back to the time when her people, the proud warriors of the North, kept the animalistic slaves they captured in the forests of the South tied up while their dogs would run free. She told her children how her great distraction when she was their age had been to take those sub-humans their food, huddled with shame and fatigue at the foot of the post they were tied to. More than anything she liked throwing the bowls and seeing them grovel in the dust to get every last crumb of their daily meal. She laughed, proud of what she thought was courage. On hearing her chuckle the youngest wondered if she should carry on crying or start laughing too.
Sakineh suddenly thought of Noura, her companion in stormy nights. It had already been six months since she left home and Sakineh had not seen her since. A few weeks ago she found out she was pregnant by that man she thought was too old; so repulsive with warts on his nose and two wives married the same day, whom their father had still forced on Noura before she was even of age. Sakineh was worried about her safety, but when she realized the flooding could not have reached her sister’s neighbourhood, high up in the Ndjamena suburbs, she felt a little better. She also thought of her two half-brothers, her father’s children from his first marriage. She loathed them with all the hatred it was fitting to nurture for the children of her mother’s rival, and her hatred only intensified when she remembered they were safe and sound in Egypt, thousands of kilometres from this land that was now nothing but mud.
Her mother left. Sakineh would have liked it to be to fetch them some milk. But she knew it was not: she had gone to spy on the men. She could picture her with an ear against the louvered door that separated her from their sitting room, not missing a morsel of the family meeting. Despite the weather Sakineh’s father had insisted on getting them together at all costs, and they all had come: uncles, brothers, cousins. Even the grandfather who had dug out his old colonial infantryman greencoat to brave the elements. A matter of this kind was serious enough to not be put off. Since the early hours of the day they had argued endlessly, sometimes vehemently. When it got too much they started playing cards to calm their nerves. When the muezzin from the local mosque called through the walls of water they prayed alongside each other, much more fervently than they would alone, then lit up a slimline cigarette and picked up the conversation where they had left off. One by one they studied the candidates. It was almost like being at a livestock market. No criterion was left unconsidered: ethnicity, fortune, descendance. Not one, apart from what generally guides a woman when choosing her husband, and especially not love.
Darkness covered everything. Her sisters were now barely moving stains: a hand roaming here, a foot touching and creasing the fabric there. Away from the light, Sakineh let her tears soothe her hot cheeks. The storm was just a bitter prelude. Soon, before dawn, her father, in agreement with the other males of the family, would have chosen her a husband. Sakineh wondered if her mother’s idea to go and spy on the men was such a good one. After all, finding out her future husband’s identity would most certainly only add disgust to fear. She regretted it now. She told herself it would have been better not to be told, as is customary. Then she would have found out about her marriage just a week before the fateful date, when her oldest and strictest aunts would have locked her away in a room of sorrow that she would leave only to be delivered to a lustful stranger.
Sakineh had always been only too aware of what her family had in store for her. She had soon understood, before she even turned sixteen, that her beauty (already assured by the harmony of her features, just-bronzed skin and breasts that pointed under her veils) would make her the object of multiple desires. She would have liked to be deformed in order not to rouse so many appetites. She had even thought about mutilating herself, but when the moment came to pour acid on her face her hands trembled and the bottle spilled all over the carpet. Once, hope had sprung inside her. Rumour had it that the sultan-president would pardon her father for his years of opposition and that he was planning to call him back to manage the national cotton company, one of the country’s principal riches. Sakineh was persuaded by this persistent rumour that if her father’s privileges were reinstated her freedom too would be assured. She pictured herself living in a comfortable villa with silk cushions and gilded furniture, like she had as a little girl when her father had run the company for the first time. She started imagining her father would no longer need to count on the money from her dowry, and by some miraculous chain of events would let her study abroad. She speculated like this for some time. But when she realised that her father’s restoration would doubtless only make him forge new matrimonial alliances she was soon disillusioned, especially since no decree arrived to confirm the rumour. And now, behind closed doors with the women and the mosquitos she saw her father and all his male ancestors as one and the same: ogres who laughed and ate without considering that under their feet they were trampling on the innocence of a young girl whose eyes were as bright as all the constellations in the sky.
Her mother returned from her watching post looking upset. She sat down cross-legged, poured the last drops of tea into a glass that was lined with mint leaves and cursed the power cut. Sakineh looked at her with imploring eyes, but no sound came from her lips. Her mother spoke first:
“I’d rather you didn’t know. Not now anyway.”
“Trust me. It’s better for you.”
In the end, it didn’t matter. The decision was made and that was all that counted. It was so much decided that her father left the sitting room to see her grandfather to the entrance, despite the unsubsiding rain. Forgetting to question her mother Sakineh hurried to the window to watch the scene from behind the half-closed shutters; her executors wading like ducks, their leather sandals hard to extract from the swamp that submerged the courtyard. Her tears fell harder and she was overcome by blind hatred. In one last stand she wished her father would one day experience the hell he made her and her sisters live through. She spat on the lumbering, boubou-wearing man, unworthy of making her; a ridiculous spit, almost without saliva. But at the precise moment that it hit one of the windowpanes a bright light tore through the darkness accompanied by a deafening noise. For several seconds she was blind. When the flash dissipated she quickly distinguished her father. Struck by a lightning bolt, he was writhing on the ground, his limbs smoking and squirming with the effects of the electric shock, his relatives leaning over him and shouting.
She expected to feel something awful descend on her. Yet nothing happened. It seemed like the sight even calmed her. At first she told herself that it must be because of the smoke from the incense, but when she noticed that she was breathing more and more freely, that her tears were drying up, she had to acknowledge it: the idea that her father could die gave her unparalleled satisfaction. After all, was he really her father, this distant and heartless genitor who bartered with his daughters: money for a life, tradition over happiness? A real father would not act like that. A real father would love his children, take them on his knees and advise them on love. A bit like in 7th Heaven, that old American series shown over and over on Chadian television. Yes, the vengeful jinnis could have him. They could take him to Iblis so long as he could no longer decide his daughters’ fate in the same way he would pick the sauce to go with the sacrificial sheep each year at Aid-el-Adha. A frown appeared on Sakineh’s ordinarily gentle face: may he never wake up. Let him die.
And he did. She just had to think about it for a few seconds for him to take his last breath. One of his brothers, after checking his pulse had stopped, closed his eyes and mouth. The other men joined them in the courtyard and she watched them embrace, chanting the prayer for the dead: “May he be given in death a better house to replace his house, may he be given a better family than his, and a better wife than his own.” Inside, her younger sisters started crying in harmony. She who cried the hardest would be the winner. Their mother let them spill out their pain to rush with mournful ululations to her husband’s bedside. The same man she had been cursing a few minutes before because he wanted to take her second daughter from her. Sakineh covered her face with her lafaye and in that instant, had it been light enough to see her, anyone would have thought she were covering her sorrow. But hiccups of pleasure ran through her instead of a torrent of tears. When her father’s father covered his son’s body with a clean sheet she had a furious desire to dance in the pouring rain, which, like a prophetic sign, was starting to subside. That evening, for the first time, she felt free. The jinnis had heard her. They had taken her executioner.