|Jul/Aug 2018 Fiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
The music teacher arrived a week after Evan ascended into heaven. She wore damp extensions, Salvation Army clothes, said her name was Hadiza, and twirled in a corner of the grand hall upstairs, halting at an angle that attached her shadow to her frayed toenails. Emmanuelle asked whether she was hungry or thirsty.
"Oh, no," she said. She smiled. "The truth about sound is that it travels up. This fact may seem irrelevant, until you consider that what doesn't go up goes down. Nothing hovers anymore."
A latticed beam sloshed to the piano while she played a bit of Chopin at noon.
"Eight keys form an octave," she said. "The first key in the normal octave is C. The last key is also C. The black keys are sharp in ascent and flat in descent." Her fingers leaped with a schizophrenic desperation across two octaves. "Get it?" Her pupils were streaked.
Emmanuelle said, "I do."
"Great." She relaxed. "Your turn. Be free with the keys."
Emmanuelle played a haphazard tune. The deeper keys drowned the light and softened the silence, and she kept to them.
"Not bad," said Hadiza, when she had done playing. "Not bad at all."
"I'm a decent baker, too," Emmanuelle said.
Hadiza made a face, of polite surprise. "What do you bake?"
"Scones. Cookies." Emmanuelle shrugged. "Stuff."
"You know what else gets baked?"
"Human beings."Hadiza pinched a fluty key, let it linger.
Emmanuelle refused to discuss Evan's ascension until the sixth day, when the sky, a pierced hammock, slipped at one end and unleashed an unworldly torrent. The smashing and tumbling outside precluded their meddling at the piano, so that they rested, Hadiza on the bench, Emmanuelle on the floor, facing each other, sipping tea, their legs crossed. Hadiza wore the same Salvation Army clothes.
"How did it happen?" she said.
"How did what happen?"
Emmanuelle lowered her cup. Her mother had warned her against retelling the episode, but the static outside, the panes shifting with rainwater, offered escape she knew would vanish when the storm ceased. She brushed hair from her temples and cleared her throat.
"He was ill."
"We tried to, but could not find it out. Mom claimed he had chicken pox. Ulcers covered his arms. A light bit through his chest, where his heart should have been."
"If he had the ulcers in a dream," said Hadiza, "he would have woken to great riches."
"One night he shuffled to the backyard. We rushed downstairs after him. We grappled one another at the threshold when a wind seized him and whirled him to the clouds."
"How did his leaving make you feel?"
"Not sad, I can tell you." Emmanuelle laughed.
She wanted to say that he had touched her. They were step siblings, after all. He had lumbered into her room, and she had awaited him, her neck hot, on the mattress. She retrieved her cup and sipped, remembered the striated curve of his erection; his pale steps; his discarded clothes that seemed to slink, whispering, through the dark; and how nobody had suspected them or asked questions except the one time her mother entered the kitchen while he snuggled her neck and, piercing him with her gaze, said she had not rinsed the cups properly.
In the third month of their liaison she became pregnant, had worn the secret at her breast, on a silk ribbon she removed when she lost the fetus, so small she could not differentiate it from the other clots in the sink. If it were larger, a breathing child, and had died, she would have buried it to its shoulders and left its head for the collector. After her loss she spread the ribbon on the clothesline and monitored its flapping over grass strummed by the brittle guava leaves that reproduced his smell.
"He had blonde lashes," she said. "He liked rap music."
The rain faltered, and a pin-drop silence filled the room.
"What time is it?" Hadiza said.
Emmanuelle looked up. "It's four' o clock, an hour past your usual time of exit. You had better get going."
"You've told me a story," Hadiza said. "Let me tell you mine."
"What's it about?"
"The resurrection of the Three Wise Poets."
The tallest poet was called Quaqim, which in the Cantra dialect meant giant. The children loved him for having proved that tall men could be artists. The shortest poet they called Philliam, for he was ordinary. The poet who stood between these two had no name, though the democrats had christened him Amad because he had the limbs of a leopard and a tail that trembled over the poets' melodies.
The poets had not performed in over a decade before their appearance at the garden. People had spread rumors about how Gannardez, the demon guardian of the arts, had captured their voices and condemned them to sounding worse than broken dulcimers. But that night, as they spun and gestured and wailed, the clouds reddened and a million spirits rose from the nearby sea. Many listeners floated with their coherent voices, and the poets were cautioned not to end their performances abruptly lest a man of the thousand suspended should flail to the sand. While in that trance, some of the men brightened and passed into the next world. Gayel, the dictator responsible for the extermination of over six million Catholics, reached paradise during the concert. His seamless passage caused a stir among the crowds; the women in the crowd bowed to the poets and worshipped them, saying, "The only god is that of music, and I will have him bless me with a child."
The nameless poet summoned an aria about a British soldier stationed in Nepal in the 1800's. The soldier loved a Brahman girl, but race wars and the insoluble edicts of colonialism forbade their union. Distracted by such ill fate, he entered the path of a drifting train. The girl spent the rest of her life flourishing black veils, roaming the streets while other creatures slept or copulated.
The poet's voice rose to a scale so haunting—of the kind that suspended water in dreams—that the soil cracked and the stars snapped from their moorings. No one had told Hadiza the stars were more than tiny pockets in the sky, that they were gaseous rocks much older than the earth. By the time the stars had done falling, all three poets were dead and so was Hadiza's mother. They never found the body.
A jackdaw tottered on the branch beside the window. Its feathers were sparse, almost metallic. They watched its ungainly progress down the branch. Emmanuelle drained her cup of tea.
"I should go." Hadiza lunged from the bench. "Study the pentatonic scale before our next lesson." Before she shut the door, she jerked around, squinting, and asked whether Evan had been a history buff.
Emmanuelle frowned. "Nothing major. The Easter Rebellion. The Kashmir Crisis. He rooted for the lesser causes." His eyes had sparked and his lips brightened when he spoke of them.
Hadiza said, "My husband was something of an activist."
"What was his name?"
"The Tunisian rebel?"
Hadiza's gaze softened. "I like that you say 'rebel' like it's a rotten thing to be. I thought it was."
"I heard he died in incarceration."
"The police tortured him."
"Don't be. He deserved it."
They had to fling the windows open on the following day to abate the heat indoors. They were fanning themselves with folded newspapers and brandishing chill water that Hadiza said they really must not drink, but that they did drink, when a grasshopper flashed onto the pate of the piano and spread its suede wings.
"Will you look at that?" Hadiza cooed. She cradled the pliant grasshopper and placed it on her brown palm. She had removed the soggy extensions and wore a cross-patterned scarf Emmanuelle imagined had dangled from the tourist stalls in Bangkok or Karachi. "I used to have a brother," she said. "Sahir. He was more beautiful than our mother. His extreme beauty led him to sin."
Emmanuelle smiled. "What sin did he commit?"
"He loved another man, a much older man." Hadiza released the grasshopper. "I caught them once." In the glade behind her father's bungalow, amid bursts of tulips and persimmons. The intensity of their movements spurred midges into flight. The man pulled out, and his semen spattered Sahir's thighs. Their groans, from the distance at which she'd paled, were muted, a quivering along the leaves, and she had had to clench her teeth to hold her heart in. She spun, her feet cracking twigs, and stumbled home and told her father. Confusion seized her when he blamed Sahir for the intercourse and struck at him with a crusted machete that split his kneecap, when Sahir slung a backpack over his shoulder and never returned. Her quest for him brought her to Susah, with its smoke-blue air and its pleated minarets.
She traced Abdul, the fucker, to a sloped tenement, boats taut with maize and sardines colliding behind it, greasy egrets basking on its charred lawns. An old lady guided her in, explaining that Abdul required bed rest. Poised at the core of the windowless living room, she pointed to a rumpled heap and said, "There's your lecher."
"Where's Sahir?" Hadiza loosened her scarf and gazed into the dim, made out a prayer mat and a pair of plastic kettles arranged by size on a rack shortened with its decay.
She swung on Abdul. "Where's my brother?"
He coughed and muttered that he did not know. Her voice wobbled before she was able to ask him what was meant by his ignorance. When it steadied, she asked about the illness that had reduced him to a sack cloth. He curled into a sob. "Blood disease," said the old lady. "He has two months." She showed Hadiza the sores, the fungi-ridden chinks in his teeth, and said that he liked to drink milk. She looked at Hadiza's purse. Hadiza dropped some change and took the ferry to Tunis.
At night, while echoes of the city's wheezing ruffled the sea, her forehead settled on the fogged glass and she flashed on Sahir's face, on his irises that became a confused brown when he entered sunlight. For once in seven years, she was sure she'd erred in relating the episode to her father.
"The house is steeped in a summery glow on my arrival. I meet my father in the library and tell him that the city has taken Sahir. He flips a cigarette, inhales the fumes and says, Sahir, Sahir who? And he laughs."
"What did you do?"
She had stood, her chest cold, her heels caked with dust, on the hearth that smelled of centuries-old manuscripts. They had studied each other before she flounced to the other side of the desk, gripped his collar, and slammed the ashtray in his face. He rumbled from his seat, bracing her for support, and shuffled to his room, the sanctity of which no one but he and her mother had breached. There he plunged into an eternal sleep.
Hadiza nodded. "Just like that."
After his burial she went into the sacred room, folded the curtains, and wavered at the center of his sooty treasures: spavined brass lanterns and wood sculpting from Hyderabad; novels by Khalil Gibran and Naguib Mahfouz, their spines pristine; golf balls and stacked copies of TIME; cassettes embossed with the name Sayyid Darwish. She extracted her mother's talcum powder and jade bracelets. Her fingers nudged a glossy ridge that she flipped—a Polaroid of the baby Sahir, floppy in her father's embrace.
At the oddest moments, she wondered where he might be. She thought she saw him in the construction sites, in the horde of polio-whittled beggars who swamped traffic during her trips from the derelict primary school she supervised before her marriage. When she read about the young men who'd been tied to a Caterpillar and dragged along tar until their joints came off because they were found fondling each other, her pelvis contracted and she covered her ears and struggled not to refute the obituary.
"Which key," said Emmanuelle, "expresses your sense of loss best?"
Hadiza set her glass of water aside and prodded G sharp in the second octave.
"Always," she said. She was shivering.
A snail inched along the ledge. Evening had dropped in acrylic strokes. Alternate winds melded in the backyard, where a fence of junipers heaved.
"Where did you learn to play the piano so well?"
"In Fiji. I met my husband in Fiji."
"Mm—hmm." Emmanuelle wriggled a brow. "Swept you right off your feet, didn't he?"
Hadiza gave her saucer eyes. "I wouldn't put it that way."
Their courtship began at a grocery store in Suva. He'd upset her cart and stooped to retrieve the wares. She waved: "No, no." and stooped, too, so that their heads bumped. His smile knotted a vein over her heart.
"I'm Mark." He lacked a middle finger. She noticed its absence while they glided to the counter.
"The Carthage Festival holds about now."
He said, "Honest to God, home is like nowhere else."
She almost said that if they were back home they would not be having a conversation, that she would be seated in a dingy kitchen, rinsing herbs, that her casual attire and uncovered hair tested the conventions her father had upheld. They tracked across greenery, and she contained a familiar rage with the men who jogged, chest bare, across the pitch.
He paused at the beginning of a dozen riotous temples. "Surely," he said, "two Tunisians meeting in Fiji is more than coincidence."
He uncapped a pack of cigarettes, and she withdrew a stick. He lit it for her; she watched him light it and guessed at how many young Indian women lining the shadier streets accompanied him home each night. Most men who left were escapists and would return shrouded in white linen, dead.
"Thank you for assuming I smoked," she said, and he bowed and said, "You're welcome. We should go out sometime." She leaned her head back and laughed, but by the next night, he'd rowed her through waves of pleasure that rendered her catatonic, and when she said she hated children and suspected all religions, he knelt on the mattress and asked her to marry him.
The real trouble did not surface until they had moved into a bungalow near the University of the South Pacific and he began to stain their walls with the theories of his western education. "What Tunisians need," he would mutter of an evening, "is Ben Ali's severed head."
"How can you know what Tunisians need?" she would whisper, and he would spit and snarl.
"The African press has shut its eyes. May democracy devour us."
She'd perceived democracy to be gentle, formless, like a breeze or a bout of cough. His bold speeches roused in her a trace of betrayal and the urge to guard her interests, a duty she must have botched since his extremism seeped into the press and tore him from her willing embrace and nailed him to a cross. A relative who patrolled the prisons told her he passed away in a pool of his feces; that the soldiers cut him after he'd stopped breathing and branded his corpse with cigarettes to ease their boredom, and that they might come for her.
"Where did you go?"
"I had some connections in the United States." She'd zipped her luggage and stacked her travel documents when the fall of the Twin Towers restored humanity to its first form. "I could not go." Her cousin, a dentist in Florida, had told her of the teenagers that smashed their windows using Molotov cocktails, screaming, "No crazies allowed in America. Go, bitch, go!" and so she fled to New York, where the hatred was subdued, respectable, but the paranoia murderous, and she kept her head down, took a job mopping hallways, hoping no one would call her out on her identity.
"Try explaining to Europe—let alone to America—that Tunisia is an African republic. She wasn't even religious."
"Has she contacted you since?"
"She called me last Christmas. A Swedish widower had taken her in. They live in Brentwood."
"Have you tried visiting?"
"Not yet, but I will soon."
"So you came to London."
"Scotland. Saint Andrews, to be precise."
Her idea of Scotland, with its grey towers and brick skies, as forlorn, would change when she met Johannes, a Slavic art dealer who accosted her at the bus stop where she passed the nights and offered her shelter in a town house at the end of the tangled streets, in a region gripped by domesticity. In his pink-fleshed cuddle, she would be acquainted with the vivid loneliness of great painters: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Rodin, Gauguin and Braque, and would sift Asiatic influences on modern architecture from a plaid shelled album.
Johannes limited his zeal to fine arts, a less dangerous topic than politics. Stretched on an elastic rest in the patio, counting the wheat strands that had succumbed to sparkling streams, she decided their marriage would be bountiful. She was ready. She had painted fantasies, paying no mind to their psychotic gleam, when his children—twin girls—flew home for Easter and shredded the canvas. "You never told me you had children," she hissed, having yanked him into the kitchen and shut the door.
"No worries, darling," he drawled. "They're lovely."
The next day she was gone.
"I beg your pardon?"
"The fear of having children." Emmanuelle sneered.
"Since you've broached the subject of fear," Hadiza said, "why not tell me your birth name, the name you had before these foreigners welcomed you?"
"What does it mean?"
"God is wonderful."
"Indeed," said Hadiza. Her smile was flat.
Hadiza caressed the piano top. Flesh sagged under her eyes.
"What are the keys made of?"
Emmanuelle surveyed the keyboard, which was like a mammoth spine and whiter than vellum.
She sighed. "Ivory?"
"An educated guess. You're correct."
"You should get some sleep."
"No. Play me a tune."
"Can you be specific?"
"Any one that displays a level of coordination will do."
Emmanuelle put her palms to the ridges.
Hadiza nudged her elbows "Arc them a little further." She gauged the symmetry. "Go ahead."
The hall lessened, and a few notes blossomed, their petals colliding.
Hadiza raised a hand.
"Don't try to impress me. Go again."
Emmanuelle's fingers traipsed up the spine. She pressed B—C—D—F, paused, pressed E, pressed C—D. Three times. Inhaled. B—C—B—A—G—G. She felt her fingers had dispersed, but they repeated B—A—G—F—E—D before tripping off the board.
"A friend of mine has a daughter to be wedded at the weekend," Hadiza said. "You're invited."
The gathering—a perfumed Styx of pink, orange, and turquoise turbans—chatted under clipped clouds. Lutes wailed tremulously. Fire jerked before the bride, whose slanted nose and rosebud lips might have inspired a Nazarene if she lived centuries ago. Aunties, chirruping, referred to her as Sonja, but the youth called her Sonny. The jewels embedded in her sari cast prisms on nearby motions against stretched necks. Before she stood, her veil tethered to the groom's sash, and circled Agni, the hallowed fire, Hadiza remarked on the influx of foreigners to the United Kingdom. "I can hardly turn a corner and not collide with Chinese students or a Qatari businessman waddling on the curb, awaiting his chauffeur. It's exhausting."
Emmanuelle gaped at her. "You're hardly British."
Hadiza spluttered: "That's unfair," and was silent until the couple finished circling the fire and Emmanuelle asked her whether she'd ever return to Tunisia.
"You know my answer," Hadiza said, and as if the marquee were a miniature Tunisia, she spun and fled from it.
Emmanuelle skipped after her. Behind them, the marquee sprang with cheers. A guest had stumbled out, hugged the trunk of a mangrove, and retched spume on a beat. A sitar glittered at his feet; Hadiza snorted at the sight of it. "These Ravi Shankar imitators," she said in her witch voice.
Emmanuelle frowned, as much as to ask, "Ravi who?"
They'd strolled far enough from the merriment to be enveloped in an Edenic garden and neared the pond that fluted from it, watched a profusion of geese glide along its margin, their feathers knurled.
The geese moved without a sound.
"Over there," Hadiza said. She pointed to the gold dome of the London Central Mosque, notched at its bottom by the fir trees behind the pond.
Emmanuelle nodded. "It's grand. Have you been in it?"
Hadiza said, "I've seen much and felt nothing. The tales I told you might have happened to someone else, but with the relevant scents. I'd hate to see you live a similar life." She said, "Chiamaka, go somewhere calm, rest among your people. Go home."
"But how—" Emmanuelle began.
Hadiza laughed. "London can be addictive. Return to it if you must."
A goose honked, and the flock honked along, then quieted.
Emmanuelle started at a rhythm, piercing in spite of their seclusion. Solemn notes jangled onto a chord.
"Oh, it's just the piano," Hadiza said.
"You hear it, too?"
"Of course. We're one with it now."
A plume had come undone, and the dry half of it shuddered in counterpoint to the rhythm. The other half, submerged, had turned brown.