A peculiar calm prevailed over the atmosphere. We had just performed janaza prayers for the dead woman. Hemmed in by a half-circle of relatives, her mother alternated between moments of madness when she banged convulsive fists on the cold cement floor or tore at her hair and eerie episodes when she merely stared on stone-like. Expecting and dreading it, she would remain to witness this last journey. Hassan, father to Leila and husband to Alima, stood beside the main entrance to the house sobbing like a forsaken baby. I moved about shaking hands, saying his “thanks for coming” and receiving consolatory hugs. Later that evening, I kept company with Leila while most men headed for the cemetery, some kilometres away. Processions unnerved me and Hassan had insisted on going.
Leaving Leila, I drew farther from the crowd; the widower’s misery a noose around my neck. “Breathe Abu, breathe” came the caution to failing lungs. “What reason can you call to account for such melancholy?” How I yearned to wipe those tears of his face, to envelop the weak frame in an embrace and murmur; “I am here for you.”
I cannot really explain the strange pull that forced me into Hassan’s world. All I know is happiness was being by his side. You know that strange feeling you get when somebody you are fated to is close by but you haven’t seen him yet? The nervous tingling that makes the hairs at the nape of your neck itch? That’s what it felt like with him.
He was not so striking a man. There’s the matter of a rather massive head balancing most precariously on the thinnest, longest neck imaginable. He wore glasses…small, round black-rimmed ones that swallow a little of your beauty and replace it with a nerdy look. He was short, had a massive nose, was bald as a Buddhist monk and had eyes fixed so far apart, they gave an impression of fleeing towards the opposite ends of his wide face. His bow legs were somewhat shorter than normal and deeply browned. Regular feet were always housed inside regular palm slippers.
“Be quiet. Do you hear that? Quick, check while I hide these papers.”
“How do you know it is Amina? I know you are sick of her interruptions but for goodness sake, stop tapping the table so hard and go.”
“Your aversion is becoming quite worrisome as well. The editor was most insistent that every detail be put down.”
“Including hers. There is money involved.”
“You don’t think I should? Last week, you said she was perfect story material.”
“God have mercy. Where are you off to in such anger? It must be the green tea. Always puts you in a rage. Patience, my dear. I promise we get to the good part soon.”
On the day our paths crossed for the first time, sun rays and dust particles attacked with unwavering, unforgiving fury. Outside, surviving yellowish- green leaves attached to browned branches swayed gently to the suffocating breeze. Boredom had chased me from my room and qadr– destiny was about to bring us together.
I was tired after a morning spent fighting burnt debris off the windows of my boys-quarters apartment. The reason I had undertaken this insanity considering how vicious my nosebleeds could get was, as the first streaks of dawn tore through the sky and upon flattening my face across the glass pane hoping to catch a glimpse of my neighbour lacing his sneakers in preparation for a customary jog, I could only see debris. I hadn’t quite worked up the courage to initiate a friendship and now, I was just irritable.
My brain registered the details of the stranger’s frame. That he was lost was a given. As I set in motion a procedure for ordering visual apparatus to explore more cheerful views, his full lips straightened into a grin and an arm was raised in salute. It was one of those quirky, everyday smiles; the ones that say “I’m nervous, save me.” I remember thinking the green backpack hanging loose from his left shoulder would look really good on me. His eyelids contracted to build a partial cover over sapphire pupils as waves of happiness coursed through my veins. I remained rooted to the spot and shuddered when my heart suffered a tightening twitch. It was time to acknowledge his greeting yet, I kept gawking.
Like black clouds pregnant with rain drops, we drifted closer to each other, and he asked a question; the direction to a mosque, I think. Feeling light-headed, I tagged along although, I don’t quite remember my reply nor being invited; so strong was this strange pull on me. My atheism still in its first bloom, it was the first time in months that I stepped into a masjid.
The brothers made no effort to hide their surprise at seeing brother Abubakar who Shaitan led astray return. I forgot to make ablution but when Hassan raised his palms above his shoulders and proclaimed; “Allah is the greatest,” I lifted my unbelieving, unwashed hands and repeated the words. While we stood straight, eyes peeled to the floor, Hassan recited the verses; “In The Name of Allah, Most gracious, Most merciful…” I contemplated how it would feel to run my rough fingers through his soft-looking beard; so black and curly.
“Allah is the greatest” and we bowed keeping our backs straight. “It must be heavenly to have such fairish skin” I thought, giggling inside while smoothing creases on my trousers. A cursory inspection of my nails confirmed what I already feared; they were long, uneven and dirty. I sniffed both armpits and recoiled from the discouraging odour. “Why did I not bath and wear something nice today of all days?
“Allah is the greatest” came the call ordering us to touch our foreheads to the carpeted floor. “I wonder if he has a girlfriend. Surely, he does not indulge in alcohol so why the pot-belly?”
In time came the final salutations; “Peace be upon you” to the left and right. I had spent all that time fantasizing over him.
We became fast friends. “We will be together in paradise, Abu” was his favourite phrase. He spoke to me a great deal about his childhood spent hidden in a madrasa– an establishment of learning ruled by whip-wielding teachers who enforced memorization of the Qur’an. I watched him become animated as he spoke about anything and everything. He was unconscious of a tightened grip around my slender fingers while he went on with his speech, telling me of Iman– faith and Ihsan– perfection and Fiqh– jurisprudence and Tawhid– monotheism. Perhaps, he sniffed out my disbelief and like all mullahs, became eager to turn me around. My throat went dry and I could only manage a slight nod.
“Insha’Allah” I said in a broken voice.
Quite a pity Sonia is absent today. It is such a beautiful morning. The rain last night has made my garden, a vision to behold. The sand smells of my carefree childhood, chrysanthemums are ablaze in the sun and strange birds won’t stop singing.
I miss her. Those rough fingers with perfectly trimmed nails, perusing page after page. Numbering and editing, pointing out the smallest errors.
The way she places her elbow on the desk and rests her face inside closed palms. The long gowns caressing the floor like an altar-bound shy maiden. Her empty seat torments me. Worse still, Amina may suggest taking her place.
I should kiss her but I am not certain. I think she likes me. Why else would anyone agree to spend hours working at a manuscript for a wannabe author?
I will kiss her. It is settled.
No, I will not. My palms feel so itchy.
When next we see, I shall know.
What if she kissed me? What would those full lips taste like? Her tongue encircling mine; fighting to receive as much as is given. She is strong as a mule, that one. We could have an affair. How delightful and shocking.
One minute while I play besotted husband. I have lived in such insanity for so long; I begin to think myself truly mad.
“The drafts? Still not ready, dearest. Your critique will be most welcome when I’m done but for the present, I need be alone. By Allah, whenever you are close, all I can do is gaze at your beauty and marvel at my luck. No wonder this manuscript remains unfinished.”
“Bah, silver tongued devil” she says, beaming with joy.
I’m not one to tarry but, this woman is punishment for some sin for which, I must have forgotten to seek forgiveness.
Hassan was soon appointed deputy Imam by the shura– election body. I stood at the front row whenever he led prayers, baritone voice resonating from the pulpit one or two times every day. Weekends he spent, doing house to house dawah– giving fiery sermons against boko-haram and encouraging guardians to send their wards to school. He’d have rice and chicken at these homes- most people went out of their way to make mallam happy. His schedule was simple; sleep, prayer, eat and more prayer. He kept a beard, put on trousers which never extended below his ankles and talked to everybody with khushoo– shyness and tranquillity.
He learnt to ditch cap and above the ankle trousers during our outings. When we were without money for cinema, we had film nights after night prayers- often sitcoms, using bowls of street popcorn and Coca-Cola as snacks. He had a very healthy laughter which exploded from deep within his larynx and away through the mouth making him jerk uncontrollably to and fro. He’d wrap his right arm around my shoulder or grip my knee trying to draw me into his amusement at something funny on-screen. What anxieties I lived through!
Gentle steps on the staircase. I’m soon to feast on home-made cookies.
“Do you know that Hassan encouraged us to wed? He was our go-between, practically dumping her on me when she made a move on him.”
“I have someone else in mind” he said. “Amina is good-looking, homely, and humble. She has no other interests in life besides a husband and children of her own.”
“I suspect people started talking to him about us. Remember Yusuf, the one with the cleft palate; a chronic do-gooder, always praying and fasting away his “problems?” Did he not tell you I was different and did you not believe him?”
“Why deny the truth? Remember how you suddenly had so much work to do whenever I wanted to visit? Positively rude you were. Such horrible business too, with everyone avoiding me like a plague. The peculiar thing about sadness is that it gives you no time to do things that can release you from its hold. You think more and more about your deplorable state which only drags you deeper into depression.”
“I loved him. Is that what you wish to hear, heartless child? Shall I be judged even after everything you now know? Yes you do, lonely creature. You are far worse than me unfortunate friend, for I have loved and a soul that has not, is not alive.”
“You think I too have not….” She stops suddenly, hands over her mouth, dragging the words back in, as if by sheer force of will. Whatever she planned to say, I would never know. Every few seconds I catch her eye. There’s anger, shame and something else within. I am not sure I want to find out.
“Amina and I have had a somewhat happy life save her desire to ever be reminded of my affection. The true battle is at night; “You have to move like this, darling. I will have more pleasure if we do it that way. I might even…”
“Allah forbids Abu. Behind? You are my husband but what you suggest is haram.” Impatient to end each session, I shut my eyes and summoned Hassan’s image. In such treachery, I did spend many nights with this unsuspecting woman.”
“Oh dear, where are my meds? I should tell you of the sore-throat which drove Hassan into the waiting, willing arms of Alima.”
Hassan’s lover; tall as a Russian model and graceful as an Arabian princess. The goddess who bumped into his world undoing months of bliss. She was perfection. Even Abu, who does not fancy the delicacy of women… yes, I can say that with conviction.
Immaculate. Picturesque. Beautiful. Dainty. Young.
Whenever she smiled, her dazzling white teeth with its beauty gap lit up the world. My once feathery blue, romance-laden sky, she transformed into a dull brown scourge of lonesomeness. Everybody loved her. I suspect they liked Hassan even more because of her. Nobody ever seemed to notice the slight limp on her left leg or its one extra toe.
In the clinic where she worked as a nursing assistant, patients could not have too much of her. Complaints of their many imaginary illnesses met an attentive ear. She laughed when spindle-legged, dirty children with runny noses and swollen bellies came running into reception. They fought to sit on her laps not caring for the uniform and devoured the sweets she offered, scurrying off before they were hailed in for check-ups.
The morning was foggier than usual. We languished on my living-room settee, clad in sweaters and socks watching a repeat wrestling match on television. Hassan’s ailment had plagued him for almost one week. When he inhaled, it sounded like a fuel- starved truck moving up a steep hill.
“Why don’t you go to the clinic?” I asked for the umpteenth time, bored and dozing off. The contender was about to deliver a flying kick that would win him the WWE title. “Anything they give you would be better than drinking warm water and salt.” Hassan obliged. He went later that evening. He returned with lozenges and a lost heart.
On the seventh day of January last year, he told me he was getting her an engagement ring. Mentioned it in the most casual terms armed with his trademark smirk. He was here in my house he claimed, to consult Amina on the type to buy.
How dare he do this to me without warning?
I shrugged off a jab of pain and conjured my killer smile, baring all teeth. “Finally taking the step brother? I am delighted. Allah bless you both.”
I felt prickly sweat below my epidermis. My body itched in one thousand different places and I was certain my face crimsoned.
“Rather fast though” I ventured to add squeezing all the fingers of my left hand with the right.
Amina seemed amazed. “Abu she is a catch and he is perfect.” In a way I pitied her. She still wasn’t over her obsession.
“Alhamdulillah” was my reply.
Like a hungry pig in a sty, I shadowed them. She had introduced him to social media by that time. I recalled the many occasions I tried to get Hassan to open a Facebook account. His reply, always: “Whatever for Abu?”
Never was there any sign of a quarrel or break-up in their posts. Her photos and status updates spoke simply of passion and luck and contentment to my disdain. I wept alone lots of times. Every second, I spent wishing a protracted illness upon my rival.
A short courtship followed. Before long, invitation cards for the marriage ceremony of Alima to Hassan were distributed. I persuaded myself something might still happen. I could bare my mind to Hassan and make him choose. An unsettled suspicion that his choice would not be in my favour delayed this occurrence.
I gathered my courage days to the big day; helped in part by a modest drug overdose. It was to be the turning point of my adult life; a confession once unfrozen, never to be forgotten.
I spoke to my hero of a concealed love and to my surprise, Hassan did not react with outrage. He hugged me close and brushed the tears which streamed down my shamed face. I rubbed his’ off with the back of my palm and managed a shy smile.
“Bu, I will marry Alima” were his words; using a name he called me only while we were alone. To my hungry ears and wounded heart, it seemed he said other things I longed to hear; “I’d rather have you.”
“You will come?” A statement more than a question.
My nod was barely perceptible. In those moments, I struggled against a particularly intense wish to shout. This must be how heartbreak feels.
“I won’t miss it Alfa” I replied, with my own nickname for him. We laughed awkwardly and somehow without thinking or even planning it, our lips touched. My palms cradled his face while his clutched my shoulders. The finger marks would be visible on my skin when I take off my jersey-turned-T-shirt later that evening. His taste was salty and our kiss long, broken only because in the end, we both needed air.
It has been five months since her burial. Hassan left four months, three weeks and five days ago. It’s surprising how natural talking about him with friends has become. We laugh and I even throw in a few private jokes. The finer feelings of my heart lay shut up far away.
“As the moon, shining and shimmering in its orb takes over duty from our sun.”
“When daughter and wife retire for the day and my house goes still.”
I pull aside huge curtains and peer at the scintillating stars. My thoughts are of Hassan; beautiful reveries of what different turns our lives could take in an emancipated world. Too soon, my knees grumble and I seek the bed turning away from the back of my wife; the poor woman having given up on unimpressive appalling lovemaking, now comforts herself with sleep all nights while I battle insomnia.
Fatima Okhuosami is a Nigerian Pharmacist and freelance writer. Her works appear online and in print at Everyday Fiction, 101words.org, Third Word Press, Connotation Press, Creative Diadem, Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, CFwriterz Magazine, Cuento Magazine amongst many others. She loves writing almost as much as she loves good food.
This entry appeared in The Limits Issue