This year, Guernica celebrates its 10th anniversary as a free, online magazine of art & politics! As we prepare to launch into our second decade, we hope you'll consider making an end-of-year donation. Reader, you make this work possible.

Skip to Content

Share

The Widow

By
November 1, 2013

Their dhotis and turbans clung; wet cloth slapped against skin. The ground dissolved. The air filled with disease.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/guernica-amulet-e1383150308115.jpg
Image from Flickr via Paul Stein

1.

The husband did not stop until he reached the ocean. Did not turn to wave at the woman he would widow.

On the farm outside Jamnagar they’d grown millet, but the drought hit, and then the famine.

The ocean was vast and burned his eyes, but the brightness boded well, he thought. In the dhow, with many other famished men, he did not eat for the first three days, trying to stretch his rotli and pickles all the way to Africa. It was terrible, being surrounded by water but parched inside.

At Mombasa, the colonial officer loaded them onto rail cars. All the way to Tsavo they sat in each other’s laps, breathing body stink and rotten breath and held-in urine.

At Mombasa, the colonial officer loaded them onto rail cars. All the way to Tsavo they sat in each other’s laps, breathing body stink and rotten breath and held-in urine.

He was not the first to cross. Maybe he knew he wouldn’t live to see the crush of others.

*                      *                     *

They passed coconut groves, then woods, then a desert wilderness called the nyika. From there the land changed often, but sometimes only the color of the dust. Every now and then a gunshot exploded from a railcar window. This distressed the men; they’d left purity behind.

There was no knowing what to expect, but after several weeks of stunted trees and searing sun, they did not expect the sky to open like a split skull and to be struck down. Pelting, unmerciful rain. The showers should have been lighter, should have stopped earlier, but they did not. Their tents refused to dry. Their dhotis and turbans clung; wet cloth slapped against skin. The ground dissolved. The air filled with disease.

They worked only eighteen days in November. The days of forced idleness they went without pay. Not a fishbolt secured, not a rail laid, not a sleeper put to the sodden ground. The husband had been put to work as a bhisti, and he just laughed: That someone thought he’d need to carry water! They couldn’t get rid of the stuff. He had nothing to do but sit and think of home. When he grew tired of this, he observed the natives: lean and thick, naked and adorned. But soon he bored of their blackness and yelping tongues. He’d never imagined a life where something did not always need attending.

In the stagnant puddles, like so much oozing bodily fluid, the mosquitoes flew thick and bred and bred.

When the rains ceased, suddenly, the sun glared down as if to punish them for their sloth. To point out the shoddy work performed in the previous month. Work that had to be undone and redone, now that the ground could hold steel. The earth baked and drained. The bhisti was busy now, but still he could not do his job. The men required ten thousand gallons of water a day, and where was he to find it? Some catchments remained, but the water was brown and thick and semi-solid. If he strained the sludge through his turban, a few drops could be carried back to his sahib.

Then the bhisti was put out of his misery. His remains were the most gruesome the sahib had ever seen.

They argued—the sahib, the officers, the men—over which man-eater had done it. Each side marshaled evidence. The teeth marks in the bhisti’s skull argued for Ghost, because of similar marks in the corpse dragged from the infirmary the previous week. But the sly way in which the bhisti was stalked and pounced upon and dragged away screaming was the trade of Darkness.

It did not matter, yet still they wanted to know. As if they could arm themselves with the sharp sticks and stones of dreams.

2.

A fierce red cord knotted the cloth that the widow wore around her neck like an amulet. She could have sold the teeth back in Jamnagar—they’d have fetched a good price—but they and the ring were all she had left of the husband she had known for just six months, who’d left without giving her a son. But at least his death had been courageous, which gave her strength. Pride. He’d fought back, she believed—she saw it in her mind’s eye. No man could wrestle a lion-demon and win.

The new husband had a weak chin and sparse brows and apprenticed to a clerk, an abstemious man with skin-saggy cheeks, perhaps the oldest man among their people.

She too arrived in Nairobi. Her two younger brothers had wanted to test themselves against the man-eaters, but the railroad was done. Its whistle woke the night and blew long throughout the day. Secretly, the brothers were relieved; they found work as errand boys. The widow cooked and kept house and in this way was alive.

Then her late husband’s cousin, who worked in a telegraph office near Kisimayo, claimed her as his own. Without hope, she left her brothers and built a new wattle and daub house not far from the first. The new husband had a weak chin and sparse brows and apprenticed to a clerk, an abstemious man with skin-saggy cheeks, perhaps the oldest man among their people. The widow bore a child, a daughter. Three sons followed, bringing great joy, and then four more daughters: heartache. The husband worked his columns late into the night and drew the wrath of his wife for using too many candles. There was electricity, but few could afford it. One day a fat water beast got stuck in the river flume that supplied the turbine, and the city was dark a whole week.

For a long time the new husband worked for the old man without a raise, not a single rupee. Then his brother came, to have his meals provided and his clothes washed, and he supplied a second income. But then the brother married and, one after another, children ran out of the wife’s womb. They were crowded. Two Kikuyus slept on pallets, and a Maasai who helped shop and cook lay at night under the thatch overhang outside the kitchen. In this way they scrimped along, waiting for the old clerk to die so the husband could become Owner & Senior Clerk. The younger brother was impatient and opened his own duka in the bazaar. But the clerk was determined to inherit; the old man’s business was quite a booming one—the Whites relied on him—and he couldn’t face giving up all the years he’d put in.

The clerk thought his wife, the widow, pleasingly quiet, even pretty in a wide, solid way, but she still wore the bhisti’s amulet. He knew it held the fangs of death, as did all who stopped at their door to borrow, buy, or sell. “Do you know what this is, mama?” his wife would say. “Our blood watered this soil.” And she thumped the ground with her bare heel.

But the amulet was a problem for the husband. He could not dishonor history, but neither could he let his wife boast of the lion who’d killed his predecessor! He was the living, the one who had rescued her. How his mother would have beaten him for allowing her to flaunt the spirit of his dead cousin under his nose. Their sons would lose faith if he couldn’t master their mother. And then he would have nothing. So he told his wife, knuckles hard on the wall near her head, that her desire for this thing attracted karma. It would weigh her down and she’d never achieve moksa. More, she’d drag him and their children down with her.

3.

Then the husband heard a neighbor talking. Talking about his wife. What what? The teeth were not all the amulet contained? Also the gold band from his cousin? The neighbors agreed: this was egregious. She should be thrown out of the house like a beggar. Set on fire.

That very night he demanded she throw it away. To the ends of the earth. But she pretended not to hear and went on mending the broom. As if to remind him of her fertile power, one of their son’s poked his dark head through the doorway just then—inquiring, bashful—and the father scolded him to get to bed.

“Wife!” he shouted again.

But still she went on weaving the reeds tight around the neck of the broom. She was a good worker. She cared well for their children on the little income he made. But she was too prideful. She threw her industriousness in his face. Look at her now, head bent to work—always working and never listening!

His ears hot, he stomped toward her and picked up the hard belan wiped clean of flour. “If you do not tear that off your chicken neck right now,” he said. He bared his teeth like an animal.

She looked up, the broom between her knees, and calmly said, “Husband, if it offends you so, why do you not remove it yourself?” She spoke in a low, scratchy voice, and a smile cracked her peasant face.

“Insolence!” He thwacked her hard on the arms and shins. She howled, and the sound carried satisfyingly through all the rooms, spilling into the red dust streets. Maybe even his boss would get word of his strength—give him a raise.

But under the clatter of his thoughts was a strange sound. The children dagger fighting with sticks. “Stop that! Off to bed!”

But there were no children. In the hall, he bumped into his brother’s wife, who quickly looked down and shuffled into a dark corner. He had thought her pretty and his brother lucky when they married, but she no longer shone with youth.

His brother was outside talking with the neighbors, like every day. Promising good deals, plus a clandestine beer, and sure enough the men’s wives sent their houseboys to buy pots and copper wire and soap from him. To join the men outside, the husband had to pass his wife, but he found his limbs were frozen. Adinath, he prayed, begging his feet to move, but they would not. He gripped the belan harder, as if to draw its hardness into himself, and stepped purposefully by. His bare foot brushed her sari. The belan dropped at her feet.

She did not stoop to pick it up. She said, “Adinath can not save you. Do you know how my first husband died?”

“Of course. Everyone knows. What do you take me for?” He had not meant to say all that but he was afraid of what she would say next.

But she was silent. Dropped her head to her work.

He shut the door behind him, and shivered.

The men on the mud steps crumbling down to the street nodded at him the same way they always had. He’d planned to brag about the beating, but instead he submitted to his brother’s tall tales and scored his fingernails deep into his palm. The hollering from the beating recurred between his ears.

“Did you hear about the man Smith who rode the tusk of an elephant all the way from Thika?” his brother said, looking slyly at the clerk. The other men snapped their fingers and leaned in.

Uneasy with the banter, the husband left the men, muttering work in the morning. The old clerk demanded he arrive early to review the accounts from the day before. Tomorrow, he vowed, he would broach the subject of his advancement. Time ticked. He worried some long-lost relative would arrived to care for the old clerk on his death bed and usurp him. But the old man was not sick, and the husband didn’t know how much longer he could carry on as an underling. Already his joints ached and his eyes were tight at the temples every morning, a sure sign of impending blindness. It shamed him that he couldn’t bring his sons into his business. That it was his wife who’d found their eldest a position with a safari outfit. The boy proudly reported long lists of what the Whites wanted: tinned meats, boots with thick soles, pith helmets, khaki knickers, and split skirts for the women so they could ride horses like men.

That night his wife injected into his dream a stripped carcass hanging from a tree.

4.

That night his wife injected into his dream a stripped carcass hanging from a tree.

In the morning, a deathly creaking swayed in his ears. His skin itched and his eyes watered. On his hands a rash of red bumps.

He knew what she had done. Her first husband was a lowly bhisti, not a mason or a lettered clerk like himself, but he’d died fighting a lion, and out of spite for her new husband’s cowardice, the widow had cast a spell. Mixed their own ancient curses with some foul African thing. He saw her talking secretly to the servants.

He found her sweeping: down on her hands and knees, reaching under their few pieces furniture, meticulously gathering dirt into piles that she swept onto a square of tin with movements brisk and competent. Her hair was plaited neatly down her back. Everything about her was respectable, if threadbare. Yet he knew she was sinister.

He gulped the tea and chomped the boiled egg she’d laid out for his breakfast and left for work as quickly as possible.

5.

The short rains arrived early that fall and the town flooded into one large bog. Whites in the Highlands breathed easy while the Asians stranded in town traipsed through the bazaar as if through quicksand. Malaria seeped through the air. Cleaning clothes was useless with no sun to dry them. Many began to despair. They thought of joining their cousin-brothers further along the rail line, Fort Smith or Naivasha. There the wet was balanced with dry and business was good because the game clumped thick as day-old dal. The Whites liked Asians over the natives, who could not communicate, who did not understand currency. Give them a few rupees and the men affixed them to the bead strands passing through the gaping holes in their ears.

In town, many died. The new husband’s youngest daughter caught a fever and within a few days had thinned to bones. Her sweet face lost luster. Despite his wife’s sleepless nights, the cold cloths, she failed, and the next day they burned her body.

Then the wife was felled. Kept to her bed from sunup to sundown. At first the husband chided her—no amount of mourning would bring their daughter back. “Just a girl! Life must go on!” But his wife’s stomach and bowels emptied and she sweated through her bedclothes. Her remaining daughters brought tea and fingerfuls of rice. Suddenly the husband realized: his strength was tied to her. Without her, his own flame would snuff in an instant.

At night, he squeezed near her on the floor, unsleeping, willing her yellow eyes to whiten; trying to ease the rumblings in her throat and chest with his own frail and troubled spirit.

One night during her pitiful cries of thirst, he cradled a cup of water to her mouth. Placed a moistened cloth between her purple lips. Her teeth glistened in the dark, and her fingers wrapped—gratefully, he thought—around his arm, her grasp hard as she finally fell into a deep sleep. One or two of her nails, he saw, were sharpened at the tips, as if she filed them on the millstone, and their grip had scratched his skin.

Gleefully he leapt off the bed, sucked the blood etched inside his forearm.

Then his gaze fell on the amulet. Time ticked. Time was short. Without shifting his arm on which her hand rested, his reached with his other hand for the cloth she’d defied and weakened him with all these years. All these years he’d provided. He was not afraid of black magic. Servants were not clever enough to harm him.

The cloth was damp with sweat. The sharp teeth pulsed in his fingertips. His hand closed and with a swift tug the thread gave way like a ripe berry picked from the vine.

Gleefully he leapt off the bed, sucked the blood etched inside his forearm.

In the kitchen, his pencil-thin nimble fingers unwrapped the cord that cinched the packet. Out tumbled a collection of pointed stones.

6.

Her fever broke the next night, and she awoke in the morning without complaint. The children clung to her fresh sari and tracked at her heels all day. The oldest son kissed his mother on her dry cheek and gave her a canvas water carrier, courtesy of the safari supply. As she leaned over her husband to pour his tea and serve his breakfast, he noticed a soft bump under her dupatta, close to her collar bone. Other than the clink of pots, she made no sound, as if she walked on fur-softened feet.

7.

Soon after the recovery of the widow—this is how the clerk now thought of her, not as his wife—he began to mislay his accounts. Every time he added the same column of numbers the sum was different. Over and over, he counted until he dizzied with fatigue. He stayed late to correct his mistakes. The old clerk said a nephew in Kampala would soon come to caretake him in his old age.

Walking home, the neighbors whispered loudly about his sallow skin and his clumsiness. The long pink scars that ran the lengths of his arms and neck.

As he lay in bed, the widow patted his cheek and urged him to spend afternoons playing cards with his sons. He found he desired her touch, the fingers she used to rub his temples, her arms supporting his elbows when he crossed the room.

One by one, he said goodbye to his children. At night he dreamed of rain and opened his mouth to receive the wet, warm and nourishing as blood.

G

Author Image

Jennifer Acker Shah is Editor-in-Chief of The Common. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her short stories have been published in journals such as n+1, Ascent, Dogwood, and Sonora Review. Translations and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Ploughshares, The Millions, and The New Inquiry. She teaches literature, creative writing, and editing at Amherst College and NYU Abu Dhabi, and she is completing a novel called The Limits of the World.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting