River Spirit

Leila Aboulela

March 9, 2023 
The following is from Leila Aboulela's River Spirit. Aboulela is the first-ever winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Nominated three times for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), she is the author of numerous novels, including The Kindness of Enemies, The Translator, Minaret and Lyrics Alley, which was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages. She grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, and now lives in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The river was her language. Eleven-year-old Akuany stood in the shallow, humming Nile, listening to what the water was saying, believing. Reeds moved in the breeze. The river smelled of fish; its surface was silk. Akuany pressed her feet in the sticky mud, looked down at the shifting cloth that covered her hips. The raised tribal decorations on her stomach were now in the water. She bent her knees, and her breasts became wet. They were uncomfortable these days, the areoles soft and stretched. Older boys pinched them and laughed even though it pained her. Women looked at her with sympathy. Motherless child, her toddler brother, Bol, perched on her hip. They thought her mature for her age, but here in the water she was carefree, teasing the fish because they were too slippery to catch. The river was a place to draw water and wash, to fish and set sail, and for her it was more, the spirit of who she was. The place that kept her safe when they raided the village.

On the bank she could see Yaseen, the young merchant from Khartoum, her father’s guest, sitting reading. Bol was squatting near him, reaching to clasp his ebony prayer beads. A wisp of smoke rose over the village, more than a wisp. She saw it, but it did not alarm her at first. Hitting her palms against the water, she could hear Bol babbling, the merchant saying something to him in return. The woman who was washing her clothes admonished her daughter. None of them heard the horses neighing, the huts catching fire, the screams of those who were speared and those who were shackled to be driven away to the slave markets farther north.

When the woman washing the clothes turned and saw the smoke, she cried out. She ran up the bank, anxious about her younger children, hurling herself toward danger. Yaseen, the merchant, called out to her, but she didn’t listen, and her daughter went with her too. Akuany and her brother stayed with Yaseen. He understood the meaning of the smoke. The three of them waited for hours. Akuany’s skin dried, and she held Bol on her lap. At first, she was soothed by the songs of the river. Then she felt hungry and Yaseen had no food. Her brother whined and Yaseen told him to be quiet. “Go to sleep, both of you,” he said. And they did. They curled up next to him and fell asleep with their stomachs rumbling.

Akuany had always liked Yaseen. He came from Khartoum to buy gum from her father, carrying back the balls in large baskets hitched to his camels. He came once a year after the rains stopped and the roads dried. When he was younger, he used to come with his father, but Akuany had only shadowy memories of the older man. Yaseen brought sweets for Akuany, and because he smiled and had a nice way of talking, their home would change in his presence. It would feel like feast days even though it wasn’t. Yaseen usually stayed with them a week but to Akuany it always felt longer. There was the excitement of preparing for his arrival. For days her father would pick or tap gum from the acacia trees that grew wild. How beautiful the gum looked, glistening in the sun! She had tasted it once and it got stuck to her teeth. There would be a special welcoming meal for the Khartoum merchant, which, now that her mother was gone, was cooked by the neighbors with the millet flour and vegetables brought by her father. After Yaseen finished eating, he would look up, his fingers still sticky with food and say, “Akuany will take me to the river.” He said it as if he could not go there on his own, as if he had forgotten the way. She would lead him, charged with pride. When she was younger, she chatted all the way. This time though she had been uncharacteristically shy. He did not go into the water with her. He never did. He would sit with a toothpick in his mouth or his prayer beads or book, the folio pages held between hard covers, which he was careful not to smudge with water or mud. He would gaze at the water or if it was late afternoon up at the sky, and often Akuany, playing in the water, would forget his presence.

Fearful, they spent the whole night at the river. The merchant kept saying, “Some of the raiders might still be there. They’ll take us too.” Then he would sigh and say, “Oh the loss.” Then he would pray. On the morning of the following day, he went back on his own. He was not gone long, but Bol would not stop crying. When Yaseen came back, he looked like he had been crying, too, but he had food with him. Sesame seeds, a bruised mango, and dried bread that the children gobbled while he sat away from them with his face in his hands. He told her not to go back with him to the village, and when she insisted, he said she must close her eyes. “Don’t look, don’t look, Akuany.” But she did look and saw things broken, upside down, distorted and in their distortions lopsided and looming up at her. Homes burnt to ashes, beddings and utensils smashed, livestock vanished. Healing powder knocked out of a horn, cracked mortar, grains of millet scattered on the ground. The elderly roamed like ghosts in the remaining smoke. The disabled and ill tossed aside. Not a single beautiful white cow to be found. All the vitality gone or going, for it was not safe to remain in such a vulnerable spot. The raiders might come back for the remaining able-bodied. She choked on the smoke, gulped fire; tears ran down her face. Yaseen kept saying, “Close your eyes, don’t look!” She closed them and still saw horrors, could not keep them closed. Opened them to see the worst thing of all. In the epicenter of the devastation was her father, splayed flat in front of their hut, speared to death.

Yaseen buried their father and took charge. Akuany and Bol were his responsibility now. He would take them back with him to Khartoum. A month ago—a week ago—such a prospect would have filled her with adventurous delight. To be with him on a journey, to be taken to his home, which must be grander than hers. His city, which was bigger. To be with his family eating the same food. A day ago, she might have been beaming, but now she could hardly understand what he was saying. His voice, his orders, reached her from a faraway place, his face close to hers repeating her name. “You must stop crying and look after your brother. We must pack what we can and get out of here!” Where is this, where is that? In one surreal moment he found her mother’s jewelry and pushed bracelets up her arms and around her ankles, strung beads around her neck. She would sink and he would yank her back. She would drift, and he would pull. She would drown if he lost his grip.


Excerpted from River Spirit © 2023 by Leila Aboulela. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

More Story
Woman born in library celebrates 94th by returning to the stacks whence she came. "I like to think I sprang from a head," Patricia Lockwood once wrote, "I like to think the head was mine." We cannot all come...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.