When Aisha was younger her father used to take her out to sea.
Her mother had been beset with pains and, Aisha suspected, rather sick with the sight of her, so her father, bereft of sons, would heave Aisha up onto his shoulders and leap onto the boat.
Pay attention, he said, guiding her hands into the stomach of a red-edged changu. Feathered filaments torn, raggedly inflating within blood-speckled gills. Ali laughing a bright summer laugh, crooking his finger in the tuck, hooking from the inside. His little finger gleaming and wriggling like a worm.
He had looked into her face and what he saw there stopped his smile, his mirth fading. She would remember this ever after, sensing that she had failed not just at a task, but at possessing some important instinct. That she had both disappointed her father and yet done no more than expected the first time. It was not unforgivable. There were lessons here.
Ali snatched the struggling fish up by the tail and motioned to the sea with it bristling in his fist. The command need not be spoken this time but she heard it all the same. Pay attention, Aisha.
He flung the mutilated thing over the side, and just as the cold cord of its guts began to cloud the water pink, a black fin cleaved the wave, quick as a scythe, and vanished. A light white froth, milky as boiling rice, bubbled up in a fizz before it too dissolved.
Pay attention, Aisha. Everyone must have their share.
Aisha guts the fish her father brings, scales glittering under the saw of the old blade. The dull side scrapes, the sharp slant angled toward her body. They fly off the fish, these scales, like sparks off a whetstone. They stick to the dark skin of her arms, glitter hotly on her neck and cheek.
She makes the cleanest line, carving tail to jaw, pulling out guts with quick tugs and rinsing out the hollow in murky water. By the end of it the fish are clean and Aisha is not.
The cat in the alley curls its tail around the leg of a chair but scrambles away when it is approached. Aisha pauses, and puts out the chipped plate in the shadow of the flat. Days and days, she would watch as a child, waiting for the cat to approach—but it never comes when it is watched. Aisha had learned how to leave. In the morning the plate is clean, a lumpy swarth of ants scattered around the rim, collecting.
In the morning she sees that the offering has been accepted.
At market, Hassan fumbles when he gives her the egg tray. Everyone talks of his entrepreneurial spirit as if he is destined for wealth, but he moves as humbly as a beggar and rarely meets Aisha’s eye when she does business with him. The boy likes you, Hababa observed, knowledge grave as though it were from the mouth of a witch who read portents.
Aisha wished Hababa had not said it. The knowledge of it annoyed her.
But that is why Omar, Amina’s son, has his uses. Too young to go in anyone’s place alone, he accompanies her, six and grumbling, glowering at other men. He folds his arms and pronounces each character of the alphabet in Arabic and then in English, like a little minister berating the congregation.
Ibrahim, the Zanzibari merchant, laughs at him and neatly splits an orange with his knife. Omar sucks at the rind as she returns him home to his family where she puts away the groceries while Omar sits kinglike on the kerosene-powered refrigerator.
If his mother is not around, Omar is insolent, ducking his head to sneer as Aisha tries to shift the lid he sits on. “One day I’ll be the only one who goes to the soko.”
Possibly, but Aisha does not tell him that. He was a terrible haggler and would be one for the rest of his life. Still very small, thinking of sweet oranges to come to him on all days.
He means that one day she will not be asked to do this for his mother, that they will not need her or need him watched—it is likely in three years she will be completely unnecessary to them, but she does not reveal that she knows.
She savors the trips to the market, even if it dirties her shoes, even if it is only a mud-crusted path walled on all sides by the old buildings that make it a labyrinth—stones hunching toward each other like suspicious, gossiping crones. Even if the basket is heavy. Even if she sweats. Even if the other girls look at her like they can smell it: salty and rank, the ugly stink of fish.
On the twisting path she can imagine she is walking toward something rather than in between things.
After all such errands are done, Aisha hunts back to Hababa’s. Hababa spits out mabuyu seeds into the scarred palm of her hand, and the squat ping! goes off in Aisha’s head, a cartoon-bullet noise. In her other hand, discolored with burns, she stirs at a heavy sufuria with a flat mwiko, salt and crackling sunflower roasting.
When she can be coaxed—with some strategic sweetness on Aisha’s part—Hababa expends great energy in regaling Aisha with tales, some real and some imagined.
Hababa sees slights hidden in perfectly crafted manners, the thousand and one ways in which blessings turn into curses, winding like a snaking braid bound tight enough to make the bride look eternally surprised. Hababa speaks of upcountry folly being punished by beautiful women with hoofs peeking beneath their buibuis, of crows throwing murderous parties and guzzling blood like palm wine, of blessed virginal heroines and their prize of a prince. Hababa turns day into night, makes gardens full of charming snakes, makes heroes and villains switch places in the space of two words. Hababa tells stories about punishable selfishness and valiant tolerating duty, about her own latent wickedness, lurking in the ribs of her, waiting to spring. Hababa warns her about strangers, about wanting more than she is given. Hababa warns her about a number of things.
“Everyone has wickedness in them, but women be most wicked of all,” Hababa warns in her low, vibrating hum. “God gave each of us an inner selfishness, like a wild dog that wants with uncontrollable greediness. We are often thinking wicked and cruel and inconsiderate thoughts, it is what we must fight to prove ourselves true. You must be especially sure to remind yourself to be grateful, Shida. You must be sure to never behave in a way that lets wickedness colour your intentions.”
Shida. Sometimes Hababa forgot and called Aisha by her dead mother’s name. Sometimes the story drifts and Hababa’s eyes become filmy, gelatinous, as though she has slipped, without alarm, into the undertow of another time. In such moments the blue sclera of cataracts give her the eyes of a cat, as if Hababa had moons hiding behind her stare, appearing for a ghostly breath between vanishing acts.
Aisha never corrected her, never uprooted time for such a reason. A time ago she used to flinch at her mother’s name but it was spoken so rarely, eyes averted, in a whispered, head-shaking croon—people whispered Shida’s name with careful pity. But for Aisha, in her mother’s name hung rainstorms and rust, a dirty, zingy metal taste. Ungalvanized, galvanizing, sharp.
“Be kind to your neighbours; if you cannot love them then be kind to them. You will be found by a good and righteous man. Every heart is ugly, we must make our manner and welcome sweet. Discourtesy, rudeness are the makings of an ugly soul.”
Hababa would go on speaking, vacant, as if repetition had dissociated and distanced her from the present world, gazing at the door, expression hollow and lost in strange climes, unknowable to Aisha. The sunflower would singe, smoke—and she would come back to herself with a hiss. Anger would wake her.
The sea does not sleep, and there are things in the water that would eat you alive.
A foreigner couldn’t outlive it, wouldn’t live long enough to fear it. We ourselves we know—we watch the razing green tide the same. The white froth of the wave, we take the same delight in it, relish the cool wind gliding over the bluest back. The sea is beautiful.
Sometimes it drags things away, tugs you down so gently, so slowly—you do not realize you are drowning until your third breath takes in more water, the back of your tongue struck with salt, and six feet of deep.
Locals of all faiths and faithless know to utter a prayer. God’s name at least once. God’s name crowds the hearts of coast folk, carried easily in the roof of the mouth—there is no such thing as taking God’s name in vain, for it is always spoken, even in afterthought, ever present. If words have a shadow, then it is He who gives it shadow and shape.
It is spoken, too, before swimming. The locals give the water due respect and they are for the most part left unmolested, should the water feel that day that there are no lessons to be taught and no manners to be imparted.
The locals know, there are things in the water that would eat you alive.
Excerpt from The House of Rust. Copyright © 2021 by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota