by Margot Miller (Niger 1972–74)
First published on the blog of PeaceCorpsWriters.org on October 12, 2005
UNDER MY MOSQUITO NET, I’d barely slept an hour when I stirred awake. I heard soft footsteps and the sound of scraping near the wall. I pulled the mosquito net up and looked around, disoriented. My clock was gone. I took myself indoors where it was too hot to sleep. The next night I moved back outdoors, locking the front door and putting the key under my pillow. Perhaps I should report the incident to the police. I remembered that I had been told something about the Chief of Police living across the street.
When I found the time to go across the street, at the doorway, I clapped to signal my presence. A tall, slim young woman came to the door. She had warm brown eyes and beautiful, straight white teeth that shone in the shaded entrance to her compound. She was dressed in a red Dutch wax pagne wrapped around her as a skirt and a western style, short sleeved, white sweater that revealed slim, muscled arms. She wore leather thong sandals and a length of cloth that matched her skirt wrapped around her head.
I glimpsed a large inner courtyard, with an L-shaped series of rooms beyond, made of traditional mud walls, rather than the industrial cinder block of the more modern construction I inhabited. I tried to speak in my thin command of Hausa, but she told me in French that her name was Aïssa. She spoke Djerma instead of Hausa because she was from the western part of the country. I told her my name and why I was living across the street, but she already knew all about me. She laughed at my errand and I knew reporting the clock stolen a week earlier was futile. She told me that this was the police chief’s mother’s house and that she was the chief’s cousin, taking care of her aunt. The chief, Idrissa by name, lived above the Commissariat, and I could go there, but it was Sunday and there wouldn’t be anyone there.
Later, about four o’clock on an afternoon in the week following when I didn’t teach, I climbed the steps of the Commissariat. The officers looked at me curiously. As an Anasara, a white woman (synonymous with Western), I was treated with a degree of respect that came more from curiosity about Americans than from colonial habit. I was told to wait. Soon, I was invited into the police chief’s office where I met Idrissa Traoré. He was tall and square. I could see the family resemblance to his cousin. They had the same chin line and the eyes were wide and lively, just like Aïssa’s. He knew all about my clock, and he, too, laughed at my naïveté. He told me that if they found the man who took it they would cut off his hand, but he would not be found. I said I understood. What I really wanted by then was to arrange for the removal of a pile of dirt that backed up to my rear wall where there was no adjoining house, an empty lot and an open invitation. He agreed to have this done for his mother’s neighborhood.
One evening some time later, Aïssa and I leaned into pillows on my porch bed, side by side like sisters, she showed me that if I watched the northern sky I could tell what time it was by the stars as they passed overhead. At eight in the evening the Big and Little Dippers were rising on the left and the North Star was straight up. At mid-night the North Star was already in the small hours of the next day above the desert and the Big Dipper was pouring its contents afterward. We talked about how we imagined our future. Aïssa had a handsome boyfriend. In fact, she had three suitors, but it was the soldier she preferred and, although her family objected, she had decided to marry for love.
In late October, Aïssa mentioned a throbbing in her left temple. In a few days it was worse and soon her vision was blurred in her left eye. American missionaries, who had a church complex near the school where I taught, were affiliated with an eye hospital in Kano, in northern Nigeria. When Idrissa came to see his mother and stopped to talk with us in the evening as we sat on low chairs in front of her house, I told him about Aïssa. It took about six weeks for him to get the money together and Aïssa went to Kano on December 29th. By that time she saw only with her right eye, she was tired, and had a cough.
After a week, during most of which I too had been ill with a deep cough, on a light, fragile Sunday morning, I felt restored by the antibiotics I’d gotten from the French doctor, who was doing his military service in Maradi. I’d also had a complete night’s sleep, so I went to see Aïssa, to learn what had happened with the missionary doctors.
The boy came to the door. He told me in Hausa, which I had begun to understand and speak, that Aïssa was very ill, “Ba ta da lahia,” he said. I asked if I could see her and he led me inside. There were several women in the courtyard, including the ailing aunt.
Aïssa was dressed, sitting up on a narrow bed in a small room, dimly lit from a single small window, high up. She was coughing and gasping for breath. She hadn’t slept since returning from Kano two days earlier. A bowl lay in her lap and she was spitting blood into it. Alarmed, I sent the boy for Idrissa and the French soldier-doctor. I didn’t really know how to find either but I knew that he would know. White people, there not being more than a few hundred of us, were accounted for on some sort of municipal grapevine and the chief of police, unless he was out of town, would be easily located. As it turned out, the doctor was playing tennis at the French Club, a left-over colonial enclave. He had a car and arrived first.
Aïssa told him that she hadn’t slept or eaten in three days, could only cough up blood and barely swallow water. The soldier-doctor sat down and opened his bag, the kind I remembered from what now seemed a distant and vague childhood, when doctor’s made house calls. The Eye Hospital, it turned out, was a specialty clinic doing cataract surgeries and treating trachoma and glaucoma. The doctors had said it wasn’t her vision, but her heart. A valve was permitting blood to flow backwards. They couldn’t treat her.
The French doctor took her blood pressure and the needle spiked, refusing to come down even when he released the valve on the gauge. “Elle a une tension terrible,” he said, and quickly prepared a hypodermic needle. I sat on the bed next to her and held her upright with my body and my right arm, steadying the spitting bowl on my knees with my left hand. The doctor quickly swabbed her upper arm with alcohol and emptied the needle’s contents into the muscle. As he was noting what he’d given her on a pad of paper, she grew quiet, no longer coughing or spitting.
“Is she asleep?” I asked. He looked up at her, slumped in my arms, and moved to check her pulse.
“Elle est morte,” he pronounced. In the space of a heartbeat, literally, she was gone.
We laid her on the bed and I sat beside her on the floor. Holding her still warm hand against my cheek, I inhaled the scent of her skin, dusty, as if her body were already evaporating into the parched air.
“Can’t you do something to restart her heart? I asked in French, making signs of CPR with my hands in case my French wasn’t good enough.”
“Il est trop tard,” he said. Too late.
I’d never seen the end of time before, and it had slipped right into my arms. It widened, lost its borders, and at the same time closed around me in the small room. My ears were ringing. My consciousness soared into a corner of the ceiling above. I glimpsed the doctor closing his bag behind me. He stood up and moved toward the door.
“I think we should wait until Idrissa gets here,” I said. “He won’t be much longer.” I wished Idrissa had arrived first, wished he’d been there to authorize the treatment. “He should be the one to tell the others.” My head was spinning and I knew I could not get up.
Idrissa came into the room and stood at the end of the bed. Aïssa might have been asleep, but he looked from her to me, and the French doctor, and he knew. She’d have suffocated within hours in any case, he said, perhaps a day or two at most. I watched the two men talking. Idrissa didn’t seem surprised, not as shocked as I though he would be. He knew what she had been told in Kano, he said. She didn’t have long. It was fate. In silence he carried the news to the household. Instantly, keening arose in the courtyard. I stood up slowly and followed the French doctor out into the protective numbness of the morning sunlight.
On Tuesday, when I returned from school at noon, perhaps two dozen men dressed in their grand boubous, were listening to the Marabou recite verses from the Koran. There was a pause as I approached.
“Ah Salaam-a-lei-kum,” I greeted them with my hands folded in prayer just under my chin. They responded in one voice, “A-lei-kum Salaam,” with slight smiles, curiosity, perhaps pleasure at the Arabic acknowledgement coming from the foreigner’s mouth.
Inside, the women were seated on the ground in a semi-circle. I repeated the greeting and received the same welcome from them. I recognized Idrissa’s mother and his wife, a Senegalese former schoolteacher, whom I greeted in French. Aïssa’s mother was the only newcomer. She was dressed entirely in blue. I knelt down in front of her. The aunt explained who I was. The women looked at my face, my uncovered head, and my skirt made of local cloth that spread around me on the ground. I took off my sunglasses and squinted in the brightness. She even had blue eyes.
“Fofo,” I said, the only word I knew in Djerma. The women were delighted, and they all replied, “Fofo!” I opened my hands toward the figure in blue. We had only the memory of Aïssa in common, and she took my fingers in her warm palms, softened beyond measure with care. Sheltered in wrinkles and loose with age, her long and thoughtful years filled every open space in the courtyard. She pulled me to her, easing my difficulty in the mid-day sun with the late afternoon shadows of a mother’s embrace. Through her sister, we talked about Aïssa. She told me that her daughter had told her in a letter, which had been read to her, about the Anassara from America who had blue eyes, like her mother. I told her that Aïssa had taught me to tell time by the stars.
After the men across the street had dispersed to their homes, I stretched out on the Hausa bed at the edge of my veranda and watched the stars take up their usual positions above the runfa and the twin citrus trees, in the darkness. It was eight o’clock by my visual calculations. I said a prayer for Aïssa, and for myself before going inside. By the light of my only reading lamp I began to draw, working slowly from a photograph. It was just a number-two-pencil sketch, an instance of grief inscribed on a sheet of lined foolscap. I’d never drawn a portrait before and I haven’t drawn anything since, but it was a good likeness.