This happened in Banjul, or maybe it was Serekunda. Wherever it was, this happened, and that is all that is important. So listen, to the story as it is told:
A man lies in his room, having his siesta. It is after the anj, the meal that lies at the heart of the day: trails of greasy oil left on plastic plates, the distribution of the meat to the eaters by the one who did the cooking, a cutting here, a placing there, an offer made for consumption in the sight of the provider. Eventually full bellies, the expression of plans to put the spoon down, to excuse oneself. Entreaties to eat a bit more: ‘Just one more spoonful, are you sure? But you didn’t eat at all.’ The Gambian end of meal ritual.
And then the man lying half asleep in his room, dozing into and out of consciousness, his awake thoughts and his dream thoughts all blending into each other, his skin speckled with droplets of sweat that grow gradually cooler as the heat is blotted out of the sky and the fierce sun swallowed by the arriving timiss.
And in the living room of the house, the man’s two wives sitting, one fanning herself, the other picking stones out of a bowl of uncooked rice, the base of the next day’s anj, a conversation between them picking up and fading away again, as it has done these past thirty years. When they hear the compound gate open, it is during a silence, and they both look up at the same time.
What they see, as they will explain in complete agreement on later when they talk about it, is the most beautiful woman either of them has ever set eyes on.
It begins with her eyes. This is what the first wife will say, many years later, when she narrates the story. Her eyes – they are the source of her, the things that draw your gaze in, upward, to her face, no matter where you’d started off looking. There is something about them, she will say, and then trail off into a silence, unable to find the words to describe what she saw. But every time she tells this story, her audience can guess, from the look in her own eyes, the way she expels a sigh to end the sentence.
This is how she enters, the gate closing itself behind her, not with its customary bang but creaking softly shut. The two women watch her approach, and without exchanging a word they both know what she is, and each knows the other knows. Were you not afraid, her audience will ask the first wife. Were you not even a little scared, anxious that something terrible was about to happen?
But fear is the last thing on the two wives’ minds, as they watch the Jinay walking across the compound. They have both heard stories before, of course: of the stealing of souls and the haunting of minds and dark spaces. But something about her inspires in them a perfect calm, so that one puts away her fan and the other her bowl, and they both shift in their seats and adjust their grand-boubou, getting ready to welcome her, even though they’ve never met her.
And in addition to the calm there is something else, a knowledge they both suddenly possess, and yet it feels as if they have always known it: that she is one of them, their wuja, married also to the man who lies in his room half-sleeping. And though in their own case it took them decades to get to this stage of peaceful co-existence, via a fierce jealousy and then a resigned acceptance and now even occasional acts of fondness, they feel no animosity towards this new wife at all, no flaring possessiveness over the husband she shares with them.
So when she finally arrives at the open door it feels as if they had spent their whole lives in preparation for this moment of meeting, living and loving and grieving and being happy and sad, and growing sick and well and aging, all of it only waiting, for her arrival. When she stands finally at the threshold, she raises her right hand, knocks twice.
You spoke with her? People will ask the first wife. What does a Jinay sound like they will be eager to know. Of what things did she speak, and how did you respond? What did she ask, and what did she offer?
Sometimes, almost fallen into sleep, the conversation will come back to the first wife, and she will nearly possess its form and its contents completely: every word and every glance, every pause and what she was thinking during it. But the recall only lasts while she stays in this stage of half remembering – if she makes any attempt toward the memory’s full possession, a translation into language and a complete remembering, the kind that can feed into her narration, it will melt away, revealed to be less than water, less than air. In the end barely the weight of a thought. And so she can never satisfy her audience’s curiosity, never relate to them what was said by any of the three of them in that room.
And until her dying day she will never be able to estimate either how long the visit lasted. While she sat and spoke to them time did not so much seem to stop as lose its tyrannical hold over the space they occupied, flowing elsewhere, minutes and hours become suddenly like the playthings that had belonged to the two wives when they were still but children, the objects themselves long lost and forgotten, any influence they had once, had relegated to a subconscious history.
And then she left? And that was it? The first wife’s audience will ask, eager for a twist in the telling of the tale, a confirmation of their own beliefs concerning the Jinay and her kind.
She left, but not in the way of people leaving. She left, but she left also something behind. Nothing tangible, nothing physical that the wives could hold on to, to show to the ones who listened, afterward, to the retelling.
The memento she left – if it could be even called that – of a different kind, almost impossible to describe: the slightest of adjustments, in the hearts of the two wives; the subtlest of shifts, in their perspective of themselves and of the world; a new dimension of being superimposed on their old one so that they saw their lives, not quite in a new light, but rather with a new awareness of the existence of the old light, which they had taken for granted and so never even noticed shone before.
In a year the man who sleeps inside will be dead: a heart attack at midday, a futile race to RVTH. At the funeral the two wives will sit on a basang spread on the ground, mourning, their faces blackened by sorrow and tarred by tears, a procession walking past them, each person pausing in their turn to throw a crumpled-up note on the growing mound before the mourning women. But their Jinay wuja will have to grieve alone.
The second wife will go soon after, almost but not quite a year later. Her funeral less well attended, the crumpled up notes on the basang laid out for her lying forlorn, not enough to form even a middling hill. And after that the first wife will live alone, surviving them both for so long that all that is left her of them are scattered sentences, remnants of long-ago conversations that had somehow lodged themselves in her memory and stayed there still, after all these years.
But of course the women know nothing of this on the day that their husband’s Jinay wife comes to visit, their future still untold, their lives still collections of possibilities.
And so there she leaves them sitting, in the living room. Once she is out of the gate and it is closed behind her she sheds her body with a shrug, and invisible to mortal eyes now and with barely any effort ascends into the sky…
(To be continued…)