Fiction

An Excerpt from Richard Ugbede Ali’s The Ravages Of Dust

The Ravages Of Dust (An excerpt)

The first time he ever really looked at her was four years after they had first met. In that destined glance, he felt a buzz begin to course from the back of his head, zipping down the length of his spine. By then, she was already engaged to the Syrian. As if that was the matter. But no, it was about her eyes, little pools of black that seemed to draw in something unknowable from the deep vaults of his soul. Then, down to her lips, perfect, speaking. She was saying something to him but it did not seem to matter either, for all he saw was the luster of her eyes and the curve of her lips, their delicate ravage. For the first time, he had looked at her eyes and seen in them that thing that makes a man mad for a woman.

Zouraine! But it had to be!

Yet for all those years, he had seen her around since their jambite days at the Saad Zungur University. They had shared all their courses and even wound up in the same electives. Always she had been there, together with the other Hausawa bourgeoisie girls. Was it because he disdained them? For he did detest their lack of depth. If only they weren’t a pack of degenerate peacocks – female peacocks hah!. Vain and shorn of brains, he believed they typified the Fodio’s caliphate’s decay. His disdain had crystallized after a spectacular run in with Zulaila, the surliest in that pack of shrews. But, had she been one with them?

In the weeks that followed that fatal glance, Aminu’s mind swirled in turmoil. Everyday when he went to class for his lectures he saw her. Sometimes he said “hello” but most times, he said not a word. She. She was always there at the edge of his eyes, at the corner of his mind sitting amidst other married cushions, oblivious of the torment she caused him each time she spoke, each time she laughed, each time she did nothing.

And he wondered about Gogo, his mother; what would she say to see him so helpless, enamored by an indifferent girl who lived in the hut of another? Would she laugh at him, tease him with that knowing look in her eyes, and tell him tales of the poet Abu Nuwas? He himself remembered something he had read from Wilde, written in the prison at Reading Gaol.

He does not win who plays with sin

                In the secret house of shame

In dreams, in waking, in thoughts.

He sat in his room in the hostel and wondered why he had sent that accursed email. It was all he could think of for it somehow suggested he was much sillier than he allowed himself reasonable leash. In those weeks of hurting emptiness, he wondered if there was anything wrong with his sending the email. Was the problem not that he detected a poorly concealed hostility in Zouraine? If only she had smiled or cursed – said something. It had been Hadiza he told finally of the feeling he refused to acknowledge that plagued him. But he did not tell her it was Zouraine that was on his mind for he was sure even Hadiza would certify him stark raving mad. What, a soon-to-be-married girl? Worse, she might have told someone. In addition, she never would have given him Zouraine’s email address. He looked over and over at the poem he had written, trying to see if he had been too forward or. . . what? No, he thought, I have not been. Tossing it on the bed he turned to sleep for even in dreams escape is found . . . but not always.

Who can ask

Where the dust settles

Or why?

The pool of her eyes, the pools of Damascus

Dark with luster, like sloes, I never did see

What it is in their depth that mired my soul

Light as the breeze, so sounds her voice

Summer butterflies are fair, but not as she

She who out shines Suleiman’s Sheban Queen

Serpentine grace, priestess of al- Qahirah

By the gateway to the Nile, naiad of Egypt

Plunder my heart; it is for you that I sing

Ah! Kura, dust! She rides the chariot winds

Charming princes, poet hang your flute and violin

The dust is not for thee, your arms are but of bronze!

Alas! There is a lord who sprinkles the dust

Those eyes, that voice! To Damascus they go and remain

Though she be fair, she is not for thee my boy

For the prince of Syria claims her hand

Who can ask?

Why the dust unsettles

The poet and his verse?

Aminu Baba Ahmed

She reminded him of the Yemeni girl, Nabila, for whom he had had feelings for just as passionately and ultimately just as hopelessly. Nabila Farouk who had trampled the sapling that could not yet be called a heart, who had run off and married the younger brother of the Emir of Bolewa, laughing at him over her shoulders, her long jet black hair flailing gracefully in the wind. He had thought then that that torn thing had not grown. But what now? Its buds were bursting in bloom for the wrong sun and in the wrong season. He recalled one night when he had been with Nabila at their then yet special grove, long long before the Magaji came. He could not recall what it was that preceded their dialogue, or what was said after it, merely a full snippet of some large, vague episode of his recurring past.

“My arms are made of bronze?” he said, stretching them out in front of him; had it a question, a statement, what?

“They could be made of gold.” The Arab girl had replied

“Could they?” he asked, his voice almost a whisper, now impassioned “But what the price?”

“Alchemy” Nabila replied, plucking up a red rose up to her nostrils, filling her lungs with its fragrance before tossing the rose on the grass. She had not looked up at him.

Alchemy, he wondered. What had she meant? Had he asked her? Or was it one of those taunting riddles that Nabila had always flung at him after moments of feeling and tender words and caresses. Was it chemistry? Surely, she knew there was chemistry, the body sort of chemistry. They had had very expressive feelings; she had merely been faithless. He had been naïve. “Arms made of bronze?” Had his words meant what he now thought they meant? But alchemy was also the quest of transmuting base metals such as bronze, into gold. Of transforming the decadent social morass that is man into the harmonious divine soul of the Creator’s creation. Love? Ah, could it be? Alchemy required the possession of the so-called “elixir of life”, The Philosophers Stone. Zouraine!! He possessed no Philosophers Stone, so how could his arms of common bronze posses her waist of gold? But, had he really had that dialog with the Yemeni girl or had it been Gogo? Had Gogo been trying to tell him something to console him? It must have been Gogo all along! Zouraine. Even if she had not married the Syrian, she would not have desired him or noticed him just as Nabila had noticed him but could not desire him enough.

Ah, dear old Gogo. Was it not the fatalism of rejection?

 

&

The handsome young scholar arrived at Nguru, by the drying banks of the Chad, at about 10 a.m. Nothing had changed; the dry earth retained its light brown color and the Sahara still threatened, blowing with each gust of wind even more sand from dunes in Agades and Fez and Morocco. The garage touts, Gegere and Moli-Moli, were still there hailing and haranguing passengers with shouts of “Kano, Kano!” and “’Duguri,’Duguri!” With his satchel across the chest of his caftan and his suit-case firmly gripped in his right hand, he thread his way through the familiar narrow streets full of men in robes and women in veils, stopping to greet relatives and friends, towards the house where he had been born and had lived most of his life.

The old woman sat in the shaded balcony of the aged single story house looking far out to the fields menaced by the desert that lay not 100 km away. As soon as she heard the door behind her open and without a backward glance, she said to Surayya her teenage companion.

Baba Ahmed is here

Aminu walked up before his mother and bent himself half ways as was customary, taking care to see that she was okay and noting the wan smile on her lips while Surayya fussed over him. Surayya had changed much, not Gogo. Her lips, her bosom, her hips. . .she‘d turned into a fine young woman.

Aminu had his bath and changed into his jallabiya, and then he came up to sit with Gogo and tell her of school and what had been happening. She had seen many seasons. She just nodded and smiled, sometimes speaking a few words to the youngest and only surviving of her seven sons and he knew that she knew most of what he was telling her.

So he sat there on the balcony of his old home with the woman who had always loved him and the girl who was to love him, eating dates and sultanas and watching the sand-laden gusts of wind blowing across the denuded fields. The winds, he thought, have always been and perhaps the day might be when even this house would succumb to the winds and become ruins in the greater Sahara. Gogo, Nabila, Zouraine. Would anyone know then that such a one as his Gogo had lived here and watched the wisdom of the seasons go by? And witnessed the sands of time?

Then, so it would have to be with Zouraine; the ravages of dust.

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