By Safa Elnaili
Mama and Baba went to their room for their afternoon nap. He complimented her couscous. She smiled.
“Extra spicy, though!” he said.
She grinned. “A little pepper doesn’t hurt.”
Baba slept forever.
Summer afternoons in Benghazi were long, dense, and dead.
Shops closed. Cars parked next to the brick walls, half on the road, half on the sidewalks. Cats and dogs curled up in the shade. Palm trees stood still in the lazy breeze.
Everyone, everything, was asleep.
I snuck out of the house, barefoot. The rusty metal door almost gave me away, but Mama stuffed her ears with dough when she napped. I sprinted to the playground, refusing to make contact with the burning sand. When I arrived, I sat under the olive tree. My feet were numb. I waited for my friends, but no one came. The heat grilled my cheeks. My eyelids were heavy. I folded my legs against my chest. My eyes fixed on the shade of the olive tree vines as my thoughts slowly melted in the heat. I was like a half-emptied bag of sand, abandoned.
I saw her in the distance. She swung her hips elegantly as she approached me. Not a single grain of sand was disturbed under her feet. She wrapped herself in a white, tattered farashiya, face half-covered. The gold bracelets around her wrists and ankles jingled, breaking the dead silence. She, too, was barefoot.
“Are you lost, child?”
Her cold thumb traced down my forehead, along my cheek, and rested on my lips. It was wet and bitter. The smell of her henna snuck up into my nostrils, pinching my brain. I shook my head.
“Are you hungry?”
She revealed her long face as she sat, legs crossed. Her thick eyeliner looked dramatic on her almond-shaped eyes. The ruby red color on her thin lips above the tattoo on her pointy chin reminded me of the clown on the cover of my coloring book. She leaned closer. Her eyes widened as she tilted my chin up.
“Are you HUNGRY?”
Her fingers were dyed with black henna as if dipped in tar. She tucked her arm in her cotton shirt and pulled out a little red sack. Her neckline reminded me of grandma’s dried figs in our kitchen shed. Her bracelets danced around her wrists like hula hoops as she untied the sack. She pulled out two long, curvy green peppers.
“Take a bite.”
I pressed my lips and shook my head.
“Now, now. Are you afraid?”
“A little heat won’t hurt you,” she added, then brought the horn of the pepper to my mouth.
“Take a bite, sweet girl.”
I pressed my lips harder and pulled my face away. Her henna was obnoxious. She smiled. The turmeric stains on her teeth reminded me of those on Mama’s dress whenever she cooked her famous couscous.
“Girls who don’t listen never get married,” she said.
I wanted to wear a white dress with a veil, like my cousin Fatima. I took a nibble. It tasted like a cucumber, but bitter. My eyes crawled up to hers as I swallowed; they teared up while hers were lifeless like my Cabbage Patch doll’s.
“Don’t nibble like a little bird. Bite like a stray dog,” she barked at me. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened my mouth wide. The crunch was loud as I bit into the pepper. The seeds bit my lips like mosquitoes. My tongue started to swell. I got on my feet and started jumping and stroking my tongue with the back of my hand. My ears were on fire.
My eyes were filled with tears, hers with amusement.
That evening, Mama roasted peanuts and made black tea, but they were both too bitter. “A good girl listens to her elders,” Grandma scolded me as she fed me cucumbers and rubbed olive oil on my puffed lips. “Never EVER roam the streets during midday. You hear me, child?”
“I wanted to play hide and seek with my friends.”
“Praise be to Allah you weren’t taken away by the Midday Ghoul!”
Later that night, Grandma combed and braided my hair. She clicked her tongue and sucked her teeth whenever she thought of something unpleasant. “They say she’s a wicked woman who fed her children to the hyenas; she needed their body parts for witchcraft. Feet to make her float over the hot sand and hands to make couscous,” she said.
I couldn’t sleep. The braids were too tight – my head ached. Mama’s shadow was crossing the hallway; her hair on the wall looked like the dry twigs of the olive tree. She still hadn’t untangled the hair on her comb since Baba went to sleep.
“Are you asleep?” She whispered over my head. I could almost taste her bad breath, so I pretended to itch my nose to block the odor out.
“Thank you for the peanuts, Mama.”
“But you barely ate any of them!” She sat next to me with her elbow on my hip.
“I was full. Grandma fed me cucumbers. I’ll eat some tomorrow.”
“That’s fine. I know they’re awful, so I’m giving them away.”
Mama’s eyes drifted away for a moment. I’d seen it happen before. Her eyes teared up, and her lips quivered. Her elbow sank deeper in my hip.
“To Uncle Fathi’s sheep?” I snapped.
“No, I wouldn’t do that to the poor creatures!”
The next day, before noon, I skipped to the grocery store. Mama needed semolina flour, turmeric, white onions, and green peppers for couscous. My hunchback, dainty aunt—Mom’s sister-in-law—was coming over for lunch to discuss Baba’s will. I overheard from Grandma that they would be splitting the farm Baba owned. Grandma thought that Mama should get more than half to support us.
“Don’t stray away. If you run straight home, I’ll let you play out later,” Mama smiled as she pinched my ear.
Mama was like spring in Benghazi, unstable. She’d start the day calm; next she’d burst out like a sand storm, wilting every wildflower and carnation rose in our garden; then she’d end the day washing off the dust with a chilly evening drizzle.
She showered me with anger when I returned, “The peppers are wrinkled and soft!” she howled across the kitchen shed. Her words stung like pepper seeds.
The couscous was ruined that day, and so was her attempt to get more than half the farm. After my aunt left, Mama made me two boiled eggs. They rolled aimlessly on the plate. Then, she checked on me in the kitchen shed like a shepherd checking on his black sheep. She had a green pepper, cut in half. Her eyes were cloudy. She was distant. I curled up against the wall. She pulled my hand towards her, and then rubbed the pepper on my palm. It burned. I was living the worse day of her spring.
In Benghazi’s laziest hour, I tiptoed to the playground. I cupped three ice cubes in my hand. By the time I got under the olive tree, the cubes had melted, but the pepper burn hadn’t faded away.
A husky voice electrified the hair on the back of my neck, “Only disobedient children play in the streets at midday.” She opened her rusty-white farashiya like a ship’s sail, blocking my way and trapping me in her shade. She had a red scarf with green flowers tied around her forehead this time.
“Are you being a good girl today?”
She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Tttttttt…stray dogs shouldn’t lie.”
“I’m not a stray dog!” I snapped.
Her eyes suddenly widened, “You sure sound like one. Are you hungry?” “No.”
“Here’s some peanuts. You like peanuts?”
“No,” I insisted, but my eyes were hooked to her hand tucked into her cotton shirt. From her red wool sack, she spilled burned peanuts onto my aching palm.
“I know you feel bitter about your mother; so did I when I ground her peanuts between my teeth.”
I tossed them into my mouth, along with the peanuts’ burned skin. The lump in my throat made my eyes tear up. Grandma’s words suddenly bounced in my hard head. I swallowed the bitter peanuts with unease.
“I heard that you ruined your mother’s popular couscous.”
“Do you live in our neighborhood?”
“I live everywhere, child, in your neighborhood, in your home, even in your nightmares!”
I looked around me, for a shade, for the sound of lazy feet rubbing against the gravel on the road, for a squeaking rusty door, a car engine starting, or even a stray dog to cling onto. Her eyes were like needles poking my flesh as she watched me shiver. She caressed my face; her henna was beyond sickly.
“Are you the midday ghoul?”
“Do you still have your hands and feet attached to you?”
I innocently looked down at my feet and nodded.
“Then today I’m not the midday ghoul, not for you,” she smirked. “Wouldn’t you want to please your mother?”
I nodded again as if I lost all words of affirmation.
“Good, then give this green pepper to your mother when you get home. She’ll need it for her couscous tonight.”
I took the pepper and skipped back home. My palm wasn’t burning anymore.
Mama and Grandma were busy in the kitchen: pans clattered, the water faucet knob squeaked, a metal spoon hit the edge of the stainless-steel pot. The aroma of couscous filled the house. Mama’s spring was blooming. I sat at the kitchen table watching the green pepper sitting on a wooden plate next to the stove. Grandma asked me to hand her the rose water bottle and the cinnamon from the shelf. When I got them to her, I peeked under Mama’s busy arm; the wooden plate was empty.
I was asked that night to stay put in my room, away from the guest room.
I heard laughs and hands clapping, then music. I saw Mama’s shadow rock, back and forth, between the kitchen and the guest room. I played with my dolls a pretend funeral. My Cabbage Patch doll was dead, and all the other dolls wept. It was tiring. By the time they buried her under my brown blanket, there was a silence. I heard no more laughs or music bursting from the guest room. The stillness in the house brought a chill. I glimpsed a shadow in the hallway. It floated like the steam from Mama’s couscous cooking on the stove. I watched it grow bigger and bigger as it floated to my room. A sharp, obnoxious smell preceded it.
Her teeth were pearly white when she smiled at me. The red scarf with green flowers was draped over her shoulders. The golden bracelets around her wrists shone under my bedroom light. Her green tattoo seemed greener, the red lipstick darker, and her eyeliner winged out the corners of her eyes like feathers. She glanced at my Cabbage Patch doll, kneeled, and picked it up. I watched her smile at the doll.
“I know she’s your least favorite doll. I too put my doll to sleep.”
She placed it back under the blanket. I could smell her sickly henna, and peppers were all I could think of.
“Are you the midday ghoul?”
“Do you still have your hands and feet attached to you?” I nodded without even checking.
“Tonight, I AM the midday ghoul but not for you.”
She wrapped her white farashiya around her body, then handed me a green pepper. “Remember, don’t nibble like a little bird, bite like a stray dog.”
Grandma sat still on her wooden stool in the kitchen shed like her dried figs.
Mama slept forever.
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