Here it begins: Falid’s wife is Alexandra. She dies in the river. The river is dull. Its current is not too strong. I hear at the women’s meeting that no-one blames the river, no-one blames Alexandra. But this happens, still. She dies in the river and it is a beginning. Ounya is Falid’s daughter. She is born by Alexandra. She is hit by a truck after six years and this is where it ends.
There are no more deaths in this story. This is not the way to see it, since before Ounya dies, she is Falid’s daughter for six full years. And before she is his daughter, she is in the womb of Alexandra, who is alive. Everyone says the river is dull. It is not just me. It is not the river’s fault Ounya or Alexandra die. Blame me.
An ending: Maratosy Little is the town where Falid lives when he has no family left. It is the same place he lives for six years with his daughter. It is also the place where he lives for three years with his wife. And Falid lives in Maratosy Little as a boy, also. The end.
There are three hills around Maratosy Little. The hills are called: Older Brother, Second Brother and the third is Young Niece. Older Brother digs out the river with his feet and then he turns into a hill to admire his work. Second Brother grows an apple tree out of Older Brother’s pride. When he is finished growing the tree, he feels ashamed for using pride. He becomes a hill to hide from his shame. Young Niece is the wisest. She takes Second Brother’s shame and makes Older Brother’s feet itchy with it, to make him dig the river. She is a hill because the end causes the beginning. Without her, there are no hills. This is the story of Maratosy Little. This never changes. When Falid is a young boy he does not believe this story but it is always true. The end.
The river arrives between Older Brother and Second Brother. It flows by the apple tree and out to Young Niece. Then there is a forest and a road. Falid does not think much about the road before Ounya dies on it. After she dies, he does not think about it either. He tries very hard to not think about it. I see Falid at the market again, drinking cups of wine from a petrol canister.
‘There are people in the future,’ he says, ‘who think we made the hills of Maratosy Little.’
I say to him ‘No, it is Young Niece who is responsible.’
‘That is true,’ he says. ‘But there is another truth. The hills are built by people from the moon.’
We shall end things here.
When I tell Aunt Vanez about the people from the moon, she says: ‘Falid is a drunk.’
This does not mean anything to me. Aunt Vanez is the sister of Alexandra. We go to the women’s meetings together. She delivers Ounya from her sister when she finds Alexandra’s body by the river. That is how we begin. Aunt Vanez looks at the past and thinks it is all of the things that have happened in the order they have happened, like knots on a string. Then she looks at the present and thinks it is all of the things that are happening right now and everywhere. This is how she sees things: she studies one year and then another year and then another year and that is why she is a doctor’s assistant now.
Another: Alexandra dies and then Ounya is born and then Ounya dies and that is why Falid is unhappy now. When Falid is happy, Aunt Vanez says it is because really—he is unhappy. I look at it like this: Aunt Vanez and being a doctor’s assistant are only somewhat related. Falid is not unhappy. He is not the river or the truck. Falid is related to happiness. Happiness is related to unhappiness.
This is the story I am telling in full: there is a lot of time before Alexandra dies. Time is there even before the three hills. There is a lot of time and it gets bigger and bigger. What I mean is, I can’t explain it all. Alexandra dies. This is where the story begins. Ounya is born by the river and lives for six years. Ounya and Falid travel to the moon in a metal half-barrel. There are humans on the moon. Everyone is surprised by this. No-one believes Falid. The story ends here. Ounya is killed by a truck. The story ends, more.
Jo, the woman with the single braid of long white hair, believes in Falid. It is me! I am Jo! I believe there are humans on the moon, and this is how the story can begin again. Ounya and Falid travel to the moon in a metal half-barrel. Ounya lives for six years! Ounya is born! No-one else is to blame—blame me.
At the end, I will tell you that the story ends.
Falid loves his daughter. When I weave stories at funerals, they come to me in colours and this one I see in red. The day Falid leaves the site of his work without notice to see his daughter, the air is red. I see him running home past the football field and I yell to him: ‘Falid! When do I ever see you rushing?’
I run across the field to him. He slows to let me catch up but he does not stop. He keeps on moving.
‘Jo! I have something to show to Ounya,’ he says. He cannot stop thinking about Ounya. He is a madman.
I say to Falid the ancestors will be upset if he ignores them. I say this because when I see Falid drinking wine with the workers, he does not offer the first taste to the soil; it goes straight into his mouth. I see his disrespect.
‘I do not forget them,’ Falid says. ‘What I do with the wine does not cause anything.’
‘It is not this way,’ I remind him. ‘When misfortune is coming, it reaches back from the future to make you lazy now. It is an attempt to justify.’
‘Then what can I do about it?’ He is starting to bounce again.
‘You can listen to me—you can do that!’
‘Jo, I have got to go. I have something to show to my daughter.’ And Falid dances off like this.
Falid ignores me because I am not at all like his wife, who is much quieter, and is dead. I tell him once that he does not respect his wife if he does not wear a twig in his hat at Easter. He does not listen to me, then hears her laughing in a dream.
Ounya is three years old. She is sitting in the playground of her nursery school when her father arrives at the chainlink fence. He is excited but she does not see him. She is sitting on the ground scratching a pattern into the concrete with a spatula. She focusses carefully on this task, her eyes wide and never blinking. Her braids fall over her cheeks and brush the ground.
Falid takes out a blue key from his pocket and taps it on the metal gatepost. Ounya hears this tapping. She sees him. She stands up and walks towards him with the spatula dragging on the ground.
‘Ounya, my lot. There is a spaceship. It is a spaceship at my workplace.’
Ounya looks up at her father. She narrows her eyes. ‘Can we play the Bluebird song?’ she asks.
This is not the only time Ounya escapes from nursery school with Falid. They go to the spaceship again and again. After she dies, Falid is able to go back to himself each of these times and tell himself that Ounya does not need to go to nursery school if she is going to die. Aunt Vanez sees all of this happening and says no. Ounya should be in school. And if Ounya is dead now it is because there is one thing that leads to another and another.
There is a time Aunt Vanez tries to take Ounya away before she dies. Ounya is sick and Falid is away finding her medicine. Aunt Vanez makes up some papers that say now she is the guardian of the child and the doctor signs those papers and then she thinks this must make it all real. She comes to the house while Falid is away, when I am the one looking after Ounya. Aunt Vanez strides into the house and is wearing her silly doctor’s assistant ID badge and has the papers under her arm.
‘Jo!’ she says.
I feel my face heat up and when I see her walk towards the bedroom I stand up and I ask—what is she doing with her ID badge on and who is taking a picture of her looking so miserable like this anyway?
But there is no need to insult her like this. Ounya is already gone.
The spaceship is made of steel. It is an old oil barrel turned on its side and rusted up and down. There is a map of rust—dark brown with patches of brickish-red. It is the material of the air. When Falid shows the barrel to Ounya, she is tired. He has brought her to a corner of the building site where he works.
Falid kneels down by the barrel.
‘Ounya, my song. This is a spaceship.’
There is a time that the women at the women’s meeting try to use the spaceship story as proof Falid is a madman. I say there are madder things that Falid says but this does not make him a madman. I tell them Falid also says there is a purple multi-celled sponge that has seventeen different sexes but it has only one name: Julie. Yes, I tell him he is a madman and so he takes me to the science building and it is there, on display! A purple sponge with seventeen sexes! The only thing he gets wrong is that the sign does not say its name is Julie. It says ‘July’. I win with this story.
Falid lifts a flap of rusted steel on the side of the barrel. Ounya comes close to look inside. She sees the floor of the barrel is not round like the roof. It is flat and made out of white stone. There are two red dishcloths stuck to the floor. There is a hole.
She looks at Falid. ‘Spaceship,’ she says.
Falid lifts up the flap and helps Ounya to step inside.
When this happens, Ounya is three. When Aunt Vanez goes to her room, Ounya is already six. I don’t need you to understand this. Ounya is gone at the moment that Aunt Vanez comes to take her away because she is somewhere else: she is inside the spaceship three years before and this happens together at the same time and this is true.
‘Do I impose this?’ Falid asks. ‘Does this all happen because of me?’
‘Yes, but that is not the question,’ says the floating figure.
Falid has come to the moon again with Ounya.
‘Then what is the right question?’
The figure is floating half a metre off the ground. Its voice has an unusual tone, which rises and falls in a symmetrical wave.
‘The question is—why are you not circumcised?’
It is very still and silent. Falid imagines this floating figure is wearing a white lab coat back-to-front. But the surface cannot be fabric, since it runs smooth down to the point where its knees should be. It does not reflect like a metal. The sleeves are tied off with rubber-bands. There is a tall white helmet above the body with three mesh slits across the face. He imagines it is a face. At some angles these slits appear to curve upwards but really they do not. Without seeing a face, it is very difficult for Falid to tell what is meant by this new question.
The helmet nods. ‘That is a joke. We like to joke,’ it says.
Falid comes to the moon with Ounya most days after he finds the spaceship. Ounya brings a spatula and makes pictures in the dust. Sometimes she plays with an instrument that measures atom rotation. But since the floating figure has not explained what this instrument is, Ounya describes it as it looks to her, which is a toilet brush.
There are times in the story that I do not believe Falid. One of them is the time he tells me this.
‘This,’ he says, ‘is all true.’
‘Falid, you are telling me that you are meeting an alien man.’
‘He is a human. A man one. I can tell—it is the way he looks at me.’
‘This man one. He predicts your future.’
‘That there is no future, Jo.’
‘And his name is….’
‘Falid, there is a mixture happening here. This is an American man. Neil of America is the first man to sit on the moon. It happens a very long time ago. He goes up there to film it for the TV.’
‘Well, there are many people called Neil,’ he says. ‘The one I am meeting is an ancestor.’
‘Oh! You say you are an American now? Is Neil your mother’s father or your father’s father’s father?’
‘Jo, no. I did not say this. He is an ancient ancestor. He knows Older Brother.’
There is only so much a storyteller can ask. I am a funeral storyteller, see. I go to work, I exhume a body for the five-year remembrance, I piece together a story with the family and rewrap the body. After I have done this, I do not judge Falid’s story anymore.
Ounya plays with the toilet brush on the moon. Neil says he is building the moon out of stone just like Older Brother and Second Brother and Young Niece made hills out of themselves. He says he is made of stone.
There is a story of Alexandra when she is young. She tells Aunt Vanez that she can visit the moon by climbing Second Brother’s apple tree. Alexandra takes her to the tree and asks her sister to climb. When Aunt Vanez climbs the tree she is on the moon. She spends one second on the moon. She comes down the tree and shouts at her sister. ‘How dare you be right!’ she yells.
There are many trips to the moon. There is not just one. Sometimes Ounya and Falid and Neil do not talk. There is a time they race from one crater to the next. One time, Ounya tries jumping as high as she can and Neil shows them how he can forward-flip. There is a lot of laughing. There is a trip to the moon where Falid brings a cannister of wine. He lies in the dust watching space and Neil floats just above the ground with his helmet facing up too. Ounya rolls over Falid and under Neil. She tries to climb on top of Neil and slips off and everyone laughs. Neil tells Ounya about when she dies. He tells Falid about when Alexandra dies too and Falid already knows this story and does not want to hear about it. Ounya is happy when she imagines her mother in the river with her.
I am there when it all happens to Ounya. I am there over and over again. I dream of Young Niece, and when I wake up I want to go to pay my respects. I am always there when it happens but looking at the wrong thing. Falid and Ounya are driving on the road that runs out of Maratosy Little past Young Niece. Ounya is six years old and she is listening to a music tape and sitting in the front seat of the car. This is a story that appears to me in brown. Falid is driving Ounya away from Aunt Vanez. As the road winds around Young Niece, Ounya is singing about a bluebird that has forgotten its lunch. It goes: blue-blue-mister-bluebird-you’ve-forgotten-your-pickles-and-cheese! Falid looks at her kicking her legs and he knows what is going to happen to her. He sees a delivery truck behind him in his mirror. Falid knows about this truck too.
Alexandra is buried at the foot of Young Niece. When her body is exhumed at her five-year remembrance, her hair is still black and shiny. The women of Maratosy Little cut off her hair and find apple seeds in it. They swallow the seeds and thick shiny black hair grows in their stomachs.
Falid lets the delivery truck overtake him. He stops his car. The truck speeds around the corner, skids at the edge of the road and a front wheel dips into the side-ditch. The truck is top-heavy, and its back wheels skid before the weight of the load makes it tumble over to the side. This happens slowly, so the great sound of the crash at the end is a surprise. Gravel spills from the top of the truck. Falid has stopped his car long before the truck starts skidding. He takes Ounya out of the car and then ducks down with her in the ditch.
Ounya holds on to him. At first he holds her tight. I am sitting on a rock at the foot of Young Niece. I do not see the crash but I am watching the truck after it has fallen. I see Ounya slip out of Falid’s arms and run out on the road towards the gravel. There is another truck.
When Ounya’s mother dies, there is a crash at Young Niece too. Alexandra hears the crash from the river, where she is washing herself. She is sitting on a rock and holding a sampler packet of shampoo. Her stomach grabs her. It is like she has eaten two whole bowls of clear chilli soup. She wonders if her child can taste it too. She calls to Falid, who runs up the hill towards the crash. There is a freak surge that takes her. This is how this happens.
Ounya has heard these stories so many times that they bore her. It is no shock to her how she dies or how her mother dies. She asks, instead, to hear the story of how her mother catches her by the riverbank, swims up the river with her, pulls them both up onto a rock and then shampoos her hair. Or how Falid looks up at the big blue Earth and says one day we will build a spaceship and take you to a nursery school there. And sometimes she just wants to play with the spatula.
Can we not stop this? Is there nothing to do to save Ounya? Our ancestors teach us that our births and our deaths are in the same moment and we accept this, we do. But her life is so much shorter than the others—can we not prolong it? This is what we say: poor Falid! How sad the story of Alexandra… But what is there to say about Ounya? What can I say that is not in the drains of meaning. I am a storyteller but I find nothing to say to bring her to life. I repeat: she dies, she dies, she dies. Blame me.
I see Falid in the marketplace with Ounya. He is passing by the apple tree with her. When Ounya is alive, Falid spends very little time here and when she is dead he is here with the wine. Ounya is wearing goggles. She is holding her father’s hand. She is five years old. I go to Falid and I say that we must think of a way to stop this. It is madness. If what he has heard truly happens, then the ancestors want us to prevent it. This is why he has been told. This is why there is a Neil.
We stop by the woman selling plants from the back of a trailer.
‘Jo, tell me what am I meant to do,’ Falid says to me.
This question is not fair. I tell him that I am not his work director.
‘Jo, help me, please. Neil says there is only one way—and that is not to think. But how can I not think?’
Ounya breaks away from us and joins the children who have stolen a freezer. They have it in a trolley.
‘Older Brother digs the river because his feet are itchy,’ I say. ‘Second Brother builds the market from Older Brother’s pride. What does Young Niece do?’
‘She takes Second Brother’s shame and makes Older Brother’s feet itchy with it.’
‘The Brothers react to what they have been given. But Young Niece sees her place in the cycle and knows she must act. There is no choice for her but she must still decide to act.’
‘Does it matter how I act?’
No, it does not. But that is just as much reason to do so. So Falid prays. He talks with the ancestors before eating and sleeping. He takes Ounya on long walks to the Point de Vue at Older Brother and he meditates with her on the grass. He offers the first taste of wine to the soil before taking his own. He attends the five-year remembrances for exhuming the bodies and helps the families tell their stories. At night his soul separates from his body to hurry about in his dreams. He blesses Aunt Vanez and her ID badge. He is solemn at the wedding of the schoolteacher, warm at the circumcision of the vet’s first son. I see a twig in his hat at Easter.
There is a whole day that Falid prays at Young Niece and on the next he is gone. I do not see him at his house or at the marketplace. I ask Aunt Vanez if she has seen him or Ounya but she does not understand me. She notes this event in her diary as further evidence that Falid is not a guardian.
I get on my bike and ride to the point in the road where I will be sitting on a rock watching the crash six months from this time. I walk up and down the ditch and then downhill to the river. Then I see Ounya standing in the grass, holding her spatula and wearing her goggles. She is dressed in white. She is completely still, like a stone. I run towards her.
‘Ounya! Ounya, it’s okay! It’s me! It’s Jo!’
Ounya does not say anything to me. She takes my hand and leads me further down the hill and I see the rusted metal half-barrel sitting by the river and Falid is there. He has returned from the moon.
‘I have been trying to talk with Alexandra,’ he says.
I understand. He needs me to do what I do best. I am a storyteller, see. I step inside the spaceship with him and Ounya stays behind.
This is the story I am telling: there is much less choice in life than you or I might think. It is not my choice for Falid to need me like this, just as it is not my choice that apple seed oil makes hair grow. There are the ancestors for all of this. There is very little choice left for us; but there can be a time for it. In this story, there is only one such point, and that is where we go.
We are together outside the nursery school. Ounya is three years old. She is sitting on the concrete, drawing circles in the ground. Falid stands at the chainlink fence and Ounya does not see him. His fingers are gripping the wire and I see that he is empty and staring. I see Falid bend forwards, his whole body becoming smaller. He shakes and shakes, and he cries. He is demolished from the inside.
‘What does Neil say to you, Falid?’
‘He says it is not my choice but that I can go back to see.’
‘Will she live, Falid? If you leave her now and don’t take her to the moon, will the cycle break? Will she live?’
Falid stands. He takes his hands away from the fence. He looks at me. His face is vacant and fallen. He is holding a blue key in his hand. He is exhausted in his mind. I cannot tell him to decide.
I look carefully at Ounya. She does not know a thing.
In this moment, I do not believe in the ancestors. I do not believe in Neil or the spaceship or the moon. I do not believe in the three hills of Maratosy Little or the multi-celled sponge with seventeen sexes. I don’t even believe in apple seed oil. I only believe that I am here and that I have eaten. I am not hungry. I am Jo.
‘Look, Falid. Your daughter is there,’ I say. ‘Ask her what she wants. You can never assume that. Ounya will know.’
The story ends. The story has ended.