Aminatta Forna
United Kingdom / Sierra Leone

My life wasn’t supposed to be like this. But a lot of things happened to me that weren’t my fault. If things had been different, I could have been like you. Listen to what I am trying to tell you. The truth. The way it really was.

I never had luck. Not like other people. Yet I stand by and watch other people win all the time. Two days ago my neighbour came back with banknotes flapping out of his pocket, the new ones, not even the old ones. He had bought a lotto ticket and won. Later he came with soft drinks and beer for everybody in the compound. By the time I arrived the others had already helped themselves. My own drink was flat, but I finished it just to show willing.

People with bad thoughts were always taking my luck away. I was still a girl, I was gutting fish — slitting open the bellies with a sharp knife, pulling the gleaming dark mass from within. The fish were fresh, some still alive. Under the table cats darted in and out of our legs, snatching at the pieces that fell. One moment I was concentrating on my work, the next I felt a sharp pain in my foot that made me cry out loud. A dirty white cat stared up at me with cold blue eyes. Somebody tried to shoo it away. The cat clung to the ground with its claws. We waved our arms. It hissed back at us.

One of the women, braver than the rest, threw a knife which clattered on to the ground. The cat jumped up on to the wall of the house and away. Later the same women would not look me in the face. They all knew it, you see. When a cat bites you, it’s a sure sign somebody out there is trying to change your luck for the worse.

When I was a child I was always being blamed, blamed for everything. It was easy to make me the scapegoat because I had nobody to defend me. So in time I found ways to make my own luck.

I remember a time of happiness.

On the first day of fishing the women gathered with their nets at dawn on the edge of the village. Then there was not one among them who dared to begin without her. Yet she took her time, always. Dressed with great care. Oiled her scalp between the partings of her hair. A bracelet dangled from her wrists, around her throat a necklace of red and white beads. And when she was ready she would call for me to fetch her fishing net down from the hook on the wall. Then she walked, with deliberate steps, down past the houses towards the stream. Never breaking her stride. When they saw her they ceased their chatter and followed her.

In those days she was my father’s favourite wife. She alone. If anyone tells you any different, they’re lying. This was the reason they waited for her. They knew she had my father’s ear. Whatever medicine the Tuntun had placed around the river would have been lifted. The day she collected her net and walked to the river — for all the women in the village, that was the most assured sign.

At the waterside she tucked the trailing cloth of her lappa into the waist and shook out her net. I ran forward and picked up the end ­so it didn’t drag across the ground. I walked behind her as she waded in. When the water reached her waist she gripped the bamboo hoop firmly in both hands. I let go of the tail, and watched it swim after her.

The way she walked — no concession to the rising water. The cloth around her waist swelled with air, and for a moment dragged behind her like a giant snail shell. Her breasts bobbed on the surface and her movements were as fluid as the water itself. Below the surface the outline of her body shifted into thousands of shapes. For a brief moment the sun caught her profile. She didn’t turn once. It was as though she were entirely alone.

The shallows turned to churning mud in the rush that followed. The women slipped and scrambled down the bank into the water like buffalo on a collapsing cliff. They jostled for the prize spots close to the bank or else midstream, where the weeds grew densely along a sand spit and the fish liked to conceal themselves in the shadows. The slow ones were left to drag the bottom of the river, scooping water and fish into the open mouths of their nets.

Almost out of sight my mother walked on, between the banks of mangrove, heedless of the presence of water snakes and crabs. The boughs of the trees growing on opposite banks formed a bower over her head.

She kept flowers in her house. My father teased her for it, but she loved them, even the yellow blooms from the coco yams and the pale orange okra that blossomed in everybody’s garden. She picked them and put them in water. He built her a house opposite his own; he only had to look across to see her every day. That was where I lived as a small child with my two elder brothers. When he visited he insisted that she share his food with him. Sit down next to him, like an equal, and eat from the same dish.

I remember the sound of my father clapping his hands loudly and me running quickly to stand in front of them both. I bowed my head. ‘Eh bo! Will you look at this child. Taller with every day. How about a song for us? What songs do you know?’ My father was sitting with his legs crossed, wearing a loose-fitting green gown with a trail of embroidery down the front.

I was nervous and I felt my face growing big and hot. I thrust out my chest and pushed my shoulders so far back I felt my shoulder blades touch each other behind my back. I began a song we children sang down at the fields when we were scaring birds from the crops. We would sing across to each other, high up on our platforms above the fields. It was a song known to anyone who had ever been a child.

My father clapped, picking up the rhythm, and joined in with the reply. I remember how surprised I was at that. It was strange to think of my own father as a child and that once there were people who could tell him what to do.

And yet I noticed things about my father. Outside he had a stern face, which did not care to smile. He built the mosque and was inside it five times every day. He walked quickly. And people hurried around him, offering greetings, showing respect. A sober man. Yet I saw my mother do things nobody else did. He used to lie with his feet in her lap while she massaged them, pulling at his toes gently one by one. And I saw her hit him with a fan! Across his face, as though she were slapping him with the back of her hand, but using her fan instead. She touched him only lightly. Still, I had never seen anybody touch my father. For a long time I couldn’t remember what happened next. Maybe I had made myself forget. And then I realised the reason I couldn’t remember was that nothing happened. She hit him with her fan. Laughter. The conversation between them carried on.

That evening my mother sang the next part. Where my father’s voice was heavy and rich, like the smell of the best coffee beans, my mother’s was high and clear as an empty sky.

Then it was over. My father laughed and clapped again. He called me to sit by his side while he ate. I never could cross my legs properly, I don’t know why. My thighs ached and I was unable to take my eyes off his plate. Guineafowl stewed with honey and whole lemons. It was not a dish the other wives cooked. I hadn’t eaten. My stomach groaned loudly. My father laughed and his body shook. He held out a morsel of guineafowl in his fingers, and I reached up to take it from him. Then I remembered my mother. I hesitated. Hunger had prevented me thinking properly. Perhaps my father would consider me greedy. I glanced up at my mother, saw her slight smile, the way she inclined her head towards me. And I knew I had done well.

That day, or maybe it was another time, my mother fetched the small seven-stringed guitar she owned. Lately, since I have been thinking about her, I have wondered where she learned to play such a thing. I have never seen a woman play one before or since, only the travelling players on market days.

She sang a song for my father. It was a Madingo song about love. Not a love song. You couldn’t really call it that. I knew it by heart:

Quarrels end,

But words once uttered never die.

Lovers part,

But love lives on.

Marriages end,

But hearts survive.

You leave your mother’s breast,

For your father’s side,

And why should this be so?

Because love forever changes.

When from her father’s house,

A girl goes to a man,

We see the same again,

Love’s constant changes.

And when into the night she slips away,

To her lover’s arms,

The same rule applies, my friend:

Love’s inconstancy.

My father laughed again, a different laugh this time. My mother sent to me to go and find my brothers. The sound of her voice wrapped itself around me and followed me out into the darkness of the compound where the words broke free and floated up to the stars.

Of course my mother was not a slave. What man would treat a slave that way? Do you ask a slave advice and talk to them about how to run your affairs? Do you listen to what they have to say and then go away and do what they tell you? My mother even had a girl of her own to help her. Does a slave have a servant? So stupid. Some people were jealous of her, that’s all. Because he brought her gifts. If he went away — on those occasions when he couldn’t take her with him — he never once forgot to bring her something back.

The fan — that was a present. It was the shape of a kola leaf, like an upside-down heart, finely woven in different colours. Another time he gave her a real gold nugget. And when he came back from Guinea he brought her an almond tree in a pot. The tree was in flower and she had it placed next to the open window of her bedroom, so she could enjoy the scent all through the night.

He chose her name himself. Tenkamu. I don’t know what it was before. It isn’t important. My mother was sent here by her parents to stay with relatives who lived in the village. My father saw her and he liked her. Maybe it’s true he held the mortgage on the family lands. Some people say they sent her here deliberately, in the hope that she might catch his eye. That’s just loose talk.

The truth is Pa Yamba was the one who noticed her first. When he went to speak to my father, he didn’t realise the younger man had already decided in his own head to marry her. Pa Yamba wanted her for himself. He had a temper, he dared to challenge my father. But my father was firm. He told the older man to look for a woman of his own; this one was spoken for. Ten ka mu. Look for your own. That was what her name meant. Look for your own woman.

Pa Yamba thought people were laughing at him every time they called her by that name. Sometimes they were. He thought my father owed him more than that, because it was Pa Yamba who had led us to this place. In all the years that passed he still had no wife of his own. He followed her with those eyes, eyes as flat and still as the bottom of a pond in the dry season.

My father’s house had two wings. My father’s room was in one wing and it had two doors: one reached from the inside of the house and another that opened straight out onto the verandah. Anybody who had business with my father waited beyond the outside door. I’d see Pa Yamba there among the people who arrived every day with claims of being distantly related, hoping for a donation. I’d watch him watching her.

I knew the other wives bad-mouthed my mother behind her back. They did not care that I heard them. That’s the way our people are. If it suits them they’ll not let the presence of a child constrain their tongues, though they should know better. When I was growing up I heard the things they said: calling her the ‘Madingo,’ talking about how my father had never paid a bride price for her, saying she was given away for nothing like the bruised fruit at the end of market day. They were stupid women. I knew it couldn’t be true. But still, somewhere inside I felt the shame burning like a coal in my belly, making me sweat with anger.

For the most part my mother behaved as though those women were not part of her existence. She did not share their cooking, or send me across to borrow ginger or salt. She turned her face away and got on with her own life. And soon I learned from her. I acted the way she did; I learned to look through them as though they were made of water instead of flesh and blood. And I plugged my ears with imaginary mud so I couldn’t hear the things they said.

Still, their narrowed eyes and twisted mouths surfaced in my dreams and their spiteful words seeped through the mud.

Finda the servant told me my mother was the only one of the wives my father had chosen for himself. ‘Except for the third wife and he soon tired of her. She only lived to dance. In the end she danced so fast all the thoughts flew out of her mouth.’

All the rest of the wives were chosen by Ya Namina. After my father brought my mother into the house, Ya Namina went out and found more wives. She didn’t like a wife she couldn’t control. Always she and my mother were polite to each other, but when Ya Namina spoke, sometimes in her voice there was something metallic inside, like a vein of iron running below the surface of the earth.

Ya Isatta, my father’s second wife, had no children and so she always took Ya Namina’s part – forever fearful she would be sent back to be a burden on her own family. Ya Jeneba and Ya Sallay, everybody knew these two sisters were really married to each other. Ya Sallay was sent to live with her older sister. They were so happy living in that house together, Ya Sallay married my father just to avoid being sent away to a husband of her own. They kept to themselves. The younger wives—Balia, Koloneh, Memso, Saffie—well, they were just Ya Namina’s housemaids.

Do you know the meaning of the word ores in our language? Ores. It means co-wife. The women who share your husband with you. The women with whom you take turns to cook. The women you give whatever is leftover in your own pot. The women who are the other mothers of your children, who suckle your baby when your own milk has dried up or unexpectedly soured.

But the word has another meaning, too. Do you know it? No? Then let me tell you.

It means rival.

My mother was the sixth wife. She was tall — for a woman ­almost as tall as my father. And she could even have been as strong as him. I know now she wasn’t so very beautiful, because people tell me I look like her. Her mouth was big, with perhaps too many teeth. But she was bathe, the favourite.

Yes, I dreamed about her the other week. She’s back in my thoughts again. For a few days afterwards I was able to see her face in front of my eyes —like a photograph. I never owned a picture of her. All of this was before the shop with the Kodak sign painted on its shutters opened in the town. For two days following the dream I saw her clearly. But then her features smudged. Sometimes I would be able to recall one thing, say her eyes: whites so clear, like moons against the dark night of her irises and her skin. There it is. You can picture a person easily, no trouble — right up to the time when you try to remember their face. Ah, then you can sit and stare at the wall all day if you like. Until you give up. And suddenly there they are, as clearly as if they were standing before you.

That was the way I remembered my mother: on the morning of the festival, standing in her room before it was properly day, silhouetted against a cold, new light.

Back then Pray Day was overtaking all the festival days. To meet the new year everybody swept their houses and Ya Namina ordered the servants to clean out my father’s house from top to bottom. Three of my mother’s co-wives came hurrying back from visiting their families, looking healthy and still plump for ones who had fasted all month.

The cooking began days in advance. Then it wasn’t straightfor­ward as it is now—no radio announcements from Mecca to tell you the moon was really hovering in the sky, only you couldn’t see it because of the dust or the clouds. No. We waited until we saw it ourselves, even though that meant we sometimes began to cook too early, the food spoiled and we all fasted for an extra day or two; sometimes we began to cook too late and the feast wasn’t ready in time.

There were roasted meats and special dishes baked with coconut milk and spices. I was young and didn’t fast; even so the smell made my mouth water. On the morning of Pray Day everyone answered the first call to prayers and afterwards we would carry dishes of whatever food we had prepared as gifts from house to house.

But that was not the reason we all looked forward to the festival. In our house my father presented each of his wives with a costume specially for the day. The new clothes were delivered the evening before, ready for the last day of the fast.

That year my mother spent the whole of the day preparing herself. Finda worked on her hair for all of the morning: plaits so fine it was as though each comprised no more than six hairs. These she wove, three by three, into thicker braids and then again, until my mother’s head was covered in shining coils decorated here and there with tiny pale cowrie shells. In the afternoon she sat for two hours with the ends of her fingers resting in bowls of lali until the tips turned red. She sent me out to pick a new loofah from the tree, and I found a fine one. On the way home I held it close to my ear and shook it, listening to the sound the seeds made, like trickling water. Afterwards I emptied out the seeds and carried it to my mother. In her bedroom I rubbed her back and her arms with it, smoothed her with shea butter until her skin glowed deeply as a garden egg.

We were on the front balcony watching the darkness, watching for my father’s gifts to his wives to be delivered. Ibrahim and Idrissa pretended not to be interested. They were throwing the eyeless husk of a lizard at each other: dodging and ducking, laughing in their newly deep voices, forgetting that they were men. Our own garments were inside, finished by the tailor in the weeks before. I had picked out the cloth with my mother at the Fula shop. We watched as my father’s retainer came out from his room. We smothered our laughter as Ibrahim walked on the outside edges of his feet and made his legs bow and tremble, bending like the old man under the weight of the packages. We followed the retainer with our eyes as he passed through the compound, visiting one house and then the next.

Our mother did not come out. Instead I carried the package to her.

‘Open it, Mama!’ I cried.

She was sitting on the edge of her bed, shoulders hunched, feet on the floor pointing straight ahead. She looked as though she had been sleeping. I did a little jig. My mother didn’t even turn to look. She seemed bored by my playful ways. The light on her skin gave a dull cast, for a moment it seemed to me she was old. She was sitting with her hands across her stomach. The air rustled in her chest like dried leaves.

‘It’s late now. In the morning you’ll see it. Now it’s time to sleep.’

But it wasn’t time to sleep. The village was still awake. Out back, Finda was preparing the last of the dishes for the celebrations the next evening. My brain was whirling with excitement.

‘But I want to see it now. Let me see it.’ I made my voice into a whine, but with a threat. Like the noise a mosquito makes. My mother lay back and turned over, pulling the cover over her shoulders.

‘Tomorrow,’ she repeated. She twisted herself around to look at me over her shoulder, smiled at me in a way that made me feel less bad. ‘Send Finda for me.’

In the morning the air was cold and smelled of dust. I washed and slipped my new dress over my head. It was too long, but I had a year to grow into it. The cloth was shiny and stiff, not worn soft like my everyday clothes. I ran to find my mother.

That moment when I opened the door: in the dream, I see her again. She is wearing her new gown, standing before the opaque light spreading through the shutters behind her. Only, in the dream we are not in the old place, but in the bedroom of the house I lived in with my husband after I was married. Everything is as it was when I lived there as a young wife, even the heavy, woven bedspread we were given as a wedding gift and the animal skins on the floor that my husband brought back from the place where he worked.

And in the dream I am thinking, how can I be married already if this is my mother, so young?

Nothing had prepared me that morning for the sight of her in that dress. A long dress, made of printed cloth from Europe, embroidered with yellow and blue thread across her breast. Sleeves that billowed out and narrowed into cuffs fastened with real buttons. When she walked the pleated skirt brushed the floor. In those days the women wore simple tunics and on special days, like when it was somebody’s forty days, maybe an embroidered gown or a long skirt and tamule with sleeves that stopped at the elbow. I had never seen a dress such as this.

That day we bluffed better than anybody, walked in front of them all into the mosque. I felt the envy in their glances. I held my head so high. When we sat down at the back I could see my brothers in their new bubas practically under the alpha’s nose. My father was at the front wearing an agbada of pure white, with a red sash over his shoulder. At the back we didn’t pay much attention to the sermon; the women gossiped among one another. All talk that day was of each woman’s outfit. From the outset I knew my mother’s dress made the greatest impression of all. My mother was the very first to wear the new style like the Creole women in the big city.

That day! The best day of my life. The day every one of my father’s wives wished she was my mother. And every one of his daughters wanted to be me. I had no fears. No cares. I did not see how life could get any better. But then my luck changed like the wind. And my life turned around completely.

*             *             *

There were so many of us — children of my father. And yet I had few friends among my brothers and sisters when I was growing up, only Idrissa and Ibrahim who were my belly brothers. Mariama and her sisters were gone. Ya Janeba and Ya Sallay’s children kept to themselves: like their mothers they appeared not to welcome outsiders. My brothers, too, preferred their own company or that of the other young men around. And although they sometimes came and boasted to me of their exploits, we spent less and less time together.

Finda was my friend. I followed her as she went about her chores. When my brothers and I fought I ran to hide behind her. And it was she I asked the things I didn’t understand, when Idrissa and Ibrahim sniggered into cupped hands but refused to tell me what was funny. Finda didn’t tell me either, but she scolded them and that was good.

It was Finda I turned to when I noticed my mother growing taller.

I’ve told you my mother was a tall woman. And so she was. Only those days, every time I looked at her, she seemed higher than ever. Though my father was always telling me I had grown, I even began to imagine I was shrinking. I measured myself, scratching a mark on the outside wall of the house with a stick. One afternoon we were trapped by the rain, watching it fall out of the sky like sheets of glass, distorting the shapes of the houses and trees beyond, turning the ground into miniature rapids of red mud. I was helping Finda husk groundnuts, breaking open the soft, steaming shells and peeling the thin membrane from each of the nuts.

Finda set down her pan and told me my mother was sick.

I didn’t know what she meant. I asked the only question I could think of: ‘Why would that make her taller?’

‘Your mother isn’t taller. That’s just the way it looks.’

A wasting illness had stolen her appetite. And as her body drew in, so it seemed to lengthen.

‘When will she be better?’

‘Soon. God willing.’


‘Maybe not.’

‘Next tomorrow, then?’

‘Soon. God willing.’

The weeks rolled past, my mother took to her bed. The house was quiet. My brothers were out all day. I sat at home and waited for my mother to get well again. Sometimes I went to her room and sat with her. The room smelled of unaired clothing, sweat and something rotten. My mother was a black woman, but out of the sun her skin yellowed like a dried tobacco leaf. I tried to keep her company, to tell her the things that occupied my day but she seemed not to listen because too often she would laugh suddenly in the wrong place or ask a question that had nothing to do with the thing I was saying.

My father sent for a doctor. Somebody from the town. The man arrived by bicycle and carried a battered black bag, empty except for a stethoscope. Hilda was displeased when he pressed the cold metal disc against my mother’s breast, but she told me after that she did not protest because she knew my father had placed his faith in this man who was taking so much of his money. Under the doctor’s instructions we gave her one tablet aspirin each day and every other day Finda rubbed her body with mentholatum from the brown glass jar the doctor brought us from the pharmacist. We waited. My mother grew thinner.

My mother was ashamed of being sick, of the sour smell that rose from her and stained the air. Finda brought star lilies and placed them in my mother’s room and their thick scent mingled with the odour of sickness. As if contaminated by my mother’s shame my father stopped his visits. Instead, he arranged for her to visit the hospital in Lamakue. I was not allowed to go, though Finda went and my brothers too.

Idrissa described the big white building, surrounded by walls built of concrete breeze blocks and lawns of spiky grass, walkways wrapped in bougainvillea and morning glory. I imagined my mother would be happy there, among the flowers. Of course we expected miracles. Finda was the only one who had any doubts.

The others of us — her children — imagined our mother would come home restored to the way she was before.

My brother told me how they waited many hours to see the doctor. They were sent away at the day’s end with no choice but to sleep by the side of the road outside the hospital since they did not know a soul in that place. Our mother was weak and her breathing was troubling her. The dust from the road affected her greatly. Eventually a woman offered her a place to stay, though there was not room enough for Idrissa and Finda, who lay down under the eaves. In the morning they returned to resume their place in the queue. When their time came they found they did not understand the doctors’ language, nor they ours. They did not have the words to explain how my mother was so changed she had become another person. The doctors looked her over, made her open her mouth, and peered into the corners of her eyes. When the examination was over an orderly was brought in to translate. The man had a wife from our parts and could speak a little of our language. The beds were full, he explained. They should come back the next week or before that if she turned much worse.

It had taken nearly three days’ travelling to bring her there.

My mother sank into her bed until she merged with the bedclothes. Her spirit shrank and crept away to hide in the dark recesses of the house. For a long time things seemed to stay the way they were. My mother gently fading from life.

Two months passed. I was up early on a moist, warm morning. It had rained the night before and the ragged clouds had cleared from the sky. The sun shone strongly, patches of the ground steamed and the vapours rose up and danced in the sunlight.

Just then I forgot about that dark room and the bitter promise contained inside those walls. I felt happy. Every morning when I woke from dreaming, for a few moments I was peaceful until I remembered, and the sagging feeling returned. Once I saw Finda somewhere away from the house, standing in the street with some of her companions. They were laughing, some foolishness or other. I had walked past quickly, turning my head away. Keeping it turned even when Finda called out to me. But that day, when I noticed the rains were nearly over, I too managed to forget.

I passed my mother’s almond tree at the front of the house. I was responsible for watering it. The leaves looked withered and so I forgot whatever it was I had been doing and I hurried about my neglected chore. As I returned to the same spot I noticed some­thing about the tree. I saw it fleetingly, at first. The leaves were shaking, though the air was quite still, no wind. I saw the trunk, the branches — moving, writhing, darkly flexing like muscles on a labourer’s back. I stopped where I was, afraid to go any closer. It was as though the tree were alive, trying to pull its roots up from the pot. Finda, passing by with a tray of guavas, saw it too. She screamed and it was her scream more than anything else that caused me to start. We both dropped our loads at the same time and I remember how, for a moment, I watched the beads of water and fruit race across the dust like different sized marbles.

Remember how we used to build our chicken coops high off the ground to protect the hens from the mongoose? In another house a pair of chickens disappeared from their roosts, nothing left but bones and feathers. Not a mongoose. They always gnawed through the cane bars and carried the chickens away. No, not a mongoose. Something else.

And in yet another house something that glistened and boiled black in their cooking pot, where the remnants of a meal had disappeared. The whole compound heard the woman shriek when she raised the lid.

Ants. And ants, too, covering the almond tree, making the branches shimmer and sway before our eyes with their myriad glistening bodies and waving antennae. The two of us carried the pot to the river, it was heavy and the ants crawled up our arms and covered them with fiery bites. We lowered the tree into the water and the ants floated off, struggling on the surface of the water, drowning. Then we dragged the almond tree back to its place and trailed a ring of ash around the base.

It wasn’t as though nobody had ever seen driver ants before. Or lost a chicken or two. You could tell when they were coming, the cockroaches flying ahead of the marching columns trying to save themselves. They infested the roofs of houses and dropped down from the thatch. But the talk began all the same. And the way those people talk, sideways, out of the corners of their mouths, using some words to say what they do not really mean, and other words to say the things they do. And you cannot shout at them: ‘What do you mean? Say what you mean to say!’ because then they look at you as though you had let the sun get to your head. As though you were a demented dog jumping up to bark at phantoms. You have to force yourself to pretend that what is really there isn’t there at all. You go on with your life.

I heard it from Idrissa first. Idrissa heard it from Finda. I found her some hours later. She was removing the laundry from the bamboo poles where it hung to dry, folding each item neatly and adding it to the pile on her head. She told me not to worry myself about it. It was just foolish talk by superstitious folk.

And I believed her. Just words. I didn’t know then the damage words could do. You can’t feel them, or see them. Someone opens their mouth to speak. The words are there. And then they’re gone. Except of course they’re not, now they’re inside the other person’s head, sticking to their brain. I should have remembered the line from the song my mother sang: Words never die.

I know who stirred up the villagers’ imaginings. My father was a Muslim. He disdained such talk. Though you would be mistaken if you thought that meant he did not believe. And even I, in my time I’ve seen some things that could not be explained. The pothos brought in laws against it, and that served to convince people all the more. For who would go to the bother of outlawing something that did not exist? And Pa Yamba, I had seen his box covered in charms and sassa in his back room where I sneaked in once with the other children. He still divined. Only now he lit incense, opened a Koran and chanted words in Arabic to summon the Djinna Musa.

The ants. And the chickens all the way across the other side of the village. And people asked how the ants got to be right in front of her window like that. All over the almond tree that had been my father’s gift. And what about her sickness? Wasn’t that what happened when you double-crossed the spirit that gave you your good luck? Or else you played at something you didn’t understand? Wasn’t she a Madingo? And he, who had younger wives, still so besotted with her for all that time. Not beautiful. Not so clever. Not even from a ruling family. What did she possess to make him want her? Nothing. She was only a woman. The whispers, the truth, the lies, all muddled up until everything became an accusation; in their mouths even the simplest fact sounded like a crime.

They never stopped to ask about their own envy and their own jealousy. And what about a wrinkled old man without a wife who coveted a woman who belonged to his patron? And who used to be powerful but wasn’t anymore. What about that? I was too young to ask the questions myself or I would have shouted out loud at them all.

I was eating a pear. I remember the taste of it. The pear was overripe, oozing juice and yet sucking the saliva out of my mouth at the same time. It tasted faintly of medicine. I was sitting on the wall outside our house. Pa Yamba had been in my mother’s room for a long time. I knew my mother was dying because I had seen Saffie, the youngest of my father’s wives, come back from the forest carrying a basket full of the red fruits that grow on the Christmas bush. The fruit was inedible, though birds loved it. For humans they had only one use. When you dropped the fruits in water and left them there for a while they turned the water black and we used it for dyeing things. For dyeing our garments after a death.

I was there when Pa Yamba came out of my mother’s room. I saw the line of his lips, pressed together, not quite straight, a small upward curve of satisfaction. And the glow that shone out of those stagnant eyes. And the renewed sureness of his step, the impact of his heel on the dirt. The confidence of power regained. I knew just by looking at him that day that he had used my mother for his own ends.

There are some things I learned early on. When I was a child, even before I realised I had to make my own luck, one thing I worked out for myself was never to let people discover the things you knew. Keep them to yourself, because then you had the power and they did not. People will always talk loosely; they forget who is listening. In the same way I learned you must never ask a question. Because then people will guess there is something you wish to know. Keep quiet. And listen.

They said she confessed before she died.

And there was more.

So much more.

Ya Isatta’s unborn children. My mother had eaten them. And it was she who had been the cause of the flu that left all our chickens lying lifeless in the dust one morning. Even lime and pepper would not revive them. The small whirlwind that spoiled the rows of trees grown from the new kind of coffee bean — that was caused by her dabbling. Pa Yamba had extracted all of these things from her before she died.

Ya Isatta said they should bring back the red water. That was the way, a long time ago, they used to discover who was up to no good. By making them drink it, and the ones who proved to be witches died and that was that. And she demanded to know who would compensate her for her lost children. She said it before she saw me standing there. Afterwards she gave a kind of grunt, a noise halfway between a sniff and a snort. And then she took a great big breath, far more air than she needed. And she pushed it out through her nostrils noisily, her lips pursed together and her mouth turned down.

That moment I wished it were all true. I wished my mother had killed Ya Isatta’s children. I wished Ya Isatta would carry on inhaling until she sucked her own nose into her face, followed by her lips and her teeth and everything. I imagined her face disappearing like muddy water swirling down a hole until there was just a black space where her head should have been.

Those foolish women with their okra mouths, they did not dare talk that way in front of my father.

She was buried the same day. Finda told me my father took over the arrangements himself, making sure Finda bathed and anointed the body with the proper care, hiring readers to recite verses at the burial. Afterwards at the graveside, she said, he took some crumbs of the newly dug soil and placed them on his tongue. And he mourned her as though she had been a man, for forty whole days instead of seven.

Still, a man marries expecting to lose a wife or two. Wives pass on all the time bringing new lives into the world. Nobody dresses up all in black, just the hem of a lappa trailed in black dye. Relatives arrive to stay in her house, lay claim to her gowns, her cooking pots, her jewellery, even her little guitar which none could play but someone could sell.

And when the week is over everything is gone. Only her children are there still to be disposed of.

Ibrahim and Idrissa, they were the lucky ones. Not so long after my mother died, men appeared in the village, one a white man. They set up a table in the middle of the village next to the barrie. The potho sat behind it. The other one — a Koranko, so told the short scars that marked his cheekbones — stood next to him. The potho said he was the Queen’s representative, recruiting soldiers to fight in a war to save the Empire. The Empire to which every one of us belonged. The pair were travelling throughout the country en­listing fighters. They had orders from the Queen that each village must nominate at least six men to the cause.

A distance from the houses more men were cutting down bamboo poles and binding them with ropes, laying palm leaves on top. In the evening we watched the same men stripped to the waist, torsos glowing in the red evening light, marching up and down in rows and swinging their arms under the command of the Koranko, whose name was Saj Majoh.

Saj Majoh acted as translator for the white man. Under his command the recruits ran, jumped, lifted up logs, until he was satisfied they had the strength to become soldiers. In the evening he told the men who gathered around that they would be given as much food as they could eat and taught to march, to fire a gun and to read and write. He told them that in addition to all of this they would be paid three silver shillings every single week.

My brothers promised they would write as soon as they learned how. Nobody thought to ask how I would read their letters. They marched away, pounding the ground with such force they caused the earth to shake, singing a newly learned song at the tops of their voices. All the shouting and stamping disturbed the bats hanging in the branches of the cotton tree who loosened their claws, unfolded their wings and swirled up into the sky above the brigade of men, trailing them like an omen.

Ibrahim and Idrissa were being sent away to fight in a war, but still it made me envious to watch them go, and sad to think I was left all alone. The question nobody cared to answer was who would take care of me. My mother’s family had left without taking me with them for they were poor and thought I would be better cared for in my father’s house. Finda was just a servant; I was not her responsibility. Besides, I had seen how she acted around the sugar cane seller, standing with her hands on her hips, her back arched so her breasts and bottom jutted, denouncing the quality of his produce in a too, too loud voice. And I had seen the way he stood, resting on one leg with his chin pointed at her as though he relished the insults.

You know that fountain at the crossroads in the middle of town? Three pools of water and a fountain. Well, the pools are empty and the fountain doesn’t work, and now the concrete is all cracked. Built for a big conference twenty years ago. All those heads of state flew in. I remember. I remember standing outside the brand-new hotel, watching them arrive one by one in black limousines. The presidents and generals sitting in the back, waiting while their drivers climbed out and walked round to open the door for them. Then the driver had to close the door and walk all the way back around, start up the car and drive out. They could have just reached for the door handle. I didn’t think of that then. We were so impressed. The cars were all backed up. It took some of those big men twenty minutes just to get inside the hotel. And that fountain never worked properly from the start. It was painted in the colours of the national flag. The pools of water were supposed to trickle into each other.

This is what I think about luck. Luck is like adjoining pools of water, each flowing into the other. One pool might be dry, the next pool overflowing. It’s the same with luck. Some people have everything. Other people have nothing. The people who have plenty just seem to get it all, all the luck that ought by rights to belong to someone else. That’s the way it was with me. Always the luck just seems to drain out of my pool and into somebody else’s.

The first time I had this thought I was floating on the water in a canoe. I was on my back staring at the sky with my eyes shut, the sun a vast orange ball against a black sky. I squeezed my eyelids harder shut and watched the colours change: bursts of blue, then violet, then red, like fireworks.

Somewhere Ya Isatta was calling my name. I could not have heard her from where I was, but I knew it anyway. I knew she would be calling me to run with a message, or fetch her a cup of water, or help her search for her head-tie or prayer beads because that was all she ever did, all she ever had done since she moved into my mother’s house.

When I opened my eyes the world had turned black and white, blurred, like a charcoal drawing somebody had tried to rub out. Sketched trees and mangroves, branches overhanging me black against the sky, and the grey, twisted trunk of the tree the canoe was tied to.

I sat up and stared at the water. I saw my own reflection and gazed at it for a second before the movement of the canoe in the water caused my face to wrinkle suddenly. The sun glared down on the water, but here and there, where the shadows of the trees fell, it was possible to see right down into the yellowish depths to the mud and weeds growing on the bottom. A shoal of tiny fish darted past, zigzagging, flashing as their scales reflected the sun­light. I watched them go. In less than a day the fishing season would start again.

The canoe floated upstream of the dam the men had built across the water. The dam was built every year during the dry season when the water was low. When the rains came the stream swelled and the level of the water above the dam rose. The fish spawned and grew fat, trapped behind the wall of logs. On the last day the men set their traps: long, conical baskets pushed into the dam wall at intervals. They stuffed the ends with rice and the fish swam down to feed and were trapped. In the morning, at the same time as the women prepared to enter the water with their nets, the men would come down and heft the baskets out of the water. Baskets brimming with fish. Fish for the evening meal. Fried fish for breakfast. Fish for smoking in giant kilns. Fish for the days of hunger, when the river was barren as the desert.

As I stared into the water I thought about my mother. I thought about the way Pa Yamba had tricked her when she was dying and I thought of all the people who chose to believe the lies because it suited them that way. I thought about her life, now overshadowed by the manner of her death. I thought about all these things. And as I sat there — just like that, I thought of a way to turn my luck around.

I crawled out of the boat and made my way through the tangle of trees to the edge of the dam. The ground was muddy. I nearly caught my foot on roots many times. Tiny crabs hanging from the branches dropped down and clung to my clothing. I worried about the water snakes that liked to disguise themselves among the roots of trees. I pulled my lappa up and knotted it up around my chest and I slid into the water on the other side of the dam. I waded in until the water came up to my chest.

It wasn’t easy. Especially with the first one. I was hampered by the water and my feet slid in the mud. So then I found a piece of wood and pushed it in between the edge of the basket and the logs, and in that way I levered the basket out. The water came gushing through the hole I had made, and with it dozens of the fish caught behind the logs.

Thrashing carp and smooth, whiskered catfish, curled eels, snapping tigerfish and snouted barbs, fish spotted, striped, scaly, smooth. Water and fish poured over me and almost knocked me over. I put out my hand and touched them as they swam past, stroking their sleek bodies with my fingertips. The next moment they were gone. I stood there breathing for a while, waiting to see if anybody who happened to be down by the river had noticed. But all was quiet except for the faint hum of insects and the sound of water pouring through the hole in the dam.

The rest came easily. And by the time I reached the other side the dam was beginning to break up. Small logs dislodged them­selves and floated downstream after the traps and the fish. I pushed at the remaining heavy logs and they felt light. I thought probably it was too dangerous to swim back the way I had come, so I made my way up the opposite bank and crossed farther upstream where the water was deeper but the river was narrower. And I walked back home through the rice fields and allowed my clothes to dry on the way.

Of course they all thought it was her. My mother — come back for revenge. Whatever else they did or did not believe, there was not a soul in the village who dared defy a ghost. And Pa Yamba made an offering to try to appease her. I laughed inside, especially when Ya Isatta began to tell me how much like my mother I was, trying to flatter me. I just bowed my head modestly and thanked her, never looking at her directly. But I could feel the big yell growing in my chest, bursting to come out. How I wanted to throw back my head and open my mouth wide and shout at her, shout at them all and tell them it was me. It was me. It was me who let the fish out.

But I knew better than that. Life hadn’t been fair to me. I kept quiet. And that day I learned how to turn my luck around.

About the Author 

Aminatta Forna is a writer. She was born in Scotland, raised in Sierra Leone and spent periods of her childhood in Zambia, Iran, and Thailand. She holds dual British and Sierra Leonian nationality. She is the author of a memoir and two novels. Her most recent novel, The Memory of Love, was winner in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award 2011 and shortlisted for the Orange Prize and Warwick Prize. The Devil That Danced on the Water, a memoir of her dissident father and Sierra Leone, was short-listed for the 2003 Samuel Johnson Prize, and her first novel Ancestor Stones was winner of the 2007 German Literaturpreis, the Hurston Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction 2007, and the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize 2010 in the United States.


Illustration by Andrea Arroyo