Editor’s Note: Hussani Abdulrahim was a semifinalist for the Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest.
“How did your husband die?”
“He took ill. For twenty days his bed owned him. Then one morning, we rose and met his door ajar. His spirit had walked away. We were four. We all mourned.”
“How many times have you opened the door?”
“You have been careless,” Baba declared.
“You said you want him to last. Mud man is hard to die. And it is cheap. If I should say make him from gold or silver like the rich widows do, can you afford it?”
Alheri tried to look away, but she knew the effort was futile. Once Baba had his eyes locked on yours, you couldn’t break away, no matter how hard you tried, until he freed you. This was key to Baba’s divination. He said the eyes were windows that led to a world of their own. Only the gifted could decipher that world. And Baba was gifted.
Baba let her off by shifting his gaze. He had seen what he wanted. She sighed and looked at the wooden floor while her heart strangely quaked.
“You’ve being careless,” he pronounced again as though he meant to injure her with the allegation or drive home a nebulous point.
Alheri said nothing. She simply focused on an ant prowling through across the floor.
“What do you want?” he inquired, the very thing she’d being waiting eagerly to hear. Alheri looked up at once.
“I want to open the door again. I want to bring him back. And I want him to last longer this time.”
“But you know that with each creation, the original character continues to depreciate.”
“I know,” Alheri replied.
“Why do you want to bring him back again?” Like a detective in search of a motive.
“I love him. And here, where men do not look the way of widows, one is filled with desires,” she replied shyly.
Alheri knew that lying to Baba was like trying to hold water in a basket. Baba scratched his hairless head and shifted on his low stool.
“Look into my eyes,” he commanded.
“Mud it is. This time, you’ll make him from mud,” he informed, and then looked away quickly as though gazing at her was unbearable, like having the sun stand before you.
Alheri did not look away, instead, her mouth hung slightly open in a bewildering fashion.
“Mud! You said mud!”
“Yes, I said mud.”
“What woman, no matter how poor, recreates her man from mud, from filth?”
Baba enjoyed a short laugh before explaining. “You said you want him to last. Mud man would only require patches when cracks appear. Mud man is hard to die. And it is cheap. If I should say make him from gold or silver like the rich widows do, can you afford it?”
Now Alheri saw the reason. But how would she tell her friends, co-widows, and all those women who made their husbands from fancy materials that hers was made from mud? They’d certainly laugh and make jest of her. They’d gossip about her poverty, how she was a disgrace and had no regard for the memory of her dead husband. How worthless she had turned him and how it was like creating him without his genitals. What use was such a man? If you love him, why make him from mud, from dirt? When the three women who were married to him before her learnt about how she had dishonored their husband, they would harass her and demand that she destroy her creation and find a more fitting material.
“Get pure mud from the lips of Ruwan Kurma. Add little salt. Then you mold him.”
“What day would be best to do it?”
“Talata is a good omen. At night, but you must finish before dawn and be careful not to exaggerate things. You know too well what such might cause,” he cautioned.
• • •
Now, everywhere you went, wherever you turned, a woman, tired of longing, tired of the coldness of her bed at night, was making her man, shaping his eyes and nose, sturdy arms and groin.
That night, Alheri couldn’t sleep. The enormity of the task before her made her heart quicken. She was well aware that any slight mistake could spell doom. On her return, she had informed Goddiya, her dead husband’s third wife, of her visit to Baba. Of all her husband’s wives, Goddiya was the easiest and most trustworthy. Alheri had told Goddiya of her plans but had lied when she said she had yet to decide on the material. Alheri knew it was foolish to divulge everything to another woman no matter how close the friendship, but Goddiya only had kind words.
“Alhe, you’re a strong woman. To be a young widow is not easy. May the Big One help you.”
“May he help us all.”
Alheri stood up and strode to her little window. The night was restless. The darkness seemed to roam unevenly like smoke billowing through a kitchen’s roof. Each time it seemed a fair patch was about to break into light, the dimness returned as swift as a pendulum in search of balance.
In the night sky, the moon was up there with her twinkling children. Alheri tried to conceive a pattern, but the stars were too numerous and disorganized that every time she tried to make out her husband’s figure, one odd star would impede her progress and the shape would distort and fizzle out. She sighed. Only the Maker knew the cosmos inside out.
Alheri remembered her grandmother. When Alheri was younger, she would sit for hours listening to the owl-eyed hag.
“Child, during my time, men weren’t soft. Women knew their place. You think the times are changing for the better, because you women now mold men whenever and with whatever you choose? Why do men think that marrying a widow is a bad thing to do in the first place? It’s their jealous and overprotective mothers who have drummed this ugly thing into their heads! Now women make their own men and have turned it into a strange contest. But you think it’s a woman’s world just because you now make men?”
Goddiya saw things differently. She felt that women, more than ever, wielded power. There was some kind of independence in the fact that now they could make replicas of the men whom they had loved, and these only did the bidding of their creator and dared not hesitate or disobey. What was this if not power and dominion? A kind which the women of old had no knowledge of. Now, everywhere you went, wherever you turned, a woman, tired of longing, tired of the coldness of her bed at night, was making her man, shaping his eyes and nose, sturdy arms and groin.
Alheri didn’t entirely agree with Goddiya. All the times she had recreated Hakuri, she had treated him with the utmost respect. She had not seen him as a puppet or toy to be controlled. She didn’t take away his free will as other women did. She could never make Hakuri some kind of slave who must do whatever she wished. But perhaps that was the root of her problems.
The first time she made Hakuri, it was from soft plywood. He only lasted for two weeks. On the day he died, she returned from the market to find that he had burnt himself. He must’ve become fascinated with her matchbox. This is how it was with replicas—mundane things easily caught their fancy. If she had deprived him of his free will, she would have returned to find him where and how she had left him.
The second replica she made was from thick forest mahogany. He lasted only a month. That one fell ill. This one was dumb and so couldn’t say what ailed him, if he even knew. Perhaps, Alheri thought, she had made some unknown error in his crafting. But after his demise, she found that termites had eaten deep into his body and feasted on his insides, having entered through the sole of his left foot. Such a banal point of anatomy.
The third time, Alheri had turned to cheap cotton for succor. Her cotton man only lasted for two weeks again. The day he died, it rained heavily. She was away at her stall in the market. Her leaky roof had permitted so much water that Hakuri had gotten soaked. He had swollen and exploded. A devastated Alheri mourned again. After that, she vowed not to create Hakuri again. He deserved no such torture. But she broke that vow. Twice more she had recreated him and twice she had failed. What was her resolve in the face of so many women trumpeting their successes?
Now she was preparing to try again, to open the door for her beloved to come in. To feel the warmth of his breath. To see his biceps glisten with sweat as he hovered above her, guiding him, while she vanished into the world in his piercing eyes. Two bodies merging, becoming one.
• • •
She knew him well. Even the mark that ran across his cheek where a leopard’s claws had found him—she placed it. When she finished, the world was still filled with the restlessness of nocturnal creatures.
The next night, having gotten the prescribed mud, Alheri bolted her door and set to work. She wasn’t afraid. Even if she was, she didn’t show it. She dipped her hands in the basin of wet mud. First, she shaped his head the way she remembered it. His lean face followed, his short neck that always seemed to pose too much trouble for his broad shoulders. His chest. His arms. And down to his feet. She knew him well. Even the mark that ran across his cheek where a leopard’s claws had found him—she placed it. When she finished, the world was still filled with the restlessness of nocturnal creatures. The wind growled outside. There was time before dawn would saunter in.
She brought out the bowl containing Hakuri’s ashes. This was the most important ingredient. Alheri blew ash upon the face, the groin, and made dots where the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears were. To complete the ritual, she whispered into his right ear: “Hakuri, elephant killer, king of my heart, I’ve opened the door to life, come back to me. May you own your voice and your piercing eyes. May you love corn porridge and stockfish. May our nights be like the first one. Elephant killer, the door is open, Breathe and breathe well.”
That night, Alheri dreamt. It was a strange dream. In it, she found herself in a strange realm filled with smudgy trees that vanished only to reappear suddenly. Then she saw a herd of goats led by a young boy. She watched from a safe spot as this boy who led his meek herd reached an intersection. He decided to go right but to his utter dismay, his herd began to swerve left. He drew out his whip and lashed mercilessly, bringing them to a standstill. Then the impossible happened. His herd trampled him and began to devour with strange jaws. Fear overcame her. But then a deep voice roused her from the dream.
“Heri! Heri, wake up!”
There he was—her man, roused from deep slumber for the sixth time. The dark sheen of his hair and the profundity of his eyes—whose insides seemed more like a distant world—were as she knew them.
“Who am I?” he asked.
“You’re Hakuri, elephant killer, king of my heart, lord of my body.”
She wasn’t surprised by this even though he’d called her Heri. His memory was like an empty basin waiting to be filled with the waters of happenings; waiting for some recollection of the true past life he once had.
“I’m yours. My heart’s your throne and my body, your palace.”
Then she began sobbing. He was every inch human. He was every inch the man whom she had loved except that his skin was of mud. He approached, sat by her on the rough wooden bed and took her hand. She shuddered. It was not fear. It was more not knowing how to react or what to expect. His mud skin was the smoothest thing she had ever encountered. She compared it to the enamel bowl wherein she stored his ash and the little gourd holding local gin.
“You’ve come to me, my lord. Please stay. Don’t go back again.”
“I’ll stay with you,” he promised, locked in the embrace of his new life.
A week later, Alheri summoned the urchins for their blessings. It was the way. If the urchins’ prayers were accepted by the Big One, the replica would last longer. This ceremony also announced to the community that a woman had taken matters into her own hands again.
That day, Alheri shined her hair with coconut oil and aloe. The henna patterns on her hands seemed to rock back and forth like leaves on trees intoxicated by the wind. She cooked enough corn porridge.
The urchins sang their goodwill song:
And the women sang theirs too:
• • •
Their first night was like a page from the book of her fantasies. At least, it started well, him teasing her, and her feigning ignorance of the art. Then he drew her closer to himself.
“Heri, you know I’ve loved you and still do?”
“Is that so, why not show me that you really do?”
Now he kissed her. His breath was a lazy gust of warm air against her skin. His lips lingered at the junction where neck met shoulder, where the flames of desire sought dry wood to chew on. Alheri shut her eyes, desire welling within, parting her lips ever so slightly with feeling. And like in her dreams, Hakuri hovered above her, muddy muscles smooth, glistening in the streaks of moonlight peeping through cracks. Eyes closed, she could still see his in the dark—sharp, as though searching into her, asking questions about things that couldn’t be answered. Alheri was no longer there in that little room which looked ugly, and uglier with solitude and dissatisfaction, in that sleepy town where widows once had no life until one woman decided to change the scheme of things. She was somewhere else, mingling with stars, comets blazing past, the moon with her smudgy freckles—a captivating wonder.
In a swift moment, she was crashing from the heights. Her eyes flew open in apprehension. Hakuri had rolled away to her side, clutching an arm, whimpering from great pain. Desire vanished. Panic took over.
“Hey! What happened?”
“My arm, I’m dying!”
Quickly she got the mud bowl and began to patch him up.
• • •
“Who gives the frog’s food to a toad and expects good results?”
One night, Hakuri was woken by a strange thirst. His throat felt like a scorched desert. Alheri was asleep. He knew where the water pot was. Just a single gulp, he felt as though he’d swallowed a ball of fire. As he staggered, sweating, he stumbled against a basket of dishes. At once, she was beside him, as though all along she’d been concealed in the dark, waiting for an emergency. Her eyes darted. The race of her heartbeat was audible.
“Elephant killer, what did you do?”
“Heri, my inside is burning. What poison do you keep in that pot?”
He felt like weeping. And with every effort he made to speak, the pain grew. Alheri was overcomed by fear. The thought of losing Hakuri again filled her with terror. She wouldn’t allow it to happen. She wasn’t ready to mourn him again. Most women, especially the rich ones, didn’t really get worked up over replicas due to the ease with which they’d be remade, but Alheri was different. Each loss worsened her feeling of grief. She opened the door and felt the night’s pleasant air hurry in like a flock of tiny birds escaping from danger. She was determined not to fail again.
No creature was in sight as a restless Alheri picked her way to Baba’s door. Where else could she seek help if not from this man? Baba emerged holding a weak lantern. His face revealed that he wasn’t at all pleased.
“Woman, what brings you at this deadly hour?”
“My husband, he’s dying!”
“The mud replica I made.”
“He drank water and his body won’t accept it. His stomach has become a pit of fire!”
“Who worries so over a mere replica?” the old man asked somewhat agitated.
“What should I do?”
“Who gives the frog’s food to a toad and expects good results?”
With this, Baba turned and retreated into his house.
Alheri knew what to do. Quickly she returned to her room and met a near-lifeless Hakuri. With shaky hands, she poured water into the mud bowl and stirred until it was a slurry. Then she forced it down his throat, silently praying to the Big One to keep him alive.
• • •
“Who’s done this to me? People of the world, who’s done this to me?”
One afternoon, an urchin who knew Alheri rushed up to her stall and informed her that her room was on fire. She left everything behind. There was no time to even lock her stall. With every second, Hakuri burned. Alheri felt her world crashing as she nimbly swept past sweaty buyers and sellers, oblivious of their stares and ignoring those who called out to her.
The only thing on her mind was how to save Hakuri. She knew what had happened. She knew that, somehow, Hakuri’s other widows have found out the true nature of her replica. They must’ve felt enraged that she had made their man from something as lowly and disgusting as mud. That Hakuri, the elephant killer, known far and wide for his hunting exploits, deserved no such dishonor.
She reached her household only to find a mob marveling at the spectacle of fire smooching wood, blackening the thin roof and walls. She pushed and shoved through the transfixed bodies, eyes glazed with tears, exhausted and perspiring, breath coming out in ragged spates.
One man who noticed her grabbed her arm. The crowd turned. She struggled to break free.
“My husband, he’ll die. I have to save him!” she cried.
“Don’t go in there. You can’t go in. Is it not a replica?”
“Who’s done this to me? People of the world, who’s done this to me?”
No one knew how the fire had started. Before it could be put out, the roof caved in, and it was night when Alheri was finally able to poke through the rubble. The only thing left standing were the walls, albeit so blackened that one couldn’t tell their true nature, blending so well with the rampaging night. Something moved, or so Alheri thought, beneath a thick pile of charred mess. She advanced, her lantern not much use in the ruins. She pushed and pulled. And there he was, her mud man. He was still alive! How did he survive? He was darker now, like the blackened walls. Sorrow spread through her; a certain chill she’d never before felt. She wiped away the ash from his face, which was not cracked. There was a large dent near his jaw. But there was no sign of blood. Replicas have no blood. Replicas do not bleed.
“What’ve they done to you?” she sobbed.
She heard him groan, his voice hardly a whisper.
“Heri, I don’t want this. I don’t want to live again.”
She shivered. Her hands vibrated as though they had control over themselves. Tears stung her cheeks.
“Don’t say that. You’ll live again. I’ll mend you. I won’t let you die. Elephant killer, you promised to stay. You promised!”
She tried pulling him out from underneath the pile, but the arm she dragged and dragged broke off. He groaned.
“Heri, don’t you see the death in not dying? This pain is fire. This pain is death itself.”
Alheri paused, then knelt beside him and wept again.
“I never wanted you to suffer. Forgive me, I didn’t want it this way.”
She sniffled, wiped the tears with a dirty hand. She knew that after this, she wouldn’t be able to make him again. She wouldn’t bear it. So she took hold of the other arm and detached it. And with shaky hands, she detached his head and flung it viciously at the wall. Its shards kissed the ground like glass. Hakuri’s headless body went limp. And she sang to herself:
She then picked a good bowl, went to where she’d shattered his head, and filled the bowl with the fragments she could salvage.
“It’s love that opens the heart of a woman. It’s this same love that shuts it.”
And with the bowl, a much devastated Alheri stumbled out and vanished into the yawning mouth of night.