It was Thursday, market day in Asmara, Eritrea, the country boarded by the Red Sea. Seated on a blue chair on a chilly afternoon, Mr. Giovanni, an Italian expatriate in a black country, observed Maria from his villa’s rooftop with displeasure as she rinsed beer bottles. He didn’t know why he disliked the girl. The eighteen-year-old girl lived next door with her Aunt Bilena in a much smaller house where her aunt surreptitiously sold cheap beer, whiskey, ouzo, and honey wine to cheap men who wandered in and out of her small living room. Maria was tall, sturdy, and soft. Her waist, which seemed to grow daily, was layered with fat, and when she walked, she pounded the ground with certainty.
Maria, sensing his gaze, looked up. She waved at Mr. Giovanni, her fat face like a child’s, she grinned from ear to ear. Maria’s mother passed away when she was six years old. To Mr. Giovanni’s dismay, her aunt took her into the establishment, which was not a home for a child. When she was eight or nine years old, Maria often stood outside his hardware store and waved at people. Mr. Giovanni, who often regarded her between customers, asked her once, haltingly in her native language, Tigrinya, why she waved at strangers. She didn’t remember saying goodbye to her Mama as she soared through the thick clouds to be with baby Jesus, she told him, so she smiled and waved farewell to strangers—especially those who passed their door, as you never knew when they might go to heaven and meet up with her Mama and tell her they saw her daughter smiling and happy. So, she stood outside and waved at people—even at him, she explained impishly. Maria figured since he was old, he would probably see her Mama sooner than most people.
From the surface, Mr. Giovanni’s walled villa looked like any other villa in the city, except it had a small, gated hardware store on the first floor guarded by a scrawny brown German shepherd, Lupe. Lupe barked at characters who sauntered up and down the road; his snout wedged between the dark green metal. Maria suspected he was shielding his treats hidden in the villa’s backyard. If she stood close to the white and pink roses and the shrubs and bushes that divided their backyards, she would often notice Lupe digging for bones, hidden by Mr. Giovanni under the shades of wisteria and jacaranda trees scattered across the backyard.
Maria, who was engaged to be married to Tarefe, had never been inside Mr. Giovanni’s villa or hardware store. He crammed the store with plumbing supplies, small ladders, electrical equipment, mops and brooms made of grass and straw, a collection of paints, brushes, locks, hinges, gardening tools, and other household items. Mr. Giovanni did not permit the natives inside his store; he didn’t trust them. Customers transferred cash through the metal gate and lingered outside until Mr. Giovanni retrieved their items and cracked the gate just so to pass a can of paint or a mop as their dark skin glistened in the mid-day sun. But after the sun downed, Maria had seen women show up at his gate frequently. Mr. Giovanni would let them in after he chained Lupe to the front entrance. When she was younger, Maria had seen her aunt enter the white man’s store. Her aunt disappeared through the gate in the evening and would reappear in the early morning. After returning home, her aunt closed the bar and stayed in her room for few days until she got better. Later, she would open the bar, and things would return to normal. Maria had wanted to ask her aunt why she slept so long after visiting Mr. Giovanni’s hardware store or why he only women allowed in his store at night, but she was young then, and thoughts and images fled from Maria’s head.
From his squat, Mr. Giovanni saw Maria’s life unfold over the years: when she came to live with her aunt, and when she ceased going to school after the fourth grade; and when her aunt taught her how to make honey wine and local beer by mixing sorghum and millet and other grains. In the evenings, Maria escorted customers through the courtyard to the latrine behind their home, waddling back and forth through the courtyard. One evening, Mr. Giovanni saw her kiss a young man who frequented the bar. Several weeks ago, he witnessed the silent introduction of Maria and Tarefe by their families, and their small engagement party set out in their backyard. The gifts Tarefe presented to her in front of her aunt, his mother, and brother: a dress, a pair of red shoes, and two small gold bracelets. And how she, with her long black hair tied in a red ribbon and her caramel skin sweating in the blistering sun, stood up in the middle of the engagement ceremony, her heavy body heaving. He glimpsed as she hit her forehead as if she tried to yank a thought, an idea, a message to convey––as if she had overlooked something important. But nothing came out of her mouth, and he saw her give up and sit next to her fiancée. Her fate sealed.
Mr. Giovanni came to live in the city thirty years ago in a roundabout way after dropping out of medical school in Milan when his fiancé and parents were killed in the car he was driving. Drunk. After recovering from his injuries, he sold his parent’s villa nestled in Portofino overlooking the Liguria Sea in Genoa. He roamed France, Spain, and Greece in search of something concrete. Unable to find it, he joined friends on safaris: Nairobi, Tanzania, and South Africa. He stood under acacia trees and watched orange and purple sunsets spill through their branches. Itinerant, he traveled to Marrakesh, Casablanca, Tunis, and Tripoli until he made his way to the horn of Africa, where he discovered other Italian who had settled in Asmara. Remnants of colonialism. Then, he loved the city, on high terrain, for its restraint, though it never dazzled or promised him anything. He purchased a villa and painted it yellow. The villa, vivid and bold, had a rooftop. Green shutters grasped all the windows. Over time, the villa took on the hue of almond white, losing its audaciousness, and blended in with homes occupied by blacks. Mold had formed on the sidewalls, and one by one, year after year, most of his Italian friends had closed their shops and lavish homes and returned to Italy. He received letters from some of them. His store was not making much money, his supplies were outdated, and his equipment rusted. He could open a better store anywhere in Italy and be profitable, they advised him. And it was true. But he didn’t like his birthplace anymore. On the occasions he returned home on short business trips or vacations, he seemed ordinary and flat. No one arranged a table for him at restaurants or cafes. Here, he didn’t wait at gas stations or bakeries—no matter how many people stood in line ahead of him. He felt taller, and his gait bulged when he walked in the streets. No, his whiteness was not lost on him. And there were days still when his limited medical teaching was fruitful in his adopted country. He was indispensable here, especially to the women. They needed him to make them intact again, suitable. And so, he lingered for those occasions, settled above the hardware store in one of the larger rooms or on the rooftop, where he maintained a watch over the shifty bar next door. When he acquired the villa, the bar had not been there.
Maria gathered the beer jugs and stand. He noticed her bearing. Had she grown fatter since yesterday? He marveled. Maria was oblivious to Mr. Giovanni’s disapproval from above. It was market day, and she would see Samael, her boyfriend, not her fiancé, Tarefe.
Maria had only met Tarefe once. At their engagement luncheon, he told her details about himself. He drove a bus and lived with his mother and brother. And, just like her, he did not know his father. After the wedding, she would move with him to Massawa, near the sea, where he drove tourists from Asmara to the coast. But he didn’t tell her what everybody else already knew about him: he drank too much. And he often came home at nights without his shirt or pants, having exchanged his clothes for a free beer after he ran out of money. He often slept in the large hen house after he stumbled home drunk, demanding to know his father, calling his mother a whore. “See this?” he would ask, shirtless, holding a plastic fork he carried with him. “Is my father a fork? I don’t think so! I must have come from somewhere!” He would holler. And he didn’t tell Maria that his neighbors called him Mr. Fork behind his back because he carried one in his pocket at all times, as a reminder that he came from somewhere. Maria learned about those things from Samael after he discovered her aunt had arranged her engagement to Tarefe. When Maria told her what she had learned about Tarefe, her aunt scolded her. Tarefe was the best she could find for her. Their people were equal. Maria had experience with men like Terefe who drank; she knew how to manage them, she said with enthusiasm. Besides, marriage would make her a normal woman, respectful. “Not a bar woman, like me. Or your mother,” her aunt told her. Maria wanted to say she was normal already––she had a proper boyfriend who loved her, but Maria just grinned and nodded. She didn’t want her aunt to know about Samael yet, whom she had met before her engagement to Tarefe. She loved Samael, and she was confident he would want to marry her soon.
Today, she will speak to him about their future.
Maria filled the bottles with honey wine and hurried to serve three men seated in the dimly lit room. She could only serve refreshments. Her aunt, who kept a small black pouch under her bosom, collected all the customers’ money. She tallied the money they made each night and locked it in the drawer in her bedroom. Once, when Maria was thirteen years old, she accepted coins from guests when her aunt was in her bedroom. Her aunt did that frequently... disappear with a man from the bar. And when her aunt returned, her hair rumpled, smelling fishy and spoiled, she slapped her. “Never, never accept money from customers Maria, their coin is dirty.” Her aunt’s voice snapped. “It will darken your soul. Do you understand me?” she had asked her, seizing her shoulders.
Maria waited in the hallway for her aunt to hand her grocery money. She purchased the same things on Thursdays: meat, red onions, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, jalapeno peppers, lettuce, kale, bananas, and mangoes.
In the street, she saw a group of uniformed girls heading home from her old school. Maria had to repeat things twice or three times at school and couldn’t keep up, and the nuns called her stupid. She failed fourth grade. Twice. Even though Maria was more significant than the other girls in her class, they often caught her off guard, called her a whore for living in a bar, and beat her. The girls waited for her at the corner near her house with matches in the mornings and threatened to burn her books if she didn’t give them her lunch: bread with jelly and a poached egg. If she refused, they pulled her hair and punched her, leaving marks on her face. One day, her aunt told Maria that she would beat her worse than the girls did if she came home crying again. “Stand still and fight, Maria. Show your worth. Those girls aren’t better than you; eventually, they will join us at the bottom.” She recalled her aunt telling her. One morning, Maria grabbed one girl from the back, dragged her to the ground, and jumped on her. She scratched her face and slapped her repeatedly, sitting on top of her. When the girl tried to get up, Maria grabbed dirt and threw it in the girl’s eyes. She ran all the way home, laughing and scared, her heart pounding. When the girl’s mother came to complain to her aunt, standing tall, Maria admitted it. Her aunt said there was no point in schooling; the girls in their family were never good at it.
Maria didn’t mind helping her aunt at the bar. She poured drinks without spilling, wipe tables, and cleaned the room down after closing. Each morning, and sometimes during the day, Maria made her aunt’s bed before her aunt escaped to her room with a guest. Maria’s room, small and dark, was in the back and led up the steps to the gray outhouse courtyard’s corner. She escorted drunk men to the outhouse, so they would not fall flat on the courtyard steps. They would lean on Maria’s shoulder. Some would pinch her butt. Or clutch her breasts.
Her aunt rarely entered her room or the courtyard, where Maria did all the cooking and laundry, training to be an appropriate bride. She was happiest when Samael, who sold fruit at the market, came for drinks. Samael was not old; he never got terribly drunk like other men. He beamed at Maria and patted her hand when she handed him his drink, sitting next to her, his thigh touching hers. He didn’t hurt her when she escorted him to the outhouse, except one time when her aunt was busy with guests, and the music was playing. In the courtyard, Samael turned around and kissed Maria on her mouth. As he stood close to her, Maria picked up the laughter from the front of the house, and she heard the drums thumping as Samael kissed her again. She didn’t see Mr. Giovanni watching them from his rooftop. Maria didn’t know what to do; no one had kissed her before. She had seen babies being kissed. So, she kissed him on his cheeks, in the traditional way, not on the mouth.
He pushed her against the wall, pulled her dress up, and pushed her underwear aside, and thrust himself inside her, hurting her. He rubbed her breasts hard, kissed her again, moving up and down and breathing hard. Then he stopped. Maria told him, with tears in her eyes, he hurt her. Samael held her head, kissed her on the mouth, and told her it wouldn’t hurt the next time. He smiled and hugged her; no one had hugged her before. He pulled her hand and placed it next to his heart.
“Feel my heart,” he said. His heart was beating fast. And then he moved Maria’s hand to her heart.
“Now feel your heart too,” he said, smiling. Maria’s heart was about to shoot out of her chest. She smiled, looking at his face next to hers.
“See, we’re the same. Our hearts are like this,” Samael said, crossing two fingers. “I promise you it won’t hurt next time because we’re like one.” He kissed her again and told Maria to put her arms around him. He led her to her room and laid her down tenderly on the bed; it was all so confusing because when he caressed her nipples again, it made her feel good inside and outside. And when he pushed himself inside again, it wasn’t painful, and their hearts beat fast together. When he finished moving, he trembled, and he asked her to hold him.
“That’s what boyfriends and girlfriends do. You’re my girl now.” He held her tight. “We need each other.” Maria didn’t know why, but she didn’t want him to stop. No, they had to, he told her. Her aunt might need her help in the bar. For months, he came on Thursday afternoons. When Samael went to the outhouse, she followed. But she never took Samael’s coin. She had promised her aunt.
Maria struggled to walk fast in her red flip-flops as her heavy body, adorned in a loose, long floral blue frock, waddled. A blue scarf covered her hair, and on her left shoulder, looped around her thick arm, a green purse dangled over her heavy breast. Samael had given her the green handbag. He snuck it in the house, and when they were alone in her room, he pulled it out from his under his shirt and surprised her. Maria had never received a gift, and she carried the bag to the market every Thursday, where she would see Samael selling fruit. But Maria had not seen Samael the last three Thursdays at the market. He stopped coming to the bar after discovering her hardened belly while he was on top of her. Samael pressed into her stomach. He drew himself up on one elbow and looked down at her. He asked her if she was pregnant, which upset Maria.
“Are you with a baby?” he had asked her loudly, irritated. Maria didn’t know what to say. He didn’t look happy. Samael touched her stomach again, and he held the firmness that had formed around her belly. He got up and dressed without smiling. He didn’t kiss her forehead the way he used to after they made love. He left, disgusted looking. The same look the school girls gave her before they pounced on her calling her a whore.
Maria, breathing hard, finally made it to Samael’s fruit stall. She was confident he would be there with his mother this time, selling mangoes, pomegranate, watermelon, bananas, oranges, papayas, and cactus fruit. He always gave her free cactus fruit. He would peel it with a small knife he carried in his back pocket, and the yellow juice would run down his hands before she grabbed it greedily. Sometimes he gave her two. And she didn’t have to pay him.
Maria searched for him behind the pile of mangoes. But she saw only his mother seated on a small stool, watching over a hill of yellow, green, orange, and red fruits. Maria stood a few feet away from the mangoes, ripe and sour and sweet-smelling. Her eyes darted back and forth as she stretched her neck. She had never spoken to his mother before.
“Where is Samael?” Maria asked, settling her hand on her belly. His mother glanced up and spotted an enormous mountain, bumpy and sweaty. The girl’s figure, hidden behind the layers of fat, was familiar to her. She had seen her son’s creations before, in other girls. Agitated, his mother stood up.
“Samael will help his father on the farm from now on. In our village,” she bellowed. “He won’t be coming back here anymore. Don’t come looking for him again, girl,” she spat, and shooed Maria away. She angled toward other purchasers, ignoring the turmoil in Maria’s eyes.
Maria stared in the distance, clutching her green purse, unable to move. She bit her lips. Tears scorched her eyes as customers wandered around her, stroking and feeling the ripeness of assorted fruits. “The mangoes are soft and ready to peel.” Maria heard his mother say. “You can smell them before you see them. That’s how you know they’re ready.” Samael’s mother squeezed one and handed it to a customer. “See, this one is untouched,” she said as she walked around Maria.
It was laundry day at the dubious bar, and from his position, Mr. Giovanni saw Maria crisscross the rear yard, washing and hanging wet clothes. She stood on her toes, her stomach extended, pinning a blanket to the clothesline when her aunt cropped up in the courtyard carrying empty bottles. Her aunt stiffened. She gaped at the girl’s swollen body. Mr. Giovanni’s eyes drifted from the aunt to the girl, and he saw it too—something he should have noticed months earlier. Maria’s softness had passed; her abdomen had hardened to something solid, round, and honest. Mr. Giovanni sat up in his chair and watched her aunt walk in a circle, her shoulders hunched as if Maria’s weight suddenly shifted to her shoulders. How did he miss it?
The fat girl pulled her baggy dress down, but her aunt grabbed her arms and lifted her gown over her belly, exposing her. The girl looked down at her feet, over her extended stomach. As the clothes fluttered all around them in the wind, her aunt reached up and slapped her. The girl stood stoically and tucked her arms under the hefty breasts. But Mr. Giovanni saw the despair on the aunt’s face; he had seen such faces when he unlocked his store to women who sought him out in darkness. Women, hearing of murmurs of a silvery man who settled in a yellow villa with medical knowledge, presented their daughters, granddaughters, to him. And he had done the best he could to restore their honor and masked their truth. It wasn’t solely for the money; he had told himself many times. It was, so they did not stand still.
“Foolish girl!” He heard her aunt yell at no one in particular as she trotted up and down the courtyard. “That is God punishing me for my sins! What am I going to do now? Huh? What will people say about me? I have tried the best I could for you.” Her aunt took a step toward Maria and poked her stomach. “Your wedding to Tarefe is two months away. What are we going to do? Tell me!” The fat girl sobbed, protecting her stomach, and stepped away from her aunt’s fury.
Mr. Giovanni picked up the sound of children’s voices from the street. Annoyed, he scrutinized the road below him. A flock of dark boys, barefooted, elbowed each other while trailing a ball. He shook his head. Unkempt, undisciplined, there were too many kids in the streets to his liking. His gaze moved to the women, but they had left the courtyard.
It was late in the evening when Lupe howled before the store’s bell rang. Mr. Giovanni shuffled down the stairs and peered through the gate. The fat girl and her aunt stood in the dark.
“Bambina, Bambina,” her aunt whispered, jabbing the girl’s belly as she grasped her elbow.
He nodded his head. “Si, Si, attesa, fai silenzio,” he said and searched the street. He waved them inside and quickly locked the gate.
He chained Lupe to the front gate.
Maria’s aunt drew cash from her bosom and handed it to him. He counted the money and asked the fat girl a few questions in their language; he had learned enough to conduct business over the years. But Maria’s eyes bore into eyes in silence. He shook his head and led them to the back of the store.
The Aunt was familiar with the room; they knew each other’s secrets.
They lowered Maria onto a cot in the corner of the room, next to a large table filled with medical supplies, equipment, and tubes. He examined her. Maria’s eyes darted between him and her aunt. The old man shook his head.
“No, Non è possibile, è troppo lontana. Forse sette o otto mesi?” Then he paused: he held seven fingers up in the air. Then eight. Waving his hands close to Maria’s face as she watched them argue. Her aunt grabbed his wrists. He lifted his hands again, counted the months that passed away unnoticed by them. Mr. Giovanni ushered her aunt to the front of the store, away from Maria. She couldn’t hear them anymore.
Shiwa’ate, she’monte, he shouted in their language, facing the aunt. The baby would be alive; he told the aunt. She nodded her head and handed him more money. He had to save Maria’s future, she told him. There would be a wedding soon. What would become of Maria? With a baby and unmarried?
“Please do it! I didn’t know. I thought she was just getting fatter. Help us, please. I didn’t know she was pregnant,” her aunt pleaded, her voice cracking. She took out more money from her bosom and pressed it down into his khaki pocket. “Please, Signore Giovanni! Please. I promised her mother. I would make her a stable woman. Maria can’t be like me.... or her mother. She can’t be. Women like us…. well, we exist, but we’re not truly alive. I want Maria to count, you know. To do better than me.”
Waiting for them, Maria shivered as goosebumps exploded on her arms and legs. She felt her baby move and shifted on her side to ease the pressure. Feeling naked, she drew her legs and pulled her dress to her ankles. She felt naked. Not in a good way. Like when she was naked with Samael. Rather, the way she felt when the girls from school watched her before they pounced. Maria closed her eyes and waited for her aunt and the old white man to return. She didn’t know why she was on his cot. Why did her aunt bring her here?
When they finally returned to the backroom, Maria opened her eyes and her aunt help turn her onto her back. Mr. Giovanni yanked her dress and spread her legs.
“What’s he doing, Auntie?” Maria asked, confused, as she tried to close her legs.
“Keep your legs open, Maria. He is examining you. It will be over soon,” her aunt explained. “Just close your eyes and hush my child,” she said, and pushed her shoulder down.
Maria closed her eyes for a while. Then something made her open them. And she saw Mr. Giovanni holding a metal hook, and she screamed. She tried to get up from the cot, but her aunt held her shoulders down and Maria kicked Mr. Giovanni in the chest, and he almost fell back. She saw him leave the room. When he returned, he asked her aunt to hold her arm. He inserted a needle in her arm, and pretty soon, things slowed down in Maria’s head. She felt a pinch down below and then warm and wet all around her. The white man left the room.
Her Aunt sat on the floor and recited a prayer.
Then it started. But Maria didn’t scream in case Mr. Giovanni returned. She whimpered, and her aunt held her hand––pain in her back, her sides, all over her body. The crushing pain stopped and started again like a wave; it picked her up and carried her. All night. All day. Sometimes, her aunt made her walk around the room, and the pain grew longer until it split her in half. Her Aunt told her to push. And Maria did, looking at Mr. Giovanni’s head between her legs. Suddenly, her aunt came behind her and covered her eyes as to not see the baby as Mr. Giovanni pulled a squirming baby. And Maria saw him: wet, yellow, and wiggly, and she saw through the tears its slick black hair and the baby’s penis before her aunt quickly wrapped him in a blanket and took him away from her, ignoring Maria’s open arms.
The baby wailed from some place. And she waited for him, her boy. Samson. That’s what she would call him. Samson, she thought, grinning between tears and sweat and ignoring the white man still looking at her private parts. Her aunt returned empty-handed. She promised to bring the baby back after they washed and circumcised him. Maria nodded and smiled, relieved, and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Her aunt patted her on the head. “You did well, my child,” she tittered. Her aunt pointed at the old man. “He’s waiting for something else to come out. It’s almost over now, and we will have nothing to worry about.”
The crying of a baby woke up Maria. She tossed the gray blanket away, and ignoring the soreness and bruising between her legs, she firmly put her feet down on the floor and stood up. Maria felt the sticky wetness under her dress as her eyes roamed the empty room; she rubbed her belly and felt its softness as if in a dream. She called for her aunt. Instead, the old man entered the room.
“My baby? Can I hold him?” Maria asked him. But he led her back to the cot and spread her legs again to check her. She stared at the ceiling, tears stinging her eyes.
Mr. Giovanni nodded, satisfied; she was tightly stitched. Soon, she could marry Tarefe he wished to tell her, in her language, but instead, he instructed her to sleep. Maria folded her knees and turned away from him as he locked the door.
It was dark when her aunt came into the room with Mr. Giovanni.
“Did you close her up down there?” she asked him, pointing to Maria’s vagina. “She has to be unspoiled. There can’t be questions on her wedding night. She has to be whole again, Mr. Giovanni. There can’t be questions.” Mr. Giovanni nodded. He understood, for he had witnessed Maria’s engagement to Tarefe from his rooftop. He had restored her, he whispered.
“Auntie, where is my boy? My Samson.... can I have him now? Please!” Maria begged her aunt in a raspy voice as her aunt helped her dress.
“Never mind about the baby, my child. You saw he was dead when he arrived. We can do nothing now. Childbirth is hard, women die, but you were very fortunate, Maria. It’s not unusual to lose your first baby, it happens all the time. Maybe it was for the best. For you, for all of us,” her aunt said, keeping her eyes down. “You’ll have other babies with Tarefe,” she said, struggling to lead Maria out of the room. But Maria plunked onto the cot and felt the softness of her belly again. The wailing of her baby persisted in her skull. Did she injure him when she pushed him? Did she push too hard? But she did what her aunt told her to do?
“No, no. Please, no!” She raised her arms and cupped her breasts.
Maria regarded Mr. Giovanni for the first time, her eyes wide, remembering the medicine he gave her. His gray head coming in and out of her vision. She pointed at him: did the old man do something to her baby? Maria asked her aunt between sobbing and screaming. The baby was big and wet, and his tiny arms flailed around his face. She heard him cry, didn’t she? Intense and demanding?
“Where is my baby boy, my baby? What did you do? What did you do to him? Please, tell me!” She screamed, looking at Mr. Giovanni, then at her aunt. Maria hit her head, trying to remember the last two days. She got up and walked back and forth in the storeroom, moaning.
“But why? Why did you do it auntie?” She asked her aunt, moving toward her.
“Bambino morte, morte,” Mr. Giovanni said, closing his eyes and shifting his head to the side to indicate sleep. “Mi Dispiace molto, signorina,” he said, forgetting the words in their language, suddenly unsteady on his feet as he walked toward Maria. But the girl pushed him away with such force that Mr. Giovanni fell back on the dirty cot. He tried to get up, but he faltered as the big girl towered over him.
“But I heard him! I heard my Samson cry,” she raised her voice, standing over him. “I want him in my arms. I want my son. I know Samael will marry me. He will when he sees his son. I know he will,” she said with certainty. Mr. Giovanni stared at Maria, puzzled. Most women left his store with relief after he helped them. His legs failed to hold him up, so he remained on the filthy cot and watched the aunt escorted her out of the store.
He heard Maria ask her aunt if they had baptized her baby. Did someone remember? Did he soar to heaven to be with her mother and baby Jesus? She asked, her voice subdued, her body hunched over and limp. He did not hear her aunt’s reply as she closed the gate behind them.
Maria slept the days away, like her aunt, after she returned from the white men’s store. Her aunt mixed herbs and covered her nipples to stop the pain leaking from her chest. Occasionally, as the weeks passed, Mr. Giovanni peeked into the courtyard from his rooftop, expecting to see Maria’s wedding preparations, but the usual activities he was familiar with never ensued: neighborhood women chopping onions, kneading, and grinding teff, and cumin, chili peppers. No one made sweet fermented honey wine with dates in Maria and Tarefe’s honor. There were no coffee ceremonies over a hot coal fire. He craned from his store to hear the chanting of traditional songs as women tattooed Maria’s hands and feet in henna. But all around him, the air stood still, thick and unforgivingly hot.
When Maria’s breasts stopped oozing milk, she began her duties at the bar. At nights, when Mr. Giovanni ventured to his rooftop, he saw the girl escorting customers to the outhouse, no longer squirming under their touch. He saw her accept money and stand still against the wall until they finished with her in the dark.
One morning, as she was rinsing beer bottles, she glared at him when she saw his face from his usual spot. He quickly withdrew, almost losing his equilibrium.
When the sun faded, Maria rang the bell at his gate a few weeks later, her head covered like an older woman. Lupe barked in the back before Mr. Giovanni approached the gate. He hesitated as he scrutinized her from a distance. Why was she here? Where was her aunt? Women never returned to his store after he relieved them of their burdens; it was too dangerous.
She clutched his arm firmly through the gate. He looked past her at the street nervously.
“I know what you did. I feel it in my heart. You... Auntie killed my baby. I know....I know what you did,” she said, her voice crackling. “You took my boy away from me, and you had no right!” she said with force. “I want to know where you buried my son. Where did you put his poor little body?” she demanded. As Maria stood in front of him, holding his arm with familiarity, he recognized why he always disliked the fat girl; it was her sense of sureness. It was the way she pounded the ground when she walked, as if it belonged to her.
He had seen the man who had hurt her from his rooftop he wanted to say; she was unburdened now, free to marry Tarefe. Yet, all he could muster were few words in her language. “You’re a girl again. Innocente. You... marry and go home with him. More children later, yes? No problem for you to have children. Many, many beautiful children,” Mr. Giovanni muttered.
She released him from her grip, her hand shaking. She wiped her eyes. “Please, tell me what you did to his body. I want to see my Samson. I hear him crying at nights. And I can’t sleep. Sometimes I think I am going mad. But I know I’m not crazy. I heard him crying when he came out of me,” Maria whispered, “I want to say goodbye.”
He watched her for a long time as she wiped snot with her shawl. He shifted his weight and looked past her, but all he saw was darkness ahead of him. “Come tomorrow, please, early morning, before the sun. Domani. Domani,” Mr. Giovanni said, suddenly feeling old and weary, and left her at the gate.
When he let Maria into his backyard in the morning, Lupe guarded a new mound under the wisteria tree. But she noticed it differed from his other hideouts; it was crowned in white stones, purple and yellow flowers. Mr. Giovanni pointed at the white stone and stood aside as Maria, her head covered, kneeled, crossed herself. She grabbed a handful of dirt and tucked it in her pocket. She stayed in his backyard until the sun rose.
At night, he peeked below and watched Maria stand still against the wall, accepting coins.
Yet, each morning, before the sun broke, she returned to his gate determinedly, and he let her in wordlessly. They understood each other. Using his tools, she dug deep into the ground and planted flowers. All around the holes Lupe had dug and all around the wisteria and jacaranda trees, and it seemed to Mr. Giovanni, overnight, gerbera, lilies, peonies, and daffodils sprouted across his yard. And when they reproduced without his permission during the rainy season, Mr. Giovanni closed his villa, released Lupe to the street, and left the black city, leaving his gate unlocked for Maria.
Banci Tewolde lives and works in Virginia. She grew up in Denver, Colorado and has a MA in English Literature. Tewolde is working on a collection of short stories titled Apricots and Olives, one of which, titled “Eastern Wind,” was published in Narrative Magazine. “Spoiled” is from the same collection. She is currently working on a novel. She also serves an Assistant Editor for Narrative and was a Bread Loaf contributor.