Ants crawling on the wall meant rain is coming soon.
Sarah always mentioned this to Naila. ‘It is how nature works,’ she would say, but then she would ask Naila to spray insecticide as soon as she sees an army of them marching on their walls. ‘I don’t like ants,’ she would say. ‘Their bites hurt and itch for days.’
They were in the kitchen that afternoon. Naila watched the army of ants crawling diagonally up and down the kitchen wall while she cooked sticky rice mixed with coconut milk and lots of sugar. The slow hypnotizing movement of the ants visually satisfied Naila. She wondered where did they all come from and where they were headed, and if they came because they smelled the sweet aroma of what she was cooking. She wondered if ants could smell.
Naila continuously stirred the rice, and she started feeling fatigued. The minute she put down the wooded ladle and stretched out her arms, Sarah immediately said, ‘keep stirring.’
She would start stirring again, slowly. Sarah glued her bum on the dining chair while she munched on the fried cassava chips.
That was not Naila’s first time cooking that delicacy. She had mastered it already, for Sarah would always ask her to cook it whenever she wanted to give a gift to someone in exchange for a juicy gossip or a huge favor.
‘Don’t stir it counterclockwise if you started clockwise.’ Naila wondered why Sarah didn’t just cook it by herself if she couldn’t trust her. But of course, she couldn’t say that to the older woman who sat behind her and practically did nothing.
Naila never showed her frustrations to Sarah – the first wife, no matter how the latter bossed her around and looked at her with jealousy and contempt. She knew her place in the house, whether she liked it or not.
Ibrahim, Sarah’s husband, took Naila in when her parents died. Both didn’t come back alive after sailing out for a fishing trip during a stormy night. She was just sixteen at that time, and the man was in his mid-forties already. Ibrahim took her to his home but married her after two years when she turned eighteen.
‘He is a charitable man. That’s why he married you so you won’t go astray.’ Sarah would always remind her. Most times, she’d think if it would have been better had she not succumbed to the couple’s generosity.
She was raised by a father who taught her how to read books, swim, and operate a boat; things she couldn’t do anymore except the first when occasionally sleep eluded her, and Ibrahim stayed in Sarah’s room for the night, which happened as seldom as the appearance of the blood moon.
Naila felt she’s slowly losing her sanity, stuck in a house that treated her as a maid by mornings, breeding ground by night.
‘You need to give Ibrahim a child Naila. My body couldn’t bear one,’ Sarah would always say.
And it drives her even more insane to keep hearing Sarah’s reminder she already heard a thousand times over.
Naila used her left hand after exhausting her right.
‘Almost done. Don’t burn it.’ Sarah finally made a move. She stood up uneasily; her hands held her knees to support her body weight. It took her several seconds before she could stand up straight, moaning in pain.
She walked past Naila’s room and instructed her to change the curtains, ‘the purple one looks better,’ before walking out of the door.
Naila gritted her teeth. She hated that color. It reminds her of bruises, marks that she gets after rough nights with Ibrahim when he’d end up biting or hitting her as if brute equaled romance.
She turned off the gas stove and placed the casserole on a potholder at the center of the table. Sweat trickled down her face, neck, back, and armpit. The humidity told her that it would rain in the night. The looming gray clouds seconded her thoughts. The air reeked of earth; it reminded her of dug-up soil and cut grass.
Naila checked on Sarah, and when she saw that the older woman was happily chatting with the neighbors outside, she sat and drank two glasses of water. She pressed her arms and felt a pain that wasn’t only due to cooking. Underneath her long sleeve shirts were patches of purple marks. Her neck wasn’t an exception. Bruises dotted her neck, which she covered with her burqa.
‘Has it cooled down already?’ Sarah came back and touched the pan. It was still warm. She took a spoon of the delicacy and tasted it. ‘You are improving,’ she said.
‘Take shower and change. Then go to Radha and deliver this.’
Naila took her time under the cold shower, scrubbing all the dirt out of her body. She looked at her naked body in the mirror – skin and bones with purple bruises everywhere.
On few times she was alone which was usually in the bathroom, she revered about the good times with her mother and father. When they all sailed out at sunset to go for fishing, then come back in the night and fry or grill their catch.
Her reveries halted when she heard a loud pounding on her door. She turned off the shower the pounding became louder.
‘Naila! What’s taking you so long? The ants are crawling on the table already.
‘Coming!’ Naila shouted back. She sighed and dried herself with a towel. Once dressed, she went out and took the sweet parcel, already placed in a purple cloth bag.
‘Go on, take an umbrella with you.’ Sarah sat on the wooden bench in the living room and placed her right leg on the coffee table. She watched as Naila headed to the door ignoring her instructions to take the umbrella.
‘Ay, take the umbrella there, there.’ The older woman pointed to the folding umbrella hanging on the wall beside the door. She looked at Naila until she saw her taking the umbrella with her; then she took the TV control and started flipping through the channels.
Naila’s nose emitted burning fumes. She walked out as the rain poured in buckets. She headed South towards the jetty, opposite the road to Radha’s house, and threw the umbrella on the roadside.
The following day, the whole island was alarmed by Naila’s disappearance. She didn’t reach Radha’s house the night before, and they found her umbrella filled with mud on the roadside that was opposite her supposed destination. Different speculations came out from the possible evidence of the crime; the umbrella on the roadside. They sent a sea rescue team to look for her body.
The sun was scorching the island as if a deluge didn’t visit them the previous night. Several boats and dhingeys anchored beside the jetty bobbed along the gentle waves. A purple cloth bag lies on the edge of the jetty swarmed by ants crawling in different directions.
If you are still here, thanks for reading my short story. I wrote this for the prompt: Write about someone finally making their own choices.
This is a retelling Ibrahim (Abraham) and Sarah’s story, although a bit remixed. I changed Hagar’s name to Naila just because I fancy the name. Both of the wives here didn’t have kids, and Naila escaped on her own, unlike Hagar, who was asked to leave.
The setting is so Maldives-inspired, the island, the coconut rice delicacy, the jetty, and the characters’ religion. Although, it is not normal for men to have two wives (except the rich and famous).
I hope you enjoyed reading even though the story is quite sad, and I’d love to hear comments from you.