The Scorpion's Whisper
By M.M. Tawfik
Offshoots VII - Geneva 2003
From a novel in progress about a desert expedition in the early 20th century
In the past few months, Gamila's life has known an unexpected but welcome feeling. And Yassine is, of course, at the centre of it all. It is as though her long years of silent desolation have suddenly come to an end. Like a sentence served or a long fast broken. An awakening of her blunted senses. From now on things will happen. Unlike her mother's slow fading away, sad but almost imperceptible. Unlike her grandmother's low-intensity abuse, annoying yet totally monotonous. Even unlike her yearning for Yassine, unpronounced and unfulfilled. At last, things started to happen, events to unfold. And, though somewhat predictable, the chain of events still take her by surprise.
These last few months her heart has throbbed and the blood rushed through her veins as never before. For the first time, she has felt like imitating the little boys she used to watch jumping into the air, making a full summersault, and, with a dull thump, falling on their backs on the sand.
It started when Yassine, accompanied by the elders of his family and village, paid her father a visit. It was a delicate situation since, naturally, it was out of the question for Yassine's elders to name one of their host's daughters as the bride they sought for their young suitor. They simply stated that they sought the honor of strengthening the ties between the two clans. If he accepted, which was in no way assured, it would be up to the father to choose which of his daughters he would give away. If custom were to be observed it would be Aisha, the eldest.
Gamila's father did not respond immediately, he needed time to think and consult with his own clan. But as soon as the guests were out of the house, her grandmother confronted her son with her furious rejection. A Sayed's daughter must only be given to another Sayed. Had he forgotten that his lineage was traceable across eighty generations to the Prophet, Allah's prayers and salutations be upon him? Had he forgotten that noble blood must be passed on at all costs?
In her desperation, Gamila found no option but to confess her love to her grandmother a few days later, and take whatever vengeance the tyrant, her cousin Sondos and she had so often made fun of, could throw at her.
"Have you disgraced your father, daughter of the cursed one?" Snapped the old woman.
"I have done nothing to shame my father."
"From the first day your father wed that woman, I knew he was finished. She was touched by the jin, I could see their cold fire looking out of her eyes. I told him to give her back to her clan, that she would only beget him burdens. But he would not listen. Maybe he, too, was touched, to hold on to a woman who foams at the mouth and begets only daughters."
Gamila could not believe her ears. Her mother had been the purest person she had ever encountered. She had never heard anyone describe her in such base terms. People had always referred to her as a very special person, an angel of sorts.
"Maybe she cast a spell on him." the old woman's protruding chin floated sideways as her toothless mouth spoke, like a camel chewing. The three tattooed lines on her chin got more and more pronounced year after year. Three or four long white hairs, growing between the tattoos, gave her a witch-like appearance. Gamila had to control her urge to pluck them.
"My mother was no witch." A lump sat heavily in Gamila's throat.
Her mother had smelt like death, and there was death in her eyes. As a living being, she was incomplete. Only in death was she at last whole. She may have been a spirit, but certainly no witch.
"I have always suspected that you too, have inherited her evil ways."
"She was a pure soul, so far above the likes of you. You old hag, full of venom like a scorpion." The girl could no longer control her anger.
"You devil, daughter of a witch, sister of Shaitan. For your insolence you will pay dearly." The old woman was shuddering violently. Her face was a dark violet, and her eyes were the blackest Gamila had ever seen them. As the door slammed shut behind her, Gamila could do nothing but await her grandmother's dire vengeance.
But her agony was short lived. The old woman must have overplayed her hand, for Sondos read her a favorable coffee cup, and the following day her father summoned the head of Yassine's clan to inform him that he had decided to give them Gamila, his youngest daughter.
Gamila had showered her two sisters and Sondos with kisses, she wanted to kiss her coffee cup and even the old falcon tied to its T-shaped stick in the yard. The grandmother, her face still black and blue, proclaimed in subdued tones that the wicked girl had received her just punishment, as she alone among her sisters was to be given to a commoner.
Nevertheless, Gamila's impatience grew by the day. She could not wait for the wedding to take place. Marrying Yassine would be the only meaningful act of her sixteen years, and the old hag was lurking in the shadows, waiting for a chance to demolish her happiness.
Then, this strange caravan appeared from the desert, to provide a thousand possibilities for disaster. To redouble Gamila's malaise.
And exacerbate that burning in her gut called suspense.
Like a cactus from hell, Gamila's impatience is growing by the minute. Her left eye has been twitching for the past few days. A sure sign of impending disaster. The twitching started a full sun and moon before the strange caravan appeared out of the horizon. Since then, three days have passed and her fatigued eyelid has not stopped flickering. Even during her restless nights her eye's light kept turning on and off, like a procession of night clouds obscuring a pregnant moon.
Caravans, purveyors of sensuous Omani scents, mouth-watering Abyssinian spices and the bright silks of Serendib, are also known to transport the green gin who has escaped from the night of all nights. A black cloud had overseen this caravan's slow progress across the Sahara. All the waterholes it had encountered had turned sour, one-eyed Hawari, the caravan's guide, had sworn. And the mysterious silver camel had been repeatedly witnessed around its campsites. Nothing short of catastrophe can be expected. Gamila's twitch can only confirm this terrible prophecy. Let fate's blow come, she challenges. Anything, so long as it comes swiftly. Anything, just to relieve the agony.
Sondos, as usual, has come to her rescue. The two girls sit cross legged on their small hassira just before the azan called the faithful to the sunset prayers. It is their favorite hideout at the edge of the sandy cliff. Their isolated knoll, unnoticed from either plateau or valley, which provides an imagined sanctuary for both girls and scorpions.
The sun's glare has mellowed and the wide flat wadi is a mirage of paradise, lying there just below their bare knees.
'Let us listen to the scorpions,' she says. For the first time, it is Gamila who begs Sondos to perform her trick. They have never found a suitable name for their game.
It is Sondos who taught Gamila the wisdom inherent in all scorpions. Her wild cousin has, of course, accumulated a wealth of knowledge and expertise reserved for the chosen few. After all, who else confers with the likes of cross-eyed Khadra who lies on her belly for hours conversing with the ants, or the old woman from Tolab who speaks in different voices and throws stones at the sneering boys, or Zakia whose back, it is whispered, is covered with reptilian scales? After some hesitation, Sondos acquiesces to Gamila's request.
Sondos stands up and takes a few steps closer to the edge. Deliberately, she overturns a loose stone, uncovering a scorpion's lair. With a practiced eye, she contemplates the three or four scorpions as, alarmed, they scatter in different directions with their tails menacingly high above their heads. She hums as if she were playing a game of chance with the little brutes, or simply studying their personalities.
Her selection made, with lightning speed she picks up the chosen scorpion by the tail. The creature lashes out in terror, but in vain. Held by the girl's firm fingers just beyond the sting, the potential killer acquiesces, suddenly no more threatening than a locust.
Gamila cannot bear the idea of losing her best friend. She wrinkles her cheeks to ensure that her eyes are kept firmly shut, lest they slide open in distraction or out of curiosity. She drifts to that moonless night, when just before dawn she awoke to a hushed commotion. The women's subdued gasps, and hurried footsteps were more alarming than the social shrieks and wailing that would come later. The sight of her relatives with swollen eyes and faces covered in black nila, told Gamila what she already knew. It was an ugly, physically repulsive affair. Death. But not the earth shattering event she had been led to assume.
And then there was the loss. The sense of irreplaceable loss. Her mother had passed and she was lefty alone with her helplessness.
She remains sightless until Sondos' teasing prompts her to reopen, in time for the coup de grace. With a quick twist her friend chips off the tail's tip and holds the scorpion head up. Mesmerized, the two virgins watch the venom droplets as, like a man's unwanted seed, they drip onto the sand.
Sondos then wombs the wretched creature in her cupped palm, raises it to her left ear, then to Gamila's and intently, they listen.
To the scorpion's whisper.