Darrielle reckoned that in the space of only two years two women had journeyed as far as the gates of heaven. Both of the Islamic faith. Both of them had been dear to her in a way that was new, in a way she did not know what to call, but both Rhyme and Zaouf had torn her heart in pieces.
Because the funeral had been on the same day, Rhyme’s parents had arrived later, when the earth above her had already dried. Maherzia received them as good relatives and laid the table, without any of them wanting to eat. They saw their grandson sleeping under the olive trees, and Rhyme’s mother placed candles on the rocking chair upon which the light of her eyes had last sat.
Although a Muslim, Maherzia wailed for her daughter in law the same as the parents, and she bore herself just like a mother with two unwed daughters. It was heartrending for her to see how her daughter in law’s mother was searching for some purpose for herself, in a world where her purpose had been buried together with Rhyme. Neither she nor her husband had any other progeny. Now, Al Hakim had become their pearl, and they would have a long journey to make to see him growing up year after year.
A wet nurse had not yet been found for him, but the two grandmothers were already talking about how their grandson would go to Provence, to study at a French school.
When he saw Azmir again, the poor father of the deceased felt pangs of doubt in his breast : can it have been possible that his daughter, his pride and joy, had been happy with this man ? Karima and Monia had told him that she died with a smile on her lips, worn out by her pains, but she had heard her husband begging her not to leave him, now that she had given him the gift of a saint.
Her mother seemed consoled by these words : “Nothing matters more for a girl who is living in a country not her own than for those around to be pleased with her.” And Azmir had assured her that all had been pleased with Rhyme : she had learned all the flavours of the condiments, she went to the mosque, she looked after the house, and, above all, she had prayed not to be barren and not to look hungrily at wives with children. She had given birth to a boy, and that counted for much. What would he have done now, a single father with a daughter ?
“But did she have women friends ?” asked his mother in law, the Frenchwoman.
“Well, yes, of course, she had one like herself, a European, right here, across the road, and what’s more she got on with everyone, she stuck to anyone at all, Rhyme was like the honey on baklava. Whoever was dear to her, she found a special place for her in her life. She would even have been capable of sleeping in the same bed as that Darrielle !”
“Could you introduce me to her ?” she asked her son in law. “For Christians, the friend of the dead woman receives what the deceased would have given her with her own hand.”
Azmir blushed : “I had no way of knowing that, and what’s more I haven’t seen that woman for some time. I didn’t even glimpse her at the cemetery. But perhaps tomorrow, after you meet, you can clink glasses at the grave and tell stories, like women do !”
Azmir had not been mistaken. At the cemetery, Darrielle found Rhyme’s mother, like a black bird, collapsed in the grasses. She let her weep. When Eglantine arrived with the children, she drew her into the dark shadow under the cedars, so that Amélie and Gustave would not be able to see her eyes. They spoke under the trees and then she asked Hafa to take her into a booth and to bring her back to l’Esplanade.
She lingered for a moment by Rhyme’s new dwelling place, until Maherzia came with the girls. With Eglantine, there were five, a council of brassieres. Six even, if they also counted the deceased.
Maherzia spoke again, as she had done so once already, that time behind the blinds and next to a boiling teakettle. Now it was her heart that was boiling, for the destiny of her daughter was at stake : “Ladies, Monia has not had time to invite you to visit, but what it was she wanted I shall tell you even here, among the dead : if I have spent money on my daughter in law, then let Allah watch over her sleep, because my daughter is going to cost me even more, to rid her of her shame !”
“What shame ?” asked Darrielle fatuously.
“What’s wrong with Karima ? Never mind, she won’t die, they just need to sew her hymen back !”
“It’s not quite like that, mother. They have to reconstruct it,” interposed Monia, but the old woman interrupted her sharply : “What do I care whether it’s called one thing or another, the misfortune is the same, and as for you, all of you, you ought to have your mouths sewn up ! You won’t marry well if you’ve been bad and desired to dally beforehand !”
“What does it all mean ?” said Gustave from behind them, open mouthed, taking an interest.
“Go away !” said Eglantine, stamping her foot. “Good Lord, maybe he’ll tell her father what we’ve been talking about !”
The circle of women dispersed, and each went home. Only Darrielle stayed for a little while longer, and, of course, Rhyme, who had the earth above her. Finally, she saw Darrielle sprinkling something over the grave.
“What are you sowing ?”
“Seeds. They’re lavender seeds.”
Karima was dogged by misfortune : the very gynaecologist who was to “sew” her hymen fell in love with her. She was with her sister and a gaggle of women who cackled in the corridor until the operation was over. “Anyone else want a hymenoplasty ?”
“I have children too,” said Eglantine, “I’m hardly the Virgin Mary !”
“What about me ? What good would it do ?” laughed Darielle. “My lover has known for quite some time that I’m not a virgin. Doctor, you should buy yourself a carriage with all the money !”
“A carriage ? Why ?”
“When I came to the Maghreb, I’d barely left the airport when I let myself be bewitched by the allurements of a coachman. He drove me under the orange trees and through La Goulette. He took me up onto the cornice and everything I saw was a fairytale. I think that with my hymen it was the same.”
“No, you’re not being fair ! I, who was born in Paris and practised in the fourteenth arrondissement, want to die under the olive trees, in Tunis, and under the cedars. Let no one ask me why, for that I cannot say.”
The doctor, as usual, was flirting as he chatted with the women. He was so familiar to the daughters, mothers, girlfriends and mistresses that none of them any longer thought to hide their secrets. His name seemed predestined : Olivier Maisondieu. And it might be thought that he was the very grace of God toward sinning women who had tasted of the apple without commencing with their husbands.
Through the fish eye of the hymen passed not coins but lighter money, made of paper, and this is why Maisondieu did not gleam with metals and riches, but rather he ate caviar and loved to travel. He had been to China, the Canary Isles, Sydney and New York. He liked to go sailing and skiing. He had no descendents, for his wife and son had died of malaria, during a posting to Kenya.
Ever since he converted to Islam, he told everyone that his son had been the payment and the punishment Allah had given him for unborn children and for husbands who had had the wool pulled over their eyes. But to whom was he to abandon the poor little doves ? He was approaching the age of fifty and he had four servants and an empty house, with arches of ivy and magnolias.
He took a liking to Karima as soon as she appeared in the doorway. She was not wearing a veil and he looked at her exactly like a tomcat that has caught a whiff of cream.
From the very start she had told him, with that loose tongue of hers : “Doctor, if you’re going to repair that net of mine for so much money, make sure it will catch a golden shark, do you hear ?”
“Why a shark ?” he asked in surprise.
“Well, because ! I think you know what it’s like with the little fish, who get swallowed by the big fish !”
These were the words that won him. He wanted her for his wife, even if he had to steal her or buy her from her mother. The girl did not suspect anything. For her, he was a Frenchman who had rummaged with cold spoons in the flower of her pleasure.
When he went out into the corridor, well and truly flustered, Maherzia intercepted him and placed the envelope in his pocket, as agreed. He told her, blushing, “This is how it is. Don’t think of my white hair ! That girl of yours is worth much more than this and I’m going to come and take her, so don’t pay me !”
“Doctor, are you asking me for her hand ?”
“Don’t laugh at me, please. And speak more quietly ! If you have any doubts, remember that I am a Muslim, but I have no relatives in the Maghreb. I shall come with a good friend.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said, doubtfully. “I have a daughter in law in the grave, a grandson without a wet nurse, and two unwed daughters. I’m in no mood for joking !”
“Don’t you live on the estate at l’Esplanade ?”
“Yes, indeed !”
“I’ll find it,” he added, and walked toward the band of little women who were waiting for Karima.
At the clinic, in a three hundred dinar private room, Karima dreamed the dream of a bride. For as long as she lay on her back, for an hour, with weary legs, stretched out on the bed, and with a new membrane at the mouth of the cave, she dreamed of a man who had appeared at her mother’s house. In the dream she was lying hidden behind the drapes of a cupboard, while Maherzia talked. Her father was there too, and he had to tell the man whether he was going to give him her hand or not. She could not see his face, but his voice, which seemed to have been familiar to her forever, unsettled her so much that her tears began to flow and she even burst into sobs, sighing, until she made fools of her mother and her father, who were trying to give away a cry baby hidden in the linen.
…She awoke groggily, under the watchful eyes of the nurse. She gave her a bribe to help her put her shoes on and pull up her jeans, because it was as if she were made of cotton wool.
“Did I talk in my sleep ?”
“No, you wept. But not very much. Don’t be afraid. From now on, it’s as if you’ve turned the clock back. Apart from the gynaecologist, absolutely no other man will know, believe me !”
When she went out into the corridor, she paused for a moment, because she had glimpsed the doctor with the girls, and she really did not want to see him again.
They set off and Karima wanted to drive. “Where have you left the car ?” she asked Monia.
“Don’t you think that you’re going to put your feet on those pedals !” her mother interposed.
“Leave me be, mother, he stretched some elastic there, not the icing on some gingerbread !”
“What a dirty mouth ! Your husband will stuff it with pillow down !”
Having arrived at l’Esplanade they busied themselves with chores, with baths for the child that had no wet nurse, and with Friday prayers. And in this way two whole weeks passed. Maherzia had told no one about the business with the doctor, whom she only half believed, but something good had come out of it : they had saved some money and that was no mean feat.
Karima grew lonely, like weeds that do not flower. She would get dressed, but then sit in the sun, staring into space, without speaking to anyone.
One morning, the imam asked the widower whether Ar Rahim was healthy and whether he had been made a Muslim.
“Thank you for the question, reverend, the child is healthy, but he drinks milk from a feeding bottle, and as for the circumcision, we haven’t performed it yet, because his grandfather’s soul is not at peace : he has buried his daughter in law, and his daughters are unwed.”
“But the poor mite will start to cry ceaselessly,” the imam warned Azmir, the father, and the latter went back to the house, fearful. It was there that everything that had happened since the death of Rhyme had taken place : they prepared food and while it was still steaming hot they shared it among the poor, day after day. But on Wednesday, before lunch, this custom came to an abrupt stop. A two door goods van with a trailer drew up to their house and the strange men that alighted greeted them as if they were friends.
They thought they must be suppliers for the shop and told them to back the load closer to the storeroom.
“You haven’t understood me,” said one of them. “We do not sell, rather we buy and not just any bargain, but a choice maiden, who dwells herein.”
Maherzia’s husband, who was in the garden, froze to the spot and a single question flashed through his mind : “Which of the girls might it be ? They’re both old men, but their minds are unripe ! Neither Karima nor Monia would stick around with either of them for long, not to mention what kind of children they might have !” How was one such as he to recognise Maisondieu the Frenchman, to whom only the women went !
More nimble by nature, Azmir invited them into the yard and went off to call his stepmother. Maherzia emerged directly from among her cooking pots, with wet hands and redolent of yoghurt : “Doctor, what have you done to me ! Is this the way to catch a dove like my daughter ? Look at the state you find me in !”
“Never mind, for it’s not you who is to be wed !” quipped the Maghreb matchmaker, who accompanied the gynaecologist.
“I have gifts in the boot. I wouldn’t want them to spoil in the heat of the sun !” said Maisondieu, just as the youngest daughter was approaching from Eglantine’s plot, wearing Bermuda shorts, her chest scantily clad in a t shirt with cords and decorated with cats over the whole belly. She ignited like lint and shielded her breasts, which even so seemed aflame : “Doctor, what else do you want ? I’m not convalescing, by the holy prophet. What are you doing here ?”
The matchmaker remained rooted to the spot, and Maisondieu was left open mouthed : “Miss, it would have been right to announce myself, but I…”
“Miss ? What are you saying, and let me not forget that I told you my name, I’m called Karima…”
Coming to his senses, the matchmaker found himself asking : “What, is this really the girl ?”
Maherzia had pulled her veil over her mouth and was trembling : “I invite you to eat !”
“But why ? Are we giving alms to the rich today ?” asked the youngest daughter. Her father tugged her by the arm and thrust her away, like a bitch in heat. The doctor pretended not to see, while the matchmaker was rather unsettled by it all.
At last, they went inside, through the doors, into the cool of the living room, and sat down on the pillows. Monia, who had belatedly understood, took her sister aside and told her in a whisper, as if to a cheeky young urchin : “Hold your tongue, and get washed, get changed, do as you will ! Do what a girl does when her fate is being chosen !”
As though on cue, nothing remained of Karima’s quarrelsomeness. In the whirl of her heart, she knew that she knew and that the doctor, the European old duffer and Pharisee, was the voice in the dream.
After the girl’s father assured him that he was entrusting her to him for life, to be his house and table, and the pearl of his eyes, Maisondieu went out onto the terrace, to meet with his chosen one. She had even changed clothes : from being a wildcat she had become a fawning lapdog that is silent and licks its muzzle. It was an enchantment to see how she minced, how she got under the feet of the others and how she waited.
But what was it that girls like Monia and Karima were really waiting for ? Their oriental princes had mingled the blood of their lines and were no longer so rich. The doctor had grizzled brows and deep bags under his eyes, although he seemed fresh and vigorous.
“Well, how’s it to be ?” she asked him, unable to put on a show of being changed for very long. “Will you be capable of breaking the seal you’ve only just restored with such meticulous care ?”
That girl was like a goad to sin : she aroused him, flicked him across the mouth, put the wind up him. He didn’t know what to say to her, but so as not to remain mute, he replied, encouraged : “My dear, you are forgetting that I drink only water and eat no pork, that I go to bed early and, above all, I like your voice. And your eyes, your stormy hair, and your knees. Your throat and your ears with their sapphires. Your lips that are like soft loaves and your teeth when your words draw blood.”
“You know how to court,” smiled Karima. “I think you must have courted many women, but with me there won’t be any other, I can give it to you in writing !”
“I’m in love !” said the man and in the evening breeze he let the wind ruffle the crown of his head, thanking Allah in his mind. “What wonders can happen in a man’s life and how many stories can be invented and written !”
He clasped her by the hand, raising it to his chest. She was not ashamed, but nor too easy, and this is why he lost himself in the apricot and ripe wheat scent of her skin, that of a woman in whom sweetness sobbed like myrtle in an altar.
Maisondieu wanted a quick wedding, afraid that the girl might run away from home with another man. In the morning he would look in the mirror and it seemed to him impossible that she could accept him as he was. He started doing exercise. He bought European clothes, the latest fashion, and decided that Karima should dress in the same way. The idea of not wearing a veil did not suit her mother, and nor her brother. He did not care. He was to be her consort.
Nevertheless, the view from l’Esplanade seemed to him much more than he had seen, and so, if he was thinking of living with them, he had to be clever. He arranged with his father in law to add another wing to the house, as slender as a minaret : two bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms and, perhaps, an office for himself on the ground floor. His house in Gammarth was to be left in the care of the servants.
Besides the jewels he had bought her, Karima also desired an elegant tomcat (called a “Russian blue”, apparently) and an electric set up for bathing, with stainless steel tubes and ceramics. She had the tastes of her generation, and he had set himself the task of rejuvenation. She had also demanded of him a six seat limousine and a cruise on the Nile, which he granted her without blinking an eye. He had forgotten what it was like to be married.
In the meantime, Hakim’s circumcision, which was not yet decided, was set for the fifth day after their wedding, when the child would be eight months old. It was neither too late nor too early. Others had it done in hospital, immediately after birth, but Hakim had been born in l’Esplanade. In any case, nothing was what it had once been. The circumcision formerly used to take place when the child was seven, so that he would remember the blessing and the act itself, his parents’ joy for him, the celebration with cakes and songs, the prayers.
Azmir had chosen him, a Muslim convert and European, like the baby’s late mother, to speak into his ears the words to Allah and to hang the amulets from his neck. More than for other children, the doctor had ordered for the boy a large gold coin, inlaid with the Hand of Fatima, the third eye, and a fish of red coral, with an eye of diamond. It was jeweller’s handiwork also coveted by the women.
Exactly when he thought he would die alone, lamented by reconstructed virgins, the doctor let himself be carried away by a new life. The young bride had told him that he would gain new neighbours and friends : Mehria, Darrielle’s lover, Masoud, Eglantine’s husband, Azmir, his brother in law. Azmir was a widower and had no plans to marry again soon. Masoud was in the olive business, and his wife did not go anywhere without him. And as for Mehria’s European lover, he did not, for the time being, know that she would remain an enigma until the very end.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth