KHADI: Slipping into Darkness
“Mum…” Khadi said to the top of Magdalene’s head. Her grey hair and long scarf were all that could be seen as she crouched to complete a traveling shot ending with the moist parquet of litter on which they were standing. It was a place of darkness and light. Two markets, conjoined and contrasting. The one running along the length of the street was bright with fresh fruit and sunshine. A right turn down a side alley and there was the other one, labyrinthine, enclosed, dark and yet flooded with the brilliance of silver and gold. Magdalene’s quest for the key to the mystery of Dakar city girls had led her to the jewellery market. Adornments for the ear, neck, wrist and finger glittered under glass, guarded by sharp-eyed salesmen who carried on subtle negotiations with the women of the city as they calculated how many installments it would take to purchase which piece in time for which wedding.
“Mum, I think I want to go back now. When you finish here.”
“Already?” Magdalene kept her eye on the small video monitor as she rose from a squatting position and let the camera zoom in on a rope of heavy silver, being caressed by the hands of a plain young woman who seemed resigned to not being able to buy it.
“Why’s that? I thought you said you were going to help me today.”
“And I thought you said this was going to be a tiny little film! Now it’s starting to feel like a big Hollywood production. Spielberg or something…”
“Hardly,” laughed Magdalene, finally turning to look at her daughter. “But, you know, love, you’re looking a little off colour. Feeling OK?”
As they stood in the narrow, dark pathway, someone pushed past them and the group that had formed to watch Magdalene’s filming. Khadi had to press herself against a stall selling chourail, and, as she inhaled, its powerful fragrance made her head swim. She felt as though she were caught in a vice of precious filigree, forced to breathe the sickly sweetness of traditional incense. Magdalene, on the other hand, was perfectly at ease, turning to smile at the people clustering around her camera, ready to chat. But she looked again at Khadi and started to pack up.
“We just have one more stop. A friend of Mademoiselle Coly who works at the Novotel. It won’t take more than…”
“Mum. I’m going home. I really don’t feel so good.”
There was such a plaintive sound in Khadi’s voice that Magdalene knew it was pointless to try to insist. She hailed two taxis, one for each of them and waved off Khadi who headed back to Saliou’s house.
For the past few days, Khadi had been staying close to her mother. For most her life, Magdalene had, of course, been her only anchor. And since the debacle with Hassim and then with Maimouna, she needed more than anything to steady herself. She had told her mother nothing about either incident but had nonetheless spent more time with Magdalene than at any time during the trip. Although, at an almost physical level, she felt less adrift, she did not find the deep solace that she sought – and had expected to find.
She found that her mother was always busy. Not to mention relaxed and happy. For the life of her, she couldn’t understand why. Magdalene had been able to come to the home of her former husband and his new wife and their children, and behave as though everything were just fine. It didn’t seem like an act. Her mother had many gifts but acting was not one of them. That was Khadi’s forte. So as she got out of the taxi and walked towards her father’s door, she wondered whether the day would ever dawn when she did not feel alone.
The house was unusually quiet, with only the slightest murmur coming from the yard. Khadi went towards the sound and found one of the bonnes playing with little Lamine. Maimouna was tracing an intricate design in the sand with a pointed stick. That was it. Nobody else.
“Where is everyone?” asked Khadi.
“Gone? Where is Madame Ndeye?”
Khadi noted – and not for the first time - that Fatou’s attitude, which alternated between obsequious and arrogant, manifested itself in grunted monosyllabic responses. But Khadi had no time to bother with all that. Her full attention was on Maimouna who had dropped her stick and seemed about to creep off into a corner. Her face wore the same mournful expression that Khadi had put on it when she’d come home after “handling” Hassim. God! It was unbearable to see her this way. Wallowing in self-pity would have to wait. She would have to make reparation for at least one of the disasters of that night.
“Mai,” Khadi said softly. “Do you have anything special to do today?”
Maimouna shook her head without looking up.
“Would you like to go into town with me?” Maimouna picked up the stick again but didn’t answer. “We could get some ice cream. And…and maybe go to the beach.” The little braided head started to rise and the stick once more fell to the ground. “We could go to…to Goree. Yes! Goree. We could get the ferry and go across to Goree!”
“Oh yes, Khadi! Yes!” And the jumping began – into Khadi’s arms, out again, around the yard with her toddling brother in hot pursuit.
While Maimouna was dressing, Khadi wrote a note to her father and Ndeye, saying that, as she had found Maimouna at home with nothing to do, she’d decided to take her to Goree for the afternoon. They would be back in time for dinner. She would try to call them sometime during the afternoon.
Before she left, she handed the note to the taciturn maid and asked her to make sure she gave it to Madame the moment she returned. With a sudden feeling of excitement, she ran to the gate, flagged down a taxi and hurried back towards the house. Waiting at the doorway was Maimouna, resplendent in a dress given to her by Magdalene. It was white with small red flowers scattered over it; red clasps pulled her plaits into fierce bunches at the sides of her head. She was not shy about her elegance but spun round and round with her arms flung wide.
Khadi hugged her and laughed then said, “What’s this?” She took a book from the child’s hand and saw that it was an atlas. This had been another of Magdalene’s presents for the children.
“You don’t want me to bring it?” Maimouna seemed suddenly worried.
“Of course you can bring it,” Khadi hastened to say. “But why an atlas?”
The child relaxed. “Because when we went to Goree the last time…it was a long time ago, when I was young…”
“When you were young…” Khadi fought back a smile.
“Well when Papa took us to Goree last time, there were so many people on the ferry from other countries. And they were all talking different languages. And I couldn’t understand what they were saying. And even when Papa told me they were from France or some other place, I couldn’t really understand.”
Khadi had forgotten that a taxi driver was waiting for them at the other side of the gate. Maimouna was speaking in a childish, breathless rush. But there was something tough and old binding her words together.
“So why the atlas?” Khadi insisted.
“Because…” Maimouna’s voice was patient. “Because now it won’t just be words I don’t understand and people I don’t know. With the atlas, when you tell me where they’re from, I can look at the map and see the country and see where it’s near. What part of the world it’s in. And I can hear them talking and, even though I can’t understand the words, I’ll know that is the language of their country.” She paused. “It will be something that my mind can…hold. I can start to know.” She paused again. “Because when I see and hear, in the end, I can understand. I can know.”
“OK. OK. We’ll take the atlas.” Khadi looked hard at the person at her side, wondering about the uncharted vistas inside that small head. “But let’s hurry now. We don’t want to miss the 12:30 ferry.” They bundled into the car and were off.
It was a beautiful day and, despite the season, the sky was blue, without a single rain cloud to be seen. They reached the Embarcadère five minutes or so before departure time and found the waiting room full. There was an atmosphere of festive expectation in the room as the throng pressed towards the door opening onto the dock. They were a motley crew: French, Italians, Germans, British, Americans, West Indians, Guineans, Malians. Senegalese. The Western tourists carried a multiplicity of photographic equipment and sun screen; the Africans carried food, babies and merchandise to sell. Having taken all this in, Khadi’s eye lit upon a quotation – framed and in a place of honour - by the Poet President, Leopold Sedar Senghor, about the signares de Gorée, those fabled mulatto beauties for whom the island was known. Yes, she said to herself, there’s certainly beauty on that island – as well as everything else… As for Maimouna, by the time the “Coumba Castel” had pulled into dock and the scramble for seats had begun, she could barely contain herself.
They went onto the top deck where they soaked up the sun, the salt air, the sight of the container ships unloading and the prospect of the open sea as they left the harbour. The two sisters were quiet while all around them people chattered in displays of boisterous good humour. Khadi watched in amusement as Maimouna wrestled with her atlas whose pages wanted nothing more than to dance in the breeze. But she was determined and was finally able to weight half of it with her elbow and forearm, leaving the other hand free. Now she could concentrate on listening. There was a middle-aged couple speaking French behind them so she quickly found the France page. She didn’t exactly lean back to put her ear closer to their conversation but she might as well have, so intent was she on placing these two people in a context that she could understand. She sifted out all of the details which were irrelevant to her purpose. All she wanted was the mention of a place. She was soon rewarded. She looked up at Khadi.
“Yes. Bordeaux. They said Bordeaux. It should be on the map. It’s a big city,” whispered Khadi.
Maimouna’s finger went racing across the page until at last it came to rest. There it was, Bordeaux, a dot on the western edge of France, nestled on an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. She traced a line down but the map ended and she could go no further. Khadi saw her disappointment, turned to a world map and showed her where France and Bordeaux were in relation to Senegal.
“Where’s Goree?” the child wanted to know.
“It’s too small to be on the world map.” Khadi paused for a moment. “But it should be,” she added to herself.
And so it continued all the way to Goree. Within their immediate area, Khadi identified Italian, English and a kind of French with a Caribbean music to it. For her part, Maimouna identified Ouolof – that was so easy as to be ridiculous - and Serrer, the language of her relatives in the Petite Côte. From this came a lively exchange about the more immediate family. Papa started right here, went up there to France to study and then came back here again. Maman has always been here. Tanti Madeleine was born way down there in the Caribbean and went up to England. One day she went to France and met Papa. And you, Khadi, you were born right here, just like me but you went up to England when you were a little girl. Then you crossed over and now you’re in…
“New York. Right there.”
“It doesn’t look that far,” said Maimouna with a little sigh, her finger still firmly on the spot.
“Mai,” Khadi began slowly. “How would you like to come and stay with me in New York?”
“Me? In Amerique?”
“I…I…” Although her words faltered, the child’s eyes shone with a steady light. It’s now or never, Khadi thought.
“You could go to school there. Live with me and go to school. They have some wonderful schools over there. Tell me, Mai, does your teacher ever tell you to stop asking so many questions? Do you always find your work easy? Do you always get everything right?”
“Not always!” Maimouna cried, unsure about this line of questioning. “But mostly.” She hung her head, mortified.
“Well, the kind of school I’m talking about is for children just like you! Full of questions! Full of energy! Heads always buzzing with things!”
Realising that she was not being criticized, Maimouna looked up smiling and relieved.
“Yes, there are other children like you. And these schools give them lots to do. You can read any book you like. Do as much drawing as you like. Painting too! Do science. Learn how things work. How they grow. Play an instrument – violin, piano, anything…”
“It sounds…wonderful!” And the child’s face became so transparent that Khadi thought she could almost see her mind trying to “hold” this new treasure. Then a cloud passed over it.
“But Papa, he has to work. He won’t be able to come.”
“Well, no. In fact, it would just be you and me.” Khadi felt the ground slipping. “But you’d come home for your holidays.”
“Maman wouldn’t be there? Or Amadou? Or Malik? Or Omar? Or Lamine? Or Fatou? Or Auntie Story? Or Tonton Hassim? Or…”
“No,” Khadi answered, knowing that the scenario she was presenting was beyond the child’s imagination.
“Nobody?” There was amazement in Maimouna’s voice.
“Well no. Just you, me and ten million other New Yorkers.”
Maimouna’s eyes drew away from her sister’s out towards the water. “We’re here!” she exclaimed.
Khadi looked up and saw that, like the conversation about the school, the crossing was at an end. The island of Goree was upon them, floating like a dark gold slipper on the sea.
It seemed to have caught everyone by surprise and all talk was suspended as the ferry moved along the coast. Only a few miles in any direction, the island could be encapsulated in a single snapshot. And it was, time and time again, as conversation was replaced by the whirr of cameras clicking and panning.
“Tanti Madeleine should be here,” Maimouna said.
Khadi could only nod.
As the ferry made its approach, the island seemed to glide by, caught in its own dream, haunted by its legion phantoms, ensnaring all those who would look on its brooding visage, its fortress, its lissome palms, its houses washed in yellow and red ochre, its placid beach. The captain positioned the boat to dock and as he did, it seemed to be set upon by a flock of large birds, lighting onto the deck, flying off, dark against the sky, plunging into the sea only to return to repeat the whole manoeuvre. But it was an illusion. The birds were, in fact, children from the island whose delight it was to compete with each other in feats of daring and whose goal it was to relieve tourists of coins thrown into the water. They put on a breathtaking show that left everyone on board torn between admiration and alarm.
Khadi held Maimouna back as the crowd surged forward. It gave her time to collect herself. She’d forgotten what it meant to be on this spot on earth. This island…even if she’d been able to excise the fading memory of coming here as a tiny child with both her parents and the clearer memories of later trips as an adolescent setting herself up in anger against her father. Even if she’d been able to delete all of this, there was no way to prepare for the island’s powerful aura which stretched far beyond the realm of the personal. And no, there was never a way to steel oneself against it.
As though being in Goree wasn’t challenging enough, here she was with Maimouna. She always made Khadi feel more…the only word she could think of was “human”… but at the same time, she felt more vulnerable, with every action, every gesture seeming so much harder than anticipated. Just keeping up with her was exhausting. She was just a child but there was so much hunger in those eyes, so much passion in that mind… And so much love in that heart. Its purity made Khadi despair of the murkiness of her own.
There was no gangplank but deckhands helped passengers as they stepped across the gap between the dock and the gently rocking boat. Wanting an escape from her thoughts, Khadi observed how similar the male travelers looked, no matter where they were from: jeans, T shirts, caps. The difference was in the women, between the dressed and the undressed, between the revealed and the hidden. The Western women with their naked arms and backs, their bare legs, their cropped wind-blown hair were all about confident exposure, as opposed to les Africaines with their boubous sweeping from shoulder to ankle, their heads tied or elaborately coiffed, sometimes with a shawl draped around the neck. There was a difference too in the way they moved. The Western women, unable to leave their schedules behind them, were brisk and bird-like, their sexual challenge edgy and overt. The movements of their African counterparts were made languid by their garments whose apparent modesty was a veil for whispered seduction. Which kind of woman am I, she thought, remembering the indigo cloth and where it had led her. Western or African? The answer came back as it always did, immutable, galling. She was both. She was neither. If I’m an enigma, even to myself, she thought, then I’m in the right place. Gorée, place of enchantment, place of horror, where survival and annihilation were fused in the very rock.
Khadi took her sister’s hand and they got off the ferry.
By the time they’d reached the end of the jetty, they’d agreed on a plan for the afternoon. Lunch; in the absence of beach wear, wading in the shallows; a ramble around the island; a visit to the Maison in time for the 4 o’clock ferry. They chose the restaurant closest to the beach. Khadi played with her food while Maimouna polished off a heaping plate of poulet frites.
“You eat a lot for such a skinny little thing.”
“Maman always says I don’t eat enough,” Maimouna said between mouthfuls. “She says that a woman has a big job to do so she has to start getting ready from the time she’s a little girl. ‘You have to eat well to be a strong woman.’” She glanced around, just in case her mimcry of her mother – which had just slipped out – had been overheard. Khadi pretended not to have heard and gave her instructions about how far out she could wade.
“I won’t go far. I can’t swim.”
“That’s another thing you could learn in America.”
But Maimouna was now the one to pretend she had not heard. Instead, she turned on her heel and raced off to where the small waves broke on the sand. Khadi sat in the shade of the awning, finishing her bottle of water, letting her thoughts wander. They strayed in the direction of Hassim. No! I must concentrate on a relationship that is possible. My sister. But once again she had to admit that it was not as straightforward as she’d thought. It was true what Ndeye was always saying: Maimouna was work. No sooner had she come to this conclusion than she saw Maimouna hurrying back with a man and woman in tow. They were the parents of her new playmates and were now to be Khadi’s companions while wading and building sand castles took place.
The couple was from Guadeloupe. It was their first time on the continent and they were earnest in their joy at being back in the arms of the Mother. Their zeal identified them immediately as Born-Again Africans very much like the many Khadi had met in America. Inwardly she sighed as, for the next hour , they plied her ear with details of the search for their roots, starting from the Babylon of their homeland, the travails of negotiating the French education system, the challenges of studying African culture and integrating it into their lives, ending in the victory of setting foot on African soil. And then, of course, the heart-break of Gorée island. They had just reached that part of the narrative when the mother started waving to her two children to come back. Their ferry was arriving. All the children trooped back, grubby but smiling. As the family prepared to take its leave, the father, in a rhetorical summing up, said, “It has been the high point of my life to bring my children here to Gorée. For us to see where we started. To see what was done to us.” There was a pregnant pause with the mother nodding significantly.
The boy, bigger and older than Maimouna, turned to her and asked, “Didn’t you say you were from here?”
“Well then your forefathers sold mine into slavery.”
Maimouna’s mouth fell open. She looked at her sister in appeal. Khadi wanted to wring the boy’s neck but before she could, his mother took him by the shoulder. “Shaka! Really! What a thing to say! Sheba! Come along! We’ve got to go!” Gathering up their belongings, they made a hasty retreat to the jetty, leaving Khadi to face Maimouna’s uncomprehending eyes. She held her for a while and then, in a gentle voice, asked, “When you were here the last time, did you go to the Maison?”
“No. Papa went with Amadou and some grown-ups. I stayed on the beach with Mamanand the others.”
“Do you know what the Maison des Esclaves is?”
“Yes.” Maimouna frowned with the effort of dredging up a few haphazard facts. “It’s a house where slaves lived. Everybody knows about it. People come to see it… Slaves had to work very hard and then…”
“Do you know what a slave is?”
“It’s a person who…doesn’t have a house of his own. Who…has no money…No, that can’t be…I don’t know.”
“A slave doesn’t own anything, Maimouna. Not even himself. Not even his own body. The only thing he owns is his thoughts. And, in the end, he doesn’t even own them.”
The child could not respond.
“Do you know who these slaves were? The ones who were here?”
Maimouna shook her head.
“They were African people, just like you, like Papa, who were taken from their families and brought here to Gorée.”
“Because other people, people from Europe, wanted them to go somewhere else to work for them. The African people didn’t want to go but they were made to go.”
“But why couldn’t they just say they didn’t want to go? When I really don’t want to do something, I just say so.”
“They were forced, Maimouna. With chains and whips and many other terrible things.”
“And where were they forced to go?”
“To America. To the Caribbean.”
“What! Like where Tanti Madeleine is from? Like where you’re from?”
Maimouna struggled to absorb the words, at the same instant trying to rank in order the long list of whys lining up in her mind. There was one question that was the clear winner.
“Is it true what that boy said? About his ancestors and mine?”
“I’m afraid so, Mai. But it’s only part of the story. Listen, we still have over an hour to walk around before the Maison opens again. I’ll tell you all I know about this place. So you can understand. So you can know.”
Khadi took her sister by the hand and began their walk around Gorée. They visited the old church and the Museum of the Sea. They saw old men sitting in the shade, playing dominoes, unaware of their presence. Once a small boy, one of the stunt divers from earlier on, approached them and asked for money. From the vendors, they bought beaded necklaces, for themselves and for Ndeye and Magdalene. Despite the locals and visitors moving about, all seemed quiet, enshrouded in a net of dull gold. They climbed the hill overlooking the Atlantic and looked at the monument of a stricken ship broken apart, its two sections floating in different directions, but bound by the sea. And all the time Khadi talked and told the child about this place and what had happened here.
Maimouna asked many questions, sometimes the same question in different guises. There were so many things which did not connect with the world she knew: cruelty on this monstrous scale; the notion of “white people” as malign forces so unlike the jovial strangers she was used to seeing in her city; the idea of being a slave which, she was learning, was so different from being poor. And finally, the concept of “black people” (before, she’d thought of them as “Americans”) like the ones she saw on TV - the Cosby Show people, Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey and the West Indians who played football for France – that these rich and famous people, that Tanti Madeleine and even Khadi herself with all their cameras and watches and expensive things – that all of these people had had fathers and mothers stolen from Africa and turned into slaves. And that they held her responsible… Even for a mind as flexible and strong as Maimouna’s, it was a bitter blow.
Khadi saw the child’s distress and tried her best to diffuse it.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go to the Maison, Mai. We could go back to the beach. I’d come in the water with you this time.” Khadi gave a false, bright smile.
“Oh no. We have to. I need to see.” There was to be no argument.
And so, when the doors of the Slave House opened for tours at three o’clock, Khadi and Maimouna were first inside.
A house on two levels, of unexceptional size, painted the colour of rose petals mixed with blood. In the courtyard, a pair of stone steps curling in, as though in an embrace. At the centre of these encircling arms, a doorway, a light, a glimpse of the sea. Around the periphery of the courtyard, several rooms for the storage of different categories – fit men, child-bearing women, pubescent girls (the sailors’ choice), children, the sick, the recalcitrant. For the suicidal, there was always a swim in the water beyond the doorway, bristling with dorsal fins. Chains, potent despite their rust. A single twenty-five pound lead ball. Walls slick with the salt of ancient tears. Rough floors of sand and pounded excrement. No windows. No looking back for the human cargo of the ships that could almost be seen bobbing on the ocean. No looking back for the black gold of the Americas. The voice of the tour guide, floating above the thundering silence, laying it on the line, testifying, eulogizing the millions dead at the bottom of the ocean and the millions who survived with the unhealed wounds of rupture. And always the magnet of the final doorway, inescapable, beckoning towards the light, towards the sea, towards the empty horizon.
Khadi rubbed her eyes when they stepped outside into the street. She didn’t want Maimouna to see that she had been crying. The child said nothing as they walked along but held tight to her sister’s hand. They returned to the same restaurant. Khadi ordered ice cream but Maimouna barely touched hers. During their short time in the Maison, the weather had changed. It was now grey and ugly and the waves breaking on the sand moved with muscle behind them. When they saw the “Coumba Castel” puffing towards the jetty, they both looked grateful that it was time to go.
There was a crowd on the jetty by the time they reached, people just arriving, people wanting to leave.
“What’s taking them so long?” Khadi asked after they’d been there more than five minutes.
“They’re having trouble getting people off,” someone ahead of her said. “Choppy,” he added, pointing to the water.
Several more minutes passed before all of the arriving passengers were off and still more went by before Khadi and Maimouna were at a point where they could see what was going on. At first glance, confusion seemed to reign. It was not, in fact, confusion; but it was anxiety and lack of equipment. An angry tide was rolling in, making it impossible for the ferry to make a snug fit alongside the dock. And, once again, there was no gangplank. The boat rose and sank, drifted off and came slamming back, making all attempts to get on board hazardous. The leap of faith was no longer a metaphor; it was a requirement. From time to time, a hardy soul jumped across the gap and made it look easy. But for the most part, passengers had to wait for an opportune moment for wave and boat and dock to align and make the leap possible. The exhortations of the deckhands did nothing to mollify the nervous.
"Mais, Madame, sautez! Qu’est-ce qu’i ya?”
“Ne m’emmerdez pas! Espèce de couillon!”
And so it went, the shouting, the cursing, the tangible fear.
When Khadi and Maimouna were almost at the head of the queue, Maimouna turned to get a last look at Gorée.
“Why didn’t they tell me about this before? I just thought this was a place to go for a boat ride, then the beach. My mother and father. Why didn’t they tell me?”
“They didn’t want to make you upset, like you are now.” Khadi was only half concentrating on what she was saying. She was trying to see if there was any pattern in the apparently random widening and narrowing of the gap between the boat and the dock.
“But they should have told me! I should have known!”
“Why? You’re seven years old.”
“I didn’t know and I should have. I should have.” Maimouna’s voice, high and sorrowful, went keening on the wind. But Khadi wasn’t listening. She was preparing for the jump. She shouted something to the deckhand on the ferry then turned to the child.
“Maimouna, forget about all that.” Khadi used her lawyer’s voice, calm and to the point. “It’s too dangerous to try to lift you across. We can’t cross together. We have to go one by one so let go of my hand now. Face the ferry. Look at it carefully. Listen for my voice and when I say ‘Go!’ jump as far as you can. See that man there? He’s going to catch you. You’ll be quite safe.” She looked into Maimouna’s eyes and saw that they were still pierced through with sights of the Maison.
“Maimouna!” She gave her a shake. “Pay attention! Listen for ‘Go’ and jump.” The child seemed to hear, squared her shoulders and clenched her fists. Khadi happened to look at Maimouna’s feet and saw that her shoe laces had come undone. She knelt down.
“Look at your laces!” she said crossly, handing the child the atlas she’d been carrying around all afternoon. “You were going to jump with your shoes falling off?” She secured the shoes with tight double knots and stood up, never taking her eyes off the treacherous rolling of the boat.
There were people all around, those already on the ferry and those behind them on the dock, but for Khadi, she was alone with the task of getting the child across to safety. She studied the erratic movements of the boat. It seemed to be edging towards the dock. Yes! It definitely was! In a few seconds, it would be as close as the rubber tyre buffers would allow. She opened her mouth and with the boat reaching a manageable distance from the jetty, shouted, “Go!”
Maimouna sprang from where she was standing, an arrow aimed at the deck of the ferry. What happened next took place in a fragment of a second but for Maimouna, time slowed down. Just after takeoff, that perfect takeoff, she felt her fingers loosen and something fall from her hand into the water. It was the atlas. As she soared through space, the loss of that small weight destabilized her and, with the island scowling at her back, she found herself wavering in the air as the book plummeted into the sea. Then she caught herself and continued her flight across the gulf. But the damage was done. One foot landed flush on the deck but the other one could not find a purchase, slipped and sent her tumbling backwards, her head cracking against the jetty before disappearing beneath the churning water.
Khadi froze. A moment of utter silence. And then all hell broke loose.
“Xale-bi deffa dano! Xale-bi deffa dano! Woye! Woye!”
Two deckhands leapt in. They too disappeared. Impossible to see anything except rubber tyres, the looming hull of the boat and an oblong of black water. The captain tried to ease the ferry back on minimum power, to put some distance between the rescue and the boat’s propellers. Amid the screams of onlookers, the heads of the deckhands broke the surface, took breath and then went down again. There was the sound of running feet and then the air went dark with the flying bodies of the coin divers of the island, this time only the oldest and strongest of them, plunging into the ocean that they knew so well. The water foamed white as, time and again, their youthful limbs pulled down bubbling columns of air as they searched the byways of the deep. They were not down long. When they surfaced, they had with them a figure in a red and white garment. They supported her head and neck in a lifeguard’s hold and, forming a relay chain, one by one they pulled her through the fretting waves and brought her around the jetty and across the cove. They laid her on the sand, at the feet of her sister.
The cold blood running in Khadi’s veins had galvanized her into action. Between catching sight of Maimouna’s dress and seeing her stretched out on the sands, she had found an Englishwoman who knew CPR, had commandeered a cell phone, had phoned the Municipal Hospital, ordered an ambulance, left a message for Saliou, had spoken to the ferry’s captain and had organized two groups, one for a makeshift stretcher, one for a makeshift gangplank.
The CPR woman set to work on her straight away, compressing her chest, sucking out water from her mouth, breathing life into it. Sweat broke out on the woman’s forehead but she kept working, counting out loud and working. Then, from nowhere, came a ripple along the small body. It ended in a cough of regurgitated sea water and a sharp intake of breath. After that, the thin chest rose and fell rhythmically.
But she did not wake up.
Maimouna was wrapped in a blanket and transported onto the stretcher, along the gangplank, aboard the ferry, across the water and into the ambulance. Sitting alone next to her as they hurtled through the afternoon traffic, Khadi turned blind eyes towards the small back window. It seemed to her that all had gone dark apart from a glimmer of light beyond the curtained square. The wail of the ambulance was remote, as though from a distant land. And in that noiseless darkness, as she edged nearer to the hospital, she wondered how she would tell her father that she had killed her sister.
Suddenly the wailing stopped and she knew they had entered the precinct of the hospital. It was only then that Khadi dared to look at her. There was not a mark on her; all limbs were intact. The dress was not torn and seemed newly washed with its drops of scarlet on the clean white ground. The merest breath passed through her lips and on her face there was the impression of a smile.