It was late at night and the darkness was far-reaching. The wind was relentless; the rain gushed; the thunder pounded haphazardly. There was the frequent clatter of utensils falling, as unlatched windows closed and opened violently in the wind. Tick tock tick tock, time marched. The girl emerged exhausted from the world of sleep. Getting to her feet, she walked to the window, parted the curtains, and peeked outside. Then returned to bed, pulling up the sheets halfway. She glanced at the clock by the far corner of her bed: a quarter to two. She widened her eyes in disbelief and looked back outside. Silence. Her head was spinning like a kite. Her nerves were racked. Why hasn’t he arrived yet? she wondered, fingering her neck.
It was highly unusual for him to be this late. She thought maybe it was because of the rain.
She could no longer sit still. Notwithstanding the cold wind coming from the open window, a thin trickle of sweat was running from her armpit. She did not understand what was happening. Making her way to her brother’s room, she found him fast asleep. She shook him at least three times, but he did not wake, so she left him and headed toward her parents’ room. From the doorway, she could hear them snoring. Everyone was asleep. She returned to her room.
After much cajoling and convincing, at last he had agreed to meet her parents. They planned to make the introduction that coming dawn. A desire had ignited within her, to prove to everyone that she was a woman of honor, that she had in fact been telling the truth about her beloved. She’d show her brother, who teased her daily that she was turning into an old maid who still lived in her parents’ house; and her mother, who persistently tried to marry her off to men of different descents: Swahili, Arab, and once, an Indian. Each time, she refused. She utterly refused, insisting there was already a young man ready to marry her and she’d introduce him to them very soon.
Two thirty in the morning and still he hadn’t showed. She decided to distract herself with frivolous acts, preparing herself to receive her beloved, her soon-to-be husband. In the bathroom, she bathed in tepid water and dressed herself in her most elegant clothes. She put on the silver earrings her beloved liked—the ones he complimented whenever she wore them—then spritzed herself with the most enticing perfume. Last, she pulled a chair out from behind the door and placed it opposite her bed. For her guest.
Their relationship had been going on for a while now. She remembered the first time they’d met. At nine at night, she’d rushed out to purchase sanitary pads from the shop. Her flow had suddenly started gushing and they’d had no spare pads at home. It was as she was leaving the store that, though she was in a hurry to get back, the man wore her down and got to talk to her for a few minutes. And that was how, casually, they’d gotten to know each other and grown closer. She’d been scared at first. She wouldn’t utter a single word around him. But recently, a familiarity had settled between them. They’d sit together conversing, laughing, him drawing her into the comfort of an embrace. And his behavior of late had only caused her love for him to grow. She now had her hair stroked, a new experience for her, her hands held, her palms kissed. On those evenings when he arrived late, their exchanges were scant, and she’d fall asleep to him caressing her back. His tardiness did not concern her, for he’d already explained he worked the evening shift late into the night. These encounters ushered in sensations wholly new to her. Feelings that crawled into her veins and made her entire body tingle with excitement. She delighted in them. Saw the night as day and day as night. She’d be distracted all day long, engrossed in thoughts of the previous night or else daydreaming about what he would do to her that coming evening.
Her girlfriends were most eager to meet this suitor, for she sang of him with a devotion usually reserved for the national anthem, all without confirmation of his existence. Day after day, she’d tell them how refined her man was, his head shaved stylishly and his beard properly trimmed. Some believed her, but others dismissed her as a liar, and still others said she had lost it. What baffled them most was that supposedly the man wasn’t even from their village, but rather passed through each night after work headed for his place in the neighboring village. They were flummoxed: How could she be acquainted with a boy from somewhere else when she herself had never left! What’s more, she often grew conceited; there was no way her beloved was duplicitous like so many men in their village. Time alone would help her friends solve the riddle.
That which is long anticipated eventually comes to pass. At three o’clock on the dot, the guest she’d been awaiting with bated breath finally arrived. She received him with unbridled exuberance, frantic, jubilant, genial, her hands fluttering. Her heart, previously hammering with apprehension, now pulsated with delight. She’d known he wouldn’t miss his appointment. She believed so much in this man, knew that the love she had for him would never permit him to break his promise.
Like always, the man sat in the chair facing her in bed. Then he took her hands in his and covered her palms with kisses. She melted, as all her worries from earlier vaporized. And then she smiled.
“Oh, my darling, my most honored one,” the guest began. “How are you?”
“Alhamdulillah,” she answered.
“Please forgive my lateness today. There was a bit of a situation, and I was forced to attend to it.”
“What was it, love?”
“The man with the shift after me had a family emergency. I had no choice but to cover for him until he arrived.”
“It does not matter, so long as you’re here. Are you aware that today is our big day?”
“I’m well aware, but . . .”
She cut him off. “No my love, please no excuses today. I already promised Mother. At dawn, I will introduce you to her.”
He stood and strode to the window, gazing outside, while she continued, “Today is today, and he who speaks of tomorrow lies. I cannot believe this day is finally here. I’ve been patient for so long. Truly, there is no ordeal so long that it won’t come to an end. They will finally quit mocking me, saying I am unworthy of love. At school, they say I’m not pretty. Just two days ago, I passed a group of boys at a maskani and heard them call me mad. I can’t wait to see the look on my brother’s face when you address Mother, to witness his shock. I can’t believe they don’t believe me. Where did I go wrong?”
Now on her feet, she felt him approach from behind and press against her. Her eyes were tearing up and her lips curled into a smile. Turning around, she lay her palm on her lover’s cheek, stared into his eyes, and said, “I feel the time has come for me to wed. I think you’ll find I’m emotionally mature and able to take good care of you. I do not want to grow old in this house while my friends are off getting married and having children. All I want is for you to marry me. That is my deepest desire. You bring me so much comfort and don’t tease me like all the others.”
The man moved closer and planted a kiss on her forehead. They became entangled in an embrace, fell into bed, and pulled up the covers.
“If I may,” she said, “where would you like to get married?”
“Wherever,” he said. “I’m only opposed to a long ceremony, for I long too fondly. I want to marry you and take you away with me. You’ll come live with me, and I promise you will not regret it. I’ll make you happy beyond compare.”
“Where is that?”
“Where I’m from. Where there is no annoyance, no cause for distress, no end to things—we’ll live forever, just you and me.”
“Enough of your sarcasm, can anything really be so? Everything has its end. What I want is to live with you for my remaining days.”
Together, they laughed.
“You know, I’ve been lost in thought day in and day out, imagining our wedding with every free moment I get. I know Mother will organize a grand ceremony, since I am her only daughter, and besides, she has her reputation to maintain. Our wedding will be so flooded with visiting dignitaries that the village will tremble,” she finished.
“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” he laughed.
They kept chatting and romancing, while time passed.
Whether the rooster crows or not, the sun will rise! Daybreak ripened and the hour of morning knocked, the holy sun splintering its rays onto the farthest horizon and bidding the dawn farewell. The girl’s mother left her room and began her day’s work as she did every morning. She prepared her husband’s bathwater and placed his towel in the bathroom, then walked to her son’s room and roused him, informing him that he was already late for the morning prayer. The bustle of the day began. One after another the members of the household awoke, save for the girl.
“Is that girl still asleep? Isn’t the sun beating down on her in that room?” the mother asked in a raised voice as if addressing the whole neighborhood. She marched straight to her daughter’s room and opened the door.
“Surpriiiiiiiiiissseeeee,” the daughter sang, smiling.
She gestured toward her beloved’s hand.
“Mother, as promised, meet the love of my life. We’ve been waiting most eagerly for you to wake.”
“My God!” the mother cried.
“I knew you’d be startled. Even I’m trembling. This matter of introducing your beloved to your parents is not as easy as I’d anticipated.”
She walked to stand next to her man.
“My love, this is my mother, kipenzi changu, your soon-to-be mother-in-law. Go on, don’t be afraid, she’s alright.”
“My child! Isn’t that just the bed?”
“Aah Ma, please don’t tease me. I’m serious right now.”
“Why am I not seeing anyone?”
“Ma, you must still be half asleep.”
“Ya Ilahi!” exclaimed the mother. “This cannot be! Swaleheeee, oh Swaleheee!”
“Naam,” responded the young man from across the hall.
“Go and get your father. I see the water has exceeded the flour in this girl.”
“Is she at it again?” Swaleh asked.
“And gone beyond. Hurry, call him in here.”
The girl dropped to the ground and began wailing.
“My love, speak up. Don’t you see? Didn’t I tell you they wouldn’t believe me? I’m tired. Tired of this life.”
She thrust her head to the floor and wept ardently, tears streaming and mucus dripping.
“The Guest” by Fatma Shafii, translated by Hassan Kassim, from No Edges: Swahili Stories, published by Two Lines Press, 2023, as part of the Calico Series. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.