Aminatu

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The drunken dogs are crouched in the furthest corner from the entrance. When the doors are open, you cannot see them. But if you listen closely, you will hear the low and desperate snarl in their throats. They grew ruthless in the days following the storm. When the power died, they walked and sniffed at random. Soon after, they charged and growled—hungry for whatever was left. Many were still living then. But by the third day, many more were waiting to die in that grayish-blue darkness. And it was not hard for the dogs to get to the dead, weaving between babies crying for water, and fathers’ arms cradling the shoulders of sobbing women. The stink of rotting brown skin and bleeding bones led them there. 

There is no more food or water. For the past twelve hours, they have picked at the rawness of corpses. Their gums leak into their jaws, a mixture of flesh, feces, and dense moisture. Their eyes droop heavy with shame, but they are hungry again if provoked. They have stopped eating because there is almost nothing left, and they too have become sick. The space is damp; the smell, rancid. The sweating air has left their short hairs wet and stringy, dripping as if drenched by a garden hose. They aimlessly circled the field of the dome until the circles became smaller, and smaller. Finally, they collapsed in a corner on the prickly, green faux-grass.

One has in his teeth and clutched between his skinny legs a blue-yellow damask head tie. A scarf, the kind that would adorn the head of a West African woman; and just a short while ago, it did. Her name is Aminatu.

After you passed the section of the market run by the young, attractive Vietnamese woman who sold everything from mangoes to grapefruits, kettle popcorn to tropical iced drinks, and bananas to freshly boiled corn on the cob, you had to then cross over a tar-paved walk area before reaching Aminatu’s spot. Her shop in the French market was a small, cement-block room whose length and size were extended into the adjoining street by a canvas-thatched roof. Merchandise crowded within the cement structure and overflowed into the outside space under the canvas ceiling. The air inside stayed thick and hot; only two people at a time could stand in there comfortably. It was unusually dark even though an incandescent bulb hung low from the ceiling. 

When a customer admired a piece visible from the outside, Aminatu would let her walk in the room first, and follow behind to describe the origin and make of the thing. She would pause as if reconsidering, and then quote a price. Aminatu did not like to stay in there for more than a few minutes; the floor-length wrap she sometimes wore—though loosely fitted—made her armpits wet, and sweat beads run rapidly from under her head tie into her bushy sideburns. 

Wooden and metal figurines, straw- and cloth-woven handbags, sharply colored paintings of African women and children, and other ornamental pieces that the American buyers proclaimed “ethnic” or “exotic,” made up the bulk of the items Aminatu sold. The shop was not much different from others run by the women in the French market. She stood a world apart if only because she was not merely another immigrant who sold from under the wide, two-block long roofing whose totality of back-to-back stalls, sellers, wandering tourists, and nondescript merchandise, constituted the French market. Aminatu had a permanent space. So she could boast an almost enviable kind of independence: she, unlike the other African women, was not subject to a lottery system. The location of her set-up remained the same daily. Her regulars did not have to pace the market for her when she was not at the stall where they bought just the week before.

Her freedom was incomplete, and that her dreams did not let her forget. Rashid, the husband of Fatima, her sister, owned the shop and everything inside and outside of it. While the two sisters were charged with its daily business, it was Aminatu alone who worked the shop five of the seven week days. And most of the money from the things sold, she returned to Rashid and Fatima. Though she would regard it as a blessing could she keep a larger share, she admitted that the money was hardly payment for living in their basement without rent. Her daughter Ghaniyah attended the same private school as Fatima’s children. Rashid never asked her to contribute monthly school fees. No, little was expected of her, not even sharing in the cost of utilities—although Aminatu bought food for the household for the sake of gratitude. Feeling thankfulness: the spring of her joy. The fullness of it left little room for complaint. The mouth-gaping tales of stingy in-laws who were harsh with newly arrived relations were enough to keep her sometimes wishful mind settled.

Every now and then when a visitor related news about the state of things at home, Aminatu conceded in her mind that all matters really must be more manageable in the Big Easy, even if truly they were not. At home, a young woman whose family could not afford to send her to university would probably be married to an overbearing man who demanded near-submission in exchange for a pittance of food and household allowance. The thought of attending university, not even worth imagining only a few years before, now became a secret, buoying fantasy. So, one by one, she continued reading the kind of books she had heard black students read at local universities. Patience comes easily to those with little choice. 

Aminatu sometimes found comfort in the fact that no one there quite knew her. Their expectation of the things she should have done or could have been was not humiliatingly high. To most who met her, Aminatu was “that young African woman.” That, in its ambiguity, was manageable. So she combined whatever it was to be African with what she was inevitably coming to know as black in America. On some days she draped her body from head downward in a green and blue print-cloth dress that made her black skin glimmer like an oil canvas surface. On others, she topped her bell-bottom jeans with a western-style blouse with a Senegalese print. Occasionally, her only ode to home was a head tie and beaded earrings that unmistakably placed her as an African. Even in the eyes of the more ignorant ones who could not say precisely where she came from, she was just not from there.

Sometimes though, Aminatu could not answer for herself where she belonged. She had not been home since leaving at seventeen—more than nine years ago. Hardly could she comment intelligently on the goings-on in her country. Her laugh ran nervously if you asked questions specific enough that the answers could reveal just how disengaged with home she had become. The native dialect she still spoke with smoothness. As much as she talked to herself aloud to perfect her English, it dribbled in a drawn-out sound as if a sticky paste held the back of the tongue to the roof of her mouth. And her face’s curves could not begin to hide themselves. They knew that, as did she. 

“Ah my sistah! This one suits your face so well. It is just for you. Come, try it!” she would implore while tugging on the arm of whichever young woman had caught her eye. Most were tourists, but some lived there and visited the market on their days off, or on weekend evenings. And if the sister should be accompanied by a young man, then he became her boyfriend, or husband. He, unsuspecting of the power of the African woman’s business teases, was pressed to “buy something nice for your beautiful lady. This handbag is a genuine import, fit for a classy gal. You won’t buy anything for your girlfriend?” Aminatu’s taunts were so lovely, and made you feel as if you could not do without that thing she was selling. And then, you really could not. So, you bought it, and walked away feeling like one of the lucky ones. 

Aminatu had a way. That way not easily described, but well understood when you met her.

The wind-drawn rains had pounded for several hours. Through the tear they left in the roof, a thin stream of dawn projected something of a theatrical spotlight onto the faces of several women and toddlers, as they lay in military cots, wrapped in old sweatshirts and newer blankets. Aminatu, floating in and out of an edgy sleep, traced the shadows of faces and bodies in a paced, blurry stare. She glanced again at the illuminated white words on the front of an old woman’s tee shirt: “There But for the Grace of God, Go I.” Ghaniyah’s plaits brushed under her mother’s chin, her body gathered inside Aminatu’s shaking arms and buried in a slowly breathing fear. They lay and waited there in the dome with the rest—the ones who could not make their way out and the others who would not. Those with the choice: unwilling to trust whatever waited for them outside the only city they had known.

She was not as scared after the storm passed. A heavy draft moved through the air in slow, warm swirls. The first inhale reminded Aminatu of the smell of hot and rotten food that lingered after the garbage truck jolted through the French market side streets early Tuesday mornings. At the back of her throat, she tasted sour urine and the private smells of damp and sweaty cavities. Word came, and drifted away with the bringers of the word who arrived and departed as quickly as the messages they brought: “Help is on the way. Food is coming soon.” Neither was true—not the messengers, or the words.

Ghaniyah awaited her mother a few feet from the entrance of the women’s restroom. Aminatu had let her go first, instructing her daughter to tiptoe so her feet would not touch the days-old sanitary napkins whose dark brownish-red peeked through snot-hardened piles of toilet tissue. The floor covered its face with everything sickly and filthy that would be found in the bathroom of the dying, or in the living spaces of those with no reason to remain in life. On the open spaces of tile, Ghaniyah’s little rubber soles rubbed the floor’s wetness. When they reached a stall not stuffed to its rim, Aminatu instructed her daughter, “Hold your breath.” Ghaniyah plugged her nose. Her mother then pulled down her pants, rolling each cuff upward and tightly around Ghaniyah’s knees so that it would not touch the floor. It must not touch the floor, Aminatu thought. And when Ghaniyah could not breathe, and her puffed cheeks no longer held, she coughed and spit—the spray landing somewhere between her face and her mother’s breasts. Ghaniyah then wrapped her tiny arms around her mother’s neck, while Aminatu’s elbows supported the little girl’s thighs in midair. Aminatu leaned a little forward and tenderly lowered her arms. Ghaniyah finally relaxed enough to release. Aminatu took her baby back into the lighter air that wafted through the hallway. She then went back inside for her turn. “Ghaniyah, wait here for me,” she said. 

“Yes Mummy.”

I would not have known had it not been for the little girl’s soul-shaking wail. Its sound found me somewhere on the football field where I also was waiting—by choice. It reminded me of the way I cried when I woke up from those dreams in which I could not quite explain the loss I felt, or who it was I had lost. The silence that followed her scream, too, was like that loud quietness that trailed my mind from the end of the dream to my waking consciousness—a forlornness whose weightiness lessened with awareness. A middle-aged black man carried Ghaniyah past us a couple of minutes later. 

So then the stories were told. A woman who had seen Aminatu described her thighs and legs. Limp, formed into the shape of the number 7, thrusting from under the stall, and visible from the entranceway as if daring any passerby to ignore them. She lay there, forgotten as are those who have not learned to speak loudly enough—alone, though wanting to be seen and heard. Still. 

“The gash on the left side of her neck. The way her legs bent.” These and other tidbits allowed the self-designated experts to conclude Aminatu had slid and fell at some point while stooping over the toilet bowl. Her hair piled in a clump in the center of her head, flattening toward the sides of the temples where her scarf had been wrapped. The dog—the one with the skinny legs—found and clung to it some time later.

I never knew Aminatu. I, that young African woman called after and sweet-talked to buy this thing or that, felt in some way—real only to me, perhaps—a part of that small village of women who shared homelands along with those tiny stalls of great aspirations in the French market. That I held the freedom to buy and never had to sell, I walked a bit on the outside, as I did when just browsing and trying to decide. Yet to walk that marketplace, and into the eye-path of flattery-tongued West African women, I am ushered back into the body-tingling of being found by the familiar—ah, the odd yet intimate sounds of English words twisted and intoned in the likeness of those words we speak only in sacred spaces. So, you must understand that after the storm that came, passed; the bodies that piled, were counted; the stories told, forgotten, I thought of Aminatu first, and all the women like her who I have to remember onlybecause of Katrina.