This first Monday of Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), Sawad Hussain and Stella Gaitano share this excerpt from her novel The Souls of Eddo, winner of a PEN Translates Prize:
The full translation is set to appear from Dedalus in June 2021.
Excerpt from ‘The Souls of Eddo’
By Stella Gaitano
Translated by Sawad Hussain
Like any other living creature, Mama Lucy didn’t know a thing about what fate had in store for her. She’d neither planned for nor thought about this maternal generosity of hers that had struck her like a curse. All there was to it was this: her mother had given birth only to her, or rather, she was the sole survivor of her ten siblings who had all died before their first birthday. Her mother had lived with the pain of loss for many years, and it was renewed as each year passed, when the child would sprout like an unwanted weed only for death to come and kidnap each one while slumbering, without their health being visibly affected or their freshness fading away. They looked blissfully asleep when she buried them, their graves warm for days, their cries ringing in her ears. Their bodies had been warm, their limbs supple, but their hearts had stopped beating altogether.
During one of these sudden deaths, Lucy’s mother had kept the small body for several days, locking herself in by bolting the door and placing a dried tree stump mass to further secure the door from the inside. She barricaded herself in with the small corpse without telling anyone, without wailing like every other time. She decided to make a desperate bid to challenge death. She squeezed milk from her swollen breast into the dead baby’s mouth, maybe that would revive him. Maybe she had been too quick to bury all his siblings. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The baby’s body ballooned, its color changing and starting to ooze a hideous smell, a smell that wafted out of the tightly shut room’s cracks, causing people to bang on her door. “Edo! Maria! Open up if you’re still alive!” her panicked neighbors called out.
When she finally opened up, she stared at them with hollow eyes, her mouth dry like that of a corpse, her enflamed breasts engorged. The milk had dried on the jilbab she was wearing; shrivelled up like a forgotten flayed animal skin.
She collapsed, sobbing at the doorstep, her friends edging closer until the stench violently assaulted their nostrils. There was the small corpse, milk drooling from its tiny mouth that gaped like a hole. They rushed to wrap the baby in a shroud and toss it in a grave next to the other small graves scattered in the land right in front of her home. She surveyed the scene from her doorstep with bereaved eyes, suspended between joining them and secluding herself inside.
When Edo’s friends had paid their final respects to her child, laid to rest among its small brothers and sisters that had gone before dissipating into nothingness, she took time to survey the small graves that took up a fair amount of space on her land, surrounding her gutiyyah, her only home. Some of the earth around her straw hut was level with the ground, but in some places it protruded like the bellies of fat men. She looked out at her land as a farmer would, counting the handsome stalks thick with grain, only for them to be spoiled by the mischief monkeys get up to, rather than as a contemplative mother meditating on the loss of a child who she’d been waiting for several days to wake up.
The revolting smell remained for years, ingrained in the walls and stuffed in the crevices of the mud room, like the breath of someone suffering from an infection of the gums. She herself couldn’t smell it, but everyone else avoided passing by her house.
Even when Lucy came into her life, Edo treated her like a foreign guest who would soon depart; so certain was she of her child’s approaching death, which would follow in the footsteps of her siblings and leave her mother to lap up sorrow once more. And so, Edo denied Lucy any motherly affection, like an animal that ostracises one of its young for some unknown reason. As for Edo, she was protecting her heart from clinging to Lucy, from it being broken by sudden death. Edo pushed Lucy out of her sphere, neglecting to breastfeed her, which led to her friend Esi weaning Lucy at the same time as her son. When the baby girl’s cries made a racket in the village, Edo’s friends Aligha and Esi convinced her to do what she must as a mother; that the past was no fault of this child; that it wasn’t right for Edo to pour out her fury at fate on Lucy.
An old woman advised Edo to give the baby girl an ugly name so that Death would overlook her. So she named her Eghino, the one who defecates a lot. This name stayed with the child, and the village people didn’t call her by any other until the fair-skinned evangelists came in their white clothes to Edo’s village to guide them to the Lord and His salvation. They were renamed with names of the saints. There and then, Eghino was baptised Lucy.
Edo was among the first to embrace the new religion. She prayed regularly and was rigid in some ways, not because of the faith itself, but rather to know the way to God, so she could go to Him, because she had a score to settle. Once her sadness had calcified into anger, she wanted to know: Why did He feed them so freely to Death? Was God the one behind her pain and sorrow? She was terribly determined to find out. She remained on her path to the Lord and died a believer. A great prayer was spoken over her. Incense and a coffin were brought over from the land of the white people; it was shiny with a glass window through which her face, framed by a nun’s habit, could be seen. She was clean and peaceful, as if she would break out into a smile at any moment because she was the first person in the village to be buried in a coffin. People were usually buried in the clothes they died in or naked in a not-deep-enough hole. A lot of the time, they were dug out by hyenas or other wild animals that wandered around at night.
Edo was a woman known for her silences, and for the perpetual sadness etched on her face. She was tall, slender, and didn’t like chit-chat. Scars like distant stars danced across her belly and cheeks, the teeth of her lower jaw pulled out. She was part of the first generation that refused to have the outer ring of the ear scalloped, cut out into small arches like the edges of an embroidered sheet. The women of her generation were satisfied with the ritual scarring on their cheeks and the removal of some teeth during their adolescent years. Having a golden tooth was a fad that swept through all the communities. So she and her friends had implanted a golden incisor only to be branded as shameless, ‘fallen’ women—at that time a golden tooth meant you were on the hunt for a man, your smile glittering in the dead of night, visible from the furthest distances; a glowing ember.
Edo’s mouth remained shut most of the time, fearful that, if she opened it, secrets would tumble out, as smoke did from the mouths of elderly women who puffed the tobacco pipe. Everyone knew the good in her, the pitiful and the crazy at times, but she would never reveal her secret world to anyone, even her closest friends: Rebecca, Aligha, Marta, or Esi. They knew she had rebellious and outlandish ideas that, if voiced, would stun the community. As such, Edo feared chatter because in a village as small as this one, if someone even passed gas in his home, you’d find the children laughing about it while swimming at the head of the river. Her comments on the everyday were biting. She was against much of what the men had imposed. For example, she was against the sister of a murderer being offered up as compensation to the victim’s family, them doing with her whatever they wanted. Usually, they’d treat her like a servant: making her plant, harvest, cook, fetch water from the river, and birth many children; punishing her for a sin she hadn’t committed. Her neighbor’s daughter had suffered such that she hung herself from the ceiling to put an end to her torture in the houses of the victim’s family, while her brother the murderer carried on with normal life.
Edo’s thoughts were this: that men won’t hesitate to kill someone as long as the punishment doesn’t personally affect them. The murderer was among the walking dead that the victim’s family would lie in wait for. So either he had to be handed over, or they had to be compensated with livestock so young girls could be left alone.
But everyone dismissed her and considered her touched in the head because of her extended sadness and the anger at God that roiled in her chest. But after a long time had passed, the tribal chiefs adopted her view, so that reconciliation was carried out such that the killer’s family paid compensation in the form of livestock. It continued on like this until the government appeared, pushing the chiefs to the sidelines, and dedicated itself to all the issues that had been going for years: violent disputes, contentious marriages, rifts between families … Prisons were instated and killers were executed in front of a crowd. With this, the spirit of tolerance went up in smoke, and murders increased with revenge being meted out, and more people got away with it. Confessions were no longer given; instead they were buried deep, for the fear of being attacked.
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“The Rally of the Sixth of April,” by Stella Gaitano, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Salah Mohamed El Hassan Osman, and Abed Haddad