10 October 1974/23 Ramadan 1394
Marianne woke before the muezzin's call, as she always did.
Three stories below, the city was stirring. The smell of cooking
rose from the streets as the kebab and millet-cake sellers offered
passers-by a last chance to eat before sunrise. People - black men
>from the south, Toubou and Arabs from the north, Tuareg merchants
with turbans and swords, even a few women - hurried to their jobs,
or rolled out prayer mats in anticipation of the dawn.
Marianne sat on her balcony with a cup of coffee and a plate of
lamb and dates from the previous night. She observed Ramadan -
fasting was healthy and focused the mind, and it was not polite
to eat while others fasted - but she was indifferent to the call
to prayer. In the sixty-five years she had lived here, through
marriage to an Ouadaïen student and the years underground during
the war of independence, she had never adopted the Islamic faith;
the country had become hers, but the religion had not. A mere
six decades was too little time to erase the things she had
learned in the Danielloise convent.
The view from the balcony was the same, almost, as it had been
sixty years before. Colonialism had washed over Abéché and
receded, leaving hardly a trace. The British had ruled here, out
of pride and to outflank the Germans in Numidia, but they'd never
really had a reason to stay. A British garrison had stood
outside the city for just short of half a century, and then it
was gone. There had been a war - Britain never put down its
possessions lightly, even those it did not want - but at the end,
Ouadai was as it had been, with the whitewash slightly more
weathered. Those who wanted something different went south to
the Doba oil fields, or north to the mines of the Aozou strip,
which the Germans had taken three times but never held. The
imams grumbled about the foreigners who ran the Aozou mines,
especially since many of the workers inevitably drifted back to
the capital, but neither the Sultan nor the Majlis was willing to
sacrifice the country's meager wealth.
That wealth, small as it was, had brought changes, even in the
old city, and even to the buildings that were twice Marianne's
age - plumbing, running water, sometimes electricity. She had
lived long enough without those things that they were of no
moment to her; in a way, she even regretted them. She remembered
the mornings at the well with the other women, the laughter and
conversation at the beginning of the day. There was no more of
that now, and running water had taken the conversation out of
many women's lives. As a doctor, Marianne could only approve of
Abéché's modern amenities; as a woman, she mourned for the many
whose prison had become more inescapable.
She finished her meal, pulled her chador over her clothes and
walked down to the street. Marianne had always insisted that her
office be in a different part of the city from her home; _she_
would not be a prisoner. She had been one once, in the convent
seventy and eighty years ago; it was a captivity that had led to
the study of medicine and her meeting with Mohammed at the Berlin
lyceum, but an imprisonment nevertheless. She was grateful to
the Danielloise sisters, with a gratitude that even their
countless reminders of how thankful a whore's daughter should be
to find a place had not worn away, but she had made a vow never
to be a captive again. That vow had been broken once, during the
war, but never before or since.
The walk to her office was quiet this time of year; the time for
prayer had passed, and the streets of the old city were too
narrow for lokes. For forty-nine years, Mohammed had accompanied
her on this daily journey, but he had been gone a decade and
more. Lately, as she approached ninety years of age, Marianne
found herself talking to his ghost more often - a sign, she
supposed, of how close she was to being one herself.
She heard her name called in greeting, and saw the patients lined
up outside her office door. She had treated some of their
grandmothers; unlike her home country, Ouadai had welcomed women
doctors even sixty years ago. It was easier that way for female
patients to maintain their modesty. In the early days, before
she had taught her skills to other women, she'd had many more
patients than Mohammed.
And still, the patients came. From the look of them, it would be
well past sunset before Marianne even had time to think of
eating. That was good. It would keep her, for a while, from
seeing what was missing.
It may have been noon before she looked up again, or it may have
been two o'clock. The sound of midday prayers was coming from
a mosque nearby; men sang their prayers in Ouadai, and danced in
circles with the Koran in their hands. Once, she wouldn't have
noticed; twenty years ago, or even ten, nothing could have broken
her concentration when she was with a patient. Now, at eighty-
nine, a day without a meal made her feel faint, made her sit for
a few minutes in a shady room to clear her head.
Soon enough, the time would come when she wouldn't make it
through the day at all. It wouldn't happen tomorrow or even the
day after, but a woman Marianne's age was living on borrowed
time. Someone else would take place that had been hers for
But who would it be? It was easy to talk about such things with
Mohammed; after all, she was the one who had taken _his_ place.
She closed her eyes and told him again about how she had come
here, of her life before, of how the Danielloise sisters had
taught a girl without a family name to care for the sick...
_The sisters._ Maybe _they_ had another one who would come all
this way, even without a marriage to tempt her. In the instant
before Marianne opened her eyes, she told Mohammed she would
write to the convent tonight, ask for another castaway to take
over the practice where they had worked together for so long.
Tonight, after she had eaten, she would write.
Today, there were patients waiting.
Jonathan I. Edelstein in Kew Gardens, NY
"It's been a lot of fun." -- in memoriam, Alison Brooks